Anyone who has played games a lot has a favorite era that set their expectations and defined what they would find fun for years to come. But it’s difficult to talk about classic computer games without dating yourself—either as younger or older—and whether an era counts as “classic” or formative depends on the individual.
In my case, the formative glory days were the 1980s and early ’90s, and the platform was MS-DOS. And while I did play popular commercial releases from publishers like Apogee and Epic, I mostly played shareware releases. Today, we’re going to look at some gems of that lost era.
My parents were living abroad in Honduras, where I didn’t speak the language at first, so my computer was my refuge in those first months, and these games were my favorite pastime. They’re burned in my memory as experiences that defined what I expected from games for years to come. Some people have youthful memories of hanging out outside (I do, too, of course), but more than anything, I remember playing DOS games—so many DOS games.
To celebrate that era during Ars Gaming Week, I’m going to point out a few of those gems that not everyone has played. If you’ve played a couple of them, awesome. Let’s reminisce! If not, well, then it’s always good to discover new (or old) games!
None of these is on sale on any popular digital PC gaming storefront I could find. That’s likely because most of these games were, for lack of a better term, indies. They were mainly designed by very small or one-person teams and distributed by shareware floppy disc and mail-in programs around the world.
Some of them were included in CD software collections in the ’90s, like the PC-SIG collections. But you should be able to find shareware copies of many of them on classic gaming sites and run them in DOSBox. I played them all recently in Boxer for macOS.
Now let’s get started!
For a very long time, Sleuth—a shareware game made by some guy named Eric N. Miller I’ve otherwise never heard of since, despite the fact that his LA address in the title screen is five minutes from where I live today—was my favorite computer game. It came out 36 years ago, but I still load it up and play it from time to time.
Sleuth is a murder-mystery game with ASCII graphics and text commands. Seven characters enter a mansion, one gets murdered, and another one did it. You have to find out who the murderer is, what they used for a weapon, and where they committed the murder. Then you accuse them in front of everybody—all before they get suspicious and murder you, too.
I played Sleuth long before I’d ever heard the term “Roguelike,” though the game was released after Rogue. But Sleuth was the first game I can remember playing regularly that was totally different each time you played. It was made even more fun and relevant over time by the fact that you could name every person in the mansion. So over the years, I would input pop culture figures, friends, or coworkers and laugh at the strange social happenings that occurred.
For a game with only a few interactions and just one screen of play, it has a surprising amount of replayability and depth. I often wish there was a more modern version of it to try out. But then again, I’d be afraid any modern iteration would miss out on Sleuth‘s DIY, ASCII charm.
For a walkthrough of what a game looks like, go through the images above. You’ll get the gist of it—and it’s extra fun because I named all the suspects after Ars editors. Who was murdered, and who did it? You’ll have to find out. Or you could play Sleuth and see for yourself.
Capture the Flag (1993)
I played capture the flag in the fields of rural Missouri when I was a very young child. While CTF is a mode in many games, including modern ones, none captured it quite like the simulation-like game Capture the Flag. Released by Carr Software in 1993, this turn-based title almost has the depth of real-time strategy (RTS).
When playing against either the computer or another player, you manage a roster of team members by tracking each of their movement points. You move your teammates around the map, set them in different stances, and take advantage of the fog of war and numerous terrain modifiers. It’s not the easiest game to pick up and play, but it comes with a helpful tutorial demo. Put in 30-60 minutes, and you’ll be in good shape. (This was common for many games of the era.)
Capture the Flag has retained a very small, cult-like following over the years. It still has an active website, which charmingly looks like it hasn’t changed since the late ’90s. You can download the game there, and the website once hosted sign-up sheets for finding opponents for play-by-modem or play-by-mail. (The sheet is still there, but there’s no one on the list.)
This game was proof that a tiny team could still produce something you could lose many hours mastering.