A guide to playing old PC games

Sometimes you may have the itch to go back and play an game from the olden days of PC. These days many of the most popular old PC titles are available on places like GOG.com, all set up to work on most modern systems with no effort required aside from a simple installation, but there are still many, many games that haven’t received such fancy treatment. Maybe someday in the future they’ll all be simplified and/or fixed to easily run, but until such a day arises you’ll just have to resort to some of the following methods.

Before I discuss any of the trickier, more obscure methods, let’s talk about the simplest solution that’ll work for the majority of games from the pre-Windows 95 era: DOSBox

Getting DOSBox ready:

DOSBox is THE DOS emulator. If you’re some kind of youngin’, DOS was a text-based operating system that we had before Windows existed. These kinds of OSs look intimidating at first, but there are really only a few simple commands you need to know in order to do basic things like installing and starting games. Before I get into that though, let me explain a few quick additional setup steps you’ll want to perform.

After you install DOSBox, you’ll need to open a file called something like “dosbox-0.74.conf“. You should be able to find it pretty easily by looking in the DOSBox folder in the Windows Key Menu, where it’ll either be listed by name or called DOSBox Options (depends on what version you’re using). This will open up a text file where all the options are contained. There’s a lot of things you can change in here that’ll alter the virtual hardware and software in various ways, but I wouldn’t recommend messing with it too much if you’re not sure what you’re doing (though if you still really want to, there are some interesting tweaks you can make to do things like optimize and slightly enhance the graphics of old games).

One essential thing you’ll need to change is the resolution though, or else you’ll end up with a stretched out image when you go fullscreen (you can enter and exit fullscreen mode by pressing ALT-ENTER).

  • Look for a line on the first page that says fullresolution=original 
  • change it to say fullresolution=[what your normal resolution is set to on your PC]
  • Example: fullresolution=1920×1080

Now that the resolution is taken care of, scroll all the way to the very bottom of the file and add a line like:

  • mount [the letter of the virtual drive you want to create] [the path of a folder you create to act as the drive]
  • Example: mount c c:\dosprog\

This sets a folder of your choice to act as your virtual hard drive in the virtual DOS. This is where your games and such will be installed. Adding this line to the config file simply automatically performs this command every time you launch DOSBox so you don’t have to do it every time. I like to add a simple line of “c:” under that too, which just automatically goes right to my virtual drive on startup instead of having to type that every time I start too, since DOSBox starts up on it’s default empty Z drive otherwise.

If you plan on using CD-Rom games you’ll want to add one more line like this too. A simple:

  • mount [the letter of the virtual cd-rom drive you want to create] [the path of the actual cd-rom you want to use] -t cdrom
  • Example: mount d d:\ -t cdrom

Or if you’d rather, you can mount an .iso image directly to the virtual cd-rom, but then you’d have to manually change the entry in the config every time you changed discs or moved the file or changed games, and ain’t nobody got time fo dat. It’s much simpler to just mount isos with something like Daemon Tools Lite, another free program that acts as a virtual disc drive for super simple image mounting. I’d recommend using an older version like 5.0.1 though, as the more modern versions have become less functional, less intuitive, and now spam you with ads.

How to DOS:

So now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to those basic DOS commands.

  • x: Takes you to the drive whose letter you type in this simple command. Use this to switch between your virtual hard drive and your virtual cd-rom.
  • dir Shows the contents of the current directory or folder.
  • dir/p Will sometimes be needed if the list of files is too big to show on one screen. This version will let you click through one page of files at a time.
  • cd foldernamehere Will let you enter a folder.
  • cd.. Will take you back outside a folder.

Those are really all you need. The only other thing you’ll need to type is the commands to install and start the games. DOS game installations pretty much always run with an install.exe (and Windows games typically use setup.exe), so just navigate to the location of the game you’re trying to install until you see that file, then simply type the name and press enter.

Setting up your DOS game’s sound:

Installations are usually pretty straight-forward. The only part that may be confusing is the details of the sound setup. You’ll usually want to just select a variant of a Sound Blaster card and tell it to auto-detect the details if possible. If that’s not an option and you need to know strange sounding things like port number, IRQand DMAwell there’s an easy way to find out what those values should be in your virtual DOS. When you start DOSBox you’ll always see an automatic line that says SET BLASTERThe numbers after this are your sound card values. A is port number, I is IRQand is DMA (don’t worry about the other two)!

Game too slow or too fast?:

One last DOSBox command that you might need to know at some point is the one to change the virtual processor speed without having to go edit the config file again. This is set by default to automatically adjust itself as needed, but every once and a while you’ll see a game that this auto-adjust doesn’t work on for whatever reason and runs too slowly. You can easily fix this by pressing CTRL-F12 to increase the speed (and CTRL-F11 to decrease). These values will all jump back to their default settings whenever you exit DOSBox so don’t worry about messing anything up by using this command.

Starting your game, finally:

Once that’s taken care of there’s usually nothing left except to start your game up. Most of the time the game will tell you what the command to start is on completion of the installation, but if not, just go look in the game directory you just installed and it will always be an .EXE or .BAT file that has the same name as the game, or sometimes they’re even just called START. Nine out of ten times your DOS game will start up just fine after all these steps and you can just stop here and run away before things get complicated.

Should additional video drivers be needed:

So…what about that tenth time though? It’s rare, but there are a small handful of DOS games that will need some special old graphics drivers to run properly. A few rare games have issues with old SVGA drivers and won’t accept the emulated versions provided by DOSBox. In these cases you’ll need to get and install the appropriate drivers in your virtual DOS. I’ve only ever seen a couple games that needed UNIVBE or S3 drivers, but it’s possible there are others that require different types. You can find all the most common ones HEREThese packages can be extracted or installed directly into your virtual DOS directory and usually just require you to manually activate them (Example: type UNIVBE.EXE and enter) before starting the game in question.

How to Windows 3.1:

One last rare situation that falls somewhere between DOS games and the Windows 95/98 stuff that I’ll get into next, are the extra picky games that will ONLY run in Windows 3.1 Luckily there are very few games like this, but if the game you play happens to be one of them, there aren’t a whole lot of options available. You’re going to have to install Windows 3.1 The good news is that you can actually install it in your virtual DOS drive in DOSBox. You’re on your own as far as finding a copy of Win 3.1 since Microsoft still actively holds copyrights on it (yet does not sell it anywhere anymore), but it’s not too hard to find on the internet if you don’t still have a crusty old copy lying around.

The base installation is pretty straightforward. You’ll be fine just picking the default recommended options and it’ll all be over in a few quick minutes. Unfortunately, the sound and video drivers aren’t going to be automatically set up here the way they are in standard DOSBox. 

Setting up your sound in Windows 3.1:

To set up the sound, go to Control Panel in the Main menu, as seen above, then to Drivers. Next, click on Add, pick Creative Labs Soundblaster 1.5 (unless you’ve changed the sound card in DOSBox to something else for some reason, then select that card) and press OKYou’ll then be asked to pick a port number and IRQ again. These should be set to the same numbers as explained earlier (listed after the SET BLASTER line when DOSBox starts up). Pick OK again and then reboot when prompted, and you should hear a Windows startup noise when it comes back.

Setting up your video in Windows 3.1:

Chances are your picky Windows 3.1-only game will also need some SVGA video drivers here too. For this you’ll need a separate pack of video drivers. Here’s a pack of S3TRIO drivers for you. Just extract this into your virtual DOS folder (and you may need to restart DOSBox for the folder to show up there once you’ve added it).

First go back to Main, then select Windows Setup. Click on the Options drop-down menu and choose Change System Settings. In the display drop-down menu, go all the way to the bottom and pick Other display. A window will pop up asking for your driver disk. Enter the path of the folder you just put on your DOS drive and press OK. Next you’ll see a long list of choices. The one you want will be the 640×480 resolution with 256 colors. It should be right at the top. Then press OK twice. This should be the end of it, but if by chance you get a popup asking you to provide a “Flat Model Disk“, enter the directory of the Windows system folder (normally c:\windows\system\) and press OK one more time. Now your Windows 3.1 video drivers are all set.

No, it’s still not over:

One last thing about Windows 3.1. The games that run in here may or may not also require you to have other ancient programs or libraries such as WinG, Win32s, or a super old version of QuickTime. Here’s a nice little archive of obscure old Windows 3.1 files that should have anything you might end up needing. These will typically be executable files that you can just drop in your main virtual DOS folder, then run in Windows 3.1. 

To do so, simply go to the File menu in Program Manager, and either enter the path of the file or browse to its location, then press OK to start the installation. That’s it for Windows 3.1!

Hopefully you’ll have found your answer by now, because otherwise it might be a game from the Windows 95/Windows 98/Windows XP era and you’ll have to get your virtual hands much dirtier for that.

What you can try for uncooperative Windows 95/Windows 98/Windows XP games:

Once we move into the wild world of Windows 95 things only get more complicated. There are so many different things that can go wrong with these games trying to run on modern systems, so I’m just going to get into each different scenario separately, beginning with the simplest problems with the easiest fixes and ending with the most convoluted solutions that you probably won’t even want to bother with, but I’m gonna tell you anyway.

The first thing you should always try:

Occasionally, getting your game to run (assuming you got past the installation phase) is as simple as turning compatibility mode on. To do this, just right-click on the main executable of the game, or its shortcut on your desktop, and select Properties. Then you’ll see this menu where you can find the Compatibility tab. Then just check the box and make your choice! The most common successful compatibility modes in these kinds of situations are Windows XP (Service Pack 2), Windows 95, and Windows 98/ME

Sometimes this can be the solution for games that have trouble installing too. If you get an error when you try to install you can try this same thing on the Setup.exe of the game (unless of course it gives you an error that says something like “16-bit installer error, incompatible with 32/64-bit system”, that’s a whole other problem that this won’t help, but I’ll get into that later).

One other very simple fix is patchesSometimes getting your old game to work is just a simple matter of applying the latest patch. Some troublesome games also have unofficial patches floating around out there that can solve your problem. Just check out Google and you can usually find a site that has patches for even the oldest games pretty easily.

My game installs and starts, but the graphics are all messed up:

Old Direct3D and OpenGL video drivers from the 95-98 era are notoriously incompatible with modern systems. You can install old OpenGL libraries or DirectX 4 or etc, as a game will demand, as much as you want, but it just won’t work on newer Windows. This used to be a huge problem, but nowadays you can fix this pretty easily with a great little program called DGVoodoo. All you have to do is extract the program to a place of your choosing, then there will be two folders in that folder called MS and 3DFX. For a game that uses DirectX, which the majority of games will, copy the files found in the MS folder and paste them into the directory of the game you’re trying to start, then launch the DGVoodoo Control Panel (dgVoodooCpl.exe). For 3DFX/OpenGL games, do the same except with the files in the 3DFX folder (newer versions seem to have additional folders in here called x86 and x64, use the ones in x86 if you’re on a 32-bit Windows and the x64 ones if you’re on a 64-bit Windows). That’s all there is to it.

You may or may not need to use the previously mentioned compatibility mode feature in combination with this to receive results, but it has an astonishingly high success rate.

Now for the bad news:

If you’ve already tried everything else then don’t give up hope yet, there are still options, but they’ll involve a bit more time and hassle. A common roadblock with old Windows 95-98 games is that they liked to take the shortcut of using 16-bit installers, and modern 64-bit systems can’t run these old 16-bit programs at all.

Now sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can just poke around on the game disc and find the game’s installation files sitting right there, in which case you can just bypass the whole installation by manually copying them over to your hard drive. You can do this with the game Get Medieval for example. If you look on the disc there’s a folder called GAME, which has some pretty telltale files like MEDIEVAL.EXE. Many games won’t make it this easy for you though, and will need to be installed.

Using a virtual OS to install and/or play:

Personally, I like VMWare Workstation for setting up virtual OSs, but it’s not a free or cheap program so you might want to consider one of the free alternatives like VirtualBox or MicroSoft’s own Windows Virtual PC. Whichever you choose, it’ll be pretty easy to set up a virtual OS. Just have your 32-bit Windows XP, Windows 95, or etc disc loaded and ready to go and the program will walk you through it all. It should even take care of the video and sound drivers for you. You just need to make sure you tell it the correct disc drive to use as its virtual disc drive so it can read your game’s disc in whatever other real or virtual drive its in. At this point you should be able to install your game normally on the virtual OS. You have a few different options for how to proceed next.

One is to copy the installed game folder over to your normal OS and see if you can get it running on your modern Windows using previous steps. You can usually just shrink your virtual OS program to a small window and drag the folder right out of there to your desktop. If this ends up working for you, you might want to make a backup of that usable folder so you don’t have to go through all this again the next time you want to install the game.

Sometimes this still won’t do the trick though. A small handful of games just plain refuse to work in anything that isn’t their native OS. Again, if this is the case this could go a few different ways. Some Windows 95/98 games and a few of the pickier Windows XP ones can just be installed and played normally inside your virtual Windows XP. There is the possibility of some performance issues if your PC is very old, but sometimes this is the only way.

The last resort for Windows 95 games:

The worst case scenario is if you find yourself with a Windows 95/98 game that simply will not run in anything except Windows 95 or 98. This is problematic, as Windows 95/98 still have trouble with video and sound drivers in virtual installations. You can use a virtual Windows 95/98 of the previously mentioned type to install a game and you might even be able to get it to start, but odds are it will be in a barely functional state.

If you’re really serious about wanting to get a game to run and absolutely nothing else works there’s one more thing you can try, setting up a Windows 95 installation in a different program, PCem. This will emulate a whole old PC in greater detail and can be more accurate in terms of the specific ancient drivers, but it’s more of a pain to set up and is much more resource intensive than programs like VMWare. 

If you’re really that desperate, here is a good guide I found to installing Windows 95 in PCem. It’s not THAT bad of a procedure, but it has many steps and files that you have to be very careful about using exactly as described or it won’t work. Also you’re going to need your own valid Windows 95 key to install Windows 95. I’ve tested it out myself, on some especially picky games that want Windows 95 ONLY, and found that it does indeed get them running. Unfortunately, my aging desktop doesn’t have what it takes to run all of them at full speed, but it’s more functional than I was able to get those games before, and it’ll certainly come in handy in the future when I finally upgrade again.

This finally concludes my little guide to getting old PC games to work. This is every trick I know in this area and if some of it doesn’t outright solve your problem, it should at least get you a good head start on the road to fixing it. Well, good luck!

3 comments on “A guide to playing old PC games

  1. Marathal says:

    Ty for this. It’s knowledge that everyone should have. Lol, I still have two old PCs around just because they have the drives for the floppy’s and diskettes

  2. Mr Backlog says:

    Don’t forget rule number one for old games – “Read the manual”.

  3. […] technology stand between you and playing classic PC games. Check out Richenbaum’s expert guide if you have problems getting technology to behave […]

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