How to play DOS games under Windows XP

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Nostalgia Wins Over

Stepping up to the latest and greatest games developers have to offer is always fun. Seeing how the limit is constantly being pushed and the bar raised always brings a sense of excitement to a veteran gamer, as they empty their savings account in the pursuit of the ultimate PC gaming experience. If you’re like most gamers, though, those first tantalizing moments playing the first full color 2D game on your old 386 running DOS will forever be burned into your memory, along with the associated adrenaline and the confident assuredness that this is as good as it gets!

But what happens when you try to load up your old DOS games? You’ll probably find that most modern computers don’t have 8-inch floppy drives anymore! If you’re lucky, you’ll have the games on 3.5inch, or you’ll be able to find them in a downloadable form online. The fact is, though, that Windows XP doesn’t play nicely with DOS. How come? Isn’t DOS a part of Windows XP?

The truth is that it is not. While Windows 3.1, 95, 98 and ME were built on the DOS platform, Windows XP is in a completely different development line that started with NT, progressed to Windows 2000, then into XP. That means that the “DOS Prompt” we supposedly access from Windows XP is actually more of an emulation of DOS, not DOS itself.

If trying to execute a DOS game in Windows XP you will likely find that it just will not run the way it’s supposed to, if it even runs at all! Don’t fret, though, continue reading for tips to get your DOS games to run in Windows XP. Note, though, that some games just simply will not cooperate, no matter what you do.

Memory Management

Back in the old DOS days the user was oftentimes responsible for dictating how hardware was used to run various programs - something that is automatic and completely taken for granted today. I’d wager that if the average XP user had to worry about things like conventional memory, load-high, XMS, upper memory etc etc that their head would probably explode. If we’re trying to get our DOS games to run in the non-native Windows XP, though, we may have to do it like we did in the old days. By changing memory settings in XP we may coax an unresponsive DOS game into running, and this is how:

1. Navigate to and right-click the game’s executable (ie: Tetris.exe) and choose Properties.

2. On the Memory tab, set all values in drop down memories to their highest values. Make sure the boxes for Protected and Use HMA are checked.

3. Click Apply, then OK. Attempt to run the game again.

Error Messages are Good

This might be a foreign concept to most, but when trying to get an old DOS game to run on Windows XP it can be incredibly helpful to be able to read the error messages. Of course, just to make things more difficult, most of the time if a game has errors, it closes out before we even get a chance to read them. Here’s how to make sure you get to read those juicy tidbits:

1. Navigate to and right-click the game’s executable file. Choose Properties.

2. On the Program tab, uncheck the box “Close on Exit.”

3. Click Apply, and OK.

4. Try running the game again, and this time read the error message. Putting the error into Google might yield more detailed or specific instructions on dealing with that particular error. Here’s a common error and potential work-around:

Runtime Error 200

This is a very common error when trying to run DOS games on XP, and it is caused because your computer is simply too fast for the game. Imagine that! In order to have even a chance of getting the game in question to run, you’re going to have to give your computer a sedative. This can come in the form of a program called Mo’Slo. The “TPPatch” component of the program can, potentially, alter the game in order to get it to run on your XP system. Their website offers more sage advice.

If you want to avoid a third party program, you can try this manual adjustment to slow down your hyperactive computer:

1. Navigate to and right-click the game’s .exe file. Choose Properties.

2. On the Program tab, click Advanced.

3. Check the box for “Compatible Timer Emulation” then click OK, Apply, and OK again.

Don’t Lose Hope

While it is true that there really are some games out there that will not run, the list of possible tweaks and tricks to make your DOS games run on Windows is practically never ending. Your best bet is to do an Internet search on the specific game, or specific problem you are having with it to find the best suggestions. I hope that the tips and tricks contained within this article have helped you to at least get some of your favorite games running. Best of luck in any continued DOS game compatibility adventure you find yourself on!