Remembering The Good, The Bad And The Ugly Of MS-DOS

If you think messing around with the user-interface of a modern console, or even a modern iteration of Windows is hard, spare a thought for anyone involved in PC gaming during the 1980s and early '90s.

Those hardy pioneers didn't need icons or dashboards. They used letters and arcane commands, which were the bread and butter of an operating system called MS-DOS.

MS-DOS stood for "Microsoft Disk Operating System", and for over a decade was the primary way most people interacted with their PC. Lacking a graphical user interface (like the mouse control and representative icons and bars of Windows), MS-DOS required people to learn command lines and punch them into a stark, almost blank screen.

For example, say you wanted to play a game. You first had to navigate to the drive the game was stored be entering its letter (for most people, c:). Then you had to get to the folder the game was stored in (so, for example, c:\games\TIE). Then you had to execute the file yourself (finding the name of the executable file, like tiefighter.exe). All of this was done by punching in short commands, like c: to go to a disk, cd tiefighter to choose a directory, etc.

MS-DOS came about in the early 1980s when Microsoft was chosen by IBM to provide the operating system for a new line of PCs. Because they didn't have one of their own, on July 27, 1981, they purchased something called 86-DOS (or Q-DOS, also known as the quick-and-dirty-operating-system) from Seattle Computer Products. It cost Microsoft all of $US75,000.

The first version of MS-DOS was released in 1982, and would continue to be the most common means of operating with a PC until the release of Windows 95 in, well, 1995. While it wasn't exactly easy to learn the secrets of MS-DOS, once a gamer had become reasonably familiar with how it ran, they could exploit its raw flexibility to customise their software to an extent rarely possible today.

MS-DOS became so synonymous with the PC, in fact, that in many instances games for the platform were listed not as PC games, or IBM-PC games, but MS-DOS titles, named for the operating system and not the manufacturer.

Any old-time PC gamer could no doubt recall a time when hours, or even days were spent digging through commands and executables (or even fashioning one-off custom "boot disks", which booted a system specifically for the needs of one game.

My personal favourite memory is, having purchased Wing Commander III upon release, I proceeded to spend over a week trying to get it running on my 486 SX/33. Which was below the minimum requirements for the game. Eventually, somehow, I pulled it off, and while it took almost 20 minutes to load a mission, the actual game ran fine.

When Microsoft released Windows 95, its first serious attempt at an all-in-one operating system with a graphical user interface, MS-DOS' days were numbered. Its last stable, official release was in 2000, and in terms of Microsoft applications it really only lives on whenever you need to access Windows' command line interface.

That said, for PC gamers, the good old days live on with fan-favourite application DOSBox, which not only creates a stable shell within which old PC games can run on modern hardware, but even forces the user to use old DOS commands to start up their games.

Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.

(Top image by Verbartin/deviantART)


    QBasic integrated with the later 6.x rocked!

    What about windows 3.1?

      Technically Windows 3.x generation was not an OS as such but a management interface as it required MS-DOS to run in any fashion. Windows 95 and after did not require the presence of DOS to execute.

    Ahh I remember the old battles with MSCDEX when the first CDROMs came out, boy it was a nuisance esp trying to work it from 1.44mb floppy to install Windows... memories *sniff*

    I was so proud of myself when I was able to build a simple menu into autoexec.bat that would allow me to boot up my 486 in multiple configurations. Nothing was more annoying than trying to find that last little extra kilobyte of base memory to convince a game to run in DOS...

    Until the games then started complaining about the amount of EMS.

    Or XMS.

    Or both.

      No time better spent than running MemMaker for the best config of HIMEM.sys, EMM386.exe or QEMM, just so we could play the latest game.

      Scary thing is by the MSDOS 6.x end of life you didn't need to run MemMaker and could assign the LoadHigh drivers in best order of fit and off the top of your head get the right amount of Upper Memory required.

      I too did the multiple config. It had one option for my Dad so he could run his Win 3.11 and the rest were for various games hehehe.

    Up at 11:30pm on the weekend with my little brother (late night for a 10yr old) using QBasic to teach the tone generator to play 'Smoke on the Water'. Then we programed it to call people rude things when they pressed different keys.

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