Many diehard PC gamers I know are obsessed with the “next big thing” coming down the pike and couldn’t care less about the past. The moment these folks finish playing a game to the end, they uninstall it permanently from their computers; they consider even last year’s releases “ancient history.” But others, including myself, form deep emotional bonds with PC games we love and want to keep them around for future replay possibility. Given the increasing speed of computers, the changing operating systems, the continuing need to upgrade one’s gaming rig and annoying machine-specific copy protection schemes, it has become quite difficult to keep favorite PC offerings available and running successfully for long periods of time.
The good news is that several recent developments have made it possible for lovers of legacy PC releases to enjoy them once again. For those of us who have lost the disks or CDs for our favorite old games, or who still own our beloved oldies but find that they don’t run properly on newer computers, there are three pieces of positive news. First, this year Home of the Underdogs—the dominant website for obtaining legal full versions of legacy titles—reopened. Second, a new gaming site, Good Old Games, started up about a year ago with a relatively modest but growing catalog of quality legacy PC releases for $10 apiece that amazingly have been tweaked to run perfectly on all current computers. Third, during the past few years, multiple utilities have emerged and have been refined to effectively help older games run better—DOSBox, VDMSound, SoundFX, and Mo’Slo. Ironically, it’s now easier to play old DOS games on modern PCs than it is to play the earliest 16-bit Windows games.
In this feature, I’ll discuss how each of these new developments can help gamers play legacy PC releases and rediscover the simpler joys of the past. I have extensively tested each aid and interviewed several of those involved in supporting our retro addictions. I wish to thank specifically Lukasz Kukawski of Good Old Games and Dan Rubenfield of Home of the Underdogs for their time in answering my questions. Thanks to the discussed developments, I’m now able to have all my favorite old games up and running on my computer, looking, sounding and playing even better than when they were first released. To give readers a sampling of my eclectic tastes, among my very favorite DOS games are Brix, Chex Quest, Corridor 7, Day of the Tentacle, Epic Pinball, Fuzzy’s World, Harmony, Highway Hunter, Loopz, Tyrian, Xatax and Zoop.
Home of the Underdogs (HOTU)
Home of the Underdogs debuted in October 1998, started by Sarinee Achavanuntakul in Thailand. In early 2006, updates ceased because she became so busy, but at least you could still download games. Then HOTU went down completely in February of 2009 because the site’s webhost went bankrupt. Soon various groups of aficionados tried to revive it, and in June 2009 the site was fully up and running under new management. The frontend is now located in the US, the files are split among a few sites, mostly in Canada. Home of the Underdogs offers a vast collection of downloadable legacy PC games. To avoid legal troubles, if any of their games are for sale by a legitimate source elsewhere, or requested to be removed by such a source, its download link is removed. The only limitation in using this site is that often you have to have considerable expertise to get the downloaded games (which are usually in their original form) running on today’s machines.
Good Old Games (GOG)
Good Old Games, a website based in Warsaw, Poland, formally opened for business on October 23, 2008. The philosophy behind it was to provide a market for “reviving classic PC games in a modern form of digital distribution,” since old PC games are hard to find, and when located they don’t run well on new computers. The founders compiled a list of quality older PC games, choosing titles that were well received by journalists and gamers or deserved such praise. The company actually did systematic research to see “if gamers look for older games and what titles are they interested in the most.” They discovered “lots of posts on different forums where gamers were saying they are missing classic games,” leading to the conclusion that “people around the world are struggling to find a working copy of some classics.” The titles chosen have to be at least three to four years old—most GOG games were originally released in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These offerings are worth every penny, because every one of them has been specially retooled to be able to run under Windows XP or Vista (even if the utilities discussed in this article would not help them run) without any intrusive or annoying DRM copy protection schemes. Once you download a game, you can install it on any PC and re-download it whenever you want. If you buy a game from GOG, you could also receive free additional materials, such as game guides, walkthroughs, MP3 soundtracks and wallpaper. Within the GOG community, you can meet gamers who share your passion for oldies. I recently downloaded a full version of the Rage classic Expendable (I already owned the retail version but it would not run properly on my computer). It installed and ran as smooth as silk and has been a total blast to play again.
DOSBox is a very popular freeware utility for running legacy PC games, and the latest version of this utility—0.73—is quite powerful and flexible. While its developers hope that one day DOSBox will run all programs ever made for the PC, right now it helps only with DOS titles. DOSBox is an all-in-one emulator that re-creates an MS-DOS-compatible environment (complete with sound, input, graphics and even basic networking). This environment is complete enough to run most classic MS-DOS games unmodified. Although to take full advantage of DOSBox, a little bit of savvy is helpful, particularly about how to navigate in DOS, a detailed tutorial is available to aid newbies. Unlike any other legacy game utility, DOSBox completely re-creates an operating environment, accurately replicating old computers; it even contains automated batch capabilities, allowing a game to run properly with a simple double-click on a Windows shortcut.
VDMSound is a freeware program that deals specifically with the most exasperating category of problems found in legacy PC games: sound issues. VDMSound emulates MPU-401 for MIDI music; SoundBlaster compatibility (SB16, SBPro 2, SB 2, and SBPro) for digital sound effects and FM/AdLib music; and a standard game-port interface for playing games with joystick support, including classic two-player games requiring two joysticks or gamepads. It works completely independently from audio hardware, functioning with any soundcard. VDMSound seamlessly integrates with Windows Explorer, with a right mouse click bringing up easy-to-follow dialog boxes permitting flexible configuration options. The latest version of VDMSound now works with a wide variety of DOS games.
For those DOS games that don’t work with VDMSound, another option is available. SoundFX 2000 is a shareware utility that provides another form of sound card emulation for DOS programs running on Windows XP, 2000 and NT4. SoundFX offers the complete software emulation of SoundBlaster 2, Pro, 16, and AWE sound cards, the Adlib FM synthesizer, and MIDI music through MPU401/Roland emulation. There is also support for a standard games port providing four analog and four digital inputs. The utility conveniently places an applet in the Control Panel from which you can easily set your system-wide configuration. Although SoundFX 2000 does not support Vista, and since the 2006 version is no longer being actively supported by the developer, in certain cases SoundFX 2000 does a far better job than VDMSound in providing robust quality sound and music in legacy offerings.
Mo’Slo is one of the most famous and widely used shareware utilities that have, since its inception in 1990, remedied one specific problem with old games: they cannot run on super-speedy modern computers. Mo’Slo allows you to successfully run both DOS and Windows games that are speed-sensitive on state-of-the-art systems. The utility allows you to specify effective system speed as a percent-of-system-speed or emulation speed. When the slowed program terminates, Mo’Slo also terminates, and normal system speed is restored. There are two powerful versions of this utility (in addition to a “basic” bare-bones version). Mo’Slo 4BIZ slows both DOS and Windows programs, utilizing three Win32 slowdown methods, two DOS slowdown methods and an easy-to-use Windows interface; and Mo’Slo Deluxe has three DOS slowdown methods, cache disabling, processor emulation and keyboard speed adjustment. This wonderful utility with the great name has saved me numerous times.
With console games currently selling in such higher volume than PC games, one might wonder whether or not PC gamers are more interested in legacy titles than console gamers. To answer this question, I solicited two differing views. “It’s pretty hard to say if PC gamers are more interested in our offering than console gamers,” says Lukasz Kukawski of GOG. “I’m a console gamer myself, but I’m definitely more into PC classics than retro console games, as these are the games I grew up on. And I think that’s the case of a lot of GOG.com users.” Dan Rubenfield of HOTU has a more definitive view. “I think the classic PC games aged better. The true standouts on the console side hold up to this day, but the majority of the greats simply didn’t age. Because the gameplay tended to focus on more platform/action-style play, and required specific hardware, it’s hard to revisit. Older PC stuff will still run, and the interface is the same.”
The future for legacy PC games looks bright indeed. As the casual computer game market expands, an increasing number of people are beginning to realize that gameplay complexity and state-of-the-art graphics and sound quality are not essential for a fun play experience. Taking on the challenge of older games can sometimes bring back fond memories, and is in many ways no odder than listening to older music, watching older movies, or even reading older books. Thus young novices as well as seasoned veterans would do well to look backward as well as forward in their unending quest for the ultimate in pleasurable virtual entertainment.