By request: The Mac gamer

By request of jjrademan

This blog post is like an episode of Seinfeld: It’s about nothing.


Well, not quite. Macintosh computers (actually, when was the last time Apple called them “Macintoshes”? I think they just became “Macs” around the time the PowerPC chip showed up) do have video games, sometimes — though rarely — exclusively. Speaking as someone who has owned Macs as his sole computing format for more than 20 years, and who likes video games, my life has occasionally intersected with that of the so-called Mac gamer, but I don’t pretend to speak for any of these mythic creatures.

Mac games were actually pretty weird and unique in the olden days, and I actually could see someone being a Macintosh-exclusive gamer in the ’80s. The platform offered (1) mouse-based controls and (2) no color, or at least no guarantee of color support until they stopped selling the Mac SE and pre-PPC PowerBook lines in the mid-’90s. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mac games felt a little different from console and DOS counterparts. Another factor there came from the fact that Macintosh had system-level support for graphics, it using a visual interface and all, whereas other computers kind of needed to be tricked in various degrees before they’d display images.

Perhaps naturally, the Macintosh lent itself to slower, more thoughtful games than I was used to on other platforms. Puzzle games, card games, point-and-click adventures like Scarab of Ra and 3 in Three. You’d also find software that would have felt more at home as a free iOS app, like StuntCopter, which consisted entirely of dropping a dude from a helicopter onto a moving cart of hay.


Maybe it was the stick-man graphics, but I always kind of envisioned this as what the guy from Lode Runner did on his days off.

Even as Macs became more and more of a niche concern moving into the ’90s, the game output for the platform remained surprisingly vibrant. The big graphical adventure releases made their way over from Windows, probably because Myst had proven the Mac a perfectly viable platform for multimedia release, so everything from The Journeyman Project to The Daedalus Encounter showed up on Macs, along with everything from LucasArts both good and bad. Meanwhile, the system had enough interesting exclusive releases (such as Bungie’s oeuvre and pro to-indie games — we called ’em “shareware” back then) to compensate for the occasional major DOS title that didn’t make it to Mac.

Actually, as I think back on it, Mac gamers enjoyed effective parity with PCs until Doom, which iD didn’t convert to Macs and didn’t get picked up by third parties until after Doom II had already showed up on Mac. Most early “2.5D” first-person shooters made their way over to Mac, but once the genre went full 3D with Quake and left behind the appellation “Doom clone” once and for all, that was all she wrote.

There were probably a few different factors at play here; the Mac had become a vanishing niche as Windows adoption rates increased and Mac rates… didn’t. Hardware acceleration allowed PC owners remarkable choice and power for 3D graphic processing, while Macs came with whatever GPUs Apple deigned to install at the factory. And, frankly, the Mac operating system was a disaster, and Apple’s plans to replace it with something more modern had constantly failed to materialize (look up terms like “Pink,” “Taligent,” and “Copland” sometime for some real tear-jerker reading). It didn’t really make sense to bring hot, cutting-edge games to a system that would struggle to support them both technically and financially.

Even as amazing games like Half-Life and Tribes failed to show up on Apple and faithful Bungie sold its body, and Mac-first action game Halo, to Microsoft, Mac fans clung to what little they could. Blizzard continued to be loyal to the platform, releasing all its games on hybrid discs that included both Windows and Mac installations (which came in handy for finding copies of World of Warcraft at launch — the game sold out everywhere except the Apple Store, because what Windows gamer would bother to shop at the Apple Store?). Stalwart little Spiderweb Software continued to hone its RPG craft for Mac gamers. Even Halo made its way back to Mac, eventually.

The biggest challenge for Mac gamers between 1994 and about 2006 proved to be fundamental compatibility. 1994 saw the move from Motorola’s 68000 chips to the RISC-based PowerPC platform; PPC had backward compatibility with 68K instruction sets, but not in any elegant way (non-native software absolutely crawled). Then in 2001, Apple began to phase out the “classic” OS in favor of the faster, more stable, more versatile OS X — a great move, but once again all pre-OS X software had to run in emulation mode, and that emulation wouldn’t support pre-PPC apps. A few years after that, Apple made the jump from the stagnating PowerPC line to Intel chips… and while Intel systems supported 68K code via emulation, once again it was kind of sluggish and completely locked out pre-OS X software. Basically, there have been four eras of Mac software (Classic, PowerPC Classic, PowerPC OS X, Intel OS X), and everything predating OS X simply doesn’t work on modern systems. Actually, I’m not sure if the system even supports pre-Intel software at all anymore. I think that may have been abandoned with OS X 10.9.

But there’s a happy ending to this sad tale. By bringing its hardware and software architecture more in line with mainstream computers, Apple ultimately opened the door to greater cross-compatibility with Windows games. Like in the old days, they may not show up day and date, but they show up eventually. Steam games frequently arrive with Mac versions in tow, and cool people like have slowly added Mac versions of older games that never came to Mac once upon a time (like, yes, Planescape: Torment. You can stop telling me about it now).

I have no idea how this speaks to the universal Mac gamer experience, but from where I’ve sat Mac gaming has been a sad, challenging journey of neglect and public contempt, but those who have stuck it out now enjoy a wealth of options for interesting contemporary and classic games. That being said, I miss the unique character of classic Mac games, both from the old black-and-white ’80s and the defiant screw-you-I’m-gonna-use-a-Mac-anyway ’90s.

19 thoughts on “By request: The Mac gamer

  1. I recently dipped my toes into Mac emulation using the guides at Macintosh Garden. It’s not too hard to set up, but getting programs into a format the emulator can read can be annoying; OS X stopped being able to just convert disk images directly to the old Apple format in 10.6 or so. The archives at MG are impressive – I haven’t yet remembered something I used to play that they don’t have for download.

  2. Oh wow! I remember StuntCopter!

    It had some pretty great prototypical ragdoll physics.

    I think OSX stopped supporting Rosetta ages ago — like 10.5, maybe? — but I haven’t been keeping score.

  3. Very interesting. The computer lab in my early-90’s high school had about 30 Macs and 6 PCs, which of course kids were able to sneak games onto. The only ones I remember on the Macs were Spectre VR (it was cool to see you mention that on US Gamer, I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere else) and a little 4X strategy game called Spaceward Ho! That was pretty good stuff – I just looked it up, and apparently it’s still a going concern, with phone ports and everything. Going to check that out now.

    My friends and I used the school PCs to play Scorched Earth, which I remember being sort of like Worms. Then hordes of freshmen started hogging the computers to play Doom and ruined a good thing for everybody by making the teacher crack down…

    • I remember saying “oh, it’s Scorched Earth” out loud the first time I saw Worms. Nobody in my dorm had any idea what I was talking about.

  4. Thanks for the memories, I was one of those Mac gamers. I wanted a good computer and didn’t have enough money for a dedicated game box, until the Quadra DOS Compatible came along at just the right time.

    Stunt Copter was great. There was an iPhone version that seems to have been removed from the store. There are pictures at as well as a blurb about the old and new developer.

    DOOM and Spectre are wonderful on iOS as well, if you are of a certain age like me.

    The LucasArts games on Mac have an interesting story: a guy named Aaron Giles made a patch to enhance Rebel Assault on the PowerPC, LucasArts took notice, and hired him. He quickly ported much of their back catalog to the Mac. He seems like a porting/emulation wizard to me, having worked on the Playstation emulator for Mac, the Virtual PC emulator for Mac, and is now at Microsoft (and doing MAME arcade emulation in his spare time). My hero, seriously.

    We have come such a long way since those bad old days, it’s almost difficult to think back to the limited platform, but man what a lot of fun to be there in the early days of networked gaming, high resolution graphics, and overcoming serious hardware limitations in the pursuit of fun.

    • Yeah, Aaron Giles did amazing work. I never did play his conversions of the Jedi Knight series, though, much as I loved Dark Forces…

    • I had one of those Quadra 610 DOS Compatible machines, too! I thought it was such a neat thing how you’d just hit ‘butterfly-enter,’ Mac OS 7 would fade out and up popped DOS.

      My dad even upgraded it to 24 megs of RAM in 1994. Lotta nerd envy from… well, not many, but enough.

      Awesome piece, glad to see such rad comments from other old-school Mac gamers.

  5. Go to

    and [i]look[/i] at the Games List for the PC, then click on “Mac” to see what recent games are available for our platform. It’s paltry.

    If us Mac users are extremely lucky, we might see a Mac version 5-10 years down the road. But by then the game is on the downslide, the staff reduced to a re-boot monkey and a janitor (someone has to clean up the monkey poo), and a year or more since it was last updated. Some game developers see us Mac users as a last chance to grab new suc… uh… subscribers, just before they pull the plug.

  6. I too am a Mac-using console gamer, but I’ve been dabbling in PC games for a few months now – after I discovered GoG. It’s a whole new world! Plenty of great RPGs are now playable on Mac, and lots of indie titles too.

    Of course, anyone who uses a Mac for gaming would be well served by installing Windows via Bootcamp. The first time I got FFXIV running on my Macbook, near-flawless and vastly superior to the PS3 version, it sorta blew my mind.

    I think the biggest hurdle that PC (or Mac) gaming will always present to me is not game compatibility but rather my complete and utter incompetence using a mouse/keyboard for gaming. I feel like my young nephew, who sometimes holds a PS3 controller upside down.

  7. Best and weirdest thing about StuntCopter is the beefcake guys doing backflips when you land successfully in the hay.

  8. I was always fascinated with Macs from the beginning, but I did not own one until I bought a Mac Pro with OS X 10.3. My first computer was a Commodore 64. GAMES! SID MUSIC! I learned BASIC and some ML to do just about everything I could with that system. I moved on to a 386DX/25 with 4MB of RAM next. Yeah. I learned 4DOS (JPSoftware) and never used straight DOS. Games galore, but other than scripts with 4DOS I didn’t learn much else. Moved up to a 486, Pentium, etc. I hated Windows 3.1. Gaming wasn’t improved by it and nothing much else was better either. I eventually used it begrudgingly because of Mozilla. With Windows 95 I thought it was going to be great again, GUI, but with the ability to do and learn more. Windows gaming grew and it was fun. But I didn’t get anything much else out of it. I even got pulled in by Microsoft for ClubWin and ClubIE (some sort of grass-roots whatever).

    Somewhere in the graduation to 98 and beyond I read about Pink, Taligent, and Copland. I was drooling for any of those to happen. Yeah. BeOS had me going for a while, I got my hands on the x86 releases, but it wasn’t going anywhere. I wasn’t paying close attention to OS X in its earliest days- I felt burned by the hopes of the efforts above. But something grabbed me with 10.3 and I dove in. It was a rather expensive purchase based on what I actually knew about 10.3 and whether I would even like it. I hadn’t even played with it before my purchase. No trips to an Apple store or seeing it at a friend’s home. My purchase was solely based on articles and video. Turns out that it was love at first sight and I haven’t looked back since. Gaming? Not so much. Everything else? My nerd soul was on fire with all the possibilities I saw… and still see to this day, 10 years later. Gaming may have been sacrificed a little (a lot), but everything else was like I was twelve again in front of my C64.

    Mac gaming has been picking up the pace over the past few years, but certainly not as fast as I’d like. But I can reboot to Windows, and while I hate doing that it does keep me from getting a quick game in when I should be doing something else. I also use WINE (Codeweaver’s Crossover) with good results from time to time. I don’t feel like I have ever been truly aggravated by the lack of gaming on Mac, because it gave me some much more in every other department. I have been a bit envious every so often, especially on the PowerPC platform, but never all that bothered. I have always had access to plenty of gaming options with my Nintendo handhelds and consoles, as well as consoles from Sony. Ya know, I bought just about every single PSX game that you wrote about back then. I’d be willing to bet that I probably never would have played a good majority of them if not for your articles. The one that stands out the most is “The Misadventures of Tron Bonne”. Not that it was my favorite, but it is the best example of a game I probably would have ignored otherwise. If I’m playing games I enjoy, and I have a big stack to play next, why should I be upset that there’s some game somewhere that I can’t play? Er, bleh, I just got upset with Microsoft and Squeenix earlier this week about that so I’ll just shut up.

  9. My first exposure to a Macintosh was a B&W Mac Classic playing Return to Dark Castle as a demo. The computer store was filled with the sounds from that game (which were awesome). It made me jealous that my PC didn’t have that game. But I always remember the Mac section of software stores being incredibly small, so how did you find games for it? Was it all mail order?

    And I would be curious to know if the Apple II line actually had more games for it during its lifetime than the Mac did (pre OSX). When I was in grade school Apple II was king and seemed to have a ton of games.

  10. Mmm, nostalgia. I’ve always been a Mac user at home, so I was there for the black and white shareware, Stunt Copter, Dark Castle, then later Myst and Bungie’s entire Mac output. Helped run a tourney for Myth II once.

    Then things were pretty dire for a while and I pretty much stopped bothering looking for Mac games until just the last few years, when Humble Bundle and a few other venues seem to have kick-started a trend of cool indie games actually getting Mac ports. And now I have… a ton of new indie games that I’ve never actually gotten around to playing because my much reduced gaming time is spent mostly on console and 3DS these days. Ah well.

  11. I’ve long felt that the most interesting “classic-era” Mac games were the ones that specifically *weren’t* on PCs: Bolo, Spectre, Spaceward Ho, the Ambrosia titles, Dark Castle, World Builder, and so on. The genres weren’t necessarily innovative (Ambrosia’s Maelstrom is just Asteroids, after all) but the quality of execution usually felt worthy of the (admittedly elitist) Macintosh “ethos”.

    It was certainly nice to get Day of the Tentacle or an Interplay title, for example, but those sorts of 1990s PC ports certainly aren’t why I’m trying to get my family’s Quadra running again.

Comments are closed.