One Must Fall 2097
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As you can probably tell from the rest of my posts here, I was very much a child of the DOS game era. Consoles weren't around in the house because they weren't educational enough, so to run anything I had to get accustomed to the intricacies of AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS at a very early age. Should I load DOS into high memory to free up space, or will that make things worse? And does this need extended or expanded memory, or does it make a difference? Maybe I should make a boot disk, but if I do that, will I need to include the CD-ROM and sound drivers on it? Twelve-year-olds just don't have to deal with questions like this these days.

But what I do rather miss is the friendly, personal feeling that games companies had in those days - they were almost like bands, with about five members each that rotated around every couple of years, each of them recognizable and contributing something major to each of their projects. From this situation, three main companies arose trying to out-shareware each other: Apogee Software, id Software and Epic Megagames. And quite apart from having Tim Sweeney and Cliff Blezinski with them, one of Epic's main attractions for me was the shareware version of One Must Fall.

So much more than a mass of vague polygons (I promise).
One Must Fall 2097 (the 2097 having been tacked on the end to distinguish it from an early alpha with a completely different setting) is a fighting game featuring giant robots, and is therefore instantly appealing to anyone with so much as a hint of a Y chromosome. The biggest of them all, and the one featured on the majority of the game's cover artwork, is the robot used by the game's final boss - the skyscraper-sized Nova. You'll be hearing more about this later.

On the surface of it, OMF is a fairly basic fighting game from the era when Street Fighter 2 had just made them popular - though this was mostly similar to Mortal Kombat with its mix of up-close fighting, projectile attacks and Destruction moves (not Fatalities, honest). But there were two things special about this game. First, because you're fighting with robots, you need people to pilot them, and the pilot you choose determines the agility, power and endurance you have. The robot just provides the move set, rather than also giving you a fixed monolithic set of character aspects. The second major appeal was its Tournament mode - instead of just going through fights from beginning to end, the idea of this game was to win money from entering tournaments, use it to purchase new parts or go on "training courses" to increase your statistics, be given advice by your perpetually annoyed technician, buy new types of robot, and repeat until getting the world championship. You could even choose your colour scheme thanks to some palette-swapping cleverness, and the way that you got to customize your stats meant that this was essentially an early prototype of the "create-a-character" mode that's resurfacing in fighting games only during the last couple of years.

A Jaguar and Thorn, getting shot at by planes in one of the more annoying arenas.
You started off with a Jaguar, a robot with fairly standard set of moves - a projectile attack, a flying leap and a very handy overhead throw. Regardless of the moves on offer, my brother's tactic consisted solely of working his opponent into a corner, holding down Down+Back and hammering the Enter key with enough force to shake the desk (in fact, we had to buy a new keyboard pretty soon for this very reason). The dullness of this approach was only matched by its incredible effectiveness, and progress was quickly made through the first tournament, the only one available in the demo.

Generously, in this mode the shareware version allowed you the choice of four robots out of the eleven available in the full game. Three were selectable in normal gameplay, and one of them was the fire-spewing "Pyros", used by Raven the final boss of the first tournament. However, tantalizingly, Epic had decided to make the other robots show up on the "Buy robot" screen when you had the money to get them, but didn't actually allow you to part with your money and get them yourself. This state was represented by the robot's pseudo-3D model staying static on the screen rather than rotating around like the regular ones.

The robot setup screen, complete with more stats than you'll ever need.
So just like in the full game, you could make progress through the tournament freely and continue to earn money, right up until the point where you were obscenely rich and could afford the best robots in the game - including the Nova. But no matter how much money you made, it would always be standing there, silently mocking you with its frustrating lack of selectability. I even spent a while on the fighter selection screen typing in likely codes that would somehow unlock all robots (which seems rather overoptimistic of me now I come to mention it). So with this reward on offer, the only solution to obtain the mythical Nova was to part with money and buy the full game.

But, massive disaster - OMF was only available through Epic, and that meant buying from a BBS or over the Internet, and these were the days in Scotland where you didn't buy anything over the Internet under any circumstances because of the Russians hiding in the tubes to collect money for the communists. So in its stead, my dad bought Rise of the Robots 2 for Christmas that year. Yes, quite. But don't be too quick to laugh - despite its infamous reputation, it's not a terrible game. It's not exactly at the top of the list of 2D fighting games, but it's nowhere near as bad as the original either, and we got some good time out of it - not least my dad, who was always Detain and usually won due to knocking his opponent off their chair during matches or other underhanded means. There was a distinct lack of Nova, though. The CD is now stored on his study shelf along with Toolbook, Autodesk Animator, Civilization 4 and other essential academic software.

So as time passed, we moved on to other games and the legend of the Nova was largely forgotten. In fact, we saw the entire rise of 3D fighting games (as opposed to those that were rendered in 3D but actually played in 2D, which were popular for so long) before we even thought about this game again.

The saga was reawakened when Epic decided to release the game as a free download from their site. My brothers discovered this before me and surprised me by casually calling me through to their room and fighting each other with robots that I didn't recognize. Of course, by that stage we had removed all trace of the shareware OMF from our spacious 1GB hard drive, but we all knew what had to happen - we had to go all the way through the tournament mode again to work up to this promised Holy Grail of shareware DOS games.

A very anime-styled newsreader gave commentary on your progress after each match.
And we quickly found out it wasn't easy. A new feature in the full version was the inclusion of "challenge" matches, or something along those lines - on the long way to the top, you occasionally encountered characters who weren't in the main game that challenged you to matches if you fulfilled certain conditions in the previous one. For example, Jazz Jackrabbit turned up at one point to teach you a lesson for beating up his girlfriend if you didn't let in a hit against her. (Incidentally, the artist for that game complained in its Help file that it's "hard to draw a sexy rabbit", something disproved beyond all measure by the current Internet climate. I've failed the F-word test again and I'm sorry.) Rewards for these varied from free upgrades to just a large pile of cash, but these were small considerations on our quest for something much bigger.

Getting to the top of the tournament was largely my brother's duty as his infallible tactic still appeared to work. Occasionally we'd go into the Buy Robot screen and just watch the previously unavailable ones spinning round where once they had just been static (this genuinely being quite a big moment). But this wasn't the time to waste money on those - we had something bigger to get hold of. Over the course of a few days, in-game money was gradually earned and the prize got ever closer, thanks largely to hovering around the top of the easier tournaments and just fighting the lesser opponents over again.

Eventually, it was time. The title "NOVA" finally appeared on the "Available robots" list. We rushed to the Buy Robot page once again, and just hovered over the hallowed menu option that showed the now-spinning giant Nova. After just looking at this for a while, basking in the wonder of it all, we finally clicked on that glowing "Buy" button. After a struggle through many years, the Nova was in our virtual shed. It was a moment of supreme triumph. There was no time for colour setup or other niceties this time. Immediately, we hit the Next Match button, skipped past the pre-fight conversation screen, and took this ultimate prize, the reward we'd been waiting for for seven years, in to fight for the very first time.

And as it happened it was the biggest heap of useless slow-moving plastic junk ever.