Computers and computer technology are constantly changing. The PC’s we use today have been around in one form or another since the start of the 1980’s. It’s actually pretty surprising to consider that, in all this time, so many old PC games still run on modern computers. On this page we’re going to take a look at the different eras of PC gaming and how they affect your ability to run older games on modern systems. This will not be an exhaustive trip down memory lane, more a quick summary so that when it comes to running your old game, you’ll know what challenges you might face!
The early years – MS DOS, pre 3D games, beeping speakers (the 1980’s)
Games for the PC have been coming out since the early 80’s. Back in the 1980’s the PC wasn’t usually the first choice for playing games. IBM PC’s, as they were then known, were optimised for business applications. With the limited amount of computing resources available at the time, that meant sound was limited to simple beeps and graphics took a back seat to text only displays. Early colour displays were limited to a few shades only. Of course, this didn’t stop people developing and playing games. Some very early PC games will actually still run on modern Windows PC’s without any modifications! (assuming of course you can find a suitable floppy drive to load the game in the first place). In most cases however, the best option is to use DOSBox. DOSBox is an emulator that simulates an older PC on a newer one, giving old games access to game controllers and other features that would have been impossible on the original hardware. There aren’t many very early PC games documented on this site, though there are titles that are still fun and of course many have historical or nostalgic interest for many people.
The PC revolution years – MS DOS (still) early pseudo 3D games, sound cards (early to mid 90’s)
In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s PC gaming started to change. Business and productivity software had moved away from the text only interfaces of the past, and the fledging Microsoft Windows and its various competitors demanded faster and better graphics in order to run smoothly. With the introduction of the VGA card, PC games began to change from being a mere lunch break distraction to cutting edge entertainment and the envy of games console owners. Titles like Wolfenstien 3D were revolutionary for their time, and then there was the introduction of Doom in 1993, that changed the perception of PC gaming forever.
It was a time of competing standards and incompatible hardware, with dozens of different sound cards and graphics cards each needing their own special drivers and specific software support. Fortunately for us, DOSBox takes care of much of the confusion allowing for all those old incompatible standards to work nicely on our new PC.
Again, most games from this era should be run in DOSBox. There are a number of exceptions however. For the most fondly remembered titles, fan communities or sometimes the original developers have created new, updated versions of the games that take advantage of modern hardware. Doom is a good example of this. So enduring is the popularity of that game, that there are now dozens of updated Doom versions that use the original data from the 1993 game but include all kinds of enhancements and improvements.
The rise of Windows and the fall of DOS. 3DFX, Glide and DirectX (mid to late 90’s and early 2000’s)
PC games continued to get better and more demanding. In the mid 1990’s, a company called 3DFX introduced the Voodoo cards. These cards were one of the earliest examples of a commercially successful graphics accelerator card. Up until this point, the computers central processor had handled all the work. Now, with a dedicated graphics processing unit, games could become faster, smoother and even more visually stunning. The cards used a system called “Glide” which is not compatible with DirectX or OpenGL, the two systems in use for 3D graphics today.
At this time, DOS was still used on almost all PC’s in the market. Microsoft Windows was gaining momentum, but until XP arrived on the scene in 2001, it was still possible to “exit” Windows and return to DOS. Some game manufacturers took advantage of this, removing Windows saved precious computing resources after all. This means that there are some 3DFX games that need to be run in DOSBox. To get them working you will need to follow specific instructions. Since Glide isn’t compatible with modern 3D graphics cards, Windows based 3DFX games will also require special software in order to run them. This software is called a “Glide wrapper”.
Not all software from this era utilised 3DFX cards, of course. In 1995 Microsoft released their first version of the now ubiquitous DirectX API. DirectX was only available in Windows and many DirectX games from this era will still run on modern PC’s. There were even a handful of other competing standards, such as the Nvidia NV1, though these niche cards did not enjoy extensive software support and virtually all the games released for them were also released with support for other, more popular cards.
3DFX fell on hard times around the turn of the millennium and went into bankruptcy in 2002, ending the era of 3DFX and Glide for good. In 2001, Windows XP was launched. This was the first version of Windows for home users that didn’t run on top of DOS. After some initial resistance, XP soon gained traction as the best operating system for games, ending the DOS era.
The Windows and DirectX/OpenGL XP era, EAX audio (2001 to 2006)
PC games released in this era supported either DirectX or OpenGL and these standards are now commonplace. Many games utilized a standard for audio called EAX or DirectSound 3D. This was used to give the games full surround sound support. Unfortunately with the release of Windows Vista, Microsoft changed the way that sound worked in the OS, so if you have a surround sound system and an older game, you may need to take extra steps to get surround sound working on your legacy title.
Vista and Windows 7, amazing PC’s, cutting edge gaming (2006 to present day)
2006 saw the release of Windows Vista, initially shunned due to problems with sound and slower gaming performance, Vista is considered by many to be a flop. However, Windows 7 built on much of what was new in Windows Vista and now most cutting-edge PC gaming machines run Windows 7. Modern gaming PC’s are the most powerful games systems in the world, going way beyond what can be done on a games console and still providing access to a huge back catalogue of software.