There’s something about going back in time that makes you forget about the present.
During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, but when things in Australia had began to settle just a fraction, I was fortunate enough to see my family. It wasn’t for very long — just a weekend — but it was enough to remind us of the comfort and joy of the simple things.
We went through the motions. We had dinner together. We chatted about Christmas. We talked about work. We watched movies. And, as is customary for our family, we did the things that reminded us of happier times – like loading up a lot of old video games that we used to watch each other play.
One of the nicer moments was loading up Heaven & Earth, a puzzler from 1990 that my mum and I used to play together. It was a game that she somehow managed to squirrel away from a trip to Singapore on a bootleg, giant floppy disc. (It’s still available as freeware today through Ian Gilman’s website, as are suggestions for alternative or spin-off games built off Heaven & Earth‘s ideas.)
“Oh, I remember that game,” Mum exclaimed upon seeing the card game within Heaven & Earth. It was one of those single-player games that we played as a group, well before Until Dawn or the advent of shared narrative adventures. Heaven & Earth‘s core mode was the Pilgrimage, a series of the game’s 100 hardest puzzles – with some inspirational quotes and poems mixed in – that you played through in random order.
Of course, it was a hell of a lot easier to play with a manual. The Pilgrimage featured puzzles from the game’s three core “games”: a challenge-based version of the card game, a game where you navigate a pendulum with the arrow keys, and any of the 576 “illusion” puzzles, which ranged from unusual mazes to spatial recognition and more.
I’ve never finished Heaven & Earth. My mum’s never finished Heaven & Earth. We used to play it together on an old 286 machine, but obviously we don’t do that today. I could probably write down a list of instructions for how to use DOSBox, or link Mum to the Internet Archive, but it wouldn’t be the same – and it wouldn’t be the same if we weren’t playing it together. It’d feel like finishing a TV series you’d been watching with your partner – almost like cheating, in a way.
But, at least for a brief moment, it was nice to remember things as they were.
The night carried on, and it was just my brother and I sitting in the kitchen. It was late evening, and he was still working – the perils of working from Australia on American timezones – but it was hard not to fall into usual habits. We were talking TV, stuff happening in the world, the dumb shit that happens at work, and the usual things you talk to your brother or sister or cousin about. You know what that’s like.
And, obviously since we’re both gamers, we chatted about that too.
My brother and I used to play a lot of sims growing up. I remember buying two copies of HIND, because we couldn’t get Apache Longbow at our local EB, and you needed two discs to play co-op obviously. F-117A Stealth Fighter 2.0 was the first game I ever played, the first one we shared together, and we had a good laugh about that, with the original recently launching on the Switch.
As a quick tip: don’t play F-117A Stealth Fighter on the Switch. The controls are horrific. Games that shipped with mini-mousemats just for all the keyboard controls do not handle well on Joy-Cons.
The MicroProse version, F-117A Stealth Fighter 2.0, was vastly better. You had more planning of your loadout, mission path, better customisations of the gameplay experience, and more theatres of war (with increasing difficulty) to enjoy.
But maybe it’s just my memory. Or the fact that I was, like, a two-year-old trying to learn a MicroProse simulator.
Fuck it’s hard to relearn a flight sim’s keyboard controls without a manual. I didn’t immediately nosedive into the ground, but it took me something like 10 minutes flying around a SAM radar, accidentally spamming flares and chaff because I quickly worked out the shortcuts for those, until I could actually get the Maverick to land on target.
Obviously, I could have loaded up the manual straight away – but the fun of nostalgia, in that moment, was jumping in straight away, striking while the memories were at their most potent.
Even after working all of that out, there are parts, controls aside, that are just difficult to enjoy. Even asking DOSBox to use every bit of CPU imaginable can’t stop the stealth fighter from turning like the slowest tank on the planet. Flying, shooting, turning, changing cameras all feels a bit like wading through mud. Patience is very much a virtue. And sure, that makes total sense for a flight simulator, but it’s a bit annoying as a piece of entertainment in 2020.
It’s why remasters make so much sense. There’s no absence of ways to get old games like this running, whether it’s through emulators or virtual machines. It’s not necessarily about the graphics or ease of support on modern operating systems, but just making the experience a bit easier to enjoy.
When I was just killing time before hitting the sack, I had a similar time firing up Quarantine 2: Road Warrior.
Quarantine 2 is kind of like Crazy Taxi meets Mad Max. You drive around in an armoured hover-taxi, using your arsenal of missiles, guns, mines and other tricks to assassinate gang leaders, ward off the police, and just generally be a pest around the city.
The main character’s name? Drake Edgewater.
The original Quarantine was released in 1994, and stirred up a bit of controversy just for its edgy, gratuitous violence. It wasn’t really that much different to Carmageddon, although GameTek’s marketing was nowhere near as wide ranging or provocative.
Your main car handled like shit, and the performance was a bit garbage back in the day, but there were some fun ideas. The original game had you earning money from fares and missions around Kemo City, which you’d use on repairs and upgrades. That was scrapped for the 1995 sequel Quarantine 2: Road Warrior, something I’d forgotten about until I fired the game up again.
Instead of any sort of progression or decision making, the sequel starts in a Mad Max meets Destruction Derby style arena. You shoot your way out of a race in a free-for-all before taking a passenger to Flagg City, where you bounce from one mission to the next – quite literally, your car bounces around like an air hockey puck –and get free upgrades and repairs as you complete each mission.
It’s nowhere near as fun as I remember. I don’t know if that’s because my memories melded the best parts of both games together. And maybe nostalgia just has a way of making you forget shitty tank controls, something that could basically describe almost all action/action-RPG games from the early to mid-’90s.
I was a big fan of GTA 1 and its vehicular freedom, and I think that’s part of why I had such an affection for Road Warrior. The PC didn’t really have anything like Crazy Taxi in that era – and by the time Crazy Taxi hit the PC in 2002, multiplayer gaming had well and truly taken off. So the idea of this big, sprawling city and going on this giant road trip with a minigun seemed infinitely more enjoyable than what it probably was.
Not all games have soured with the test of time. Encarta MindMaze is still great edutainment, and something I’m surprised Microsoft hasn’t remade already. The top-down space adventure Solar Winds, published by Epic back in 1993, plays great today in DOSBox. OMF 2097 remains one of the best fighting games ever made, controlling better than any fighter not made by Capcom for almost two decades. Sure, it never got any real balance updates and it’s not exactly still in rotation today, but you can pick that game up in 2020, run it, and have an absolute blast with zero technical issues.
Gamers all have something small or offbeat they played back in the day that has been lost to time, games that you can’t even find on the Internet Archives, GOG or abandonware sites. There’s no real, feasible means for most of these games to return. In many cases, it’s unclear who owns the IP, the source code has gone missing, or there’s just no real appetite to justify the hours and expense of a re-release, let alone working with the original ideas or systems.
Most games from that era, after all, weren’t that good. Gamers joke today about how 7/10 is an average score, but there was a long period where many games on the shelves would be legitimately rife with game-breaking bugs, broken design and concepts that just didn’t work or simply weren’t fully explored. The idea of a bad game in 2020 has been weeded out, largely by most developers borrowing and adapting ideas from other games that have been proven to work. Back in the ’90s, developers were making many of those systems and developing those ideas for the first time – and the programming challenges around consoles and PCs were vastly more complicated.
There’s a lot more freedom in making a game today – not only the ease of modern game engines, but the audiences you can hit, the freedom you have with the platform you’re developing for, and the amount of dev resources and tools available.
So maybe it’s no surprise that some games are better left alone as happy, fleeting experiences. We don’t need to lift the veil on everything we touch. Or maybe that’s the lesson: understanding that everything has its place, its brief moment in the sun, and that the joy of life is moving forward, appreciating the past but leaving it where it belongs.