Great news for fans of old PC games: The venerable Internet Archive has made an additional 2,500 MS-DOS games playable online in a browser, and in most cases with accompanying manuals. We’ve already seen playable games from a variety of vintage software platforms appear over the past several years, many via the Internet Archive itself. But this latest batch was a tougher project to execute.
The trick with MS-DOS, in general, is that it’s not like emulating fixed console hardware or an old 8-bit computer like the Atari 800 or Commodore 64. There have been different versions of MS-DOS throughout the years, some of which supported specific hardware. Certain titles had special configurations you had to set up in CONFIG.SYS using memory managers in order to play; sometimes it was tricky to get this right even back when they were brand new, much less today. Archive curator Jason Scott wrote that the latest batch came from a project called eXoDOS that’s dedicated to preserving the ability to play old PC-compatible games.
“DOS has remained consistent in some ways over the last (nearly) 40 years, but a lot has changed under the hood and programs were sometimes only written to work on very specific hardware and a very specific setup,” Scott wrote. “They were released, sold some amount of copies, and then disappeared off the shelves, if not everyone’s memories.”
Even trickier is the problem of playing CD-ROM games; the early to mid-1990s saw a surge in “multimedia” games, complete with encoded full-motion video, where different games used different and proprietary methods of streaming from the hardware. Those variables complicate the situation in a way you don’t run into when, say, emulating a PlayStation or PS2 game on disc. And it’s compounded by the fact that you’re now streaming up to 700MB of data in your browser and keeping it local, for that tab, in order to play the game from the Internet archive.
There are so many good games here that I won’t have room to call them all out. Just for a sample, standouts include CRPGs like Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant (pictured, top) and Ultima VII: Pagan, the gothic horror adventure Alone in the Dark, the seminal city-planning sequel SimCity 2000, and CD-ROM titles like MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries and the CD-enhanced Star Wars: Tie Fighter collection from 1995. Scott himself calls out Microsoft Adventure, a rebranding of the famous Colossal Cave/ADVENT text adventure by Don Woods and Will Crowther that was made available in 1981 for the then-brand-new IBM Personal Computer 5150.
These efforts are vital in preserving the history of computing, video games, and programming. Every genre of art has its own preservation issues, such as when restoring original copies of old books or recovering lost details in paintings that are hundreds of years old. But the computer age is especially tricky thanks to the rapid advance of technology and the subsequent discarding of yesterday’s machines. As MS-DOS gave way to Windows throughout the 1990s, within just a few years it became impossible to run MS-DOS titles, at least before preservation efforts like these began to appear. And we’re already seeing the challenges of preserving online worlds, to say nothing of the latest streaming platform fad.
If you want to give any of the new games a try, head over to the Internet Archive to see the latest additions, or just head to the main MS-DOS page for the entire collection, which now spans almost 7,000 titles. You can also buy copies of hundreds of these older games yourself at GOG, which you will then own and can run locally.
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