Explorer: The game I worked on when I was a teenager

I’ve been a professional game developer since 1997. I’ve shipped at least 10 games at around 10 different studios over the past 21 years, and now I’m living the dream as a Senior Technical Artist at Blizzard Entertainment. However, my first industry job wasn’t the first game I worked on.

History

Wizardry on an Apple II

Way back in 1987, when I was 14 years old, I downloaded a shareware game called “Explorer”, which was a pretty simple PC clone of the old Apple game “Wizardry” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wizardry). The game consisted of 6 UI panes, one pane was a faux-3D view of the dungeon corridor ahead of you, one was an inventory list, and a few of the panes had player statistics. The content was generic D&D fare, and the gameplay was what we would call rogue-like today, you wander through a dungeon and you either escape or die. Dying erased your character.

After playing my first session of the game, I quit to DOS, and on the way out there was a page of exit text that included the author’s contact info in case the player wanted to donate some money. This was the way Shareware games worked back then, think of it like reverse-kickstarter, “Kick-ender” if you will. I realized the author lived just a couple of miles from me.

He doesn’t live there anymore, but I’m blurring it anyway.

I don’t remember how I contacted him. Email wasn’t a thing in 1987. Maybe I mailed him a physical letter, or looked up his phone number somehow. His name was Dave Shevett, I did get in touch with him, and eventually I did some art for the game.

The image format for the game is just raw bitmaps. In the good old DOS days, I didn’t have access to a paint program of any sort (except for some ASCII art I did back then). Dave provided me with an image editor he wrote, and I created a few dozen images for the game with it. The game ran in the rare 640×200 2 color (black and white) CGA mode. The editor tool I used let me move a cursor around a small canvas, and toggle the cursor through 3 modes: black, white, and move. There were a few primitives available too, like ellipse and line. I think my workflow was basically toggling a pixel, moving the cursor with arrow keys to another pixel, repeat. I used an old D&D manual as reference, I don’t think I sketched anything out myself before committing to pixels.

I sent my art to Dave and he incorporated some of them into the game. The original version I had downloaded in late 1987 was “version 0.95”, and the updated version with my art included was released in January 1988 as “version 0.95b”. And then I forgot about it for years.

My first game credit. This is the game’s main menu screen.

Archaeology

When I was working as a 3D Artist 3DO back around the year 2000, I recalled my teen game development experience, and after searching some online Shareware databases, I couldn’t find it out there on the internet. So when I came home to my parents house in New Jersey that holiday season, I found an old box of 360k floppies and picked out a few labeled “Explorer”. But there wasn’t a 5.25” floppy drive at my parents house, so I packed it up and brought it back to California, hoping that I could find a way to access those disks at work. As I recall, I was able to get access to the only computer at 3DO that had a 5.25” disk drive and I made a couple of zip files with the game assets. Then I forgot about it again for a number of years.

Occasionally, I ran across them on my computer in my old storage folder, think to myself that I should do something with them for posterity, then forget about them again. Well, I’m finally doing something with it.

They were compressed as .ARC files, the predecessor to ZIP files. Again, I couldn’t find a modern tool to unpack the archived files, so I hunted down a copy of PKARC on the internet and ran it at the DOS prompt to get at these ancient files.

The Game

One cannot simply run a DOS game from 1987 on Windows 10. I use DOSBox (https://www.dosbox.com/) to launch it. For some reason, DOSBox’s 640x200x2 mode is white and green instead of black and white. The white is where the black should be and the green is where the white should be.

Explorer splash screen.
This is how the game usually looks while playing. Better luck next time?

The Editor

Before there was Photoshop, there was this, I guess.

The Image Editor for Explorer

Pixel Art

Here’s a selection of images I created for Explorer when I was 14 years old.

Explorer 0.95b

I’m making the game and editor available for download. If you want to experience a 32 year-old game in its DOS glory, download it here:

Explorer and Editor: Download

DOSBox: https://www.dosbox.com/

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