On January 24, 1984, Apple launched its first Macintosh computer. Later rebranded as the Macintosh 128k to show off its then-astounding memory capacity, it was the first home computer to combine as standard a built-in screen, a mouse, and a graphical user interface, essentially meaning windows, icons and a cursor. Launched with a strikingly peculiar advert directed by Ridley Scott (below), it was always going to be a machine that did things a little differently. And, in time, that first Macintosh would have a profound – if unexpected – impact on video games. You can read more about the Mac’s impact on gaming, within our book: The Secret History Of Mac Gaming.
That’s not to say Apple’s ambitious new computer would change any part of the world overnight. Rather, the Macintosh introduced a new way to think about how we interact with computers, offering a wildly intuitive approach that seemed to adapt to users' preferences. The simple combination of a mouse and graphical user interface thrust open computing to millions more people, following an era when coding and computer use went hand-in-hand, limiting their use to the technologically savvy or the especially determined.
But it wasn’t just that Macs used a welcoming, intuitive approach to human-computer interaction that reset consumer expectations about the role such a device could play in daily life. The Macintosh line also increasingly offered nonlinear interaction; meaning there were commonly a number of ways to do any one thing on the new Apple computers, providing a sense that a Mac would work in the way you think it should. Graphic designer Susan Kare’s icons for the new computer – apparently informed by her experience with needlepoint embroidery – played a huge role in translating the complexities of computing into a clear visual most laypeople could understand. And so it was that the notion of intuitive, user-centric computing was born; a movement that ultimately made computers and later the internet a part of daily lives, culminating in the arrival of Apple’s more recent world-changer, the iPhone, which, with a wildly intuitive and open approach, has changed the way we interact, shop, play, exercise, work, earn, and much more besides.
Despite all that, to this day, Apple computers (if not iPhone) are not particularly associated with gaming. That in part comes from a concession made in favour of their user-friendly leanings. Unlike Windows PCs, Macs offer less flexibility around upgrading or customising graphics cards. Ease of use has long been Apple machines’ greatest strength, but that made it a little harder to support users getting at the guts of their slick machines. Which in turn made things a little tougher for users wanting to constantly keep in step with the rapid technological advances and demands seen in gaming.
And then there were those undersized black and white screens of the early Macintoshs – though many retro Mac gaming fans will tell you that limitation inspired both brilliant visual and distinct game design. Afterall, creativity so often thrives under restrictions.
In time, Macintoshs and the Apple computers blossomed as creative machines, and were eagerly embraced by those in fields like video editing, graphic design, and animation. Eventually, though, a great many game developers found themselves working on Windows PCs, making releasing to that OS a little more appealing and straightforward than publishing to those Macs with their limited capacity for gaming-focused graphics cards and such.
It wasn’t always that way, however. For a golden time Mac jostled shoulder-to-shoulder with the PC in a battle to claim the gaming market. For a period in the 1980s and early 1990s, so appealing were Macs both in terms of their technical muscle and audience, that many now iconic games made their debut on the Machines. Will Wright’s definitive urban management game SimCity first released on Mac in 1989, months before its migration to Amiga, IBM PC and MS-DOS. Famously, Robin and Rand Miller’s eerie adventure Myst also began life on Mac, in 1993, pulling on the power of the Apple HyperCard software stack. Windows users would have to wait another year to lose themselves to Myst’s meticulously confusing location.
And then there’s the fascinating story of how Halo – a Microsoft-exclusive sci-fi FPS that would spend years defining Xbox gaming as distinct from its rivals – actually started out life targeting the Mac. Founded in 1991, future Halo developer Bungie had become a bit of a sensation after the impact of its early games, Mac exclusives Gnop!, Operation: Desert Storm, Minotaur, and first-person shooter Marathon. The latter did particularly well, its success fuelling growth for the company that allowed two further Marathon titles as well as multiplatform success in the real-time tactics game Myth. Subsequent experimentation with the Myth engine led to the now infamous moment when Steve Jobs took to the stage at Macworld 1999 to announce a new strategy game starring a character named Master Chief.
That take on Halo was fairly distinct from the FPS we know now, which came to be after Microsoft purchased Bungie for themselves in 2000. And so it was that one of the biggest game series there is was born from Mac into a life of service to Microsoft products.
In fact, in the early days of the Macintosh, the idea of facilitating games wasn’t entirely appealing to the powers that be. Even the idea of a graphical user interface was considered less than serious as a computing concept. The original 128k model couldn’t run more than one software programme concurrently, but – in something of an innovative prelude to apps on smartphones many years later – it could host multiple ‘desktop accessories’, meaning undersized applications that offered the likes of calculators and alarm clocks. And then there was Puzzle, a sliding block game that came preinstalled on so many Mac machines, and as such the very first Macintosh game. Puzzle, however, almost wasn’t to be.
“By the fall of 1983, it was time to make decisions about what to include in the shipping product,” wrote software engineer and original Macintosh development team member Andy Hertzfeld, remembering his creation of Puzzle. “We had shown the Mac to a number of industry analysts, and while most were enthusiastic, some didn't really get the graphical user interface and thought it was ‘game-like’, not suitable for serious computing. This made some of the Macintosh marketing folks a bit leery about the more whimsical aspects of the design, and the Puzzle, being an actual game, became somewhat controversial.”
However, Hertzfeld was told that if he could rework Puzzle to take up just 600 bytes, it could be slipped on to the first Macintosh. Something told the team a playful app was needed. And so it was included, with various versions being pre-installed with Mac computers until its last version, Tile Game, which arrived with OS 10.4 in 2005. When Puzzle came with the original Macintosh, it was more than a simple game. It was part of Apple’s statement about computing becoming more intuitive, friendly, and fun, and it wasn’t the only great game to make use of the Macintosh’s distinct offering.
Titles like 1985’s action-arcade outing Crystal Raider (which later spawned the hit sequel Crystal Quest), or text adventure A Mind Forever Voyaging, released that same year, or Robert P. Munafo’s 1984 Missile Command port each showed that the Macintosh could be a home for playful, creative, entertaining experiences. Or there was Icom Simulation’s 1985 hardboiled detective drama point-and-click Deja Vu: A Nightmare Comes True, which inspired numerous ports from Mac, or 1987’s The Fools Errand, a delightfully innovative puzzle game informed creator Cliff Johnson’s previous life as a filmmaker. Years on, with many thousands of games that support Macs available on Steam, the Apple machines still aren’t really considered a gaming machine. And yet just as Macs innovated the way we live our daily lives, so too do they host some of the finest gaming experiences there are.
And so it is that we wish a happy birthday to the computer that delivered an impact that can still be felt in daily life 40 years on. Still want to know more? Then do check out The Secret History Of Mac Gaming.