Though projects like DOSBox and a surge in remasters can help satisfy your nostalgia for games from your childhood, many titles remain unplayable on modern systems. A fun and affordable solution is to build your own retro system using original hardware.
Satisfy Your Urge to Build a PC
At the time of writing in January of 2022, buying a GPU is a difficult and expensive endeavor. The global semiconductor shortage has touched many industries, including kitchen appliances and auto manufacturing. For gamers, the crisis has hit the price and availability of GPUs the hardest.
Not only are there so few brand new graphics cards available, but scalping has also made getting your hands on a card even harder. Legitimate customers are competing with each other and automated bots that swallow up every shipment of high-end to mid-range NVIDIA and AMD cards. The addition of cryptocurrency miners who are looking for cards further adds pressure on the market.
With brand new cards hard to come by, the second-hand market has also felt the squeeze. Two and three-year-old NVIDIA 20 series and 10 series cards are selling for vastly inflated rates. It’s one of the reasons that consoles like the Xbox Series X present a real value proposition for playing the latest titles if you’re able to get your hands on one.
The sad reality of buying a graphics card in early 2022 is that you either have to be very lucky or prepared to spend a lot of money on cards that could be a year or two old. It’s a terrible time to be upgrading your PC, let alone building a new one from scratch.
This has put the brakes on the entire market, since for PC gamers the GPU is the “heart” of the system. If your GPU is a few years old, you might not fancy spending money on the rest of the system (not that high-end CPUs have avoided a similar fate).
Fortunately, vintage computer equipment hasn’t seen the same increase in demand that the latest GPUs have. You can’t use them to play the latest games, but they play old games better than many modern machines. If you’re itching to build something, a retro PC might just be the ticket.
Obsolete Parts Are Cheap and Easy to Find
A computer can’t go “out of date” if it was never “in date” to begin with. When you build something to the specification of a bygone era, you’re not expecting top-end performance or compatibility with today’s latest titles. If you buy a Game Boy on eBay, you’re not doing so with the expectation that it can play Nintendo DS titles. A retro PC build should be treated the same way.
Because these parts are already outdated, there are plenty of them available at bargain prices. Some sellers may attempt to exploit enthusiasts with inflated prices, but there are plenty of legitimate sellers out there who simply want to get rid of hardware for a fair price.
eBay is probably the best resource for old computer gear, especially graphics cards. You can use the Advanced Search feature to see what items are selling for, simply check “Sold” and enter a query like “3dfx voodoo” to see auctions that have cleared.
Old graphics cards generally go for anything from $10 to $200, depending on how sought-after they are, the condition, and whether or not the auction has a detailed description and good photos available. You may also have some joy at a thrift store, many of which hold old PC parts and entire pre-built systems.
Thrift stores can be a good source of cases, hard drives, optical and floppy drives, and even RAM. You may need to turn to auction sites like eBay for specific components like CPU and GPU models and motherboards though.
Pick Your Games and Era
What you build likely depends on which games you want to play. There’s no one-size-fits-all retro PC build since the platform has a long and storied past. For example if you want to hear the squeals of a PC speaker while playing DOS titles like Commander Keen and Space Quest then your build will differ wildly from someone looking to enjoy early 2000s titles like Black & White or Aliens vs. Predator 2.
One easy way to approach the build is to look at the “recommended” system requirements for a few games that you want to play and build a PC around that. You can go a little higher if you want, but you ultimately want to remain within a few years of these titles for best compatibility. This is easier if you already have a collection of old CD-ROMs in the attic.
Your choice of an operating system is of course important since many games don’t function correctly on newer platforms. Many Windows 95 and Windows 98 games stopped working properly on Windows XP, and many that worked using compatibility mode stopped with the arrival of Windows Vista.
From here it’s a case of researching parts to make sure everything is compatible. You may find subreddits like r/buildapc and r/retrogaming useful if you have questions or simply want to see what others have built.
Original Hardware Provides the Best Compatibility
Some games simply can’t be played on modern systems. While many retro games are released on services like GOG.com with compatibility fixes, some lie dormant for years. They never receive the patch they need to work on modern platforms, or they’re tied up in licensing hell as the companies that published them have long been absorbed or carved up.
This includes classics like aforementioned landmark god game Black & White, the original Civilization and its sequel Civilization II, mechanized combat sim MechWarrior 2, and movie making tycoon curio The Movies. PC Gamer produced a list of games that aren’t playable at the moment on any platform; unless you happen to have original hardware.
While some games are playable on modern platforms, it can be difficult to get them up and running. Some require third-party compatibility patches, while others were optimized for Windows 7 or 8 and may not work properly on a new Windows 10 PC. Then there are bugs, random crashes, and all the other instability that playing on a modern platform can introduce.
That’s not to say games didn’t crash a lot back in the day, they most certainly did. It’s just that your chances of getting a game working as the developers intended are a lot better when running on the hardware of the time. The only real exception to this is DOS games, the vast majority of which seem to run well under DOSBox. According to DOSBox.com, over 91% of tested games are fully supported, with only 1.45% of games being broken in the latest build.
Don’t Forget the CRT
Finally, don’t forget that the PC is only one part of the equation. To truly scratch the nostalgia itch and experience these games as you played them, back in the day, you’ll likely need to get your hands on an old CRT monitor.
Like the GPUs and other hardware of the time, only a limited number of these CRTs remain. Unlike graphics cards and processors, CRTs are incredibly heavy and bulky objects that don’t travel well. You’ll likely be limited to what you can get your hands on in your local area.
Scour your local Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist adverts to see what’s available. With the retro gaming scene kicking up a notch in the last few years, what you can get can vary wildly. Some sellers will practically give away quality CRTs while others will charge obscene prices to ride the renewed interest in these vintage items.
It’s important to note that a CRT isn’t absolutely necessary. Provided your monitor can accept the output on your graphics card of choice (likely VGA, DVI, or DisplayPort), either natively or using adapters, you’re good to go. Foregoing the CRT is a great way to save on space (a compromise you might need to make if your significant other or housemates aren’t crazy about dedicating the shared living space to outdated technology).
A Nostalgic and Educational Project
There are many hurdles to overcome to build a working retro PC build, from sourcing parts that still work to solving compatibility issues and hunting down old drivers. You’ll also need a copy of whatever operating system is appropriate for your build, likely Windows 98 or Windows XP.
If you just want to play old DOS games, considering giving DOSBox a go. If it’s retro console games you’re after, a modern Xbox console with RetroArch is one of the best investments you can make right now.
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