Sunday, August 21, 2016

Boulder Dash - PC Speed and Joysticks

Boulder Dash was originally released for the IBM PC and PCjr. in 1984 by First Star Software.  The disk included two separate executables, one for the IBM PC and one for the IBM PCjr.  The disk was a PC booter.

The IBM PC executable is serviceable but not particularly impressive.  There is a distinct lack of animation on the title screen and for the amoeba tiles.  There is also no color-cycling effect for the diamonds.   It is debatable whether the game really uses composite color graphics.  Sound effects are weak even by PC speaker standards.

The IBM PCjr executable, on the other hand, is much, much more impressive.  It uses the 3-voice PCjr. chip for music and sound effects.  It supports 16-color graphics with full animation and color cycling.  Despite being slower than the PC, it does not suffer from a lot of slowdown, despite the extra effort.  Compare these pairs of screenshots from the PC and PCjr. executables :

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Boulder Dash on the Atari 2600 - Beginning or Continuing a Long Journey

BD2600 - Title Screen
In late 2011, a new homebrew cartridge was announced for the Atari 2600.  This would be a port of Boulder Dash, the classic computer game originally developed on the Atari 800 home computer by Pieter Liepa and Chris Gray.  Their game was bought by First Star Software, which published it for the Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Apple II and IBM PC & PCjr. computers in 1984 as well as for the Colecovision.   FSS also published the sequel, Boulder Dash II : Rockford's Revenge and Boulder Dash Construction Kit.  FSS's other well-known game series is the Spy vs. Spy games.

Boulder Dash was very popular, with the game being ported officially or unofficially to many different platforms.  The Amstrad CPC, BBC Micro, Epoch Super Cassette Vision, Game Boy, MSX, NES, PC-8801 and ZX Spectrum all received officially licensed ports. Except for a period from around 1991 to 2001, there has rarely been a year gone by without a release or re-release of Boulder Dash in some officially licensed form.  Today it can be purchased on mobile platforms.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The PC Joystick to Tandy 1000 Joystick Port Adapter

IBM PC-compatible joysticks using the DA-15 connector came in all shapes and sizes.  Some have a hat switch, some have a throttle wheel, and many are quite durable.  The CH Flightstick Pro is among my favorite PC joysticks.  Its large enough to fit in my hand, has easy movement and feels very precise.

Unfortunately, Tandy 1000 users do not have many options, thanks to the 6-pin DIN connector the 1000 line used.    The official Tandy joystick line consists of the miserable black box joystick with the single button and non-self centering stick, the Deluxe Joystick which fixes those issues but is still rather boxy and uncomfortable, and the Pistol Stick Joystick, which has a handle but is really basic.  Not many third parties released joysticks with the Tandy plug, but in this blog article, I will tell you how to adapt any standard PC-style joystick to work in a Tandy 1000 joystick port.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Generic DOS PC - A Critique of LGR's 486 Build

If you wanted to build a DOS PC, what would you build?  The answer depends in no small part on what you expect it to run.  Do you want a system that can run the oldest games?  In that case you will probably want an IBM PC, XT or one of the earlier Tandy 1000 series systems.  Perhaps even a PCjr. or a Compaq Portable?  But those systems are often running PC Booters as much as they are running true DOS games.  Fast forward a couple of years and you get into EGA and VGA systems.  Now you are dealing with higher speed 286s, 386s and 486s.  Even though many of the more speed sensitive games will fail to run on these systems, the classic DOS era is at hand.  But suppose you want something with 3-D acceleration and high resolution color in mind.  Then you are looking at Pentium systems and sharing drive space with Windows 95 games.  Duke Nukem 3D, Fallout, Magic Carpet 2 require more than what most 486s will give.

I would suggest that most people probably received their first introduction to IBM compatible PCs and DOS in the early 1990s, "When VGA Was King."  In those days, then-young adults like myself were in awe at the beautiful graphics of the King's Quest games, addicting world-building simulations like Civilization and complex role-playing of the Ultimas.  We saved our allowances to buy a Sound Blaster card because systems did not come with sound cards as a standard feature until well into the mid-90s.  We looked eagerly at the new CD-ROM technology, waiting for it to drop in price and salivated at The 7th Guest and Myst (and found out that cutting edge technology seldom lives up to the hype).  PCs had something to offer that our NES, SNES and Genesis consoles could not.

Building a DOS system often addresses that era of early 90s gaming with the ability to reach somewhat back to the late 80s and forward into the mid 90s.  Building vintage computer systems has become something of a niche hobby, but now one with very dedicated members.  My own humble writings here and elsewhere may have made some small contribution to this phenomenon.  But when someone like Lazy Game Reviews decides to post a system build video, it will get a great deal of attention.  With almost 400K Youtube subscribers and videos easily ratcheting 100K views within a short period of time, he is sufficiently successful on that he does not need a day job.  Although far many more people watch his Sims videos than his retro-computing videos, there is enough overlap that his message reaches many more people than anyone else I know of who regularly covers retro-PC topics.

Here is his first video :
And here is his followup video :

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Tandy 1000 Digital Joystick Adapter

IBM PCs and compatibles had an analog joystick interface.  The Tandy Color Computer and clones like the Dragon 32/64 computers also had an analog joystick interface.  Inside an PC or CoCo joystick were a pair of potentiometers.  The chief difference between the two interfaces is how the potentiometers were connected.  PC sticks used the potentiometers as variable resistors, wiring two of the three terminals, one of which to +5v and the middle would be connected to the interface's input.  CoCo sticks used the potentiometers as voltage dividers, where all three terminals would be connected, one outer terminal to +5v, one outer terminal to ground and the middle terminal would be connected to the interface's input.

In the early days of home computers, a joystick could be used for more than just playing games.  It could function as a cursor controller like a mouse, which was useful for drawing programs.  It could also be used for flight simulators, where the analog control could be appreciated.  Most home computer games from the 1980s that support a joystick were ported or derived or inspired by the popular home console and arcade games of the time.  Games like Pac-Man, Pitfall and Space Invaders did not really need an analog stick, they usually used digital joysticks.  When platforming games like Super Mario Bros and Prince of Persia became popular, they often or exclusively used digital gamepads.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Who Needs a Sound Blaster? - Deficiencies with Early Emulators

It is the accepted conventional wisdom that if you want to play DOS games from the DOS era (1988-1996) you will need some form of Sound Blaster card or compatible.  However, not everyone could afford a Sound Blaster card or felt the need to upgrade to a Sound Blaster from their Adlib or even their PC Speaker.

What was compatible with a Sound Blaster?  In the first few years of the line, not much.  Software that supported the Adlib or (sometimes) the Game Blaster were upwards compatible with the Sound Blaster, but it did not work the other way around.  Early competitors like the original Mediavision Pro Audio Spectrum and Covox Sound Master II were not compatible with the Sound Blaster outside Adlib support.  MIDI-based devices like the Roland MT-32 and Roland Sound Canvas were never Sound Blaster or even Adlib compatible.

Sound Blaster clones like the Thunderboard and the Aztech Sound Galaxy series either reverse engineered the Sound Blaster or used Creative Labs-supplied chips.  The Pro Audio Spectrum Plus/ 16/Studio contained a Thunderboard, so its compatibility with Sound Blaster 2.0 software compatibility was high.  Later cards like the Yamaha YMF-71x series also had high Sound Blaster Pro 2.0 compatibility (but would not play all Duke Nukem II ADPCM sound effects, see below).  OEMs like Dell, Compaq and Gateway often included no-name cards with Crystal or ESS chips that provided workable Sound Blaster compatibility.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

NES Classic Edition/NES Mini - Nintendo's Official Emulation Box

North American Packaging
On July 14, Nintendo announced that it would be releasing a "new" console, the NES Classic Edition.  For Europe, it is called the Nintendo Classic Mini.  It will be released on November 11, 2016 and will cost $59.99.  The console is an emulation box will include 30 built-in NES games.

The NES Mini will have an HDMI port for audio and video.  It supports two controllers, which look identical to the standard NES controller except for the Wii connector plug.  One will come with the system.  A second controller will cost $9.99 and will be available for purchase separately.  The NES Mini will be powered by a USB port.  The North American version will come with an AC adapter, but the European version will not (presumably because of the different shapes of the power sockets across Europe).  New games cannot be added to the console and it cannot connect to the Internet.  That dust cover flap is not real and the device cannot work with cartridges.  The USB port is for power only.

The NES Classic will be a small console, it can fit within the palm of an adult hand, but the controllers will be full-size like the original 7-pin controllers.  The cables are rather short compared to the originals, they look to be about 3' long instead of the 6' we enjoy with the 7-pin plug.  The Power and Reset buttons work like the originals (spring/latch and spring).

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Nosferatu and the Public Domain

I.  Rights in Nosferatu

Abraham "Bram" Stoker died on April 20, 1912.  When he died, his estate consisted mainly of his literary work.  To support his wife Florence Stoker, the only work with any continuing market value was his most famous novel, Dracula.  Unfortunately, that revenue was not particularly impressive at the time.

In 1921, Albin Grau had co-founded a studio called Prana Films and decided to make a loose adaptation of Dracula.  This film was finished in late 1921 and released in 1922 and called Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens.  It has become a classic film of the German Silent Expressionist movement.  It has widely been considered to be in the public domain, but as I will show here, that may not necessarily be the case.