The Mother of all Games

When I went to elementary school in the early 90s, I had no console and no PC, so I first gaming experiences were made on the MS-DOS computers of friends. There was this neighbor – four years older than me – who had a 386, later even a 486 at home. We used to play Prince of Persia, Warlords, Dune II, Blade of Destiny, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade among other great games. On long, badly lit evenings we would come together on the wooden desk with the huge monitor to enter fantastic and sometimes sinister worlds. It was exciting.

However, I was mostly a mere spectator, except for when we were running Scorched Earth, the first multiplayer game I ever played. The subtitle “The Mother of all Games” was just a reference to a well-known quote from Saddam Hussein, but for me it was indeed the mother of all games. It was my gateway to active gaming because I was able to experience it in a group of people who provided a safe and protected environment that younger children certainly benefit from when using digital media.

Scorched Earth looks as if a five-year-old had painted it under time pressure in MS Paint. It is basically an early form of Worms. Ten differently colored tanks appear on a completely destructible terrain and fight each other until only one remains. It is a turn-based game full of strategy, maliciousness and madness. It required know-how. Everything was configurable, from the wind and the explosion radius to the terrain and the texts the tanks gave off when they died – it was a big playground and we tried out everything.

The most special thing was that we played it together – and always one more round. Just like we would play our favorite board games, but on the screen that had already given us so many immersive experiences. It was the moment when I began to feel the potential of video games as a social medium. Each round had to be prepared by stocking up your arsenal, while making bold statements and discussing strategies. Then there was the excitement of where you would land on the battlefield, hoping the others would not factor in the wind properly. It was fabulous. There were so many layers that each round was unique and the game never got boring. The more risk you took, the greater the potential win, and whenever things went downhill for someone, we would giggle or have an all out laughing fit.

Long before there were Mario Kart and International Superstar Soccer, it was Scorched Earth’s physics-based tank battles and atomic bomb explosions that introduced me to multiplayer fun in video games. We were little children who discovered a wonderous technology for themselves. We were the experts in when to use a Funky Bomb and which wind setting would be the most fun. There were no adults to learn it from. Just the mother of all games.

Scorched Earth was – like so many games back then – shareware and was programmed for MS-DOS by Wendell Hicken in 1991. Like Worms, this game did not invent the genre. The main innovations Scorched Earth uses were already included in Tank Wars from 1986. But at that time I really was too young to destroy tanks with Funky Bombs .

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