Gaming

Blog 829: Rolling Back the Years

I recently took a fancy to replay the original Starcraft. I remember the critical glow surrounding it from my Warcraft III days, so I was quite excited to try it… and was sorely disappointed. It just seemed to be WC3 but a bit worse. Even so, I was a teenager then, only ever played it through once hammering the cheats; so I’m curious now to appraise it more… intellectually.

Except it crashed all the time on my Windows XP machine. Not any old crashes, but full on system-reset-required Blue Screens Of Death. I had no such trouble with any other game I’d tried on Monument, and I don’t remember Starcraft doing anything like this back in the day — what could possibly be the issue?

Rolling Back the Years

My first instinct was that it might have been a multi-core issue. In hindsight it was perhaps foolish to get a Core 2 Duo for this machine, as even at the time, I remember some games rejected the multi-core and hyper-threaded world — for example, I had to set the CPU affinity for Thief 2 to a single core to get it running. Alas, in this case, setting CPU affinity had no effect.

I even tried patching. I have a retail reissue of Starcraft plus Brood War, which out of the box is version 1.05; it looked like 1.16 was the final patch of the original run (before we started getting into Remaster territory), so I went for that. While I did get the benefits of not needing to have the CD in the drive anymore, the crashes remained.

At first I thought the crashes coincided solely with Hydralisks exploding into bloody messes, but then it kept crashing even in peacetime and I had to abandon my superstitions.

Okay, fine, maybe it had to be a more fundamental issue. I started with the following thoughts:

  • It’s Windows XP Service Pack 3. SP3 includes a lot of sops to modernity, bits of Windows Vista/7 backported, and some security patches that I believe eliminate some old disc-based DRM systems. Not so likely to be the issue here, but I’m fairly certain this is stopping the Sonic Mega Collection Plus from running. I ended up with an SP3 disc because I couldn’t source an SP2 or earlier disc that came with a license key; I did not manage to rescue a license key or recovery disc from back in the day so I needed that. But perhaps an SP3 license key will work on SP2 or SP1 if I can simply get a hold of a disc?
  • The graphics card is an nVidia GT 610. This is actually a comparatively modern GPU, from the tail end of the Windows XP era. The drivers are nVidia’s “Game Ready” drivers — the same series that operates the 970 GTX in my primary PC (and even those mythical RTX 30xx cards nobody can buy), albeit an earlier version. Perhaps I need to get a much older graphics card, with drivers from the early 00s rather than the 10s? (My monitor at least has DVI and VGA ports so classic connectivity won’t be a problem.)

None of the hardware in question was particularly expensive, so it’s not much of a loss to discard any individual piece; though some are obviously more drastic to swap than others. Back to ebay it is!

How hard can it be?

Step one, then, was the graphics card. Going through my records for ideas, it looks like I had an ATI Radeon 9800 XT 256MB back in the day — that was my first personal PC (after the shared family machine). It turns out, however, that working graphics cards from this era are fairly rare and comparatively expensive; going from £70 to £100. Maybe a bit much for this side hussle, but not insurmountable.

Eventually I decided to compromise and go for a slightly lesser model, a 9600 XT with only 128MB of memory, which I got for about £20 (but, hilariously, in its original box with manual, drivers disc and even associated free copies of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Splinter Cell). That cuts off some of the borderline cases I was interested in, like Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows, but these can be had on gog and/or fan-patch sanitised for the modern world so it’s not the end of the universe.

But then I hit a snag — I realised this graphics card, and indeed every decent card from the era, uses something called AGP rather than PCI(e) to connect to the motherboard. My motherboard didn’t have an AGP slot. Which somewhat precipitated… well, the entire rest of the rollback.

Nuclear launch detected.

For all it’s very easy to get old processors on ebay — with used Pentium 4s and Core 2 Duos going for as little as 99p — it was actually quite difficult to find a motherboard with an AGP slot. There were enough options, but I struggled to find matching drivers and manuals online for most, as none came with their matching discs (let alone their printed manuals).

Eventually, I found another Gigabyte board which seemed to fit the bill (GA-8S661FXM-775). The crucial thing here is not any particular about the hardware (beggars can’t be choosers!), but that Gigabyte’s website has extremely comprehensive records going all the way back — full specifications, drivers for Windows 98 to XP, proper PDF manuals, the lot! If you’re going to follow in my footsteps, I strongly recommend trying to source a Gigabyte for this factor alone.

Now that motherboard came with a Pentium 4 because apparently people are happy to just give those away, but it needed older RAM than I had on the other board, plus I needed a CPU cooler for it. Even my soundcard was a PCIe (the short version), so that had to go too. So much for replacing the graphics card being the easy option!

Does it really count as “saving” the machine if you replace every part of it?

I managed to pick up two unused 512MB sticks of DDR400 RAM, which should do nicely as I may try to get Windows ME running on this thing (ME caps out at 1GB). There were a lot of RAM sticks available, but mostly solo, and we all know RAM likes to come in pairs; so I splashed out on these unused stocks (£19.98 for the pair). The replacement sound card is a used SoundBlaster Live! 5.1 (SB0060), a fairly common model but a decent enough one (another £18.99).

For a moment I wondered if I’d have to replace the hard drive and CD drive, but phew, this motherboard does have two SATA ports. It also has some ancient bonkers serial ports too, but I don’t think I need those (yet — apparently Windows ME freaks out about hard drives over about 100GB in size, and also resists SATA, so there’s still a possibility they’ll be necessary).

It didn’t take all that long to put all the pieces together — but did it work?

Remember when user interfaces were FUCKING AWESOME?

Well, it turned on first time, which is great, but then I had to re-activate Windows XP. Yep, it detected “significant hardware changes” and so I had to phone up the Windows activation hotline again, enter my new 10×6 digit code, and receive my new 7×6 digit code. The phone bot tells you that this code can be reused — I had assumed the code matched the license key alone, but it must be some hash of the license key and some hardware IDs. Something to keep in mind if I ever need to do a round 3.

With that out the way (god bless robot phonelines that are open 24/7, so I could do it on a Sunday evening), I installed all the new drivers and…

Yep, Starcraft doesn’t crash anymore. Great success!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got additional Pylons to build.

2 thoughts on “Blog 829: Rolling Back the Years”

  1. Honestly the main reason I read this exact post was seeing the image of old Safrosoft Rox bring forgotten joyful memories… Anyways good job building XP again and enjoy your nuclear launches being undetected.

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