If you’re around my age (and probably a few years older), you came of age around the time when home computing was similarly coming of age. And if you’re like me, you spent an inordinate amount of time tinkering with polygonal and/or text-based MS-DOS games. While many of these games have fallen into the Abandonware file (although still runnable in Windows with a DOS emulator like DOSBOX), that’s always been just annoying enough to keep my attention.
However, the wonderful Archive.org recently teamed up with DOSBOX to provide a forum that lets nostalgic types like myself play old DOS games from the comfort of their preferred web browser. You can find that DOS games archive/in-browser emulator here. There are enough nerdy types here on Hooniverse to discuss and debate the merits of the myriad of games (Oregon Trail vs. Wolfenstein 3D: In which game do you shoot more? Go.), but let’s instead discuss some good automotive-related games I found worth my time.
Before I discuss the games, there are a couple of things worth mentioning. First, most DOS games of the era had piracy protection measures in them, usually in the form of a quiz question whose answer was in the game’s manual. For the most part, the emulators have been programmed to continue the game without a correct quiz question answer, but sometimes the piracy questions remain relevant. If so, most manuals can be found with some a bit of Google-fu.
Additionally, many of the uploads are far from perfect. Some I couldn’t get to work at all and others were temperamental. Running some in full-screen does wonky things (the “Esc” button is often functional in DOS games and also ends full-screen mode in most browsers) and running within the window frequently leads to cursor displacement (I think that’s a real thing). But if you can live with those things, then there’s a world of old computer games for you.
Indianapolis 500: The Simulation (1989, Papyrus)
This was, for me, the first racing game I ever really spent any time with. My childhood best friend, Scott, went to the 500 every year and had a copy of the accompanying game, too. This was at least two or three years before my family owned any computer at all, so not only did the game impress me, so too did his cow-themed Gateway.
Anyway, for all of its polygons, the Indy 500 game presented a pretty detailed experience for the serious race face and also an easily accessible game for the novice. To explain: The game can be played using only the directional arrows and, among the many racing games so set up, it’s actually pretty effective.
There are some warts (the A.I. will frustrate you and the graphics, while decently 3D, can present an obstacle with limited ability to look ahead), but the depth of gameplay can be pretty addicting, even though there’s only one track in the game. The driver can choose from three chassis-engine combinations at the ’89 Indy 500 (Penske-Chevrolet, Lola-Buick, or March-Cosworth) and while each of the three possesses its own unique characteristics (the Penske is a missile but doesn’t turn well, the March is slow but deft, the Lola lies in between), they can all be tuned to be competitive with a variety of settings.
Maybe most impressive is the Instant Replay settings, which allow you to relive huge 220-mile-per-hour wrecks with television-style presentation as polygons soar hundreds of feet in the air. If you ever get bored with the game, running counter-course and having 400-mph collisions can be pretty entertaining.
You can also play the 1993 follow-up game, IndyCar Racing, which features that season’s tracks (Nazareth! Mid-Ohio! Milwaukee Mile!), but it is much more difficult than its predecessor. Road courses, it turns out, are a bit of a challenge when there are no braking reference points. Still, the setup detail in the later game surpasses that of all but the most realistic modern racing simulators.
Stunt Driver (1990, Sphere)
This is the only other game on this short list that comprised part of my childhood. My brother Joe’s friend copied the game for him and gave it to us on a gray 3.5″ floopy disk with a yellow-and-white label. From the second he popped that little gray disk into our Compaq Presario 486, I was hooked (once we got a copy of the manual to pass the quiz, which you’ll need for this emulator and you can get a PDF of it here).
In the game, you race boxy, non-descript cars with a ’65 Ford Mustang around five computer-generated courses full of stunts like corkscrew jumps and 100-foot loops, but more interestingly, you can build your track from scratch, linking eight loops in a row or blasting through a field of pedestrian cutouts that explode into tiny bits.
The controls (the car is controlled, mostly, with four arrows, which will become a trend) aren’t great, but they’re usable and it hardly matters anyway. This is less of simulation than an arcade game where it’s far more fun to screw around than to race the actual races. Fun fact: Once you get the car rolling, shift to neutral and your Mustang’s top end is suddenly infinite (Top speed is otherwise 125 mph). I can’t remember exactly how to do it now, but there’s a way launch from a stop in neutral and, if you’ve built a track the right way, launch over a corkscrew jump at around 300 mph. Let me know if you figure that out.
As with IndyCar, the important thing is that the game provides a pretty sweet Instant Replay setup (provided you’ve created your custom racetrack with proper camera positions), so you can see a blue-and-white ballistic flash by the camera from the end of the 300-mph corkscrew trick.
I’m also told that the game Stunts is a more-than-adequate contemporary alternative. I haven’t had much time to tinker with it, but it looks the business, though you’ll also need the manual (conveniently available here) to get past the piracy protection.
Bill Elliott’s NASCAR Challenge (1990, Distinctive Software/Konami)
I only briefly tinkered with this game, but I had a good time trying to keep my 1990 Pontiac Grand Prix in one piece around the classic stock-car bullring at Bristol Speedway. Bill Elliott’s team-car Ford Thunderbird is the default car and Daytona the default track, but you can choose the Grand Prix or the Chevy Lumina and a pretty good variety of tracks that includes Talladega, Bristol, and the two NASCAR road-course staples: Sears Point and Watkins Glen.
The car is a bit harder to control than the Indy 500 cars, although there is a considerable amount of setup variety (differential and transmission gears, spoiler, wheel stagger) available before the race. So it’s entirely possible that I just had the car set up completely wrong for the short track at Bristol. Regardless, the car will actually oversteer and understeer so modulating the throttle and hitting apexes actually matters. If you can manage that a little, you should be able to run with at least some of the competitors.
When you wreck terminally—not if—a quick stab at the TAB key will show a replay of how spectacularly you clouted the wall, another car, or likely both. If you’re lucky, you’ll have caused a nice six- or seven-car pile-up and the virtual beer-swilling NASCAR fans will go virtually nuts.
This is one of the games that only loaded intermittently for me, but if it didn’t work on the first try, I just went back a page in my browser and gave it another go. It’s not up to snuff with modern NASCAR games by any stretch of the imagination, but you also probably can’t theoretically play those from a theoretical cubicle, being sure to leave a different theoretical program open full-screen to theoretically switch to using Alt-TAB in case your theoretical boss walks by.
Grand Prix 500 cc (1987, Microids)
This motorcycle racing game brings a unique gameplay interface that is actually pretty useful. During a race, the player sees three sub-windows: The scrolling third-person view, a broader view of the circuit, and an informational panel. It’s interesting, but it gives the player complete information about what’s coming up on the circuit and where the competitors are. Given that this was made two years before Indy 500, that’s a pretty remarkable setup and perhaps a big step forward in realism (although there may likely have been another game before it with similar features; I’m not a game historian).
There’s a tremendous variety of circuits with 12 from which to choose, all of which were used in the 1987 FIM 500cc World Championship (the top motorcycle-racing class in the world at the time). The racing is fun and, on the Easy setting, a novice can be competitive after a race or two. The controls are easy and the bikes pretty directly controlled.
The game plays like an early scrolling racer, not unlike Pole Position (which is also playable), but it’s a bit easier to come to speed than that game. There aren’t spectacular crashes or wipeouts, just wipeouts and double-wipeouts when you sideswipe an opponent. As such, there are no replays or anything, but you don’t really need them. This is basically a really good arcade game.
Street Rod 2: The Next Generation (1991, California Dreams)
Of all the new-to-me games I’ve played, this is by far the most interesting. The game takes place in Southern California in 1968 and your goal is to build a hot rod that will take down The King (shown above on title scren) in a drag race, on Mulholland Drive, and in the famed Los Angeles Aqueduct. Along the way, you can also street race other hot rodders for money or even pink slips in those venues and you can head to the drag strip for grudge night.
Most of the game takes place in your garage, where you literally build up your rod. That is, you buy the car and speed parts from newspaper classifieds (with period-correct headlines) and you actually have to unbolt parts from the car (using clicks) and bolt on the go-faster bits. The hands-on approach is pretty novel and you have to make sure you’re getting matching parts or else the game insults you, just like a real hot rodder. There’s a huge variety of bolt-ons available for the car, everything from headers to differentials to four-barrel racing carbs. You can even paint and chop your car to make it a proper rod.
Driving is fairly easy; the “Up” arrow is the gas, the side arrows steer, and the Spacebar shifts. When drag racing, you just floor it and dump it into gear using the spacebar. Again, I only tinkered with the game for an hour or so and I’m keyed up for another go at it, convinced I can build a super-quick MadScience-replica Ford Falcon or a Fast and Plymouth Fury-us (Yeah, sorry).
As you can probably surmise, this is the sequel to Street Rod, which you can also play. However, the sequel adds more speed parts and a little more depth to the game play.
Of course, there are 2,300 games in the MS-DOS archive and at least 200 of those are racing or car-related games, so there’s a lot left to explore. Feel free to recommend other games in the archive or other DOS games in general that you played and/or still play. It’s worth adding that Archive.org is a non-profit and accepts donations to keep its theoretical doors open. I’m not one to shill for things very often, but a good deal of my writing requires research on the Wayback Machine and, once you learn to navigate it, the Internet Archive is maybe the most powerful tool on the web.
[All images screen captured from Archive.org]