Around two years ago, I was routing through my cupboards and I happened upon something rare and exotic – almost archaic in nature. It had lain there unmoved and unloved most likely for a decade, without crossing my mind, perhaps awaiting the moment that it would finally be put out of its misery and deposited into the trash. It had acquired that matte appearance that ancient items often do, even when locked away in a dark, sealed place. Yet, still it possessed an intriguing lustre; its shine and glow called to me like a siren across a dark, calm sea. I had to respond; I was powerless to resist…
And so, with a sense of nervousness and trepidation, I carefully extracted this totem from its dark nook, and began to polish it in an attempt to restore it to its former glory. After some time, and some careful attention, it closely resembled its original reflective quality albeit with the inevitable scratches and chips inflicted upon it over time. I gave it one final cleanse with a dry cloth, and took it into my office to see if this magical and wondrous artefact could still weave its original magic.
It was at this point that I encountered my first problem. I had no device readily available with which I could pull this relic from the past back to life. But the hunt was on. After a few quick phone calls, I had in my possession the item that was so necessary for the functioning of the antique. Could this finally be the moment, after so many years, that I breathed new life in to his remnant of the past?
Well, if I’m honest, no. Windows 10 was not having any of it. Something, something, compatibility issues, something something, drivers. I have a few decent skills in life – some of which I’m quite proud of. But, to be fair, solving a problem like this is not one of them. I’m not a Windows person at the best of times, and sorting out the compatibility issues for a CD-based computer game from 1999 is beyond my ability and capacity to not throw the machine down the stairs. And with that in mind, I got back to digging in cupboards, and pulling out bits and pieces of this and that, and I found an old and wobbly Windows XP (god, those were the days) laptop that would be more than capable of playing Age of Empires II.
That intoxicating sound as the CD drive whirred up to full speed entered my ears, and the anticipation of what was to come was almost too much to bare. As the installation progress bar filled up, I started thinking about my gameplay. Which civilisation would I play as? Would I focus on economy or military? Would I go full trash units, or save up for gold units and upgrades? And finally, it was ready.
Oh, it was all just marvellous. Those glorious graphics, amazing sound effects, and intricate gameplay, had me hooked in minutes. I think that first day, I played for eight hours straight. Until about 3am. I had forgotten just how addictive this game was.
That first game, I played on Standard difficulty, but then began to ramp things up towards Hardest. I had forgotten what a challenge it was against the AI. But slowly and surely I improved, game upon game, and was consistently able to beat the hardest settings. My mind started wandering. I wondered, how on Earth can I continue enjoying this game, when I am able to beat the hardest settings. Where will the next challenge come from? Believe me, this led to the opening of a whole new can of worms.
I remembered that back in the day, there was an online community of enthusiasts who would put up with the appalling dial-up connection service to connect with Microsoft Gaming Zone. For those too young to remember dial-up, just think what it would be like to watch several 4K content streams simultaneously. Whilst your desk is on fire. And your house is on fire. Now imagine attempting to game on that. Anyhuu, I decided to go to ‘the Google’ and see if such a thing still existed in the speedy, broadband-driven world of 2018.
Wow. What a revelation.
I was expecting, perhaps, a few beardy fellows, alongside a few nerds such as myself, propping up a niche community of enthusiasts. What I was not expecting were the following things; a brand new re-edit of the game with HD 1080 graphics, an enormous (and growing) online community in which people were still creating new content plug-ins, and tournaments watched by thousands of people, streamed live on Twitch, Mixer, etc., and millions of views of hundreds of thousands of videos on YouTube. How had all that passed me by?
Well, life, basically. Job, mortgage, bills, blah, blah, blah, had all meant that I’d barely had time to play computer games for years. Of course it had passed me by. But fast-forward just a little further, to the present day, and things have become even crazier.
In 2019, an even newer version of the game was released by Microsoft themselves, with 4K graphics, new quality-of-life features, (supposedly) improved game mechanics, new online gaming features; the list goes on. Yes, it is now shinier. And requires ridiculous hardware to power those 4K graphics. But in essence, the game is the same that was released in 1999. 21 years ago. And people are still playing, and even more crazy, watching other people play live – not only the high-level, amazing players, but middling, and lower skilled players too. There are Twitch channels that are some of the highest viewed on the whole platform. There are pro players who make a living from playing this game, winning tens of thousands of dollars in tornaments. I say again, this is a 21 year old game.
I don’t imagine there are many computer games from 1999 that can still claim to have such a hold on so many people. So why does this one continue to grow in popularity? How did it last at all?
I put it down to a few things. The first of which was its addictively complex gameplay. You could play this game for a decade and still not know all of its millions of permutations and complexities. I have watched pro players be given a tip on stream, and in spite of them being able to spank 99.99% of other opponents into next week, they might have had no idea about that one specific facet. I have seen this change their entire approach to gameplay, in spite of their already godlike skills.
The second reason is that, even by modern standards, the original game was just so damned beautiful. Yes it had a low frame rate, and was restricted by the screen resolutions of the day, but it still holds up.
Thirdly, it appeals to any and every skill level of player. You can pick it up and dabble about, having some fun and being all overlordy with your new civilisation, before crushing your enemies. You can play SimCity-style, and just create the prettiest town possible. Or you can be a micro-god, and use a single unit to mop up an entire advancing army. If you’re skilled and practiced enough. Which lets be fair, most people are not.
But I don’t think any of these are the single reason. I think it is something of a magical combination of a game that is just plain fun, with a dash of random chance that can be overcome by skill, coupled with the fact that there is no ‘completion’ of the game; there is always another challenge, or another random map to play, or a new strategy that you have just thought of to try. It is endless.
I wonder if those ancient programmers way back in the depths of 1999 had even the tiniest amount of an idea that the masterpiece they created would still be played all this time later?