PCs are all about backwards compatibility, but this can lead to problems. Games designed for DOS or even just earlier versions of Windows may not work properly on modern versions of Windows without some tweaking.

We’ll walk you through the basic things you need to know when trying to troubleshoot games — much of this applies even if you’re purchasing old games from Steam.

Use DOSBox for DOS Games

Most DOS games won’t work on modern versions of Windows if you try to run them in the Command Prompt. The Command Prompt doesn’t provide a complete DOS environment that emulates low-level access to Sound Blaster cards and all the other things DOS games depended on.

To run old DOS games on modern versions of Windows, just install DOSBox. DOSBox is also available for Mac and Linux, so you can run classic DOS games on any PC operating system. Versions of DOSBox have also been ported to Android and iOS.

To get started, fire up DOSBox and mount the DOS game’s directory in it. You can then use DOSBox as if you were using an old PC running DOS. If a game doesn’t work properly, perform a Google search for the game’s name as well as “DOSBox” and you’ll find tips from other users who were setting this up.

DOSBox is so good that many old DOS games sold on sites like Steam and GOG come preconfigured to work with DOSBox, allowing you to play them without doing any configuration yourself. If you have the old games lying around, you don’t have to buy them again — just tweak DOSBox.

Run as Administrator

Some older games must be run as Administrator and won’t work properly if run as a standard Windows user account with limited privileges.

To run an older game as Administrator if it’s not working properly, right-click its shortcut or .exe file and select Run as Administrator. Don’t do this if you can help it — it’s best to run games normally unless they require this.

If the game does require it be run as administrator, you can set it to always run as administrator. Right-click the game’s shortcut, select Properties, and choose the Compatibility tab. Click the Run this program as an administrator checkbox and the game will always run as administrator.

Tweak Windows Compatibility Settings

Windows has compatibility mode settings that allow you to trick games into thinking they’re running on previous versions of Windows. This can be useful if a game that ran properly on previous versions of Windows — whether it’s Windows XP or Windows 95 — is crashing or just won’t run correctly.

To access these settings, right-click the game’s shortcut, select Properties, and choose the Compatibility tab. Enable compatibility mode and set it to a previous version of Windows that worked with the game.

Update Your Graphics Drivers

Updating your graphics drivers won’t likely solve issues with older games, but newer games may have issues or perform slowly if you’re using older graphics drivers. You should update your graphics drivers regularly if you play games on your PC. Graphics hardware manufacturers are constantly updating their drivers and optimizing them for new games.

Install Official Patches

If you’ve pulled the discs for a ten-year-old PC game out of your closet, you will probably want to patch it before you play it. Download the latest official patches from the developer’s website and install them. These will hopefully fix issues with modern versions of Windows as well as other bugs that may be included in the game. Modern games often automatically update themselves with built-in updaters, but older games often don’t.

Edit Configuration Files

Many games have special options that are only found in their configuration files. For example, many older games may not provide an option for modern screen resolutions such as 1920×1080 in their video options menu. Rather than play the game at a lower resolution and have subpar graphics, you can often open one of the game’s configuration files and fill in the resolution you need — while a resolution may not be available in the menus, it may work properly if you enter it in the configuration files manually. Look up the edits you need to make on Google or use the PC Gaming Wiki for information specific to individual games.

Install Fan-Created Mods and Patches

Some games are released before they were ready, or the developer may no longer be providing support for them. In some cases, the developer may have gone out of business over a decade ago and may no longer even exist. For well-loved older games, you can often improve your game experience by installing fan-created patches that modify the game and improve it, fixing bugs, updating it to run on modern versions of Windows, and even get around to adding and fixing content that the developers never had time to add.

Some examples of fan-created patches that make a big difference include:

  • The NewDark patch for Thief II and System Shock 2, which allows the games to run at much higher resolution and fixes other issues with modern versions of Windows.
  • The Unofficial Patch for Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, which is still being updated nine years after the release of the game and fixes many bugs found in this prematurely released game.
  • The Restored Content Mod for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, which fixes bugs and adds entire areas found in the game files, making them playable.
  • DSfix for Dark Souls, which unlocks the game’s resolution and allows you to play the game at 1920×1080 instead of its default resolution of 1024×768.
  • Many third-party engines for the original DOOM games, which allow you to play them with improved graphics and controls on a variety of operating systems.

These should give you an idea of what’s possible, even when developers don’t give fans the tools to modify and improve their games. Well-loved old games often have communities dedicated to fixing and improving them — not to mention all the original fan-created content. Fans also create texture packs for old games that improve their graphics on modern machines.

Finding Information For Specific Games

For more information on troubleshooting issues with a specific PC game, head over to the PC Gaming Wiki. This is a central location where information about fixing problems in games can be found. You won’t have to dig through forum thread after forum thread to figure out what you need to do.

Controlling NVIDIA Optimus on Modern Laptops

Some modern laptops include both NVIDIA and Intel graphics. The Intel graphics are used for non-gaming purposes to save battery power, while the NVIDIA graphics are enable in games for better performance. This is supposed to happen automatically when you open a game, but NVIDIA’s software won’t automatically detect every single game. If you have a laptop with NVIDIA’s Optimus technology and a game is performing way too slowly, it may be using the Intel graphics. Close the game and manually run it with the NVIDIA graphics hardware.

PC gaming can be daunting to people who are more experienced with consoles. The reality is that modern games should work fine with no real tweaking required, while even many games over a decade old work fine today. However, you’ll occasionally run into issues — especially with older games — and you can usually fix them if you know what to do and where to look for more information.

Image Credit: Guilherme Torelly on Flickr

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Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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