Remembering DOS games

Every PC gamer worth their salt ought to have a memorable story of booting a game up on good old DOS. My first experience with DOS, that I can remember, was trying to load up this Pac-Man clone game on an old Apple II. I know Apple DOS was not the same as Microsoft but it was similar. I remember spending what felt like hours, but was probably only 20 minutes, typing and retyping commands to get the game configured and working. I don’t even remember what the game was called just it was running on my cousin’s old Apple II computer (and it was old at the time, this was early 90’s.) My first experience with MS DOS, the DOS most PC gamers think of when they hear the words DOS, was at a friends house. He was showing me his IBM clone PC with Windows 3.1. It was so much fancier than my cousins crappy Apple II. He showed me a game called Duke Nukem. I spent a few minutes playing the game. I think by the time I beat the first level I told him, yeah it’s, okay I guess but it’s no Sonic the Hedgehog. He agreed then showed me a game I knew my beloved Genesis didn’t have, Dungeons and Dragon’s Eye of the Beholder II Legend of Darkmoon. I can’t say I was blown away, but I was very impressed.

I was so hooked on playing PC games on my friends IBM-clone (that’s what we called them back then, we didn’t just say PC because there were dozens of types of PC’s back then.) I told him, dude you are so lucky to have this I want a computer so bad. He shrugged, then replied. No way dude, I’d trade it for a Sega Genesis straight across. I think what he envied about the Genesis was how the games just plugged into a cart slot and were ready to go. That was fine but what I envied about his machine was the complexity of the games verses the simplicity of console games. I wasn’t converted into a PC gamer overnight, but I was starting to see them in a different light.

It would be a few more years before I finally got my first PC of my own. Unfortunately it was just a decade’s old Atari 8-bit my dad found at a Goodwill store for a few bucks. Oh don’t get me wrong I was SO delighted just to have a computer I went whole hog into that machine. I became so obsessed my dad showed me the film WarGames to see what computers were like when that thing was still relevant. I was so excited. The problem was, I already had an Atari 2600 and this stupid thing really didn’t play games more advanced than what I was already getting there, for the most part. Oh well it was still a nice entry point for me, in 1996. By the summer of 1997 I would get my second old PC, a Commodore 64. This was at least a little closer in quality of games as the NES and there was a lot more variety in terms of products supported so I had a blast getting to know my retro computers. Finally I picked up a 486 PC clone, I honestly can’t remember the brand, in late 1998. It was a full on DOS machine. I started scrambling to grab any floppy disk that said DOS compatible at the thrift stores as I could. I quickly learned that having no experience prior with DOS, no instruction manual, and no clue what the hell I was doing, I ended up junking the thing out of frustration as I never could get even a single game to load up. Remember I didn’t have the internet yet, and our high school was just starting to get computers in the library, not even in the class rooms yet. So it would be another 2 years before I finally got my first, real, PC.

My great-grandmother passed away sometime in 1999 and her daughter, my grandma Frankie, used some of her inheritance money to buy my mom, and her kids (us) a computer. It was a Compaq Presario running Windows 98 SE. It had a modem built in! Oh and a CD-ROM! I was so excited to finally be working with a real computer, and it was actually current at the time we got it. I remember the specs even ingrained in my brain as I scrambled frantically to find games that would run, DOS or Windows I didn’t care. It was a 533 Mhz Pentium with 64 whopping Mega Bytes of SD RAM. It had a Soundblast compatible sound card, several new fangled USB ports, and a built-in modem for networking.

The first thing I did was go online and search download DOS games. I found a website that hosted all sorts of games for download. I grabbed both Duke Nukem games and Duke 3D, Wolfenstein, Jazz Jackrabbit, Eye of the Beholder Legend of Darkmoon, and a ton of others. I went nuts installing DOS games all day long. I started learning all the disk commands, fdisk especially, and going through all the settings trying to get each game configured perfectly. I also started buying new games on CD at K-Mart and Target. We didn’t have a Walmart yet so those were my choices. I would grab all sorts of those random 150 games packs with a ton of crap on them. We got You Don’t Know Jack, Myst, Who Wants to Beat Up A Millionaire, Doom, Quake, Unreal, Alone in the Dark, and several Star Wars games ranging from various X-Wing and Tie fighter games, Dark Forces, Force Commander, and plenty of others. By mid-2000 I was hooked I was a full fledged PC gamer. This didn’t mean I gave up console gaming entirely, I still had my trusty SNES/Genesis tag teaming it up in my bedroom, my newly acquired PS1 and N64 consoles I grabbed on my 18th birthday, and the aging NES sitting in my sisters room as she liked to play old Mario games still. The one PC game I enjoyed the most at that time was MechWarrior 2. I was so thrilled to finally be able to play that game on high settings for once.

By the time I finally got fully invested in PC gaming I started to realize I was in over my head. I was getting error messages all day long about this game not being compatible, this driver crashing something or other, or some blue screen of death kicking me out of my zone. The problem was I didn’t have a dedicated graphics card, not enough RAM for most games and was running on aging hardware with each passing month. I did buy a nice little Radeon graphics card, upped the RAM to 256MB from that paltry 64 it came with. I then replaced the CD-ROM with a CD Burner in hopes I could get more out of that machine. It was all in vein as none of the games I was buying at the time were able to run on this now outdated machine. So I finally used my own money for once to buy my own desktop PC. This was in 2003. I bought my own Compaq, this time I got one with 1Ghz CPU, 512MB ram stock expanded to 1GB and bought another Radeon GPU this one a little more expensive than the previous, and topped it off with a DVD-Burner because I felt I needed to be state of the art. Or as state of the art as my wallet would allow. The problem is that DVD burner changed my priorities. With DSL internet, a larger hard drive (the original Compaq my mom bought had a 20GB drive I expanded with a 10GB slave drive) Mine came with a 80 GB drive I replaced with a 200 GB drive and stuck a 100 GB drive in the slave slot. I was shifting from games to movie downloading. I had a DVD burner so that meant I could download entire movies, burn them to a DVD and, hope the copyright police never found out what I was doing. I never sold movies but I did eventually discover the legality was not as gray as I was lead to believe and stopped cold turkey once I got my first copyright notice from my cable company. I was shocked into walking away.

Getting back to games. I didn’t really stick with DOS for too long. I dabbled in it off and on in the 90’s, grabbed a few DOS games off the internet in 2000 and 2001, then migrated to Windows games before giving up on PC gaming for the most part. I still game on the PC today, but it’s far less than I used to. I stick to the ease of use I get from PS4 and Nintendo and save my PC for games I either can’t get on a console (like Guild Wars) or games where the console experience is so lacking it’s not worth it (like the Sims or Sim City) The rest of my PC gaming is done through emulators. Unlike some PC gamers, I don’t really look back on the DOS era with rose tinted glasses. I remember a few games fondly enough, but the whole experience was such a mess I gladly traded performance and graphics for the simplicity of consoles.

Retro vs. Modern gaming

The age old question, well maybe not age old but the question of the day is, what’s the better type of gamer the modern gamer or the retro gamer? For me personally I think they two both have merits, but as a primarily retro gamer I tend to lean towards retro as the better option. However there is a new way of thinking, the modern-retro gamer is also a thing now. Take into consideration the new, retro-styled games like Shovel Knight, or Retro City Rampage, to name two extremely popular titles. But that is not the type of retro gaming I am talking about so first let’s define retro, then lets define modern and compare the two to see which one offers the more robust gaming solution.

I have always identified four types of gaming platforms. The first is the arcade platform or the short, casual gaming¬† that dominated the 80’s and early 90’s. The second is the PC gamer, PC being short hand for computer which for me is all encompassing, the third type of gaming is the console game, the dedicated living room machine that offers a stripped down, bare-bones gaming experience or a completely streamlined all-in-one solution. The fourth type is the mobile gamer or the gamer on the go.

I define the divide between retro and modern differently for each of the four types of gaming. Arcade games are considered retro, to me at least, if they were created before the 3-D revolution. Retro arcade games range from the earliest video machines such as Pong or Space War, to the mid-90’s 2D fighting games. The divide is the Sega Model 2 hardware and the Midway Zues/Nintendo Ultra 64 hardware. Everything before those periods is retro and everything following is modern. Modern arcade gaming is mostly made up of dance and rhythm games, hunting games and simulations, mostly sports or horse racing, they aren’t really that many non-gambling games today that have any resemblance to the classic arcade quarter munchers of the yester-year we all long for.

PC gaming is a little more complex. For the most part, non-IBM PC or non-Windows based x86 gaming that ranges from the earliest microcomputers to the end of the Atari Falcon line and the Amiga brand are considered retro. For IBM-compatible or Windows PC, a.k.a “PC gaming” the divide is Windows 95. Everything before Windows 95, including DOS and all early Windows games are considered retro, including those from the PC CD-ROM era. Modern PC gaming basically starts with Windows 98 leaving Windows 95 as sort of a buffer between classic, or retro, and modern. I am talking strictly in game design and philosophy here, PC gaming became incredibly more complex with the start of Windows 95 and the introduction of Direct X, prior to that PC gaming was not at all unified nor easy to identify.

Handheld gaming is pretty much divided up into Game Boy and post-Game Boy. Meaning Everything from the Game Boy Advance (and variants) backwards is considered retro and everything from the Nintendo DS onwards (including mobile phones and PSP/Vita) is modern. Again this goes back to game design and philosophy. Prior to the GBA hand held games were basically seen as miniaturized versions or downgraded ports of existing games. With DS and PSP especially it was possible, and common, to have full blown console level dedicated games on the mobile platform that were basically comparable to the modern platform.

Console gaming the divide is much easier for the most part, but there are some overlaps. As with Windows 95, there is a clear-cut divide between classic game design philosophy and modern or even post-modern design philosophy, this is the Sony Playstation.

The Sony PS1 as it is sometimes called marks the buffer between retro or classic game design and the start of modern, cinematic story based gaming. PS1 is a transition console that includes a diverse library of classic and retro (modern at the time) games that played similar to the true retro games of the SNES, NES, ad Sega Genesis period, as well as the beginnings of the modern interactive movie games of today. The modern philosophy began mostly with Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, Tony Hawks Pro Skater, Gran Turismo, Tomb Raider, and the infamous Grand Theft Auto, which all had their first bouts of success on the Sony Playstation. While FF7 was a benchmark for modern gaming, it was really based on the retro FF6 JRPG style but it deserves credit for bringing the RPG genre to the modern era. However, games like Castlevania Symphony of the Night, Crash Bandicoot, Mortal Kombat Trilogy, Tetris Plus, Mega Man 8, and many, many more, play just like their 16-bit SNES counterparts leaving them as a bridge between the retro and modern gaming machines.

There is a little overlap however, Saturn is more modern than Retro and the Dreamcast is very modern while the N64 is more retro than modern. That is why I place the Playstation as the bridge between the classic, or retro and the modern with N64 and Saturn, it’s contemporary competition, as sort of buffers. For me those two machines are clearly retro but they have some of the beginnings of modern gaming seeping through. The N64 especially with its major push into 3-D gaming.

With the Playstation as the divider then, where does a modern gamer looking to get into retro gaming start? And for that matter where does a retro gamer looking to ease into modern gaming go?

I will tackle these both one at a time. For the modern gamer it depends on your point of entry. I will focus on each category, arcade, console, PC and mobile, and tackle them one by one.

The modern PC gamer is most likely going to do what all PC gamers have done since the beginning of time, work their way back to the beginning via their favorite franchises. A modern Doom gamer is going to go back and play classic Doom, a modern Elder Scrolls gamer should check out the original D&D games like Eye of the Beholder or the Warcraft games to get a good bit of history. The modern PC gamer has the benefit of Windows being essentially backwards compatible with pretty much all previous operating systems so it’s much easier for the PC gamer to go back in time and try out older games. Here is a road map I recommend for the modern, millennial and younger PC gamer.

As Windows 95 is the divide I recommend starting with some of the classic PC CD-ROM titles from the early DirectX era. A few to get started are MechWarrior 2, Descent, Doom, Quake, Duke Nukem 3-D, Unreal, Star Wars Dark Forces, Myst, Tomb Raider, Alone in the Dark, Diablo, Warcraft, StarCraft, Sim City 2000, and Baldur’s Gate. These are all semi-retro but modern enough games for a PC gamer to get their feet wet looking to sample some classic PC gaming but without going too old school.

Then work your way backwards. Some good games to try from the VGA and 386 period would be the original DOS Duke Nukem side-scroller, Jazz Jackrabbit, Sim City, Eye of the Beholder and Eye of the Beholder 2 Legend of Darkmoon,¬† any of the early Bard’s Tale, Ultima and Might and Magic games. Then going further back why not give Commodore 64 a shot, either via emulation or scouring ebay for an actual working machine, they are pretty cheap by modern standards.

Arcade gamer I will just say this, either pick up MAME for your PC or get onto Xbox Live Arcade or PSN and look for retro arcade compilations like Mortal Kombat Komplete Kollection, Tower of Mystara Collection, Metal Slug Anthology, Namco Museum, Midways Arcade Treasures, etc, basically pick up any of these classic arcade compilations to get you started. The PS2 is the BEST retro arcade gaming machine outside of MAME.

Mobile gamer. I won’t get too into this one. Basically if you are into modern mobile games like iOS and Android games or 3DS and PS Vita games my advice is just dig back through the catalogs. The Nintendo Game Boy Advance is a very good place to start along with the original DS, there are tons of retro gaming goodies to be found on those as well as the PSP, a portable gaming treasure trove. Personally I recommend a GBA because it gives access to the Game Boy classic and Game Boy color line up of games as well and then pick up a DS or 3DS and work backwards through the catalog as they are backwards compatible then get into PSP when you are ready to upgrade into the meater portable games that are based on console gaming of the past.

Now for the console gamer. The roadmap here is more complicated. If your a modern Playstation gamer and want to get into retro gaming the first place to start is the PS1 classics. Then depending on if you are more into Japanese games or Western (US/European) games will determine which consoles to back track through. If you are more into Japanese games, Castlevania, Mega Man, Final Fantasy, etc, pick up a Super NES and dig into the classic games on there such as Super Castlevania 4, Street Fighter 2, Super Mario RPG, Donkey Kong Country, Final Fantasy 3, Chrono Trigger, Mega Man X, and maybe some Contra 3. IF you are more into western gaming, then I recommend starting with a Sega Genesis and picking up some games like Chakhan the Forever Man, Vector Man, Earthworm Jim, Toejam and Earl, Streets of Rage, Eternal Champions, X-Men, Maximum Carnage, Boogerman, Fatal Rewind, Haunting starring Poulterguy, or even some Comix Zone. SNES has its fair share of western games too as does the Genesis its share of Japanese games, but the split is in favor of each as described above, for the most part.

If you want to wade into retro gaming without diving in head first, I recommend picking up a PS3 for the PSN games, PS2 for the arcade compilations and backwards compatibility with the PS1 library, the Nintendo Wii (or Wii U) for the Virtual Console, and a Nintendo DS and GBA for the plethora of retro gaming titles accessible via those platforms. Unless you are really into PC gaming or PC style games I don’t recommend the Xbox for retro gaming as its really more of a modern games machine and the handful of retro games you can get on an Xbox are ALSO on Playstation whereas there are DOZENS of retro games on Playstation and Nintendo that aren’t available on Xbox. Xbox is fine for modern gaming but its a wasteland for retro gaming unless you mod it in which case just load up the emulators on your PC and be done with it.

That is my Retro vs. Modern PC gaming guide.