How Abandonware Works

By: Bernadette Johnson

Who wouldn’t want to play “Pong” forever?
Who wouldn’t want to play “Pong” forever?
© Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Do you long to play virtual tennis in stunning 8-bit graphics, take a trip on the Oregon Trail, solve crimes with Carmen Sandiego or explore a great underground empire at the risk of being eaten by a grue?

Video games came into the arcade and our homes in the 1970s, and have been a fixture ever since. There are a multitude of new games available on the market, but many of us still have fond memories of the games we played years or even decades ago. Sometimes those memories make us want to relive the fun of our youth. The collectors or packrats among us might even still have our old games, but we might not have the old hardware, and a fat lot of good those old game cartridges and floppy disks are going to do in our modern computers.


You can hunt for a downloadable copy of a game online to relive the days when you were the "Pong" master, even if the company that created the game no longer sells it. Many sites dedicated to cataloguing and distributing these apparently abandoned titles have sprung up, dubbing them abandonware.

Abandonware is generally defined as any software that's at least a few years old and is no longer distributed or supported by its owner. Usually when people talk about abandonware, they mean out-of-print games or other software that someone is making available online for free, and a lot of the stuff considered abandonware was made for gaming and computing systems that are now obsolete and no longer available.

In most cases, however, it isn't strictly legal. Most software is copyright-protected intellectual property, whether a company is selling it or not. A lot of abandonware flies under the radar, either because there is no one around to protect the copyright or the owner isn't bothering to do so for whatever reason, but game companies and trade organizations have been known to request its removal.

Increasingly, companies are re-releasing old titles for new platforms, sometimes for a price and sometimes for free, making them abandoned no longer. These days there are a great many ways to experience a lot of our childhood favorites, but some are still in danger of disappearing forever.