This is Why We Upgrade (Part 2)

In the previous post, I talked about the First (Wolf 3D) and Second (Doom) epochs of PC gaming. To reiterate (or make clear for the first time), these are arbitrary. These aren’t official epochs or eras. These are just the world as we see it. Which means that it’s completely correct.

We ended the last post talking about the 486. Depending on your age, you may have very fond memories of that processor. So many people in my age group really cut their teeth on the 486/66. It was a great CPU and is great nostalgia.  However, it wasn’t good enough for the Third Epoch.

The Third Epoch (Quake)

Quake Nightmare 2
A difficulty so brutal it was hidden.

The first time I ever played Quake was at an uncle’s house. I think he got it from a warez site somewhere. I didn’t ask too many questions. Truth be told, I didn’t care. Quake was the greatest thing I had ever seen, heard or played. The character models looked light years ahead of Doom. The sounds they made when you shot them felt right. You could JUMP, which was a big deal. Perhaps I should have saved the CAPS for the rocket jump.

Playing in a LAN party setting made the game even better. The fast paced, frenetic arena-style shooter was here. I wasn’t the greatest Quake player, but I felt great if I could kill as many times as I died. That coupled with the laughter about the absurd situations we’d run into (and the troubleshooting trying to get someone joined) are the things I remember the best about it.

Quake’s system requirements were steep. The 486 wasn’t going to cut it. Even the Cyrix, which up until that time was a fast, cheap alternative to Intel, was weeded out by Quake. And it was during LAN parties that I noticed that some people’s machines ran it better than other’s. It had now become a system requirements arms race. God Shub-Niggurath forbid you lose because of lag. The tin said that it needed a Pentium 75 or better. The true requirement was “better than what everyone else has”. And then there were the optimizations. Running with sound disabled gave you a better frame rate. And NEVER NEVER NEVER run under Windows 95. You exit to DOS if you know what’s good for you.

As time went on, GLQuake became available. This was the beginning of 3D acceleration (which I was unfortunate enough to be lacking). Still, the software version was faster (yes, that’s my excuse). I honestly didn’t mind that I couldn’t max everything out. I know there were other games available at the time, but I don’t remember playing anything but Quake.

However, another change was on the horizon. This time, the upgrade wasn’t going to be hardware.

The Fourth Epoch (Windows)

windows 98
There was a time that I looked upon the release of a new Windows with happiness.

Up until now, we’ve been upgrading (or replacing) hardware. It makes sense, right? New game comes out, new game has higher system requirements, and so on. But by 1997 or so, the newest line item in the system requirements box was “Microsoft Windows 95” (later 95/98).

Suddenly, a DOS PC didn’t cut it anymore. When Quake II came out, it simply didn’t run in DOS at all. I didn’t know that until I got the shareware version and realized I couldn’t install it in DOS mode.

The situation was somewhat compounded with the release of Windows 98, which turned even more away from the idea of loading “real-mode” (read: DOS) drivers for hardware in Windows. Windows 95/98 brought with them new device drivers and abstraction layers. For a gamer, perhaps the most significant of these was DirectX. My first memories of DirectX are all painful. “Why does my card work with OpenGL games but not DirectX? Why are DirectX games so slow?” Questions of that sort.

As it matured, however, DirectX slowly became the de facto standard in graphics APIs, killing first Glide (3dfx) and later usurping OpenGL (which still exists). By 1999, you HAD to have a DirectX compatible video card and sound card or gaming was going to leave you behind.

The Fifth Epoch (Quake 3 Arena)

235FPS or GTFO

Forget DOS. Forget software rendering. While you’re at it, forget single player campaigns.

Released at the tail end of 1999, the highly anticipated Quake III perfected the multiplayer arena shooter. This was the fast paced, bunny hopping, rocket jumping experience for which I pined.

And I couldn’t play it.

Not at first, anyway. My machine, with its integrated RageIIc graphics, couldn’t run Q3A. And with just a single PCI slot available, I couldn’t upgrade to a nice, new AGP card. A full-scale replacement was needed. I acquired a Klamath Pentium II 266, running on a 440LX board, and a 4MB SiS 300 graphics card. Add in 128MB of PC66 RAM and a cheap SoundBlaster Value card and I had JUST enough horsepower to run Quake 3.

After a few rounds against bots, I decided to try out LAN and online play. That was a terrible mistake. Not because I was bad at it, mind you, but because my frame rates were terrible compared to those of my friends. I was furious. I had just spent the time/money to upgrade only to find that I was still too slow. There had to be something I could do.

A little research showed my 440LX board would allow for overclocking. I bumped my processor to 300Mhz. Slight gains. I disabled sound. More gains, but still not enough. It wasn’t until I bought a budget GeForce2 MX card that I could finally hold my own in the frame rate department. I could even turn the sound back on!

For several years, the Quake III engine was the basis for most AAA FPS-style games, with improvements added here and there. Still, if you could run Quake III well, you could probably run, say, Jedi Knight II at a decent clip. An honorable mention should also be made for the Unreal engine. Unreal/UT were very popular games and numerous games were based off of these engines. In fact, there was always a bit of arguing amongst my friends about whether Quake or UT was the better arena shooter. At the time, I was solidly a Quake guy and I mostly stand by that today.

There is little argument, however, about what game defines the next epoch. The difference in graphical fidelity, physics and–unfortunately–system requirements was night and day.

Stay tuned!

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