Walk Down EMSory Lane (February 13, 2015)


Super Soaker Collector / Administrator
There've been several fun stories in the news lately about the technical hurdles than the very first Wing Commander games faced. In 1990, it wasn't enough just to have the hardware necessary to play cutting edge games. Players also had to be adept at customizing their system's setup files in order to specifically arrange memory and drivers to support demanding titles. Revo-emag has posted an article on "Wing Commander and the art of config.sys." It's a fond recollection of the technical tweaks that young computer gamers had to learn in order to function. It wasn't so long ago that the CIC would post config.sys tips in the news to help Wingnuts get new hardware running. Modern solutions like DOSBox are already a dozen years old, but they still seem relatively new to those of us who worked with actual DOS!

The thing is, this isna??t a a??do once and relaxa?? ordeal, as youa??d have to tinker with these files anytime you get more memory or have to load a new driver. Some games used XMS, some used EMS.

Thankfully, you dona??t have to do this stuff anymore, but I dunnoa?? I still feel like it was an important learning experience for a young gamer, like a geeky rite of passage or something. It definitely made me feel more pleased with myself once I finally got my games to work!

Original update published on February 13, 2015
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Rogue Leader
I definitely remember having to make multiple configurations (complete with an interactive menu!) to handle whether I wanted to use Windows 3.1 or other things (XMS) or play games (EMS). And I don't think I'm that old. It was a rewarding experience, to finally unlock those extra features in WC, but I don't miss it. Granted, today's hardware resources are used rather inefficiently (software development time being far more costly than simply increasing hardware requirements) and I generally try to cut out the bloat where possible, but requiring everyone to tinker with obscure configurations just to play a game at maximum settings wouldn't go down well in this current time.


Chief Petty Officer
I remember this stuff, and I actually credit it for my getting comfortable with computers early on. I had to do it to play the games I loved, so I figured it out, which is one of the things that put me on the path to software development.


Oh the days of "sys a:".

Tinkering with config.sys and autoexec.bat sparked the curiosity that eventually launched my career. A Packard Hell was a poor machine to learn on but at least it was x86 compatible. ;)


Vice Admiral
For me, well, the games machine was always tied up (desktop PC) so my stuff had to be done on a laptop PC. But at least that laptop was MINE, and even though sound was hit and miss, I could play with it as I wanted to.

With the desktop and it's nice soundcard and whopping 8MB of RAM, well, playing around wasn't much of an option because it had to stay working.

Thankfully these hacks are no longer required... messing with all this stuff meant I was playing more with the PC and not the game. Fun when you're young and have more time than money and thus can't buy many games, but these days when I have more money and less time, I can't spend it much mucking around with config files and drivers. Every minute I spend doing that is one less minute I can spend playing.


Rear Admiral
I've still got my Quarterdeck Extended Memory Manager if anyone needs help loading mouse.sys or mscdex.exe into high memory...

How much knowledge have we accumulated that is now obsolete?


Vice Admiral
Heh, high memory was a really neat hack.

Though I thought later versions of DOS let you do that too.

Ah, QEMM. What was the task switcher called?


Vice Admiral
Like whistler, it sparked my career.

I was one of those who bought a fast 80286-system(20mhz) while it was on sale, instead of the more expensive but mostly slower 80386... 286's came with Extended Memory, while earliers 8086 machines had optional Expanded Memory modules.. I never understood the switch back to Expanded Memory while the industry hardware came with built-in XMS support, and you needed a 80386 to run either EMM386 or Qemm. There was a UMB-tool for 286, where your could then assign UMB's as Expanded memory, but it did not work on my chipset, and I switched to a 386 mainboard around that time.

It's not even that long ago that I had to sort around with files and buffers handles in custom config.sys files in Windows to run DOS/Dbase-based software written in Clipper(predecessor to Clarion)...

The trick back in the day was to get a config running with himem and emm386 and end up with more base memory then Qemm could give you...

cff, I heard of this before, but have you ever done "damage" to a system using Qemm..


Kilk'dymga'qith laq Ik'vikvi
The trick back in the day was to get a config running with himem and emm386 and end up with more base memory then Qemm could give you...

I guess you weren't very good with Qemm then. My record was 639k free memory with mouse and cd drivers loaded.

cff, I heard of this before, but have you ever done "damage" to a system using Qemm..


I had my harddrive gone by using QEMM. Well I was able to fix it with lots of magic and countless hours of work but I lost all data in the process. I dunno what happened, but it was a combination of the optimization module of Qemm and the "boot sector virus prevention" of my bios (problem was replicable). For whatever reason (probably assigned a slice of memory that was actually in use for disk IO) that combination killed the partition table of the hard disk in a way that it set the size to several terrabyte. Unfortunately such a large number had fdisk crashing, so it was impossible to reformat the drive, rendering it useless. With lots and lots of research (we are talking about pre interned area) I was able to destroy/rewrite the partition information of that HD by talking directly to the HD-controller (via assembler code) and therefore revived my drive. Shitload of work, lots of stuff learned.

But yes, Qemm can be dangerous. In all honesty it was more the BIOS's fault (had other problems with that virus prevention as well), but you could kill your system with it.