Play the Old DOS Classics with DOSBox

When I was a kid, my friend Phillip and I spent hours on his father’s computer playing old Sierra games.  King’s Quest and Leisure Suit Larry were our favorites even if I’m still not sure why we were allowed to play the latter.  When I got my own PC, a Tandy with the premium 20MB hard drive (optional back in those days), I bought games like Conquests of Camelot and Quest For Glory and it cemented that age of DOS games in my nostalgia bucket.

King's Quest III may be my favorite PC game of all time.Years later, my warmest memories for those games is greater than even the original NES.  The VGA graphics were so much better and the strategy genre was unmatched versus home consoles at the time.  In fact, these days I’ve even begun collecting the old PC big boxes. (The boxes were “big” by necessity because they generally contained a small mountain of floppy disks.)  Since I don’t have a 20-year old PC with DOS 5.x and a floppy drive anymore, I don’t actually install and play the games I buy, I merely like having the boxes with their beautiful art and the manuals which, often, were necessary to play the game.

To actually play the games, I use DOSBox which makes things super easy.  Combined with websites carrying “abandoned” software, it’s a perfect solution for playing these classics in both a legal and convenient way!  And it’s way better than figuring out how to run a virtual DOS machine yourself.

Installing DOSBox

The DOSBox software is available for just about every platform out there…even my old favorite, BeOS!  Go ahead and download a version for your system. You can run it immediately but there’s a couple things I recommend doing first.

First, choose a location for where your games will be stored.  You can create a games directory anywhere, but I prefer to install them on my Dropbox account.  This lets me not only play these games on my desktop and laptop, but keeps my save games shared across them, too!  It’s kind of surreal storing save files for games built for Intel’s 486 processors on a cloud-based storage system, right?

Next, I like to auto-mount my games directory at startup so I don’t have run the prerequisite commands every time I start it.  To do so, locate the configuration file for your platform and add something like the following in the autoexec section:

mount C /Users/zablanc/DropBox/Games

Your path will differ, but you can see that I mounted my games directory and then switched to it.  This makes my games immediately available.  If you don’t add a configuration like this, you’ll have to type those commands in every time you start DOSBox.  So do it!

Now, run DOSBox and you should be automatically re-located into your games directory.  Unfortunately, there’s nothing there yet…

Get Some Sweet Games!

There are several sites that have abandoned software available to download.  My favorites are:

There’s some others, too, but some of them sell their software.  These are games that aren’t considered “abandoned” by their developers.  I recommend finding and trying the free games first to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t.  Don’t plunk down money unless you’re sure it will work with DOSBox.  There’s soooooo much available to play for free so stick to that for a while.  You’ll be fine. :-)

Now, here’s where it can get tricky sometimes.  These sites are notorious for confusing ads.  My Abandonware is my favorite site because it’s much clearer. With Leonard Nimoy’s recent death, Star Trek is popular, so let’s check out Star Trek: Judgement Rites.  You’ll be directed to download the game and, optionally, the manual.  As I said earlier, the manuals are often required to play the game as they’ll ask you questions to verify that you have it. I recommend you find the manuals for every game you download if you don’t have them in hardcopy version. (Copy them to each game directory so they’re easy to find later.)

Follow these steps to install and run your game:

  1. Unzip the game into your games directory. (If you don’t know how to do that, you probably shouldn’t be playing DOS games in the first place.)
  2. Launch DOSBox.
  3. You should be in your games directory already.  Run: “DIR” to see what games are there. (You should see “STJUDGE”)
  4. Now run: “CD STJUDGE”.  This takes you into that directory.
  5. Run the game with: “RITES”. For each game, the steps will differ.  Usually you’re looking for an EXE or COM file. Use your DOS experience here in the future.

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 11.02.56 AMAnd the game should be running!  Note that you can use your mouse in the window (click into the window if you need to).  You’ll be locked into it, but if you ever need to get your mouse out just Alt-Tab (or Command-Tab) and you’ll be OK. Sometimes the sound on some games will be a bit wonky.  You can either look for the game’s sound configuration or find a different version of the game.

When you’re done with Star Trek, go find some other great games, too!  I recommend the original King’s Quest and The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary!  (On Abandonia, look for the big red “Get It” buttons as the ads will try to deceive you.)

Now, go have a blast and happy gaming!

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About John Blanco

John Blanco is an avid game collector and loves to write about his hobby as much as he participates in it. He run the Denver Retro Gamers Facebook group in Denver, Colorado, and coordinates swap-style meetups with dozens of other collectors every couple of months.

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