Preserving the Past

By Rosemary Young and Gordon Aplin (July, 2001)
The last few weeks have been absolutely amazing here at Quandary. Someone must have let the cat out of the bag about how much fun can be had playing older adventure games. We have had half a dozen or so e-mails a day from people requesting help because they are stuck in an old game or are having problems installing one. Four games in particular have dominated our mailbox: Companions of Xanth, Return to Zork, Woodruff and the Schnibble and Discworld. The last two we had to reinstall ourselves to help people with their various problems and in each case we dearly wished we had the time to replay them as the memories of the fun times we had came back with the opening scenes.

Before experiencing the ecstasy of Discworld though, came the agony of getting it to run on a Windows 98 system. We originally played it on a 486 DX66 that we had set up to play DOS-based games (this PC is currently in pieces awaiting some spare time to fix it up again). Under Windows 98 we had to tweak the memory allocated to the game by editing the properties of the DOS shortcut. We then had to configure the sound card settings. This wasn't really too difficult for us as we had cut our adventuring teeth on DOS games but it got us thinking about the difficulties involved in playing older games assuming, of course, that people can find them in the first place.

On a similar note several people have written to us requesting that we review a couple of old adventures, namely The Gene Machine and Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Benders. Now we managed to get hold of The Gene Machine a few months ago and Rosemary has had a lot of fun playing it and has written the review here. The game was released originally in 1996 and though we had heard of it we had never seen it until now. Rex Nebular we played years ago and we may be able to get another copy from a friend if we ask nicely.

So, for one reason or another, we have spent much of the last month or more living in the past which is fine for those of us who can remember how to edit the config.sys to load devices into high memory and how to allocate extended and expanded memory, but clearly many new players don't have the dubious benefit of this experience. Like driving a car most of us don't want or need to know the workings of the internal combustion engine in order to get from A to B so it should be with games, they should install from the CD and away you go.

Unfortunately, some of the older games still require arcane knowledge of DOS in order to get them to work and our mailbox suggests that there are a lot of people who want to play them but for many new players it will simply be too difficult so they won't bother. This is a shame because many of the older games are still fun to play. Also, it probably won't be long before these games are completely unplayable on new machines. We haven't used Windows ME ourselves but we have heard that it doesn't support DOS at all. What this means is that many older games will simply disappear unless an effort is made to, firstly, preserve them and, secondly, make them easily playable in a Windows environment.

A few days ago we got a press release from an Amiga company that had made a compilation of 'classic' Amiga games including the adventures: Beneath a Steel Sky, Lure of the Temptress and Maupiti Island to name just three. What is remarkable about this compilation is the fact that they had enabled these Amiga games to run under Windows. That got us thinking. Why can't some bright company arrange compilations of 'classic' DOS games and re-release them with a bit of tweaking to install and run under Windows as conveniently as this Amiga package purports to do? The benefits of this suggestion would be the preservation of older adventure games for future generations; some money returned to the copyright holders which may encourage them to make more adventures; titles re-released on compilations could no longer be claimed to be 'abandonware'; and future developers would be able to study these games and see what made them fun to play in the first place.

How about it games publishers? We can still enjoy old movies that began life on celluloid before being ported to video, so why not old adventure games?

Copyright © Rosemary Young and Gordon Aplin 2001. All rights reserved.