Today, gamers are blessed with a wealth of choices when it comes to buying games. There's storefronts for new games, old games, indie games, imported games. Choice is everywhere.
But that wasn't always the case. At the turn of the millennium, if you couldn't find a game in a local retailer, it basically didn't exist. So if a game went off sale, or you lived in a rural area, or it simply wasn't popular, then you were out of luck.
And that's where abandonware came in - and one of the biggest and most important sites around was Home of the Underdogs.
It's hard to pinpoint today just how much impact Home of the Underdogs (HotU) had, especially in an age remasters and HD remakes are a fashionable way for publishers to make money. But there was a time when "games as a service" wasn't a thing. MMO's existed, but once a game was published, that was basically it. Publishers moved on.
As a gamer, that meant you would sometimes read about a game online, or in a magazine, and it'd simply never be available locally. Or sometimes games came out before you were born. Or you discovered a game from a developer you loved, but their earlier works weren't available in Australia and there was no way of ordering a copy without an international phone call and borrowing a credit card.
So in those instances, Home of the Underdogs was the place to go.
The game that started it all: Sword of the Samurai, a game that combined elements of visual novels, stealth sequences, 1v1 combat, and top-down real-time strategy
"Home of the Underdogs began around October 1998 or so, after I wanted to find a copy of 'Sword of the Samurai,' a game I played years ago but never finished," Sarinee Achavanuntakul, the Thai journalist, author and activist who founded the site, told me over email.
Being based in Thailand meant Achavanuntakul had access to a wide variety of games and genres, thanks to the rampant piracy scene at the time. The gaming community in Thailand actually owed a lot to piracy, because there was a dearth of official distributors and outlets.
The lack of an official, curated outlet also meant that the HotU founder ended up playing a lot of less popular and unusual games, ones that would have never been at the top of a bestsellers list or sitting in the front window of a games store.
"Growing up in Bangkok meant that I was exposed to lots of different kinds of games, through the early piracy scene which vendors would sell copies of games on 5.25" floppies," she explained. "That was the only way to get most games in those days, and I would have no idea at all which game was bestseller, which game wasn't, outside Thailand."
But the idea for the website, which became one of the largest databases for games in its time, was actually spawned in the United States.
An archived version of the Abandonware Ring front page, which still exists to this day, although many listings and ads point to digital retailers now
According to an archived history of the site, Home of the Underdogs was born when the Thai journalist was completing her MBA studies in the USA. Hoping to replace a busted copy of Sword of the Samurai, she contacted MicroProse to see if they would send another copy.
But games were physical products. So when MicroProse replied that they didn't carry the 1989 DOS game anymore, it wasn't surprising. Disappointing, but not unsurprising.
So looking for an alternative, Achavanuntakul stumbled across The Abandonware Ring.
One click lead to another, and eventually there was a site with a download for MicroProse's samurai simulator. But there was no information about classics from Infocom. QQP's wargames were nowhere to be seen. There was nothing about iconic interactive fiction from the 1980's.
So on October 2, 1998, Achavanuntakul started her own site.
"[I] wrote the entire thing in HTML using Dreamweaver, complete with flashing banners and even animated GIFs of dancing babies which were on so many websites at that time," she told me.
The site launched with descriptions for around 15 to 20 games, including ones that were popular online at the time: The Fool's Errand, Nomad and Sea Rogue. It was enough to get the site going, however, and before long fans and retro collectors began to email in.
By November of that year, the site had grown to chronicle around 80 games - and then Xoom promptly deleted the entire website without warning.
After a Christmas break, which was helped by the release of Baldur's Gate, the site relaunched in early January. Files were renamed with .BMP extensions, as .BMP images attracted less attention than .ZIP files at the time.
The site continued to rely on free accounts - archives mention around 60 webhosting accounts and around 50 separate emails accounts - but it continued to grow nonetheless. Around 400 games had entries on the site, only for Xoom to delete the site, presumably for copyright violations.
That forced another site relaunch, which brought along with a redesign. But there were enough fans scattered around the world that offered to host the site permanently, which was a mark of how popular the site was becoming.
Entries on the site would consist of a screenshot, box art, short review, as well as details of the year of publication, developer, publisher, lead designer, system requirements, and recommendations for other games that were similar in either genre or theme
But it wasn't just gamers who took notice - iconic game designers were paying attention to the site as well.
Once permanent hosting resolved concerns about the site being deleted, the biggest red flag for HotU was publishers. And the body that enforced publishers' will was the IDSA, better known today as the Entertainment Software Association, organisers of E3 Expo.
As Achavanuntakul said in an interview several years ago, the IDSA started going after abandonware sites in earnest back in 1999. Their position was pretty straightforward: HotU was hosting download links to material that IDSA members owned the copyright to, and consequently, the links had to be taken down.
What eventuated became one of the first major fights online around game preservation. While Achavanuntakul responded by taking the links down, and fully acknowledged the illegality of the site, she argued that there was a moral imperative to preserve games, especially when rights holders' refused to make their games available to consumers.
And because the designers of games often weren't the owners of the IP, they had a different view of HotU than their own publishers. One designer that emailed in to thank HotU for its archival efforts, according to Achavanuntakul, was Chris Crawford, the maker of Excalibur and Balance of Power.
"Chris Crawford saying he was really happy to find Balance of Power 1990 on HotU, and impressed that our resident hacker mok managed to crack and re-compile it to run on Windows 95," she recalled.
"I think we even had a short correspondence, and he said something like — if designers had to rely on their old creations for a living, instead of creating new and better games, then they have only themselves to blame."
Most of the correspondence, however, was simply developers thankful that their blood, sweat, and tears was being exposed to a new audience.
Some of whom would go on to influence the gaming industry in their own way.
Sea Rogue, one of the first games to be listed on the site
Troy Goodfellow works at Paradox Interactive. He's been there for almost four years, as well as a regular on the Three Moves Ahead podcast.
But before any of that, he was a fan of the Underdogs.
"I found it when I was wrapping up grad school (late 90s). I had more time for gaming, but not a lot of money. I'd never had a lot of money, or a PC growing up, so I had missed a lot of classic games," Goodfellow told me over email.
Other fans of the site included Derek Yu, whose early efforts were reviewed on HotU before he went on to make Spelunky. (I emailed Yu prior to publication, but he said he didn't have any specific memories about the community or site beyond being excited to see his games on there.)
Another prominent member of the community was Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, whose adventure games got pride of place on HotU well before the Mana Bar founder's career took off with Zero Punctuation. (Croshaw was contacted for comment, but didn't reply by the time of publication.)
Like other fans of the site, Goodfellow saw HotU as an early advocate of game preservation, doing work that the games industry often ignored, or simply chose not to do. "If you wanted an out of print game, you had to either find it on eBay or a thrift store or yard sale," he explained.
"Game curation of the sort that Frank Cifaldi does was almost unheard of. Games had been cracked and pirated for years beforehand, made available through BBSes and the like, and yeah, this was illegal and unethical. But abandonware sites like HotU were a vital stopgap in preserving the memory of many, many games."
Achavanuntakul agrees, arguing that HotU filled a role that is still a vacant today. Remakes and remasters are popular, but it will only ever be the biggest, most iconic games that get that loving treatment.
"GOG and Night Dive Studios do a wonderful job (and I really like them both), but at the end of the day, they have to focus on semi-recent games that have a chance of attracting today's gamers, since they have to make profit to remain financially viable," she argued.
"This means the 'oldest' they would probably go for, games that would be commercially viable today, are likely veritable classics from 1990s like System Shock or Strife, i.e. at least sporting SVGA graphics."
Gaming history is much richer than that. Think about the early days of interactive fiction. The early era of hex-based wargames. RPGs before Ultima Underworld.
"If I were to guess from the number of downloads and the spread of games on other websites after I put them up, I think HotU was a big factor in making underappreciated early adventure games from Access, Legend Entertainment, Telarium, and Cyberdreams," Achavanuntakul added.
And it didn't matter how big the studio was: every game listed on HotU got a review of its own. By the middle of 2002, over 4,000 games had been reviewed.
Today, that number doesn't sound like a lot. Hell, more than 4200 games were released on Steam last year alone.
But from 2004 to 2014, only 4010 games launched on Steam.
HotU, a fan-run website, reviewed that many in the space of a few years.
Before the site officially closed, more than 5,000 games from the 1970's to the 2000's had entries.
Not a bad effort for a passion project.
As well as by genre, the site also had subcategories. That meant users could narrow their search to something more practical, like only Lemmings-style games, fantasy sports, or 4X strategy games
Perhaps the best way to define the Underdogs legacy is by the memories those have left behind.
I asked on Twitter: did people remember the site? The community? What was their experience like?
It was a stream of childlike joy. But more than anything else, the common theme was one Achavanuntakul would be proud of: discovery.
It was my introduction to so many incredible retro games that I had never heard of before and helped kindle my love for retro collecting.
— Gerry Martin (@LongwoodGeek) September 8, 2017
Wow, yes :) It introduced me to so many games, and their write-ups were good - not just a dumping ground for zips, they showed real interest
— AUTOEXEC.BUN (@DavidXNewton) September 8, 2017
It's how I found classics like System Shock 2 and Nethack, and kindled my fondness for interactive fiction. A formative place for young me.
— I, Meanderbot (@meanderbot) September 8, 2017
HOTU was (and still is) a legend and role model for abandonware/games archiving website.
— Abandonware France (@AbandonwareFr) September 8, 2017
What the site looks like today, thanks to a revival team dedicated to keeping it alive
Achavanuntakul ended her involvement with Home of the Underdogs in the mid-2000's, but the site lives on today. It's thanks to the Home of the Underdogs Revival Project on Google Groups, which has worked on maintaining the site and building out the database.
There's a long way to go. Douglas Gallagher was one of the designers who worked on a redesign of the site in the early years, albeit not the original. He pointed out that the revival site hasn't really kept with the times: it's not responsive for mobiles, the database isn't quite up to date, and crackdowns of abandonware sites have taken its toll.
But HotU still lives on. And it's a fascinating window into a time before Steam, before the championing of indie games, before HD remakes and remasters were popular fodder for publishers.
There will never be another site like Home of the Underdogs. The internet has moved on. Life is different now. But there are plenty of games that represent hundreds upon hundreds of hours of blood, sweat and tears from their developers, games that today you can only find mentions of on a site founded by a single gamer in Thailand who just wanted to play an old game.
Not a bad effort at all.
This post was originally published on 11/09/17.