Thursday, January 28, 2016

Electronic Arts "Wasteland" post-apocalyptic role playing game

My memory is so full of good times with video games when I was growing up and one of those memories is Electronic Arts epic post-apocalyptic role playing game “Wasteland”.  “Wasteland” literally came out of nowhere to rob me blind of many, many daytime and night time hours of my eighteen year old life during my first year in college away from home. 

It was February or March of 1988, sometime about a third of the way through my second semester; I remember getting out of class for the day at Hinds Junior College in Raymond, Mississippi and wanting to just get out and go for a long drive in the warming Mississippi spring weather.   Cruising around Jackson in my black and gold ’79 Pontiac Trans Am with the T-tops off and listening to the Kenwood aftermarket stereo system I eventually found myself at Northpark Mall by afternoon’s end and after eating an early dinner at the food court I wandered aimlessly around the mall hitting my usual haunts …


Toy Store.


Music store.

Electronics Boutique.

Oh, back in those days EB wasn’t wall to wall with console games, no, EB was wall to wall with computer games and computer accessories.  In fact, I don’t even remember there being any console video games at EB back in those days … no, it was just computer gaming software for the IBM (PC), Apple and Commodore personal computer systems and back then while the IBM had more games available for it the Apple games seemed to have the best graphics (something that decades later I still wonder about).  As soon as I walked in EB there was a standup cardboard display greeting me for “Wasteland.”

Now, back in the day my chosen gaming rig and personal computer was my trusty Apple IIC (two-cee) that I’d gotten about seven years prior and it had been my best friend all through school.  It was almost like a laptop computer … it was the size of a contemporary laptop, had a built-in floppy drive (5.25”) and a small monochrome (green) monitor.  When hooked up with a Commodore color monitor that I’d gotten for Christmas the previous year and I had a screaming game machine (at that time) that would run anything I could throw at it (as long as whatever I threw at it said “APPLE II+ family compatible”).  Like I said, the IBM (PC) (later just identified as “DOS”) had the most games available for it and sometimes the PC had games that I really wanted to play that were not offered in Apple versions so as I grabbed up the “Wasteland” software folder my eyes scanned the words I was looking for … looking for that sticker which said that it was Apple compatible … and it was!

Holy smoke on a Belgian waffle!

Whatever this game was … and it looked (expletive expletive expletive) awesome … it would run on my Apple IIC! 

I turned the shrink wrapped software jacket over in my hands, my eyes roaming that amazing cover art and then scanning the preview screen shots on the back all the while reading what I could be getting into.  My mind raced … “Wasteland” … “Electronic Arts” … from the same people who had brought me such wonderful previous RPGs like “The Bard’s Tale” series.

It was some kind of post-apocalyptic role playing game for the Apple computer … and it was like “Bard’s Tale” … sort of … only with radiation and mutants and guns and rocket launchers!  I have to tell you, in the spring of 1988 post-apocalyptic stuff was still tightening the lugnuts of my imagination and here was the first real post-apocalyptic computer game that I’d ever played … okay, maybe not.  There had been SSI’s “Road War 2000” about two years ago but it hadn’t looked anything like … this.

This was … cool!

This was ... TSR's "Gamma World" on a computer game ... if TSR had ever made "Gamma World" into a computer game.

It was one of those moments in your life when you know that something really cool is about to happen.  There were some science fiction games for the Apple back then but none of those games were role playing games.  As far as role playing games went I’d pretty much been relegated to Origin’s “Ultima” series of dungeon crawling monster slaying sequel adventures and SSI’s “Questron” which was a fun play.  It amazes me that with the threat of global thermonuclear war looming all the time between America and Russia that fantasy RPGs were all the rage on computers.  There’s only so much fantasy and magic that I could take and by the spring of 1988 I had pretty much had all of the spell casting and sword swinging and dragon slaying that I could take and “Wasteland” seemed like just the kind of doomsday stroll I was looking for.

Oh … this was going to be good!

I paid for my copy of “Wasteland” and drove home to my apartment in Raymond, MS and … good memories.  The game came with two, double sided five and a quarter inch floppy disks, a game manual, and a book of paragraphs to read at certain points in the game.

"Wasteland", like most games in that era, had to be copied to a blank disk in order to play because since there were no hard drives and since "Wasteland" was one of the first persistent environment type games (meaning if you killed everyone in a location when you left and came back everyone in that location was still dead ...) so data was actively being written to the floppy disks as you played the game.  Heaven help you if you ever played off of one of your "master" disks ...

I don’t know how many total hours that I played “Wasteland” but it was a good chunk of my eighteen year old life that semester.  Some of the things that I remember about that game, now 28 years later, I’ll share with you.

The game ran on two, double sided five and a quarter inch floppy disks.

You had to copy the original disks and play from the copies.  There was a notch on the disks that you put a piece of tape over to protect the disk so that the disk could not be changed or written to.

Before you played the game you had to take four blank disks and painstakingly run a utility program that copied the two original disks, front and back to the four backup disks.  There were no hard drives back then so everything was run in memory.  During game play you would be asked to swap out disks as you played.  If you didn’t save often and you lost power then you lost everything you had played for.
I started out with four characters … Jessie, Waylon, Sarah and Deena.  I kept the names simple because you were limited to a certain amount of letters for each name and I really wasn’t in the habit of naming my characters stuff like “Johnny the Mutant Slayer” or anything that silly and ridiculous.

I remember leaving the Ranger Center … fresh recruits heading out into the “Wasteland” for the first time.  I had been told that something … strange … was happening to the north west and that there were a few settlements to the west so off I went exploring.

Every now and then the game would tell you to read some text out of a handout.  This would add ambience to the gaming experience.  Why this text couldn’t be included in the game itself I didn’t understand but perhaps it was a limitation of the programming ability back then.

I remember fighting mutant animals at some agriculture center which had a giant rusting satellite dish (why an agriculture center needed a giant satellite dish was something I thought about … maybe it was some kind of satellite communication center that later was turned into an agriculture center after the bombs fell and things like satellite dishes became pretty much useless).  I remember there being an underground warren where I had to go kill killer bunnies and stuff.  I eventually stopped shooting them and just switched to my character’s combat knives and got up close and personal to save ammo.

I remember a section of railroad with a couple of train cars and some tents … I think some nomads lived there and you could trade with them.  The train cars never went anywhere.

I remember some motel that I had to go to the courtyard.  There was a pool and just for fun I put my character through the pool.  He started swimming and got experience for doing it so I swam around for a while and got some free experience.

Squeezings!  Which was what all the drunks kept asking for … I guess “snake squeezings” was slang for liquor and booze.

I fought a hobo and his big dog … and won.

Shifting sands.

I remember finding a jeep outside a city but not being able to do anything with it.  There were no other vehicles around so I thought that was weird.  Later I rescued a guy and he fixed the jeep and drove us … somewhere … to another location.  I thought that was weird and neat.

I remember fighting robots in a sewer and three of my characters getting killed because that firefight was never-ending and burned through almost all of my ammo.  I used up grenades, anti-tank rockets and burned entire magazines at a time through my weapons.

I buried those three dead characters in the spot on the map just to the right of the Ranger Center.  Every time I went back to the Ranger Center I thought about my three dead team mates.  Few games did that way back then.  

Few games do today.

I made three new characters.  The survivor of the first group became their mentor.
I remember some outlaws or bandits or criminals had kidnapped the mayor’s daughter and I had to assault their hideout in the town.  Somehow I managed to get on the roof of the hideout and use ropes to go through a skylight.  There was a long running gunfight with the outlaws and I eventually killed their leader.  The mayor’s daughter was tied to a chair and rigged with explosives.  I disarmed the explosives and we all got out of there to return the mayor’s daughter to him.  That was intense.  I even had to get up and walk around for a few minutes outside after that fight because up until that point in time that was the most epic RPG computer game fight I’d ever played through.  I tried to copy the game disk so I could go back in and do the fight again but that didn’t work.

I remember there was a village that the only way you could get to it was by going way north and then following a trail due south.  If you tried to get to the village from the south you got radiation poisoning.

I remember my first Proton Ax!  I found it in some room on a golf course in Vegas, I think.  It was so much better than what I’d been using against the robots.  Proton ax!  FTW!

Fighting death machines in the golf course in Vegas.  When I first went to Las Vegas all I seemed to run into were death machines.


Night Screamers … sitting there holding that toy doll … just freaky.

Giant iguanas!

I remember not being able to open a locked door so I used a “mangler” on it which was either a type of grenade or a type of anti-tank rocket and I blew the door up and was able to get the loot inside.

There was a military base where you could learn new skills.  I think you learned how to fly a helicopter there as well in some kind of simulator then took the helicopter to do the final attack on the final boss / base.

I think I built an android as a team member …

Pseudo-chitin armor!  To this day I still remember how cool finding “pseudo-chitin armor” was and how after finding it my characters didn’t get hurt as bad as often.

Laser guns!

A man portable meson cannon!

Power armor!

A rampant AI intent on using automated death machines to pacify the Wasteland of all organic life!

The final assault on the AI base kind of reminded me of what it might have been like assaulting SKYNET in the “Terminator” movie … and this was three years before “Terminator 2” ever hit theaters.

One of the things that I remember most about “Wasteland” was that I played it while listening to Tangerine Dream’s “Phaedra” album.  To this day when I listen to “Phaedra” I can close my eyes and still get glimpses of the imagined “Wasteland” … so ingrained in my golden memories is the association between that Tangerine Dream album and that Electronic Arts computer game that I can’t help having fond memories when I think of one or the other.

"Phaedra" was the perfect soundtrack to "Wasteland" ... from the title track to "Sequent C", the last track on Side B, which was playing at the time that I buried three quarters of my team members.

“Wasteland”, while it dominated my free time in the spring of 1988, was a non-stop love affair with everything that was cool in the post-apocalypse setting.  I was fortunate enough to own and play this game when it came out and I have many fond memories of it.  Almost ten years later I got to play the spiritual successor to “Wasteland” …“Fallout” and oh what a difference that nearly decade long wait had made in graphics and play-ability

I don’t think I got any of the “Wasteland” references in “Fallout” other than the reference to the Desert Rangers.  I understood at the time that “Fallout” wasn’t a real sequel to “Wasteland” but playing “Fallout” I reminisced about “Wasteland” and thought about how far we’d come as computer gamers in so short a time.

I’ve been a big fan of the ongoing “Fallout” series (some more than others).  Now, twenty-eight years later, almost to the day, I’ve gone back and purchased “Wasteland” off of the GOG website and I’m revisiting the “Wasteland” again.  It’s a funny kind of deja-vu.

The graphics are beyond ancient … but seeing them again reminds me that at one time this was the best that it got in computer gaming.  I admit it’s going to be hard for me to go back and play this game because the interface … the graphics … the sound … it’s hard to go way back to 1988 when you’ve got an X-Box 360 and an Intel Core i3 laptop sitting on your desk running game software that, if you took either one back to 1978 and showed kids back then what the future would hold their collective heads would have exploded.

Growing up with an Atari console in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, using an Apple IIC for gaming in the early to late ‘80’s, moving to a Nintendo in 1988, going to a PC in 1989, going back to Apple with their Macintosh SE in 1990 and then going all PC in 1992 … yeah, I’ve seen it all and I’ve been there for some of the really great games that have come along and made history and set up ripples in gaming that have been felt even down to this very day.

“Wasteland” was one of those games and this Friday night, after work, I’m going to get a pizza, fill up my Aladdin 52 ounce Mega Mug with syrupy sweet tea, maybe a shot glass or two of my own brand of “snake squeezings” (Jack Daniels Ole No. 9), put Tangerine Dream’s “Phaedra” on my iPod playing in the background, cut down the lights and fire up my new GOG copy of “Wasteland” tweaked to run on a contemporary machine … and I’m going to just sit there and be 18 years old again, back in my first year of college, walking the “Wasteland” and being a heavily armed tourist revisiting all the old haunts I remember with guns blazing reducing some mutants to thin red paste.