Thursday, March 02, 2006


Last weekend, I began scrapping together a DOS machine, the primry purpose of which would be to play games, run demos, and generally just feed my nostalgic senses. You see, back in the day, I spent a lot of time working in DOS. My first computer, an IBM PCjr, ran some variant of IBM DOS. I don't remember the tech specs of it very well, and I'd have a heck of a time trying to figure out what made IBM DOS different than other DOS'es, but i do remember having to swap out floppy disks... a lot. [1] Boot the system, put in a floppy. Run a program, put in another floppy. Go back to DOS from some application, put the DOS floppy back in. That was, of course, assuming that the program could exit back into DOS, and didn't require a reboot.

So come last Saturday, I eyed an old system sitting under my TV table and said, hmmmm, why not get it running. Components ended up getting scrapped together from various sources (Kevin, thanks again for the sound card!) Certain, nameless websites provided me with MS-DOS 6.22 installation floppies, which after being written to old OS/2 install floppies (which I have on CD as well, that's a project for another day though), proceeded to get installed on the target system. After quickly remembering how little fun installing software via floppies was, I proceeded to get a network card up and running. The initial plan was to get TCP/IP up and running under pure DOS. That failed. [2] Instead, I ended up installing Windows for Workgroups 3.11.

Ugh. Windows?! On a modern DOS machine? I suppose I could've copied files over a serial cable, which might've been cooler (or should I say, more l33+ h@X0R ), but fuck it. Windows 3.11 was just as much a part of the computing experience back then as was DOS. Plus, that meant I got to install After Dark, an awesome set of screensavers that I really wish were offered on modern Windows systems. (The last released version runs under Win98, but not 2000 or XP.)

So now I was up and running! I could copy files over via FTP [4]. Scorched Earth was installed in a prompt fasion, as well as Pinball Fantasies, Prince of Persia, Capture The Flag, Stunts, and a few others. Some DOS demos made there way onto the machine as well. Second Reality and Crystal Dream II among them.

So what's the point here? I could've just run a lot of these games under DOSBox, which is a really nice cross-platform x86 + DOS emulator. Why the need for a dedicated DOS machine:

  1. it's more compatible than DOSBox. Or VMWare + DOS for that matter, both of which I tried in the past. These setups are alright, except there'd always be a few apps that never worked quite right. DOSBox had a few incompatibilities, VMWare + DOS had performance issues, even on a fast machine.
  2. it's fun. I'm beginning to understand why some people stick with certain computer platforms long after their respective manufacturers stop supporting them. Amiga users fall into this category. Heck, back in high school, the local Mac user group doubled as an Apple II user group.

[1] The IBM PCjr had two cartridge slots, in addition to the floppy drive. Some of the cartrides I had were very very cool, and given that I only had a small handful of them, they got used very extensively. Crossfire and Mineshaft particularly come to mind.

[2] While trying to get networking up and running in pure DOS, I did encounter DOS implementations of the SSH 1 and 2 clients, which can be found at

[3] I could've installed Windows 95 or 98 instead, in which case I would've had a more recent update to MS-DOS, and've had some level of compatibility with Win32 apps, but where's the fun in that?

[4] I think that at times, we take for granted how easily one can get onto the Internet. All modern operating systems support this right out of the box, and almost always include a wide range of tools to interact with other machines. Windows for Workgroups did not include Internet support at all, at least not when it was initially released. It could connect to various types of Local Area Networks, including a now primitive version of SMB/CIFS (updated versions of this are the default filesharing option in modern Windows.) Internet support was available in separate downloads, however, such as Trumpet Winsock and a Microsoft TCP/IP 32. For the DOS box I just set up, I used the latter. The tools it includes are limited to FTP, Telnet, ping and traceroute (there might be others, but only the first two are advertised as available.) I find it kinda weird that these tools are still perfectly useable on modern systems, even though the software I'm using is over 10 years old. Anyways, if you ever need a dead simple FTP server for Windows, ftpdmin might just do the trick. It's a command line program, but its syntax is simple. The following command runs the server and disables write access: "ftpdmin -g


Jonathan Supnik said...

I have fond, fond memories of the game Stunts.

I haven't had much trouble getting stuff to run on DosBox myself.

David Ludwig said...

Oh yeah, Stunts rules. I think a copy can be found at The Underdogs.

I found that getting stuff to run under DosBox wasn't much of a problem, but getting certain apps playable is another story. Scorched Earth, for example, is kinda playable under DosBox (on an Athlon 64 3200+), except that large scale explosions become painfully slow, even when DosBox's maximum number of emulated cycles-per-second is increased. (It helped, but paled in comparison to real hardware.)

DosBox does have one thing I envy, easy networking. So far, I've failed getting two different net cards to work with Doom + IPX. DosBox has this stuff built in, and will tunnel it over TCP/IP using your existing, and much easier to set up Windows-bound netcard.