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Remembering SkiFree, and the Yeti that still haunts our dreams

Almost everyone who had a Windows PC in the 1990s played SkiFree, but almost none of us know its origins. It's a simple game: you ski down a hill while avoiding obstacles and a ravenous, unrelenting Yeti. SkiFree was a harbinger of endless runners, and the kind of games you play in brief spurts at random moments. I'd play it at stores like Staples and Office Depot after guessing the easy passwords on the demo PCs while my parents browsed. I raced downwards, doing triple backflips off rainbows, building up more and more speed to outrun death at the Yeti's hands. It never worked.

SkiFree was the brainchild of Microsoft programmer Chris Pirih. He made it independently in his spare time, licensing it back to the company he worked for. They paid what he calls a "trivial one-time fee" and it became part of the Microsoft Entertainment Pack series, a bid to show that Windows was just as appropriate for homes and small businesses as it was for large enterprises. The first Microsoft Entertainment Pack was so successful that Microsoft went on to release three more, with SkiFree debuting in Microsoft Entertainment Pack 3.

"Fun and Games for the Windows Environment."

The Microsoft Entertainment Packs included games so ubiquitous, like Minesweeper and FreeCell, it's hard to imagine early Windows without them. In addition to shipping with Microsoft Entertainment Pack 3, SkiFree was included on the Gamesampler, which came with packs of Verbatim brand floppy disks.

I remember several times in the 1990s Kellogg's advertised a 'Best of the Microsoft Entertainment Packs' disk that contained SkiFree on cereal boxes. My grandmother tried to surprise me with it by collecting box tops and sending in the cash for one of the games available from Kellogg's. Sadly, the disk I ended up getting didn't have SkiFree on it, which only made me want it more. 

Legend has it that there's a way to make a third Yeti appear, but I've never seen it.

Simple as it seems now, SkiFree was more mysterious than Solitaire or Minesweeper. I was always upset when the Yeti ate me and could never figure out how to avoid it. Naively, I thought if I just zig-zagged or went slower until the Yeti came out and then went faster I'd "save" up my speed and outrun it in a turbo-boost of lightning fast downhill skiing. In those days you couldn't throw a query into Google and instantly get an answer to a game-related problem, and the big forums were still in their infancy. When you needed help with a game you had to hope it was in a magazine or one of your friends knew what to do. Otherwise you were shit out of luck.

Unfortunately, when I was a little girl, none of my friends cared about PC gaming (or computers in general), so getting a solution from them was out. Computer magazines were too busy talking about the latest "real" games, and didn't often pay a game like SkiFree any mind. Instead, I had to cruise the net at 28.8k searching for a solution to my SkiFree quandary—when I was allowed to, that is.

Officially that's an Abominable Snow Monster, but Yeti is better because it's a four-letter word.

Officially that's an Abominable Snow Monster, but Yeti is better because it's a four-letter word.

As long as SkiFree has been around, there have been people talking about it on the internet. It came with little in the way of documentation, other than showing you the controls for how to restart, turn, and pause at the start of your run. This led to plenty of theories on how to "beat" the game. Of course, there's no actual way to beat it—the course just loops over—but that didn't stop people from swearing that if you ski for an absurdly long time you'll somehow come to the end.

Once players discovered the course looped, the win condition became outrunning the Yetis. After you pass the 2,000-meter mark, the Abominable Snow Monster starts chasing you and is absurdly fast. If you manage to keep away from it for a while a second one will spawn. Legend has it that there's a way to make a third Yeti appear, but I've never seen it.

There are various theories on how to escape the Yeti, but the only one I know of that works is something of an internet meme at this point. As this XKCD comic shows, pressing "F" while playing SkiFree makes you go faster. Regardless of whether you use this trick, if you hit an obstacle you'll still get caught by the Yeti and die. Some diehard SkiFree players (yes, they do exist) consider using the speed boost cheating and insist that the only way outrunning the Yeti actually counts for anything is if you do it at regular speed.  

SkiFree doesn't have a story, but that hasn't stopped fans from writing SkiFree fan fiction that I suggest reading at your own risk. There's also the fantastic video of what the Yeti attack would look like if it happened in real life embedded above. After almost 30 years, this little game is still inspiring creativity.

SkiFree eventually came to Game Boy Color and Mac, but the source code was lost in the mid-90s. Fortunately, in 2005 Chris Pirih found the source code again and updated the game to work on modern Windows computers. He's made it available on his website for free, so if you're looking to get nostalgic, or have never played before, you can grab it there. Who knows? You may even come back with some new theories on how exactly you can beat that pesky Yeti. Stranger things have happened.