From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, a mixed bag of 1990s… well, classics may be a strong word. Games that existed? Yes, let's go with that. 1990s games that existed.
Before the internet became omnipresent, before the indie game revolution, there was a model called 'shareware'. The idea was that developers could release new games cheaply, leaving distribution to fans and companies willing to act as distributors. Gamers meanwhile could get huge chunks of free game—for a long time, a third or more was deemed reasonable—with the option to send a cheque through the post and get the rest in about 28 days. Some people actually did this. Supposedly, anyway. All those pirated copies of Doom back in the '90s had to have come from somewhere, I guess.
Let's take a trip back in time to those days, with an example of one of these compilations, a little random action, and a bit of try-before-you-buy nostalgia from the ancient days of 1995.
The shareware boom was an interesting time for PC gaming. Other systems too, of course, but who cares about those? As you'd expect, the majority of it was absolute pap—endless rip-offs of games like Pac-man and Mario Bros, generic platformers, cheaply turned out trash and incredibly bad ideas that have mostly been deservedly forgotten, and only really got any distribution because coverdisc editors and makers of compilations like this needed something to fill a 650MB CD. That might not sound like a lot, but this was the era where most shareware devs were writing for for 1.44MB floppy disks.
Some amazing games were released as shareware though, the most famous being Doom. Shareware was also where genres typically deemed Not PC Friendly had a chance to flourish. Our answer to Sonic the Hedgehog for instance was the the then-Epic Megagames' Jazz Jackrabbit. For the longest time, another of its games, One Must Fall 2097 was arguably our best beat-em-up, and Tyrian our best shooter. Elsewhere, 3D Realms started as a shareware company called Apogee, which saw great success through platform games and similar 2D action before finding its niche.
While there were BBS systems and similar to download these games from, at least in the UK—where the early internet was slow, shit, and charged by the minute for both the service you were connected to and the rarely local phonecall—most people I know, including myself and my split personality who occasionally liked to burn things, got our shareware from three main sources. Magazine coverdisks, with a K, offered a theoretically hand-picked game or two each month. The actual lump of paper they came with would also have several shareware depositories who would send you individual disks with games on, bought out of catalogues full of slightly over-hyped marketing blurb, but pocket-money friendly prices. My pocket money, anyway. Your parents' generosity may/may have varied.
Finally, many shops, including bookstores, would have compilations on racks. There were, at a rough guess, 59,215,732,109 shareware compilation CDs during the '90s. Very few are still floating around, because very few were notable. Today's selection isn't anything special either, simply one I noticed available for download on archive.org. Others are also available, though be warned—while DOS collections could lead to some amazing discoveries, Windows ones usually sucked harder than a vacuum cleaner in a quantum singularity. They're also very unlikely to run any more.
So, to the games! This being a compilation, I'm not going to talk about them all. Instead, I'm using a highly complicated system to pick a few at random, on the grounds that otherwise we'd be here all day, and also you can download the entire disc for yourself and poke around at your leisure. The easiest way is to download and install DOSBox, create a new directory called 'shareware' or similar and drag the .img file into it, then drag the folder icon onto DOSBox. Type 'imgmount D: ultimate.img -t iso' and it should mount it as a disc. Then, type D: to change directory, and type Start to open the menu.
(As a very quick DOS primer, type 'cd (directory)' to change directory, as in 'cd newgame' and 'cd..' to go back one folder. Type 'dir /p' to see a list of files in a directory. In most cases, look for one ending in '.bat' or with a name like 'start.exe', and type the first bit to run the game. 1995-ho!)
Wild West Skunny
Oh, hello, Skunny. Going purely by the number of times his puffy little squirrel face showed up in shareware sections, he has to be held as one of the more successful shareware attempts to create a platform game mascot. He didn't get the kudos of, say, Jazz Jackrabbit, but not many appeared in as many games: Skunny's Desert Raid, Lost In Space, and Skunny Kart. Desert Raid was even slightly topical, with the nutty one jumping into a plane and taking on the evil dictator “Sadman Insane”. Not the best joke name, but certainly beating Metal Gear's “Higharolla Kockamamie” and “Vermon CaTaffy”. Toppling a dictator is also slightly more ambitious than most furry animals have ever gotten, even including environmental hero/hateful shit-stain Awesome Possum. Oh, those horrible memories.
Skunny never really broke out though, no matter how many games tried to convince the world to like him. Wild West Skunny is a pretty good example of why. It's entirely stock platform action, notably mostly for weirdness like your weapon being a water pistol. Yes, a water pistol. In the Wild West. To fight Native Americans whose weapons are things like tomahawks, because unlike Skunny, they are not morons.
The backstory is that after an adventure in ancient Rome, Skunny finds himself in the Wild West due to his mother deliberately tampering with his time machine—which he has, obviously. She leaves him a letter to apologise for stranding him in danger, but explaining that when she met his father in 1909 (and… uh… maths?), they ran a sheep farm that was raided by a bunch of nasty types. He never got over losing his sheep, and Skunny has to rescue them and return home. Somehow, I suspect that her next Mother's Day present will be a kick up the arse. A richly deserved one.
This isn't a very good platformer, though I've played worse. When Skunny gets hit, he's catapulted backwards a ridiculous distance, usually into a pit. His water pistol feels as satisfying as any water pistol is going to, with enemies sounding like they poop their projectiles rather than throw them. Still, at least there's no attempt to make the action EXTREEEEME! like '90s games were prone to, making it inoffensively bleh rather than casting Skunny into the spiked mascot pit with the like of Bubsy the Bobcat. Who got his own failed TV show which is worse than water torture.
Solar Winds is an odd one. Aside from seemingly existing so that shareware editors could make “Captain Kirk after eating baked beans” jokes, it was an interesting attempt at a space adventure that skipped all the dull trading stuff in favour of missions, combat, and adventures. You started off by meeting an arrogant alien, and were then thrust straight into a conspiracy to discover the entire galaxy is really part of an alien zoo that only you have the power to escape from.
(That's a spoiler, by the way, so don't read it.)
It's not the most advanced space game ever, especially when combat kicks off. Solar Winds' two big problems though were and remain a lack of content—you get a few plot missions and the rest of the universe is empty—and achingly slow pace. It takes forever to get to mission areas from the start, but later on you have to take a trip far, far into uncharted space and even having a super-engine doesn't make it fly by. It's also possible to end up out of fuel. You really, really don't want that. Or hero Jake Stone's haircut. Captain Puddingbowl to the Rescue!
A little like fellow flawed game Traffic Department 2192, this one's a bit of a mess and tough to play now. I remember it quite fondly from when it appeared on a coverdisc way back, but it's no Star Control 2, and not a story I've ever bothered hunting down the second half to finish.
“From ImagiSoft, Where Imagination Brings Software To Life.” Shudder. This is quite a cute little board game though, with up to three players as pirates out for booty by rolling dice, answering trivia questions, and dealing with random chance like “Drinking Water Poisoned”.
There's a slight simulation element to it, with the need to stay stocked with food, water and rum (or be forced to buy it at exorbitant prices each turn), and supplies of things like rope and canvas helping to bypass trouble spots. Combat is deeply unexciting, being nothing but the pirate Redhook sitting on his backside and saying “Roll the dice”, and the board game itself could do with offering the freedom to chart a path to adventure.
Cute little game though, and endearingly over the top with its piratey writing, ye scurvy landlubbers, etc.
The Catacomb Abyss
A shooter of somewhat weird parentage. The original Catacomb 3D was one of John Carmack's earlier 3D games (though not the first), and took a fantasy spin on shooting—magic and monsters, Xykon from Order of the Stick as the baddie, and lots of fireballs hurled from a visible on-screen hand. Catacomb Abyss came a year or so later, with a different team continuing the franchise while id went on to become legends.
It's incredibly primitive, but is an interesting glimpse at a direction shooters could have gone, had Wolfenstein and Doom not laid down the templates for the next few years. Strange game, though. Windows on walls are used as code for 'breakable', the commercial chapters casually shift the action in time to the present day and distant past, and in one later re-release, all atmosphere was completely knifed through the gut by the addition of a grinning cartoon frog to the interface.
Probably the two most memorable things about Catacomb Abyss are that its series boasted some of the most eye-poppingly awful wall textures ever, and a really cute timestop mechanic. The items needed were incredibly rare, but with a little cheating you could freeze time, lay down zillions of shots, restart time, and watch enemies getting absolutely annihilated. This was extremely cool, and long before games like Requiem gave us what we now know as 'bullet time'. Thanks, The Matrix!
The best thing about Halloween Harry—later renamed “Alien Carnage” when everyone involved realised they'd called their game “Halloween Harry”—is that it's one of the few platform games that understood a basic gaming rule: flamethrowers good, jetpacks good, flamethrowers and jetpacks hell yeah. With those, and a world lovingly crafted by an artist who really, really should have practiced drawing women a bit more before claiming to be able to do it, Halloween Harry was one of the more instantly endearing platformers to hit coverdiscs. Shallow? Absolutely. But fire is and always will be cool.
Like most though, it's a game that didn't need more than a shareware episode to get the idea across, especially when that mission was set in an office block, and you'd be paying to unlock “Factory” and “Sewers”. It was a rare game that could make, say, “Ice World” and “Candy World” seem imaginative, but by goodness, Halloween Harry pulled it off. It had jetpacks though, so it could have been worse.
Dare 2 Dream
Long before Epic Games made its fortune with the Unreal Engine, it was Epic MegaGames, “The New Name In Computer Entertainment”, with platformers and pinball games and shooters. Dare 2 Dream, by Cliff Bleszinski—yes, really—was their one and only trip into adventure gaming, with its sister title Castle of the Winds a likewise one-shot attempt at getting into RPGs. It's probably fair to say that neither Lucasarts nor Square felt too nervous about this competition. Of course, they'd both end up licensing the Unreal engine for megabucks, so who's laughing now, eh? The answer: Hyenas.
While Castle of the Winds is just dull, Dare 2 Dream is amusingly off-its-head, the story of a young boy whose dreams may or may not actually be happening, with all the surrealism you'd expect from a world taking place in the land of nod. Even ignoring that the first episode's theme song really should go “Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sin City?”, I'm not entirely sure what kind of kid dreams of sleazy bars, stealing underpants from clotheslines in dark alleys, or whose response to a dead fish is “Whew! Something's rotten in the state of Denmark. Is this some sort of phallic symbol?” But then, what would I know? I once had a food poisoning-spawned nightmare about the Zombie Pirate LeChuck breeding poisoned butterflies in a French caravan park. Still not sure what that was about.
The undercooked chicken preceding it was quite tasty though.
This one seems to warrant the YouTube clip treatment, so here's a Let's Play of the entire series—three episodes, progressively weirder. Starting with all the text in the entire world! Sorry about that.
…and I think that'll do. If you want to check out these or the other games on this compilation, including Jill of the Jungle, Ken's Labyrinth, Commander Keen, Corncob 3D, ShadowCast- wait, ShadowCaster wasn't shareware! I feel lied to! Anyway, those and all of the others are waiting right here.
It's probably too late to get the registered versions of most of them, though you never know. 3D Realms has Halloween Harry/Alien Carnage available for free. Don't pop a cheque in the mail, though. You'll be waiting a good deal longer than 28 days for disappointment…