Windows 95 brought forward the dawn of graphical user interface computing into the mainstream and with it re-introduced personal computers as a home multimedia hub that became a necessity in every household back in 90s. Prior to Microsoft’s game-changing operating system and Windows 3.0, Microsoft released the command driven OS “Disk Operating System” – or DOS – that managed the file directories and program executions on a computer. The operating system provided a fast and reliable way for users to store data and run complex programs which aided in completing important jobs in the workplace.
Unfortunately, the command-driven functionality proved to be convoluted for new, computer-illiterate users and it was deemed a necessity to learn all or at least most of the commands and file extensions in order to fully engage with the computer. IBM PC hardware specifications consisted of memory that ranged between 16KB and 16MB, 20MB hard drive space if available and 8MHz CPU processing power. Sound and music generated as bleeps from the in-built PC speakers due to the non-existence of sound cards. We’re talking really basic stuff here! At the time, PCs had the unusual yet fascinating concoction of primitive hardware (sophisticated for its time) and software complexity and thankfully by the time the 90s arrived computers with better hardware capabilities were able to operate DOS games with better video and audio. Furthermore, while the older IBM PCs were always marketed for the office, it was nice to know some developers also acknowledged that these machines were also capable of running certain programs that would rescue many desk jockey from boring, mundane work-related assignments; video games.
DOS games were frequently released on 5¼ inch floppy disks that accompanied monthly disk magazines like Big Blue Disk. Nowadays you can find classic DOS games for sale on services like Steam and GOG.com at reasonable prices. Not to mention, older titles that are now considered Abandonware or Freeware are readily available too. Depending on when the game was created, most featured large pixels or sprites to form images but some older ones were either text-based or even relatively basic in that alphabet numerals were used to represent NPCs and playable characters. It’s somewhat fascinating to see how DOS games evolved aesthetically.
Growing up with DOS games, I personally feel that it was incredibly significant to the evolution of PC games and perhaps without the enthusiasm of developers creating games for the OS we would not get the chance to experience today’s fantastic titles. DOS games fuelled my interest for video games and if it was not for my father, who routinely sat me down in front of an IBM PC XT with a DOS manual, I probably would not be spending my sunday lunchtime writing this up.
So explore the early days of PC gaming and experience where it all started. Don’t know where to begin? Titles by LucasArts, Apogee and Brøderbund Software are usually a satisfying start. Better yet, here are 7 great recommendations that I’ve picked out but before we receive comments and mail suggesting we missed out on certain well-known titles, let me present the notable mentions: The Secret of Monkey Island, Prince of Persia, Commander Keen, Cannon Fodder 2 and The Oregon Trail.
Alley Cat (1984) – Developed by Synapse Software Corporation
Isn’t it common knowledge that the internet loves cats? So this should be up everyone’s alley! (*sigh*) Rack up points by playing as a black cat that mischievously sneaks into apartment windows and take part in various mini-games that revolve around consuming mice in an oversized cheese block, knocking over vases and plundering milk from a room filled with sleeping dogs. A surreal and addictive game that does a surprising job at testing your agile feline reflexes (ok, I’ll stop now).
Raptor: Call of the Shadows (1994) – Developed by Cygnus Studios
We all know classics like 1943 and R-Type defined the 2D shoot ’em up genre and solidified the notion that games can be equally challenging, addictive and fun. Raptor: Call of the Shadows was no different and it is – in my opinion – the most sophisticated, delightful and formidably challenging 2D shoot ’em up I have ever came across on PC. A vertical scrolling shoot ’em up, the aim of the game is to blast through waves and waves of enemy space crafts while saving up cash to buy weapons and upgrades for your sophisticated space fighter “Raptor”. What made the game stand out was the visually rich graphics that outshined other games and its tremendous electronic soundtrack that never failed to get you motivated. If you are a fan of 2D shoot ’em up or space games in general then you must play this game.
Stunts (1990) – Developed by Distinctive Software, Inc
Designed by ex-Microsoft Xbox head honcho Don Mattrick alongside 4 other individuals, Stunts is a brightly coloured racing title that sported 3D polygonal graphics, 11 vehicles, a video replay option and even a race track builder/editor. The editor alone provided endless possibilities to creating the craziest race tracks with bridges, platforms and different ramps including a double loop. Quite a unique and ambitious racing game for its time.
Catacomb II (1991) – Developed by John Carmack
Alternate Title : The Catacomb
Before he developed Wolfenstein 3D and became one of the fathers of FPS, John Carmack created a fantastic top-down platform game that enabled players to take on a role of a magician wandering through numerous maze levels looking for secret passages, keys and treasure all while strategically blasting various sized monsters. With no music and minimal sound effects, Catacomb II was an eery atmospheric title that made you fear what lurked in every room.This was such a rewarding game to play as I cannot recall how many times I enjoyed uncovering how to complete level and defeat the enemies without entirely draining health.
Pyramids of Egypt (1987) – Developed by Ideas From the Deep
Carmack’s friend and fellow Wolfenstein 3D developer, John Romero, also coded some intriguing games and one of them was Pyramids of Egypt. Appearing on an issue of Uptime Disk Monthly, the game consisted of several intricately designed rooms and you controlled an explorer whose mission is to “acquire” all the diamonds scattered around the stages and reach the exit while avoiding dangerous cobra snakes. Like a cross between Pac Man and Lode Runner, patience and quick thinking is the best approach to beating each level.
Moraff’s Revenge (1988) – Developed by Steve Moraff
An early entry into the RPG genre and bizarrely named after its creator Steve Moraff, this D&D-inspired title enabled the player to create their own character with a class and delve into dungeons by moving around an invisible map that slowly revealed itself depending on the directions taken. As you slowly uncover the map trying to find loot and entrances to other dungeons, you will come across monsters that will prevent you from progressing. You had the ability to gain experience points, level up and visit towns to buy new items just like a standard RPG game. The game is somewhat simplistic by today’s standards but what made the game stand out back in 1988 was its first person environment display that allowed players to actually see their surrounding and determine if there was a menacing monster or door in their path. Although a bit disorienting at time, this was a really cool feature and other RPG titles back then didn’t even offer any visuals let alone a first person viewpoint.
Jazz Jackrabbit (1994) – Developed by Epic MegaGames
Ah yes, mascot platformers. Who can forget Mario, Sonic, Alex Kidd, Zool, Master Higgins and even the annoying Bubsy? Although it mostly dominated console games, PC gamers also had its fair share of colourful fun platform games like Cliff Bleszinki and Arjan Brussee’s Jazz Jackrabbit. That’s right, the same developers that brought you the Unreal and Gears of War games created a colourful platform game that revolved around a hare, brandishing a blue blaster gun, out to rescue his home planet’s princess kidnapped by an evil tortoise determined to conquer all the planets in the galaxy. Engaging gameplay coupled with a chirpy soundtrack and delightful sprites. Jazz Jackrabbit had all the ingredients of a great game and its spawned sequel released in 1998 – which featured multiplayer – was also a grand title.