The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

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The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby badmojo » 2012-6-22 @ 00:26

I've been playing Ultima 7 on a 386DX-40 and really enjoying it. I came to RPG's much later and am amazed at the vibrant world crammed into this handful of megabytes. Anyway, the 386 handles it pretty well but disk access - which the game does a lot of - is kinda slow, and all that jerking while the HDD grinds is getting me down.

I like to play my games on period correct hardware and Ultima 7 was released in '92; a 486 is still appropriate for the job, so I decided to put together a 33Mhz rocket based on the VLB architecture to see if that made a noticeable difference to game-play.

The case: A cool little recycle centre rescue that had a nicely put together 486DX-33 ISA setup in it - it even had a heat sink and fan on the CPU! It's quite a stylish little number for 1993.

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Motherboard: I have 2 of these; OPTI 495SLC chipset which can take anything from a 386-25 up to a 486DX4! They like them over at the redhill guide, which is good enough for me. The turbo switch had me confused for quite a while because switching it has no effect once the CPU has been put into protected mode (by EMM386). I don't know the details but I assume that the motherboard is actually under-clocking the CPU (as apposed to introducing wait states, etc), which means it can't be changed in protected mode. Speedsys reports the CPU as 19Mhz with turbo off, which - despite having to re-boot the PC to change turbo mode - I like.

I added an extra 4meg of RAM to make a total of 8, and switched the CPU to an SX-33 for nostalgia reasons.

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Various other bits: A 270meg HDD which would have been massive in 1992. A nice IO controller with a secondary IDE port for a CD rom drive, and a Tseng ET4000AX VLB VGA card. In my opinion the ET4000AX chipset is the best looking VGA chipset around; the colours are just amazing. So I was very upset to find that this card doesn't play well with this motherboard - a couple of games (including Ultima 7 of course) were messed up. I have a couple of ISA ET4000AX's but I wouldn't be able to sleep at night with that VLB slot being empty, so for now I've put a Cirrus Logic GD5428 in there. It's a great card too, but I won't rest until I have a VLB ET4000AX that works in there!

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Danger: These 240v power switches always make me nervous, but not nervous enough apparently. This one is particularly exposed AND blocks the screw holes in the drive bay, so while I was fiddling around with the 5 /14 drive it zapped me. Note to self: always unplug the power supply.

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All finished: Very cramped in there. I re-used the CPU heat sink because I could, and those 486's actually get pretty hot!

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Up and running: Despite the 486SX-33 only scoring about 3 speedsys points over the 386 (12.3 and 9.2 respectively), it's a much snappier system all told. The difference in Wolf3d for example, is pronounced. The SX33 seems like a good choice for Ultima 7 - no speed issues, unlike the DX2-66. General loading is quicker thanks to the VLB IO controller, and I guess the HDD is a year or 2 more modern in the 486 too, which might help. Note that I'm using smartdrv on both systems, and that makes a big difference to this particular game. General game-play is much less jerky, which was the point of this whole thing.

CD-ROM drives ruin the aesthetic of these old machines IMO, but they're so handy that I decided to put one in. This is a quad speed NEC with a flip-open door, so at least it's kinda period correct. Although I didn't get a quad speed until about '95.

For sound I'm using a SB pro 2.0 and an MT-32. The roland is a first revision which I understand is missing a few instruments that Ultima 7, but generally sounds pretty cool.

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So any suggestions? What would make my Ultima 7 machine more ultimate?
Last edited by badmojo on 2014-4-08 @ 22:32, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby DonutKing » 2012-6-22 @ 01:15

I was also playing ultima 7 on my 386DX40. I found that loading smartdrv did help with loading times a bit... If you have enough space to load it.


That's a tidy little system you've got there, case seems to be in gear condition :)
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Re: The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby RacoonRider » 2012-6-22 @ 02:29

The case totally rocks :) And the 386/486 mobo... How was that even possible? :)

P.S. I wish I had a Roland...
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Re: The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby pianoman72 » 2012-6-22 @ 02:42

I agree that your 486 machine rocks for this game. I have had a similar experience fiddling between my 386DX40 and 486DX33, and I have noticed that the 486 machine is just right in terms of speed.

If you go higher than that, say even at 50mhz, to me the game plays a bit too fast.

I also remember reading in the Ultima 7 manual, where it states that playing on a 486DX33 computer is ultimate for this game.

Great system, btw.
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Re: The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby badmojo » 2012-6-22 @ 02:57

Yeah squeezing smartdrv in without expanded memory is a bit tricky, I found that ctmouse.exe and loading DOS high (DOS=UMB,HIGH) with Himem.sys did the trick.

It is a nice little case, well made and in good condition. I saw it at the bottom of a skip (aka dumpster) at the recycle center, but it was stuck under a crush of old CRT's so I couldn't get it. I couldn't stop thinking about it though so went back the next week and put in the effort to dig it out.

The motherboard is described a bit here (scroll down):

http://redhill.net.au/b/b-94.html

It's a handy chipset. The other one I have has the 486DLC-40 and 487DLC maths co-pro in the picture there.

@pianoman72 - I'll have to read the manual! The version I have came from eBay without the manual, but I'm sure it can be downloaded from somewhere.

thanks for the tip!
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Re: The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby Davros » 2012-6-22 @ 05:42

Ultima 7 manual
http://replacementdocs.com/download.php?view.966

ps: theres a mod to make it work on modern pc's (not perfect though)
http://exult.sourceforge.net/
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Re: The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby Dominus » 2012-6-22 @ 06:28

Exult is not a mod, it's a full crossplatform engine for u7. And while it is not 100% faithfull to the original it brings many improvements.

@op, don't know anything about missing notes with u7 and mt32 1st gen. Afaik the 1st gen only has a problem with buffer overrun or so.
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Re: The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby luckybob » 2012-6-22 @ 07:09

If you want better hard drive access on a 386 machine, go scsi. The best my 386 can do is about 1.2mb/s on ide. However with scsi, it jumps to 3.5. And thats the limit of the controller!
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Re: The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby pianoman72 » 2012-6-22 @ 13:46

badmofo wrote:@pianoman72 - I'll have to read the manual! The version I have came from eBay without the manual, but I'm sure it can be downloaded from somewhere.

thanks for the tip!


No problem. Also, following the instructions for making an Ultima 7 boot disk, then manually adding smartdrv.exe afterwards, it gave me more free conventional memory than if using those same parameters on my hard drive's clean config.sys and autoexec.bat.
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Re: The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby Mau1wurf1977 » 2012-6-22 @ 14:24

Fantastic effort!

Thanks for sharing!

Maybe adjust the CRT so the image fills the full screen. Apart from that IMO you have THE ultimate Ultima 7 machine :D
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Re: The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby RacoonRider » 2012-6-22 @ 15:17

I'm about to play Ultima, but I never played it before. Which one do you suggest starting with? I have 23 different Ultimas (I-VII + Worlds Of).

I've got a very powerfull 386 to run it on, it has Am386DX-40, IIT 4c87-40, 20Mb SIMM and quite fast Quantum Fireball CX HDD.

So, any suggestions?
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Re: The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby F2bnp » 2012-6-22 @ 16:57

The 7th one is probably the best one (along with the Serpent Isle).
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Re: The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby Dominus » 2012-6-22 @ 17:18

you should probably start with u4, then u5, u6 and then u7.
U4 sets the place and story real well, I had never patience enough for the older ones :)
U7 is the best one but I am biased (Exult developer) :)
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Re: The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby sliderider » 2012-6-22 @ 17:58

Aren't we getting just a little bit carried away when we start building retro systems to play one specific game on?
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Re: The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby Jorpho » 2012-6-22 @ 18:49

I daresay things got carried away on this forum quite some time ago. :lol:

Is that an external MT-32 being used? I thought the internal ones were insanely expensive.
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Re: The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby keropi » 2012-6-23 @ 10:17

Just tried both U7 games on my 386DX-40 ISA build... both run too slow for my taste, I consider them unplayable LOL
I guess a VLB machine is really needed for them... my vga is a 5424 1MB one btw...
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Re: The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby badmojo » 2012-6-23 @ 11:59

Jorpho wrote:I daresay things got carried away on this forum quite some time ago. :lol:

Is that an external MT-32 being used? I thought the internal ones were insanely expensive.


Yeah I'm looking for any excuse to build retro machines, truth be told :pppt:

And yes an external MT-32. I haven't even seen a LAPC-I (internal) one for sale recently but yes I think they are expensive. I like the messages that pop up on the external module though, and it can be used for multiple machines.

keropi wrote:Just tried both U7 games on my 386DX-40 ISA build... both run too slow for my taste, I consider them unplayable


It did hitch a lot. The 486 is much smoother but there's still constant disk access going on.

Like luckybob said there's always the scsi option but I've always had an aversion to that for some reason. Something to do with a single spin scsi CD-ROM drive I think, it sucked.
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Re: The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby Dominus » 2012-6-23 @ 12:18

Not to mention of the infernal noise those scsi hard drives made...
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Re: The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby keropi » 2012-6-23 @ 13:24

I used several scsi hdd's on amigas... from scsi2 to uwscsi3 ... although speedy the noise was just horrible in all of them. Went to IDE and didn't look back even though it's a cpu drainer.
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Re: The ultimate Ultima 7 machine

Postby luckybob » 2012-6-23 @ 16:33

keropi wrote:I used several scsi hdd's on amigas... from scsi2 to uwscsi3 ... although speedy the noise was just horrible in all of them. Went to IDE and didn't look back even though it's a cpu drainer.


people say that, but they hard drives that they put into early apples are very quiet. I have a few <500md drives that are whisper quiet.
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