Review: Microsoft Solitaire (PC)
by Frederick Badlissi on February 20, 2008

Microsoft Solitaire (PC Build 2600.xpsp_sp2qfe.070227-2300 : Service Pack 2)
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Wes Cherry
Release Date: Original 1989, Review Copy circa XP installation in June 2005

One day, a Microsoft intern by the name of Wes Cherry was in a deadlock with other Microsoft programmers and designers. Mr. Cherry, who had been an avid fan of things like “logic” and “compensation,” was commissioned to create a game that would be marketed along Minesweeper and a promising new game called Microsoft Excel. While Cherry was convinced that Solitaire was where it was at, he had faced an uphill battle in trying to get it past his management.

More specifically, he had to dispel Microsoft’s management’s mind regarding the potential success of his version of Solitaire versus the management’s choice to bundle Microsoft 52 Pick-Up with their latest Windows release. The same logic that today dictates that Vista is a superior operating system existed way back then as well, when little-known-to-the-gaming-community personality William Gates was convinced that players would have more fun picking up a virtual mess of cards from a virtual floor with their mouse, and bringing back said cards on top of a virtual table.

There was a silver lining in the clouds that day, however, and by some stroke of luck, a rare moment of beautiful epiphany graced over Redmond and it was decided to include Cherry’s Solitaire with every copy of Windows that shipped. And from then on, the world’s productivity level would screech to a halt. And despite the fact that Mr. Cherry never received a dime for his work, Solitaire has been played and played and played over and over again across any version of Windows you can think of – even stable ones. Despite the fact that lots of people have played it, very few if any have attempted to review it.

So here I am.

And here’s my Solitaire review.

1. Story:

Alluding to the lonely nature of the game, Solitaire is a game that you play, well, while in a ‘solitary’ nature much like Team Fortress explicitly denotes a game wherein the use of ‘teams’ perhaps fight in relation to a ‘fortress,’ or the same way that Metal Gear Solid is a puzzle game about clocks and chemistry. Being a card game at heart, the experience flies in the convention that video games must be exciting and action-packed in order to do well in the marketplace. But there’s a certain type of charm to the execution of this title, and it doesn’t detract from the overall package.

Lending to the ruthless logic of it, the story goes that a four kings and their respective courts – comprised of a queen and jack – as well as some numbers and what’s called an “Ace” are supposed to be placed into a discard pile in ascending order from the ace card to the king. I don’t want to spoil it, but something pretty neat happens after this condition is met. What is has to do with the story I haven’t the slightest idea. But it’s fun- and doesn’t require any version of DirectX to appreciate.

Mr. Cherry’s choice of narrative, while quite esoteric, leaves the playing field open for interpretations. Outside of the monarchy, there are no characters. In place of level design, you have procedure. And while that procedure somewhat linear in regards to it’s final destination, the way you get there is always as different as the draw of the cards. At it’s base, Solitaire is indeed a card game. However, in the presentation it has on desktops everywhere, it’s a veritable “Choose Your Own Adventure”-type romp, in which the player can assign gravity to the gameplay? Are you just discarding cards, or are you making a philosophical observation regarding the futility of the monarchical system? Is every number discarded just a number? Or is it a play on the expendability of the serfs and vassals of the old world order?

Quite amazingly done, Mr. Cherry. How something this creative slipped from Microsoft’s grips is beyond my comprehension but, then again, it was the 1980s.

2. Graphics

Solitaire is, for lack of a more applicable phrase, “arcade perfect.”

What Mr. Cherry has done with the hardware provided was make extremely photo-realistic representations of the cards that one would use to play a game of “real” Solitaire. All the pictures, numbers, and symbols you’ve come to know and love from the deck of cards on your table or in your pocket appear intact, and are easily discernable from one another.

An appreciated feature is that, on a Windows XP machine, the player is also able to select from a whopping 12 pictures to place on the back of the card. Maybe one day you’re not feeling the blue clouds on the back because it’s damned rainy outside. No problem! Just change it to a picture of the moon rising over a sand dune, and you’re in business. Like wildlife? Microsoft stepped up to provide you with not only the picture of a clown fish, but also – and this is my personal favorite – a happy frog! They’ve also got a picture of a flower you can select if you’re into that sort of thing, as well as old-school cars for the Boy Scout or Car and Driver set.

Unfortunately, this is where the graphical variety stops. My guess is that Microsoft probably didn’t let Mr. Cherry finish it in time, but I would have loved to change the background color of the table on which I play. Sure, green is nice, but what about a light blue? Maybe an aquamarine-type color? Or certainly something contrasting like yellow. Be my wishes as they are, Solitaire does not allow me to indulge my preference for a table surface that doesn’t mimic a booth in Las Vegas.

Aside from this minor quibble, Solitaire is indeed a remarkable feat. In fact, in this day and age of high-end graphics cards named with alphanumeric conventions and ridiculous resource command, the fact that Solitaire has gained and held such an appeal over the years is a testament to the great work that Mr. Cherry put in. I mean, I remember being able to play it on my 386DX system with no hang-ups whatsoever. That’s awesome no matter how you slice it.

All in all, Solitaire delivers.

Game Mechanics:

Like it’s table-top predecessor, Solitaire replicates the thrill of the game with regards to how you actually play it. At the beginning, the player is presented with seven piles of cards that ascend in quantity from left to right, with four areas on top to begin discard. In the upper right hand corner, you have a pile of cards that are yet to be used, and you can have the game “draw” either one or three at a time. Because I’m working on a self-imposed deadline, I stuck with the “One card” option. You can also choose to have your game timed and scored.

The parameter of the game is to allocate your cards on top of one and other in a descending order that goes from king to 2 while alternating colors, and then discard them into the above “netted” areas. You have to start by placing an ace of each suit in each netted area, and then follow the suit of the ace by placing the cards you’ve revealed in ascending order, all the way up to the king. Once all are in place, the game is done. However, you cannot really complete the game without clicking and revealing face-down cards. This can grow tedious for some, but it is necessary to progress. Essentially, clicking on an unrevealed reveals it, and it can then be moved onto one of your piles. This can be done either by clicking on the remaining number of cards in the upper right hand corner, or by clicking on one of the cards on your seven piles below.

Personally, I found the way the game is played both quaint and riveting. Again, it can be described as “arcade perfect” too, as it replicates the sensation and presentation of a “real” solitaire game. There is also a Vegas scoring mode that introduces a dollar sign in place of the actual score, but I was feeling rather hyper-Christian at the time. Thus, sensibilities did not mesh with comprehensiveness.

Based on what I’ve played, fans of the original will not be disappointed in Mr. Cherry’s work.

Sound

This is the most disappointing aspect of the game. Aside from using a PC Speaker to convey a sound effect at the end of a completed game, there are no sound effects and no music to speak of. None. At all. Weak.

There in and of itself might be a deal-breaker. However, given the source material and the current digital day and age, I have a suggestion for those who play Solitare: find yourself a copy of Sting’s stellar single on the soundtrack to The Professional called “Shape of My Heart” and just have it playing while you play Solitaire. This is not to be confused with the Backstreet Boys’ track of the same name. (Choose the latter, and unless you grew up in the mid-west and swallowed every Viacom-broadcasted piece of content hook, line and sinker, you’ll loathe it)

So why use this track in place of nothing? The lyrics, silly!

“He deals the cards as a meditation
And those he plays never suspect
He doesn’t play for the money he wins
He doesn’t play for respect
He deals the crads to find the answer
The sacred geometry of chance
The hidden loaw of a probable outcome
The numbers lead a dance

I know that the spades are swords of a soldier
I know that the clubs are weapons of war
I know that diamonds mean money for this art
But that’s not the shape of my heart

He may play the jack of diamonds
He may lay the queen of spades
He may conceal a king in his hand
While the memory of it fades

I know that the spades are swords of a soldier
I know that the clubs are weapons of war
I know that diamonds mean money for this art
But that’s not the shape of my heart

And if I told you that I loved you
You’d maybe think there’s something wrong
I’m not a man of too many faces
The mask I wear is one
Those who speak know nothing
And find out to their cost
Like those who curse their luck in too many places
And those who fear are lost

I know that the spades are swords of a soldier
I know that the clubs are weapons of war
I know that diamonds mean money for this art
But that’s not the shape of my heart”

Here are some avenues you can pursue to that end:


  • Find a copy of Sting’s “Ten Summoners Tales” and turn it to track 9.
  • Pop in a copy of The Professional and fast-forward to the ending scene right before the credits start to roll. Then start to listen.
  • If you’re in Irvine, there’s a restaurant called The Caspian. They have a cover band that, five years ago, played a VERY butchered cover. If this band is still there, take a laptop and enjoy the skewered chicken, as well as the skewered song and basmati rice.

Those are my suggestions. In any case, though, if you’re looking for a symphony, you’ll not find it here.

Replayability

Unsurprisingly, Solitaire comes up in spades in replayability. This, my friends, is no joke.

For a deceptively quaint affair, Solitaire has an addictive property- a property that really only comes across in stuff like card games. Not only do you have the opportunity to play though a statistically baffling amount of card dealing outcomes, but you can also time and score it. When you do, you experience the thrill of putting card upon card… for more points!

If you’re sippin’ on gin and juice, whilst laid back and having money on your mind, you can choose Vegas mode and live the thrill of a solitary Solitaire player with everything to gain and nothing to lose. Again, I didn’t turn it on to try it, but I’ve heard that adding a dollar sign to it changes everything. Your cash reserve can be up, and all you’re waiting on is your yacht to ship and the phone call from Robin Leech. Conversely, you can be in the hole – and that’s not a pleasant place to be. And the bitter reality of it all is that, if you lose, because it’s only you and the program, the only person you have to blame is yourself.

But if you somehow win a profitable game, or simply don’t play in Vegas mode, Solitaire remains an enjoyably repeatable romp. And after the game is done… well, again, I don’t want to ruin it for ya. Let’s just say it gets a bit “crazy.” And you’ll wanna relive that craziness more than once. Believe you me.

Balance:

There isn’t much to be said here, as Solitaire is a pretty well balanced game. Now, had the developer been SNK or Tecmo, I wouldn’t have any doubt in my mind that there would be something like 8 queen cards in the deck on Easy mode. That’s just how those companies roll. But I digress…

Solitaire‘s nigh-perfect balance lay in the fact that there are 52 cards in the deck, and they never change designation. Rather, the game only alters the order by which they’re drawn. As such, after every shuffle, there’s only going to be a set amount of combinations by which the card will be dealt out. This is a refreshing change of pace from the normal institutions that dictate how a game is completed. There are no mid-bosses, no final bosses, no patters to learn or complex procedures to be deciphered – just pure card-based balance at the end of a given session.

Originality

Time to give the broken record another spin. Calling the game Solitaire is a stroke of genius in two respects; one affirms the game’s originality, while the other detracts from it. I’ll attempt to keep them tied OK.

First, calling the game “Solitaire” is conceptual ingenuity at work, because you play the game alone. It’s like you’re in a “solitary” state while playing Solitaire. Sure, it can be lonely. But unlike some other game titles that intentionally mislead the player into an environment or framework they were not expecting e.g. Sonic the Hedgehog, I commend Mr. Cherry for preserving the truth about this game. It’s refreshing, and ironically very un-Microsoft. Oh- and Solitaire doesn’t sport a failure rate, let alone a 30% one.

However, the same name that describes the nature of the game also shows a lack of originality on Mr. Cherry’s part. Indeed, Solitaire is a complete rip-off of it’s card-based name sake. It is true that the game of Solitaire is in the public domain, and no one is going to vigorously sue anybody else who creates their own approximation from scratch. Still, though, this reeks of the whole Street Figher 2 fiasco with Data East when they released Fighter’s History, as the latter was almost a complete knockoff of the premiere. In that respect, Solitaire feels very “Data East” when I see a real deck of cards. Perhaps this is a personal hang-up, but I felt it was best to share.

Addictiveness

Solitaire is, quite possibly, the most addicting game in the Windows suite. And even if you have installations Half Life 2 or Hello Kitty: Bubblegum Girlfriends, I can almost guarantee that you’ll always come back to the deck of cards when the day is done.

Why, exactly? I’d love to try and explain it, but Solitaire commands it’s own mystery, and won’t let itself be unraveled by just a few short paragraphs. There’s just something reassuring and satisfying about taking virtual cards and putting them on top of one and other in sequence. For any reason, though, I find myself coming back to Solitaire far more often than I’d like.

Appeal Factor

Sure, Grand Theft Auto appeals to a generation that grew up disenfranchised by the market economy with a soundtrack whose price could finance higher education for an entire mid-western state. And yes, there is an arguably very small niche that took to Wii Sports. But something great about Solitaire is that it’s for everybody. If you’ve ever seen a deck of cards, something tells me that you’ll feel right at home.

You see, I can’t very well have my Mom join me for a game of Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, as I suspect she never really endeavored to command an American or Soviet army in an alternate timeline to comical victory. Halo 2? She’s not, and will never be, a space marine. But Solitaire?

Oh yes, friends. Solitaire is a game even my Mom can play. And my Dad. And my sister. And my grandmother. And, with some effort, perhaps my neighbor’s cat. There is no other game that can command and captivate an audience like Solitaire can, unless someone makes a game where you rack up a lot of credit card debt and have to repay it over the course of a game. That would be awesome. But in the meantime, Solitaire fills the void.

Miscellaneous

There’s really nothing to say here. Nothing much more at all. As a matter of fact, I’d label this “N/A.”

Conclusion

Whereas it could have faded into the obscurity of “just another pack-in title,” Solitaire is a great, great representation of the time-tested card-based favorite. From the faithful graphics to the superb game mechanics, Solitaire survives the absence of a soundtrack and a not-too-entirely original concept to earn itself a high place among gaming’s best. You’ve done well, Mr. Cherry.



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