My first videogame memory is about falling. I remember a blue sky and green land and some yellow rectangle where I was supposed to land, but couldn’t, because I was three or four years old and videogames were new and confusing. Unable to control my plane, I could only watch it spiral and crash. The game was Hellcats over the Pacific. I learned this only twenty years later, when I recognised it in a video compilation of old games. The name of this flight sim evaded me for so long because I grew up with a Mac, and no one ever talks about the few scrappy games that were available to us, the children of the nineties who, for one reason or another, got stuck with the uncool operating system.
I grew up with a Mac because my dad is an engineering professor, and most specialist software he needed didn’t run on Windows. Part of his work also consisted of taking care of a hyperactive daughter, and he brilliantly solved the task by putting baby Giada in front of his Mac and letting her mash the keyboard.
Most of those early games are fuzzy memories. And yet, the sound effects ring in my mind with crystalline clarity. I remember the “YEAAAAAH!” that greeted me every time I booted up the Centipede-like Apeiron. The “PEW PEW” of my spaceship shooting asteroids in Maelstrom. The metallic sound of cars hitting other cars in racing game Burning Rubber. Don’t ask me why my child self was allowed to play a game about running over cyclists, crashing against cars and avoiding the cops. I asked my dad and his official answer was: “Well, you seemed to really like it!” A+ parenting skills, dad.
Looking back, I realize my gaming history is a bizarro world of other children’s memories, full of distorted versions of the games everyone knows. Apeiron is not just a Centipede-like, but an exact replica of the game with a psychedelic coat of paint; Maelstrom is just a prettier version of Asteroids. Even games I was sure I hadn’t seen anywhere else turned out to be clones. My beloved Bubble Trouble, a game about pushing the walls of a labyrinth to squash enemies, is just an unlicensed reworking of classic arcade game Pengo.
Games like this were the strong suit of Ambrosia Software, a now-defunct software house specialized in “enhanced remakes”. Despite the derivative nature of their games, they were a bunch with good moral principles. Every game they released was free with an optional registration, like that copy of WinRAR you haven’t registered in 564324221 days.
Ambrosia Software probably saved countless children from boredom, but the Mac OS had its fair share of original games as well. The best, of course, was Nanosaur because who didn’t want to be a velociraptor when they were a kid? A velociraptor with a gun, a jetpack, and a stable gig as an egg collector. Solid career choice, unlike being a videogames journalist.
It took kid-me a while to finish Nanosaur, because the game’s structure was new and disorienting: an open world to explore full of enemies to shoot, power-ups to grab and eggs to retrieve. Nanosaur was also pretty scary. The thick fog hid the T-rex until it popped up right in your face, and the lava level was dark and full of winged terrors. Actually, most videogames terrified me. I don’t know why I kept playing.
Glypha? Cool Joust-like with an Egyptian theme. Too bad for the ominous sound effects and the green hands that slowly drag you to the depths of Hell if you dare fly near the lava. Glider PRO? Cute game about guiding a paper plane through colorful homes. All the rooms are devoid of human life, and yet the TVs are on, the fish are swimming in their bowls unperturbed. It’s like the aftermath of an alien abduction.
On a Mac, even the error screens were scary. Do blue screens on Windows annoy you? Old Macs had the black screen of doom. I cried so hard the first time I saw it. I thought I had done something bad and as a result the computer had died and would never turn on again.
I know what you’re thinking. But what about Marathon, Giada? Bungie’s first success, the only truly good Mac exclusive?
I did not play Marathon.
I doubt I would have liked it: Marathon had an intricate plot but no Italian version, and baby Giada was born in the foggy cradle of the Padan Plain, near Venice. My English vocabulary was limited to a handful of words like “New Game”, “Quit” and “you died”. 90% of all my games were in English. Menus were scary, and manipulating them was an act of sorcery. Saving my progress was a mysterious ritual beyond my understanding.
I got bolder with time. I learned that clicking random options, in most instances, didn’t make anything explode. It could even bring wondrous discoveries, like the ability to select my favourite levels in Bub & Bob or the ability to change color palettes in dress-up games. And when dad returned from the seas of Limewire with a Game Boy emulator, I even learned to use save states to preserve the virtual life of my cows in Harvest Moon. Not much later I got a real Game Boy and my first Pokemon, and forgot about computers for a while. And yet, I am glad I spent my first gaming years stuck with the uncool OS: it taught me to appreciate old games, to cherish the weird, and to be a bit of a hipster, I guess.
The weird advantage of growing up with such a limited catalogue is that it doesn’t take much to rebuild a complete anatomy of your childhood. Even a memory as vague as “some shooter with bees” can be easily identified (Bumbler Bee-Luxe). There just aren’t that many old Mac games.
The games I couldn’t identify can be counted on a single hand, faint memories too blurred to be googled. A game about being a firefly in the woods; a labyrinth full of ants; some rainbow-themed platformer about building and destroying blocks. I could probably find them with some extra legwork, but I am not sure I want to. Games preservation is important, and yet it bothers me a little to see how much of my childhood is easily accessible, ready to be downloaded and emulated thanks to sites like Mac Repository. Some preservations sites, like Classic Reload, even let me replay old games from a browser.
I do this now. I open the web playable version of Prince of Persia on a whim. My younger self never managed to get past level one, she always got stuck after getting the sword. It takes me only a few attempts to grab the weapon, walk back and reach the guard patrolling the door to the next level. But it feels so alienating to replay Prince of Persia in another home, in another city, from a different laptop (on Windows, this time), in another century.
I kill the guard and waltz forward, but I close the browser after entering the door. I don’t truly want to know what awaits me in level two.