Retro PC gaming

Hey it’s Sunday. Sundays suck! Anyone who knows me, knows at least three things about me:

  1. I’m a big geek
  2. I bash everyone and everything
  3. My PC is big and fast, and I use every last bit of its power

Well the geek in me decided to kill time on this boring Sunday by putting together a retro PC, just for fun, so I could relive the great games of the DOS era. We’re talking 1996 and older, games that my super-powered 64-bit gigabyte-whoring beast just can’t touch. Besides, I have a bunch of old parts that aren’t even worth selling anymore. Here’s what I scrounged:

  • Pentium 150mhz
  • ASUS P55T2P4 board (with a cache expansion module)
  • 32mb RAM (72 pins of 16.6mhz raw sex-appeal)
  • 2.1gb hard drive
  • 2mb Matrox Millenium video card
  • 4mb 3Dfx Voodoo accelerator (w00t!)
  • 40x CD-Rom drive
  • 10/100 network card (ok, so I cheated, this is from 1999)
  • Sound Blaster 16 (uhn-tiss, uhn-tiss)
  • Logitech serial mouse (screw USB!)

Back in the day, this would have been one bitchin’ sweet machine. I actually have enough parts to build a second system too, with a Pentium 233 MMX and newer motherboard. I didn’t want to use it because old games usually have more problems with faster CPUs. Read on as I share my experiences in rebuilding a little piece of the past.

Challenge #1: install an operating system

I started by making a bootable CD with MS-Dos 6.22 and Windows 3.11, since I didn’t really feel like shuffling my floppies one by one. I powered up the old clunker and changed the boot sequence in the BIOS to load off the CD-Rom. Well it tried to boot, but for some reason it didn’t recognize my boot record. A quick BIOS upgrade solved the issue, but I initially used a very handy tool called the Smart Boot Manager, which is a kind of universal boot wizard on a floppy. In this case, it allowed me to easily boot from the CD even though the old BIOS didn’t support it. It’s one of those things every good techie should have in their kit.

So I partitioned, formatted and then installed MS-Dos 6.22 and Windows 3.11. Surprisingly enough, I still remember all the hidden tricks and config tweaks after all these years. Running Windows 3.11 made me quickly realize one important thing: it doesn’t have any internet abilities built-in. EEK! I actually found myself loading a DOS network driver and the venerable Arachne web browser on a floppy, in order to transfer files across the network. There’s something cool about a 50 kilobyte .COM file being the entire network driver :) A few minutes later I had copied over the Windows 95 installation files.

I decided to go with Win 95 for one big reason: my goal with this machine is to run DOS games. Windows 95 is mostly just a shell that runs on DOS 6, while Windows 98 has its own stripped down version of DOS 7, which has issues with certain games (mostly the games’ fault). In truth, the main reason I want Windows on there is to make it easy to surf the net for games and patches. Windows 95 loads up pretty quick, and exits to DOS without much fuss. Perfect!

Here’s where I had my first real problem: the installer crashed! A bit of googling taught me that it was a problem with the APM power management on this flaky old board. Sure enough, I disabled APM during setup and it went through just fine. A few minutes later I found myself at a bare, greenish oversized desktop; 640×480 in 16 colors is hard on the eyes! Thankfully Windows had detected my Matrox card, it just didn’t sanitize the settings. A few clicks later I was in 1024×768 16-bit, which is about as good as it gets with just 2 mb of VRAM.

Challenge #2: get on the net

I fired up Internet Explorer 3.0, which I am now convinced is nothing more than an error-message factory. Every site gave me a Javascript error and took forever to load, so my first quest was to find a better browser. Firefox fans, slow down. The Mozilla website wouldn’t even display at all, so I had to find an upgrade to IE3 before anything else. I managed to download and install IE5.5 from Microsoft, then I was in business.

Challenge #3: find drivers for everything

Device drivers are a necessity of computing. We take them for granted, because they either come with the hardware or from the manufacturer’s web site. 12 years ago, the web was still in its infancy. While I’m sure most of them offered driver downloads online, possibly by FTP, those files are long gone. I was surprised to find drivers for my Sound Blaster on Creative’s web site, but everything else was MIA. Many companies simply closed down over the years. 3Dfx is no more, they became retarded after the Voodoo 2 was released and proceeded to destroy their reputation with several generations of Voodoo garbage. Luckily, there are other lost souls like myself who have collected such antique files and shared them on their own web sites.

Challenge #4: install the games

You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but 12 years is a long time in the life of a CD, especially if it spent those years sitting in a box in a dusty closet or damp basement. The first few CD’s I tried to installed gave me no love, but DOS doesn’t really know what a CRC error is, so “Unknown I/O error” is about as verbal as it gets. This is where the magic of file sharing comes in handy, because you know that someone on the internet must have a good copy lying around. A night of torrenting yielded viable replacements for my dead game discs, including Mechwarrior 2 and Megarace (cheesy, I love it!). With freshly burnt copies in hand, I was ready to scorch the earth with my Timberwolf and help Lara Croft explore the darkest recesses of the jungle in all her pointy-boobed glory.

Challenge #5: put up with the crappy serial mouse

This old hunk of metal didn’t even have PS/2 ports. I used a keyboard adapter (those big round ones), and a nasty old 9-pin serial ball-mouse I just happened to find. Having lived with optical and laser mice for years, I had practically forgotten how much tactile mice suck, especially in the absence of a good mouse pad. It moved erratically, often getting stuck in either the horizontal or vertical tracking, and the serial port’s flakiness itself meant that any disk activity caused the mouse to stutter while the two devices competed for bus access. A quick peek at the motherboard’s user manual informed me of a set of pins where an optional PS/2 bracket would plug in. Sure enough, I found one in my pile of junk. Finally I was able to plug in a Logitech cheapie optical mouse, and what a difference it makes!

Challenge #6: take time out to blog and share stories :)

It’s so easy to get lost in the nostalgia. Just typing DOS commands got my heart pumping, as I recalled the sensation of discovery and excitement of the mid 90’s. I was in my teens and spent much of my day writing music software and indie games, dialing out to all my friends’ BBS systems to chat and play LORD and TradeWars. We’d meet at the video arcade every Saturday morning to play Street Fighter 2 and NBA Jam. Those were the days!

Challenge #7: go back to my current PC

Having spent many hours on the old Pentium made me realize how little has changed over the last decade. Windows 95 and XP have very similar interfaces, and the way we use our computers hasn’t changed either. I keep bashing Windows Vista for being a useless upgrade, but if you look at the entire Windows family since 95, they’re all just rehashes of the same concept. Sure, the guts under the hood are completely different, but who cares ? Now I’m not saying you should sell your new PC and use an old one instead, but it certainly makes you wonder how much computer power the average person really needs.

I’ve decided to try using Windows 95 on this old PC to do my daily activities like web browsing, email and server administration. Those are the tasks that make me money. The quad-core processors, crazy graphics card, 2 terabytes of disk space and 4 gigs of ram are just for fun, I guess :) I’ve got other systems here as well, from 500mhz to 2.2ghz. I wonder where the sweet spot will be. I have a funny feeling it’s not going to be my multiprocessing behemoth.

Challenge #8: bring retro-gaming into the future

For those of you lacking either the hardware, the know-how or the patience, there are other ways to get your retro groove on. I will be brief, but there are at least three things you should know to get started.

  1. DosBox, as its name suggests, emulates a 386/486 system with DOS. It runs many classic games with full graphics and sound. While you’re at it, pick up D-Fend, a nice front-end for DosBox.
  2. Vogons, a forum for retro gamers. It is THE place to discuss classic games and the various emulators, as well as find fellow gamers to chat with.
  3. Home of the Underdogs, one of the largest and most respectable Abandonware sites ever. Their database is huge, with reviews, screenshots and downloads for most classics and links to buy the rest.
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3 Responses to “Retro PC gaming”

  1. Bill Wish says:

    Hi Bill ,
    I enjoyed reading yer article.Id come across it searching for outdated comp hardware.Just finished a disgarded HP pavilion so i could play redneck rampage and carmegeddon 2 .Loving my old games again.Its a shame that old software (games) get left in the tech dust.Good luck with yer hobby.Retro games rule.Wish id kept my atari 800.

  2. Rodger says:

    once, I knew how to set up all those games in a native dos PC, now I look at it and think I can’t be bothered…

    meanwhile I have redneck rampage working, though its never been a fav of mine, and it’s running a little slow at high res.

    gotta say though no PC games have had me like the old C64 games did, and there is an excellent emulator for that one outta germany if one can find it.. but I think it’s dos so dos box may be needed still

  3. Ender says:

    Hello Bill,
    i am currently working on my own Retro PC. i have a 3DFX video card and a very cool CyberStuff CyberStick and an old Compaq Deskpro thta i will be using. I thought about using Win 3.11 WFW ad i heard a rumor that there is an XP mod for it. this would give you many features of xp while keeping the old OS for retro gaming. you gave me some inspiration to start working on this again. i have not touched it since i got the parts. thanks alot!!