About a month ago, RedWolf posted a column about the first computer he ever used, and it started me thinking about my specialty: computer games. What was the first computer game, of any sort, that I played? I've spent some time thinking about it and sorting through the memories, and while I haven't quite arrived at a definite answer, the list can be narrowed down to a handful of titles. They may not be the absolute earliest games I ever touched, but these are the ones that drew me into the whole sordid world of being a computer geek.
I could take the easy way out, and claim that The Oregon Trail was it and end the discussion there. The Trail was introduced to my whole generation during the early years of elementary school, while we sat in a library full of Apple ]['s and had a teacher drone on about how to insert a floppy into the drive and close the door. Every school I attended seemed to love having students play it during the "pioneer" section of Social Studies class, but it honestly didn't make a great impression on me. It seemed boring, repetitious, and almost impossible to win. And while I, like all normal kids, enjoyed leaving my path westward littered with dead animals and broken limbs, it wasn't a title I sought out on my own for entertainment. It was too much a part of school work to ever be much of a game.
Nights of the Living Apple
Though I wasn't terribly keen on The Oregon Trail, that's not to say I didn't find some fun stuff to play on the Apple. My brother was especially kind in providing me a box full of "backup" copies of some programs he had. I was about 13 years old at the time, and my father had just started going back to school for a computer programming degree. On evenings and weekends I would accompany him to the local community college, where the Apple lab was housed in a converted trailer. With me would come my trusty box of error-prone floppy disks, and I would while away a few hours playing games.
One that drew me back time after time was the original Castle Wolfenstein. Long before BJ Blazkowicz's meteoric rise to fame in Wolfenstein 3D, the allied prisoner was charged with escaping from a top-down version of the typical Nazi dungeon, shooting guards, throwing grenades, and searching for the Reich's battle plans along the way. I often ended the game with BJ lying in a bloody, crumpled heap at the feet of some SS trooper, forcing a reboot and another try.
Then there was Archon, which VC&G had a great writeup on last winter. I never did pick up the finer points that Medarch brought out in his article, but I enjoyed the unique combination of action and strategy, and had a blast running around trying to kill those stupid little goblins. I just wish I could find an updated version that would take advantage of current technology. Sun Tsu's The Ancient Art of War was another great strategy title I played, and its gameplay mechanics were strikingly similar to Archon, although it had a much different style. An overhead map gave the player a bird's eye view of the whole battlefield, complete with rivers, woods, fortifications, and armies. When enemy units collided, the screen switched to a detailed view of the battle, where swordsmen and archers would fight it out hand-to-hand to determine the victor. The game had a surprisingly large number of configurable options, from choosing which war the player fought to choosing which leader the player fought as. I'm still impressed with how well-designed this early RTS was.
The last of the Apple games that sticks out in my mind as being an early contender was Infocom's classic text adventure, Leather Goddesses of Phobos. It was a great game, especially for a 13-year old who knew enough to lie when the "Lewd Mode" age verification came up. And when it comes down to it, "Lewd Mode" is what kept me going back to Goddesses. I never really cared for text adventures that much, and they frustrated the crap out of me, but just the minuscule chance to see boobies (the word, mind you, not the actual items) enticed me to play. What a sad little perv I was.
Days of Mac and Roses
Shortly after my flirtations with Apple games, the college finished a new CompSci building complete with a state-of-the-art Macintosh lab in the basement. I had two reasons for making my way there every week – the spicy Tostitos chips in the vending machine, and the Star Trek game that had been loaded on the Macs. If you've ever played EGA Trek, you'll know the type of game I mean – a dot-grid on the left, text-based control readouts to the right and below, and ships represented by ASCII characters. I would while away a couple of hours a week performing long-range scans for enemies and refueling when my ship ran low. Soon, though, I found out that this particular game sported a feature I had never seen or imagined – network play.
One of the college students actually pointed this out to me, and the two of us spent that afternoon hunting each other between stars and through empty space, taking time to kill off the occasional Klingons and Romulans who dared our wrath. Galactic domination was within our reach when a new enemy popped up on our scanners and systematically tore our ships apart. With nobody else in the lab, I looked through the hallway window and saw the lab tech, sitting at his station and grinning at me. I jumped back into the fray, of course, but my youthful reflexes were no match for the technician's guile and experience.
The ULTIMAte in Games
Then came the day when my father arrived home with a brand-new 286 IBM-compatible PC, boasting a whopping 40 MB hard drive and 16 MB of RAM. The males in my family were soon hooked on role-playing games, and I eventually persuaded a friend of mine to loan me his copy of Ultima VI. This, to my young eyes, was a masterpiece. The world was so incredibly detailed and the storyline was so intriguing that for the first time in my life, I found myself forgoing sleep for the chance to explore just one more cavern. I contemplated whether stealing the glass sword was worth the reputation hit it would cause, and I stared for so long at the translation card that I began to read Brittanian rune-signs fluently. I was converted, mind and soul, to this new cult of computer gaming, and I never looked back.
I spent hours poking my Avatar's nose into every corner of Lord British's realm, and finally, after many long days and longer nights, I resolved the crisis of the Gargoyles and saw peace return to the land. I packed away my homemade hot-air balloon and sheathed my sword, and basked in the warm glow of that final congratulations screen, which showed just how many hundreds of hours I had devoted to my addiction. As a reward for successfully finishing the game, I was given instructions on receiving an official Certificate of Completion, signed by Lord British himself.
Of course, as much as I hate to admit it, Ultima VI wasn't my only love when it came to games on the new-fangled IBM PC. My father and I spent countless hours teaming up against the mysteries and puzzles of the original Might and Magic. Lacking an automap function, the game came packaged with a pad of grid paper specifically designed to help amateur cartographers figure out just where in the world (literally) they were. With my dad piloting the keyboard, I would sit by his side dutifully graphing out every square block of city and wilderness while playing the role of navigator. (Head over to Replacementdocs.com to take a look at some of the Clue Books, which contain all of the maps for the early M&M games.)
Back to the Beginning
Looking back, it seems that my dad was a big influence in my gaming. Our quality time growing up wasn't spent watching sports programs or rebuilding car engines – it happened quietly in front of a glowing screen, with occasional bursts of laughter and curses. But to get back to my original question: What was the earliest computer game I played? Well, I wouldn't swear to anything under oath, but it seems that the first one that really stuck in my mind was a simple hand-programmed Air/Sea Battle knock-off. My dad typed it in on the Kaypro 2 that sat on his desk when I was eight and entertained me with it one day when I visited him at work. That's the one that started me on this long road. Almost 25 years later, I can look back and point to the beginning of an era. And now that I get the chance to share games with my son, it's become something of a tradition.
So how about it? What was the first PC game you remember playing? What was it that grabbed on and wouldn't let go? Log in and fill up the comments section with your own memories.