PC Games: Hunting for Treasure

By Shamus Posted Thursday Jan 25, 2007

Filed under: Video Games 26 comments

I am, by nature, a non-gambling man. I have severe risk-aversion. So it is very rare that I’ll run into the software store and get something without first playing a demo, asking around, or reading a review. However, every once in a long while I do make an impulse purchase. Whenever I do this I rarely end up with something mundane – it will either be a favorite or (more commonly) utter crap. Still, I’ve found enough gems doing this over the years to encourage me to keep doing it.

System Shock
The best example of this is the 1994 classic System Shock. I saw it on the shelf and was drawn by the strange box art. I asked the guy at the store if it was any good. He didn’t know anything about it. I picked it up. I put it down. I read the back four times, but I couldn’t figure out if it would be something I would like. It was $40, which was a hefty price tag for me at that point in my life. Finally I flipped a coin and bought the dang thing.

What followed was several weeks of near obsession. The game seeped deep into my pores and eventually infected me to the point where all other games were judged through my myopic System Shock lens. It instilled in me a love for “open-ended first person roleplaying”, a genre so small I doubt there have been ten titles that could be described this way since 1994. From there I went on to play System Shock 2 and then the various incarnations of the Thief series. (Which are close cousins to System Shock gameplay-wise.) Eventually I wrote a novel based on the game.

I think I got my $40 out of it.

I picked up Planescape: Torment in the Bargain Bin for $10. It was pretty old by the time I tried it. It was already considered a “classic” by some, although I’d totally missed it. I had no idea what I was getting. In fact, I thought the game was called Planetscape: Torment. I thought it was sci-fi. I only got it because it was $10. I didn’t love it as much as some, but it was still an excellent and interesting RPG, and a steal for ten bucks.

Sometime in 2000 I saw Outcast in the bargain bin at Sam’s Club. The game was less than a year old, and it was already in the big bin of crumpled boxes alongside awful shovelware videogame compilations and low-quality games based on movies that failed at the box office. There were a half dozen copies of the game in the bin, which is a sure sign that it was a stinker. Still, the graphics on the back of the box looked astounding. My system was within the system specs. Could my 300mhz computer really run a game that looked like this? I had to find out.

To this day I don’t know why the game sold so poorly. The graphics were amazing. The voice-acting was excellent, in an age where programmers all too often did their own voice work. The game was stable. It was long. It was imaginative. The AI was good enough to keep up with games of today, and was way ahead back in 1999. The music was of stellar quality, recorded by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. The dialog was lots of fun.

Consession: The quests got a little tedious late in the game, and parts of the game were a little cliché. Still, that is hardly a reason for the game to wind up where it did, which is in with the dregs of PC software.

Master of Orion was a good one. I’d just installed a CD drive into my computer, and was looking to build my collection of CD games and move away from floppies. MOO was one of the only CD titles in Wal-Mart that day, so I bought it. This was a silly reason to buy a game, but it worked out.

I also want to mention that 1999 was an incredible year for PC gaming. Planescape Torment. Unreal Tournament. Quake III Arena. Starcraft. Age of Empires II. Everquest. Homeworld. System Shock 2. I think I’m forgetting a couple, but you get the idea. I don’t think we’ve had a year like that one since.


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26 thoughts on “PC Games: Hunting for Treasure

  1. Will says:

    I came to this blog from your System Shock novelization, which coincidentally enough I just reread (i liked it that much! and i read very fast. but still). This reminded me to give you a shout out for that.

    and, it’s odd that you mentioned System Shock and Thief but not the Ultima Underworlds. Surely you’ve played those?

  2. SimeSublime says:

    I do enjoy picking up a game that I have heard nothing about and giving it a shot. As you said, a lot of the time you end up with rubbish, which leads to low expectations. But that means, when you do hit gold, it’s all the sweeter for it.

    My best example would be the game Fahrenheit(I believe it’s called The Indigo Prophecy in the US). I’d heard nothing about it, but the box art caught my eye and the blurb on the back intrigued me. Sure, the game wasn’t very long, but it really drew me in. I loved the plotline, and how the way you do things earlier on could effect later scenes (though not overtly). The control system for the physical challenge parts of the game was perfect, it really made you feel like you were controlling a character in a movie. I’d suggest if you see this game in a bargin bin, definately dig it out.

  3. Kris says:

    Shamus, this post made me smile thinking about all the classics buried in a binder in a box in my basement. I’ll have to dig those out when I get home now and pick one to play. Argh! Damn you stealing even more of my precious little free time! :)

  4. GreyDuck says:

    Gods… ’99 really was a banner year, wasn’t it? UT (the original and still in many ways the best of its lineage), Age of Empires II and Homeworld are games I played for years and years afterward. Wow.

  5. Andrew Cory says:

    If you dig Classic MoO, have you played Galactic Civilizations 2? It’s, um, awesome

  6. Oh wow.

    I read Free Radical a while ago, and thought it was great; you couldn’t ask for a more professional novelization.

    Only later did I end up on this blog via den Beste, and now I’m subscribed to it.

  7. Ultima Underworld II is pretty good, though I wish one of the re-makes had finished, as playing it now would feel seriously claustrophobic, since the play window is probably somewhere around 150×150. It’s probably less fun if you never played any Ultimas. The controls are also a bit difficult to get used to. But in terms of what you can do within the game world, the game would pretty much hold up today. (Advancing graphics have paradoxically forced other aspects of gaming to simplify, as anything that can’t be done in spectacular 3D simply won’t be done at all, and with our current tech, that’s a lot. My favorite example is trying to imagine a fully 3D Nethack, with no compromises… not gonna happen any time soon.)

    I’ve often been what I call a “bottom feeder” in gaming, waiting for cheap games and buying them then. I’ve found some great stuff this way, but some of it I knew was good when I bought it and that’s not the idea here. (In fact generally nowadays I’ve read a review, or will read a review even before spending $10; thanks, Internet!) So, my accidental discoveries:

    My first was Elite for the C=64 for $2 at Sears. That’s probably why I surf bargain bins now; among the best $2 I ever spent.

    I also discovered the enhanced CD version of System Shock for something like $5. Knew nothing about it in advance.

    Dungeon Keeper; knew vaguely that it was about being the bad guy, had no idea how fun it was. Also my wife got into it. (The second one was technically better in most ways, but lacked the charm (thanks 3D graphics) and repeated some mistakes that turned out to be fatal the second time.)

    Theme Hospital, which wasn’t in the same class as the previous three, but still a lot of fun for $5. X-Com. Atomic Bomberman; you hear a lot about this but you don’t hear much about the PC version, which my wife and I think is the best; the voice work was far better than it had any right to be. In fact you’ll see a lot of people claim that the only Bomberman to support 10 players was the Saturn version, but the PC version did too.

  8. Rich says:

    I don’t know that Quake III Arena belongs in there, but that’s just me. I’m a UT fan from way back.

  9. Shamus says:

    I’m a UT fan as well. I never liked Q3A, but it was still a very popular game. Another jewel in the crown of 1999, as it were.

  10. Will says:

    Oh no… now there’s two of us…

    Those first couple of months after the release of UT were great, but being stuck behind a (below average) dial-up connection left me out in the cold for multiplayer. None of my friends were really into the LAN-party concept, so I spent a lot of time dinking around in the editor. Of course, I also spent a lot of 1999 playing through Xenogears a couple times.

  11. Antiquated Tory says:

    Am not a big PC gamer; the only game you mentioned which I have played is Planescape: Torment. However I think I will make a point of looking for these others. P:T is hands down the best computer RPG I have tried, at least in terms of having a plot line and characters that kept you coming back to see how it turned out.

  12. Thufir says:

    This reminds me of xenogears, one of my all time favorite rpg’s on the original playstation. I never heard of the game before. I lucked out and got the demo along with brave fencer musashi. Man you want talk about obsession, I played that game like 4 times(which is quite a lot, considering the game is 75% text, 25% gameplay). That game was totally in depth, memorable characters(which me and enoch still reminisce about becauase WE..ARE..MEN..OF..THE..SEA!!)and a totally awesome combat system. I couldn’t wait till I got home from school to play that damn game.

  13. Telas says:

    Damn, Baldur’s Gate was released in 1998… missed it by a year.

    Baldur’s Gate was The One for me… It was the game that got me to buy a computer. It was the game that gave me bags under my eyes, and bruises on my wrists from playing. It was the game that got me back into RPGs (although the road was very long, from BG to NWN to a friend’s kid’s CCG habit to D&D 3.5). Wow.

  14. Presence says:

    I don’t think it’s so much that 1999 was a great year for PC gaming per se, but that at that point we were approaching the end of PC gaming’s golden age. MMOs started coming out in force around then. They sapped the time and interest of gamers with their insipid leveling and despicable patch changes, and thus the entire market descended into the pathetic joke it is today. (I’m looking at you Turbine. Abandoning your first game to incompetents after the first few months and then expecting everyone to flock to version 2.0. Feh. You could have really made something wonderful if you’d stuck with AC1.)

    This isn’t mentioning how consoles started gobbling up more and more real estate in the stores, though at least one has the comfort of knowing many of those games were well done. And didn’t have patches coming out for six months after purchase to fix bugs that should have been dealt with before release. (I’m looking at you Bethsoft. I haven’t forgotten your final Daggerfall “patch”, not by a long shot.)

    Nowadays if we see three lovingly crafted PC games in a year we have to count ourselves lucky, and this in spite of record numbers of people owning relatively fast computers. It’s so bad that I wind up going all gaga over stuff like the Gothic games, which while not properly put together at least contain the signs of honest effort and attention to detail.

  15. Malkara says:

    Hahahaha. Whoever mentioned GalCiv 2… For the love of god, take a quick glance at the gaming section of the blog.

  16. Alex says:

    Did you ever play Deus Ex? Man, that was a great game. Ok, the voicework could have been better, but you gotta love the gameplay

  17. Deoxy says:

    Yeah, the GalCiv 2 mention was funny… though by most accounts I’ve heard, MoO 2 beat it hands down. I STILL play MoO 2.

  18. Morrinn says:

    Starcraft was released in ’98, but yeah, okay :) ’99 was a great gamer year.

  19. Following up my point about 3D: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we haven’t really had a year like 1999 since we entered the “Every Game Must Be 3D” era. Note the 3D games on the list were things that ought to be 3D. (Some things should, some things shouldn’t.)

  20. Gothmog says:

    I’ll say it again, because it has gotten practially no press-

    Space Empires V (http://malfador.com) is a MUCH closer successor to MoO2 and is better than GalCivII in many, many ways.

    Go download the demo and try it out!

  21. Julia says:

    I don’t do much computer gaming (I haven’t really done anything since the original Civ), but my husband loved MOO. Some evenings we’d have dinner and then he’d go MOO and I’d read. And then he’d recount what had happened in his MOO session, and I liked hearing him talk about it. :)

  22. Wonderduck says:

    If you’re wondering why Outcast didn’t sell well, look at the games you listed for 1999: Unreal Tournament, Quake III Arena, Starcraft

    …and what type of game is Outcast? It’s not a FPS, it’s not a RTS, both of which were THE ONLY categories of game most gamers played back then. Sad, really.

    At least Deus Ex did well… lovely game, and I didn’t think the voice acting was that bad, as Alex suggested. I was still playing it some five or six years after I got it. Heck, only reason I’m NOT still playing it is that it doesn’t play well with Chiyo-chan’s dual processors (not an uncommon problem, it seems. GTA3:Vice City has the same stuttering & stammering difficulties).

  23. Shamus says:

    If I had to categorize it, I would actually call Outcast an adventure game (like Myst, King’s Quest, etc) with FPS combat. Most of the questing you do is to deliver stuff from A to B all over the place. You round up stuff and put it where it belongs.

  24. Katy says:

    Was wondering… have you ever played an incredibly old game called Texas Murphy: Pandora’s Box? I remember having to go into DOS mode to get the game to start and then the game randomly crashed when I was “outside,” startling me because of a loud noise blasting from the speakers.

    However, it was super fun. The graphics were shit, but Tex was the funniest guy ever, and the story had like, four endings to it.

  25. Dreadjaws says:

    Necropost, yeah, but I feel the need to say this: up until you pointed it out, I also thought the name of the game was Planetscape: Torment. And I’ve read the title of the game hundreds of times on GOG (while contemplating if purchasing it or not).

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