Back in the Day

Back in the day…

I’ve grown to hate that phrase, usually because what follows is some tale of tribulation.

“Back in the day, we had to load Windows from floppy disks!.” or “Back in the day we actually had to win a game to get a trophy!”

Well, the video above is an example of what PC gamers were doing “Back in the Day.”

I’ve been playing around with VirtualBox (the free virtualization platform from Oracle) and some old operating systems.  Why? mostly to see if I could actually make them work and in the process force myself to get more intimate with the more esoteric configurations of the platform.

So in the process of getting Windows for Workgroups running on VirtualBox I was reminded that “Back in the Day” Windows needed DOS.  Now getting DOS to work in anybody’s virtualization platform is no more difficult than getting the VM to see your installation media be it real or virtualized.  Windows was a different matter but rather than trail off onto an entirely unrelated tangent I’ll just say the experience proved to be a catalyst that culminated in the video you see above.

VirtualBox is pretty forgiving for stupid mistakes.  Being a hosted platform you have direct access to most of your storage devices and mounting media real or virtual is pretty much nothing more than a mouse click away.

I was fortunate to have the foresight to make a DOS only VM to play with during my Windows adventure and that formed the basis for my VirtualBox retro gaming VM.  Other than some manipulation of autoexec.bat and config.sys and pass-through of my real CD-ROM to the VM nothing much more than digging out my old game disk was necessary.

Here’s a tip about classic PC games in VirtualBox.  Turn on the VT-x option.  If you’re running Windows, however, it’s best to turn it off.  To get the full experience I enabled the sound driver in the VM and set it to SoundBlaster 16 mode.

Once the preliminaries were done, I loaded up my copy of LucasArt’s Full Throttle (1995,) switched to the CD-ROM drive and typed INSTALL.

Surprisingly, everything worked, even the sound configuration utility which was surprising considering how much trouble I remember having with it “Back in the Day” when I ran the game on “Real” hardware.

That’s the mechanics of how I got there, now the why…

It’s not that I don’t appreciate how far PC games or video games in general have come in the past 20 years or so but there’s something more pure about booting up an old classic.

That I was able to revisit a classic game without scouring swap meets and Ebay for vintage computer parts was definitely a plus as well.  Thank you virtualization…

So as I found myself once again becoming embroiled in a storyline I’d been through at least a dozen times before I had an epiphany of sorts.

Why was I spending so much time and effort on a game that could make Minecraft look cutting edge?

Admittedly, the 320×240 graphics are awful by today’s standards and I’ve seen better on a Smartphone.  Still, there’s an honesty that you just don’t see in gaming anymore.

For its time Full Throttle was a good looking game but it’s real draw was a thoughtful storyline with rich characters.  It was almost like spending time with an interactive novel.  Humor, an excellent soundtrack and brilliant voice acting made up for what may have been visually lacking.

To fully enjoy it I didn’t have to invest in a  $1000 graphics card and a multi-core processor either.  At the time I remember the biggest concern for gaming usually centered around getting the sound card to work.  Video cards and CPU’s pretty much played second fiddle.  Most games were written to take advantage of the mass market hardware that was available.

If your computer could run Windows 3.1 chances are it had enough horsepower for the average DOS game.  Spending ridiculous amounts of money on hardware that  grossly exceeded what the game needed rarely yielded the results you were hoping for.  In some cases it made the problem worse.

I have a friend who was very much into Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight simulator.  He found on moving to the next generation of PC that his cherished pastime had become unplayable.  I will admit, however, with hilarious effects as a once lengthy aircraft simulation was now completed in mere seconds with a recorded admonition from the game’s namesake saying, “You really screwed the pooch on that one,” as  an animation of your aircraft burning on the tarmac taunted you.

Now it seems that games like Battlefield 3, Crysis 3 and Metro Last Light demand 4 figures just in graphics and processor power alone.  They might work with less but you’re going to be at a disadvantage.

That’s the real difference between gaming now and gaming “Back in the Day.”  To get the most out of a game a few decades back meant focusing on the elements that made the game the most engaging.  Pac-Man is still popular not for its great graphics but for the way you play it.  It’s about more than just painting pretty pictures 120 times every second.

Veteran programmers who’ve been around a few decades will tell you how sloppy code has become with the advent of more graphical user interfaces.  They’ll tell you that it’s not the interface that makes the code sloppy, it’s the lack of concern for getting everything you can out of a limited resource.  These days if a program needs more resources they just boost the minimum requirements instead of writing more efficient code.

Consider this, as archaic as it is, Windows 3.1’s installation took only 15 Megabytes worth of floppy disks for a complete install including the underlying DOS installation.

Microsoft was able to take over the world’s desktops with  only 11 floppies!

So are things better now? Sure they are.  Battlefield 4, Grand Theft Auto 5, Grid 2, are all brilliant games in their own right.  Unparalleled graphics, the ability to play against anyone on the planet and able to bring your PC to its knees if you crank up the eye candy.

Yet it seems gaming is less about the game and more about the competition these days.  Multiplayer gaming is a virtual rat-race and the games are just a finely rendered medium.  Instead of an escape they are the conflict.  “Enthusiast Class” hardware useless for anything but gaming has a symbiotic relationship with game developers.  More realistic blood spatters always trump a good storyline.

That’s why I spend more time gaming with friends and the occasional run through an old classic like Full Throttle than worrying about Phys-X rendered flags fluttering in a fake breeze.

“Back in the Day,” it was more about the escape of playing a game than the top position on a  leaderboard.

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