FOREWORD: It was a typical Saturday morning at the Santee Swap Meet (near San Diego, CA). It was winter at the time, I was bundled up with hot chocolate in a paper cut. I clearly remember that day as I burned my tongue on the hot chocolate giving it the tongue fuzzies. Randomly a large, white box truck showed up for the first time. Swap Meets didn’t really have these kinds of sellers shop up in our small corner of East County. My father and I were intrigued to say the least. We witnessed a new method of selling things; it was so unorthodox. 3 guys got out and opened up the back and crowds of hundreds gathered around. Two of them would hold up a single item each, usually some sort of electronic component or some random stuff in a now familiar shaped box (software or games I later found out). People would yell out prices and whenever they heard a price they wanted, that person would get it. Cash only here folks! This went on as a single item live auction frenzy. I began noticing some consistency in the items he was selling. I saw this weird name on a box, it said Windows 3.1 and the year was 1993! I was barely 11 years old at the time.
Apparently personal PCs were still a huge luxury item back then. It was Superbowl Sunday 1994! We were a family of nerds, we didn’t watch sports. What we did do though was go to CompUSA The Computer Superstore. After that winter day at the swap meet, my dad developed an itch…and the only prescription was apparently a Compaq 386(?). If I recall, our PC cost nearly $5,000, with a ballin’ 14.4K Modem and a HUGE (“You will never fill this up!” sales pitch) 750MB(?) Hard Drive. At the time, I didn’t understand any of this. I only knew about computers from Macintosh PCs in monochrome playing the Oregon Trail for a few minutes each week in our Elementary Schools Library. Back then, Joust and Pitfall were the best games out and on an Atari. Even if the Atari hardware wasn’t the best quality. Little did I know this would change my entire life. My father, a copier repair man by trade was also an Electrician. He became my idol as he introduced me to the wonderful world of PCs. Weeks later my dad taught me how to use the PC while he learned himself. I quickly learned the basic functions of DOS and how to install and launch games. Which to me was the only thing PCs were needed for.
All of a sudden video game stalls began popping up at the Swap Meet. I still had no idea what it was all about. I was too into Little League. Though I did find my new favorite game for the time. Tony LaRussa Baseball in beautiful MS-DOS format. I found a oversight in the game that allowed you to build your own “dream team”. It had a feature that would auto-calculate the Baseball Season and World Series. I would do all kinds of combinations to see how close I could get to a perfect season with zero losses. So even while playing games at 11 years old, I was trying to find loopholes. Or what we call it now, Easter Eggs.
Then 1995 came around and we all know where this is going. I was finally 12 years old and having the best time of my life in little league. I had scored over 18 home runs in pre-season! But all of this was about to come crashing down as I was told we would be moving from El Cajon, CA to Las Vegas, NV. My emotions were all over the place. BUT…we just got a CD-ROM Drive for the PC – YAY!!! To this day I still can’t find a way to convey how life changing this really is for a young kid slowly getting into PCs. My dad did what he could to buy my happiness back and allowed be to get any new PC Game I wanted. Back then there wasn’t really any internet. Research or game reviews were not a thing you could just go find and read up on easily. Dial-Up Internet had only started just a few years prior. Having no idea what game to get I just browsed the tablecloth covered folding tables under a canopy at the Santee Swap Meet. All I could do was look at the cover art on the CD-ROM. This guy didn’t have Big Box games. Only Jewel Case Games…
…and then I saw this Soldier looking guy on the front and it read Command & Conquer!
It was a a normal Winter in December 1995 like any other. The game didn’t have any color on the cover art except his goggles. It was so simple, yet so interesting to look at. I could only get one game though. I had no information to base my decision on since there wasn’t even a box to read! I went back and forth for what seemed like 30 minutes. I think we can all guess which game was selected. Command & Conquer (Tiberian Dawn) 1995 Gold! Not much happened in in my Command & Conquer Story. We were moving and my best year in Little League was coming to and end. My batting slump sunk in with strike-out after strike-out. Being forced to leave your home for some barren wasteland in the desert. My soul was crushed and I felt I had very little to look forward to. It wasn’t until the Summer of 1996 that I was able to really get into the game. Once I began playing I was pretty much hooked. The Full Motion Video Cut Scenes were like nothing anyone ever experienced before. The game dynamics and strategies required were all brand new! Although I wasn’t addicted quite yet, that would soon change. That started in 1997 when my best friend (Thanks Kyle) introduced me to Command & Conquer Red Alert!
This may sound odd or funny to some of you, but I wasn’t aware that game studios made more than one game with the same Style/Genre/Name. It was like finding out there was more than ONE flavor of soda. But again, up until this point I still didn’t know a whole lot about the world of computers and computer games. I simply knew what I had which was just a few games. I was getting really into Little League again but PC gaming kept taking more of my free time. Command & Conquer Tiberian Dawn was ground breaking and planted the RTS Genre firmer than nearly any other game before it. Yea you heard me Warcraft nerds, fight me!
Red Alert took RTS Games to an entire new level very quickly. Since it was my friends game and lending out games wasn’t really a thing just yet, I had to play on his shiny, new Gateway PC (MOOOO!). I know those from OG Westwood Employees will remember the store on Warm Spring Rd. But yea, Red Alert was more awesomer! First of all, you could build dogs; that was freakin’ awesome. That is until a Soviet Tank ran them over. I was sad and flustered, my friend was laughing hysterically. I frustratingly pointed out that I put up the sand bags around my base. This only compounded my friends laughter as he blurted out “Do you think tanks care about sand bags in real life?”. That is when I was hooked. The newer levels of strategy required with planes and dogs was almost too much.
This is when I discovered Big Box Games. Browsing CompUSA game section (also on Warm Springs Rd) was my new nerd heaven! I mean you had UV Reactive Round Ribbon Cables for your IDE Hard Drives! Then came the expansion packs! What the heck is an expansion pack? It adds MORE levels, units, etc to the same game for a fraction of the cost? This was genius! Naturally I quickly snagged up the Expansion Packs. Oddly enough, I didn’t buy Sole Survivor. I only saw it once or twice on the shelves then it was gone. We all know why (Big sad!). This was also around the time my dad started to build his first custom PC. This is when my real addiction started taking hold.
Custom PCs were all the rage in the late 1990s. It was all fairly new to most people. Plenty of adults were into these things, but many kids weren’t introduced to it til the late 80’s and early 90’s. With MS-DOS quickly making way for a much nicer UI, Windows 95 was a godsend. 56K Modems and Dial-Up Internet. AOL Online and all those free “X Free Hours of AOL” CDs. Then you had custom cooling fans for your HDDs, pretty UV Lights and cool cables. My mind ran wild with cool stuff to do. Of course being a young teen, my dream PC was obviously limited by cost.
This is when I began learning about Graphics Accelerators and Sound Cards. This was the epic battle or ATi vs nVIDIA. You want to know how nVIDIA Won the battle? It wasn’t necessarily better hardware. It was better support! ATi was originally a Canadian Owned company. So the website and driver support was pretty terrible. Plus with nVIDIA being right by Silicon Valley, they really had an upper hand. Then AMD bought ATi and well, drivers still fall behind nVidia today.