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Personal Computer Retro Gaming Guide

In the retro gaming world most of the intention usually falls on retro console gaming. Everybody wants to play old Sega, Nintendo, and Atari games, but the humble personal computer has one of the widest and best gaming catalogs of any system.

The main problem is that the further back you go in PC gaming history, the less user friendly the systems become. Gaming on early computers was often an exercise in technical troubleshooting. Compare this to having a NES or a Genesis, where you simply plug in a cartridge and are playing within seconds.

Today computers are much more user-friendly and playing video games on a computer is no more complicated than doing it on a console.

If you are a retro PC gamer though, things get a little more complicated; in this short guide I’m going to explain why and how you can get your retro PC gaming on.

Original Recipe

Unlike gaming consoles, most computers since the first Intel-based microprocessors came to market have used the same basic technology and remain backwards compatible. Believe it or not, your brand new multi-core Intel CPU can run the same code the first Intel 8086 CPU did in 1978.

In practice you’ll find that software meant for PC written in the 80s and even 90s has multiple issues with running on modern computer hardware and modern operating systems such as the latest Windows.

The fact is that at a certain point it is no longer worth carrying along all the baggage that comes with guaranteed backwards compatibility, so some things have changed over the years, meaning older software would need an update to run without help on a modern PC.

One solution to this problem is simply running the software on the PC it was meant for or a PC that is still backwards compatible with it.

Sites like eBay are rife with old computers that are being sold for very cheap. Of course, this brings a ton of headaches and, honestly, I don’t recommend it. Still, if you are really bent on authenticity this is basically the only way to achieve it.

One big problem, however, is that working magnetic media such as floppy drives are very difficult to find. You can, however, buy a USB floppy emulator drive. It plugs into the old computer like a normal floppy drive, but you plug a USB flash drive into it with floppy images. The old computer is none the wiser and you don’t have to worry about crumbling old magnetic media. Where do you find the floppy images? All I can say is that Google is your friend.

Part of the Solution

There is a much easier way, though, and that is to use emulation. Modern computers are so powerful that they can simulate an entire old computer within their memory and processing capacity. It’s not entirely emulation either, since the host computer shares a lot of technology with the simulated ones. It’s closer to using a virtual machine, but we don’t have the space here to go into technical details.

One of the most popular emulators for older games is DosBox. DosBox can run most games from the early days of PC gaming flawlessly and you can actually buy these games from stores, such as GOG.com (Good Old Games), with DosBox pre-configured and ready to go.

Thanks to virtual machines and emulation, retro PC gaming is by far the easiest type of retro gaming to get into and it has only become easier as the years have gone by. For most people, I would recommend starting here.

Something Different

What about playing retro games on your PC that were never meant for PC in the first place? That’s also something that’s completely possible. There are many emulators for almost every system you can think of: NES, SNES, Genesis, Dreamcast, and so on.

How compatible they are with games and how well they work even when they are compatible is another issue entirely. Reverse-engineered emulation for console games on a computer will never give you the right experience, but some of them get pretty darn close.

The other thing you might want to do if you try emulating console games on your PC is to buy a retro controller for PC that looks like a NES or Genesis controller. That way the experience will be closer. This is especially true of consoles with wacky controls like the N64. Check out my reviews of retro PC controllers here(LINK).

The PC Police

I have to say something about the legality of all of this. I’m no lawyer, but I am aware that a lot of the emulation business is in a legally grey area. When it comes to console emulation in some parts of the world it may be OK if you also own the original ROM cartridge. In other parts of the world it is illegal regardless.

If you look at old PC games there are many that no longer have active owners, so even if you wanted to buy it legally, you couldn’t. These games are still under copyright, but there is no one left to defend it. This is known a “abandonware” and is a contentious issue. The safest way to play it is to stick with something like GOG.com where you can legally buy classic games, and they are adding more as time goes by!

To Boldly Go

Retro gaming on a PC is awesome, but it does take more effort than the alternatives. If you are willing to learn and go to the required effort, you will find that it can be extremely rewarding. I think every person who wants to be a retro gamer should give PC retro games a try at least once.