A Trip Back in Time:
How to Build a '90s Retro Gaming Rig
Nostalgia trends have been growing and growing recently. The value of Pokémon cards, for example, skyrocketed recently as recent influencers like Logan Paul and Randalph of the Sidemen have gotten involved into collecting. Tamagotchi has been making a comeback and Bandai has even released modern versions of them. Old school anime like Cowboy Bebop seem to revive themselves every year and even old school Jojo’s Bizarre Adventures keep popping up in my timeline. Maybe it’s all a side effect of the Mandela effect (which may or may not have something to do with that big ole’ particle collider).
Naturally, when you follow the nostalgia train all the way back to things like Samurai X, Beetle Borgs, and Power Rangers, you can’t help but think back to old school gaming and the classics that defined modern gaming that would follow. Sure, classics like Duke Nukem, Street Fighter, Sonic the Hedgehog, Unreal Tournament don’t have the incredible graphics and immersive, hyper-stimulating graphics of modern classics like Halo and God of War. But what they lack in graphics, they make up for in powerful story, era-defining combat systems, and all-round fun.
All this being said, if you’re looking for a kick of nostalgia and have some time and extra cash to spend, then this guide is for you. We’ll take a look at how you can put together an old school rig and get back to enjoying the classics that made gaming what it is today.
1. So Why not just Emulate?
If you’ve played a classic Pokémon game on a PC before, then you’re quite familiar with the concept of emulation. In a nutshell, emulators are computer programs that are designed to mimic the experience of classic games or games that aren’t intended for the PC, like Pokémon Yellow.
Unfortunately, however, due to the advancements in operating system and hardware capabilities, a lot of the original gaming experience is lost, especially the audio experience. There’s just something special about hearing game sound played through a square wave generator on an old mother
Now, let’s start diving into the nitty-gritty of putting one of these bad boys together.
2. Let the Game Choose the CPU
As with all ventures in life, the best way to start is with a concrete idea of where you are going. It would be a shame to put together a massive '90s rig just to find out that your game of choice does not run well on it. Get started by coming up with a list of games that you are likely to play on your rig and use that as
a roadmap for building your parts.
In my case, I’d love to jump back into Diablo, Doom, Warcraft II, and Duke Nukem. So, we’ll be taking a look at MS-DOS era parts to get started.
As a computer nerd like myself, it's natural to want all of your parts to be the absolute best and fastest parts available for the time. There’s a counterintuitive twist with regards to retro games though. Due to the way the AI in many games were programmed, faster processors sometimes can mean unbeatable AI. You see, the faster your processor speed, the faster the AI can make a “decision” about how to punish your mistakes. Many games can simply be unbeatable.
Think about playing Metal Slug on the hardest difficulty, except now the AI can act faster than human reaction time. Yeah, not exactly a laid-back way to spend your Friday evenings. You’d probably end up rage breaking your monitor (and if it’s a CRT, you won’t likely get another one)! So, let’s avoid monitor-shattering rage with a wise processor choice.
In my case, the retro PC build begins with a Pentium Pro, which clocks up to 200MHz. Since I’ll be blasting heads in Doom and I don’t feel like fighting AI plugged directly into Skynet, the 200MHz processor is ideal.
If you’re looking for games that are dated around 1998, then try to get your hands on a Pentium III or Athlon, clocked at 1GHz. You’ll have plenty of processing power without the annoying ultra-powerful AI.
3. The Graphics Processing Unit
GPUs are an easier choice to make in a retro gaming rig and actually have a lot of room for shortcuts. Of course, there are a lot of old school 2D and 3D graphics adapters, but luckily for us, there’s a shortcut! By 1998, Nvidia and the other major GPU producers like 3dfx and ATI had produced adapters capable of both 2D and 3D resolution.
Of course, this is overpowering the rig a bit for a game like Doom, but it won’t come with the same annoying AI drawbacks as an overpowered processor.
For this build, I’ll be rolling with the Voodoo3 by 3dfx. This was the most popular adapter on the market at the time but there’s a catch. No 24-bit color. If you want a full spectrum of glorious '90s gaming performance, then look into the Riva TNT2 by Nvidia. You’ll get 24-bit color and a slight performance upgrade from the Voodoo3.
4. Choosing a Mother Board
Motherboards are kind of an easy choice to make once you’ve landed on a GPU and CPU. If you’re going with Intel, then your best bet is to avoid the Intel 820 and 840 like the plague. These motherboards used a “new” type of RAM called Rambus Ram. Rambus Ram was initially heralded to have higher
performance than SDRAM, but performance issues were common, and Rambus RAM would often flop under pressure.
If you’re still committed to Intel, then an 810 or 815 should be ideal.
Dell motherboards are a no-go as well, unfortunately. I know, I know. Those TV ads are popping into your head too. As awesome as it would be to pay homage to the things that once interrupted Dexter’s Laboratory, Dell motherboards from this era used a 6-pin CPU power connector, which has a unique pin configuration. Meaning, that the chances are extra slim that you find the appropriate power supply in 2021. We’re talking struck-by-lightning slim.
For this build, I’ll be rocking with an AMD K6-2 motherboard. You’ll want to ensure that whichever motherboard you choose, it's an ATX board. Otherwise, getting a case for it will be difficult or impossible.
5. Choosing the Rest of Your Parts
Now that we’ve gotten most of the core components selected, it's time to dive into power supply choice, storage space, optical drives and sound cards.
Power Supply Unit
The K6-2 motherboard is an ATX 1x board, which uses a 20-pin power connector. Lucky for us, nowadays there are still low-end Chinese power suppliers that you can find in this format. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a specific example to link to, so this is one of those parts of the blog you’ll have to search through eBay for (and there’s gonna be a whole lot of that happening anyway, trust me).
Since we’re running a K6-2 motherboard, we’ll need PC100 memory to work with it. K6-2 motherboards use Super Socket 7, and PC100 is the most compatible for it. Try to go for dual-sided modules when picking your RAM. These sticks have low-density memory and usually work better with the older chipsets.
To minimize load times (probably a good idea considering our social media-debilitated attention spans), you’ll want to burn a copy of your game onto your hard drive. With this in mind, 40GB of space should be more than enough to store the few classics you’ll be playing, with room for plenty more.
Optical Drive and Sound Card
Last on the list we have something which may as well be considered extinct to modern gamers: a CD drive and sound card. Most modern mother boards come with limited CD drive compatibility (if any) and default sound cards at best. This wouldn’t fly in the '90s.
Sound cards and CD drives were mandatory for gaming, at least until you burned the game onto your hard drive. No particular advice on the type of CD drive, just make sure you get one. Technically, you could still download an old ROM and play without the need for a likely impossible-to-find disc.
6. Finding Your Parts
Unfortunately, there’s not a ton of guidance that I can give with regards to finding specific parts. The processor, power supply unit, motherboard and RAM can usually be found on eBay. The processors will be the easiest to find, but you may have to do some digging for the remaining parts.
Searching your local thrift stores, antique stores or pawn shops might yield something. Also, as GaryVee would say, garage sales are huge. There are a surprising amount of retro machines out there just waiting to be sold off for $20. Don’t be afraid to go on a nostalgic adventure, pop in to random garage sales, and start your next retro gaming rig.