Low End Mac Gaming

Gaming on '040s

Brian Rumsey - 2000.02.16

In Mac/PC debates, one of the topics which PC users love to bring up is games. Most Mac users will concede that the PC has better support for gaming these days. This can be an interesting topic, but it is not exactly the subject of the day. I will be looking at how to get the most gaming mileage out of '040-era Macs, which came on the scene as the high end in 1991 and continued in production in various shapes until 1996.

When they were being produced, this generation had a similar position in the gaming world to today's Macs when compared to the DOS machines of the day. However, the Macs have aged much more gracefully than your average 486. Not only is your average Quadra a lot more good looking than a 1993 Gateway 2000, I would argue that it can still be a competent, if not cutting edge, gaming machine when compared to much newer Macs.

There are two aspects to breathing life back into a 68040-based machine: Knowing what is essential to upgrade (or whether an upgrade is even needed) and knowing what games will make the best use of the 68040.

As an example, an LC 475 purchased in 1994 would be little better than a 68020 or 68030 based machine if it had received no upgrades since its original purchase. Although it has the '040 processor itself, limitations such as memory and hard drive size make it hard (if even possible) to run games which take full advantage of the power of the 68040.

The first thing which needs attention is memory. Most '040's came with either 4 or 8 MB of memory. For best gaming, I would consider 20 MB the minimum, and 36 preferable. Many 040's take 72-pin SIMMs, which are currently selling for less than $40 for a 32 MB SIMM. The early Quadras used 30-pin SIMMs, which are slightly more costly, but an upgrade to 20 MB should not be too painful. A good place to find the best prices on these and many other types of memory is ramseeker.

If your '040 machine has less than a 160 MB hard drive, more space is essential. Removables such as Iomega's Zip drive are one solution, but bigger your hard drive, the better. I say 160 MB as a minimum, but 500 MB is much more pleasant. A hard drive of that size enables you to have a fairly modern system plus at least a few of the more taxing games which will run on '040s. One consideration is that many games provide several levels of install, such as small, standard, and large. Especially on slower machines, it can be advantageous to use the large install so that you will not have to deal with the dual bottlenecks of a relatively slow processor and accessing a CD-ROM drive more often than necessary (a lot of these machines have slow CD-ROM drives - if they have one at all). While small, inexpensive hard drives are not nearly as easy to come by as RAM, you should be able to find a 500 MB hard drive on eBay for around $40. Used dealers also carry hard drives, but they rarely offer good deals on drives of less than 1 GB. Owners of machines with internal IDE are especially lucky: while not quite as fast as SCSI, IDE drives are considerably cheaper.

Memory and hard drive space are the most essential factors, but by no means the only ones. A CD-ROM drive is very handy. Most of the newer '040-compatible games come on CD. A few '040s are lucky enough to have CD-ROM drives built in, but if you do not own a CD-ROM drive, obtaining one is highly recommended by this gamer. I remember buying Civilization 2 and transferring it onto Zip at a friend's house who was lucky enough to have a CD-equipped Power Mac, and then copying it from the Zip to my then-without-CD-ROM LC 475, but that was pretty inconvenient. Older external CD-ROM drives can usually be found on eBay for around $30. Another question is whether to upgrade your CD-ROM drive. I would say that the 2x drives often found with '040s are sufficient. Of course faster is better, but the extra speed is probably not worth the cost unless you find a really good deal or you move a lot of data.

Other considerations include VRAM, networking ability, and the mouse and keyboard. Most '040s have at least enough VRAM to drive 640 x 480 at 256 colors, which is the minimum for many games. If you plan to drive a larger monitor or see greater bit depth, more VRAM may be needed. Few games actually require it, but it is nice to have. Some VRAM upgrades cost as little as $10. NuBus and PDS video cards are also available - but rarely necessary.

Networking ability is more helpful to some than others. 10Base-T ethernet is the standard for LANs. 10Base-T cards can be found new for around $45 and often much cheaper used. Some '040s have AAUI built in, in which case only a transceiver is necessary. A person who only has one computer and rarely moves it will not have much use for networking. However, if you have several Macs or several friends with Macs, networking is possibly the coolest thing since sliced bread. Even a network consisting of only '040s can handle a mean game of Warcraft II.

Most users will be happy with their original mouse and keyboard. However, a two button mouse is quite useful in gaming, and they can be had for as little as $25 new. An extended keyboard is also handy, but not necessarily worth buying if you do not already have one.

Well, it looks like the section on hardware is getting a lot longer than I expected. I think I will save the software discussion for next time, which does give you a little time to email me if there is a game which you think has to be mentioned. Before I finish, I will discuss the most basic software: the system software.

Most '040s shipped with System 7.1 or 7.5. While they are still usable to varying extents, a newer version of system software is advisable. The latest version of system software which can be run by '040s is Mac OS 8.1. I recommend using 8.1 if you have 20 MB or more of physical memory. This version of the system takes 10-12 MB of RAM, leaving 8-10 for applications. 36 MB of RAM is better with 8.1. You should also allow 100 MB of hard drive space for the 8.1 system folder. If you have between 8 and 20 MB of RAM, I recommend System 7.6.1. Users who have less than 8 MB of RAM and do not plan to upgrade are probably best staying with what they have. Mac OS 7.6.1 or later should be able to run most any '040 game, but 8.1 does have some useful new features.

A final word: don't go overboard in upgrading an old computer. If you do undertake all of the upgrades that I have mentioned, you could easily spend over $150. While this sounds like a lot, I would say that it is reasonable considering that you would end up with a computer which is more game-ready than your average first-generation Power Mac. However, I would advise serious consideration before spending much more than this, such as on a processor upgrade.

In the words of Douglas MacArthur, I shall return. Until that time (as well as after it), emails are always welcome. In the future I am interested in doing similar articles about 68030s, NuBus Power Macs, and maybe 68000s, so input on those topics is of special interest, as well as general email or ideas about 68040s.

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