As obsolete as the original IBM Model 5150 PC may appear, it’s pretty much the proverbial giant’s shoulders upon which we all stand today. That makes the machine worth celebrating, so much so that we now have machines like the Book8088, a diminutive clamshell-style machine made from period-correct PC chips; sort of a “netbook that never was.”
But the Book8088 only approximates the original specs of the IBM PC, making some clever hardware hacks necessary to run some of the more specialized software that has since been developed to really stretch the limits of the architecture. [GloriousCow]’s first steps were to replace the Book8088’s CPU, an NEC V20, with an actual 8088, and the display controller with a CGA-accurate Motorola MC6845. Neither of these quite did the trick, though, at least not on the demanding 8088MPH demo, which makes assumptions about CPU speed based on the quirky DRAM refresh scheme used in the original IBM PC.
Knowing this, [GloriousCow] embarked on a bodge-fest aimed at convincing the demo that the slightly overclocked Book8088 was really just a 4.77-MHz machine with a CGA adapter. This involved cutting a trace on the DMA controller and reconnecting it to the machine’s PIO timer chip, with the help of a 74LS74 flip-flop, a chip that made an appearance in the 5150 but was omitted from the Book8088. Thankfully, the netbook has plenty of room for these mods, and with the addition of a little bit of assembly code, the netbook was able to convince 8088MPH that it was running on the correct hardware.
When tracing the history of first-person shooting (FPS) games, where do you credit with the genesis of the genre? Anyone who played 3D Monster Maze on the Sinclair ZX81 might dare to raise a hand, but we’re guessing that most of you will return to the early 1990s, and id Software. Their 1992 title Wolfenstein 3D might not have been the first to combine all the elements, but it’s arguably the first modern FPS and the first to gain huge popularity. Back in 1992 it needed at least a VGA card and a 286 to run, but here in 2023 [jhhoward] has taken it back a step further. You can now slay virtual Nazis in 3D on an 8088 PC equipped with a lowly CGA card.
Whether the gameplay survives in the sometimes-bizarre CGA color schemes and whether it becomes too pedestrian on an 8088 remains as an exercise for the reader to discover, but it’s a feat nevertheless. The textures all need converting to CGA mode before they can be used and there are even versions for the shareware and paid-for versions of the game. It’s possible that an 8088 may never be able to say yes to “Will it run DOOM?”, but at least now it can run the predecessor.
[David Murray], aka The 8-Bit Guy, did an interesting video (embedded below the break) on the time line of PC graphics cards from CGA through to EGA. Not only does he explain the different offerings of the day, but also proceeds to demonstrate most of them.
It’s interesting to learn about some of the video modes that went basically unused in these cards. Even if board designers include high resolution modes and better color palettes, if software programmers don’t use them they are forgotten.
We were particularly impressed by a couple of examples he had that were full-sized, double-stacked ISA cards — those were beasts. Both CGA and EGA sort of withered when the 1990s arrived.
According to [David]’s research, CGA monitors continued to be used for some time even after EGA was introduced — primarily because of cost. It might cost you $400 to get an ATI EGA Wonder card, and that or more for an EGA monitor. Many folks just upgraded the card first, and took advantage of the fact that the EGA Wonder could drive CGA monitors.
If you are interested in the history and technology of these old cards, check out our coverage from 2016 where [David] does a deep dive into CGA cards and discusses, among other things, the CGA composite video mode.
These days, supply chain factors and high demand have made it incredibly difficult to lay one’s hands on a GPU. However, if you’re into older computers, you might find it hard to source old-school video cards too. Fear not, for [Dave’s Dev Lab] has been cooking up some experiments with a goal of eventually producing a new 8-bit ISA video card from scratch.
The long term goal is to recreate the original design of early IBM hardware, namely, the MDA and CGA video cards of decades past. The experiments center around the venerable Motorola 6845 which was widely used in computers in the 1980s. However, [Dave] intends to make them suitable for outputting to modern screens using typical VGA and DVI outputs, as well as those expected by modern TFT LCDs.
Thus far, [Dave] has achieved successful VGA output in a 40×35 text mode. With an 8×16 font, and the display running at 640×480 resolution at 60 Hz, everything hums along nicely. Similar experiments with a modern 480×272 LCD display have also worked well.
There’s a long way to go before [Dave’s] hardware is playing Commander Keen, but it’s great to see such effort being put into the platform. It could yet serve as a great upgrade for those wishing to use their vintage IBM metal without having to source a tired old CGA monitor.
One thing about vintage computers is that they depend greatly on whether or not one can plug a compatible monitor into them. That’s what’s behind [Tube Time]’s Graphics Gremlin, a modern-design retro ISA video card that uses an FPGA to act just like a vintage MDA or CGA video card on the input end, but provides a VGA port for more modern display output options. (Actually, there is also an RGBI connector and a composite video out, but the VGA is probably the most broadly useful.)
Why bother making a new device to emulate an old ISA video card when actual vintage video cards are still plentiful? Because availability of the old cards isn’t the bottleneck. The trouble is that MDA or CGA monitors just aren’t as easy to come across as they once were, and irreplaceable vintage monitors that do still exist risk getting smashed during shipping. Luckily, VGA monitors (or at least converters that accept VGA input) are far more plentiful.
[MmmmFloorPie] revived an old project to create the retro mashup of a 6845 CRT controller and a modern Arduino Uno. When it comes to chips, the Motorola 6845 is the great granddaddy of Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) interfaces. It was used in the IBM Monochrome display adapter, the Hercules graphics controller, CGA, Apple II terminal cards, and a host of other microcomputer and terminal systems.
Way back in 1989, [MmmmFloorPie] was a senior in college. His capstone project was a 68000 based computer which could record and playback audio, as well as display waveforms on a CRT. The CRT in question was ordered from a classified add in Popular Science magazine. It was a bare tube, so the heavy cardboard box it shipped in was repurposed as a case.
Fast forward to today, and [MmmmFloorPie] wanted to power up his old project. The 68000 board was dead, and he wasn’t up to debugging the hundreds of point to point soldered connections. The CRT interface was a separate board including the 6845 and 32 KByte of RAM. It would only take a bit of hacking to bring that up. But what would replace the microprocessor?
Some presentations get a bit technical, which isn’t bad, but what is so interesting about this one is the clear explanation of what the market was like, and what it was like for the user during this time. For example, one bit we found really interesting was the mention of later games not supporting some of the neat color hacks for CGA because they couldn’t emulate it fully on the VGA cards they were developing on. Likewise, It was interesting to see why a standard like RGBI even existed in the first place with his comparison of text in composite, and much clearer text in RGBI.
We learned a lot, and some mysteries about the bizarre color choices in old games make a lot more sense now. Video after the break.