MDK’s gameplay gimmicks hold up years later

mdk3.jpgFROM JASON’S CD CASE O’ LOST GAMES – The third-person shooter is a fairly standard vidjagame staple now, especially on consoles, thanks to titles like God of War, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, and Grand Theft Auto III.But back in 1997, it was a pretty novel concept.

MDK was among the first I remember playing in that genre, and I was gripped by a sudden urge Sunday night to play it after I saw a (totally unnecessary) HUD on Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles that reminded me of the game’s sniping action.

Of course, I had to rummage for about 20 minutes yesterday before I found the CD-ROM tucked away in the piles of software under my computer desk.

The game is short, and after some fiddling with the control scheme and about an hour making screenshots I ran through it real quick in three two-hour sittings. But don’t think shortness equals boring — especially if you take the time to toy with that sniping action.

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MDK ostensibly stands for “Murder, Death, Kill” or maybe “Mission Deliver Kindness” — I remember the magazine ad campaign back in the day toyed with the acronym to hilarious effect (one ad tagline read “Massive Dollops of Ketchup”).

Kindly delivering the human race from the hands of aliens, though, was the mission of the game, so that’s what sticks in my mind.

There’s a plot of sorts: A slightly deranged scientist discovers aliens are heading for Earth aboard city-sized strip-mining ships to harvest its resources. He designs a high-tech fighting suit for his janitor — that’s you — including leather armor, an arm-mounted chain gun, and mostly importantly a pterodactyl-ish head-mounted sniper cannon that can shoot everything from mortars to guided bullets.

The “coil suit” also has a built-in parachute, which allows you to glide pretty long distances or even fly through the air on updrafts.

I’m not going to pretend that the plot is very deep or that it matters to the gameplay (just shoot everything). It is to third person shooters what Super Mario Brothers was to platformers.

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The thing that is terribly important, though, is the game’s sense of humor. Some enemies hold nice, big targets you to aim at, you can call in an air strike by your robotic dog, if you aim properly you can actually shoot enemy eyeballs right out of the socket, and if you beat the game you’re treated to a non-sequiter French technopop tune.

Unlike Quake, Jedi Knight, or Duke Nukem 3D — all games that I remember playing in 1997 — you’re not exploring big dungeons with cramped passageways, hidden areas, and dozens of routes through each level. MDK is linear, taking you from one fighting area or puzzle area to the next. The difference is scope; MDK’s fighting arenas are sprawling affairs and the developers used some impressive software acceleration techniques to get the enormous levels to render without laggy load times.

MDK practically screamed along on my P133 with 128mb RAM and a 16mb 3D card, which for the day was a terrific machine. My parents had just upgraded from a 486 with 66mb RAM, and I was in geek gaming heaven moving from traditional 3D platforming to actual, immersive games (although they were choppy and low-res). Today I’m slumming with a 2.4ghz processor, 1.5 gigs of RAM and a 256mb graphics card, and MDK works as well as ever.

mdk4.jpgGraphics aside (and yes, they can be pretty damned square), MDK’s handling — if calibrated correctly — is just as good as modern entries to the genre such as Star Wars Battlefront. The developers allowed for what at the time was unprecedented mouse control, including mapping to the then-fairly-rare middle mouse button. Using the keyboard alone, the setup is crude and almost unwieldy. But with a little tweaking you can get the jumping, strafing, flying, sniping, and shooting all in easy reach.

I’m not really sure where we landed on the whole abandonware argument, but I can tell you that Home of the Underdogs has a free full CD version download. I couldn’t find a place where Moby Games was still directly selling it, but if you really feel compelled to pay somebody, then Amazon has used copies for about $4.

EXTRA: Here’s a neat list of the top PC games from 1997 that I found while doing some background research. Can you just feel that nostalgia seeping in over your Intarnets?

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