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Q: I am seeking help with getting older PC legacy games to run under Windows 10.  I’m talking really old ones — going back to earlier versions of Windows prior to XP even all the way back to DOS 6.22 and Win 3.11. I have numerous older PC games that I would like to re-visit which includes Return to Zork and others. I cannot get these older games to install let alone run. I looked online and saw a reference to installing and running something called a DOS shell? I tried downloading a DOS shell program but it was nearly impossible to install, configure and run. Help please.

– Mike M.
Odessa, Texas

A: That’s a lot of nostalgia you brought up, Mike.  I don’t believe today’s generation of up-and-coming computer users can appreciate the immersive realism of the high-resolution graphics generated by an active mind reading text-based games.  When I was a lot younger, I spent many happy hours playing the Zork titles, other text adventures, plus a whole library of early graphical offerings from the now-defunct Sierra On-line.

I can see why you might like to revisit these titles, not just for the nostalgia, but if you actually own copies of them, you probably paid a pretty penny for them back in the day.  Although they’re veritable antiques by today’s standards, it’s nice to feel like you can still wring some entertainment value out of your investment.

There is a way to do that, and you came mighty close in your attempt.  I think what took you astray is your terminology.  You don’t want a DOS shell – what you want is a DOS emulator.  A shell will allow you to do basic disk management functions, but that’s where its functionality ends.  A full-blown DOS emulator will actually attempt to provide all the functions of the OS that it’s emulating, which includes the ability to load and run DOS-compatible programs.

I’m going to go one step farther and say that what you’re looking for is a program called DOSBox, available at www.dosbox.com.  For those of you who keep track of such things, no, this doesn’t violate my rule against making specific product recommendations, because DOSBox is absolutely free, so the vendor has nothing to gain from my unsolicited endorsement.

So, Mike, beyond that solution to your problem, I’m going to offer you a little bonus and suggest you go check out the website called the Internet Archive, at Archive.org. This amazing site has literally thousands of older game titles available, many of which fall under a category that is known as abandonware; that is, software that is no longer being actively sold or supported, and whose owner may even have gone out of business.  The software may or may not still be under copyright, but as there’s no money to be made, the owner probably isn’t tracking copyright violations. 

At the Internet Archive you can play most of these old titles right in your web browser, thanks to an online version of DOSBox.  Be warned that the startup of individual titles can be a little slow, because the entire disk image has to download before it launches, and that can mean several hundred megabytes of data.  If there are titles that are large, that you find you want to run often, in order to spare your bandwidth and your patience you may find that the better option is to download the image of the software and then use a local copy of DOSBox to launch it.  In case it wasn’t obvious from that sentence, “local” means a copy installed on your own PC.

If you’d like further information on the Internet Archive, Abandonware titles that are available online, or best practices for using DOSBox, more information is just a Google search away.  One search I will suggest is “How do I run DOS programs under Windows 10?”  You’ll find several interesting articles written by various geeky sources that contain just what you’re looking for.  Good luck, and happy computing!

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