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DOS Adventures

Last night I began my latest “gee, that sounds like fun” project: Slap together a DOS gaming box and get it loaded up with every classic game from my past, from Wolfenstein to Doom, Duke3D to System Shock, Quarantine to Heretic. The underlying reason for my doing this is so that I can play Wolfenstein again, and perhaps even start making some maps again. If all else goes well, I may even plop a fresh copy of the Wolf source back on there, load up Borland C++ 3.1 and go to town. Am I crazy? We shall see.

First, though, I had to get the hardware ready, so that’s what I spent last night doing. I thought it was going to suck, having to switch between two computers without a KVM, but I’ve got a system down that’s not too bad. My monitor has two inputs and I can switch between them with the push of a button, so that’s all taken care of. I keep two keyboards and two mice hooked up—the keyboard for the DOS box sits on top of the CPU, which is under my desk, and the mouse is hidden under the edge of my monitor so I can slide it out front when I need it. I also hooked up a 1/8” stereo minijack extension cable to the speaker output of the DOS box and routed it up to my desk, so I can plug my headphones into it when I want to switch the audio source.

My DOS box is a Dell Pentium-II 300 which was originally assembled in November of 1997. It’s an LX motherboard, meaning that a PII-300 is as good as you could get (the switch to the venerable BX chipset happened just a month or so after I bought the machine, of course). To that I’ve added the following hardware:

  • 128 MB PC-66 SDRAM
  • GeForce3 64 MB video card
  • Sound Blaster AWE64 (classic ISA)
  • Adaptec 2940 SCSI controller from an old Gateway P5 server tower
  • Seagate Hawk 2 GB SCSI hard disk (the boot drive)
  • IBM Deskstar 8.4 GB hard disk (the games drive)
  • Lite-On 48x CD-ROM
  • Epson SD-800 dual floppy drive (5.25” and 3.5”)
  • A generic 10bT network card, connected to my router

It’s pretty much the ultimate retro gaming machine—more than enough of everything for all those old games, but still old enough hardware to be 100% compatible with all my old stuff. For the most part, I think. I haven’t had too much time to play with it yet, but I believe that GeForce3 might just be too much for the system (more on that later). If I start having problems with old VESA games, I might just have to swap back in the old STB Velocity 4400 and Voodoo2 combo that was in there before. I would prefer the GF3, however, because I do run Windows98 on this box and I’d like to install some OpenGL Doom engine ports which require some beefy 3D hardware to run well. (Yeah, I could run that crap on my main machine instead, but why?)

Last night I was hoping I’d get the hardware setup out of the way quickly so I could play some Wolfy. Didn’t happen. I already had an old Quantum Fireball 1 GB hard drive (November 1995 vintage) in there that was full of Wolfenstein games, but after sitting up for a while, the old bugger had failed. No great loss, since 1 GB is next to nothing. Plus, I had a newer IBM 8.4 GB drive that used to be in my wife’s computer, but since I bought her a new 80 GB monster, the old drive was no longer needed. Ironically, that 8.4 was the original boot drive from that old Dell, so back into the Dell it went. Not as the boot drive—I still wanted the SCSI disk for that—but as the storage drive, segmented into four 2.1 GB FAT16 partitions.

Wow, I guess being so many years removed from DOS had left me a bit rusty. I installed all the hardware and booted the old machine up, and discovered I wasn’t getting access to the old 8.4 HD. So I ran PartitionMagic. Duh—FAT32 doesn’t work in DOS 6.22, idiot. Reformat. I set up those four FAT16 partitions, which sucks, but FAT16 has a 2.1 GB partition size limit so I was stuck with it. Formatted them all and rebooted.

Still no access. Thought maybe I had to specify a LASTDRIVE in CONFIG.SYS. Nope, didn’t help. So I tried FDISK. FDISK was reading those FAT16 partitions as “Non-DOS disks.” WTF! Grumbling, I blew away all of the partitions and recreated them with FDISK. Rebooted. Okay, now I just format them all and I’ll be good to go.

STILL no access. Stupid fraggin’ crap. I can’t format the new partitions either, because I get “Invalid Media Type” every time I try. FDISK shows the new logical drives as “System: UNKNOWN”, probably because they’re unformatted, but why won’t it let me format them? Got this crazy idea in my head that I should reboot with a Windows 98 boot floppy, so I did that. Now the format command from the Windows 98 version of DOS was working—I was able to format the partitions! I don’t quite understand it, but all that matters is that when I rebooted back to DOS 6.22, I had access to all of my nice, clean partitions at long last. Ready to start installing the goods!

I divided up all the partitions as follows:

Disk 1
D: 2.1 GB - Wolfenstein and Wolf-engine games
E: 2.1 GB - Duke, Doom and Doom-engine games
F: 2.1 GB - Other games (System Shock, ROTT, etc.)
G: 1.8 GB - Miscellaneous

By now it was 11:30, so I knew I wasn’t going to be accomplishing much else. I decided to test the limits of the rig’s “classic compatibility” by installing one of the most notoriously buggy and picky Wolf-engine games of 1994: the late Capstone Software’s Corridor 7, CD-ROM version. Even when it was new, I had more problems with C7CD than I had with probably any other game in history. I even returned the first copy I bought since I thought it was defective, but it turns out the game was just coded like shit. Anyway, it can be fun when it works, so I thought I’d try it.

Installed the game to the D: drive and fired it up. WHAM. Blank screen. Goody good-good! That’s just what I was hoping to see…not. No error messages, no crashes, no funky sounds, no random reboot…just a blank screen. Sigh.

Here’s where I begin to suspect my GeForce3. It may be too new for this old stuff. If it doesn’t have the same kind of DOS / VESA compatibility that my old applications will be expecting, I’ll have to dump it and go back to the older, crummier video card I’ve got. Actually, I’ve got a bit of a different plan. My wife has a Voodoo3 3000 in her computer, so I’m thinking of giving her the GeForce3 and putting the Voodoo3 in my gaming box. The Voodoo3, after all, was the last video card I actually had in that Dell, so it would be right at home. The Dell does have an AGP slot, although it’s a first generation AGP 1x, so I don’t want to deal with the old PCI video card crap I’ve got in my closet. I also do want to be able to run Windows it a respectable resolution and at True Color. I hate 16-bit color, and being stuck in 1024×768 on a 22” monitor is PURE HELL. You have to sit about ten feet away from the desk or your head explodes.

So when I get home tonight, that’s probably what I’m gonna do: Swap the GeForce3 for the Voodoo3. Once I get that done, I’ll try C7 again. I’m sorta using C7 as the benchmark for determining whether I’ve got my hardware configuration right. C7 always required such a precise set of circumstances to run correctly, if I can get it to fire up, I’ll know I’ve got a good thing on my hands. I know it’s not a memory issue, since I’ve got 612 KB of conventional RAM free, and that’s with a mouse driver, sound drivers and the bulky MSCDEX CD-ROM driver, too.

Once I get C7 right, all my other DOS games are going on there, starting with Wolfenstein. That in itself is gonna take some time, but it’ll be cool when it’s all finished. And maybe this weekend I’ll actually have time to play around with some classic games! Woohoo!