In the 1980s and early 1990s, DOS was to home computing what Windows is today. It was the operating system that powered everything from gaming systems to enterprise PCs. According to open-source data, there are 2422 DOS games (not including indie games that were never published or distributed).
Because of how old the OS and its supported games are, many people wonder- are DOS games free? Some publishers have made their games free by modifying the license and terms of distribution. Still, a large chunk of DOS games are considered abandonware which means that the copyright hasn’t expired, but the publisher chooses not to enforce them.
When you visit a website like Abandonware DOS, you might end up playing abandonware. However, such sites also list the purchase links for any games that are still on sale. You should buy these if you like them since they are very cheap (plus, they don’t have any pesky DRM).
Are DOS Games Free?
This varies from game to game, and publisher to publisher. Certain DOS games aren’t technically free since their license doesn’t explicitly allow free distribution. However, the corporate agency or 3rd party in charge of copyright enforcement might have gone out of business long ago.
Or the original company that held the rights might have been acquired by someone else. If the rights aren’t being enforced and the company isn’t interested in removing its games hosted on sharing platforms, then they are “free” in a practical sense. On the other hand, you have certain old games like the original Command & Conquer that were turned into freeware by publishers.
Companies make old games free to gather publicity, celebrate the series’ legacy, and attract potential customers who might buy their newer games. Some DOS games are free because the engines used to make them either went open-source or became shareware. One example is Quake, for which fan-made free versions were released after the engine became publicly available.
These fan-made “forks” of the original software are based on non-copyrighted assets and engines. So you can freely download and play them on your PC. Finally, there are DOS games that were launched as freeware or shareware (Alien Carnage’s first episode is a good example).
Where Can You Download DOS Games?
There are plenty of sites where you can either play DOS games online or download them. One such site is Abandonware DOS that I mentioned previously. You can also check out The Internet Archive, which is an excellent resource containing nearly every game released for DOS.
If you want to buy legal copies of old DOS games, check out GOG and Steam. GOG also has several posts on its forum dedicated to DOS gaming (similar case with Steam). These old DOS games are sold for very cheap prices, and there’s no reason not to buy them if you’re genuinely interested in retro gaming.
Playing Online Vs. Downloading
Don’t worry about input delay, since your actions aren’t being transmitted over the internet- the game is just running locally within your browser. Playing online is a great way to get a taste of the game, and what it feels like. Think of it as testing out a pair of shoes, or a test drive for a car you’re interested in.
If you like what you see, you can check if the game is available for purchase. Some of the DOS game-sharing sites will include purchase links to Steam or GOG if that particular game is still being sold. If it isn’t available on the market, you can download and run the game within an emulator like DOSBox.
Downloading the game guarantees long-term preservation. Just make backup copies of your downloads and put them on a thumb drive or external hard drive. That way, you will be able to preserve these old classics forever.
How To Play DOS Games?
Ever since Windows 95, Microsoft included a version of DOS within their OS for troubleshooting and backward compatibility. They stopped officially supporting this integrated DOS feature in 2001. And while the command prompt in modern Windows operating systems looks like DOS and uses the same syntax, it isn’t the same at all.
So, you need a DOS emulator- DOSBox is the most popular one, and there are several GUI frontends for it. You could also go the virtual machine route with something like VirtualBox, but that won’t emulate the original video and sound hardware of the DOS era. Plus, it won’t have the gaming-related optimizations that an emulator such as DOSBox includes.
Emulation Or Dedicated Hardware?
In the DOS gaming community, there are two factions- those that use emulators such as DOSBox, and those that prefer original hardware. The former is a much more accessible option for 99.9% of you reading this article. Unless you still own your dad’s old DOS PC from the 90s.
In this case, you might as well give it a try on the original hardware. Because certain DOS games don’t tend to behave well on modern systems, even with emulators. Plus, the experience of playing DOS games on an old CRT is just something else.
You could also try building a PC specifically for DOS gaming by fishing for used parts. You’ll need to tailor your hardware for the specific era of DOS games you want to play. An old Pentium 1 with a 3dfx graphics card and SoundBlaster audio card should work fine as a pure DOS gaming system.
Are DOS Games Freeware?
Some of them are freeware based on the license, but most are abandonware. This means you can play and download them for free, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t protected by copyright. It’s just that the developer chooses not to enforce copyrights for a 20-year-old game that maybe a thousand people play across the entire planet.
DOS games are practically free these days. But you still shouldn’t download and distribute copyrighted DOS games for profit, or else you could end up with an expensive lawsuit. The ones that are freeware can be played with no concern for legal baggage.
And you can even buy some old DOS games on Steam/ GOG on offer, they are really cheap. DOSBox is a great way to enjoy backups of your old DOS games, especially if your PC from the 1990s is no longer with you. And you can visit sites like Abandonware DOS to test out old DOS games by playing them online.