I installed Windows 98 on Xbox Series X and played a range of classic PC games

I installed Windows 98 on Xbox Series X and played a range of classic PC games

The late 90s were many things – but for me it was Pentium PCs and Windows 98. That being the case, I was pleased to learn that the DOSBox Pure RetroArch kernel had recently received support from the venerable operating system, opening the door to a range of classic PC games that can now run on today’s Microsoft console hardware. Quake, Half-Life, Turok: The Dinosaur Hunter, Command and Conquer… in other words, any Win98 game is now available to play on Xbox Series hardware and there’s even emulated support for 3dfx Voodoo Graphics.

Get ready for plenty of installs, however, via a somewhat torturous procedure. It starts with an unusual workaround to install the RetroArch emulation system on Xbox, which in turn runs DOSBox Pure. I used this video guide to get started, without needing developer mode. Once you’ve run DOSBox Pure on your Xbox console, you also need to – get this – install Windows 98 itself. It was a surreal moment to install this 20th century operating system on a vintage 2020 Microsoft console, but surely it must be the bright future that Bill Gates envisioned at the time…but maybe not from a such an unfriendly manner. All software, including Win98 itself, must be sourced and loaded through RetroArch’s support for disc ISOs. I chose the FTP approach to push these ISOs from my PC to my Xbox consoles – unfortunately the more logical Xbox optical drive approach is not possible.

Windows 98 running on Xbox Series X and Series S – it’s real, it works, but how good is it?

In the end, you get a full install of the Windows 98 operating system on your Xbox Series console, with games fully installed, meaning you can use it as you would any vintage PC – to the point where I scripted the video embedded on this page using Microsoft Word running on my Series X, aided and abetted by a resurrected Clippy himself. From now on, things get easier – with one exception. Unfortunately, RetroArch does not currently support USB mice, which means the right Xbox controller stick has to replace it. As you can imagine, using the gamepad as an emulated mouse is a limiting factor for ergonomics and control. I find it perfectly usable on the desktop and in most first-person shooters, but it’s a pain in isometric titles and real-time strategy games.

Still, I had a lot of fun with it. In Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun, I left the game speed at its default and lowered the frame rate slightly, really finding it even more intuitive to play than any controller-based RTS. which I tried on console, like StarCraft 64 or Command and Conquer 64. It looked and worked beautifully too with no issues with sound or full motion video playback. In a title like Turok that was already made for the N64 controller, the dual-stick Xbox pad felt positively overpowered by comparison and I was shooting dinosaurs and platforming like a pro in no time.

Turok is an interesting case in that it supports 3dfx’s proprietary Glide API, designed for Voodoo Graphics 3D accelerators – making it the standard for PC gaming in the late 90s. is great to see that DOSBox Pure comes pre-installed with a virtualized Voodoo 3dfx accelerator with 12MB of RAM, two TMUs and a maximum 3D rendering resolution of 800×600, hooked up to a virtual 2D video card (remember when you needed two cards video in your PC?). In terms of features – but not performance, as we’ll see – you’re effectively on par with a Voodoo 2 graphics card, and with that you can play any Glide, Open GL or Direct 3D title you can. think, with all three APIs working great on all games I tested. In Quake 2, for example, you get fancy lighting and baked-on radiosity, just like the original. And in other games, you can enjoy these inconsistently filtered textures like the good old days.

Install Windows 98 on an Xbox Series X and live the (emulation) dream. When finished, you have the entire operating system at your disposal, but it’s obviously the game that is indeed the focus.

At this point it’s important to point out how it works technically because we’re basically talking about emulated graphics hardware on an emulated Win98 operating system, which means you need to install the 3dfx drivers as you would on the original hardware. – a bit of a headache, as we’ve seen when it compares to importing files into the system. The other key limitation to keep in mind is that everything is emulated by the Xbox Series processor and not Radeon graphics. Yes, this even includes the 3dfx card, so the 12TF GPU compute on console is effectively inactive here. This is important because doing graphics work of any type on the CPU is difficult and usually slow.

This also means that the Xbox processor is responsible for emulating the hardware first, then the operating system on top of that hardware, then the API and driver layer which might already be rather abstract, then finally the pixel rendering. It’s a huge stack of emulation and abstraction, plus a workload that CPUs are bad at, so even a relatively competent CPU like the Zen 2 cluster of consoles in the series is going to be pushed deep.

It basically boils down to the fact that while the overall system is very, very fast compared to period-appropriate hardware in some respects, 3D accelerated visuals can struggle. To put that into perspective, Unreal at 800×600 runs at about half the speed of a Voodoo 2, broadly equivalent to an original Voodoo 1, really. In practice, that means 3D acceleration performance is good, but not exactly 1998. Just as the original Voodoo would have started to struggle with titles from 1998, so does the Xbox emulation.

3dfx Voodoo Graphics is currently the company’s Achilles’ heel. It is CPU emulated and much slower than real hardware. It’s roughly in line with the performance of Voodoo 1, easily surpassed by Voodoo 2 and (as seen here) a slowed-down Voodoo 3.

On the CPU side things are completely different and here the Xbox outperforms like a champ. The emulated processor is a nebulous Pentium that apparently runs at 66 MHz while lacking MMX features, which would make it an old and rather slow Pentium from around 1995 to 1996. In reality however, this emulated processor is much faster than it shouldn’t be. Software rendering in Half-Life is about twice as fast as a real 450 MHz Pentium 2. So to put things in perspective, the PC virtualized here has the specs of a circa 1995 Pentium, but the raw speed of something like a 1.0GHz Pentium 3.

Basically, the graphics performance is lower than the proper hardware at the time, but the CPU power is a huge step up. What this means for your Xbox Win98 experience is considerably better using software rendering, so that’s the recommendation here if you want to use your Series X to revisit some classic PC games.

For many titles like RTS games, there is no 3D support, so that’s fine. However, for other key games like Quake 2, you will need to select software rendering from the menu. Software mode might mean a few changes to the visuals such as a lack of texture filtering and no v-sync support, but I honestly like that unfiltered look, and sometimes you can force v-sync as well. sync in software mode, depending on the game at hand.

CPU emulation is very, very fast compared to contemporary hardware. Performance here with in-game software rendering is more in line with a 1.0GHz Pentium 3.

That’s the Series X experience, but what about the Series S? I was curious to see if the emulator would perform differently, given the CPU requirements and the Xbox Junior’s 200 MHz speed drop compared to the Series X. When using software mode in Half- Life, I measured a five percent faster result on average with Series X over multiple runs, aligning well with the base clock difference between the two machines. However, when I engaged OpenGL to use the emulated graphics accelerator, the Series X lead opened up to around 8-10%, depending on the title. I wonder if the console’s vastly different memory bandwidth configurations might have an impact here?

With all of that in mind, is it really worth going through this process to revisit this classic era of PC gaming? I would say that is a definite ‘yes’. This era of personal computing produced some legendary games that still hold up today – and in many ways I actually prefer playing classic titles due to their diversity and focus on PC as opposed to behemoths. today’s homogenized cross-platform triple-A. Many of these games never made it to consoles, and many of them look and run great with software rendering – which is what consoles in the series do best with this setup.

However, virtualization is still in its infancy and while I enjoyed the experience, there are clear ways to improve it. Needless to say, I’d like to see Voodoo emulation sped up in any way possible, while good USB mouse support would make a big difference. With those two things in place, we’d have one of the best ways to play these classic PC games today – and the only way to do so on modern consoles. Yes, the installation procedure is long, but sometimes the challenge makes the end result all the more enjoyable.

Article source https://www.eurogamer.net/digitalfoundy-2022-i-installed-windows-98-on-xbox-series-x


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