Sunday, November 27, 2016

Windows 3.1 - The Dawn of Windows Gaming

Microsoft Windows released Windows 3.1 on April 6, 1992.  This was the first version of Windows that Microsoft really designed for gaming applications and was available to purchase at retail.  (Windows 3.00a with Multimedia Extensions was available from OEMs).  Windows 3.1 main draw was its support for multimedia, essentially sound cards, MIDI devices and CD-ROM audio.  Unlike the text command line parser of DOS, Windows was a graphical operating system with nary a command prompt in sight.  Most control was accomplished using a mouse.  For the first time users could easily access more than one program on a PC through the task switcher because the operating system was built for multitasking.

Multitasking and DOS gaming were grudging companions at best.  DOS games relied on unfettered access to hardware, especially RAM, the video adapter and the system timers.  In order to start another program, you had to quit your game.  Some games even had "Boss Keys" which were intended to fool your supervisor if you happened to be playing a game at work.  Windows 3.1 did advertise that it could it could multitask with DOS programs, but the results were rather mixed. Windows 3.1 was a system hog when it came to resources and many DOS games did not work with it or performed very poorly on it.  While many games were still designed for DOS, many CD-ROM programs began to tout their friendliness toward Windows 3.1 as well with executables designed for Windows as well as DOS.

Windows 3.1 functions as a GUI upgrade for DOS.  DOS is required to run underneath it and often peripherals like CD-ROMs or certain sound cards (Pro Audio Spectrums) require loading DOS drivers in order for programs to work with them.  MSCDEX.EXE must be loaded for Windows to recognize a CD-ROM drive.  You must install a version of DOS before installing Windows 3.1, but the DOS you install does not have to come from Microsoft.

Compared to Windows 95, 3.1 is rather streamlined.  Unlike Windows 95, you can shut down by pressing the power button and not have to worry about scandisk running on restart.  It can also boot far more quickly than Windows 95.  Once you know your way around the OS, it is really quite easy to manipulate.  Uninstalling programs can often be done simply by deleting their icons and their directories.  The Windows registry does exist but is not used.  However, Windows 3.1 installations can be rather brittle, it does not respond well to hardware upgrades or failed device driver installations.  A mistake may require you to reinstall Windows 3.1, but that is easy to do.

The User Interface for Windows 3.1 should be quite familiar to users of more recent versions of Windows.  The Down and Up arrow buttons on the top right of each window correspond to Minimize and Maximize buttons.  When Maximized, the button changes to an Up and Down button, which then Restores the window to its previous, non maximized size.  The - button allows you move or resize the window with the cursor keys, close the window or enter the task switcher.  A window or icons in a window may also be closed through a drop down menu.  Unlike the universal drop down menu of the Macintosh, each Window may have its own menu bar.  You may use a drop down menu to manipulate icons.

The Program Manager of Windows 3.1, which encompasses all programs, would be turned into the Start button of Windows 95.  The desktop in Windows 3.1 only displays active, minimized programs.  This function would be turned into the Taskbar of Windows 95.  Windows 95's desktop would instead be a visual display of a directory and most frequently used for shortcuts to frequently used programs.  Most system settings for Windows 3.1 can be found in the Control Panel, which is in the Main icon.  Some settings, like changing the display driver, will be found in Windows Setup, which is also in the Main icon.  File Manager is the program you can use to manipulate directories and files and works better than DOSShell.  Ultimately, the adjustment of using Windows 3.1 from a later version of Windows is a small one.

Windows 3.1 stands in between late DOS (5.0-6.22) and Windows 95.  You probably should not want to run pure DOS games through Windows 3.1 anymore, there is no real benefit to doing that.  Many Windows 95 games are strictly Windows 95 or better only.  Moreover, many games that run on Windows 3.1 have a DOS executable or run just fine on Windows 95.  But unlike Windows 95, it is easy to get Windows 3.1 running in DOSBox and Windows 3.1 runs much faster on 486s and high end 386s than Windows 95.  Here is the installation guide for DOSBox, and it is very good :

When Windows 3.1 is installed, it will default to 640x480 in 16 colors, the standard high resolution VGA mode.  Standard VGA comes with 256KB of RAM and is limited to 640x480 in 16 colors.  An SVGA card with 512KB of more RAM is required to do 640x480 in 256 colors.  You can install another graphics driver to provide 256 color support and higher resolutions, but you may need to find a driver for your graphics card.  Windows does have a 256 color SVGA driver, but if it fails to work, good luck getting back to VGA!  Windows 3.1 drivers for cards for various video chipsets from Tseng Labs, ATI, Cirrus Logic, Trident, S3 Graphics and Oak Technologies can be found online.  Most DOS games with a Windows 3.1 executable require 640x480 in 256 colors.  Less ambitious games may only require 16 colors.  In order to change resolutions or color depths, you will have to restart Windows.  800x600 and higher resolutions typically give you a choice between Large Fonts and Small Fonts.  Windows 3.1 can support resolutions up to 1600x1200 and 15, 16 or 24-bit color, depending on the driver and capabilities of the graphics cards.

While most Windows 3.1 games do not care about the resolution used, many will complain about the color depth.  Very, very few games run in Windows 3.1 and support anything greater than 256 colors, and many will show wrong colors or glitches if set to a high color, 15-bit or greater, mode.  While you will rarely have an issue with keeping Windows 3.1 to 256 colors, with Windows 95 you will find yourself shifting between 256-color and high color modes if you routinely play older Windows games on the newer OS.

When Windows 3.1 was introduced, game music was almost always generated through an FM Synthesizer chip or a MIDI Module.  Windows 3.1 introduced the MIDI Mapper and the Base and Extended MIDI modes.  The Base MIDI mode would play on channels 13-16 and was suited for the FM Synthesizer on a Sound Blaster card or compatible.  The Extended MIDI mode would play on channels 1-10, and was originally suited for a Roland MT-32 or compatible, which also only used channels in the 1-10 range.  The Roland Sound Canvas modules can use all 16 MIDI channels, so sound card drivers had an ALL MIDI mode, capable of supporting 16 MIDI channels.  The MIDI Mapper allows the user to assign each channel to either the FM Synthesizer or the MIDI Out of a Sound Blaster 16 or a Roland MPU-401 interface.  You can save various MIDI Mapper configurations.

Even with increasing game support, Windows was still seen by many developers as rather slow for any kind of fast paced game.  By the end of 1994, Microsoft had released the WinG API to speed up graphic animation.  Some games do use WinG, but the true API breakthrough would come with DirectX in 1996,

DOS Games with Windows 3.1 Versions

King's Quest VI's Windows executable has a feature over DOS, high resolution portraits with lip-syncing.  These portraits only appear if you have speech enabled.  Later games from Sierra would support high resolution portraits and/or interfaces in their DOS CD-ROM executables, (Police Quest IV, Leisure Suit Larry 6, Sins of the Fathers: Gabriel Knight) but KQ6's DOS CD-ROM executable does not include an SVGA driver.  It does retain the updated UI of the Windows executable. However, there is a small tradeoff, Sierra's scaling of the low resolution backgrounds and objects is rather ugly.  This is most noticeable with text, so if you keep the speech on, it isn't an issue.  With DOSBox, you may be forced to endure the Microsoft GS Synth instead of higher quality patches if you want to hear the music without missing channels and tinny drums.  Windows 3.1 running on real hardware does not have this issue.  Moreover, DOS versions of these games often have colored mouse icons whereas Windows must make do with white, high definition cursors.

King's Quest V CD-ROM is a very early Windows Multimedia PC game and it shows.  You can use an MT-32 with the Windows executable, but no custom patches will be transmitted to the module.  The result is off-key notes and wrong instruments.  The DOS executable will transmit the proper patches, giving proper music.  KQ5 also likes to insist on a 640x480 resolution, but all but the earliest CD-ROM version will play in the VGA 16-color mode :

One benefit of Windows 3.1 over the DOS versions of some games is the ability to have more screen real estate.  This can be noted in the Sim games such as SimCity Classic and SimCity 2000.  Both will let you take advantage of resolutions like 800x600 and 1024x768 while the DOS versions of these games is limited to 640x480.  The DOS versions may run smoother than the Windows versions, especially once you start increasing the resolution.

Myst - The Killer App

The most important Windows 3.1 game has to be Cyan Software's Myst.  This game was a huge best seller and has been revised or remade five times.  People were drawn to Myst's technical achievements including its use of full-motion video and a non-redbook digital audio sound track.  It created an immersive, absorbing atmosphere and well-rendered and detailed scenery.  Like The 7th Guest, it only came on CD-ROM.

Unlike T7G, Myst is not a DOS game, it requires Windows 3.1.  While Myst was not the first game released for the PC that required a prior installation Microsoft Windows (Balance of Power The 1990 Edition required Windows 2.0, but works in 3.1), it was the first game for Windows that sold over one million copies.  Myst required Windows because it runs on Apple's Quicktime video playback software, which was also ported to Windows.  It is rather ironic that the best selling PC game of the 20th Century was developed on a Macintosh!  It can usually be found in the game section of most thrift stores, it is common to find a PC copy of Myst.

Even though Myst came out only a few months after T7G, the latter is a much better game.  Myst quickly allows the player to dispense with many repetitive transitions with a zoom mode.  T7G will bore you to tears by animating your ascent up the staircase every time.  T7G tacks puzzles onto a story, there is very little traditional adventuring.  Myst's puzzles are challenging and complex but feel much more organic to the settings.  Myst also has different themed Ages which liven up the game, T7G shows monotonous blue, purple and gray rooms.  While T7G has more of a traditional story, it is buried in amateur theatrics.  Myst literally throws you into the game and requires you to use all your senses to figure out the game.  In fact, the box in which the game came in is incredibly sparse in terms of explaining the story.  The "Journal of Myst" which came with big box releases of the game for PC and Macintosh is just a blank notebook.

Myst is not without its faults.  Some puzzles can be extremely obtuse and you don't always get the feedback you need to progress.  Some clickable objects are obscured by poorly lit pictures.  It can be easy to lose your bearings by clicking on the wrong part of the screen, and trying to figure out what the two characters trapped in the books are trying to say is incredibly irritating due to the static. The difficulty of the puzzles sold many copies of the Myst hint book.  I speak from personal experience here.

Even though Myst requires a graphics resolution of 640x480 in 256 colors, the active game display is only 544x332 and surrounded by borders.  If the resolution in Windows is higher than 800x600, the  active game window can become quite small.  The audio is a little scratchy, but all audio is digital.  The interface only uses the mouse, making the game easy to pick up and play.  Quicktime Cinepack videos are overlaid onto the screens and are rather small and use 8-bit audio at 11KHz.  I imagine that the audio sampling rate was almost certainly higher for the Macintosh version.  Cyan made these compromises to ensure that the game would run well on slow CD-ROM drives, and on my 486DX/66, the experience is very smooth.

The game comes in two versions.  Myst 1.0 was released in 1993 before the introduction of Windows 93, while Myst 1.1 was released after Windows 95.  Myst 1.0 uses a QuickTime runtime embedded in its executable and it does not work properly in DOSBox.  Myst 1.1 includes QuickTime 2.1.2 and that runs perfectly in DOSBox.  If you have Myst 1.0, you can get it to run by upgrading to QuickTime 2.1.2.  I find that real hardware has much smoother cursor movement than DOSBox, and one early puzzle is really helped by precisely controlled small mouse movements.

When I first bought Myst over twenty years ago, I quickly acquired strong feelings about it.  I grew to hate and despise the game.  I hated that there was no direction to the game, no plot, no real story, no characters to interact with, no items to collect and no witty dialogue.  Myst was the antithesis of the Sierra or a LucasArts titles which had been my introductions to PC gaming.  I only bought the hint guide just so I could finish what I considered to be a tedious, overhyped piece of crap.  I never went near any of the sequels or the remakes during their day, finding puzzle based adventure games to be beneath my notice.  Unfortunately as the decade progressed the number of quality "traditional" adventure games dwindled to few and far between.

Being more patient in some ways and more forgiving, I have come to appreciate Myst much more now than I did back then.  One of the important steps on my journey was my discovery of Cyan's first product, The Manhole.  The Manhole is essentially Myst for children without the hard puzzles.  The Manhole is just about exploring the game with a mouse by clicking on various parts of the screen.  The goal, if there is one, is to see everything the game has to offer. Unlike Myst, The Manhole did offer colorful characters like the Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland.  Even though The Manhole's gameplay was essentially non-existent, it was sufficiently successful to have been released on PC CD-ROM three times (1989, 1992, 1995)!  Myst has also been re-released for PC three times (1999, 2000, 2014), with the 2000 version (realMyst) adding a fifth Age.

In Myst I now observe that same child-like sense of wonder of exploration brought to adults.  At the time, the high resolution, 256-color images were very impressive.  Nowadays they can be appreciated as classic "1990s 3D renderings in 2D" look.  Myst will reward players who take the effort to explore every part of Myst island and the Ages to which you can go.  In fact, careful exploration is required to acquire the clues to get the the good ending.

Myst also rewards players who read the books in the library because the books provide a backstory and clues on how to get to the ages and what to do when you get there.  The game's box and manual are intentionally sparse. this was an instance where the developers wanted the game to do the storytelling, not the manual.  Myst was one of the first games where the then-enormous storage capacity of the CD-ROM was put to use other than adding video sequences or CD audio sound to an existing floppy disk game.

Myst requires time and patience, most people probably would not have made much progress during their lunch break.  Note taking is essential, maps can be helpful (if you want to play it without cheating).  A careful observation of cause and effect will help solve many puzzles.  A good ear is also necessary, several puzzles are based on music and sound effects.

The game is still worthy of criticism.  Your character's main task is to acquire four red pages and/or four blue pages.  Each pair of pages can be found in one of the four Ages.  Unfortunately, your character only has room for one page at a time, which means you will have to complete each Age twice if you want to see all the endings!  Time has not softened me on this time-extending device Cyan!  Finally, while many of the puzzles will require time and careful thought, there is one particularly infamous puzzle that goes beyond the call of reason.  You will know it when you find it.


  1. Why should one play Myst? Because they will play Riven next! The best installment in this fantastic series…

  2. Great article, as always - I've been always fascinated by haunting atmosphere inside this title - hoping to play it one day of these, I've found it in a flea market. See you on VOGONS forum too, I'm Kadath user - thanks for your great page and passion.

  3. I loved the game growing up (I also bought the strategy guide as advised by the employee at Babbages) and this past year I got Realmyst. Both great games and the sequels were great too! It is interesting to note the PC version is the fastest, followed by the 3DO version that runs the fastest on the consoles, then the PlayStation and Saturn versions. To be honest, on PS and Saturn it is almost unplayable as it takes so long to load from screen to screen! Another great article as always; you should consider doing videos and opening up a Patreon for all the hard work you do!

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  5. ah man, what puzzle is the one that goes beyond the call of reason? I can't think of which that could be, I mean, a few were pretty tough

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