Old PC Gaming Sucks…Until It Doesn’t

As part of an ongoing series exploring the best in games for ever year (which I’ve been doing for years at this point), I tackle many games, important and not-so-important, that make up the history of video games. My original history with the medium is more recent (my truly formative years began with the PlayStation 2) and primarily console-based. Still, I have extensive nostalgia based in the 8, 16, and 32/64 bit eras…but again, console-based. The massive world of PC gaming, though, was incredibly important for the innovations many point to in the more accessible console sphere. And of course, the games themselves are…well, they can be good. A lot of old PC games are very difficult to play and hard to enjoy, until the sun breaks through the clouds and offers loads of great fun. Unless they don’t, which of course is possible too.

This revolutionary concept, that old PC games can be obtuse and difficult to play, is brought to you by SYSTEM SHOCK (1994). I’ve just completed the game, and before anyone thinks that I think SYSTEM SHOCK “sucks,” let me say that it is very, very good. In fact, it’s unique among games of its era in that it is one of the best. Its pioneering approach to “environmental” storytelling (via now over-used audio logs) and “immersive” combat, puzzle-solving, and level design was groundbreaking. A lot of modern gaming buzzwords and design philosophy can be traced back to the truly exciting SYSTEM SHOCK; there’s a reason why it comes up so often as one of the most influential games of all time, in spite of its relatively disappointing commercial performance.

But part of my enjoyment of SYSTEM SHOCK was granted by the relief from its starting pain, as well as modern conveniences like the “Enhanced Edition” features put out by Night Dive Studios and online guides. This theme runs through the growing number of PC games that are making their way onto my favorites lists. But does this mean the games are truly good, or only made to be so in an age with more “enlightened” game design and accessibility?

Well, at least in the case of SYSTEM SHOCK, I think the base of the game is still very much intact, mostly because it’s still quite difficult to play. Navigating its menus and first-person interactions (especially including combat) is still not intuitive, in spite of the Enhanced Edition’s, well, enhancements, most notably mouselook. In fact, mouselook greatly changes the game, but in execution only. I would not say that the very nature, the crux of SYSTEM SHOCK, is disrupted by this change, especially since the game allows the reduction of combat difficulty to zero. In fact, SYSTEM SHOCK’s difficulty setting, which can also be applied to puzzles, cyberspace, and “mission,” is a pretty radical feature that is not quite common enough in gaming, only now being applied on a notable scale with SHADOW OF THE TOMB RAIDER (2018).

Night Dive’s SYSTEM SHOCK remake (release date TBD)

But even still and as mentioned, the controls of SYSTEM SHOCK are not necessarily friendly to modern players. This argument can be used to cover for questionable game design, but I do truly think SYSTEM SHOCK gets really good a couple hours into the game, not because of any kind of difference in the quality of scenarios, but because the rules of the game and how to play it are so much more clear…especially if you use online resources. Because as much as SYSTEM SHOCK is actually difficult to play in the moment, it’s even harder to know what to do at any given time.

Even SYSTEM SHOCK, considered one of the most important (if not greatest) games of all time, is an unappetizing old PC game that expects tremendous investment just to get off the ground and into normal, efficient gameplay. But modern conveniences and resources are not to be shunned; it’s not more pure to make yourself suffer through a game that’s not fun. There’s something to experiencing entertainment as it was created, but video games are a unique prospect: sometimes, they’re simply not fun if you stick to that creed. SYSTEM SHOCK isn’t the only old PC game (and this could probably be applied to a lot of old games in general) that is actually elevated by “cheating.” Take the chances available to you to get past the barrier of old-school game design and technical limitations. It just might provide you the revelatory experience like I had with SYSTEM SHOCK.