You’re a retro gaming fan, and you want to enjoy some classic PC games from the pre-Windows XP era. But without the command line-based Microsoft Disk Operating System (MS-DOS) running on your PC, you can’t.
So what’s the answer?
DOSBox has provided DOS emulation almost since DOS was dropped from Windows back in 2002. Since then, it has been ported to many operating systems and platforms, essentially letting you run any pre-Windows MS-DOS game on any device.
But how do you do this? What commands are required to find, install, and load your games into DOS? We’ll show you all you need to know.
DOS Commands You’ll Need for Retro Gaming
To get started with retro PC gaming, you’ll need to know the basics for using MS-DOS. It utilizes a command line, which you use to create virtual drives, install applications, manage sound and graphics, and run software.
When you install and run DOSBox, you’ll see the Z:\ prompt. This is a substitute for the old C:\> prompt, which referred to a PC’s hard disk drive. Upon loading DOSBox, you’ll see a prompt to mount a folder on your physical PC as a virtual drive. Use the mount command to do this:
mount c c:\dosgames
In effect, the root of the C:\ drive in DOSBox is now the dosgames directory on your PC. This makes installing and running games in DOSBox more convenient, and avoids problems with some games expecting only the C:\ drive.
Perhaps the most-used command in DOSBox is cd. This instructs a change of directory, as follows:
Jumping between directory hierarchies is also possible with these commands:
- .. (double period) — This refers to the directory one step above the current folder.
- / — Jumps to the root of the current drive.
So, you could combine cd with .. to jump up one directory level:
You can also return to the root directory:
Both of these commands are invaluable for navigating around the directory structure. To view the contents of a directory, meanwhile, use:
This will output a list of the folder contents to the window, in list form. Variants are available:
dir/p — Pauses the list at each page, awaiting your input.
dir/w — Produces the list in wide view, saving space.
Finally, once you’re done in DOSBox, simply input the exit command to close the window. You can find a wider selection of commands for DOSBox at the DOSBox wiki.
Run a Game in DOSBox
To load a game, you’ll need to find its executable. This is typically something like GAME.EXE, and all you need to do is enter the name of the program without the .EXE suffix. Once you’ve navigated into the game folder, enter the name of the game and tap enter.
For example, say you want to play SimCity in DOSBox. You’ve visited a website offering abandonware games for download, and you’ve unzipped the files into the C:\dosgames directory on your hard drive. With DOSBox running, mount the drive, view the contents, then use cd to navigate into the simcity directory, like so:
mount c c:\dosgames dir cd simcity\simcity
Here, enter dir again to view the contents. Some games may have an INSTALL.BAT file. In this case, run the file to install the game. Installation options will appear, such as specifying a sound card, or control method (e.g. with Doom, you’ll get a choice of Keyboard, Keyboard and mouse, or Controller).
Otherwise, enter the .EXE filename to run the game.
In the case of SimCity, simply enter:
To avoid entering the mount command each time you run DOSBox, meanwhile, you can edit the configuration file. You can find this in various places depending on your platform. For instance, in Windows 10, you’ll find it in the Appdata directory in your personal profile:
With DOSBox closed, find the dosbox-[version_number].conf file, and open it in Notepad. Scroll to the bottom, and look for the section headed [autoexec] — this is where you’re going to add the instruction to auto-mount the C:\dosgames directory each time DOSBox launches. Add the following lines:
mount c c:\dosgames c:
With this entered, save and close the configuration file. Next time you run DOSBox, the drive will automatically mount.
Play MS-DOS Games on Any Platform!
Perhaps the most wonderful aspect of DOSBox is that it allows you to play MS-DOS era games not just on Windows, but on other platforms too. All of the instructions above work, regardless of which device you’ve installed DOSBox on. The only differences will be in how you organize your files — but once the location is mounted as C:\, you’ll be ready to go.
These are the devices you can play your classic PC games on.
Windows, Mac, and Linux
For playing retro MS-DOS games on your PC, you’ll need to download and install the most recent version of DOSBox, available from DOSBox’s website.
Here, you’ll find versions of DOSBox for Windows, macOS, and Linux (Debian, Gentoo, and Fedora), as well as FreeBSD, Solaris 10, BeOS, RISC OS, and even OS/2. It’s even possible to install DOSBox on a Raspberry Pi, with these commands:
sudo apt-get update sudo apt-get install dosbox
Want to play old PC games on your Android smartphone or tablet? You’re in luck! Among the several DOSBox-based apps are:
Which you choose depends on how you consider each’s screenshots, description, price, and reviews. Once installed on your phone or tablet, they work similarly to desktop counterparts. Each will give you keyboard access to the emulated MS-DOS command line, with some touch-friendly interface options (such as altering graphics, audio settings, etc.). You’ll also find game controller overlays added to games.
Options for iOS are sadly limited, but if you install iDOS ($0.99), you should find all the MS-DOS emulation options you need. It’s also possible to install DOSBox ports via Cydia, but this requires jailbreaking your iPhone or iPad.
Amazingly, the Nintendo Wii is capable of running DOSBox, and as such a big chunk of the MS-DOS games library. For this to work, you Nintendo Wii must be unlocked with Homebrew. Per our user guide, you can then install DOSBox Wii.
Find out more by checking the DOSBox Wii release notes.
Installing a DOSBox Front-End
To save time with the MS-DOS commands required to install and boot games in DOSBox, you might prefer something easier. Just as a mouse-driven operating system makes accessing disks simpler than the MS-DOS command line, so these front-ends make accessing games in DOSBox more streamlined.
Note that when using a front-end, DOSBox itself needs to be installed separately unless stated otherwise.
With a front-end installed, you’re not only able to easily browse and launch your games, but save progress and settings on a game-by-game basis. Without them, per-game customizations are often lost, or must be manually loaded up each time you play. Front-ends make this simpler.
Finding and Organizing Your Games
You can usually find DOSBox-compatible MS-DOS games online. Although, if you have an old hard drive with retro games installed, you can copy these files into your default DOSBox directory. Before you go hunting for games, however, the best course of action is to create a directory on your C:\ drive in which to save them.
Several resources exist online where you can find MS-DOS games. While ROMs are freely available online, MakeUseOf can’t help you find them. Downloading ROMs for games that you don’t own is piracy, and doing so is your decision to make.
A Note on Copyright
If you own the original disk media of the game you’re planning to run, then you’re operating within the law. If you do not own original media, and run software that you haven’t previously purchased, you’re breaching copyright.
If a game is available as abandonware, the publisher has essentially decided to ignore the game. Thus, you’re not breaking any copyright laws by downloading it.
7 MS-DOS Games to Revisit
Once you’ve found your preferred DOSBox version and installed it, you might be looking for some excellent games to try out. In no particular order, we suggest you try some, or all, of the following.
- Doom — The daddy of all first-person shooters, this is the game that kickstarted PC gaming in the 1990s. And it’s still going strong!
- Duke Nukem 3D — Another FPS, this one with an “adult cartoon” vibe. Some crude humor throughout, but ultimately fun.
- Sim City — The challenge here is to build and manage a city on a randomly-created map, keeping the citizens happy. Your city is based on residential, industrial, and commercial zones. You have to manage these along with the infrastructure, and collect taxes.
- Dune II — Before the real-time point-and-build tactics of the Command and Conquer series came Dune II, a precursor from the same developers. You won’t believe how profitable mining spice can be, or how much rival kingdoms want to stop you.
- Railroad Tycoon — Set in Europe, the U.K., the U.S. West Coast, and the East, this mammoth game lets you build and manage a rail network. That this idea works as a compelling game demonstrates the genius of its designer, Sid Meier.
- The Secret of Monkey Island — Developed by LucasFilm and set in the Caribbean during the age of piracy, this point-and-click adventure game features the ridiculously-named Guybrush Threepwood, and has a focus on exploration.
- Civilization — The original Civilization (that spawned a whole series), this is the game that cemented Civ‘s success, challenging the player to overcome the machinations of rival leaders from history.
You’ll find these games via the sites detailed earlier.
Do You Really Need DOSBox for Classic PC Gaming?
As useful as DOSBox is, you might find it overly complicated for the comparatively simple task of launching games. But what else can you do to play classic PC games?
Well, one option is to find classic games in the Google Play Store or the iOS App Store and see what retro games are available. If this doesn’t yield the results you’re hoping for, then one of the popular digital distribution services might help. In particular, GOG provides a vast library of classic video games available to purchase. Download and install them on your modern PC, and they’re ready to play without any emulation or controller issues.
And you can even play MS-DOS games in your browser thanks to ClassicReload!
DOSBox: The Ultimate Retro Gaming Experience!
With DOSBox (or an unofficial port) installed on your computer, phone, tablet, or game console, you’ll be ready to enjoy retro games from the 1980s and 1990s. Have fun!
Do you play on your PC, or on your mobile device? Perhaps you use a Nintendo Wii? Share with us in the comments. Meanwhile, if you have run into any problems with DOSBox, tell us about them below.
Image Credit: Daniel Rehn via Flickr