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How to make old games work on Windows 7

Getting old games running should be easy. Those old system requirements? Irrelevant! The tools at our disposal? Endless!

We’ve got virtual machines and emulators and online fan projects and – cough – eBay access to damn near everything ever released and everything else we could ever want.

Indeed, 90 per cent of the time, getting an old classic up and running is a piece of cake. Sod’s law being what it is, though, the game you really want to play will usually land in that fiddly other 10 per cent, and when that happens, you’re on your own. Well, no longer.

We’ll show you how to get almost any old game back up and running on your PC, starting with simple ‘just work, please’ instructions to DOSBox, and scaling up to deal with the Four Horsemen of Incompatibility: Windows, QuickTime, DirectX and 3D.

We say ‘almost’, because unfortunately some games just won’t play ball. If you want to be absolutely, positively certain, you don’t have much choice but to head to eBay and actually hunt down or put together a new system using decades-old technology.

This is doable, but more than a little bit of a pain, since you’ll need everything from the right processor and memory to an authentic soundcard. Luckily, these instances are few and far between, and rarely involve the kind of games that you’re realistically likely to want to play these days.

Interactive movies, for instance, tend to be amongst the biggest nuisances to get running, but they’re also some of the worst games ever, so it’s no great loss.

Before delving too deeply into things, it’s also worth checking to see if either Good Old Games, Steam or smaller sites such as DotEmu have the game that you’re after.

Part of what you’re paying for on these sites is a version of the game designed to run on modern systems, typically via a pre-configured version of DOSBox. You pay for the privilege, but typically not very much. It’s worth it to skip the headaches, especially in complicated games that use fancy graphics, come on multiple CDs, or have very, very specific system requirements.

If none of the aforementioned sites have what you’re after though, read on for everything you need to know to do it yourself.

DOSBox made easy

DOSBox is an x86 emulator that also recreates Microsoft’s old DOS operating system. Words cannot express what a wonderful tool it is.

It doesn’t simply play games – it handles any sound translation between the Soundblaster drivers of the day and whatever you have in your box; it deals with memory for you; it can mount ISO images of CDs; it can record in-game footage; and much, much more.

2D example

It’s also incredibly easy to use. For simple games, all you need to do is drag the game’s executable onto the DOSBox icon and let it do its thing,

There aren’t many hotkeys to remember. If the game is going too quickly, press [CTRL]+[F11] to slow it down. To speed it up, press [CTRL]+[F12]. This tends to be most important for very old games, and you’ll quickly see if it’s going to be a problem.

If you want to take a screenshot, press [CTRL]+[F5]. To start recording video, press [CTRL]+[ALT]+[F5], and press it again to stop. By default, all snaps are saved in \Users\(you)\AppData\Local\ DOSBox, though you can alter this in the main DOSBox configuration file, and on a game-by-game basis. Most games will require a little more love, if only because they need to install files.

Wolfenstein

For security reasons, DOSBox doesn’t give any Tom, Dick and Heimdall 2 access to your drives, so you need to manually activate them and mount files and folders to give them the access they need and space to expand. You can do this with keyboard commands and configuration file editing, but it’s far faster to use a dedicated front-end such as DOG.

When you run DOG for the first time, it’ll ask you to point it to your copy of DOSBox, try to work out the version you’re using, and usually fall flat with a floating point error. Just ignore this, the rest works fine.

Every game you run needs its own Profile, consisting of a name (the name of the game), the version of DOSBox you want to run it in (usually you’ll only have one) and a configuration filename. Most of the other controls can be left alone.

Long time, new C:>

The most important options are in Drives. Click ‘Add Harddrive’ and you’ll be asked to select an existing folder on your PC, and map it to a drive in DOSBox. This should be ‘C:’ for most games. If you’re playing a game straight from CD, repeat this process by clicking ‘Add CDROM’ and setting it to ‘D’. It doesn’t matter what it is on your actual PC: most old games expected these letters.

Interactive movies

Finally, if you have a game in .ISO form (which you’ve made yourself and not, hypothetically, downloaded from some dodgy website) you can assign that as a drive too. We recommend having a dedicated folder for your Profiles where all of your working directories are saved by game name, just to make them easier to manage.

Once you’ve set them all up, click the OK button and double-click on the Profile name to start it. Quite often it fails the first time – don’t ask why – and won’t actually mount the drives. Second time on, it should be fine.

Once in DOSBox, if you haven’t pointed DOG to a specific executable, you only really need to know three commands: the name of the program you want to run, the fact that you type the drive name to select it (usually ‘C:’), and the change directory command – ‘cd ‘ to enter one, ‘cd..’ to go back one, and ‘cd /’ to go back to the root.

If you’ve – cough – accidentally made your CD backups in the wrong format, there’s a handy free tool called AnyToIso that can convert them. In particular, many – cough – backups have a tendency to be in .IMG files rather than actual .ISOs, which can cause compatibility issues.

The same tool can also be used to create virtual CDs of specific files if you want to copy them into emulators/virtual machines without opening up more directories.

Ultima vii

The one thing that DOG won’t do for you is handle games that require multiple CDs. If you’re playing from original discs, this shouldn’t be a problem – just map the actual drive and swap them on command.

If you’re using ISOs though, the easiest way is to save them all in the directory you’re using for the C: drive, create the profile without mounting any of them, and run DOSBox. Mount them manually using the command ‘imgmount d (first).iso (second).iso -t’, adding as many as you need, and pressing [CTRL]+[F4] will swap between them on the fly.

Running old Windows games

old game

DOSBox has many, many more options, but this is all you need to get the overwhelming majority of DOS games running. But what about Windows?

Technically, early versions of Windows are themselves DOS programs, and yes, you can run them on DOSBox. It’s not recommended though, unless you really like compatibility problems and incredibly bad frame-rates if you do get them working.

Getting Windows games running is a bit of nightmare. You can’t usually just install an old copy and expect everything to work fine, since there won’t be the drivers for your current kit.

The obvious solution: a virtual machine, which doesn’t just save you the hassle of creating new partitions and risking file loss, but handles the translation of everything from graphics to audio. In theory, it should be easy.

Fire one of them up, drop in your old copy of Windows 95, and as far as it’s concerned, Take That will be together forever. Right?

The problem is that virtual machines don’t bother supporting the features most games need as far back as this. Proper graphics support, sound support, the additions to make it easy to copy files into your virtual machine… all of them are aimed at more recent versions of Windows than 3.1, 95 and 98 – the ones you need for most older games.

You can sometimes get around this by installing a copy of Linux and running games through WINE (its own virtual machine; the name, if you care, stands for Wine Is Not An Emulator). But that’s unreliable at best.

X-Com

To cut a long story short, your best bet is Windows 2000 in a virtual machine. It’s not ideal for gaming, but it’s as close as you can get. Chances are you don’t have a copy of this one lying around, but – one second, cough coming on – it shouldn’t be hard to find one somewhere, like eBay.

As far as the virtual machine goes, you won’t get any real benefit from buying one, so you may as well use the freebie VirtualBox. As far as system requirements go, if you’re playing modern games, you should be fine – a dual-core processor or better is advisable, as is 4GB of RAM.

You’ll also need a decent chunk of hard drive space – we gave our virtual machine around 5GB to play with. It’s also worth noting that while this will be fine for 2D games, virtualisation still isn’t ideal for 3D games.

On the plus side, these typically rely on DirectX more than third-party technologies, or bundle everything they need to work properly if not, and so are likely to work out of the box. More than most, anyway.

Enter the matrix

Quest

Once you’ve downloaded VirtualBox, fire it up and click the ‘New’ button. Give your virtual machine a name, and tell it that you’re installing Windows 2000, and most of the options will be set up for you. This defaults to 168MB of RAM and a 4GB hard drive.

You can opt for either dynamic storage or fixed-sized storage. Dynamic storage will keep growing until it hits the maximum you’ve allowed the storage space to be, while telling Windows 2000 that it always has the maximum to play with. In contrast, fixed size actually creates a file of that size up front. We went with the latter for simplicity’s sake, but it shouldn’t matter.

Bugs and quirks

To actually install Windows 2000, fire up your virtual machine. It’ll display the First Run Wizard, which asks you where the install media is, typically this is a disc, but – cough – ISOs will do as well and set the process running.

old game 2

If for some reason it doesn’t work for you, quit out, start the VM up again, and go to the Devices option at the top. From here, you can mount CDs and DVDs the old fashioned way, either as ISOs or by pointing VirtualBox to your actual drive. Fingers crossed, everything will now go as planned, although check the official VirtualBox forums if it crashes midway through installation.

There are lots of small bugs and quirks that can give you a bad day, especially for a process that takes as long as Windows – usually as non-intuitive as unticking boxes with names like ‘Enable VT-x/ AMD-V’ in response to a whole screen full of bibble.

(While we’re sure this goes without saying, just to be on the safe side: neither Windows nor its installer can affect anything on your actual system. Don’t panic when it tells you it’s formatting the C: drive, it actually means the virtual one. VirtualBox, and other programs like it, do offer tools to move files from one to the other via shared folders, as well as better integrate the mouse cursor and share the clipboard, but nothing that you actually have to worry about).

Once Windows 2000 has been installed, it’ll look rather shoddy. To fix this and get it ready to work properly, go to the Devices menu and choose ‘Install Guest Additions’. This will add VirtualBox’s custom drivers to the installation, allowing you to run everything properly.

At this point, you can go back to the Devices screen, map an ISO or your DVD drive, and try playing some games.

The only other tweak you may have to do for games that required a limited palette is to go into Control Panel > Displays > Settings and switch the colour depth down to 256 colours. Games will tell you if they need this though, and you’re generally fine sticking with High or True Color mode for the rest.

Other tweaks you can do include pressing the Host key (by default, the right [CTRL] key) and [L] to switch into Seamless Mode, which cuts out the Windows 2000 interface and makes the current window act like any Windows 7 program, and taking Snapshots, which saves your virtual machine’s state to go back to later.

It’s worth doing this immediately, so that you don’t have to sit through an immeasurably tedious reinstallation if a program you install manages to break something.

Boxing clever

Broken sword

With VirtualBox for Windows and DOSBox for DOS, and regular Windows 7 for those blessed games that don’t cause trouble in the first place, there should be very, very few old games you can’t get running. They may not work absolutely perfectly to start with, requiring a little balancing to get them running at the right speed, or a new driver here and there, but the majority at least will play ball.

For the others, a quick Google search will often show you the tweak you need, or point you to another solution, such as the aforementioned WINE for Linux, or even a fan remake or engine rebuild that both makes the game playable and boosts its features to make it run better on modern systems than it ever did at release.

For Ultima VII, for instance, there’s Exult. For Star Control II, try The Ur-Quan Masters. Similar projects are few and far between, but if it’s a particularly loved game you desperately want to play, it’s worth a look to see if anyone shares your desire enough to have started one up.

How to make old games work on Windows 7


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