Building a Retro Gaming PC - Part 2

Chris Kennedy's picture
Let's continue the Retro Gaming PC Adventure(TM), shall we?

Since my first post, the machine has gone through a few minor revisions. I went with the Pentium build, and the system is coming along nicely. I'll detail some of the specs here.

Power Supply & Cooling - The PSU and fan situation is changing early next week. I am currently running off of the original AT power supply and Socket 7 fan setup. While the Pentium 100 didn't generate much heat, there have been tremendous advances in power supplies and cooling solutions over the years. I provide more details after the change.

Motherboard - Epox P55-TF - This motherboard uses the Intel i430FX chipset and contains both PCI slots and ISA slots. Deciding to go with a Pentium allowed for a lot of flexibility. The games designed for a 486 run really well, the PCI bus allows for a LOT of expansion possibilities (including various video cards), and the ISA bus allows for a lot of backward compatibility. I could put an old Adlib sound card in the machine or throw in a late nineties Plug and Play PCI card. Top this off with the ability to take larger sized hard drives, and you have a system that covers the late eighties to mid nineties quite well.

CPU - Genuine Intel Pentium 100 Mhz. The Epox motherboard and this 100 Mhz Pentium started with me. I bought them new in 1996, and they are still going strong.

Video Card - Diamond Stealth 3D Pro 2000 - S3-ViRGE chipset - If there was one thing I was missing when it came time to build the Pentium, it was a video card. I am not sure where the old ones of mine are scattered. I may have to get back up in the attic at my parents' the next time I am there and try to find some more video cards. In the meantime, this Stealth card will have to pull the weight. This particular card appears to have a few issues - either that, or I have some general system troubles that are realized thanks to the video card. Various games flash pixels of color at random times. I think perhaps the video card's RAM is a bit defective. All the more reason to find some of my other video cards.

Network Card - Linksys EtherPCI Lan II - Amazingly, I had an ethernet card in this system. Finally got around to testing this one out this weekend. Took a bit of driver hunting to get it working, but it still functions. This makes it a lot easier to dump files on it.

Sound Card - Sound Blaster 16 ISA (non Plug and Play). The ISA-based Sound Blaster 16 is a genuine Creative Labs sound card. It would seem that going with Creative Labs is the best idea as far as compatibility is concerned. Unfortunately, the truth hurts - While Creative Labs was certainly the most popular sound card manufacturer at the time, the company really skipped on quality. There are a few bugs in various DSP versions of the SB16 (including mine), and the card isn't quite perfect when it comes to Sound Blaster Pro compatibility.

Wavetable/General MIDI/Roland - Ahh yes. This aspect of classic gaming was neglected by most when it came to music in games. The primary reason for this was cost. Most people weren't going to spend a few hundred extra just to get better music synthesis on their computer. I was lucky in that I got to hear and eventually acquire a Creative Labs Wave Blaster daughtercard circa 1993/1994. I never looked back. It is hard to watch youtube footage of old games when the footage used the standard OPL3 synthesizer built into Sound Blaster cards. X-Wing and DOOM are the two that make me cringe the most.

Aside from the Wave Blaster - a General MIDI device, I have the Roland MT-32. Before General MIDI was the standard, Roland's MT-32 was used to produce sound using Linear Arithmetic synthesis. To hammer the key points quickly - The MT-32s focus was composition and music work - not for playing games. Linear Arithmetic synthesis is a different form of synthesis than General MIDI. The definitions and differences of the terms wavetable, General MIDI, and Linear Arithmetic Synthesis are often completely unknown or misunderstood.

So sound solution is - Sound Blaster 16, Wave Blaster, Roland MT-32 (external box). I recently bought a set of Logitech speakers with a subwoofer, and they seem to pair up well with the old computer.

Hard Drive - I took a 40 GB hard drive and managed to get the BIOS to recognize it as an 8.4 (largest available capacity for my 1996-dated BIOS). I formatted it FAT-32 as a single partition. This locks me out of using DOS 6.22 or earlier, but does allow for the semi-shady DOS 7.2 on the net as well as the Windows 98 Second Edition DOS that I am now running on this machine. While it is a shame that I cannot use the full capacity of the hard drive, 8.4 GB is a LOT of space for running games that were made in the 80s and early to mid 90s. I could literally fit hundreds upon hundreds of games on here.

Floppy Drives - Running dual floppies - a 3.5" drive and a 5.25" drive. Haven't tested the 5.25". It probably needs to be cleaned. The 3.5" drive was responsible for getting a lot of the early software on here. I am glad it still works and that I have a floppy drive in my Windows 7 box to help prep disks!

Optical Drive - Quite surprisingly, I am running a DVD-ROM/CD burner on this old machine! It runs well.

Monitor - I bought a pretty nice 22" Viewsonic CRT in 2004. It would be my last CRT. I couldn't manage to throw it away simply due to the cost (and it is nice for a CRT). It has fortunately found a new home with this system.

Here is the current, work-in-progress setup. Click the pictures for larger versions. Notice the original Microsoft Mouse that has yellowed with age:

And click here for a quick snapshot of its current "guts"

In Part 3, I will detail some of the software on the machine, issues with installation, provide a few extra tidbits of information about Roland & old games, and discuss bringing an old computer up to date while still managing to keep it "old."

Comments

Hatta
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Joined: 04/27/2010
Fun project

This would be a fun project. ISA gear is so hard to find though. How are you finding the pentium for playing older DOS games? I remember using MoSlo back in the day to play a lot of games. Even something like Wing Commander would run too fast on a pentium IIRC.

I've been pretty satisfied using DOSBOX for my dos fix. The ability to pipe midi music into Timidity, which can load all sorts of sound fonts has been really nice. It even does GUS emulation. It's real nice to be able to use a modern joypad with them too. Using Wing Commander as an example again, heh, I was able to map just about every button I needed onto a logitech dual analog psx clone. It's not authentic, but it plays great.

I'll be interested in reading the next part. Properly configuring DOS for gaming was not a trivial task. 3 different kinds of high memory, having to seek out drivers for every single device, etc. etc.

Mark Vergeer
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Joined: 01/16/2006
Dosbox route

Personally I slightly prefer the dosbox method over the real mccoy because of the ease of use and the highly configurable nature of the environment. Both of my real Machines are plagued with old age like dead batteries, hissing soundcards and small harddrives.

Still being able to use the old real systems is a treat despite the shortcomings of the old hardware.

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Chris Kennedy
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Joined: 08/31/2008
Dosbox vs. Real System

Hey Hatta - ISA gear certainly isn't all that common anymore, however I think it is still relatively easy to find - albeit in different places than usual. There are a few specialty stores, mom and pop computer stores, garage sales, ebay, craigs list, many friends of old (ask them to check the attics and basements!), and a few people online that will say they still have something. One fortunate consequence of dosbox is the fact that so many people no longer have a need for a retro gaming PC, so it actually ends up being easier to find some of the items.

Wing Commander definitely had its issues on the Pentium and even 486s at the time. I believe it ran perfectly on my 386DX-40 I had. I want to say it was very much designed around a 386 25 Mhz. As you start going higher than that, the speed is ridiculous. I also want to say that the framerate itself is based on clock speed. I'll definitely talk more about it in Part 3.

One thing I have found about music emulation is that it just doesn't sound enough like the real thing. During the fall of MIDI's empire on gaming (late nineties), the last ditch effort to keep it alive or to simply let companies still make synthesized music was to go to software-based synthesizers. These synthesizers were quite terrible, and I believe I managed to hold on to my Wave Blaster until at least 2006. Of course, synthesized music in games was long gone by 2006.

A huge advantage to building a retro PC now is that you can cram the RAM. It took sweat and tears to get Syndicate to run on 4 MB of RAM. I had to upgrade to 8 MB just to give it the 3 MB of EMS memory I needed. Now I have a machine that has 24 MB of RAM, and that is more than enough (so far) for the games I want to play.

Mark - Heh. My perspective on old machines is similar to an automotive hobbyist. I enjoy building a classic machine while retrofitting it with modern conveniences - In the end, you have a machine that you possibly couldn't afford when it was new (24 MB of Ram in 1995??) that runs really well.

It all begins with booting that system and asking yourself, "Okay...now what is going to happen when I set this system clock past Y2K??" Haha!

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Catatonic
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Joined: 05/20/2006
This is why we never had enough RAM

Under a Killing Moon - A Technical Note from ACCESS SoftwareUnder a Killing Moon - A Technical Note from ACCESS Software

Calibrator
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Joined: 10/25/2006
Graphics card

The S3 Virge is pretty sucky for a graphics card of this generation. One reason for that is the very slow 3D hardware of the graphics chip.
All other parts of your machine considered I'd try to do the following instead:

a) Get a Voodoo 3D accelerator (PCI-bus) - either a Voodoo1 with 4MB (preferably a Diamond Monster 3D as it uses electronic switches for the signal and not mechanical relais like the V1 from Orchid) or a Voodoo2 with 12MB. The V2 usually had a better VGA-passthru-cable so it may be first choice. There are several great DOS games with Voodoo/Glide patches that you could run on this machine. Some examples are: Tomb Raider 1, P.O.D. (a futuristic racing game from Ubisoft) and the special 3Dfx-version of MechWarrior 1 that came bundled with the Diamond Monster3D, which is *excellent*. Of course lots of later games supported the Voodoo-cards directly but you surely know that already.

b) Get the fastest and most compatible card for the intended purpose (DOS-only or DOS+Windows up to Win98):

- If you want a pure DOS machine or don't want to use a DOS-based Windows (including 3.1, 3.11, 95 or 98) much get a graphics card that is very fast for DOS with the Windows accelerator part being second priority. Depending on the interface you could get a card with a Tseng ET4000 or ET6000 chip (usually ISA with 1 MB video RAM, the ET6000 is often available with a VESA Local Bus interface, though) or a later Paradise chip. I have had great success with a Diamond SpeedStar 24X (ISA-bus): It uses a WD90C31 chip which is around 10-20% faster than an ET4000 chip and many DOS games recognize it as a Paradise chip. An ET4000-based card is perhaps the most compatible solution for DOS, though.

- If you really want to support a DOS-based Windows with good speed, too, then a Matrox Millennium (PCI) would be my first choice: Terrific picture quality, stable drivers, works great with Voodoo-cards and the DOS-speed is also fantastic. Only caveat: There are some DOS applications that need to identify the graphics chip in order to support it properly and the Matrox chips are often not recognized, IIRC.
A Matrox Mystique could also work but it also functions as a 3D accelerator and it would conflict with a Voodoo card (you'd have to disable the less powerful 3D part of the Mystique with a utility program - similarily to the S3 Virge). While the Mystique is faster than the S3 Virge it doesn't support bilinear filtering which is one of the major selling points of the Voodoo-cards.
Alternatively a simple S3 Trio64 card (PCI, literally cheap as dirt) is a good choice as the S3 chips were often supported by DOS games or patches and it doesn't have 3D hardware so it doesn't conflict with a Voodoo-card.

Finally: Try to avoid graphics cards with a VESA-BIOS higher than v1.2 as there are several games that are programmed badly and refuse to run on a more modern VESA-BIOS even if it would work properly (example: a Voodoo 3 card or one with a Nvidia Riva-TNT chip).

If you have specific questions about graphics chips ask away - I may remember more stuff that doesn't want to surface right now ;-)

take care,
Calibrator

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Chris Kennedy
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Joined: 08/31/2008
Video card

Heh. Hey, Calibrator

The card I purchased - that S3-Virge thing - was purchased because it ran me all of $7.50. I didn't really plan on running it as the primary graphics card of my system. I mostly just wanted to get a system up and running.

I couldn't help but chuckle a bit at your comments because....you listed a lot of graphics cards I used to have! Haha! I think we are on the same page here.

I can't remember the system requirements that everything had. I plan on keeping this stuff running on a Pentium 100. I can't remember what the Voodoo 2 needed in order to run. It could be that it (or "they" for SLI) only needed a Pentium 90, however I believe that most of the games that I ran with my Voodoo setup (2x 8 MB Monster 3d II PCI + Matrox Millenium G220 AGP) required a computer that was a Pentium 166 or higher. In fact, I ran that graphics card setup on a Pentium 2 266 and eventually Pentium 3 500. So I think I am leaving the territory of the Pentium 100, and it obviously couldn't take AGP card.

Focusing a bit more on this system - BAM - you mentioned the one thing I am looking for - a Matrox Mystique. I remember making the call between a Millenium (I think it was a bit more expensive) and a Mystique. I bought the Mystique because I wanted to go to 3D. This was...1997? Does that sound right? While the Mystique may not have been the best card at the time, it got the job done. I was impressed enough to stick with Matrox for years until the GeForce chip came around. No need to talk about that chip, though, as we are leaving the territory I am interested in using for gaming.

All of this said, my primary interest is in DOS-based games. I don't mind pushing to a better graphics card so long as I do not lose compatibility with the games. I don't recall graphics cards causing game incompatibilities until the Windows 95/98 Direct-X era. Most DOS games just didn't care. You'd get some better framerates when you moved from ISA to VLB, but otherwise the games would run fine.

So here I have a Windows 98 SE edition machine that I boot to DOS and seriously type "win" in order to use. I spend most of the time in DOS at the moment as my primary interest is in DOS-based games. I have certainly sat the fence on the options. Do I go Voodoo? Should i restrict myself to Voodoo 1 or go Voodoo 2 SLI? Is there a point to putting Voodoo 2 SLI on a Pentium 100, or should I wait to do that if I build a Pentium 2 or 3 machine? Should I dig up my Matrox Mystique? Would it be better to skip out on the 3D path and just stick to a good, compatible 2D card.

You have seriously written out some of the thoughts I have thrown around in my head concerning the video card on this machine. The one thing that causes a bit of concern is that I do seem to recall having a conversation with a friend circa 1996/1997 when we were both considering moving to a Matrox card - A conversation that talked about compatibility. It *seems* like the chip in there was indeed not recognized by a few programs and therefore caused some degree of incompatibility. If it did, I probably wrote it off because I was moving forward instead of backward. Oh, but how it is different this time! I am moving backward with a purpose. Therefore, do I use the Mystique or acquire a card with higher compatibility?

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Calibrator
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Joined: 10/25/2006
Hot Graphics, Part Deux
Chris Kennedy wrote:

The card I purchased - that S3-Virge thing - was purchased because it ran me all of $7.50. I didn't really plan on running it as the primary graphics card of my system. I mostly just wanted to get a system up and running.

Oh, it's OK for that!

Quote:

I couldn't help but chuckle a bit at your comments because....you listed a lot of graphics cards I used to have! Haha! I think we are on the same page here.

I believe so, too, as your story reminds me of my own setups for which I still have most of the parts (or at least the graphics cards I keep collecting... ;-)

Quote:

I can't remember the system requirements that everything had. I plan on keeping this stuff running on a Pentium 100. I can't remember what the Voodoo 2 needed in order to run. It could be that it (or "they" for SLI) only needed a Pentium 90, however I believe that most of the games that I ran with my Voodoo setup (2x 8 MB Monster 3d II PCI + Matrox Millenium G220 AGP) required a computer that was a Pentium 166 or higher. In fact, I ran that graphics card setup on a Pentium 2 266 and eventually Pentium 3 500. So I think I am leaving the territory of the Pentium 100, and it obviously couldn't take AGP card.

A SLI-rig is most certainly underpowered by a P100 but a single V2 should in most cases be better than a V1, while there are some old patches/games that don't run well with a V2 but are more compatible with a V1.
On the other hand a single V2 has a better picture quality, supports 800x600 with Z-buffer (1024x768 w/o Z-buffer but not many games support that) and the better VGA-passthru-cable. It's of course faster and while a P100 may not make full use of it's power it shouldn't be slower than a V1 in that situation. I really don't see much against a V2 and SLI can still be an option for a later Windows setup if you want to "upgrade".

Quote:

Focusing a bit more on this system - BAM - you mentioned the one thing I am looking for - a Matrox Mystique. I remember making the call between a Millenium (I think it was a bit more expensive) and a Mystique. I bought the Mystique because I wanted to go to 3D. This was...1997? Does that sound right? While the Mystique may not have been the best card at the time, it got the job done.

I was in the exact same situation 1997 but I had to decide between getting a Mystique or first a Matrox Millennium 1 and later adding a Voodoo 1 which was mentioned in magazine articles a few months earlier and which got me very excited. I mean - come on! - next to the speed increase the bilinear filtering was *the* outstandingly visible progress of dedicated 3D-hardware compared to the available CPU-rendered games which had blocky pixellated textures. As the Mystique was lacking this important feature and the S3 Virge was slow as hell I decided to go with the more expensive solution early 1997: A Millennium combined with a V1 and I never regretted it.
Later I exchanged the V1 with two 12MB V2 from Creative Labs and Half-Life was a dream come true on that platform. A dithered dream in 1024x768 for sure - but still a dream come true.

Quote:

I was impressed enough to stick with Matrox for years until the GeForce chip came around. No need to talk about that chip, though, as we are leaving the territory I am interested in using for gaming.

Exactly - I spare you my x generations of graphics hardware following the V2s, too ;-)

Quote:

All of this said, my primary interest is in DOS-based games. I don't mind pushing to a better graphics card so long as I do not lose compatibility with the games. I don't recall graphics cards causing game incompatibilities until the Windows 95/98 Direct-X era. Most DOS games just didn't care. You'd get some better framerates when you moved from ISA to VLB, but otherwise the games would run fine.

Some games indeed had problems with certain graphics chips. I distinctly remember several games having problems with S3-cards (the voxel-based "Comanche" and I believe Ultima 7 had problems with "earthquakes") as it didn't support some of the more inofficial VGA-register twiddling that worked for years, IIRC.
Some older VGA hardware had similar problems so us gamers needed a clean VGA implementation with all the undocumented stuff like special graphics modes (360x480 for example, which was used by several SSI RPGs designed by the small company Dreamforge Entertainment: The Ravenloft series, ending with Menzoberranzan, AFAIK). The Tseng ET4000 was initially a follow-up to the ET3000, a cheap VGA clone with 512 MB RAM. The ET4000 supported 1 MB and was a plenty fast while as compatible as possible so it quickly became the standard VGA chip of the time.

Quote:

So here I have a Windows 98 SE edition machine that I boot to DOS and seriously type "win" in order to use. I spend most of the time in DOS at the moment as my primary interest is in DOS-based games. I have certainly sat the fence on the options. Do I go Voodoo? Should i restrict myself to Voodoo 1 or go Voodoo 2 SLI? Is there a point to putting Voodoo 2 SLI on a Pentium 100, or should I wait to do that if I build a Pentium 2 or 3 machine? Should I dig up my Matrox Mystique? Would it be better to skip out on the 3D path and just stick to a good, compatible 2D card.

Why not getting the most for DOS at this time and concentrate on DOS games until you want to concentrate on older Windows-games? Then you can change your config easily.
Using a halfway-decent VGA-card, even with ISA-bus is sufficient for DOS-games. A Matrox will be slightly faster with compatible (VESA-based) games but it's not a must-have.
But: Combining a standard VGA-card with a V1 or V2 will give you both pure DOS games and the (relatively few) Voodoo-enabled DOS games without problems. A single V1 or V2 (8 or 12 MB) card will be the best solution as there is no DOS-compatible 3D-hardware accelerator that has nearly the same level of support or performance for this special kind of DOS-games. Adding a second V2 for a SLI-rig won't be necessary for DOS-based Voodoo-games when my memory holds true as it will mostly increase speed and offer 1024x768 with Z-buffer and most DOS-Voodoo-games are limited to 640x480 anyway...

Quote:

The one thing that causes a bit of concern is that I do seem to recall having a conversation with a friend circa 1996/1997 when we were both considering moving to a Matrox card - A conversation that talked about compatibility. It *seems* like the chip in there was indeed not recognized by a few programs and therefore caused some degree of incompatibility. If it did, I probably wrote it off because I was moving forward instead of backward. Oh, but how it is different this time! I am moving backward with a purpose. Therefore, do I use the Mystique or acquire a card with higher compatibility?

You are already at 98% of the solution - you only need to draw the conclusion: You aren't after speed this time - you are after flexibility, features and compatibility.
If you are mainly after DOS then a Matrox is more than good enough for many things but older cards are often a bit more compatible. Like for example the ET4000, which I'd strongly recommend you as you should also be able to combine it with a Voodoo...

take care,
Calibrator

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Mark Vergeer
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Joined: 01/16/2006
Yeah Tseng!

OMG I totally forgot about the Tseng. I remember my roommate in college having a Tseng ET4000 in his 386DX40 being faster than the S3Virge PCI in another friends 486SX25. I had a VLB Trident9400CXi or something like that which was just as rubbish as the S3Virge range :(

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Catatonic
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Joined: 05/20/2006
Rendition

I once got a Creative Labs "Graphics Blaster 3D" with a Laguna3D chip - ever heard of that? It pretty much made the games run SLOWER. I only had it for a few days - the card I ordered was a "3D Blaster PCI" (with Rendition Verite chip) and the shop ordered the wrong one. The Rendition chips turned out OK for 3D Windows games but were terribly slow in DOS games.

Calibrator
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Joined: 10/25/2006
Creative
Catatonic wrote:

I once got a Creative Labs "Graphics Blaster 3D" with a Laguna3D chip - ever heard of that? It pretty much made the games run SLOWER. I only had it for a few days - the card I ordered was a "3D Blaster PCI" (with Rendition Verite chip) and the shop ordered the wrong one.

The first Creative Labs 3D card was more or less useless according to old magazine reviews. A deserved flop like the very first Nvidia card: The NV1.

Quote:

The Rendition chips turned out OK for 3D Windows games but were terribly slow in DOS games.

It allegedly had the best patch for Tomb Raider 1, even better than the Voodoo1.
I find that hard to believe (never seen it) but if that's the case it was it's only triumph against 3Dfx and after that card Creative pretty much caved in to the mighty Voodoo: Rumors circulated that they paid 3Dfx a hefty sum to get the Voodoo 2 exclusively for a short time.
It worked with me, though, as I bought two 12 MB V2s from them (they had great games bundle, too!). ;-)

take care,
Calibrator

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