We live in a world with millions of computers—on desks, on laps, under TVs, and in pockets—connected to a global computer network. As a result, with the right software, playing head-to-head online games between them is almost trivial.
But let's go back to a time when computers were less like data highways and more like remote islands, each occasionally connected to others by a standard dial-up telephone modem.
That time is the early-mid 1980s, and back then, even the modems were slow—typically 300 or 1200 bits per second (BPS), then later 2400 BPS if you could afford such a speed demon. At that time, pioneering game developers had the very novel idea of connecting two personal computers remotely to play games head-to-head.
So in this gallery, we'll take a look at a handful of very early modem-to-modem (and thus two-player head-to-head) online games for home computers. Each one played a part in setting precedents and defining player expectations for future multiplayer games—including the online games we all enjoy today.
Publisher: Brainworks, Inc.
Platform(s): Apple II
One of the earliest head-to-head online games for personal computers I could find is TeleChess, a versatile two-player Apple II chess game that supports a variety of modem configurations and even null-modem (a direct serial cable connection between two computers) connections. It's also notable for being one of the first-ever PC games (perhaps even the very first) to advertise its modem game playing functionality.
Publisher: Carl McLawhorn
Platform(s): IBM PC
Reaching back into the mainframe computer days of the early 1970s, you'll find plenty of games inspired by Star Trek. Despite what you may think, this particular shareware game for MS-DOS PCs actually has little to do with those, preferring real-time action combat sequences verses the turn-based strategy-fest of its mainframe brethren. With a modem connection, two players can remotely battle against each other, making this possibly the first modem-to-modem game for the IBM PC.
3The American Challenge: A Sailing Simulation (1986)
Publisher: Mindscape, Inc.
Platform(s): Apple II, Commodore 64, IBM PC
Another early modem-to-modem game on the IBM PC comes from an unlikely genre: sailing simulation. The American Challenge title has incredible depth for a game with very primitive wire frame 3D graphics, and thanks to the magic of modem technology, you and a buddy can remotely race each other across realistic courses in the Atlantic Ocean.
Publisher: Spectrum Holobyte, Inc.
Platform(s): Amiga, Atari ST, Macintosh, IBM PC
This legendary flight simulator from Spectrum Holobyte is notable not only for its impressive realism and stellar presentation, but also for allowing head-to-head dog fighting between two machines over a modem connection—a very novel idea at the time. While not the first flying game to offer this feature, the popularity of Falcon would help to make remote head-to-head play a common feature in flight sim games.
5Fire Power (1988)
Platform(s): Amiga, Apple IIgs, Commodore 64, IBM PC
What's more fun than blasting enemy tanks to bits on your home computer? Doing it to a friend in another city over a modem connection. That's what Fire Power, a fun overhead tank simulation game, allowed you to do—way back in 1988.
6Modem Wars (1988)
Publisher: Electronic Arts, Inc.
Platform(s): Commodore 64, IBM PC
This groundbreaking head-to-head online strategy game hails from the design files of legendary game designer Dani Bunten Berry, who was perhaps best known for masterpieces such as M.U.L.E. and The Seven Cities of Gold. Modem Wars emphasizes military tactics and strategy in an almost board game-like setting while also heavily advertising its remote player vs. player capability.
Publisher: Software Terminal
The Commodore Amiga played host to its fair share of modem-to-modem games in the mid-late 1980s, including a series of titles from Software Terminal called TeleGames, TeleWar, and TeleEpic. Of the three, TeleEpic seems the most interesting to me because it allows turn-based medieval fantasy combat with attractive graphics on an interesting platform. There are so many neat forgotten titles out there, and TeleEpic is just one more reminder of the depth of ideas that can be found in the back catalogs of gaming history.