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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 21, 2012 | 12:43 AM - Posted by Scott Michaud

You're dang right you originally wanted a Microsoft Sidewinder 3D Pro, Matt! :p

July 22, 2012 | 08:53 AM - Posted by KngtRider

Which sidewinder was it that needed a serial connection for the forcefeedback?

I remeber at the time there defintly was a sidewinder or more that used two cables and not just a single USB ?

I never liked the sidewinder because i wanted a real flightstick style grip not the knife handle stick that MS used.

There was a few variants of sidewinder, there was a wheel and there was a gamepad also.

Microsoft Fury3 #facepalm . That game wasnt that good. Port/spinoff/clone of Terminal Velocity.

July 21, 2012 | 06:40 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Actually there is a mistake in the article. The lowest Pentium III was clocked at 450MHz. I had one and it was awesome. Then along came the Celeron 300a to spoil the party. It didn't have as much Level 2 cache, but the cache ran at full clock speed unlike the PIII which ran at half the clockspeed. Not only that, but with a BX motherboard, it was a snap to overclock to 450MHz. Gone are the days when you can overclock a processor by 50% of it's original clockspeed.

July 21, 2012 | 07:33 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

All pentium 3's have full speed cache. Some pentium 2's didn't.

July 21, 2012 | 07:45 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

No your wrong the first pentium 3( Katmai) had half speed cache.

July 22, 2012 | 08:41 AM - Posted by KngtRider

Fun Fact:Back in the day With real apps such as compiling Java, using the same JDK Pentium III 500/VIA system compiled 3x faster for me than a Celeron 333 with BX and these were only simple apps.

I was timing them because I was working on Java code at university and at home.

Josh said in the podcast he liked the old celeron and many others too and thats fine but the realilty is the overclocked celeron setup was liked by many because they were too cheap or poor to buy a Pentium III even a Katmai.

I went with the P3 Katmai instead of the awful celeron or even worse dual celeron setups and i got heckled and abused in local enthusiast forums for doing so

At launch P3 was over 1000 which settled once the P2 was out of the picture. I distinctly remeber shopping for 800EBs in the $400 mark.

Dual Celerons without SSE and crippled cache sharing a common bus and RAM. REALLY?. 10yrs later can anyone HONESTLY say that was a good idea?

The 'value enthusiast' motherboard makers came up with that idea as an enthusiast gimic, to sell motherboards. Which later died by the dozens due to failure or badcaps.

And I go back to my earlier post - gee what OS was needed for SMP again? Oh thats right. NT. The same os that wasnt for the 'gamer' let alone had good support for the 'touchy' video cards, sound cards, other stuff of the era

It was not that long ago where new software required SSE2, excluding the SSE1 only K7s from the picture. Capcom Lost Planet 1 was an infamous example of requiring SSE2 just to load.

July 22, 2012 | 03:21 PM - Posted by Matt Smith

Yep, right there. I think I typoed that because I'm sure I read the first one was 450 MHz in my research.

July 21, 2012 | 09:15 AM - Posted by RichS (not verified)

I did a similar project over 6 months ago. I was missing all of the old games I used to play, and constructed a vintage gaming PC.

Components:
I was given a Dell Optiplex GX150, had a bad CD-ROM and hard drive. This had a 933MHz. Pentium III, 386 MB RAM, and a 32GB Nvidia TNT2 graphics card.

From my stockpile of parts, I was able to replace the CD-ROM with a BenQ 52X CD_ROM drive, the hard drive with a Maxtor 40GB IDE drive, and a 256MB PC133 memory module to replace the 128MB one, making 2 256 MB modules in the computer for a total of 512MB, the most Windows 98SE can handle.

I put in a Sound Blaster Live! Value card also, and the driver disk I had installed the drivers for both DOS and Windows 98SE. I had a copy of Windows 98SE, and I used the product ID from the sticker that was still on the computer.

This is a great machine for when I want to go nostalgic and play some Duke or Doom, and it didn't cost me anything but time.

July 21, 2012 | 09:26 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

RAM: More is not better. 95/98 will not install on a system with more than 512 Mb. The installer will crash.

July 22, 2012 | 03:22 PM - Posted by Matt Smith

Hmm, are you sure? I've read of people installing with more than that. I've heard of random reboots with 1.5 GB of more.

I figure if you have more RAM than is allowed, you can always remove some from the system. 

July 22, 2012 | 03:43 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

The magic number is 768MB for stable OS operations. You can technically install more if you want, but you'd have to manually set a boot parameter in Windows that would limit it to 768.

I've experienced random crashing and inability to boot at 1GB, and complete inability to boot at 2GB.

Also, might want to look into a bigger hard drive. Some of them ol' games were monsters that installed off of several CDs.

July 22, 2012 | 03:44 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

The magic number is 768MB for stable OS operations. You can technically install more if you want, but you'd have to manually set a boot parameter in Windows that would limit it to 768.

I've experienced random crashing and inability to boot at 1GB, and complete inability to boot at 2GB.

Also, might want to look into a bigger hard drive. Some of them ol' games were monsters that installed off of several CDs.

July 21, 2012 | 11:54 AM - Posted by Hans (not verified)

Funny days! Building a rigg thoses days was fun but tough!
Thanks for sharing

July 21, 2012 | 10:08 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

For the browser I suggest using Opera 10 which supports Windows 98. Also have a look at www.dosgamesarchive.com

July 22, 2012 | 08:50 AM - Posted by KngtRider

Great Point about web browsers. Firefox would be supported up to a lower version.

OS 9 for the Macintosh has the same problem with finding a USABLE web browswer. I eventually found something called iCAB, I think that was what it was called which was a webkit browswer.

Media Playback and CODECs was a massive issue for 9x also. It took until Windows 7 (h264 and mpeg2 HD) to fix the problem and even now they are going backwards with win8.

Anyone remeber trying to get smooth hw ASSISTED mpeg-1 playback on their pentium using the vga bundled player, let alone mpeg2 DVD playback which did not come until much later.

I actually have a bespoke asian brand 43cm HTPC that used a 233MMX as its main CPU but thats not the kicker, the kicker is they used a hardware dvd board that was almost as big as the motherboard itself.

Many of you would have had this, or variants of this kit.

http://www.nitroware.net/images/stories/a6_i3/creative_dvd.jpg

That one used the external pass through cable in the DIN format.
This is useless now, literatly. Drivers, cables, software.

All its good for is legacy PC or a paperweight.

I have never even used it, literatly. I lost the passthrough cable.

July 22, 2012 | 09:08 AM - Posted by RichS (not verified)

Forgot to add: For graphics drivers, I used the 61.76 Nvidia drivers for graphics. You'll have to do a Google search to get them - I tried via Nvidia's site, and all they offered was the 70 drivers; they claim that it worked for the TNT2 card, but they didn't work for mine.

That was the most difficulty in installing drivers; the rest I found on Dell's site or driver disk in the case of the Sound Blaster Live card. I also installed USB flash drive support for Windows 98.

This helped in the next step, installing Windows Updates. I took a chance and downloaded and installed the Unofficial Windows 98SE Service Pack 2.1a, which I've had no problems with. The only other update I installed after that was the latest version of DirectX for Windows 98, which is the redistributable for June 2010.

What I ended up with is a stable machine that can play DOS games like Impossible Mission II, up to old DirectX titles like Alien vs. Predator very well.

July 22, 2012 | 09:08 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

All I have to say is VMware or a similar software package or hell why not just go to gog.com

July 22, 2012 | 09:08 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Now if I could only recreate that warm fuzzy feeling of sitting at my friends house playing Warlords 2 in hotseat mode with about 6 of us. Good times. :)

July 23, 2012 | 08:27 PM - Posted by Angry

Its nice to know Im not alone...
http://img3.imageshack.us/img3/6939/dscf1304s.jpg

The tower is what I play the original Starseige,(mechwarrior like)
and Redneck Rampage and many others.

Athlon Xp 2600+
768mb SDram
Geforce 2 mx (original, not mx200 or 400)
Windows 98 Se
I replaced most of the caps on the board, most had leaked, but the board still posted.

The rest of the stuff is a small part of my collection, I have lots more.

If Ken wants to see a K6-2 in the flesh, Id be happy to send one in heh.

July 24, 2012 | 06:35 AM - Posted by madhatter256 (not verified)

I have an HP Pavillion PC with 366mhz Celeron. No AGP slot, only onboard vga or I can upgrade via PCI. The trouble I have is trying to get a hold of a good PCI card. Voodoo3 2000 PCI cards are expensive on ebay last i checked.

One more thing.... you forgot an important hardware from PC gaming back in the late 1990s.... The Gravis Game Pad....

July 25, 2012 | 10:04 AM - Posted by Jon K (not verified)

I still have a IBM PS2-P70 running win 3.11, rocking a orange screen in storage.

July 26, 2012 | 12:59 AM - Posted by cyow

the sad thing is I don't need to build one.

I got like 3 I can put my hands on in like 2mins store under my house I just don't thought system away that easy never know when you need one.

got love windows 98 dam it I may just have to go get one and play old game now so much for my new Ivy Bridge system lol

July 27, 2012 | 09:24 AM - Posted by Troy (not verified)

Hay guy`s Just thought I`d chime in and say Windows ME (opps) the best of both worlds, Dos reboot and windows 9x;)

August 6, 2012 | 06:00 PM - Posted by Thordrune (not verified)

Great article, I'm a fan of legacy and oddball systems myself. I still have my Packard Bell for the same reasons. It currently has a Pentium 233, 64 MB RAM, onboard S3 Trio64V2 + Voodoo 1 4 MB PCI video, 3 GB Seagate hard drive, and 98SE (still have the key memorized!). It runs my older games pretty well. I have enough spare parts to build a Coppermine P3-based machine, with a 16 MB Vanta. I have a K6-2+ as well, but no motherboard to put it in.

I found that with some onboard audio solutions that using the "Sound Blaster or 100% compatible" option sometimes works. I had good luck with it and Mechwarrior 2.

I tried dualbooting 98SE and XP once on my Athlon XP machine, with 1 GB RAM. I installed it, changed a couple of settings, installed a driver (video I think), and rebooted. I was promptly greeted with a "Windows is corrupt. Please reinstall Windows." message. Reinstalling 98SE with 512 MB RAM, then capping it to that through msconfig fixed it.

Some (relatively) newer games will run on 98. I remember vanilla WoW did, and could run on 512 MB RAM. Now it needs XP, and 2+ GB RAM is a good idea. I tried Far Cry once on my Coppermine P3 before I dismantled it. It was more of an experiment than anything. 600EB, GeForce 6800 GT, 160 MB RAM. When it wasn't thrashing the hard drive, it ran smooth as silk.

August 29, 2012 | 10:47 AM - Posted by HeavyG (not verified)

This article inspired me. I had a few components laying around, but I purchased everything else on eBay. The whole build cost me $150, with $75 of that being from a Silverstone mATX case. I am running the following:

Windows 98 SE
AMD Athalon 1000
ASRock mATX Motherboard
Creative GeForce2 GTS 32MB
Creative Voodoo2 12MB (For games that won't run on the GeForce2)
1GB PC2100 Memory
Creative Audigy2
WD Blue 250GB Hard Drive (only partitioned 50 GB to save time during install)

I am actually using my Viewsonic 19" LCD monitor, and things look pretty good. I have had a blast playing GLQuake, SiN, Deus Ex GOTY Edition, System Shock 2, my Need for Speed collection, Motocross Madness 2, and many other games. I even fired up Unreal Tournament for a bit. I am actually gaming more on my "retro" rig than my main gaming rig at the moment.

October 11, 2012 | 02:41 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

do have a 630i dell computer. thankyou

August 26, 2013 | 11:10 AM - Posted by Anohitono (not verified)

Here's what I did http://anohitono.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/building-a-retro-pc-gaming-com...
* Off for some retrogaming on REAL HARDWARE!:)*

January 30, 2014 | 04:26 AM - Posted by Rodimus80 (not verified)

I like where your head is at but your system is just too new. If you are serious about classic PC gaming you are going to need a few systems. I have the early 90s covered with a 486DX 2 PC I have. Mid 90s I'm using a old Gateway G6-333 with a Pentium II. Video is handled by a nvidia Mach64 and a Voodoo 2. Sound is handled by a Creative AWE64 Gold. When it comes to the late 90s, early 21st, I have a few systems. A couple Pentium IIIs and a AthlonXP system. You would think that changing PCs all the time would be annoying, but it just geeks me up!

January 30, 2014 | 04:26 AM - Posted by Rodimus80 (not verified)

I like where your head is at but your system is just too new. If you are serious about classic PC gaming you are going to need a few systems. I have the early 90s covered with a 486DX 2 PC I have. Mid 90s I'm using a old Gateway G6-333 with a Pentium II. Video is handled by a nvidia Mach64 and a Voodoo 2. Sound is handled by a Creative AWE64 Gold. When it comes to the late 90s, early 21st, I have a few systems. A couple Pentium IIIs and a AthlonXP system. You would think that changing PCs all the time would be annoying, but it just geeks me up!

March 4, 2014 | 05:32 AM - Posted by Fatal (not verified)

You all are fools, where are the 3dfx cards? Look at mine 98 BEAST!:

-ASUS P2B-F Intel 440BX
-Intel Pentium III Slot1 Katmai 500MHz@FSB: 120MHz (124MHz possible, but AGP too fast)
-Hynix 512MB(4x128MB) 133@115MHz CL2 Fast
-ATi Rage 128GL 32MB AGP 2x
-2xAtrend 3dfx Voodoo 2 SLi 12MB PCI (1024x768x16=TOP!)
-Creative SoundBlaster 128 16Bit PCI
-D-Link DE 530 CT+ 10Mbps LAN
-Adaptec AHA-2930U SCSI
-Dual Quantum Atlas 18.3GB Ultra 160SCSI
-DVDR,CDRW,FDD 1.44Mb
-WDC 205BA (on ISO game files) in 5,25" tray
-Apex 300W ATX
-EIZO F67 19" CRT
-Logitech Cordless Wheel Mouse M-RK45 PS/2+Simple PS/2 W98 keyboard and Creative 2.1 repro

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