Sunday, July 24, 2022

Game 463: Gang Wars (1988)

Most online sources give 1991 as the game date, but I can't find any supporting evidence. The title screen indicates a 1988 copyright.
Gang Wars
United States
Doerr Bros. Software (developer); released as shareware
Released 1988 (or maybe 1991) for Macintosh
Date Started: 3 July 2022
Date Ended: 24 July 2022
Total Hours: 15
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: 24
Ranking at Time of Posting: 215/483 (45%)
In the late 1990s, parents first started to hear about Grand Theft Auto, and there was a minor hysteria as news outlets reported about gleeful children bludgeoning hookers. It's a good thing they never learned about Gang Wars. Here, a decade earlier than the first GTA, the player can take any number of weapons to innocent businessmen and women, school children, and homeless people--and get character development points for doing so.
All of this would perhaps be disturbing in a more realistic game, but Gang Wars is essentially set in a fantasy city in which every gang member is a homicidal psychopath and thus deserving of vigilante justice. I rather enjoyed it--probably more than the GIMLET rating is going to suggest. There's a certain originality to it, both in setting and style. Unlike most shareware games, I can't identify a particular source that it's emulating. It was created by Tony and Chris Doerr, two brothers from Cambridge, Massachusetts, who briefly had their own game company. 
Gang Wars is set in a dystopian city in which gangs and rats are everywhere.
Gang Wars casts you in the role of a vigilante seeking to rid your city of gang violence. As the game begins, you give your character a name, after which the game automatically rolls values for starting health (100-170), fighting ability (40-60), marksmanship ability (40-60), martial arts ability (40-60), thieving ability (10-50), and money ($5-20). You then begin with bare hands and street clothes at the top of a gridded cityscape of around 9 x 9 blocks. I was unable to get in touch with either of the Doerr Brothers to confirm this, but I suspect the city map is based on their own East Cambridge neighborhood (one of the few New England neighborhoods designed as a grid); the place where you start is roughly where their own residence would have been on Gore Street. In the late 1980s, East Cambridge was one of those Southie-style working class Boston neighborhoods that you might find in a Dennis Lehane book, and I suppose there would have been a few junior gangs plus the occasional serious gang member from Roxbury or Dorchester wandering over from the Galleria. They've all been priced out now. 
Creating a new character.
There are five gangs in the game's unnamed city: Coyotes, Street Kings, Warriors, Dawgs, and Alley Masters. Each has a headquarters, which you'll encounter in the rough order of that list (which is also the order of difficulty) if you work your way clockwise around the neighborhood. You'll find weapon shops, armor shops, ammo shops, hospitals, and a pub scattered along the streets. There are lots of dead-end alleys with rats and hidden items to find (again, East Cambridge has a lot of these courts and cul-de-sacs in between the major streets).
The first "boss": The Coyote chief.
Gameplay is entirely turn-based. Gang members have territories, but they also spawn randomly as you explore the map. I never quite figured out whether the type of gang member that spawns is based on how many of them you've killed (including the leaders) or your own advancement in skill or hit points. Either way, at a certain point, Coyotes stop spawning and all your random encounters are with Street Kings. Then, Street Kings disappear and every spawn is a Warrior. And so on. Every kill gets you whatever weapons and armor your foe had, at least a few dollars, 8 more points to your maximum health, and one or two points to whatever skill governs the weapon you were using. In between combats, you can keep clicking "Pass" to restore hit points, two per click, but it's hard to find places to do that where you don't encounter random enemies faster than your hit points restore. An occasional trip to the hospital (or use of Band-Aids, a rare item) is inevitable, particularly when you get so much health that you're looking at a thousand clicks to restore it all.
The hardest part of the game is surviving your first combat, and I would maintain that it isn't even possible, even with maximum rolls, unless you go immediately east from the starting point to the first armor shop, which you'll hopefully reach before getting attacked by your first gang member. There, you need to steal either metal armor or a bullet-proof vest. You'll fail most of the time and have to start over--shopkeepers are deadlier than most of the enemies in the game--but I don't see any other possibility. Unarmed and unarmored, you can't finish a battle against even the lowliest Coyote. Once you have some armor, you can kill one Coyote and get his brass knuckles, and from there the rest of the Coyotes become a lot easier, especially since you become stronger with each kill.
The developers almost made the game deliciously subversive. Gang members aren't the only denizens you find on the map. You also find plenty of helpless citizens (businessmen, innocent ladies, bums, school boys) as well as minor offenders like pickpockets and vandals with spraypaint cans. The thing is, you also get health, money, and character development from killing these much easier opponents. There's enormous temptation to do so, even late in the game, because it never hurts to get a couple more points in your worst skill. If the authors had included more of these innocents in the early part of the game, it would have been a viable path forward to "grind" against helpless victims. As it is, you don't meet enough of them to boost you significantly before you inevitably die at the hands of the first gang member. As I said, thievery is the only option, which I guess is also a bit subversive given your mission.
Grinding against innocent ladies and bums.
There are some people who aren't innocent but also aren't gang members. These include pickpockets, vandals, and rats. None of them charge at you, but they'll attack if you get adjacent to them. I didn't have many qualms killing them, particularly since pickpockets steal your money and you have to slay them to get it back.
The game has the usual limitations of a shareware title from the early 1990s, but there are only three things I actively don't like about it. The first is that it relies exclusively on mouse control. Even if you don't hate the mouse as much as I do, you won't enjoy clicking "Pass" hundreds of times to restore your hit points. I don't understand why the SPACE bar wouldn't have done just as well. Second, it is absolutely impossible to flee from enemies. They move at your speed and stay right on your tail. Third, enemies themselves often decide to flee when their hit points get too low. When they do, you have to chase them into a corner to resume the fight, and you can't make a single mistake while doing so or you'll lose sight of them. Fleeing enemies don't disappear from the map, but they constantly flee relative to your current position, and if they're off-screen, it's nearly impossible to catch up with them. This is a particular problem when the leader of one of the gangs decides to flee, since you have to kill all of them to win the scenario.
Selections from the weapons store.
The trick to the game is managing your character development carefully. All the skills are important. They not only enable you to better use weapons of their type, they also protect you against those weapons. Fighting ability governs most of the weapons you find in the early game--bare hands, brass knuckles, knives, and daggers. It's easy to fall into the trap of getting up to 150 or 200 in that skill and then having nothing when you need to face down enemies with martial arts weapons (staves and nunchucks) or firearms. You also need a high martial arts ability to avoid having your weapons broken by some enemies. Thus, I found that a good strategy is to go find a Warrior as soon as you can survive a battle with one, as they have staves. After killing the first one, you want to stay away from them until you get your martial arts ability up to around 80, which keeps them from breaking your weapons.
You really need firearms to take on the final two gangs, but again it helps to practice on the lower gangs first. Once you kill all five gang leaders, you have to face "The Terminator" in the lower-left part of the map. When he dies, a door opens to the second city. 
The Terminator and I are about equally matched.
The economy is a strong part of the game, as there are certain weapons (like a flamethrower) that you can only buy. Hospitals consume lots of money for healing, which at high hit point maximums is almost necessary to avoid standing around clicking "pass" hundreds of times. Ammunition is relatively expensive and needs to be replenished. Dynamite blows holes in walls, something that's necessary on the second map.
Ordering drinks (and hints) at Joe's Bar.
Each map also has "Joe's Bar," where you can purchase drinks for hints. The clues in the first city are:

  1. The gangs number five, as do their leaders.
  2. Kill all five to open the door
  3. Stealing from a shop keeper can be your last decision
  4. The chance of stealing is your raw ability. Failing is too easy until you get good.
  5. The Dawgs are left above the Alley Masters. The Coyotes own right here.
  6. The exit appears in the Terminator's lair. Go through the exit, and you will find another city which is even less kind.
The second city is more of a maze than the first one, and there are a few areas inaccessible unless you use dynamite to blow open some walls.
The gangs in the second city are Dragons (armed with flame throwers), Robots (shotguns), Droids (flame throwers), Road Masters (shotguns), and Maulers (chainsaws). Technically, I guess only four of these are gangs, as per the hints below, but I couldn't tell which of them were just random enemies. I'm also not sure of the order of difficulty listed above, as all of the enemies are deadly.
Enemies in the second city get a little ridiculous.
Joe's Bar clues are:
  • The gangs number four, as do their leaders.
  • Kill all four to finish.
  • A chainsaw can be tough on your clothing.
  • Us shopkeepers don't just carry pistols anymore.
  • Do you want it straight or on the rocks.
  • A low martial arts ability can result in a lot of broken weapons.
It's funny that that last entry is the most expensive one at the second bar, because if you hadn't figured that out by now, you'd be in a lot of trouble.
I initially played the game using the Basilisk emulator, but I guess the OS was too advanced for the game, and something was preventing it from saving. I spent about 11 hours trying to win the game with permadeath unintentionally in play. I thought I had a technical issue getting it to run with Mini vMac, but it was just me being stupid. Once I figured that out, saving worked as usual, and I was able to press forward for the win.
The second city is a lot deadlier than the first, and there's essentially no way that you can rest and heal in a corner after combats. You want to bring plenty of money, ammunition, and Band-Aids from the first city, using hospitals to pay for healing when possible and Band-Aids when not. There are enemies here with rocket launchers; you can also buy the launchers but not the ammo, which you must find. I found rocket launchers too dangerous (you can get caught in the blast radius) for regular use, but they help with some of the walls. 
I engaged the Dawgs too soon.
Once you kill the fourth gang leader in the second city, the game freezes on his death screen with a brief message: "Congratulations!! You have restored law and order to both cities. Saving two cities is hard work. Go take a break."
The winning screen.
In a GIMLET, I give the game:
  • 2 points for the game world. I like that it's different from the typical RPG, but there's no backstory or worldbuilding or even names for the cities.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. You grow in power rapidly, and I like the need for balance among the skills, although it prevents you from playing a specialist. Character creation is somewhat meaningless, as variances in the random roles are soon obliterated by rapid character development.
  • 1 point for NPCs, even if all they do is tempt you as targets.
A school boy brings a knife to a shotgun fight.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. Enemies are a bit different than in the typical RPG and have various attack and defense strengths that you have to learn and respond to.
  • 2 points for combat. Combat involves little more than walking or shooting in the direction of the enemy, but weapon selection is important.
Taking on the toughest gang leader in the first city with a pistol.
  • 3 points for equipment. Various types of weapons, armor, and usable items.
  • 4 points for the economy, which lacks complexity but remains relevant throughout the game.
Restocking ammo isn't cheap.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 1 point for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are only serviceable, not attractive. There is no sound, and the all-mouse interface gets tiresome.
  • 4 points for gameplay. It's linear and not very replayable, but it's just about the right length and difficulty.
That gives us a final score of 24, which I would regard as quite high for a game that has such a limited online profile. 
Ah, for the days in which one just had a single "OnLine Screen Name."
I'd love to hear from the Doerr Brothers about the genesis of this game, and whether I'm right about East Cambridge. I found some candidates but had not heard back from inquiries at the time of this entry, so I can only hope one of them finds this entry and responds.


  1. 'Most online sources give 1991 as the game date, but I can't find any supporting evidence. The title screen indicates a 1988 copyright.'

    To me, that looks like the artist's initials on the title screen. It's not out of the question that this was the first piece of artwork they did (in late '88), then they'd been working on the game for a little over two years, and the release date for '91 checks out.

    1. It's possible, but the point is, I don't have any reason to use the 1991 date except that it's what some web sites say (and probably most copied their dates from whichever one put up 1991 originally). The 1988 year in the logo is the only actual evidence we have. At least so far.

    2. Here's a bit of fuel for the fire. Most of the games' files are dated 1987-1988, but the main executable, as well as one called "GraveGrid," are dated to August 1991. Could indicate the codebase was worked on for an extra three years after the base assets were finalized. Or it could indicate the executable was cracked then.

    3. Probably the latter, then. A game of this scope takes a couple weeks of programming, certainly not three years.

    4. Could it be that the brothers worked on the project mostly back around '88 then set it aside, unfinished, only to return to it as low hanging fruit when they needed a product to quickly/cheaply put out in '91?

    5. How would most websites claim it's been released in '91 if it wasn't? (devil-advocating, I know).

      I've been working with AGS (Adventure Game Studio) on smaller projects, and while maintaining a job or education, development time easily balloons into months or a year with a 1-2 person team (friend's doing the music). It's not just the programming that needs to be done, but countless other things and then testing and balancing.

      Gonna leave it here.

    6. Web sites get these dates wrong all the time. There have been dozens of times we've found hard evidence of earlier and later releases than the official listing. All it takes is one online database to get it wrong, and then a bunch of others to base their listings on the first one.

      I repeat: 1988 is the only date for which we have any hard evidence. If any kind of manual or magazine ad or personal testimony ever appears, I'll be glad to amend the date.

    7. Most abandonware websites don't care too much about the accuracy of their data, so they just copy it from whoever has data written down. Usually Mobygames, but in this case probably whoever originally put this game on an abandonware website put down 1991 for some reason which as of now remains mysterious.

    8. In other words, this is what's happening:

    9. I don't do games databases, but I have been doing a lot of cult movie database updating in the past 2 years. It's wild how much junk data is on places like imdb that gets proliferated all over the place as the "truth". I suspect the same thing happens with Mobygames, someone takes a guess based on something like the last modified date for the crack and the game is too obscure for anyone to bother looking into if that's correct.

    10. xkcd is 100% accurate as always! Nice reference!

  2. I don't know which emulator you used, but I tried this with my go-to Mini vMac (emulating a Mac II running System 7) and was able to save and load without any problems.

    1. Yeah, it works on Mini vMac. I thought I had a technical issue, but in truth I was doing something so stupid I don't even want to tell you.

  3. Chet, while I haven't been able to get the game running quite yet (it's supremely annoying how much 68k Mac software is in .sit or some other Mac-only format), I can tell you that MAME's Macintosh II driver allows save states.

    1. There's a reason for that - sometimes the software's file/folder structure is incompatible with Windows. What's less excusable is when dsk-format images are compressed with sit.

      In any event, if you emulate Mac stuff with any sort of frequency, then it's a good idea to have a System disk with StuffIt Expander installed on it. Then you can import the sit file and extract it inside the emulated system.

    2. That's exactly what I have. The hardest part was getting an image with StuffIt Expander--well, expanded. I kept finding it only in .sit format. I honestly can't remember who set me up with the first disk with the program already expanded, but that's what I've been using since.

    3. You know what? I'm just going to admit what the problem was because it's kind of funny. I have the hard disk image with StuffIt expander in my Basilisk folder. In my Mini vMac folder, I just have disks for specific games that people have sent me over the years. I could only find Gang Wars in .sit format, which worked fine on the hard disk image in my Basilisk folder, but I needed to be able to play the game on the other emulator. I tried to transfer it directly from disk to disk with HFV explorer, but the software crashed. I tried transferring it via HFV Explorer through Windows, but as Ahab says, Windows just screws it up.

      Somehow, it didn't occur to me to just open my "Basilisk" hard disk in Mini vMac. It's not a system disk; it just has game files. But I had blinders on. It reminds me of the time I spent hours furiously plunging the drain in my bathtub, pouring all kinds of chemicals in there, and nearly calling the plumber, only to realize that the problem was the drain stopper was in the "closed" position.

    4. So happy to hear I'm not the only one making stupid mistakes like that...

    5. Chet, you have no idea how many times I've helped people, very smart people who are great lab workers, discover the reason the dodad isn't working is something is closed, off, or unplugged. (or had that issue myself)

  4. Comments above this point were posted on the first draft of this entry, when I had not yet won the game because of emulation issues.

  5. I do wish games like this would put a little bit more effort into their extro, win screen, or "congrats" message. A Winner Is You, indeed!

  6. I like how it's two cities. It's usually one thing to do, or three things to do, but not here. It's almost theatrical.

  7. QuickBASIC for Mac wasn't released until 1988 and (IIRC) was different enough from QuickBASIC for DOS as to make programs not portable between the systems. I only have the vaguest of memories about this but I am fairly certain that I played with QuickBASIC for Mac back in middle school and found it quite unlike the DOS version.

    That suggests at least that if they did write it in QuickBASIC for Mac that they had a fast turnaround for them to get the game finished in 1988. That said, I have been unable to find the exact release data and it's plausible that it was released early in the year or that a version existed before what I am aware of.

  8. "Grinding against innocent ladies and bums" sounds both pervasive and perverted. But hey, whatever gets your character points up...

  9. While checking to see if any of the major Mac software websites had this listed under 1991, I noticed one had a link to a fan remake, or rather remakes, based on the source code to the game.
    What's more interesting is that Joe is 100% right about it being made in QuickBASIC, although since other ways to even code such things on a Macintosh were incredibly difficult at the time its not surprising.

    1. Reviewing the source, it's certainly Mac-only. It uses Mac extensions for mouse and menu interactions that were not available in the DOS version of QuickBASIC. The code also fails to include anything helpful such as a copyright date.

    2. Ah, but does it use BASIC functions or extensions that didn't exist in 1988? It's a bit of a longshot but there was probably something in the 1991 version of Mac QuickBasic that didn't exist yet in 1988.

    3. Oh, and having the main application date to later than original publication is quite common for Mac abandonware circulating on the Internet, as they've often had copy protection removed.

  10. As a Mac user since 1986 and a long-time participant in the early Mac hardware and software preservation, this title has 1988 written all over it.

    The 512x342 monochrome graphics are the Mac standard for that period. Most Macs in circulation at that time were the "compact" machines with the built-in monochrome screen. It also has the look of an early title based on the menus.

    If this title came out in '91--even as shareware--it would have been creaky ancient history already.

    1. The game's graphics and typeface do remind me of mid-1980s games on the Mac, particularly “Art of War.”

  11. I'd guess the inspiration here was Drug Wars plus something like Ultima. I feel like there were a good number of creatively designed shareware games around this era, though perhaps not many noteworthy shareware CRPGs until Exile.

  12. I do love me some near-future urban hellscapes.

    I agree that it would have been neat if there'd been an opportunity to grind on neutrals - I think the best implementation of evil in RPGs is not via means of some karma score; it's when players are given the opportunity to do 'bad' things to make the game easier for themselves.

    For instance: An unkillable (or superpowered) merchant is boring and breaks immersion. A killable merchant gives the player an ethical quandary.

    1. 100%. Can you think of many games that implement this kind of mechanic? Most RPGs give you experience no matter which way you solve a quest. Imagine an RPG in which doing the right thing COST you experience. All those gamers who talk about wanting to truly “play a role” Would have to put their money where their mouth is.

    2. Hmm. I think there are a few different approaches to this, some more common than others:

      Games which offer a 'hard mode' of sorts via the option to use non-lethal takedowns - common in stealth games, less so in RPGs (eg Dishonored).

      Games where the dialogue/stealth solutions to quests tend to offer less xp and loot (eg Fallout: New Vegas).

      Games which let you kill/rob non-hostiles for great advantage (Fallout 2, Dead State).

      And I can think of an RPG where you get less good endings if you make use of some of the tools at your disposal, and an RPG-adjacent game that evaluates a lot of your actions in order to determine the ending, but to say what they are would be a significant spoiler (for those who want to know: trarsbetr frevrf naq guvf jne bs zvar).

      It's quite common for strategy games to throw up these sorts of dilemmas. Games such as the recent Civ entries, and Crusader Kings give you a lot of space to impose your own values on your gameplay. Eador, a strategy/rpg hybrid, gives you regular opportunities to pay a resources and take risks just to do 'the right thing'.

      I feel like this would be a good contender for a Special Topic: Ways in which RPGs allow us to express, or subvert, our own beliefs.

    3. This is why I find Undertale to be a little hackneyed - there's never any room for the player's conscience to be the one punishing them. Sparing everyone results in no sacrifice of the role-played character's goals. What would a game be like where the game and its characters DO congratulate you even if you pulled some dirty tricks or worse to complete your mission, with only you knowing that you took the easy way out?

      I recall some reviewer praising a Legacy of Kain game for allowing you to vampirically drain NPCs with no repercussions - as your healthbar grew, you'd want to drain more and more NPCs as you reached each new town. The reviewer noted with glee that they really WERE seeing the NPCs as bags of blood, embracing the desperate need to feed at any cost that a real vampire would have and the game providing a mechanic that encouraged the gradual abandoning of your humanity but never required it. There was nothing stopping you or commanding you - you were unfettered in the most moral, immoral, and amoral meanings of that word.

    4. A fun example that comes to mind is Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. Some items in the shop are very expensive, and you can make things easier on you by stealing. Gur pbafrdhrapr vf gung rirelobql va gur tnzr jvyy pnyy lbh guvrs vafgrnq bs lbhe erthyne anzr, naq vs lbh erghea gb gur fubc, gur fubcxrrcre xvyyf lbh jvgu n ynfre ornz. Ohg bgure guna gung, lbh unir znqr guvatf rnfvre sbe lbhefrys.

    5. Gothic has such a mechanic. You can attack a lot of neutral characters and rob them when they're down, without consequences for yourself. It's an easy way to get gold and experience. Can't remember if you have to provoke them into attacking you, or that you can just attack them without reason. Just don't kill them when they're down and there are witnesses around, that's too evil even for Gothic's world. You can get by without attacking and robbing neutral characters, it's just more difficult.

    6. IIRC, the Divinity: Original Sin games did this pretty well. You can rob and kill merchants for their goods and that's often the most straightforward way to proceed. Many quests are completable through the application of violence to relatively innocent NPCs.

    7. In Gothic 2 it depends on where you are. Start a fight in the harbor and nobody cares. Start a fight in the quiet areas of town and guards will attack you. If you get knocked out, they take your weapon and gold.

      A cool little detail about fighting people in the harbor: nobody cares if you knock people out and steal their stuff, but if you deliver a final killing blow when they're on the ground, they'll shout "murderer!" and attack you. If you lose, they will deliver a killing blow to you too while you're on the ground.

    8. I don't think Gothic 2 qualifies. The output of knocking random people in the street of the Old Camp is not that high, and in my opinion it is the equivalent of stealing the purse of random people in the street, just more violent.

      I think we need to look toward Russian RPG like STALKER and ATOM. In STALKER, you have several quests where people ask you to recover their unique weapons, and if you do, they give you two cans of food and a smile. In ATOM, you are going to either have a very hard time, or you are going to help the bandits levy a tribute from various settlements around to take one example. Being nice is rarely rewarded, because nice people are poor and they don't give you more experience either.

    9. As far as I can tell, the "optimal" approach to playing Deus Ex is to play like a serial killer -- sneak around a lot, but also methodically take out as many enemies in the quietest and cheapest way possible so you can loot their bodies. After a certain point in the game, lethal options are clearly superior. Characters in the game will comment on how violently you solve problems, and there's at least a couple of places where you are rewarded for being more ruthless.

    10. The Metal Gear Solid games have always tried to punish you for killing people (usually via withholding super-cool rewards that you don't need if you can avoid killing people to get them), but the only one that really succeeds at punching the player is 3.

      One "boss fight" in that game znxrf lbh tb guebhtu gur tubfgf bs rirelbar lbh'ir xvyyrq va gur tnzr fb sne. Yvgrenyyl - abg bayl vf vg gur fnzr ahzore, ohg rnpu tubfg vf znexrq jvgu rknpgyl ubj lbh xvyyrq gurz. Creuncf gur zbfg puvyyvat ner gur barf gung fpernz "LBH NGR ZR" (perngrq ol rngvat n ihygher gung srq ba gurve pbecfr).

      Far more impactful than simply denial of a mechanical reward.

    11. A minor example: the loot-able displays in shops in Might and Magics 4-5 (and maybe 3? I don’t remember).

    12. It occurs to me that Dishonored is a good example. The game is relatively easy if you just kill everyone. The difficulty comes from forcing yourself to adhere to a set of conducts.

  13. Interesting you say it has a low profile, but it feels like one of those games that every Mac nerd of a certain age loved to bits. Must be a result of the internet circles I move in - and those nerds sharing via text posts rather than videos or screenshots.

  14. I reconigze that the title screen is a pastiche of the "Vigilante" comic books.

  15. This is a really underrated game, imo. Had countless hours of fun as a kid, somehow managing to beat the game multiple times. Save-scumming is almost necessary, because things can go south quickly if you get ambushed or cornered. Using grenades and dynamite was a good tactic for escaping battles, and maxing out your thieving ability ASAP will make the game much easier.

    The game's creators actually gave the source code, which was later used for a remake:


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