The Slightly Sketchy 1990s ‘Computer Fairs,’ A Major Part Of My Gaming History

The Slightly Sketchy 1990s ‘Computer Fairs,’ A Major Part Of My Gaming History

If you asked me to list some of the games I bought or played in 1994, I’d probably start off with Donkey Kong Country and Final Fantasy III, and it would likely take me a long time before I ever mentioned Barneystein 3D. But it was part of my gaming world in 1994, and there’s a floppy disk sitting in my dad’s garage right now as proof.

I found Barneystein 3D, as I did so many other games, at an event that is now mostly a forgotten relic of history — the computer fair.

With rare exceptions, my family didn’t buy our computer hardware or software at retail stores. Instead, each month my dad would take my brother and me out to some small venue not too far from our home in Connecticut, usually a hotel ballroom or a rec center or maybe even a small convention center, which would be transformed for that weekend into a “computer fair” or “computer show,” where small vendors from around the area would gather to sell their wares in temporary booths.

We’d get to the fair before it opened, waiting in line outside the hotel to get in. If it was the winter, we’d be out there bundled up in our coats until they let everybody inside to start perusing the booths.

This was a regular occurrence, something we all looked forward to with equal levels of excitement — my dad to upgrade our PC’s hardware, something he was endlessly tinkering with, and for us kids to get more games to play on the thing.

Our interests would usually intersect, of course—my brother and I needed the latest hardware to play the best games, and my dad wanted to know what the best-looking games were to show off the power of his new system (and sneak in a few rounds himself).

We didn’t have much need for computer fairs in the 1980s, when our home PC of choice was the venerable Atari 800XL. There wasn’t much upgrading to be done on the old Atari — it was an old-school, self-contained unit where the computer was inside the same plastic shell as the keyboard, and it could run practically any Atari software you threw at it.

ImagePublic Domain” loading=”lazy” > Our first IBM PC looked something like this, except I don’t think we ever owned a single IBM-branded component—just a Frankenstein of IBM-compatible clone hardware. Photo: phreakindee, Public Domain

When we first got what was then generally known as “an IBM computer” around 1990, it didn’t replace the 800XL in our computer room. In fact, for a while it was just set up on the floor in my parents’ bedroom. It had an 8086 processor, a black-and-white monitor, and no graphics card. What was the point of monochrome text when we had full-colour games in the other room?

But what I’d soon learn was that buying “an IBM” was just the beginning, because you could add to it, rip it apart, tweak it, and power it up piece by piece. We never bought a “new computer”; we just modded that first one until like the ship of Theseus it was no longer made up of any of the original parts that came with it.

And all of those parts came from computer fairs, a bit at a time. Why computer fairs, and not stores? Prices. Buying parts from these small vendors was much cheaper than going to a retail store, and the variety of vendors in attendance meant that you could easily shop around for deals.

Moreover, this was a great place for hobbyists who liked to get their hands dirty to buy just the parts they needed, without any extraneous fluff. If you went to a store to buy a 486 motherboard, you’d be paying for the part, the box, the manual, the warranty, the customer service, and all sorts of other extra items. Buy it at a computer fair, and all you’re buying is the part. Maybe it’s in a previously-used static bag.

Dangerous? A little. When my dad bought our first 286 processor, he took it home, installed it into our PC, and it didn’t work. The board functioned, but wasn’t playing nice with our hard drive. He tried everything, but ended up having to drive to New York, where the vendor was based, to figure it out. It turns out that we also needed to upgrade the hard drive controller board from an 8-bit model to a 16-bit one. I remember other afternoons when we’d get back from a computer show with some new part or another that we’d end up spending all day trying to get running. That was the cost of saving money.

But once we got the part installed, it was like having a brand new computer. Technology was advancing so rapidly in the early 1990s that our PC would make these quantum leaps of performance on a regular basis. And every time we got a major new part, it meant primarily one thing: We could play the latest, greatest, new game.

ImageMobyGames” loading=”lazy” > Commander Keen. Screenshot: MobyGames

When we got rid of that original black-and-white monitor and upgraded to the original Colour Graphics Adaptor, or CGA, that meant we could play the IBM’s version of Tetris in four disgusting shades of puke-green and unsettling magenta. When we upgraded that to the Enhanced Graphics Adaptor, or EGA, that meant we could play Id Software’s groundbreaking Commander Keen in all its 16-colour glory.

And once we had a 486 processor and a VGA monitor? You know the first thing we did with it was play Wolfenstein 3D, the game that kicked off the first-person shooter craze.

Games like Keen and Wolfenstein, published by Apogee (later 3D Realms), were published under a unique method known as “shareware.” They’d release games split into thirds, and give users permission to share the first part anywhere: Copy a disk for your friend, post it to an online service via your modem, whatever. If you wanted the rest of the game, you’d mail-order it from the publisher.

But even just getting that first part of the game wasn’t necessarily easy. Sure, we knew a few local “bulletin board systems,” or BBSes, we could call. You’d dial a local phone line with your modem and — if the line wasn’t busy! — connect to another person’s computer, where they’d run a little miniature online service with forums and a list of downloadable files.

Search through the lists and maybe you’d find a new shareware game to pull down, assuming your mum didn’t pick up the home phone, thus ruining the connection and screwing up the download.

There were BBSes all over the world, but dialling in to one that was outside our local calling area of a few towns in suburban Connecticut would mean incurring long-distance phone charges. So we were limited to what games we could find “on-line.” A much richer source of games was the computer fairs, through vendors who sold them on floppy disks, and could be counted on to have secured the latest new shareware, freeware, and other hobbyist-created software, much of which you’d never find in stores.

ImageChris Kohler, Kotaku” loading=”lazy” > Various shareware disks from computer fairs. Photo: Chris Kohler, Kotaku

We must have gone to our first computer fair in 1990 or 1991, making me 11 years old and my brother 10 at the time. When we got in the front door of the computer fair, my dad, brother, and I would all split up, making plans to meet back at the entrance at a certain time. We’d each have a small amount of money in our pocket, and the strategy was to get as much gaming as you could for your buck. So before we bought anything, we’d go hunting for shareware vendors.

They were easy to spot. The big ones would set up massive wire racks on their tables, with the disk labels facing frontward, laid out in a tall array. Now, technically, they weren’t supposed to be selling this freely-distributed software. If you asked one of them, they’d explain to you that they were just selling you the disk, and the game was free. That probably wouldn’t hold up in a court of law, but also, nobody cared enough to stop them.

So much of my time at these computer fairs was spent meticulously going over all the games at these booths. The rest of the time was comparison-shopping. The going rate for a disk of shareware was about three bucks.

If someone was charging three-fifty, that was practically price gouging. If someone was charging two dollars a disk, jackpot. It was all about figuring out exactly which games to buy based on the amount of money in my pocket, and that meant using whatever information I had at hand to try to understand what the games would be like.

Image Since this was the early 1990s, there was of course a game about shooting Saddam Hussein. (Photo: Chris Kohler, Kotaku)

At best, that would be a tiny paragraph of text on the disk’s label. Any platform game would be described as “just like Super Mario!” Fighting games were “just like Street Fighter!” You get the idea. They were never as good, but it was an effective tactic. (Probably more so for those kids who didn’t have a proper game console at home, and would thus take whatever they could get.)

A shareware vendor could take the no-frills approach and print text labels on standard floppy disks — sometimes even reused ones. Or they could go fancy with coloured disks, picture labels, shrinkwrap, or other embellishments. These vendors would usually charge more for their games, but sometimes they’d be the only ones with the latest thing, so you’d have little choice.

I really want to point out here what a guessing game this all was. Maybe you’d see a demo of one of the big games running on a monitor at another booth at the computer show, and could thus get an idea of what you were going to get. Otherwise, you were going on text and trying to imagine what the game would play like. Knowing that the game came from a certain publisher was a help. If it was by Apogee or Epic Megagames, that was at least an indication that it passed some quality bar.

Imagereally weird, homemade version of Street Fighter II Turbo on three floppy disks. Photo: Chris Kohler, Kotaku” loading=”lazy” > inside this package was a really weird, homemade version of Street Fighter II Turbo on three floppy disks. Photo: Chris Kohler, Kotaku

The other thing about digging through the disks of shareware vendors was that not everything in there was really shareware. Some games were just unauthorised copies of console games. Mario Bros. VGA was a fan-made remake of the original that was common to see on the shelves. And at one show, I found a package of three disks that promised a PC version of Street Fighter II, before Capcom had released an official MS-DOS version.

It turned out to be a remarkably elaborate (but totally weird and busted) unofficial port of the fighting game — hardly a good substitute for the real thing, but a hilarious and fascinating project all the same.

Truly hitting the jackpot was when you found the one thing that shareware vendors really weren’t supposed to sell—the registered versions of the games. Instead of just including the first third of a game, those disks would come with the whole thing. That’s how I played Jill Goes Underground, the second part of Epic’s Jill of the Jungle. (Sorry, Tim Sweeney. I was poor.)

Image Pairing up Barney with Beavis and Butt-Head was an extremely 1994 thing to do. Photo: Chris Kohler, Kotaku

And then there was the weird shit—Barneystein 3D being an excellent example. The original Wolfenstein was a very easy game to mod; you could use fan-made tools to create new maps and redraw all the sprites. So there was a little cottage industry of Wolfenstein mods, some of which would pop up in the shareware booths.

Gory Wolf, with the blood turned up to “disgusting,” was one. Another was Barneystein, which was quite a strange package of material.

There was the game, with Beavis and Butthead replacing the standard Nazi guards and then-popular children’s TV star Barney The Dinosaur replacing Hitler. But also on the disk was a text file containing “Day Of The Barney,” a lengthy piece of violent, grotesque fanfiction about a malevolent Barney taking over the Earth and murdering anyone over the age of 13. That sure wasn’t on the label!

The wild-west, zero-oversight nature of shareware distribution meant you could be surprised by what you found on the disks once you got them home. (You can find an archive of this game, fanfiction and all, at the Internet Archive.)

Image Real neat VGA demo. We paid $US2 ($3) to see an animated deer. Photo: Chris Kohler, Kotaku

It’s funny to think about what we actually paid money for. Going through the disks in my parents’ place this past holiday, I found a few from shareware vendors that were full of .GIFs. Not even animated .GIFs, I don’t think. Just straight-up pictures of random things like “Helmets” and “Deer.” Literally anything you could get your hands on and put onto a floppy disk, there was a market for it.

As the 1990s went on and we got a CD-ROM drive for our PC—at a computer fair, of course!—the sorts of games we wanted to buy were on CDs, not disks. The shareware vendors started to disappear, replaced by vendors selling CD-ROM games. But there was still a quasi-illicit vibe to the whole thing. Instead of selling the copies of the games that you’d see in a retail store with their giant cardboard boxes, they’d sell copies that were just a CD in a jewel case (or even a paper sleeve) shrinkwrapped with an instruction manual.

Sometimes they’d be in a paper envelope that read something like “Only For Distribution With A New PC.”

Image A copy of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on CD-ROM given away free with a graphics card. These would be for sale separately at computer fairs, although they weren’t supposed to be. Photo: eBay

These copies of the games were meant to be bundled in as freebies with game hardware, like a new PC, or a graphics or sound card. But these vendors paid that no mind, and sold them on their own. Since they were in no-frills packaging they were much less expensive than the copies on store shelves.

This is how we bought many of our early games, like Secret of Monkey Island, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and The 7th Guest, for maybe $20 each instead of $60 or $80.

Even though the computer fair was still the best place to go to get games and hardware on the cheap, the shift from shareware on copied floppies to big-budget productions on CD-ROMs was one indicator of how the DIY atmosphere of those early days of computers was giving way to a more corporate, buttoned-down, locked-up market.

Epic Megagames, which started with Tim Sweeney copying floppy disks in his parents’ house, dropped the “Mega” and became one of the world’s biggest software publishers. But that was the exception; few of those other cottage businesses that made and sold shareware survived for much longer. And as PCs moved from the domain of hobbyists and nerds to a vital part of the American household, price wars and growing chains of stores like CompUSA started to fill our needs better than monthly computer shows.

Eventually, we stopped going. Many fairs continued on, but the ones that remain aren’t nearly as vital and vibrant a part of the computer scene as they were in the 1990s.

One of the things I learned about the history of computer fairs while researching for this story is that almost none of it is documented. I couldn’t find a single photograph of a 1990s computer show, and only one other story about them.

It’s strange to think about, but it shows how history can be so easily lost if nobody’s around to keep a record of it. Today, when most households’ computers are bought at places like Apple stores and can’t easily be opened up and modified, it’s interesting to look back at an era where hardware and software both could be whatever you wanted them to be.


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