Tom McDonald’s PC Games Extravaganza!
Publisher: Sybex, Inc.
For many readers, Tom McDonald’s PC Games Extravaganza! will be a 220-page tome of nostalgia. It’s hard not to nod at the various inclusions as you thumb through each genre’s section—’Yep, yep, mm-hmm, good, good.’ But just as much as it is an enjoyable trip down memory lane, it is a snapshot of a unique time when the industry was brimming with excitement, anticipation, and enthusiasm for the possibilities that the changing technological landscape held for the growing medium.
The name Tom McDonald won’t be new to many longtime PC gamers or gaming magazine aficionados, but for those of you who are scratching your heads, McDonald was a staple of PC Gamer for well over a decade as well as a contributor to a number of other publications, including CD-Rom Today, Computer Gaming World, and PC Accelerator. He’s still at it nowadays, keeping busy in the field as a contributing editor on Maximum PC and head of the State of Play gaming blog. But in the days before broadband and seemingly unlimited server storage, his column in PC Gamer covering expansions, patches, and add-ons was a vital beat, managing to deliver a wealth of information in a modest print space.
Needless to say, I was more than a little surprised to see that McDonald had authored a book about PC games, especially since it’s been out since 1995. (I’ve yet to find anything on a referenced follow-up, which was to cover more family-friendly titles.) This just isn’t any book, though, but a reference guide in which he compiled the day’s more interesting titles into a work that spans numerous genres and over 150 games.
It took a while to track down a complete copy of the book, that being one with the pack-in CD-Rom. However, after several months of trying to find whatever info I could on its contents, much less a copy, I was able to track one down through Amazon. A paltry fiver later and I had a seemingly brand-new copy in my hands, complete with sealed disc featuring “over 130 of the hottest DOS and Windows games ever created!”
So, what exactly is PC Games Extravaganza? It’s a time capsule of sorts, detailing a wide range of PC games from the era by someone steeped in gaming. The biggest releases—Civilization, System Shock, Tie Fighter—are covered alongside such obscure titles as Millennium Auction and low-key, one-man operations, like the Windows slot-machine program Bandit and free strategy title WinRisk. Each game has a small info box that details who it’s from (developer and publisher), its demo’s location on the disk, how to use the included file(s), what type of demo it is (interactive or non-interactive), the cost of the full version, and contact information to order the full copy; some also have a small section detailing what’s missing (two scenarios, a level editor, etc.). Most games have at least one screenshot and paragraph, with many titles being described over four to five. Considering his position at PC Gamer, McDonald had spent a significant amount of time with many of the titles covered, and the rest were tried before being included. Since it would be a waste to not take advantage of such knowledge, McDonald also indulges his inner reviewer with a sentence or two (or three) dedicated to his thoughts on the programs. These are rarely harsh, given that he picked the games out due to their merits and his enjoyment of them (“If I didn’t like the game for some reason, it simply wasn’t included. Why bother wasting space with garbage?”), but he does point out a title’s problems, if there are any elements that stuck out. Since this is a recommendations guide and not an analytical study, he is more often than not discussing what the titles are rather than their place in the evolution of the genres, encouraging readers to try the game out for themselves and tossing some money the developer’s way if they like what they play. And readers would want that contact info to send their payment to because, as he points out, they will be “committing a theft” if they continue playing without paying up. The shareware model, so useful for extended trials, required honesty and remuneration. In short, don’t be a cheapskate.
Over 130 titles are covered. While some of the information included is almost too basic, it’s written in such a way that everyone benefits as newcomers will get the essentials and old hands will learn something new about some of the titles—there are just too many titles to know everything about all of them. But what’s as important as the number of titles covered is the general tone.
The book was written during the Multimedia Revolution—a phrase and time that I am admittedly very fond of—when there was genuine excitement about the rapid advancement of technology, and more specifically, what that meant for games. Gaming was becoming ever-more immersive, and the latest developments were set to advance the medium in amazing ways. The introduction revels in the time, with references to the growing acceptance of gaming as a hobby, the technology behind the latest games being the cutting edge of what’s available, and the continually expanding range of titles that will surely offer something for all people. A humorous bit of chin-stroking will also elicit a chuckle from those who remember the era, as virtual reality—a favorite topic of the day—is touted as an inevitability within the coming years, and that it, like the rise of gaming, was something he and his ilk had long known and found that only then was the world catching up to them. For those who can recall the excitement over virtual reality, this is a perfect representation of the day: unironic, unabashed, and (mostly) cynicism-free excitement.
PC Games Extravaganza was written only 16 years ago, but by the standards of the content, it might as well have been in a different epoch. The tantalizing bits of tech that were being dreamed of then are a reality, settled and long part of our lives. Not just that, but the most resource-intensive titles of the day are running on our phones—a notion 1994 me would surely have scoffed at. Some surprises will await the more modern gamer, such as the transition of so-called casual games from Windows to mobile phones, which is an especially interesting twist given Microsoft’s continued struggles in the smartphone market. Seeing a sports category without the slightest mention of EA will also raise some eyebrows, given the company’s dominance over the last decade or so. Even more surprising will be the company with the biggest presence, which isn’t Activision or EA, but MicroProse. With 14 included titles, MicroProse’s catalog spans nearly all of the genres, with their recent offerings including everything from strategy (Civilization, Master of Orion, X-Com) to sports (David Leadbetter’s Greens) to simulation (F-15 Trike Eagle III, Gunship 2000).
Other heavy hitters include Interplay, LucasArts, and Sierra On-Line. The pre-Black Isle Interplay of the time was noted for Alone in the Dark 1 and 2, Castles II: Siege & Conquest, Out of this World, and Star Trek 25th Anniversary CD-Rom. LucasArts had one of my all-time favorites mentioned, Tie Fighter, as well as Day of the Tentacle, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Sam and Max Hit the Road, and X-Wing. Sierra had their share of adventure titles, such as Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist and Gabriel Knight: The Sins of the Fathers. I was also pleasantly surprised to see the Apogee-published Solar Winds mentioned, a great action-adventure title set in space (and another favorite of mine) from then Epic MegaGames.
It’s amazing to see how far the industry and medium have come in so short a time, but it’s also biting to see just what’s been lost. Enthusiasm is still rife throughout the major and indie studios, but the sheer variety of what was on offer then is truly amazing. Space sims, sports titles, role-playing games, shooters (first person and arcade), action titles, all running the gamut from garage games to triple-A titles from the industry’s biggest companies. It’s hard not to be a little envious of what was on offer then, especially now when PC gaming itself is in a state of flux as developers decide just where it fits in their portfolio. There are still some great companies putting out some fantastic titles, but little else can capture the wonder of the days when the CD-Rom, World Wide Web, Hypertext Format, and high-speed dial-up modems were coming into their own.
Regardless of whether or not you can remember the days when a CD-Rom kit, complete with a copy of Doom II and a set of speakers, could set you back $400 or if your first game was on a Pentium 4, PC Games Extravaganza is a great stroll down memory lane and a fast, fun way to catch up on where so many of today’s franchises got their start and today’s developers derive their inspiration.
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