Building a Retro Gaming PC - Part 1

Chris Kennedy's picture

Dosbox.

I have to start this blog entry with that word because it is the most common response I receive upon stating that I am building an old PC. Emulation is great, but this is the real thing. I am going to build a retro PC. My question to you is - Which hardware would you use to build a classic gaming PC?

It wasn't too long ago that I decided to build an old computer. There were several reasons I figured that this was a totally feasible and useful plan. First, I wanted to play old games off real hardware. Second, I had access to most of my old 1990s computers (or what was left of them) as they were all stored at my parents' house. A computer's life would typically rotate from person to person - I built a system, upgraded it, cycled the old system to my sister, cycled my sister's old system to my mother, and cycled my mother's old system...to my parents' attic where it remained until the end of time - or at least until I rescued it over a decade later.

The adventure begins!

I pulled three systems out of the attic, brought them home and added them to a fourth system - my wife's old computer. I was either building an old computer or opening a parts store.

The systems were as follows -
1: Case with 250watt power supply + 486DX4-100 (SX-33 chip stashed in a box), 8 MB of RAM, Diamond Stealth 24 VLB video card, 56k modem, auxiliary IDE interface card (for CD-ROM), no sound card, no floppies, no hard drive, no CD-ROM
2: Case with 230watt power supply + Pentium 100, 24 MB of RAM, Sound Blaster 16 (ISA), Wave Blaster daughtercard, 250 MB hard drive, 5.25 floppy, 3.5 floppy, network card, no video card, no CD-ROM
3: Case with 300watt power supply + Pentium III 700 Mhz, 40 GB hard drive, ATI AGP video card, Diamond Monster MX300 sound card, network card, HP 4x burner
4: Case with ?? power supply + Original Athlon, unknown RAM, Sound Blaster something sound card, CD Burner, DVD-ROM drive, hard drive of unknown size

All of this was accompanied by several items - a Flightstick, Western Digital 80 GB hard drive, Microsoft mouse that came with my father's IBM 5150 (!), 22" Viewsonic CRT Monitor (still in my possession), PS2 keyboard, and a PS2 to AT adapter.

System Possibility 1 - Revive the 486.

The Pentium 100 was gutted to move all possible parts to the 486. This included the hard drive, both floppy drives, and the sound cards. I pulled the 4X CD burner from the Pentium III. After putting it together, I had a memory counting issue during post. The long story short was that the jumper settings were incorrect for a DX4-100 processor. It had never run on this system. It was simply socketed for storage. I popped the SX-33 back in there, and it passed the memory count just fine. After that, it was a story of failure as all COM ports, the HDD controller, and the FDD controller all failed. I smirked after a little while as I remembered that I upgraded to the Pentium 100 when the 486's I/O card failed. I took my first step toward ebay & purchased an old I/O card for about $12. After it arrived, the COM ports and floppy drive came back to life. The HDD controller still failed, yet the BIOS could at least detect that the 250 MB hard drive was there. No matter what coaxing, changing of IDE cables, changing of ISA slots, etc that I did, I couldn't get the hard drive to kick-in during boot-up. Thus, I moved to the Pentium 100.

System Possibility 2 - Revive the Pentium

After the 486 failure, I moved the floppy drives, CD-ROM drive, hard drive and sound cards back to the Pentium 100. Without a video card, I had to get on ebay again. This time I purchased a Diamond Stealth 3D Pro 2000 for about $7.50. Upon receiving it, I installed it and booted. The Pentium 100 booted just fine, but I still had an issue with the hard drive. It is realistic to assume that a hard drive just can't pull its weight after being around for seventeen years. The 486 would have probably worked had I simply replaced the hard drive.

I took the 40 GB hard drive from the Pentium III, set a jumper to "make the drive look smaller," and then attempted to get the Pentium to recognize it. After some tweaking in the BIOS, the system identified the hard drive as 8.4 GB - the largest capacity the BIOS supports. I formatted the drive using a copy of DOS 7.1 (allows for an 8.4 GB partition formatted FAT32) and was finally in business...

I'll go into details about the software, the system, the ideas, and the issues in Part 2. I'll also include some pictures.

What system would you build? How would you go about choosing your specs? 386? 486? Pentium?

Comments

Bill Loguidice
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Joined: 12/31/1969
That's a good question about

That's a good question about what the ideal gaming dos box would be. I'm not sure if there is a single perfect configuration, but I would think you'd want to figure how to go to the limit, while still maintaining maximum compatibility and maximum authenticity. Even though it's not ideal, I almost wonder if there are not three basic categories to consider.

1 - CGA-based DOS PC for all early games that don't like acceleration and where you want authentic output. Since CGA colors look better in composite rather than monitor mode, I would think having a TV as an output option would be a good choice.

2 - A VGA-based DOS PC for all VGA and EGA games, and one with more oomph, like a 486 something, to be able to run most games at full speed. You'd also want a good Sound Blaster sound card.

3 - A 3DFx-based (preferably dual-card) Windows 95 Pentium PC, along with a good Sound Blaster sound card.

I personally have the ability to pull together all three configurations, and is something that I've considered if I've ever had the time to do so. I've also procured a Roland MT-32 and Disney Sound Source, so I'd want to work those in somewhere as well. As you know, the greatest challenge with putting together a nifty PC DOS box is in the crazy variety of options available.

I'll be following closely what route you ultimately go and your level of success and satisfaction.

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Chris Kennedy
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Make the choice...or rather the "choices"

It is somewhat difficult to pin it on one system. I don't think that can be done. I aimed for a bit of middle ground. The Pentium 100 looks like the winner. I can use it to easily play a lot of late 80s and early 90s games, and I can slow it down with a utility if I need to do so (my most current experiment being Wing Commander).

On the later side of things, it can run a PCI video card and get some rudimentary 3D gaming to work. While it isn't a Pentium 166, I think there is still a lot of 3D gaming that can be done. Windows 95 will probably be on this box alongside Windows 3.11.

Interesting you bring up the MT-32, Bill. I actually acquired one of those last week and hope to weave it into the setup this weekend. The seller sent it with the wrong power supply, so I had to acquire an official Roland one before even attempting to use it. (He said the unit was working, but I didn't want to try it with the power supply he gave me!)

I have some future adventures planned with other Roland devices, but I will wait to accomplish Phase 1 of this system first.

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Bill Loguidice
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MT-32
Chris Kennedy wrote:

Interesting you bring up the MT-32, Bill. I actually acquired one of those last week and hope to weave it into the setup this weekend. The seller sent it with the wrong power supply, so I had to acquire an official Roland one before even attempting to use it. (He said the unit was working, but I didn't want to try it with the power supply he gave me!)
I have some future adventures planned with other Roland devices, but I will wait to accomplish Phase 1 of this system first.

I'll be curious of your experience with the MT-32, as I have not tried to bring up my device yet. I have the internal card and the external box and power supply. I don't think I had gotten any type of documentation or anything with it, though I might have it in PDF form.

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Chris Kennedy
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Roland

I am really glad to hear you have this equipment, Bill. I was planning on writing a decent chunk about what I have learned about Roland devices, getting them to work properly on the PC, etc, however I wasn't sure how many people would be interested in the details. Awesome. Internal card, eh? Is that the LAPC-I? That card (with breakout box) is a pretty expensive item.

As far as the blog plans - Part II should detail the build a bit more, and Part III should talk about software (getting it to run, getting it to work with the Roland devices properly, etc)

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Bill Loguidice
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Roland
Chris Kennedy wrote:

I am really glad to hear you have this equipment, Bill. I was planning on writing a decent chunk about what I have learned about Roland devices, getting them to work properly on the PC, etc, however I wasn't sure how many people would be interested in the details. Awesome. Internal card, eh? Is that the LAPC-I? That card (with breakout box) is a pretty expensive item.

I *think* it's the LAPC-I, but I can't be sure until I take a look again. I had assumed it was a requirement to interface the MT-32 with the computer, as it seems to have a direct connect port for it, but in looking it up now, I guess it's an enhancement to it (do you know how you would interface the MT-32 without the card?). I was always planning on comparing the MIDI output of the Sierra games with that setup versus an Atari ST setup.

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Chris Kennedy
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MPU-401
Bill Loguidice wrote:

I *think* it's the LAPC-I, but I can't be sure until I take a look again. I had assumed it was a requirement to interface the MT-32 with the computer, as it seems to have a direct connect port for it, but in looking it up now, I guess it's an enhancement to it (do you know how you would interface the MT-32 without the card?). I was always planning on comparing the MIDI output of the Sierra games with that setup versus an Atari ST setup.

You definitely have a much more desired setup to interface Roland devices with the PC - Those Roland cards are the only ones I know of that will communicate in true MPU-401 intelligent mode. The Creative Labs Sound Blaster (and many other) cards communicate via an MPU-401 compatible interface that use a stripped down UART mode. While that UART mode is good enough for pushing MIDI data, many (if not most) of the games expect a genuine MPU-401 interface capable of normal/intelligent mode.

Fortunately, the Sierra games (all of them...I think) have an aftermarket patch that patches the MT32 driver to allow it to communicate with the MT-32 via the "Sound Blaster MPU-401" interface.

That will most likely be my course of action for the time being, however I would ultimately prefer to have a Roland card to communicate with the MT-32 (and hopefully SC-55) in the future. I just don't have the extra $200 to drop on a LAPC-I or SCC-1 right now!

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Bill Loguidice
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Now I'm really wondering what I have...
Chris Kennedy wrote:

That will most likely be my course of action for the time being, however I would ultimately prefer to have a Roland card to communicate with the MT-32 (and hopefully SC-55) in the future. I just don't have the extra $200 to drop on a LAPC-I or SCC-1 right now!

I didn't pay anywhere near that when I got it, so now I'll definitely have to check what it is. I'll try and do that tonight.

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Bill Loguidice
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I guess it IS a pretty good Roland setup...

Roland MT-32
Roland MPU-IPC and breakout box
Roland MPU-401

IMG_4574

IMG_4575

IMG_4576

IMG_4577

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Mark Vergeer
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Joined: 01/16/2006
My 'retro PC systems'

My 486 finally broke down on me so I have two 'retro' gaming PC gaming systems set-up.

1. 'The Slab'
Celeron 1.4Ghz PentiumIII style (it was the last PentiumIII celeron with the tualatin (?) core and the same amount of cache as the real PentiumIII)
512Mb RAM SDRam 133Mhz
SB16 PCI sound card
Nvidia 6600 GTS AGP graphics card
ATA 160Gb harddrive
Iomega ZIP 100 ATA
ATA CD-ROM
[] Dual booting in Windows98 / WindowsXP
= Great for those older Windows games

2. 'The Drab'
Celeron 900Mhz PentiumIII style CPU
512Mb RDAM SDRAM 100Mhz
SB16 PCI sound card
Nvidia 5200 AGP graphics card with a Voodoo 3DFx 16Mb
ATA 40Gb harddrive
ATA CD-ROM
[] Dual booting MS-DOS and Windows95
= great for those older DOS and Glide games

3. 'The shite'
Commodore64 webit device without a harddrive, 2 PCMCIA 1 slots, a floppy drive and a built in version of Windows3.1x
I have a Windows98 based boot floppy with parallel port IOMEGA drivers loaded and have a IOMEGA ZIP 100 connected over parallel port. That way I can run some old stuff directly off the Zip disks.

For anything older than that I opt to use DOS-Box.

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Catatonic
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Joined: 05/20/2006
Too bad about the DX4. I had

Too bad about the DX4. I had a 100 MHz system like that. It could run almost any DOS game ever made (except Quake) at top speed. The CPU didn't even need a fan on it.

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