BAG THE RIGHT SOFTWARE, THE FIRST TIME AROUND
BIG GAME HUNTER
Buying fun software used to be so easy. All you really had to know was what kind of computer you were buying for—probably a Commodore 64 or an Apple II. But now, now you have to consider Commodore 64/128s, the Apple II series, MS-DOS compatibles, Macintoshes, Amigas, Atari STs, and numerous subcategories.
Over the last couple of years, the PC has spread into the home like oil into Prince William Sound, bringing with it a number of problems for programmers and gift givers. It seems the MS-DOS world has more flavors than Baskin-Robbins, making your shopping even more difficult.
PCs aren't the only culprits, however. The Apple tree has also branched out, giving us the IIe, IIc, IIc Plus, IIGS, and the Macintosh Plus, SE, and II. It's hard to keep up; maybe we can help.
WHERE FOR WARES?
Deciding where to buy can be almost as important as deciding what to buy. You have local specialty software stores, national chains, discount houses, mail-order companies, and even online services. Here are a few tips to make your explorations easier.
Check Prices and Price Policies
Once you've decided on a game, take some time to find the best price. Entertainment software is usually discounted, so you'll hardly ever pay full list price. But the discount can vary widely. For example, F-19 Stealth Fighter retails for $69.95, but I found it for $49.00 in a large computer wholesale store.
Online and mail-order prices for F-19 were even lower—$44.00. Be sure to read the fine print about shipping and handling fees, which can go as high as $4.50 in the United States and much more outside the country. If you don't have to pay sales tax, some of those charges will be offset.
For a real savings, check out pricing policies. Many stores have a standing policy to beat any advertised price in town. Egghead Discount Software operates under this policy. The store had marked F-19 at $54.99, and I asked them to beat the $49.00 price across town. They gladly made the deal, and they even checked several other catalogs to make sure we had found the best price. Remember, it's up to you to ask. Nobody's going to sell for less unless you bring it up.
Ask About Return Policies
Because mail-order houses offer lower prices, they are also tougher on returns. Many don't take packages back—all sales are final. Others allow exchanges, but they charge a 20-percent restocking fee for returns. Read the fine print.
Retail stores are more lenient. Most are similar to Software Etc., which allows cash refunds with a receipt within 30 days of the purchase. It always pays to keep the receipt. If the store won't give you cash, it might give you store credit.
Whenever possible, don't break the shrink-wrap until you've decided to keep the software. You may not be able to return an opened package. If the game is a gift, attach a note warning the beneficiaries of your holiday spirit not to tear the plastic until they've decided they love the game.
ON THE HUNT
Now that you know where you want to shop, you're ready to look over your prey. But before you head out to the store, checkbook in hand, here are some things consider.
Check Memory Requirements
Between MS-DOS computers, the amount of internal memory can vary greatly. Unless you can ask the owner, there's no easy way to find out how much RAM a PC has. If you don't find out, though, you may buy a game that requires 512K of RAM for a dear friend who only has 256K. You may as well buy a blank disk.
Memory requirements for MS-DOS games have been climbing rapidly over the last two years. The standard requirement used to be 256K, but increased complexity and improved graphics have pushed most games up to at least 384K and many up to 512K. LucasFilm Games has indicated that all its future simulation games, such as The Battle of Britain (the sequel to Battlehawks 1942), will require 512K.
While you check on RAM, you should also check on the DOS version. Most games require DOS 2.0 or greater, but some people are still working with earlier versions. (Maybe a DOS upgrade would make a good gift.)
A package's memory requirement is an important consideration for the Macintosh also. Until recently, everything required 512K of RAM. But this year a few releases require one megabyte of memory. Cosmic Osmo, recently released by Activision, requires one megabyte (two megabytes are recommended) and a hard drive. Many Macintosh games come with the most recent version of System Software, but you should check out this vital statistic, too.
Like software for the Mac and PC, Apple IIGS games also require more memory than ever. While most games still fall into the standard 512K category, there are a few exceptions. Most notable are the Cinemaware Interactive Movie Series games, which require 768K, and Mindscape's Balance of Power: The 1990 Edition, which requires a full megabyte.
Check Graphics-Mode Support
Although most MS-DOS game publishers support CGA (4-color), EGA (16-color), VGA (256-color), Tandy (16-color), and Hercules (monochrome) graphics, some games don't support one or more of these modes. Make sure that you know the graphics capability of the system you're buying for, and check the labeling on the game box to make sure that mode is supported.
Portable and laptop computers further complicate matters. If the game you're considering is destined for the road, support for Hercules graphics or a compatible board is a must.
Check Disk Size
Despite all predictions to the contrary, the compact 3½-inch disk hasn't driven the 5¼-inch disk to extinction. So, the physical size of the game disk is very important. Most game publishers still regard the MS-DOS 3½-inch floppy as an inconvenience. Some companies package both disk sizes in every box, some package them separately, and some make you write in and request the 3½-inch format. Some retailers simplify your search by setting up a separate shelf just for software on the smaller disks.
Don't think you're out of the woods just because you have both kinds of drives. Many games will only load from Drive A. With these packages, drive A must be the same size as the game disk.
Luckily, disk capacity is generally not a concern because only a few games require high-density drives. Most prominent are Falcon AT and the EGA version of Vette. Both require AT-class machines and 1.2-megabyte drives.
In the Macintosh world, your concerns are reversed. You don't find any 5¼-inch drives on Macs, so all software is stored on 3½-inch disks. If the machine is several years old, though, you may run into a disk-capacity problem. The older units had a single-sided drive, reading disks that stored 400K of information. The newer Macs read from both sides of a 800K disk. Many of the newer software packages require the 800K drives.
Check Sound Boards
For years, the familiar beep was the only sound to emerge from an MS-DOS machine. It served little purpose except to scold you for performing some appalling illegal function or falling asleep on the keyboard. Game players demand better sound, and manufacturers are beginning to respond.
These boards occupy one of the computer's internal slots and can greatly improve the sound of a game. Most require you to wear headphones or attach the board to an external amplifier and speakers. Tandy computers are an exception because they have a sound system already built in.
If someone has gone to the trouble and expense of installing a sound card, you'll certainly want to buy software that supports it. But because of the large number of cards available, few companies can afford to support them all. Make sure that you know exactly which sound card, if any, is installed in the computer, and make sure that the software you buy fully supports that card. Electronic Arts' 688 Attack Sub, for example, supports the Ad Lib board, but only with some title music.
If the computer you're buying for doesn't have a sound card, consider one for this year's gift. It can take game playing to new heights and open doors to new uses for an old machine.
WHAT'S IN STORE
You know where and what, but your hunt isn't quite complete. To flush out your quarry, pay attention to several points.
Look at All the Entertainment Software
Don't be afraid to look at the selection of games for different machine formats—especially if you have a Mac, Atari ST, or Amiga. Many retailers offer a very small selection for these machines. If you see a great game in another format, ask about it. The store may be temporarily out of stock, or the publishers may be converting the game to your format even as you shop. Most stores keep a list of games that are scheduled to be released in the next several months, so check it out. The perfect program will be worth the wait.
If a game isn't available on your machine, the salesperson may be able to recommend a similar package for your format.
Look Closely at the Screen Shots
The back of a game package usually features one or two photographs of the game in action. Read the fine print, telling you which computer the game was running on when the shutter snapped. Screen shots taken from an Amiga or an MS-DOS machine in VGA mode may look outstanding, but the game will appear very different on a Commodore 64 or on a CGA-equipped MS-DOS machine.
Also, learn the difference between title screens and action shots. Title screens are usually very impressive, but they have little to do with the way the game looks during play.
Check the Copyright Date
Computer gaming is still a young industry, and developments over the last several years have been nothing short of amazing. Because of these quantum leaps in the state of the art, a game released in 1986 may bear little resemblance to a similar game released recently. Text adventures have given way to 3-D animated adventure games, and flight simulators have discarded featureless wire-frame graphics for solid 3-D aircraft and ground detail.
While many of the older games are still a lot of fun, they often support fewer graphics modes and almost certainly offer no sound-card support. But if a package really catches your eye, ask about plans for updated versions or sequels. Silicon Valley loves sequels almost as much as Hollywood does.
On the flip side, older games are often a great bargain. Many companies realize that their early releases are outdated, so they reduce prices. Micro-Prose is a good example; it has taken ten of its earliest games and rereleased them in its Value Line Games series. At less than $20 each, these games are a great introduction to simulations.
Review the Game's Documentation
Although you can't judge a book by its cover, you can often judge a game by its documentation. If the company has taken the time to produce a sharp-looking manual, it's a good bet that the programmers have been equally diligent with the game itself.
Size isn't necessarily important, although it may give you a clue about the game's complexity. While the manual for World Class Leaderboard Golf tells you everything you need in 14 pages, the more complicated F-19 Stealth Fighter weighs in at 192 pages plus a keyboard overlay.
Play the Game or View a Demo
Most of the large software publishers spend a great deal of time and money developing slick self-running demo disks that few people ever see. Retailers have dozens of them stuck in a disk file somewhere, and they'll be happy to run them for you, but you have to ask.
Other retailers allow you to boot up a game in the store so you can play it before you buy it. Obviously, this is the best way to test a game if you're buying it for yourself.
Find Out if a Joystick or Mouse Is Required
For some games, a joystick or a mouse is optional. Other games require one or the other input device. If the person you're buying for doesn't have a mouse or a joystick, then keep this in mind when selecting a package. Action games like jet fighter simulations and arcade games are difficult to handle without a joystick or mouse. But animated adventures and strategy games work quite well with the keyboard.
BUY SMART TO HAVE FUN
As computer game complexity and realism increase, so, unfortunately, will prices. By doing your homework up front and asking the right questions in the store, you'll be able to get the best value at the best price. You'll also avoid some costly mistakes.
Fit the game to the person you're buying for, but also match the requirements and capabilities to that person's computer. You'll both have more fun.
Richard Sheffield is an avid PC game player looking for the leading edge of software entertainment—at a bargain, of course.