Back to the Future


We’re in the midst of one of the great periods in gaming: The Christmas Rush.

From the end of September through the New Year, publishers will frantically shovel everything out the door in the hope of being That Game over Christmas. Little gaming executives are snug in their beds with visions of bestsellers dancing in their heads.

And what am I doing? I’m living in the past, man.

I’m playing DragonRealms (1996) again. I’m playing a text-based MUD on a computer powerful enough to launch rockets. My dual-core-whatever-AMD processor is sighing and shaking its head as I type my way through the worlds of Elanthia again, stealing and training and fighting my way to higher circles. It’s not a complete loss. To paraphrase what Joe said when I dragged him in, DragonRealms is what happens when you can endlessly tinker with a ten year old game that doesn’t require a massive graphical overhaul every two years. He is playing something called a “moon mage,” and having attempted to join the guild before giving up and playing my thief again, it apparently requires writing a doctoral dissertation on the magic system as well as the role of the stars in determining fate to join. When was the last time you didn’t feel smart enough to play a class in a multiplayer game?

When I’ve grown tired of JABbing, SWEEPing, and SKINning, I turn to my Steam account and…Jagged Alliance 2 (1999). Jagged Alliance 2 is a game I love, but am terrible at. As a mercenary commander, I’m not quite Hannibal from the A-Team. I’m a good-hearted soccer mom encouraging everyone to try their best and handing out trophies if they survive the battle. Usually, they don’t. In my latest campaign, I managed to get my B-Team of scrubs and idiots wiped out, which upset my A-Team of highly trained professionals and put me in a spot, mainly because they refused to renew their contracts. With the cannon fodder dead and the good troops not returning my calls, I was left with the mercenary equivalent of Jeff George: the guys just good enough to help you lose that will inevitably screw up the delicate chemistry of your team just in time for the, uh, playoffs.

Yesterday, I ordered Majesty (2000) after reflecting on the fact that I’d never played a strategy game quite as satisfying as the Majesty demo, and then remembered I’d never actually played the whole game. This was rectified with a quick trip and a $10 purchase on Amazon. I figure it’s about 50-50 odds that a six year old game will even work on a fairly modern PC, but such is the way of PC gaming.

Lastly, I’d heard that Sid Meier’s Railroads was out. I was initally suspicious when I found very few reviews for it–which means it’s likely nobody sent out review copies, which speaks to a lack of confidence–and even more suspicious when early reports consisted of “This would be a fun game if it wasn’t for all the bugs.” I consulted with a gaming forum I frequent and that seemed to be the consensus, so I decided I would get my choochoos-and-tophats fix with…Railroad Tycoon 3 (2003), the apparently-superior predecessor. That’s right. I deliberately neglected buying the new version of a game so I could go buy the older version of the series. This is heresy in gaming circles. There are men in funny red robes outside my apartment as we speak and I suspect the holy water will ruin my DVD drive.

Part of the process of the holiday shoveling is that old games are hurried out the back door to make way for the new ones coming in. For an industry that worships the past like it was handed down on golden CDs, it’s quite hard to find examples of those games from the past. Valve has (bless them) been busy licensing, but it’s just not enough. Majesty required a used purchase-and if publishers hate used games as much as they say, maybe they should make it easier to buy games-and I was fortunate Target doesn’t update their bargain PC games much, or I might’ve missed RRT3. While retail runs from PC gaming, PC gaming is John Cusacking EBGames, standing outside the local mall and holding up a big boombox. Even Target would rather have rows of empty shelf space with a big “Wii Games Coming Soon” than stock PC games. That’s how much PC matters to retail, guys.

I am indeed in the future. While my car doesn’t fly, I can talk to anyone in the world with the push of a button, I can purchase centuries-old music for 99 cents, I work for a company that simply couldn’t have existed when I was born, so why do I have to drive to the store to buy a video game? What is this, 1985?

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