Last Updated on October 18, 2023
Personal Computer. Of all the words to make my stomach curdle, those two are up there (or down there) with Tax Hike. How dare you. But both things exist but are a distraction from the regular flow of things.
Console gaming and pre-historic levels of VAT. Superb.
Not everyone feels like this though. For instance, some people do like PCs. I have a brother who was like it. A proper 1980s into 90s “PC Plod.” The sort of person who remembers Micro Plus from back when they were a niche catalogue company. I wonder if they even exist any more. Regardless, he loved all that stuff, scanning through those catalogues as I would a copy of Mean Machines. You see to him the PC was a general pursuit, a wonder of modern thought and something to be refined ongoing in a process as pure as Snow Crash.
Whereas for me, I just wanted Mortal Kombat for my Mega Drive. Slam it in and break some bones.
Consoles vs. PC
And so in parallel these two approaches to gaming and entertainment grew up around me in my house. I was short of living near any arcades but was otherwise getting 2/3rds of the gaming panorama, and as much as the console war was reaping rewards of popularity from combatants Nintendo and Sega, the Personal Computer was quietly amassing technologies to keep them ahead. CD drives, sound cards and other modules were the occupancies of their brigade. Tinkering as it is known. Just giving the old girl a once-over.
I just used to think that PCs were unstable. I still do. Maintenance for my Mega Drive started and ended with blowing into the base of the cartridge. And it was always a fault with the game and not the machine, because the machine wasn’t in a near constant state of being treated like Frankenstein’s Monster.
Open it up and shove a bit more in there.
My brother’s first PC was like a bloody jumble sale, and hilariously no part of the mass resembled an actual control pad. In fact, the whole PC controller market appeared to have devolved from the joystick, down to the keyboard and a clunky mouse. At best in 1993 I would have said that the personal computer gaming market was satellite to the main planet of consoles. Actually at the time I would just have said that PCs were just shit, with the exception of Wolfenstein 3D, which was fast and smooth and made sense for the machine. And just around the corner of 1993 was going to come a whole lot more of that.
Absolute personal computer power
More games, more modules and a whole lot more things that made sense, at least to people who were into that. My brother and I were going in separate ways. He was looking ahead to the sort of power punch graphics packages which could see his machine run Screamer, whereas I was going to need a Saturn because Street Fighter Alpha was going to be converted to it, and Street Fighter Alpha looked like Japanimation. Just slam it in and break some bones.
Except no, not any more. The new breed of CD-based consoles had lost that kick’n’play quality which their cartridge precursors had so enjoyed. They were like a hi-fi now. You were charged to courier the disk into the player, not slam it down, rugby style, and elbow the Start button. A shame, but for an immediate bonus it did feel, for a fleeting few months or perhaps a year, that Sega’s Saturn and even hopeless newcomer Sony with their PlayStation, got the jump on PC tech. When another brother of mine bought a PlayStation early on, the other brother put his PC down and melted over WipEout. We all did.
But it wouldn’t last, because PC complexity was about to get steroidal.
Bang for your buck
Graphic accelerator cards. What a misery. Couldn’t they just settle down for one hot minute and start getting the most out of the technology that was actually out there? Not this crowd. You never got a sense of performance exploration from PCs like you saw with the rigid tech boundaries of consoles. Like how good looking the Strike games became over three releases. Yeah, there had been a few modules on the Sega side but that was just the equivalent of a safety helmet or pair of shoes compared to the PC’s full internal surgery.
And when the 3D FX, Power VR accelerator thing happened in 1996, I thought two things. Firstly, here goes my brother again, now excited about all the abundant shades of brown displayed in full 3-D in Quake, and second, it still wasn’t cutting edge when compared to the kind of tech Sega was giving us in the arcades with Virtua Fighter 3. Gotta hurt.
But evil never rests. It is always moving, like one of the Terminators when they are not currently an active part of the story. They are still on the hunt, just off camera. Never stopping, never eating; and they would not stop, ever, until Sega were dead. No wait, that was Sony.
Now I remember, PCs were like the Borg. Still are, but lots of people have stopped paying attention to them. I think that’s how you take down the Borg. That or snooker; the dynamics and natural flow of the game being so outside their lusty control they will sweat, until, less than three frames in, they just break down with half a snapped cue gathered up next to their tears. Which is why all PC snooker games are inherently defunct. #pitytheborg
Consoles don’t need accelerators
But you couldn’t stop the accelerator march into the late 90s, even though some of it was… I’m not sure. I remember watching my brother and his friend march through Quake 2, and all the while thinking, this all looks smudgy. Not N64 smudgy, but still smeared. Unreal looked good though, and smooth. Not Sega Model 3 from down your local arcade vendor good, but you could see it was trying.
(Plus I didn’t have any local arcade vendors, so it really did look something.)
But the bar of entry to run a game like this was steep in finance and unyielding in construction. Almost unfriendly, and paraded by a media which had an air about it. At least it seemed that way to me at the time, all those populist personal computer magazines with their fancy pants classifieds and free multi-demo disks. I used to go through my brother’s copies and could see the culture there. I used to read Maximum and they were pretty much the same; you couldn’t keep up with the speed of the tech.
It was still a no from me. I still wanted them to get the potential out of the current tech. With the exception of the newly unveiled Sega Dreamcast, which was going to crush everything, entirely and with hilarity. Even my brother’s mates’ pervert-powered PC would be irrelevant, and that thing was cooked up to the internet via his homemade cabling. He used to get out of bed in yesterday’s clothes and just go online. Straight away.
Most irregular chap. Made good coffee.
It didn’t go Sega’s way though. If you were into PC power then the turn into the 2000s was about the point that you could have started laughing in my face. And you could have kept it up ever since. It might not have escaped the corner of culture that it created, but it has never ceased to be the ongoing heavyweight of the moment. It’s still not for me, but I have watched some play through of the CyberPunk 2077 Phantom Liberty and it is a testament to the now. From a game that should have been now when it was released in 2020, but was still very much then with bugs and unfinished design. Still, then is now and the game displays that. It’s progress.
I’m staying out of it.
John is a writer and gardener. He comes with various 90’s Sega attachments and is the author of The Meifod Claw and other works. His favorite tree is a copper beech and he would like his coffee black without sugar, thank you.