Inside The Big Cardboard Box is where we delve into the history of the largely defunct world of boxed PC games, with a particular emphasis on all the ones I used to own, but later gave away or sold.

Today, we move away from budget labels, and onto another method of saving money, with the 90s equivalent of a Steam key bundle: the compilation. We’ve touched upon these previously, with publishers bundling their own titles together in packages of two, three and more. However, the emphasis this time will be on the more weird and wonderful collections of titles that popped up on UK shelves (including my own).

My predilection for a bargain was such that, given the choice between buying five average games for cheap and saving up for one that was really good, I often plumped for the former. In other words, I was the ideal target market for these random compilations. I imagined they would lead to endless Sunday afternoons of fun, discovering and exploring underrated gems, and becoming a fan of previously unfancied genres. In reality, this fun was often short-lived, and the Sunday afternoons in question involved installing each of the games and fiddling around with them for half an hour or so before resolving to return to them at a later date (which I often did not do).

There are three compilations from the mid-late nineties that particularly stand out. The first was part of a series of mammoth bundles from the appropriately-named Megamedia Corp, which began in 1994 with the slightly-confusingly-named Megapak 11 (11 representing the number of individual CD-ROMs in the box, before it became a numbered series), a collection of multimedia packages and games of variable quality, some of which were on CD for convenience only, without necessarily being CD-ROM products.

In fact, the games on offer in Megapak 11 were getting on a bit by then, with the likes of F-14 Tomcat, Links: The Challenge of Golf, and Test Drive III: The Passion all first released in 1990. Just as the PC was starting to come into its own as a gaming machine, the early Megapaks reflected the previous era: slightly clumsy early CD titles mixed with games that were probably better experienced on the Amiga or consoles.

In time, they became a bit more appealing as the collections better showcased what the PC had to offer: the third included flight sim TFX and early Raven FPS Cyclones, plus superficially-impressive CD titles like The Journeyman Project and the dreaded MegaRace, while the fifth included Terminal Velocity, FX Fighter, Jagged Alliance and Flight Unlimited.

Looking at the various lists of games included in the Megapak releases, the wide variety in terms of genre and publishing background is really striking and does seem really rather random looking back now. ‘Something for everyone’ is all very well, and perhaps they were bought by families or groups of friends with varying interests, but I would imagine that more often than not software, particularly in those days, was purchased and enjoyed by individuals.

Saying that, it was possibly more likely then that someone would be open to playing games of all types, although for me most compilations would include at least one game I knew deep down that I would never play. I was usually willing to take the hit, though, particularly as I would usually have waited for the compilation itself to be reduced from its initial RRP.

And so we come to Megapak 6, which was the one I owned. Looking at the list of games now, I’m not entirely sure what in particular attracted me to it. Certainly I never seriously intended to play either Panzer General II or Steel Panthers. Which leaves us with a couple of racing games (Al Unser, Jr. Arcade Racing, which had the dubious honour of being one of the first Windows 95 exclusive titles and Manic Karts, a follow up to SuperKarts), two point and click adventures (The Legend of Kyrandia: Malcolm’s Revenge and Ripley’s Believe it or Not! The Riddle of Master Lu), two fantasy adventure games (Death Gate and Druids: Daemons of the Mind, which was more of an RPG), plus Pinball 3D-VCR (one of 21st Century Entertainment’s many pinball games of the 90s) and Action Soccer.

Doubtless, it would have been the racing, sports and adventure games that were most appealing, although as soon as I realised that Action Soccer was at the wackier end of the footballing spectrum, I dropped it pretty quickly. Upon reflection, Megapak 6 doesn’t seem like the strongest of the series, although I don’t actually remember seeing any of the others on sale. Megapak 8, which included Sim City 2000, Screamer 2, Broken Sword, Mechwarrior 2 and Master of Orion 2, would certainly have been tempting.

The series ended by the late 90s, although Mobygames lists a Megapak 10 as the final release of the series in 2001. However, this entry was published by Empire Interactive and includes a lot of games from their Xplosiv budget range (which we’ll likely cover in a future piece).

The second random compilation was called The Big 6ix (yes, that’s how it was spelled: like the 90s boy band 5ive), which found its way into my collection at some point in 1997. Again, this was a fairly bizarre selection of games from different genres: Mortal Kombat 3, Sensible World of Soccer, Bedlam, Battlecruiser 3000AD, Enemy Nations and Stargunner.

The first two games were of most interest, but I soon found out that I was still rubbish at beat ’em ups and Sensible Soccer and so dabbled more with the others. Bedlam was pitched as Syndicate without the thinking, which sounded like it would be right up my street, but although it looked nice, I recall it soon became fairly dull. Battlecruiser 3000, despite a notorious ‘sexy’ advertising campaign, was renowned for being an inaccessible and largely baffling ordeal, and I found it fairly impenetrable.

I was curious about Enemy Nations, which I had never heard of before. Subsequent Googling reveals that publisher Head Games went bust shortly after release, so perhaps it never came out at all in the UK. At the risk of crediting my past self with more patience than he possessed in reality, I do recall persisting with this for at least a short while and being fairly taken with it (although given my past with strategy games, it’s likely I just played the first mission or something). Stargunner was a side-scrolling space shooter, and apparently the final game ever released by Apogee. Without being one to judge a book by its cover, I think I largely dismissed this as kind of amateurish-looking for the time and never bothered much with it at all.

I had figured that The Big 6ix was a one-off, although moderate internet research reveals the existence of a Volume 3 (some kind of sports pack, featuring Sensible Soccer ’98 and Network Q RAC Rally Championship, among others) and a Volume 4 (various utilities and clip art). I wonder what was in Volume 2? Write in and let us know, you could win a prize.

And finally, we have what was possibly the best value compilation, and one that made some sort of sense in terms of the games bundled together, while still also feeling slightly random and unofficial. It was a collection of three games across 10 CDs: Wing Commander IV, Privateer 2 and Crusader: No Regret, with manuals on a separate CD. A low-frills box with the words ‘3 MEGA GAMES’ emblazoned across the top was slightly at odds with the high production values of these Origin Systems games, each of which (I think) also received the EA Classics treatment, complete with printed manuals and supplements. But for 20 quid, it was a must, and I did actually play all three games, even if I only ever made it to the end of WC IV. And I’ve still got the discs somewhere.

Again, this was the sort of compilation that implied it was part of a series (with the ‘Science-Fiction’ subtitle) but I never saw anything like it again. Indeed, if the evidence wasn’t out there to prove otherwise, I might have thought I had made the whole thing up. However, according to Mobygames, there was also a Simulation pack bearing the same name, which included TFX: EF 2000, Jane’s ATF and Grand Prix 2.

I’m sure there were plenty more compilations of this nature out there, possibly some of which were also bought by me, but the phenomenon of bundling random games together and flogging them in some exciting-looking packaging seemed to die out quite quickly. I think as budget games became a bigger thing for the PC market, the bargain hunter was more easily enticed by the frequent ‘2 for £15’ and ‘3 for £10’ type deals in GAME or HMV, where you did at least have some element of choice, even if you might sneak the odd unwise purchase in as your third game just to get the discount.

We’ll get onto that though, in a future instalment.

(NB: Megapak cover sourced from Mobygames; The Big 6ix pic is a scan from PC Zone (Vol 3 pic is nicked from Amazon); 3 Mega Games comes via the Wing Commander CIC).