Games from my childhood (2)


This is part of a free-flow series writing about the games that left my mark on my childhood. Previous post.

Back to China

My family returned to China in early 1995. This was a peculiar time to be a teenage gamer. Windows 95 would drop soon, but it would be another couple of years before I adopted it (driven by an insatiable desire to play Diablo). I was very happy with MS-DOS, and I knew my way around it reasonably well (at least for the purposes of playing video-games).

My memory is fuzzy, but those few years in China before Windows 95 was my prime years of playing classic DOS games of the early to mid 90s. To be clear, I didn’t have a great supply of games – it would be the occasional pirated compilation CD that would have hundreds of random games (many of which were the shareware version), or the random 3.5″ floppy disk (or even the rare 5.25″ disk, if my memory serves). I’d run some rudimentary antivirus check on the disk – if it returned a positive, I’d be much dismayed, but occasionally tempted to select “kill the virus” and then run the program anyway.

Those were also the years where I battled with the various quirks of DOS gaming. The first issue was EMS / XMS memory format – to run a particular game, I’d often have to reboot into the correct format, and sometimes a game wouldn’t run no matter what I tried. And then there were the numerous setup configs – DMA / interrupts and such, and it would often be a trial and error process to get any sound working (the 386 my father bought in the UK had no sound card; I believe the 586 he got in China did). Sometimes things would only half work – my entire play experience with Syndicate was without sound effects and only background music, and it would be years later that I realized how much I missed out 1. But more on Syndicate later.

Koei games

Let’s talk about Koei games – for a Chinese teen growing up in the 90s, Koei was absolutely a huge developer. A lot of this obviously is due to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms series (which is still running, the latest being the 13th version), but Uncharted Waters 2 was also a massively influential game.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms 3

This was the entry that I played the most (probably around the years 1995-97), and have the fondest memories of. Even at the time, this was a dated entry – the game was originally released in 1992, and by the time I got to it, 4/5 were already out. But, this was the copy I got ahold of (on 3.5″ floppy I believe), and I remember my PC couldn’t run 5 for reasons likely related to EMS/XMS memory.

This game was old enough that the mouse was an optional input – all menu items could be accessed through keyboard shortcuts. Still, it had gorgeous music (that evolved based on your progression), great art (despite the low pixel count, all the character portraits felt vivid), and the ultimate empire-building fantasy sandbox based on the ultimate IP for Chinese players. My copy’s game editor also had 3 max-attribute (every stat was 100) character slots, so these duly became my 3 top lieutenants (I think I created them to be my children, and I spent a lot of time naming them). A typical game for me would be starting in a city in a relatively peaceful (distant) location, and I’d spent years leveling up my city and slowly expanding locally, all the while major battles were being fought elsewhere. I think that says something about my personality even as a kid.

The other thing was mentioning was, this series’ success absolutely shows the value of IP – to me Koei’s various history simulations share strong gameplay similarities, and the player is really just choosing the fantasy setting. I remember briefly playing Genghis Khan as well as Nobunaga’s Ambition (which has many fans in China as well), but unable to get into either of them.

Random side note – I remember Koei got into some PR trouble in China due to its World War 2 Pacific Theater simulation. It got some prime time CCTV coverage, and the report was about a studio in Tianjin that was translating the game into Chinese complaining about the game being fascist.

Uncharted Waters 2: New Horizons

I started playing this game in junior high (it must have been 1996 or 1997), after hearing about it from a friend in the same class. He copied it to me on 3 floppy disks. Again, this was a very dated game by then – it originally released in 1994 – but this did not deter me from absolutely falling in love with it.

I believe this game/series is not prominent in the west – at surface level, it has been described as derivative of Sid Meier’s Pirates!. That’s a shame – there’s something magical about this game in how it captures the spirit of adventure and exploration, and my friends and I found it captivating.

I had a lot of handholding playing this game – I had a detailed guide from a popular PC magazine (Popsoft – 大众软件), so I wasn’t so much as exploring on my own as following a proven path, but that didn’t dampen my sense of achievement one bit. Later on to skip the grind, I’d also hex-edit the binary save-files, though I discovered the game has some way of detecting that edits have been made. Normally, a save-game that has reached an end-game milestone would have an asterisk next to it, but if you edit a save-game and then reach end-game, the asterisk would not be assigned. Another fun interaction from hexediting was when I gave myself an item that is only used in the end-game “cinematic” – when it showed up in my inventory, the description was a funny line to the effect of “how did this get here?”.

It’s not hyperbole to say Uncharted Waters 2 was the best world geography class I ever had. It introduced the world to me, literally, and above all else it was a deeply romantic game: it was open-ended, and the 6 different playable characters had very distinct motives / objectives that was not all about fighting / naval conquest (build a trading empire; complete the world map; discover lost treasure). Even though the graphics and presentation were simple, the mind would fill in the blanks, and I would experience these vivid experiences. Even to this day, I can recall the burst of relief and joy when successfully docking at a port after encountering a storm.

(To be continued.)

  1. On the flip side, I do have the Syndicate soundtrack burnt into my memory.

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