Crystal Ball Time: Windows 8 VS. Retro-Gaming

Shawn Delahunty's picture

Hello everyone. The last part of my article on "Randomness and Zero-Sum" is forthcoming shortly. However I wanted to jump topics for a moment, and bring to your attention a subject that, I believe, will become problematic in the next year or so. Specifically, I want to direct your focus to what I predict as another soon-to-ensue debacle, courtesy of the (not really) friendly folks at Microsoft. Yes, I'm talking about Windows 8. No, I'm not picking on it for the reasons everyone else is.

So then, what's the issue? What precisely is the problem with Windows 8? Well, I think Windows 8 is going to have a monstrously negative impact on PC gaming; specifically, on our beloved topic of Retro Gaming. And it's going to be nastier than many people think.

Concern #0: Why Am I Bringing This Up Now?

For some time now, I've known about the issues which I will discuss below. Slowly, as more information on Window 8 has dribbled into the tech media streams, my "Level of Irritation" has grown. Today, I hit my trigger point, thanks to Mr. Gabe Newell of Valve Software. I read an article in which he lambasts Windows 8, and talks about how Valve is going to make the attempt to promote Linux as a valid, open gaming platform. (Whether or not Valve has a good chance to succeed in this endeavor is another topic, for another time. Personally, I'm rooting for it, and will do everything I can to support and assist along the way.)

Concern #1: The Backwards Compatibility Issue

Anyone who's been gaming on PC's for more than 10 years has been through this before: Games which ran like scalded monkeys on Windows XP didn't run very well or at all on Vista, at least until they were patched. Or the graphics drivers were patched. Or both. (Some more obscure games still don't run correctly.) Ditto for Window 7, no matter how much better than Vista it may actually be. (Although I'm no fan of Windows or Microsoft, I do think Windows 7 is a decent enough OS. At least I don't loathe it like some of their past offerings.)

But like or dislike aside, the bulk of PC games are still written for Windows. Speaking as someone who's been dealing with Microsoft since the DOS3.3 days, I can tell you that similar backwards-compatibility problems showed up during the transition from DOS to Windows 95 (Whew, what a debacle that was!) from Windows 95 to Windows 98, and from 98 to 2000. (I will politely exclude Windows ME from this discussion. We always referred to it as "Windows Meh"...) So from this perspective, I can tell you that "growing pains" and "backwards compatibility" are nothing new. However there were certain transitions which presented much more than mere, "growing pains". Some of them were seriously AWFUL.

One of the biggest headaches for those of use who love to run really old games has been the "backwards compatibility mode" which Windows supplied for DOS-based games. There are dozens and dozens of older DOS-based games that ran just fine in "Compatibility" mode in Windows-XP, which won't even try to launch under Windows Vista or Window 7. And again, this also happpened in prior years, with prior versions of the operating system.

None of this is a surprise at this point, and it would be foolish for us to expect things to improve. Sure, thanks to the wonderful work of many talented programmers, all volunteeers, we have solutions for most of these problems now. Programs like DOSBox, DOSEmu, and the free OS clone FreeDOS, offer the capability of running most "really old" or even "ancient" games. This is a terrific thing, and one for which I personally am extraordinarily grateful.

There are other options for doing "compatibility workarounds" too, if you have an old Windows-based game you wish to run:

  1. WINE:
  2. For people like me, who run Linux (or MacOS), WINE offers a terrific way to play a genuinely impressive number of old games. So you can do what I do; run Linux, and then merely fire up WINE to get your gaming fix. It isn't a perfect solution though, as there are many games which are poorly supported. (This is most often because the game's developer used obscure or undocumented APIs hidden in the innards of a given version of Windows. Diablo 1 for example has some funky 2D DirectDraw calls which mean you have to manually drag around actual Windows DLL's--even then there are still some graphics glitches.)

  3. Multiple OS Boot:
  4. Another option for the technically inclined, is to partition your hard-disk into pieces, and install the various versions of Windows or DOS which you want. Then you simply install the games on the OS version where they are the happiest. Want to play a game that only runs on Win98? No problem. You just reboot your machine, and off you go.

    As you might guess, this all sounds great, but there are obvious downsides to it:

    • -- First off, there is the TECHNICAL SET-UP of this scheme.
      If you are of a technical bent, or can tap a friend who will set up a system for you, then you CAN at least do this. If you aren't in this situation, it can be impossible to even try.
    • -- Next problem? TIME.
      It takes a loooong time to set up a multi-boot system. You have to back up all your data. You have to set up your boot-loader. You have to wait for each version of the OS to install. And reboot. And continue installing. And reboot. And so on.
    • -- Next up, AVAILABILITY OF THE OS.
      If you don't happen to have a Windows 95 CD, and and Windows 98 CD, and a Windows 2000 CD, AND a Windows XP CD... well, you're going to have to make a decision. Either start combing through EBay, or pirate a copy of every OS you need, or give up the idea of playing your old games. (I'm not condoning piracy, but given that so many machines ship these days without a friggin' OS Install CD, you may have no choice.)
    • -- Another problem, HARDWARE DRIVERS.
      A lot of people don't think about this one. But for old versions of Windows, there simply isn't a driver for your gee-whiz new nVidia GFX card---and there ain't gonna be one! Same goes for your sound-card. (Though thankfully, most of them still have a kind of rough 'SoundBlaster compatibility', so even the old DOS games will play sounds.)
      Old versions of Windows have more holes than a sponge. It's not even possible to download the existing updates/fixes any more for some of them.

  5. Virtualization
  6. If you are an extreme nerd, then you can set up a "Virtual Machine" inside your current version of Windows. Then inside that magical bubble, you can install the older version of Windows, followed by all the old games you want. However, this presents all the same problems as Multiple OS Boot, and adds a few more for good measure:

    • -- It is MUCH harder to set up correctly, and configure to get it working.
    • -- It uses a LOT more system resources. This can be a real problem on older PCs--the extra load of the virtualization layer may slow the games to unpleasant, unacceptable, or outright unplayable speeds.
    • -- You may not have good compatibility with game software, compared to 'standard productivity' applications. To squeeze out performance, games are often tweaked heavily to make use of undocumented or hidden bits of the OS. These hacks usually allow the game to do questionable things with the hardware, but do boost performance. Since your game isn't ACTUALLY running on a real piece of hardware, but instead is working on a 'software image' of a machine, you will sometimes get breakage and crashes.

As you can see from this list, some of the workarounds to re-gain the ability to play your older games are seriously complicated. The various solutions are not something that is intuitive or fast to set up. Even for a propeller-head like myself, it often takes a long while to figure out all the tricks and obscure settings which have to be tweaked to get a given game to run. Even then, it is a frustrating experience.

But there's another thing lurking ominously just over the horizon, "The Catch". Windows 8 is going to break or completely prevent a lot of this "workaround" capability. Deliberately. Yes, Windows 8 is going to actively work to prevent you from even trying these kinds of things.

(Cue dark, ominous orchestral music...)

Concern #2: The Hidden "Keys to the Kingdom"
   (a.k.a. Your machine ain't yours anymore...)

As the marketing and PR machines at Microsoft and elsewhere begin the slow spin-up of "The Buzz Machine", there is a nefarious side-story of the Windows 8 launch cycle which is slowly making the rounds of the "technical press". This information, which seriously affects every user on a lot of different levels, is suspiciously still very absent from the gaming and mainstream press.

What am I yapping about? To get "Windows 8 Certification" stamp for their hardware, the OEM hardware manufacturers _MUST_ support UEFI and "Key-Signing". Let's take these in order, shall we?

Bye-bye BIOS... hello UEFI.

Every PC since the beginning of time has had what's known as a BIOS; this is some basic software which starts up and does some basic housekeeping when you flip on the power switch. Anyone who remembers PCs from the 1990's certainly remembers watching the "Memory Test" and the whizzing numbers that go by while the BIOS checks out your RAM for errors.

Most of the time, the BIOS goes about it's work, no one thinks much about it, and when it's done it boots your operating system. Most modern machines hide the BIOS away behind one sort of splash-screen or another, so you see the "Dell" or "HP" or "Acer" logo for a moment when you boot, then the wiggly Windows progress bar starts doing it's thing.

The only time anyone messes with the BIOS anymore, is maybe when they first get a machine and want to tweak something, or perhaps when you install a new video card or upgrade your RAM or hard-disk. Sometimes, if things start going mysteriously amuck on your machine, you might go in there to try and reset things. Other than that, it's basically forgotten.

In recent years, there has been an ursurper to the BIOS making its way into the works; UEFI. If you want the details, may I point you at Google. It is supposedly this amazing new replacement for BIOS, one that allows all kinds of wondrous things. Speaking as a low-level systems programmer, I tend to agree with Linus Torvalds: UEFI is idiotic. It's trying to solve problems that nobody has. And it introduces a whole host of other problems--as I'll get to in a moment.

Mac users have been dealing with UEFI for a bit longer that we on the PC side. Again, Google can provide you the details of when it was introduced, and some of the why-fors of that. The usage of UEFI has required some extra hoop-jumping when you try to make a Macintosh computer multi-boot, but the configuration dance for that is pretty well established now.

In the Windows world, Microsoft is about to up the ante in the battle over "Who owns YOUR PC?"

In addition to providing all the gee-whiz things, like the ability to use a mouse to configure your BIOS... uh, I mean UEFI settings, the new UEFI firmware structure is being used by Microsoft to slowly bend users and hardware OEMS further over a barrel.

Hardware Key Signing and "Secure Boot"

As I mentioned above, in order to get their fancy-pants "Microsoft Approved for Windows 8" sticker, hardware OEMs are being forced to put UEFI on their PCs. This is to support a new "feature": Cryptographic Key-Signing for "Secure Boot". In short, there will be a set of MS-generated MS-approved crypto keys hidden away deep in the innards of 'your' computer. When UEFI starts up and launches Windows 8, it will use those super-duper secret keys to... uh, ensure that no "unauthorized software" runs.

In plain English? You won't be able to run ANY software that doesn't have the matching "Okey Dokey Approval" keys tucked inside of it. What does that mean for your brand-new PC?

Out of the box, you will NOT be able to load and execute ANY other operating system on it.

Not Linux.

Not BSD.

Not Open Solaris.

Not Windows 7.

Not WinXP.

Not Win2000.

Not Windows Meh.

Not Windows 98.

Not Windows 95.

Not DOS.

No, I am not joking. Now Microsoft has put a good bit of time and money into a PR campaign to defuse this situation, claiming that, "All a user has to do is go into the UEFI and disable the signed-key requirement."

Um yeah. Let's see, how do I do that exactly? Oh yes:

  • Reboot.
  • Click through the UEFI mess to find the setting.
  • Change the setting.
  • Save and exit.
  • Machine reboots.
  • Select which OS I want to boot.
  • Wait.
  • Get into Win98, play me some Diablo 1.
  • Decide that I'm done playing and want to go back to working on some things.
  • Reboot.
  • Click through the UEFI mess to find the setting.
  • Change the setting.
  • Save and exit.
  • Machine reboots.
  • Select Windows 8.
  • Wait some more.

(Some people are yapping right about now, "Hey! Why are you saying turn the key-signing flag back ON?!?" Because I'll _have_ to do that to boot Windows 8. Not right away possibly, but eventually--they'll issue a patch that 'Checks to ensure your PC is "Fully Protected"!' At some point, I expect them to "helpfully" set the flag back on automagically for you, and not tell you.)

What a mess! That's far worse than just the regular dual-boot/multi-boot option I discussed above. How many people are going to want to do that? How many people will even know that they can? More worryingly, how many OEMs will get to the point where they just "lock down" the UEFI, and do _NOT_ provide a method to TURN OFF the signed-key requirement?

Oh wait, I forgot.

Some OEMs are already locking the UEFI so that it is NOT POSSIBLE TO TURN OFF 'Secure Boot'!

So there is NO way for you to install another operating system... on YOUR COMPUTER. This is "Trusted Computing" HOW exactly?

At this point, you may still be asking, "Why do I care?" That's a fair enough question. If you only want to run Windows 8, and you only want to run new games, and you never want to run an older version of Windows, then I suppose it doesn't matter to you.

So far, the bulk of the worry and fussing and complaining and venting about this development, has come from those of us who run Linux. But the discontent and furor is spreading.

Things can and will get worse...

A precedent is being set here folks. This is the biggy, the lynch-pin, the keystone.

This is the last step past the slippery-slope in the 'software as a service' chain, to take away the customer's rights, and subvert hundreds of years of established law and legal doctrine concerning ownership of property. "From now on, you don't own nuthin'."

  • This UEFI/Trusted-Computing step removes the capability to run/use software WHICH YOU ALREADY OWN. Forget about the "Used Games" argument. They're finding ways to TAKE AWAY WHAT YOU ALREADY HAVE.
  • This sets the stage for "Forced Updates" which will remove more functionality.
  • "Forced Monitoring" because you nasty little pirating users can't be trusted to do ANYTHING.
  • "Forced Downgrades" of capability, because they decided that you need to PAY THEM AGAIN FOR SOMETHING YOU ALREADY HAVE.

Am I going off the deep end a little bit here? Maybe, but not by much I suspect. It won't get to that extreme--I hope and pray. Eventually a critical mass of complaining and public and political and legal backlash will rip down the "money grubbing empire" that DRM and "Cloudy" schemes and "Trusted Computing" try to establish.

But the questions I have to ask are:

  • How LONG will that take?
  • How BAD will it get?
  • At what point, before the pendulum reverses, will I face potential CRIMINAL PROSECUTION from hacking my OWN, PURCHASED HARDWARE--MY PROPERTY?!? I will have to do this in order to run what I want! Will they classify me as a terrorist?

Before you start laughing at me here, consider some history:

  • Senator McCarthy and the 1950's "Communist Witch Hunts".
  • The FBI and the folks investigated and detained for putting out The Anarchist's Cookbook.
  • The interrogation and near-prosecution of Phil Zimmerman when he released the PGP consumer-level cryptography software.
  • The court case (in Australia I think) where a fellow was found criminally guilty of violating the DMCA, because he provided a service to install mod-chips IN HARDWARE WHICH PEOPLE ALREADY OWNED.

If anyone is curious about more details, here are some helpful links which explain the details and ramifications in greater detail.

Linux Devs working on the UEFI problem,...
Linus Torvalds on Windows 8, UEFI, and Fedora...
Windows 8 "Feature": Secure Boot

Here's a flat out LIE still up on Softpedia, where it's claimed that other OS's and users, "..won't be locked out by UEFI." This is already provably false, as several reviewers have fought with new PC's that do NOT provide the option to turn off 'Secure Boot'.

Softpedia article

Folks, I'm really pissed off at all of this, in case you hadn't noticed. But it requires everyday people like us, a LOT of us, to stand up to this garbage, shoot these businesses the middle finger, and say "NO! We won't accept this!"

So please, PLEASE... vote with your wallets. Send Emails. Sign petitions on forums. Think about what this means, and what it is leading towards.

Ok, I'm done. Off to go play some more Legend of Grimrock. Under WINE. On my Linux box. MY Linux box, NOT THEIRS. Thanks again for reading, and I'll be back soon with the last part of "Randomness and Zero-Sum". Happy Gaming!


Joined: 12/17/2006
Maybe I am being a little

Maybe I am being a little "old fashioned" or "close minded" or whatever. Expressing my thoughts thru this medium is not my my cup of tea. I could take a closer look at the new gen. But I keep going back to this picture in my head of 2 consoles sitting in from of me. A 360 running Skyrim and a 2600 running Adventure. I'd pick the 2600 every time.

And in 30 years the 2600 will probably still be working...

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
More debate
IG-88 wrote:

Maybe I am being a little "old fashioned" or "close minded" or whatever. Expressing my thoughts thru this medium is not my my cup of tea. I could take a closer look at the new gen. But I keep going back to this picture in my head of 2 consoles sitting in from of me. A 360 running Skyrim and a 2600 running Adventure. I'd pick the 2600 every time.

And in 30 years the 2600 will probably still be working...

Understandable, but it doesn't mean in 30 years you won't have a new system (that also natively plays holodeck-style games) where you can play BOTH Skyrim and Adventure. In fact, on the 360, you can do both RIGHT NOW with minimal fuss...

As for the RPG thing, since you brought it up, certainly Adventure is fun, but so is Diablo III, which is really the modern day equivalent. Of course, that's crippled with always on online DRM, but even with something like a Diablo III, there are plenty of equivalent alternatives without that...

And please, keep expressing yourself here. It's fun to debate these things.

Rob Daviau
Rob Daviau's picture
Joined: 05/19/2006
I switched to Chrome.

Fairly recently I switched to the majority of my browsing to Google Chrome, my reasons are the same for any software, game or product I chose, it is about getting the best experience and at this point in time I find it is while using Chrome, I tried it in the early days and HATED it and stuck to Firefox for a long time, recently I tried Chrome again and after adding some extensions and tweaking certain settings I am really impressed!

I could care less if Chrome was a product of Google / Microsoft / Mozilla whatever.

Joined: 12/17/2006
Ok. Here are another couple

Ok. Here are another couple simple thoughts I've had:

If your new win8 machine doesn't allow backwards compatibility then why use it? Do you HAVE to play games on it? Can you not have a separate system for running the old games that you want to play without big brother looking over your shoulder? Set up an XP machine (or whatever your needs) separately. Keep it off the net. If win8 is what is needed for work then let it be used for work alone. I do agree with the author that the power grab for something that isn't theirs, and the lying and deceitful nature of MS is reprehensible, but no more than MANY other freedoms that have been taken already yet no one seems to care about. Maybe it's the nature of the forums and places I frequent that have made the things MS has done stand out of the crowd. But what they are doing (as I see it) is no more than an evolution of a disease. And with careful reflection, one can see that it has been growing for some time. A disease mind you that is so ingrained into our society that to remove it would kill the host.

And speaking of evolution. A person on a podcast said something that helped me clarify my thoughts a little on this whole new gen games thing that I dislike. Modern games are more of an evolution than an innovation. Copy cats and re-hashes. Flashy graphics over game-play. As is the same in Hollywierd. Has it all been done before? Yes, once in a while there is an innovative game, but rarely do I see/hear about it. Is there really no new ideas? All I hear about is the market flooded with games. Some gems, most crap. What happened last time this occurred? Remember 1983-84? Maybe we're in line for another crash. Maybe we're standing at the threshold of a new revival? Or perhaps we're at the end and this is the peak of gaming? I dunno.

Screw it. I'm gonna go play my ColecoVision.

Rowdy Rob
Rowdy Rob's picture
Joined: 09/04/2006
Very interesting. But will it matter?

Pretty much everyone I know who has a computer uses it as a "Facebook machine," so will this UEFI matter to them? I seriously doubt it. And perhaps the Metro interface might make Facebook an even better experience for them in the long run.

As for compatibility issues, it sounds like the Win8 tradeoff is going to be faster audio-visuals for Win8-compatible software. I think it was on Slashdot that I read that many audio-visual functions of Win8 is going to significantly (as in double or triple) the speed of many functions pertinent to gaming.

While many OEMs are apparently going to lock down the UEFI, that might lead to other OEMs getting more business by marketing to the harder-core users. "We DON'T lock down the UEFI!"

I think Microsoft is going for the profitable "walled garden" approach of Apple, and I think this UEFI thing is part of that deal. It remains to be seen if this approach works for Microsoft, but I don't think the UEFI controversy is going to matter much to the general populace.

Joined: 03/02/2012
Very interesting article.But

Very interesting article.
But I don't think that virtualization is only for complete nerds. All recent PC emulators virtualize. For starters try VirtualBox which comes free of charge and is really user friendly. The downside is that commercial products like Vmware (especially VMware Fusion for Mac) still have considerably better 3D performance.

For wine I found it the most practical approach to install the whole DirectX blob and be done with it. There's a special tool called wintericks for that.

Shawn Delahunty
Shawn Delahunty's picture
Joined: 08/01/2011
Thank you for reading.

Yes, you're correct to some extent--things have improved greatly in the past 2 years or so in the virtualization world. However, the level of VM setup I was referring to included enabling pass-thru to the 3D hardware--that still isn't handled well in a lot of cases.

As for Winetricks, I'm glad you mentioned it. (I thought about delving into more WINE/Linux detail in the article, but decided against it since my intent was to focus on Win8/UEFI and the precedent being set.) Then too, there are some games which STILL do not behave 100% properly even with the entire glob of DirectX installed--normally I run into this with ancient versions of DirectX and games that must run inside a Win95 Winebottle.

Joined: 01/21/2009
I havent said much as I would

I havent said much as I would have to bring up APPLE in all this.. And i step on them constantly (so i hate sounding like broke record, and have resisted).. MS is just following APPLE and while its quite succesfull (astoundingly quite frankly for a company that had Big brother ads in the 80's to counter MS) I'm not worried about backwords campatibility at all.. but closed platform.. means.. NO MORE of a whole lot.. We add MS licence and ability to get on there "store" costs.. the PC platfrom works for STEAM and thats about it.. there is no more Store shelf market, its all but gone. Digital is the only thing keeping PC gaming alive and console sales far outstip PC sales.. most companies make little or no money on PC ports. Pc Ports are PR.. you dont make one you get blasted in public spaces .. if it was purely based on money I can promise you very few AA titles would be making it to PC anymore. Now we throw a iron gate in that process.. the few who still do it are going to be fewer yet.. Windows going the Closed way of APPLE is going to kill the little "hardcore" gameing that is left.. and quite frankly almost all the true PC gamers left are Hardcore.. DDonte get me wrong.. there will be plenty of same stuff the Istore has.. but whne you ahve to ask MS if its ok to make it win8 and can i please be in the store.. thats just going to put one more barrier in an already "more effort then its worth" segment PC gaming..

Binding of Issac.. not a game I like at all.. quite vulgar and in no way needed subject matter for a game.. but it was succesfull so people wanted to play it.. now add MS or Apple to the batch and giving them VETO rights... would it make it bigtime like it did? I dont think so.. [yes i know its on OSx and ms now] we are heading to closed systems.. this is the frist step of the end.. OPINION ONLY..

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