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 GOG.com 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.