25 Years, Still Going Strong

Descent.

When I say that word, what do you think of? Perhaps the 2005 horror movie based in a cave? Good film. Not quite there.

Descent 1 intro briefing
Descent 1 intro briefing

“Prepare for descent…”

How about now? If you just got goosebumps up your joystick arm and tickly tingles in you trigger fingers, you’re my kind ‘a people. That’s right, my fellow four-eighty-six pilots, I’m talking about THE game. The game of the year; nay, of the decade. The one that changed shooters forever. The ever impressive.. the one-contained.. the often imitated but never duplicated oh shi–.. Descent!

Yes, this game will forever live on in my memory as the pinnacle of 3D gaming from my childhood. The mid-1900s saw some killer game releases. Top shooters included Doom, Quake, Goldeneye, Wolfenstein, Half-Life, Unreal. But NONE of these could hold a candle to the mind-bending stomach-churning six-degrees-of-freedom true 3D shooter that was Descent. Bonus, since it didn’t involve killing humans (and thus, no gore) — evil robots were the enemy here — it was perfectly acceptable to my parents for a young 9-year-old Nate’s innocent eyeballs. The sheer rush of adrenaline as the ‘bots tried to ambush as you barely escaped with evasive maneuvers and turned around to blast them to bits… Pure nostalgic gold.

Descent D1x-Rebirth level 1 Lunar Outpost
Descent D1x-Rebirth level 1 Lunar Outpost

“But what the blazes are you going on about”, you may ask. Excellent question. Please see YouTube. It’s not the absolute greatest representation of the true 6DoF potential, but you’ll get the idea. And if you get a little queasy, a little motion-sick, that’s perfectly normal. Anybody who’s never played one of these before is likely to need some.. perspective.

Open-Source Developers are Awesome

Here’s why I love developers. Gather a few of ’em together around something they’re passionate about, and watch magic happen. Descent is 25 years old this year. It was made for DOS and Windows 95, as well as a few consoles. Heck, I even have the original CDs from the “Definitive Edition” pack (re-released a few years later). But there’s no way in heck they would run on modern computers with modern operating systems.

Enter open source. Thankfully, the Descent 1 & 2 source code was released to the public at some point. That’s like Christmas Day to developers — anybody with any programming skill could now peek and tweak at the code, even rewrite it from scratch. Two separate projects — called “source ports” — spawned from that seed: DXX-Rebirth, and D2X-XL. The former is simpler and more true-to-form, retaining as much of the original gameplay look & feel as possible, while still enabling it to run on modern systems and adding a few nice conveniences for the 21st century player. The latter is more of a “let’s see how far we can take this” philosophy, in that the author has consistently added many changes and enhancements to the core game mechanics and graphics that, while some players find appealing, I personally take it as “noisy”. But due to its popularity, there are even a number of levels (aka ‘missions’) that will only work with this version. And don’t get me wrong, the work is impressive, by any developer’s standards.

D2X-XL gameplay on D1 level 1 revamped
D2X-XL gameplay on D1 level 1 revamped

A Legacy Lives On

As with most legendary hit games, a dedicated “mapping & modding” community sprouted up around it. To this day, DescentBB forums are active, and a few members are even still making levels. I even tried my hand at it a couple times. I remember almost begging my parents to buy the re-packaged game box because it included the “Descent Mission Builder” software that let you make your own levels. Hours upon hours spent manipulating cubes and flying through tunnels to test. But nothing compared to the fun of playing through the true masterpieces of level-design produced by the most prolific builders of the day — they pushed the game so far beyond what the creators originally imagined, yet likely dared dream of.

a waterfall from a custom level in Descent 2
A waterfall in custom level “Alhambra” for Descent 2

OMG I Must Play!

Then have I got a page for you! Includes download links and step-by-step instructions for Windows users. Bonus, it’ll soon include my own hand-picked custom-levels pack (so you don’t have to sort through the piles of crap that accumulated from half-baked “level contests” and “archive servers” over the decades).

A Challenger Appears

Overload, a spiritual successor to the Descent series, and involving the very founders of Parallax, was released in 2018 after a successful Kickstarter campaign. I haven’t played it yet, but from the footage and reviews I’ve seen, it’s right at home in this game-hall-of-fame.

Overload gameplay screenshot
Overload gameplay screenshot

So what are you waiting for? Catch me on Twitch and watch me play, or go download all the goodies and check it out yourself!

See you in the mines!

Favorite tagline of many hot-shot pilots and level-designers.

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