HalloFREEn: The Malstrums Mansion

(Originally published on the 1UP.com Freeloader blog in October of 2012)

While my introduction to PC games started somewhere around GORILLAS.BAS, the games that made me fall in love with the PC as a gaming platform were point-and-click adventures.  Of course, at the time, there wasn’t even any pointing-and-clicking involved; instead, it was all about arrow-keying-and-typing.  With the proliferation of the mouse as an input device (particularly on the Mac), games began to take advantage of them, though in a strangely uneugenic way.  Originating from their text parser predecessors, some of the first mouse-based adventure games simply required the player to click on words to perform their actions rather than type them out.  Indeed, this strange manifestation of parser and mouse combination lasted for many years, used in games as recent as Monkey Island 2.

One of the first and most well-known adventures of this type was Shadowgate, developed by ICOM Simulations, Inc. (later, Rabid Entertainment, Inc.), specifically for the Macintosh.  Originally developed in 1987, Shadowgate had a quite a long life, generating spin-offs, sequels, or ports for a multitude of systems, including the Atari ST, Windows 3.1, NES, Gameboy Color, Nintendo 64, and TurboGrafx CD.  The Gameboy Color version was even ported to cell phones as late as 2005, so I would not be surprised to see it popping its severed head up again sometime in the future (iPhone, perhaps?).  Oddly, despite my PC pedigree, my memories of Shadowgate were formed during a few terrifying weekends with the NES version, rented from my local, non-chain video store.  The dark, survival horror-esque gameplay provided quite a stressful experience for a pre-teen, but, as it was the NES version, I was able to deal with the stress appropriately (see #8, here).

In 1989, long before I plugged in my NES copy and fumbled awkwardly with the D-pad, three kids in Chile were busy creating their own game based on their love of Shadowgate, going so far as to hand-craft notebook paper design documents on top of former grocery shopping lists.  Edmundo, Andres, and Carlos Bordeu mapped out the entirety of The Malstrums Mansion on those spiral-bound pages.  Says Eduardo,  “The Malstrums Mansion was the game we wanted to make after playing Shadowgate, but at the time we had no idea how to program and make a game. What we did have was a copy of Superpaint, so we made all the pixelated graphics for the game and stored them in 700kb disks, waiting for the time we would be able to create games.”  The game was never made, but those three boys did go on to form the development studio ACE Team, whose game Zeno Clash was released on Steam in April of 2009 to many favorable reviews.

During development of Zeno Clash, Carlos had the idea of including The Malstrums Mansion within that game as an unlockable.  Using the aforementioned design documents and graphics, a member of the ACE Team programming team put the game together in Flash, in the hope that the game would be included with Zeno Clash.  Ultimately, they decided that the two games were not a natural fit and opted instead to release the game for free on their website as an April Fools joke.  Due to the overall polish of the finished product, many were fooled by the posting’s assertion that the team would be working strictly on classic style adventures from that point forward.  Though released in a tongue-in-cheek way, The Malstrums Mansion is a full-featured game that perfectly captures the spirit of Shadowgate and similar adventure games of the time.  That is to say, this shit is hard as hell, and contains a few instances of instant death without any option to save your progress.  To solidify the experience, ACE Team added a fake Macintosh OS, complete with floppy disk access sounds, as part of the game’s initial start up.  It’s available now on their website and you can also check out a scan of that ancient design document in their forums.  Almost as important as the first drawing of Pac-man.


Privateer Gemini Gold

(Originally published on the 1UP.com Freeloader blog in May of 2012)

Before the advent of Mark Hamill, the Wing Commander series placed most of its emphasis was on the combat and missions that took place in the vacuum of space.  The now eminent between mission cut-scenes and character interactions helped to create the game world, allowing developer Origin Systems to maintain its company tag-line, “We Create Worlds”, but didn’t necessarily take on the importance that they would in the Post-Hamill era.  Despite the increased focus on storytelling in later games (or, perhaps, because of it), and the occasional branching plot path that all lead toward their inevitable conclusions, the mainline Wing Commander titles remained mostly linear in nature.  The player always took on the role of a military pilot (customizable in the first two games, but then given specific character of Christopher Blair in the Hamill era) and were never given an opportunity to explore the universe at large, except in the service of their military duties.

In between Wing Commander 2 and the build up to the extravagance of Wing Commander 3, Origin Systems created a spin-off of the franchise that freed players from the rigid restrictions placed on them by Wing Commander’s narrative.  Wing Commander: Privateer, released in 1993, actually took a step back in the time-line of space combat simulators, adding elements of trade and exploration that had been previously pioneered by games like Elite (1984).  Instead of being stationed on a carrier in a particular region of space, Privateer allowed players the freedom of traversing galaxies, choosing a variety of freelance mission types, or forgoing any planned missions and exploring, shuttling cargo, and battling pirates (or becoming a pirate and smuggling goods and battling law enforcement).  Like the Grand Theft Autos or other open world games of today, Privateer did feature a main story-line that could be followed to its conclusion, but players were free to ignore it at any time and partake in any of the aforementioned activities, in both good and evil ways.

These days, the space combat simulation genre has all but disappeared.  Still, as with many of the faded PC genres, a few dedicated stalwarts endeavor to keep it alive with home-brewed and independent projects.  One such project is Vega Strike, an open-source 3D space combat engine influenced by Privateer, but designed with modern technology that serves as a base for a number of games that hope to recreate the space-faring titles of yore.  Privateer Gemini Gold is one such game that doesn’t beat around the space bush, and is essentially a direct port of the classic game to the Vega Strike engine.  It’s art imitating life, imitating art again, before being declared not art.  As a direct (space) port, Gemini Gold doesn’t attempt to bring anything new or improved to the space table, other than a few updated ship graphics and the fully three-dimensional environment.

For some, the less than friendly control scheme, lack of tutorials, and steep difficulty curve will be too much to bear, so it’s not recommended to everyone.  If you have a median level of patience and an interest in classic games, it’s definitely worth giving a try.  Those familiar with the series and Privateer, in particular, will find Gemini Gold is a great way to revisit the original game on a modern computer without resorting to DOSbox or scavenging together a 486 with a Soundblaster Pro and a Thrustmaster flight stick.  On second thought, building a 486 sounds like a fantastic idea; be on the look out for our classic computer DIY blog, coming soon.  In the meantime, check out Privateer Gemini Gold.  It even works on Linux and Macs!

Freeloader: Old School

Sometimes the quality of a video game has very little to do with its popularity and historical impact.  Okay, most of the time.  One of the best ways to ensure a game will achieve a level of infamy is the universal property of proliferation.  Here is a selection of the most well know free games that nearly everyone has played, heard of, or, at the very least, even if they didn’t know it, was installed on a PC that they used during the 90s.


The history of primates in video games has quite a long history.  Donkey Kong stands as the great grandfather of video game gorillas and was followed by a few imitators like Congo Bongo and Crazy Kong, but even Amidar, released the same year as Donkey Kong, featured a gorilla as a main character (in more of a ripoff of Pac-Man’s gameplay).  Add to this cameos in Crazy Climber, Zoo Keeper, Rampage, Tommy’s Gorilla Balls, etc.; the list goes on and on.  Ten years after Nintendo found great financial success with the simian formula, Microsoft was on the verge of releasing version 5 of their MS-DOS operating system for IBM and compatible PCs.  Microsoft’s stranglehold on the PC market was under attack from such cleverly named rivals as DR-DOS, which were usually superior, but never gained enough of a foothold with consumers or, more importantly, PC manufacturers, most of whom bundled their blocky, beige colored computers with little else other than MS-DOS.  GORILLAS.BAS was created by Microsoft as demonstration of their QBASIC programming language which was included with MS-DOS 5.  Like most free games included with operating systems, GORILLAS is terrible, but is simple enough to support repeated playing in between rounds of LOTUS Notes.  Two gorillas face-off across a city skyline, tossing atomic bananas at specific angles and velocities in hopes of destroying their opponent, or just hitting the sun and causing it to make an “O” face.  This game introduced a generation of gamers to the “artillery” style game later perfected by Scorched Earth.  It’s been ported to Flash and now rests eternally on Kongregate.com

SkiFree (via Infinite Lives)

Technically not free, and instead coming with the Windows Entertainment Pack released in 1991, SkiFree was “shared” around so much that it certainly bears mentioning.  Inspired by the Activision’s Atari 2600 game Skiing (which has a fantastic commercial, by the way), SkiFree is more of an exercise in frustration than a way to relax at your desk in between trips to the office coffee pot.  Extremely floaty controls, coupled with masochisticly random obstacle generation (even trees that move!), and an unavoidable abominable snowman that will eat you to death (seen to the right),  SkiFree introduced a generation of gamers to rage quitting.  Scraping off the centimeter thick layer of dead skin, dust, and dirt from the rollers on the inside of your computer mouse, along with the purchase of a 3M Precise Mousing Surface, was essential for success.  You can read the entire, sordid history of SkiFree on its official home page, download it, and even fire off a quick hate mail to the man (woman?) responsible.

3D Pinball for Windows: Space Cadet

One of the few free OS games that didn’t suck, 3D Pinball was, appropriately, not created by Microsoft, but by developer Cinematronics as part of their Maxis published retail game Full Tilt! Pinball.  While some die-hard pinball wizards may remember Full Tilt!, again, it was the proliferation of Microsoft’s Windows XP that made sure a large number of people avoided work by going for the high score in Space Cadet.  Sadly, with the release of Windows Vista, Space Cadet was no longer included with the Windows operating system.  An enterprising individual has ported the game to Windows 7, however, and made it available for download.  For added entertainment, there is a graphical glitch with this version that will cause the ball to disappear when it reaches high enough velocity.  FUN!

Spring Up Harmony

(Originally published on my 1up.com blog in August 2010)

Such is my love for the Atari 2600 game KABOOM!, that when 1UP user wondermega wrote a Retro Game of the Day blog about it, his genius compelled me to create the following poetry:

Bombs are falling, falling fast
If you don’t catch them all, you will not last
Back and forth, you must spin that roller
Don’t try playing with a Colecovision controller
It sucks

In a completely bizarro marketing move that would never happen in the current days of console egocentricity, the Colecovision had an adapter for it that allowed one to play Atari 2600 games. Problem was, the Colecovision controller looked and functioned a lot like a cellular phone from the 1980s, and not a valid input device. When my family upgraded from our wood-grain 2600 to the solid, black lines of the Colecovision, no one saw fit to retain the most essential of Atari input devices, the analog paddle. It would be 23 years, all the way to the PS2-era before we would get another analog controller as prominent as this. Analog is the word of import in this case, as KABOOM! requires a precision in bomb-catching water bucket placement that reaches far beyond the capabilities of any digital pad. Much to my chagrin, I was forced to fall back upon the digital input of the Colecovision phone pad, meaning I could only catch bombs that were dropped on either the extreme left or right of the screen. Believe you me, no amount of phone pad fuckery could convince that damn striped-suited convict to only drop bombs in those particular locations.

Now, though, in the time of dual-analog sticks, I could no doubt catch a steady stream of explosive projectiles using nothing more than my thumb. Unfortunately, though they have announced a return to Haunted House, Atari has yet to announce a rebirth of KABOOM!. In the meantime, we can enervate our disappointment with the new Xbox Live Indie game Spring Up Harmony. Available on the Xbox Marketplace for 240 points, Spring Up Harmony takes the basic premise of Peggle, adds a bit of Bust-a-Move, then stirs in some delightful KABOOM!.

Unlike Peggle, instead of taking out bricks and balls as you please, you must match the color of the ball to the color of the brick. Once hit, a brick will begin to fall. A solid hit from a same colored brick on it’s way down will send others careening towards their destiny at the bottom of the screen, as well. These bricks (though-not-all-brick-shaped-but-for-the-sake-of-clarity-will-be-referred-to-as-such)…their destiny lies with you, my friends. Besides controlling the ball shooting device’s aiming mechanism, the analog stick also controls a small bucket at the bottom of the screen, allowing you to catch the falling bricks and increase your score. Luckily, Spring Up Harmony is far more forgiving than the KABOOM! convict ever was, so catching all bricks is not required. The ultimate goal is to hit and then catch the few special “Harmony” bricks that sparkle like a vampire in the morning sun. As the levels progress, a few other items are thrown into the mix that effect the balls and bricks physics, such as motors, fans, and diabolical spinny thing-a-ma-giggys. Perhaps I have underestimated Spring Up Harmony’s convict-like tendencies, but don’t be too put off by them. Only the return of the one, true bomb dropping convict will be cause for alarm, and that probably won’t be any time soon.