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Gaming Like Its 1999: Building A Legacy Windows Gaming PC

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Introduction, Hardware To Look For

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Every year the college I graduated from, Beloit College, publishes its not-that-famous “mindset list.” It’s a collection of one-liners, such as “Clint Eastwood is better known as a director than as Dirty Harry,” meant to humorously remind professors that the experiences of their generation are not the same as the generation about to show up in their classrooms.
 
I’ve sometimes felt a need for a similar reminder among gamers. Arcade classics like Pac-Man and DOS legends such as Prince Of Persia are often cited in conversations of old-school gaming, yet many gamers (including myself) never enjoyed the experience of playing these titles when they first hit store shelves. 
 
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I enjoyed a different generation of classics. My original copy of Interstate ’76 is nestled in a binder of old CDs. A boxed copy of Mechwarrior 2 sits on my book shelf. I have Baldur’s Gate, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, Total Annihilation 2, Starcraft, SimCity 2000, The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall and Age of Empires II, to name a few. These were my formative gaming experiences. Some have always been with me  – others, lost or destroyed, have been re-acquired from thrift stores for a few bucks each.
 
Yet I can’t play most of these games without buying them again (via a service like Good Old Games) or resorting to virtualization. The reliability of Window’s compatibility mode is spotty to say the least.
Even if a game does run on my Windows 7 PC, something is missing. The old controllers of yesterday usually don’t agree with – or can’t physically connect to – my modern desktop. The graphics, designed for the CRT era, often don’t translate well to a high-resolution LCD. Random bugs and errors can occur, stopping the games in their tracks.
 
I’ve finally decided that there is only one solution. If you want to run a game from the 1990s and enjoy them properly you should also have hardware that can play games from that era as originally intended. That means putting together a legacy gaming system.
 
This is something that I think anyone should be able to do without spending more than $150. But can you, and if so, is it worth your time?
 
 
 
The Hardware You Should Look For
 
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Image credit: Daniel Hedrick
My original intent was to build this computer from scratch, but research on the topic lead me to think this a bad idea. I instead decided to purchase an intact tower and add components as needed. If you want to go for a vintage gaming computer I suggest you take this route as well.
 
Price is one reason. The availability of parts in confirmed working order and complete with original driver software is thin and people who have mint condition components tend to charge quite a bit for them. 
 
Compatibility is another problem. A lot of information about old hardware has been lost over the years. Manufacturers eventually abandon their products and take down websites with information relevant to them. 
 
So, if you’re going with an intact system, what does it need to have?  I have some ideas about that.
 
Operating System: Windows 98 Second Edition
 
Windows 98 Second Edition is the most prolific version of Windows that should be able to run all of the games that were meant to run under MS-DOS, Windows 95 and Windows 98 during the 1990s. It was also incredibly popular, which means that it is not that hard to find.  As far as I know you could also use Windows ME without compatibility issues.
 
Monitor: CRT (Any Size)
 
Old games weren’t made to work with LCD monitors because they weren’t commonly sold. The problems are similar to those console gamers encounter when trying to play old games on a modern HDTV. The maximum supported resolution often looks terrible on a modern LCD. 
Any size CRT will do – pick what you want. Just remember that CRTs are much larger and heavier than LCDs. You may have trouble finding a place to put a 21” behemoth. 
 
Processor: At Least 500 MHz 
 
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This should not be a hard requirement to fulfill. The late 90s was an era in which the ceiling on clock speeds suddenly seemed unlimited. The slowest of the first Pentium III processors, released in February of 1999, topped out at a clock speed of 500 MHz. By December a new line of Pentium III options was introduced ranging from 750 to 800 MHz. That’s quite a leap within a year!
 
Based on the research I did regarding minimum system requirements I think you’ll want a processor with a clock speed of at least 500 MHz to ensure you can play games without a hitch. You can buy a later-model processor if you need to, but I don’t suggest going much beyond 2 GHz. Remember, one of the issues you can run in to with older games is the way clock speeds impact their pace. The faster you go, the more likely you may run in to an issue.
 
RAM: At least 128MB
 
This is my recommended minimum based on game system requirements. More is always going to better, so don’t shy away from a system with 512MB or even 1GB.
 
Video Card: AGP Video Card With At Least 32MB of Memory
 
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Image Credit: Grant Hutchinson
It’s hard, perhaps even impossible, to accurately gauge how old video cards compared to each other. This is particularly true if you stray away from the most popular models of the era. You could research the matter, but it’s not necessary. Most anything with 32MB of memory is going to be tied to a GPU that is quick enough. 
 
Hard Drive: At Least 10GB
 
Most titles have small install sizes but some could expand to hundreds of megabytes if you went for a “full install” with all art, animation, voice acting and video placed on your hard drive. Respecting a 10 GB minimum will ensure you don’t run into capacity issues.
 
Sound Card: Windows 98 SE Compatible
 
This is going to be a tricky one. Sound cards could still be an issue in the 90s both from performance and compatibility perspectives. You should be on the lookout for a vintage audio card but you can sometimes make do with onboard sound. The most important factor is driver support, which is often hard to find for old sound cards.
July 20, 2012 | 01:52 PM - Posted by Arb1 (not verified)

um just a thought wouldn't it be cheaper to say run win98 in VMware or something? being graphic's being what they were back then it should be more then fast enough.

July 22, 2012 | 02:50 PM - Posted by rrr (not verified)

True. Emulation is sufficient performance wise for such old games, and you don't have to bother with extra junk PC.

July 22, 2012 | 06:46 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I initially went the VMware route. And the VirtualBox route. And the Virtual PC route. While in theory it sure does sound nice, many of these games were created in a chaotic time of hardware and their related drivers. Plus, with virtualization, the graphics and sound hardware that's emulated tends to stress more application compatibility, and aren't exactly optimal for virtualized Windows gaming.

MechWarrior II (at least the Titanium edition) on a very fast PC has weird quirks involving accel/deceleration, weight, and jumpjet capacity.

MechWarrior III in a virtualized environment has a tendency to randomly send vehicles flying several kilometers into the sky at breakneck speeds, eventually throwing them off the map and leaving you unable to complete missions.

Some games just don't want to run due to extensive hardware and DirectX utilization.

There's a substantial difference in classic Windows gaming and classic DOS gaming, with the older DOS gaming ironically far easier as it was far simpler to emulate via DOSBox.

July 23, 2012 | 12:48 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Or VirtualBox. 100% free and supports 3d acceleration on some Guest OSes

July 20, 2012 | 02:17 PM - Posted by Kev (not verified)

Im ashamed to say... "I remember those days".

July 20, 2012 | 02:39 PM - Posted by Vlad (not verified)

Why are you ashamed? Those days were awesome! I'm proud that I lived through that golden era of gaming.

July 20, 2012 | 07:31 PM - Posted by DreadStorm (not verified)

Golden era? Try Wolfenstein on a 386. heh

July 22, 2012 | 11:22 AM - Posted by Old School Gamer (not verified)

I built my first PC which was a 386-25 that was going to be a screamer playing Doom at net parties. Cost me damn near $2,000. Tired of losing because of lag.

July 20, 2012 | 02:26 PM - Posted by KngtRider

Audigy 1 does work on windows 98, I was dual booting 98 and 2000

The first cards shipped after XP went gold but before general avalibilty,the drivers bundled were for windows 2000(WDM) and 98(VXD) and had compatiblty issues with XP.

They did not support XP or had XP drivers in the box (august 2001, sep 2001 for AUS)
XP formally launched in October. The drivers were buggy on RTM Win XP and later fixed.

Windows 2000 was not too good at multimedia or gaming

Some older games especially if you want to access the native MIDI compatibilty of the game you'll need VXD not WDM drivers as different features are exposed. (For ANY sound card of th era - SB, Yamaha, Aureal, CMedia)

98/ME can use WDM drivers - ie shared drivers witrh 2000/XP but only in certain instances and many features missing

I cant find my Audigy 1 review (long story) but I did find a screenshot showing the driver properties
heres

AIDA32 showing the Audigy 98SE(or did I have ME?) VXD driver
2002

http://www.nitroware.net/images/stories/audigy1/aida32.gif

Audigy 2 ZS (2003) launch units came with partial 98 "VXD" drivers

There is a zip on the CD that included the 98_ME VXD driver, however you had to install it yourself manually no installer. Creative Download Packages did allow a choice of VXD or WDM but VXD eventually disapeard.

The situation is much worse with other brand cards especially Yamaha and Aureal as in some cases even SPDIF control or hardware MIDI was not avallible.

Thats not the half of it. NT 4.0 audio drivers. wow. Modern Technology.

I was a mod a popular pc audio forum called 3dsoundsurge, some of you old hats may remeber it.I spent too much time providing tech support in the various audio card sub forums.

Realtek have 95/98/NT drivers for their older chips still for download.

I personally think this system is too new for 'legacy gaming', in fact the hardware is too new for 98SE also.

July 20, 2012 | 09:55 PM - Posted by Matt Smith

I'll have to give it another shot when I have time. I really want to get an older sound card working.

The hardware is newer than I intended, but I outlined the reasons for that. If you want to go pure era hardware you by all means can, but you have to spend a lot more time looking for hardware, or you need to expand your budget. 

Functionally, I don't think the hardware I picked is at any disadvantage. I mean, I suppose it is true that the video card won't support some older rendering methods, but the system is more than quick enough to go with the software renderer in those cases.

August 29, 2012 | 01:38 PM - Posted by HeavyG (not verified)

You are right about the Audigy 2 drivers. I used 7Zip to pull out the drivers, then manually updated them with the files I extracted. They work perfectly fine.

July 20, 2012 | 02:38 PM - Posted by D1RTYD1Z619

I used to have a pc running win 98se just to play combat flight similator and mechwarrior 2 with my sidewinder forcefeed back joystick. Sadly I had to get rid of it due to space constraints.

July 20, 2012 | 09:56 PM - Posted by Matt Smith

Yep, space is a problem. I have just enough room. I suspect some people would go DOSBox or virtualization no matter the cost or difficulity of a system like this, just because they don't have enough room for it.

July 20, 2012 | 02:55 PM - Posted by collie (not verified)

this is an amazingly fun project that I have done myself 2 times, one for a windows 98 pentium 2, and one for a dos 6.2.2 486. I Most of what Matt says is true, correct and good advice...... Except for "As far as I know you could also use Windows ME without compatibility issues"
While compatibility would not be a problem, Windows ME is! It is the worst OS that Microsoft has ever released. Random Degradation starts on day one of install, all of the "New Features" it included, system restore in particular, were not ready for the consumer, and the blue screen of death was almost as common a sight as the desktop.
The legend is that Windows ME was only released due to the fact that Microsoft had promised a "New OS for the new Millennium" but "Whistler" wasn't ready, so they patched together an updated windows 98 that never realy worked properly, so they wouldn't look bad for promising a impossible to achieve release date, and What was supposed to be ME became XP, one of the best operating systems to date.

So the moral of the story is, NO WIN ME!!!!!!

July 21, 2012 | 12:22 AM - Posted by Collie man (not verified)

Side note, as of 5 mins ago I now have a full k-6 system to play with. Did somebody say DOOM?

July 22, 2012 | 11:24 AM - Posted by KngtRider

PCPER is a place of facts logic and reason not hate or hearsay which is why I like to frequent here.

Win Me came out because it was time for Windows release cycle. There is no conspiracy.

Roughly without aid of wikipedia

1995 Win 95 Gold/Retail/Upgrade
1996 95A and 95B
1997 95 OSR 2.X
1998 Win 98/98SE
1999 Windows 2000
2000 Win ME
2001 Win XP
2002-3 Win MCE, Server 2003/Win X64
2004-5 XP service Packs
2006 vista
2009 7
2012 8

Approx every 3 years = new major OS with minor OS in between and that excludes betas which void this rule.

Have people forgotten how many versions of WIn 3.x/NT there were too? some of these should have been free updates
Win 3.1
Win 3.11
Win 3.12* some claim it exists some dont
Win 3.11 for Workgroups
NT 3.1,3.5,3.51, NT4
MSDOS was as much as a clustef!@# too 3.x to 6.x and point releases mattered.

Windows 2000 was NOT a consumer oriented OS.

The only issue with winme for legacy gaming is they removed the exit to dos feature.

It even had USB mass storage support, 98se needs random drivers from random websites for mass storage.

98SE bsods on most systems let alone me. It also had the 'degrading' you speak of after a few hours. It is for this reason that 'professionals' used NT4.0 and later Win2000 for any system that had to be depended on.

There were many known issues for 98SE, such as issues with fast processors, high ram or large disks.

It does not support SMP let alone WinME. But winme has been a scapegoat for years when the finger should have been at the whole win9x family for being too directly dependant on hw/drivers and not being abstracted from a driver sense.

Its funny how many on the internet who criticise ME are obvilious to the fact that MS had to release 98SE to 'improve' 98 and 95a,b and a few more updates, some of which were not avalible as a download/covercd patch.

MS released some kernel updates for 95 (they never have since only full service packs)

And to this day I am still annoyed that MS didnt let 98 GOLD owners patch to 98 SE either free or cheaply

95 gold AKA 95A on CDROM was nasty in terms of its hardware support.

July 22, 2012 | 02:52 PM - Posted by rrr (not verified)

Entire 9x line was BSOD prone, that was inherent architectural fault, that couldn't be fixed with any service pack - that's why MS moved to NT kernel line, which was completely different beast.

July 22, 2012 | 06:42 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I hear ya', brother.

Back in the day, you tended to just by a machine with Windows rather than upgrade. 95 and 98 were interesting and still good OS'es, but they definitely had their share of crashes and BSoDs. I never got to use WinME until a few years ago while playing around with an older machine from 2002, but it was far less of a hassle than people made it out to be. Yeah, it crashed, but not any more than I remember in 95 and 98/98SE.

People tend to forget the days before WinXP and its giant cache of drivers that did its best to make sure your hardware would run.

July 20, 2012 | 03:08 PM - Posted by Finedaible

Ahh, I remember the days when I had a Windows 98 pc. My favorite game was Descent 3. I had even built various levels to play on. It was awesome!

July 20, 2012 | 03:28 PM - Posted by Octavean (not verified)

dude, I just tossed out a lot of old hardware that would have made for a good legacy gaming PC. I blame my Wife for this,..... ;-)

I must have tossed out three 17" Viewsonic CRT monitors. A couple of cases with PII / PIII motherboards (I kept the CPUs, HDD and RAM). All sorts of other nick-nacks.

Damn it!

July 20, 2012 | 03:40 PM - Posted by Luke (not verified)

Note that with an old school rig like this, you could install a 'Good Old Game' and copy the files to your rig, playing them 'au naturale'.

Good article! Props!
Luke

July 20, 2012 | 03:46 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

A couple of things:

The GPU you used is newer than the one in this system (5200FX)
When you partitioned the drive, did you run into the 32GB partition limit? I'm sure I remember this being a problem with FAT 32.
I find that booting into something like Ubuntu is a good way of testing nonfunctioning hardware like your sound card.

Very interesting read.

July 21, 2012 | 01:32 AM - Posted by Thedarklord

FAT32 is able to create volumes up to 2TB in size, you go around the 32GB limit during the (in this case) Windows 98 install, it will prompt you early on in the install for something like "enable large disk support" which will allow you to create volumes larger than 32GB. :)

July 22, 2012 | 11:31 AM - Posted by KngtRider

2000/xp/vista, not sure on win7 have a FAT formatting limit (versus volume limit) that is documented as a known issue-nofix by Microsoft. Third party disk/USB formatting tools overcome this issue.

Third party tools are often faster or support boot also

http://support.microsoft.com/kb/314463

July 20, 2012 | 05:48 PM - Posted by Nilbog

Great article

I have to ask, how is this easier that just running games through DOSBox?
DOSBox is what GoG and Steam use to get these old games to run on modern hardware.
Its easy.

July 20, 2012 | 09:57 PM - Posted by Matt Smith

No doubt, DOSBox is easier than this, and cheaper too. 

July 20, 2012 | 06:20 PM - Posted by TechXero (not verified)

WoW Awesome little Project man !

Seems am one of few lucky ones ! My dad, back in the Pentium III days bought me one as a gift ... I can now safely say he did well preserving it and still using it to this day as his office internet and faxing machine ....

Finally I can ask for it back since he got another machine he can use instead, to use it for this Memory lane project ...

Thanks for this ;)

July 20, 2012 | 11:18 PM - Posted by anonimous (not verified)

Would this work for ya?
http://www.microcenter.com/single_product_results.phtml?product_id=0389068
it costs $99.99
AMD Athlon 64 Processor 3200 @ 2GHz
1Gb RAM
40GB Hdd
AMD Radeon X200
AC'97 Audio Chipset
Comes with XP Profesional instead of 98SE.
It's also on the first page of the catalog top left.

July 21, 2012 | 02:18 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Gee, I wish I had Total Annihilation 2!:P

You must be a little younger than I; these are games from late high school!

Amiga days were where it was at!

Were a few classics released around the time win95 introduced the directX stranglehold on PC hardware.(quake, duke3d,warcraft,few lucasarts adventure games,etc.) They were, of course, DOS games. Remember how bad 95 made your hardware seem? Why the fuck doesn't the next version of windows run better than the previous? More time to tweak it! I swear Microsoft is the most fucking

*rant detected: ABORTING*

July 21, 2012 | 02:58 AM - Posted by Atari6502 (not verified)

Wow, I was just thinking of doing this very thing with an old Shuttle w/ an AMD XP 2400. I knew there was a reason I didn't throw away my copy of Win 98se. :)
I have a bunch of old games still in their boxes.
I didn't think about having to patch them though.
Good advice of finding them on a separate system and transferring them over.

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