Oldie But Goodie: Losing your mind in a maze

So for those of you who were born from 1995 and onwards and never used Windows 95, you won’t remember this. Some of the old folk here do, however, and more hours were spent staring at the screen when it came on than there were playing games, or watching the telly. While Windows 95 didn’t change things as much as Windows 2000 did (and still does, because it has the best network stack Microsoft has ever, or will ever, design), it did bring one thing that brought joy to everyone who followed it’s exploits (and no, it wasn’t the Start button)…

“That’s right, boys and girls, I’m back to blow your minds again!”

The Windows 95 Maze screensaver!

Not much information is available on this timeless time-waster that we watched more often than we played Galaxian or Circus Charlie. Microsoft shipped it as a standard item with Windows 95 and given that Direct X and OpenGL were still in a war of who would dominate the OS, Microsoft’s engineers developed the screensaver, driven by OpenGL, probably as a subtle way of showing them what the engine was capable of. The textures of the maze were, by default, a sandy floor, brick-faced calls and an asbestos roof. Later versions of the screensaver would introduce new textures and colours, some of them wild enough to be a trip of their own even if you weren’t into drugs.

“That thing is clearly Satanic, Johnny Jnr! Go clean up your room now while momma sorts out this devil…”

The maze was so popular that it was turned into games of their own. Maze in a Box was a Cornell University project started by students that were tasked with designing a 3D game that could be played with players physically moving their characters through a virtual environment. Although first based off the original Doom, the design team settled on Windows 95’s screensaver, owing to the fact that is was a simple design, could be emulated by rather weak hardware and had a start and finishing point. Because there were a myriad of ways in which the same maze could be navigated, using a similar design meant their work was made much easier. I wonder if they ever thanked Microsoft for that idea?

The screensaver even got a well-deserved remodeling by a dedicated Minecrafter after noticing that it would scale very well with higher-resolution bitmaps. And because the OpenGL code was still working on newer operating systems like Windows 7, it didn’t take long before the project was completed. OpenGL code is platform-agnostic and works on 16, 32 and 64-bit systems.

Maze has sadly never returned since Microsoft booted it out with the release of Windows 2000. By that time Direct X was the dominant rendering path and OpenGL, through a lack of having a documented best practices manual, zero official support and the fact that Microsoft was giving Direct X developers some kick-backs, the screensaver’s absence served as a reminder that no matter how good a product may be, it would still be booted out of competition if the competitor had more resources and more money to make their competition go away.

Some high-resolution Direct X-based spin-offs have also sprung up since Maze’s demise, the most impressive of which is Brothersoft’s 3D Maze. Using vectorised images instead of static bitmap images. 3D Maze scales well to all manner of resolutions and includes similar customisation options. Some 3D games have popped up as well featuring the maze design and some people have even coded in new levels for the screensaver to explore.

For those of you who like to indulge in a little nostalgia now and then, you can download the original version of the Windows 95 screensaver here. Extract it to your C:/Windows folder and double-click the 3D Maze.scr file. Once your screen returns, you can select the screensaver from your personalisation options and you can even customise the colours and patterns, just like the original.

Don’t blame me, though, if you hardly do any work today because if it.

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