Watch on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6fk_iarL-8
Playing (Almost) Every S3 ViRGE Game For GPUJune
The S3 ViRGE was a 3D accelerated PC graphics card released in 1996 by graphics industry giants S3 - before the original Voodoo card! So let’s take a look at this early pioneer of 3D gaming with some early MS-DOS and Windows 95 S3D accelerated games!
Hey everyone, Rees here and welcome back to ctrl-alt-rees. In this video I’m going to be taking another stab at covering this - the Pentium 233 MMX system I bought back in December, and more specifically, the games optimised for its early 3D accelerator card, the S3 ViRGE - a card that pre-dates even the infamous 3dfx Voodoo by pretty much a whole year. So let’s take a look.
But first, a confession. You see, I committed a cardinal sin, that of being wrong on the internet. I released a video back in December - as part of DOScember no less - where I showed off this PC, which had literally just arrived on the day of filming, and of course showed some games running on it. When I received it, I didn’t know that it had that S3 ViRGE card on board, and so when I discovered it, I hastily Googled a list of compatible games, installed a few, and captured some footage.
Of course, there’s quite a bit more to it than that when it comes to these early 3D cards, with only very specific releases supporting certain cards, or at the very least, patches to install to enable support for their proprietary APIs.
It was all done in good faith, but I didn’t really want to contribute to there being yet more misinformation on the internet, so shortly after I was made aware I delisted the video - it was by far the most popular on my channel at the time, but it just seemed like the right thing to do.
So in the meantime, to atone for my sins, I tracked down every single game released with support for the ViRGE’s proprietary S3D graphics engine and listed them on my website, with archive.org download links and links and instructions for any required patches, as well as my own findings from testing.
I burnt a huge amount of CDs - CDs I have here and that I’m going to run through in this video - and I even tracked down a few games that weren’t on any of the lists I found online. All in the name of preserving the story behind this interesting graphics card and letting people experience it for themselves as easily as possible.
So, about the ViRGE itself. Released in May 1996, the Virtual Reality Graphics Engine was graphics industry giant S3’s first attempt at a 3D accelerated gaming card - and it hasn’t been remembered fondly, if I’m honest. In fact the gaming press and online forum users branded it “The 3D Decelerator” - a nickname that persists even today. But as one of the first consumer 3D gaming cards, predating even the original Voodoo, I think it’s a very important piece of history and well worth a look.
So, what progress have I made since my last video? Well, as you can probably see, the computer has now been retrobrighted - I can’t release a follow-up video without doing at least something controversial to boost engagement, after all. I use the full submersion method favoured by a certain popular tech YouTuber, and as the sun here isn’t as bright as it is in Texas I use 12% food grade hydrogen peroxide undiluted.
I think it came out pretty well, and longer term I’m going to keep an eye on it to see if it re-yellows, and of course if it does I’ll let you know.
The computer is still running the same Pentium MMX 233MHz CPU it had in it originally, incidentally, the last and fastest Pentium MMX that Intel ever made. As this motherboard supports SIMM or DIMM RAM and the original 16MB of SIMMs were so painfully slow, I’ve upgraded it to 256MB of PC-133 DIMM memory, which in this case will be underclocked to 66MHz.
It still has its original ESS AudioDrive 1868 sound card, and I’ve added an Orchid Righteous3D, which was the original Voodoo card, and we’ll be taking a brief look at this towards the end of the video. For the purposes of video capture, however, it’s been removed so we can see the ViRGE’s S3D rendering engine in all its glory.
Software-wise, I always thought that Windows 3.1 was an odd choice of OS for a later MMX like this one, so I’ve upgraded it with the rather unusual choice of Windows 95 OSR1. I really wanted to run this machine on 95 rather than 98 so it was more period correct for the graphics card, and I have plenty of other 98 machines, and this version lets me boot into my previous version of MS-DOS, which later 95 releases don’t.
The 2GB FAT16 partition size limit is a bit awkward to work around, but apart from trying to remember where I installed things, it hasn’t proven to be a problem and it’s been a lot of fun working around its limitations again for the first time in 25 years.
Finally, on to the card itself. It’s actually a ViRGE DX, as that’s what came in the machine, and while performance is supposed to be around 40% better than the original ViRGE, it’ll be perfectly sufficient for my purposes of showing what these games looked like. The video output was a bit weak and prone to interference, so I replaced the capacitors, and while that does seem to have improved things somewhat, there is still a little bit visible on the captures in some places, although it generally looks fine on my CRT.
Finally, after watching my previous video, a very kind viewer going by the name of White Dragon sent me some RAM so that I could upgrade the card:
Dear Rees, Please find attached some chips for your Virge. I hope they find you well, and that you and yours are healthy and safe in these troubling times. Yours, White Dragon.
This graphics card uses standard DRAM, as VRAM wouldn’t come until later with the ViRGE VX. It shipped with 2MB on board, and this upgrade will bring it up to its maximum of 4MB. This allows higher resolutions and colour depths in Windows and indeed in some games, so this donation was very much appreciated and I’m very grateful.
So with all of that up and running, lets take a look at the games. I’ve burned these CDs from archive.org - there are of course NoCD cracks and the like, but I wanted the full experience with CD audio and everything else where it was available. I’m going to look at these releases in chronological order, starting in mid-1995 and working my way up to the year 2000, when the last game supporting the ViRGE’s proprietary S3D rendering technology was released.
So without further ado, lets get stuck in to it, and the first one to try out is this: good old Terminal Velocity.
This is the DOS version, and launching it is a case of running the executable using the official S3DRUN wrapper, which allows earlier ViRGE games to detect this later DX card and will be something of a recurring theme in this video.
Developed by Terminal Reality and released in 1995 by Apogee under their brand new 3D Realms brand, Terminal Velocity is a free roaming 3D space shooter. I’m running the DOS retail release here using the official S3D patch released by 3D Realms at the time. There are some OEM versions out there, including a Windows 95 specific build and I’ll touch on those again later, but as they’re based on the shareware release with fewer levels and lower resolution textures, this is definitely the one to go for.
This was one of my favourite games back in the day and as you can see, it runs great on the ViRGE, and is still a lot of fun to play even now.
Also from 1995 is Screamer, a racing game developed by Graffiti and published by Virgin Interactive Entertainment.
The game is best known for its excellent software rendering engine which really makes the most of the Pentium’s capabilities. I’m using an unofficial fan made S3D patch which was adapted from a later OEM release, which unfortunately I didn’t manage to track down.
As you can see, the card doesn’t fare very well here, with misaligned polygons and stuttery performance. In fact I think the only thing crazier than the graphics are the physics.
The game runs marginally better in low res mode, although to be honest, on a high end Pentium like this, the software renderer completely blows the S3 card out of the water, so personally I wouldn’t bother hunting down this build for anything other than curiosity’s sake.
This isn’t a comparison video specifically - there are plenty out there already if you’re interested - and I’m trying to judge the S3 on its own merits, but in this case there was such a difference in performance that it seemed dishonest to at least not show them side by side, so here they are.
So a mixed bag so far, and perhaps an early indicator of why this card earned that Decelerator nickname back in the day. The next game, also from 1995, is Destruction Derby. Or is that Derby? And it comes courtesy of this Diamond Stealth 3D 2000 OEM CD.
The Diamond Stealth 3D 2000 was a branded version of the ViRGE DX, and while this release was originally designed to be locked to this card, a Vogons user by the name of vetz very kindly created a patch which removes both this check and the CD check - which in my case was essential as the only CD image I could find was from a known bad batch.
Developed by Reflections Interactive and published by Psygnosis, this game was originally released for DOS. This version is specifically optimised for Windows 95 and seems to run at whatever resolution you have Windows running at, in my case 1024x768.
I have all of the graphics options enabled here and it’s perfectly playable, even with multiple cars on screen at the same time, although it would perhaps benefit from knocking the resolution down a touch. It depends how picky you are about framerate drops, I suppose.
A cool feature specific to this release is that the cars have more points of damage than the original DOS version, in line with the PlayStation port.
The only annoyance is the continuous engine noise - which seems to be a side effect of the NoCD crack. It’s a real shame this game didn’t get an official patch outside of the Diamond Stealth bundle, as it makes good use of the ViRGE’s capabilities and runs well.
My fourth and final game from 1995 is Gremlin Interactive’s Fatal Racing, known in the US as Whiplash. Unfortunately I could only track down the retail release and its demo, which both use software rendering. To get proper support for S3D, you need to run a specific OEM release bundled with some HP computers, and as far as I can see that hasn’t been made available online anywhere.
It’s a shame, as it’s another great example of an early DOS 3D racer and there are comparison videos out there showing it running, so hopefully it’ll surface online at some point in future so it’s properly preserved.
The version I have does support the Creative 3D Blaster, another early 3D card, but unfortunately I don’t have one of those to be able to demo.
So just to reiterate - what you’re watching here is using a software renderer and not taking advantage of the ViRGE.
Incidentally, I did find this very tiny picture of that HP OEM CD. If you happen to own one of these - the CD that is, not a very tiny picture of one - please let me know!
So onto one of my favourite games now, or at least the original was - the sequel actually passed me by at the time. I’m talking about Descent II.
Developed by Parallax Software and published by Interplay, the critically acclaimed sequel to the excellent Descent was released in March 1996. If you’re not familiar with Descent, it’s another spaceship combat game, except set underground this time, and structured in a similar way to a first person shooter, with linear levels, coloured keycards and the like.
Now, to get S3D support, you either need the official patch, or as I’m running here, the later slightly expanded release, titled The Infinite Abyss, which also comes with an extra 22 levels and a Windows 95 specific build.
This was a real pain to get running, and the only way I could persuade it to use the S3D renderer on the ViRGE DX was by launching the DOS version under Windows using the S3DRUN wrapper. But anyway, here we are.
Again, this isn’t intended as a comparison video, but this was also a case where the software renderer just ran so much better, and it felt dishonest not to point that out. Now, bear in mind that this is a top of the range Pentium MMX, and it could well be that on lesser systems the S3 would offer a boost in performance, but certainly not in this case.
With framerates dropping into the single digits in places and no real graphical improvement, I doubt I’ll be playing the S3D version again on this system, especially as it was such a pain to get running.
Speaking of pains, and another game that I’ll skip over briefly for reasons that will soon become apparent, lets take a look at this, FX Fighter Turbo.
Developed by Argonaut Games and published by GTE Interactive, November 1996’s FX Fighter Turbo was the sequel to 1995’s PC beat em up, FX Fighter. Evidently heavily inspired by Sega’s Virtua Fighter, FX Fighter and its sequel were well received by critics.
Running this game with S3D acceleration is just a case of launching the ViRGE specific executable. Now, there’s something very odd going on with my copy - the CD audio doesn’t play properly and the menus don’t respond to any kind of input, but leave it long enough and it will cycle through some very short demos which you can see here.
Definitely one I need to spend some more time on as by all accounts a great game, and seems to run well on my setup. I’ll have to see if I can source a working copy from elsewhere.
So the next game I’m going to take a look at is Activision’s mech combat game MechWarrior II, and this is a version that was bundled with S3 ViRGE cards back in December 1996, a year after the game’s retail release.
The menus run windowed and feature prerendered graphics and video, but launching the game itself switches to fullscreen mode with that glorious S3D renderer.
I’m running the game in high detail mode with all of the graphical extras enabled, at a resolution of 512x384.
I have to admit I never got into the MechWarrior games, although I was aware of them at the time, so I didn’t spend much time with this one. From what I saw though, it runs well and looks good for what it is, so I’m not surprised they bundled it with the S3 cards to show off what they could do.
So from one bundled release to another, I’m going to take a look at the S3 Gamepak, also from late 1996. These bundles were pretty common with graphics cards back in the day, with the manufacturers picking games that they thought would show off what their cards were capable of.
Sometimes they were full games as per our previous example, but in this case we have a disk full of shareware demos - Terminal Velocity - which of course we’ve already seen the full version of so I won’t go over that again, Actua Soccer, and Havoc. So first up, lets take a look at Actua Soccer.
The first title in Gremlin Interactive’s Actua Sports series, Actua Soccer was actually released back in 1995, but didn’t get S3D support until this OEM version over a year later. The very first football - or soccer if you like - game to feature a fully 3D rendered engine, Actua Soccer boasted motion captured players and dynamic commentary.
I’m not really a fan of sports games, but this one’s easy enough to pick up and the 3D works well, especially considering this was the first game of its kind. As perhaps could be expected from an OEM release, the ViRGE handles it well and the game looks great, for what it is. Definitely worth checking out, if only because it’s the only sports game on this list.
The other S3 Gamepak game is Havoc, another older game from 1995 later updated with an S3D renderer, developed and published by Reality Bytes.
This arena vehicular combat game was another new one on me, and its fast and frantic action was a lot of fun, with the S3 card keeping up admirably, probably helped by the rather short draw distance.
This game also boasts up to 16 player multiplayer, so could have been a LAN party staple back in its day had it been better known, and even supported cross platform network play between its Windows and Mac versions.
Personally though, I just enjoy chasing down rogue Tesla cybertrucks on the surface of Mars. A game decades ahead of its time, perhaps.
I have to say the ViRGE is faring very well so far in my tests, with just a couple of hiccups, and although I admit I’m using the slightly higher spec although much more common DX card here, I’m starting to think that it’s reputation as a “3D decelerator” maybe wasn’t entirely justified. I think it’s fair to say that it wasn’t completely useless, and the games that supported it did make good use of the hardware.
So now I want to take a look at another commercial release, and of course a game that was huge on the PlayStation. I’m talking, of course, about Tomb Raider.
Now, the ViRGE patch wasn’t released until slightly later on, but the developers Core Design did indeed offer official support, and it was even bundled on the CD with the later release, titled Unfinished Business here, or Tomb Raider Gold in the US.
I won’t bother showing Unfinished Business here as it’s just more of the same, but the S3D renderer runs very smoothly and looks great. I know from previous experience that the software renderer was quite choppy on this machine, so this is a great improvement.
But it’s not all good news. This game really fought me, refusing to recognise the card, refusing to play its intro videos, refusing to start at all with the sound card configured in a particular way and in the end, I have to say it just wasn’t worth it.
My grandmother always told me that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. But I’m going to have to make an exception for this.
Released at some point in 1996, Battle Race, developed by Soft Enterprises and published by Ikarion Software, also supports the S3D renderer - when it decides to cooperate - and so here it is.
Featuring an interesting cast of characters - including one called Shattner, this 3D space racing game offers incredibly janky controls that aren’t remappable, basic level geometry that doesn’t really take advantage of the ViRGE card in any meaningful way, and a very uninterested commentator.
It runs OK, I guess, so that’s nice.
Moving swiftly along… The next game, and our first entry from 1997, is Terracide . Now I have to admit that I hadn’t heard of this game, and I was very pleasantly surprised when I checked it out.
Developed by Simis and published by Eidos, essentially this is a Descent clone, and a pretty decent one at that. It’s an interesting premise for a game, with a rogue race of genetically and robotically enhanced superhumans taking over the galaxy, and you being one of the last of a band of plucky vanilla-flavoured humans making a last ditch attempt to stop them destroying the earth.
I’d read online that only the demo supported the S3D renderer, but I thought I’d check out the full retail release just in case and it turns out that it does too.
Terracide offers a variety of resolutions and graphics options, but I’d recommend 512x384 with the default settings. It will launch but very quickly runs out of video RAM on a 2MB card, so be wary of that and maybe try disabling some settings if your card isn’t upgraded like mine.
It features some nice coloured lighting and explosion effects and is a real showcase of what the S3 ViRGE can do, so I can highly recommend it.
Perhaps its weirdest feature, though, is the interactive credits, which seem to feature all of the development team - including the office dog - sat around drinking in a weird low-poly village pub. Most developers would probably hide this away as an easter egg but not Simis - it’s right there on the main menu.
So a really standout title there, and one that I think is well worth checking out. Which is more than I can say for the next game, - Time Warriors.
The second fighting game on this list, and the second fighting game that didn’t really work properly, with this one throwing a “3D accelerator not found” error. It seems to run anyway, and has an S3D kind of look about it. It also ran far worse in software rendering mode, if you can believe it, so I guess the ViRGE is doing something.
Developed by French developer Simarilis and published by MPO Multimedia, Time Warriors was released in 1997.
I wish I could say something good about this game, but the performance was terrible, the controls felt disconnected and it was just all around a pretty disappointing experience. Bear in mind ‘97 was the year that gave us Tekken 3, and I can see why this one hasn’t gone down in history.
Running the game in low resolution mode does improve performance a little bit, but now it’s in a tiny window, making it even more of a pain to play. It’s quite hard to see what’s going on on a 17” CRT, and that was quite big by 1997 standards with most home PCs using 15”, so I’m sure you can imagine.
The game does feature a character called “Dong”, so I suppose it has that going for it. 13 year old me would have appreciated that, at least, if not the game itself.
So next up we have another big PlayStation title, as per Tomb Raider which we’ve already looked at, this time hailing from late 1997, and it’s the PC port of Codemasters’ excellent racing game that spawned a classic series - TOCA Touring Cars.
If you’re in the US you may know this game as TOCA Championship Racing, but either way, it features official built in support for various 3D accelerators including the S3.
I’d like to thank my Patron Mark ‘Kurbeco’ Simpson for bringing this game to my attention, as it wasn’t on any of the lists I found online. A great find indeed - thanks!
The higher resolution options are locked out on 2MB cards, although to be honest I wouldn’t bother with them, as the game is basically a slideshow on the higher settings. The sweet spot - and what I’m showing here - is medium resolution with medium detail. You might be able to push it a little bit further if you’re playing a timetrial with no other cars on the track and no weather effects, but I wanted to thoroughly test the card and so I’m showing a full race at Donington here in stormy weather.
The S3 actually fares well, with the software rendered mode playing like a slideshow on the same settings.
So lets head in a completely different direction now and check out the one and only platformer on this list, Croc: Legend of the Gobbos .
Released in November 1997 and yet another PlayStation port, Argonaut Software’s Croc was a typical mid-90s 3D platformer, AKA a Mario 64 clone.
It’s a fun little game actually, and on the ViRGE DX I found that 320x200 resolution with medium lighting - whatever that means - gave the best balance of performance and prettiness.
If you are trying to track down a copy to play with a ViRGE card make sure it’s the original release, as later releases dropped support for specific 3D accelerators in favour of DirectX. As I mentioned at the beginning of the video, download details for this and all of the other games featured here are on my website.
The controls are a little bit awkward with the camera sometimes doing unexpected things, but that’s not the fault of the graphics card, of course and it’s very common with these early 3D platformers. This game passed me by at the time so it was a lot of fun to see what it was all about, and I think the S3 does a nice enough job with it.
And now finally, to 1999, and the last game on this list with proper, built-in S3D support. By 99 the Voodoo cards with their excellent Glide renderer were well and truly dominating the market, and so it’s a bit surprising that anyone would bother with the humble old ViRGE. But Ubisoft’s POD, or Planet of Death, actually added it in it’s rerelease from that year.
POD had actually originally been released back in ‘97, and was pretty much designed from the ground up to showcase what the MMX instruction set could do, being bundled as an OEM release with Pentium MMX machines. For the 1999 retail release they decided to throw S3D into the mix too, and who am I to argue.
This post-apocalyptic Mad Max styled racing game didn’t detect my card at first, so I had to manually copy the S3 accelerated executable from the CD after install, but it’s not too much of a hardship, especially considering what I went through with some of the games on this list.
You’ll know whether S3D is enabled as you’ll get access to the graphical options menu, which is disabled when using the MMX software renderer.
POD runs pretty nicely actually, with some nice lighting and shadow effects. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill racing game and it’s certainly no TOCA, but it’s a fun little diversion and worth checking out.
Of course, with this being a top of the range MMX and POD being an MMX optimised game, I had to show the software renderer too. I wouldn’t say that it really runs any better or worse on this machine, but if you had a non-MMX Pentium at the time and wanted to play the game I imagine the ViRGE would have been the best way to enjoy it.
And I think that brings us to the point of this video. It’s perhaps a little unfair to test this card on a top of the range MMX system such as this one, as software rendering on this CPU can equal it and often outperform it, as we’ve seen, and this is one of the aspects that earned the S3 its rather unfortunate nickname of the “3D decelerator” back in the day.
Perhaps it would make more sense on a lesser Pentium or even a higher end 486, and perhaps that’s something I can try out later on in a follow up video if there’s enough interest.
Now there’s one more thing that I wanted to talk about, and that’s this card’s complete lack of OpenGL support, and very poor support for Direct3D.
But in the case of OpenGL there was something of a solution, and that came in the year 2000 with Techland’s Crime Cities .
Although technically a native OpenGL game, Polish developer Techland wanted to support as many video cards as possible, and so actually wrote a wrapper - called a MiniGL driver - to translate OpenGL calls to native S3D ones, and it did actually work, to some extent.
I had to turn off all of the graphics options to get this game to run at anything near an acceptable framerate, but it did run and it’s kind of tolerable when there’s not too much going on.
I guess I really wanted to demo this game because I hadn’t heard of it, and because of the developer’s rather interesting solution for supporting these cards. I’ll probably be playing it again on my Voodoo card at some point in future to see what it’s really all about, but thought I’d show it here as it’s an interesting story.
Perhaps more interesting, though, is that the Techland MiniGL driver wasn’t just limited to this game, and could actually be dropped into any OpenGL game with varying degrees of success - like Quake.
Now, as you can see here, using the MiniGL wrapper to run GLQuake does actually work, and if it was somehow your only option at the time, it was actually playable, albeit with some weird graphic anomalies.
To be honest though, it’s probably nothing more than an interesting technical exercise rather than an actual viable option, but hopefully this and some of the other demos here have shown that the S3 ViRGE perhaps wasn’t quite as weak as history has made it out to be.
[To Camera] So what became of the ViRGE? Well, it reviewed poorly and didn’t really catch on, not helped at all by its poor OpenGL and Direct3D performance. The technology was reworked and rebranded as S3’s Trio3D, and did see some success in the early integrated graphics world after VIA acquired the business in 2001 due to its strong 2D desktop graphics performance.
At the top end of S3’s range, the ViRGE was replaced by the far superior Savage 3D 1998, but it was too little too late, as two years previously the 3dfx Voodoo powered Orchid Righteous3D was released, and brought highly polished and well supported 3D acceleration to the PC in the form of its excellent Glide API, which was closely related to OpenGL and therefore much easier for developers to support.
The 90s were a very turbulent and disruptive time for PC 3D graphics, and in a few short years the Voodoo and its creator 3DFX died off too, declaring bankruptcy in the year 2000 with what was left of the company being acquired by Nvidia, and these days it’s pretty much a two horse race between 2000s graphics giants Nvidia and ATI - now owned by AMD, of course. But that’s a story for another time.
So I hope you enjoyed checking out the S3 ViRGE with me and seeing what this early 3D card was capable of, and hopefully I’ve made up for that previous video.
So finally, I’d just like to thank you very much for joining me, and I’ll hopefully see you again next time.
S3 ViRGE Games, Patches & Notes: https://ctrl-alt-rees.com/2020-12-06-s3-virge-officially-supported-games-and-s3d-patch-downloads.html
Check out the official GPUJune playlist! https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLC-GPEYjsF-jvOQHeJBY5JzL7_cxatBW1
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