Richard Cobbett heads back in time to play with one of the first dedicated gaming networks, now reborn for a new generation to wander through its worlds and virtual arcades.
Once upon a time, there was a magic world called The Sierra Network - later renamed ImagiNation. Only available in the US (and even then, only if you had a lot of disposable income) it was one of the first dedicated gaming services in the world - a place to go, hang out, and play games like Chess and Red Baron with fellow pioneers. If you were lucky, you might have found Bill Gates at one of the tables. If you were even luckier, you might have found love in one of the social areas. For most people though, actually taking part was an impossible dream, with the closest they could get being to jiggle the pages of Sierra's official magazine until it looked like the screenshots were actually moving.
Years later, the dream is a reality. ImagiNation is back, and now anyone can play.
Although you might want to avoid some of its original fans...
What would become the ImagiNation Network launched in 1991 and ping-ponged between different companies before being shut down in 1998. Since then, there have been a couple of attempts at bringing it back to life, with the most successful being ImagiNation Network Revival . The servers aren't always up, and are usually empty when they are. If you actually want to play games, it's best to invite some friends to join you there and then. The world is open to all though, most of it functional, and all completely free. You don't need to create an account - just make a character and type anything as a password - and if you want to take a look at the multiplayer options on your own, simply run the INNRevival client a couple of times. As long as you don't try to log into an area more than once with a single character, the server doesn't care.
The first thing you'll notice is that ImagiNation doesn't just let you play games, it actually feels like one. It doesn't have a main menu, it has a map (which changed according to the season). All the games are split into different worlds, much like a theme park, with most of the traditional games like Chess and Checkers in the Clubhouse, the action games in Sierra Land, and all the gambling locked away in CasinoLand, which started as LarryLand (after Leisure Suit Larry), which was originally only accessible if you sent in a form. Even the login screen is bursting with personality, starting out as an empty but idyllic view of the park, but exploding into action as soon as you connect to the service. People rush in from all sides, balloons float across the sky, fireworks make pretty explosions... it's the most welcoming password screen ever, and one that couldn't have been further from the likes of systems with names like "Compuserve".
Past the map and into the game zones, and some of this personality fades. Each 'land' is effectively just a screen with buttons on, and what feels like a hideously clunky chat-interface by modern standards. Most worlds force you to create a brand new avatar in keeping with the type of games they've got, from a Willy Beamish style kid in SierraLand, to a swarthy gambler in CasinoLand. This can be quite tedious if you're just poking around, but the actual editor is excellent, with lots of components to pick and choose from. In the original, options to set your skill level at every game and register your interests made sense, since it was a way of finding opponents. With the quiet servers here, they'll be your friends already.
Most of the games on offer are somewhat simplistic, designed as they were for primitive dial-up modems and slow connections. The most technically impressive is Red Baron, in SierraLand, which lets you have all-out World War 1 dogfights with other players. The punnily named INN 3D Golf is also pretty advanced, but only for its network mode - as an actual golf game, it was well below par even then. Over in MedievaLand, you'll find three online RPGs... or to be more exact, the same RPG three times... in the Shadow of Yserbius games. One player drives the party, the others take turns when combat strikes, and everyone agrees to wake each other up before they doze their way to online bankruptcy.
On the original service, anyway. Now you can sleep in peace.
The ones that work best though were the are traditional games - Chess, Checkers, Boogers (a squishy, slimy Othello variant based on Ataxx), and the card-games hidden in the forbidden fruit of CasinoLand. CasinoLand is easily the most fun area to spend time in, mostly because it lets its theme breathe a little more than the others. For starters, it has its own currency system, used to both gamble and buy presents for other players. If you run out, no problem. Just visit Nurse Klot in the Blood Bank and swap a few pints of precious virtual bodily fluids for a little virtual cash. You can then take this to the virtual tables to play Roulette, Slots, Blackjack and Poker, or hang out in Lefty's Bar (boringly, just a textured screen rather than a proper recreation of Larry Laffer's favourite dive) to chat, buy flowers and kisses, or crash INN Revival entirely by trying to play a Bar Game. You can probably skip that last one though.
It's probably worth mentioning at this point how much your adventures in ImagiNation would have cost you back in the day. The cheapest plan in 1995 cost $9.95 a month for five hours, plus $2.95 for every additional hour. Yes. Really. That scaled up to a whopping $129.95 a month - a month - for unlimited access. But wait, there's more! That didn't include the cost of the phone-call, which would likely run you another $6.00 per hour. Can you imagine paying those prices to play Chess with strangers?
Even playing for free, you're not going to spend too long in ImagiNation's halls. Like all online services, without people, it's a bit pointless, and we have so many better and more convenient ways to play most of the games you'd want to spend more than a few minutes with. It's still worth taking a look at though, as a piece of living history, and a glimpse at how online gaming could have developed, had we not gone down the more streamlined routes of simple menus and Flash portals. There's no question that what we've got is more efficient... but can something like Battle.net ever have the same amount of heart as actually wandering around an animated map to go meet friends in StarcraftLand or WorldOfWarcraftWorld?
Not really. And that's at least slightly sad. Slightly.