More Adventures with Twenty-Year-Old Operating Systems

Sometimes, you really have to regard retrogaming as a journey-not-the-destination thing. I don’t for a minute believe that the experience of finally playing Galaga: Destination Earth will justify the effort I’ve been putting into it. The only experience that can justify that effort is the experience of the effort itself.

When last we left off, I had more or less given up on running this game on my usual gaming machine, even in emulation. So this weekend, I dug some older hardware out of the closet. First up was my previous rig, in an ingeniously-designed compact case made by Shuttle. It turned out to be completely intact — the last time I upgraded, I upgraded everything. Once I hooked it up to a monitor and keyboard, it booted into Windows XP without problems — it grumbled about the CMOS, due to the battery being run down, but automatically figured out what hardware it had anyway. G:DE made no claim that it would work on XP, but I figured it was worth a try anyway, because at least it was a 32-bit OS and I had vague memories of its compatibility mode being more reliable. Well, no dice. It had exactly the same problems as under Windows 10. I contemplated downgrading the system to Windows 98, but gave up when it failed to recognize my Win98 install CD as bootable. Just as well. I can imagine a working XP machine being useful someday.

Going back another generation took a little more work. My pre-Shuttle mid-sized tower case was missing a graphics card — presumably because I had transplanted it into the Shuttle box when I first got it. But I found a suitable disused one in a box of loose cards. It’s very likely the one I had removed from this machine in the first place. Strange how upgrading graphics cards used to be such a routine part of gamer life, but at this point I haven’t bothered in years. Getting it in was a little awkward, due to the case coming from an era before people got case design really figured out. Oh, it was fairly innovative for its day — the motherboard is mounted on a section that slides out for easier access. But “easier” is relative, and the devices innards are almost inevitably an intestinal tangle of cables, just because that’s how things were back then.

Once it was up and booting, the machine reminded me that it no longer considered its copy of Window XP to be valid and would not me log in. Which is fine, I suppose, seeing how I really intended to install Windows 98 anyway. But, as with the Shuttle box, it wouldn’t boot from the Win98 install CD. Was it even bootable at all? Perhaps not; apparently some Win98 install CDs are, and some aren’t. When I had been trying to get Windows 98 running under emulation, I downloaded a Win98 install CD that I know to be bootable, because I booted it in the emulator, but burning it to a disc failed to produce a bootable CD. Apparently Microsoft disabled the ability to burn bootable CDs back in Windows 7, probably to make it harder to pirate Windows.

But there was always an alternative to booting from the CD: booting from a floppy disk.

This machine actually still had a 3.5-inch floppy drive mounted in it, albeit not connected. After I connected it, I found that the machine seemed no longer capable of getting through its startup sequence. It would get to the point of displaying “Press DEL to configure, TAB to continue with POST”, but no keypresses would get it to do anything more. I almost called it quits right there, but after taking a break, I realized that the only plausible explanation for this change in behavior was that I had wiggled or jostled something in the case while plugging in the floppy cable. Giving all socketed items a thorough additional wiggle solved the problem.

I’m a little surprised that my collection of floppies have survived as well as they have, considering how long it’s been since I’ve used them. Every bootable disk I’ve tried has booted successfully, including the Windows 98 Startup disk. But this leads to an immediate additional roadblock. Every bootable floppy I own boots to some kind of command line or prompt that requires keyboard input to do anything. And, although the BIOS knows how to get input from a USB keyboard, these programs do not. I have a USB-to-PS/2 adapter. I have several, in fact. But it turns out that these adapters only work on USB keyboards that know how to use them. I’m fairly sure I had a PS/2 keyboard around not so many years ago, but got rid of it because it was taking up space and collecting dust and didn’t fit into a neat little box the way those graphics cards did. The lesson here is clearly to never throw away anything.

And there, for now, I stand. My options going forward include figuring out how to burn a bootable Windows 98 install CD and hoping that it’ll recognize the keyboard once it’s into the install process, or gaining access to a PS/2 keyboard for long enough to do the install. My options do not include, obviously, giving up.

2 Comments so far

  1. malkav11 on 18 Jun 2018

    Were you using Windows’ internal CD burning functionality? I don’t recall ever having an issue burning a bootable CD but I’ve never used the OS itself to do so. I’ve barely even opened my optical drive on my main PC in years, let alone bothered to burn a disc with it, but when I was still doing that regularly I used a free piece of software called ImgBurn which I believe is still around and free. I’d probably recommend that.

    It still might not get you where you need to go, but it seems like a better first step than procuring an ancient keyboard. :)

  2. Carl Muckenhoupt on 18 Jun 2018

    Yeah, I was using the built-in “burn to CD” functionality in Windows 10. I was figuring I’d try Nero next, and, if that failed, temporarily moving the optical drive with CD-burning functionality over to the XP machine.

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