Drug Wars: the MS-DOS Grand Theft Auto

The proto-GTA was created over 30 years ago by a Cali high school kid and infiltrated computers around the world

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OK, the graphics don't quite stand up to GTA – but give it a break, it was made in 1983

The games that languish on school computer systems rarely set pulses racing, but in the early 2000s my schoolfriends and I found a game that looked so decidedly unimpressive its retroism only served to exaggerate its thrilling underworld content and gangster gameplay.

In 1983, Californian high schooler John E Dell wrote a program called Drug Wars, an MS-DOS game which now feels like the 80s precursor to contemporary video game behemoths like Grand Theft Auto. It may not possess the sprawling landscape of GTA and you might not be able to watch a sunset cruising in a stolen Ferrari, but the ethos of both is similar: crime pays.

The premise of Drug Wars is simple: you start the game in debt to a loan shark and you have to negotiate your way around New York buying and selling drugs (speed, weed, coke, quaaludes) in order to pay him back. Crucial to success is keeping on top of trade, as in knowing when to sell and buy. Like any IRL drugs market, the value of a substance fluctuates depending on demand and whether a high level dealer's been busted. Officer Hardass represents the entire police force – but you can kill him for cash.

Dell created the game for a high school project; he got an A but his teacher was unimpressed with the game's R-rated content. For 15 years, Dell had completely forgotten about the game until a relative alerted him to its cult status. 

"In 1998 or 1999, my brother sent me an email that said 'Hey, remember that Drug Wars program you wrote? Check this out,'" Dell told textfiles.com. "It was a link to the (now defunct) dopewars.com website. I couldn’t believe it. Somewhere in the history section of the website, (creator Ben Webb) had credited me and the Drug Wars/Dope Wars programs for his inspiration. I eventually emailed him and identified myself as the author of Drug Wars. He said he’d received dozens of emails from people claiming to be 'The John Dell'."

When we played Drug Wars in school as impressionable schoolkids on the cusp of teenhood, looking to escape from the doldrums of an IT lesson, we had no idea what quaaludes were or what the effects of taking acid might be like. Simplistic as the graphics were (we were used to N64s by 2001), the subject matter retained a thrill factor – we were scoring virtual drugs in the classroom, buying guns and competing for high scores to be the best dealer in the Bronx.

Drug Wars appears to be the earliest incarnation of the freewheelin', 3D gangster games of today, and certainly the ambitions of the gameplay are not dissimilar from the Grand Theft Auto series, although Drug Wars was restricted to just narcotics. Although the original DOS version never gained any form of official release, it spawned various imitators, including Dope Wars.

Myspace even licensed a version of the game that was discontinued in 2009. You can still download a revised form of Dope Wars for Android phones. To this day, Dell doesn't know who uploaded his original MS-DOS version to a BBS (Bulletin Board System) forum, and doesn't know how his school computer project became a distraction in IT classes all over the world. 

The game that Dell says he is "astounded became so popular" has travelled through time: from a high school classroom in 80s California to 21st century smartphones, Drug Wars is one dealer that survived every change on the corner.

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