Modder Pairs 3dfx And PowerVR Chips On One Board For The Ultimate Retro Graphics Card

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Gather around kiddies for a tale of the bad old days. You see, once upon a time, PC gaming wasn't as unified as it is now. Graphics card vendors (and even individual graphics cards) had their own proprietary APIs, and sometimes games shipped as special versions for a given graphics card, complete with custom assets and wildly varying visual quality.

In those days, it actually wasn't all that uncommon for folks to have one graphics card for 2D graphics and a whole separate graphics card for 3D graphics—then called "3D accelerators." The most famous example would be the 3dfx Voodoo Graphics and Voodoo 2 pass-through cards, but there were also PowerVR add-in cards that served the same purpose.

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Anthony's "Changeling," a Voodoo 5 5500 with a jumper to double the memory from 64 to 128MB.

Lately, it's become commonplace for aficionados of retro PC gaming to build PCs from recovered and repaired period-appropriate hardware so that they can play the games as they were in their day. For folks like this writer, who were teenagers at the time and thus didn't necessarily have the income to buy the latest gear, it can be a chance to experience high-end hardware from a bygone era that, in its day, we could only lust after in magazines and early web reviews.

Still, a lot of this old hardware has ended up in landfills or otherwise destroyed, and even if the card is visually intact, it may have suffered failed capacitors or other physical damage. If you've got to do board-level repairs anyway, why not just transplant the whole thing onto an all-new board? Doing so lets the hardware hacker in question do interesting new things, like make a dual-chip card that's both Voodoo 3 and PowerVR PCX2.

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The bare Lost Joker 2 card. (click to enlarge)

Wait, what? Yeah, that was our reaction too. Hardware modder Anthony (known as Anthony Zxclxiv on Facebook, and also known as zx-c64 elsewhere) is up to his usual tricks. The last couple of times we reported on Anthony, he was fabricating all-new Voodoo 5 6000 cards, most recently with beautiful white PCBs. His latest creation is known as the Lost Joker 2, and just as we wrote above, it pairs a 3dfx Voodoo 3 "Avenger" core with a PowerVR PCX2 chip on a single card.

The Voodoo 3 chip on the card is from a Voodoo 3 3500, the top-end Voodoo3 model which originally came with a TV tuner onboard. That functionality is absent on the Lost Joker 2, although the memory on the new card appears to be 4.5ns packages from EtronTech that should in theory support a clock rate all the way up to 230 MHz. It will be interesting to see if the Avenger chip itself can clock that high; the stock clock for the Voodoo 3 3500 was 183MHz (synchronized between graphics core and video memory.)

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A board diagram from the manual for the Lost Joker 2.

Meanwhile, the PowerVR PCX2 chip has its own 4MB of memory and a jumper to toggle the clock speed from the original 66MHz to an overclocked 80MHz. The PCX2 is generally inferior to the Voodoo 3 for most games, but its unique architecture can make it capable of shockingly-high performance in certain titles. Perhaps more importantly it supports PowerVR SGL, allowing retro gamers to access the few games that were optimized specifically for that API (such as Ultim@te Race and the original Tomb Raider).

Arguably the most interesting part of the card is that Anthony has implemented pass-through support. That means even though the Voodoo 3 was designed to be the primary graphics adapter in a system, a buyer could use the Lost Joker 2 as an add-in card with a different primary graphics adapter. While operating systems of the day won't generally play nice with multiple 2D cards running simultaneously, this functionality allows a user to implement a faster AGP card for Windows 2000 or XP games, and then reboot into Windows 9x to play older games using the 3dfx or PowerVR cards.

If you want more information on the pass-through function, you can check out the manual for the card. Folks interested in picking up a Lost Joker 2 for their own retro rigs should contact the modder at his Facebook page, but be prepared to spend out a bit for your extremely exclusive piece of retro hardware: Anthony is apparently asking some $500 USD for each Lost Joker 2 card.