The Quest For Retro Gaming: Building A Vintage PC

As hardware and software technologies advance over time, compatibility with older hardware and software technologies is lost. Although this isn’t much of a problem for many people — how often do you see someone using a program designed for Windows 98 on Windows 7 — but for gamers with a fondness for older titles, this can be a major problem.

Video games tend to be among the most difficult programs to transition from one version of Windows to another, and the problem only gets worse as time goes on. Today there are emulator programs that allow you to play most (if not all) of these old games, but only by building a PC specialized for these games can you get the full experience.

Currently, there are four different eras of gaming that are largely defined by the OS used: the DOS era, the Windows 95/98 era, the Windows XP era, and the modern era. Although a well-appointed modern desktop PC can play current titles without issue, playing games from those earlier eras can be difficult, as several of the older games simply do not work on newer versions of Windows.

Even if the games do work, the overall experience is not always the same. As a result, if you want to play these old titles, your best option might be to build a retro gaming PC with vintage components that were optimized for them.

Why Build An Old PC For Gaming?

Although existing emulation programs such as DOSBox and ScummVM let you play many games designed for DOS and Windows 95/98, the overall experience isn’t the same. It’s similar to how some gamers keep an NES and SNES tucked away in the closet and bring them out on occasion; even though they can play several of the titles on the Wii or Wii U today, the experience playing on the original system is different, and special.

One of the most notable differences between playing DOS games on an emulator and on an old PC is the audio experience. Although the audio is simulated by emulators, something about hearing it played over a square-wave generator on a motherboard changes the whole experience.

For Windows 95/98, the games became a little more complex, and emulation either doesn’t exist or is a buggy experience.

Windows XP games typically have better forward compatibility with Windows Vista and Windows 7, but there are still a few titles that lack compatibility with newer versions of Windows. Because more of the games work on newer systems, however, retro gaming systems built for Windows XP are less common.

Further, although most systems originally designed to run Windows 98 or older were tossed out years ago, there are many older computers that still run Windows XP today. As a result, our focus will be on building DOS- and Windows 95/98-era retro gaming systems.

We also shouldn’t forget that building a PC is a lot of fun! Some PC enthusiasts enjoy building computers more than using them even, so you might build one of these systems for the sheer joy of it. Further, building a new computer can be quite expensive, but the cost of building an old system like this could cost nothing at all (depending on how many spare parts you can dig up), or at most no more than $100.

Choosing The Right CPU

The real first step to building one of these systems is to determine what kind of games you want to play and then picking optimal parts to play them. I mentioned that we will focus on the DOS and Windows 95/98 gaming eras, and I will specifically focus on the games that filled my childhood, such as the Monkey Island Series, Kings Quest V,The 7th Guest, Doom, Quake, Diablo, Age Of Empires II, Warcraft II, Command And Conquer, and Descent: Freespace.

Although I chose parts from around 1998 when many of these games were relatively new, thinking like a modern PC enthusiast, I opted for components that were faster than I ultimately needed. I wanted to make the system as fast as possible using the technology from this time period, but that was a mistake.

Some video games become harder as the computer gets faster. This can occur in a variety of situations, from AIs that react far too fast to beat, to characters overreacting to input and running at lightning speed. Because hardware at the time was relatively slow and constrained, game designers didn’t set limitations on how fast the game could run, and as a result, as the computer you use gets faster, the game gets harder.

To avoid this issue, you need to be sure your CPU is not too powerful for the system you build. If the games you play on this system are mostly from 1998 or later, getting a 1 GHz or faster Athlon or Pentium III processor is the best choice. From there, drop 200 MHz each time you go back one year.

For example, Warcraft II came out in 1995 and requires at least a 60 MHz Pentium processor. Warcraft II is one of those titles that suffers from having a CPU that performs too fast. Using my 1 GHz Pentium III processor, parts of the game ran way too fast and the game became unplayable.

I purchased a 450 MHz Katmai Pentium III processor in order to resolve this problem, and the game runs perfectly with that CPU installed. The key here is balance. The minimum needed speed (60 MHz) is playable but performs too slowly, whereas a newer 1 GHz processor is way too fast. Somewhere in between is where you’ll find the optimal gaming experience.

For games older than 1994, a processor clocked at around 200 MHz should be ideal.

3dfx, Nvidia or ATI?

Selecting a GPU can be a little tricky, as there are numerous 2D and 3D graphics adapters that you can pick from. Most gaming computers in the 1990s had one of each, but it’s easier for us to cheat a little and save costs in our system by using a GPU capable of both 2D and 3D graphics. It is also best to get an AGP card for better performance.

Fortunately, by 1998 the three biggest GPU manufacturers (3dfx, Nvidia and ATI) produced GPUs capable of both 2D and 3D graphics. At the time, 3dfx’ Voodoo3 was the highest-performing card on the market, but it lacked support for 24-bit color. This is the card I chose for my retro gaming PC build, but it unfortunately makes Monkey Island 4 look terrible.

If you plan to play games in 16-bit color, then the Voodoo3 is a clear winner, but if you need 24-bit color, a better option would be Nvidia’s Riva TNT or Riva TNT2. The Riva TNT2 offers better performance all around, and really it might be the best choice, but part of the fun of building this system is to have limitations.

These parts were designed over 15 years ago, so there is always something better that you’ll end up choosing. Although 3dfx no longer exists, it was the strongest force in the GPU market around that time, and enthusiasts remember the legacy of the Voodoo GPUs fondly.

I wouldn’t recommend ATI cards here. Many rumors persist to this day that ATI/AMD have poor drivers that cause numerous problems. Today, the drivers from AMD aren’t a problem, but it’s true that around 1998 ATI had relatively poor drivers compared to Nvidia and 3dfx, and the last thing you want with a system this old is driver problems.

The Remaining Parts

Once you have the CPU and GPU picked, the rest of the parts are relatively easy to choose. For the most part, AMD motherboards of this time period didn’t have any widescale problems outside of USB issues. Because USB devices were not heavily used in the 1990s, this isn’t a major issue.

If you opt for an Intel motherboard, be sure that it has an Intel 810 or 815 chipset. Intel had several chipsets for socket 270, but the Intel 820 and 840 chipsets used a new type of RAM at that time called Rambus RAM.

Rambus RAM was supposed to be a higher-performance alternative to SDRAM, but its performance at times dropped below SDRAM and cost more. Because it was only used for a short time, it is less common and it will still cost more than SDRAM today. My overall recommendation for Intel motherboards is to ensure that the board uses SDRAM and not Rambus RAM.

I highly recommend avoiding Dell motherboards, too. This isn’t because of potential defects, but because Dell often used a proprietary 6-pin CPU power connector. Although a similar 6-pin CPU power connector is used on some motherboards that is physically identical, the pin configuration is different on Dell’s motherboards.

As a result, you need a special power supply for the Dell motherboards, and if you try to use a power supply with the other 6-pin power connector, you’ll fry the motherboard (and possibly the CPU), so it’s best to just avoid Dell motherboards from the beginning.

A 10 GB HDD would be sufficient if you keep most of your data on disks, but burning images of the disk and then playing them off of the hard drive significantly helps load times. For storing game files on the system, it’s best to use a 40 GB HDD.

Although games are installed on the C: drive, if you have a second HDD you can speed up load times. This helps to reduce slowdown caused by HDD seek time when fetching new data.

For the rest of the build, I recommend an optical drive, 512 MB of RAM, and a Sound Blaster-compatible sound card. (Most sound cards from the mid to late 1990s were).

Ready To Game?

Once you have all this hardware, the only thing left is the software. Install the version of Windows or DOS that you want to use, put some titles on the computer, and get ready to game like it’s 1990.

Feeling nostalgic? Stay tuned for part two, when we actually build our retro gaming PC and see what it’s like to use this gaming machine. Will it be as good as we remember? Was it worth all the time gathering the parts and putting it together? There’s only one way to find out.

Follow Philip Mutua @philly254 on Twitter.

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