Reverse Engineering DOS Software as if It Were 1990

Jonas Santoso,7 min read

Quick Start

The video above shows a speed run of what's being done in the How to Build and Install section. TL;DR: This is about running SoftICE, a popular DOS and Windows debugger, in an emulated MS-DOS environment. And about overcoming a limitation of Bochs (opens in a new tab), the IA-32 (x86) PC emulator.

All of the following assumes a Linux host system. I don't know if and how it would work in macOS, let alone Windows.

Emulating SoftICE

NuMega started making SoftICE, which became the most widely used tool for debugging DOS, and later Windows software, in 1987. The last version that was released exclusively for DOS is SoftICE 2.80 from 1997. For someone who wishes to use live debugging sessions in an effort to reverse engineer old software today, there is a number of options:

However, when the intention is not solely to attain a reverse engineering objective, but also to (re-)live the experience of using period tooling, there's nothing like SoftICE for DOS. Where period hardware is not available, we'll be looking at running it in an emulator, and that's where things get a little bit hairy.

SoftICE doesn't work in DOSBox-X. It does work in Bochs which, unlike DOSBox, is based on full emulation of an x86 CPU. Setting up Bochs is a little more involved though, and that aside, there's another problem.

Say we're done installing MS-DOS and SoftICE in a Bochs environment. Pressing Ctrl+d brings up SoftICE, and all is good and well until we try doing that while running something that's using a VGA graphics mode―a game? Execution is paused, and SoftICE is actually in the foreground, but we don't see it, because text mode is not being restored properly. The Bochs window just shrinks to the height of the UI.

The solution, in actual hardware terms, would be to connect a second monitor to a secondary graphics adapter providing output from an MC6845 (opens in a new tab) display controller, i.e. an MDA/Hercules card. By issuing ALTSCR ON in SoftICE, the debugger's display could then be switched to the secondary monitor.

Unfortunately Bochs doesn't emulate either MDA or a secondary display. Emulating MDA text mode isn't hard though, and ultimately that's what I ended up doing. I found a discussion about adding MDA emulation to Bochs in an old thread (opens in a new tab) on SourceForge. There wasn't a complete implementation anywhere, so I created a Bochs fork with the necessary changes: (opens in a new tab)

Implementation details can be found in the repo readme. The most important thing to note is probably that the MDA text screen isn't displayed in Bochs itself. It's written to a named pipe as UTF-8 code points, along with ANSI escape sequences for rendering the MC6845's character attributes. The named pipe would then be polled by an external program which dumps the text screen on a terminal. (A sample program doing that was added to the repo (opens in a new tab).)

This screenshot shows Bochs running a game while SoftICE is displayed in a terminal window:

Bochs running a game while SoftICE is displayed in a terminal window

How to Build and Install

Build Bochs

Clone my Bochs fork (opens in a new tab) and compile it with CPU level 3 in order to target 386. (More on compiling Bochs here (opens in a new tab).) E.g.

$ ./configure --with-sdl2 --enable-cpu-level=3
$ make

Use bximage (part of the Bochs build) to create a harddisk image. The defaults (hd / flat / 512) and a size of 30mb will be fine. I'm calling it hdd.img.

We need a .bochsrc file, which we initialize by starting Bochs and picking 4. Save options to.... Then we edit it and make these changes (YMMV):

romimage: file="/usr/local/share/bochs/BIOS-bochs-legacy", address=0x00000000, options=fastboot
floppya: 1_44=dos622_d1.img, status=inserted
ata0-master: type=disk, mode=flat, path=hdd.img
#port_e9_hack_all_rings: enabled=0

I had to comment port_e9_hack_all_rings because otherwise Bochs would throw an error. dos622_d1.img is the first of the MS-DOS 6.22 install disks. You can find these in the Downloads section below.

Install DOS

One little annoyance observed in other versions of Bochs―it doesn't seem to be occurring in the version the fork is based on―is that Bochs goes straight into the debugger after picking 6. Begin simulation, requiring you to enter c <newline> to continue execution. This can be mitigated by creating a file (named bochs_init here) containing c and a newline, and passing this file as an argument to Bochs's -rc command line option. Also, the startup menu can be skipped by passing -q, so the following should make for a quick Bochs startup:

$ bochs -q -rc bochs_init

Another annoyance is that Bochs will segfault on starting when a harddisk image lock file is left over from an unclean exit. So when there's a dangling hdd.img.lock, delete it before starting Bochs.

Start Bochs and proceed with the MS-DOS installation. When prompted to insert another disk, click CONFIG in the Bochs UI, and change the image file for Floppy disk 0. Once installation is finished, change the boot option in .bochsrc from floppy to disk. When you start Bochs again, it should boot straight into DOS.

Install a CD-ROM Driver

Next, use bximage again to create a floppy image (options: fd / 1.44M). I'm naming it floppy.img. In Bochs, insert this disk (CONFIG / 1. Floppy disk 0) and format it by entering format a: in DOS. We may as well change the floppya option in .bochsrc so this disk image is used by default. Once formatted, we mount this floppy image on our host system and copy oakcdrom.sys, the Oak CD-ROM driver (also found in the Downloads section):

$ sudo mount floppy.img /mnt/tmp
$ sudo cp oakcdrom.sys /mnt/tmp
$ sudo umount /mnt/tmp

Install the driver in DOS.

C:\> copy a:\oakcdrom.sys c:\dos
C:\> edit config.sys

Add this line to CONFIG.SYS:


And this line to AUTOEXEC.BAT:


Install SoftICE

Now that we can use CD images, let's create one on our host system. Assuming the SoftICE 2.80 files (those found in S-ICE280.ZIP inside from the Downloads section) are in a directory called sice, this command creates an ISO image from it:

$ mkisofs -o cdrom.iso -V CDROM sice

Change the ata1-master option in .bochsrc to insert the CD:

ata1-master: type=cdrom, path=cdrom.iso, status=inserted

After booting into DOS again, we can proceed to install SoftICE.

C:\> mkdir sice
C:\> xcopy /e/s d: c:\sice

Add C:\SICE to the PATH environment variable in AUTOEXEC.BAT. Note that, unlike Bash, DOS uses the semicolon as path separator.


In CONFIG.SYS, load SoftICE before any other driver:


That's it. After rebooting, you can bring up SoftICE by pressing Ctrl+d.

Bochs running SoftICE

Displaying SoftICE on the MDA Adapter

One step is left in order to be able to debug games and such. The forked Bochs's MDA emulation is enabled when Bochs finds an environment variable named MDA_PIPE containing the path to a named pipe. Create the pipe on the host system:

$ mkfifo /tmp/mda_pipe

Note that, once MDA is enabled, execution is blocked unless there's a program running that consumes the pipe. So let's start that, the program being the mda_viewer (opens in a new tab) example from the repo.

$ cd ~/bochs-dual-monitor/mda_viewer/
$ MDA_PIPE=/tmp/mda_pipe python .

Start Bochs, also specifying MDA_PIPE:

$ MDA_PIPE=/tmp/mda_pipe ~/bochs-dual-monitor/bochs/bochs -q

You can verify that MDA is enabled by looking for this line in Bochs's console output:

[MDA] Using named pipe "/tmp/mda_pipe".

Run a game, or something that uses a VGA graphics mode. Press Ctrl+d. The graphics display will disappear. But confident that SoftICE is now in the foreground (and with the Bochs window still focused), enter the following SoftICE command.

altscr on

The graphics display comes back, and the terminal window where mda_viewer is running now shows SoftICE. It may take a little getting used to not to try typing into the terminal window. It's still the Bochs window that needs to be focused when entering SoftICE commands. But with this setup, we can reverse engineer DOS software as if it were 1990.


De facto abandonware, as none of this is more recent than from 1997.

MS-DOS 6.22 (opens in a new tab)
SoftICE 2.80 and extras (opens in a new tab)
OAKCDROM.SYS (opens in a new tab)

[ ::.. AND0UiLLE 2023 ..:: ]
A 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘏𝘢𝘳𝘥𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘦𝘳 série.
CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 2024 © Jonas Santoso.