The era of MS-DOS games may have been a bizarro haze of hit and miss, but for the burgeoning millennial they were the last vestige of PC innocence. 35 years since their debut, Katie Parker reminisces.
Once upon a time, when the internet was still barely more than a twinkle in some weirdo’s eye, the ole’ household PC was an expensive, clunky mystery that my mum owned solely to catalogue genealogy. It was not long however, until my brother and I discovered its true value: the zany world of MS-DOS games.
MS-DOS (microsoft disc operating systems just FYI) published thousands of games from 1981 until about 1997 and it was a hugely significant platform for PC gaming in its day. Unbelievably, this year marks the 35th anniversary since MS-DOS debuted, and my how time has flown.
Some of these games went on to great things: Sim City, Prince of Persia, and Pacman all passed through DOS in their early forms. Others like Sim Ant: The Electronic Ant Colony were sadly left behind. Thankfully, regardless of stature, nearly all can be found online today.
My favourites were generally side scrolling RPG’s, usually involving adorable characters completing quests of some kind and facing down all manner of weird and wonderful monsters.
They were formative and they were fiddly. With no in-level saves, if you got called for dinner at pivotal moment, it could be disastrous. Some were scary too. I remember frequently recruiting my mum to fight the bosses and particularly creepy monsters and barely being able to look while she did it. She actually got pretty good and it was so very lovely family bonding.
I have returned to these games periodically ever since, and never truly found any I like better. Possibly this is due to my pathological nostalgia: with gaming one of the most quickly developing mediums in terms of both technology and engagement, the past is so easily left behind. These games are a poignant reminder that once upon a time computers were for more than just stalking your boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. Something good. Something pure.
I went back to three of my favourites and by golly they have barely aged a day.
Hocus Pocus (1994)
You are a young apprentice wizard called Hocus Pocus, sent on a quest by super wizard Terexin to prove your worth in order to join the Council of Wizards.
“The council ruled this part of the land,” we’re told, “and being a member was the highest honour (it also helped to get really good tables at restaurants)”
You are a wizard, but also Patrick Bateman.
As if the stakes weren’t high enough, for whatever reason you are also not allowed to marry your true love Popopa until you make it onto the council.
So you say goodbye to your parents Slow and Piggina Pocus (great joke names, A+) and go forth to complete Terexin’s quest.
Terexin is a total asshole who occasionally shows up around the place to say unhelpful things.
Your task is to collect crystals while fighting dragons and tree demons and penguins and so forth, culminating in a kind of boss fight in the final level of each of the game’s four worlds.
With three difficulty levels – easy, moderate and hard – Hocus Pocus could be mind-blowingly simple or rage-inducingly frustrating.
Though the back story is almost entirely beside the point in the actual gameplay of Hocus Pocus (which is fairly standard collect all the crystals/kill all the monsters/find the secret areas), the level of detail given is kind of amazing. When you finally complete your missions and defeat the evil Wizard Trolodon, there are screeds and screeds of information explaining your initiation into the wizarding council.Information such as: “the long standing enemy of the council is Trolodon, former head of the council, now its sworn enemy. What started as a simple argument over which pattern dishes to buy for the council’s dining room ballooned into a fierce antagonism that threatens to destroy the magic paths themselves” But who cares about that when the true payoff is finally getting to marry the smoking hot Popopa.
Crystal Caves (1991)
You are Mylo Steamwitz, a blue-collar money-hungry space-trader flying his ship the Millennium Kiwi (also my DJ name) around space, mining crystals from hazardous caves while, and I quote, staying “one step ahead of his creditors”.
Crystal Caves was hard. You go from cave to cave and cannot leave until every crystal is mined. There you contend with monsters, reverse-gravity, poison mushrooms and pits of no return. With only three lives that cannot be replenished, you also have a limited number of bullets which can go quickly and without which you are screwed. If you accidently shoot a cave air generator, you literally explode.
It also teaches the very valuable lesson that ‘winners don’t use drugs.’
But it is not impossible and you are grandly rewarded for your efforts! Every completed level is marked with a large, irrefutable red tick and earning money instead of points was hugely appealing to the burgeoning capitalist in me. When completed, you are rich, rich, rich and you use your fortune to start a successful burger chain called Mylo Burger.
Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventure (1992)
You are Cosmo, a green alien child with suction cups for hands that crash lands on a foreign planet, getting separated from your parents, whom you (naturally) fear have been eaten. You must face rotten alien enemies, meet Duke Nukem, and collect stars to access fabulous bonus levels, all as you search for your family.
Every scene in Cosmo looks amazing. There are forests, ice fortresses, creepy nighttime cityscapes. Several levels take place inside a monster who swallows you, decorated to lovely effect with intestines and bones and ghosts who, though hostile when you turn around, become suddenly coy when you face them.
Cosmo had everything: amazing graphics, incredible music, huge go-anywhere levels full of secret areas.
With increasingly difficult hazards throughout, the final levels are pretty hard to clock. You have to fight an anonymous three-eyed alien boss in a spiky killer spaceship at the end of every volume. It’s weird.
Particularly since when you do get to the end and find your parents they’re just like “oh sorry, we wandered off” and then they take you Disneyland for your birthday.
A tale as old as time.
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