They’ve been outdated since the arrival of Windows 95, and aren’t always easy to get running on a modern PC. But MS-DOS games – those designed to launch from Microsoft’s old text-based operating system – are still very much worth preserving. One man is on a quest to archive every single one of them, from the biggest project down to the smallest.
eXo is the driving force behind eXoDOS, a plan to acquire and archive copies of every known game programmed for MS-DOS. It doesn’t matter if it was published by Electronic Arts or some guy in his bedroom, or whether it still resonates today or is embarrassingly dated. If it meets the very simple criteria of being a video game developed for MS-DOS, then he wants a copy for the collection.
“It isn’t for me to decide which games are worth preserving and which ones aren’t,” eXo told Kotaku via email. “Honestly, some of them are straight up offensive. But I preserve them anyways, because it gives insight into what people were making during that time. I’m trying to grab as many games as I can, because every time a disk deteriorates, a CD becomes unreadable, or a hard drive fails, there is potentially another game that is lost to time.”
The eXoDOS collection currently has over 7000 games, and the catalogue is growing larger each year. If the name (or even just the goal) sounds familiar, it’s because eXoDOS are the ones providing Internet Archive with the playable-in-browser titles that we’ve written about previously.
So what was MS-DOS?
Prior to the ascent of Windows as the operating system of choice in the mid/late-90s, most home computers ran on MS-DOS, short for Microsoft Disk Operating System. Where Windows is a graphical interface, using icons to represent files and folders, MS-DOS required the user to input every command using text. Which sounds crude, but it also made you feel like a hacker every time you booted up Wing Commander.
That is a lot of games to be sitting on, and a lot of them are very dear to my heart, so when I found out eXo had been the source of all those browser games I’d been wasting my time on the last few months, I wanted to have a chat and see how such an ambitious scheme worked, and how it all came together.
“I got my first computer in 1992", eXo said. “It was an 8088 AT&T monochrome machine with a 10MB hard drive,” he said, which was already outdated even then “While the rest of the world was moving on to early CD-ROM technology with SVGA monitors, I was really starting from the ground up. This turned out to be really beneficial for me though, as it gave me an understanding of MS-DOS that I never would have gotten if I had jumped in after the introduction of Windows.”
eXo’s appreciation for the operating system would only deepen as he worked through the 90s. “I grew up in the Dallas area and there was so much great shareware being posted from just down the road out of Apogee,” the publisher of Wolfenstein 3-D he said. “A few years later in high school I got a job at the flagship CompUSA store in Addison, Texas. This proved to be significant as a lot of well-known people would come through there. It wasn’t incredibly uncommon to come in for my shift and find John Romero standing in the games aisle passionately telling someone all about what he was working on. As I met the guys who had been creating the games that pried my world open a few years back, it gave me a deeper appreciation for DOS in general. After all, even in 1998 there were still commercial DOS games releasing on par with their PlayStation counterparts. All on the same OS that debuted nearly two decades earlier with only text adventures for entertainment.”
Throughout the decade, eXo’s games library grew, but as PC gaming entered the 2000s, the classics were getting harder and harder to enjoy. One day in 2006 he remembers sitting down to play Discworld and finding several threads on the forums of DOSBox – still the internet’s most popular means of playing MS-DOS games in a Windows environment, even today – where users were complaining they couldn’t get the adventure game running.
eXoDOS’ games run through DOSBox. However, classic Lucasarts games like Loom give users the option of launching user either emulator.
So he thought it’d be cool if, instead of relying on others to get the games running for him, he made his own front end, capable of instantly booting every game (mostly classic PC adventure titles) he had in his collection. During the year he spent working on this project, eXo was also active on some old arcade ROM messageboards, and one day casually mentioned his idea in a post.
“I was stunned by how many people showed interest,” he said. He had thought that a front-end capable of running his collection of roughly 200 adventure games would be pretty much all he needed to do. After sharing a list of all the games he had, though, requests started coming in for more. Then they started coming in for RPGs. Then other types of game.
“I realised then that while there were tonnes of projects built around dumping and preserving console ROMs, and even other computer platforms such as Amiga and Apple II, there really was nothing like that for MS-DOS.” With floppy disk games from the 1980s already nearing the end of their shelf life, eXo figured that if anyone was going to start an MS-DOS preservation project, it may as well be him. “I started scraping lists of DOS games from online databases like MobyGames and scouring old file dumps and buying up the missing titles from eBay. But the real key to me was making them playable.”
And so eXoDOS was born: a central location where thousands of classic PC games can be stored in the one place, downloaded by fans in one huge dump and reliably played on modern computers thanks to a custom launcher that’s powered by DOSBox. Of the 7000 games currently in the collection, eXoDOS can run most of them using just four primary builds of DOSBox, with another dozen or so used for outliers that require more precise emulation.
In addition to simply getting hold of a game’s files, eXo is also interested in preserving some of the more tangible experience of owning a classic PC game. The custom launcher he’s built to play all the games in the collection includes support for metadata, allowing all kinds of additional images to be included with the game, like cover art or copies of the physical manual. Some even go way beyond that, like Loom, which includes a digitised version of the 30-minute audio drama that came bundled on cassette with the original retail game.
Since eXoDOS’ inception in 2007, eXo estimates he’s put in thousands of hours’ worth of work, with the months before a new release easily crossing the line from “hobby” to “full-time workload.” Although the project started as a one-man job, he’s more recently been helped out by an ever-growing team of volunteers.
“I’ve been amazed at how many people have been interested in helping,” he said. “There’s a whole community of people that all share a love for this era and feel as strongly as I do about preservation. I am intensely proud of the project and the people who have stepped forward to help me improve it.”
As of the last update that Kotaku reported on in October, the Internet Archive currently hosts around 3000 MS-DOS games, all of them uploaded from eXo’s collection and playable in a browser. And while we may think of the Internet Archive as a place where stuff like this should be stored long-term, the limitations of the games running via Java means they’re often not playable in their most original states, and that there are a lot of titles that can’t be made available.
As an example, take Total Football Management. Released in 1996, it was shipped with its audio recorded as .WAV files on the CD. When anyone who had a digital, abandonware copy of the game went to play it, they couldn’t hear anything, because the .EXE was looking for a CD that the ripped copy didn’t have. So one of eXoDOS’ team members found a physical copy of the game, got the audio files and burned them alongside the game files onto a custom disc image, reuploaded that, and it worked. All that just for one game that few have ever heard of, let alone would want to play.
Many of the games eXoDOS have added to their collection have workarounds like this. Another example is the team’s work on emulating the Roland MT-32 sound card, which means that anyone playing a game developed to natively support that MT-32 – Sierra’s older adventure titles are some notable examples – can now easily be played (and heard) as originally intended.
The eXoDOS library includes this custom, “classic” catalogue done in the style of early-90s PC game ads.
So which games make the cut? eXo says there aren’t any rules or limits on what gets included. “At the end of the day, the goal for the project is to preserve all of the DOS games. Old shareware, computer magazines on disc, BASIC you had to type up yourself from a book, and everything that grew out of it.” It’s not just about preserving what’s out there, but also finding what isn’t. “I have a small list of games that I have proof existed, but no one (not even the original developers) has a copy of anymore,” he said. “That small list probably drives me more than anything else. I’d like to keep it as small as possible.”
By seeking to catalogue every MS-DOS game, and not just major commercial releases, it can be a nightmare tracking down fresh additions to the collection. “It’s hard to say how many more games are needed as there is no definitive list of MS-DOS games. I check Mobygames once a year or so, and there are usually somewhere between 100 and 200 new DOS entries each year.”
Getting hold of new games for the collection is a long, exhaustive process that involves going through a number of steps. It’s nowhere near as easy as I would have expected, since my expectations before researching this feature were, “Oh, they just would download them all and keep them in one place.”
“When looking for a game, the first thing I do is see if copies of it are already floating around,” eXo said. “If they are, then the files are checked to see how original they are. Unfortunately the dial-up era led to a lot of scene releases where certain features of games were left out in order to save space. I try to avoid these types of scene releases. Beyond that, if it is a floppy game the preference is to have an image of the actual disk, if possible, and if it is a CD game we try and verify that everything is present and determine whether or not the game originally had audio tracks. A surprising number of CD images floating around were dumped using ISO, which strips all of the CD audio.”
If anything from a downloadable release is missing, which it often is, or if a member of a scene edited the game (for example, to put their own crew’s logo in the bootup), then eXo seeks out an original copy of the game instead. “When possible, I reach out to developers and see if they still have original files,” he said. “More often than not, they are very interested in helping out. These games were their children at one point. For some of them, they haven’t been able to play their own games in over 20 years. So not only do others get to discover them again, but they get to share them with their kids or grandkids.”
Because eXoDOS only hosts original, unmodified versions of games, he says that over the years some of the collection’s titles “have been used to power some of the commercial re-releases of these older games, which is great. That means the project is accomplishing exactly what it set out to do, which is to preserve games by making them playable.”
“If we still can’t find the game, then we begin searching for it on eBay and other second hand sources. There are some games however that are so incredibly rare that in over 10 years of having saved eBay searches, they have simply never come up. I maintain a known missing games list on our project’s discord server. Every few years we find one of those and it is extremely gratifying. Unfortunately, for every one that is found, it seems in that time we become aware of two more that are missing.”
eXo estimates that he’s bought “just shy of 700 games” over the past decade. “Half the time the shipping costs more than the actual game. And with the floppy games it is not uncommon to have to purchase the same game multiple times in order to find working floppies.”
This has so far been a feelgood story of preservation and helping people out, but there’s also a legal elephant in the room. Many of these games, despite eXo’s best intentions, are still commercially available on digital shopfronts like Steam or Good Old Games, and simply scooping them up and offering them as a free download elsewhere isn’t exactly legal. eXo’s defence of this will be a familiar one to anyone who has ever been around game preservation, or has even read an article on the internet about it.
“The percentage of games in the collection that are still commercially held by a company is less than 10%. And for those 10%, I encourage people to buy those games on steam, or GOG, or anywhere else they might be available. eXoDOS is not meant to undermine what is left of the DOS game industry, it is meant to honour and preserve it. And part of preserving it is doing things that companies like Steam and GOG don’t do, like taking advantage of those advanced sound cards, enabling 3DFX options, and providing the original media which will be the most important thing in the years to come.”
“If in 25 years the only copy of an older DOS game someone can find is the GOG release, then they will quickly realize that the installer is missing, the drivers are missing, the folder full of graphics for EGA machines is missing, and that becomes a pretty disappointing situation.”
“If we rely on commercial services to preserve these games for us, then if we are lucky the most popular one hundred DOS games will exist on some streaming service with no way to change the options, no way to experience different sound or video card settings, and no way to to find or play the other 6,900 games we have already tracked down. So while I personally support current game content providers, and have amassed libraries of thousands of digital games on these platforms, I can’t say enough how these are not platforms for preservation.”
eXo says that, despite the collection’s relative fame – the last Internet Archive update blog post on its own collection reserved a special section purely to acknowledge eXoDOS’ work – in the decade he’s been heading the effort, he hasn’t been asked to remove anything from the collection.
“Unfortunately the entire conversation around preservation is often couched in a legality argument that only applies to that small percentage of the entire library of DOS games,” he said. “This isn’t like a console, where every game had a publisher, and printed cases, and distribution through major retail channels. We are talking about games that were often programmed in a garage and then sold in plastic bags at flea markets or distributed via modem with “mail in for the second episode” .TXT files. We are talking about one of the first computers that allowed people to make their own content and distribute it widely.”
“And to be clear, it’s not that I don’t fear legal action. It’s that if no one takes the risk to preserve the games, then eventually they are gone for good. If someone waits until copyright expires, then the disks have already deteriorated. The hard drives they were residing on have already failed,” he said.
While the project was begun and is led by eXo, over the years others – like those listed in the collection’s manual – have stepped up to help.
While most major commercial releases have been collected already, there are still thousands of MS-DOS games out there that aren’t in eXoDOS’ vaults. They include non-English language titles – the PC development scene was also huge in places like Western Europe and East Asia in the ‘80s and ‘90s – as well as those that simply are yet to be uploaded. eXo estimates there’s around 2500 games on his hard drives that are due to be made available as part of eXoDOS’ next release.
When the flood of MS-DOS games to be uploaded slows to a trickle, though, eXo says that will give the team time to focus on a sister project, one with similar aims but more logistical headaches. Just as eXoDOS has sought to archive MS-DOS games, next they’ll try and start collecting Windows 3.x titles, which as anyone who has tried to get them working in 2019 can be even more of a hassle. And considering how much of a hassle MS-DOS games are, that’s really saying something.
Featured image: Chelsea Beck