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.
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.
No, this isn’t another bandwagon anti-EA post. It’d be a bit late for that, anyway. Actually, the idea for this post came up whilst mulling over that line one day. I know what it means in the EA context, but I started to examine what gave me a real sense of achievement when it came to gaming.
I couldn’t really think of too many recent games that I beat and thought I’d just accomplished something. To that end, I reexamined the games that I’d played since childhood to try to determine which ones were the ones that I was proud of completing. These are those games. They are not ranked in order of difficulty, but these are what I’d consider to be my “top five”.