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Classic games often have an unusual place in gamers' hearts. Whether through age or simple nostalgia, they often mean more to many people than a new high-profile release. This makes 'abandonware' one of the most interesting online gaming trends.

Legally speaking, there's no particular difference between pirating a 10-year-old game and a 10-minute-old one, and the big sites dealing in older games stick to a surprisingly strict code when deciding what games they're willing to distribute. The term abandonware applies to games that have been abandoned by their publishers and are therefore fair game. If a game is still sold, it doesn't count as abandonware, and respectable download sites will take it down.

Likewise, the primary abandonware sites – such as Abandonia and the long-silent (but still usable) Home of the Underdogs (www.the-underdogs.info) – won't share around copies of old LucasArts adventures because LucasArts has made it clear that it doesn't approve of them doing so. This isn't an attitude shared by most pirate communities, with The Pirate Bay in particular jumping at the chance to mock anyone who tries to get in its way.

The words 'retractable baton' have been used. (You can probably guess what the complainant was asked to do with it.) In fairness to the games companies, there are reasons why they don't want to lose control over their old games. Should they ever go back to a franchise, being able to give away the original as a promotion makes for a good marketing technique.

In other cases, a game being old doesn't mean that it can't still be sold. Bundle packs and the promise of services like Steam are all useless incentives if the game starts to be distributed for free. Tetris remains a license to print money even after all these years, while icons like the classic Space Invaders still hold a place in our culture regardless of how much better modern games are.

Some companies – although sadly, not many – take a more laid-back approach and re-release their old games directly. Interestingly, it's mostly the British companies (and companies born from bedroom coders) that go out of their way to share the wealth.

Rockstar Games will let you download both GTA 1 and 2 (the versions released before the game became 3D) as well as the lesser-known Wild Metal Country for free.

Revolution released both Lure of the Temptress and Beneath A Steel Sky for download, and spent time working with the ScummVM team to make sure that its still commercially available Broken Sword games would be playable for the long haul. You've still got to go and buy the games in that case, but at least you can be confident that they will work without hours of painful struggle.

As for ScummVM, it's a freeware application originally intended to let people play old LucasArts games on everything from PCs to mobile phones. It now supports everything from Simon the Sorcerer to The 7th Guest. If you can get hold of the original game – and in most cases, that's not too expensive if you use Ebay or similar to track down sellers – you can get it working.

This isn't the only such program out there, either – others include Exult (for Ultima VII), the Freespace Open Installer and DOSBox, which is used by both Steam and GOG to bring the classics that they sell back to life. The beautiful thing about the retro gaming trend and the people who write the software that makes it possible is that no matter how fast technology zooms ahead, somebody is looking after the record of how it all began.

There are lessons to be learnt from many of these games, and great experiences that deserve to stay alive. So we heartily recommend that you browse the back catalogues and relive the gaming highs of the last decade. There's never been a better time to fill in the gaps of your gaming career.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 280

Like this article? Then check out The history of co-op gaming

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