Tired of plunking down 50 bucks for computer games that don't satisfy? You can try before you buy by downloading demos from dozens of Web sites, checking out trial levels, racetracks or golf courses before making the monetary commitment. Many sites include huge archives of shareware going back a few years, or you can download an emulator and play old Atari 2600, Coleco or Commodore games on your PC--and it won't cost you a dime.
The catch? Demos for some of the newest 3-D games are huge, meaning you might have to download a 50-megabyte file (such as Final Fantasy VII). If you have a speedy T1 or cable modem connection, this isn't a problem; but the rest of us might choose to download larger files while we sleep.
For the most recent titles, the best site is GameSpot's demo archive (www.gamespot.com/downloads), broken down by title, company, genre or date released. There's a nice Top 20 of the most downloaded titles, plus there are mini-reviews, as well as system requirements, file sizes, utilities needed and even estimated download times. The eclectic archive goes back a few years, including everything from Duke Nukem 3D to Hoyle Classic Card Games to Tomb Raider II.
The shareware archives at ZDNet's HotFiles (www.hotfiles.com) and CNET's Download.com (www.download.com) rely more on browsing categories and searching. HotFiles rates each game with a simple five-star system, and includes long reviews. It's heavy on puzzle and card games, and has a strong selection of Mac shareware. CNET's Download.com is centered on search, so it helps to know what you're looking for first. The editorial is pretty weak, but games are sliced nicely by most popular, newest and top (editor) picks.
For more personality, check out Happy Puppy (www.happypuppy.com), which puts its newest daily arrivals up front, and covers PC, Mac and Web games. The reviews shoot straight from the hip, and usually include a screen shot from the game. The hit-and-miss archive is listed on one huge page, but includes gems like the original Doom, Commander Keen and You Don't Know Jack.
If you really want to go back in time, you can turn your PC into an old Commodore, ColecoVision or Atari game machine. Many sites offer these emulators that let you play revamped versions of old cartridges, but I liked ClassicGaming's The Vault best (www.classicgaming.com/vault). It's a great source for games and emulators, and even has a "Newbie Guide" to answer all your questions. Legally, you're supposed to actually own the cartridge before downloading, but most companies are looking the other way.
You pick an emulator for the game system you like best, download it, then download some games to go with it. Most emulators are around 100-200KB, while the games are a paltry 1-6KB. I checked out an Atari 2600 emulator called Stella, that let me play Asteroids, Breakout, Frogger and even a new game called Okie Dokie. The crude graphics and bleeping sounds are a hoot.
Eventually, you might get the urge to buy a new game, but with such a vast array of new demos and oldies-but-goodies, what's the rush?
Mark Glaser is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and critic. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.