Discussion Topic of the Week: What's your favorite winter sport(s) video game? This is mine.
A few years ago, a relative gave me a couple issues of PCVR Magazine, a low-circulation 1990s periodical dedicated to virtual reality. Here's the cover of the Jan/Feb 1994 issue, which features an illustration of the magazine's build-it-yourself head tracker project.
In the early 1990s, the "virtual reality" concept hit a peak in the popular media that coincided with dozens of companies pursuing motion-tracking head-mounted displays — both with honest attempts and blatant gimmicks.
If I had to guess why VR exploded in the popular tech consciousness at that particular time, I would trace it it to the emergence of small, relatively low-cost color LCDs — the kind that made portable consoles like the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear possible. Compared to bulky, power-hungry CRT displays, the (relatively) thin, low-power LCDs could be worn on the head with mobility and without too much discomfort. That prompted a minor Cambrian explosion of VR headset hardware.
But the display technology just wasn't there yet. Affordable LCDs were very low resolution (think 320×200 or less), and higher-resolution LCDs cost thousands of dollars a piece.
In addition, the hardware and software required to generate convincing virtual reality experiences were neither affordable nor generally available. So genuinely immersive VR found itself stuck in corporate and university research labs; meanwhile, the public got trickle-down fad headsets like the Stuntmaster.
Today, we find ourselves in the middle of a VR renaissance thanks to Oculus Rift. But this time, we may actually be at the edge of mainstream virtual reality headsets because the technology has come quite a long way since 1994. I look forward to meeting your 3D virtual avatar in cyberspace soon.
Discussion Topic of the Week: Have you ever used a virtual reality headset of any kind? Tell us about it.
See Also: Retro Scan of the Week Special Edition: "At Last! Reality For the Masses!" (VC&G, 2007)
See Also: The History of Stereoscopic 3D Gaming (PC World, 2011)
Twenty years ago this week, id Software launched one of the most important and influential PC games of all time: Doom. It started as a modest shareware download but grew to change the entire video game industry. To explain how, here's 2009 Benj writing about the title for a PC World slideshow:
Id's archetypical first-person shooter triggered a sea change in the PC game industry, which had formerly been dominated by slow, plodding strategy turn fests, brainy simulations, and stilted PC action titles of yore.
In contrast, Doom was the first of a new generation of fast-paced, smooth action titles that utilized new visual techniques to push PC hardware to its limits. With Doom, PC gamers could experience fluid gameplay, graphics, and sound that easily topped what was found on home game consoles of the day — an uncommon achievement at that point.
Moreover, it introduced exciting new network multiplayer options that are widely imitated to this day, coining the term "deathmatch" in the process.
From its lowly roots as a MS-DOS shareware title, Doom spread like a weed to other platforms, including game consoles, which now count first-person shooters as one of their best-selling genres.
"Doom defined the 3D shooter genre and made multiplayer gaming mainstream," says Tim Sweeney (founder of Epic Games and creator of the Unreal Engine), "And it did them with such incredible polish, artistry, and foresight that it created an industry."
Considering that Doom launched in 1993 via shareware channels, I'm not aware of when or in what publication the first advertisement for Doom appeared. (I believe GT Interactive became distributor for the full, boxed PC version of Doom much later, but I could be mistaken.)
So instead, I found this nifty November 1994 scan for the Atari Jaguar version of Doom. I received this version of the game for Christmas in 1994, and it was an amazing gift.
Pushing the PC Limits, Jaguar Relief
Most people don't remember how much horsepower Doom required in a PC at the time — at least 4 MB of RAM, a mid-range 486 CPU, and a sound card to run passably well. So I had trouble running the game on any PC up to that point.
In 1993, we had one 486 in the household with exactly 4 MB of RAM (to contrast, my personal PC sported a 16 MHz 386 and 2MB RAM), and I had to make a special 5.25″ boot disk that loaded fewer resident DOS drivers, etc. so I could run Doom on that 486 at all. If I recall correctly, I didn't have enough spare RAM to load the SoundBlaster drivers at boot, so the experience was limited. My friend had to run Doom on his mom's 486 the same way. Even then, the game didn't run at full frame rate. Doom pushed the limits.
So coming from that environment, it was an amazing convenience to just plug a Doom cartridge into the Jaguar and play, full-speed, full-screen, with glorious sound and no hiccups. My brother and I played a lot of Doom on that console well into 1996 — until I got a more powerful PC that could run Doom with ease.
Until the PlayStation port of Doom came out (late 1995), the Jaguar port was widely considered the best port of the game (in terms of screen window size, lighting effects, monster interaction, sound, controls, and frame rate) available on consoles. Its biggest drawback was lack of a soundtrack during gameplay. I think that's because John Carmack used the Jag's DSP co-processor to handle graphics routines instead of music, which was unconventional on that platform.
But I digress. What a great game. I still play Doom regularly via modern source ports on the PC — most recently on my new 1080p big screen TV set. Add on Xbox 360 controller support via ZDoom, and you've got Doom heaven. It's a game that never seems to get old for me, even 20 years on. That's the mark of a true classic in my book.
Discussion Topic of the Week: How did you feel when you first played Doom? What are your memories of the occasion?
The Atari Jaguar launched at retail 20 years ago this Friday — November 15, 1993.
In April 1994, I received a Jaguar for my birthday, and it was one of the most exciting days of my life. That Christmas, my parents gave me Doom for the Jaguar, and I had a blast. After that, not many truly great games came out for the Jaguar (I'd say Tempest 2000 is the system-exclusive standout).
Partly because of that lack of great software, the Jaguar sunk fast — especially in the face of strong competition from Sony, Sega, and Nintendo (throw in some 3DO and Neo-Geo in there as well). The mid-1990s was a hard time to be a video game console.
By 1997, the Jaguar was toast. If I recall correctly, TigerDirect bought up a huge inventory of unsold Jaguar and Jaguar CD systems and sold them through their catalog.
This scan is a page from a 1997 TigerDirect catalog advertising the Jaguar for a mere $59.99 and the CD add-on for $89.99. Lucky for me, this is how I bought my Jaguar CD system, along with the advertised ultra-cheap game packs. CD exclusives Myst and Cybermorph 2 were worth the purchase alone.
So happy birthday, Jag. Sorry I can't write more about you now. But I've written a lot about you on VC&G in the past. To read more, check out the links at the bottom of this post.
Discussion Topic of the Week: What's your favorite Atari Jaguar game?
See Also: Rayman and Frustration (RSOTW, 2013)
See Also: Atari Jaguar Debut Photo (RGOTW, 2013)
See Also: War + Mech = "Kinda Cool" (RSOTW, 2007)
See Also: Anatomy of a Young Collector's Room (2006)
See Also: The First Atari Jaguar Press Release (2005)
I've never played either of these Atari ST games by Microdeal, but they look like fun. "Look" being the operative word. That's because, as we all know, a screenshot alone is a poor judge of a game.
In fact, I recall being burned by screenshots many times back in the day. While browsing at Babbage's or Software Etc. (former software retail chains), my brother and I would flip over various game boxes and ogle amazing, colorful in-game shots that would make us want to buy everything on the shelf.
If we did buy a game, we'd rush home and load it up. Nine times out of ten, those glorious box screenshots turned out to be the only pretty graphical scenes (often static) in the game. Or — even worse — the screenshots were from the uber-colorful Amiga / VGA / etc. version when in fact we were buying the Apple II version of the game (or we only had an EGA graphics card). Doh.
Discussion Topic of the Week: Did you ever buy a game based on graphics alone — then come to regret it later?
As a kid, The Halley Project blew my mind.
I remember flying through the solar system, first person, in what seemed like a real-time simulation of space flight. All the distances between and positions of the planets were accurate, and you could visit each one by traversing the vast gulfs between them. It was one of the most awe-inspiring games on the Atari 800.
I haven't sat down and played The Halley Project in at least a decade, so I'm kinda fuzzy about the point of the game. I believe you're trying to track down Halley's Comet. On the way, I think you have to make stops at each of the planets in our real solar system. And, if I'm not mistaken, there's something special about the comet itself (once you actually find it) that I won't spoil for you guys.
The real Halley's Comet made a famous fly-by of our planet back in 1986. I still have vague memories of being awakened in the middle of the night when I was 5 so our family could drive out to a local school field and catch of glimpse of the comet. I remember seeing a fuzzy dot, perhaps through binoculars or a simple telescope. That real life celestial visit inspired a sort of frenzy in the media and popular consciousness here in the US, and I'm guessing this game played off of that.
I know I could look up the real plot / purpose / gameplay of The Halley Project online, complete with screenshots and analysis, but I don't want to. My warm memories are good enough.
Discussion Topic of the Week: Did you see Halley's Comet in 1986? Tell us about it.
Discussion Topic of the Week: Do you own any composite video monitors? Which model/brand is your favorite?
I bought Rayman for the Atari Jaguar shortly after it came out in 1995, hopeful it would bring some Mario-style platforming magic to Atari's "64-bit" machine. While lushly illustrated with a deep color palette, I found the gameplay and the controls a little kludgy, and I had trouble advancing past one of the first few stages. I gave up and moved on to other games.
Shorty thereafter, I lent Rayman and my Jaguar to my brother and his roommate to play at college, and they beat it within a few days. Determination was just as important as skill when it came to completing video games in those days, and I had no motivation to torture myself with a frustrating game.
Which brings me to a tangential point: When I was a kid, if I couldn't beat a video game, I thought it meant that I was a bad video game player. I thought it was my fault. But years later I realized that the games that frustrated me most were just poorly designed.
Not to say that all difficult games are bad games — in fact, I'd say there's a big difference between "difficult" and "frustrating." Merely difficult games are still fun even if you fail; they make you want to try again to complete a challenge. Frustrating ones feel unfair and make you want to smash your game console with a hammer.
One of my friends did that to his NES once. He also threw it off his second story apartment balcony. Ah; those were the days.
Discussion Topic of the Week: Have you ever visited physical violence against a video game console or controller?
Here's a retro-flavored Polaroid instant photo I took of my bedroom floor some point in 1995. I was 13 or 14 at the time, and I had just received a stack of Beatles CDs (upper center-left) the previous Christmas — along with my first CD player, integrated in boombox form, which can be seen seen in the upper right portion of the photo.
But I'm not posting this photo because of Beatles CDs. On the floor sit a number of retrogaming consoles and accessories: to the left is an Atari 5200 console, and in the lower right you can see a ColecoVision and the corner of an Intellivision. There are also a few Atari joysticks, a copy of Yars' Revenge for the 2600, and three copies of Intellivision Donkey Kong.
In 1985, LucasFilm Games released one of the earliest first-person shooters, although they didn't know it at the time. In The Eidolon, players fluidly navigate corridors from a first-person viewpoint, shooting monsters that they encounter along the way.
The Eidolon utilizes a novel and technically impressive vector graphics engine to dynamically generate tunnel interiors from various angles as players maneuver through them. The engine also served as the basis of other LucasFilm titles like Rescue on Fractalus! (1984) and Koronis Rift (1985).
Although this game appeared on the Atari 8-bit computer platform (which I grew up with), I never got a chance to play it until about ten years ago. If I had seen it in the 1980s, it would have immediately become a favorite.
Discussion Topic of the Week: What's your favorite pre-1996 first-person shooter?