into the many­branched method­ol­ogy of old game necro­mancy, let’s ex­am­ine why this prob­lem ex­ists. After all, if a PC can run TheWitcher3 at a dreamy 60fps, why does it strug­gle to ren­der 1999 tac­ti­cal shooter Rain­bowSix:RogueS­pear at any­thing above sin­gle fig­ures? And why is it so hard to get cer­tain games even in­stalled?

Es­sen­tially, it all comes down to op­er­at­ing sys­tems. When­ever a piece of soft­ware or PC game is de­vel­oped, its cre­ators make a se­ries of as­sump­tions about the en­vi­ron­ment it’ll be used in. The de­vel­op­ers of 1999, for ex­am­ple, might rea­son­ably have ex­pected that most users would be in­stalling their game on to a Win­dows 98 or Win­dows 95 PC, both based around the 16-bit DOS op­er­at­ing sys­tem. That, in turn, means an as­sump­tion about the file li­braries and driv­ers con­tained within those op­er­at­ing sys­tems, and the kind of hard­ware that might be run­ning it. Those de­vel­op­ers couldn’t an­tic­i­pate that later ver­sions of Win­dows, from Win 2000 on­ward, would only em­u­late DOS, rather than run­ning it na­tively, and that the code that in­stalls and runs the game on DOSbased op­er­at­ing sys­tems would even­tu­ally be­come gib­ber­ish to Win­dows 10. And they couldn’t have known—how could any­one?— what a mon­u­men­tal pain in the pos­te­rior UAC would prove in later, more se­cu­ri­ty­con­scious Win­dows it­er­a­tions.

Gen­er­ally, then, pro­grams don’t work on mod­ern ma­chines be­cause those mod­ern ma­chines are run­ning a re­cent OS. Hard­ware tends to play only an in­di­rect role in in­com­pat­i­bil­ity. For ex­am­ple, be­cause 32bit sys­tems rec­og­nize only a 4GB max­i­mum of mem­ory, most of us run 64-bit op­er­at­ing sys­tems to ac­com­mo­date more RAM. But un­like 32-bit ver­sions, 64-bit Win­dows doesn’t in­clude 16-bit em­u­la­tion. That means it can’t fool a Win­dows 95 ap­pli­ca­tion that’s search­ing for rec­og­niz­able li­braries in order to in­stall it­self cor­rectly. The same goes for to­day’s graph­ics cards and pro­ces­sors: It isn’t that they’re in­her­ently too pow­er­ful for old soft­ware, but that the old soft­ware can’t in­ter­pret and har­ness their power cor­rectly, be­cause they don’t un­der­stand the driv­ers in­stalled.

The stum­bling block for one par­tic­u­lar vin­tage game might be DOS, driver sup­port, miss­ing li­braries, se­cu­rity is­sues, or in­com­pat­i­bil­ity be­yond 16-bit sys­tems, but the root cause is fairly uni­ver­sal: It’s the soft­ware en­vi­ron­ment. The ob­vi­ous so­lu­tion is to mod­ify that soft­ware en­vi­ron­ment so the old game has enough in­for­ma­tion and se­cu­rity priv­i­leges to func­tion. And that’s some­thing you can go big or small with. Since we’re do­ing this me­thod­i­cally, it makes sense to be­gin with the small mea­sures, such as patches and DOSBox, and work up to more dras­tic so­lu­tions, such as run­ning a vir­tual Win­dows XP ma­chine.


If a game in­stalls on your PC but won’t run, first check on­line for of­fi­cial de­vel­oper patches, and un­of­fi­cial patches cre­ated by users who ex­pe­ri­enced sim­i­lar is­sues. Per­haps you’ll strike lucky with a game like Vam­pire:TheMas­quer­ade—Redemp­tion. First re­leased in 2004, it’s long since been re­garded as a cult clas­sic, but shipped with more bugs than a mail order ant farm. De­vel­oper Troika was still re­leas­ing patches for it five years later, and the com­mu­nity took it even fur­ther with an un­of­fi­cial patch, which still re­ceives up­dates in 2017. Try the orig­i­nal disc, and you’ll have prob­lems, but with those two down­loads, it runs per­fectly on Win­dows 10.

Else­where, com­mu­nity mod­ders have ad­dressed is­sues per­tain­ing to en­tire game en­gines, fix­ing a whole suite of ti­tles in the process. Black Isle’s In­fin­ity En­gine hosted many of role-play­ing’s all-time greats, such as Bal­dur’sGateI and II,IcewindDale, and PlanescapeTor­ment, but re­lies on Mi­crosoft’s de­funct Direc­tDraw API, and thus has all man­ner of is­sues on mod­ern ma­chines. Aqrit’s DDrawFix re­solves those is­sues in nine games with one 5MB down­load. There are other so­lu­tions, but this is cer­tainly more el­e­gant than run­ning an en­tire OS in a vir­tual ma­chine just to ac­cess Direc­tDraw.


Win­dows doesn’t have a great rep­u­ta­tion for the ef­fi­cacy of its com­pat­i­bil­ity mode, but in cer­tain cir­cum­stances, a checked box here and a drag-down menu op­tion there might be all it takes to solve your prob­lem, whether it be in­stalling or run­ning the old game in ques­tion. When you right-click on a pro­gram or in­staller, and nav­i­gate to the com­pat­i­bil­ity tab, you’ll see sev­eral op­tions to em­u­late dif­fer­ent Win­dows ver­sions and al­ter display set­tings. When you run an ap­pli­ca­tion in com­pat­i­bil­ity mode, you’re telling your cur­rent ver­sion of Win­dows to lie to that ap­pli­ca­tion, and it does so by plac­ing a layer of al­ter­nate code, known as a shim, be­tween the ap­pli­ca­tion loader and Win­dows. File paths are trans­lated from new to old, so C:\Users\You\Doc­u­ments be­comes C:\Doc­u­ments and Set­tings\You\ My Doc­u­ments. It mod­i­fies the func­tions of cer­tain .dlls so the ap­pli­ca­tion re­turns the ex­pected in­for­ma­tion. For ex­am­ple, the GetVer­sionEx func­tion used to de­ter­mine which ver­sion of Win­dows an ap­pli­ca­tion’s work­ing with would re­turn data from the shim, rather than the true ker­nel32.dll’s in­for­ma­tion. In other words, when the ap­pli­ca­tion asks “Which ver­sion of Win­dows is this?” com­pat­i­bil­ity mode steps in and says “Win­dows XP, hon­est!” be­fore your ac­tual OS has chance to blurt out “Win­dows 10,” and give the game away.

In re­al­ity, set­ting the right com­pat­i­bil­ity mode op­tions can of­ten be part of the so­lu­tion, but it’s rarely your one-stop

shop. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to start by se­lect­ing the pre­dom­i­nant OS at the time the game was re­leased (Win­dows 98 for Half-Life, let’s say), and run­ning as an Ad­min­is­tra­tor. This helps the ap­pli­ca­tion do what it needs to with­out Win­dows step­ping in and halt­ing it at an un­ex­pected junc­ture. From there, you can ex­per­i­ment with 256 col­ors and 640x480 res­o­lu­tion lim­it­ing, but it’s of­ten best to move on and look for other so­lu­tions, rather than trou­bleshoot­ing exclusively in the com­pat­i­bil­ity tab.


Para­dox­i­cally, the fur­ther back you go with PC games, the eas­ier it be­comes to run them on mod­ern ma­chin­ery. That’s in large part thanks to DOSBox, which em­u­lates an In­tel x86-based sys­tem, com­plete with graph­ics and sound cards, mouse sup­port, and a mo­dem. DOSBox should be the first port of call when run­ning any pre-Win­dows XP game, which means it opens up about 20 years of gam­ing, from the Com­man­derKeen days to late-nineties gems de­signed for DOS-based Win­dows. Since it’s ef­fec­tively a vir­tual ma­chine, and you prob­a­bly don’t have a floppy disk drive in your ma­chine, you need disk im­age files of the games you want to play. DOS games are gen­er­ally con­sid­ered aban­don­ware now, so although it isn’t le­gal to down­load them, it isn’t likely to get you into trou­ble (see “Aban­don­ware, all ye who en­ter” over the page).

DOSBox works by mount­ing a vir­tual C drive cre­ated by the user, then nav­i­gat­ing around using com­mand prompts. For ex­am­ple, C:\DOSGAMES be­comes your DOSBox’s vir­tual root drive with the com­mand line “mount c c:\dosgames.” For con­ve­nience’s sake, it’s worth keep­ing all your DOS game im­age files within this di­rec­tory, each in in­di­vid­ual fold­ers. The “cd” com­mand changes di­rec­tory, which means you can type “cd [game name folder]” to nav­i­gate to your cho­sen game, then type

the ex­e­cutable name to run it. Of all the meth­ods avail­able, DOSBox is one of the eas­i­est and most re­li­able, and only re­quires a few com­mand lines to get things up and run­ning. Its lim­i­ta­tions make them­selves ap­par­ent when run­ning 3D games that were con­sid­ered de­mand­ing at the time, such as Tomb Raider, Quake, or Car­maged­don. DOSBox runs th­ese using its own soft­ware ren­derer, so for more ad­vanced graph­ics, you need to seek out a 3DFX/Glide em­u­la­tor de­signed for use in DOSBox. Some cus­tom builds of the pro­gram, such as DOSBox SVM Daum, come with Direc­t3D, Glide, and other ad­vanced fea­tures baked in, so are the best bet for run­ning later DOS games that made use of graph­ics cards. Ah, the Voodoo days—brings a tear to the eye. And just to ham­mer the point home, don’t rule out DOSBox if you’re try­ing to run a game that was re­leased for Win 95 or Win 98—they were DOS-based OSes, after all.


If you want to take this vin­tage gam­ing thing to a greater ex­treme, it’s time to con­sider run­ning a vir­tual ma­chine with an older OS in­stalled. Broadly, this isn’t too dif­fer­ent an ap­proach from run­ning DOSBox, but if you find your­self play­ing a lot of games from that awk­ward post-DOS, pre-Win 7 era, it might end up be­ing more con­ve­nient. Plus, there’s the heady nos­tal­gia hit of see­ing the old OS’s desk­top, and en­joy­ing all the sound ef­fects—re­mem­ber when per­form­ing al­most any ac­tion on a PC came with its own be­spoke sound ef­fect?

Vir­tu­alBox is the go-to ap­pli­ca­tion for this. It’s rel­a­tively easy to in­stall even dusty old Win­dows 3.1 on a vir­tual ma­chine, com­plete with the re­quired

vir­tual hard­ware, although you ei­ther need an in­stall disc and prod­uct key for the OS, or a disk im­age. Once again, we’re in the murky waters of aban­don­ware here, but you can find Win­dows XP and older ver­sions for free on­line, and Mi­crosoft hasn’t pur­sued any le­gal ac­tion against their dis­tri­bu­tion.

It’s cer­tainly prefer­able to be greeted by a fa­mil­iar old in­ter­face when boot­ing up games than it is to deal with DOSBox’s black and white prompt win­dows, but Vir­tu­alBox does have some­thing of an Achilles heel: 3D graph­ics sup­port. Its na­tive sup­port is “ex­per­i­men­tal” (read: doesn’t re­ally work with games), and its de­vel­op­ers have long main­tained that if the com­mu­nity wants 3DFX/Glide vir­tu­al­iza­tion, it’s up to them to open-source it. Some mem­bers of that com­mu­nity have done ex­actly that (Vir­tu­alBox refers to this as Guest Ad­di­tion con­tent), but it’s not a sim­ple task to in­stall it, par­tic­u­larly when work­ing in older op­er­at­ing sys­tems. Hav­ing in­stalled your OS via disc or im­age, restart in safe mode with net­work­ing, nav­i­gate to the Guest Ad­di­tions file on Vir­tu­alBox’s site, then un­zip and in­stall it. Sounds sim­ple, but if you’re on Win 95, there are many com­pat­i­bil­ity hur­dles to over­come when using an un­zip­per pro­gram or down­load­ing the file. Even when suc­cess­fully in­stalled, 3D ac­cel­er­a­tion can be prone to crash­ing in Vir­tu­alBox, and has ma­jor per­for­mance is­sues that will im­pact your en­joy­ment of the game. If you had your heart set on ex­pe­ri­enc­ing old games through a trusty old OS, though, there is an­other way.


Yep—par­ti­tion­ing your stor­age drive and in­stalling an older op­er­at­ing sys­tem on to it might do the trick. This is overkill for the vast ma­jor­ity of trou­ble­some retro games, be­cause it’s a com­pli­cated task that risks data loss if per­formed in­cor­rectly. But if you re­ally want those old Win 98 themes and your fa­vorite games, cre­ate a par­ti­tion on your cho­sen disk, and mark it as ac­tive by nav­i­gat­ing to the “Boot” tab in Win­dows Sys­tem Con­fig­u­ra­tion, high­light­ing the de­sired par­ti­tion, and se­lect­ing “Set as de­fault.” Then re­boot and use an old OS disk to in­stall it to the par­ti­tion; http://thpc. info has a clear step-by-step guide on how to do this. Be­ware, though: Win­dows 98 and older won’t have a clue what to make of your mod­ern hard­ware. You will have count­less driver is­sues and ACPI con­flicts. You will have to spend hours get­ting it to rec­og­nize your graph­ics card. But for some, the sat­is­fac­tion of achiev­ing a res­o­lu­tion be­yond 640x480 when those is­sues are re­solved is re­ward in it­self.

Sum­mon­ing the gam­ing greats of yore can be a knotty prob­lem, then, and there are many ways to un­tan­gle those knots. If the game in ques­tion falls un­der the DOS era, DOSBox should be the first port of call; if it doesn’t, try search­ing for patches and fan fixes. Next, try com­pat­i­bil­ity mode. And if all else fails, well, your par­ents might still have that hear­ing-aid-beige Packard Bell tower in the at­tic.

1996’s Tomb Raider was among the first games to need a dis­crete graph­ics card, so it’s hard to run in a vir­tual en­vi­ron­ment.

Rogue Spear is in an awk­ward time bracket: too old for Win 10, too new for DOSBox. Still, there

are ways to coax it alive again.

Un­fin­ished busi­ness

on the last level? DOSBox makes games from the Com­man­der

Keen era easy to run.

They re­ally were the salad days, weren’t they?

This is a copy­right in­fringe­ment no­tice. Get clued in on aban­don­ware rules to avoid see­ing one in the flesh.

Clas­sics like Doom don’t need much to get run­ning, thanks to Steam and com­mu­nity patches. Mouse sup­port—what a treat!

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