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 $75,000.

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 twenty 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.

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(Top image by Verbartin | deviantART)

You can contact Luke Plunkett, the author of this post, at plunkett@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.