Retro on a Shoe-String Budget

I’ve talked to a fair amount of people in the retro gaming scene that would love to get into retro PC’s, but think it’s too expensive. Interestingly, one of them was a gentleman who was selling me one of his NeoGeo carts. If you’ve got NeoGeo money, you’ve got retro PC money. Heck, if you’ve got Sega Genesis money, you probably have retro PC money.

I know it can seem daunting. You’ve got people on eBay selling Pentium 100 machines “fully loaded” for $1000. You don’t want to try to build your own, though, right? I mean, the rules were different back then and who knows what goes together?

While it’s true that going back too far can get you into a world of compatibility nightmares and jumper switches, there are some retro systems that anyone who has built a modern system would have no problem cobbling together.

Where do I start?

While I usually keep an eye on Craigslist for “junk” old machines and boards, not everyone lives near a big enough city to make this worthwhile. Still, it’s probably worth it to take a peek now and then. Otherwise, the same eBay that wants to sell you a prebuilt Pentium machine for $1000 can sell you parts aplenty on the cheap if you know what you need.

I’m going to list out a set of parts that I routinely see going for a pretty reasonable amount of money. This stuff should also be available all the time, so you shouldn’t have worries about availability. The prices have been stable and since nobody reads this blog (not even you, potential blog reader), anything I say isn’t going to change that. Why did I even bring that up? I notice that oftentimes, when a big YouTuber brings up certain parts or accessories, they skyrocket in price for a time. If one of your favourite retro enthusiasts on YouTube mention a part, give it awhile before you try to acquire it. Anyway, on to the build!

CPU

The brains of the operation. And the part that is among the cheapest in the entire build, depending on which way you want to go. You could go with a 486/DX66, thinking that since that was a popular chip back in the day, it’s a slam dunk now.

Unfortunately, a 486 of any kind is kind of a spendy proposition. First, people want too much for the CPU’s themselves. While you’ll occasionally find one for under $10, they regularly sell for upwards of $30, even for a 33Mhz version (NOT WORTH IT). Beyond that, the boards for 486’s are pricey and given their age, you don’t know if you’re getting a working product. Then, you’ve got I/O to deal with, RAM, etc. Take my advice: unless you want to spend big money, hold off on a 486 for now.

Alright, if not that, then what? Well, I’ll tell you, even though you’re getting a little snippy with me.

Let’s think about what we really want out of this system. Ideally, it should play a variety of DOS games. It’d be nice if it also let us play some earlier Windows games. If we cast a wider net, we get more fish. Okay, that was stupid. We’re not looking for fish and I don’t recommend looking for PC parts in bodies of water. Where was I?

This can sometimes get a bit more difficult if you’ve got “just that one” game that you want to be able to play perfectly. If it’s a very old game, you need a very old CPU/board. If it’s post-386, you’re probably in pretty good shape until you get to games past the Windows 98 era. So, really post-486 due to price. There are lots of options, Socket 7 being one of the most common, but I’d say hold off there. The CPU’s are cheap, but finding a good, reliable board can be frustrating and expensive.

My recommendation would be a Pentium II Klamath. These came in speeds of 233, 266, or 300Mhz. They’re dirt cheap on eBay, often going for $2-$5 each. They’ll run a pretty wide variety of DOS and Windows games and they’re VERY easy to install and configure. Win.

Note: There are two different families of desktop Pentium II processors. Klamath was the first, Deschutes was next. The first Deschutes 333Mhz processor used a 66Mhz front-side bus and is appropriate for what we’re doing here. The later ones ran on a 100Mhz front-side bus. When looking for a PII (if you’re following this guide), stick to 66Mhz bus CPU’s and you’ll be fine.

Motherboard

If you buy a PII, you’re going to need a place to plug it in. Now, in all honesty, my favourite PII board of all time is the Intel Seattle 440BX. It’s just an incredible chipset packed with features galore. BUT…it’s overkill for a Klamath PII. And it’s kind of expensive.

For a Klamath, what you’ll really want is a 440LX chipset board. These boards will run on a 66Mhz bus and include a fair amount of the trappings of a BX board: AGP, ISA, PCI, SDRAM, ATX power connectors…even USB. Granted, it’s USB1.1 but it still gives you some flexibility in input devices. I’ve had great luck with modern keyboards and mice plugged into ancient 440LX boards. Please note that if you’re going to install Windows 95/98, you’ll still want a PS/2 keyboard/mouse (at least initially).

I routinely find 440LX boards in the sub $50 price range on eBay. At the time of writing, this guy was only $48 and appears to be in great shape:

Doesn’t look so different from a modern board. Well, except for that CPU socket.

Buying a board like that gets you an ATX form factor, letting you use a modern case and power supply. Notice the RAM slots are pretty similar to a modern machine and the board layout is also pretty recognizable.

Right now, we’ve got a running total of about $55 or so. What else do we need?

RAM

For a 440LX, we need PC66 SDRAM. Though there are three slots on the board, this doesn’t mean it’s triple channel or anything and we don’t need to fill them all. Personally, I’d buy two sticks of 32MB PC66 (roughly $4 on eBay, semi-regularly) and call it good.

Only 64MB? Yes. Stop questioning my decisions. If you must know, in the early days of computing RAM was astronomically expensive. I remember a machine that I ran forever that had come equipped with 32MB of RAM. It cost about $200 to buy another 32MB DIMM. Had I waited a few months, it would have been half that. Prices were weird in the 90’s.

Anyway, this means that 64MB will be enough to run any DOS game comfortably, as well as providing plenty of headroom for Windows 98. You can go higher, if you’d like, but I’d caution you to stay at or below 128MB. It’d be a long explanation, but suffice it to say you can run into compatibility problems (hardware and software) the higher you go. More importantly, you’re not going to really gain any performance whatsoever going higher than 128MB. Not for our purposes, anyway.

Running total: $59

Video

You may occasionally find a 440LX board with integrated graphics. I would recommend against using them. Integrated graphics in the 90’s were a joke. Come to think of it, not much has changed. I guess if you JUST want this for DOS, you may be able to squeak by on integrated. Still, you’ve got an AGP port here. It’d be a shame not to use it.

Now, you could absolutely go nuts here depending on what you’re wanting to do. If you want to be period accurate, you could go with a TNT2 or Voodoo 3. Both can be kind of pricey (ESPECIALLY Voodoo cards). You will have to ask yourself what you are wanting out of this system. Are you playing Glide games (UT, Unreal, etc.)? Or are you wanting the greatest level of compatibility/performance?

If you absolutely must have Glide graphics, you’re going to want to play the market a little bit. A Voodoo Banshee (weak card, but Glide capable) can be had for $50-$75. A Voodoo3 (much more capable, but still slow for later games) is going for $100 on up at this point, though I’ve seen them for $40-$60 in the last few months. Forget about the Voodoo2 (PCI). They’re WAY overpriced. If you’ve got Voodoo2 money, you’ve got money for a much higher end build than what we’re speccing out here.

My choice for price to performance would be an Nvidia GeForce4 MX 440. You can get them for $10 or so, and though they’d be a low-end card when they released, they’ll run most any game from the Windows 98 era acceptably. They’ll almost always have VGA and some even have DVI. This helps when using a somewhat modern monitor. The drivers are decent (and still available on Nvidia’s site).

That brings our current running total to $70 or so.

Sound

Much like video, you’ll often find 440LX boards with built-in sound. If you’re really wanting to keep to a budget, you can use this. However, keep in mind that it’s sometimes a bear to get this working in DOS (without playing the game via Windows). It’s also not great quality.

In my opinion, we’ve got ISA slots. Let’s use one. Much like video, you can go nuts with sound cards. There are Gravis Ultrasound cards that go for hundreds of dollars. Ditto to some of the higher end Creative cards (AWE64, etc.). For good compatibility at a low price, stick to the SoundBlaster 16 ISA (pretty much any of them will work). It will provide driverless sound in DOS and work great under Windows, as well. On average, these are about $20. If you can’t find one in that range, I’ve also had great luck with the various Opti ISA sound cards (SoundBlaster compatible) at the $20 range.

Almost done, and our present price is $90.

Storage

While today, storage tends to just mean your SSD (or hard drive), in the 90’s there were several necessary components.

Obviously, we’re going to need a hard drive. True, you could go with a CompactFlash to IDE adapter and this would be fine for DOS. I wouldn’t use such a thing for Windows 98, though. Too much write activity from the OS, leading to a shortening of the lifespan of your CF card.

However, we CAN still avoid an old IDE spinning platter. On eBay, you’ll find no shortage of SATA to IDE adapters in the $6 price range. This will let you use a cheap 120GB SSD (you probably even have one lying around) with the old board. Otherwise, small SSD’s tend to pop up for $20 even at Best Buy. Say, $26 for the pair of them. Don’t go higher than 120GB: not only will you not need it, but Windows 98 won’t see a disk bigger than 137GB. You’re just asking for trouble.

You’ll also need to be able to install an OS and games on this disk. You may be able to just get by with a CD-ROM drive, especially if you can burn games to disc on your main machine and copy them over. IDE CD-ROM drives can routinely be found for $10 or less (look around a bit). No need to get fancy here, just try to stay above quad speed (4x). Usually, the cheap ones are plenty fast.

Finally, you may want a floppy drive. I’d recommend against a standard floppy, however, unless you have pre-existing games on floppy (or intend to buy some). Why? They’re slow, unreliable and probably need maintenance from the moment you buy them. That said, I can’t begrudge you if you want one for nostalgia purposes. That is what this all about, after all. I often see them for $5 or so. You’ll want one with a cable, or buy the cable separate for $1 or so.

If you’ll permit me, though, there is a wonderful device that you DO need. You can even use it in conjunction with the floppy drive. This wonderful device is the GoTek floppy emulator:

They’re available in black or beige and plug in to the floppy interface on the motherboard. Using a cheap USB key, you can store up to 99 floppies and swap between them. To the host OS, it just appears as a 3 1/2″ floppy for all intents and purposes (read and write). This gives you SO much flexibility and lets you archive old floppies to a tried and true storage medium. The ones without an LCD routinely go for $10 or so on eBay, with the LCD display models around $20.

Results

If you followed my playbook, your total cost is now right around $140. You’ll need a case/keyboard/mouse/power supply, of course, but if you’ve already got these lying around, you’re in good shape. Otherwise, any budget ATX case/power supply and a dirt cheap keyboard/mouse from Amazon will be fine. You’re probably still well under $200 at this point. Admittedly, this isn’t quite as cheap as a Sega Genesis. However, it IS cheaper than a Sega Genesis w/CD, or a Genesis with more or less any high-end (rare) game. And you can readily and easily find games and software online, usually legally.

There are plenty of methods to get GoG games working on original hardware/software. Garage sales and eBay can be your friend here, too. And for OS downloads, I usually hit up https://winworldpc.com/library/operating-systems for anything older than XP. They’ve also got a good selection of other OS’s, too.

Questions? Comments? Please leave them below. Otherwise, I hope this article leads you down a path to retro happiness!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s