January 20, 2010 by openbytes
Since the Puppy Arcade review gave me a little inspiration for a few emulation related articles, here is the “battle” which I mentioned on Twitter that has ScummVM and Dosbox going head to head with each other with the game Kings Quest III by Sierra.
The idea that Linux users would want to play old MS-DOS games might seem strange to some, whats even stranger for me is the fact that this task needs similar software to do exactly the same thing under the latest Windows versions.
So when Microsoft can’t get backwards compatibility sorted itself and when Linux users want to play those old games too, what is a computer user to do?
The answer can come in the form of Dosbox or ScummVM. Why two products to do the same tasks? I’ll explain.
Dosbox is aimed at emulation of the entire MS-DOS environment and any runtime you throw at it, whereas ScummVM concentrates on a set list of titles that use the same/similar game engine.
The Dosbox statement at their website says:
DOSBox is a DOS-emulator that uses the SDL-library which makes DOSBox very easy to port to different platforms. DOSBox has already been ported to many different platforms, such as Windows, BeOS, Linux, MacOS X…
DOSBox also emulates CPU:286/386 realmode/protected mode, Directory FileSystem/XMS/EMS, Tandy/Hercules/CGA/EGA/VGA/VESA graphics, a SoundBlaster/Gravis Ultra Sound card for excellent sound compatibility with older games…
You can “re-live” the good old days with the help of DOSBox, it can run plenty of the old classics that don’t run on your new computer!
DOSBox is totally free of charge and OpenSource.
and ScummVM says:
ScummVM is a program which allows you to run certain classic graphical point-and-click adventure games, provided you already have their data files. The clever part about this: ScummVM just replaces the executables shipped with the games, allowing you to play them on systems for which they were never designed!
I decided to put the two packages to the test with a game that is reported to run under Dosbox and is also catered for in ScummVM. That title is a favorite classic of mine, Kings Quest III. It should be noted that without packages such as these, as a Linux user Kings Quest III would be nothing more than cardboard and plastic.
One could argue that out of these two projects, Dosbox is the more ambitious. Upon loading you will presented with a Window containing the environment that as a Linux user you never thought you would see again!
The first order of the day is to mount a directory as a virtual hard disk, this really is simple as for example mount c ~/dosb (or whatever directory you are using) you would then change to your “C:” whereby you could access everything there as you would in a native ms-dos environment. Whilst for the purposes of this review I am looking at it from an angle of Kings Quest III, it should be noted that everything I have thrown at it so far has worked. That ranges from some very old Pacman clones which I never thought I’d ever play again, to Wolfenstien 3d (arguably the game that started the FPS)
Due to the nature of Dosbox being an emulator, the mammoth task of catering for a multitude of software, there are always going to be optimizations/modifications/bugfixes to the code. In order to get around any performance issues, a handy frame skip option is included which will also allow users with older hardware to make the most out of Dosbox.
ScummVM works slightly differently from Dosbox, its not an emulator, it merely looks at the data files for you chosen game and runs then with its own engine, which means its certainly not going to eat up CPU cycles with trying to emulate code and rather its going to work more like a native Linux program. ScummVM also has a variety of graphic modes which will enhance the original experience (or you can if you wish stay with the intended original and be “hardcore retro”!?!) One of which was SuperEagle and if you have a look at the screenshots here you will be able to see the difference.
ScummVM is designed only to run a set list of titles however the list is quite large and if you are a fan of point of click adventures (and have the relevant games) then its great.
Sound in ScummVM is also very good with little or no distortion making for a more pleasant experience.
Installing your chosen games in ScummVM is no more complicated then using the simple, clear GUI to select the directory the files are in. ScummVM will automatically detect and identify the files it needs and the game they refer to. Great stuff.
Whilst it must be stressed that only one game (that which I own the original of) was put to the test on both products, the results I think show clearly the differences between the two packages. Dosbox performance wise could out perform ScummVM, although it went past the realms of being at the intended speed of KQIII. Slow operation of Dosbox can be sorted with the frameskip option, however I don’t think many machines will be too challenged by Dosbox. Sound on Dosbox can be described at best as internal speaker music and rather a hit an miss affair with KQIII title theme slipping into what sounded like a rendition by Les Dawson 
ScummVM on the other hand ran the package fine and sound was a far more pleasant experience than in Dosbox. So now comes the part where I have to recommend one over the other.
I would say, if the software you wish to play is listed with ScummVM then definitely go with that. The different graphics modes which can be used (SuperEagle for example) can remove the rough edge from the GFX (if you wish) and make it more visually appealing. In addition ScummVM is far simpler to set up and rather easy to select the game of your choice. Dosbox on the other hand wants you to mount directories as virtual hard disks, which whilst a simple task for most of us is going to be daunting for others.
Dosbox obviously has far more scope and unlike ScummVM not limited to a set software list, thats its strength and also its weakness since you are going to encounter issues with some software just down to the sheer massive job the Dosbox coders have of making an authentic, compliant ms-dos environment.
Taking all that into consideration, I have both on my system (and why not) ScummVM for my KQIII et al and Dosbox for those titles which ScummVM does not cater for. Both are great packages, both deserve your support!
ScummVM homepage: http://www.scummvm.org/
Dosbox homepage: http://www.dosbox.com
 Les Dawson was a comedian known for having an act where he played a well known tune on the piano intentionally out of tune, but just enough so you could still tell which song he was playing. For those interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWDphFwocAM
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