Help me pick out and set up a cheap ass retro gaming PC?

Looking for one to let me play on my PVM20L5. So I need help converting from VGA to BNC too (I always forget how that works).

I’d like it to focus on the following games/era of games so that I can play them with max settings in their “native” resoltions - which I realize isn’t really a thing in most 3D PC games. I’m pretty much talking about max settings in 4:3 without any mods. I’m certain the PVM will do them justice and I want to see it happen!

Target gaming era:

Half Life
Final Fantasy XI + Expansions
Elders Scrolls III: Morrowind + Expansions
Baldurs Gate 1 and 2
Maybe Starcraft too?

I am wondering just how cheap this can be. Like can it happen at sub-$100 levels of cheap? I’ve never investigated this and I’ve never bought my own PC before so I’m not familiar with graphics cards and CPUs. All my computers growing up were hand-me-downs.

Anything that can allow me to output MAME at 240p would be helpful too, but not necessary.

For PC to BVM/PVM/CRT I’ll defer to an expert:

I’m confident you can find old custom build computers from the 2010s for that price that could run the games you want to their fullest. Building a period accurate computer will be more expensive.

I would suggest to get an XP tower, anything should be overpowered for your needs especially given you will run stuff at 640x480.

[edit] thin clients could be interesting, but you need to dig deeper to find one that would suit your needs. an Ati 1200 may not be ideal. [/edit]

Morrowind and FFXI are both 2002 games, and if you get through HL, HL2 is 2004.

With that in mind, you may want to get something capable of running things up to 2004, maybe 2005. The unfortunate thing is that you’re sort of looking at what most consider to be the golden age of PC gaming, so the retro market can be pretty pricey.


You’re definitely going to need a dedicated GPU capable of handling titles from that era, and something like a Nvidia 6800 GT would be great. If you can find something in the 6, 7, or 8 series in a “600” class or higher, you’ll be set.

6800GTX Ultra
8800GTX Ultra

You can also look for an equivalent Radeon card in the 9600, 9700, 9800, X550, X600 ranges.


There are probably lots of CPUs on the market that can be had for fairly cheap, and I imagine you could throw together something pretty easily. Try to buy a CPU, RAM, and Mobo all together.

Athlon 64+
Athlon XP+
Pentium 4 (can be pricey)
Intel Core 2 Duo (later models, but would work great, and they’re cheap)
AMD Phenom (later models, but would work great, and they’re cheap)

The rest

Pick up a case, power supply, optical/spinning drives etc that will work. You could even install a nice SD card solution to forego the use of spinning driver altogether. You’ll need to make sure your motherboard, CPU, and GPU are compatible. The GPU will be PCIexpress, so you need to make sure your mobo has a PCIe slot.

Let me know if you have any questions.

I see the era you’re looking at is largely post 2000 but if you have any desire to run Windows 98, make sure to pick out motherboard / sound card / video card with Windows 98 drivers.

Get a tower from that list

and a decent video card on the side. Don’t get one of those Dell desktop, though, it would be difficult to fit more stuff in the case.

There are a lot of different options available to you regarding hardware. Since you live in a NYC apartment I would suggest looking at laptops. You can have a Win98/DOS laptop and and Windows XP laptop and they won’t take up a lot of space.

That’s actually a great suggestion. Would that increase the price I’m looking at though?

Not by as much as you would think. Core2 Duo laptops are plentiful and cheap. You should be able to find one sub $100, heck I bought an I5 laptop for my wife for $100 so prices have definitely come down.

Just be mindful, that you’ll need one with a GPU. It’s a great option though.

If space is tight there are good small form factor PCs from that era and thin clients from a bit later that have PCI risers to mount cards parellel to the motherboard. There are then some good options for PCI graphics cards that are very compatible, stable, and would work fine up to mid 2000s games like the GeForce FX 5500 and 6200.

Even those would be a lot more flexible and reliable than trying to use some old laptop with inadequate weird busted fans with a BGA’d graphics chip.

I recommend picking up a refurbished Dell OptiPlex off eBay. Great value for money and if you need more 3d grunt, you can get a NVIDIA 1030GT to fit

I’ve been looking at an OptiPlex and a Lenovo ThinkCentre, both USFF.

Which OptiPlex can take a GPU? SFF? @DiscoDingo

SFF can take small graphics card like the 1030. I have an OptiPlex 790 (which is SFF) and Gigabyte GT 1030 in it specifically.

I bought the Dell for $80 AUD plus $50 shipping (steep) with 4GB of RAM and no OS. I bought the card for $121 but you may not need it depending on what you want to do.

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You’ll come out a lot better looking at local thrift stores for old pc’s. They can usually be had for super cheap. All you’d need to do is throw in a cheap gpu. Only thing is I’m not sure how well the pc games will scale to a pvm.

PVM 20L5 should be able to represent the graphics in their native resolution. The monitor tops off at native 720p and native 1080i, and has been able to handle all resolutions and aspect ratios lower than those without scaling.

So I really want to see what else it can do. It’s basically a VGA monitor in many ways but that can also do SD.

I repurposed my old gaming PC from like 2011 to do pretty much exactly what you’re describing. I run Windows 7 with an i5-2500k and AMD HD6870 outputting to a VGA monitor and a JVC TM-150CG with CRT_emudriver. To do the same today you would only need a decent office PC and maybe an additional GPU that is compatible with CRT_emudriver. Total should be around $200 if you go and buy the first Ebay listings you see, under $150 if you scope out deals.

Just a few additional thoughts:

  • A Dell Optiplex or a similar HP with a good i3 or i5 (2000 or 3000 series) and 4GB of RAM is probably the best bet. You could get a Core2 system cheaper if you are not looking to emulate at any point on this machine.

  • CRT_Emudriver isn’t the easiest to set up but there is a very straightforward tutorial out there and it is great once it is running. This allows output from 15KHz-31KHz and beyond. There are many compatible AMD cards, almost any recent card with an analog out will work.
    (Link for compatible cards) Anything past the HD5000 series should be able to play any of the games listed at 1024x768 no sweat, and it looks like $50 can get you a decent card with plenty of power.

  • EDIT: If you are just using the 20L5 you may be able to do 240p@120fps and not worry about the software. Not sure of the max frequency of the 20L5 though.

  • I have played BG 1+2 and Morrowind on this machine without issue, but I’m not sure if the other games you’ve listed would have any trouble.

If you are looking for a less modern machine I can’t make any recommendations, since my older PCs are all basic and are mostly around for nostalgia of running old OS’s.