M. Giant's
Throwing stuff at the internet to see what sticks

Thursday, July 03, 2003  

This Ain’t Like Dusting Crops, Boy

Monty’s computer won’t play the new Star Wars game. I have the same problem, but the opposite. Check it:

I missed several years of personal computing evolution. I went from an Apple IIe+ to Windows with nothing but workplace dummy terminals in between. So the first time I played the LucasArts game “X-Wing” on a PC, it was a revelation. Having grown up with a choice between shooting enemies in 2-D or shooting enemies that looked as if they’d been sculpted out of coathangers, I was suddenly faced with full-motion, 3-D space combat while in control of a simulated fighter whose cockpit controls took up nearly every button on the keyboard. I even had hyperdrive. Han freaking Solo doesn’t have hyperdrive half the time. It was intoxicating. It was liberating. The Force was strong in me. It was nigh impossible to see where computer games could go from there.

That was the only computer game I played for a year or so, not counting Solitaire or Minesweeper. And then “TIE Fighter” was the only computer game I played for months after that. Eventually, as I moved into my thirties, I left these childish pastimes behind and took up more adult pursuits. “Half-Life” and “Max Payne,” to be specific.

Then a Christmas or two ago, Trash’s stepfather gave me a fancy new joystick for Christmas (snicker). It’s got, like, nine buttons all over it and a “hat” and a throttle wheel and everything. It’s designed to be used with jet combat simulators, but I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t fly my old X-wing starfighter with it. I’d be able to switch back and forth between lasers and torpedoes, cycle quickly between targets, adjust my speed, keep my deflector shields balanced, and any number of other vital operations without ever taking my hand off the stick. Being able to reroute power and steer at the same time was going to rock.

Between one thing and another (*cough*”Myst” 1-3*cough*), it took me a while to get around to committing that kind of time to a game I had, to be honest, already played to the end. But a couple of weekends ago, knackered from yard work and feeling nostalgic, I decided to dig out that nearly cubic brick of old floppy disks and load them up on my current machine.

The game was gone, of course. Box, booklet, and software had disappeared from my home. Either I’d contributed it to a garage sale in some forgotten fit of household purgation, or someone even more pathetic and desperate than myself had broken in, stolen it, and left everything else. Bummer. LucasArts doesn’t even sell the thing any more. Fortunately, Trash was able to get on eBay and score me a copy of the “Collector’s CD” version of the game for about the price of what it cost to get it sent over here from England.

The other night I loaded the software, and it’s so cute, y’all! It’s just darling. It opens up this little DOS emulator window, because this game is from back in the days when Windows didn’t have letters or numbers after it and sometimes you had to sneak past it and type commands in to make it run stuff. I’d deleted another finished game from my hard drive to make room for it, but I needn’t have bothered; the whole game, complete with two packages of add-ons, takes up less memory than the subroutine that animates Niobe’s lip gloss in “Enter the Matrix.” Considering I’d once had to install a new hard drive in order to play “No One Lives Forever,” a game that burns more computing power than NASA did during the entire Apollo program, finding space for “X-wing” wasn’t a hardship. I actually thought some zeroes had mistakenly been dropped off the required number of available bytes. Like, half a dozen zeroes.

Anyway, I got it all installed, which took about a tenth of the time it took back in 1994, and configured it to my sound card and sat through all the tests and remembered that tense, ready-to-be-frustrated feeling in my gut that I used to get every time I would try to install a new game, and then I thought about how now we can just drop a CD into the drive and click “Install” on whatever splashscreen automatically pops up, and then “X-wing” was done and all ready to play. The same day! Times have changed, people.

I wasn’t expecting to be blown away again. I know games have evolved. I was prepared for quaint. I got quaint. Kilobytes of quaint. I sat through the opening cutscene, thinking, I don’t remember the motion being this jerky. Or there only being sixteen colors. Or pixels the size of pinto beans. And why does the screen go black for five seconds between every camera shot? That kind of quaint.

But it didn’t matter, because within minutes I was sitting in the most advanced starfighter in the galaxy, about to streak into the training maze at the pilot proving grounds. I hadn’t even bothered to program all the buttons on my joystick, I was so excited to get flying. I took a moment to enjoy the riot of cockpit instrumentation, the depth of the starfield, the illusion of speed as I headed towards the first gate at the default throttle setting of 2/3rds power. Then I adjusted my grip on the stick (snicker) to line up my approach just right.

Well, of course I hit the wall. What did you think?

The throttle on my joystick doesn’t work. The “hat” doesn’t work. Buttons one through nine do not work, and that includes the fire button. The actual control stick doesn’t work. As far as my X-wing is concerned, my game controller is in a galaxy far, far away.

Cue that tense, ready-to-be-frustrated feeling. Cue a half-hour of messing around in Device Manager, Control Panel, the installation utility, and Google. Cue more flying my X-wing in a straight line until it hits something. Cue the thoroughly-frustrated feeling. Cue angst, despair, and hopelessness. The bottom line is that my controller is new and my game is old, and they have nothing to say to each other. Several iterations of Moore’s Law stretch out between them, and the generation gap is insurmountable.

(I could go into the more symbolic implications of owning a joystick that doesn’t do its job here, but frankly I just don’t feel qualified.)

I suppose I could plug my old joystick back in, but that would defeat the whole purpose. And I gave it to my Dad, anyway. It is possible to “steer” the ship with the mouse, to an extent, but it only turns while the mouse is actually moving. It takes all eight inches of a mousepad’s width to make a five-degree course correction. If you want to turn more, you have to pick up the mouse with a hand greased with angst-sweat, move it back to where it started, and do it all again. Which means that executing a loop or an Immelman in a space smaller than a cubic AU is liable to set my mousepad afire. Can you imagine trying to fly like that during a combat mission? It may be fine for members of the Iraqi Air Force, but I’m used to higher standards.

So I’m putting out a call for help. Anybody who knows how to get “X-Wing” to recognize a Gravis Blackhawk joystick through a SoundBlaster 16, give me a holler. It’s just too hard for me. I’d much rather be doing something easy like zooming down a six-foot-wide metal trench at Mach Zillion while getting shot at from every direction and lobbing a photon torpedo into a dinky little exhaust port.

I’m off tomorrow—have a good Fourth. Don’t blow up anything you didn’t mean to blow up, okay?

posted by M. Giant 3:02 PM 0 comments


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