To modern gamers, the idea of playing PC games on anything but Windows is a novelty. But back in the day, DOS was the king of PC games. Before Bill Gates and DirectX, the only real way to enjoy games was in the throws of a platform that was largely unregulated. It was the wild west of PC gaming, and it was bloody fantastic. I’ve decided to take a look back at the DOS games that made this period so special to me, and reminisce a bit about their legacy.
8. LittleBig Adventure 2 [Twinsen’s Odyssey]
Produced by a team of french developers, the sequel to LittleBig Adventure comes in looking prettier and doing more than its predecessor. The game encourages exploration, rewarding them with items and currency used to purchase other items with. There is some platforming and some combat, and though it hasn’t aged gracefully, the setting and imaginative worlds are still worth forgiving those ageing blemishes for. While not particularly long, the game is infinitely entertaining , as your main method of attack is either blowgun stuff or throwing a magical, bouncing ball – that is once you’ve been to magic school and earned it!
It has an updated re-release on Steam since 2015, and even if you play it without playing the first game (as I have), the story in 2 alone will not make you feel alienated. Especially today, such a premise would likely not be greenlit under the excuse of being too ‘silly’ or ‘unfocused’. But LBA 2 was neither of those things – it was my Zelda before I knew Zelda existed.
7. The Incredible Machine 1 & 2
Oh my gosh the amount of hours I put into these two DOS games. Yes I know I’m cheating by putting 2 games in one spot, but they are inseparable to me. Brain-ticklers at their absolute finest, it attempted a limited degree of physics simulation, at least in a way that made sense, to accomplish often bizarre tasks. They could be simple and sane like ‘Guide Mel home’ to the more, uh, esoteric ‘Blow up the fish tank with a missile’. Classic! You are given a Rube Goldberg device as each level, with various elements missing or incorrectly placed – your job is to accomplish the puzzle goal stated using a selection of tools at your disposal. Said tools can include a bottle of highly explosive nitroglycerin, a basket for trapping things, balloons, anti-gravity devices, conveyor belts, uhhh…fishbowls….
The game gets fiendishly difficult later, but remains accessible to one and all – and it boasts a varied, quite upbeat soundtrack for you to ponder solutions to. The Incredible Machine 2 features a level editor where you can create your own brand of brain-twisting puzzle to put your friends and family through! TIM, as it has been abbreviated to, will always hold a special place in my heart. Even the copy-cat game ‘Sid&Al’s Incredible Toons’ is a favourite of mine, simply for offering a similar experience. Those interested in a more modern take can check out the new game from most of the original developers, ‘Contraption Maker’ – currently on STEAM for 4.99 GBP at no discount! Whether you try the finely aged wine that is Dynamix’s TIM series or go with the newer Contraption Maker model, your brain will surely be tested! Very hard DOS games.
6. Raptor : Call Of The Shadows
A top-down shooter from Cygnus Studios – now Mountain King Studios – that was the highlight of the genre on DOS for many. Indeed, this and Tyrian 2000 were my two favourite top-down shooters for their pace and customisation. Raptor in particular let you earn money by defeating enemies and taking out the occasional ground target, which you could spend on consumables like a shield that prevented health drain while it lasted – or additional, stronger weapons to bolster your arsenal with. Given the game’s somewhat brutal difficulty, you will need it ! Each time you embark on a mission, you can select one of 3 sectors, each featuring 9 missions, to conquer.
At the end of each level awaited a sort of Boss ship with a health bar and more complex attacks – some would even use their massive weight to attempt to ram you to death! Embedded in the ground or a massive mechanical fortress, most of these ferocious opponents were quite something to put down with the sizeable choice of weaponry at your disposal. Raptor marked the first time that *I* could be the one using auto-targeting bullets to hit the enemies, it’s one of the best mid-early weapons to keep and at the time to a ten-year old mind, was simply amazing ! And then come the singular and then dual death lasers and that..well that swiftly stops being cool, but hey!
The game has a slightly enhanced version up on Steam, the 2015 version . That in itself is based on another enhanced version, from 2010 from DotEmu. They both offer higher resolutions and some filters, with the newer version having cloud saving and achievements.
5. Theme Hospital
Choosing Theme Hospital over Theme Park was difficult, as both are amazing games and have granted me immeasurable amounts of fun – but I find the humor and increased responsibility in Theme Hospital to be just that extra bit more alluring. The PC version and one I have played was masterminded directly by Bullfrog Productions, dreamt up in part by Peter Molyneux. Yes, THAT Peter Molyneux. Though unable to contribute a great deal due to his involvement with another small title called Dungeon Keeper, the idea to create a game where you run a hospital came partially from him.
The game itself is bright and colorful, tasking you with setting up a competently run hospital of incompetent people to try and guess what’s wrong with the poor and sickly before they collapse on death’s door inside of your walls. The game humor ranged from adorable to…frightening. On death, patients might drop to hell itself, be claimed by the reaper themselves – and the consequences for your Director character were severe if you couldn’t meet the level’s goals. But on the other side of that spectrum, we have the wonderful Announcer Lady and her quips – such as ‘Patients are asked not to die in the corridors’.
The game has a simple premise but ups the ante with each additional level played. The first one is you feeling out what to do. The second presents new challenges – like Researching for better cures and equipment. Then comes surgeries to save lives, and so forth and so forth. In part a space management game , you could purchase plots of land to shove medical equipment into – but should that medical equipment critically malfunction, the room forever became unusable. Larger rooms improved patient happiness, as well as adding decorations such as potted plants, bins and radiators. The illnesses themselves were often nonsensical and chuckle-inducing, with their descriptions and cures more so.
A patient with bloaty head syndrome would need a needle to pop their oversized head and a pump to re-inflate it to the correct size! Slack tongue is presented as a large, flat tongue sticking out of a patient’s mouth, the cure for which was to chop the excess bit off. While this all sounds gruesome, it’s presented in cartoonish animations and colors, rendering the gross value effectively nil. Revival efforts for the game begin and end at CorsixTH, a .lua scripting-based ground-up remake. Although GOG and ORIGIN did re-release the game in 2012 and 2015 respectfully, allowing us to play it nearly 20 years on. The newer version, on Origin, is sitting pretty at a current asking price of 4.25 GBP .
4. One Must Fall 2097
Heavens me, this is one interesting fighting game! Diversion Entertainment’s OMF 2097 has an underlying storyline , and it also features not just characters – but mechanoids. That is to say, the mechs are the fighters, and the characters are the pilots. The pilots all had slightly different stats, as did the mechs – and each pilot of course had his or her own signature mech to get into. This oft-forgotten gem is an arena brawler, with said arena often containing recurring – if not timed – ways of taking and avoiding damage.
One fighting pit involves a constantly electrified fence, the other is in a desert with military jets taking potshots at you and your opponent every so often – with the fighting mechanoids equally varied and zany ! You’ve got slow bruisers, lightning needlers and the technical tricksters in between – though the game will punish you playing it at lower difficulties by blocking off certain endings and enemies. The game itself was fairly difficult and rewarding at the same time.
The game features some cameos – mostly from Jazz Jackrabbit – and currently has a GitHub initiative to make it cross-compatible and upgrade the network play option. The game has been deemed Freeware by its developers and is reported to run on DOSBOX fine – go ahead and download this one. If the gameplay won’t keep you, the soundtrack surely will.
3. Transport Tycoon Deluxe
Oddly enough one of the most monolithic games I can remember playing was all about travel and the business of travel. Well, transportation. The original game eluded me and I hopped on the bandwagon after Deluxe was released – adding some much-needed features and fixing issues. Chris Sawyer designed and developed the game , published by MicroProse around 1995, it tasks you with providing an A to B for passengers and goods in an efficient way. You were spoilt for choice in delicious layers – did you want to play on a normal map, a desert one, an icy one, or on a silly candyland-style one? The map theming would affect what each industry produced, and what other industry might deal with it.
For instance, on the normal map, you could coal to power plants to earn money. On the much-played Candyland style map, you could…transport cola! And toffee, and cotton candy, batteries oh gosh! Then you had the option of how to do that – while trains were the most efficient overall, you could opt to use a bus or road vehicles, sometimes boats and primarily for long distance of passengers, air vehicles. Each one had strengths and weaknesses, as well as purchasing and maintenance costs, but the ever-reliable Trains can do almost anything, provided you are okay with the minor fiddling involved in setting down the tracks, yourself!
You could elect to have AI-driven competitors that would often perform bone-headed moves and try to pose a challenge to your empire, but it often ended up in a no-contest, even with AI benefits. Uniquely, the more you played, the more the in-game timer advanced – as you ran through the years, new models of vehicles became available that either ran cheaper, ran faster, or could haul more – and old vehicles were subject to (more frequent) breakdowns, signalling the need to replace them soonish.
The game has an improvement project in the form of Open Transport Tycoon Deluxe – OpenTTD – that adds many new features, vehicles, and fixes several minor problems. It doesn’t require the base game to work as it has its own sounds and graphics, but it can piggyback off the original graphics and sounds, should you patch it on top of proper old-school Transport Tycoon Deluxe. This particular game is also one of my most treasured, and may actually be responsible for my urge to make money managing services!
2. X-com : UFO Defense [UFO : Enemy Unknown]
Awwww yeah! Unforgivingly hard – for an eight year old – with a whole lot of tactical options and pitfalls, the first XCOM game was a true masterpiece in every sense of the word. It was engaging, difficult, but rewarding – replayability was frighteningly high, and there was a fair bit to do and manage. Outside of battle, you ran a base funded on secret government money to combat the alien invaders to your planet – you needed to organize equipment so you were stocked, hire and assign scientists and technicians to research and produce equipment essential for your own survival, as well as figure out the aliens’ goals.
Once an enemy has been located or their ship rendered immobile, you fly a squad over and begin the Battle phase. Each soldier had stats randomly generated that would affect their various aptitudes – some would be good throwers, some could lug heavier stuff around easily, etc. All units had a Morale and a Time Units score – Morale went down as you suffered casualties or your mission was going funny, while Time Units were used for literally everything. Crouching, reloading, aiming, shooting – this was your lifeblood, and a finite but replenishing resource in your fight against the invaders!
The game is admirably complex without being inaccessible. Though the difficulty is quite punishing due to certain mechanics – such as reaction shots, which the enemy loves to get a free one or…four of, once you open a door they are hiding behind – the tension is real. As the last stopgap before earth is taken over by the superior and more numerous invasion force, your secret organisation has to fight battles frequently, scavenging knowledge and technology to reverse-engineer before the planet is overrun! Besides the setting being tense, combat could also go very wrong very quickly – the aliens encountered often possessed superior physical or mental abilities to use against you.
Some could float to gain a height and slight aim advantage, some attempted to panic or mind control your soldiers. Others are god-forsaken walking crabs with high health that can run a third of the map in one go and implant eggs in your soldiers that hatch into zombie units that then later mature into the same thing that did it to your troops! Very dangerous and very nasty, I still vividly remember the absolute DREAD of going on missions with these things. For a fun bonus, they loved to show up on Terror Missions which is when the aliens target civilians in major cities and hubs and you must run in to rescue them. These occurred once a month of in-game time and would incur severe penalties if you failed or ignored them.
Penalties like the cessation of funding for your organisation by the government whose towns and cities you failed to protect. Money is tight and decisions matter in Xcom. As time marches on, different aliens and scenarios might emerge that challenge all your preparations up to that point. If you are still using ballistic Earth weaponry when the plasma troops come down on you, you will not survive! All in all, Mythos Games and MicroProse did an amazing job on this piece, it is firmly and forever cemented in my mind as one of the most fun games I’ve ever played!
1. Pizza Tycoon [Pizza Connection]
A game few have heard of, and fewer yet have played. Pizza Tycoon was developed by Cybernetic Corporation and released onto DOS in 1994 upon unsuspecting players everywhere! In the game, you are tasked with picking a character his/her own stats to go and open a restaurant and make the customers happy. This seemingly simple premise is absolutely drowning in additional options and complexity that put the game far and away above similar titles in many areas. For instance, starting money was often severely limited and inadequate, unless you picked certain characters to start with.
You had several options for how to raise that money. Go to a bank and do it legit? Sure but you wouldn’t get a lot and had to repay – what a bother! Ah but perhaps you can go to the mafia and ask them for some…or traffic weapons….oh yes, this game had quite a lot of options. Regardless, when you procured enough money, you’d navigate on the top-down map of whichever real life location you chose to find a venue for your restaurant. Real life locations include places such as Berlin, London Madrid, and so forth! You can skip the money and setup phase by selecting the ‘quick start’ option from the menu, which would randomly assign you 1 small, pre-decorated restaurant.
But if you didn’t, your next task was to call, in-game, a realtor whose property you are interested in. Be careful, much like in real life, people will try to swindle you, so you must be on the look-out for prices that seem…wrong. Once you negotiate for a location, your husk of a restaurant is there, waiting for you to decorate it, to set it up. To create dishes and to assign them to a menu, employ staff, manage suppliers for your ingredients. The amount to do in this game is STAGGERING. In particular, after buying kitchen appliances and adequate seating of your choice and type, you must now turn to either the Menu or the Staff options.
Staff came in 3 types and are almost all deliciously quirky and referential. They each have individual stats that determine their performance or skill at their particular goals. Cooks need to be able to cook a certain amount and have high cookery skill, while Waiters relied on their Serving skill, while the Managers themselves did no physical work, but would oversee the Restaurant’s operation according to parameters you assign to them. All staff had a ‘motivation’ score one could increase by paying them more than they ask for – resulting in higher cooking or serving amounts and less slacking off. Some were just slackers no matter what, however .
Once you figured out staffing, you must go to your Menu and either create new dishes with a [for the time] robust pizza creation tool out of approximately 56 ingredients, or assign pre-existing pizzas to the menu. Each ingredient has a slightly fluctuating cost to purchase, so you must price smart if you want to make a profit. But each pizza might appeal to a different demographic – of which there were six. Oh and did I mention that each *ingredient* over time might become popular or unpopular, just as in real life? Your best-selling Veg pizza might suddenly flop for months because ‘spinach is unhealthy!’ . Oops.
After all THAT, you must now navigate the local suppliers for ingredients and do either individual, or recurring daily orders with them. Your manager can do stock-ups if needed, but isn’t perfect in this. Eventually, if you favour the same supplier, they will offer boons and discounts to you that can give you a slight edge. Once you have equipment for your staff to use and proper seating set up with menus and ingredients to back them up, you are finally ready to open and start serving people! A top-down representation of your restaurant will have customers in it you can click for various general feedback lines, such as the ‘decor being so tacky, I feel like I’m in a train station waiting room’.
You are never alone in Pizza Tycoon. The competition comes in many other flavours and will steal customers away from you if they should set up shop nearby. There are many options to combat these rapscallions however – the most upstanding way is to challenge them to a Pizza Duel and win. This is a 1-on-1 recreation of a Pizza, with the AI showing you what to put where – you will be judged on your memory and speed VS the opponent. Wagering money, your opponent might not agree to your amount and turn you down – but you can humiliate them AND win a bit of cash if you play it smart.
A less straight option comes from going to certain people and purchasing..joke articles. Smelly cheese and the like – you can slip these into the opponent’s restaurants to drive complaints up and customers out ! This directly interferes with their numbers and sales, but some are just too big, or persistent to get the hint. For them, ‘Ice cream’ is a good solution. Code-word for actual serous weaponry like flamethrowers and bombs – you can elect to have your character rise early with these weapons and physically destroy the furniture or poison the air, which will put the opposing restaurant out of business for several days.
Hang on though, risky dealings are risky for a reason! There is a small change the local law enforcement might catch and jail you if you possess any weapons or are caught ransacking the opponent’s businesses – which means that you can’t manage your restaurant for that period, and can’t deal with any problems that might arise! Oops. Running errands for the mafia, similarly. Speaking of which, you do have 2 meters that rise with your actions, and they determine your standing in two sides of society.
Do mafia-friendly, sneaky, dangerous activities and you will rise in the Mob ranks. Do official, upstanding and entrepreneurial (blimey that’s a hard word) things to rise in the eyes of the public. Higher mafia standing allows better loans and…other benefits, while a higher public standing will let you get an audience with the Mayor or even the local law enforcement. They might inform you of upcoming checks of your restaurants and warehouses, or present powerful opportunities for raising your fame and money.
Speaking of raising your fame, you can take out advertisements of many kinds to promote your business and run daily for a set amount of time. Additionally, at the end of the year, a massive bake-off is held in which you are put into a Pizza Duel with *all* your competitors and potentially a large sum of cash, if you win. As you open more and more restaurants and accumulate money, the satisfaction of knowing how hard the game made you work for it is comparable to none, really. Pizza Tycoon remains one of my most beloved, time-eating games ever, and I strongly urge those that enjoy management or Tycoon style games to at least give it a look! One of the best DOS games for sure.
What were your favourite DOS games? Do you still make use of DOS to play retro games?