If you’re asking why it’s worth building a 20 year old PC in 2018, I can understand. Between Steam and GOG re-releases of classic games, DOSBox, and virtualization, it’s easier than ever to play PC games from the 90’s. So, why go through all the trouble and headache?
For the same reason that I buy original consoles and cartridges when emulation would be fine. The same reason I buy CRT televisions and expensive scalers when I could play on a nice LCD. That reason? I’m an idiot.
In all honesty, I’m sure emulation is fine for most people. Hell, I use it for arcade games and the like. It’s got its place. But if you want historical accuracy, emulation doesn’t cut it. It bugs me when I have to deal with graphical artifacts and (especially) inaccurate sound in games that I fondly remember.
Another nice thing about vintage PCs? The parts haven’t gotten as expensive as vintage consoles (yet). If you want to get into retro, this may be one of the cheaper entry points.
It’s interesting to note that most of these parts cost a fraction of the price they cost in the 90s. A PC that might have cost $2700 in 1998 can now be had for less than $200.
I put together this list by skimming for bargains on eBay. You have to be careful, obviously. There’s a lot of non-working junk out there. There’s also (much like modern PCs) compatibility to take into account. Technology moved fast in the 90s. It was one hell of a leap from the 386 to the Pentium III or Athlon. Sockets to slots, EDO to SDRAM…it’s a lot to keep track of.
For my first build, I decided to focus on the late 90s. I wanted something that I would have been jealous of in 98. I hope you enjoy the selections.
In contrast to today’s full-featured motherboards, boards in the 90s were a bit spartan. Especially in the early 90s, most boards had just a handful of built-in features, usually limited to serial/parallel ports and a DIN-5 connector for a keyboard. As the decade progressed, board manufacturers began to add features in an attempt to differentiate from competitors and increase profit margins.
The Intel 440BX was one of the first killer chipsets. Featuring a 100Mhz frontside bus, onboard USB, support for Pentium II and Pentium III processors, and (in some configurations) up to 768 MB of RAM, it gave you plenty of flexibility and room to grow. For my build, I chose a Tabor II 440BX. This differed from the Seattle (standard) 440BX slightly, swapping the Crystal Sound audio chipset with a SoundBlaster AudioPCI 64V. Since I won’t be using the onboard audio, this doesn’t make much different to me. This board was pulled from a Gateway machine of some sort (probably the G6-450). It’s kind of charming to boot up the board and see the old Gateway logo.
Riding the 440BX, we have a delightful 450Mhz Pentium II (codename Deschutes). This thing is a blast from the past. The Pentiums that preceded it (and most of the ones that followed) were socketed processors, which means the pins physically plugged in to a ZIF (zero insertion force) socket. You’ll recognize that style even today, as AMD is still using it.
The Pentium II, on the other hand, changed form factors to save costs and improve yields. When Intel debuted the Pentium Pro, yields were low because a failure of either the cache or the CPU itself required that the whole module be scrapped. The Pentium II went to a Single Edge Contact Cartridge, keeping the cache and CPU closely coupled by keeping them on the same board (but not the same die). This let Intel test both modules separately, improving yields and profits.
It was a neat design that was ultimately destined to fail. As CPU and front-side bus speeds increased, it got more and more difficult to run the L2 cache at full speed. Ultimately, this means that Intel moved back to socketed processors at the tail end of the Pentium III era.
Still, the “neat” factor is high and the Pentium II was a workhorse. I’m excited to push it to its limits.
There was a huge choice to make on this one. The mid to late 90’s was an interesting time in video card development. In the early 90’s, the focus was on high quality 2D graphics. Games like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D used software rendering (and pseudo-3D effects) to give the impression that you were seeing a 3D image. As Windows began to take over from DOS, and high-level graphics APIs started to become common, the age of the 3D accelerator began. Initially, the accelerator was a second card that was dedicated to 3D. It connected to your 2D card via a Frankenstein-esque cable, only activating when triggered by API calls. The king of the hill was the Voodoo (and later Voodoo2) by 3dfx.
For a mid-90’s gaming PC, there was no other logical choice. Unfortunately, logic is not part of this experiment so I opted NOT to use a 3dfx card. If you weren’t around (or weren’t old enough to remember), you’ve probably never even heard of 3dfx. They made some mistakes later in life and ended up in receivership, their remnants being scooped up by a company you probably HAVE heard of: Nvidia.
Nvidia’s first entry into the 3D market (NV1) was something of a flop. Riding the wave (if you can call it that) of the Sega Saturn, the NV1–in the guise of the Diamond Edge 3D–did its 3D rendering in quadrilaterals. Unfortunately, since the Saturn flopped, quadrilaterals went extinct and polygons became the order of the day. The card I chose is a bit later model from NVidia: the Riva TNT. This is a 16MB PCI card. Yes, yes…I have an AGP slot available. But I wanted to see how the TNT performed. And it’s my article, damn it.
Although it may seem strange, there were actually competing standards in disk interfaces in the desktop market. Standard machines used IDE. The IDE standard on this 440BX board supports ATA/33, meaning it’ll transfer (theoretically) at a rate of 33MB/s. While that’s fine for an optical drive, I had something a little faster in mind: SCSI.
SCSI was the first real standard in storage interfaces. Developed in the 80s, SCSI was designed as a bus not only for internal hard drives, but also tape drives, optical drives, external scanners and other various peripherals. By the mid to late 90’s, Ultra2 Wide SCSI delivered transfer rates of 80MB/s with rotational speeds of 10,000RPM (versus the 7200RPM limit of an IDE drive).
I chose the Adaptec 2940UW controller, with a 10,000RPM, 18.2GB Seagate hard drive.
When choosing a sound card for a mid-90s PC, one has to consider what they’re trying to accomplish. Do you want to play DOS games? Or are you trying to go for a Windows-only setup? Perhaps a bit of both?
While this will likely be an unpopular opinion, I got ahold of a Creative Audigy 2 ZS and wanted to give it a shot. The Audigy 2 actually came out in the early part of the 2000’s, but it’s still got VxD (Windows 98-compatible) drivers. It also supports EAX for 3D sound and a slew of other features. The downside is that the card lacks DOS drivers. There are ways around this, but we’ll deal with those later.
Beyond the parts listed above, I opted to go with 256MB of PC100 RAM. This should be more than plenty for Windows 98 games. I also used a DVD-RW drive I had lying around for optical. It’s not exactly period accurate, but it IS IDE. I went with a modern case (a generic Antec server case), a Sony 3.5″ floppy drive and a used Antec power supply that I also had lying around. The 440BX supports USB1.1 devices, so I used a Logitech USB keyboard and a Logitech Trackman Wheel mouse (my standard mouse for every single PC I ever use). The OS will be Windows 98SE.
Stay tuned for Part 2 when we put this thing together!