I’ll admit it: I tend to upgrade more than I should. I spend money on parts for minor gains and then re-run my benchmarks, hoping to have bumped my scores up a little bit. I have a problem.
However, that’s only on my “main” machine that sits in my office. I’ve always had a lower powered machine in the living room for couch co-op games or games that are best suited to a gamepad. Sometimes this machine has been WOEFULLY out of date, so slow that only streaming was practicable. I recently gave away the machine I had been using, so it was time to buy another. Then, I had a thought: what if I could build a machine that was capable of AAA gaming for the price of a PS4 (standard, not Pro)?
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.
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.
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.
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.