Blog 838: Third Build Lucky?

Managing old computers is hard; if it’s not one thing, it’s another. Last time, in order to fix blue-screen hard crashes in Starcraft and LEGO Rock Raiders, I got a very old graphics card, which required a very old motherboard (and a very old sound card, and some old RAM). Yes, a full rebuild.

The other week, I took a fancy to do a wee bit of Age of Empires II skirmishing… only to discover that it had started crashing on this build! Only to desktop, admittedly, but reliably and in a peculiar way suggestive of… other problems.

There was only one way this could end.

Third Build Lucky?

A few times while playing Rock Raiders, the game crashed to desktop. Not regularly enough to sour or stop the experience, but once precisely at the moment of completing the very lengthy final mission, which was a bit of a pisser. I thought nothing of this; I have strong memories of the game being extremely temperamental even on Windows 98.

There was one extra element to these crashes, though: they guffed the CD drive. I would go straight to the shortcut to restart the game, and it would complain that the disc was not present. Ejecting and reinserting make it work, so again, I thought nothing of it. Just a quirk. Things just weren’t as robust back then. Whatever.

I will not countenance losing access to this gem of a game.

Fast-forward to me taking an evening off Final Fantasy VII, planning to settle into a two-hour comp-stomp in Age of Empires II with a whisky and a live album. Picked my faction, set the maximum map size with high resources, and off we go.

About fifteen minutes in, I reached the Feudal Age and things were ramping up and– bang! Crash to desktop. Sigh, that’s annoying, but probably nothing… Except then it told me the CD wasn’t in the drive. The exact same symptoms as Rock Raiders. A completely different game, made by different people, in a different engine, crashing in the exact same way? No sirree, that means the game is unlikely to be at fault.

I put it out of my mind with a grumble and started another match. Another ten or fifteen minutes in… Crashed again! Mate, Age of Empires II is one of the foundational reasons why I even built this machine in the first place. It was running fine on the V1 hardware, why did V2 make it so unhappy?

Thus I found myself in a position where I’d apparently traded one set of games for another.

RoX was written in Visual Basic and I’m fairly certain doesn’t even know the meaning of “graphics acceleration”.

Originally, I was pretty certain that the problem component for Starcraft and Rock Raiders was the nVidia GT 610 graphics card that I started with; a comparatively modern card from the mid-10s that’s not actually much older than the GTX 970 that still powers my main PC (grumble grumble cryptocunts). In buying a replacement GPU from 2004, I did not realise that graphics cards used a different slot back then — AGP rather than PCI-Express. I didn’t mean to roll back the motherboard along with it, but that slot change made it a necessity. (Yes, I could have just binned that card and got another; especially as it died after a mere two days of Starcraft. Sigh!)

I know a lot more about mid-00s graphics cards now, because I kept doing research because I had other reasons to be suspicious. There were little flickery bars that kept appearing and disappearing, particularly around sprites all across Starcraft and around bits of interface in Rock Raiders. Other things felt odd too; the crashes from Rock Raiders that took out the disc drive, and that one time I pulled a USB stick out and it spontaneously restarted. (I know you’re meant to Remove Safely but that’s supposed to be about drive corruption, not killing the entire machine.)

Atrox has worked on all iterations of Monument, but it’s good to check.

It turns out that by 2005, a scant year after the Radeon 9xxxes I was previously coveting, PCIe and the attendant cards had become available — if I had done just a modicum more research the first time, I really could have swapped just the GPU out the first time. Double sigh.

So I switched from ATI to nVidia and picked up an early PCIe model, a GeForce 6800. I had kept that first motherboard, because I am a cautious man (my room is now full of old computer bits, oops), so I needed nothing else to get back into the PCIe world.

All of which means I’m back where I started — with that mobo/CPU/RAM combo I bought the first time but an older GPU. I might transfer the bigger cooler I bought for V2, because there’s still thermal paste left in the tube… Though the Core 2 Duo is not as famously hot running as the Pentium 4, if anything is going in the bin it might as well be the less good bits.

The nVidia control panel is markedly less charismatic than the Radeon one.

But… did it work? Have I finally arrived at a hardware combination that runs all the old bullshit I want to play, rather than flipping between different subsets? Well, obviously I had to go down the list…

  • LEGO Rock Raiders: first up because it crashed reliably and instantly in the bad world. Result: SUCCESS!
  • Age of Empires II: second up because it ran perfectly on V1 and then died fairly reliably on V2 to trigger this final metamorphosis. Result: SUCCESS!
  • Safrosoft RoX: third up because… well, I’ve never had trouble running it on Monument, but it’s something of a lynchpin for those awkward ten-minute gaps between finishing a game and the bath running. Result: SUCCESS!
  • Atrox: they did not manage to clone Starcraft so thoroughly that it crashed on V1, but I had to check. Result: SUCCESS!
  • Starcraft: I’m going to play Brood War sooner or later, because apparently I am a glutton for punishment. Result: SUCCESS!
  • Unreal Tournament: another one I’ve never had trouble with on any computer I’ve ever seen in my life, so more tradition than anything else, but… Result: FAIL?

Yes, it fell at the last hurdle — UT runs but with a lot of stuttering. However, I’m fairly certain it’s a UT thing rather than a hardware thing, as when I accidentally took it out of full-screen it ran smooth as butter but at super-speed (plus, I gave the more modern and demanding Pariah a quick spin and it ran perfectly). Some accidentally-enforced V-sync playing havoc? Cross-talk between the two cores of the Duo? Maybe I just have to track down some slighltly newer drivers. Hrmmm.

So not a complete bill of health, with Unreal Tournament‘s odd behaviour something of a surprise, but otherwise running quite happily. I even defragmented the hard drive last night, awwww yeaaah!

… oh god now my studio is full of old pseudo-dead bits of computer I don’t really know what to do with.

And you tell me...

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