Memories Under Glass: Gaming on the IBM PCjr

My earliest memories of PC gaming began in my grandparents’ house back in the mid to late 80s.  I didn’t really know anything about PCs at the time and they had their IBM PCjr set up in the living room.  We didn’t have a PC at home yet, I don’t think, so traveling 6 hours to visit my grandparents was really the only way at the time to mess with one.  Being a huge Transformers kid at the time, the computer fascinated me…albeit not as much as it would once I learned all about the inner workings later in life.  I have no clue what they normally did with it, but I remember the only thing I cared about at the time was the games.

Now, I’ll be honest, the games on the PCjr were usually nothing special, and most wouldn’t hold up today even if you ignored the obvious differences in graphics and presentation.  They were short little fun things you might find in a flash game nowadays.  That said, I was a very young kid at the time with little experience, so it didn’t take much to make me excited.  Lower standards and all that.  I could stay there and play game after game if I was allowed to do so.  Looking back, it was quite obvious games were Kind Of A Big Deal to me.  First, let’s take a look at the PC itself.

The IBM PCjr in all its splendor…as it were.

The IBM PCjr was kind of an oddball PC.  It was a family version of the IBM PC which was intended for businesses.  It had more powerful graphics and sound, though…if developers were inclined to take advantage of it.  It had what is known as “sidecars”, expansions that would literally fit onto the side of the PCjr and were used for things like memory expansions and adding new ports, and ROM cartridges that fit into those slots below the disk drive in the image above which would restart the PC upon inserting them and were used for things like BASIC programming, paint/image software, as well as a few games.

The disks were 5.25″ floppies, the precursor to the old 3.5″ disks that still adorn the save buttons in modern software (and likely are completely unknown to the younger generation now).  These disks were how the name “floppies” was coined, because they were very bendable and…well…floppy.  You could bend them in half without trying, although it would mess up the disk.  They got better and better until they held the same amount as the 3.5″…1.44 MB.  Back then that was a massive amount of space, though…apparently.  I only used them to load and save, never to program.

See the disk in the upper-right? Yeah, that’s what we used way back when.  Note the size compared to a CD.

So anyway, what were these games that introduced me to PC gaming?  Well, let me tell you…they were largely horrible by today’s standards and most can’t natively work on modern PCs.  However, if you’re interested I do supply a list of links you can begin your search for copies at the bottom of the post (mostly abandonware sites) and you can usually play them using DosBox, a MS-DOS emulator commonly used for these old games.

Note: I am not 100% sure any of these can be officially termed “abandonware”, so if you download from these sites do so at your own risk, which is an official term meaning don’t complain to me if you somehow get in trouble.

Jumpman

Not to be confused with Lode Runner

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Jumpman is a platforming game where you jump around the platforms defusing bombs in order to complete the level and move on.  Each level has hazards ranging from the common “smart darts”, which slowly move along and then speed up when they align with the player, as well as unique hazards such as platforms disappearing when bombs are collected, barrels rolling around, platforms being destroyed by walking or jumping on them, and robots that move when you collect bombs, and dragons that follow and shoot at you.  The interesting thing about the bombs was that you defused them by touching them and the bombs themselves looked more like flowers than bombs.  This meant unless you knew the premise the game seemed more about running around collecting flowers while avoiding pellets and other hazards.  I should also note the hilarity (IMO) when you die.  Instead of some basic animation your character actually falls to the bottom of the screen, hitting every platform, ladder, etc on the way down.

Interesting little factoid:  Jumpman was inspired by the Nintendo arcade Donkey Kong, and you can see a lot of those elements in the game.  Coincidentally, while Mario appears in Donkey Kong, it wasn’t his name on the initial release in 1981…he was originally called “Jumpman”.  He was only named Mario starting in 1982 in Donkey Kong Jr.

I was obsessed with this game.  The level variance was really good and each one felt fresh even if they had similar mechanics to some previous ones.  There were 30 levels to start, and since the time I played there have been multiple additional levels created (Jumpman Jr, Jumpman Zero, and Jumpman Lives!).  My favorite levels were the ones that started completely blank and were revealed by wandering around exploring.  It was a simple (yet complex) platformer with a lot of creativity and this early game is part of the reason I would greatly enjoy the platformer genre my whole life.

Amazon

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Amazon was a game I didn’t get very far in, mainly because there was a specific point where a lot of players had trouble.  One of the more interesting aspects of this game was that that story was written by Michael Crichton of Jurassic Park fame.  Supposedly it is partly based on his book Congo (released in 1980), but some sources I’m finding state it was a similarly themed story he’d already been working on separate from Congo specifically for a game.  It doesn’t have the same plot, so I’m inclined to entertain the notion it’s a separate creation.  It doesn’t actually matter in the end, though.

The only major thing I remember was the warm colors and the parrot Paco that you find in the home of your friend, the majority of my playing was trying to figure out how to give him something.  This was back when Adventure games used text parsers, so a lot of the game was figuring out exactly what to say to move the story along.  It’s weird how these games can actually cause players to sit and try so many combinations of actions even if only a few actually worked.  I remember being hooked despite not being able to finish, and the experience helped shape my interest for story in games as a strong hook.

Flight Simulator

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Microsoft’s Flight Simulator was one of the most polished games on the PCjr and was also one of the only games to take advantage of the graphics capability on the system.  Obviously it was my first foray into flight simulators and how to fly a plane…and I’ve never liked them since.  Others were able to play it rather well, but I kept crashing despite doing everything people were telling me.  It did, however, beat into me how important flaps and landing gear were…not that it helped.

The strange thing about this game was despite it being a simulator it was completely graphical with an extremely large amount of detail considering the power of the PCjr, and tons of people really liked it because of that.  It wasn’t a text game with graphics.  I never really cared about it, but I did play it for at least a while and therefore it earns its spot on this list.  This was the earliest sign to me that I just don’t like straight simulations, even if they seem interesting.  I tend to treat games as sort of a highly interactive version of a book or movie, except much more immersing.  Straight simulations don’t really have any of that, so it’s not much of a draw for me.

Bouncing Babies

Okay, I’m warning you guys now, this game was a product of a very different time.  It literally made me facepalm when I found it again, having completely forgotten it existed.  It’s not the same level of WTF as say, Custard’s Revenge, but it’s still pretty up there.

Released in 1984, this is a game where the player controls two firemen holding what has to be some sort of stretcher/trampoline between them trying to save babies from a burning building.  The babies come out of the burning building and the player quickly moved the firemen underneath them.  The babies would bounce once they touched the stretcher, and the player had to move the firemen between three different locations to bounce the babies into a waiting ambulance.  The number of babies and their speed varied the longer you played, requiring you to move faster and faster to prevent them from hitting the ground.  If too many hit the ground (/facepalm) you lose.

Honestly, looking back I can’t believe this game was ever released.  It certainly couldn’t be released now while keeping the same premise, maybe if they changed the babies to expensive antiques or ancient artifacts or something.  I think in my head the extremely  simple graphics made me think the babies were in fact expensive dolls or something and therefore nothing that would be truly harmed if they fell.  There’s no blood or anything, just a simple noise that had no relation to what was actually depicted.  I don’t think I played it for very long, but it’s pretty solidly in my head once I recalled it.

I don’t really feel like posting the image (that’s what being a dad will do to you), but you can find an animated GIF of some the gameplay on the game’s Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bouncing_Babies_%28video_game%29

Borrowed Time (a.k.a Time to Die)

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Borrowed time was a detective/mystery adventure game created by Interplay and set in 1939.  It was following the popular style at the time to basically be a text adventure with some comic book graphics depending on what was going on.  The story is that you are targeted for death and need to survive while investigating your wife’s death.  You can talk and question contacts, witnesses, escape from being tied up, jump out windows, etc.  This was one of my favorite games.  I was absolutely horrible at it and died constantly (noticing a trend here?), but it definitely had charm and was surprisingly well written compared to the standards at the time.

I remember a lot about it.  It was one of the first games that made me fear for my character’s life as right at the beginning you would need to escape as a thug was going to break through your door.  It was also one of the first games that made me put myself in the place as my character since it was shown from a first person perspective.  If you visited the crime boss you would have to surrender your gun, and you “felt naked without it”.  You’d need to go talk to contacts while investigating, and at every step of the way you could be caught and killed.  However, the thing I remember most of all wasn’t even an intended part of the game:  if you moved the mouse over any animation on screen the whole animated image would get corrupted and the animation would become this jumbled mess of colors instead of some cloth flapping in the wind.  I was easily amused, it seems.

You’d think detective/mystery games would be a major genre in games, since they fit very nicely into a gameplay format, and while there is a pretty significant mystery genre it’s just not as popular as I originally thought.  Perhaps more players really just want mindless action than having to think…or perhaps the action games are easier introductions for many.  Who knows?

Hacker

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Hacker is a really strange espionage game.  You basically played a hacker who breaks into a system (literally) and controls a robot that would burrow underground between several different locations and meet up with spies to gather pieces of a shredded intelligence document.  By talking to them and trading various things you could trade the items the spies wanted for items other spies wanted, gaining you fragments of intelligence.  The tunnels you traveled through didn’t always go straight and you would need to work out how to get from point to point.  After playing a while you’re required to avoid satellites searching for you.  I mainly remember my uncle playing this game while I watched, and was shocked to not only find out you were burrowing through the earth but that when you traded items the hand was a robot.  Obviously I never saw one of the opening shots that shows the robot you control, but it was still a neat twist for me.

Honestly this is the extent of my memories of the game, but I decided to keep it here as it was significant for me and supposedly it’s one of the few real espionage games available at the time.

King’s Quest

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I wanted to note this here, because I did play some of them on the PCjr, but I am devoting a separate post to this series so I won’t go into this here.  These were perhaps my favorite games on the PCjr (and later computers as well), and my siblings and I spent days upon days trying to figure out how to beat it.  Mostly they figured out the tough puzzles and I just used their info though.  I loved this series then and still love it today, rose-colored glasses be damned, and I’ve loved the adventure game genre ever since due entirely to this series.

Other Games

There were plenty of other games to be found on the PCjr, these are the just ones that A) I can remember and B) I actually played long enough to be able to do A.  Many games were available to me through a compilation disk we would get that had several smaller games together and we’d just play them through until the next ones.  Looking back it feels like I had an eternity to play these games compared to today.  That’s nostalgia for you, I guess, but I did indeed have a lot more time to play than I do now.  I’ll probably do another retro game post about shareware games I liked and remember.

Well, there you have it.  The PCjr was very instrumental in introducing me to video games as a kid and solidifying the themes and game types I would enjoy for years: story and fun gameplay…basically adventure and platformer games, but I’ve branched since then.  Thankfully I got a lot better at games in general.  This was a major nostalgia trip for me while researching this post, I have to say.  I haven’t seen or heard of these games (except the ones that still exist today) in over two decades, and I keep getting flashes of some other games we played.  Unfortunately, these were the only ones I absolutely know I played on the PCjr and not the PC we had next, as well as actually being able to find info on them, so I couldn’t put games like Space Quest or the various shareware games on here.

If you’re interested in what else was available, here’s a few sites to look into (either talking about or hosting them):

http://www.mobygames.com

http://www.retroist.com

http://www.thehouseofgames.net

http://www.myabandonware.com

http://www.abandonia.com

Screenshots from Jumpman, Amazon, Borrowed Time, Hacker, and King’s Quest are sourced from MobyGames.com, others are from various places around the internet (My apologies, I do not know the full sources of all the images, please let me know if you want them taken down.)

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