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The Ultimate Y2K Gaming PC
In (that is not a typo, it took me a year to find time to write this blog post!) I set myself the challenge of building a retrogaming desktop that would have blown my mind in the year . That was around the time I started to cultivate an interest in computers and play PC games, so I knew nostalgia would play a big part in my enjoyment of this project.
For the six weeks before I started I had been signed off by my doctor due to work-related burnout. Taking some time to build something that was not work-related and primarily intended to bring me joy was originally recommended to me by an over-the-phone counsellor. They suggested it would be a positive step to improve my mental health and give me a much-needed sense of accomplishment.
It is fair to say that if improving my mental health and giving me a much-needed sense of accomplishment was the objective, it was successfully achieved. In fact it succeeded so well that it has become a hobby and led me to buying more old computers I can refurbish and play old games on!
In this blog post I will talk about this specific project, why I chose the components I did and offer some advice to anyone that is inspired to give this a try themselves.
I set the maximum budget for this project as £100, and the primary objective was to create a machine that could natively play Windows and DOS games released between and .
The hardware I chose will be described in more detail in the next section, but the full cost of the initial PC and parts came to £71.49, and the remaining budget was spent on postage and packing. Given the price in would have been somewhere around £1500 to £2000, I think that’s remarkably good value for money!
Rather than building a system completely from scratch, I decided to buy a pre-built system from eBay. Unfortunately due to the current DOS gaming craze, any machine with an Intel Pentium III or earlier CPU is ridiculously expensive, and looking up AMD equivalents is time-consuming and insufferably dull.
It is a little odd that you can economise with a much more powerful system based on an early Intel Pentium 4 processor, but as I want to play games released between and anyway it still worked for my purposes. It made the machine a little newer than I would have liked, but it was the only way to keep the build within my £100 budget.
After sifting through hundreds of different options, I opted for an old eMachines 740 desktop PC. It was advertised with a 32-bit 1.6GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor, 256MB RAM, a 40GB IDE hard drive, a 40x DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive and a 3.5" floppy drive. The machine arrived in reasonable condition, but my very first task was spending an entire day cleaning the case with hot soapy water and baking soda.
I am guessing one of its previous owners was a smoker because there was a lot of very smelly gunk inside the case, but fortunately that and the many layers of dust coating everything was straightforward to remove. While some of the stickers on the outside were faded and needed reattaching with some double-sided sticky tape, at least I did not have to deal with any "yellowing" plastic (a common problem with old beige electronics) apart from the replaceable optical drive.
The existing internal components worked just fine, although the onboard motherboard sound ports seem to be broken. Fortunately broken motherboard sound is not a problem because I had already planned to install a separate sound card anyway! I also removed the awful factory-fitted graphics card and the pointless old dial-up modem controller, but I kept them as spares in case I need them in a future project.
For gaming graphics I chose a Gigabyte ATI Radeon 7500 LE graphics card. Originally launched in , it has a 250MHz on-board CPU and 64MB of memory. You connect it to the motherboard via an AGP x4 interface, and there are connectors for VGA and S-Video. The card also natively supports OpenGL 1.3, DirectX 8.1 and 32-bit colour.
The great thing about this card is it supports modern LCD monitor resolutions. It can also play most games from the era on maximum settings at 1280x1080 or 1024x768 with impressive frame-rates. The module also runs quietly as it does not have a fan, and it supports connecting a second monitor or a capture device if I want it to.
The ATI Radeon 7500 LE also feels representative because at the time it was really only outclassed by the nVidia Geforce 3 (a popular model was the Hercules 3D Prophet III Titanium 200), but it cost a far more reasonable £149 when it was first released.
I did consider picking up a Voodoo 3DFX graphics card, which would have been more representative. Unfortunately those modules are eye-wateringly expensive on eBay nowadays because of their popularity with collectors. They would also have limited my ability to play newer games on this box with Windows XP, so perhaps going with a lesser-known alternative was a better option anyway.
My first choice sound card was a Creative Soundblaster Live 5.1 because it would have had excellent backwards-compatibility with old DOS games and wavetable sound, while also providing more modern audio features for newer games.
Unfortunately the module I picked up from eBay was an OEM rather than an original retail version, so finding compatible drivers for it is an absolute nightmare. I managed to find DOS drivers, but Windows drivers would flat out refuse to install because the installers they were bundled inside would spot the sound card was not supported and stop.
I did some more research as a result and searched eBay for a fully-boxed sound card that would provide similar features. I settled for the AOpen Cobra AW744L II, which is based on the Yamaha YMF744B-R (better known as the OPL3). I counted the cost of this in my budget rather than the other sound card.
Its main strength is compatibility with DOS games. I benefit from an authentic FM synthesizer, hardware compatibility for the Soundblaster Pro and a retro Joystick port. The card also has MIDI wavetable support, but if you decide to buy one yourself you should be aware that this does not work on a "pure" DOS system, so you would need buy a separate controller card for that functionality.
The AOpen Cobra AW744L II also provides fairly decent support for 3D sound APIs like EAX and A3D, as well as hardware-accelerated DirectSound and DirectAudio for newer games. While it will never support sound in late '90s Windows games quite as well as a Soundblaster Live 5.1 or an Aureal Vortex 2, the resulting sound is still noticeably better than that provided by old motherboards or low-cost units that were bundled with family PCs at that time, so I am still satisfied with this choice.
I felt it was probably sensible to add another 256MB RAM, as that increases the total installed on the machine to 512MB. I do have another 512MB module I could install in the third slot to double the total RAM again to 1GB, but there are good reasons I haven’t done that:
- 1GB RAM is far in excess of what is actually needed on this machine
- Windows 98 needs to be hacked to support 1GB RAM
- Home desktops running more than 512MB RAM would have been very rare at the time
- It is always a good idea to have spare parts when you are working with old hardware
The other upgrade I made was the addition of a TP-Link TG-3269 1Gbps Ethernet card that I inserted into one of the PCI expansion slots. Most of the software and games I plan to install will come from optical media and an external USB hard drive I copied installers across to from a more modern system. However, having the option to connect the machine to the network opens up the possibility of easy file transfers and future LAN battles with my other old machines.
I am too cautious to connect this old machine to my home network permanently, as Microsoft no longer provides patches for any of the operating systems I plan to use and compatible security software is becoming increasingly difficult to find. The PC I built does not have an Ethernet cable plugged into it 99.9% of the time, although as it only stores game saves I think the security risks when I do connect it to my home network is acceptable.
I initially made sure all the hardware was being detected correctly with an old copy of Windows 98 Second Edition, and in my enthusiasm even played a few hours of Civilization II, Age of Empires and The Sims!
However I have opted for Windows XP, because that is what was installed on the eMachines 740 when it was first sold. As I have the benefit of living in the future I chose the Professional edition, and also installed the latest drivers and service packs.
The vast majority of the games in my "big box" and smaller disc case game libraries will run on Windows XP just fine, and DOSBOX will be a helpful fallback for those games that do not run in compatibility mode. I can also install modern software released as recently as , so using XP dramatically widens my options for future uses.
The downside is that I may not necessarily get all the DOS compatibility I wanted out of the hardware, and some older games might need tweaks and patches to work correctly. Fortunately, I have a fix in mind for this...
Some time in I want to add a second hard drive that I can select on boot so I have the choice of booting Windows 98 Second Edition and Windows XP Professional. That will enable me to make use of the amazing DOS and early Windows games support I deliberately chose this hardware for on Windows 98, and I can still switch back to Windows XP for more contemporary titles. I have a box of old SCSI and IDE hard drives I can choose from to make that happen.
I could also set this unit up in its own desk with a proper beige CRT monitor with peripherals from the time period. That upgrade is unlikely to happen in the near future though, and to save space I have set the eMachines 740 in the same trolley desk as my modern PC gaming rig. I use the same monitor and peripherals with both machines, and I use a KVM switch to toggle between them.
Advice for you
I really enjoyed creating this machine, and a year later I still play games on it at least once or twice a week. Here are some lessons I have learned over the past year that I can pass on to any budding retrocomputing hobbyists:
- Buying the physical copy of a game, operating system or old software from eBay, Gumtree, charity shops and car boot sales works better than trying to use digital copies from online stores or torrent sites
- Be prepared for the old hardware you procure to have hard to diagnose problems, not work properly with your BIOS or use the different connectors to what you were expecting
- Not every hardware component will still have drivers you can download from the Internet as companies often change ownership or disappear entirely. The Internet Archive is particularly helpful for finding old hardware specification sheets that can help you in your search for compatible software, but your best bet for some components is to buy them in-box as it will come with a driver disk
- Old hardware will expire often and when you least expect it! Buying spare RAM modules, hard drives and expansion cards cheaply as you spot them will save you time and hassle when this happens
- Always be aware of electro-static discharge. If you are not going to buy an anti-static mat and wristband, ensure you work on an insulated wooden surface and ground yourself on a nearby radiator before working with computer hardware
- If the hardware clock is not working and you are unable to replace the CMOS battery, keeping the computer connected to the mains while it is turned off will save you needing to reset the date and time every time you boot it
If you are overwhelmed by the requirements for physical hardware, you would be better served sticking to software emulators on modern computers. While they can be a hassle to configure, copying and pasting text into a configuration file is much more straightforward than trying to troubleshoot why Windows XP is not detecting your new PCI expansion card!
However if what you just read excites you, then I look forward to seeing your projects on social media. I have lost hundreds of hours to Civilization IV, Half Life, The Sims, Unreal Tournament, Empire Earth and SimCity 3000, so would thoroughly recommend it. In the New Year I am looking forward to playing games like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, FEAR, UT 2004 and Warcraft III.