How to run DOS games

Created on Thursday, January 1, 1970.
Filed under Life Skills.

Playing DOS games is a rewarding venture. If you can get the game running to begin with.


Playing DOS games is a rewarding venture because you have the opportunity to rediscover gaming history. If you can get the game running to begin with.

What is DOS?

DOS is the basic default operating system of most (I’m not sure enough to say all) PCs. Windows began as a frontend for DOS — it added fancy visuals and a WIMP to make the command-line interface less command-line.

There’s not much obviously wrong with DOS, just that it’s so intimidating to use and that it’s being phased out very quickly. I suppose in the Old Days it was pretty efficient.

Method to the Madness


All three methods need you to find the .exe or .bat file which is most probably the startup program. The startup program will most probably:
  1. Have the same name as the folder that it is in (e.g. arena\\arena.bat)
  2. Have an abbreviated or truncated name relevant to the proper title of the game (e.g. KM.EXE for The Keys to Maramon; or ALONE.BAT for Alone in the Dark)
If you still can't find it, try to find a file named SETUP or INSTALL and run that. Maybe it will have an option to run the game.

There are three ways of running a game in DOS (please note that this article only deals with the actual running. I won’t cover sound cards, IOs, DMAs, IRQs and such. I don’t even know what all those acronyms mean.):

  1. From Windows. Easiest way to do it, but also the easiest way to get errors. Really big fatal ones like Windows Protection Errors.
  2. Via emulator. The only DOS emulator I know of is Dosbox, and because it's been specially designed to run games it comes with drivers for sound cards you probably don't have. Very reliable for those at the high-end, and the only thing you can use on an XP machine.
  3. From native DOS. This means booting Windows from a boot disk (or selecting to restart in MS-DOS mode for 95 and 98 users) and initiating the game from the command line. It's not that tough.

From Windows

To run a game from Windows, simply navigate to the game’s folder and click on the startup .exe or .bat file. Note that sometimes it won’t work (Windows may keep telling you to create shortcuts to MS-DOS). This is normal, given the movement away from DOS. Best try another way.

Via emulator

You’ll need to grab Dosbox for this one. Extract and/or install your game into the root C: directory (you can put it anywhere, but the doorway of the hard drive is the easiest to get at), then run Dosbox. Type the following into Dosbox’s prompt:

mount c: c:\XXXX

Where XXXX is the name of the folder your game’s startup file is in. What you were telling Dosbox is, see this XXXX folder? Let me be able to refer to it just by typing c:\. (For all the DOSers, this is identical to the subst command.)

Then type the name of your startup file. You can type, say, XXXX.exe, or you can leave the extension out and just type XXXX.

Dosbox may initially run the game slowly, so just speed it up by hitting Ctrl+F12. Also note that Dosbox requires a huge amount of system resources to run, so this option is only meant for those with high-end compies. You should have at least 1.5ghz and 256 megs of RAM, but the higher up you can go, the better your playing experience will be. Try the Dosbox wiki for how to run demanding games.

From native DOS

DOS is built into every Windows system. Just create a startup disk by going to the Add/Remove Programs section of your Control Panel and click on the Startup Disk tab. You’ll need a free floppy.

I actually recommend that you use a burning tool like Nero to burn this startup disk to a CD for extended life and really quick loading. Also in case your floppy drive dies.

For Windows 95/98
You might be able to go to Start > Shut Down > Restart in MS-DOS Mode. If not, keep reading.

Now shove your startup disk/disc in and restart the compy. When you get to the screen asking you how you would like to boot up Windows, hit Shift+F5 to enter DOS. The key combo may change in other versions — have a look at the bottom of the screen and see.

Now you should see an A:\> prompt. Type C: to get into the hard drive, then type cd XXXX where XXXX is the path to the game’s folder. For example, if I put LURE into a GAMES directory in C:, then I’d have to type “cd games\lure”.

Now type the name of your startup file. You can type, say, XXXX.exe, or you can leave the extension out and just type XXXX.

P.S. If you get hit with an error that mentions EMS in a negative kind of way, take it as a sign that your system has too little Expanded Memory. This isn’t like RAM — adding more isn’t like clipping a small card to the motherboard. It’s a very drawn out and nerdy process, and one that I’m not inclined to undertake.

But if you really want to have a crack at it, have a read of’s guide to adding expanded memory. The page itself is for Windows ME, but you might find something relevant.

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
© Desi Quintans, 2002 – 2022.