Some of the greatest adventures of my childhood started with the C drive prompt impatiently blinking for input.
The 90s were the golden age of graphic adventures for LucasArts, Westwood Studios, Sierra and many more. These were games written by playful geeks for geeks – entertainment for the emergent technocracy that was daring, quirky and intelligent.
To commemorate early PC gaming heroes and heroines, I’ve created this series of tiny paintings of some of my favourite DOS games.
Preview the collection here!
In the early 1990s a PC was a luxury few people in Eastern Europe had access to and I was one of the lucky few behind the recently crumpled iron curtain. I’ll never forget the day I trespassed into the clean room of the Polytechnic Institute in Bucharest. A bank of beige PC towers dominated a corner of the lab. I was 6 years old and my first hour playing Winter Challenge is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood.
Early PC Gaming development studios were as fearless with their humour as they were with delving into darkness and obscurity. For all the limitations of their graphic engines, they capitalized on clever puzzles, stunningly colourful renditions of fantasy worlds and cutting edge physics that defined gaming for generations to come.
From side scrollers to epic adventures, here are some of my most memorable titles:
The Secret of Monkey Island
My name is Guybrush Threepwood and I want to be a pirate. The Island of Melee was the first settings to one of my favourite graphic adventures. It never fails to astound me the depth and intricacy of the environments LucasArts designers achieved with those fat pixels and minimal animation. The story of Guybrush is as fantastic as it is familiar – he’s the commoner turned trickster trope of folkloric tales come alive in a game character. True story: I was very young when I played this game, and the thunder clap sound effects in the scene where he digs out the graveyard for bones terrified me so deeply I couldn’t work up the courage to play again for weeks after.
If you’ve ever played this game you can probably hear an echo of that whoop of delight as Jazz slings his riffle across one shoulder and dashes past the load screen. EpicMegaGames brought the arcade experience to the MS DOS platform. A twisted play on Aesop’s fable, it delivered the ultimate conflict between a jacked up hare armed to the teeth and an evil techno-terrorist turtle who kidnaps the disturbingly sexy Eva Longears: good wholesome fun with ACME-grade TNT, a fair share of physical comedy and an upbeat techno soundtrack.
Billy Blaze, boy genius and hapless adventurer under the moniker Commander Keen – forever pecking away with his ray gun at squirmy worms, evil robots and buck-toothed giant fish. With its complex level designs and seemingly inexhaustible hidden rooms and Easter Eggs, this classic side scrolling video game captivated my interest for so many years. I still fire up DOSBox for it every now and again!
Canvas 2 of Commander Keen is now available: SWIM SWIM HUNGRY #dopefishlives
Lemmings was a corner stone of my early gaming days – and I’m hardly alone, this game sold 15 million copies, and was probably pirated twice as many times. CCJIMDMJEP – I’ll never forget the miles of dot matrix printer feed with painstakingly collected saves – until of course my agile little brain caught on to the algorithm behind the level keys and I started jumping right into the MAYHEM sets. Twenty years later, after a really frustrating support call at work, I sometimes stand up from my desk and mime a self-destructing Lemming. KA-poof!
Sam & Max Hit the Road
I grew up on a steady diet of Ren & Stimpy and Beavis & Butthead, so of course Sam & Max were right up my alley. I’ve played this game so many times I could recite half the script, I’ve wrecked countless IBM mice in the Wak-a-Rat stage, and I still laugh myself hoarse every time Max throttles that poor alley cat for his key. The voice actors of this production were so memorable too – Sam’s lazy drawl and Max’s hilarious quips betrayed a self awareness of their comedic role in the unlikely mystery plot.
Day of the Tentacle
Does this even need an introduction? DOT is a masterpiece of its era, a volatile combination of humour and nerdiness that is absolutely perfect. This was the epitome of games by geeks for geeks. From it’s comical historic parallels to the buffoonery of the Manic Mansion troupe, it is the single best light hearted adventure game of its time – or dare I say, of all time. Purple Tentacle was basically my hero growing up. I kept hoping that all that Chernobyl water would turn me into an evil genius and that I would one day…TAKE ON THE WORLD!
Kyrandia Book One: Fables and Fiends
I grew up with fairy tales, from Andersen classics to the tricksters, twisted monsters and fools of my country’s folklore, so adventure games were the natural evolution in this infatuation with myth and magic. Westwood Studios produced the two most beautiful fantasy games of my childhood. Legend of Kyrandia Book One combined the immersive storylines of King’s Quest, the humour of Monkey Island and the surreal allure of Loom. The Cavern of Twilight was a brief repass in the midst of that blasted bat filled cave that required total guess work – plus a whole lotta fireberries and save games.
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream
I saved this one for last for good reason: IHNMAIMS has no proxy in the gaming universe. It presented a world so complex and immersive it was conceptually decades ahead of its time. Written in direct collaboration with Harlan Ellison, author of the original storyline, it is a horror scifi narrative of unparalleled profundity, a play of human tragedy, paranoia, fear, survival and death. This was not a game for the faint of heart. It is the source material for my love of cyberpunk literature, an early introduction to the study of ethics and psychology, a foray into the darkest corners of history and the human psyche.
What were your favourites?
Comment with your suggestions and I will keep this series going!
Edit: Thanks guys, I’m gonna be busy for the rest of the year now. So far the list of requests includes:
- Leisure suit Larry
- Police quest
- Space quest
- Beneath a steel sky
- Grim fandango
- Duke Nukem 3D
- More Sam & Max and Commander Keen