whoa it’s been a while

It really has been far too long. I’ve had a couple of people send me some really kind messages, and I don’t want to disappoint y’all. There’s been a lot of, shall we say,¬†interesting things happening in my life at the moment, and a lot of it got in the way of me being able to produce articles and content in a timely manner.

The biggest hurdle was the fact that my faithful main rig finally decided to give up the ghost and return to the PC gaming gods about two months ago. While I’d love to update purely from the 486, the march of web technology rendered that all but impossible. It would have been hilarious and the novelty factor alone was tempting, but it would have been as productive as posting from my mobile phone. I also considered that option, but phone keyboards are annoying enough for text messages, let along long form articles like I enjoy writing.

As for what went wrong, the best way I can describe it is a cascading failure of all parts after someone thought it was a good idea to try and push the creaking old girl far beyond what was ever meant to be achieved with such hardware. That someone was me. I’m not going to go into details, but in an attempt to get some decent performance when running Dragon Age: Inquisition, I disrupted the fragile balance the system had been precariously stuck in for the past two years. Remember that gag from The Simpsons where Mr. Burns is told he has every single disease, all at the same time? It was basically the same as that. I had spent a fair bit of time cleaning out all the physical components, but the years had taken their toll. The power supply was already near death, and the subtle tweaks to the BIOS I made did the opposite to what was helpful. Years of precarious patching and mayguyvering all fell apart ending with a bricked video card. Here’s where it got a bit depressing.

I was running an nVidia GTX 260¬†with a factory overclock from Gigabyte. 896meg video RAM, and uses a PCI Express 2.0 slot. Motherboard only had a PCIE 2.0 video card slot, however PCIE 3.0 is backwards compatible with PCIE 2.0, so I counted my coins and went and purchased a new nVidia GTX 960 with a factory overclock, this card manufactured by Asus this time. With 4Gb of VRAM I thought I could run that until I had the cash to upgrade the rest of the rig. If there’s anything to take away from this experience is that I am not a smart man at times. With a GTX960 running in a PCIE 2.0 slot, the excess information being sent from the graphics card to the CPU managed to bottleneck the entire system – to the point where the system was unusable in anything other than basic windows usage. It was a battle that was not going to be won without a major CPU upgrade, and considering the fact that I was running an ancient motherboard that only supported DDR2 RAM and PCIE 2.0, it was best to start again from the ground up.

Only problem is that I really don’t have that much money, so I had to spend a month and a bit completely without a modern computer. I had laptops that I could borrow from family, but in terms of a gaming, I was back to the 486 and my PS3/Vita. I sorta lost a lot of momentum and motivation, and let this little project wither for far too long. However, I did manage to save up enough to get the rest of the parts for a brand new rig, and I’ve managed to finally be able to play a lot of games that I was really looking forward to playing, as well as getting others running at respectable framerates whilst looking freaking amazing.

In other news, I’m going to be starting school again, doing a course in IT so I can’t guarantee updates, but if I put together any little projects, they’ll be put up here as well. Instead of being a pure retro gaming blog, I’ll be expanding it to cover anything that I find interesting, or things that I find neat that my mates are probably tired of hearing me bang on about.

–J

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learning curves

Unique Hardware = Unique Headaches.

Earlier this week, I was banging on about how bloody rad it was to have all my nostalgia bones tickled by all those awesome graphics, digitized sound and FM music coming from the faithful little beige box. I also mentioned that there was some petty issues that were no big deal.

The petty annoyances are just that: petty, and having that little bit of extra work make the times where I get everything working like magic so much sweeter.

I’d like to point out that I’ve been eating my words for the past two days.

Curiousity Is Cruel Mistress

For the week or two after picking up the machine, I was having a blast. I spent most of my time trying to figure out what games I actually wanted to play, more than getting into any system or OS drudgery. I managed to get a few old favourites working, and even started writing up a review of One Must Fall as the next article. It was all going so well.

So what on earth happened?

I ran out of space on the hard drive. That’s it, the singular proverbial cause of two days of frustration. When I picked up the machine, I was told that there was a 2GB hard drive installed in the machine. Yet, when I checked available space in both Windows and via the dir command in DOS, the total space amounted to 504MB. This is due to the BIOS not recognising any drive over the 504MB limit as a main drive. There’s a couple of workarounds that I came across, but the easiest way I found was through using what’s called a Dynamic Drive Overlay, or DDO.

A DDO is a classic example of bootstrapping, where a small program is used to enhance the capabilities of the initial hardware. In this case, a DDO will override the motherboard’s BIOS’s hard drive controller, allowing the system to access areas of the drive past the 504MB limit. There’s a few options when it comes to DDO’s that work in this situation, but a lot of them are proprietary, and only work with certain brands of hard disk. I eventually settled on using a DDO called EZ-Drive, as it looked to have the best compatibility with the drive I was using. Normally, I’d go into detail about how to get all this running, but Phil over at philscomputerlab.com has a wonderful install guide right here. Go check out his site and his YouTube channel, some interesting stuff over there.

The Big Mistake

All this EZ-Drive and DDO stuff is neat, but in order to access the full drive, I was going to need to format the C: drive. I’ve got a full set of DOS6.22 disks, Windows 3.11 disks, and I made copies of all the drivers that were stored on the hard drive. I knew the models of the sound card, as well as the CD drive. I made sure I had all the software I needed to get everything running, and it would be a fresh install. Everything was set, and I formatted the drive and got EZ-Drive up and running. So far so awesome. Here’s where I screwed up, and it comes as a warning to anyone else working on unfamiliar hardware. I’m going to put this in bold so you know I’ve got my serious face on.

Remember to back up your driver configuration as well as the drivers.

This came back to bite me in the arse something shocking when it came time to install the sound card and CD-ROM drivers.

And Now, A History Lesson

Before I get into what the exact problem was here, a quick look back to the introduction of the CD-ROM drive. Just like any new technology, the CD-ROM was an amazing leap forward, allowing for massive amounts of data to be stored on a single disc, as compared to other removable media like the then ubiquitous floppy disk. So you can get an idea, my first computer had a 420MB hard drive. The smallest CD format can hold 650MB. You can fit more on a CD than most hard drives of the era could hold. Granted, CD burners of the time were expensive and rather unreliable, so most people couldn’t use them to write to, but it’s really damn impressive.

However, when the CD drive was introduced, there was no standard when it came to connecting a drive to the system. Eventually most drives used the IDE standard, but before that was adopted, there was a lot of different ways of connecting drives, and a lot of manufacturers used proprietary ISA controller cards with their own connectors and cables. A similar situation can be seen at the dawn of 3D acceleration, where different chipset manufacturers had vastly different APIs until 3DFX came along with the Glide API and gave a glimpse into the future. A future that 3DFX wasn’t going to see, but others took the idea of a common API for maximum compatibility and ran with it.

Transitional Hardware

Here’s where the root of all my issues came from. The CD drive in my 486 is a Sony CDU33A-01. It’s a 2 speed CD-ROM drive, and is one of Sony’s first CD drives. This specific model was designed to work with either one of their proprietary ISA cards, or with a compatible Sound Blaster card – The Sound Blaster 16 CT2260 MCD. There’s other compatible cards, but this exact Sound Blaster card is installed in my machine, and acts as a controller card for the CDU33A-01. It took a while, but I managed to track down drivers that would work with the card, as well as drivers for the CD drive. Yet even after running the sound card setup and the CD drive setup, the system still refused to recognise the CD drive.

After trawling through every readme file, and attempting to find documentation on some of the most obscure corners of the internet, it turns out the solution was a classic PEBKAC error.

PEBKAC: Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair

On the setup disk for the sound card, there was two setup files: SETUP.EXE and SETUPSB.EXE. I think you can guess what the SB stands for on the last file. That’s right, Sound Blaster. Old computers suffer no fools, and a lot of the time it’s due to something tiny like this that brings everything down.

For those interested, here’s the line in the CONFIG.SYS file that works for this drive/sound card configuration:

DEVICE=\DEV\SLCD.SYS /D:MSCD001 /B:230 /M:P /K /C

and for the AUTOEXEC.BAT:

\DEV\MSCDEX.EXE /D:MSCD001

\DEV\ is the default install address, and can be changed when you install the drivers.

Finally,

So that’s the story of the first major hurdle I’ve faced. Now I can get back to writing that One Must Fall article.

–J