Games came on discs long before VR gaming and microtransactions and downloadable content existed. Floppy disks and optical disks, they were installed on the hard disk of a PC before playback.
You may remember this from using Windows XP through Windows 8. But what about the days before when games were all designed for MS-DOS? What happened to those games and how do you run them today?
One option is to emulate MS-DOS with software called DOSbox. But for a more authentic experience, you need an operating system that boots directly into a DOS-like environment.
You need Dosbian for that.
What is Dosbian?
Developed by Carmelo Maiolino, Dosbian is a Debian-based Raspberry Pi distro that boots directly into an MS-DOS-like environment. It is based on DOSBox and includes several improvements introduced by the community around that software.
Dosbian can handle DOS, Windows 3.1, Windows 95, and Windows 98 software, has network bridging with a virtual LAN to the Pi’s network hardware, and can support floppy and hard disk creation. Floppy disks, HDDs and CD-ROMs can be mounted using a special utility. Meanwhile, Dosbian also has sound card emulation, video output emulation for various IBM compatible PC types (such as Tandy), regularly updated with new features and fixes.
Of course, you can easily install DOSBox on your Raspberry Pi OS.
But that’s not quite what we’re looking for.
Inspiration: the weeCee Tiny DOS gaming PC
What this project is all about is building a small gaming PC running DOS – just like the weeCee.
This is an open-source PCB compatible with Vortex86, a System-on-Chip (SoC) with x86 architecture (rather than the usual ARM architecture found on such devices). Being x86 compatible means it can run classic IBM PC compatible software, without emulation.
Since the weeCee isn’t actually for sale (it’s mainly made up of a series of components that you buy and assemble yourself), it’s pretty hard to get your hands on one.
That’s where the Raspberry Pi comes in. This project is a trade-off: the weeCee’s compact size and necessary compatibility, but relies on emulation rather than compatible hardware.
What you need to build a Raspberry Pi DOS gaming PC
While you can easily pick up some old PC hardware from eBay for very little money, it will be relatively expensive to run. The weeCee is an excellent solution, but it is not easy to get hold of.
That’s what makes a Raspberry Pi with Dosbian a particularly good alternative.
To build a weeCee like mini DOS PC you need:
- Raspberry Pi 3 or newer (we used a Raspberry Pi 4 with 8 GB RAM)
- A case (for the mini PC look I used a DeskPi Pro above, but anything will do)
- HDMI display (you can choose to rely on an HDMI to VGA adapter for the classic feel)
- Keyboard and mouse (and joystick for arcade games)
- Minimum 8 GB microSD card
You must also download:
- Dosbian — free, but the developer accepts donations via PayPal if you find it useful
- Balena Etcher – free flash storage disk writing software
Grab your hardware and download the software before continuing.
Unfortunately we can’t tell you where to find old DOS games to run on Dosbian. Our explanation of software abandonment should help you understand why.
Install Dosbian on the Raspberry Pi
The installation of Dosbian is simple.
First, download the 7z file and extract the compressed IMG file.
Then use a tool like Etcher (download link above) and write the IMG file to your Raspberry Pi’s microSD card.
Our guide to installing an operating system on the Raspberry Pi explains this in more detail. It also outlines other installation options.
Boot up your DOS-powered Raspberry Pi
With the Dosbian operating system installed on the microSD card and the media safely removed from your PC, insert it into your Raspberry Pi and boot it up.
You will see the Dosbian boot screen, which displays classic PC boot details such as processor speed and RAM. The screen will also confirm if additional USB storage is connected.
Once successful, you will see a standard DOSBox interface and a C:\ prompt. You will see the message “Drive C is mounted as local folder /home/pi/dosbian/” – here you will find relevant folders for adding new games to your DOS gaming PC.
Dosbian configuration options
However, before you get your hands dirty in Dosbian’s command-line interface, there’s another screen you should visit. Type and enter to reach it
This will open the Dosbian menu, which contains a wealth of configuration options.
Most of these are beyond the scope of this guide, but you should definitely take a hit C to access the raspi-config tool and configure your Raspberry Pi. This allows you to connect the device to your local wireless network (if you are not using Ethernet) and enable SSH.
Another option to consider here is Launchbox, enabled by pressing 8 and rebooting the Raspberry Pi. Launchbox is a mouse or keyboard-driven DOS interface for easy selection and launch of software. If you don’t want to use the MS-DOS commands (see below), this is the easiest way to use Dosbian.
You can also use the Dosbian menu to update the operating system, change the boot/start screen, change the mount point, and shut down or reboot the Raspberry Pi.
Copy MS-DOS games to Dosbian
The easiest way to copy games to Dosbian is via USB and the Midnight Commander app, which is pre-installed.
Start by copying your collection of DOS games onto the USB stick and connecting it to the Raspberry Pi. While the Dosbian menu is active, press m to open Midnight Commander. Then just drag and drop the files onto the Pi’s microSD card, within the Dosbian file structure.
Meanwhile, if you have SSH enabled you should be able to use the scp command or an FTP client with SFTP support to move data from a PC to the Dosbian Raspberry Pi. Our guide to copying data from a PC to a Raspberry Pi explains this in detail.
Install and launch a game in Dosbian
Now that the files have been copied to the Raspberry Pi, it’s time to run them.
This is as easy as switching to the directory using the cd command and launching the EXE. For example, to run the pre-installed Wolfenstein 3D, I used dir to check the contents of the folder and then
After seeing the wolf3d.exe file, I entered
To start the game. It’s that simple, and once you understand what the EXE files are called, you probably don’t need to bother with the dir command in most cases.
How to move around in Dosbian
Since Dosbian creates an MS-DOS emulation environment, you should be familiar with the commands you need to use it. If you’re already familiar with the Windows command prompt, or PowerShell, or the Windows Terminal, you should be able to master MS-DOS fairly quickly.
While cd and dir will suffice, it’s easier if you know a few more. Type to learn it
And press enter. This lists the supported MS-DOS commands in Dosbian.
Enter to exit Dosbian
Then press in the Dosbian menu S to shut down the computer.
Your own DOS gaming PC thanks to Raspberry Pi
That’s all there is. Thanks to a Debian-based operating system that boots into a special build of DOSBox, Dosbian lets you treat your Raspberry Pi like a small DOS gaming PC, just like the weeCee. While the hardware is emulated, Dosbian should be all you need unless you’re interested in a hardcore 80s and 90s PC gaming experience but with lower power consumption.
If you enjoyed running Dosbian on your Raspberry Pi, don’t forget that the weeCee is an open source design. You can buy a Vortex86 module and the host board from Rasteri for around $200 and assemble your own system.
The Raspberry Pi can emulate many retro computing platforms. Once you’re done with MS-DOS games, why not revisit the Amiga?