Ever find yourself thinking of the games that you played years ago, perhaps on your first computer? They were simple by today’s standards, with low-res graphics and insanely low system requirements, but the captivated us and inspired many of us to learn to program. The GOG (Good Old Games) team has been working to bring back the magic of classic gaming to modern computers, rereleasing titles that were originally released 15 or more years ago.
After starting out supporting games on Windows, GOG just recently added Mac support to a number of their top games. Let’s take a look at how GOG games run on the Mac, and take one of my old favorites – SimCity 2000 – for a spin in Mountain Lion.
The GOG Gaming Experience
Back in the early ’90’s, you would have bought your games on disks and floppies from local stores, or perhaps mail ordered them from a catalog (gasp). Today, we’re so used to installing games from the App Store or Steam that it seems second nature. You can still buy games on disks today, but it’s far more rare today to have to buy a disk to get the game you want.
If you wanted to start playing older games, you could try to find your old disks, or search eBay for original copies, then run them in an app like Boxer or perhaps a version of DOS running in VirtualBox or Parallels. Your odds of getting the game you want up and running that way aren’t great, though. That’s where GOG comes in. It’s built up a library of classic games, gotten quite a few of them ready to run on the Mac, and made it as simple to run a classic game as it is to install any OS X app.
To get started, you’ll need to create a GOG account, which will let you manage all of the games you purchase in your own online library. GOG is giving away 10 games for free with new accounts right now, 8 of which work on the Mac, including classics such Beneath a Steel Sky. That way, if you just want to see how it words, you can get some classic games on your Mac for free to try it out. Or, you can go ahead and purchase games and download them, if you want.
GOG lets you download games directly with their bonus material (manuals, wallpaper, soundtracks, and more, depending on the game). Alternately, you can use GOG’s own downloader, which is a small app that promises faster downloads, notifications when there’s updates for your games, and more. It’s nice, especially if you’ll be downloading a lot of GOG games, but not necessary if you just want to grab a quick game.
I’m always curious about how apps are put together, and was especially interested to see what GOG was using to make classic games run on the Mac. After downloading SimCity 2000 and starting it up, I noticed the anticipated DOS prompt, and dug into the app’s internal files to see what was powering it. After digging a bit, I found that it was based on Boxer, a suspicion that was quickly confirmed by checking Boxer’s blog. Boxer is a specialized port of DOSBox for OS X, and its developer worked with the GOG team to get a standalone version of Boxer that runs individual classic DOS games as their own Mac apps. You can’t jump back down to the DOS console, and will for the most part never have to think about your GOG games running inside DOS, since the final implementation just works.
Time to Play
Ready to play? You’ll be glad to hear that playing SimCity, at least, was virtually flawless for the most part, for me. The emulator runs like any modern Mac app, complete with native full-screen support. There’s one major thing to remember: GOG games are run in an emulator, so interacting with the game is much like, say, running a program in Windows in VMware Fusion. The mouse integration isn’t 100% smooth yet; you’ll have to click into the window for the game to “grab” your mouse, and then will have to CMD+click to get your mouse released. Alternately, you can just CMD+tab or open Mission Control to switch to another app. Almost all of your Mac keyboard shortcuts will work fine, and won’t be picked up by the game, but if something feels off, keep in mind that the game isn’t a real native Mac game and instead is running in an emulator.
Running in an emulator gives you a few interesting things with the games. First, you don’t actually have access to your Mac’s real file system, and saved game states and more are simply saved inside the game. You’ll find all of your GOG games’ saved states inside your ~/Library/Application Support/Boxer folder, and you can reset any game to its default settings from the emulator’s File menu. Along with that, you can choose from three different graphics rendering modes, control the game’s sound independent of your OS X sound, send special characters to the emulator from the menu, and speed up the emulator’s speed to make the game run faster through slow areas. There’s also a built-in screenshot option, but I found that using OS X native screenshots worked fine for the most part.
Once you’re ready to start playing, everything should work much as you’d remembered. You’ll smile to hear the old soundtracks, and perhaps be frustrated at how much you have to relearn to play the games successfully. The graphics looked better with the default mode, in my opinion, though if you’d like a less blocky look, you can try the included “Smooth” rendering mode. For the most part, though, there’s not much to mess with, settings-wise, and you’ll just get to sit back and play your game like it’s a standard App Store app. That’s sure a lot nicer than most emulated games, where you’ll need to tweak settings to get everything to work.
It might take a bit to get used to if you haven’t used DOS based games in a while. Scrollbars have to be dragged and the screen will delay a bit in refreshing. Menus also feel terribly broken at first, as you’ll have to click and hold to open the menu, then hover over the entry you want and release your mouse. Just like in the good old days. At least this time, if the game freezes, a quick CMD+Q will close the game and let you quickly start over. I was able to crash SimCity by trying to view the included “Will TV” videos, and also got the game nearly unresponsive by speeding up the time in-game and running multiple disasters at the same time. Remember: you’re in an emulation, which makes it much like running the game in an old computer, except this time, the old computer is running right inside your Mac.
And if you ever get stuck in the games, you’ll have the full original documentation at hand from GOG, ready for your reading pleasure. In many ways, the manuals are more fun to read than they were originally, since much of what they say feels so quaint for today. The SimCity 2000 guide, for example, helpfully lets you know that you need a mouse and that your city’s file name will be a shortened version of the name if your computer doesn’t support long file names. Since you’re running inside DOS, suddenly that ancient restriction applies to your Mac in 2012, too.
The GOG games are a fun way to go down gaming memory lane if you loved playing computer games back in the early ’90’s, and they’re equally great for going back and playing games you missed back then and have heard others praise ever since. The Boxer-based emulation brings a nearly perfect gaming experience. In fact, odds are you’ll have less trouble playing in the emulator than you did back on your computer when these games were first released.
For the next 9 hours or so, GOG has a launch promo running with 50% off a set of classic games, including SimCity, so you might want to hurry and grab it if you’re interested. Otherwise, most GOG games run between $3-$6, easily cheap enough to grab a few for some afternoons of retro gaming.