Shifting paradigms in gaming are hard to see coming, even when they’re already underway. Ideas often crop up ahead of their time before the technology or infrastructure exists to support them; CDs are a good example of this, being used mainly to store awfully digitised voice samples and full-motion video for a good couple of years after their introduction as a storage medium, and it wasn’t until the Playstation that they began to be filled with the art assets required to render 3D games. Graphics cards were another distinct shift in the market, and I can hazily remember after the first 3dfx Voodoo card came out that it was considered unthinkable that one day in the near future PC games would not only make use of them, they’d require them in order to run. And now we have fibre-optic broadband connections and digital distribution making physical media obsolete. If I want to play a certain game from the last 15-odd years of PC gaming history the chances are there’s a digital distribution channel somewhere which will provide me with the goods almost instantly. It’s gotten to the point where buying a game that comes on a disc inside a box feels distinctly dated.
Similarly, when a paradigm shift is particularly comprehensive it can be difficult to remember what it was like before the new world order took over. I distinctly recall rubbishing Steam as a mainstream distribution channel for non-Valve games back in the winter of 2008 just before their first big Christmas sale event – a point of view that seems unthinkable four years later, but at the time they hadn’t even gotten around to introducing non-dollar currencies for unAmericans. I’m sure I had my reasons, even if the changed gaming landscape makes it impossible to see what those reasons were. When dealing with any current paradigm it is important to keep in mind that It Was Not Always Thus, and also that It Will Not Always Be Thus, no matter how permanent existing power structures may seem.
I’m straying into woolgathering territory here, so I’ll get to the point. The ubiquitous nature of digital content channels and the ease with which games can be acquired quickly and cheaply has been nothing but a boon for me as a player, but I do sometimes wonder how I would have reacted if confronted with this land of gaming plenty ten years ago. Of course, that’s absurd. Ten years ago I had no money. Ten years ago I was still accessing the internet through a 56k dial-up connection. The technology and infrastructure did not yet exist to deliver big games quickly over the internet – hell, I remember complaining about having to download a 150 megabyte mod for Unreal Tournament called Thievery, this taking longer than the two-hour cut-off time imposed by my ISP for dial-up. The having no money thing was also a hefty restriction on my gaming habits. Faced with prehistoric technology, limited funds and an overabundance of free time, necessity forced me to explore other means of getting my jollies: to be specific, it forced me to explore the emulation and abandonware scene, which were the only real way to get games digitally around the turn of the millennium.
A couple of people have commented on how I seem to have an impossible level of experience with games and systems that are either insanely obscure or simply before my time. There are two reasons for this. One is that I’m really old, and I’ve managed to cram rather a lot of gaming into my time on this planet so far. The other is emulation. Emulators for older systems fulfil a very important function: physical objects tend to succumb to the rigours of time (I have an N64 in a box somewhere that simply stopped working after a couple of years of storage, making the 20-odd game cartridges that go with it rather expensive paperweights) but data stored on the internet has a fairly good chance at existing just as long as human civilization does. While it may be a hoary old line that’s often trotted out to justify out-and-out piracy, I do genuinely believe that emulators and abandonware sites function as videogaming’s museums. Or at least that’s certainly how my experience with them turned out, as my two-year trip through this rather seedy-seeming underbelly gave me some valuable perspective on what talented developers could achieve using technology and resources that were absurdly primitive even back then.
(It also exposed me to some absolute shit, but thankfully I’ve forgotten most of that.)
Of course it wasn’t easy. There was no Good Old Games back then to repackage old games in a form that worked on modern operating systems, and no DOSBox to iron out the kinks in the awful DOS environments that were still provided by the Windows operating systems of the time. Amiga emulation was extra-tricky because you needed an image of the Amiga Kickstart ROM in order to make the emulator work, and this was not something that was easy to find as not only was it a rather niche virtual item, but it was something you’d only legally have access to if you already owned an Amiga. At least console emulation was reasonably straightforward: once you found a decent source for ROM downloads the only other thing you needed was a functioning emulator program, and the emulators for 8/16-bit systems had been pretty comprehensively bug-tested by the time I came along.
As a consequence of this, getting abandonware to run on a modern system could be a rather frustrating experience. It may have been a legal grey area but I can tell you the publishers weren’t losing any money on that deal, as the games wouldn’t have worked out of the box even if they’d still been selling them. Getting them into a playable state often required a great deal of perseverance and/or bloody-mindedness; fortunately if you were the sort of person who went looking for abandonware back then these were qualities you likely had in spades, and the rewards could be incredibly worthwhile.
Take most of Microprose’s output – Darklands, Pirates!, Colonization and so on. I’ve spoken of my deep and abiding love for these games several times, but I never even would have known about some of them if abandonware sites hadn’t pointed me in their direction. Wargames were pretty much dead as a mainstream genre even back then, but thanks to abandonware I got to experience the Panzer General series (I still get this fuckin’ thing stuck in my head from time to time a decade later), and was very surprised to see how much it had influenced later games like Advance Wars.1 Strategy-wise there was the ambitious and sprawling Emperor of Fading Suns and the classic Master of Magic showing me where Master of Orion got many of its best ideas. The first taste I got of the Marathon series was the abandonware version ofMarathon 2. Even the more mediocre titles often had something valuable to offer; the Crusader games I found hadn’t aged all that well, but they at least introduced me to some kickass music tracks.
Abandonware wasn’t quite the free ride it seemed at first, though. Not only was there the immense hassle of making the games work on modern systems, but they’d often also have hefty portions of the game assets which were deemed superfluous to the functional running of the game – music, videos and so on – stripped out to save on bandwidth. The largest abandonware site at the time was Home of the Underdogs (it still exists, albeit in a crippled form with no downloads available), and pretty much every single game on HotU had something missing from it that sometimes resulted in a rather underwhelming bare-bones experience. The awesomely cheesy heavy metal music was missing from Final Liberation, for example, and I’d go so far as to say the music made that game in the end2.
Emulators were a slightly different matter; it was usually easier to get the games running once you found them, but finding them was an unutterable pain the ass unless the system had some devoted fan maintaining a site like Little Green Desktop. ROM sites in particular enjoyed sending you round a loop of referral links that never went anywhere, or else demanded registration on the site and the expenditure of some bizarre form of virtual currency before they’d actually let you download anything. Once I found a site that actually worked I downloaded anything and everything that looked remotely interesting for fear that it’d somehow stop working tomorrow. My time with Amiga and Atari ST emulators was spent on a massive nostalgia trip, but Genesis and SNES emulators taught me two very important things. The first is that unless your name is Sonic the Hedgehog Mega Drive games have aged terribly3. Seriously. They’re really bad. The second is that most of the good games for the SNES weren’t even released in the UK, being either limited to America (as with Earthbound) or else never leaving Japan. This latter group led to the discovery of a bustling subculture that was producing fan translations of Japanese games and making them available to an audience that never would have played them otherwise. In particular there was a peculiar strain of tactical strategy games such as Front Mission and Fire Emblem that never made it to English-speaking shores, and which were actually really goddamn good. Good enough that the concept was finally ported over to handhelds in the form of Advance Wars and the GBA version of Fire Emblem, where they’re still thriving today.
(And then there’s Chrono Trigger, which remains by far the best game Square has ever or will ever produce.)
Perspective is a valuable thing to have no matter what your hobbies happen to be. Films, books, board games, running – whatever it is, it’s been my experience that the more comprehensive and wide-ranging my experience with the field, the more I understand it and the more I enjoy it. Abandonware and emulation made a significant contribution towards building the perspective I have of the modern videogame market. Even today I’m often going back to play or replay older games – more often now that GoG exists – and I’m usually quite surprised at the level of sophistication they display, especially since many of these games were stored on just a few floppy disks. Just this last Monday I booted up TIE Fighter for the first time in a decade4 and was slightly agog to rediscover that it managed to fit this intro plus the best space combat game ever made into about ten megabytes of disk space. It’s the sort of thing I’d have taken for granted back when games that small were normal, but coming at it from a modern perspective of a “small” game being around about five thousand megabytes it’s astonishing what they managed to accomplish using computers that were dumber than your average modern mobile telephone. It’s the sort of thing that makes me question whether we’ve really progressed quite so far with videogames as a creative medium rather than just retreading the same ground over and over and over with prettier graphics and faster technology.
Of course the TIE Fighters of this world are the exception — it’s a rare game that ages quite as gracefully as it has — and I’m sure modern gaming will produce its fair share of classics that play just as well in twenty years time as TIE Fighter does today, but it’s still useful to have that information. Useful to have the proper context in which to view a modern game. And with GoG bursting onto the scene a few years back it’s easier than ever to get that context for yourself. You should try it. It’s a great learning experience, and who knows? The chances are pretty good you’ll even find something you enjoy, making it a win-win situation either way.
- Not to mention others, like the still-fondly-remembered 40k adaptation Final Liberation and the totally batshit Spellcross, which had one of the more original premises I’ve seen in a wargame. ↩
- I’m not mentioning the questionable legality of the whole thing. Well, I say questionable. It was illegal. Sure, abandonware and ROMs were distributed under the laughable fiction that you could only download them for “backup purposes” if you already owned the game/system in question, but I somehow doubt that argument would stand up for more than a couple of seconds once lawyers got involved. Still, the abandonware sites operated openly for years without any attempts to squish them like the big torrent sites of today, and that was because – by and large – they weren’t costing anyone any money. Most of these games could no longer be bought legally through any means (except via eBay), and so the abandonware issue disappeared down the back of the sofa, legally speaking: as long as the big abandonware sites didn’t engage in blatant and widespread piracy the big software publishers didn’t care enough to shut them down. ↩
- There’s a possible exception for the original Golden Axe too, although I’m not sure if that’s the nostalgia talking again. ↩
- The reason for this being that I finally have a joystick again after many, many years, but the number of modern games that utilise a joystick hovers somewhere around zero. Also I do have the collector’s edition on CD here, which is why I was more than a little miffed to discover it doesn’t run on DOS which makes it incompatible with modern systems. ↩