Saving the dinosaur
First posted on 25 April 2000. Last updated on 01 March 2013.
Well, first off, you cannot save the dinosaur. They are already long gone. If conditions have been right some of their luckier bones may become fossilized for our plucky perusal. Still, it is difficult to imagine the reconstruction of a living dinosaur from mere stony bits, Jurassic Park notwithstanding. That is the problem with organics.
Saving the older computer adventure games, or resurrecting them from their dusty closet crypts, is not nearly as difficult. It is only data after all. However, as with our friends the dinos, much has been lost.
Oh, I guess I live. Perhaps like you, I worry that many of these amazing adventure games are going to be lost in time and forgotten. This is a shame, particularly when good literature is involved.
Given that the bulk of the adventure game releases are, dare we to say, less than great anyway, what has survived? Which adventure games have managed to make the lengthy and sometimes terrifying transition? What humble games can actually still run on your fancy hotrod PC without calling up the blue screen of death?
One way to play classic text adventures is via a Java client at a website. Auto loading Java program runs automatically in your browser if your browser is Java compatible, which most are. Some of the best text adventure games ever created, including Zork, Adventure (1), and the Scott Adams adventures (2), can be played instantly on the internet. Even Douglas Adams offers his classic computer game version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (3) on his own website with the power of Java.
Emulators and abandonware
Although most (yes, I say most) games are available as either abandonware or as emulator ROMs, I cannot recommend their use for a number of troubling reasons.
First and foremost, abandonware is clearly illegal. The term abandonware is meant to describe a game, or any software, that is no longer in distribution, simply. Some gamers think that is reason enough to be able to distribute the said software freely. What is wrong with this picture? Unless you have tracked down the owner(s) of the software you are about to distribute and been given some kind of permission, you are about to break the law. Now who the heck do you think you are? Al Capone? I think not.
Second, the legalities of emulators and ROMs are still blurry issues. Hasbro Interactive has recently bought up the rights to all of the old games from Atari. So, if you are using an Atari emulator or playing an Atari game via a ROM, does that mean the Sony lawyers/assassins are going to bust your door down? Okay, it probably does not come to that. I have exaggerated for effect, but it is a good bet that Atari emulator sites and possibly some of its users are going to be hassled. Is it worth it?
Emulators appear in every color and flavor, allowing a game hobbyist to play games from other, usually older or outmoded, platforms. Apple, Commodore 64, Atari, Amiga and even Sony PlayStation emulators, as well as many others, offer the game hobbyist literally hundreds of games to play almost instantly, so how can a person possibly say no?
Here is the argument. If you own the game and have the game disk(s) and manual, a game ROM is merely a current backup.
Here is the problem. Accounting for all the gamers who do not own that particular game is impossible, and it is a booboo if the game's copyright is still in effect.
Do you not feel guilty if you install a computer game you have never bought, see an mpeg movie you have never paid for, or download a mp3 of bootlegged music for free? If your answer is yes, then do not mess with emulators. Using them only makes you feel worse. If your answer is no, then download to your heart's content, knock yourself out, but do not come to me begging for manuals!
There are other issues, particularly dealing with keyboard or joystick compatibility, game speed and sound support, which can also render the emulated game experience less than desirable.
The dusty old game shelf
Surprisingly, among the best sources of cool old classics can be your own dusty game box or shelf or wherever you put that stuff. Clean off those Floppy Disks. Check the condition of those older CDs. Take what looks good over to your box and start loading, trying each game out in turn.
Here is what can happen. Many of the games may not run without some fairly serious Windows or DOS tweaking. Flummoxed? Do not be. It is not worth it.
Forget about the dud games. Concentrate on the ones that do run. Pretty soon you should have, if your collection is anything like mine, half of a dozen to a dozen very cool adventure games working again. Immediately, and this is an important step, separate the few cool games that work from the ones that do not. Put the flunky games away. You are not going to see them again for a long time.
Which older adventure games run in Windows 98?
Unfortunately, that is an impossible question to answer with all of the different PC hardware configurations out there. Still, many adventure games have little or no graphic or sound components and should run lean and mean on newer machines. Later transitional titles which have added or improved upon these features can be more troublesome.
Try to run older classics from your hard drive. Avoid older CD installs. I favor Floppy Disk installs because the clean full install may "force" rather standard Sound Blaster settings, which usually and simply work!
Of course, converted or ported titles that are distributed as freeware usually run fine.
Freeware? What is all this about freeware?
A number of individuals and companies have generously made some of their earlier games available to a new audience by releasing them on the internet as freeware, even taking the time to port them to the PC if necessary. This is among the best ways to enjoy a retro classic, especially if you have missed it the first time around.
Infocom, Interplay Productions, Legend Entertainment, and many other game companies have released many of their older titles as freeware, either on the internet or on magazine CDs. In fact, many game magazine CDs contain complete games besides the usual heap of demos and shareware. At any given time you may find Zork, Gateway, or any number of classic adventure games tucked away there.
It occurs to me that the title of this article "Saving the dinosaur" is not entirely apt, as the word "dinosaur" can also be used to describe something that has become obsolete. Why should you save something obsolete?
The evolving discipline or medium we may loosely term as "game design" has historically been remarkably resilient. Modern computer versions of chess are immaculate renditions of the game of kings. When HG Wells dreams up Little Wars, the rules set for his Victorian era miniatures war game, he should no doubt appreciate that modern computer real-time strategy games present battles largely from the same point of view and scale. A rose by any other name...
Although a master chess player may spar with Deep Blue for publicity, he may never compete against a human player on a computer chess board. Which is better? Paper and pencil role-playing games? Computer role-playing games? They all serve their purpose. Each feels different and all are equally satisfying.
So it is with all computer games. Text oriented adventure games may stand the test of time better than their graphic counterparts due to the "old cartoon syndrome". It is difficult to watch cartoons made in the 1920s unless you are an aficionado. Yet the classic short stories and novels of those days are still being read now. The latest games of today may look excruciatingly dated in 20 years, even while folks are still playing Zork on their wristcoms and contact lens displays!
Saving, or more aptly, archiving older classic computer games is not impossible at all, it is just an annual chore, like spring cleaning or doing your income tax. It is, however, a lot more fun. My "favorite games" collection is diverse, with selections from every category and period of computer games. I also prefer it if these games are on my drive and playable, so I can back up my spurious claims of "classic" if a gamer friend drops by.
It is refreshing and fun to be able to play classic adventure games as an alternative to desktop quickies like Windows' Solitaire. Not that I indulge in such dalliance at work mind you, ahem, but when I do have a spare moment, what better way to spend time than playing an adventure game?