Friday, 14 May 2010

Gaming: The Demo Disk Dynasty

Welcome to the second installment of my journey through video games. This period is broadly defined as the era of the demo disk: 3.5" floppies that could be bought at the local supermarket. Sharing demo disks was the early nineties equivalent of P2P file sharing. But legal. Times were so much simpler back then.

Crystal Caves (1991)
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I first saw the Apogee logo at the start of Crystal Caves on my school friend's PC. From that moment on, Apogee became synonymous with quality, as Crystal Caves was highly addictive and a lot of fun. I can't remember ever getting frustrated with this game, as there were many levels to play and each one was wildly different. I also loved the addition of an above ground start to the game, before descending into the caves, which gave it a bit more atmosphere - or at least as much as you could get in those days.

Commander Keen 4: Secret of the Oracle (1991)
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My friends were relishing their new computers and managing to rub it in my face at every turn. Commander Keen 4 was the next game installed on their computers, and having played it every day after school for weeks on end, begging my parents for a computer seemed to have an effect. It was this game that first introduced me to a 'world map' of sorts, the pogo stick was the coolest accessory ever, and the range of monsters and the artwork were truly impressive for the time.

Prehistorik (1991)
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A classmate of mine introduced me to Prehistorik at his birthday party. Needless to say, I was hooked, but having to give up my seat every time I died was becoming more and more of a frustration. Prehistorik had a wide cast of monsters, much in the same vein as Commander Keen, as well as challenging gameplay. I didn't mind that the platform genre was pretty much all I had been playing for the past few years, as I didn't know much else (besides those games mentioned in my previous post). Little did I know, that was about to change drastically.

Strip Poker II (1988)
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My best friend at the time, who was even more a of a 'bad kid' than I was, turned up at my house with a floppy disk one afternoon. My family's brand new 486DX2-66 with Windows 3.11 had just been carefully installed at our house by the local computer salesman (something you don't see anymore) and my friend, with a mischievous look in his eyes, told me he had something to show me. After night fell, when my parents were in bed, we crept upstairs, powered the computer on, and slipped into the drive a disk labelled Strip Poker II. With adrenalin racing we looked in awe as a woman appeared, lying across the screen in all her EGA glory. Too bad we sucked at poker - all we could manage to make her do was get down to her bra - but as a young kid I felt like I was committing a terrible crime. After a while my friend pocketed the disk and I never saw it again. However it was the first time I had seen the 'evil' a computer was capable of, and I never looked at it in the same light again.

Sango Fighter (1993)
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Before there was Tekken, I had Sango Fighter. A friend of mine from intermediate had the demo version, and at least once a week I went over there to try and master my fighting moves. Only two characters were available, but that didn't matter. I always chose the red-faced guy with the Chinese halberd who could make green 'waves' come out of it, and after copious keyboard mashing I managed an extreme power move on one or two occasions. It was enough to make me play again and again in order to recreate the experience and to convince my non-believing friends. Sango Fighter was my first introduction to fighting games and multiplayer (two kids huddled over one keyboard) and perhaps the reason why Tekken 2 struck such a chord when I came across it a few years later.

Seven Cities of Gold Commemorative Edition (1993)
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Now, with a computer at home, I was free to try anything I liked. One of the first games my brothers and I got into heavily was Seven Cities of Gold, the 1993 remake. It was a brutally difficult game. Your job was to sail to the New World, explore the land, make contact with the local chieftains, steal food and resources, and usually starve in the process. We never really figured out how to last very long before lack of food set in, but that didn't stop us trying. Memorable experiences included pissing off a peaceful chieftan and adrenalin spiking as the now hostile natives chased us out of their villages (see the last 30 seconds of this video).

Xargon (1993)
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It was a birthday of mine. A friend turned up and handed me a thin, square gift. I knew instantly what it was. A demo disk! Back then, demo games were just as great as the full thing, and to some extent better because the were infinitely cheaper and in wide circulation. We had as much fun from demos as we did from full games, as being deprived of levels didn't faze us in the slightest. Xargon was a fairly run-of-the-mill platformer, but I became addicted to it and was determined to follow the storyline, and it became the defining game of the demo disk dynasty. It was in many ways more important to me than the more popular Jazz Jackrabbit (1994) and Alien Carnage/Halloween Harry (1993), and though I played them both a lot, Xargon remained my first in-depth introduction to a more sophisticated type of platform game. The most memorable thing about the game were the sound effects and music; having just watched the YouTube video, the memories came flooding back as soon as I heard that (now grating) theme music.

The Incredible Machine 2 (1994)
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My first attempt at a puzzle game came at around the same time I was taking BASIC programming books out from the local library. My school decided to label the game 'educational' and a teacher was generous enough to let me take it home and install it so I could 'learn' things. In retrospect I can see the educational value of problem-solving and possibly physics (a rubber ball can bounce higher than a bowling ball!), but the true pull for me was the freedom to create any contraption I pleased, no matter how wacky the combination. To be honest, I don't think I've played a puzzle game as good as The Incredible Machine 2 since then. It has infinite playability, is still current and looks good (considering the lower resolution) all these years later, as shown in the latest 2001 version, which looks pretty much the same as the earlier ones (despite a horrible interface), testament to its longevity.

One Must Fall 2097 (1994)
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A shared memory with my brothers is when I got stuck fighting a Shadow robot in a tournament on One Must Fall 2097. My brother seemed to be a better fighter than I was, though I wouldn't admit it, so we left him alone in the room as the fight began to see if he could get past the hurdle. A few minutes later he yelled out "come in", and with a grin on his face, pride barely contained, he told us he has slain the beast.

No other game got so much play time as OMF 2097. My brothers and I played it most days after school, determined to upgrade our robots to the best possible specification. It was our first introduction to an almost role-playing characteristic in a game, where you could choose your character and upgrade your robot's power, speed and armour, among other things. We didn't like fighting each other, because it usually degraded into chaos, but all-in-all, OMF 2097 was the catalyst for some serious brotherly bonding.

Relentless: Twinsen's Adventure (1994)
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I borrowed this phenomenal game, also known as Little Big Adventure, from a friend after he wouldn't stop going on and on about "polygons". Having absolutely no idea what he was talking about I decided to give it a try. Little did I know that I would be thrust into one of the most absorbing games and had played, and still one of my all-time favourites. The graphics absolutely blew me away, unlike anything I had seen before. These polygons became my new favourite drug. The music was epic. The characters were memorable and well-developed. The storyline was engaging. The gameplay was challenging and required serious thinking at times. I finished Relentless numerous times, much more than I can say about most games.

In the next episode I talk about my exposure to other platforms, namely Macintosh and Sega Master System II. Later on I'll explain the positive effects of burglary, and I finish up with an introduction to, what is in my eyes, the most important game of all time.

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