Polygons ahoy: Some MS-DOS racing games worth a try on Archive.org

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]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The maximum upload file size: 64 MB. You can upload: image, audio, video. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded. Drop files here

35 responses to “Polygons ahoy: Some MS-DOS racing games worth a try on Archive.org”

  1. Devin Avatar

    The problem with Street Rod when I was a kid is that handling is REALLY tricky, which is a problem given that to get the good stuff you need to do Mulholland Drive and Aqueduct races. Maybe it's better now as a grownup.

    1. IronBallsMcG Avatar

      I loved that game but had the same problems. I guess I'll be trying it again.

    2. BlackIce_GTS Avatar

      I gave up on driving pretty quickly, I just used a money cheat (or a hacked version?) and screwed around building up various cars.

  2. LTDScott Avatar

    I LOVED the Street Rod games as a kid, but mainly for the buying and fixing of cars. It was actually where I first learned about advancing and retarding the ignition. But as Devin said, the actual racing was pretty bad. I could never beat the King.
    I also had Stunt Driver, but I preferred Stunts more. You could build your own track and it had awesome late '80s cars like the NSX and Lancia Delta Integrale in it.

    1. JayP2112 Avatar

      Stunts worked really great with on the 486.
      You could build a track with an upside down section. The GTP car could stick to the roof.

      1. LTDScott Avatar

        And the LM002 could move the concrete blocks if you hit them at the right speed.

    2. Felis_Concolor Avatar

      When playing the Street Rod game during its retail days, I found it especially amusing when replacing the engine you could unbolt every item but the wire to the starter, and it would remain in position until that final click was made, whereupon the engine block would disappear from the screen.

  3. hwyengr Avatar

    Oh, man. Stunt Driver. The sit-in arcade version, Hard Drivin', had a force feedback wheel and a realistic 3-pedal setup. And putting money in just gave you more time on the clock, no real goals.
    Though I spent most of my valuable time stalling the car from mishandling the transmission, being 12 and all…

    1. LTDScott Avatar

      Hard Drivin' lived up to its name. I wonder if I could do any better as an adult?

  4. PotbellyJoe ★★★★★ Avatar
    PotbellyJoe ★★★★★

    I had Indianapolis 500. I think it may have come with our Gateway when we bought it. As a 12 year-old I remember how slowly the other drivers would accelerate for the green flag and if you didn't throttle the accelerator (button) carefully you would wreck the car and have to start over. I hated that so much. Also the complete lack of AI, the cars you were passing would stay on their line, so you got wrecked a ton.
    I also had "Nascar Racing 2" which was actually pretty decent with the MS Sidewinder Pro joystick. And you could paint your own cars, so mine was painted to look like the deathmobile from Animal House. My dad may have helped me with that.

    1. wunno sev Avatar
      wunno sev

      ah, i had Nascar Racing 2! and a Sidewinder joystick! i was too impatient to actually paint the cars anything but one solid color – usually, as is the wont of children, some neon or pastel color that looked painfully bright on the screen.
      i would sit for an hour or two at a time, with damage turned off and opponents on the lowest difficulty, jamming the stick forward and occasionally pointing it leftward, tiring out my little shoulder. i thought i was so cool. i don't know where that joystick came from, because very young me would not have been so bold as to ask for such a thing.

  5. mdharrell Avatar

    <img src="http://www.mobygames.com/images/shots/l/496300-tron-light-cycle-game-commodore-pet-cbm-screenshot-the-actual.png&quot; width="400">
    Eh. Everything went downhill after the TRON: Light Cycle Game for the Commodore PET. The polygons started getting way too fancy.

  6. Peter Tanshanomi Avatar
    Peter Tanshanomi

    The only driving sim my wife ever played was Papyrus's Indy Car Racing. She got it for Christmas 1996 from a girlfriend, because she'd just bought a new PC.
    <img src="http://static.giantbomb.com/uploads/original/0/1330/628313-1183590270_00.png&quot; width="500">
    She got bored with it after about 3 months and I don't think she's never tried another computer driving game, except at an arcade.

    1. hwyengr Avatar

      "I'm Paul Page. From Papyrus, THIS, is Indy Car Racing!"

      1. Peter Tanshanomi Avatar
        Peter Tanshanomi

        Wow, totally forgot that! Awwww yeahhh!
        <img src="http://media.giphy.com/media/s59Csd4R2DtQI/giphy.gif"&gt;

        1. hwyengr Avatar

          My poor old Packard Bell (100 Mhz Pentium, baby!) could barely run ICR, so we had to restart it. A lot.

  7. Jeff Glucker Avatar
    Jeff Glucker

    Found this for Street Rod 2
    ex; First Letter, Line 1, Page 20 = R
    1-1-20 = R
    1-1-28 = B
    1-3-16 = S
    1-4-12 = T
    1-6-12 = X
    1-2-16 = F
    1-2-28 = H
    1-3-19 = P
    2-6-8 = O
    2-4-28 = O
    2-3-10 = L
    3-5-3 = M
    3-1-3 = R
    3-4-10 = Y
    3-4-20 = A
    4-2-8 = N
    4-1-10 = K
    4-1-16 = L
    4-1-19 = C
    4-2-19 = U
    4-4-3 = E
    4-5-12 = K
    5-3-8 = V
    5-3-20 = W

    1. Eric Rood Avatar
      Eric Rood

      This is one where whoever uploaded the emulator worked around the piracy protection so all you have to do is hit Enter (same as the Indy 500 game) at the relevant question.
      But I should have linked to the manual I found for it, probably:
      If you're having a crap day, by the way, it's pretty rewarding to run a 25-lap Indy 500 race and then try to take out the entire 32-car field before 25 laps are up so that you can win.

    2. Felis_Concolor Avatar

      Oh geez, I remember all those horrid copy protection schemes from the 80s:
      Single Word/Letter Lookup
      Code Wheels
      Paragraph Booklets
      Anti-copy Sheets
      Key Diskettes
      Image Matching
      I am pleased to know every single business software company which relied on key diskettes and did not offer free replacements for worn out keys did not survive to see the 90s. Apparently this affliction did not kill off the undeserving game companies who engaged in similar practices.
      To be fair, Stunt Driver's simple pattern matching copy protection did offer several amusing brush-off messages after your third failure, including "Merry Christmas; Welcome to DOS." And Railroad Tycoon's locomotive identification entry page was easy to either memorize over time, or ace with your already existing knowledge of locomotive history.
      And it only took a half hour to create a simple ASCII text file duplicating the contents of the No-Copy sheets, which were illegible in anything but bright, white light anyway. And sometimes that simple text file happened to make its way into a BBS post.
      Oh yeah, I just remembered someone once recognized the 3 syllable pattern for all the worlds in Populous and then created a complete world name list generator which relied on a basic "Towers of Hanoi" algorithm cycling through the available combinations. It was included as a programming example in an old Turbo Pascal book.

  8. smokyburnout Avatar

    <img src="http://i.gyazo.com/be0b3e06cb6fb2f9a11118c74e3ba994.gif"/&gt;
    Not in that archive but still available online and emulatable: Revell CD http://werbespiel.blogspot.de/2010/11/european-ra

  9. racer139 Avatar

    I used to kill Bill Elliott challenge when I was 12 or so. It was the first game where the car could be set up to run at said track(mostly). My brothers and I played it all weekend long every weekend we where allowed. BOYS GET OUT OF THAT BASEMEMT AND DO SOMTHING OUTDOORS….. THOSE THINGS WILL ROTT YOUR BRAINS. If I had a laptop that was useful I'd be all over it now.

  10. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    where is Death Track
    i still remember the music from my childhood

  11. Devin Avatar

    Whoa Test Drive 2, the music is still kind of awesome. I still kind of keep driving off mountains.

  12. Maymar Avatar

    The Ford Simulator is sort of terrible and tricky, but a neat time capsule. Lotus Racing (I think that's what it's called?) was fun for a couple races too.

    1. Rood the Mobile Avatar
      Rood the Mobile

      Lotus Racing almost made the cut. Many people have fond memories of the Ford Sim so I tried it for a bit. It was horrible in a charming '90s kind of way.

    2. JayP2112 Avatar

      The Ford Sim was on the IBMs we got for the CAD classes in highschool.
      We spent all week doing the 0-60 runs.

  13. Sjalabais Avatar

    Whoa, flashback.
    <img src="http://38.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lwmjy0dG8q1r5qrimo1_500.gif&quot; width="400">
    My first PC, after years of gaming on a Commodore Amiga 500, was a 60MHz, 4MB RAM, 512MB HDD 286. I threw off Windows to have more space, and Windows seemed a bit useless anyway. My favourite game was Sim City (the first one with the 3×3 tiles), but NASCAR was a huge favourite, too. The successor was a bit more advanced, you could paint your cars and adjust your competition's powers by tinkering with files in the game folder. Of course, three blue and white cars did win all my hours long races…

  14. crank_case Avatar

    I've fond memories of 90s PC racing games the Indycar and Nascar games, along with Goeff Crammonds Grand Prix 2, RAC Rally (Codemasters rally title before Colin Mcrae), Need for Speed, Toca and Grand Prix Legends, but nothing ages worse than a driving sim. While abstract arcade games like asteroids will still be playable forever, I find 5 minutes on any of these has me running back to Forza or Spintires again pretty rapidly.

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      I, too, played TOCA forever. Need for Speed was something we played with two dudes on one screen. Grand Prix Legends was everywhere, but never caught my attention.
      <img src="http://www.igcd.net/images/002/677.jpg&quot; width="600">
      The one racing game that is really hard to let go for me is Burnout Paradise. It was released for the PC in early 2009 and I still find it fantastic, at least in online mode. There is just so much to do. After I started playing it again a while ago, I have clocked over 100 hours on it. Makes my wife's hair rise, considering the constant stream of need our old house generates, but one has got to relax somehow…1nsane was another arcade racer without tracks that my friends and I played on LANs for years and years, even accessible and a lot of fun to play with non-game-people who would scream and shout in "capture the flag"-mode and stuff like that. The game died during the advent of 16:9 screens, because it needs old conventional ratios in order to be played properly.
      <img src="http://i.ytimg.com/vi/Sxzv4h2Jk94/0.jpg&quot; width="600">
      Another game that should be way past its "best before" date is "Age of Empires 2". Perfect strategy game that is not too complicated, not too simple to still be enjoyable.

      1. crank_case Avatar

        1nsane was great, the nearest thing at the time to a proper off road game, but then Motorstorm on the PS3 seemed like a great substitute, but then when Spintires came along (I think Hooniverse may have been responsible for that addiction). even that went to the wayside. It's slow, winches and mud pace is perfect for those evenings when you're too fatigued to play something fast paced like Forza which is fun but uses too much mental energy. I'm not saying I have a problem but Steam tells my I have used 106 hours of my life in that game, I could have well done something more productive car-wise if I had all that time in large useable blocks.
        One game I did re-visit properly was the original Sega Outrun, which seemed fiendishly challenging as a kid in the arcades, but on an emulator with an endless supply of "coins" is done and dusted in an afternoon.

        1. Dean Bigglesworth Avatar
          Dean Bigglesworth

          Thanks for that, I remember seeing a video of Spintires here but had completely forgot about it.. So now I spent a couple of hours getting the old windows machine running(after failing with bootcamp) and then way too many hours playing Spintires. Awesome game, and works perfectly on my 2008 gear.
          Ended up tipping a truck + trailer on its side, and no truck had enough traction in the mud to winch it up. Had to winch another truck up a hill and behind a shed and a tree for support before it stayed still and I was able to get the big truck back on its wheels.. fun.
          Also managed to destroy the large truck in one big cock-up after accidentally releasing a loaded trailer. I winched it out from under the pile of logs, and as i attached it it flipped right side up and with it the whole damn truck flipped and was destroyed.
          I guess now that the win machine is running again I have to install World of Tanks too; can't use the excuse that it runs slowly on my macbook anymore…

  15. skitter Avatar

    I still play Midtown Madness 2, though it's gotten harder to simulate a LAN with a VPN.
    Also, Test Drive Unlimited is back online using a community mod.

    1. wunno sev Avatar
      wunno sev

      i loved that game! wasted many hours of my youth on the MSN Gaming Zone
      i remember before the map mods came out, how much fun it was jumping onto the roof of that mall and thence to other buildings without the ramps. the Panoz GTR-1 was hard to get up the first building – you had to loop the long way around the building – but after that it could get to roofs that the other cars couldn't.
      when the map mods (Megamod &c) came out it became real easy to get up, but i still did it the old-fashioned way because i was a dedicated eleven-year-old. ugh, and downloading cars from Midtown Motors and getting stuck in place when the game host didn't have the car. so frustrating.
      i liked the first Midtown Madness because it was in Chicago, where i'm from, but MM2 was way better in multiplayer.

    2. Dean Bigglesworth Avatar
      Dean Bigglesworth

      Midtown Madness was probably the first real online multiplayer game I played. Or maybe it was monstertruck madness, or motocross madness. It was fun, at least until mom picked up the phone.