Consider a retro PC build for a fun nostalgic project
Although projects like DOSBox and an increase 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 stock hardware.
Satisfy your urge to build a PC
As of this writing in January 2022, buying a GPU is a difficult and expensive business. The global shortage of semiconductors has affected many sectors, including kitchen appliances and automotive manufacturing. For gamers, the crisis has hit the price and availability of GPUs the hardest.
Not only are there so few new graphics cards available, scalping has also made it even harder to get a card in your hands. Legitimate customers compete with each other and the automated bots that gobble up every shipment of high-end to mid-range NVIDIA and AMD cards. The addition of cryptocurrency miners looking for cards adds even more pressure to the market.
With hard-to-find new cards, the second-hand market has also felt the pressure. Two- and three-year-old NVIDIA 20 and 10 cards sell for very inflated prices. It’s one of the reasons why 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 them.
The sad reality of buying a graphics card in early 2022 is that you either have to be very lucky or be prepared to spend a lot of money on cards that might be a year or two old. It’s a terrible time to upgrade your PC, let alone build a new one from scratch.
This held back 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 want to spend the money on the rest of the system (not that high-end CPUs have avoided a similar fate).
Fortunately, vintage computer hardware hasn’t seen the same surge in demand as the latest GPUs. You can’t use them to play the latest games, but they play older games better than many modern machines. If you’re in the mood to build something, a retro PC might just be the ticket.
Obsolete parts are cheap and easy to find
A computer cannot become “obsolete” if it was never “up to date” to begin with. When you build something to the specs of a bygone era, you don’t expect high-end performance or compatibility with today’s latest titles. If you buy a Game Boy on eBay, you don’t expect it to play Nintendo DS titles. A retro version of PC should be treated the same way.
Because these parts are already obsolete, there are plenty available at bargain prices. Some sellers may attempt to exploit enthusiasts with inflated prices, but there are plenty of legitimate sellers out there who just want to get rid of hardware for a fair price.
eBay is probably the best resource for old computer equipment, especially graphics cards. You can use the advanced search function to see which items are selling, just check “Sold” and enter a query like “voodoo 3dfx” to see which auctions have been validated.
Old graphics cards usually cost between $10 and $200, depending on their popularity, condition, and whether or not the auction has a detailed description and good photos available. You can also have joy at a thrift storemany of which contain old PC parts and entire pre-built systems.
Thrift stores can be a good source of cases, hard drives, optical drives and floppy disks, and even RAM. You may need to turn to auction sites like eBay for specific components such as CPU and GPU models and motherboards.
RELATED: What’s the best way to buy a vintage computer?
Choose your games and your era
What you build probably depends on the games you want to play. There is no single retro PC release, as the platform has a long and storied past. For example, if you want to hear the squeaks of a PC speaker while playing DOS titles such as Commander Keen and space quest then your build will be very different from someone looking to enjoy early 2000s titles like Black White Where Aliens vs. Predator 2.
An easy way to approach the build is to look at the “recommended” system requirements for a few games you want to play and build a PC around that. You can go a bit higher if you want, but ultimately want to stay within a few years of these titles for better compatibility. It’s easier if you already have a collection of old CD-ROMs in the attic.
Your choice of operating system is of course important because many games do not run well 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 there, it’s all about finding parts to make sure everything is compatible. You can find subreddits like r/buildapc and r/retrogaming useful if you have questions or just want to see what others have built.
Original hardware offers the best compatibility
Some games simply cannot be played on modern systems. While many retro games are released on services like GOG.com with compatibility fixes, some sit dormant for years. They never get the patch they need to work on modern platforms, or they get caught in licensing hell because the companies that released them have long been absorbed or spun off.
This includes classics like the aforementioned historical god game Black Whitethe original Civilization and its sequel Civilization IImechanized combat simulation Mecha Warrior 2and curiosity of a movie mogul Movies. PC Gamer produced a list of games that are currently not playable on any platform; unless you have original hardware.
Although some games are playable on modern platforms, it can be difficult to get them to work. Some require third-party compatibility fixes, while others have been 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 instabilities. that gaming on a modern platform can introduce.
This does not mean that the games did not crash many at the time, they most certainly did. It’s just that your chances of running a game as the developers intended are much better when it’s running on the hardware of the era. The only real exception to this are DOS games, the vast majority of which seem to work fine under DOSBox. According to DOSBox.comover 91% of games tested are fully supported, with only 1.45% of games broken in the latest version.
Don’t forget the CRT
Finally, remember that the PC is only part of the equation. To really scratch the nostalgic itch and experience these games as you played them back in the day, you’ll probably need to get your hands on an old CRT monitor.
Like GPUs and other hardware of the time, only a limited number of these CRTs remain. Unlike graphics cards and CPUs, CRTs are incredibly heavy and bulky things that don’t travel well. You will likely be limited to what you can find in your area.
Browse your local Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist ads to see what’s available. With the retro gaming scene gaining momentum in recent years, what you can get can vary wildly. Some sellers will practically offer quality CRTs while others will charge obscene prices to take advantage of the renewed interest in these vintage items.
It is important to note that a CRT is not absolutely necessary. Provided your monitor can accept output to your graphics card of choice (probably VGA, DVI, or DisplayPort), either natively or using adapters, you’re good to go. Forgoing the CRT is a great way to save space (a trade-off you might have to make if your partner or roommates aren’t crazy about devoting the shared living space to outdated technology).
A nostalgic and educational project
There are many hurdles to overcome to create a working retro PC build, from sourcing parts that still work to fixing compatibility issues and finding old drivers. You will also need a copy of the appropriate operating system for your version, probably Windows 98 or Windows XP.
If you just want to play old DOS games, consider trying DOSBox. If you’re looking for retro console gaming, a modern Xbox console with RetroArch is one of the best investments you can make right now.