DOSBox: DOS Emulator

Want to run yesterday’s software on today’s hardware? No problem…

It’s been nearly 19 years since Microsoft released the last version of MS-DOS. While other MS-DOS “clones” exist (i.e. FreeDOS, etc.,) MS-DOS has largely been phased out and replaced with full graphical user interfaces like Microsoft’s Windows (which was no longer a shell of DOS in Windows NT and Windows XP) and Apple’s macOS.

Despite this, MS-DOS (and its sister, PC-DOS) is still used for nostalgic purposes, or to run legacy programs that are still needed but have not been ported to a newer, contemporary OS. Mostly, however, MS-DOS is more used for the former: playing games and experiencing the 1980s computing environment.

Today, you have a couple options to running MS-DOS and its programs:

Option 1 is to lay down the money and buy a period computer, such as an IBM PC or PS/2, Tandy, etc., that runs MS-DOS and is compatible with your programs. But that can be a pricey endeavour and the hardware is over 20 years old, in some cases (like the IBM PC) nearing their 40th birthday. Along with this, you do get the true PC experience – from the fun of having your own vintage computer hardware to the hardships it brings (i.e. configuring settings.) Plus, old computer hardware isn’t just pricey alone – you also have to buy accessories and cards. Want audio? You’re going to need a SoundBlaster. Want video? You’re going to need to buy a CGA or VGA video card? This may sound easy, but some cards are rare – especially those for proprietary or rarely-used expansion ports like IBM’s Microchannel expansion ports.

Option 2 is to setup a virtual machine, such as VMware, and run an actual copy of MS-DOS or one of its clones.

Option 3 is what this entry is about – installing DOSBox. While DOSBox may not be as nice as having your own IBM PC or PS/2, it offers some advantages. First, it’s cheap… actually free. Second, it’s easy to setup. DOSBox is similar to running DOS in a “general purpose” virtual machine like VMware, except DOSBox is configured to run specifically DOS and already has emulated sound drivers, etc. for maximum performance and reliability.

For someone like me who wants to learn more about DOS and enjoy classic DOS software like games but doesn’t have the money to purchase a vintage computer, the DOSBox option is probably the best choice.

Now, let’s talk about the games and software I’ve ran in DOSBox and my DOSBox “setup.”

My Configurations

I installed DOSBox on three of my computers for testing purposes: my ThinkPad W541, the IBM ThinkPad T42 and – to test out the software’s compatibility with macOS – my early 2014 MacBook Air.

That brings up another good point: DOSBox will run on a variety of desktop operating systems. Windows, macOS, Linux and BSD are among them.

DOSBox also has very lax system requirements. Basically the only requirements is that your machine has SVGA and runs a supported operating system, meets the minimum requirements of the software you’re running and that your machine has a port of libsdl. (Learn more about DOSBox’s system requirements here.)

After installing and successfully running some software in DOSBox initially on my ThinkPad W541, I installed the program on the MacBook. DOSBox runs well in macOS High Sierra.

From there, I installed DOSBox on my ThinkPad T42. Since, I’ve mainly used DOSBox on the T42, and that is where the screenshots and “experience” for this post come from.

We’ll be running DOSBox on the IBM ThinkPad T42.

I did notice that DOSBox will stutter on the T42 when the processor is working on another task. For instance, if you’re listening to music or watching something in DOSBox in the background while doing something else (such as copying files,) DOSBox will start to stutter and run very slow. It returns to normal when you go back to DOSBox. It’s very similar to how Bleeper Music Maker (BMM) behaves on the XPavilion.

Speaking of software stuttering in DOSBox when the processor is working on another task, let’s talk about some of the software I tinkered with inside DOSBox.

DOSBox Software

A wide variety of DOS games and software is compatible and will run. For games, DOSBox has a database of compatibility of various DOS games with DOSBox.

I chose to run seven programs: Kewanee Boiler’s SmartSelect, DOSMID, Ford Simulator (1988), Buick Dimensions (1993 and 1994), Lemmings and Pepper’s Adventures in Time. Throughout, I’ll discuss the software, how it runs and feature plenty of screenshots.

Helpful Hint: I had issues loading Ford Simulator, Lemmings and Pepper’s Adventures in Time. All programs would not work as the executable could not locate any of the supporting files. When running programs in DOSBox, you can’t install the files in one folder and mount that folder. You have to mount each program’s sub-folder as a different drive. After discovering this, everything worked perfect.

SmartSelect

In 1992, Kewanee Boiler published a piece of software that would allow users to create a proposal for purchasing a boiler. The software doesn’t tell you much about the boiler models Kewanee offered, but just rather acted as a boiler-plate template for a proposal.

After opening the SmartSelect software, you’re greeted with this screen. The “Output File” allows you to save the proposal for future reference or printing.

Kewanee only released the SmartSelect software for scotch marine boilers; I do not believe they produced a version for firebox boilers.

After entering the file path where you’d like the proposal to be saved, it will ask you a series of questions on the installation. It also asks you the quantity of boilers and their size and configuration.

After answering numerous questions on boiler size and output, gas supply, oil supply, electrical supply and accessories desired – the program will present you with a list of data.

Remember the splash screen that asked you for a file path? The program produces a document that serves as a proposal and includes information input in the program.

DOSMID

Back when MS-DOS reigned as one of the most popular operating systems, sound as we know it didn’t exist. MP3, WAV and similar audio formats did not exist in the 1980s and were in their infancy in the 1990s.

Rather, most PCs (IBM PCs and PC clones) relied on a speaker to make basic, one-bit tones. Most early PCs used a full-sized speaker, while later computers used piezoelectric buzzers like those used by Bleeper Music Maker.

Another option was MIDI: musical instrument data interface. To use MIDI, PCs required the installation of a sound card capable of reproducing MIDI files by acting as a synthesizer. Popular sound cards included AdLib and Creative Sound’s infamous SoundBlaster line. Most used Yamaha chips.

DOSBox already comes pre-configured to play MIDI files. But to actually play files, you’ll need software. And this is where DOSMID comes in.

DOSMID allows you to play MIDI files with an interface displaying song data such as instruments and when they’re being used.

DOSMID while playing the William Tell Overture

DOSMID and DOSBox does not use the samples in Windows to produce the audio, rather it has its own sample bank. So the produced audio does sound different, and sounds more period correct. (More 8-bit like.)

Ford Simulator (1988)

It may be no surprise that car manufacturers quickly realized that they could market cars by producing computer software that would allow perspective buyers an interactive way of learning about their offerings. Most manufacturers would produce new software each year until the late 1990s, when the web started to become a more common way of distributing information.

Today we’ll look at three versions: the Ford Simulator from 1988, and Buick’s “Buick Dimensions” program from 1993 and 1994.

Ford produced the “Ford Simulator” from 1988 to 1996, when Ford started marketing their cars online. Today I’ll look at the 1988 version, as that is what I quickly found. (I did find other versions, and may try them out in a separate entry.)

Ford Simulator 1988 gives you two options: to start in the simulator (simul.exe) or the buyer’s guide (buyers.exe.) The main menu in the simulator is broken so that you are unable to load the buyer’s guide from the simulator. (To access the buyer’s guide, you have to exit out to DOS and load buyers.exe.)

The simulator starts with the Ford logo and then a main menu that gives you three options: THE “Ford Simulator”, the Ford Buyer’s Guide (once again, broken link) and Ford Customer Response. I wonder what would happen if you printed out the customer response form and sent it to Ford today?

Ford Simulator splash screen.
The main menu presents you with three options: Ford Simulator, Buyer’s Guide and Customer Response.

As you can already tell, Ford Simulator runs in CGA color mode. Better like cyan and pink.

The Ford Simulator allows you to choose to “test drive” one of 16 models offered at the time. Ford also included Lincoln and Mercury models in the program, as well.

You can choose one of 16 models to “test drive” – ranging from Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models.

The actual “test drive” experience is very similar on each model. The only difference is some models have a manual stick-shift on the dashboard; others are automatic.

Nearly all models have the same interior view

Unfortunately, I couldn’t go very far. I was able to get the Ranger (whose simulator has a manual transmission) to go a little bit, but nothing happened on the Ford Taurus. Hmm…

The experience is about what you’d expect… the car doesn’t go very fast, arrow keys turn, etc. I will say that the Ford Simulator has some strange key functions. For instance, to accelerate the vehicle, you’re supposed to use CapsLock and/or the space bar.

There was another cool thing in Ford Simulator. Press F8 and you’ll be greeted with the “Ford Infocenter,” which shows you the difference between a front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive vehicle.

The Ford Infocenter shows you the difference between front-wheel, rear-wheel and all-wheel drive systems in a simplified, animated diagram.

That is it for THE Ford Simulator. Now let’s take a peek at the Buyer’s Guide, which shows the price of cars back in 1988.

An introduction for the Ford Buyer’s Guide…
You could learn more about nearly every Ford, Lincoln and Mercury model offered at the time, along with its base MSRP.

The main screen shows all models with the base MSRP. The funny thing about this program is my dad purchased a 1988 Ford Ranger new, and my first car – the Pintomobile – was a 1989 Ford F-150.

Choosing a model will take you to its page, where you can view specifications, options and even print a window sticker.

Now that we’ve seen what Ford had to offer in 1988, what did Buick offer five years later?

1993 Buick Dimensions

No, the Buick Dimensions wasn’t the name of some car model sold by GM’s Buick Motor Division back in 1993. Rather, it was the name of Buick’s software that people could use to learn more about their cars.

YouTube user uxwbill has two videos demonstrating older versions of the Buick Dimensions software. He demonstrates the 1990 version for the Macintosh in a video I embedded below.

The 1990 Buick Dimensions for Macintosh, as demonstrated by uxwbill.

By 1993, Buick Dimensions had grown more graphical and colorful, as VGA became more common.

Dana and Derek, car designers at Buick, will be “showing you around” the Buick models of 1993.

Compared to Ford Simulator 1988 and the 1989 and 1990 versions of Buick’s Dimensions software for MS-DOS, the 1993 version is more graphical and lets you use a mouse to click on options. Although you can use a mouse, Buick left the function key options in there, so that those without a mouse could still play along.

On the splash screen, you’re welcomed by two co-hosts, Dana and Derek, who are designers for the Buick Motor Division of General Motors. They randomly pop up throughout the program, but not very often and just briefly.

The 1993 Buick Dimensions allows you to use a mouse cursor for navigation, though function key options are still present.

Unlike Ford Simulator, Buick Dimensions will not let you take their models for a spin. However, the Buick Dimensions program was packed with a lot of great information to inform perspective car buyers in 1993.

Just as you’d expect – Buick goes into great detail about every car model they offered in 1993.

Unlike Ford Simulator 1988 and Buick Dimensions 1989 and 1990, the technology matured enough to allow for fairly decent photos of real cars to be used in the program. No more drawings of cars.

Within a car model, you can view the standard equipment among other things.

While Ford Simulator 1988 only provided basic specifications and features, Buick Dimensions 1993 goes into greater detail. Even the standard equipment page is filled with specifications that Ford Simulator 1988 didn’t provide.

But wait, there’s more! There are other tabs for each car, letting you see technical specifications such as horsepower, etc. Buick Dimensions 1993 discusses the color schemes offered, but doesn’t offer any examples.

See that “Classics” button? That will show you an older version of the selected model and discuss what made it special.

You know what this means? From what I could tell, each incarnation of the Buick Dimensions program was “themed.” The 1993 theme was history, probably because they were celebrating their 90th anniversary.

Returning to the main menu, the second option is “Your Buick Dealer.” This, as you can probably tell, is going to talk about your dealer and what makes them special.

Strangely, the safety features Buick used at the time were implemented in the “Dealer” section. Hmm… The Safety page has a diagram of a LeSabre with its safety features pointed out. You can click on them to learn more about said feature.

The third option on the main menu – “American Quality by Design” – is somewhat odd. It lists each decade since Buick’s founding. A first page talks about the technical revolutions for that decade, then a second screen talks about Buick’s innovations made that decade.

I didn’t know the IBM PC was introduced in the 1970s???
OK, there are some minor inaccuracies on this page. IBM did not introduce DOS, it was Microsoft who introduced MS-DOS.

Lastly, you can play a fun trivia game that asks you an assorted mix of general history and Buick history questions. Everything is sorted into decades, like the “American Quality by Design” section.

The last oddity of this program continues when you go to exit back to DOS. When exiting, the program reminds you of a certificate that can redeemed when buying a new Buick for a Sharper Image gift certificate. Then it has an ad for The Sharper Image.

That wraps up what Buick’s Dimensions program offered in 1993. What about one year later?

1994 Buick Dimensions

Like golf?

If so, you’ll love the 1994 version of the Buick Dimensions program. It has a section that lets you play a round of golf.

But why? Buick sponsored a PGA golf tournament called the “Buick Open” from 1958 to 2009 in Michigan.

Like golf? Buick’s 1994 “Dimensions” has a golf game – yes, a golf game – included.

Besides the golf game, the 1994 version is similar. Dana and Derek are no longer in the program, and instead of having the theme of “history” – the 1994 theme was golf and assembly line. The program lets you look at the various components of the car as they’re installed on the assembly line.

Unlike in the 1994 version, there is a “Buick Selector” – which will help you find the perfect car for you.

In the assembly line/car model information section, you only see a LeSabre being manufactured. But they use that to talk about the features of other car models, like the Century and Skylark. Strange.

Other than that, there really isn’t much to talk about in regards to the 1994 version of the software. They did get rid of the “ad” for The Sharper Image, but the program still displays the credits when it spits you back to DOS.

Just as the 1993 version did, the 1994 version displays credits after it spits you back to DOS. Both programs were made by The Inmar Group of San Antonio, Texas.

Lemmings

So far, we’ve seen a Ford car simulator, a history trivia game and a golf game. Now it’s time to get into the real games – you know, the games that were meant to be just games.

One of the more popular games of the late 1980s and early 1990s was Lemmings. Lemmings didn’t get its start in DOS. In fact, the MS-DOS port wasn’t as successful as the versions for the Commodore 64, Amiga and the Macintosh.

Nonetheless, there was a MS-DOS port. And I downloaded it to play in DOSBox.

The Lemmings menu in VGA
Lemmings in CGA

The software includes a version for computers with both VGA and CGA graphics. Since I’m running this game in emulation, it makes more sense to go with VGA and get more colors.

Lemmings has one of the more better soundtracks for computer games of this era. The MS-DOS music, unfortunately, doesn’t compare to the music found in the Macintosh version or the ports for other computers.

Lemmings plays fairly decent in DOSBox. Everything works as it should, at least from what I could tell.

It was fun to get to play Lemmings after seeing the game played many times on YouTube, where most people use period hardware to play it.

I made it through about 10 or 11 levels of Lemmings before moving on to something else. It is fairly decent game and can be somewhat challenging at times.

[Learn more about Lemmings.]

Pepper’s Adventures in Time

Pepper’s Adventures in Time was the piece of software I didn’t really get too far in to, but was the first game I installed in DOSBox. The game was a point-and-click adventure game produced by Sierra Entertainment in 1993.

The Pepper’s Adventures in Time animated splash screen

Pepper’s Adventures in Time gave me a little difficulty, as it would never load correctly. Turned out I needed to load the files as though they were on their own floppy disk – mount the Pepper’s folder as its own drive. After doing that and running “sierra.exe”, the game ran fine.

Pepper’s Adventures in Time is a point in click game, so you will need a mouse to play it. I did get through the introduction, but didn’t go any farther.

The Pepper’s Adventures in Time introduction, with Pepper and her dog, Lockjaw.

DOSBox is a cool program to play around with if you want to run MS-DOS software and games but don’t want (or can’t) buy a vintage computer system.

There are other vintage system emulators I’d like to try soon, such as the Macintosh emulator.


Software Downloads

Want to try DOSBox and the programs featured in this post for yourself? Here is a link to download the programs.

Beware: software marked with the asterisk (*) are hosted on a site that contains advertisements that may disguise themselves as Download buttons. Please be cautious.

I assume no responsibility for any issues or malicious content found on the linked sites or software.

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