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The Oldskool PC Guide to
Getting Old Software Running on Newer PCs

Copyright 1998-2000 Jim Leonard and The Oldskool PC, All Rights Reserved.


A scenario: It's been fifteen years since you played games on your faithful PC, your face lit only by the glow of the screen as you blasted aliens into dust, or marched your troops into France, or explored that dungeon far beneath the earth... Well, you decide to visit your parents 15 years later to help with some basement chores, and look: Your faithful old games! You rush home to your Pentium and decide to give them a try, only to realize you don't have a 5.25" drive. You luck out and find one at a garage sale and install it, then try to run those games--but the games you loved so much 15 years ago don't run! They start up and... hang. Or crash. Or run way too fast. Or the display is all messed up.

They don't work. You're crushed.

It doesn't have to be this way. You can get old games working on your new hardware and experience that oldskool nostalgia! Doing so involves some spelunking, though: You first have to determine why they don't work, which can be tricky if they don't give you useful feedback; you then have to change the software's environment to fit the software. This Guide will attempt to explain all aspects of this process.

Note: 99% of old software that doesn't run on newer machines is games. So before you wonder why I don't talk about applications like Visicalc in this Guide, that's why. Also, this Guide assumes an intermediate to advanced level of PC knowledge. You can still get some use out of this document if you're a novice, but don't email me asking for clarification of little niggly stuff, like why you need a lot of DOS RAM free when you have 64MB of RAM in your machine, etc. If you're of the novice side of things, I suggest you run Windows 95/98 and jump straight to the Windows 95/98 appendix of this guide, which specifically addresses your situation.

Why does old PC software fail to run on newer PCs?

Good question. Understanding why old games don't run on new hardware involves some role-playing (pun intended). Specifically, you need to put yourself in the time period that the game was written. Let's pretend the year is 1983: the IBM PC has been out for almost two years now, and you're a game developer currently writing a game. Your development platform is:

As far as you can tell, this is how things are going to be for a while. There are no clones or PCs faster than 4.77MHz, there are no immediate plans for faster PCs from IBM, and everybody has at least one floppy drive and CGA. So, as a game developer in this time period, here's what you do:

Are you beginning to see the problems here? The game developer of 1983 made design choices that made perfect sense at the time, but cause serious problems for the modern PC: That 5.25" floppy doesn't fit into a 3.5" drive. Even if it fit, the bootable proprietary operating system he created to gain extra speed isn't DOS-compatible, so you can't read the disk. Even if you could read the disk, the video tricks he used only work on CGA and corrupt your modern VGA display. Even if the display wasn't corrupted, the timing loops he used that worked perfectly on a 4.77MHz PC are way too short for a 200MHz Pentium, which results in a game that plays way too fast. And I haven't even mentioned the copy-protection hardware timing issues yet! How in hell are we going to get this game to work?!?

Before you tear all your hair out, let me tell you that it is possible to get over 80% of those old games working on most modern hardware through one or more tricks. And by "old games", I'm talking about games made in or before 1992--game developers after that period had pretty much ironed out the forward-compatibility problems.

Don't despair! There is light at the end of the oldskool tunnel!

What can I do to get them working again?

I'm sure you're dying to find out what you can do, so here's a quick overview of the tricks this document will cover:

Before I let loose with the advice, I'd like to offer the easiest solution of all: Get your hands on one of those old machines. It runs all those old games perfectly ;-) and completely eliminates the need to make your machine jump through hoops. It also costs much less than you think: A quick search of ebay on March 21st, 1998 shows a loaded 386/25 for a minimum bid of $22, an oldskool special of both an 8088 and a 286 for a minimum bid of $15, and a PS/2 model 25 (286 with embedded color monitor) for a minimum bid of five bucks! For the oldskool elite, there's a Tandy 1000 with monitor for $30. If you don't feel comfortable bidding on stuff over the Internet, you can wander down to your local Computer Renaissance or CyberExchange and see what they have available. And there's nothing like flea markets and garage sales for those wacko bargains.

While getting an old machine isn't for everyone, it sure can be fun. I personally own a Tandy 1000 HD (4.77MHz 8088 with special graphics and sound) and an AT&T; 6286 WGS (a solid and capable 12MHz 286) for the express purpose of running my old software, and it's great oldskool nostalgic fun.

But enough about me! This document isn't for me, it's for you, the hapless old game player just trying to have a little fun. Ready to temporarily hobble and cripple your machine? Yep, me too!

  1. Introduction
  2. Cripple Your PC
  3. Tweaking
  4. Floppy Drive Problems
  5. Sound
  6. Video
  7. Emulation
  8. Oldskool-Friendly Boxes
  9. Conclusion
  10. Resources
  11. Appendix A: Windows 9x Options

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