Last week, the Internet Archive put up over 2,000 MS-DOS games you can play in your browser. It feels like I’ve found the thing that’s been missing in my life. I’ve found some significant, formative piece of myself that I almost forget existed.
By thirty-four years-old, I’ve re-visited and re-claimed most of my childhood nostalgia; I’ve collected back my Ninja Turtles figures and fired up the old Nintendo more than once. And yet a huge chunk my childhood went completely obsolete and unreachable. Because unlike albums that were issued to CD or VHS tapes that later came out on DVD, those old computer games didn’t make the leap to newer formats. They just stayed there forever on those floppy disks.
There’s no way to definitively list the must-play games available on the archive. I’d argue there is no such thing. So many of these games act as demonstrations for what computers can do — or would go on to do. As games, most of them are dull, yet as historical artifacts, they’re marvels.
There’s also just something unique about the way we interact with computers. Just as our browser history would reflect some primal element about ourselves, the games we once interacted with on the computers reveal an interesting imprint. Therefore, there is no single list of games you must play — there is only our nostalgia, oursevles, and maybe our parents’ seedy connections to pirated floppy disks. (Hi Dad.)
Here is my list:
1. Oregon Trail
Everyone has this at the top of their list. At first I thought our collective nostalgia for this was boring and predictable, but then I played it the other night with the wife. Holy shit. It’s still so so good. It teaches you about geography, history, budgeting, planning ahead, and most importantly, dysentery.
I was way too cocksure when we came to the first river in the game. Confidently, I exclaimed, “always ford it,” and pressed with A to ford it without any hesitation. I lost all our sets of clothes, an ox, AND drowned the wife. Well, crap.
Bottom line: This game still rules, listen to your wife and take the ferry, and some day I’ll have to brag to you of my God-like hunting skillz.
2. Leisure Suit Larry
I didn’t know this until just now, but apparently Leisure Suit Larry still exists. It’s an active series with new games that still come out. It’s an adult-themed game, where you can do stuff like have sex with a prostitute, contract a sexually-transmitted disease and die shortly thereafter. This fate may be avoided by buying a condom at the convenience store. This is all, of course, in barely-above Atari-grade graphics, which would have been on a neon green monochrome monitor.
I shouldn’t have been playing this game in 1988 when I was eight years old. I wasn’t allowed to play it. The game even had a rudimentary “parental control” on it that made you answer five general knowledge questions that kids wouldn’t know the answer to, before letting you into the game. It’s true that I spent more time playing that trivia game trying to get into the game as a child than I did actually playing the game. Most of my nostalgia, sadly or fortunately, is for that.
3. Life and Death
Before the Internet made us all experts at diagnosing our illnesses, there was this game. It was a hospital game where you evaluate, diagnose, and operate on patients. And in this game, everything always led to abdominal surgery. Having flu-like symptoms? Abdominal surgery. Having stomach pains? Abdominal surgery. No one got out of that hospital without abdominal surgery.
And really, no one got out of that hospital. I killed every last patient. That was the fun part. I’m not even sure there was any other goal to this game.
This is a text-based game. I’m not even sure if it was THE text-based game I played, but I can’t remember anything about it, and for some reason, the word Avon sticks out. But yeah, text games evoke a certain kind of nostalgia for me — even if that nostalgia is actually a grim reminder that I wasted away HOURS of my precious, dwindling childhood playing this shit.
Likewise, I’m including Trolls in the hate-nostalgia category. The acid-neon graphics could make your eyes bleed eternally in a Lisa Frank afterworld. My dad had snagged this game from his seedy underworld of pirate computer gaming (it looked like Shredder’s lair in the Ninja Turtles movie, I liked to imagine.) He got it for my sister, who was a Class-A Troll Fanatic (I’m certain that’s a real categorization.) Anyway, I hated trolls and STILL played the hell out of this game, which in turn, made me hate trolls even more.
6. Avoid the Noid
I’m pretty sure I never got past the first level of this game. I’m pretty sure I never got past the second floor on the screen there. That was probably the biggest thing about these games — most were unplayable for a myriad of reasons. Gaming was like the Wild West with no quality control and no instruction manuals.
7. Girlfriend Construction Set
Another text-based game, another game I probably shouldn’t have been allowed to play. As one reviewer put it best, “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll lose at Strip Monopoly, you’ll put up with this jealous bitch and her dumb friends, you’ll remember the adventure forever.”
In fact, that review sums up every last MS-DOS game, ever. You’ll remember the adventure forever.