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.
So, it was rapidly approaching Christmas. This year, we had been doing a lot of homemade stuff because last year we were stupid and spent far too much. As I pondered what to make for my cohort (and brother), it occurred to me that he doesn’t own any vintage PC hardware. Well, perhaps his 780 Ti qualifies as vintage now.
But he doesn’t have a classic DOS/Windows machine of his very own. Then, I thought making it a “budget” build was a neat play on the idea of saving money in the here and now. So, I picked an arbitrary year and sorted through my parts bins in an effort to build the most badass budget rig that the end of the 90’s could offer.
One of the most wonderful things about gaming on a PC is that, unlike consoles, you’re not locked into static hardware. You can upgrade to your heart’s content, swapping in new processors, video cards, hard drives…all sorts of stuff. However, this strength also means that the system requirements for new games are always a moving target. I would argue that this is less of a problem in modern gaming, as we’ve reached a point where monumental improvements in hardware don’t happen at a fast pace anymore.
There was a time, though, when processors and video cards seemed to double in speeds every year or two. The shiny new computer you got for Christmas in 1987 was no longer adequate for the games of 1989. Sure, businesses upgraded because of spreadsheets and number crunching, but for gamers, each little epoch of hardware seemed to be dominated by one or two games that needed a higher performing system or a new operating system to run correctly.
Let’s go on a journey through these epochs, focusing on the requirements and, more importantly, the games.
The First Epoch (1987 – Wolfenstein 3D)
I’m going to arbitrarily start the clock in 1987. The fastest x86 CPU of the day was the 80386. 4MB of RAM was a lot. And the PC game you had to have was Wolfenstein 3D.
I’ve been a Linux user since 1998. I’ve also been a Linux sysadmin by trade for most of my career. So naturally, I’ve always been one to avidly track the inroads that Linux has made into the consumer market.
At the turn of the century, the whole “Year of Desktop Linux” thing was beginning to pick up steam. Read any PC publication around that time and you’ll notice a stunning amount of vitriol towards Microsoft (Micro$oft) by readers and commenters. Heck, even the writers of the articles themselves had a decidedly anti-Microsoft attitude. There are a lot of reasons that this attitude existed, but the core of it was the Microsoft controlled the desktop PC market. If you were using a computer, you were using Windows. The hardware vendors were locked in. The software vendors were locked in. So, by extension, the users were locked in.
Having recently acquired quite a few old IBM machines, I’ve been working at getting them all restored and tested. There was quite a variety of machines, from 286’s to Pentiums. However, the ones that interested me the most were the various different 486’s. These weren’t IBM MicroChannel, instead opting for industry standard ISA ports. That means it’s quite a bit easier to swap parts in and out of them
This particular beast is the PS/ValuePoint 433DX/Si. Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? The ValuePoint series was IBM’s answer to the “IBM-Compatible” market. It’d be an article in and of itself to explain what was happening, but the short answer is that other manufacturers were beating IBM at its own game. The PS/2, while a hit with businesses, was very expensive and contained what was essentially a proprietary bus interface (the aforementioned MicroChannel). In the home and small business market, consumers couldn’t afford the PS/2. Companies like Compaq and Packard Bell swooped in and serviced that clientele. IBM wanted back in.
This process brought back a lot of memories. Not all of them were good. I was expecting some warm and fuzzies. The “Getting Ready to Start Windows for the First Time!” kind of warm and fuzzies. What I got were lots of cuts on my hands, a few hours worth of research, incompatibilities, hardware failures…and the satisfaction of a job well done.
I built the board/CPU/RAM and video on my test bench first. To begin, I inserted the processor into the slot, tightening the retaining screws. Then came RAM (it was exactly like modern RAM). Finally, I plugged in the RIVA TNT and hooked up power and keyboard/mouse. A quick short of the jumpers and everything came alive. So far, so good?
For whatever reason, the system didn’t like the PS/2 keyboard I had plugged in. It didn’t throw a keyboard error, but I couldn’t use it to get into the BIOS. It wouldn’t even light up. I tried another and I had the same results. I finally switched to a USB keyboard (thankfully the 440BX has USB ports) and had no further issues. The mouse worked fine in the PS/2 port, so I guess it’s probably just a bad keyboard port.
As I’ve begun to delve into the world of retro-PC hardware, I have found things both familiar and new. For instance, while I’ve been a fan of Doom since the original release in 1993, I had never experienced the soundtrack the way it was SUPPOSED to sound.
Now, when I first played Doom all those years ago, I didn’t even have a sound card. I fell in love with the way the game played and only later got to hear the soundtrack (and the effects), when I had upgraded to a Pentium 75 with a Sound Blaster 16. Somehow, adding music to the game made it a more visceral experience. Also, it’s no secret that Doom has some of the most iconic PC music ever written, instantly recognizable to (probably) millions.