Casual gaming can be a bit of a dirty phase these days. It conjures up images of ad-laden freemium games where you spend more time watching a video about another game than actually playing the one you downloaded. Once upon a time though, casual gaming skipped the word 'casual' and focused squarely on 'you mean I can play games on my office computer instead of look at these dull spreadsheets?!' And that's how so many early 90s PC owners found themselves hooked on a Microsoft Entertainment Pack.
It's weird to think about now but, back in the early 90s, Microsoft needed to make Windows more appealing to both homes and small businesses. We take it for granted these days, but back then people weren't sure if they actually needed a PC at home and small businesses had other plans. Who could blame them? PCs were expensive.
I distinctly remember the family PC costing a good £1,000 or so, and it took up a lot of room too. What started out as a work tool for both my parents, as well as an educational tool for me, soon turned into a place where you could find a scrappy selection of games to lose your free time to. Much of that selection stemmed from the Microsoft Entertainment Pack.
Designed by Microsoft's Entry Business team, the Entertainment Pack project's budget was mostly non-existent. As Bruce Ryan, Microsoft product manager at the time, explained to Business Insider: "None of the game companies had any interest in [Windows]."
That sounds absurd now, doesn't it? Still, back then, Windows just wasn't a legitimate gaming platform. To an extent, I can't blame them. I remember trying to get games like Theme Park to run, and it was quite the battle. It took you out of Windows into the solely text-based DOS operating system then usually expected you to bung in a floppy disc that had a config file known as autoexec.bat to do the heavy work for you. In theory. Assuming you knew what to type into the file and ohh, it wasn't actually easy at all. At best, you'd end up with no working sound while you played. At worst, it just wouldn't work. It was complicated, alright?
I'd inevitably gravitate towards simpler fare like the Microsoft Entertainment Pack. It simply required fewer technical hoops to jump through and didn't really stress the computer or human using it.
On my family's PC, we had one Microsoft Entertainment Pack while a friend of mine had a completely different one. I'm honestly not sure who had what but somehow we ended up with all the Entertainment Packs available.
You see, the packs weren't copy protected so customers were somewhat encouraged to distribute copies to friends, all in a bid to encourage people to use Windows for games. Instead of a conventional wage, each author of its games were given ten shares of Microsoft stock which I'm going to assume was a much better deal in the long term but may have seemed risky at the time.
I guess Microsoft was aiming for a lot of sharing intertwined with quiet thoughts of 'oh wait, Windows 3.1 is quite fun actually'. As an aside, Windows 3.1 was not much fun in comparison to the almighty Windows 95 and I suspect anyone who came to it new nowadays would be a tad alarmed at how unwieldy it was. I don't want to be all 'you don't know how lucky you kids are these days' but...well, you don't. Fortunately, Microsoft Entertainment Packs were super easy to launch because that was much of the point.
And the packs themselves! Each pack was an interesting mishmash of every form of single-player card game you can think of, and some very neat ideas that we'd see grow elsewhere in the future.
On the surface, you'd find yourself initially delving into Solitaire or FreeCell, the latter being a card game that I remember many parents adoring but child me struggling to fully comprehend. It kind of worked like Solitaire but was a bit more complicated and, predictably, I don't ever remember coming across any instructions. And it's not like you could run to Google for help! I spent many hours playing Solitaire and maybe that's why I still have solitaire games installed on my iPhone now and will generally head in that direction any time I have a spare five minutes.
The Entertainment Packs didn't stop with card games though. That would have been a bit dull. The first Pack included Minesweeper, that curious strategy game that I fear a growing number of younger people have never had the chance to play. The idea was to uncover all the squares that didn't contain mines without being blown up. Via a process of logic that's vaguely reminiscent of Sudoku as well as Battleships, you would click a square then be told how many mines were surrounding that square. Hit a mine and it's game over. Counting, basically, but you also might die?
Minesweeper was one of those games everyone knew about - a concept that felt as essential to the Windows experience as the windows themselves. Weirdly though, while I have immensely fond memories, I don't remember ever particularly liking it. It was fun in that way that things can be when you don't know any better.
Instead, it was games like SkiFree, Pipe Dream, and JezzBall that grabbed my attention.
Like so many other titles here, SkiFree was immensely simple but a lot of fun. Coded by Chris Pirih as a fun personal project alongside his work at Microsoft on Microsoft Word and Excel, it caught the eye of a program manager when he played it at work one day. It's not surprising why. A single-player sports simulator, it has you controlling a skier down a white background representing snow on a mountainside. The aim is to ski for as long as possible. There's no actual end game. Instead, this is an early incarnation of the endless runner.
The longer you ski, the more intricate the obstacles you come across. Early on, there may be trees, stumps, or dogs getting in the way. Pass the 2,000 metre mark, and you have to avoid the Abominable Snow Monster. It's silly, but a lot of fun. Extra modes also include a slalom race, as well as a freestyle mode where you can jump off ramps to earn points. The latter was particularly satisfying. Not because of the tricks on offer (there were very few) but because if you messed up, you could end up rolling down the hill in a ball in a very comedic fashion. For something so simple, it easily had that 'one more go' factor that games need to be memorable.
And then there was JezzBall. I loved JezzBall. I wish I knew how it came to be but I've struggled to find anything about its conception besides its programmer's name - Dima Pavlovsky - and the fact that appears to be based on Maxwell's Demon. Thanks, Dima! JezzBall helped me while away many a bored hour as a child.
Another simple concept, you were presented with a rectangular space that you had to 'capture' by dividing it with horizontal or vertical lines. The catch was that while drawing the lines, you couldn't clash with balls that were bouncing around. Typically, it'd start out fairly easy then get progressively harder as the space you had to divide got smaller and smaller. It was an utter delight, if rather tricky, and the kind of thing I've tracked down similar versions of for my phone. Unlike other games within the Entertainment Packs, it doesn't feel like JezzBall has been replicated much by newer games, which seems a terrible shame.
Astute readers have probably skimmed all this because I mentioned Pipe Dream (also known as Pipe Mania) a few paragraphs ago. Yup, out of everything, this was probably the game with the best legacy. Remember those hacking games in BioShock? Or even Saints Row 4? This is the origin. Impressively, Lucasfilm Games (*that* Lucasfilm) ported it across to the Microsoft Entertainment Pack and it was a roaring success. Who could have thought that connecting randomly appearing pipes in a bid to reconnect a plumbing system could be so much fun?
In many ways, that idea sums up much of the joy of the Microsoft Entertainment Packs. So much fun stemming from such unlikely places. Picking out mines from a small square space, blocking off rectangular areas to stop balls going where they want to go, or simply playing a game of solitaire in one of seemingly endless different ways.
During an era where games were often fiddly things to set up on your PC - and it's not like you could load up a web browser and play a web game instead - they were a breath of fresh air. Once described as 'the Gorillas of the Gaming Lite Jungle', it makes you wonder how we'll look back on modern casual gaming gems in 20-30 years time. Secretly, much like Adam Sandler films, I suspect many of us rather like the option being there for when we want something a bit more fast food-ish than our staple diet of gaming. But don't worry - I won't tell anyone.