Scott Hanselman

Enjoy some DOS Games this Christmas with DOSBox

December 19, '18 Comments [4] Posted in Gaming
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I blogged about DOSBox five years ago! Apparently I get nostalgic around this time of year when I've got some downtime. Here's what I had to say:

I was over at my parents' house for the Christmas Holiday and my mom pulled out a bunch of old discs and software from 20+ years ago. One gaame was "Star Trek: Judgment Rites" from 1995. I had the CD-ROM Collector's edition with all the audio from the original actors, not just the floppy version with subtitles. It's a MASSIVE 23 megabytes of content!

DOSBox has ben providing joy in its reliable service for over 16 years and you should go check it out RIGHT NOW, if only to remind yourself of how good we have it now. DOSBox is an x86 and DOS Emulator - not a virtual machine. It emulates classic hardware like Sound Blaster cards and older graphics standards like VGA/VESA.

If a game runs too fast, you can slow it down by pressing Ctrl-F11. You can speed up games by pressing Ctrl-F12. DOSBox’s CPU speed is displayed in its title bar. Type "intro special" for a full hotkey list.

Note that DOSBox will start up TINY if you have a 4k monitor. There's a few things to you can do about it. First, ALT-ENTER will toggle DOSBox into full screen mode, although when you return to Windows your windows may find themselves resized.

For Windowed mode, I used these settings. You can't scale the window when output=surface, so experiment with settings like these:

windowresolution=1280 x 1024
output=ddraw

These are only the most basic initial changes you'll want to make. There's an enthusiastic community of DOSBox users that are dedicated to making it as perfect as possible. I enjoy this reddit thread debating "pixel perfect" settings. There's also a number of forks and custom builds of DOSBox out there that impose specific settings so be sure to explore and pick the one that makes you happy. It's also important to understand that aspect ratios and the size and squareness of a pixel will all change how your game looks.

I tend to agree with them that I don't want a blurry scaler. I want the dots/pixels as they are, simply made larger (2x, 3x, 4x, etc) with crisp edges at a reasonable aspect ratio. An interesting change you can make to your .conf file is the "forced" keyword after your scaler choice.

Here is scaler=normal3x (no forced)

Blurry DOSBox

and there's scaler-normal3x forced

The instructions say that forced means "the scaler will be used even if the result might not be desired." In this case, it forces the use of the scaler in text mode. Your mileage may vary, but the point is there's options and it's great fun. You may want scanlines or you may want crisp pixels.

I've found it all depends on what your memory of DOS is and what you're trying to do is to change the settings to best visualize that memory. My (broken) memory is of CRISP pixels.

Crisp DOSBox

Amazing difference!
The first thing you should do is add lines like these to the bottom of your dosbox.conf. You'll want your virtual C: drive mounted every time DOSBox starts up!

[autoexec]
# Lines in this section will be run at startup.
MOUNT C: C:\Users\scott\Dropbox\DosBox

If you want to play classic games but don't want the hassle (or questionable legality) of other ways, I'd encourage you to spend some serious time at https://www.gog.com. They've packaged up a ton of classic games so they "just work."

Bard's Tale 3
Space Quest 3

Enjoy! And THANK YOU to the folks that work on DOSBox for their hard work. It shows and we appreciate it.


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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Friday, 21 December 2018 21:22:03 UTC
I think one of my favorite things in this space is that DOSBox works on the internet archive as well via JavaScript! A multi-purpose emulator (MAME) and using Emscripten compiling those apps to asm.js and WebAssembly means I can fire up some of these classics right in my browser with none of the setup.

I love using DOSBox locally as well, but wanted to share the awesomeness of that for those who weren't aware that you can run some of these in-browser too.
Saturday, 22 December 2018 08:17:54 UTC
DOS games are fun, but you run into real issues when you want to run older Windows 95 and Windows 98 games.

  • DOSBOX does not support enough x86 to run Windows beyond 3.11
  • DOSBOX isn't maintained anymore but its supposed better DOSBOX Daum doesn't support enough x86 for Windows either
  • AFAIK Win32 emulators do not exist
  • PCEmu does work for Windows, but is too slow for any practical emulation of games. Even simple 2D click-and-point games do not run at a reasonable framework
  • Windows compatibility mode is for a large number of games not enough
  • VirtualBox allows you to run Windows 95 or Windows 98, but 2D/3D acceleration is only supported for Windows XP and up. In my experience Windows XP broke a lot of games, so that is not an option.


I am still looking for a solution to this, but I guess the audience for this is not too large. DOS games are ultimate vintage, so Windows 9x games are just between and apparently don't have that much replay value for a lot of people.
Saturday, 22 December 2018 12:20:57 UTC
DOSBox doesn't support 9x as a guest since that's not the goal of DOSBox. Use pcem. If you need speed but less compatibility/autheticity use vmware or qemu.
DOSBox has always been maintained. Check the changelog.
pcem works fine. It's an emulator not a VM, upgrade your cpu.
Windows compatibility mode for a large amount of games is enough. Look through the application compatibility database. It may be an eye opening experience for you
Never use Virtualbox for 9x unless you hate yourself.
Wednesday, 26 December 2018 13:08:47 UTC
@Sebastiaan Dammann: Your solution is a real PC from the era. About 5 years ago, I built a Pentium 2 PC with Windows 98, CRT, and a ball mouse. It's worked very well for me.
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.