Day 781: The Classic Time-Wasters

originally published February 19, 2014

If you are fortunate enough to possess a job of such little consequence that you can while away your clocked hours with fanciful amusements and digital distractions, then you have probably logged a lot of hours with Microsoft’s built-in activities. Myself, I prefer to devote my daytime downtime to writing kilographs and memorizing TV theme song lyrics. When the fancy strikes for some blips, bleeps and computerized explosions, I head online to one of the vast repositories of Flash games like Kongregate or AddictingGames.com.

I should point out that I get a lot of downtime in this job. Had I been so blessed in the 90’s I would have poured much more of my time into the mundane clickery of Minesweeper, FreeCell and the other games that had found themselves woven into the fabric of Windows 95, 98 and XP.

These were the freebie games that everyone played. Minesweeper is as much a collectively shared experience as any global recession or Olympic games. These games are the common denominator no one uses as a conversational connection. But we could. We have all been there, mired in the scrutiny of robot card-backs and simulated pinball bumpers.

Wes Cherry, an intern at Microsoft in 1989, made untold millions of dollars for designing Solitaire. Or he would have, had he been paid in commission. Or at all.

Yeah, Cherry got nothing. Perhaps the most-played game in the history of computers, and Wes Cherry handed it over for the price of a handshake. His girlfriend at the time designed half the card-backs as well, and her work was also treated as a donation. The cards themselves were designed by Susan Kare, a one-time Apple employee who had designed the Chicago typeface that was used on old Macs and the first four generations of iPods, as well as the Happy Mac that greets users when they boot up.

The card trails that heralded a victory could be used as an accurate barometer for the speed of your PC. Also, there’s a cheat in the game: if you’re playing a draw-3 game and you hold down Ctrl-Alt-Shift while clicking on the draw pile, only one card will flip over. Makes for an easy win.

Too bad the game was yanked from the Windows 8 lineup.

No, you probably didn’t play this game on a Windows machine. This is a game called Mined-Out, and it was an impressive hit among the computer platforms that existed in 1983. The origin of the game actually goes back to the 1960’s when mainframe programmers were figuring out how to use those clunky, room-size beast-computers to detract from workplace productivity. Jeremiac Ratliff made a game called Cube which was the forerunner of this style of gameplay.

The object in Mined-Out was to scootch through the mines to get to the end goal. You can see this in greater detail in the astoundingly dramatic cover to the cassette (yes, cassette) on which Mined-Out was sold, Keep in mind, in the 80’s, game covers looked way more interesting than the games back then could ever be:

Puzzle games were huge in the 80’s, as they were less reliant on graphics and immersive thrills and could afford to look a little cheaper, so long as the gameplay was ramped up. This is why variations of the Mined-Out game were all over the place, including a game called Minesweeper which was part of the OS/2 operating system. And of course, this fun toy:

Curt Johnson built Minesweeper into IBM’s OS/2 platform and Robert Donner swooped it into the innards of Microsoft Windows. The board is created randomly before your first click, however in most versions of the game if your first click lands right on a mine, the board will automatically bump that mine to the upper left corner so that your first strike isn’t a game-ender. The Windows Vista version actually ensures your first click is a ‘zero-space’, with no mine and no immediately neighboring mines.

Most people forego the massive 30×16 Expert level and play with the 8×8 (or 9×9 from Windows 2000 on) Beginner or 16×16 Intermediate board. The mine frequency is identical between the 8×8 and 16×16 boards, so the increased ‘difficulty’ is only a matter of how long your attention span can stay glued to the game before you make a mistake.

An Italian protest group complained about the violent nature of the game in 2001 (no, seriously), claiming it was offensive to victims of actual landmines around the world. This is why the Windows Vista and Windows 7 versions contain a ‘flower’ mode. For happier thoughts. Hopefully these protesters don’t turn their attention toward every game in the world involving guns in support of victims of gun violence. They’ll never get any sleep.

I grew up making regular pilgrimages to one of my nearby arcades, and while I’d spew hours of my youth all over Paperboy and Mappy, there was always a spot in my heart (and my change pocket) for pinball. We had pinball machines in our house, and there’s an inarguable craft in nudging the table with your hips, just enough to tweak the ball’s arc but not enough to get a tilt. 3D Pinball for Windows featured none of those physical nuances.

The freebie game was a pared-down version of Full Tilt! Pinball, a 1995 Maxis game. The full game would get you three tables instead of one, and featured a few extra treats like a multi-ball bonus. I was never an addict of the Windows game, but I will give it props for allowing my mother the opportunity to segue into computer gaming. She has now achieved the hardcore gamer status of playing solitaire, so that’s a big win.

FreeCell first found a home in the digital world on the PLATO system in 1978, courtesy of programmer Paul Alfille. Microsoft developer Jim Horne brought it to Windows 3.1 and it has stuck around the Windows world ever since. Well, until Windows 8 – you’ve got to snag all the Microsoft solitaire games as a separate app now.

The original FreeCell game included 32,000 numbered games. In 1994 a guy named Dave Ring started the Internet FreeCell Project to see if all the games could be beaten, and it was determined that all were conquerable but one. Game #11,982 was the lone enigma, unsolvable to this day.

Of course in ‘this day’ we have a million numbered games in the FreeCell stash, with eight of them having been deemed unsolvable. This means that someone (probably multiple someones) has put in the time and effort to test this.

Good thing they weren’t distracted by Minesweeper.

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