Software, Technology

Everything old is new again

August 28th, 2006 by Jeff | 5 Core Dumps


I have found a new obsession. Its name is DOSBox.

Back in college, my friends and I used to spend endless hours playing whatever latest computer game we could get our grubby little hands on. (What? Did you actually expect us to study?) While shoot-em-ups like Doom and Scorched Earth were certainly popular, I think we ended up playing more fantasy role-playing adventures than anything else. Eye of the Beholder, The Elder Scrolls: Arena… why, there could have even been a little bit of Nethack thrown in there somewhere. But the game I will probably remember most from back in those days, the game that I think every single one of my buddies played (and finished, IIRC), was World of Xeen.

For the uninitiated, in the early 1990s, New World Computing released a series of RPGs called Might and Magic. (No, no subtle rip-offs of Dungeons & Dragons here, folks….) While I missed the first three installments, in college one of my friends introduced me to Might and Magic IV: Clouds of Xeen. I was instantly hooked. Surely more “sophisticated” gamers of today would scoff at its 320 x 200 graphics, primitive digital sound, and turn-based game play, but hey, it was actually pretty innovative for its time. What really sucked me in was the depth of game play, from the vastness of the world to the ingenuity of some of the puzzles. It had just the right balance of intelligent puzzle solving, tricky spell casting, and brain-dead skull smashing to make a nigh perfect game. But then New World did something to make it even better….

A year later, they released Might and Magic V: Darkside of Xeen. This wasn’t just a sequel, but a continuation of the previous game. In fact, if you installed MMV on the same hard drive as you installed MMIV, the two games would combine to form one big gaming world. Not only was there a whole new world (or side of the world, to get technical) to explore, but forbidden locations in the first game were suddenly opened by new quests from the second. Other games of the time let you import your characters from previous games, but none did anything quite like this. I think we all ended up beating World of Xeen at least twice each. For the longest time, I had to play the game on other people’s computers because the game took up virtually every megabyte of space on my dinky little laptop’s hard drive. Save games were precious jewels to be backed up on multiple redundant floppies.

Ah, alas, time has a habit of marching on. Years and one college degree later, I bought a copy of MM 3-5 on a single disc to have a copy all my own. Unfortunately, by this time DOS was passé and Windows had passed from version numbers to year of (intended) release. Getting Xeen to run was iffy; the generic sound card in more modern systems didn’t like pandering to old Sound Blaster settings so the sound was horrible, while the faster speed of the CPU started leaving the skid marks all over the graphics. (It was if all the monsters had overdosed on sugar, caffeine, and a few illegal stimulants.) I tried playing Xeen this way for a little while (even got my wife to give a try once), but it just wasn’t the same. When my wife and I eBay-ed a bunch of old games while cleaning house in anticipation of our move, I struggled with whether or not I should keep Xeen around or sell it as well. I gave in to sentimentality and chucked the CD into a box so it would make its way to WV.

Then, lo and behold, what did I discover last week? A nifty little program called DOSBox. What is it? An x86 emulator that runs a built-in DOS. That’s right, folks; you can emulate an old style x86 processor running DOS under Mac OS, Linux, or even (gasp) an x86 running DOS-descendent Windows. Imagine that. What’s really interesting about this app is that it emulates hardware like CD-ROMs and sound cards as well, so you can listen to games in their Sound Blaster glory while playing them from ISO images on your hard drive. You can even capture screenshots, sounds, and (with the right codecs installed) short video clips of your game in progress. I couldn’t resist the temptation. I download the program and as soon as I got home I hunted around the office until I found my Xeen CD. It took a little bit of settings tweaking, but I now have a bunch of decade-old memories flooding back to me as I “step right up to the exciting treasure-filled mines of the Red Dwarf Range!” (If you’ve never played the game, you wouldn’t appreciate the reference.)

On the downbeat, it’s bad enough that moving and caring for a newborn child are such huge time sinks. It’s not like I have time to really play this game anymore. But, oh, am I so tempted….

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