I love '90s computers. I really do. They're slow, and they're outdated, but they're so wonderfully nostalgia inducing that I just can't stay mad at them for long (even when they crash unexpectedly and curse us with the Blue Screen of Death). At the same time, though, '90s computers were also really weird. And I mean seriously, seriously bizarre — and even stranger is the fact that I didn't actually realize exactly how odd they are until much, much later on.
As for why they were so weird? That, I can't prove for certain — but I do have a couple of theories. First off, the technology was so new at that point that a) there was a sense of overwhelming possibility surrounding it, which led to b) a huge amount of optimism about it, and also c) it was fairly limited in its capabilities. When all these things came together, voila: Fun little in-jokes, wacky little Easter eggs, and a whole lot of entertainment. One of the things I find so appealing about the '90s is that it seemed to have a healthy sense of its own ridiculousness — and the weirdness of our technology is a shining example of that ridiculousness on display.
Here are 10 of my favorite pieces of '90s computer weirdness. Enjoy. Because you never know when a sasquatch is going to pop out and eat you alive.
1. After Dark Screensavers
Introducing small children to absurdist and abstract art since 1989.
2. The Horrible Things We Did To Our Roller Coaster Tycoon And Theme Park Patrons
Before we had The Sims, we had loads of other slightly less complex simulators… but we’ve been doing terrible things to the populations of these games for ages. I mean, what sort of monster would doom hundreds of tiny digital people to ride a roller coaster that takes four in-game years to complete?
The answer is us. We are those monsters.
We’ve talked about SkiFree before, but one thing I failed to realize at the time was that the game wasn’t just notable for its own sake. It was also notable for the fact that, if you successfully completed a run, a Sasquatch would eventually emerge and eat you. Like, that was your reward for winning the game. That is incredibly odd.
4. The Turbo Button
Contrary to popular belief, the “turbo button” did not, in fact, make your computer go faster; it actually slowed the processor down. Why? Because that was how you made old games and programs compatible with a newer, faster machine. I still, however, cannot for the life of me figure out why it was called the “turbo button.” It makes no sense. None.
Or perhaps more specifically, our behavior within chatrooms. I’m not sure which is more troubling: The fact that we were often so willing to give up our A/S/L, or the fact that we were just as willing to lie out heads off about it.
6. That Dang Paper Clip
I mean, sure, we were well aware of how irritating the Microsoft Office Assistant was — but in retrospect, Clippy was well beyond irritating. He was downright creepy. I suspect this has something to do with the uncanny valley — that is, we probably would have thought the fact that our computers knew when we were starting to write a letter, as opposed to a research paper, was slightly less freaky if the information weren’t coming from something with human characteristics — but still. Clippy was only around for a few years between 1997 and 2004, but it seemed like his reign was so much longer, didn’t it?
7. Our Obsession With Hideous Fonts
Although to be fair, I doubt that Comic Sans or Papyrus would have quite the same reputations they have today if we hadn’t used them so freely during the early days of the Internet. In fact, we kind of owe them an apology. Think about it: They let us use them, and overuse them, and they asked for nothing in return… and then what do we do? We go and turn our backs on them like the cold, cruel monsters that we are.
Then again, given that we are also the kinds of monsters who did unspeakable things with Roller Coaster Tycoon, perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
8. These PCs
Seriously, you guys. They’re so weird.
9. And Also These Pieces Of Malware
Also so weird. And hey, now we can look at ‘em all in their weird, weird glory, thanks to the Malware Museum.
10. All Those Easter Eggs
“Easter eggs” — hidden secrets, often of a joking nature — are all over the place in games and programs these days, but before they were so common, stumbling upon one by accident was like finding buried treasure. Except… a lot of Easter eggs were actually pretty unsettling. Consider, for example, this one: In Microsoft Excel 95, make a new page, select row 95, select cell B, go to Help/About, and then hit control-alt-shift on the tech support button. A new window will open… called the Hall of Tortured Souls. It’s a space that looks a lot like the one from the “maze” screensaver, with one notable difference: The walls are covered with names and photographs of people.
It’s actually not super spooky once you learn what the Hall of Tortured Souls actually is — a rather creative way to credit the programmers who worked on Excel 95 — but still. The Hall of Tortured Souls, you guys.