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Building a Retro Linux Gaming Computer - Part 1: Dumpster Diving

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Before I begin, I feel I should state that this project is just a bit of fun. The goal is not to build the most powerful retro gaming computer I can, or to engage in any kind of serious analysis or benchmarking. All I want to do is play around with old hardware and software, explore what could be done with Linux back in the day, and maybe learn a thing or two about how far we have come along the way.

Older computing hardware is getting harder and harder to find. What would have been given away just five or ten years ago can now often only be found on websites such as eBay for inflated prices and heavy shipping costs, at least for Canadian buyers like myself. So when I noticed an interesting looking beige box ready to be recycled at my local dump, I did not hesitate to rescue it in order to see what was inside.

Being a dumpster dive, the computer came with no guarantees. The case was a touch filthy from its time in the trash and showed some cosmetic damage, but overall was in good shape outside of the expected yellowing of the plastic. The power supply passed all of its tests, and the computer did power on, albeit with an error code being produced by the PC speaker, a nice looking dynamic cone. There was life in the machine yet.

A number of hints suggested at the computer’s age. The motherboard featured three ISA and four PCI expansion slots along with a single AGP slot, placing its manufacture pretty firmly in the late 1990s. More telling was the configuration of the CPU. Rather than the traditional socket interface seen in most computers, this motherboard boasted a Pentium III 500 Katmai using a Slot 1 connector, an unusual design that narrowed the year down further to 1999 at the earliest.

Researching the error code indicated that the most likely culprit was bad graphics. With a number of older AGP cards on hand to work with, the graphics card was replaced, and after some trial and error the computer achieved a display. The BIOS confirmed that the single stick of 64 MB PC100 memory was detected, and from there started booting Windows 98 from the Fujitsu MPE31022AT 10.25 GB hard drive. The computer seemed to be back in working order.

 

Some small problems remained. The CMOS battery needed to be replaced, and the CPU fan was no longer reliable. This presented a new challenge; being a Slot 1 motherboard there is no proper means of installing a typical CPU fan. Instead, chips that used the SECC2 form factor had cooling mounted directly as part of the cartridge. Due to their novelty SECC2 fans are getting hard to come by, as even most older motherboards use conventional sockets.

Thankfully the front of the cartridge could be removed leaving the heat sink exposed, allowing for the use of a couple of long cable ties to crudely mount a modern case fan in place. An inelegant solution, but one befitting a dumpster computer. In that same spirit I christened the name of the machine: Dianoga, after the creature that attacked Luke Skywalker in the trash compactor of the Death Star in the original Star Wars.

Both the Creative 52X MX CD5233E CD-ROM and included 3.5 inch floppy drive seemed to work, although the CD tray has difficulty ejecting, meaning I have to frequently use a paper clip to trigger the manual eject hole. From there I got my hands on two more sticks of 64 MB PC100 RAM to to fill all three of the motherboard’s memory slots, and my brother gifted me one of his classic Creative Sound Blaster 16 sound cards to make use of an ISA slot.

Originally I wanted to use a Samsung SyncMaster 550s 15” CRT monitor I had in storage, but upon powering it on it became clear that the screen was not long for this world. The glass was marred with scratches and there also seemed to be arcing inside the case when powered on. While I do have some other larger CRT monitors I could try, for now I have opted to use an IBM branded LEN L151p LCD which does well with smaller 4:3 screen resolutions.

I decided I would do a fresh install of Windows 98 Second Edition on the original Fujitsu drive, and instead install Red Hat Linux 9 on a separate Hitachi DK23BA-60 6.01GB PATA drive from an old Dell laptop through the use of a converter; the hope being to play most of the games released by Loki Software, from the first true golden age of Linux gaming. With all the other hardware in place, the only decision I had left was choosing a graphics card.

Carrying on in Part 2: Selecting a Graphics Card

Article taken from GamingOnLinux.com.
Tags: Hardware, Retro
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About the author -
author picture
Hamish Paul Wilson is a free software developer, game critic, amateur writer, and farm labourer living in rural Alberta, Canada. He is an advocate of both DRM free Linux gaming and the free software movement alongside his other causes, and more information on him can be found at his icculus.org homepage where he lists everything he is currently involved in: http://icculus.org/~hamish
See more from me
22 comments
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This is wonderful, Hamish. Looking forward to seeing the continuation of your adventures, and I'm always happy to see the era when we likely got the highest percentage of mainstream game releases on Linux highlighted!
scratchi 2 Mar
I have a system, fully functional, with one of these PIII slot CPUs. The stock cooler was still working back when I ran it as a Gentoo router/vpn some 12 years ago...hasn't been powered on since. Has SCSI adapter and 10GB SCSI HDD. Can't remember which GPU it has, if any. Let me know if you need parts. I'm in Toronto, so if you're from this part of Canada, I can drive it over to you...cuz I'm definitely not gonna power it up for another 12 years but just don't want to trash a fully functional PC no matter how useless :)
Quoting: scratchiBack in those days was when I just got introduced to Linux and Mandrake 8.2 was my first distro.

Mandrake "Bluebird" - my very first distro, too!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandriva_Linux
omer666 2 Mar
Used to have a Pentium III just like this one with a Matrox G200 GPU I bought at some yard sale for 5 bucks plugged in it.
I could play games like Quake or Myth on LAN with my PowerMac when a friend came over. It's the computer that used to run SuSE back when I discovered Linux.
beko 2 Mar
Whaddya say… the Loki games still work to date

I still have Railroad Tycoon II and Call To Power installed :)
Pcsx2 powervr card. Now that was a card to blow you away at the time. Still hoping someone makes a wrapper for powervr much like nglide or dgvoodoo2 for 3dfx
ysblokje 2 Mar
Quoting: BladeforcePcsx2 powervr card. Now that was a card to blow you away at the time. Still hoping someone makes a wrapper for powervr much like nglide or dgvoodoo2 for 3dfx

Want to be blown away? Here's one for you.

Last week I finally got around to getting my GUS MAX from storage to test if it still works. Partially out of nostalgia partially to start getting rid of old hw I will never use again. Anyway I was just thinking about the time I still used it on linux in the 90s and how I used to brag about it. I loved the fact that the OSS drivers in those days supported my obviously superior audiocard when on MS-Windows >= 95 there were no drivers to be found that actually worked properly.

What was I talking about, again? Oh right blowing away! So, while thinking about all of this I turned on the machine I had managed to piece together and started everything up. After that everything becomes a bit hazy as my eardrums were eject from my head because of the very LOUD pop.
I now know why I stopped using that card ;) (it nearly broke my amp in the 90s). Bystanders send me messages that it actually works fine.

Anyway nice article Hamish, be careful with the audio! I am glad I wasn't using active speakers that day.


Last edited by ysblokje on 2 March 2021 at 12:06 pm UTC
Bogomips 2 Mar
You need to put a 3dfx Voodoo card in that setup.

But I'm not sure if it is a retro build or just an old build. To me retro is more the era before the Pentium.

I still have around 286, 386, 486 DX2/66, Pentium II and Pentium III machines. But I ditched all the CRT monitors.
Nanobang 2 Mar
That looks alot like our old Micron PC, Hamish. Of course, everything looked like our old Micron back then: big beige and boxy. It came from Micron with Windows ME installed from the factory. It was around $2,000. It's still tucked away behind the couch, waiting for the fembot uprising.

My first Linux box was a Dell Inspiron running Win '98 from the same era, gifted to me by a co-worker when her son went off to Military school. Back in the early aughts I could still get old computers for free from the recycling center, and that Dell became a Frankenstein of experimentation and distros. Eventually I settled on AntiX with a Fluxbox desktop. I still have a picture:

link


Last edited by Nanobang on 2 March 2021 at 1:02 pm UTC
nitroflow 3 Mar
Quoting: scratchi
Quoting: scaineBack when this PC came out, my only experience of Linux was playing about with LiveCDs, such as Mandriva.

Was it Mandriva back then? Back in those days was when I just got introduced to Linux and Mandrake 8.2 was my first distro. And after some time, Mandrake merged with someone to form Mandriva I think...before they became Mageia or whatever...yea man, definitely been a long time :)

That someone was Conectiva, a now defunct Brazilian distro.

Continuing this trend, the distro that collaborated with Mandriva to design it's heavily custom KDE desktop is ROSA which seems to be going the same direction as Mandriva because, while they keep the old distribution up to date, some parts of it's codebase that were released in 2016 start to show their age and the new rebase that should have been released in 2019 is still being worked on.
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