»5th January 2019

10 Times You Heard That Story About When I First Got a CD-ROM

My first computer was called LT2 and ran Windows 95. Actually, my first computer was an Amstrad 6128+ (I'm sure the plus made all the difference) that I got second hand from my Aunt in 1996--I called it 'Little Thicko' because I was 10. Ugh, what a start to the update.

(Just carry on, pretend no one is reading.)

The Stone Age

Okay so my first proper computer was called LT2, as in 'Little Thicko 2'--it was 1997, I was eleven, give me a break. It ran Windows 95 and it came from Saudi Arabia. [Harry Hill turns to camera and shrugs] I got it from my mum's friend's husband, Alan, who worked for some IT company and consequently 'knew about computers'. The computers must have been some work/office PC's that Alan's company somehow ended up with. It apparently came with the Arabic version of Windows 95, which I was told was very expensive, but everything was in english, so maybe it was the Arabic version of Windows with the language set back to English. [Again, Harry Hill turns to camera and shrugs]

So I checked with my Dad and, as he remembers it, the computers were actually supposed to be sent over Saudi Arabia, but then the order was cancelled or something, so Alan's company were just trying to get rid of them.

The computer came packing a ferocious 486DX processor, which was like 75Mhz or something and had a whopping 16MB of RAM. So, it would have been top-of-the-range (toppohrange if you prefer) in 1995, sadly it was most definitely not top-of-the-range by the time I had hold of it. This was back before PCs really needed 3D cards for gaming, you could basically run anything providing you had a decent processor and enough RAM.

It was a Tandon PC--I'm sure you've heard of them--who (according to a superficial slightly less superficial Internet search) are some Indian IT company were the company who invented the double-sided floppy disc, but they apparently went bust in 1993, which would surely make my computer one of the last--unless the brand was carried on elsewhere. Shrugs all round.

To further muddy the waters, it came loaded with loads of Packard Bell software, because, again, this was 1997. I cut my teeth on this PC, finding endless amusement drawing pictures on MS Paint and playing around on Microsoft Publisher 95. I've somehow turned that into a career.

The only game it had on the start menu, besides Solitaire and Ski Free, was Simcity Classic, so that was my first PC game. I liked smashing up the pre-made cities with the disasters and switching the graphics to one of the future skins and pretending I was building a base on the Moon. By the age of 11 I had achieved so many life goals.

Eventually, I went poking around on the C:\ drive. Most of the folders like 'Windows' were mostly full of inscrutable files and folders along with the occasional jazzy-looking icon for Dr Watson or something. Eventually, I found an innocuous-looking folder called 'civnet'. This, I discovered was CivNet, i.e. a network multiplayer Windows 95 port of Civilization.

I've no idea where I first encountered Civilization, and knew it was a game and not some piece of accountancy software (LT2 had Quicken, you know in case I needed to budget my £5 a week pocket money (I don't actually think I got any pocket money at this point).

Actually, I'm pretty sure I first saw Civ at my friend Sam Hardwick's house. His dad (Tez, short for Terry) had a computer which we could play DOS games on. Monkey Island, Doom and shareware shmup Xatax were all favourites. So yeah, thanks Sam's dad Tez for letting us play on your computer in 1994. You da man!

Naturally, I was excited, upon discovering Civnet: my total number of PC games had just increased 100%.

Our Wise Men Have Discovered the Secret of Optical Drives

As much fun as Civnet and Simcity Classic were, I was envious of my friends whose computers had exciting software like the Goosebumps interactive haunted fairground thing, and this 'Make your own Spiderman comic' software. So for Christmas I started the trend of asking Mum and Dad for expensive computer hardware instead of like, mountain bikes or whatever the hell else I was supposed to be into (I already had a mountain bike, and there was no way I was getting a £400 Sega Saturn.)

Christmas came around and my parents agreed to ask Alan to get me an 'upgrade', in this case a CD-ROM drive, sound card and some speakers. An 'upgrade' was something very technical and exciting. Just what a young boy should be getting for Christmas in 1997. This 'upgrade', I assured my mum and dad would unlock the power of the PC, allowing me to play proper games and, you know, help with doing my homework or something. Actually, I really wanted a copy of Encarta, but it was like £60, so that wasn't going to happen. Again, it was 1997, I was eleven, this was completely normal. Seriously. Stop looking at me like that! Kids wanted Encarta back then!

No, this upgrade would be just what my PC needed...

The speakers were made by Commodore and were enormous. In 1998, most PC speakers were awful, tiny, tinny things. These were beasts. Everyone who came round to my house would be impressed. 'Those are some good speakers.' 'I know. Let's watch Robot Wars.' Can you believe how unfathomably cool I was in Year 7?

They had dials for treble and (more importantly) BASS. I still use them today on my recording PC as my non-recording monitor speakers. They started off light grey, they're now a deep, sun-bleached, creamy yellow.

The best thing about this upgrade, though, was the free 'Multimedia CD-ROM'--about the most nineties thing ever--that came with the sound card.

The Bronze Age

This CD was basically a massive (650MB) collection of demos and shareware of different software. There were a few weird, crappy pieces of software that had five second videos for menu transitions and were supposed to show off the multimedia chops of the soundcard you'd just bought. The best bits though, are listed below:

A demo version of Cakewalk: You could play around with MIDI and create little jingles. I'm sure the playback time was limited to 60 seconds or some other obtuse way of getting you to pay for the full version. I suppose this is where my digital music recording career began.

Of course, there were shareware games, a folder with '99' (actually 100) shareware games. Most of them had unhelpfully non-descriptive folder names like 'tub' or 'c7' so you generally had no idea what a game might be before you tried to run it. Literally hours and hours of endless fun. Seriously if you came to my house after school in 1998, then you would definitely have been 'treated' to this. Here's my favourites:

Commander Keen: Before Id were famous for shooters they made Commander Keen games, platformers with key collection and a Mario-style overworld map to get between levels.

Corridor 7: A Doom clone--remember when FPSs, or worse, shooters were called Doom clones? This had maybe the first two levels and a couple of uninspired guns. There was one powerful monster on one level that made footstep sounds when it walked like Doom's Cyberdemon--it was terrifying.

Corridor 7. What a name. What a way to light people's imaginations. 'Corridors!? COOOOL! Wow I need to get a PC!'

The most shocking thing about this game--which is obviously a Doom clone--is how basic things like smooth turning are just not there. Your character turns in kind of 15° steps. This does not make for a smooth, fast arcade experience, sadly.

Duke Nukem: Before Duke Nukem, sorry Duke Nukum was a sleazy John-McTiernen-influenced FPS, it was a dorky platform shooter with puzzle elements. I loved it.

Look at this sorry shite. Can you imagine playing this and thinking, 'this would be great if it were more like Die Hard'?

In Search of Doctor Riptide: A side-scrolling submarine game. You explored maze-like underwater caves, had torpedoes and a limited air supply, and could send out a little mini-sub to get through tight gaps. Pretty cool. Trying to find screenshots of this I only just found out the full name of the game, I always just called it 'Riptide'.

Jazz Jackrabbit: at one point, Jazz Jackrabbit was poised to be the PC's gaming mascot, like Sonic and Mario, and because every gaming system needed to have a platform-based mascot. Like Duke Nukem, this was a platform shooter, although, probably to compete with Sonic, it featured a minor theme of running around fast, with some parts of levels being more open.

The Last Eichoff: Oh my god this was bizarre and awesome. A top-down shmup where you control a bottle of beer fighting to defend a small independent brewery from some mega-brewery. Enemies include other bottles of beer, creates of beer, a brewery truck, cocktail glasses, and bar snacks, the boss at the end of the first level is like a beer-crate-spewing fireplace or something. Fuck yeah.

Pizza Worm: A snake game. I made my own version of it on Scratch last year. Crap, two years ago. Christ, where did all the time go?

Tubular Worlds: Another top-down scrolling shmup. This had really cool graphics and a two-player mode.

Xatax: I managed to track down the shooter I used to play at Sam's. It's very much an R-Type clone. Pretty cool music.

Zone 66: An awesome top down shooter where you flew futuristic jet planes over a large open level, similar to the top-down sections of Thunderforce or a kind of top-down version of Desert Strike. You could pay for different kinds of weapons and bombs, the most powerful ones took up the most room in your ship. You could land at bases to refuel, re-arm and change ships. You could unlock the enemy ships. Seriously, why has this game never been remade? It was absolutely brilliant.

There were of course a whole boatload of other games, many weren't very good, many were very old and only had simple 16-colour graphics: There was a Manic-Miner-style game; a puzzle-y platformer where you were a spy; an almost identical game to that where you were just some other character, like a straight sprite swap; about the first three scenes of an Indianna Jones advenure game (shareware sucked sometimes, only giving you the first level or something). Another one put you in control of a deer, trying to explore a forest in a top-down grid style, I mostly remember it for its unusual soundtrack; MIDI arrangements of various classical pieces.

So yeah, a lot of platform shooters with puzzle elements. I guess if you were into those sorts of games in the nineties, but didn't want to spend any money, then a computer running DOS was the gaming system for you.

Is that your futuristic body armour codpiece or are you just pleased to see me?

Trips to Game or Electronics Boutique were dispiriting affairs at this time. The 486DX was very long in the tooth and pretty much any decent game would simply not run on the computer. One of the first games I bought on CD-ROM was Worms and that really felt like the top-end of what the machine was capable of. Budget bins with games boldly claiming to work on '386 or later' processors were a crap shoot.

The Iron Age

Eventually, I got another upgrade and got a more up-to-date and powerful processor, a 333Mhz Cyrix as I recall, that could actually run proper games that you could buy from shops. I'd probably liken this historic change to like the Renaissance or Iron Age or something--it certainly felt like that at the time. After what felt like such a very, very long time (about two years from Year 7 to Year 8 at school) constrained to old, irrelevant shareware games no one at school had ever even heard of, or like, bronze tools and Roman rule; my tour through the various epochs of nineties computer gaming had caught up to the present, the barbarians had sacked Rome. Okay, I need to drop this muddled history metaphor.

A world of Sold Out Software reissues and games that came in (sometimes okay, occasionally) beautiful full-art boxes with hundred page manuals was now my oyster.

'Finally, I can play Dungeon Keeper and Theme Hospital!'

[six months later] [felt like 400 years]

'Mum, the PC is too old, I need a 3D card so I can play Half Life!'

'That's too expensive-'

'But it'll help with my homework!'

Extar, over, out.


Microsoft(R) Windows 95
(C)Copyright Microsoft Corp 1981-1996
DOS/4GW Professional Protected Mode Run-time Version:
Copyright (c) Rational Systems, Inc. 1990-1994