Revisiting the 1997 EB Games PC Holiday Catalog

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1997 was a crazy year. Titanic swept the box offices, introducing a whole generation of young boys to Kate Winslet, Mike Tyson bit off more than he could chew, and a civil jury actually paid attention and found OJ Simpson guilty of something. Pop stars were getting shot or dying in closets while Chris Farley’s death kept people talking about the SNL curse.

It was a pretty big year for gamers as well. Kids were still talking about the original 151 while Final Fantasy VII was spinning in countless Playstations. The name Lucasarts still meant something and Lara Croft posters were unironically hanging on the walls of both teen boys and girls.

Most importantly though, video game retail was thriving. Electronics Boutique, only recently having adopted the totally radical (to the maxx!) moniker of E/B Games, was pushing the vital Christmas season hard, playing up their relatively new “trade-in” program as a way for kids to keep the games flowing. Going to your local branch not only meant trying out the latest titles on the demo units, but also catching up on gaming gossip with the staff who wanted nothing more than to engage in a long debate over Street Fighter versus Tekken with a 10-year-old. 

They also wanted to make sure you knew about how awesome ‘97 was with a massive spread in the November 1997 issue of PC Gamer magazine, the go-to place for HARDCORE GAMERS. Buried in the issue that broke the story on Civilization II and Master of Orion II, I found this treasure trove of gaming history. So pop open a Surge, crack a bad of 3D Doritos, and step back in time with me and remember what video game retail was like before everything went so, so wrong.

page-1It starts off with a bang. Intense 3D Voodoo, one of the first 3D accelerators in a long line of products whose importance you’d struggle to explain to your parents, takes top billing, the box art actually surprisingly tolerable compared to the range of poorly rendered half-naked warrior women and lizardmen that adorn most graphics card boxes now. 

Right under that? The bossest peripheral around: the SIDEWINDER FORCE FEEDBACK joystick. If you didn’t have one of these bad boys, you didn’t have shit back in ’97. There was no way you’d be able to stay competitive in Mechwarrior 2 without Microsoft’s extreme rotating joystick to provide you 180 degrees of CONTROL! Seriously, you haven’t lived until you play Quake 2 with a vibrating stick wedged between your legs. Unfortunately the tagline, offering to “push reality beyond sight AND sound!” couldn’t be more apt, as this thing sounded like a jar of marbles in the dryer when it got going, which it always was.

EB also had your back with the hottest game of the year.

Was it Starcraft? Duke Nukem 3D? Zork: Grand Inquisitor?

Fuck no. It was Riven, The Sequel to Myst. Pinnacle of videogames right there. If you haven’t beaten it at least twice, you should turn in your VIDEOGAMES JOURNALIST card right now, because you’re just a dirty casual.

If none of that was enough to get you between those glowing red security barriers, there was always Barney. For the record, the concept of a Barney *headquarters* is abjectly terrifying to me, a place of lingering sweaty hugs and lilting songs about love and friendship that always seem to go on just too long.

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If Barney isn’t your thing, then get the fuck ready, because EB starts off the catalog proper with titles from one of the most influential companies in gaming: Broderbund. That’s right, the geniuses behind the Carmen Sandiego games are rocking the first page with both the most anticipated game of ALL TIME and The Journeyman Project 3. It’s what every PC owner wanted: hunting for hidden objects on pre-rendered backgrounds and nonsensical puzzles? Better call grandma and grandpa, because shit is about to get real.

It only gets better on the next page, with games like Panzer General II and Dogz II showing off the creative diversity of Mindscape’s lineup. Dogz II deserves special mention, because while nobody remembers actually playing the Petz games, every single one of you had to figure out how to close it whenever you had to use the computer at your grandparent’s house. “Yes grandma, that’s great that I can give the dog a bone, but where the hell is Netscape?”

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If you haven’t already written off your entire holiday budget, page 4 will struck the killing blow with the power team of Virgin and Eidos. Resident Evil and Tomb Raider II were Playstation headliners at the time and were no less impressive on the PC, assuming your sweet beige rig could handle it. In addition to stuff like Tomb Raider and Deus Ex, Eidos handled a wide range of PC ports of popular Playstation titles. That twenty disc version of Final Fantasy VIII that came out? That was them. They would keep using those stupid trapezoidal boxes though, forcing a whole generation of gamers to awkwardly juggle them around before finally shoving them in a drawer.

Page 5 asks a question I’ve been pondering for decades now: Why the fuck is Sierra out of business? Civil War 2? 3D Ultra Pinball? Red fucking Baron II? What more do you want? What’s that? A new King’s Quest game? Yeah, that’d be…Gabriel Knight? Okay, well, maybe, but…have you heard about The Realm Online? It’s like a MUD, but with graphics! Where are you going?

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While you might scoff at the prospect of paying $60 for a PC game now, back in 1997 Activision was forging the path with games like Hexen II and Quake II. This was when the economy wasn’t entirely in the toilet yet either, so $60 was still enough to buy a small island. They had to pay for those massive boxes and lovingly crafted manuals somehow. Of note is Dark Reign, which I remember telling my friend was “totally a better game than Starcraft.” Yep. He makes 100 grand a year as a computer engineer now. I’m a public high school teacher. I’m not known for making good decisions.

GT Interactive and 3D Realms make the hard sell on the Atomic Edition of Duke Nukem 3D by featuring exclusive information by “powerhouse Jonathan Mendoza.” Initial forays on the Internet suggested that Mr. Mendoza is a notable soccer player born in 1990, and while I’m sure the commentary of a seven-year-old (Dude, you GOTTA give the stripper a dollar. CHECK IT OUT!) would’ve been worth the extra $11, further research led has me to discover that he’s actually a Duke Nukem 3D strategy guide writer. Bummer. Also, Shadow Warrior was only mildly racist back then. 

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Back before EA bought everything in the world, it primarily made sports games and other simulations. Also, if this ad is to be believed, they had a short foray in the world of 3D accelerators, which I very much doubt. Although, I should probably go patent graphics card DRM just in case. I accidentally left Origin open and I think they’re watching… Man, Origin can suck my [REDACTED]

One company who wouldn’t really thrive under the harsh leadership of EA was Jane’s Combat Simulations, one of the few go-to developers of flight simulators that were so realistic that you’d be able to fly a plane yourself after a few hours with one. At least, that’s what my dad said he was doing when I caught him with the Sidewinder Pro between his legs and a copy of Falcon 4.0 running.

Did you miss Ultima Online down there in the corner? You’re not the only one. Everybody seemed to know a guy who was really into UO, but nobody actually played it. That one guy though, did you ever hear the story about the time he kited a dragon into town? Holy shit, it was epic. I hear he killed Lord British one time, then looted a Hoe of Destruction from his corpse. Scouts honor!

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In the long history of Star Wars gaming there hasn’t been a better entry than Monopoly: Star Wars. You might not remember this, but the demand for that game neared Beanie Baby levels, prompting EB to organize a “predictive ordering” system of putting down $10 to ensure a copy upon release. While they didn’t need to sweeten the deal, their magnanimous decision to toss in a ‘Slave Girl’ Leia figurine ABSOLUTELY FREE! just sealed it. Why get in a fist fight with a guy in Darth Vader costume over the last copy when you could be safe in knowing you’ve got it on reserve? Thanks EB, you’re the best!

It didn’t get much better for “mature PC gamers” than page 11. Carmageddon was a game whose controversial concept overshadowed its taut driving physics and wonderfully constructed narrative, which is what I’d be saying were I not too busy running people over and laughing like a maniac. Fun fact: the German release replaced the fleeing civilians with zombies and robots, which is the only time the German version of a game has been superior to anything else. DIE ROBOT SCUM!

Also, while it would be about five years before people would get upset at Grand Theft Auto III for featuring the ability to murder a prostitute after having sex with her, the Fallout series would allow you to marry someone and sell them into prostitution after becoming a porn star yourself. Nobody got upset about that one? We got mad about being able to shoot a kid in the game? Okay, moving on.

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Hey, SimCopter, wasn’t that the gay porn game? Oh wait, no, that was Croc. My bad.

Much like what would later happen with Halo: Combat Evolved, PC gamers would point at Turok and laugh in the face of those foolish enough to buy a Nintendo 64. “Look!” we’d cackle, “Enjoy our sharp 3D accelerated models and vibrant colors! Check out how accurate I am using the superior mouse and keyboard control scheme!” Then they’d remind us we were still playing Turok and we’d have a little cry.

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What’s important to notice on page 14 is what’s not there: namely Deer Hunter, the original title in a series all about killing shit while hiding in the bushes. What would become a longstanding whipping boy for gaming in general got its start in 1997, but EB chose to ignore it, instead giving billing to Jimmy Houston’s hair. It’s magnificent yes, but it wouldn’t spawn a gaming dynasty.

The late 90s were a bad time to be a Mac gamer, as the two titles on offer here suggest. Like the second class citizens they were, Mac users were tossed the pitiful scraps that their Windows 95 using brethren were finished with. “You want the shareware version of Shadow Warrior? FIFTY-FIVE DOLLARS. What else are you gonna play? SimTower? HA. Pay up!” Losers.

Also, the only people who gave a shit about Postal had blue hair and perpetually pained looks on their faces. Still the case today.

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Poor MicroProse. Despite being one of the biggest publishers of the early 90s, with games like Civilization and X-com bringing a tear to even the most hardened grognard, EB  decided to drop it at the very end of the catalog, next to the educational software and peripherals. That’s like being in the Flea Market stall next to the porto-potties. I’d like to make a joke here, but the death of MicroProse is no laughing matter for a legion of fans who once saw that name as synonymous with the utmost quality.

Somewhere, right now, somebody is sifting through a box of Zip discs and cursing the fact that they don’t have a sweet Memorex Zip Rack. How else will they store all their old spreadsheets and uncompressed JPEG images? On CDs? Ha! That flash-in-the-pan media won’t last past ‘99. Who could even use up 700 megabyes anyways? What are you putting on those things, movies? Tch, where’s my laserdisc player?

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Thrustmaster, much like MicroProse, was a name that used to carry some heavy weight among the faithful. You weren’t a true PC gamer until you edited a custom text file to set keybindings for your outrageously overpriced Thrustmaster joystick, throttle, and foot pedal combo setup, just so you could have the world’s best 3D Maze experience. How else are you supposed to play Descent if you don’t have 3 hat switches and a bright yellow toggle button? Like a casual, that’s how! Just looking at the pitiful peripherals on offer by Thrustmaster here brings a tear to my eye. Saitek would later carry the torch that set Thrustmaster’s funeral pyre aflame.

While Starcraft itself wouldn’t come out until 1998, EB had you covered by selling the strategy guide a full four months early. Remember the first time you played it online and got obliterated by a Zerg rush? That kid had the EB advantage! Or he was Korean. I hear they’ve got an extra finger just to increase their APM.

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While nobody in their right mind ever played these games by choice, we all secretly loved the shit out of at least one of them growing up. Stuck with whatever “edutainment” game was installed on all the computers at your school, you’d develop a Stockholm Syndrome-esque relationship with it, desperately trying to beat it and maybe learn something at the same time.

That said, all those hours of Odell Lake didn’t teach me shit. Well, other than we totally need a next-gen Odell Lake game. Od3ll: The New Breed. Call me Ubisoft, we’ll talk studios.

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Prior to the merger with GameStop, it was easy to forget that the E in EB stood for Electronics (while the B stood for Bastards) and that they sold far more than just videogames. A full third of the catalog is dedicated to all the stuff that computers can do when they’re not running the latest smokin’ hot software.

I mean, where would your grandmother have been without Print Shop Premiere Edition? Remember that poorly folded card with a clipart cake on the front that you got on your birthday? You know, the one that said “Grandma Cards Inc.” on the back in comic sans? She was proud of that, and EB was the one who made that possible. You should thank EB more often, it won’t be around forever you know.

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Fuck you Screen Grazers. Think you can stand up to the king, After Dark? It’s surrealist landscapes and heartless voids, were a window in the soul of the Macintosh users in the early 90s. What’re you bringing to the fight? Cows? Ha. Best get to steppin’. Chump.

Also, we really did need software to delete stuff back then. Hey, don’t give me that look. You youngins’ need an app to put your phone on silent before a movie. Don’t believe me?

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I’m having a really hard time parsing that contest statement there. “Win A Whole Year FREE of Internet Access.” Are they saying that I’ll finally be free of that accursed World Wide Web if I’m the lucky winner? I’m pretty sure I had a nightmare like that once, trapped to a glowing neon green web, a giant spider bearing down on me with Al Gore’s face.

Back in ’97 more people than just your confused boss went out and bought antivirus software, as the Internet was still a wild land where your credit card information was free for the taking by anybody smart enough to look for it. There were tales of computers lighting on fire, desk chairs remotely exploding, and actual viruses you could catch from holding hands or sharing a toilet seat with your PC. If you didn’t have the latest antivirus software by McAfee you were liable to get cyberinfected by a cybervirus and end up cyberdead!

Or at least, that’s what they’ll be telling around the campfire in a hundred years’ time. Excuse me, cybercampfire.

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And that’s it for the 1997 EB holiday catalog. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go see if my local GameStop will honor this $10 gift voucher. They have to take these things in California, right?

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