Category Archives: Ancient Gaming

Things from my early days of online multiplayer gaming.

Summer Reruns – Online Gaming in the 80s

It officially turned Summer in the northern hemisphere yesterday, so I can legit post a Summer Reruns post.

This time for a look way back in time at the online video games I played in the 80s, a time when a 2400bps modem made you special and the command line was pretty much your only online interface option.  Back then you paid a per hour online charge that makes the whole $15 monthly subscription thing look like a serious bargain.

GEnie Price “cut” back in 1989 actually raised prices for non-prime time

While the internet was a thing at the time (I had a shell account through a company called Portal back then, which at the time was run out of a suburban house that backed up to the middle school I attended years before, and an email address with the domain cup.portal.com), only online services like GEnie and CompuServe had the infrastructure to let people all over the country connect together to play games.

I started online games with an Apple //e and an Apple 1200bps modem that I bought second hand from Skronk.  Later I upgraded to a Mac SE and a Zoom 2400bps modem that came in an odd smoked acrylic case.

Apple and Zoom modem pictures gleaned from the internet

That set off a series of events which led me to start my own BBS… back when BBS meant a modem hooked up to somebody’s computer that you could dial into… and eventually launched my so-called professional career of the last 28 years or so.  Time flies.

But before that I played… and spent too much money on… online games.  Fortunately I spent some time writing about them during the early days of the blog, when those memories were at least 10 years more recent than today.

Those were not the only games I played, but the ones that had the biggest impact and, thus, left the strongest memories.  All Kesmai titles, but Kesmai was the online powerhouse of the time. (Staff from Kesmai ended up developing the original PlanetSide as part of Lodestone Games.)

I also vaguely remember playing Island of Kesmai on CompuServe as well as a version of Maze War and the beta of Gemstone on GEnie back then, but not with enough detail to tease anything beyond “I was there” from my brain.

These games were very revolutionary at the time, unique experiences that left indelible impressions on players who were there.  However, they were also very much games of their time in terms of technology.  Impressive as they were in their era they would appear as rough and primitive by today’s standards, where the phone in my pocket certainly has more power and resources than the VAX minicomputer that hosted Stellar Emperor back in the day.

However, that has not stopped people from attempting to recreate these old games, or at least MegaWars III and/or Stellar Emperor.  I have covered those in posts now and again.

And so it goes.

As far as video games go, the 80s started with me owning an Atari 2600 and going to arcades to play video games.  I then moved to the Apple II platform and played a number of the classic games of the era.

Apple ][+ back in the day

Then there was the modem that got me online in 1986, then the move to Macintosh, and the decade ended with me running my own BBS.  MUDs and then MMORPGs still lay in the future for me.

MegaWars Dawn of the Third Age

In order to talk about MegaWars – Dawn of the Third Age I feel I need to delve into the well of ancient games from which I drew the title of this blog.  It is been a while since I’ve gone here, so a refresher might be due.

Back in the early-to-mid 1980s personal computers were becoming common, modems were increasingly becoming an option for the, and online services like CompuServe and GEnie began to flourish.  This was the pre-web era, when even having a GUI beyond a command prompt was considered.  (There is a whole “pre-web online services” category on Wikipedia.)

And while special interest forums, online encyclopedias, and services were often bullet points used to get people to sign up, it wasn’t long before online games came into being.  Kesmai was an early leader in online games and its Island of Kesmai on CompuServe was very much a precursor to today’s fantasy MMORPGs.

Also on CompuServe was a game called MegaWars III.  If Island of Kesmai foretold the fantasy side of the MMORPG genre, then MegaWars III was very much a hint as to what the future might bring when it came to internet spaceships in EVE Online.  Launched on CompuServe in January 1984, it gained a following even at the expensive hourly connect rates that online services charged back in the day.  $15 a month seems like a bargain compared to $6 an hour.

MegaWars III did not feature a long term persistent universe.  Instead games were four week long affairs that saw everybody logging on to scout on the first night to find and colonize planets.  There was a fixed amount of numbered star systems, but the planets around them, and the quality thereof, changed with each game.

Players would colonize and manage their planets, build up defenses, try to take planets from each other, and attempt to blow up each other’s ships.  At the end of the four weeks scores were tallied up and winners declared.  The leader of the highest scoring team was declared Emperor while the highest individual score was named President of the Imperial Senate.  The top 20 scoring players were made senators.

When GEnie arrived on the scene, they wanted online games too and got Kesmai to make a simplified version of MegaWars III which was called Stellar Warrior.  A fun game in its own right, and following the four week campaign model, it did not have the depth of MegaWars III with its planetary management module.  GEnie eventually got a straight up copy of MegaWars III a bit later in the form of Stellar Emperor.

And that is where I came in.  During the fourth four week Stellar Emperor campaign during the summer of 1986 I logged into GEnie via the modem I bought from Potshot for my Apple //e and started fumbling around with online games.

It was then that I first used the handle Wilhelm Arcturus.  I had been recruited by a team called the Arcturan Empire (-AE-) and learned the ways of the game sufficiently to become both Emperor of the Galaxy and President of the Imperial Senate.  You actually got physical trophies for that back then.

Pewter Cups Awarded for Emperor and President titles

The names are probably easier to read on the paper certificates that were also mailed out to winners, including those senators in the top 20.

Wilhelm d’Arcturus Emperor of the Galaxy

Wilhelm d’Arcturus – President on the Imperial Senate

Later I dropped the “d” from the last name to become simply Wilhelm Arcturus.  My tales from those days can be found here:

And so it went.  For most of the balance of the 1980s MegaWars III and Stellar Emperor ran along as identical twins.  As the 90s approached GEnie and Kesmai began to work on improving Stellar Emperor, giving it a GUI eventually, while MegaWars III remained as it was.  If you played them both after 1989 or so you’ll probably say they were different, but before then they were essentially identical.

Into the 90s the internet and the web became a thing and online services started to fade away.  CompuServe was bought by AOL in 1997 and faded away into the background while GEnie shut down in 1999.  Kesmai ran its own online service, GameStorm, through the 90s until the company was sold to EA.  EA did what it always does with studios it buys; shut it down, never to be seen again.  And so all of the Kesmai titles, including MegaWars III, disappeared.

Like all closed online games, somebody out there decided to go ahead and recreate the originals.  I have written previously about Crimson Leaf Games and their resurrection of the original MegaWars III as well as Cosmic Ray Games and their recreation of a 90s version of Stellar Emperor.

But some time has passed since then; seven years in the case of the former and four years for the latter.

Crimson Leaf Games has been hard at work and has produced a new version of MegaWars III, MegaWars: Dawn of the Third Age.  The site for the game is here, and includes a history of MegaWars III worth reading.

The new version has a client and graphics and all sorts of things we associate with more modern online games.

The MegaWars III universe has also expanded from a couple hundred stars to over five million systems to explore.  Space has also changed in a way that might sound a bit familiar to EVE Online players.  Rather than the game being open season for PvP, there are three regions of space.  They are:

  • Empire – no combat and planets cannot be taken
  • Frontier – full combat and planet industries can be bombed but not taken
  • Open – full combat and planets can be taken

The penalty for Empire and Frontier is that you pay taxes that sap your planetary economy, and a hit in score, relative to the wild west of open space.  But in exchange for that you get complete safety in Empire space and some amount of safety in Frontier space.

The game is currently in open Alpha… which seems to be what we would call Early Access if it were on Steam… so you can try it out if you are interested.

So we now have a new take on a game that has its origins in the nearly 40 year old DECWAR, which was, in turn, an attempt to make a multiplayer version of the Star Trek terminal game from the early 70s.

And the beat goes on.

Trying to Remember Starsiege: Tribes

The launch of Overwatch got me thinking about first person shooters that I have enjoyed over the years, a list that is pretty short relative the number of titles in the genre.  In fact, I can only really come up with four titles that I was ever really into in any significant way.

At the far end of the list is Marathon, the classic from Bungie, now more than 20 years old, which we used to play on the network at the office after hours… back when companies let you play video games after hours and issued employees machines capable of running them.

Maybe I just work for the wrong company these days.

At the near end is the Desert Combat, which isn’t even a game, just a mod for Battlefield 1942, which is more than a decade away in time.  Yet it was a hell of a mod.  Just listening to the music from the opening credits brings back memories.  That is not the last FPS I played, but the last one I really enjoyed.

And then there were two just about in the middle of that range.  One was Nova Logic’s Delta Force, which I have written about already.

And the other was Starsiege: Tribes.

Tribes

Tribes

The problem is that Tribes came out during a time when I was playing a lot of memorable games.  Diablo and Civilization II were still hot properties, while their successors were being actively discussed.  I loved me some Total Annihilation back then.  We were playing StarCraft and Age of Empires at the office a lot.  Sojourn MUD had become TorilMUD and was about at its peak.  The aforementioned Delta Force was on the scene and we were trying to play that using Roger Wilco, and early gaming voice coms package.  And, of course, EverQuest was looming, soon to launch and steal away all my play time for a year or two.

And in the midst of all of this, I played Tribes.

I cannot recall considering buying it or having somebody suggest it to me.  Some part of me thinks I must have read about it over at Firing Squad, the gaming site of Dennis Fong, who later went on the create XFire and then Raptr, but only because I used to read the site regularly.  I could have heard about it on GameSpot for all I know.

I cannot even remember if I actually bought the game.  I don’t have the box any more, but I have tossed most of my game boxes over the years.  I have an old Memorex CD-R with “Starsiege Tribes” written on it in Sharpie, so I suppose I could have pirated it.  But that would have been unlike me at the time as I had a good job and the mortgage on my soon-to-be wife’s condo was what one would call laughably cheap these days, so I wasn’t skimping on expenses.  That would come later when my wife stopped working and we bought a house in a good school district.

Besides which, I used to make backup copies of most of my game CDs back then.  I still have copies for StarCraft and Diablo II along with the original disks still in the jewel cases.

And I can barely remember the game itself.  On the list of things I don’t have left from the game is any screen shots.  Looking at the Wikipedia linked article above yielded several, “Oh yeah, I remember that!” moments.

At one point I was convinced that Tribes was the reason that I bought that Voodoo2 3D graphics acceleration card for my computer.  I had the card when I bought EverQuest at Fry’s back on March 16, 1999 (that disk I still have, along with the receipt) so something prompted me to buy it.

But then I found the specs online and saw that it didn’t actually require that.  Plus the name “3dfx” sparked a memory about Blizzard’s early announcements about Diablo II saying that to get the full graphical experience, players would need a card that supported 3dfx’s Glide API.  I am pretty sure that is the reason I got the Voodoo2 card, though by the time Diablo II came out 3dfx had ceased to be the dominate player in the 3D accelerated video card market and Blizz was obliged to support a more universal API. (Open GL if I recall right.)  That is all pretty fuzzy though, and I could have bought the card to speed up Delta Force, only to find out that its voxel based engine could not/would not take advantage of 3D acceleration.  Maybe.  Or maybe that was something that annoyed me later, when Delta Force 2 came out.  Getting old and the persistent march of time sucks.

So what the hell do I remember then?

I remember the rattle of the Gatling gun as it spun up when you tapped the trigger.

I remember the 3D terrain with low res texture mapping, though that memory starts to bleed in with EverQuest memories a bit.  Am I imagining Tribes or West Karana in my mind?

I remember shooting the disk launcher into the fog where I had just seen somebody disappear, hoping for a lucky hit.

I remember the idea of “skiing” as a scout, using your jet pack to essentially glide at very high speed if done right.

I remember that map with the bridge overhead between the two bases, the distance being shrouded in mist.  Though, if I concentrate, I can’t really tell you if that was Tribes or Tribes 2, which I remember even less of, aside from the vague sense that I owned and played that as well.

Mostly though I just have this feeling that it was a really good game for its time.  But then EverQuest came out and eclipsed it.  Was it as good as I remember it, as good for the time?

I suppose I could grab the game and find out.  Hi-Rez Studio made it and its companion games available for free on their Tribes Universe site.

However, I suspect that doing so would burst the bubble.  It is difficult to bring your 2016 sensibilities back in time to look at an older game.

Starting the New Year in the Age of Kings

The so-called Strategy group finally came back from its nearly three month hiatus and actually played a game together last Friday night.  Well, at least three of us did, but that was still two more than most of our attempts to play since mid-October.

In something of a step back to our roots of nearly a year ago, Loghound, Potshot, and I got out Age of Empires II – The Age of Kings again.  It was a nice return back to a good old game that we had not played for many months.

AoK450I actually had to install it right then, but even the HD edition isn’t that big, relative to modern titles at least.  And then we had to remember how to get a game started.  Of course, once in the lobby, everybody seemed to remember the number for the “Start the game already!” taunt. (14)

We set up a game of four random civs, the three of us and a computer opponent.  In this case we set the cpu to hard and used what was billed as the “Conquerors AI,” which I guessed was the slightly smarter AI from the expansion.  We also set ourselves on different teams and locked that so there would be no alliances, and off we went.

Back to sheep again

Back to sheep again

Then we all had our moment of “What do I do?”  Fortunately, years of playing the game has at least instilled the first few steps permanently in my brain.  I think, on my death bed, if somebody asks me for my Age of Kings build order, my final words in life will be, “queue villages, build house, gather sheep… arrrgh…” followed by the machine making that flat line noise.

Anyway, I started down the path towards an economy of some sort as my scout began poking about.  In a classic AoK situation, I didn’t managed to locate all of my own sheep until the very end of the game, but I managed to steal a few of Loghound’s sheep.  Must be some of my Scots ancestry showing through.  I also managed to kill his scout.

The map, which we had set to full random, turned out to be a good one for us.  I think it was the “Rivers” map, where each player ends up on their own island of sorts with rivers dividing up the map and a limited number of crossings for choke points.

The game itself shook out into two parallel battles for a while, with Potshot and Loghound laying into each other while the computer AI, which had drawn the Mongols, came after me.

That turned out to be fortuitous, as I managed to get walls up at the crossings and the AI did not feel like an amphibious assault.  So the AI spent a long time going after my walls in its obsessive compulsive way, where it keeps attacking them even after it has a path through, while I was able to build up a small army and some defenses.  A strategically placed castle and a host of pikemen and skirmishers proved deadly to the Mongol horse archers.

Carnage before the castle

Carnage before the castle

Once I had slaughtered the attacking forces, it was time to go on the offense myself.  I pushed the computer back a ways and took out some of his buildings while breaching his wall, during which time I restored the walls at the crossing between us.  However, the cpu was also coming around via the crossing to Loghound’s island.  So after my frontier with the Mongols was momentarily secured, I pushed my force across into Loghound’s territory to clear out any buildings the CPU might have established.

While I was there I took a quick detour to kill a bunch of Loghound’s villages, destroy some of his buildings, and generally mess up his economy a bit.  Then I turned north to confront the Mongols again.

My foray into Loghound’s empire appeared to take some pressure off of Potshot.  As I was rampaging into the Mongols’ base with trebs and rams and a host of pikemen and skirmishers, with a few villages and priests in tow to repair and heal, I actually ran into a force Potshot sent in to attack the Mongols as well.  Between us the Mongols withered and ceased to be a force on the map, surrendering soon after.

There I was facing Potshot who had mounted his expedition using what I might generously call “economy of force.”  I outnumbered him heavily and started pushing into his lands.  Getting a ram up to his gate at the crossing, with my troops crowding the ford, was my most immediate problem, and soon I was into the midst of his economy.

Burning him out there, I returned to Loghound’s lands.  He had rebuilt quite a bit and had a force of Samurai, maybe the best melee unit in the game, waiting to oppose me.  But my mass of cheap pikemen and skirmishers, fully upgraded by this point, were able to defeat his force with minimal losses.  Then it was time for the siege engines to come up and to chase down the villagers.  I also caught up with Potshot’s last little outpost as well.  So I was the only force in being.

Timeline of the conflict

Timeline of the conflict

All good fun.

Well, probably more fun for me thanks to a couple of lucky breaks.  If the CPU had been set to hardest or if Potshot and Loghound hadn’t decided to go after each other things might have ended up differently.  But still, a good set of pitched battles and it was fun to get back together and play again.

But while AoK was fun, and will likely remain so for a couple more sessions, it does have a limited shelf life before it starts to feel repetitive.  Patterns will begin to develop and we will start looking for another game.

Recognizing that, we started the “next game” discussion immediately, but have not yet come up with a title.  We could always go back to Total War: Rome II, which was where we left off back in October.  There is probably a little life left in that, though it was starting to get a bit repetitive itself.  I am also concerned that, after the great Thanksgiving power supply blow-out, that my video card might not be up to the task.  With my last video card dead, I had to go back to the 2010 vintage backup card, an nVidia GTS 450, to achieve stability.  It was a modest but capable card back then, and hasn’t gotten any faster sitting on a shelf for a while.

Though if we really wanted to repeat history, we could go for another epic, multi-week Civilization V conflict while we wait for the expansion that will make Civilization: Beyond Earth worth picking up.  My video card could handle that, and my new CPU is a generation or two better than the old one.  Maybe we could beat Mattman this time around.  He won the previous two games.  And I am sure we would have a very different set of views on what options we would select. (Raging barbarians? I think not.)

Anyway, we are sort of where we were last summer, when we were looking for a new game for the group during the Steam Summer Sale.  I suppose the options I listed out in that post are still on the table, but has anything new come out since then that might be worth considering?

Savior of Blaugust – That Video Game Questionnaire Thing

In which I again prove I am old and grumpy.

Blaugust is past the three week point.  You can see all the posts piling up over in our little corner of Anook, with more than 500 submitted at this point.  People are putting in the effort.

Blagust_No_BR

For somebody like me with a routine,a  pattern, a plan (I already know what I am posting 5 of 7 days next week, even if I haven’t written more than a title for most of them yet), and incredibly low standards (I’d rather write something than write something good as I theoretically get better with each post, right?), the addition of a few more posts in a month isn’t such a big deal.  Go look down the side bar to the archives menu.  I already effectively write one post a day most months as it is.  It is just a matter of spreading them around.

But the strain is beginning to show for some.  Somebody without a plan, for whom each day is a blank slate and an empty text editor, and who has standards they feel they need to maintain, this sort of sustained effort can be a trial.  Or so it seems.  I’m the guy with a plan and no standards after all.  Anyway, it has been a voyage of discover for some and a pain for others.

But a lifeline has been thrown to the Blaugust team, in the form of a video game questionnaire.  Jaysla over at Cannot Be Tamed has put together 21 questions for people to answer on their blogs, and the Blaugust team has gone for this like a drowning man grabbing for a… lifeline… I already used that metaphor, didn’t I?  See, complete crap.

Anyway, in the spirit of community spirit… or something… I too shall take the quiz, as well as linking out others who have taken the quiz in that community spirity spirit thing which I mention so recently in this run-on sentence.  Also, it allows me to be grumpy, pick nits, write about stuff as far as 40 years in the past, link back to a bunch of old posts where I covered bits of this in detail, and generally ramble on in my accustomed Friday fashion.  My previously planned Pokemon piece will be moved out to next week.

Others who have taken the quiz, some of whom aren’t even in Blaugust, but I am feeling expansive today:

And that is surely not all, just the ones I could find easily.  I will add more as they pop up.

As for my own answers, I am hiding those after the cut.  The whole thing is kind of long, there are pictures, I get a bit testy about a couple of the questions, there is a moment of sexual innuendo, and the whole ends up being something best hidden in the back room so that random passers by don’t inadvertently see it.

This is a choice, what will you choose?

Continue reading

Spacewar! for the PDP-1

Spacewar! for the PDP-1 is now officially the oldest video game I have ever played, thanks to it being brought back to life in an emulator over at the Internet Archive.

The great-grandfather app of many games, including the Space Wars arcade game from the 70s, the emulator simulates as much of the PDP-1 experience as possible, including blinky lights.

Spacewar! Loaded!

Spacewar! Loaded!

Of course, it is raw… and the gravity is brutal.  I am doing all I can just to not crash into the sun in the first 30 seconds.

Boom! yet again!

Boom! yet again!

But when you consider the time frame… this was done in 1962… it is nothing short of amazing and a pretty good glimpse into the future.  It even has something of an Easter Egg.

Another addition to the Internet Archive’s Historical Software Collection.

Nostaliga Moment of the Day – Lemonade

Back when I was first allowed to poke my grubby fingers at a shiny new Apple II, this was what magnetic media primarily consisted of.

Lemonade Stand, Just 16KB

Lemonade Stand, Just 16KB

I played Lemonade Stand and other cassette capable games way back in middle school, where all young boys are pretty much grubby by definition.

That seems like a long, long time ago.

(picture spotted here)