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Wayback Wednesday: The Joy of Boot Disks

Wayback Wednesday: The Joy of Boot Disks

This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! In this feature, we dig into the archives, look back at the history of basketball gaming, and indulge in some nostalgia. Check in every Wednesday for retrospectives and other features on older versions of NBA Live, NBA 2K, and old school basketball video games in general. You’ll also find old NLSC editorials re-published with added commentary, and other flashback content. This week, I’m taking a look back at the use of boot disks to play games on PC, in particular NBA Live 96.

Oh, I’m going wayback for this one! Way back to a time long before I worked in IT and could easily troubleshoot PC problems. Back to a time when my understanding of hardware and software was pretty decent for a ten or eleven year old, but certainly nowhere close to what it is today. We’re going back to a time when floppy disks were actually a thing, and not just an antiquated image used for the Save icon. It’s an era when computers were less powerful than the smartphones we now all carry around in our pockets, and weren’t always built for heavy duty gaming.

Today, we’re talking about boot disks. These days, boot media – generally in the form of a flash drive, as even optical discs are becoming outmoded – is still around, and is often used for installing and troubleshooting operating systems such as Windows. Back in the 90s, however, they were a way of getting games to run. Indeed, if your PC was getting a bit long in the tooth and the game was particularly demanding – at least by the standards of the time – boot disks were often the only way you’d get to play them. Let’s take a look back…way back…

As I mentioned, the smartphones that are the norm these days are so much more powerful than the PCs we used to have in our homes back in the 90s. That’s if your family even had their own computer, of course. I’m not that old – no, 35 is not that old, thank you very much – but as someone who started school in 1990, I remember a time when many of us didn’t have a computer at home, and it was a real event when someone’s family bought one. I have fond memories of my Dad borrowing his work’s Acorn PC, a system I loved and wish I still had, for many weekends in the early 90s. Come Christmas 1994 however, we finally owned our own IBM compatible PC.

NBA Live 96 PC in Low Res

What a machine! A 486/66 DX2, with a whopping 8 megabytes of RAM, and a 500 megabyte hard drive; not quite top of the line, but still good enough for both work and gaming. Hey, it ran Doom II, Commander Keen, Jill of the Jungle, Jazz Jackrabbit, and other classics, so I was happy with it! It also ran NBA Jam Tournament Edition just fine, except that the full motion videos never seemed to work, and I could never find the installation key for the bundled screensaver. Anyway, as I really started to get into basketball, I became more enthusiastic about basketball gaming. NBA Live 96 was the first game in the series I owned on PC, which is why it’s a personal favourite.

The problem is that by the time NBA Live 96 came out, a 486/66 DX2 was definitely showing its age. It would run the game, and even do so under Windows – many games more or less required restarting the PC in MS-DOS mode – but its performance wasn’t stellar. I had to lower the resolution, and even then, the frame rate was often rather choppy. It would be a while before we upgraded our PC to Windows 98 with 16 MB of RAM, so my father and I had to find another way to get my favourite game to run more efficiently. In lieu of hardware upgrades, boot disks were the answer, and most Electronic Arts and EA Sports titles provided instructions for creating them.

These boot disks contained modified copies of system files, such as autoexec.bat and config.sys, which were loaded instead of those on the hard drive. This allowed us to boot our PCs with custom memory values and certain drivers disabled, in order to maximise the amount of system resources and thus the performance of our more demanding games. I remember the key was ensuring that there was enough extended memory (or XMS) to run NBA Live 96 and other titles. For example, I recall that we also had to create boot disks to run the original Need for Speed, and All-New World of Lemmings (titled The Lemmings Chronicles in North America).

Guide to making Boot Disks for NBA Live 96

I also recall having to make several boot disks in order to get NBA Live 96 working properly, as well as consulting EA Sports’ online troubleshooting and even emailing them for further assistance. That resource and correspondence are long gone, but they ran through the specific lines to add to the boot disk’s custom system files. Eventually I got the game to work consistently, with satisfactory performance. It probably sounds like a hassle just to play a handful of games, but it was a lot better than just staring at the box art, or trying to endure subpar performance running them under Windows. It’s just one of the things we did when PC gaming was still in its relative infancy.

That’s not to say that other people didn’t have more powerful PCs that could run games like NBA Live 96 without any problems, but they were more expensive. Because PCs weren’t a common household item, we didn’t necessarily know much about system specifications; what to ask about, and shop around for. Technology was also starting to move fast, and computers quickly became outdated, especially when it came to supporting the latest games. Consider the infamous scene from Friends where Chandler brags about his laptop and all the things it can do. It’s hilariously dated now, but even after a couple of years, the specs he rattles off weren’t that impressive.

After our hard drive crashed a few years later, we would get some more life out of that old 486/66 DX2 thanks to a new two gigabyte hard drive, not to mention the aforementioned upgrades to 16 megabytes of RAM and Windows 98. I was able to run NBA Live 96 much better, and without the need for any boot disks. Before that happened though, I stayed over at a friend’s house, and his family had a Pentium! As Weird Al Yankovic once sang, it was all about the Pentiums in the late 90s, and after playing my copy of NBA Live 96 on their much faster PC, I was rather jealous. No boot disk had allowed me that much smoothness on the maximum resolution!

NBA Live 96 PC in Medium Res

Obviously, specs are still an issue when it comes to gaming and technology still marches on, requiring us to upgrade whenever possible, and eventually invest in new PCs. Not everyone is an expert on hardware, but I’d suggest that there’s a greater knowledge among average PC users, and it’s more affordable to build and buy solid gaming PCs. In addition to hardware upgrades, there are still also tweaks that we can make to improve performance, and we can reduce visual settings if our PCs don’t exceed the recommended specs. We no longer have to use boot disks to manage the memory or bypass Windows because a game is really meant for DOS, though!

And for that, I’m thankful. Look, I have a certain amount of nostalgia when it comes to boot disks. There are fond memories in messing around with them, learning about computers and software, and getting great satisfaction when the boot disks allowed me to play my favourite games. Of course, I also remember the frustration in getting them to work, and wishing that it wasn’t necessary every time I wanted to play NBA Live 96, or one of the other games that required a boot disk. I’m glad that technology has improved, and that Windows is a more stable platform for gaming. I’m glad that expanded memory, 80486 processors, and miniscule amounts of RAM, are history.

So yes, when I talk about the “joy of boot disks”, it’s rather tongue-in-cheek. It wasn’t the optimal scenario for PC gaming, but as evidenced by the troubleshooting guides that were readily available back then, it was something that a lot of gamers with older PCs had to create and endure in order to play the latest titles. Of course, looking back, I think it also helped me in my future career in IT, giving me patience and even a taste for troubleshooting problems. If you grew up playing PC games in the 90s, you ended up learning a few things about Windows, DOS, hardware, and so on. It wasn’t always as easy as popping in a disc, nor running a game on a digital platform like Steam.

NBA Live 96 PC in High Res

All the same, I’d file boot disks under the category of “things from the good old days that are kind of fun to look back on, but it’s so much better now without them”. The closest I’ve come is fiddling around with compatibility software and settings to get old games to run, and my experience with boot disks has probably helped there. It’s as close as I care to get though, and indeed, I haven’t owned a PC with a floppy drive in over ten years. Nevertheless, whenever someone mentions autoexec.bat or config.sys, I remember those days of messing around to get NBA Live 96 to work, and the fun I had when it finally did. With that in mind, perhaps there’s joy in boot disks after all.

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