30 years of PC games: PC hardware through the ages

What is a PC anyway? the Wikipedia says quite soberly: “A personal computer is a multi-purpose computer whose size and capabilities make it usable for individual personal use in everyday life (…)”. This description is a bit misleading because it also applies to old Apple devices or home computers like the Commodore 64.

No, when we talk about “PC” we first think of IBM. The US company developed the first “IBM Personal Computer” in 1981, on which all computer systems commonly referred to as “PCs” are based. IBM chose the Intel 8088 as the processor, which ran at a clock speed of a whopping 4.77 megahertz. Yes, you read that right: megahertz! For comparison: Most of today’s processors have a frequency of three to four gigahertz and multiply this performance with multiple cores. But at that time the Intel 8088 was one of the fastest things a mere mortal could buy. The processors of other popular computer systems such as the Apple II, C64 or Atari 800 only managed one to two MHz.

The good old MS-DOS from Microsoft prevailed as the operating system, only that IBM renamed it “PC DOS”. When it came to the graphics card, you could choose between a monochrome MDA and four-color CGA output. The customer had the choice between 16 or 64 kilobytes (KB) for the main memory, whereby he could subsequently upgrade the system to up to 256 KB.

1982: The first PC is born

Visually, the first PCs looked bulky and gray. They were in a flat, thick box that you could easily place on a desk and on which a small tube monitor easily fit. The high-edged tower cases that we know today only became popular in the late 1980s.

Hard drives were initially scarce. They only became standard in the successor model (the IBM Personal Computer XT) and only had ten to 20 megabytes of storage space. In the absence of internet, a 5.25-inch drive was required to load and install new programs or games. The original IBM even had a connection for a cassette recorder, as was the case with many home computers.

Something like sound cards was out of the question, which is why the user had to put up with the squeaky PC speaker. Thanks to a separately available game control adapter and a Y-splitter, you could theoretically connect up to two analog joysticks, but this initially supported almost no game. Even a mouse didn’t become standard until 1987, when IBM introduced the Personal System/2 line and the PS/2 connector that went with it.

Always faster, always better

All of this put together, the PC was primarily intended for application programs and was anything but suitable for gaming. Nevertheless, it prevailed over the next ten years against all home computers, which was primarily due to two reasons: First, Intel diligently developed new processor series, which were commonly referred to as “286s”, “386s” and “486s”. The trend became apparent that each new generation of processors stomped the current home computer and console competition to the ground purely in terms of potential. On the other hand, IBM also remained diligent and presented the first EGA graphics cards in 1984 and the first VGA graphics cards in 1987. The former could display up to 16 out of 64 specified colors, the latter even 256 out of 262,144, which was again far superior to the other home computers.

Two luxury devices combined: The Sound Blaster AWE32 was a special sound card from Creative Labs with its own MIDI instrument set that sounded much better than the General MIDI standard. In front of it is a Roland MT-32 sound module, whose sound quality was unbeatable well into the 1990s.

Source: plasma media agency

Due to the high processor performance, the PC was particularly suitable for computing-intensive 3D games such as flight simulations, for example Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer (1987) or Falcon (1987). Adventures that eat up storage space, such as the King’s Quest series (from 1984) or The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) were also the most fun on the PC, because thanks to the hard disk there was no need to change floppy disks. On the other hand, due to the lack of hardware scrolling, fast, classic action titles were rare and only represented in the form of Xenon 2: Megablast (1989).

At the end of the 1980s, the first usable sound standards were slowly but surely established. The two pioneers included AdLib’s sound cards and Roland’s epic MT-32 multi-sound tool. The former sounded a bit dull due to Yamaha’s YM3812 chip, but still had its charm. The Roland MT-32 boasted high-quality sounding MIDI instruments that more than justified the high purchase price of just under $700. And thanks to Creative Labs’ Sound Blaster cards, which hit the market in 1989, playing sampled effects was no longer a problem either.

1992: The triumph of the home computer

We jump to the birth of PC games, their first issue 10/92 in September 1992 was available. The editors chose Links 386 pro as “Game of the Month” – the expanded version of a golf simulation that was celebrated a year earlier as the undisputed king of the genre. And fittingly, it’s a fine example of the hardware evolution that was taking place at the time.

The “old” links ran problem-free on a 286 and with a VGA resolution of 320×200 pixels and 256 colors. The “new” links, on the other hand, required a graphics card with SVGA capabilities, which quadrupled the resolution with the same color palette. But this technical advance was accompanied by two problems: Firstly, the more detailed graphics ate up more memory and required a fast processor, which is why the game only ran on a 386 or higher. Luckily, the model series was long established and many PC buyers grabbed a 486 when buying a new one (including the main author of this article, by the way).

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