Building DOS gaming PCs

The ultimate DOS gaming PC is a topic that I’ve seen come up in forums frequently, and that I’ve been asked directly a number of times. I guess since I published advice on running DOS games on Windows PCs on two continents, people figured I knew something about that. I guess I fooled them!

The trouble is that no single PC can really be the “ultimate” DOS game machine. Well, not if your goal is to be able to optimally run everything from early 1980s titles designed for the original IBM PC up to the last DOS version of Quake. I learned that the hard way in 1995 or 1996, even before Quake existed.

I can’t remember anymore if it was 1995 or 1996. A friend of a friend had been saving up for a computer, and he finally had enough, so I came in to St. Louis from college for a weekend to help him turn that pile of cash into a computer. We spent the day Saturday buying parts, and Saturday night building it all into a working PC. And the first thing he wanted to play was a game called Tank Wars, a DOS game all our other friends used to enjoy on their 486s.

It was unplayable on his shiny new Pentium. You’d hit the key to aim, and you couldn’t. Your turret just instantly turned 180 degrees. Whether it was the higher clock speed or the internal caches or one of the other funky optimizations that generation of processors gained, the game just couldn’t handle a Pentium.

Something like that happened with every generation of PC. Some games couldn’t handle the latest and greatest, and had to be left behind. Gone, but not necessarily forgotten.

The only way to get a DOS machine that runs everything equally well is to use DOSBox and emulate, since you can specify the processor type and speed for it to aim for. Even with that approach, not everything runs perfectly, but it’s getting better all the time. But a modern computer emulating an old computer just isn’t the same for everyone.

Maybe you’re not one of them, and that’s great for you if you aren’t. You can just run DOSBox on any modern-ish PC that can handle its requirements and be happy. Just about anything made since 2003 or 2004 should do just fine.

But if something just doesn’t feel right without the quirks of a CRT screen, the sound of a particular machine’s fan and drives, and the feel of a particular keyboard–all those hard-to-describe pieces of the retro experience–then you’re going to have to build or rebuild a box. Probably more than one of them, depending on the eras you want to cover.

What eras?

That in itself is a problem. Everyone draws the lines differently. So I’ll draw some. You’ll probably disagree with me about where I drew some of them. But you should learn enough along the way to be able to decide which eras you care about, re-draw the lines to suit yourself, and be happy. That’s the most important thing.

Early

I’m going to say pre-1987 on this. It was 1987 or so that game makers started responding to the growing demand for entertainment software for IBM and compatible PCs. Prior to 1987, there wasn’t much of anything that made kids lust for an IBM, but just about every other computer out there had something that nobody else had.

The IBM PC, in its standard early 1980s configuration
An original IBM PC in its stock configuration isn’t a good game machine but a few additions can make it work.

You can go a few different directions to get something for this era. An original IBM PC or XT is always a nice choice. It was the standard, and those machines are as likely as any to hold their current value. And chances are, you can afford IBM now. Another nice choice would be something from the Tandy 1000 line. Tandy was huge in this era, so developers went out of their way to make sure their stuff ran on their machines. Plus, Tandys had enhanced graphics and sound that some games took advantage of. A Leading Edge Model D would also work, as it was an extremely popular clone of the era. In many ways it’s the original generic beige box, but it was also many people’s first experience with DOS.

You could potentially get by with a 286-based system for this era. Some software didn’t like 286s, but some was fine with it. You’ll probably know if that’s the case.

AT era

In the late 1980s, VGA graphics and sound cards hit the market, and games quickly started to take advantage of them. It didn’t happen overnight, but by 1989 or 1990, a well-equipped PC could rival the sound and graphics capabilities of an Atari ST or Amiga.

The absolute bottom-of-the-line for this era would be an IBM PC/AT with VGA or EGA graphics and an AdLib or Sound Blaster. And if you want to stick with brand names, a similarly equipped Compaq Deskpro 386 would be a nice choice. That machine is historically important, as it was the machine that wrested control of the market from IBM.

If you like clones, a 33 or 40 MHz 386DX would be a nice choice. Make sure it has a turbo button to drop the speed back down to 8 MHz for finicky titles. These machines can handle a tremendous range of software. So if you only have room to build two machines, a 386DX-40 with a turbo switch would be a very good choice for one of them. It’s fast enough to run most DOS titles even into the mid 1990s, and it’s the last processor to be able to handle self modifying code, due to its lack of internal caches.

If you get a 286 or something newer, be sure to put an IDE controller and compact flash adapter in it. Also remember the competing memory standards. Fortunately, if you have a 386, a 386 is more than fast enough to emulate EMS if your software needs EMS instead of XMS.

486 era

What happened to Packard Bell
I don’t recommend a Packard Bell, but one of its contemporaries from a company that’s still in business would be just fine for a 486- or Pentium-era machine.

This was the generation that eliminated all of the other competition aside from the Macintosh. High-resolution, high-color graphics on a local bus and local bus disk controllers did as much to improve overall performance as the blistering new processor speeds did, and multimedia equipment like CD-ROM drives became standard. Sound cards got a lot fancier. Speeds ranged from 20 MHz at the low end to (unofficially) 160 MHz at the top end. Put in a nice sound card and a good, fast video card, and you’ll be able to run a good variety of titles. Go for a Sound Blaster if at all possible, for maximum compatibility. Popular speeds include 66, 100, and 133 MHz.

Build your own for flexibility, or get your favorite brand name.

Pentium era

At this point, we’re getting into Windows 95 territory, but DOS wasn’t completely dead yet. If you want to play first-person shooter games, you’ll need one of these. Your best bet probably is something with an Intel Pentium MMX running at 233 MHz. Add an appropriate 3D-capable video card, probably something 3dfx-based, and a good, fast 2D card, and a Soundblaster card. Early PCI Soundblasters worked OK in DOS, for what it’s worth, but a late-model ISA card might be more compatible. With all that, you can have a very fast DOS machine.

Once again, you can build your own here for flexibility, or get a reputable brand name. One rule of thumb is to buy one made by a company still in business today. But there are a number of good 90s computer brands whose companies have left the market. Micron comes to mind. But my 90s roundup will help you determine a reputable brand to go with.

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