Retro gaming challenge! Windows 8 versus classic PC games

Retro gaming challenge! Windows 8 versus classic PC games

Windows 8 is great for running today's games, but what about classics from PC's golden age of gaming? The results are mixed.

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 DOSwith all its arcane memory-management horrors and divergent graphics APIsto 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 dollarssometimes 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 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 WarsJedi 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Windows games

Ironically, I had more issues getting old Windows games to run on Windows 8. Several ran with minor glitches, and a couple refused to run at all.

Jagged Alliance 2 is a classic, turn-based tactical combat game in which you lead a band of mercenaries, each with a distinct personality, through the liberation of a fictional Latin American country. The game shipped in 1999 for Windows 95. However, in my tests the version on Good Old Games wouldn't run: When I tried to start the game, the first bit of music fired up, but all I got after that was a black screen and silence. I suspect the issue is more sound- than graphics-related, but the Compatibility Troubleshooter didn't yield any success either.

Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns is an oddly named real-time strategy game. It's an unusual mix. First, you engage in area control, where you take cities by capturing them, which generates more resources. The units you command level up, making them stronger over time. You can customize the units as well, giving them, for example, a generic infantry unit scouting capability. Finally, the "immortal" parts are the heroes, which add more strength and flavor to your armies. No game since has managed to match this clever combination. Unfortunately, though, the game simply refuses to launch under Windows 8.

Age of Wonders 2: The Wizards Throne is a game of exploration and conquest, a kind of lightweight, fantasy version of a Civilization game. The game ran on my Windows 8 system, but the sound would cut out intermittently and the mouse pointer would occasionally fade in and out.

The first Baldur's Gate RPG from Bioware generated a lot of excitement when it initially shipped. First, it was a computer RPG based on the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition rule set. Second, it offered fully cooperative, six-player parties over local area networks. The sequel, Baldur's Gate II, used the same game engine but upped the resolution to a whopping 800 by 600.

The current version available on Good Old Games runs fine as a single-player game on Windows 8, but multiplayer seems broken. Performance issues also seem to crop up. Despite the fact that it's purely a 2D DirectX game, I was seeing only 25 to 30 frames per second on a high-end, GTX 680 graphics card. It's playable on Windows 8, but the experience isn't as good as it should be.

The rest of the games I tested seemed to run flawlessly.

Roller Coaster Tycoon was one of the first "tycoon" style games. You built a theme park and tried to attract visitors, but you always had a tight budget. It's as much a business sim as it is a strategy game. It achieved a brief notoriety when users started building unfinished roller coasters to see how far they could launch carloads of passengers into the air. The game as delivered from Good Old Games seemed to run fine in Windows 8.

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri came out not long after Civilization II, and the gameplay is similar. Unlike the Civilization series, however, Alpha Centauri tells a story, and it makes heavy use of its science fiction theme. In a sense, it's a true successor to Civilization II, since the events take place ostensibly after you've launched your starship to Alpha Centauri in Civ II. It's a deep game with brutally effective AI, so you'll need to keep playing to master it.

Freespace 2 is a combat flight simulator set in space. It tried to model physics more accurately than previous space sims did, but that made the game a little harder to play. The game also entailed a lot of huge fleet actions, which tended to make your little fighter seem insignificant. Even so, it was a fabulous title whose gameplay has yet to be replicated. It runs great under Windows 8, and the fact that it takes place in space makes it look a little less dated.

Another Bioware RPGthe one that launched the company into the Star Wars franchiseis Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. KOTOR (or SWKOTR), as its fans call it, set up the form and structure for future Bioware RPGs; you can see the influences in current Bioware titles such as the Mass Effect series. Knights of the Old Republic runs smoothly, and looks surprisingly good, on Windows 8. Not bad for a game that shipped nearly a decade ago.

Thief defined a new genre: the first-person sneaking game. You played a thief who received missions that typically involved breaking into mansions or other structures and taking items of value. You were always underpowered relative to the enemies, so engaging in combat was generally a bad idea. You can see a bit of Thief in Dishonored, a recent title from Bethesda, which is no surprise since one of Dishonored's designers was also a designer on the Thief series.

I wasted a huge amount of time on Unreal Tournament 2004 back when it first launched. You could play UT2004 cooperatively or competitively, and it was always a blast. Back in the day, my gaming group much preferred UT2004 to Quake III. The version available on Steam runs without any hitches on Windows 8, and most of the publicly available add-ons work as well.

Bottom line

Not every game I tested ran, and not every game that ran would run well. Still, I'm heartened by how many games did run on Windows 8. DOSBox continues to be a great tool for both end users and publishers, enabling classic, old-school DOS games to find new audiences. Given the "8-bit" trend among some of today's game developers, these games may find an even wider audience than mere nostalgia might indicate.

Older Windows games run for the most part, but not all of them do, and they don't always turn out well. Even some newer games have issues with Windows 8, such as Crysis 2's permanent lock to vertical sync. But if you have an older game that's a favorite, chances are good that you'll still be able to play it today.

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