Nostalgia is a great form of escapism. And for a lot of PC gamers, particularly older ones, there's a special joy in going back to an era where your first taste of a new video game was from a demo disc acquired at the local corner shop or newsagent.
Demos went out of vogue for a long time, and physical media is trending that way too. But a lot of those demos are still great to fire up today, and you can get many of them legitimately for free. Getting them working, however, takes a little bit of technical know-how.
The Internet Archive has been saving a ton of demo discs from classic magazines, including PC Gamer, The Games Machine, Amiga Format, Linux Format, PC World, gaming magazines in Germany, Maximum PC and a whole lot more. Covers from Australian mags don't seem to be included - apparently the archives were never saved according to one person with knowledge of the company's workings at the time, although at least a string of PC PowerPlay's covers from 1996 to 2003 are saved.
Some gamers will still have a stack of demo discs stashed away somewhere, and you can use those as well (or create ISO/CUE/BIN images of the files on the drive). But for most people, and most people without access to an optical drive, the PC Gamer Magazine Cover Disc Collection on the Internet Archive is the best place to start.
When you're there, you can click on any listing and you'll be presented with a series of download options on the right hand side. There's usually a torrent option for every CD uploaded, but you can download the ISO directly - although download speeds can be real slow - from the Internet Archive.
Once you've got the file, the next step is to work out what to do with it. Depending on the era of the demo disc, it might work in DOS only, have titles that work across DOS and Windows, or it might be a Windows-only CD. For the sake of simplicity, and because troubleshooting Windows compatibility errors is a whole other ballgame, I'll keep this artice focused
The very early demo discs, like this one from 1995 that contains demos of NBA 95, FX Fighter, Apache Longbow and Brutal, will be DOS only. To get them going, you'll need to download the DOSBox emulator here. And if you've bought any retro games from GOG, chances are you'll already have DOSBox installed in the same folder as that retro game.
You can actually copy those files over, but I find it easier to just create a separate DOSBox folder. That lets you create different settings for different games, and DOSBox is small enough that space on your hard drive won't be an issue.
When you fire up DOSBox, you'll ordinarily get a basic text prompt that doesn't really tell you much at all. What you actually need to do is to jump into the configuration file beforehand, which you can find in the directory where you installed DOSBox.
The folder has a batch file - DOSBox 0.74-3 Options.bat - but the game won't actually use the options file unless you specify it in DOSBox's launch parameters. So the easiest thing to do is just edit dosbox.conf directly.
The first option you'll need to add is at the very bottom of the file, where all the autoexec commands fire as soon as DOSBox loads. The demo discs you've downloaded will be in a folder somewhere, and to make your life easier you should make the folder where you want to play, or "install" games, as your virtual "C" drive. You'll also want to make a virtual CD-Rom drive in DOSBox, as not everything on demo discs can be played directly from the drive.
The main way of doing this is through the MOUNT and IMGMOUNT commands. This lets you mount any folder or ISO/CUE/BIN image as a separate drive within DOSBox, and just makes your life a hell of a lot easier.
Here's a real basic idea of some commands to start with:
What this does is means that when DOSBox starts, the C: drive will be the folder where Old Games will install to, while the D: drive will be marked as the "fake" CD drive. On that drive will be any files in my \OldCD\ folder.
You'll notice that there's a qualifier there:
mount d e:\games\OldCD\ -t cdrom
This is a flag to tell DOSBox that the drive is a CD and not just a regular hard drive, which is needed for some things to work.
But that's not enough for some games. What you'll find is some might install, but other games will install and then be unable to "see" the CD drive that the games were installed from - even though it's perfectly mounted.
The best solution I found, in that case, is to use the IMGMOUNT command with the original ISO. This tends to work a bit better since you're downloading the demo discs as ISO/CUE/BIN files anyway, saving you the trouble of having to create a new folder, extract it to there, and so on.
But to get this working, you'll need to set an extra command in DOSBox. Here's what that looks like:
This tells DOSBox that the E: drive is to contain the files within PCGamerDisc2.8.bin, the drive should be pre-configured for a CD-Rom, and that the file format should be the one compatible with ISO 9660 CD-Roms.
You can actually mount multiple image files this way, which is something you'd use if you're trying to replay the original versions of FMV games like The Ripper, or at least ones that haven't been converted digitally by Night Dive/GOG already.
Once that's done, you just have to type E: into the DOSBox prompt, and you'll be able to access your classic PC demo. In this case, I was playing a demo disc that had Windows and PC games, so I had to do a bit of trial and error to see which games would play through DOSBox. (Things that play with Windows can - sometimes - run through Windows 10, although it can be a bit of a diceroll as to how well that works.)
After mounting this image as an ISO, I installed the demos for Settlers 2 ...
... and Acclaim's Alien Trilogy, which is a real blast from the past, where basic mouse controls had right-click bound to moving forward.
Some games just don't work as well as others, but stuff like NBA '95 play pretty well out of the gate, sound included.
It's great to go back and look at how some of these old demos played, but also to see what these demos offered. Some demos are worth about five minutes of playtime, while others you can happily replay for hours on end through difficulty settings, different characters, the challenge of getting to grips with the game to begin with, or just because there's enough meat on the bone (like the Mechwarrrior 2 demo).
And I want to stress that some games, due to time or age or just weird issues, may not work the way you think. But there are literally hundreds of demos and shareware games to try out, so if one doesn't function the way you like, or the controls simply aren't functional with a modern mouse and keyboard, try something else!
So if you're in need of a bit of an injection of nostalgia in the coming days, weeks or months, going back to the '90s is a good way to put a smile on your face. There's plenty of entertainment for free hanging out on the Internet Archive, so follow the steps above and you'll do just fine.