Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The lost world of PC games

A new book has proclaimed 1995 as the year the future really began for us, and lately I have been immersing myself somewhat in that culture.

I just finished a book from my personal collection on the 1996 presidential campaign, watched the film “The Martian,” where Matt Damon’s character uses an artifact from 1997 to help himself survive on Mars and now am reading the late Richard Ben Cramer’s spectacular 1992 book, “What It Takes: The Way to the White House,” which is about the 1988 campaign.

I have to confess that in some ways I miss the late 1980s to 1990s. I was in the middle of my big effort to rework my future, I had money in my pocket and it seemed like every week there was some new innovation in technology that made life so much more interesting.

I have always been a big fan of computer games on the IBM-compatible PC, and in the late 1980s to 1990s it seemed like the floodgates of innovation and creativity had been opened up.

Every Sunday afternoon, I’d go to my second cousin Angelo’s house, and we’d go to the campus of Palm Beach Atlantic College in West Palm Beach for the free live broadcast of Craig Crossman’s Computer America show. Craig always had great guests on his show, and they always came with free stuff you could win.

Sometimes we’d meet Angelo’s brother-in-law, John Martin, at the show. They were always fun to be with, and I miss them more than I can tell you.

If I went by myself, I’d stop at CompUSA at one of the big shopping centers on Okeechobee Boulevard and check out the computers, software displays and other technology for sale. CompUSA was a big chain then and the store had a lot of money. I know because I put it there. Its software department was epic in size, with countless games for the PC in long rows on display shelves. Truly, it was the golden age of PC games.

Getting them to work on your machine was another matter, of course. Still, I learned a lot from the technology of the time.

On the night of Aug. 24, 1995, a big tropical storm was threatening the West Palm Beach area, but people still lined up at CompUSA and other stores for the first shot at buying Microsoft’s Windows 95 upgrade. The hype was insane. I was working part-time at The Palm Beach Post, and we were putting together special feature sections on computers. The Internet was starting to be a big deal and there were big plans that somehow never came to fruition. Still, we were putting news online there and it was the beginning of something amazing and awesome.

Nonetheless, it was the games section that to me always was a barometer of the health of the industry. Today, computer games are a big part of the shelf space, but the hardware is from consoles like the PlayStation and Xbox series. I’m a PlayStation 3 man myself, and enjoy games like “NHL 14” and “MLB 13: The Show” (too cheap to upgrade), but there’s a special place in my heart for PC games.

The new distribution channel of the Internet means that games can become big deals without filling store shelves, and the game “Kerbal Space Program” has become a phenomenon since 2011. Now that it’s been formally released – and you have to pay $40 for the game (though updates and mods are free, for now, at least) – it’s really shown the potential for PC-based games, and is being expanded to consoles.

I always was on the lookout for a space program simulator, and Kerbal lets me not only run and direct a space program, but also design and control the rockets. The genre of “god games” was always a popular one in PC games, and Kerbal really lets you let your imagination run wild, with a sandbox mode, where everything is available at once, as well as a career mode, where you have to earn advancement and new technologies.

We’re far from a new golden age of PC games, but I guess this is as close as we’ll get.

CompUSA died several years ago, and electronics retailer Circuit City also bit the dust. In Bradenton, the old Circuit City was taken over by HHGregg, which seems to be doing fairly well. The granddaddy of them all, Best Buy, seemed to be a goner but had made somewhat of a comeback despite the fact that shopping there can be very unpleasant.

One day, I walked in and I guess the new “advice of the week” was for employees to chase customers, shouting out recommendations.

The PC game section is mostly shovel-ware now and occupies a segment of a shelf. It’s so sad. There was a time when you would have seen rows and rows of games, even at Best Buy, and it’s reduced to this.

I sometimes go through the boxes in my garage and find those old game I bought years ago. They probably still work, but I just prefer to mourn over the lost old times.

It was fun, though, to take home a new version of “Civilization” or “Rail Tycoon” or “SimCity” and wonder at the new worlds you’d get to rule. I suppose we have to move on, but let’s never forget that those games gave us hours of fun and insight.

Kerbal does that now. For that, I suppose, we should be grateful.

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October 11, 2015 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , ,

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