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April 13, 2011 / jwaxo

Softdisk Monthly (Game Demos)

Some explorer, he was wearing a t-shirt and a baseball cap.

I was recently amazed and astounded at the news that John Romero, of id Software and luscious, flowing locks, programmed a little game called Dangerous Dave way, way, way back in the day. Dave made its rounds about my house and elementary school almost entirely from a floppy disc supplied by my brother, who hoarded these treasures back from that land of big kids, middle school. This was back in the day when floppies were more than just unusually-sized save icons, but slightly after the point when floppies stopped being so floppy. The disc, aptly labeled “games”, had four games on it, only two of which I remember: Dangerous Dave and Shooting Gallery. Everyone at my school played them, and I was surprised when at last I went to middle school and found out that people from other schools also knew about these games.

It was really my first encounter with the success of game demos, that idea of passing around a free version of a game you hope to make more money with. Of course, I had always been familiar with game demos, and that mostly came from our subscription to Softdisk Monthly. At one point called Big Blue Disk, Softdisk was a treasure that my family received at the end of every month that would take its place of honor on the computer desk. In a strange place of coincidence, the same company that sent that blue disk to my house was almost entirely composed of future id Software employees: John Carmack, Tom Hall, even, yes, John Romero.

Enough of the history lesson, though. These discs provided us with at least three new games to play each month, and they rocked.

In the early days, when we still got them on floppy, the hidden treasures of the games would only be found through careful, meticulous file browsing, a task that was pretty difficult for my young brain.

Where are you, tasty morsels of games? Reveal yourselves!

Once they made the jump to CD, and we bought a shiny new HP that could read those things, Softdisk got a little more fancy. There would be special environments, normally themed to whatever month that issue arrived at. December issues would have a roaring fire in a living room scene, with snow falling outside. March would be green and shamrock-covered, with pots of gold for each of the applications.

Each issue came with several mysterious components that would have gathered dust, if it were possible. Crossword puzzles, updates to family tree software, digital address books; we didn’t care about those. No, what we cared about were the games. Games that probably mean little to people like you, but are burned into my memory. Blaze, which was almost an exact copy of Dr. Mario, I would later find out. Chagunitze, and the seemingly endless amount of imitations, which was itself pretty much an imitation of Chip’s Challenge. Bubba Goes West and the various Bubba adventures, horribly frustrating puzzle platformers.

We’d find more ways to kill Bubba than ways to solve the puzzles. Possibly the point of the game.

Of course, there were some actually famous games that were passed around in this manner. Perhaps you’ve heard of a little game called Wolfenstein 3D? Epic Pinball? Jane of the Jungle? Rollercoaster Tycoon? Heck, even I didn’t know about that last one; I’m looking at this list of games Softdisk demoed and am surprised myself.

All of them were cut short or crippled in some way, begging you at the end to purchase the full game. And in a few cases, we did: my bro and I pooled our moneys for the original Warcraft after obsessing over the demo for Warcraft II for a good month or so. Those first three levels were awesome, and our first introduction to the RTS genre. Of course, a year later we would trade both of them in for our friend’s copy of Red Alert, a decision that would just about change our lives. But that’s another story.

In fact, all of this talk about demos is really making me remember how we didn’t exclusively get them from Softdisk, but scavenged them from everywhere. Games used to come with two or three of them, at least, and Maxis games would produce almost a complete library of demos with each purchase. Which is really leading into a completely different blog post, one probably filled with more specific stories than “man, remember this game?”

Sorry about that. Here, here’s a silly picture with a direct-quote caption vaguely related to this post!

“I guess you can play Warcraft on school days. It’s pretty much like SimWar, right?”

“Sure! Yes. Definitely!”

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