When people talk about the best platformer games of all time, names like Mario, Spyro, Donkey Kong, and Castlevania come to mind. These became really popular during the 8 and 16-bit era of console gaming. But during the same time period, PC gaming was also going through a renaissance period with DOS.
Some of the most innovative and unique platformers of all time were exclusive to the DOS operating system. Developers had to craft unique solutions in order to get the smooth scrolling effect that you had on consoles like the NES. Basically, this meant that the screen on your PC wouldn’t refresh every time you walked outside the edge into a new zone.
Today, I am taking a look at the 30 best DOS platformer games of all time that you must play. Some of these games mix and match genres, like combining an action shooter with a platformer. Others even have roleplaying elements, so you’re going to get a gaming experience unlike anything else.
Commander Keen in Goodbye, Galaxy
Probably one of the best platformer games, irrespective of the release platform. Commander Keen: Goodbye Galaxy is the 5th entry in the series and contains a two-part story. Once again, you play as the boy genius Keen who is an eight-year-old spacefaring superhero armed with all sorts of fancy gadgets.
In the first episode of this game, Keen passes through the infamous Shadowlands where he must meet up with the Gnosticenes. These guys have the ability to communicate with an all-knowing being called the Oracle. And Keen needs the Oracle to know how he will defeat an evil group that plans to blow up the galaxy.
Prince of Persia
In the 1980s, you had several talented programmers creating games in their free time. These were the original indie developers and mostly consisted of one-man crews (since graphics and design weren’t as advanced back then). Prince of Persia is perhaps one of the biggest indie success stories from that era.
Jordan Mechner created a platformer with extremely fluid and realistic animations. For this, he used a technique called rotoscoping in which he filmed his brother doing various stunts and then traced over the footage, frame-by-frame. Combined with a fun plot and well-designed levels, the result was something truly magical.
Jill of the Jungle
The best way to describe this game is Tarzan mixed with Pitfall. And it was developed by none other than Tim Sweeney- the founder, and CEO of Epic Games. Tim originally created a level editor for a Nintendo-style platforming game.
Over time, this evolved into something resembling a full game as Sweeney hired people to do the art and music. Jill of Jungle is a basic platformer, but with a twist- the protagonist is a female version of Tarzan. Jill jumps and swings around each level, collecting weapons and killing monsters (she can also transform into birds, fish, and other forms).
The Lion King
Back in the 1990s, adventure games with hand-drawn art and epic soundtracks were a big thing. So Disney decided to release an adventure platformer that would act as a companion game for their animated movie, The Lion King. The movie was a massive critical and commercial success, but few people remember the excellent game that was released alongside it in 1994.
Which is a shame because the game is truly amazing. It was even animated by actual Disney animators, which is why every character looks and feels just like their movie counterparts. You play Simba and start as a cub with basic attacks (later on, you gain more strength and new moves as you transform into an adult).
Apogee used a licensed copy of the Commander Keen game engine from id Software to develop this 2D side-scroller. Hence, you might notice a lot of similarities in gameplay and graphics. However, the art direction, story, and soundtrack are very different.
Plus, Bio Menace features some mechanics that are completely different from what you’ll find in Commander Keen. You play as a secret agent who can use a multitude of weapons ranging from machine guns and plasma cannons to landmines and rockets. This game is fast-paced with smooth movement and plenty of exciting powerups.
Originally released on both the SNES and MS-DOS, Blackthorne is a platformer that was way ahead of its time. It cleverly employed cinematics and a brilliant soundtrack to make players feel more immersed in the world and story. This was during the early 90s, and we were still making the transition from 2D to 3D.
There weren’t many games that used cinematics in order to tell their story, and platformers still relied on basic cutscenes or dialogue boxes to move the narrative. The space fantasy plot of Blackthorne is dark and mature, featuring a mercenary protagonist who is on a quest for revenge.
Cyril is your typical 90s Manhattan kid; he listens to rock music and rides skateboards. But he also likes to moonlight as a super secret vigilante, listening to everything going around town with his custom radio. One day, he catches wind of an alien invasion before it happens.
So he pulls out his blaster, gets on the flying skateboard, and rides out to intercept these invaders before they can terrorize the people of his city. The game has a level editor feature which is quite rare in platformers of that era. It adds replayability to an already exciting platformer.
One of the more technically impressive side-scrolling DOS platformers of the early 90s, Monster Bash supports 16-color EGA graphics. This is why Monster Bash’s levels “pop” out so much. It’s the combination of good hand-drawn artwork with vibrant colors to create an aesthetic that is simultaneously creepy and mystical.
You play Johnny Dash, a typical high school jock who’s interested in sports and looking cool. One day, his dog gets stolen by Count Chuck and Dash embarks on a journey to rescue it. While navigating through each spooky level, you can pick up candy and run into a wide array of powerups that improve your slingshot attacks.
It’s like an interactive action-comedy film set in the Jurassic period. Featuring a caveman as its protagonist, Prehistorik 2’s gameplay is very similar to that of its predecessor. You go around hunting for food, whacking dinosaurs and various other prehistoric creatures with your club.
Hitting an enemy can generate droppable items like food and money. Sometimes, you can also get food by destroying certain objects in your environment. In addition to running and jumping, your character can also use a glider (plus there are unique environmental conditions depending on the level).
Remember that old children’s story about the hare and the tortoise? Well, the characters of Jazz Jackrabbit are roughly based on the same, with your main rival being a tortoise called Devan Shell. He kidnaps the princess of your kingdom (I know, very original) and wants to use her as a bargaining chip.
To prevent him from becoming the king by force, Jazz Jackrabbit must rescue his princess. There are a total of six mega levels, each divided into subzones or worlds. Within each stage, you’ll find items ranging from food and money to powerups that give your hero new abilities (like the hoverboard and rapid speed mode).
Also known as Halloween Harry, this is one of the most advanced PC platformers released on DOS. It combines labyrinthian-level design and excellent graphics (for the time) with a diverse pool of enemy types. You get an experience that is challenging, yet fun to play through.
The cool thing about enemies in this game is that each of them carries a pop culture reference. Some are inspired by characters from TV shows and movies, while others are supposed to mimic stars such as Elvis Presley. You are armed with a devastatingly powerful arsenal of weaponry that includes flamethrowers, grenades, and jetpacks.
A platformer whose plot is mostly a copy of an Indiana Jones movie- Raiders of the Lost Ark. Which means, it is a ton of fun to play through (and a lot of the level themes are also inspired by movie sets). If you like adventure games with wacky supervillains and outlandish enemy types, don’t miss out on this one.
Rick is the game’s protagonist, and he is equipped with a gun plus some dynamite. One thing I love about this game is the fact that traps affect not only you but also your enemies (so you can lure them into these traps and save ammo). You’ll also solve puzzles to advance in each level, and some of these puzzles are booby-trapped.
Want a platformer in which you play as an interdimensional ninja? Well, Zool might just be the game for you. The game differentiates itself from other platformers of the era by including a wide variety of minigames.
There are a total of seven worlds, each with a unique biome and visual theme. Sometimes, you’ll be able to unlock hidden minigames by interacting with objects found around the level (like a piano). Warp points allow you to teleport between places and access secret areas.
If you’re in the mood for some classic sci-fi, try Flashback. It features an immersive story with cool cinematics and a banger of a soundtrack. The game uses rotoscoping, which results in very smooth and realistic animations- further adding to the immersion.
The game’s plot is centered around a race of shapeshifting aliens who have infiltrated the planet. While the platforming is similar to Prince of Persia, combat involves the use of guns (you also have a built-in force shield to soak damage). Occasionally, you solve puzzles to advance in a level.
If you enjoyed rescuing princesses as a plumber who jumps over enemies, you’ll surely enjoy rescuing princesses as a frog who also jumps over enemies. After all, frogs jump and should be better at it than an Italian plumber. With a total of 24 levels, Superfrog isn’t the longest or most immersive platformer, and its plot was cliched (even back then).
However, it makes up for these weaknesses with extra content. Like the various mini-quests that you do. Some of these include finding keys and treasures, while others feel like tiny missions (escaping from the circus, for example).
Realms of Chaos
Using the FAST engine, Realms of Chaos was conceived as a sequel to Paganitzu (the puzzle game). However, it evolved into something entirely different and was released as an action platformer instead. The main selling point of this game is its dual-protagonist system that lets you switch characters on the fly.
You can play as Endrick, the warrior. Or Elandra, the sorceress. Since both of these characters have different abilities, you will choose between them based on the challenge you encounter (traps, enemies, puzzles, etc.).
Commander Keen 4: Secret of the Oracle
Numerically, this is the 4th entry in the mainline Commander Keen series. It is episode one of Goodbye Galaxy and shows Keen’s journey into the Shadowlands. There, he rescues a captive group of council members who can connect him to the Oracle.
Enemies found in each level include giant mutant mosquitoes, poison-spewing slugs, and more. You will also come across environmental hazards like lava pits, cannon traps, and spikes. Your primary weapon is a ray gun that can stun enemies.
Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame
In the first game, you played as a nameless warrior who fought his way through several dungeons and monsters to rescue the princess. And by rescuing her from the evil vizir Jaffar, you become the prince. Prince of Persia 2 takes place mere days after the events of the first game.
But during your marriage ceremony with the princess, Jaffar uses his dark magic to turn you into a beggar. Nobody recognizes you, and you’re thrown out. Thus begins your journey to reclaim your title, and your wife.
Prince of Persia 2 is more action-focused compared to the first game, and it still retains the excellent artwork and fluid animations of the first game. With some generational improvements, both to gameplay and graphics. Enemies can now attack you in groups, instead of one at a time (and their overall AI has been improved).
Rayman is a colorful, light-hearted platformer with some really innovative game mechanics. With the help of some clever graphical tricks, the developers managed to create one of the most beautiful and detailed game worlds of the mid-1990s. To get to the main villain, you have to free little creatures called Electoons- six of whom are trapped inside each level.
Rayman has a telescoping fist, that he can use to deliver knockout punches from far away. Each level has a certain number of blue spheres that you can collect. Once you reach the threshold, you switch from Rayman to the Magician who is an extra character that unlocks bonus stages.
Completing these bonus stages will reward you with additional lives. There is also the obligatory boss fight at the end of each level. And there are plenty of powerups that add speed and strength to your telescoping punch.
Dangerous Dave’s Risky Rescue
The third Dangerous Dave game, and a sequel to Haunted Mansion. Dr. Nemesis has kidnapped Dangerous Dave’s brother, and Dave must take him down. Unlike the family-friendly Mario and Donkey Kong, Dangerous Dave has a much more mature tone, with lots of blood and gore.
Your protagonist is a shotgun-wielding maniac. He blows up giant man-eating wolves and fire-breathing demon zombies. Compared to previous Dangerous Dave games, this one has more enemy types and larger levels.
Abuse combines the run and gun genre with elements of platforming. It is one of the earliest EA games and takes inspiration from sci-fi movie franchises that were popular during the time. Your character, Nick, is a prisoner at a secret facility where experiments are being performed on inmates.
When a riot breaks out, the prisoners get infected by something called Abuse which turns them into violent creatures. Nick must stop Abuse from spreading into the water supply, while also surviving wave after wave of monsters who are trying to kill him. The levels are claustrophobic and enemies attack you in waves, while you have limited resources to defend yourself.
Four demons have raided the citadel of the gods, and they ask a hero to save them. If the hero succeeds, he shall be granted eternal life and a seat among the gods at Mount Olympus. It is believed the protagonist of this game is Hercules, but he is referred to by a different name.
Level design in Gods is less linear than in other platformers, and you do lots of back and forth to collect items necessary for completing puzzles. It also has an inventory system with four slots where you can carry keys or special items. The game has a very advanced AI system compared to its peers, with enemies who adapt based on your play style and skill.
Cornelius the elf must rescue the love of his life who was kidnapped by Necrilous- an evil elf. Cornelius has a magical ring that shoots bolts of energy, and you can use this to take out enemies from a distance. Not only do you collect money, but also herbs and pet animals.
Items can be traded at a shop to purchase spells and items. One item even lets you fly, so you can access areas that would otherwise be out of your reach. There are NPCs who give you quests, and the game assigns you a behavior score based on your choices which can affect the ending scene.
Below the Root
Based on a sci-fi fantasy novel released in the 1970s, Below the Root is one of the most beautiful and engaging games you’ll ever play. Yes, it is a platformer with all the corresponding navigation mechanics that you’d expect from a game of this type. However, Below the Root feels much closer to an RPG when you play it.
The game gives you multiple characters to choose from, with unique abilities for each character There are two different races, each with its own culture and belief system.
The narrative doesn’t have a villain. Instead, you try to help the two races reconcile with each other by working around their history and differences.
In the 31st century, a peacekeeping force known as the UPFF is responsible for maintaining freedom and stability throughout the known universe. On one fateful day, a UPFF patrol ship is making a daily run when it is ambushed by a giant alien cruisier of unknown origin. The UPFF ship turns on its defenses.
But the enemy cruiser is equipped with alien technology and disables all attempts by the crew to counterattack. As the only surviving crew member, you must wear an advanced combat suit and take revenge upon the invaders. The gameplay of Turrican II is a mix of run and gun shooting with platforming, it’s similar to Metroid.
Vigilance on Talos V
Killian the mercenary must rescue his daughter from the Xenos- a race of alien smugglers. The plot reads like a mix of Super Mario Bros. and Rambo, but it’s set in space. And the gameplay is similar to Metroid, so you explore each enemy base and collect items while blasting anyone who gets in your way.
The game provides you with a variety of futuristic weaponry whose capabilities can be enhanced with power-ups. Much like Metroid, you can roll up into a ball while traversing tight spaces. Picking up an energy tank will temporarily boost your maximum health.
Originally released on the NEC PC-8801, Thexder is like any regular platformer- but you pilot a mech. Because this is the 1980s, and you’re playing a sci-fi Japanese shooter with platforming. So of course you pilot a giant death-dealing bipedal fortress armed with lasers.
The graphics and soundtrack might feel dated since this game is pretty old. However, the cool enemy designs and fluid movement of the player character mean that you never feel bored. Your robot can transform into a fighter jet, which is useful for flying through tight spaces and over obstacles.
This platformer’s all about dodging enemies. You are a little blue demon making his way through dungeons filled with all sorts of supernatural creatures, divine beings, ghouls, etc. Every time you run into one of these creatures, your demon will lose health.
You can jump over them, or run around them using an alternate path. Along the way, you collect coins and blood gems that give you energy. Because you can only jump in the direction that you are facing, you will have to turn around if you want to jump backward.
Made by the developers of Thexder, Zeliard is a role-playing platformer (probably the first of its kind). You play the noble knight Duke, and your arch-nemesis is Jashiin, a demon who threatens the entire kingdom. To defeat Jashiin, you must go through several dungeons filled with his minions.
And defeating these minions will take resources. Health potions, swords, shields, etc., can be purchased in a town hub. The gameplay is split between labyrinths (dungeons) and towns (where you purchase goods).
Jetpack is like Zool, but you have the power of flight. However, you must feed your jetpack with fuel in order to keep flying. You’ll find tanks of varying sizes, as well as fuel grids.
When your fuel runs out, you’ll have to move using ladders and platforms. You can also use a phase shifter to pass through walls like a ghost. Jetpack comes with 100 prebuilt levels, but you can also build your own custom levels using the level editor.
In order to play DOS games, you can download a simple emulator such as DOSBOX. It will work with files downloaded from the internet, as well as original game disks (if you still have those). Many DOS games are shareware or abandonware, and those that aren’t can be purchased for a couple of dollars.
But if you really want an authentic experience, try looking for used computers from the 80s and 90s. Depending on the era of DOS games you’re looking to play, you can get a 486 PC or an early 100Mhz/ 200Mhz Pentium PC. Maybe get an S3 ViRGE video card and Sound Blaster AWE64 audio card if you’re serious.
DOS gaming was truly a unique era, as we didn’t have easy access to online guides and there was no downloadable content. Back then, you got these giant boxes with intricate artwork on the cover. Many of these games came with illustrated books explaining the lore, and manuals that taught you how to play.