Revisit a Mac Gaming Classic with Glider

John Calhoun’s original Glider — dating back to 1988 — may well be my favorite game. Quintessentially Mac in style, it put you in charge of a paper airplane in a rundown, dilapidated house. You needed simply to stay afloat, lifted by air vents, and try to reach the window leading to freedom.

It was a game of wits, and patience, and it’s one of the most innately-charming pieces of entertainment I’ve ever encountered. The shareware series earned a dedicated fan-base and awards from Mac magazines through its five main installments, culminating in a commercial release (Glider PRO, 1994), then gradually faded into the background … that is, until Glider Classic for iOS was released in late 2011, which was followed up last year by a Mac version simply called Glider.

Let’s see how this throwback stands up — both to modern standards and to the nostalgia of Glider games past.

Stay Afloat, Avoid Obstacles

For the uninitiated, Glider puts you in a world of magical mundanity — where ordinary objects such as basketballs, balloons, and toasters take on a life of their own, creating great peril for a simple paper plane with dreams of fresh-air flying.

Entering a strange world where the magical and mundane collide.

You ride on the currents from air vents and candles, gliding from one to the next in a zig-zag of movement across rooms — directing movement with the left/right arrow keys and flipping the nose (which shifts the camera slightly) with the down arrow.

It’s graceful and carefree, but for the challenge of keeping your glider both intact and in flight. If you crash against an object, or land on any surface that isn’t covered in grease, you lose a life. Brushing against the edges of most items of furniture is fine, though. You can also get electrocuted on malfunctioning power sockets, which are often tied to switch puzzles.

There are some fiendish puzzles combining switches, balloons, dripping water, and buzzing circuits.

Lose all your lives and you have three choices: start again, go back to the last waypoint, or stop playing. Pick the second of these and your score, which increases as you collect stars and cover new horizontal ground, starts afresh at zero while your position jumps to wherever it was that you last touched a banner labelled “waypoint.”

If you want a good score, then it’s probably best to start at the beginning every time to avoid the hassle of backtracking. Early on, you’ll likely just be happy to get deeper into the house.

Digging deeper. The basement rooms pose a serious challenge.

Keep Your Wits

Glider is purely a game of skill. You don’t need quick reflexes or twitchy fingers, and you don’t need luck. Everything is measured, calculated. If your plane crashes, it’s your fault — your error in judgement. As a result, it is never unfair. The balloons in this new installment may be despicable and stifling, but even they follow a clear and consistent pattern. You just need to learn the timing.

Balloons, balloons, everywhere. But they’re not as bad as you think.

This was always the case in Glider, even as Glider 4 and Glider PRO introduced new elements like rubber-band missiles (retained here), enemy gliders, and battery-powered speed boosts (both omitted from this version). It doesn’t seem so wild now, in this era of casual pick-up-and-play gaming, but early Glider went with domestic simplicity at a time when bells and explosions were the norm. It favored the same accessible unassumingness as the original Macintosh, which is perhaps why so many Mac-heads gravitated toward the game.

This new Glider retains much of the charm, going so far as to rewind the clock on Glider PRO’s extravagances — a 403-room default house, a world beyond for the glider to explore, and new mechanics that pulled away from the original game’s vision.

Glider PRO let you go outside, and — thanks to custom houses — to all manner of weird and wonderful places.

The new Glider feels like something between Glider 3 and Glider 4. It’s a back-to-basics move that reminds you how much mileage you can get out of a little game like this. But it’s also modern — a step away from the series’ history and into the new age of casual games.

In Some Ways A Departure

Glider’s grown up. The house is no longer in disrepair — unless you count the water leakage problem and the large number of toasters on the floor — and the walls now host colorful wallpaper instead of cracks and webs. It’s well past college age and has settled into a comfortable life with a family and a corporate job.

Misbehaving appliances, weird interior design, and leaky faucets look rather out of place in this new environment, and the blend of hand-drawn and computer-generated visuals doesn’t always sit right. For the most part, Glider gets away with its graphical style, thanks no doubt to its adaptation of an old pattern dithering trick, but fans of the series may be hoping for something more that never presents itself.

There are some lovely hand-drawn touches, but this is not the shabby, crumbling house of old.

Glider reclaims the “quiet domesticity” that creator John Calhoun once told me he felt the later entries lost, but there’s something missing. Much like today’s Apple, Glider seems torn between two warring — yet similar — ideals.

The problem is not just that without the House Editor — a tool latched onto by the Glider PRO community in the 90s — Glider feels incomplete. I’m not sure what it is, but it manifests in the mechanics and design through a conflict between collecting stars — the focus of Glider PRO — and escaping the house — the goal of every other Glider game.

The design is compromised, ever so subtly, as a result of this conflict. And Glider pulls you in both directions with equal force. It’s not so much the definitive version as a “Greatest Hits” entry to the series.

But with John Calhoun again working at Apple, we may never see the extra touches — a House Editor, more objects, and something truly new to the series — that would turn this installment into the Glider game to play. Nor are we likely to see Calhoun’s other old Mac classics (Pararena or Glypha, anyone?) given a touch-up by the man himself — at least not for a while.

Turn off the lights on your way out. Is this the end of Glider?

A Classic Reborn

So for now we’ll have to accept this slightly-flawed, arguably-incomplete, but totally-awesome one-off reboot of the quintessential Mac game. Glider isn’t what I hoped it would be, but it’s a great game nonetheless. You should still get it if only to taste a bit of the magic of the early days of Mac gaming, when the world was our oyster if we could just break free of its confinements.

It’ll charm your socks off, and have you whistling or humming the theme for days.


Summary

The quintessential Mac game returns after a long absence. Guide a paper plane through a house of ordinary objects turned deadly in a wonderful, charming, and accessible adventure, almost as good as the Glider games of old.

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