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Play DOS Games on Your Mac with Boxer

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Have you ever felt like playing some old video games on a quiet afternoon with nothing else to do? I’m not talking about Donkey Kong or even Pac-Man. No no, DOS is classic. Retro games like ZORK, King’s Quest V, and Captain Comic belong on this platform. It’s one of the more extraordinary gaming experiences and can be strange if you’re not used to pixelation. Today I’m going to give you a full walkthrough on how to play any DOS title you can get your hands on using your Mac and a fancy app called Boxer.


Download and Install Boxer

The first thing you need to do in order to play DOS games on your Mac effortlessly is download the latest version of Alun Bestor’s free app, Boxer. It’s powered by DOSBox, the most powerful and popular DOS emulator available on the Mac. (Boxer isn’t actually an emulator, but rather a tool that makes accessing the games far easier than anything command-line.) Once you’ve downloaded and unzipped the file, just drag Boxer.app to your Applications folder and double-click it to begin.


Where to Get Games

I'm a man of refined taste.
I'm a man of refined taste.

Before proceeding, you’ll probably want to download a few DOS games from various sources across the Internet. In order to find some good games before downloading them, I suggest using MobyGames as your main resource. Search and browse that website until you find something of interest, then head over to the DOS Games Archive, Liberated Games, or Google to find what you need. Games are available as freeware, others shareware, and even some as paid commercial games — GOG, Steam, and eBay come in handy for these.

The one and only DOS game that I ever wanted to play on my Mac was Zork.

The one and only DOS game that I ever wanted to play on my Mac was Zork, so I headed over to Infocom’s corresponding page to download it. Now, when it comes to these kind of games, you don’t want to download the Mac version because that’s meant for classic Mac OS (9.x and earlier) and you won’t get anywhere with it in Lion or Mountain Lion.

Instead, click the “Zork I” link to grab the Windows version of this game in a ZIP file. I’ll show you how to install it in Boxer in a few moments, but first let’s discuss a few games you should definitely get.

Must-Haves

Since you might be young and don’t even know what a DOS system is, I’m going to give you a few recommendations on what games to download. But first, go skim the Wikipedia listing for DOS.

  • The Zork Anthology: Not always one of the easiest games to come by, Infocom’s Zork is my favorite DOS game of all time. GOG offers the original trilogy, Beyond Zork, Zork Zero, and Planetfall for a mere $5.99. Beware: anything you purchase on GOG can only be installed on a Windows machine, but you can always copy the files over to Boxer afterwards. If you don’t care for the fluff and would rather just play the original trilogy, it’s available on Infocom’s Zork Downloads page for free.
  • Command & Conquer: Red Alert: This is the best strategy game of all time. The only recommendation I can give is to play it. You can download the original Command & Conquer: Red Alert demo at MobyGames for free. If you want to purchase the game, it’s available at EA’s website.
  • King’s Quest IV, V, and VI: I’ve found these three games to be a very entertaining point-and-click adventures from 1990. They cost $9.99 on GOG and are worth every penny.

Installing and Playing Games

This app has quite the user interface for a simple emulator GUI, eh?
This app has quite the user interface for a simple emulator GUI, eh?

There’s really not a whole lot to know about installing games in Boxer. It comes with Commander Keen 4 preinstalled, along with demos of Epic Pinball, Ultima Underworld, and X-COM: UFO Defense. But you probably didn’t download this app just to play the preloaded stuff. For those of you who would rather play whatever you want using Boxer, I suggest you follow the very short, yet detailed step-by-step guide that I’ve composed below.

Installing

Good old .BAT files come to haunt you during your install process.
Good old .BAT files come to haunt you during your install process.
  1. Open Boxer and click “Import a new game”.
  2. Drag and drop any source you want to use, whether it be a CD, folder, or .DMG/.ISO. Remember that ZIP files won’t work unless they’re unzipped first.
  3. Some games will require that you launch the installer (typically install.bat) to finish adding the game to your Boxer collection. You should only skip this if you’ve previously installed the title.
  4. The installation process can vary depending on the game, but it should only take you a few steps to complete. If there ended up being no install.bat to run, you should have just got a “Congratulations” screen telling you that everything went well and asking you to name your new title for the game selection screen. You can then launch the game, show the new files in Finder, or close the window; the latter will not undo the installation.
I smell trouble, boss.
I smell trouble, boss.

Tip: Sometimes installing the game won’t work and you’ll get the screen above. In that case, try a different source if you can.

But It’s a Flop!

If you have any old diskettes, well, you’ll need to get a USB floppy drive or pull out that old elderly Monorail or IBM to pull off the files — I recommend the former though. There’s always the CD method if you happen to have one of those shiny things laying around, but it’s more likely you’ll find the game you want online or on a 3.5-inch floppy disk. Once you do get those files off, just drag them to Boxer’s import window like you would a game from any other source.

Playing

This is one of my favorites; can you find your way through the puzzling world of Zork?
This is one of my favorites; can you find your way through the puzzling world of Zork?

Sometimes things can be more complicated than the simple drag-and-drop this app provides. Once the full installation is finished and you run the game, Boxer might open a DOS prompt window at C:> asking which file you’re going to use to play the game with.

For Zork, the game name with a .BAT extension always worked fine for me. I’m not sure what .COM extensions do, but I think they have to do with the games functionality more than launching the game. If you chose the wrong file, just close things, go back to the game selection screen, and double click the title to reopen it.

Tip: If you clicked “Launch every time” on the wrong file, click the magnifying glass in the bottom left corner of Boxer, go to the Game tab and select whichever file you meant to use. Sometimes it’s not even on the list, in which case you can select “Other…”

To launch games, you can either click the “Browse your games” button on the main Boxer screen or go to a DOS prompt window to do it manually. Boxer themes the games folder in Finder to resemble a wooden bookshelf, which might confuse you, but the files are still there and games can be launched with a double-click.

You can save command-line games (Zork, for example) by typing the “save” command into the DOS prompt. If you want to save it to a different virtual disk, you can add a new one in the Inspector’s Drives tab. Click the + button, navigate to where you’d like the disk to be stored, select what you’d like to label it (A-W), select what type of disk you’d like to make it (hard disk, CD-ROM, or floppy), and check read-only if you wish.


Tips and Tricks for Fine Tuning

You wouldn't want to lose your progress, now would you?
You wouldn't want to lose your progress, now would you?

You might want more than the basic experience in one of your games and Boxer offers many options to do that. I’ve made a list of the various modifications you can make to the settings in this app for your reference.

  • Speed up your mouse: If your cursor is moving around too slow for a game’s sensitivity, you can always adjust it by going to the Inspector (that magnifying glass in the bottom left corner when a game is open), clicking the Mouse tab, and adjusting the slider to your preference.
  • Joypad and other sticks: I used to control Braid on my Mac using Joypad on my iPhone, but things didn’t work out that well since the controls weren’t optimized. For games other than Zork in Boxer though, you can use Joypad or any other USB joystick with your Mac to make gameplay easier.
  • Change the game storage folder: Moving games to another folder on your Mac is easy. Just head to Preferences (CMD + ,) and in the General tab, select “Other…” under the “Keep my DOS games in:” field. Select whichever new one you wish and copy the files over there.
  • Get back the mouse: The first time I played a game that used the mouse functionality, I clicked the window and didn’t read the prompt that told me how to get my mouse functionality back for the OS. You can do this by holding Command and clicking, just in case something like that happens to you.
  • Make use of the Option key: Holding down the Option key when you start a game will bring up a DOS prompt pointed at the directory of the game.
  • Boxer uses fullscreen: Using Lion or Mountain Lion? Boxer supports the new native fullscreen mode in these operating system releases so why not make use of it by clicking the fullscreen button in the top right corner of the app? You can also start games in fullscreen by default if you go to Preferences’ display tab and check the appropriate button. Exiting fullscreen can be done at any time by pressing CMD + F.
  • Report those bugs: If you find something very annoying in Boxer, be sure to report it to the developer so he can fix the issue as soon as possible.
  • The help menu in the Inspector: Sometimes you can find yourself having trouble with something in the Inspector. If that happens, click the ? in the bottom right corner of the window. It’s not available in every tab, but it can provide answers most of the time.

Take Things Further with Source Code

Since Boxer is an open-source app, it’s only fitting that its source code be available publicly online. The developer has been kind enough to post the latest build of the Mac emulator’s full source code to GitHub for all to tweak.

He includes a Readme file just in case you need a bit of documentation, but other than that, you’re free to do whatever you wish with what Alun Bestor has developed. Try to make something really fun with your spare time. DOSBox’s source files are also available online if you need them.


Wrapping Things Up

Ah, the possibilities.
Ah, the possibilities.

That should cover everything you need to know about playing DOS games with Boxer on the Mac. I’m sure you have a few other ideas of your own, so why don’t you share them with us in the comments?

If you see yourself using Boxer a lot, I suggest donating to the developer for his efforts. Right now the app supports OS X 10.5-10.8, which means that he’s keeping it up-to-date with updates that both improve performance and add bug fixes. I’m sure Bestor will appreciate receiving a few dollars from you as a way of saying thank you for the fantastic app that he’s made. Without it, DOS games on Mac wouldn’t be so user-friendly.

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