PCem: Authentic Legacy PC Emulation
Image Source: https://pcem-emulator.co.uk/
If you are anything like me, your Steam game library is probably full of games that are of legal drinking age in the U.S, and as some of you may know, when it comes to playing retro games on newer operating systems, we aren’t always blessed by the God of proper ports; Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of classics available on Steam that have been given the proper treatment, but you will also find many games with bad reviews that will have you jumping hoops to get them working properly. For some, there is a better answer: just install and play them on an older machine!
The problem is that we are in 2021, and not very many of us own an old PC that can run Windows 95 and Windows 98, not to mention that those Operating systems have not been supported by Microsoft since George Bush Jr. was in office! One day, I do plan on obtaining all the proper parts and constructing a retro gaming PC from scratch, but that can be a massive undertaking with regards to both time and money, luckily, there is amazingly powerful software that can emulate the Legacy PC in its entirety!
Many of you may think of the immensely popular Oracle VM Virtual Box, and in fact, that was what I originally had in mind; I figure, since I am emulating Linux mint with it, I may as well use it to emulate Windows 95/98SE, but it turns out there is something even better suited to Legacy PC emulation, especially if you are looking to properly emulate the hardware of that era: it is called PCem and it is one of the go-to emulators for retro gamers who are looking to game on Windows 98:Second Edition for the sake of authenticity and nostalgia!
The Windows 98 logo always did the OS justice, it truly was a heavenly Operating System, and that is not just nostalgia talking. Windows 95 and 98 may have been the operating systems that were around when I started messing with PC’s at the age of 10, but Windows 98 also happened to be the preferred operating system for gaming well into the 2000’s and this WordPress Article (which also doubles as a tutorial for using Win98 with OracleVM, should you be interested) explains perfectly why Windows98 was so beloved :
- relative ease of installation;
- generally runs earlier Windows and DOS games and applications without compatibility issues;
- was well supported by game developers into the 2000s;
- less irritable for power users compared to Windows ME (e.g. Windows ME brought further restrictions to DOS);
- people who only experienced PCs with Windows XP or later, generally can use with a minimal learning curve, who desire to run older games.
Alright, so enough about Windows 98…what about PCem? Well PCem is the way to go if you are in need of 3d acceleration and use of Direct X and do not have an older computer just laying around. Whereas Oracle VM may be the way to go to when you want to virtualize Linux, Linux servers, and various other applications, PCem is what you want when you are looking for well emulated hardware of the era; Just take a look at PCem’s list of Systems and Motherboards that are emulated!
And so, without further ado, here is a fantastic tutorial that I have found online, it was created by you-tuber Mav-G and it goes through the process of setting up PCem and installing Windows 98 Second edition and all the necessary drivers. You can follow along with the full length video if you are not comfortable with installing older operating systems as it will walk you through the process with great detail, but you can also skim through it and read only the text portions if you are in a hurry! Make sure you follow the video well and read the video description as it will provide you with all the files needed for this operation, and hey! The music is pretty good too!
Some things worth noting
- The tutorial above is using an older version of PCem (13.1) and the newest version is 17. If you are feeling adventurous and prefer to check out the newer version, feel free, but please note that the list of machines/CPU will differ from the tutorial, so I suggest keeping with the tutorials instructions and files for best results.
- The tutorial does tell you to use [Socket 7] Award 430VX PCI with a Pentium 166 CPU but you may want to use a lower CPU, especially if PCem is not able to emulate consistently at 100% (percentage will be shown at the top of the emulator). My older Desktop had choppy audio and emulated around 80 % on the Pentium 166, so I decided to use a Pentium 75 instead and it worked wonders! If you are looking for something a bit stronger and you have a beefy PC, you may be interested to try the Pentium MMX 166, especially if you are looking to play some of the more graphically intense games of the era. Again, feel free to experiment outside of the tutorial with some other machines and CPU’s
- Finally, if you want the most complete of Windows 98 experiences, you may want to pick up the Auto-Patcher which will install just about every update, service pack and extra feature that was added to Win98SE up until about 2006; Its not necessary but may very well be worth the hour or so installation process (which will include about 20 restarts) if you are serious about Windows 98 emulation.
OK Cool! But can it run Doom?
It is a bit of an inside joke but back in the 90’s, Doom was distributed freely as shareware and played by an estimated 15–20 million people within two years (that is A LOT of installations), and nowadays you can install doom on just about any device (including graphic calculators and printers!) so it is only natural that when we emulate a whole retro computer inside of another computer, we want to know if that “computer-within-another-computer” can play Doom as well. I am happy to report that it can be done easily and it performs beautifully! I mean that was the whole point of emulating Windows 98 right? It surely wasn’t just because we wanted to play Solitaire and Minesweeper!
Here is a quick video of me booting up my installation of Windows 98 on PCem (oh how I missed the boot-up music), installing Doom and testing it out!
As you can see, PCem had no issues emulating Windows98 SE and playing Doom on it while maintaining consistent 100% emulation rate! (It is worth noting that many of my other older games also ran without any issues).
I hope this inspires you to check out the software and re-live your childhood as well. I would encourage you to look into other machine/CPU combos and even trying to emulate another operating system (like windows 95!). Most importantly: Have Fun!