The PC has been one of the most powerful gaming platforms for as long as it has existed, continually providing the best graphics and most advanced features. In its early days, players were impressed by raw text, ASCII art, and pixels the size of small animals—technology that was considered cutting-edge. And gaming got even better as CGA, VGA, and SVGA increased how many pixels PCs could push.
What if you long to play those old games today? You can’t buy them on Steam (though some slightly newer classics can be found there, as well as on GOG.com). You can’t exactly buy the physical media new, and even if you could, you’d have to figure out how to get a floppy drive to work with Windows 10 or 11.
One of the Internet Archive’s MS-DOS game collections
(Credit: The Internet Archive)
Fortunately, you don’t need to spend any money to play thousands of classic PC games: The Internet Archive(Opens in a new window) has you covered. The Internet Archive has multiple libraries of MS-DOS software populated by users and curated by the organization. Two of those libraries are MS-DOS Games and Classic PC Games. They’re exactly what they sound like: a collection of games built for MS-DOS and a collection of older PC games beyond DOS, respectively.
You might need to tinker a bit to get some titles working, though. And you’ll probably have to navigate around strange trash and terrible home-brew software.
The Ultimate Doom: click and play on the Internet Archive
(Credit: Id Software)
1. The Easiest Way to Play: Web Emulation
The Internet Archive uses in-browser emulation to let you play its games directly on the website. This means you can just click and start playing instead of setting up emulation on the desktop to get the old titles to run on modern operating systems (more on that below).
The MS-DOS Games(Opens in a new window) library includes more than 8,200 games and uses EM-DOSBox to emulate a DOS PC through your browser. This emulator is still in beta, according to the Internet Archive, but it generally worked well in testing.
Some of the most important games in the history of PCs are available to play, including Civilization, Doom, Prince of Persia, Quake, SimCity, and Tetris. These games helped define PC gaming as a concept, and seeing them in action is amazing. Just be prepared for the awkwardness of 1980s- and 1990s-era game design and graphics. Also, as one of the few 3D games in the collection, Quake runs very slowly in a browser.
The Classic PC Games(Opens in a new window) library has almost twice as many games as the MS-DOS Games library, and they reach back even further. This collection is a more hit-or-miss affair, but it offers dozens of plain-text and ASCII-art games from the early 1980s, which are fascinating in their own right.
This is only a small sample of the software you can find on the Internet Archive. The site also has disc images of thousands of CD-ROMs(Opens in a new window) and emulation libraries for nearly every piece of classic computer hardware(Opens in a new window) ever made.
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If you don’t know what you’re looking at, you should stick to web emulation.
2. The Most Powerful Way to Play: Set Up Games With DOSBOX
If you want to run these games directly on your PC, you must use emulation (unless you purpose-build an era-accurate computer). The good news is that DOS emulation has been effectively solved for a few years, thanks to the same DOSBox(Opens in a new window) emulator that powers the Internet Archive’s web-based titles. Even better, most DOS games in that library also have the original game files.
The bad news is that getting these games to run locally on your system in DOSBox isn’t a click-and-you’re-done process. The software makes a virtual DOS system on your PC, and you must use DOS to install and play the games you download. That means typing in text commands. Fortunately, the DOSBox site has a simple tutorial(Opens in a new window).
More bad news is that even if you know what to type, things might not work quite right. The emulation speed might be wrong, the graphics might be messed up, or the game and even DOSBox itself might crash. If the game uses a joystick or gamepad, you’ll also probably have to manually map those controls, too. The DOSBox site has a more detailed manual(Opens in a new window) listing all of the commands and modifiers that you’ll need to get your game to work.
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This was not published by Nintendo.
(Credit: Mike Wiering)
3. Avoid the DOS Junk
The Internet Archive’s libraries are ostensibly curated, and you can generally trust software there to be checked for viruses and malware. Everything is submitted by users, so plenty of garbage falls through the cracks. There’s also a lot of potentially good, but ultimately unofficial and dubious home-brew (several DOS versions of Super Mario Bros., for example), and an oddly large number of “sexy” games where you solve puzzles to reveal low-resolution pictures of scantily clad or naked women. As with every large collection of media, you’ll have to navigate through the noise.
By default, the two game libraries we’ve mentioned display entries by the highest number of views. This helps you pick the better and more important games available, but you’ll still have to use some judgment about whether a game is worth checking out. Doom II(Opens in a new window)? Probably fine. Super Mario World DX(Opens in a new window)? Unofficial home-brew. Mario’s Game Gallery(Opens in a new window)? Oddly enough, actually an official DOS release, and Charles Martinet’s debut as the voice of Mario.
If you aren’t sure about a game, look at the screenshots or any other information on the game’s page that indicates when it was published and who made it. Any DOS game with a copyright date after 2000 or just one person’s name next to it (Sid Meier notwithstanding) is probably home-brew and not a game from the era.
The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall. It might not look like it, but this game was absolutely massive.
(Credit: Bethesda Softworks)
4. Download Free Games From GOG.com
GOG.com is an excellent online store for finding classic DOS and early Windows games, and it preconfigures all older games to run without tinkering on your part. Most games cost money (though $5.99 for games such as Crusader: No Remorse(Opens in a new window) and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind(Opens in a new window) and $2.99 for both Heretic and Hexen(Opens in a new window) are steals), but the site offers a surprisingly large handful of excellent old-school games completely free.
Go to the GOG.com store page(Opens in a new window) and click “Show only free games” and “Hide DLCs and extras,” then start browsing. There’s Beneath a Steel Sky(Opens in a new window), Dink Smallwood HD(Opens in a new window), The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall(Opens in a new window), Tyrian 2000(Opens in a new window), Ultima 4: Quest of the Avatar(Opens in a new window), and several others. You’ll have to browse past a lot of demos in the store, but you’ll find some gems you won’t have to pay for or set up yourself.
For more, check out The Best Retro Gaming Consoles and The Best Retro Gaming Handhelds.
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