5 DOS Platformers You MUST Play!

Mario Bros, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mega Man, Donkey Kong Country the list goes on! Home consoles had an abundance of quality platformers during the late 80’s to mid 90’s. However, in the shadows of these popular side-scrollers that made the consoles so popular was a big grey machine known for its floppy disks, ‘distinct’ sound and an operating system that made Bill Gates a lot of money. That system being MS-DOS, and there were actually quite a few platformers that were overshadowed by their TV counterparts. Here are 5 must play games, where you can find them and how to play them on modern PCs.

1. Commander Keen Episode 1: Marooned on Mars

Developer: id Software
Publisher: Apogee Software (now 3D Realms)
Release: December 14, 1990

Commander Keen in the world of side-scrollers is really the PC’s equivalent to Super Mario Bros. If anyone is asked to name a DOS game from back in the day this is generally it. Known for its multi-layer maze-like levels, Pogo sticks and collecting junk food, Marooned on Mars follows the travels of Billy Blaze, an 8 year-old genius who is exploring Mars on a homemade spaceship constructed from various household objects.

The ‘Vorticons’ then steal four vital components and scatter them throughout various Martian cities for you to explore and find. Commander Keen offers a wide variety of enemy’s to defeat, objects to collect in this A to B style side-scroller which becomes more difficult to as the game wears on with stronger enemy’s and increasingly more perplex level layouts which will make finding the exit more and more tricky. The reason I chose this episode amongst the other episodes in the series is that this is now available free as shareware. You can find it here: http://www.commander-keen.com/download-keen-1.php

2. Duke Nukum Episode 1: Shrapnel City

Developer: Apogee Software (now 3D Realms)
Publisher: Apogee Software (now 3D Realms)
Release: July 1, 1991

We all know that bleach blonde, foul mouthed, misogynous macho man from that game we all waited 15 years for but many of us don’t know that he started his life out as 2D ‘Duke Nukum’, (Duke’s original name to avoid a law suit from children’s television show Captain Planet). Duke is hired by the CIA to stop a mad scientist called Dr. Proton and his army of ‘Techbots’ who want to control “earth’s largest city”.

Equipped with his Nuclear Pistol, Duke is dropped from a plane onto a skyscraper and it’s his job infiltrate Dr. Proton’s hide out believed to extend deep underground, destroying anything in his way. While working through level after level you will encounter a variety of different types of monsters and robots to shoot up while collecting Diskettes, Joysticks and CRT TVs reminiscent of the 90s. Like Commander Keen (both published by Apogee), the levels are set out in a maze like structure whereby you’re searching for the door to the next level. Again, this episode was chosen due to its Shareware factor and is readily available on the 3D Realms website: http://www.3drealms.com/duke1/

3. Prince of Persia

Developer: Brøderbund
Publisher: Brøderbund
Release: October 3, 1989

Amongst the 5 games on this list, Prince of Persia has arguably one of the most well-known franchise names out there. Ubisoft resurrected the franchise in 2003 with Prince of Persia: Sands of Time which became an instant hit, spawned four sequels and even a feature-length movie. But with all its fancy finishing’s, Prince of Persia came from humble beginnings with Brøderbund’s (the company behind the Carmen Sandiago series) 1989 release originally to the Apple II, and ported to MS-DOS a year later. The game broke away from the norm of the time and offered gamers a fluidly animated adventure platformer with hand-to-hand combat rather than shooting projectiles, as was the case with most side-scrollers at the time.

You play as a nameless protagonist, no; not Jake Gyllenhaal, trying to save the princess from the evil wizard Jaffar. Armed with your trusty sword, it’s your job to navigate through 12 different dungeon-like stages facing a variety of obstacles including falling tiles, leaps of faith over spiked pits, guillotines and a barrage of guards. Any encounter with a guard is a one-on-one sword fight which feels a lot more gratifying once victorious than if you were to just shoot them, *cough* Indiana Jones *cough*. Another interesting side-note is the fact the entire game has a time limit of 60 minutes which does not reset after each death, rather than a designated time for each level which was, again, a norm for side-scrollers. The game can now be found with 3D-rendered graphics, but with the same level design, on the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade, or alternatively, if you’re wanting to play Prince of Persia in all its DOS glory, it can be found here http://www.abandonia.com/games/10

4. The Adventures Captain Comic Episode 1: Planet of Death

Developer: Michael Denio
Publisher: Shareware (Michael Denio)
Release: January 5, 1988

Moving on from one of our most well-known games on the list to probably the least, Captain Comic is another platformer which deserves recognition. It was solely developed by Michael Denio over the course of 3-4 months, a distant cry to the teams of people behind games today, and the years it takes to make them. The game started as an experiment to see whether it was possible to make a, “real arcade type game can be done on a standard IBM PC with an EGA card, and secondly, given the first can be done, if it is possible to make any money doing it”, as stated in the game’s manual. I dunno how much money he made given the fact the game was practically given away as shareware, but I sure do know he made a hell of a great platformer. You play as Captain Comic, exploring the planet Tambi in search of 3 ancient artefacts.

You travel through various different environments ranging from medieval to outer space and blasting your way through birds, beach balls, killer bees and flying saucers just to name a few with each enemy’s “pre-determined” path as random as they are themselves. You progress from one level to the next, each one becoming increasingly maze-like in structure and with more and more enemies occupying the screen at any one time making it virtually impossible to simply run through each level. You’ll definitely be needing your patience with this game. The game was also unofficially ported to the NES by Color Dreams which contained slightly different sprites and music, but the DOS version can be found here http://www.dosgamesarchive.com/download/captain-comic-episode-i-planet-of-death/

5. Jazz Jackrabbit

Developer: Epic MegaGames
Publisher: Epic MegaGames
Release: July 30, 1994

If Sonic the Hedgehog had a green hare for a cousin then Jazz Jackrabbit would be him. Developed by Cliff Bleszinski, the man behind Gears of War and the Unreal franchise, Jazz Jackrabbit brought gamers a super fast paced side-scroller with advanced graphics (for the time) and all tied together nicely with a funky soundtrack, something uncommon among its earlier DOS counterparts which generally lacked in-game music.

You play as the rebellious bandanna-wearing Jazz on a quest to save Eva Earlong from the evil tortoise Devan Shells. You travel from planet to planet that have been conquered by Devan in hopes of finding the location of your damsel in distress. There are three planets, each divided into two level which are filled with enemies mostly made up of different types of tortoises which can all be taken out with an assortment weapons including (besides the initial blaster) flame bullets, bouncy grenades, bi-missile projectiles and TNT sets. This game is a must play for any fan of the Sonic series, or anyone into faced paced side-scrolling action. The first episode is shareware and can be downloaded at http://www.dosgamesarchive.com/download/jazz-jackrabbit/

How to play DOS games on a modern PC

Running these games on modern PCs isn’t a straight forward task, but there are programs out there that make it a lot easier. The first is DOSBox (http://www.dosbox.com/). This program emulates games and other programs made for MS-DOS. It emulates both graphics and sound for Windows, Mac OS X and various Linux systems. Games are loaded in a command-line format reminiscent of command prompt. However, those who want an easier way to load games, the use of a front-end such as DOSBox Game Launcher (http://members.quicknet.nl/blankendaalr/dbgl/) makes the job a whole lot straightforward providing a basic list of the each game, in a very similar fashion to other emulation programs out there.