DOS Days Afternoon
It was a bit of a disappointment to find that Lemmings 2: The Tribes didn’t have Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream it’s Over” on its soundtrack. It seems the ravages of time have superimposed the song over my memories of the game because I played it for the first time whilst my sister was in the room too, playing a Crowded House CD. This is one of the many revelations exposed by the Internet Archive’s new MD-DOS library. Others include the fact that a lot of games had really terrible names back in the DOS-days and there were a surprising number of games based on Manchester United, I can only assume this is because Eric Cantona was a level 18 Monk with the Snap Kick feat.
There’s an impressive list of games in the library. It’s currently sat at an imposing 2306, which if memory serves is the equivalent of three and a half 5.25 inch floppy disks. Most of them play right in your browser with a DOSBox plug-in but some can be downloaded to your computer. I’ve been like a kid in a candy shop (one that has a rotary display of shareware disks for use on your IBM compatible Personal Computer machine) going through the library, stopping every so often and pointing at the screen in astonishment that someone else remembers an ancient game that has somehow managed to survive into the internet age.
Most of the games I’ve tried have loaded up in the browser fair enough and been pretty playable. DOSBox emulation is pretty CPU intensive and so performance can be a bit dodgy, but that just adds to the authentic DOS experience. It was an age where getting the damn games to run at all was a meta-game in itself and you got to feel like a cyberpunk hacker as you fiddled with command lines and memory usage. It was a very real joy to find such games as Moraff’s Entrap or James Pond 2: Codename Robocod available and be able to play them for the first time in decades. This time around, I even have the pleasure of playing Entrap in glorious VGA, as opposed to the ultra low-fi CGA I was always stuck with. Other games I got to replay reminded me of just how brutal some of these older games could be. Or perhaps I just suck at them now. Fantasy World Dizzy is I game that I know off by heart, I could probably make a good show of instructing someone else to play it whilst blindfolded but I seem to have lost the ability to actually play it for myself. I died on only the third screen whilst trying to get over a lit torch. Ouch, my pride got scrambled.
Unfortunately not every game I’ve found works. Brilliantly frustrating platformer Fury of the Furries was always annoying to get running, but from the Internet Archive it refused to do much else than play the intro movie. Which is a shame. I loved that game, but I’ll still always have the amazing remixes of its music. Games are also presented without documentation, so you’ll either have to do some digging for instructions yourself or try and figure it out for yourself. There are some issues with controls in certain games. Dune II: The Battle for Arrakis (or Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty if you prefer to use the rubbish alternate name) has an issue where the mouse buttons didn’t work but keyboard did. It’s playable, but feels weird. More problematic though is that you don’t appear to be able to save games or change settings for browser based games. I guess it’s a pretty tricky feature to enable for a server based in-browser game. Still, having these games so easily available is great in itself.
It remains to be seen if the archive will stay as it is though. Already I’ve seen some games disappear due to rights issues. I was overjoyed to see Boulder Dash online but it’s gone now though because of legal reasons. It probably isn’t the only game or the last one to get taken down. I’ve seen several games in the library that I know for a fact are still available for sale elsewhere on the internet; I can’t imagine they’ll escape the lawyer’s gaze of death for too long. Most games are in that very grey area of “abandonware”. For now, it’s a fascinating trip down memory lane for old farts like me and a lesson in where we came from for the younger ones among you. There’s a lot of rubbish, and a few that make me tut and shake my head, but there are some absolute classics that are still a lot of fun to this day. Take a look, it’s a wonderful database of nostalgia and let us know what your favourites or memories of the DOS days are.
The full MS-DOS library can be here at the Internet Archive.