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.

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