Malware tends to be subtle nowadays, but in the ’90s it liked to announce its presence loudly and proudly. Most PC users were less savvy back then, so it was okay to hijack their screens and spook them (or attempt to entertain them) while formatting the C: drive. There was no need to be underhanded because there was less at stake – credit card transactions weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now, and identity theft less lucrative.
So it’s weird to visit this new archive of classic malware programs – known as the Malware Museum – and note how creepy and threatening they sometimes were (though they were often very funny, too!). Take Q Casino for example, which hijacks the DOS prompt with a good ol’ fashioned round of Russian Roulette: if you win, your hard drive stays intact and you get the hacker’s phone number. If you lose, say bye to all your files.
Some – or most – weren’t as cunning. Some of my favourites are those that just make the screen look pretty, or which play austere, beatless techno music. While no doubt annoying and frightening in the ’90s, now these tiny programmes – emulated via DOSBox – are charming in the way they capture the prankster experimentation of the time.
Browsing the Malware Museum won’t infect your modern PC. All “destructive routines” have been removed by curators Mikko Hypponen and Jason Scott, and the library is for posterity. As someone on the receiving end of quite a bit of this stuff in the mid ’90s, I get cold flushes when I watch some of these. Still, it’s hard to ward off nostalgia for a time when malicious software would just render a pleasant Egyptian pyramid on the screen.
Cheers, Rock Paper Shotgun.