Why I Miss the Dark Days of Mac Gaming

By Kotaku on at

By Edwin Evans Thirlwell.

To think outside the box is often to think more intently about what's inside it. That was certainly the case for Apple Corporation in 1984. The company's first Macintosh was also the first successful commercially available desktop PC to ship with a graphical user interface [correction: the very first was the Apple Lisa in '83]: the platter of cute, digestible icons we now expect of all our computers – even those you can fit into a pocket.

The Macintosh wasn't without critics; its 128 kilobyte RAM allowance was laughably sparing, even then. But its contribution to the formation of a new mass market can't be understated. It created a space for computers in the home by recreating the computer as a space, a stack of Tardis-like boxes nestling within boxes. Where the earlier command line was a Sphinx that had to be placated with strings of arcane script, here was an interface that allowed you to reach “into” the computer, grab things and move them around. It wasn't technical, but tactile. Even now, the sight of the original Macintosh UI in motion – those textured sliders, the exhalation of ghost outlines when you open a folder, the comically malleable trash can – makes my fingers twitch.

It's only partly that putting things in boxes creates a sense of accessibility and coherence. Boxes are magic. By hiding objects from view, they allow the imagination to roam in the same way a horizon does: as the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard puts it, "there will always be more things in a closed, than an open, box." Perhaps that's why games enthusiasts – dauntless excavators of the variables baked into digital media – are so fond of boxes, be it those that house fire flowers, mushrooms and coins or the latest consoles, sleekly expressive of a "vision" for escapism that's always, we're told, greater than the sum of its parts. That's a mentality the Macintosh UI helped to foster, though it has taken a while for Apple to reap the benefits.

The closing decade of the 20th century was a pretty terrible time to be a Mac gamer. The heart of the problem was insularity: Apple's greatest strength and limitation is that it presides over the creation of almost every component of each device, application or service it sells. This means that Apple's products click together in a way Microsoft and Google's offerings will never rival. It also makes them more expensive, harder to find and harder to create software for.

In the mid-'90s, this obsession with vertical integration almost cost Apple its business. The release of a "Performa" range of Macintosh computers that were exempt from existing authorised reseller exclusivity deals was a poor answer to the threat posed by Microsoft's heavily marketed Windows '95 on the one hand, and the resurgent video game console market on the other. A sales spiral began that would only be lifted by the advent of the iMac in 1998.

Crystal Quest via an emulator

I didn't care, personally. True, there were fewer games on Mac than for other platforms, but I like to think the games we did have were better for being the work of a small, defiant community. They complement each other, for me, in much the same way Apple's software and hardware do. One early standout was Patrick Buckland's Crystal Quest, in which you'd twitch an eggshell of a spaceship around a series of increasingly hazardous single-screen maps, gathering enough jewels to unlock the exit; a maddening test of hand-to-eye coordination, released when computer mice were still in their infancy.

Another gem is Rescue! for the Macintosh SE, Tom Spreen's beautifully conceived and executed contribution to the tradition of Star Trek-themed sandbox games inaugurated by David Ahl's Space War in 1971. If you're a fan of FTL or XCOM, this could be worth digging up – alas, I've been unable to get an emulator running on my Windows 7 PC. The objective in Rescue! is simple and inexhaustible: scout out procedurally distributed planets, scoop up colonists and ferry them to a starbase before Romulan (or as a copyright-aware revision would have it, “Rulan”) ships arrive and blow everybody to hell.

It's a fast, furious exercise in resource and time management: all ship systems draw from the same energy pool, repairs must be prioritised and not every planetary population can be saved. Tempting as it is to dismiss the visuals as primitive, they need to be looked at in the context of an age when floating, stretchable windows were still a relative novelty, when there was satisfaction to be derived from the act of clicking a fat, rounded button marked “fire torpedoes”, and when the thought of your desktop halfway resembling the USS Enterprise D's own dashboard was better than sex. I'm inspired beyond words to find that the game is being updated by fans to run on Java, though I prefer the original chiselled look and feel.

Rescue! was distributed as shareware, like most of the games I played back then. Shareware is an interesting reference point for today's free-to-play games. Popularised in 1982 by the programmers Jim Knopf and Andrew Fluegleman, it was a way of inexpensively circulating your work by piggy-backing on pirate software distribution channels. Users were free to copy an application (or at least, a very generous trial) without restriction, but were invited to send a donation to the developer, a process that became more natural as credit cards replaced postal orders.

It was a public-spirited effort, a coming-together of hobbyists, though there was serious money to be made for a lucky few. Libraries of shareware diskettes shot up around the world, and a watchdog, the Association of Shareware Professionals, was formed to ensure that programmers didn't cripple the freely available version of an application to force a purchase, as less scrupulous developers now do with free-to-play games. Being handed a disc with a shareware game on it felt like being given a present. At their worst, the latest free-to-play projects are cloud-powered maws, chewing away at your resolve – giftboxes that are actually wormholes, which lead directly to the nerve centres of big business.

When shareware developers did try to force your hand, they were classy about it. Another of my old Mac favourites is Exile, created by Jeff Vogel and the team at Spiderweb Software (which is still around, much to my shock, and creating the same kind of games as it was 20 years ago). You were able to roam its artful tile-based and Ultima-inflected netherworld at will, righting wrongs, looting ruins and training up a fearsome party of ambidextrous catpeople and reptile spearmen, save for one caveat: a mysterious chasm kept the endgame out of reach, and could only be filled by way of (cough) a mystic offering by snail mail to Spiderweb's office in Seattle.

I never took the bait, choosing to follow the line of the cliff from north to south, hoping against hope for a bridge. It was a heavy-handed device, in hindsight, but it just felt like part of the world, an obstacle I could overcome given the right mix of attention to detail and fireballs. Less subtly, but more amusingly, there was “Capt'n Hector” – an NPC parrot pilot from Ambrosia Software's superb (and to an extent, still functional) Escape Velocity series, in which you set out from Earth to make your fortune as a trader and warrior in the far reaches of the galaxy.

The main theme from Escape Velocity: Override. Nothing says “final frontier” like a brass band send-off.

For the first 30 days of play, the good Captain would show up in his indestructible runabout every so often to remind you of your obligations. Thereafter he'd turn savage, appearing in the middle of a raging battle to pounce on your flank, screaming about software piracy. Fortunately, 30 days was more than enough time to build up an armada of top-end warships, proof against even Captain Hector (in the third game, Nova, he'd leach away your credits as well as damaging your ship). Ambrosia's approach was perhaps a little too playful for its own good.

There has never been a grander selection of games on Apple's platforms. We can thank the iPod, iPhone and iTunes for that, but as is so often the case when an enterprise achieves critical mass, Mac gaming has lost a lot of its original charm in the process. When I look at the latest iPad, I see the same dedication to owning every facet of a brand that gave us the Macintosh and its games, the same sense that software should be tangible, spacious, intuitive. But the platform's small, fierce band of hermits and lovable crazies has become a horde that spits out a dozen half-baked knock-offs for every genuinely great game it produces and the commitment to vertical integration has become too obviously a means of control, backed by online checks and updates. There's much more to enjoy about the Apple of today than the Apple of 1984, but I'm not sure there's as much to treasure.

Another of Ambrosia's big successes was Maelstrom, an Asteroid clone. Here's footage of a bot playing it for almost two hours straight. Click to 60 minutes in for delightful chaos.