Southern Man

Saturday, March 12, 2011

In Praise Of Older Games

Southern Man is something of an introvert, which simply means that he finds social interaction somewhat draining (extroverts find them energizing) and needs time to recharge after such. And his preferred means of recharging after a long day of teaching and committee meetings is computer games. Typically older, single-player computer games; either fairly simple arcade-style games or more complex ones he's long since mastered and finds comfort in replaying time after time. So here is Southern Man's tribute to the older games he knows and loves.

Two old favorites hearken all the way back to the days of ASCII graphics on a black screen: Empire and Angband. Empire is a turn-based strategy game in which you and your opponent begin with a single city on the coast of an island and construct armies, navies, and such to overwhelm your opponent; Southern Man favors an early MS-DOS port over later versions. Angband is a turn-based RPG known as a "Roguelike" in which you begin in town with nothing but a handful of gold and your character's attributes (strength, dexterity, charisma, and such), and the goal is to dive deep into the mines of Moria to battle the Dark Lord himself. Angband is derived from an older game called Moria; Moria, from the original Rogue. Moria itself was written at The University Of Oklahoma while Southern Man was a graduate student in physics there and he's played early versions of that game with the original authors looking over his shoulder shouting "No, don't do that!" In thirty years Southern Man has never actually won Rogue or Moria or Angband but he keeps playing them anyway. Games like these probably cost Southern Man an extra year of grad school and it was totally worth it.

Tetris took the world by storm in 1984; Southern Man plays a little-known 3D shareware version called "Frac" after the Mandelbrot Set fractal used for the game background:

Screen shot found at this site, which also describes newer versions of the game.

Southern Man will occasionally immerse himself in make-believe worlds (such as the Tolkien-inspired games described above) and two of his favorites are those of Star Wars and Star Trek. Given the plethora of games set in both universes, he is not alone. And among those his all time favorites are Star Wars: TIE Fighter and Star Trek: Armada.

TIE Fighter occasionally appearances on game lists as the single best computer game ever published. It's a real-time simulation in which you begin as a rookie pilot for the Empire and work your way up the ranks, which includes occasional missions for a sinister agent of the Emperor's "Inner Circle." The game incorporates elements from Southern Man's two favorite "Expanded Universe" trilogies: the Han Solo adventures by Brian Daley and the Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn. If anyone wanted to make real prequel and sequel trilogies you could do a lot worse than those books as source material.

Armada is a fairly standard RTS game in which one can play all four major powers: the Federation, the Klingons, the Romulans, and the Borg. The real pleasure of this game (other than the setting) is the excellent voicework; J. G. Hertzler's delightfully over-the-top Martok and a few sly Battlestar Galactica references in the Borg dialog just add to the charm. The cut scenes are often constructed from the game in progress and include the stuff you built, which is pretty cool. Southern Man delights as playing as the Borg against a handful of AI opponents and assimilating them all. Yes, this worries him too. The sequel Armada II is both more and less than the original and while Southern Man will occasionally pull it out and play through the single-player campaigns he typically sticks to his collection of user-written add-on maps for the older version.

DOOM was a seismic event in gaming forshadowed by the tremors of Wolfenstein 3D in which the geniuses of iD Software more or less invented the first-person shooter. DOOM and its successor Quake are among the few multiplayer games Southern Man joined in his younger days; during his tenure as a physics professor his students put more effort into writing new maps than they did their physics homework and most of the student conferences we attended ran a night-before DOOM or Quake tournament. These days Southern Man sticks to the single-player versions and takes great pleasure in both the original campaigns and the thousands of add-on maps in his collection. Quake II and Heretic are among the other FPS that he still enjoys on a fairly regular basis.

Like many video games, DOOM was made into a movie. This was the only part worth watching. Listen for tributes to the original game's amazing soundtrack! Oh, you don't hear any, either?

And part of this history is also the story of computer graphics. Southern Man still delights in the memories of his first cutting-edge 3dFX graphics cards and the advent of Gouraud shading and the OpenGL port of Quake and the frustration of getting all of these new technologies to work and the pleasure when they did. And other technologies, such as early disk-caching programs such as SmartDrive that so improved game performance. One just laughs about it now but you really had to work at it to make games run well on the systems of the day. Southern Man put a tremendous amount of effort into home-built computers dedicated to running games like TIE FIghter and Quake with high-quality sound and acceptable frame rates; now he sees five times that performance on hand-me-down office PCs with on-board video and sound. How things have changed!

This was cutting-edge graphics in the mid-1990s. And it was awesome! Image from Wikipedia.

Most of these games do not work or play well with newer operating systems and they are the reason that Southern Man always keeps a
Windows 98 2nd Edition computer up and running. Yes, there are newer games that occasionally appear under Southern Man's controllers but that is another post. And the increasing challenges of coaxing W98 to run on new hardware may be the subject of yet another post, some day (the limiting factor is device drivers, of course; the advantage is that these older games just fly on newer machines). And there are the memories of many older games for platforms that no longer exist; Southern Man is thinking in particular of playing the original Adventure on a mainframe via teletype and taking the printouts home for analysis and mapmaking (yes, he still has them) and the many wonderful games from Big Five Software for his TRS-80 Model III (delivered on cassette tape!) and many amazing games for the Amiga 1000 (including the single best version of Marble Madness ever) and those may deserve a memorial post someday as well.


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