Retro console experiences such as the NES Classic may be getting all the attention, but the humble PC has a vast amount of classic game experiences to offer. The DOS era, in particular, has some real gems, but to play DOS games on modern PCs is no walk in the park.
Retro gaming is more popular than ever. In fact, it’s so popular that the prices of retro games are steadily on the rise. Finding DOS games on their original disks is a tough job, though. Console cartridges have survived much better than floppy disks.
That’s why the moral and legally gray practice of abandoned DOS games distribution online is so popular. Many of these old games no longer have anyone in charge of their rights, so sites have sprung up to ensure these games are not lost.
You can also legitimately buy DOS games from digital stores like Good Old Games (GOG) – but how did GOG get them to work? What if you want to play DOS games that no one supports?
What’s In the Box?
To make things easy, GOG pre-configures its DOS games with DOSBox. So when you run a GOG game you might briefly see DOSBox flash on before the game starts.
It’s not particularly hard to use DOSBox, so in this short guide, I’m going to go over they key steps in running DOS games using the emulator. Here’s what we’ll be doing:
- Creating a games folder
- Running DOSBox
- Mounting the game directory
- Mounting a CD (optional)
- Finding the game files
Finally, I’ll go over some shortcuts that you should know about.
Before we can do any of that, however, we need to find a game!
Would You Like To Play a Game?
For this tutorial, I’ve chosen the shoot ’em up Tyrian 2000. This is a game that originally came out in 1995 as Tyrian. Tyrian 2000 came out in ’99 and had more content.
I didn’t just choose Tyrian 2000 because it’s a fun game, it’s also legally available for free. Obviously, the game is ready to play from GOG directly, but we’re going to use it for educational purposes to recreate what they’ve done for us.
Of course, the game is ready to play from GOG directly, but we’re going to use it for educational purposes to recreate what they’ve done for us.
Let’s get ready to play DOS games!
Create a Folder
I recommend that you create a folder in the root directory of your hard drive to house your DOS games. This is usually Drive C. In this case, I’ve created the folder C:\DOSGAMES.
The I copied the game into that folder. Note that the folder name should not be longer than eight characters if you want to use it in a DOS environment. So I changed the name of the folder from “TYRIAN2000” to simply “TYRIAN”.
Starting DOSBox is as easy as running it from the start menu. Just click on the program icon and two windows will pop up. The status window is one you can just minimize for this tutorial.
Think of DOSBox as a sort of computer within a computer. We’re going to “mount” our DOS games folder as if it were a separate drive on the DOS machine.
Given that our folder is c:\dosgames the command looks like this:
Change It Up
Now, we want to change to the Tyrian directory. Of course, we could have just mounted the Tyrian directory itself, but if you have multiple games you want to switch between, this method is better.
First, switch to the virtual C Drive by typing C:
Now, let’s change to the Tyrian directory by typing CD Tyrian
We want to see what’s in the folder, so use the command Dir /p
Dir /p shows us all the files in the folder one page at a time.
Run Forest, Run!
If you already know the name of the game file (which is usually an EXE, COM or BAT file) you can skip the directory command and just launch the game.
That’s the case with Tyrian. We just type Tyrian2K and the game launches.
There you have the game running in a window on my PC, like a boss.
Those are the basics of getting a game to run on DOSBox and Tyrian is one that plays nice and just about always works without much more effort.
As you probably suspect, sometimes you need to do a bit more and some games need very specific settings to be changed.
These more advanced aspects of DOSBox are a but too much for an introductory tutorial, but I want to highlight a few things.
If you have DOS games that are on CD or just have the installation CD copied to your hard drive, you’ll need to install the game. Some games also need the CD to be mounted as a separate drive to work.
If I wanted to mount a disk in my D Drive as a virtual D Drive, I’d type this:
mount d D:\ -t cdrom
You can then mount an empty directory you want to install to as the virtual C Drive the same way I described above.
The Short Cuts
You’ll also want to know the keyboard shortcuts to make playing the game easier. If you type intro special at the DOSBox command prompt, you’ll be given a list of keyboard commands.
These are the most important ones:
- ALT-ENTER – switch to fullscreen and back
- CTRL+F7 or F8 – Increase or decrease frame skipping
- CTRL+F10 – release or capture the mouse pointer
- CTRL+F11 or F12 – speed up or slow down the emulation
- CTRL+F9 – kill DOSBox
Those are the ones I use the most and so, probably, will you
Play DOS Games for the Win
It’s amazing that there are still ways to play DOS games from three decades ago. It’s a good thing too since games have become such an important medium that losing historical titles would be a cultural tragedy.
When you play DOS games, what titles do you love? Which games from the DOS era do you think everyone should try? Let me know below in the comments.
Lead image is Public Domain
All screenshots by Kees Friesland