The Internet Archive is a vast sucker. At last count, it had over ten petabytes of digital matter (a petabyte is a million gigabytes). Started almost twenty years ago by a guy in San Francisco who was annoyed that a favorite website on macrame had gone down (and was presumably lost for all time), the Internet Archive took on a herculean task — to preserve all that it could of the web. It has been doing an astounding job of this, although for most of its history in relative geeky obscurity.
One of its many manifestations is something called the Wayback Machine, which lets anyone call up a cached web page from whenever. I did this myself a few times to check on some of my old JA reviews that had otherwise slipped the bonds of earth. I have also, in the past, skimmed through a fair amount of the archive’s endless software holdings — mostly old apps and games. Most of these were demos and shareware titles. Probably there were some pertinent copyright issues here, but the Internet Archive’s holdings were mostly so obscure and out-of-the-mainstream that I doubt anybody got too worked up over it. That situation took a dramatic turn a few months ago.
Sometime in December or January the Internet Archive went online with over two thousand of its DOS game holdings, all of them fully playable in your web browser. Many of these are the full games. The uploading and archiving of these games is an ongoing process, but at last check the library was offering over 2600 titles.
I would never have guessed that there even are 2600 DOS game titles. This is an astounding, and often an overwhelming cornucopia of old games. After all, the DOS era in its entirety basically stretched from about 1980 (with the debut of IBM’s first PC) until roughly 1999, when Microsoft finally booted native DOS from Windows. That’s over a thousand titles per year.
Let’s backtrack a minute, though, and discuss the even more amazing technology behind this development. Last year I wrote an article on my Adventures in Emulation, wherein I discussed the critical development of DosBox for those of us still interested in playing old DOS games. I will briefly reiterate here that DosBox, entirely free and available for pretty much every operating system, allows one to play old DOS games (and other DOS software) better than one could on the game’s original system and hardware. Among other things, DosBox allows you to change the processor speed on the fly to suit the needs of the game.
Modern computers are so fast and download times are generally so short that even the largest of these old games can load into your browser in a matter of seconds. There are, however, a few caveats to keep in mind. One problem with the old '70s arcade games, for instance, is that they were built to operate with a joystick only. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had a joystick attached to my computer for about ten years. Luckily, the DOS titles fare better in this regard as most were developed in an era with keyboards. Most of the titles in the Library load beautifully and quickly in your browser — but after that you’re pretty much on your own. The game is there all right, but often the instructions aren’t. You will need to be fairly adept and experienced at playing old DOS games to get a lot of these titles to work. Experimentation will surely help. But many of them that I have tried (mostly the really old ones) have defied my attempts to spark them to life. They just sit there beeping while I pound away at likely key combinations on my laptop.
The DosBox emulator does allow for the game screen to “capture” your pointer, so you can often navigate through the game’s menus and controls with your mouse. (If you want your mouse back, hit esc.) The biggest stumbling block to genuinely playing most of these games online, however, is the lack of an ability to save your game. If you’re really dedicated and have a lot of coffee on hand you could probably push your way through many of these titles in several hours. You could also just leave your computer on and the browser window open. And, again, a few of the games are downloadable in a zip file, where you can play them on DosBox on your computer.
Mostly, however, the Library is an adventure in trolling through an incredibly large amount of old games, dipping in here and there wherever the water looks inviting. It’s a bit like having the entire Museum of Natural History at your personal disposal, to walk around and poke the exhibits and read the legends of the dioramas. I have yet to spend more than ten minutes or so on any game. But I have loaded dozens of titles I’ve never heard of, and a few I’ve wondered about for many years, to try them on for size.
Of course, most of the games in the Library aren’t adventure games. Then, as now, the main attractions are action games. And there are many intriguing hybrids. Action-adventure, RPG-adventure, platformer-puzzle, education-actioner, etcetera.
The other shortcoming to this remarkable trove of games is that they’re thrown at you like a giant carton of old comic books. There’s no index to scan through and many of the games don’t even have descriptions, much less instructions. You just have to dive in and see what turns up. This can be great fun, of course. I’d prefer a fully indexed and annotated listing but that would probably kill much of the kismet involved in just plowing through the enormous assortment.
The Internet Archive’s MS-DOS Software Library is really a Wayback Machine of its own — a time machine that takes you back to the 1980s and '90s to view, as nowhere else, the fascinating development of the computer videogame. Back to a time when the only graphics were EGA sixteen-bit, or was it four-bit? Anyway, the graphics were mostly a sickly lime-green. You can actually see the development of the computer and the videogame as the years pass. In 1980 you get a black-and-white DOS implementation of the old text adventure Adventure, aka Colossal Caves, the granddaddy of all adventure games. A mere thirteen years later you get a beautiful VGA game like Al Lowe’s Freddy Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist, a title that with only a few tweaks could sell today.
Without the geniuses behind software emulation and the dedicated people at the Internet Archive, these games would, for the most part, be gone with the wind. Not only would an important part of our history have been lost; a lot of great times playing great old games would be lost as well. And even some curious old lousy ones.
For the adventurous, here is the main URL for the MS-DOS Software games library:
If you’re interested in reading more about the Internet Archive in San Francisco, there’s a terrific New Yorker article about it online, “The Cobweb: Can the Internet Be Archived?” by Jill Lepore: www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/01/26/cobweb
As I say, there’s no comprehensive index to find the game you’re looking for (or hoping to locate), but the Library does offer you a few ways to navigate around its large collection:
VIEWS — lets you load the games in descending (or ascending, if you prefer) order of interest; the more “looks” a game has gotten, the higher up the list
TITLE — gives you an A-Z choice of title listings. Personally, I find this the most confusing since one rarely knows the exact title of a game. Still, it may help you narrow things down.
DATE ARCHIVED — lets you sort three ways, by date archived (added to the library), date published (when the game came out) and date reviewed (not all games have been reviewed).
CREATOR — gives you another A-Z choice of the games’ publishers. I find this the second most useful, as it allows you to group, for instance, all the Sierra On-line titles.
Below is a highly selective and personal list of the “notable” adventure games from the first six or seven pages of the VIEWS listing, meaning they’re drawn from the games most people have been checking out thus far.
Remember that the Library as a whole is pretty much a WYSIWYG affair. There’s no way to tell if a game will really run, or even if it’s in English, until you load it in your browser and see for yourself. Still, that’s half the adventure, n’est-ce pas?
One other caveat: There’s no “family” filter governing the Library. A few of them are “adult” titles. Now, in the '80s and '90s, your basic adult title was a few hazy pink pixels and some bawdy text. However, you’ve been warned!
Oregon Trail (1990) (RPG/Adventure) — It’s numero uno; it must have something.
Prince of Persia (1990) (3d person platform action-adventure) — Not really an adventure, but a great, great classic nonetheless.
4D Prince of Persia (1994) — Not sure what this is, whether a commercial game or not, but fun like all the PoP games.
Leisure Suit Larry 1: In the Land of the Lounge Lizards (1987) (AGI adventure) — Al Lowe’s original, the one-and-only, and based on the Sierra adult text game “Softporn Adventure.”
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) — LucasArt’s (LucasFilms?) first graphic Indy adventure title. Still great.
Maniac Mansion (1988) — Another LucasArts granddaddy. Difficult with some weird controls, but still wonderful.
Leisure Suit Larry 5: Passionate Patti Does a Little Undercover Work (1991) — the fourth and worst game of the series, but a gas anyway.
Castle of Dr. Brain (1991) — An edutainment puzzle game from Sierra that is, for me, a classic.
Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood (1991) — Haven’t played this, but looks significant.
Emmanuelle (1989) (adult) — No mouse! Just keyboard controls. An “adult” curiosity from an era when almost all video games were produced by lonely geeks just out of their teens.
The Hobbit (1983) (IF) — Never got very far in this, but reputedly a classic based on the Tolkien book.
Stephen King’s The Mist (1985) (text adventure) — Don’t know this one, but it’s Stephen King!
Hugo’s House of Horrors (1990) (Graphical IF) — Another minor classic horror game. Looks fun.
Leisure Suit Larry 1: In the Land of the Lounge Lizards (1991) — The VGA version of the AGI original. Just replayed this and had as much fun as the first time fifteen years ago. The best part is the copy protection quiz at the start — honest!
Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (Enhanced) (1988) — Enhanced? Who knows? But yet another LucasArts classic. What a roll they were on.
Amazon Trail (1993) (adventure-educational) — Looks interesting.
Maniac Mansion (Enhanced) (1988) — Also enhanced! Beginning to sound like one of the “adult” titles.
Star Trek — 25th Anniversary (1992) — This is a terrific game that I never quite finished because of the goldarn “action” sequence at the very end. A keypad-pushing nightmare only a 12-year-old could love; but until then it’s a wonderful straightforward adventure.
Museum Madness (1994) (adventure-educational) — I’ve just started playing this; looks like fun.
Leisure Suit Larry 2: Larry Goes Looking for Love in Several Wrong Places (1988) — Larry Laffer is back. 'Nuff said.
Leisure Suit Larry 3: Passionate Patti in Pursuit of the Pulsating Pectorals (1989) — The “toughest” title of the series, and possibly the best. Be forewarned, though, it’s still graphical IF, with a saucy text parser.
Laura Bow 1 — the Colonel’s Bequest (1989) — A very non-traditional adventure from Sierra, but quite good. Don’t give up on it, no matter how many times you fall over that railing and die.
Island of Dr. Brain (1992) (adventure-educational) — The follow-up to “Castle” and almost as good.
Mixed-Up Mother Goose (1991) (adventure-educational) — A good Sierra game for the kiddies.
Hook (1992) — Loaded it in my browser and discovered it’s in French! Mon Dieu!
Freddy Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist (1993) — Another Al Lowe masterpiece. One of the all-time greats.
Black Cauldron (1986) — An early Sierra graphical IF game, based on the Disney movie.
Rise of the Dragon (1990) — Has a couple of skippable action sequences, but well worth your time.
Secret Island of Dr. Quandary (1992) (adventure-educational) — Just started this one too; similar to Sierra’s Dr. Brain games.
Codename Iceman (1989) — Labeled as adventure-simulation. You’re a navy special ops guy. Never could get very far in it, but don’t let that stop you.
Shadowgate (1987) — an oldie with those screwy “magic scrolls” controls and multiple windows, but supposedly a goodie.