From a trio of kids who save the world from a giant purple tentacle to one of the world’s great shoot-em-ups, here are ten games that entertained millions.
By Benj Edwards
When it debuted in 1981, MS-DOS probably didn’t seem like a promising platform for gaming. But from roughly 1981 to 1997, publishers released thousands of games in every genre for the PC and its text-based OS.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of MS-DOS, I’ve selected what I consider to be the ten greatest games ever to grace Microsoft’s first operating system. These games were innovative and influential while being, of course, fun to play over and over.
If you missed the DOS era, or if this list makes you nostalgic, don’t weep. You can legally purchase and download many of these games online. Typically such games come with DOS emulator software called DOSBox so that you can run them on a modern Windows (or even Macintosh) operating system. In some instances the games are free, in which case you’ll have to download and set up DOSBox yourself.
10. Day of the Tentacle (1993)
In Day of the Tentacle, you play as a trio of bizarre teenagers who, through exploration and puzzle-solving, try to prevent an evil purple tentacle from taking over the world.
LucasArts packed this rich, interactive cartoon adventure with so much humor and vivid, twisted artwork that many critics consider Tentacle the finest example of the graphical adventure genre ever to grace a PC. Fir its time, it was an astounding tour-de-force of techno-artistic wizardry.
Where to get it: Day of the Tentacle is not currently legally available for download online. You can, however, purchase a used copy on Amazon.com.
9. Command & Conquer: Red Alert (1996)
Publisher: Virgin Interactive
Imagine an alternate world in which Albert Einstein traveled back in time to kill Hitler, removing the Nazi threat from World War II. But as a result of Einstein’s meddling, the Soviet Union stepped into Germany’s shoes, forcing the Allies into action to combat the threat of Soviet domination of Europe. Sound bad? Relax–that’s just the premise of Command & Conquer: Red Alert.
Fans of Red Alert praise the title for its intricately balanced and varied military units, its masterful handling of interface, graphics, and storyline, and its addictive online multiplayer experience.
Where to get it: Electronic Arts released Red Alert for free in 2008. Download Disc 1 and Disc 2 online. You will need DOSBox to play it.
8. Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992)
Publisher: Origin Systems
Unlike any first-person role-playing game before it, Ultima Underworld engaged players in real-time combat and exploration. Players could freely move in any direction (even looking up or down) while navigating the Stygian Abyss in an attempt to rescue a baron’s kidnapped daughter.
Ultima Underworld’s pseudo-3D world had depth, variety, and charm at a time when most MS-DOS games were flat and static.
Where to get it: Ultima Underworld is available for purchase and download from GOG.
7. Blood (1997)
Publisher: GT Interactive
Blood is an almost criminally overlooked title in the MS-DOS gaming pantheon. Using the same Build game engine as Duke Nukem 3D, Blood, despite its old-school technological base, eclipsed rival Quake in character, design, and gameplay.
The plot, pitting one man against a crazed cult and their evil god, is forgettable; but in control and design, the game feels flawless. Its detailed graphics form a cohesive, horrifying whole, and its vocal and sound effects stand alone in the DOS era. Better yet, Blood has the most creative and varied level design of any DOS first-person shooter, bar none.
Where to get it: Blood is available for purchase and download from GOG.
6. Ultima VI: The False Prophet (1990)
Publisher: Origin Systems
Ultima VI, a colorful role-playing game from the mind of Richard Garriott, invited PC gamers to explore the immense virtual world Britannia while seeking to liberate the shrines of Virtue from invading gargoyles. In this world, animals roam the wilderness, rivers flow to the ocean, and, in the game’s many cities, each computer-controlled character pursues a daily schedule (even when off-screen). Most amazingly, players could take, use, or move nearly every object visible in Ultima VI–a mind-bendingly realistic experience in 1990.
Ultima VI is notable for being the first game in the Ultima series developed specifically for the MS-DOS platform. It used breathtaking 256-color VGA graphics and an atmospheric, MIDI-based soundtrack at a time when few DOS games had those features.
Where to get it: Ultima VI is available for purchase and download from GOG.
5. SimCity (1989)
Publisher: Brøderbund Software
SimCity made waves as a versatile “software toy” with no preordained goal or purpose other than to encourage players to create and experiment. You build your own city and manage it to greatness. You can play the game as long as you want, as many times as you want, and it never gets old because you create a uniquely evolving design as you go along.
Though SimCity originated on the Amiga platform, the title quickly immigrated to MS-DOS and became a vital part of the IBM PC’s gaming DNA. SimCity influenced many game designers (including one Sid Meier, whose greatest creation we’ll catch up with later), and spawned a series of highly regarded Sim follow-ups, including SimCity 2000 and The Sims.
Where to get it: Electronic Arts hosts a free browser edition of SimCity on its website.
4. X-Com: UFO Defense (1994)
Publisher: MicroProse Software
It’s difficult to convey the quality of X-Com to anyone who hasn’t played it, yet many fans call it the best PC game of all time. Fan devotion to this game, which pits the player against an invading alien force, comes partly from the deep attachment X-Com players develop to the soldiers they custom-build. And you can play the game over and over without getting bored, thanks to the randomly generated maps and the seemingly endless combinations of equipment and technology.
Completing the X-Com recipe took a few more ingredients: the building-management elements of SimCity, the technology development aspects of Civilization, and a slew of 1990s pop-culture UFO references (with a hint of Star Trek). The result is an irresistible cocktail of PC gaming goodness that many players say has yet to be surpassed.
Where to get it: X-Com is available for purchase and download from Steam.
3. Scorched Earth (1991)
Publisher: Wendell T. Hicken
Wendell Hicken’s timeless 1991 artillery simulation is a milestone in MS-DOS history. This often overlooked title may not have sold millions of units, but thanks to shareware distribution, more people have played it than you might think.
With its numerous gameplay settings, variable computer AI, and an impressive array of entertaining power-ups, Scorched Earth possesses nearly infinite replay value. It’s also one of the greatest party games ever devised: up to ten players, each piloting a tank, can take turns plotting the explosive demise of their closest friends at the hands of a Nuke, MIRV, or Death’s Head over as many as 1000 rounds.
With Scorched Earth, Hicken didn’t invent the artillery game; he perfected it.
Where to get it: Download Scorched Earth for free from the author’s website. You may need DOSBox to run it.
2. Sid Meier’s Civilization (1991)
Publisher: MicroProse Software
Few games on any platform are as addictively fun and as endlessly replayable as Civilization, a turn-based historical strategy game that lets players guide the development of a civilization over the course of millennia. In creating Civilization, Sid Meier somehow distilled, condensed, and codified the rules of humanity’s postagricultural development into a 3MB IBM PC computer game–and made it fun to play.
Though subsequently ported to other platforms, Civilization proudly originated in the MS-DOS realm (it was actually Sid Meier’s third DOS-developed game). This classic defined the thinking person’s computer game, setting a template that many future MS-DOS games closely followed.
Where to get it: Civilization is not currently legally available for download online. But you can purchase a used copy on Amazon.com.
1. Doom (1993)
Publisher: id Software
Doom was the first of a generation of fast-paced, smooth action titles that utilized new visual techniques to push PC hardware to its limits. With Doom, PC gamers fighting an invading horde of monsters from Hell could experience gameplay, graphics, and sound that easily topped what was available on the home game consoles of the day — a then-uncommon achievement. Moreover, it introduced exciting network multiplayer options (coining the term deathmatch in the process) that are widely imitated to this day.
Where to get it: Doom can be purchased and downloaded from Steam.