One-Screen Bad Endings from 1980s and 1990s PC gaming

PC games in the 80s and even early 90s didn’t have much in the way of disk space or graphical whiz-bang.  An interesting side effect of this limitation was the failure states for many games were rather stark and inventive. They were more than a simple GAME OVER in the arcade, but far less elaborate than the now common fully-orchestrated 15-minute branched-ending cinematic.

I’ve collected ten examples that I think are illustrative of ‘one-screen bad endings’ of that era.

1. Ancient Art of War (1984)

Let’s start simple. The granddaddy of all real-time strategy games is AAW. As it is entirely scenario-based with no campaign, and slow-paced to boot, the arrival of the triumphant warrior ‘victory’ screen as opposed to the below ‘defeat’ screen was always an interesting payoff.

2. Amazon (1984), the Telarium entry.

The Telarium games, easily recognizable by their distinctive box art design, were essentially text adventures with CGA graphics. And they were brutal and cruel, with Amazon, a tale written by Michael Crichton, being the harshest of them. Amazon could, and would, cheerfully kill the player after any use of the parser, and loved giving you just one more chance to type a command even though nothing would work, letting you gaze on then-wondrous CGA art and contemplate your impending death… before kicking you summarily to DOS.

3. Oregon Trail (1985)

There are as many versions of this game as lineups for the Rolling Stones, so I’m not positive this screenshot is from the 1985 PC version. But you can die of dysentery in all of them. Myself, it’s usually cholera.

4. Life & Death (1988)

Given the game is chiefly about not botching two operations (an appendectomy and an aortic trunk replacement), you’re going to see this screen a lot before you finally master the good old McBurney’s incision.

Note the lack of text. None is needed.

5. Manhunter: New York (1988) and Manhunter: San Francisco (1989), the Sierra entries.

All the classic Sierra adventures, from King’s Quest and Space Quest on down, produced endless variations of amusing death sequences, making failure as fun as success. The Quest for Glory series probably has the funniest, but the first Manhunter game is the gold standard for mocking the player’s apparent ineptitude. Death in the game is always accompanied by a customized and horrible pun which is delivered by a depiction of the game’s three designers in apocalyptic cosplay. The sequel doubles down on this method.

6. Midwinter (1989)

This stylized screen is the one that inspired the writing of this article. General Masters is clearly working out his frustrations over his wasted conquest of the Hair Club for Men and his further inability to conceal his lack of a chin. REBELLIOUS DOGS! Clearly you require the use of an appositive to identify me!

7. Sword of the Samurai (1989)

SOTS’s art design was impeccable, allowing single, static screens to communicate major events in its “samurai simulator” in elegant ways. I’m working on a journal article right now about this beautiful game. The following screen is not a game ending – the game allows you to continue after death if you have a male heir. But there is another screen in much this style, calmly depicting your enforced seppuku and the execution of your entire family if you do something inadvisable, like attempt to assassinate your daimyo and fail. You come at the king, you best not miss…

8. Balance of Power (1990)

The masterpiece of the bad-ending genre follows, both subverting and enforcing the concept:

9. Sid Meier’s Civilization (1991)

Not every Civilization player has seen the “worst” ending of the first game. Again, static image, but music and text. A little bit of Shelley, I think.

10. Fallout (1997)

This is a late but classic example, which I include as video for the voiceover by Ron Perlman. But it is still a static image.

Note that there is a slightly different voiceover for different methods of death. And the the cold fact that everyone in your vault is now dead due to your failure is also, well, stressed just a tad.

Special “Kick to DOS” Category: Command HQ (1990) and Pool of Radiance (1988)

Command HQ, a minor Microprose classic, would kick you to DOS if you used nukes too much with the admonition of “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.” As the original Balance of Power had the snarky ending years before 1990, this was probably a tribute.

This piece would not be complete without a Gold Box entry – the first in the series, Pool of Radiance. Press a key, and you’re in DOS.

Mike’s 10 Best Games of 2018… or maybe less

I am not even sure I played 10 distinct games in 2018, what with son #2 spawning and a super-intense work-life balance, but let’s see.

Fallout 76

The multiplayer sucks. I don’t care. It’s got a huge fun sandbox and I can play it single-player. Not finished yet, but one does not play Fallout for the ending. One plays it to brutalize Super Mutants with their own weapons while wearing Power Armor.

Kingdom Come

This is still the only game I can recall where I murdered a Benedictine for criticizing my Latin. I would do it again.


Backed it, early. Finally, a worthy successor to The Crescent Hawk’s Revenge. Only took over 20 years.

Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption

I backed it early too. No regrets at all.


An excellent mix of free-form exploration, crafting, and light combat in a unique setting.

Pillars of Etetnity 2

Like its precursor, the middle of the game is the best part. Not enough quality endings, though.

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider

A little bit of Thiefy goodness.


Good concept and flow, though it seems to me, after finishing, that it could have been more complex.

Civilization 6

Surprisingly good, especially on iPad.

Cultist Simulator

Dark and quirky, and also difficult.

Hey, what do you know, I did play ten! Most of these came before M, though.

On Fire

It is March 6 and I have sent out two articles for review this semester already. I have another draft nearly ready, due to send out April 2, and another April 15. With December’s piece still out, I will likely have five articles under review by April. That is a new record. My plan to front-load the writing this year in anticipation of Baby #2 is working very well.

Trying to get in as much Kingdom Come: Deliverance as possible after L goes to bed – it’s a great game.

Most repair work done – further thoughts

I have restored most of the past content after the hack. I have also done a few more things under the hood, such as turning comments back on again. I feel a lot more talkative than I did last year, so I think I’ll be posting far more often! Registering is still required to keep spam at bay.

My About page is still missing, as are some minor associated pages. I will fix this in the comng days.

So, updates.

My son L is almost three. He’s great. Another, M, is on the way, due in May. So that is all wonderful. H is still very sick, but hanging in there.

In a post from last July I expressed a lot of depression about my career. Most of that problem is addressed, and I feel much better about the status of my research agenda now. It really helps to switch between projects when one stalls out.

Trump remains odious. If he fires Mueller, I wonder if the university would frown upon me joining a march on Washington. That would seem the only appropriate response.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a beautiful game. If you don’t have a PS4, it is worth the whole console for just that one game.

I have starting reading Greek again, this time boning up on Attic to prep for what should be a strong article. It is like visiting an old friend one hasn’t seen in awhile.

Some of my graduate students are starting to produce some impressive work that is headed toward publication. That has me excited and engaged.

I have some medical problems that are drastically improved after a long period of reduced productivity. Mostly fatigue and blood sugar stuff. As it turns out, if you get regular sleep and don’t eat tons of sugar, those problems largely resolve! It is incredible how dense I am.

That is all for now.

The best PC games of all time, 2017

There are two rules for the following list, which are – multiple games in a series are collapsed into one entry, with one representative game examined. I also cut things off at 12 and didn’t rank them.

  • Ultima (Ultima V, the Ultima entry)
  • Thief (The Dark Project, the Looking Glass entry)
  • Deus Ex (the first one, the Ion entry)
  • Half-Life (HL2, the Valve entry)
  • Pirates! (The original, not the upgrade or the remake) – Serves as the Microprose entry.
  • Civilization (Civ II) – Serves as the second Microprose entry.
  • Homeworld (for the strategy people)
  • Baldur’s Gate (the Black Isle entry)
  • Fallout (the second Black Isle entry)
  • Batman (Arkham Knight, or any of the Arkham games,  the cross-platform entry)
  • Quest For Glory (the first one, the Sierra entry)
  • XCOM: Enemy Unknown (the tactical entry)
  • Dying Light (the zombie entry)

200 days

Recently earned the 200 days of survival achievement in The Long Dark.  I have enough rifle ammo hoarded to go for 300. Perhaps the makers of the game will add more achievements in a future build. In the meantime, I have bloody mastered your game.

Luke is growing and strong. He cries when he’s hungry and sleeps when he’s tired. These things constitute his job.

I’m settling up the grades for the spring right now. I think I did a great job in two courses and a good job in one other.

Got a promising R&R on a recent article, which is a very good sign. I may have some time to work on it later this month. June is going to busy with family activities, though. Max, my soon-to-be nephew, is imminent. I may have to do the lion’s share of the work in July, which is cutting it close.


So I finally finished Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Short summary: So-so intro, great middle, so-so ending.

I certainly got my money’s worth. It has to be one of the longest RPGs I’ve ever played. The sheer number of quests and sidequests and fleshed-out areas to explore is mind-numbing.

I have to say, though, that I found the main quest lacking. The villain was one-dimensional – a standard I-like-chaos-wannabe-god type. He should have been dispatched in Act I and replaced immediately with someone more nuanced, like Flemeth or Morrigan, for example. Or the Plot Surprise (no spoilers) that comes in the end, instead of midgame where it would have made far more impact and led to a very different, and better, story.

I also don’t think that my BIG DECISIONS during the game made much difference on the ending. Templars vs. mages, Cassandra vs. Liliana, keeping Cole or Blackwall vs. dumping them, etc. The plot just sort went ‘eh’ when I made those decisions.

I also (this is turning into a list of the game’s flaws, isn’t it) was disappointed in the role of Power. I had over 250 Power at the end, and nothing to spend it on. I was assuming I was stockpiling it for a big battle or political maneuvering, but in the end I got a standard boss fight. Shades of ME3. Bioware, why do you always flub the ending?

I think my favorite part of the game is when the Inquistor gets to judge prisoners. Execute, imprison, let go, fine, recruit – what to do, now that you have power? Those were interesting decisions, with no clear-cut right answers. I would like to have seen more of that.



Concerning the new Thief game, Kotaku is flat-out negative, while RPS is more sanguine. Here’s another negative one. I can’t say I’m surprised it’s getting mixed-to-negative reviews. Anything more would be a miracle. But I’m in the mood where I could accept a flawed gem.

In any case, there is the Dark Mod to play, which I tried out last week. If the mainline game fails to meet expectations, I’ll be running through the fan missions that seem popular from the forum discourse. To be honest, I’ll do that anyway, regardless.

The Last of Us

I finished The Last of Us the other day on the PS3.

It is a very, very good game, one of the best I’ve ever encountered, but kinda rough on the emotions. It’s going to take some processing before I’m ready to play anything like it again. It is probably the most violent game I have ever played, and I use the word ‘violent’ in the emotional sense as well as the physical. Playing it for a few hours sends you on a bit of roller-coaster of fear and apprehension. My jaw hurt after each session, because I’d been unconsciously clenching my teeth while playing. That is immersion.

Saying even a little about the game here will easily spill over into spoiler-territory. H, watching me play, was less apprehensive  simply by virtue of reading the Wikipedia page and thus revealing the important plot points. I did not and experienced it directly. I can’t say if some advance warning for certain parts of the game might have helped with the mental bruising. I doubt it; it’s a very visceral experience.

So brief spoilers for those having played follow.

Obviously the opening sequence is particularly brutal and sets the tone of the entire game – bad things are going to happen. That said, the sequence below the hotel where you have to start up the generator was pretty scary, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t felt before. The death of the little kid and his brother was horrific, but I saw it coming.

What really disturbed me, though, was the entire sequence in the abandoned restaurant, with David stalking Ellie. Now Ellie had more than taken care of herself up until that point – and continued to do so – but for god’s sake, she’s still 14. The real tragedy of that particular version of a zombie apocalypse is not humans killing other humans – that’s always going to happen – but 14-year-olds having to kill, and do it alone, as she does with David. Not to say that anything Joel does – murder, torture, etc – is automatically somehow more acceptable – he’s older, is all.

The ending, I thought, was particularly effective. There’s no big boss fight, no Ellie-kills-Joel or Joel-kills-Ellie. Just a quiet moment of realization about how complicated their relationship has become, to the point that Joel lies to her and she lies – at least in my mind – about believing it.


What’s in a word? Quite a bit of money. I’ve written about Candy Crush Saga here before. Now King has gone and done something with the boatloads of money it has earned from its titles that deserves major opprobrium: try to push around a indie PC studio whose game has nothing to do with clicking on candy. Stoic’s game, The Banner Saga, isn’t an iOS game. It’s an epic Viking narrative that I’ve played that actually knows what the word ‘saga’ means. Completely different market, type, platform, you name it. No way anyone’s ever going to confuse the two things – save a lawyer.

Oddly enough, giving someone a taste of power – in this particular example, a Scrooge McDuck level of money – transforms what should be the relatively ethical enterprise of making games into “defending trademark,” which is, I argue, an essentially odious activity that has zero to do with being human. Now King does face a real problem in that they are facing copycat titles that attempt to associate themselves with their brand. What do I have to say to that? Tough cookies.  It must be difficult to swim in that vault full of cash. So sad!