Wing Commander and the art of config.sys

Wing Commander was one of my favorite games when I was a kid. It was just all kinds of awesome, from the gameplay to that incredibly entertaining game manual disguised as a military magazine (that manual made me want to write game manuals when I grew up – except well, that would be a dead-end job in this day and age of tutorial levels and PDF files).

It was also a game that pushed the level of graphics at that time, with really cool looking pre-rendered sprites for enemy ships and immersive animations like sparks in your cockpit when your ship is getting shot up.

Anyway, check out this screenshot:

I still consider these graphics to be awesome!

See that hand in the cockpit, and the face of your wing-man in the right MFD? Well, these are only available if you have a certain amount of Expanded Memory.

What the hell is Expanded Memory, you might ask? Well, back then, most computers still only had 640k of RAM and anything above that was either Extended (XMS) or Expanded Memory (EMS). There’s a difference between them, but I honestly have no idea what it is.

What I do know is, that if you want to use either XMS or EMS, you needed to learn how to edit your Config.sys and Autoexec.bat files. Anyone who hasn’t used MS-DOS before will have no idea what they are, but old school gamers will be very familiar with these all-important files.

Config.sys and Autoexec.bat are files that DOS would read to know how to boot your computer up. My burning desire to play Wing Commander with all the bells and whistles switched on made me learn all the basic commands to work these files to maximize my free memory, while still loading the essentials like the soundcard driver, and it’ll look something like this:

device=c:\dos\emm386.exe 2048

And then this will be followed by a whole lot of other device= commands to load up soundcard and CD-ROM drivers. I don’t even know what the files= command is for, but I just know I need at least 15 to play Wing Commander.

Pew pew pew, you stupid Jalthi!

The thing is, this isn’t a “do once and relax” ordeal, as you’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 don’t have to do this stuff anymore, but I dunno… 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!

Any of you guys remember messing around with config.sys? Do you miss it?


About Drew

I love videogames, movies, my wife and my dog (in no particular order). View all posts by Drew

7 responses to “Wing Commander and the art of config.sys

  • elneilios

    I most certainly remember trying in vain to configure my old 286 to enable EMS so I could see the extra goodness in Wing Commander. Only succeeded once I upgraded to a 386 with more memory though! I used to have about 5 different Boot Disks that contained the config.sys and autoexec.bat files needed for different memory configurations!

    • Drew

      I think it was DOS 6.0 that finally allowed multi-config boots, so that you can choose from different config.sys and autoexec.bat configurations when you boot off your hard drive. What a godsend!

  • Rob

    You nailed this one on the head. By managing to teach myself how to do this (did I read the books or what?! I can’t even remember how I figured this out! There was no Internet back then!) it gave me the confidence to say that, hey, I can fix anything computer related; all it takes is some tweaking and boom, it’ll work! Not only was the journey rewarding, but the reward of getting to play the game was just as rewarding, if not more so!

    It’s almost like I was part of the development team and they were talking to me saying, “we made this really cool game, but to play it the way we designed it, you gotta set this up correctly.” And I did, and it was glorious!

    In a big way it makes me realize how lucky I am to have grown up in that kind of environment. Most consumer computer related things just work now and don’t require a great deal of tweaking. These are opportunities that the new generation doesn’t get to have and will have to experience these joys elsewhere. But at the same time it leaves them open to create and design all new stuff.

    But yes, thanks for the trip down memory lane, and yes, I do feel like this was a rite of passage! I also did this for other games like X-Wing and Tie Fighter. Flight joystick games are legit!

    • Drew

      Hahaha thanks and I’m so glad I reached someone who really “gets” what I was trying to say. There are things I learned from MS-DOS that I would never have learned from iOS, Windows, or Android.

      Are these skills useful for modern computers? Maybe not for the casual user, but it does teach you logic and problem solving skills… and just a little bit of math when it comes to distributing RAM.

  • jbirdjavi

    I remember creating the boot menu with about 5 different configurations in it based on what I wanted to run/play. I also relying on memmaker way more than I probably should have, but I was in middle school at the time. 🙂

  • jim

    Wait, Rob that’s a good point! How did we figure this stuff out back then when you couldn’t google it? I don’t remember either (I was six or so when WC1 appeared).

    • Drew

      There were chapters about this in the Wing Commander manuals. That’s how I learned about it. Memmaker came out with Dos 6 or something… And I think I had to read the Dos manual to figure it out!

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