Which all in all means, I guess, that to my ear at least the Microsoft's "bad" synth is still a MUCH BETTER sounding option than Soundblaster or Adlib.
I think that it is to everyone's ear.
Still, as suggested, you can improve that General MIDI quality even further (by quite much) by using some better GM/GS soundfont. I personally like the ChoriumRevA soundfont, which I use in Windows with the Coolsoft VirtualMIDI Synth utility. I used to own a Roland SCC-1 (Sound Canvas/GS) soundcard back in the day (actually I still do, but don't use it anymore...), and to my ear ChoriumRevA is like a better version of Sound Canvas. I like it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PXJORA0wWi8
If you set up e.g. ChoriumRevA and want to hear what Sound Canvas game music was at its best, I suggest you to try out games like:
Wing Commander 3
Dune 2 (this game sounds great both with General MIDI/Sound Canvas, as well as Roland MT-32 (e.g. with the Munt MT-32/CM-32L emulator)).
Sure you can try those out also with Microsoft Wavetable Synthesis, but then you will be missing all the extra Sound Canvas extensions that those games supported. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrYX1Of4hzE https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=irljnvZXizI https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIQk3gZQhDs https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q40USE35TU8
People are screwing themselves unaware by playing on Soundblaster unless they consciously want the "authentic" experience of playing back in the day on Soundblaster.
To me "authentic" means either Roland MT-32 (CM32L) or Roland Sound Canvas in those games that supported them, as I was (and am) lucky enough to own both.
Also I have that vague memory of the General Midi option sounding worse than the Roland Sound Canvas option at some point, but I have no idea when, where, on what configuration, and is it even true. I guess I am never gonna get full answers without having the actual PCs and software I used then, whenever it was. Time Machine please!
At least I never found a game where a separate General MIDI option would sound different to a Sound Canvas/SCC-1 option (played on a SCC-1 that is fully compliant with both; GS/Sound Canvas is basically a superset of General MIDI, offering some extra sounds, alternative drum sets and extra effects (reverb etc.)).
Hence, I have no idea why a few games had separate options for "General MIDI" and "Sound Canvas".
- If the game offered the extended Sound Canvas music, other General MIDI cards would simply omit the MIDI messages they didn't understand, like using an alternative drumset, using some reverb effect etc. So the music would sound somewhat flatter and more generic on a non-Sound Canvas compliant card, but it would still sound fine.
- If the game offered only pure General MIDI music without the Sound Canvas extensions, then Sound Canvas would still play it just fine, without using its full potential.
So there was simply no reason to offer two separate MIDI soundtracks, one for "generic" General MIDI cards, and another for Sound Canvas.
Many Origin and Westwood games supported the Sound Canvas extensions.
(a side offtopic question but it came to my mind as I was thinking about all of this - if a game was DOS-only in Windows 98 you got a prompt that you need to restart the PC and if you clicked 'yes' you got auto-booted into DOS and straight into the game? Do I remember that correctly?)
You could decide it yourself. You had basically three options to run MS-DOS games in Windows 9x:
1. Run the game directly from Win9x (most MS-DOS games ran fine like this, the exception being games with oddball memory managers of their own, like JEMM and such...).
2. Exit Windows9x to pure MS-DOS (no reboot needed, you would just exit the Windows graphical user interface; after all, Windows 9x was basically running on top of MS-DOS all the time.
3. Create a shortcut the the MS-DOS game (the .exe file), and in the shortcut properties, give the game its own config.sys and autoexec.bat. In this case the system would reboot into pure MS-DOS, by using the config.sys and autoexec.bat provided in the game shortcut.
I still have two old PCs running also Windows 98SE. :) I admit I very rarely use them.