Xbox Series X Console Can Run Windows 98 For Glorious Retro PC Gaming

Were you around for the heyday of Windows 98? PC gamers were slow to adopt Windows 95 because the conventional game design paradigm of talking directly to the hardware was a big no-no in the new operating system. However, in the not-quite-three years between the release of Windows 95 and Windows 98, both PC hardware and the software that supported it had moved along quite a bit.

Indeed, Windows 98—particularly its "Second Edition" update—is widely considered the operating system of choice for retro gamers looking to play classic PC games. A Windows 98 system can not only run 16- and 32-bit Windows games ranging from the OG Win32G API all the way up to DirectX 9, but it can also boot or restart into pure MS-DOS mode to play classic DOS games.

It's no surprise, then, that Digital Foundry's Alex Battaglia chose Windows 98 as his operating system of choice when setting up an Xbox Series X system for retro gaming. That's right: he's emulating a PC and playing classic PC games using a game console. This entire operation is possible thanks to an application called RetroArch. RetroArch is a frontend that serves as an intermediary between the operating system and the open-source project libretro. It's has been ported to many, many platforms, and Microsoft's Windows Store is among them.

Libretro, then, is a standard interface for modular "cores" that represent emulated systems. You can find cores for classic game consoles and handhelds, arcade machines, and even old home computers—including old PCs. For this project, the relevant core is DOSBox Pure. It's a fork of the original DOSBox with which you are very likely already familiar. DOSBox Pure is specifically built to be a libretro core, but it also contains many improvements and additional features over the original DOSBox 0.74.

microsoft word
Battaglia wrote his script in Microsoft Word '97... on an Xbox Series X.

For starters, it's not just a DOS emulator; you can actually install and run DOS-based operating systems like Windows inside DOSBox Pure. The emulator also contains support for a variety of period-appropriate audio and video hardware, including the legendary 3Dfx Voodoo. Voodoo emulation is performance-intensive—it's all done in software, on the CPUs—and doesn't work especially well on the Xbox Series platform that Alex Battaglia was using, but we've found it to be pretty performant on Zen 3 processors on Windows.

The whole scenario is kind of bonkers. RetroArch and its associated libretro cores are just emulators; with classic console game emulation, the entire application program comes from the cartridge or disc. Emulating a home computer isn't like that, because you need an operating system before you can do anything with the machine. That means installing an operating system the old-fashioned way onto the emulated hardware, and that is the circumstance that led Digital Foundry's ray-tracing aficionado to install Windows 98 SE on an Xbox Series X.

3dfx performance comparison
Voodoo emulation is slower than real hardware, and even slower than software mode.

Alex tested a surprising number of games considering the silliness of the project, and also considering that mouse input support doesn't work properly on the Xbox build of RetroArch. Mouse input is instead emulated using the Xbox gamepad. This is clumsier than a real mouse, but Battaglia said it feels quite natural playing classic FPS games like Unreal and Quake this way, and even praised the experience of playing Command & Conquer this way.

The unfortunate part of this story is that you can't just load up an Xbox and download Retroarch from the store. You'll have to either pay Microsoft the $20 required to put your system into developer mode, or use hacky workarounds to install RetroArch with your system in "retail" (read: standard) mode. Both options have their downsides; developer mode puts harsh limitations on what apps can actually do, while installing RetroArch in retail mode is against Microsoft's terms of service and could get you banned from Xbox Live.

Still, the fact that this is even possible at all is quite fascinating. It's all rather hacky and probably too difficult for regular users at this time, but perhaps in the future Microsoft will be more cooperative with folks who want to install non-Xbox software on their game consoles.