The Best (and the Rest) of Windows Entertainment Pack, part 3 and final thoughts

Finally, we come to the end of our Windows Entertainment Pack tour with the last nine games.  There have been some real ups and downs in this tour – a few great games and a few truly lousy ones – but most of the games have fallen somewhere in between in terms of quality.  Will the final nine be so great that they significantly raise the average?  (The answer is no.)

As before, the games included in the Best Of collection are marked with a + so you can tell them apart.

+ TetraVex

Despite what you just read, TetraVex is actually a good puzzle game.  The rules are quite simple – just match each edge with the same number and complete the square.  TetraVex features game boards from the extremely easy 2×2 to the mind-bendingly difficult 6×6, but most players will probably be comfortable with the 3×3 and 4×4 boards.  Nice game to kill some time.

I’ll tell you right now that this is the best game among the final nine in this post and probably the only one worth seeking out, just in case a fire is starting in your house and you have to call 911 and escape and only have time to read up to this line.

+ Tetris

Okay, okay.  Tetris is one of the most famous and classic puzzle games in existence.  This version, though, is not even close to the best version of Tetris you can play.  It doesn’t allow the player to move pieces down more quickly in order to slide them into slots – your options are either to slam the piece down or to wait for it to move down at its normal pace, which is a real annoyance.  This version also doesn’t feature the Tetris theme, which as you might know is the Russian folk song “Korobeiniki” – here it is as performed by the Red Army Orchestra, and here it is as performed by the Game Boy.  In fact, it doesn’t feature any music at all.  Still, there’s only so much you can do to fuck up Tetris.  It’s not too bad, but if you have a Game Boy and a Tetris cartridge, you should play that instead.

TicTactics – At first I thought TicTactics was just a normal tic-tac-toe program, which would have been the second-laziest idea on any of the Windows Entertainment Packs after Jigsawed.  However, this game adds a twist.  It lets you play a boring old game of 3×3 tic-tac-toe, a.k.a. the game that will always end in a tie unless one player is severely sleep-deprived or has suffered massive brain damage.  It also lets you play 3D tic-tac-toe in a 3x3x3 cube.  Yes, this is the future, and we have 3D tic-tac-toe.  There’s also a 4x4x4 option for the real freaks.  The addition of another dimension mixes things up, though in the end it’s still just a game of god damn tic-tac-toe against a computer opponent and once the novelty wears off you will be bored of it.  Now if they’d found a way to make four-dimensional tic-tac-toe, that would have been impressive.

Tic Tac Drop – It’s Connect 4.

That’s the substantive part of my review of Tic Tac Drop.  The worst part of it is the creators don’t even acknowledge their theft of the idea for this game, even though it would have been obvious to everyone.  Connect 4 was published by Milton Bradley in 1974 and a copy was in damn near every American household by the early 90s.  If you want a real laugh, check out the help file for Tic Tac Drop, in which the writer gets all exuberant about the creation of tic-tac-toe and how it was designed by the Lord Himself so that one day someone would create a variation of it for the computer.  Yes, the game allows you to change the victory conditions to require a longer sequence of checkers, but guess what number it’s automatically set to?  That’s right: four.  The makers of Tic Tac Drop thought they could fool us, but we all know this game’s true name.  Tic Tac Drop can go fuck itself.

+ Taipei – remember in part 2 when I said I don’t like mahjong solitaire?  I still don’t like it.  And this is mahjong solitaire.  Not even a good version of mahjong solitaire, either.  It does feature several layouts of tiles, but the graphics are poor and the tiles are so bunched together that you have to squint to tell some of them apart.  Technically playable, but I can’t say more in its favor.

+ TriPeaks – Yet.  Another.  Motherfucking solitaire card game.  This one actually isn’t that bad – a bit like Golf in that you have to create a sequence of cards to clear the board and win the game, but in this case the cards are slowly revealed as you draw the ones on top of them.  For some unimaginable reason, the creators thought it would be a good idea to add a scoring system based on US dollars so that you’d be able to win and lose fake money as you played.  Because that certainly raises the stakes.  TriPeaks is made for high rollers only.  Remember to wear your dinner jacket and make your Grey Goose vodka martini with an olive before you sit down for a game.

+ Tut’s Tomb – Blessedly the last solitaire card game in the WEP, and this one is undoubtedly the worst of all.  It’s based on Pyramid, a game that’s not bad in itself, but the creators of Tut’s Tomb inexplicably changed the game to make it nearly unwinnable.  I’ll let someone smarter than me explain why.  That’s an article about Tut’s Tomb by the same guy who wrote the insanely comprehensive guide to FreeCell I linked in part 1.  Anyway, Tut’s Tomb is a pile of shit.

Winmine – Hey!  This isn’t Winmine!  It’s fucking Minesweeper!  I don’t know why Microsoft is trying to trick me with this alternate name, but here it is – it’s Minesweeper.  This game was featured on every single PC from Windows 3.1 to Windows 7, after which it was no longer bundled but included as a free game in Microsoft’s app store starting with Windows 8 (well, “free” – more on that shortly.)  I don’t know why this wasn’t included in the Best Of collection except for the fact that it was bundled with every copy of Windows separately, creating the impression that it was not actually a WEP game but rather just a game that came with Windows like Solitaire.  But it was in fact introduced with the first Entertainment Pack in 1991.

I’m not a fan of Minesweeper.  I know a lot of people who like it, but the fact that the ends of so many games rely entirely upon a 50/50 coin flip guess as to where the final mine is bothers the shit out of me.  It’s bad game design.  (This was not the case with the above lost game – I actually fucked that one up all by myself.  But my point still stands.)

Wordzap – The final game of the WEP series, alphabetically speaking.  And it’s… okay.  Just okay.  It’s a timed word jumble game you play against the computer.  I really have nothing to say about this.  One of those games that might have had some value back in the early 90s but not too much now with the advent of the internet and a million other games like this.  It apparently didn’t have enough value at the time to make it into the Best Of collection, though.

So that’s the lot of them.  Every game in the Windows Entertainment Packs reviewed.  These games were the early 90s equivalent of modern mobile apps, now relics of a time lost to history – a time before internet connections in every household, before smartphones.  Before Candy Crush and Fruit Ninja, before gacha games, before microtransactions.  Not all of the games we’ve looked at over the past few posts have been great, but there’s still an innocence to them, even to the bad ones.  Most of them were just programs that Microsoft employees had been messing around with.  As much crap as I dumped on Fuji Golf, Jigsawed, and Tut’s Tomb, I can’t accuse them of pretending to be “free” and then trying to take my money by promising me a chance at rolling something really good or concealing new abilities behind a paywall to make their challenges easier to overcome.  And they weren’t infested with ads.  You know what is infested with ads, though?  Minesweeper.  It is now, anyway.  Microsoft decided to ride the ad train by putting ads in Minesweeper, the office timewaster classic since the early 90s, and graciously allowed players to remove the ads for a fee.

Forget every shitty movie adaptation of a video game you’ve seen, and forget those stupid Star Wars prequels and the fourth Indiana Jones movie.  This betrayal, more than anything, destroyed my childhood.  And I didn’t even really like Minesweeper.

Well, at least they haven’t fucked up Chip’s Challenge.  Not yet, anyway.

Just you wait, Chip… just you wait.

 

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The Best (and the Rest) of Windows Entertainment Pack, part 2

Today our grand tour through the four Windows Entertainment Packs continues. Did these early 90s tie-ins really offer that much entertainment beyond the games everyone already knows about? Let’s find out.  As before, the games with a + next to the title were featured in the Best Of collection.

Jigsawed – This “game” takes a bitmap file and cuts it into squares for you to reassemble. Pretty goddamn lazy. And as you can see, it completely fucked up the colors in the .bmp file I gave it. I chose this screenshot of Asuka from Neon Genesis Evangelion because it fits the time period of Windows 95 perfectly, but now it works on two levels, because Asuka looks pissed off about her colors being all screwed up.

I was initially going to use the infamous “wall of Jericho” screenshot, but, well… while it’s not quite not safe for work, it’s not quite safe for work, either. I’m always thinking about my readers, especially the ones who are working shitty office jobs. I know your pain all too well.

See, here’s Asuka in Paint in 256 colors, looking more or less as she should. It’s not the fault of VirtualBox, it’s the fault of Jigsawed.  Go home, Jigsawed.  You’re drunk.  I’ll call an Uber but you’re paying for it, you lousy fuck.

Klotski – A moving block game in which you have to extract the target block from its box. This is a classic puzzle premise, but the execution in Klotski is lousy because it requires you to do a lot of tedious dragging and clicking. If you needed a way to speed up your impending case of carpal tunnel, play Klotski.

LifeGenesis – Interesting in theory, LifeGenesis is a unique take on Go or Reversi in which you have to place pieces on the board and promote the growth of your own territory, which changes automatically after placing your pieces according to a specific set of rules, while limiting the growth of your opponent’s. The trouble is that the computer opponent seems to be broken. You can place pieces for both players, but the computer player does absolutely nothing. I’m not sure whether it’s just a problem with my copy or with the game itself. It’s kind of fun to draw random patterns and watch them mutate across the board according to the game’s rules, but other than that, there doesn’t seem to be much of anything here to experience.  It’s possible I’m missing something here – if you find it, feel free to post a comment about how I’m a dumbass.

Maxwell’s Maniac – Probably the closest thing to a hidden gem among the games that didn’t make it into the Best Of collection. If Maxwell’s Maniac looks familiar, it’s because it was created by Dima Pavlovsky, the same guy who made JezzBall. Despite the cosmetic similarities, though, this is a completely different game that requires you to channel the balls into the required chambers – first the red chamber, and later red and blue chambers depending upon their colors. Maxwell’s Maniac is interesting, though I can see why its sibling JezzBall made it into BOWEP while it didn’t – Maxwell’s lacks that “simple to learn, hard to master” feel that real standout puzzle games have. It’s still probably worth playing a few rounds, though. You might end up liking it a lot.

PeggedPegged. Yeah, this game is called Pegged. If you’re imagining something weird, though, get it out of your head – this isn’t a game about unusual male-female relations but rather a simulation of a simple peg solitaire game. These were popular as puzzle games back in 19th century Europe according to the game’s help file. Not a bad diversion, though it doesn’t add anything to the traditional peg game that you can find on Amazon or probably in a Brookstone way, way marked up. I don’t understand how specialty gift shops like Brookstone and Sharper Image have hung on, in fact. Even before the days of Amazon, when I was just a kid, I’d go in to look at all the weird products being sold, and I swear I never once saw a soul buy anything there.

Sorry, getting way off track here. Pegged is okay as puzzle games go, I guess. They really should have given it a different name, though.  Maybe it didn’t have the same connotation in the 90s.

+ Pipe Dream – Finally, a game you might actually know about.  Pipe Dream was featured in the Best Of collection and is one of the more beloved of the pack’s puzzle games.  And rightly so.  It’s simple to play but involves some tension with a race against the clock to construct pipe before the sewage spills out into the grid, leading to a game over.  Constructing too much pipe results in a score reduction per length of unused pipe, so there’s also some strategizing required.  Pipe Dream is a good game.  And it was even distributed by LucasArts, a company that developed some of the best adventure and space sim games of the 90s.

Rattler Race – A Centipede clone.  There’s not much more to say about it.  It’s a marginally worse version of Centipede.  The controls are okay, but other than that there’s nothing special about it.  If you were starving for Centipede in the early 90s and you couldn’t get to an arcade and you didn’t have a console version of it, I guess you’d have to make do with this one.  There’s no reason to bother with it today, though.

+ Rodent’s Revenge – my second favorite of all the WEP games after Chip’s ChallengeRodent’s Revenge was a fun puzzle game with an original bent.  You play as the mouse in the center of the mass of movable squares, and your object is to trap the cats that spawn in a space of one square, after which they turn into wedges of cheese that you can eat to gain 100 points provided that the screen is otherwise clear of cats.  If any cats remain active, the trapped cat merely takes a nap and waits either to turn into cheese or be inadvertently freed by you while you push blocks around to trap the other cats.  The game board will inevitably turn into a mess, and part of the fun of the game is trying to trap the cats in an increasingly chaotic environment.  And of course, the cats are constant coming after you, and if one catches you, you lose a life.  Later levels include immovable blocks, mousetraps, and other obstacles to complicate your mission.

Rodent’s Revenge is absolutely worth checking out.  No game is quite like any of the others, and you have to use creative thinking to beat later levels.  I don’t bother with mobile gaming much at all, but I’d be surprised if this didn’t have clones in the Apple or Google Play stores.  Probably with a bunch of horrible ads infesting them, though.

+ SkiFree – Probably the most famous of all the WEP games.  SkiFree was included on damn near every PC in the early 90s, meaning that almost everyone played it at least once.  It’s a very simple game and a very short one, but a skiing game was a real novelty at the time, and the creator threw a few surprises into the mix.  I wrote a short retrospective of SkiFree here, so check that out if you’re interested.  The only thing I’ll add is that it took me a while to realize the implication that the “free” in the title at the top of the slope is composed of dog piss.

Stones – Once again, this title has nothing to do with private parts or acts involving them, but rather with… mahjong tiles?  Are those ever called “stones”?  I’ve played mahjong, and I never heard anyone call the tiles “stones”.  The help file claims this is loosely based on the “ancient Chinese game of mahjong”, but what it means is that it’s based on mahjong solitaire, which is a completely different thing (also, neither of them are ancient unless the late 19th century and the 1980s respectively count as “ancient”.)  I was never a fan of mahjong solitaire, and I’m not a fan of this game either.  You have to place all the tiles on the board such that their neighbors match at least two of three attributes.  I don’t know, maybe someone would like this game.  I didn’t.

Going out on a sour note here, unfortunately, but there are still nine games left to review.  Look forward to the exciting conclusion, coming soon!

The Best (and the Rest) of Windows Entertainment Pack, part 1

Some time ago, to commemorate the godawful month of February, I decided to play and review every single game in every one of the four Windows Entertainment Packs published in the early 90s for use with 16-bit Windows operating systems. Why in God’s name would I do such a thing, you might possibly ask. Everyone knows about the Best of Windows Entertainment Pack that was a tie-in with most 90s versions of Windows, but there were quite a few other games featured in the four regular Windows Entertainment Packs that you had to actually buy that didn’t make the cut. BOWEP included some real gems like Chip’s Challenge, SkiFree, and Rodent’s Revenge that I spent some hours playing as a young boy in the distant, mystical past of the pre-internet era, so I wondered whether there were any overlooked classics among the games that were left out.

An embarrassment of riches

Turns out there weren’t! Not quite, anyway. But I had to dig through all of the following games to confirm that, and some of them are, if not necessarily good, at least interesting. I threw in the BOWEP games as well because why the hell not – those games will be marked with a + before the title. See if you can find a pattern (i.e. that most of the non-BOWEP games suck!)

I admit that this is going to be of interest to literally no one, but that describes most of the posts I write. Before we get started, I should note that there are 29 games in the queue, far too many to jam into one post and expect anyone to have the patience to make it through to the end without succumbing to a coma, so I’ll be dividing them as evenly as possible throughout three posts – ten games in this and the next post and nine in the last.  I’ll be sorting them alphabetically, not by which pack they were in, because I’m positive no one cares about that and I can’t be assed to keep track of such a detail.  For the same reason, I won’t be subjecting any of these games to my patented seven-point grading system.  You’ll know how I feel about each of them well enough, I promise.

Chess – It’s chess.

No, nothing else to say. It’s just chess. If you like chess, you’ll probably like it. Or not. It doesn’t seem to have a lot of features. Decent enough for a chess game, maybe, though I don’t have the expertise to judge it very well.  It’s probably safe to say there’s no reason for anyone to play this version anymore.

+ Chip’s Challenge – Definitely the best game in the pack, with a lot more time and care put into it than any game in a game bundle tied in with a new OS has any right to. It is an absolute classic as far as puzzle games go. See my full retrospective of Chip’s Challenge here. I wrote everything I had to write about the game in that post.  Suffice it to say that you should check out Chip’s Challenge if you have any interest in puzzle games.

cruel

Cruel – This is a solitaire card game, the first of several in the pack. The icon is slightly interesting – the Windows Solitaire icon with a knife stuck through it – but otherwise, there’s nothing special here. Move randomly dealt cards to complete four suits in sequence from ace to king. Seems to be entirely based upon luck. I don’t know why the icon features a knife or why the game is called “Cruel”, unless the cruelty lies in how boring it is to play.

+ Dr. Black Jack – This is a little more than a plain old blackjack simulator. Dr. Black Jack gives you advice about your game, counseling you about when to hit and stand, and even features advice incorporating card-counting techinques. Kind of like Kevin Spacey in the movie 21, except Dr. Black Jack won’t try to grope you. Not a bad game if you want to play some no-stakes blackjack or need some extremely basic training before you take a trip to Vegas.

+ FreeCell – Another solitaire card game, but this one is special. FreeCell really needs no introduction. It’s bundled with Windows 10, for fuck’s sake. Everybody knows FreeCell. It’s perhaps the most maddening of all the solitaire games because you can see exactly where every card is, including the cards you need that are inaccessible, sitting there buried under a pile of immovable cards, mocking you.

The original FreeCell featured 32,000 different configurations, one of which was famously unsolvable. If you want to read a near-obsessive analysis of the various versions of FreeCell, check out this site. Anyway, as much as I don’t care for most of these solitaire card games, FreeCell is good. You’ve got to respect a classic.

Fuji Golf – Now here’s a shitfest. Fuji Golf tries to simulate an 18-hole golf course and falls flat on its face for the simple reason that the mechanics of the game are ass, relying on finicky as hell mouse controls to make fine adjustments. The only good thing about this game is the opening screen with a nice pixelated depiction of Mt. Fuji for some reason. Other than that – I’m admittedly not good at real golf, but 14 shots on the first round? Fuck you, Fuji Golf.

Go Figure! – This is one of a couple of educational games in the pack. The player has to arrange an equation with the preset numbers to arrive at the solution given by the game. I can’t really fault a basic educational game like this. If you drew a line of educational game goodness vs. shitness with Oregon Trail on one end and Mario is Missing! on the other, Go Figure! would be right in the middle.

+ Golf – Thank the Almighty God this is not another golf game like Fuji Golf. It’s just another solitaire card game. There’s seemingly no lack of solitaire games in this package. Golf isn’t that bad, really – you just select the cards on the top of the piles in sequence and try to complete the sequence without exhausting your turns. A lot more simplistic than FreeCell but not as boring as Cruel. Might kill five minutes while you wait for your porn torrent to finish downloading.

IdleWild – This one was a real surprise – it’s a screensaver pack! Not a very good one, though. Especially if you already had After Dark installed, which you probably did if you were using a computer in the early 90s. Most of the screensavers in IdleWild are either eye-destroying or boring. But it’s something different, at least. And it features a crappy slow-loading depiction of the Mandelbrot set! That might have been impressive when it was released in 1991.

+ JezzBall – I already wrote about the existential nightmare that is JezzBall. I will not write about it again.

That’s it for part 1.  Stay tuned for part 2, coming soon!  It will definitely be more interesting than part 1, I promise.

Retrospective: JezzBall (and the pain of existence)

Years ago, I wrote about two PC games that were packaged free with computers running Windows 3.1 and 95. SkiFree was a fun time-waster for a few minutes, and Chip’s Challenge was a surprisingly deep, well-crafted puzzle game. However, there’s a game from the famed Best of Windows Entertainment Pack bundle that I neglected to write about, a game that many consider to be a classic on the level of SkiFree and Chip’s Challenge.  A horror game that plumbed the depths of the psyche even more thoroughly than did Silent Hill 2.

I’m talking about JezzBall.

The beginning of stage 2.

JezzBall is a puzzle game in which the player must trap balls (the help file calls them “Jezz atoms” – yes, Jezz atoms, that’s not a typo) that are bouncing around a chamber while a timer runs.  The player can trap these balls by creating walls that reduce the size of said chamber.  However, there are a few catches – the wall is broken if a ball hits it before it’s completely built, each wall that’s broken costs the player a life, and the game is over if all the player’s lives are exhausted or if the timer reaches 0.  The object of the game is to reduce the chamber’s size by 75%.  The player starts with two JezzBalls, or Jezz atoms, or whatever, to trap, and each stage adds another ball to the mix.

You thought this was just a simple puzzle game, but check out this deep lore.

Perhaps you have fond memories of playing JezzBall back in the 90s or one of its clones more recently.  Or maybe you played the 80s arcade classic Qix that this game is based upon.  But did you ever feel uneasy about it?

Most people would say that JezzBall is just a little puzzle game, a fun diversion.  But for me, it’s more.  Playing this game is like looking into the abyss.

In the world of JezzBall, your only purpose is to seal atoms into small areas.  And after you’ve reduced the space they can move in to 25% of the screen, the game “rewards” you with an additional atom to deal with.

Your job becomes more difficult the further you progress, but do your nameless, faceless supervisors care?  No.  Trap more atoms.  Keep trapping atoms.  There is nothing else.

Soon enough, the pace of your job will become unbearable.  You will have a very limited amount of time to trap several atoms without any clear way to separate them into their own chambers.  Every time you try to build a wall, it breaks when an atom hits it before it’s complete.  You try to build a wall starting in the middle of the chamber to at least create a partial wall, but when atoms hit both ends of your wall you lose two lives and are that much closer to a game over.

JezzBall doesn’t care.  It will continue to throw additional atoms at you until you break.  The difficulty curve of this game starts with a gradual slope that leads to a 90 degree cliff face.  And when you fall from that cliff, as we all eventually do, you’re given the “honor” of marking your shame by entering your score on the leaderboard.

Other games I played growing up had an end goal or a winner.  Mario, Sonic, Zelda – the games in these series taught us that perseverance leads to victory.  The NES Mega Man games were difficult, but even an average or poor player could beat Dr. Wily given enough time and patience.  Chip’s Challenge, one of the other BOWEP titles, was a long game, but it also had a final level and an ending to offer.

JezzBall mocks your delusions of victory.  There is no happy ending in JezzBall, just as there is no happy ending in life.  No matter how skillful you are, no matter how far you get, a round of JezzBall always ends in failure.  It only offers you the option to play again.

And if you refuse to play again, it says nothing else – the game simply leaves you sitting in front of a black screen.

Life is a cruel joke.  Life is an absurdity.  Life is JezzBall.

I rate it a 5 out of 7.

Retrospective: Encarta 97

Apparently I really have run out of old games to talk about, because this is the second in a row of my world-renowned, award-winning retrospective series dealing with a program that isn’t a game.  Much like After Dark, Encarta is a relic of the 1990s, a period when I was a young strapping lad mystified by all the new features that computers were offering and by the novelty of the internet.  Upon buying our second family computer in the mid-90s after moving across an ocean and leaving the old one behind (might have been sold or put in storage; I never was sure what its fate was) we received a bundled disc labeled Encarta 97, an electronic encyclopedia published by Microsoft.

I’m running this copy on Windows XP, but try to imagine Windows 95 instead.  Also, there are unused icons on my desktop.

If you’re under 20 years of age, you likely have no idea what an Encarta is.  The best description I can come up with today, twenty years into the age of the internet, is that it is an extremely gimped version of Wikipedia with some amusing tools and features added.  Microsoft began producing the Encarta series in 1993, a few years before the average family had a dial-up subscription and several years before the internet was more than a mess of bad corporate websites and pornography hosted on Angelfire pages.  The idea behind Encarta, at least as I understand it, was that it would provide said average family with all the information contained in a massive, heavy, extremely expensive set of Encyclopedia Britannica or World Book volumes without being expensive or weighty.  I’m not sure whether Microsoft ever succeeded in that goal, but in 1996 when Encarta 97 was released it sure seemed to have a hell of a lot of articles.

Yes, at the time 31,000 articles seemed crazy. By way of contrast, Wikipedia as of this writing has 50,000 articles written in Luxembourgish, a language spoken primarily in a tiny west European state wedged between Belgium and Germany.

If the Encarta experience had merely been reading unadorned blocks of text about the letter A and El Aaiun, it might not have been so memorable.  However, the single Encarta 97 CD-ROM contained a lot more than text.  Many of its articles also contained relevant images, and a few even featured really terrible-quality video.  This was one of the things that set it apart from physical encyclopedia sets, which contained no videos and only very small illustrations, sometimes just in black and white.

I learned more than I ever wanted to about Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The encyclopedia itself was the centerpiece of Encarta, but the program also offered several other features that could be used to waste some time that your parents thought you were spending at your studies.  Most of these were contained in the “Interactivities” section.

One of my favorites was the Personal Nutrition feature, which calculated your daily intake of calories, proteins, cholesterol, and other nutrition-related stuff based on your diet.

Apparently a diet of fried wontons, chocolate cake, and White Russians isn’t good for you. Thanks for the information, Encarta.

Another feature I enjoyed was Orbit.  At this stage in my life I still had some notion of becoming an astronaut, and I took an interest in anything related to space or space travel.  Orbit gave the student a basic education in the essentials of orbital paths and gravity and acceleration, and all that physics stuff that is extremely complicated if you get down to the math.  In Orbit, you didn’t have to deal with any of that: just set a path for a moon to circle its planet and watch as it attains a stable orbit, flies into space, or collides into the planet.

hypnotic

One of the more standard features in Encarta 97 was the Atlas, an interactive globe that you could click on to zoom in and find information on the world’s countries and major cities and towns.

Atlas is interesting to me because it’s a sort of Google Earth before Google Earth – infinitely less detailed, showing only the vague outlines of the Earth and its various states.  Still, this was several years before the first Google Earth release, and several more years before Google Earth really got good and you could explore New York and Berlin and Tokyo in 3D, down to their multitudes of alleyways and hole-in-the-wall bars.

If there’s one single thing that most people around my age remember about Encarta, though, it is Mind Maze.

Yes, my name in Mind Maze is Max Action, because it perfectly describes me.

I say that Encarta was not a game, but like the screensaver program After Dark, it was a non-game program that contained a game within it.  Mind Maze was a trivia game set in a cursed castle in which the inhabitants were trapped.  You, the player, had to travel from room to room answering “riddles” in the form of questions about various subjects contained in the electronic pages of Encarta.  The player could choose from four difficulty levels and a variety of topics or a mix of all topics to test his knowledge.  The game was won when the player accumulated 20,000 points, which could take a while depending upon the difficulty of the questions, more difficult questions being worth more points.

The creators of Mind Maze didn’t just throw the game into Encarta as a trifle to go along with the rest of its features – there was some care put into its art, and each room contained a character who usually had something amusing to say to the player.  It was usually a complaint about their shitty king and the curse that they were suffering through.

I don’t think time-and-a-half was a thing in medieval days.

All in all, Mind Maze was a really nice addition to Encarta.  It’s not anything amazing, really, but it was a real novelty at the time and was, to me, the most memorable part of Encarta.

So what was the fate of Encarta?  The shrewd reader might have already guessed that the program has been long dead, killed by the internet and specifically by the user-edited monster that is Wikipedia.  By the early 2000s, there was simply no longer much of a need for an electronic encyclopedia that you paid for when Wikipedia was around.  Microsoft did take steps to introduce a few online features into this and future editions of Encarta, and in 2000 all of the program’s content became free to access online.  But by 2009, Microsoft apparently felt it was time to let Encarta go, and the program was completely discontinued.

Despite its obsolescence (perhaps because of it?) Encarta still has a little nostalgic appeal to me and to a lot of other people who were also bored kids in the 90s on their family computers.  It’s a bit like Blockbuster Video – massive in its day, but made useless by the modern internet.  Unfortunately, you can’t visit a Blockbuster anymore unless you happen to live near the several locations that are somehow left operating (mostly in Alaska – because of poor internet connectivity up there?) but you can check out Encarta thanks to the good people at the CD-ROM Software Library at archive.org.

Retrospective: Chip’s Challenge

Even the most vocal Microsoft critics have to admit that the Windows Entertainment Pack games of the early 90s were really good. Later on, when Microsoft made an executive decision to be more shitty, it dropped all its interesting games and stuck with solitaire, hearts and multiplayer network board games that are widely available on sites like Yahoo Games for free. But back in the Windows 3.1/95 era, the Best of Windows Entertainment Pack (stored in the BOWEP folder, so that’s what we’ll call it) was the most fun way to waste time better used writing your report or sending “electronic mail.” Even better, all the games were free and came pre-installed on your system. As a young boy at the time, before the Internet was a thing most people had or even knew about, I had the added bonus of being fascinated by the novelty of these games.

We’ve already covered one game from BOWEP. SkiFree was great in its simplicity and made for the perfect timewaster. But there was another great game in the folder, one that could easily take hours of your life instead of mere minutes. That game was Chip’s Challenge.

Notice how this game is completely amazing in every way possible.

Notice how this game is completely amazing in every way possible.

Chip’s Challenge tells the story of Chip, a nerd, who is invited into some kind of secret club by Melinda, a girl. To join, however, Chip has to run through a hundreds of levels long obstacle course of death filled with crushing blocks, monsters, bees and fire. Just why the hell Chip wants to get into this club so badly that he is willing to risk his life is a mystery, but this box art suggests that the motivation is love at first sight:

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I didn’t pick up on this because I never had the box. The only reason I ever played this game was that it came with my family’s 386. Lucky thing, though, because Chip’s Challenge was, and still is, a lot of fun. It’s just a really long puzzle game. The goal in each level is to collect all the chips and get Chip to the exit. Fire will kill Chip unless he’s wearing the right boots, and other obstacles will kill him no matter what. But it doesn’t matter, because Chip always comes back to life. Yes, he is going to get into this god damn club even if he has to die one million times.

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One nice feature of Chip’s Challenge is its password system. Each level has a password that you can use to get right to that level, so quitting the game is never an issue. Good thing, because some of these levels are pretty hard to get the solution to. Of course, once we got Internet connections around 1994/5 and found lists of the passwords online, we went straight to the last level, because the game didn’t care and neither did we.

Still, the fun in playing Chip’s Challenge is actually playing it. BOWEP is near impossible to run on a Windows 8 or 7 machine, but a copy that works on DOSBox may be found here. If you’ve got a few hours to waste, try it out.

Retrospective: SkiFree

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This is SkiFree, a game that was released on Windows Entertainment Pack in 1991 with copies of Windows 3.1 (?) It took up a slight 100-something KB and came preloaded with every Windows machine in the early 90s. It was one of many such games we got for free back then, and one of the few that were loaded on the machines in my elementary school’s computer lab.

SkiFree is the only game out of all those early 90s freebies that anyone remembers, and people remember the hell out of it. But why?

SkiFree is an extremely basic game where you point your ski man down a slope and he skis. You can move him around with the arrow keys on your keyboard. If you’re so inclined you can do low jumps off of hills (represented by half-circles) and high jumps off of ramps (shown as rainbow-colored bars, for some reason.) This isn’t necessary, but it’s fun.

SkiFree features sweet tricks such as this one.

SkiFree features sweet tricks such as this one.

You aren’t alone on the slope. Your nameless skier is joined by annoyingly slow, crappy skiers and annoyingly fast, skilled snowboarders. There are also dogs that sometimes piss on the snow (seriously, this happens.) All of these, including the stationary trees and rocks that populate the slope, are obstacles for your skier to avoid. Not that it matters all that much if you hit them: you’ll just fall over and get back up.

Sometimes the tricks don't work out.  Left: tree, rock, a snowboarder.

Sometimes the tricks don’t work out. Left: tree, rock, a snowboarder.

There’s something else that lives on the slope, but if you don’t know what that something else is then I won’t spoil it for you. Go play the game. The creator’s official SkiFree website is here. He seems like a cool guy, even aside from the fact that he gave me a fun diversion to play in my school’s computer lab when I was six years old.

For some reason, SkiFree has become a part of modern internet culture. Not a massive part, but a part. It must be the power of nostalgia at work. New games are great and all, but we also like to think about the games of our distant childhoods, even if it turns out they weren’t very good, objectively speaking. Luckily, SkiFree was pretty good for what it was: a fun, innocent two-minute break from the tedium of school or the office.