Dear Lifehacker, I have a couple of old PC games from the Windows 95 days that I'd like to keep playing. However, I use Windows 7, which creates an obvious problem. Is there a way to play it on my current machine? More importantly, will I just have to give it up some day? Sincerely, Nostalgia Overwhelming
Dear Nostalgia, Yesterday, Microsoft announced a new Xbox console and said that it's not possible to play Xbox 360 games on the new hardware. It's not the first time we'll get a reminder that we risk losing the future at the expense of the past, and it won't be the last. Maintaining the ability to play old PC games, however, may be just as difficult.
Hope isn't entirely lost, however. There are a number of ways to keep an old game playable without breaking out an old PC and loading up a copy of Windows 95 (although, if you're a stickler for the most authentic experience, that would be the way to do it). Even better, you're not the only one who wants to keep those old games around, and those other people sometimes are devoted developers.
Tie an Old Game to A Publisher Account
Many games have been updated or patched to work on newer operating systems. To get patches like this directly from the source, you can either repurchase a game from a store such as Steam or activate them on your personal library if you have the old activation codes. In some cases, publishers may have issued updates that make games compatible with newer versions of your operating system.
A couple of token examples are Doom and Starcraft. Old Doom games appear on Steam and can be installed on systems as modern as Windows 8 and run directly within the app. Meanwhile, Starcraft is tied to a Battle.net account. You can download and install it from the website as many times as you like.
If you've already purchased a game, it's relatively easy to tie it to an account. For example, Steam has an "Add A Game" button in the Library section where you can enter a licence key to unlock a game. Keep in mind that you can add non-Steam titles, so you'll want to select "Activate a Product on Steam" if you want to get access to the newest version of your title (where available). Blizzard and other publishers have a similar process. The biggest advantage of this method is that once it's tied to your account, you can download the newest, patched version of the software instead of whatever you received on a floppy disk in the early '90s.
Run Apps in Compatibility Mode
Windows actually includes the ability to run apps designed for older versions of the OS. By right-clicking on an app's shortcut and selecting Properties, you can select which version of Windows your game was designed for under the Compatibility tab. this isn't a cure-all, of course. Video games in particular have a lot of complex code that can break.
If you have old CDs lying around and you're able to install the game on newer machines, you can try running the game with the compatibility layer set to the OS it was built on. Note, that this feature is different from XP Compatibility Mode which was introduced in Windows 7 and removed from Windows 8.
Find (or Buy) a Patched Copy
Sometimes, the original company won't patch their old game, but other folks will. This is a hit-or-miss approach, but sometimes avid gamers with a development background can release patches that make old games more compatible with new systems. Many development communities can be reliable, but keep in mind that downloading executable files is the quickest way to get malware on your system, so be extremely careful.
A much safer way to find patched versions of games is to buy them. Sites like Good Old Games sell copies of titles that you might not be able to find on more modern distribution systems. Not all titles here may work properly on all operating systems, so read the reviews before dropping a few bucks.
Find a Ported Version
Doom, the classic first-person shooter that popularised the genre is one of the most ported games in history, and it's a prime example of an older title you can find on new platforms. This is another situation where you may have to pay for something twice, but if movie blockbusters teach us anything, it's that nostalgia is worth a lot of money.
Mobile platforms in particular are experiencing a bit of a renaissance of older games. Phones and tablets are powerful enough to play complex games, but they're not quite capable of challenging hardcore PC gaming rigs or modern consoles. This has made them ripe for ports of old titles. Square Enix, for example, has a long list of RPG classics available for Android and iOS.
Use an Emulator
Emulators are often an ethical grey area, since downloading ROMs is technically illegal. But the nice thing about emulating PC games is that you can often do so without downloading anything — just use your old floppies or CDs, if you still have them lying around.
Programs like DOSBox allow you to play pre-Windows games on both PC and Mac, which is really neat. Previously mentioned ScummVM is perfect for those old point-and-click DOS adventures. In fact, turning your computer into a game-emulating monster is an article unto itself (fortunately, we have several). Nearly all emulators will require you to bring your own ROM (the game file for the title you want to play), which means you'll need to dig up those old floppies If you don't have them, you can often find the games online, but depending on the game, you might be running back into that legal risk (not to mention the aforementioned malware risk).
Download a Fan or Publisher Remake
These aren't as common as we'd like, but when you can find one, they're fantastic. Black Mesa is the standout property for fan remakes. This is a complete remaster of the original Half-Life PC game with the new Source engine built for Half-Life 2. The entire game (which is mostly finished) is available for free online.
The primary reason fan remakes are so rare is because the intellectual property situation can get pretty nasty if you're dealing with large organisations, so many remakes may die before they're ever released, but there are quite a few fighting to survive. That being said, a fan remake is pretty obviously a violation of various trademark and copyright laws which means the survival of such titles is up to the mercy of the owner of the original works. Valve is particularly friendly to the modding scene (which has proved very profitable for them), but this is the exception rather than the rule.
Of course, fans aren't the only ones who can remake old games. For example, Dune II was a classic RTS that predated the wildly successful Command and Conquer series. Getting the old DOS-based version of the game may not go over so well, but Dune 2000, a remake made a few years later, brought similar gameplay and storylines with updated graphics. That title is more readily available online.
Contact the Publisher
If you're at a loss and just can't find a way to modernise your games, you can always try contacting the publisher. Many companies from decades past have been acquired or changed names, however a quick Wikipedia search can usually tell you who owns them now. In some cases, they may even still run a site under the old branding. For example, id Software is now owned by ZeniMax Media, but you can still hit up its website to purchase old classics, like Wolfenstein or Quake.
Of course, if you don't want to pay for a game more than once, you could always email or call the publisher and ask if it might be willing to steer you towards a version of an old game you can play on your new system. You may get a boilerplate response directing you to its store, but you may also get a gratis copy for being a loyal customer for so many years. It never hurts to ask.
Accept that Games Become Extinct
This is the hardest part to accept, but you're probably going to lose a game that you really love at some point in your life. In a way, old PC games are a lot like animal species. Without the ability to be reproduced in new versions for modern operating systems, they run the risk of extinction. It requires effort on someone's part to keep games updated. Either by Microsoft in making sure Windows can retain support for old versions, publishers in issuing patches, or fans in picking up the slack. One way or another, old software won't run on newer hardware without someone doing something.
Many of the options on this list require paying for a game a second time. It seems unfair to pay twice for the same stuff, but remember that all that effort doesn't happen for free. No matter who you're placing the burden on, expecting a game to be updated for decades because you paid some money back in the '90s is economically unfeasible.
From that perspective, the best way to keep your old games alive is to love them. Dote on them now and then. Support communities that keep games working. Keep playing them. Spending a few bucks every decade or so is a small price to pay to ensure your childhood never really dies.
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