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A Time-Wasting History of Windows’ Free Games

Since an intern created Microsoft Solitaire in 1989, millions of people have wasted billions of hours playing the company's simple, but maddeningly addictive, free desktop games.

by Matt Porter
02 June 2015, 3:55pm

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

I'm willing to wager that every single person reading this has played Microsoft Solitaire at some point in their lives. It was made in 1989, and has been packaged with every Windows operating system since Windows 3.0 in 1990. (It does not come installed on Windows 8, but you can download the Microsoft Solitaire Collection, pictured above, from the Microsoft Store for free.) Hundreds of millions of copies of Windows have been sold in the past 25 years. When you think of it like that, then you have to imagine that whoever developed it must be absolutely loaded by now. You'd be wrong. Wes Cherry was merely an intern when he made MS Solitaire as part of his job. Since then, and as the game is technically free, he has not received a single penny for his work on it.

Right from the start, Cherry knew that Solitaire would be the source of countless wasted work hours. But this month presents an opportunity for those who've lost contracts and missed countless meetings to the game to show the world what they're made of, when Microsoft's own elite players will compete against members of the public in a 25th anniversary score chase thing.

The base game hasn't changed that much over the years. In 1990 you could choose between different card backs, select whether one or three cards were drawn at a time, and switch between Vegas, Standard, or no scoring at all. The Windows 2000 version added the ability to right click on an empty space to move all available cards to the top right "foundations." Finally, in Windows Vista, the game saved statistics and allowed you to pause games to come back to later.

Nearly everything was there from the start, then, but Microsoft wasn't content with basic Solitaire. Four more variants were added over the years: Spider Solitaire uses two decks and ten rows of cards; Pyramid has the cards set up in a pyramid, obviously, and you remove pairs of cards at a time; and TriPeaks has three pyramids which you have to clear.

Freecell is a notoriously difficult variant, and some of the hands you're dealt aren't actually solvable. My father took me to his work one day and sat me down at a colleague's computer while they were in a meeting. I started playing around with Freecell while not actually knowing the rules. Needless to say, I reached a game-ending state in moments. When the statistics screen came up, I noticed that prior to my game, this colleague of my father's had a win rate of 100 percent, with hundreds of games played. I hastily clicked "Clear," loaded up normal Solitaire, and never spoke of the incident again.

Solitaire screen shots (including the lead image) via Arkadium.

Speaking of my dad, the only video game he was ever better than me at when I was growing up was 3D Pinball for Windows – Space Cadet. The Space Cadet table came free with Windows 95 and stopped being packaged after Windows XP, and was actually only one of three that came with the full game, titled Full Tilt! Pinball, developed by Cinematronics and published by Maxis in 1995. I spent many an hour on 3D Pinball in the 1990s, marveling at its animation and physics models. The only real movement we were treated to on packaged Windows games previously was when you won a game of Solitaire and the cards started bouncing everywhere. Nowadays I'm pretty happy with the likes of Pinball FX 2 for my flipper-related needs, but I do yearn for the days of 3D Pinball every now and then. Kids these days have no idea of its wonders.

They probably do know about Minesweeper though, another Windows classic—although, in hindsight, a terrible game. The concept of a puzzle game involving clearing a board of mines has been around since the 1960s, well before Microsoft included a version of it in its operating system, so it was nothing new, for starters. And then, there was the difficulty: You could lose an entire game on your first turn. Nevertheless, it was there, so we played it, and some even grew to love it. Not everyone, mind, as in 2001, the International Campaign to Ban Winmine was created, saying the game was offensive to landmine victims. If you ever wondered why there was a "Flower" option in the Windows Vista version of Minesweeper, that's your reason.

Unlike Solitaire, Minesweeper has changed over the last 25 years. The Windows 8 version comes with an adventure mode in which you control an explorer who must avoid traps while digging for treasure. Additionally, both Minesweeper and Solitaire now have achievements. The original modes are there of course, but instead of monochrome visuals, the games are now snazzy and vibrant. Also, the little face with the sunglasses is gone from the top of the screen, making these new versions clearly inferior to their predecessors.

Let's get a bit more modern though. Windows Vista brought in a whole range of new games if you owned one of the premium editions of the operating system. Chess Titans brought a highly complicated game to rest beside the usual batch of relatively easy puzzlers. InkBall allowed you to draw on the screen with your mouse in order to bounce balls into their corresponding colored holes. Purble Place was a collection of kid-friendly games about making cakes, deduction, and matching pairs.

Do you like Windows? I mean, REALLY like Windows? Well, Windows 93 is real, and it's spectacular.

'Chess Titans' screen shot via Wikipedia.

In Windows 7, things got even more interesting with the introduction of online play. Backgammon, Checkers, and Spades were all board and card games you could play against other people over the internet. Along with plenty of graphical upgrades for the old classics, there was never a better time to spend half an hour playing games on your computer while you were supposed to be filling in spreadsheets.

Which brings us to now. Depending on who you ask, 2015 could be considered the dark ages of Windows gaming. When you buy Windows 8, it doesn't come with any games pre-installed. Sure, everything you'd want to play is free to download on the Microsoft Store, but who has time to download anything these days? And who has time to actually find the store? When the operating system first released, most people had trouble even figuring out how to open its start menu.

'Wordament,' screen shot via windowscentral.com.

It's a shame though, because now we have more choice than ever. A particular favorite of mine is Wordament, basically a game of Boggle that you play against hundreds of people at a time. At the end of each round you get to see how well you did compared to everyone else, but the joy for me is in trying to find the longest word available in each grid of 16 tiles. There are also games on the store that are hugely popular on mobile, such as Crossy Road and Cut the Rope, and a total of over 1,000 free games available. The majority are terrible, of course, just like with every other store with free stuff on it, but it's nice to have the variety.

So what about the future? Microsoft has said that it's bringing back Solitaire, Hearts, and Minesweeper in Windows 10, which suggests they'll be installed from the start. (Great news for workers everywhere; less brilliant, perhaps, for their bosses.) Candy Crush Saga will be coming to the operating system, too, which will no doubt go down well with those people on Facebook who still send me invitations all the time. The old Windows classics have certainly lost some of their minimalist charm over the years, but it's been a fascinating journey. To start with, there were a handful of games designed to introduce new users to the concept of a point-and-click-based operating system. Now, we've got thousands of way more complex titles to choose from, but my guess is that Solitaire and Minesweeper will remain mainstays for a long time to come.

Follow Matt Porter on Twitter.

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