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A Brief History Of Modern Retro

This feature was written for PC Format magazine what feels like a million years ago. It's a very broad overview of some of the choicest morsels of PC gaming in the late 80s to mid 90s, primarily the pre-3D age, and aimed at those who didn't grow up with a beige box rather than at those who did. Clearly too, it's more shaped by my own experiences and influences than by anything like objectivity. My objectivometer must have been out for repairs that week. I repost it here with minor updates, and tired resignation about how many comments will say "what, no game X?" No wordcount in the world is big enough to encompass everything that should be mentioned - but it'll certainly be useful if the comments thread becomes a juicy list of olden gems for other curious readers to hunt down.

PC gaming is doomed. No, really, it’s going to cop it any day now. It may even have expired while you were distracted by this introduction. After all, people have been predicting its demise for some 20 years now – it’s all piracy this, expensive hardware that, niche appeal this, compatibility problems that... Oh, shuddup. PC gaming isn’t going anywhere. The platform’s infinitely adaptable, it’s currently hand in hand with the dramatic rise of casual, ad-supported, digital download and subscription-based games, and it’s got a back catalogue several hundred orders of magnitude huger than any other gaming system.

In terms of that incredible back catalogue, PC gaming history is currently undergoing two very important changes that may rescue it from the impotence of dusty floppy disks and pop-up-infected abandonware sites.

First, PC gamers’ values are changing – the audience is moving away from the graphics-hungry and into a breed that’s more prepared to judge a game on its less superficial merits. In short, a game consisting of 320x240 pixels, each the size of a baby’s fist, no longer causes quite so many people to scoff dismissively at it. Secondly, digital distribution services – notably Valve’s Steam and the great-in-the-States-but crap-over-here Gametap – are gradually adding classic games to their online stores – legal, free from floppy disks, and dirt-cheap. Recently, we've also been blessed by the arrival of bouncing baby Good Old Games, a retro-only download service specifically dedicated to re-releasing history's finest PC games - made to work with modern operating systems and entirely DRM free. A slight spot of whimsy and a few quid is all it takes to enjoy yesterday’s finest. While it’s early days for this, things can only get better (as a relevant aside, in the year in which that terrible song was released, PC gamers were enjoying the likes of Fallout, Total Annihilation, Diablo and Quake II – defining standards of their respective genres). The past is indeed another country – but, when it comes to old PC games, lately we’re talking more Isle of Man than North Korea.

Until these electro-stores are fully stocked, plenty of options remain to locate your desired fragment of yesterday – ebay, second-hand stores, free fan remakes and mumblebittorrentmumbleabandonwaremumble, for instance. Somewhat sadly, most old PC games don’t seem to retain much value, even for mint-condition boxes. I’d be lucky to get a tenner for one of my proudest possessions, my still-sealed copy of Dungeon Keeper. Still, that’s great news for buyers. But where should they start? 20 years of PC gaming is an impossibly large subject, so how we’re going to approach it is by breaking it into key genres (albeit composited ones) and looking at just a few of the games which defined them, or alternatively took it to interesting places that have been sadly left unexplored since.

Let's leave the most obvious games – yer Dooms, yer C&Cs, yer Half-Lives – unspoken in favour of games that are less-often name-dropped. Inevitably, many games you think of as crucial won't be in here, but that's not because they're not crucial - it's purely an inevitable consequence of taking a broad, brief sweep over this impossibly vast subject. For the sake of argument, history began in 1987 – a year that saw, amongst other epochal events, the dawn of VGA and its wondrous 640x480, 256-colour pixels, LucasArts define point’n’click adventure games with Maniac Mansion and the first realtime 3D RPG, Dungeon Master. Much of import precedes that, of course, especially on the PC's forerunners/sometime peers such as the ZX Spectrum and Amiga, but let's stick to the modern age of PC retro, if that isn't too paradoxical.

To start at the most obvious – but, in some ways, least interesting – point, let’s talk action games. The earliest first-person-shooter was 1973’s Maze War, but it was id software’s 1991 fantasy shooter Catacomb 3D which really birthed the form as we know it. Until then, we didn’t even get an on-screen hand reinforcing the sense that the player /was/ the game’s character. From that came Wolfenstein 3D and Doom and – well, you know the rest. It’s the point between then and now that contains lost wonders.

1994’s Marathon is a fine example. One of the earliest games by future Halo creator Bungie, though this didn’t prove a runaway success on PC, it was one of the first post-Doom FPS games to introduce elements beyond repeatedly shooting monsters in the face. Friendly AI characters, alternate fire modes, co-op play, swimming and, particularly, a strong, layered plot (which was a major inspiration for System Shock and Halo, amongst others) made it an altogether more grown-up affair than other Doomlikes. Though its superior sequel Durandal was the only Marathon game to see an official Windows release, Bungie now offers free versions of all three instalments’ Mac versions, which fans duly ported to PC. Download links and a setup guide lurk over here.

Skip ahead to the second half of the 1990s and 3D-accelerated gaming is in full swing. There were a great many ways to kill pretend things – including expertly-adapted licensed fare such as 1999’s Aliens versus Predator and 1997’s Star Wars: Jedi Knight. 1998’s Thief: The Dark Project, from the dearly-missed Looking Glass Studios (the key members of which went on to form Ion Storm, the developer behind Deus Ex), was a revelation in such violent climes. Essentially the design document for the subsequent decade of stealth games – count Splinter Cell, Hitman and Assassin’s Creed among its followers – murder took a distinct backseat to using the environment to create your own non-linear path through the game. Playing a character poorly suited to direct combat, using shadow and sound to avoid beefcake enemies, and emphasising the need for patience and attentiveness over reflex gives Thief a pounding tension few games have touched.

On top of that, it’s about unified design and atmosphere to create a sense of place and menace, whereas so many of its peers contented themselves with a jumble-sale muddle of second-hand sci-fi ideas. If you’re spitting like a bucktoothed viper at the idea of 1998 polgyons, direct your ocular organs here, where there’s an ongoing project to remake Thief in the shadowtastic Doom 3 engine – they released a demo version not long ago.

One of the most interesting areas of PC gaming is the crossover point from FPS into other genres. System Shock 2 and Deus Ex are the best-known examples of introducing roleplaying elements – tailoring the character to your own tastes, managing inventories, handing choice of action and path to the player... – into a realtime action environment, but point your mind earlier than that. 1992’s Ultima Underworld, another Looking Glass effort, offered a genuine 3D world (an early build of which was id’s ‘inspiration’ for Wolfenstein 3D) and first-person-perspective monster-stabbing augmented by RPG trappings and non-linear exploration. Most recently, the likes of Oblivion and STALKER owe a great debt to UU and its sole sequel, but fans feel it’s never been done better. Make your own mind up with one of the various remakes.

Two years later, the first System Shock was doing things with environmental interaction – stacking boxes to form a ladder to higher places, for instance - that most games don’t offer even now. While you’ll need to have your own moral dilemma about whether or not you should download the so-called abandonware version of Shock, it is worth mentioning that there’s a near-complete fan project that makes it run happily under modern Windowses and with improved graphics here. Better still is the recent mouse-look mod, which finally rids of the cumbersomely archaic control that have held it back for so long. Or, if you want an absurdly violent, foul-mouthed alternative to these more cerebral FPS+ wonders, 1999’s Quake 2-powered Kingpin: Life Of Crime sported branching dialogue, the buying and selling of weapons and recruitable NPC companions alongside its granny-baiting blood’n’maiming.

For RPGs themselves, well, there’s a wealth. No platform has ever done roleplaying as well as the PC. With Fallout 3 due later this year from the makers of Oblivion, now’s the time to play the first two post-apocalyptic open-worlders (both available for stupidly low prices at GoG). They’re turn-based and proud of it, which makes combat a tactical matter of how you’ve developed your character’s abilities and the best way to approach a given situation, rather than simply how fast you can click fire. Most of all, it offers choice – how your character behaves, who his allies and enemies are, and the reputation he has in the eyes of the game’s struggling populace. It’s also vicious and funny, and still the aesthetic benchmark for any game set on a scorched Earth.

More traditional fantasy roleplaying is best served by Ultima VII, the best of the long-running series that earned Richard Garriot his name, and one with which Looking Glass/Ion Storm big fish Warren Spector was heavily involved. As with the Fallout games, there’s little need to stick to the straight and narrow here – this is roleplaying that encompasses morality, not simply whether you fight with a sword or a bow. It’s also a world in which you can do interact with pretty much anything in the game – whether it’s to craft your own food or weapons, or just strumming away on a unclaimed lute. The presentation may be crude, but modern RPGs generally lag far behind it in most other respects. It’s another game whose fans are battling to keep it alive – while you’ll need to track down the original game files yourself, the Exult engine will make ‘em run tickety-boo in your new-fangled modern operating system. Another semi-free-form RPG milestone is 1993’s Betrayal at Krondor (whose creators later went on to create the Tribes series), which blends first-person exploration with third-person fighting. For a time, it was made available for free to promote its sequel, but the original mirrors are down. Others, though not officially sanctioned, can be found quite easily. Or how about the clunky but clever Legends of Valor, a free-roaming roleplayer set entirely within a single city? Or the four-player robot-shooting of Hired Guns?

While it doesn’t offer the freedom of a Fallout or Ultima VII, arguably the aged RPG to play if you haven’t is 1999’s Planescape: Torment. A beautifully-written tale of guilt, identity and atonement that’ll tear your heart out, stamp on it repeatedly then roughly shove it back inside your shattered ribcage, this is a game about words more than deeds. 800,000 of ‘em, to be precise. There’s nothing else quite like Planescape, and it’s an essential staple of any discussion about gaming narrative. Out of print for ages due to publisher red tape, it finally managed a re-release very recently.

Stepping sideways into strategy, again we’re in territory that only the PC has mapped more than the barest bones of. You’ve got Battlezone combining FPS, RTS and military sim, or the absolutely, awe-inspiringly unique Sacrifice (example spell: ‘bovine intervention’) boldly mixing action, roleplaying, comedy and a thousand new ideas a minute in alongside more familiar real-time strategy tropes. Both threw down experimental gauntlets no-one else dared to pick up. On the more tactical side of the coin is Syndicate, from gone-but-not-forgotten British uber-developer Bullfrog - a still gloriously immoral real-time squad tactics game that makes GTA look like Theme Park. Peter Molyneux’s been muttering about reviving Syndicate’s satirical dystopia of corporate oppression and violence, but until (if ever) that happens, there’s a fan remake in the works, with the first level now complete.

More conventional RTS nostalgia is perhaps best served by soon-to-be-sequelled Starcraft – still the template for ultra-balanced multiplayer strategising with distinct playable races, not just differently-coloured clones of each other – and Dune 2, the father of commanding and conquering, and even today surprisingly way ahead in terms of offering a convincing narrative explanation for resource-collection and perma-war. There’s an impressive free remake of the latter at d2tm.duneii.com. Another one to look up is 2000’s Ground Control, one of very few RTSes to ditch resource management in favour of using your cunning to blow up tanks with a fixed retinue. Its sequel was miserably generic (developers Massive would eventually redeem themselves with Word In Conflict), but did have one thing going for it – the original game was released for free to promote it. Grab it from here.

It would be remiss of us to mention turn-based strategy without bringing up Sid Meier, but frankly the recent Civilization 4’s good or enough, or you can dabble with FreeCiv, for a less accessible but simpler game more in keeping with the original Civ. But what you should really do is play 1994’s Colonization, a Civ sequel that centres solely on conquest of the New World. While Civ tries to encompass everything, and logic is gradually eroded over time even as complexity snowballs, Colonization is utterly focused. You’ve a single goal – win independence from your mother nation, and the journey to that is a fascinating arc of scrabbling out a few pennies from trade or conquest, building up to self-sufficiency and finally to all-out war. It was revisited a couple of years back, but its so obviously being a mod of Civ IV meant it didn't tickle the relevant parts of the brain as well as the original. You may be better off with the open source fan remake, FreeCol.

Management you're probably more aware of- your Theme Parks and Hospitals, primarily. Its last great gasp was 2001's tragically underappreciated Startopia, which remains perhaps the best way to experience this slumbering genre. The curious no-man’s land between strategy and management gaming, meanwhile, is occupied by Dungeon Keeper, another Bullfrog game. The central gimmick – you play the bad guy, an unseen lord of the underworld raising a bestial army to fend off do-gooder heroes – is a little too panto to pay off, but what it’s really got going for it is that you’re trying to impose order onto chaos. Your monsters either don’t want or are too stupid to be managed, underground cave systems are not ideally suited to logical architecture, and your most powerful unit, the Horned Reaper, will just as happily slay your own troops as he will the enemy’s. It’s a juggling act, only the balls are on fire, someone keeps throwing rocks at you and you’ve only got one hand.

This article approaches its end far too quickly: a hundred thousand dusty treats go unmentioned. For adventure gaming, eschew the more obvious Monkey Island/Sam & Max fare and nose at the branching options of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, the heartstring-tugging of the Longest Journey, the fiendish puzzles and oh-so-French wit of Gobliins 2, or the artful grimness and wealth of choices of Blade Runner. Aerial pursuits, meanwhile, are best exemplified by TIE Fighter’s coolly wicked space simming, Privateer’s open-universe exploring’n’fighting’n’trading or Stunt Island’s inimitable fusion of setpiece daredevilling and proto-movie-editing. For sport, see Speedball 2 or Sensible World of Soccer. And on and on and on....

If there’s one undisputed must-play from the annals of PC gaming though, X-COM is it. First game UFO: Enemy Unknown remains the best of the brief series, but sterling sequel Terror From The Deep can be had for a few quid from Steam. Famed for its artful juggling of global strategising (building and upgrading a network of bases to track alien invasions, and research new weapons to defeat ‘em), astoundingly tense turn-based squad combat and gentle roleplaying, nothing’s come close to X-COM in the 15 years since, though many have tried. It’s the nexus of all PC gaming, a super-smart meeting point of action, strategy, RPG, management that promised a future of constant creativity, but instead we saw one that splintered into feature-creep variations on each of those single themes. Only now, with the new surge of indie gaming exploring places big-budget studios fear to tread, are we seeing a return to the inventiveness of early 1990s PC gaming. Go remind yourself quite how incredible a time it was.

How To Find 'Em

Chances are you still own a collection of classic DOS games on your shelf, still in the cellophane and everything. What? You don’t? Well, you’re screwed then, outside of what's on the download services mentioned earlier. Fortunately, so-called abandonware – old games that are supposedly legal to download for free – is astonishingly easy to come by on the internet. However, in most cases a given game hasn’t been signed off as abandoned by its creator, it’s simply that its creator hasn’t been/can’t be contacted for permission. Just a couple of years ago you could turn up pretty much anything with the slightest spot of Googling, but publishers are getting increasingly vicious about ‘protecting’ their old games of late. In many cases, those publishers don’t exist anymore, which leaves a vast number of games in copyright limbo. They aren’t legally abandonware, but you’re arguably not impacting anyone’s income by downloading them. The moral choice is yours. Just remember that ‘it said abandonware on the website’ wouldn’t constitute a valid legal excuse.

What you are safe with is commercial games that have been released for free. Wikipedia keeps a vast list of these, which constitutes more hours than you could count of happy cost-free gaming.

The third option is eBay and similar. While there’s a gradual creep in the values of rarer or more treasured games, you can turn up a working copy of most titles for an easy tenner, and a good-nick boxed copy for around the £20 mark. There’s a vague sense that collectormania could hit vintage PC gaming any day now and these prices will go crazy, so now’s the time to get bidding if you do fancy owning your own classics archive. In fact, it’s when you do own a game, especially when it’s on nearly-obsolete media like floppy disks, or you don’t want to peel off the cellophane, that grabbing a download from an abandonware site makes the most sense.

How To Play 'Em

A surprising number of oldies will play nice with Windows XP, though Vista’s proving a hurdle too many for a great deal more. The first thing to try it your classic of choice is too bewildered by the new is compatibility mode – right-click on its main executable, choose the Compatibility tab and experiment with the various different versions of Windows on offer until (and if) you find one that works.
If you don’t, an easy option remains. DOSBOX emulates the old command-line, minimal-memory environment these games were made for, and it’s now slick enough to make most DOS games play near-perfectly.

Unfortunately, it does require a spot of manual tinkering. Grab it from dosbox.com and install it somewhere obvious on your hard drive. Then copy the game you want to play to a short-named folder on the root of your drive – e.g. C:\colonization. Launch DOSBOX and you’ll be met with the horror of a command prompt. Don’t worry – all you need to do is type mount c c:\xcom. Replace the first ‘c’ with another drive letter if you want – it’s only virtual, so it doesn’t matter. The game folder should then be treated as a drive of its own – in this example, type c:, press enter, then type dir to see what’s there. Look for a .bat, .com or .exe that will run the game – type its name and it should play. If you’re having speed problems, press Ctrl+F12 as many times as necessary to increase emulated CPU speed. If that doesn’t help, try turning up frame-skipping – Ctrl+F8 will do that. If all that sounds like too much hassle, try out the D-Fend Reloaded GUI frontend – this’ll let you create permanent launchers for each of your DOS games, with none of that command line nonsense.

If it’s specifically classic LucasArts adventure games you’re wanting to play again – and you’re really not alone in this, as Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max et al inspire a fanatical following to this day – you’re really in luck. SCUMMvm is a splendid app dedicated to running these (and, of late, a slew of third-party point’n’clickers from that era) in modern Windows, complete with upscaling to high resolutions, and it’s incredibly simple to use. Find it here.

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About the Author
Alec Meer avatar

Alec Meer


Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about video games.