Editor’s Note: All work and no play would make the Mac a dull platform for these last 25 years. We asked John Siracusa of Ars Technica to give his list of the five greatest Mac games.
A “Mac game” is a game that’s some combination of first, best, or only on the Mac. Such games are rare these days. Many of the classics required dexterity and dedication well beyond that demanded by today’s crop of mass-market video games. Here are the best of a bygone era.
In 1988, fully four years before Wolfenstein 3D ushered in the era of the first-person shooter on the PC, Mac gamers were treated to The Colony, a first-person sci-fi adventure. Like every good Mac game, it incorporated the mouse well, using it for both movement and aiming. The texture mapping was minimal—surfaces were black, white, or gray—and you could not look up or down. But it was true 3-D with high-quality sampled audio, and it ran in real-time on an 8MHz Mac Plus. While PC gamers were ridiculing our “toy computer” with no color and a mouse, we were busy playing their future.
The Mac’s original 512-by-342 monochrome screen seems microscopic by today’s standards, but in the mid-1980s it offered one undeniable advantage: tiny, razor-sharp pixels. It’s upon this canvas that Dark Castle was lovingly rendered, a side-scrolling platform game inhabited by exquisitely animated characters and featuring a mischievous sense of humor that would come to characterize all great Mac games. The keyboard controlled movement and the mouse was used to aim and throw projectiles—a sophisticated combination yet unimagined on the mouse-less PCs of the day, but one familiar to any modern PC gamer.
Ambrosia Software has created many of the most beloved Mac games, but Escape Velocity stands out as its finest hour. It was a game that seemed much bigger than the small team of developers that created it—a “shareware epic,” if you will. Borrowing heavily from earlier space trading games, Escape Velocity added beautifully rendered sprites, great sound, and an open story that let the player chose any side in the galactic conflict, including none at all.
Doom may have featured pixels the size of boulders, but it was fast and fun. Mac gamers were jealous. But we didn’t just want our own Doom. We wanted something better, something Mac. Enter Marathon, a game that upped the ante for first-person shooters in every possible way: sharper graphics, better multi-player networking, gameplay-enhancing physics, and a deep, enthralling sci-fi story with equal parts drama and dark humor. The Marathon era was the height of Mac gaming and Mac gamer pride. And so came the fall: Bungie, the creator of Marathon, fell into the arms of Microsoft. Seven years later, Bungie has split from Microsoft and is once again free to make Mac games. Come back to us, Bungie. All is forgiven.
This 2-D arcade game was Mac gaming distilled to its essence: eccentric, innovative, absurd, and addictive. For a game so simple, the core gameplay mechanic had to be perfect, and it was. Your ship had inertia, and you controlled its velocity with the mouse as you swept up crystals. At its best, Crystal Quest was a zen-like experience (the instructions warned you to “stay cool at all times” because “uncool dudes get stomped on”) punctuated by pitch-perfect and often hilarious sound effects.