Retro gaming challenge! Windows 8 versus classic PC games

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PC gaming is stronger than it has been in years, but the classic age of PC gaming has to be the mid- to late 1990s. The PC was a strong source of innovation in gaming, spawning new genres as well as the birth of real-time, online multiplayer games. That era also saw the transition from games running on DOS—with all its arcane memory-management horrors and divergent graphics APIs—to the modern era of Windows gaming.

Although most of the classic titles haven't aged well, it's still fun to go back for nostalgia's sake and check out the games of yore. But is it even possible on a modern Windows 8 PC? That's what I intended to find out.

Technical roadblocks

Running older games can be an exercise in frustration. DOS games are particularly problematic because many of them use 16-bit memory addressing and simply won't run on modern 64-bit operating systems. But this problem isn't limited to DOS-based games, since it affects some early Windows 95 titles as well.

Even somewhat newer Windows titles that ran well in the Windows 95/98 era may have problems on a modern PC. For example, some may run well once installed, but the installer itself might be 16-bit, and therefore won't run. Note that these issues aren't exclusive to Windows 8; they cropped up with Windows 7, as well. The solution, most of the time, is to grab a neat open-source emulator called DOSBox. If you want to learn the intricacies of using DOSBox to run golden-age games you may already own, check out Alex Wawro's in-depth tutorial about running old games on Windows 7.

For this article, I decided to avoid worrying about making DOSBox work, and cheat a little. Many classic games are available from Good Old Games or Valve's Steam online gaming service. Typically they cost only a few dollars—sometimes only a couple of bucks. What's cool is that the games available on these services already embed DOSBox, with optimal settings, so you don't have to install and manage an emulator.

Another hurdle: Older Windows games that might have run in the Windows 95/98/XP era may not always run cleanly on a newer machine. In addition to suffering from the previously mentioned 16-bit installer issue, some of these games may use DirectX in some arcane way that's no longer supported, or they might use hardware features that have been abstracted out in current versions of DirectX. Sometimes, if you have a problem, you can still get the games to run by using Windows' Program Compatibility Troubleshooter.

The Windows Compatibility Troubleshooter can be a big help in getting old games to run.

The tool, which also ran on Windows 7, allows you to set up the game executable so that it thinks it's running on an older version of Windows. You can let the tool apply a fix, or you can manually walk through it and apply different settings to see whether one specific combination of settings works. You need to do this only once, and Windows will remember the settings for that game.

Even given DOSBox and the Compatibility Troubleshooter, sometimes games simply don't run. Or maybe they do run, but exhibit performance problems. I looked at a number of golden-age titles to see what works, what doesn't, and what almost works in Windows 8. So follow along, and get ready for some tips on how I got stubborn titles to work after some finagling.

Games from the DOS era

First, I ran a number of classic DOS games.

Back in the day, DOS games were the gold standard for testing IBM PC compatibility. There was a time when a slew of PCs existed, not all of which were 100 percent compatible with the IBM PC, but ran MS-DOS.

A few common tips will promote better compatibility and performance for DOSBox-embedded titles. First, disable multimonitor support if you're running more than one display. Next, minimize background tasks, particularly tasks that may pop up new windows; good examples are Gmail (if someone connects to you via Google chat, a small window pops up) and Tweetdeck (which pops up a status window). Also, disable apps that generate a notification sound, such as Tweetdeck or Skype. Generally, shut down any application that might interfere with graphics or sound generation.

Before I talk about games that worked, it's worthwhile to explore a few games that gave me problems. Note that your experiences may differ from mine, given the variable nature of PC hardware. Of the DOS games I tried, I encountered only one abject failure, which I mention first. In the end, I had more success running DOS games on Windows 8 than I had with running Windows games. But this is probably more of a testament to the effectiveness of DOSBox as a PC emulator than anything else.

Ultima 4: Quest of the Avatar, a role-playing game, is one of the earliest games to present significant moral choices to the player. It's a pure DOS title, maxing out at a 320 by 200 resolution and 256 colors, and it's available through Good Old Games. I could get the game to run by using the Compatibility Troubleshooter, but the keyboard controls were completely unresponsive, so the game was unplayable.

Star Wars—Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith is a first-person shooter from 1998. It's a DOS title, but it incorporates early 3D acceleration supported by 3dfx-based cards, so you want to be sure to disable 3D acceleration in order to get the game to run. The controls are a little wonky, but the game is playable.

Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith

Red Baron is a superb example of the combat flight simulators of the day. It offered a deep campaign and realistic flight models, but you could dial back features if you weren't into flight realism.

There were actually two Red Baron games: The first was a plain-vanilla DOS title that used good old VGA graphics. The second, Red Baron 3D, made use of the primitive 3D accelerators of the time. In my tests, both games ran on Windows 8, but it's best to play Red Baron 3D with the 3D acceleration turned off (unchecked); otherwise, it doesn't run well.

Red Baron's successor, Red Baron 3D, can work, but you need to disable 3D support.

Another classic DOS title is Syndicate. In this game, you are the leader of an organized-crime enterprise, attempting to seize control from competing groups. You manage a team of four operatives in tactical combat situations. In my tests, Syndicate ran on Windows 8 with no particular issues, although it was just as tough to play as I remembered.

In Syndicate, you don't play the good guys.

The Star Control series (Star Control 1 and 2) are science fiction RPGs that involve galaxy exploration. Combat encounters, however, play out similarly to the old Asteroids arcade game. The games are a blast to play, but they're also dated, as you might expect given their original heritage on Commodore computers. DOSBox ran the PC versions of both games with no issues.

Ah, yes, Star Control brings back memories.

Fallout is the precursor to the highly popular Fallout 3, but unlike the successor game, it's not a 3D point-of-view RPG. Instead, it's an isometric game that moves in real time until combat begins; at that point, you enter a turn-based tactical mode in which you spend action points to fight enemies. Once you're out of action points, your opponents get their turn. The version from Good Old Games runs perfectly well, and I had to tear myself away so that I could check out other games. It's one of the few classics that are as good now as I remember them being when they first launched.

Fallout was darkly funny and seriously engaging.

X-COM: UFO Defense scratched a gaming itch no one knew they had when it arrived in 1994. X-COM puts you in control of an organization trying to defeat unknown alien invaders. You build bases, staff research labs, and train troops who fight the aliens in tactical, turn-based combat. It's tough and unforgiving, but also absorbing and addictive. (It's only upon the recent release of XCOM: Enemy Unknown that a similar gaming itch has been finally scratched.) The Steam version of this title runs with the embedded DOSBox just fine.

X-Com: UFO Defense was difficult but rewarding.
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