Lately, I’ve been exploring the crusty old world of DOS gaming. This weekend I got enthralled by one of my favorites; Master of Orion (MOO) and Master of Orion 2 (MOO2). Especially, MOO2 is just as good then as today. There was a MOO3 in 2003, but somehow it wasn’t very good. Not nearly as interesting as MOO2.
MOO was released for DOS in 1993. You start with a planet whose control has been reduced down to how much $$ to spend on Production (Ships), Defense, Industry(Growth), Environment, and Technology. There is one planet or less per Sun and the goal is to colonize the galaxy. Technology improvements help population growth, ship speed, weapons, etc. Each race has unique qualities such as cyborg, silicon, high tech, militaristic, etc. There are a limited number of ship designs, but they are completely customizable and the combat portion is playable, as opposed to a roll of the dice. As with most games of the time, given the limited graphics and CPU power available, everything is turn based.
MOO2 was released for DOS and Windows 95 in 1996. It is drastically improved in all aspects. The engine is more complex. Graphics are twice as detailed. There is much more control over planets, ships, and races. The core of the original game is there. It just has more of everything. They added a limited number of hero characters, which was the style of the time as in Master of Magic (MOM). Suns have multiple planets of more types. More types of ships with more kinds of weapons. The combat engine, in some ways the heart of the game, is much improved. Also, a high tech enemy was added, the Antareans, which comes and wipes out the colonies of all those with inferior defense tech.
As I played, I began to notice certain oddnesses. Little things that I realized I had accepted as normal at the time. It comes down to the interface. Windows has won and we all use the mouse, no matter what program, basically like we are in Windows. Drag and Drop for various activities based off the programs and files, Right Click for a Context Menu, Single Click to select an item, plus Shift or Ctrl to select a list of items, Double Click to fire off the default action, Enter acts like a Double Click, Cancel with the Escape key, Print Screen takes a screenshot, etc.
In 1993, Windows was not quite a competitive Graphical User Interface (GUI). And later in 1996 as Windows 95 it was not the winner and most games still ran in DOS mode for performance reasons. DOS was a command line interface for running other programs. Many of these did use the mouse. DOS did not and there was no one standard program everyone used. WordPerfect and Word were still fighting it out. Windows existed, but not everyone could or did run it and it had competition from OS2 and Apple. In this Wild West of GUIs the mouse could be used anyway that seemed best for the particular program.
That’s exactly what these games show. This is how most things work. Single click performs an action, there is no double click, drag an drop works on certain icons, right click pops up a set of help messages for all the displays and buttons, and Enter is just a keyboard key. Scroll wheels hadn’t been invented so to zoom in on the map you click a button, which highlights a box the size of the new map window and you drag that box over the part of the map you want to see and right click again. Lists don’t respond to the scroll wheel, which feels really weird.
Except for the scroll wheel and lists I like this interface better than most. It’s simple, relatively flat, and most information is quickly available. Right clicking to get context menus and selecting an action is a horrible crutch. This is the kind of game that would work pretty well with the single button Mac mouse. It feels solid. Not like you could accidentally click the wrong things or drag a game piece over something to create a disaster.
Looking back one thing that has hurt games that try to replicate the success and feel of MOO2 is the use of 3D space. MOO and MOO2 are flat 2D games. It’s easy on a 2D monitor to move game pieces around the board. To jump to 3D you have to constantly fiddle with the map to shift around the Z angle. Since Real Time Strategy (RTS) has apparently one the style of combat in games you have two actions to perform; stop the clock and move the camera. This just gets in the way.
These games are fun and quite innovative without being the enormous and addictive time sinks that current games are. I’ve been playing MOO2 for a couple of months now and a I can walk up and play for a few hours without and then leave it for a week without thinking about it once. This is rare for me. So, this slids right into a sweet spot.