Tuesday, May 17, 2011

May Is The Cruelest Month (For Chrontendo Viewers)

Here we are halfway into the month of May, and what's this?  Still no new Chrontendo?  What is that lazy son-of-a-bitch Dr. Sparkle up to, you might ask?

I'll have you know I've been neck deep in old computer games, assembling the 1988 Computer Game Round-up for Episode 38.   I'll be honest with you; in the past I've given myself a decent head start on these things, generally starting on the research well before beginning work on the rest of the episode.  This time, however, this did not happen.  I essentially began from scratch just a few weeks ago.  Bad time management on my part, I'm afraid, but I'm just now finishing up work on the Round-up.

This post's title is a cute joke for all you literary types out there.

Luckily, the exciting world of 1988 computer games makes the wait worthwhile.  The mid-late '80s were a strange, transitional time for computer gaming.  The Apple II and Commodore 64 dominated the first half of the decade, and by 1985, the next generation of machines had arrived in the form of the Commodore Amiga, Apple Macintosh and Atari ST.  Yet, as impressive as these were from a technical standpoint, they failed to catch the attention of consumers.  Instead, computers based the IBM x86 architecture and running DOS became the primary force in the marketplace.  From the standpoint of gaming, these IBM clones seemed terrible: they suffered from ugly EGA graphics and very weak sound capabilities.   Yet, by 1988 they accounted for almost 80% of the US home computer market, with Commodore taking around 10%, and the rest competing for the remaining sliver.  By the 1990, Commodore had virtually dropped out of the race, and the next two decades consisted of Macs and and PCs slugging it out (in a manner of speaking - Macs rarely reached more than 5% of the market for most of this time period.)

Prior to 1988, DOS games tended to look pretty terrible.  But a series of technological improvements changed that quite quickly.  Newer graphics standards such as MCGA and VGA would allow for higher resolutions and more colors.  Compare the the graphics of 1986's Might and Magic Book I with that of the Might and Magic Book II from 1988:

 Might and Magic Book I (1986)

Might and Magic Book II (1988)

From here on out, things improved rapidly, with the popular Sound Blaster card released in 1989, and the XGA graphics standard in 1990.  By the time of 1991's Might and Magic III , DOS games would look like this:

Might and Magic III: The Isles of Terra (1991)

In addition, something of a changing of the guard was occurring in the world of game publishers.  Many of the significant smaller publishers from the first wave of computer gaming, such as Muse, Adventure International and California Pacific Computer Company had disappeared by this time.  And in 1988, several major older publishers such as Epyx were on their last legs.  The most significant such failure was that of Infocom, who virtually kicked off the computer game craze with their massive hit Zork in 1980.  After a string of flops, they finally closed up shop in 1989.  At the same time, a new wave of publishers destined for success in the 1990s and 2000s arose.  In the 1988 Round Up, we'll see the debut games from Cyan, Naughty Dog, Westwood, and DMA (later known as Rockstar North.)

The Colony: it's like System Shock minus the excitement.

Another interesting development in 1988: the emergence of "real" 3D graphics.  Oh sure, we saw a couple primitive 3D games in the 1987 computer game round up, but '88 is when the floodgates began to open.  Oddly, British developers were leading the way.  It seems unlikely that the country with such terrible home computers would take the initiative in technological innovation.  Yet out of the UK sprung games such as Starglider 2, a shooter that used polygon based 3D.  You might not be familiar with Starglider's developer, Argonaut, but you certainly know their work: they later helped Nintendo create the Super FX chip used in Star Fox.  On the other side of the pond, Mindscape released the proto-FPS The Colony for the Mac, which featured suprisingly decent looking 3D enviroments.  Still, the US was definitely behind in the 3D computer games race until a bunch of dudes in Shreveport, LA came along a couple years later and blew everyone else out of the water.

Once Episode 38 makes its appearance, in the very near future, we'll see all this and more.  Did I mention Ninja Gaiden yet?  It's going to be an episode jam-packed with excitement.

By the way, Blogger was doing some sort of update recently, and I think some comments may have disappeared.  If your recent comment got lost, I apologize.


qaylIS said...

Apology acceptet...I was ranting like a bastard anyway.

Oyn said...

I would like to point out that although Might and Magic II had better graphics, it was still EGA. M&MIII was the first to have VGA graphics.

Oyn said...

Also, don't diss The Colony, it was awesome.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Looking closer at M&M II, I see that it is technically "MCGA compatible" which isn't the same as VGA. I guess it's been too long since I had to worry about old PC graphics standards...