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May 05, 2013

Vintage PC gaming intro [Purp]

For now I'll forcus on IBM PC compatible games and hardware. They're still not impossible to find (at a price), and present a vaguely familiar aspect to anyone who's worked on configuring a modern'ish desktop PC.

In the beginning... there was the IBM model 5150 Personal Computer, at a base price of $1,565 (in a virtually unusable minimalist configuration).

Having an actual IBM PC (5-expansion slots) or XT (8-expansion slots + HDD) is the "gold standard" when it comes compatibility for vintage PC games. Those are the platforms the software was developed and tested on - hard to beat that.

The Intel 8088 microprocessor those machines were fitted with has a few obscure quirks that could thwart attempting to run some of the earliest PC games on faster Intel 80286/80386 and later microprocessors. Most programs won't run into those incompatibilities, but when you do you're at a hard stop without the real thing.

You're probably not going to find too many original PC's and XT's (or even Taiwan clones) out at the curb on garbage day for free anymore; that era started waning about the time the 486 chip showed up. The more likely scenario is you got some old 486 or Pentium class machine stashed in a closet, or find one out at the curb on garbage day pleading for salvation from the smelter or landfill. The original stuff is getting kinda pricy on eBay these days. This 5-slot PC has been bid up over $200 and there's still a few hours to go.


So, if you don't want to drop 3 or 4 figures collecting up the parts for a pimped out vintage original, that 486 or Pentium stuffed in the closet is looking more and more attractive if all you want to do is play a few old games.

The problem with a new(er) computer, other than the obscure 8088 CPU incompatibilities noted above will be that, well...its often TOO NEW. Many older games, while they "run", will run at a frenetic, weasel on crack pace and be virtually unplayable on the faster CPU's. They were written without any throttling because a balls out 4.77Mhz 8088 was just barely enough. Nobody in the early 1980's ever thought anything like a Pentium was possible. The first 80386's were considered to be pretty much miraculous, and so pricy that no ordinary user would ever need one.

If you're lucky enough to have an old 80286 (like an IBM AT or AT clone) stashed in hole somewhere, its a better starting point than the newer 486/Pentium, there's a lot less performance to try and kill to slow it down. Chances are an old 286 is fitted with a 1.2M 5.25" floppy drive too -- which is what you'll be wanting when loading old games. Compaq kept using the 1.2M 5.25" drives on their 386 machines for a while too.

A 5.25" 360k floppy is handy to have too. Many offered a 360k drive as an optional 2nd floppy on their 286/386 class machines. Most of the old games and other DOS software shipped on 360k format diskettes.

Slowing a fast beast down

Games, being heavily video oriented, a SLOW video card can go a long way towards taming a "fast" machine. Most of the earliest games will be written for the original IBM CGA video card, which is pretty slow. Its an 8-bit card which slows it down even more. For the casual person looking to play a few old games, the CGA presents a problem though; its video plug is completely incompatible with the VGA standard, and used CGA monitors have become kinda pricy

If you can find one, an 8-bit ISA VGA card will usually work OK, and it'll be capable of driving any old VGA compatible monitor. Most new'ish EGA games (like EGAroids, and Asteroids clone and Captain Comic) will work OK on a VGA too. But even those are getting kinda pricy with people starting to ask crazy money for them.

OS/2 -- a possible solution for some old games.

If you've got an old 386 with 4M of memory in it, another approach presents itself -- IBM's OS/2 operating system. With a plain 386 (or 386SX) or 486, common16-bit VGA card, and common IDE drive, you can usually get OS/2 to load and run. The 386SX chip is good for slowing things down A LOT when running a 32-bit operating system. It only has a 16 bit path to memory and is considerably slower than a 386DX or 486. The first 32-bit OS/2, 2.0 is an exercise in pain. Lots of bugs, and many install issues. If you can scam up a copy of Warp 3 off a umm... torrent site somewhere, you'll have something that's not too bad. Search around on the IBM FTP support site for the last Warp 3 fixpack and you have something kinda good.

OS/2, unlike Windows NT and later versions, has pretty good "DOS box" support with a myriad of settings for configuring it.

Suppose you got a game that refuses to run with more than 512k of memory available (not uncommon), there's an OS/2 setting that lets you jack the available memory down below that. Suppose a game refuses to run on the VGA? OS/2 has a setting to make the DOS box video present a CGA. If some game uses 320x200 graphics mode (very common) and the window it runs in looks postage stamp sized, OS/2 has a setting to double the pixels and scan lines so the window is more reasonable sized. That setting also slows down the "crack weasel" games quite a bit as the video driver is copying a lot of data.

DOSBOX -- a solution for some old games on modern Windows.

Suppose you got only one machine, a new 64-bit whatever CPU running Windows Vista, 7/8, whatever.. and you don't want to get into building a dedicate vintage game machine? Then what?

Look into DOSBOX its not too bad. Not perfect, but it'll be good enough to run a lot of the old DOS games, and its under active development and maintenance.

enough for now, maybe more next week...

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posted by Open Blogger at 06:36 PM

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