Sunday, April 17, 2005

Retro revival - there's life in the old dogs yet

Sunday, April 17, 2005

I'm trying to run an old DOS game, but whenever I double-click on its icon, a DOS window opens and then closes instantly. What am I doing wrong?

Back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth, games weren't designed to be played from a DOS box within Windows and so often they will throw a paddy when you try to run them in this way. To get around this problem you can either exit Windows and enter real DOS mode instead, or you can try to configure the game to run from within Windows.

If you are running Windows 95 or 98, you can access real DOS mode by clicking on your start button followed by the options 'shutdown' and 'restart in MS-DOS mode'. If on the other hand, you are running Windows 2000, Windows Millennium or Windows XP you will have to create a boot disk to access real DOS mode as these operating systems do not include a real DOS mode option by default (although you can use a patch to access this hidden option in Win Me). Note that if you plan to start using real DOS mode again you will have to install DOS drivers for your sound card, mouse (for most adventure games and RPGs) and possibly your CD drive if you're planning to play original CDs - plug and play doesn't work in real DOS mode so it's back to basics I'm afraid.

What's that, you've lost all the above mentioned essential kit? Well it's lucky for you that you can download the whole shebang in one all-inclusive package instead. This purpose-built, abandonware CPR kit can be downloaded from the Home of the Underdog's FAQ page. To use it, simply extract the contents of the zip file to a floppy disk and reboot your computer. There's not much more to it than that really. If you get stuck, take a peek at the enclosed readme file or the annotations inserted into the autoexec.bat/config.sys file.

If you're planning to try to bully Windows into running your old DOS games, your first step is to edit the 'pif' file, which will have been created when you attempted to run the game's main executable file. This is a configuration file which allows you to specify how you would like Windows to open individual DOS executables. Right-click on the file and select 'properties', and a menu should appear from which you can alter the memory configuration used to run your game.

If you've downloaded the game you're attempting to run from an abandonware site, it will often be accompanied by a text file containing the memory requirements necessary to run the game. If so, make sure these match the settings in your pif file and try to run the game again. You can also use your pif file to tell Windows to open the game in full screen mode rather than in a window, and this can also help to reduce compatibility problems. Additionally, it helps if you set your DOS window to stay open once it has completed its operation because any error messages displayed will remain on screen for you to read and subsequently diagnose.

As strange as it sounds there are programmers out there busily coding DOS emulators designed to be run on the very platforms that they try to emulate, namely PCs. Considering the problems you inevitably encounter when trying to run old DOS applications on a modern PC this isn't as silly as it sounds, so it's worth giving it a shot before going to great lengths to tweak the memory configuration of your Windows DOS box.

DOS Box, the emulator, not Window's poor excuse for a DOS layer, allows you to mount game folders and then drop out to the command line where you can run any executable files within that folder as you would in real DOS or from the Windows command prompt. The window from which you run these executables is known as a 'shell' and provides most of the rudimentary commands which will be familiar to those of you who grew up using MS DOS. For example, you can change directories using the 'cd' command, list the contents of a directory using the 'dir' command, and so on and so forth.

The most frustrating aspect of the DOS boxes on offer in Windows is the lack of sound support, a workaround for which has not until now been available. Fortunately for us, DOS Box now provides sound support for most DOS games. Oddly enough, getting sound to work with DOS emulators is actually easier than it ever was in real DOS using real time drivers... or at least that has been my experience. If the command prompt scares you, you'll be glad to know that you can use DOS Box Load instead (also available from the DOS Box home page). This allows you to run DOS executables inside the emulator shell using an idiot-proof Windows style menu.

Another must-have emulation gadget you should equip yourself with if you plan to dust off your classic games is VDM Sound. This one is designed to be run under Windows 2000 or XP and sidesteps the command prompt altogether by integrating itself with Explorer's right-click menu. Whenever you want to run a DOS executable using VDM Sound you would simply browse for the file, right-click on it and select 'run with VDMS' to launch it.

VDMS, like DOS Box, is accompanied by a Windows style loader menu. The VDMS Launch Pad adds an additional option to the right-click menu to provide a whole host of tweaking options which come in very handy when trying to get those stubborn DOS games to cooperate.

VDMS, of the two, is the superior emulator, however, it's wise to keep both of them handy because there will often be games or programs which one can run while the other can't, and vice versa.

If it's a commercial emulator you're after, because... erm, you like to throw good money away, you might like to try Sound FX. Whereas if what you require is DOS emulation under Linux, give Bochs a whirl.

Your game still won't run? Well another possibility is that you need to drop out to real DOS and configure your memory settings from there rather than from a DOS box within Windows. Some games require lots of conventional memory, yet others depend more on XMS or EMS memory. Again, this information is likely to be contained within the game's readme files so look there before attempting to tweak your memory settings. To see if your present configuration matches the game's minimum specifications you can type 'mem' from the DOS prompt. If you have some ground to make up, the best thing to do is run 'memmaker', an ancient DOS program which is now pretty much defunct (well except for tweaking old DOS games that is). This can be found on your Windows 95/98 installation CD if you have one, or you could try tracking the file down online using an FTP search engine.

Yet another problem which often arises when you try to run old DOS games from within Windows (bet you're starting to wonder if this is worth all the effort now aren't you?) is that they run far too fast and hence are completely unplayable. This is clearly because you're trying to run a game which was designed for a much slower computer on an all-singing, all-dancing PC of the noughties - that is unless you're a troglodyte and are still using an old relic of a machine. To solve this dilemma you can use a slow-down tool such as Mo'Slo.

If after trying all these solutions you're game still won't cooperate, it obviously wasn't meant to be. What can I say? Erm... at least you've still got your memories - no-one can take those away!

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