Ultima, Test Drive, Wing Commander. All games that ran on the Disk Operating System, better known as DOS. If you’re old enough to feel nostalgic about these games, then you are likely old enough to remember dealing with the nightmares that this operating system would give often you when you dare run something that would give you a moment of fun.
Unlike consoles, where gamers could just stick in a cartridge and play (with maybe only minor blowing needed), PC-DOS gamers had to deal with all the complexities of old computers and making all the pieces — memory, sound cards, joysticks, whatever — try and work together in order to get games like Deathtrack up and running. Obviously, things like crappy graphics were a problem with all past gaming, so we won’t knock DOS for that. But here are seven things particular to DOS that were a massive pain in every PC gamer’s ass.
7) Adlib and Soundblaster Cards
Unlike now where high-quality stereo sound comes built in to a system, the best an old computer could do was use its internal speaker which could give you an astonishing range of sound from screeches to grinding noise. If you were gaming, then having an Adlib-compatible card or a Soundblaster card would be a significant improvement, as you could hear music and sometimes even DIGITALLY-RECORDED VOICES! Of course, you had to first install the damn things, which involved opening a computer case designed by the Marquis de Sade, a beige box of sharp edges and skin-removing excitement. Then, after the software was installed and the system would load up, you would have to hope you had your IRQS set correctly or the system would lock up like the breaks on a semi-truck trying to stop while rolling down Mount Everest. Of course it was all worth it once you got to hear the opening MIDI to the first mission of Doom, right?
6) The Multiplayer (If It Existed)
Most games had absolutely no “multiplayer” to them, so it was single player or…nothing, really. There were a few implementations for multiplayer, though, and all of them were terrible. One solution was play a turn-based game by e-mail — provided, of course, you didn’t mind for some game to take forever. You could also play some games over a local network. Now, there’s nothing bad about getting a couple of your friends together in the same room, to play multiplayer games. In fact, it tends to make it a lot more fun. Thing is, it wasn’t so easy to network… anything back in the day. Most PCs had absolutely no networking hardware, and most networking software involved so much complexity you might have more luck using a priest to pray for your five computers to actually connect to play a game of Doom. You might spend so much time setting up the computers by the time you were ready to play you were already nearly passed-out drunk, or in a diabetic coma from too much soda, so it didn’t matter anyways.
5) Playing with a Keyboard
PCs did have mice and joysticks you could buy, but they didn’t come with those things standard. Many a PC-DOS gamer found themselves forced to play complex games with merely a keyboard. Arrow keys to move (or the number pad with the num lock off), spacebar to shoot, and then, depending on the game, the other keys would do other things, like enter might fire a missile, and numbers 1-4 might change up your weapons and so forth. Not only was trying to control things that needed precise control, like a fighter plane, with the arrow keys difficult, but many games had so many controls they had to come with separate sheets you could hang up nearby, just so players could remember what was what.
4) Dealing with Disk Space
Hard drives used to run about 20MB in size. Yes, 20MB. So, if you had a 20GB hard drive on your Xbox 360 and you considered that ridiculously small, then the hard drives of the time were 100 times more ridiculous. For example, if you installed Ultima VI on your hard drive, that would take up 4MB on your system or 20% of your available hard drive space. So then you had maybe room for three more games on your hard drive. Oh, you could always not install the games and run them off the slow-ass 5-1/4-inch floppy drives, but this involved you usually copying the disks first, which again, were slow-ass, plus low capacity, and involved you maybe copying 5-12 disks. Essentially you had to take a significant portion of your free time to manage disk space so you could actually have fun.
3) Copy Protection
Let this be an example that game publishers have always douches. Consider this – If you wanted a game you had to physically go out and get it from some place, and then it came on a disk the size of a waffle. There was no Internet to download anything from, or obtain cracks for games. Even so, publishers were so afraid that you were going to get a copy of a floppy disk from a friend, they implemented copy protection. Copy protection that was usually involving looking at some physical media involved with the game, such as “Turn to page 3, line 34 of the manual and type in the fourth word,” like you were entering codes to launch a nuclear fucking missile. Or say, something without a manual would require you to identify something like this, from Silent Service:
On the bright side, even this didn’t prevent you from finding a friend who knew a friend who had a copy of a hacked version of the game they got from some Warez BBS. So, screw you publishers, seriously.
These were a handy little files used to turn your system from a system running a monitor and keyboard to a system that would run a monitor, keyboard, mouse, sound card, load memory without screeching, a joystick and maybe even a CD-ROM Drive. Thing was of course, you had to get things all just so, or else…nothing would work. Things like setting up your AUTOEXEC.BAT as such.
set BLASTER=A220 I5 D1 T2
Yep, and without a file like this you wouldn’t get to play Star Control II.
1) Extended and Expanded Memory
Okay…okay. So, way back when, technology was somewhat pathetic, especially in the case of dealing with memory. The X86 processors at the time could only access the first 640KB of memory of a system, requiring special software to access the remaining 384KB that was set aside for running things like the monitors, the hamster required to power the system fan, etc. There were two ways to utilize this memory, using the Extended Memory thingee, and Expanded Memory whoozit. Extended Memory was useful for doing so, but most games used the other, more tricky Extended Memory, so if you had a 286 processor without some sort of hardware board installed, you would miss out on such things as bigger explosions, speech, and basically all the cool shit Wing Commander had to offer. Expanded Memory could be run in software using the 386 processor, which could also be a pain to configure. To sum up, it required a minor miracle and thousands of dollars in hardware to utilize a single megabyte of memory.