Icebreaker: Getting Started

1995 was an epochal year for the PC: with the release of Windows 95, we suddenly had 32-bit addressing, true preemptive multitasking, and, most importantly for gaming, genuine hope for hardware-independent code in an increasingly unwieldy world of semi-compatibility. The installers for DOS games of the time presented to the user long lists of all the graphics, sound, and input devices they supported, and asked the user to select IRQ settings and other such arcana. 3D graphics accelerators were still a speck on the horizon, but the age of the CD-ROM multimedia extravaganza was here, and with it, long-since-forgotten extravagances like MPEG decoder cards. The new Windows Games SDK promised to simplify things by putting a layer of indirection between the software and the hardware — an indirection layer that, in a tremendous feat of denial and marketing spin, was dubbed “DirectX”. But none of this happened immediately, and PC game developers continued to primarily target DOS for a while. After all, not everyone had Windows 95 yet, and why limit your potential audience? Besides, Windows was reputedly inferior as a gaming platform — Windows 3.1 functioned as an abstraction layer too, but tended towards lowest common functionality.

So why, in 1995 of all times, would anyone release games for Windows 3.1? It seems like the worst of both worlds: limited adoption and lagging behind the cutting edge. But apparently it was a convenient platform to port things to — Myst, for example, never saw a DOS port, presumably because Windows 3.1 was a better fit to the original Macintosh code. Today’s selection, Icebreaker, was originally written for the 3DO, and, if I understand correctly, ported to both Windows and Mac simultaneously by a third party.

Installing Icebreaker on a modern system is a bit of an adventure. I’ve run it on a win32 system before, and I know from experience that it has overzealous copy protection that demands that you insert the CD even when you already did. The game’s author, Andrew Looney, has gone on record encouraging the use of a no-CD crack. Possibly related to this, I have never managed to get the game to play its intro, outro, or between-levels movies. But that’s not such a big deal: they’re not an essential part of the experience, and besides, they’re all stored as ordinary AVI files, watchable from the desktop.

A more serious obstacle is the palette requirement. Icebreaker will only run if Windows is set to 256 colors, neither more nor less. Windows apps in those days didn’t know how to change the color depth on their own — this is one of the many reasons why DOS was considered a superior gaming platform. The problem is, my current system doesn’t do 256 colors. 32-bit color it can handle without problems, but 8-bit, once the mainstay of VGA, isn’t even an option. It’s true that I’ve run other 256-color games lately, and even 16-color games, but only through an additional indirection layer — specifically, DOSBox. DOSBox is certainly capable of emulating 256-color mode on a more capable display, but unfortunately, it only runs DOS apps, not Windows 3.1 apps.

I was about ready to give up and pick a different game, when I realized that Windows 3.1 itself is a DOS app, and can be run inside DOSBox.

Thus began the second round of installation fun: locating Windows 3.1 device drivers that behave correctly under DOSBox. None of the built-in graphics drivers supported 640x480x256, but I managed to find something that worked just as well, given a little help from Vogons. It took me a few tries to find a Soundblaster driver that actually produced sound. But now, I have a convoluted-but-functional Windows 3.1 gaming system that, as an added bonus, works on my Macbook, which I really wasn’t expecting when I got started.

Tomorrow, I suppose I’ll try to describe the actual game.

[ADDENDUM] Looks like I could have just installed it under XP and checked the “Run in 256 colors” setting in the “Compatibility” tab in the shortcut properties. But that wouldn’t have helped me play it on the Macbook.

5 Comments so far

  1. malkav11 on 18 May 2010

    I’m not sure what version of Windows you’re running, but one of the compatibility options you can set, at least in Vista and 7 and possibly also in XP (not sure), is to force 256 colors. I make no guarantees that this would actually get the game to run – there may be other underlying stuff that would go haywire, and a Win 3.1 install on DOSBox seems like a better approach in the long run. But it is an option.

  2. Carl Muckenhoupt on 18 May 2010

    Oh,hey. Look at that. “Run in 256 colors” in the Compatibility tab under XP. I must have seen that a thousand times when trying to run older games, but forgot all about it at the one moment when I needed it.

  3. ralphmerridew on 18 May 2010

    Look through the files on the CD. Allegedly, there’s a .z5 version of the game.

  4. Xander on 18 May 2010

    There is a “.z5 version”, yes; but that’s more of an IF Arcade entry avant la lettre: A one-level, text-only environment which is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the actual icebreaker game.

    Play it, though; if only to complete your Plotkin scorecard..

  5. Andrew Looney on 23 May 2010

    Great review! I’m so glad you were able to get through all those technical problems and play the game! One minor correction/tidbit: the ports to Mac and Windows weren’t really done by a third party, they were done by other programmers at Magnet. The Mac port was done single-handedly by Mr. Andrew Plotkin himself; the PC version required a team of at least 2 guys (one of whom was noted LARP author Mike Young) and still took longer. (Personally, I never thought it played as well on a computer as it had on the 3DO.)

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