These days when you want to play a old game as in DOS compatible or Windows9x you have to emulate a system with DOSBox or VBox.
Well They work fine but some times you run into issues or it just doesn’t feel right.
So lets talk about building a bare metal old school gaming rig.
Now we don’t want a 386 and then get stuck only playing DOS games. We need a system that you can dual boot DOS and Windows 95 or 98. A PC with ISA slots is key as well so we can use legacy products such as a SoundBlaster 16 or a Roland. Anything Socket 5 and early Socket 7 would be just fine. For memory I would say 64MB, maybe 128MB depending on what Windows based games you want to play. Now since we want to play some early 3D titles such as Quake2 and maybe Thief the Dark Project we need a decent old video card. To keep things easy I would say a 3DFx Voodoo 3 since it can do 2D and 3D video acceleration. Enough memory for any old 3D game we can toss at it.
So for the sake of argument lets go with these specs.
Intel Pentium at 166MHz
Creative SoundBlaster 16
3Dfx Voodoo 3
Any IDE hard drive will do, we can create as many partitions as we want or need.
We could add a Floppy drive or two but floppies are hard to find. However there is another solution or two. For games that require a floppy we could use a floppy drive emulator that uses a SD memory card. They’re pretty cheap these days. Or toss in a Ethernet card such as a Intel Pro 10/100 would work great and transfer games from a different system. Yo could still toss on a real floppy drive for just in case you come across some floppies.
The hard part is finding a motherboard. We could go with a AT or ATX, doesn’t really matter on the form factor. You can fit a AT motherboard in a ATX case just fine and late AT boards can use ATX power supplies. You can’t use ATX in a AT case or it’s power supply. In all it’s the current state of the motherboard. The older the board the most likely there will be some bad capacitors unless you’re lucky enough to find a unused board or a system that was hardly used.
Now how can you find this stuff. If you’re like me you’ll have about 90% of the parts already such as memory and CPU. The fun parts is going to thrift stores and finding the rest of the system unless you know someone that has a treasure trove of parts or you want to spend a couple hundred bucks on a old motherboard. There is ebay but with my experience buying computer hardware from ebay is a pipe dream and you’ll end up with a dead board. If you can’t find what you need at thrift stores then try craigs list. The price will be higher then a thrift store but it might be worth it.
Lets talk about the software portion for a second. I said earlier to dual boot DOS and Windows 9x but doesn’t Win9x run on top of DOS? Yes however some classic games will have major issues running on DOS 7 that Windows 9x uses. Such as special TSR files that will conflict with Windows or a game that is so old needs a older version of DOS and last I checked Win9x won’t let you change the version. Granted you could run DOS games in a window screen but it can hurt performance. The best solution is to dual boot MS-DOS 6.22 and Windows 95b. I would also use third party boot loader such as Grub, Lilo or my personal favorite Plop Boot manager.
Now there are limitations to this setup as well. MS-DOS 6 can not read let alone use a FAT32 filesystem. However you can still transfer files from windows to a FAT16 filesystem. A FAT16 filesystem can only use a maximum of 2GB for a partition. So if you’re using a old 40GB hard drive get ready for a headache for creating a bunch of partitions. Personally I would create two FAT16 filesystems. One for DOS and some utilities and another for the games. The primary partition for DOS doesn’t need to be 2GB but around 500MB. You could add another two 2GB partitions for future use if you’re going to play a lot of games. The rest of the drive you can use a single FAT32 partition and use it for Windows 9x since Windows based games use crazy amounts of space.
Since we are using outdated software Drivers might be a issue to find for Windows since there is still a cult following with DOS. You can go here or here for 3Dfx drivers. Now as in for the whole copies of DOS and Windows you can find them on archiving / abandonware websites. Your mileage will vary so be careful.