The Internet Archive, an exhaustive non-profit “digital library” based in San Francisco, provides free access to a huge amount of content: thousands of feature films, millions of digitized books, hundreds of thousands of albums and live concert recordings, all of it out of the reach of copyright in the public domain. But they’ve saved one of their best coups for the new year. Last week, archive software curator Jason Scott announced that you can now play nearly 2,300 MS-DOS video games for free online. That’s a wealth of distraction, obviously — and a welcome trove of nostalgia for any geeks who came up on the computer games of the ‘80s and '90s. But where to begin? Fear not. We’ve sifted through the deluge and selected ten essential games to start playing right now.
DISNEY’S ALADDIN (1994, Virgin Interactive)
Video games based on movies have a dire track record, of course, and the skeptical gamer might think twice before diving headlong into one adapted from a popular Disney musical. But Virgin Interactive’s Aladdin might be the exception that proves the rule. A swashbuckling platformer from the developers of Earthworm Jim, it debuted on the Sega Genesis console in 1993 to overwhelming acclaim before being ported to DOS the following year. Praised at the time for its buttery smooth animations and cutting-edge graphics, it remains an exemplary side-scroller and one of the best games of its generation.
THE LOST VIKINGS (1993, Silicon & Synapse)
Years before they dominated the world of PC gaming with Diablo and World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment — then known as Silicon & Synapse — developed a modest co-op sidescroller that combined elements of the puzzle game with the framework of the stalwart platformer. The result was The Lost Vikings, released for the Super Nintendo console in 1993 before later moving onto DOS and the Sega Genesis. The game involves switching back and forth between three playable characters, each with their own advantages and abilities, in order to maneuver the trio through a variety of labyrinthine stages. It’s the thinking-man’s platformer, in other words: precisely what you’d expect from the studio who made Starcraft.
CROSSCOUNTRY CANADA (1991, Didatech)
Crosscountry Canada is what the industry calls an “edutainment” title — which is to say that, theoretically at least, it smuggles learning into young minds beneath a veneer of fun. The game casts the player as a truckdriver tasked with making commercial delivers all over the Canadian countryside, stopping if so inclined to pick up hitchhikers on the way (the hitchhikers, by the way, have a small chance of robbing you blind, as good a lesson for young children as any). Crosscountry Canada was installed in virtually every elementary school classroom North of the border, and if you were a Canadian student in the early 1990s there is a good chance the game remains close to you personally. If not, now is the time: just think of all the canuck geography there is to explore!
MICRO MACHINES (1994, Codemasters)
Micro Machines, as the title suggests, is a video game based on a popular line of miniature toy cars — not the most promising subject for a game, to be sure, but one that somehow yielded a truly excellent racer. A top-down, high-speed arcade racing title that pits tiny cars against one another on and around a variety of household furniture, Micro Machines is exciting in large part because the player, by design, has no real idea where he’s going: the low bird’s-eye perspective means you’re zooming around kitchen counters and billiards tables without a view of the edge. The effect is a bit like trying Formula One in a thick bank of fog.
LIERO (1999, Joosa Riekkinen)
Finish programmer Joosa Riekkinen developed the low-budget action game Liero in the late 1990s, inspired by his affection for the Team 17’s turn-based artillery game Worms. Riekkinen wanted to combine the deliriously addictive mechanics of Worms — in which you play as a troupe of earthworms equipped with military-grade weaponry — with the real-time velocity of a fighting game, and from this simple twist on convention Liero was born. What it lacks in originality, however, it more than makes up in execution, invigorating the familiar worm-on-worm dynamic with manic, nerve-racking speed.
BAD DUDES (1988, Data East)
Data East’s little-played beat-em-up Bad Dudes endures as one of the most recognizable titles in gaming history on the strength of its introductory cut-scene alone. Yes, you are indeed instructed to save “President Ronnie” from a coterie of villainous ninjas, and yes, you are asked whether you are “a bad enough dude to rescue the president” — maybe the most meme-ified line of video game dialogue ever written. Well, come for the jokes and stay for the gameplay: Bad Dudes, as it happens, is well worth playing past its iconic title screen, offering the diehard Double Dragon fan another satisfying bout of arcade beat-em-up splendor.
DRAGON’S LAIR (1993, Sullivan Bluth Interactive Media)
Originally developed as a laserdisc-based arcade game by Advanced Microcomputer Systems in 1983 — with animation by Secret of NIMH director Don Bluth — the classic Dragon’s Lair arrived about a decade before its time, exchanging the rudimentary sprites and pixels ubiquitous in the period for full-blown video animation, playing out like an interactive movie that would react to your skill and instructions. This particular version is derived from a later port, released on DOS ten years after the original — the earliest that any home tech could handle something of this scale — but this is nonetheless the very same Dragon’s Lair we all remember and love.
PRINCE OF PERSIA (1990, Broderbund Software)
Broderbund’s original Prince of Persia was widely revered upon release for pushing the technological limitations of computer gaming, setting a new precedent for animation and sound that Computer Gaming World compared in achievement to Star Wars. Twenty-five years later, of course, this 8-bit marvel isn’t quite so plainly astonishing, but that actually makes it easier to enjoy the many pleasures its gameplay affords. Prince of Persia is perhaps the most intense puzzle platformer of its era, difficult in exactly the right way. While its graphics now seem dated, its mechanics have hardly aged at all.
SUPER STREET FIGHTER II (1996, Capcom)
One of the all-time great fighting games may not lend itself ideally well to the sprawl of a computer keyboard, but if you can accept a slight penalty to the smoothness and elegance of the controls this is every bit as delightful as it was in the early 1990s. A special edition — and the best-known of them all — expanded from the original Street Fighter II to include a slew of new locations and playable characters, this is a game so good, even two decades on, that its reputation as the granddaddy of all fighting games is justified within seconds. Now all you need to find is a buddy to beat up on.
SUPER NOAH’S ARK 3D (1995, Wisdom Tree, Inc.)
When the Nintendo Entertainment System launched in the 1980s, it didn’t have the foresight to lock its programming to prevent the use of unlicensed games, and it therefore wasn’t long before D-grade developers like Wisdom Tree, Inc. took it upon themselves to produce and distribute Christian propaganda in the form of knock-off video games. But by the time the Super NES appeared on the market, Nintendo was wise to the gimmick, and now only games with the company’s seal of approval would work on the console…until Wisdom Tree devised a work-around. Enter Super Noah’s Ark 3D: a Christian-themed first-person-shooter and thinly veiled Wolfenstein clone that would only work if connected to the SNES on top of another cartridge, like a Game Genie. Is it good? Not at all. But this is one of those things you need to play once just to experience it.