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Thief: The Dark Project ***
Looking Glass

I enjoyed this game quite a bit. The play mechanic is a bit unusual in that it focuses on stealth rather than shooting, and LG did a pretty effective job with it. There are a few rough edges, though. I feel the level designs could have used a bit of extra detailing; for instance you see the same furniture models hundreds of times throughout the game. And the load-times are absolutely horrendous. Still, a good game in my book.

Monkey Island I & II ***

These are considered classic humorous graphic adventures in some circles, and I don't disagree. The interface is straightforward, simple and responsive. Some of the jokes are pretty funny, in this nerd's opinion. The graphics are good for the era (early 90's), but Julie watched me playing and called it "Flemish" (Hee hee!).

My problem with games like these is that they take too long to play, but I employed a reasonable solution, which is to find the spoilers on the 'net, and use liberally.

Mario 64 ****

I'm finally tackling this one. I'm up to about 45 stars. There's an incredible amount of gameplay packed into that little cartridge. I think the camera is the biggest problem with the game, although I'm getting used to it. That, and you can't turn off the music.

I'm not sure I'd call it the best video game of all time; I have a philosophical problem with applying that label to anything. But it's up there among the classics.

Jedi Knight ****
Lucas Arts

I bought this game partly to show off my fancy new computer (PII 300 w/ RIVA 3D accelerator), which it does very well. The first few levels are a little lackluster, IMO, but the level design as well as the game really pick up after that. The graphics are the best I've seen in a video game to date. There are a few small problems (gouraud lighting, various unsightly RIVA quirks), but overall the visuals and sounds are awesome.

The game is pretty engaging as well. There are plenty of cool weapons, puzzles and enemies, and it's set in the Star Wars universe -- what's not to like? Well, I'll tell you: it wasn't quite easy enough for my taste; I don't like to spend so much time on a game anymore. Also, the cut-scene writing, acting and production is a far cry from Star Wars et al, although it does the job.

Action Supercross ****
Get the shareware here

This was the talk of for a while, for good reason. It's a cool little side-scrolling motorbike game, with unusual play mechanics, written by some guy somewhere in Eastern Europe. This kind of quality ought to be rewarded.

Quake II Test ***

Just about right. The engine improvements are nice, although not overwhelming, the 3Dfx driver works nicely, and the gameplay is subtly improved.

Obligatory complaint: the sound latency is terrible. And it's still dark 'n twitchy. But everything out of id since Doom has been dark 'n twitchy, so that's nothing new.

M.A.M.E. (Multi Arcade Machine Emulator) ****
Some Italian hackers who deserve sainthood for their labors, plus many additional contributors, not to mention the original game authors

Delivers on about 50% of my adolescent conception of paradise: every arcade game in existence (virtually), no quarters required. MAME is an emulator that runs the original ROMs from a staggering number of 80's arcade games. You can download it for free off the Internet, with a little digging to get the ROM images.

As a gamer, this is an absolute treasure trove. As a game developer, it's an incredible resource -- not only are the undisputed classics available (Space Invaders, Mr. Do, Galaxian, Pac Man, Asteroids, Donkey Kong etc etc), but you can also play some flawed near-classics (Bomb Jack, Time Pilot, Gorf, Burger Time, Omega Race, Discs Of Tron), as well as many out-and-out stinkers (Journey Escape, Space Zap, Satan's Hollow, etc). Playing these old games sheds new light on the adage, "There's a fine line between clever and stupid."

Interstate '76 ****

Nearly perfect. An uncanny recreation of that old familiar feeling of blasting through the Arizona desert at absurd speeds in a 70's muscle car, big hair feathering in the wind, hard funk pumping on the 8-track, 9mm machine-gun mounted on the roof.

The cut scenes are worth watching, the music fits the game and is actually listenable, the back story and gameplay elements are fully developed and integrated, and last but not least, the gameplay is solid. Kudos also for a feature that others may consider a bug: it's not too hard, and not too long. I actually appreciate a game I can finish in 10 or 15 hours; I've got other stuff going on in my life, sometimes.

Obligatory technical complaint: I can't figure out how to make it use my 3Dfx Voodoo card instead of the pathetic S3 Virge which is my primary adapter. Oh well, it's perfectly playable in 320x240.

Intel Pentium Pro 200 ****

I know, it's not a game, but I feel I need to speak my piece, since the Pentium Pro has been taking some heat in computer game rags lately, apparently based more on hearsay than actual experience. I recently got a new computer at work, a Micron PPro 200 with S3 Virge video card, running Windows 95. To hear boot or Computer Gaming World tell it, the PPro is automatically slower than a Pentium if you run DOS or Win95. What a load of crap. I run DOS and Win95 all day, and my new computer is 2 to 3 times (or more) as fast as my old one (P90 with Cirrus PCI video) on the things I've measured (C++ compiles, 3D rendering), and subjectively, it flies. On all the games I've tried that care about CPU speed (Quake, Duke 3D, Flight Unlimited, Descent, Tectrix stuff), the PPro is awesome. The performance gain on Tectrix's real-time 3D software, which I have decent measurements for, is well above the difference expected from the higher clock rate. These are all DOS-based apps, by the way. The thing some journalists don't seem to understand is that virtually all performance hungry PC software for the last couple of years has been written for 32-bit mode (using a DOS extender or what-have-you), even if it's not written for WinNT. The fact that a couple of Win95 subsystems still run in 16-bit mode just doesn't have much impact for gaming purposes, or any other purpose other than running Windows benchmarks as near as I can tell. While a Pentium 200 is a safe bet, you'll have an edge for the games that matter with a PPro200. There, I feel much better now.

Williams Arcade Classics ****
Williams and Digital Eclipse

Yeah! I hope I see more reissues of this quality. Apparently, a real video-game nut named Jeff Vavasour wrote an emulator for the PC that runs the old Williams coin-op videogame programs. Cool idea, and good implementation. The graphics look pixel perfect to me, and the sounds sound just about right (except, it seems as though the emulator only plays one sound effect at a time -- maybe that's how the original games were, too, I'm not sure). One quibble: the sound is designed for Sound Blaster only, although it works OK on the Gravis UltraSound using SBOS, but it doesn't work on the Media Vision PAS-16.

The games are Defender, Robotron, Joust, Defender II ('Stargate' to you and me; in the documentation they mention that Williams changed the name soon after they ceased production of the machines. What?), Bubbles, and Sinistar. You also get a multimedia history of the games including video interviews with some of the designers.

Joust is by far my favorite of these, and the collection is worth the money just for it. Defender is difficult as always, and PC controls don't really help, but still a classic. Robotron also suffers a little from the controls mismatch, but it's well worth a trip to the computer store for a y-cable and a second joystick... my problem with Robotron was always that it was too difficult and the game ended so quick, but with the right controls and endless free plays, it's a total rush. One of the cool things about the Eugene Jarvis games (Defender, Robotron, etc) is how the graphics are almost a little sloppy, but completely over-the-top -- it's as if you can sense the program poking out between the seams in the way pixels get splattered around.

I never really got the point of Stargate; of course I never got very good at Defender either, and I guess Stargate is really aimed at the expert Defender player. Bubbles really seems like an afterthought. It's not much of a game, it doesn't rate any video clips of the original designers in the multimedia section, and it's remarkable only for the bizarre concept: you're a soap bubble running around a kitchen sink, cleaning up bits of gunk. Sinistar is a cult favorite; see my review of the stand-up machine below, for my opinion of the game. The good news is that it's the same game, down to the bugs (for example, when I played the coin-op I noticed that if you're holding down the fire button when you start a new ship, you have to release the button and press it again to start the auto-fire -- same bug is here in the PC version).

I'd say that if you profess to care about video games, you ought to pick this up, or at least play the games at a friend's house. The best of these games seem to be able to turn on your adrenal glands like faucets. It's interesting how different these games are from great video games aimed at home consoles or PCs. The pace is furious, the challenge is stiff, and only a few of the games have much depth. (I guess the same could be be said of the average home game, minus the pace and the challenge...)

Also, the written histories and video clips of designers talking about their creations is pretty riveting. The clip of Eugene Jarvis waxing poetic over playing Robotron is not to be missed.

Crusader: No Remorse **

This game is a perfect example of why the CD-ROM industry tanked last year. Like countless other titles released, it has skillfully drawn and modeled artwork, a comprehensive back story, a ton of full-motion video, etc, etc, etc. But the game is no fun to play right out of the box. The framerate is jerky, the interface is complicated, it doesn't run under Win95, it only supports SoundBlasters (doesn't work with Gravis' SBOS)... how could I possibly want anything to do with it?
Beavis and Butthead in Virtual Stupidity ***
Viacom New Media

Strangly, I found this on the discount rack at Egghead (if you consider $30 a discount). Too bad for Viacom, because I give this game high marks. Features authentic voices, art, and writing from the show. I may be opening myself up for ridicule here, but I think Beavis and Butthead are hilarious. This game is a graphical adventure in the Leisure Suit Larry vein, with some video clips and four embedded mini video games. Playing it is like watching the show, but you decide what the lovable retards do next. There's good attention to detail, and B&B do or say something funny in response to most inputs. Cool. Also, kudos for running off the CD instead of filling my hard drive with 50 megs of crap. On the down side, the mini-games, while fun, are annoyingly slow to load, as are many of the scene transitions. That's one drawback of CD-centrism, but which could have been mitigated by a few small interface tweaks (e.g. let you play the game again without returning to the main game, let you escape from long video or animation clips). Overall, though, I'm impressed.

Quake alpha ***
id Software, graphics engine by John Carmack and Michael Abrash

Nice job as usual from id, and kudos for freely distributing the alpha. The technology, art, and level design are all excellent. The alpha is basically a demonstration of the deathmatch mode, and it's still a blast to blow up your friends. This time out, id is working with a bona-fide 3D engine, instead of the pseudo-3D of Doom. The levels have some nice touches that show the engine off impressively.

And yet... I can't say I'm not a little disappointed. This game is a lot like Doom. The look, the environments, the mood, the gameplay are really just a refinement of Doom. I guess asking id to repeat that leap of innovation yet again is a tall order, but I was hoping for something a little different this time out; an outdoor scene, vehicles, more analytic challenges, more interaction with the environment... basically something other than running around a maze with a gun. The folks at id are obviously so creative and so talented that I wish they'd created something more interesting than what amounts to a souped up clone of their last game.

Duke Nuke'em 3D ***
3D Realms, graphics engine by Ken Silverman

Well, after berating id for creating a very impressive Doom clone, I'm going to congratulate 3D Realms for doing the same thing. The game's engine is clearly not as innovative as Quake's, but they do more with it. There's a surprising amount of realism and potential interactions in the environments, so despite the fact that this is just another maze-and-gun game, it's still pretty interesting. That said, it borrows extensively from Doom not only in cover art (which is so blatant it must be joke), but also in gameplay, tone, and technology.

VR Soccer *
Interplay, Gremlin Interactive

Interim report: looks great, plays awful. Nice motion captured 3D players, nice looking textures, good frame rate... how come it's no fun? Maybe if I invest a few hundred hours practicing, I could be OK at it. But at that rate I'd be better off taking up the real game.
FIFA '96 *
Electronic Arts

See above.
Sinistar ***
Williams, arcade console, mid-80's

I encountered this game for the first time recently, although it has almost legendary status among classic-videogame fans. I wasn't blown away, though. I do appreciate the way the designers combined five or six basic elements into an unusual and fun game. But it doesn't seem to have a ton of depth.
Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure ***

This is a nicely done platform game for Win95. There's nothing you haven't seen before, but it's fairly fun. Not so addictive that I've made it past the fifth level (out of twenty-odd), but a worthy diversion.
Command And Conquer ****
Westwood Studios

I'm currently enslaved. This is what computers were invented to do. The artwork is attractive, the sound effects are satisfying, and hilarious at times, the gameplay is simple to learn, the missions are very challenging yet winnable with practice, the interface is responsive. And, wonder of wonders, the video cut-scenes are actually engaging and move the story along. Bottom line: it's not 3D, but it rules.
Creative Labs 3D Blaster *
3D acceleration hardware for VL-bus machines, ~$350

I guess it's nice of Creative Labs to make a 3D acceleration card for the lowly VL bus which has been pretty much obsoleted by PCI, but my recommendation is to save your money for an upgrade to a Pentium based system. In my 486-66DX2 system at home, the supplied version of Flight Unlimited performed somewhat better at 640x480 than the software-rendered version does at the same resolution on my P90 at work, which is to say it's slightly less unplayable. The kicker is, while with the standard version I can switch to 320x200 mode and actually enjoy the game, with the 3D Blaster version I'm stuck with a clunky 640x480. The same situation seems to apply with all the games that come with the card. The other games are Nascar Racing, which also suffered from a jerky framerate, Magic Carpet Plus which had the same problem, along with being a mediocre game, Rebel Moon, a crash-prone Doom Clone (yawn), and Hi Octane, again with the slow framerate and crappy game play.

On the plus side, the perspective-correct textures seem to work fairly effectively in Flight Unlimited. Magic Carpet used linear textures. The textures in Nascar Racing mostly looked OK, although I saw some artifacts that may have been due to lame clipping code.

Let's hope the PCI-based 3D Blaster is more impressive. | Thatcher Ulrich