How to Run Old Games on Windows 10 (7 Excellent Methods Explained)

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How to Run Old Games on Windows 10
image courtesy of: Gremlin Interactive

Got a need to dust off and play some awesome retro CD ROM games? Want to find out how to run those games on Windows 10? If you really want the most authentic experience, the best thing to do is break out a Windows 95 laptop. But if you don’t have one handy, don’t despair. Thankfully, Microsoft has a great history of providing backward compatible Windows operating systems. Many Windows applications can be coaxed into life using tools built into Windows 10. But while some games will work easily on the latest version of Windows, others will require special system tweaks, patches, and emulators.

Why Old Games Won’t Run on Windows 10

Whether or not a game can run on Windows 10 depends on the software behind it. Fortunately, other enthusiasts (like devoted developers) want to play those old titles too.

This means that if the game is valuable to its user base, there’s likely a workaround for it. And if there’s not, well here’s a short list of reasons why it won’t play nicely with Windows 10:

  • 64-bit Doesn’t Support 16-bit Software: Modern 64-bit versions of Windows just don’t have the built-in compatibility support for older applications designed for 16-bit versions of Windows like Windows 95/98. Here’s why.
  • DOS Software: Older Windows operating systems ran on top of DOS. But Windows XP changed everything. And no version of Windows since XP runs on top of DOS, including Windows 10. While you might be able to run some DOS programs, most including games won’t work.
  • Dependence on Old Software Versions: One of the reasons why the old game you want to play won’t work on Windows 10 is because the software is likely dependent on old libraries that are simply not included with a Windows 10 installation.
  • Deprecated DRM Solutions: Depending on the age of the game, it might rely on a non-existent or deprecated DRM (digital rights management) solution, which stops the game from booting.

While every game is different, there are several tried and true third-party solutions and great workarounds for getting many retro games to run in Windows 10. Below are a few ways to boot up an old game in Windows 10.

1.    Check with Digital Storefronts

This is likely the easiest solution.

Some developers will release remastered versions of older games on digital storefronts like Steam to be compatible with modern operating systems like Windows 10. Even though you might technically be purchasing a second copy of a game you already own. You’re really paying for the convenience of not messing with Windows settings or downloading extra software.

GOG.com is a DRM-free game retailer that’s another great place to purchase and download older titles. They’re great at tracking down games from years past and making them compatible with newer operating systems. We like it because it’s one of the best sources for getting old games legally.

NOTE: While you can find and download games for free from abandonware sites. We don’t recommend it since although they’re not supported by either the developer or publisher. Games that have been abandoned by their creator are still technically under a copyright. And under U.S. copyright law, copyrights don’t expire until after 70 years.

2.    Run as Administrator

The easiest workaround for playing an old game that won’t run in Windows 10 is to run it with administrator privileges. To do so, right click the game’s .exe file and click ‘Run as administrator.’

One of the great things about Windows 10 is that it has more stringent security than even Windows XP. But that’s also the reason why if your game was released on or before 2001, it’s not working on Windows 10.

You see, older versions of Windows didn’t have the User Account Control system. It limits your permissions in day-to-day use that way you don’t accidentally delete something important. And it prevents malicious files from installing themselves automatically.

But a game from 2001 and back was written with the assumption that it wouldn’t have to deal with these limitations because video game creators simply didn’t have it to deal with back then.

If running the game as administrator doesn’t work, it’s time to try compatibility modes.

3.    Use Compatibility Mode

Using ‘run as administrator’ solves one problem. But you’ll have to repeat the process above every time you want to play your game.

To use Compatibility Mode, right-click the .exe of your game and select ‘Properties’. At the top of the window that appears, click the ‘Compatibility’ tab and tick the ‘Run this program in compatibility mode’ checkbox.

There are two options here:

  • You can click “Run compatibility troubleshooter” to automatically detect any problems for the game, which will be applied at the end of the wizard without your input.
  • Or you can manually change certain options by selecting the version of Windows the game was released for under Compatibility Mode. For instance, if your game was released in 1997 you would select Windows 95. From here, you can also select the option to always run the program as administrator.

Here you’ll find an explanation for all the tweaks you can make.

Compatibility Mode is a software mechanism that allows the operating system to emulate earlier versions of Windows by simulating certain conditions found in older versions of Windows.

In short, it uses a process called “shimming” to trick applications like games into thinking they’re running on the version of Windows for which the software was designed.

4.    Install Unsigned Drivers

Another workaround is to simply install unsigned drivers.

To do this, you’ll need to boot into a special boot menu by opening your Start Menu. Click the Power icon in the lower-left corner. Hold down the Shift key while clicking Restart.

On this menu, click Troubleshoot>Advanced options>Startup Settings>and Restart which will take you to a boot menu with a list of options you can change.

The 7th option should read “Disable driver signature enforcement.” Press F7 to boot into this menu. This mode will give you the option to install the game or any drivers it needs.

Microsoft’s move to a 64-bit architecture made it possible to use more than 4GB of RAM. It also makes computing activities more secure thanks to modern drivers that now come with a digital signature to verify their integrity.

But it has implications for activities like trying to play older games – namely, it blocks the use of unsigned drivers. And without a signature, a driver is not allowed to run. Older games rely on these drivers so you can play them.

5.    Use a Stand-Alone Emulator

Are you still holding onto those old game discs, and you have a laptop with an optical drive you’d like to play it on? Emulators are great for games that are too old or broken to work natively.

It’s been a while since Windows ran through the DOS prompt. And many games from that era were designed with the command line interface. How do you solve the problem of getting such a software to work in Windows 10?

DOSBox is one of the most popular stand-alone DOS emulators. It’s designed so you can run games created to work in DOS directly in Windows 10. Here’s a master list of compatible games.

What we really like about it is, like all emulators, there’s no legal gray area around using it. And it integrates with all the games you’ll find on digital storefronts like GOG.com.

Before you relegate that old CD or DVD game to the old relics bin, you can play it one more by installing it using DOSBox. Here’s how.

Setting Up DOSBox on Your Laptop

To install a DOS-based CD-ROM game, first create the folder in Windows where you’d like to install it, then enter the following command into DOSBox:

mount c c:\DOSGames

Next, you need to mount your CD drive to DOSBox. Using the appropriate drive on your laptop, enter the correct command into DOSBox, for example:

Mount d d:\ -t cdrom -ioctl

Now that your CD drive is mounted in DOSBox, change the active drive in DOSBox to the CD drive by entering the command ‘D:’.

Then on the next line, enter the command that corresponds to the game installer on the CD, (you may need to open the CD in File Explorer to check this). Your command line should look something like this:

Z:\>D:
D:\>install

Finally, all you need to do is follow the installer instructions to install your game.

Installing Your Game on DOSBox

With your DOS game from a CD or DVD installed in your CD drive. Just drag and drop the executable icon, which is usually a ‘.exe’ or ‘.bat’ file over the DOSBox icon, and you’ll be ready to play.

Also, if you don’t want to go through the drag and drop process each time. You can create a shortcut for the games you play most so they’ll automatically run in DOSBox.

To do so,

  • Download and install DOSBox.
  • Then create a shortcut to the DOSBox executable.
  • Then, right-click DOSBox and select ‘Create shortcut.’
  • Next, move your newly created shortcut to the place you want to open your new game from.
  • Right-click the shortcut and click ‘Properties’ > ‘Shortcut’ tab > ‘Target’ box (be sure to leave a space after the existing text). Then type the full directory path of your game’s executable file using quotation marks (“…”).
  • Finally, click ‘OK’ and rename the DOSBox shortcut using the name of your game (at this time you can also change the icon in the ‘Properties’ window) and you’re ready to play your game.

Here are more instructions on how to play a game via DOSBox.

6.    Use a Virtual Machine

But you want to know one of the most thorough ways to get games from decades past to play? Install an old version of Windows in a Virtual Machine.

If your CD-based game is made to run with an older version of Windows, it’s important to know that old Windows installers (especially from the ‘XP’ era and back) us the SecuROM DRM and aren’t always compatible with modern Windows versions. Here’s an extensive list of those games.

VirtualBox is a program that’ll let you build a virtual machine and install the version of Windows you need for your game – It’s basically another kind of emulator.

Unlike Windows 7, Windows 10 doesn’t have a Windows XP mode, which was a virtual machine with an XP license. VirtualBox allows you to create the same thing. But you’ll also need to get an XP license.

7.    Open-Source Versions & Community Patches

By searching for ‘[your game’s name here] unofficial patch’ and ‘[your game’s name here] community patch’. You can find communities ready with patches for your beloved old game.

Even obscure older titles have communities enough to keep your games updated and alive with years’ worth of bug fixes and technical improvement to keep the games modern.

Thanks to the work of these zealous communities, your older title will work in Windows 10 and even benefit from modern conveniences like HD resolutions, unlocked framerates and DirectX support – you’ll be amazed by the catalogue of games from the noughties that have been fixed and improved by years of community patch projects.

You can even find fully functional, open-source versions of the games you want complete with high resolutions and up-to-date, redesigned UIs.

Conclusion

Setting up a Virtual Machine to play retro games is a cumbersome, lengthy method to play your favorite 20- to 30-year-old games. But if you really want to play, this method will work.

Due to a desire not to lead you afoul with any legal gray areas, we only included examples of the best ways to run old games on Windows 10 that won’t get you in trouble with the law. If you want to use an emulator, we recommend NOT downloading ROMs. Instead, use the games on your old floppies or CDs.

DOXBox is great because it supports hundreds of DOS-era games on modern PCs. Communities and patches are an excellent resource because they have years’ worth of bug fixes and technical improvement to modernize the experience of your favorite game.

And it’s hard to admit. But sometimes you may have to accept the sad fact that you will never be able to relive the glory days of your beloved game again. Without someone reproducing new versions of old PC games for new platforms. That game you loved might just fade out of existence.