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How To Use DOSBox To Run DOS Games and Old Apps

New versions of Windows don’t fully support classic DOS games and other old applications — this is where DOSBox comes in. It provides a full DOS environment that runs ancient DOS apps on modern operating systems.

We’ve written about using the D-Fend Reloaded front-end for DOSBox in the past, but what if you just want to use DOSBox itself? We’ll show you to how to mount directories, use DOSBox’s internal commands, execute programs and use DOSBox’s keyboard shortcuts like a pro.

Getting Started

DOSBox is available as a free download from the DOSBox website. It’s not just for Windows — installers are available for Mac OS X, Linux and other UNIX-like systems. If you’re using Ubuntu, you’ll find DOSBox available in the Ubuntu Software Center.

You’ll also need the game or application you want to run. If you have an old floppy disk, it’s time to pull it out. If the game was available as shareware, you’re in luck — you should be able to find it online. Most DOS games are fully compatible, but DOSBox’s homepage hosts a compatibility list so you can check your favorite game’s compatibility.

Mounting Directories

Once it’s installed, you can fire DOSBox up from your desktop or Start menu. You’ll get two windows — a status window and the main DOSBox window. You can ignore the status window.

(As readers have noted, you can also run a program by dragging and dropping its EXE file onto DOSBox’s application icon, so feel free to give that a try.)

Before you run a game, you’ll have to mount its directory. DOSBox’s environment is separate from your computer’s file system. In other words, the C: drive in DOSBox is completely separate from the C: drive on your computer.

Here’s an example mount command:

mount c c:\games\

This command mounts the C:\Games directory on your computer as the C: drive in DOSBox. Replace c:\games with the location of the games directory on your computer.

Add the -t cdrom switch if you’re mounting a CD-ROM. For example, the following command takes the CD-ROM drive at D: on your computer and mounts it as the C: drive in DOSBox:

mount c D:\ -t cdrom

Navigating Around and Running Applications

Once you’ve got your game files mounted, you can type C: and press Enter to switch to DOSBox’s C: drive.

Use the dir command to list the contents of the current directory and the cd command, followed by the name of a directory, to change to a directory. Use the cd .. command to go up a directory.

Type the name of an EXE file in the current folder to execute that program. You may have to run an install program before playing your game or running your application.

If you do, install the game like you would on a normal DOS system.

Once it’s installed, you can navigate to the game’s EXE file and run it by typing its name.

At this point, you’re ready to play. You’ll have to repeat the mount process each time you restart DOSBox, although you’ll only have to install and configure the game once.

Keyboard Shortcuts

DOSBox has a variety of keyboard shortcuts. Here are the most essential ones:

Alt-Enter switches between full-screen and windowed modes.

If a game runs too fast, you can slow it down by pressing Ctrl-F11. Likewise, you can speed up slow games by pressing Ctrl-F12. DOSBox’s emulated CPU speed, displayed in its title bar, will change each time you press these keys.

Type the intro special command to see a full list of DOSBox’s shortcut keys.


DOSBox can also run DOS programs that aren’t games — including the Windows 3.1 operating system itself — but games are its main use case. The DOS programs people used to rely on have been replaced, but classic games can never be replaced.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 02/7/12

Comments (28)

  1. Aviad

    For an “in depth look” by the Linux Action show guys:

    http://www.jupiterbroadcasting.com/16641/dosbox-in-depth-look/

  2. Meena Bassem

    hmm, why all that? i wanted to run qbasic on win 7 x64 and all i needed was a command line like

    dosbox.exe qbasic.exe

    i saved it in a .bat file in the same folder of dosbox files and qbasic and it all worked fine

  3. RDSchaefer

    I’ve taken it a step further, I re-created a complete environment including games, utilities, programming tools, and Windows 3.1. I’ve also created another .BAT file called ENV that sets up all the environment variables required for my various compilers such as INCLUDE and LIB. So, if I want to work on a C program I enter the command ENV C. You might be surprised how many people are still writing programs for DOS.

    The tail of my Dosbox config file:
    [autoexec]
    # Lines in this section will be run at startup.
    # You can put your MOUNT lines here.
    Mount C G:\DosBox
    Mount D E:\Code
    Mount E V:\ -t cdrom
    C:
    CD \
    Autoexec.BAT

    My AUTOEXEC.BAT
    @Echo Off
    Set COMSPEC=C:\DOS\COMMAND.COM
    Set DIRCMD=/p
    Set PATH=C:\MYPGMS;C:\UTILS;C:\WINDOWS;C:\DOS;C:\SPF
    Set PROMPT=$p$g

    1stBoot
    If ErrorLevel 1 Call OnceADay

    My only complaint with Dosbox is that, AFAIK, you can’t access the Internet from inside it. You can network to sessions together with IPX but that’s it.

  4. Clarence

    If you check around a bit you can find a way to automate a lot of this loading procedure, as RDSchaefer points out. Like him, I’ve fine tuned the config file just a bit to fit the system I have and I created shirtcuts that run DosBox and call the game. That way you don’t have to deal with the command box and this works for almost all the old dos games I have and even some games that I really couldn’t run before.

  5. martin

    I would like to run msworks for dos, but can only do so in a small box. Any suggestions please. Tried alt-enter etc.

  6. scott

    Of course I have already thrown out my Maniac Mansion 2: Day of the Tentacle and countless other treasures of the past…

  7. Chris Hoffman

    Yup, you can automate a lot of these by tweaking config files. Even if you’re executing a program directly with DOSBox, knowing the keyboard shortcuts is helpful.

  8. ExTexan

    Is anyone else as sick as I am of seeing “Free Download” then after installing you find it is NOT FREE but must be purchased to use.

  9. Little John

    I use DOS Box to run Paradox 4.5 for DOS and works great. Better than virtual mode of XP. Tried to use the cmd window, would not run Paradox because it is only 16 bit software. I had old copy of WordPerfect version 5.1 for DOS, I got the program to run but some features of WP 5.1 would not work because conflict with DOS Box hotkeys. Try to use WP5.1, I like Word under Windows 7 more. True I could created a nice letter but looking at the graphic screen of letter is lot better than text only. Change of color or font size is hard to see on WP5.1 screen. The Paradox was better and you could edit your tables and run your Ask. The hotkeys were not in the way of Paradox. No trouble with mouse in Paradox, in WP5.1 no mouse. Under DOS, only one program at time and no cut & paste between programs.

  10. Russ

    This is perfect timing, I’ve just upgraded to Win7.

    But I have Z: as a mapped network directory, dosbox takes over Z: so I can’t use it within my DOS app any more. Is there a way of changing the default dosbox drive letter?

  11. Chris Hoffman

    @Russ

    This is a bit confusing — DOSBox doesn’t actually take over your Z: drive. DOSBox’s internal drive letters aren’t directly equivalent to your Windows drive letters.

    Just use this command:

    mount c z:\

    Now, your Z:\ network drive will be mounted as drive C inside DOSBox.

  12. Geoff, of the Great White North

    Wow, does this bring back some memories, how many of you guys and gals remember trimming the config and autoexec files to get every last byte of ram to run a particular game, if I’m not wrong I believe the best I ever got was about 619kb or 621kb of ram, probably the lower number.

    Every so often I have to use Dos, amazing how the old commands come back to mind when you do so. Saying to my partner the other evening about my stash of Dos books, I have a first edition MS soft cover over 2″ thick and 2 “Dos For Dummies”, more than likely I have 30+ books and short-cut guides on Dos in my library covering from version 2 to 6.22!

    Cheers to all
    G

  13. Ernie Aguilar

    I don’t understand.. Why use DosBox if you can run Sun Virtual Machine or if you have Windows 7 Pro and above you can run the native Virtual Machine and install DOS on it. I use it like this for my clients that run legacy Dos programs on XP and above machines. You can run an asynchronous modem to communicate with other computers if you want. In the case of windows VM your computers disks get mounted as mapped drives. I’ve been programming since the CPM days (otherwise called BD (before DOS) and we’ve come a long way from 1980… lol Mostly DbaseII on both CPM and DOS. To me DosBox is too complicated, obviously I grew up with 64k RAM and 5 1/4 floppies so running thin is my motto. All this crap about mounting and dismounting disks is crazy, that’s one reason I gave up on Linux. Or could it be that my brain is too old to handle it…. naawwwww. its not my brain

  14. phillip

    I have a (cheap) friend running his billing using DacEasy accounting on a old dos based laptop that is ready to crap-out anyday. He keeps asking about upgrading to a current machine, but I was afraid because he could not run his accounting (DacEasy) on a new Windows box.

    This looks like this may be the answer to his upgrade dilemma.

    Thanks DosBox!

  15. Tony Garcia

    hey, what about printing support? maybe it’s now provided, but I could not print from earlier versions of Dosbox.

  16. Neil S

    I have a DOS tenpin bowling league programme written in basic and compiled through an old compiler called Turbobasic which should run on this. One problem is that it does not seem to recognise a USB printer port (it used a parallel port on earlier machines). Any suggestions to solve this?

  17. Chris Hoffman

    I’ve never tried printing, but according to the DOSBox wiki: “the emphasis has been on getting DOS games to run smoothly, which means that communication, networking and printer support are still in early development.”

    If you require better hardware support, I would try something like VirtualBox or VMware, as Ernie recommended above.

  18. Nickki Raul

    I stumbled upon dosbox last year, found Links 386 online, and am happly playing what I think is
    the best golf game ever..I really missed that game, now if I could only find alternate reality “the dungeon”
    oh well batting 500 ain’t bad.

  19. steve

    “hey, what about printing support? maybe it’s now provided, but I could not print from earlier versions of Dosbox.”

    Try printing to a text file and then manually printing that file yourself

    http://www.dsbglobal.com/dosprinter/CaptureLpt1.htm

  20. Dissident Penguin

    @Ernie Aguilar

    There are two main advantages of Dosbox vs running MS DOS in a virtual machine

    1. If you don’t have your old original DOS floppy’s and have lost your license, it is illegal for you to use MS DOS in a virtual machine. DOSBOX has no such restriction since it is free software.

    2. It doesn’t have a typical and very annoying restriction of old MS DOS. The firts 1024 kb of the available memory were divided in 640 kb of conventional memory + 128 kb of high memory which is an architectural restriction of IBM compatible machines, and was the only place where system and drivers could be loaded. As games and sound card drivers grew bigger, developers started to migrate to Windows.

    There are a few good games that can not be played with sound if you want CD support, etc.

  21. Chris Hoffman

    Just to build on that — you don’t have to use MS-DOS if you want to run DOS in a virtual machine. You might try something like FreeDOS ( http://www.freedos.org/ ) instead. It’s possible this has some limitations and isn’t compatible with every MS-DOS application, but I’m not aware of them.

    @Dissident Penguin

    Thanks for the very informative comment.

  22. Martijn Van Loocke

    I just wanted to point out something very useful to people like me who prefer not to have to use the command line. Just create a shortcut to dosbox somewhere and drag-and-drop the exe for the program you want to run on the shortcut. Voila, it starts. No mounting, ect…

  23. Chris Hoffman

    Thanks for the tip. Hopefully that works properly if you need to run an “install” program first — I’ve never tried it.

  24. Jason

    Windows 3.1 wasn’t an operating system. It was an environment, like GeoWorks Ensemble or Quarterdeck DesqView. It still depended on DOS for low-level system functions, which is why (for example) filenames were still limited by the 8 character base and 3 character extension scheme of DOS or why it still mattered if drivers were loaded in the first 640KB of RAM or not. A true operating system provides its own low level system functions and does not require another operating system to boot prior to itself and handle system calls during its execution.

  25. Chris Hoffman

    True enough, Jason. Windows 3.1 is still commonly considered an operating system though — just a shorthand that isn’t completely accurate.

    Does that mean Windows 98 and Windows ME weren’t operating systems either, though? They were still built on top of DOS. Not very good architectures, there.

  26. Rusty

    I have recently discovered DOSBox, and while I am quite new to this and emulation in general, you can just drag the game .exe file to the DOSBox icon and it will mount the file. Saves a lot of time I think.

  27. Ernie Aguilar

    @Dissident Penguin
    @Chris Hoffman

    Great input guys, I run mostly FreeDos in VM’s. But I do a MS-DOS 6.2 license and set of disks.

    For those trying to use USB, ETC on DosBox…. if you run a Virtual Machine in Windows Vista or Windows7 (my experience) all USB connected devices are available although if you try printing you may have to settle for a “generic printer” driver on your Host OS so Dos can use it. But DOS will also use USB drives connected.

    Another plus for using a VM instead.

  28. kenedy123

    Thanks for giving the more information about the How To Use DOSBox To Run DOS Games and Old Apps.

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