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.

Star Wars Email #7-10

These write themselves, pretty much.

To: Han Solo (

From: Greedo (

Date: 3277 LY

Subject: Debt Collection


As a professional courtesy, Jabba the Hutt has requested my involvement in the unresolved account #TK421 in the amount of 14,000,000 credits.

Both Jabba and I understand that in your everyday activities this could certainly be an oversight. We wish to encourage the resolution of your account but understand there might be a misunderstanding on your part on your need to pay.

This debt may be settled by the delivery of your corpse to Jabba’s palace on Tatooine.

Unless you notify me within 30 days of receiving this notice that you dispute the validity of this debt or any portion thereof, I will hunt and kill you accordingly. If you notify me within 30 days from receiving this notice that you dispute the validity of this debt or any portion thereof, I also will hunt and kill you, though to aid in future dispute resolution, I will verify a receipt of your corpse and email you a copy of said verification.


To: Greedo (

From: Han Solo (

+cc Chewie (

Date: 3277 LY

Subject: Re: Debt Collection

Over my dead body.

To: Han Solo (

From: Greedo (

+cc Stupid Wookiee (

Date: 3277 LY

Subject: Re: Re: Debt Collection.

That’s the idea. I’ve been looking forward to killing you for some time.

To: Greedo (

From: Chewbacca (

+cc Han Solo (

Date: 3277 LY

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Debt Collection.

I am looking forward to ripping your arms off.

Isn’t it wonderful, having something to look forward to?

Star Wars Email #4-6

From: Luke Skywalker (

To: Aunt Beru (

Date: 3277 LY

Subject: Power Converters

I want to go to Toshi Station and pick up some power converters, but you know how Uncle Owen gets. If we can get a droid that speaks binary tomorrow, he might be in a better mood. Could you talk to him?

From: Aunt Beru (

To: Luke Skywalker (

Date: 3277 LY

+bcc Uncle Owen (

Subject: Moisture Evaporators

If you finish your work early, I’m sure he will let you go.

And make sure one of those droids can speak Bocce. Our team is short a player again. Why we play next next to a Sarlacc, I don’t know.

From: Uncle Owen (

To: Luke Skywalker (

Date: 3277 LY

Subject: Chores

  1. Out in those fields before the two suns are up. Moisture don’t collect itself.
  2. You’re with me when the Jawas come by.
  3. Any droid we buy get washed and tuned up.
  4. Get some rest because tomorrow MOISTURE DON’T COLLECT ITSELF.

Star Wars Email #2 and #3

Now an ongoing series.

From: Princess Leia Organa (

To: General Obi-Wan Kenobi (

Date: 3277 LY

Subject: I need your help

Years ago, you served my father in the Clone Wars. Now he begs you to help him in his struggle against the Empire. I regret that I am unable to present my father’s request to you in person, but my ship has fallen under attack and I’m afraid my mission to bring you to Alderaan has failed.

I have placed information vital to the survival of the Rebellion in the attached DEATHSTARSCHEMATICS.ZIP. It’s encrypted, but my father will be able to open it. And before you ask, his email server can’t handle attachments larger than 1 MB.

You’re really hard to reach. is defunct, and the other address for you that I have – – bounces as it seemingly hasn’t been checked for a decade and it is full of Twi’lek porn beside. BTW, ‘madsaberskillz’ is not a good password.

Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope. If you don’t respond soon, I’m going to have to send the goddamn droids.

From: Old Ben (

To: Princess Leia Organa (

Date: 3277 LY

Subject: I don’t recall

I receive many emails daily from princes and princesses from Alderaan, though yours stands out, as you are the only one so far that I can remember that has not wanted an advance payment of thousands of credits for a share of millions of credits hidden in an asteroid field.

I don’t recall ever serving anyone, much less in a war, clones or not. I am just a simple old man living in a desert.

I’m not the General Ben Kenobi you are looking for.

You want to put that encrypted file in a trustworthy droid and have that droid go directly to the person you are looking for.

You want to allow yourself to be captured by the Empire after that.

You want to wait patiently for a short Stormtrooper to rescue you.

I am really getting too old for this sort of thing.

Star Wars Email #1

My favorite scene in the first Star Wars film is… the meeting chaired by Grand Moff Tarkin. Why? Well, it’s a classic example of an announcement that could have been handled better with an email because there is no action to be taken, and Tarkin surely had better things to do than watch his subordinates bicker.

To: Senior Officers, Death Star

From: Grand Moff Tarkin

Date: 3277 LY

Subject: Important Update

+cc Lord Vader

+bcc Emperor Palpatine

I have just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the Council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away.

The regional governors now have direct control over their territories. Fear will keep the local systems in line – fear of this battle station.

If you have any questions about this new state of affairs beyond your usual pointless bickering, please forward your concerns to our interim Public Relations Officer, Lord Vader.

That said, I remind you, as you continue to faithfully express your absolute loyalty to the Emperor, that the Death Star is a diverse work environment composed of a multicultural work team of various religions and beliefs – particularly ancient ones.

Tarkin out.

I was wrong

I was really against impeachment.

Not because I thought it would risk the 2020 election, or that it would die in the Senate automatically, or even if it did stick, we’d end up with Pence.

I was thinking more about how the process had no teeth, and never had, and the ballot box was the only real rebuke.

But I’ve come to realize that even if you have no teeth, it’s still your duty to bite. Impeachment almost certainly won’t lead to removal from office, and it may hand him the election, sure. But two terms of Trump pale in relationship to the cost of not fighting him.

We need to think much farther than 2020, to 2024 and beyond. That means future Presidents and candidates for President need to know there are consequences for treason and incompetence.

So, mea culpa. Impeach now.

Goodbye Google, Part II

It took awhile. But now, my Google account is kaput. No more Gmail, YouTube, Scholar, Search, any of it. Took what I needed and erased the rest.

Now that the tutorial level 1 boss (Facebook) and the level 2 boss (Google) have hit the dust, the remaining three culprits (Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft) will be much harder.

Amazon: Possible, but it’s going to be very, very painful to give up the convenience.

Apple: I can give up my iPhone with some soul-searching; I will have to finish paying for it first, of course… but then what about the iPads? My iTunes songs? All of this requires an Apple account. I think scaling back is ultimately all I’ll be able to do.

Microsoft: I suppose this isn’t technically impossible, I could transition to Linux, but I’m too much of a PC gamer to walk away from Windows. And frankly, of the five listed here, I consider MS the least problematic. Scary, right?