I’m big into software preservation. I think it’s important to maintain access to things as they were, not as you remember them or as you wish they were — accept them as they were, warts and all, or judge them to overall be wanting and discard them on that basis. This is most relevant in the area of games, where lots of classics are now unplayable and only remasters of various stripes can be had. Whether it’s new graphics or gameplay tweaks, most re-releases don’t fix only the compatibility issues to get things running again — they make changes too. I’m not here to argue whether those changes are better or worse, simply that they make these games different.
Luckily, I still have my original CDs for a selection of classics. While I can’t run some of these original versions on Windows 7 or 10, I still have the media — given a system that could run them, their ancient truths could be unlocked once more.
So I have found a system that can run them. I have built… a new old computer.
It started because I wanted to play a bit of Age of Empires II. Now, it used to be that AoE2 actually worked on Windows 7 — all you had to do was alt-tab and stop the Explorer process (because it corrupted the 8-bit colour palette… somehow). However, when I tried that this time, it didn’t work; graphical glitches remained despite all my efforts. Something must have changed in the graphics card drivers in the interim, I suppose, but honestly, having to kill Windows Explorer to play a game is a bit of a bad sign anyway.
The only thing left is to attempt to run it somewhere a little more closely related to its home environment. But where?
The first answer is a virtual machine. My computer is powerful enough to run VirtualBox with Windows XP installed on it and have Age of Empires II purring quite smoothly; after all, it’s a game old enough to drink, so even with the extra layers of performance-sapping that need to be added between the hardware and the software inside a VM it can run nicely. So this is a viable option, for a certain class of older game that isn’t too graphics-intensive (i.e. isn’t 3D).
The thing is that VMs are actually hella uncomfortable to live in. Mouse and keyboard capture is often finicky and annoying. Even full-screened there’s an unsightly menu bar left behind, and the display scaling is a bit sketchy. This isn’t even an indictment — ultimately, VMs are designed as tools for running ancient but critical business software, they’re not built for authentic gaming. A VM is handy for proving the concept but it’s not a long-term answer.
The second answer was an idle thought, at first: how hard would it be to build an old computer capable of running Windows XP natively? It kept me awake for a few nights, as I mulled over whether I was crazy or if it might just work.
Some light searching revealed: I’m not crazy. Hell, it revealed that other people do this all the time. I had a watch of a few YouTube videos (particularly The Ultimate Windows XP by Budget Builds) to get an idea of some period-appropriate hardware options that would give me enough headroom to run all those borderline cases. Then it was off… to eBay.
Yes, to build an old machine, it’s all about used stocks — there’s no chance of getting new kit for the core of a Windows XP machine. However, even a casual search revealed that there is an absolute mountain of fairly high-end, period-appropriate hardware in salable, or even refurbished, condition; and at proper knockdown prices.
However, given my experiences rebuilding Helios, I wasn’t exactly in a rush to start from scratch. I noticed in my browsing that there are in fact a lot of period-appropriate systems that have been refurbished as a whole — the same sorts of processor combinations tidied up and with Windows 10 slapped on top. Maybe this would be the way out?
The thing is that all the refurbs seem to be Dell Optiplex 760s — slim form factors maybe not ideal for the hot gaming workloads I want to run, and neither would they be so easy to chop and change should individual parts need to be replaced over time (after all, we’re dealing with 10-year-old, used, hardware). These kinds of systems go for between £100 and £200 though, so the price point for that approach is exceedingly reasonable, given that most come with a year’s warranty too.
The big counterpoint was that, actually, quite a few components can be bought fresh and still fit the old world. Windows XP cares about the motherboard, the CPU, the RAM and the graphics card. Hard drive and CD drive technology apparently haven’t changed all that much in the intervening years, and a microATX case is still a microATX case. Even power supplies seem to have advanced by appending extra wires to each socket, allowing you to snap off the extra plugs and leave them dangling if you don’t need them.
This seemed like the balance I was looking for. After all, a power supply is a critical component — if it dies, everything is likely to go down with it, so you want the guarantees a brand new, unused, piece can give you. And a fresh case… well, then no cleaning is required.
The answer to the period-appropriate components actually came in the form of a pre-assembled mobo/CPU/RAM/cooler combo I saw. At £35, it cost about the same price as the case or the hard drive alone; but I get the reassurance that somebody who knew what they were doing put in the processor and applied the thermal paste — which is, after all, the part of which I am most afraid (though Reconstructed Helios has been running for more than a year now and hasn’t melted its valiant heart, so I must have done something right).
The fallback options are even cheaper. Processors of this ilk go for between £4 and £10, so I could replace the CPU ten times and still barely be scratching the cost of a brand new (modern) CPU. Matching motherboards go for between £20 and £50. Indeed, when I was browsing for motherboards, there seemed to be a very few sealed boxes, or opened but unused boards, for just a little bit more — so if I ever need to rip out the pieces and put in something that’s had a more certain past, that’s a real option…
… which is exactly what I did for the graphics card. I spotted a factory-sealed period-appropriate nVidia GT 610 — “I never got the chance to use it, so it’s just been sitting on a shelf” said the seller. £30 for a brand new old GPU? Let’s contrast that with the plan to upgrade the modern PC with a new RTX card — more than 10x the price, that’ll cost. I hesitated for about five minutes.
Which leaves us with how to slot this in alongside my existing PC.
The monitor should have been easy, but has in fact been the most painful thing of all. It has two inputs, one DisplayPort in use by the modern PC and one free HDMI, so I can plug one in each side and flip the input as necessary. The motherboard has an onboard VGA output for which I got an adapter, before the GT610 arrived with its native HDMI port.
Except the adapter to the onboard VGA just made things weird. The monitor happily showed me the start-up screen, then refused to show the BIOS — which is kind of important, seeing as you need it to install Windows. I ended up plugging it into my TV, which was more than happy to show everything. The monitor was happy enough to show Windows once it was running at 1920×1080.
I was expecting the GPU to solve this, and it mostly does. The BIOS now shows happily and the adapter can go into storage for a rainy day. Except… Well, this is an old Windows XP machine, I’m never going to run any games at full 1920×1080 resolution. Indeed, I’m expecting to spend my time no higher than 1024×768, which means that some amount of scaling is required. The main PC has aspect ratio scaling enabled to sustain this — any 1024×768 game is pumped up so it fills as much of the screen as it can without stretching, and leaves the sides black. Perfect.
Except this GPU isn’t doing that, and though the documentation suggests it should be able to, the option is simply not available in the nVidia control panel. When a game runs at 1024×768, it sits in the middle of the screen, unscaled. I found a button on the monitor that scales it a bit, but it’s still not behaving the way I know it can. Aieeee!
The fallback option might be to pick up a classic 1280×1024 flatscreen, but that actually has the same problem: because that’s still not a 4:3 aspect ratio…
Then I just had to activate Windows. Hilariously, this is still possible — not via the internet, but via the freephone Microsoft Activation line. Tell the automated system you’re trying to activate Windows, but say “no” often enough and it will ask you if you are looking at the activation screen right now. Say yes, give it the 6×9 digit installation ID and it will give you a 6×7 activation code to enter… and you’re in. Luckily, this activation code seems to be the same forever, so I can write that down and I have a foolproof offline activation process for system-blasting emergencies. (10 minutes typing numbers into my phone and then writing down more in return is not an experience I wish to repeat.)
So here we are! I’ve named it Monument, after the Ultravox instrumental B-side (all my secondary devices are named for instrumental tracks with one-word titles). Its final specification is…
- Gigabyte GA-G41M-ES2L/Core 2 Duo E8400 3.0Ghz/4GB unmarked RAM/stock cooler pre-assembled combo: £35 (yes, that is too much RAM for a 32-bit system, but at this price I’m not worried about having some overspill)
- Corsair CX450M 450W PSU: £59.99 (the most expensive component — ooft! But I wanted a PSU from a reputable and trusted brand, so that even if other parts die I can expect the PSU to last a long, long time)
- Seagate BarraCuda 500GB 7200RPM: £34.49 (yep, that’s a single spinning disk for authentic loading times… though it’s a 7200RPM to take the edge off a little. I am kinda looking forward to needing to regularly defragment again!)
- EVGA 1GB nVidia Geforce GT 610: £30 (factory-sealed, motherfucker! Should run all those borderline cases like Deus Ex: Invisible War, Unreal 2 and UT2004 nicely)
- Liteon DVD drive: £18.45
- Antec VSK-3000B Black MATX Tower Case: £34.49 (you would not believe how hard it is to find a case that doesn’t have a bloody window in the side but does have a hole for a CD drive… actually you probably would)
Which tops out at… £212.42, which is just over the initially projected budget of £200 — though that’s not including the miscellaneous extra adapters and wires I’ve had to grab. I splashed out on several new premium components which were probably a smidge on the side of overkill, so I’m quite certain you could build an equivalent system for half the price or even less if you went all-in on used bits. (I’ve also ordered a sound card, because the onboard audio wasn’t upmixing to my 5.1 speakers through the splitter I have… another luxury, but you know me: go hard or go home!)
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some old games to play…