Sunday, August 30, 2015

Retro City Rampage 486 - A Review of a "New" MS-DOS Game

I knew about Retro City Rampage back when its developer, Brian Provinciano, was calling it Grand Theftendo and trying to port it to the NES.  However, he decided to continue development on the PC and eventually released it on Steam and several consoles.  In its released form, it may have had the feel of an NES or MS-DOS game, but under its hood it was all modern.  Thus it did not really grab my attention and games with no physical release do not either.  In fact, the only Steam games I have ever purchased were the Special Editions of Monkey Island 1 & 2 and I value them today only for their ability to build the Monkey Island 1 & 2 Ultimate Talkie Editions.

When it was announced that not only would RCR receive a true port to the MS-DOS platform as Retro City Rampage 486 but also come in a boxed version, my interest was piqued.  Having a physical release of a game with no need to run a Steam installer and no concern that upgrading to the latest Windows will break the game interested me a great deal.  I was suitably impressed that the game came on a floppy disk.  I had never purchased a physical retro "homebrew" style game before, but the price was $29.99 and it came with a Steam key for the extras, so I eventually decided to take the plunge.  The total came to $34.99 with shipping.

MS-DOS as a gaming platform began with the introduction of the IBM PC back in August of 1981.  The first developed PC game was Donkey.bas, which came on the PC-DOS 1.0 diskette.  It relied on IBM Personal Computer BASIC to run, but it came on a disk, so it required DOS as well.  While during the first few years of PC gaming many games did not need MS-DOS to run, eventually the convenience of using MS-DOS for disk access and the necessity of using it for hard drive access made it ubiquitous by the end of the 1980s.  Until Windows 95 became firmly established as the successor to MS-DOS as a PC gaming platform in 1996-1997, everybody used MS-DOS when they played games on their PC.

It is hard to tell what was the last commercial game released that ran on MS-DOS and came in a box. I am tempted to say Tyrian 2000 from 1999.  However, Tyrian 2000 is an updated release of the original Tyrian, released in 1995.  Perhaps WWII GI is a better example of a DOS game that was first released in stores in 1999 but received a critical drubbing at the time for using the out-of-date Build engine. The last DOS game to be released on floppy disk of any consequence was probably Hexen in 1995 .  It was clear that DOS was Dead by the end of the last century.

While hardly attracting the same attention as consoles, there has been some homebrew style activity for MS-DOS in the 21st Century.  SuperFighterTeam released translated versions of the Taiwanese games Sango Fighter (2009) and Sango Fighter 2 (2013) as free downloads that ran in DOSBox.  Jason Knight released Paku Paku, a Pac-Man clone which ran on a 8088 CPU with CGA using a tweaked 80 column text mode, in 2011.  A guy named mangis is working on a nice-looking CGA tweaked 80 column text game called MagicDuck and has been releasing working alpha builds for quite a while now.  Companies still released shovelware compilations of older DOS games in the early 2000s.  You could order floppy disks of many of Apogee's classics from their website.

Back to RCR 486 and non-free games.  When I received my copy of RCR yesterday, the first thing I did I put it on my shelf and fired up Steam!  Actually, that is what a collector or a reseller might do, but I wanted to do something more with my purchase than simply display it.  The box is a standard size for a NES cartridge, 5"x7"x1".  The Vblank Entertainment logo looks like it came from an Xbox 360 game, the title font looks like it came from a NES game, but the System Requirements label is something that would not look out of place on a Sierra game.  I sliced open the shrinkwrap, opened the top flap and looked at the contents :

I received the fully-boxed Retail Box version, which is limited to 1,000 numbered units.  I ordered my floppy disk with the boring "business beige" color because that is authentic to DOS games and see-through floppy disks are not.  Apparently they are running out of stock of that color.  The glasses have two red lenses rather than the red/blue lenses of regular 3-D glasses.  If you just want a floppy disk and a Steam code, you can get it for $14.99 plus shipping.  In fact, the price for the remaining collector's editions went up $10.00 since I ordered, and judging by my number, they will sell out.

The manual does not need to spend much time on the instructions, which are also located in the game.  The red/blue printing was occasionally used back in the DOS days for document-based copy protection.  More often it was used for hint guides.  In the manual, the cheat keys are hidden by the red/blue printing as is some other artwork, which is pretty cool.

Nor was the cloth map truly necessary as the game has an in-game map.  The material of the cloth map feels like the material found in those smartphone wipes and is about as thick.  The map is rather lacking in contrast, so it will probably stay in the box.  Packaging is nice, but if the game in it is bad, then the whole purpose behind the release is meaningless.

After examining the contents, I did what anyone else would have done back in the day.  I took the 1.44MB disk to my 486 and installed it on my computer.  The installation process went off without a hitch.  The game comes with a proper installation program, which decompresses the game and copies it to your hard drive. Because the game takes 3.7MB of free hard drive space, it cannot be run off a floppy disk.  The install took less than 5 minutes on my 486DX2/66.   The install program is aptly named INSTALL.EXE, the game directory is RCR and the executable is RCR.EXE.  After I installed the program, I made a disk image in case the physical floppy becomes corrupt.

According to the developer, the minimum specification for the game is a 386 with a 387 math coprocessor, but the game was meant for a 486.  It recommends a Pentium for maximum performance.  It also requires 4MB of RAM, DOS 3.3 or better and a VGA card.  It supports keyboard and a joystick or game pad.  I highly recommend using a Gravis Gamepad.  The game will let you map four gamepad buttons and calibrate the joystick or gamepad.  While there are a few more functions than buttons on a PC gamepad or joystick, the main ones map nicely to the most commonly used functions.

The game gives you four frame rate options, 15fps (3 frame skip), 20fps (2 frame skip), 30fps (1 frame skip) and 60fps (0 frame skip).  Real VGA monitors run at 70Hz and none of those options evenly divide into 70, but I did not notice a lot of ugly screen tearing.  For the main game you may want to use the higher fps option, but for the challenges the lower fps options give a faster paced game.

The other fun option in the settings is the ability to change the color scheme.  You can have CGA (both major palettes) or EGA-style graphics.  There is an MDA mode, but it displays more shades of color than real MDA.  You can have graphic schemes that take from the NES, C64, Atari 2600, ZX Spectrum, Genesis, Game Boy, and even the Virtual Boy.

One criticism of the DOS game is that its sound is limited to the PC Speaker.  The original PC release has chiptune music and you can change tunes when you drive the cars.  Unfortunately, the only music in this game appears to be when you are on the title screen.  While the instructions for RCR 486 indicate you can change music in the vehicles using the Tab or Page Up and Page Down keys, they do nothing.

The developer set himself a challenge to fit the game onto one floppy disk.  He had to cut down the game features to do it.  Considering 3.7MB was compressed down to 1.44MB, every byte was precious.  Plus he wanted to target the PC Speaker as a programming challenge.  I would not be displeased if he later released a patch to add music and features, but I will take the game as it is now.

RCR is based on Grand Theft Auto, namely the first two games which had a top down view.  The essential goal outside of story mode is to kill civilians and police.  There are many weapons you can use to wreak havoc and you can carjack any car and run pedestrians over.  There are challenges like the one that gives you a bazooka and requires you to cause as much damage as possible or the one that gives you a certain amount of time to run over 50 people.  Some of the vehicles have special features, you can turn the sirens on the cop cars, shoot a bazooka when you are in a tank and one the vehicles has a pair of machine guns, taken from a certain hard-as-nails NES game made by Konami.

RCR tries to parody pretty much every iconic video game of the 80s and 90s.  Super Mario Bros. 1 & 2, Mega Man 2 and other games are targeted.  The plot of the main game involves the main character who gets lost in time (via a TARDIS) and has to turn to a Doc Brown-type of scientist (from Back to the Future) to obtain the pieces to construct a machine to get him back to his own time.  The main character is a henchman for a psychotic Joker-like character who loves to kill off henchmen who aren't up to snuff.  Other icons of the time like Rambo and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles make appearances.

RCR has something like an open world, or as open as a game of its design can be.  You can enter shops to upgrade your weapons, buy health items and reduce your evil reputation so the police do not attack you every second.  You play through missions and each stage is comprised of multiple missions.  You have three save slots to save your progress in the main game.  Like seemingly all modern games there are achievements and unlockables.

Lazy Game Reviews made a fair criticism that the game tries to parody everything and resemble GTA so closely that it fails to have its own identity.  One or the other could be said about many independent and homebrew games.  Even though it is not a classic in its DOS form it still brought a smile to my face on occasion and the gameplay is easy to pick up and play.  The story mode adds some meat on what would otherwise have been a somewhat shallow offering.  However, I will take it because the developer took the time to bring the essence of his game to a large number of older machines.

A final criticism is that this game is not particularly representative of a retail game that runs well on a 486 but recommends a Pentium.  No game released earlier than 1995 would put something like that on its system requirements sticker.  In 1995, shareware was also dying and this game would hardly be seen as competitive compared with Descent or DOOM II or even Jazz Jackrabbit.  People of 1995 would have been puzzled why a game that looked like it should be on the NES should require system power orders of magnitude greater than the gray box.  However, the developer did not intend this port to be a completely accurate retro game with a presentation from 1990-1991 and system requirements from 1994-1995.  It was to him a fun programming exercise that was sufficiently successful for a limited edition release.

There is no software in this box that I could not have acquired from Steam for $20 less.  $5 extra gets you a floppy disk with an installer and a label, and the extra $15 (now $25) on top of that gets you the other physical feelies.  The developer cannot be making much off this, especially considering all the additional headaches and time it takes to put together a 1,000 copies of a physical software product.  If you just want to try it out, grab it from the Steam.  If you want the total experience of placing an order, waiting for it to ship, opening the box and enjoying the physical items inside, then act fast!  LGR would probably say something like "Mmm, feelies..."

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Prince of Persia DOS 1.0 Sound Card Autodetection Weirdness

When Prince of Persia was originally released for DOS, alongside the Apple II version, it supported several sound cards.  The sound cards the original 1.0 version supported were Adlib, Game Blaster, Sound Blaster, Covox Sound Master.  It also supported the IBM PS/1 Audio/Joystick upgrade, the Tandy PSSJ DAC and the Tandy 3-voice PSG, and of course the PC Speaker.

For sound effects, the original version only supports either digitized sound effects or the PC Speaker sound effects.  To hear digitized sound effects, you must have a Sound Blaster, Tandy DAC, Covox Sound Master or IBM PS/1 Audio/Joystick card.  Otherwise, you will hear PC speaker sound effects.

You can hear music with any of these cards.  Music will sound identical with an Adlib or Sound Blaster or any compatible.  The music will sound similar whether played on a Tandy 3-voice PSG, the 3-voice PSG of the Covox Sound Master or the 12-voice PSG of the Game Blaster.  There is also PC Speaker music. Note that of all the music choices, only the Game Blaster will output in stereo.

The game's executable recognizes several command line parameters related to sound.  The sound card command line parameters in 1.0 are adlib, covox, gblast, ibmg, sblast, tandy & stdsnd.  All should be self explanatory.  They are intended to allow you to override the autodetect function, but do not always work as intended.

When you put a sound card inside a Tandy 1000 with a DAC, things get interesting :

Adlib MSC :
No parameter – Adlib music, Tandy DAC sound effects
Adlib – Adlib music, PC Speaker sound effects
Tandy - Adlib music, Tandy DAC sound effects
Stdsnd – PC Speaker music, PC Speaker sound effects

Game Blaster :
No parameter – Game Blaster music, PC Speaker sound effects
Gblast – Game Blaster music, PC Speaker sound effects
Tandy – Tandy music, Tandy DAC sound effects
Stdsnd – PC Speaker music, PC Speaker sound effects

No Sound Card :
No parameter - Tandy music, Tandy DAC sound effects
Tandy – Tandy music, Tandy DAC sound effects
Stdsnd – PC Speaker music, PC Speaker sound effects

I underlined the unusual options.  You cannot use the Tandy DAC with a joystick, so the Adlib parameter with the Adlib always gives you PC Speaker sound effects and restores joystick support.  However, while the game will use the Adlib with Tandy DAC if present, the same is not true with a Game Blaster in a Tandy DAC system.  You always get PC Speaker sound effects with a Game Blaster.

If you have a Tandy 1000 without a DAC, you have additional options :

No Sound Card :
No parameter – Tandy music, PC Speaker sound effects
Tandy – Tandy music, PC Speaker sound effects
Stdsnd – PC Speaker music, PC Speaker sound effects

Generic PCs behave as you would expect with sound cards, except for the following :

Sound Blaster w/CMS Upgrade :
No parameter – Adlib music (or Game Blaster music if YM-3812 is removed), Sound Blaster DAC sound effects
Sblast - Adlib music, Sound Blaster DAC sound effects
Adlib - Adlib music, PC Speaker sound effects
Gblast - Adlib music, PC Speaker sound effects (if the YM-3812 is removed from a Sound Blaster 1.0-2.0, Game Blaster music will play)
Tandy - Adlib music, PC Speaker sound effects
Stdsnd – PC Speaker music, PC Speaker sound effects

I do know that a Sound Blaster will not work reliably with a Tandy 1000 with a DAC.  Both will use DMA1 and neither device can be truly disabled.  While a Sound Blaster Pro will work in a Tandy 1000 with a DAC, you need to set it to non-standard IRQ/DMA settings to avoid freezes.  While Prince of Persia 1.0 will use IRQs other than 7, it will only use DMA1.  There were no other DMA choices available to the pre-Pro Sound Blasters other than 1.

As far as whether a Sound Blaster will work reliably in an IBM PS/1 with an Audio/Joystick card, I am uncertain.  The IBM device is mounted on a special header inside the PS/1 Model 2011 or 2121.  These machines require external adapter upgrades to support ISA cards, and they are very rare.  Both sound devices use IRQ7, but the IBM card does not use DMA.  Because Prince of Persia uses Sound Blaster IRQs like 5, it won't matter for this game but it could matter for a game like King's Quest I SCI, which only supports a Sound Blaster at IRQ7.  I think it likely that an Adlib would override the IBM music.

Although the Tandy 3-voice and IBM Audio are both based off the same PSG, IBM's card used a slightly higher base frequency than the Tandy PSG.  IBM's card will have higher pitched sound (because of a 11.7% difference in base frequencies) than the Tandy.

Finally, I am uncertain whether an Adlib card will override a Covox card for music.  Since an Adlib card always overrides a Game Blaster even if you use the gblast parameter, it is likely that it will override the Covox for music.  It is also probable that the Covox will still produce digitized sound effects like the Tandy DAC.  Covox cards are extremely rare, only recently has a user made recordings of Prince of Persia's opening with the Covox.  While the Covox has advanced musical capabilities, most companies only used the basic musical capabilities which were only slightly more advanced than the Tandy chip.  Thus the Covox sounds like a Tandy.

If you want to disable the Adlib override for the Game Blaster and Tandy 3-voice music, you have to edit the PRINCE.EXE executable.  At offset 13875h change 75h to EBh, this will make the game respect the command line parameter for sound.  This will allow you to hear Game Blaster music if an Adlib card is installed or on an upgraded Sound Blaster 2.0 or below.  The credit for this patch goes to ripsaw8080 on the VOGONS forum.

Game Blaster support is a bit buggy in version 1.0.  You can hear dropped or hanging notes in the introduction, and it gets worse as the system speed increases.  I have had nearly flawless playback in an 8MHz Tandy 1000 TX or TL.  Ripsaw8080 wrote a program that will dramatically improve note playback in faster systems, find it here :  Note that it requires extended keyboard BIOS functions, so it won't work properly in an IBM PC, IBM PC XT or Portable with 1st BIOS, or any Tandy 1000 before the TL and SL.  Its generally not necessary with systems that slow anyway.    The buggy Game Blaster support is probably why they removed it in version 1.3, plus it was obsolete along with the Covox Sound Master, another casualty of the version upgrade.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Famicom Expansion Audio Carts - Best Examples

During the Famicom's lifespan, 26 cartridge games were known to support expansion audio.  The Famicom directed its audio to cartridge port and games that did not use expansion audio would simply loop it back to the RF modulator.  The expansion audio that these 26 games would generate would intercept the internal audio and mix it with the expansion audio and send the combined signal to the RF modulator.  In addition, 75 Famicom Disk System games (4 of them unlicensed) are also known to use expansion audio generated in the FDS RAM Adapter.

Here is a list of all Famicom games known to use Expansion Audio :

In this post, I identify the most accessible games for English speakers using each expansion audio chip and describe what needs to be done to play it.

Sunsoft 5B

Gimmick! - The original cart alone can go for $200 easily, however, there is at least one other more common Famicom cart (Gremlins 2) with a Sunsoft 5B chip, but obtaining one is something of the luck of the draw.  Additionally, one can make a donor NES cart with a Batman Return of the Joker and an AY-3-891x chip, or you can get a INL-ROM NES reproduction board with an AY chip on it.

Konami VRC-VII

Lagrange Point - This is the only game that uses the expansion sound capabilities found in this chip, which is exclusive to this game and Tiny Toons 2 Japanese version.  Tiny Toons 2 does not have an SRAM chip, battery or any of the passive components to mix the audio, so it would be a large undertaking to get it to work in a NES cart.  I am not sure whether the Largange Point board plus a pin converter would fit inside a NES cartridge shell because the game's board is very tall.  You may need an external pin converter.  Interest in this game has also increased substantially because of a full translation patch.

Nintendo MMC5

Just Breed - This is a large strategy RGB from Enix and one of the three games that use the expansion audio of the MMC5.  Because of its translation patch, it is by far the most accessible of those games.  The original cartridge can have its ROM replaced with a translated ROM burned onto an EPROM, some minor reworking will be required.  Because it uses Nintendo's MMC5 board, this can work with a reproduction cart in a NES.  The most suitable NES cart is Gemfire, but I suspect that any of the battery backed MMC5 boards will work with some minor reworking. Castlevania III and Laser Invasion will require the addition of an SRAM chip and a battery, not a beginner mod.

Konami VRC-VI

Akumajou Densetsu - This is the Japanese version of Castlevania III, and does not have so much Japanese text that it requires a ROM swap to enjoy it.  The Famicom board is small enough to fit inside a NES cartridge shell with a converter without difficulty.  Madara and Esper Dream 2, the other games that use the chip, do have translation patches.

Namcot 109/163

Rolling Thunder - Most Namcot 109/163 games with expansion sound are not very English friendly.  This game is basically the NES Tengen version with better sound.  Additionally, Namcot almost always used epoxy-bonded ROMs on their boards because they were cheap.  Unfortunately, this makes replacing these ROMs with translated ROMs on EPROMs very, very difficult.

NEC µPD7755C/µPD7756C & Mitsubishi M50805

The NEC ADPCM Speech chip was found in Jaleco's Japanese baseball games, virtually all of which were ported to the NES in the Bases Loaded series.  The chip stored and could play back voice samples on command.  Grab any one of them, games like Moero!! Pro Yakyuu are as common as they get in Japan, but realize its only a novelty.  Of course, the speech samples are in Japanese for the Famicom cartridge and English for Bases Loaded.  The NES versions had more PRG-ROM space to store the samples in ROM instead of on a special chip and used the NES's internal PCM channel to play them.  The Mitsubishi chip was found in Family Trainer 3: Aerobics Studio, which was similarly ported to the NES as Aerobics Studio.  Roll out your Power Pad for that one.

Famicom Disk System
FDS RAM Adapter + FDSStick
Read my review of this product for reasons why you should get one :

See also my list here of games for the Famicom Disk System where I give instructions how to clean the saves, all are easily accessible to English speakers :

Finally, I have generated a list of all Famicom and Famicom Disk System games that use expansion audio and were ported to the cartridge format :

Japanese Name Expansion Sound Type US Name
Gimmick! Sunsoft 5B Mr. Gimmick! (Europe/Scandanavia Release, US Proto)
Moe Pro! '90: Kandou-hen D7756 Bases Loaded 3, Ryne Sandberg Plays
Moe Pro!: Saikyou-hen D7756 Bases Loaded 4
Moero!! Pro Tennis D7756 Rad Racket
Moero!! Pro Yakyuu D7756 Bases Loaded
Moero!! Pro Yakyuu '88: Kettei Ban  D7756 Bases Loaded 2: The Second Season
Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa Famicom Disk System None (Japan Cartridge Release Only)
Doki Doki Panic Famicom Disk System Super Mario Bros. 2 (also Japan)
Dracula 2 - Noroi no Fuuin Famicom Disk System Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
Egger Land Famicom Disk System The Adventures of Lolo (different levels)
Exciting Baseball Famicom Disk System Double Dribble
Famicom Golf - Japan Course Famicom Disk System Golf (different courses)
Famicom Golf - Japan Course Prize Card Famicom Disk System NES Open Tournament Golf
Famicom Golf - US Course Famicom Disk System Golf (different courses)
Famicom Golf - US Course Prize Card Famicom Disk System NES Open Tournament Golf
Gyruss Famicom Disk System Gyruss
Hao-kun no Fushigi na Tabi Famicom Disk System Mystery Quest
Hikari Shinwa: Parutena no Kagami  Famicom Disk System Kid Icarus
Kaettekita Mario Bros. Famicom Disk System Mario Bros.
Link no Bouken: The Legend of Zelda 2 Famicom Disk System Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
Metroid Famicom Disk System Metroid
Tobidase Daisakusen Famicom Disk System The 3-D Battles of the Worldrunner
Vs. Excitebike Famicom Disk System Excitebike
Zelda no Densetsu (Zelda) Famicom Disk System The Legend of Zelda (also Japan)
Family Trainer 3: Aerobics Studio M50805 Dance Aerobics
Rolling Thunder Namco 163 Rolling Thunder (Unlicensed Tengen Release)
Akumajou Densetsu Konami VRC6 Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

New IBM CGA to Old IBM CGA Mod

There has been a revised interest in the IBM CGA card over the last few years.  I attribute this in no small part to demos like 8088 Domination and 8088MPH as well as interest in vintage PC computing in general.  IBM CGA cards are not particularly uncommon to find, but the New cards are much more common than the Old cards.

Varieties of IBM CGA

There are four known varieties of IBM CGA boards.  Here is a table with their features :

Board Number
# of Resistors
Bracket Type
Composite Output Type
Schematic Reference
Black Oversized
IBM Personal Computer Hardware Reference Library Technical Reference, First Edition August 1981, D25-30
Black Oversized
IBM Personal Computer Hardware Reference Library Technical Reference, Revised Edition April 1983, D46-51
IBM Personal Computer XT Hardware Reference Library Technical Reference, Revised Edition April 1983, D36-41
IBM Personal Computer Hardware Reference Library Technical Reference Options and Adapters, Revised Edition April 1984, Color/Graphics Monitor Adapter 28-33

The oldest IBM CGA board has a lower amount of resistance from the transistor to the composite video output.  What this means for the video output is unknown, but I would suspect that it would be somewhat brighter than later cards.  Also, the schematic does not give resistor values for the other four resistors connected to the composite video circuit and I cannot make out the values with the photo of the board I have.

The differences between 18504472 and 1501486 are the addition of 30 Ohm resistors on the bottom row for resistors.  These only affect the RGBI output signals, and were probably added to improve compatibility with digital RGBI monitors.

The oldest cards came with black brackets.  These brackets are sized for the five expansion slots of the IBM PC.  The IBM PC/XT used eight expansion slots which were set closer together, so this black bracket will block the slot above it.

Old IBM CGA cards almost invariably use a green PCB color and New IBM CGA cards usually use a brown PCB color.

Old IBM CGA cards almost invariably use MC6845 CRTC chips, New IBM CGA cards use either the MC6845 or HD4650/HD6845 CRTC.  I was lucky to have chosen the New IBM CGA card that had the MC6845.  This allowed me to play the party version of 8088MPH correctly, which only shows correct colors on an Old IBM CGA card.  The final version of the 8088MPH shows appropriate colors on either an Old or New IBM CGA card with either CRTC chip.

Modding a New IBM CGA card to an Old IBM CGA card

Here are the steps I took to mod my new IBM CGA card to an old IBM CGA card :

1. Lift pin 4 from U24 (the pin broke completely off for me so I had to replace the IC)
2. Solder a wire between pin 4 of 24 to pin 4 of U65 (pin 4 of U65 does not need to be lifted)
3. Remove all resistors in the first three rows.
4. Replace the resistors in the first three rows (IBM's designations are hard to follow) with the following, all values in Ohms:

100       51   Empty
3300   13000    5600
Empty   2200   Empty   Empty

5. Solder a 33 Ohm resistor to the bottom contact of R4 and the top contact of Q1. (Because of the tight space, you may want to do this from the solder side).

6.  If you have a New IBM CGA card with a yellow patch wire as shown below, make sure you reconnect it and do not make a solder bridge. If left unconnected, the light pen port will not work.

Note in my picture, I had to use a 1000 and a 12000 ohm resistor in series to make a 13000 ohm resistor.

Could the process be reversed?  Undoubtedly it could with the appropriate schematic, (see the chart above) but because Old IBM CGA cards are much less common, it would almost certainly be easier to just get a New IBM CGA card and mod it.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Swaps and Loads: Famicom Disk System Games Least Appreciated Development

The Famicom Disk System always had loading times for its games.  In fact, the Legend of Zelda was released as a launch title and used both sides of the disk.  The game required the user to flip the disk at a certain point and would load new data at certain times.  Over time, the loads and swaps became more frequent.  When you consider the major advantages of the FDS, namely the sound channel and no need for passwords, consider the tradeoffs over their cartridge releases in the form of disk swaps and load times.  Whether running a game off real disks, an disk emulator like FDSLOADR or the FDSStick or a NES emulator (Nestopia probably has the best FDS sound emulation), you will have to face these inconveniences.  Below let me give some examples of games that were ported to the NES and their loading and swapping requirements.

Zelda no Densetsu - The Hyrule Fantasy
Yume Koujou! Doki Doki Panic

These titles are the easiest to deal with when it comes to swaps and loads.  Both require you to swap to side B at the title screen.  Zelda will load each Underworld dungeon level as you enter it and the Overworld when you exit.  DDP will load each time you start a new world (but not a new level) and the incomplete ending.    Zelda saves to side B, but DDP saves to side A, requiring a swap when you want to save your game.  DDP also requires a swap to side A when you want to see the real ending.

Palutena no Kagami

Metroid and Palutena require you to swap to side B after you start a game.  Metroid will load each of the five areas as you go up or down the elevators.  It will require you to swap back to side A for the ending and for saving.  Because Metroid saves to both sides of the disk, the swap instances take upwards of a minute.

Palutena has short loads before and after every boss palace level.  When entering Medusa's level, 4-1, you will have to swap to side A.  There is a final load after you defeat Medusa.

Akumajou Dracula

In all versions of this game, there is a load before every level.  The last level where Dracula is the boss has a second load between stages 17 and 18.  However, different versions of this game handle their swaps at different points in the game.  The same saves to side A.

In v1.0 and v1.1 of the game, you will swap to side B when you start the second level.  You swap back to side A after you beat Dracula to view the ending.  In v1.2, you will swap to side B when you start the first level.  When you reach stage 18 in v1.2, you will swap back to side A.  I believe that Konami was trying to give more experienced players a break in v1.2 by not requiring them to swap when they try to beat Dracula for the umpteenth time.

Legend of Zelda 2 - Link no Bouken
Dracula II: Noroi no Fuuin

These games win the prize for the most loads of any that were ported to the NES.  While both require you to swap to side B to start a game, they have many more loads.  The Legend of Zelda 2 has a load for each entrance to and exit from the eight towns and seven palaces.  Also, there is a load when you cross a land boundary.  There are four land boundaries in the game: Western Hyrule, Spectacle Rock,  Eastern Hyrule and Maze Island.  Finally, you must swap the disk to enter the Great Palace (the last palace) and there is a load for the ending but the disk swap does not occur until the credits roll.  The game mercifully lets you continue at the Great Palace if you lose all your lives (but not at previous Palaces), so you don't have to swap the disks again until you play a game from the main menu.

Similarly, Dracula II: Noroi no Fuuin has a load for every time you enter or exit one of the seven towns or the screen with one of the five Mansion entrances.  Even when you just want to walk on past the Mansion entrance, it is annoying because you have to put up with two loads!  If you get knocked back from a screen, you have to suffer through two loads.  If that was not bad enough, in the last half of the game there are frequent loads and swaps.  To give you an exact description of the loads and swaps, here is a plan of the last part of the game and the areas you must visit to complete the game in an efficient manner :

Town of Ondol - > Deborah Cliff - > Bodley Mansion - > Uta Lower Road 1 & 2 - > Debious Woods - > Joma Marsh 1 - > Laruba Mansion -> Joma Marsh 1 -> Debious Woods -> Uta Lower Road 1 & 2 -> Bodley Mansion -> Wicked Ditch -> Town of Doina -> North Bridge -> Dora Woods -> Town of Yomi -> Vrad Graveyard -> West Bridge -> Castlevania -> Ending -> Title Screen

 -> Loading
 -> Loading and Swap to Side A
 -> Loading and Swap to Side B

Before this sequence, you had only one swap to side B when you started a game.  There are nine loads and five disk swaps in a somewhat short period of the game map!  No wonder why even Japanese gamers appear to rate this game substantially lower than its predecessor or its sequel!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Ethics of the Reproduction Cartridge

Reproduction cartridges are, in many cases, illegal.  They constitute a copyright violation because they contain an unauthorized copy or derivative work and often can constitute trademark infringement.  For many people, that would be the end of the discussion regarding the ethics of making unauthorized reproduction cartridges.

When ROMs are available for download at no cost and hacks and translations are simply available in freely-available software patches, usually it is not for profit and therefore less of a morally challenging issue.  But when you put this software into a cartridge and sell it, things start to weigh into the immoral area of the morality scale.  Even in this illegal world, there degrees of ethics and moral compromises when selling reproduction cartridges.

Not every reproduction is illegal.  For example, Beggar Prince was originally released in Taiwan in the 1990s, but Super Fighter Team secured the rights to it from C&E, translated it, fixed many (but not all) of the bugs and released it on a Genesis cartridge in 2006 and off and on ever since.  You can buy Beggar Prince and other cartridges from Super Fighter Team secure in the knowledge that you are buying an authorized product.  Similarly, Piko Interactive secures permission to release unreleased SNES games with the permission of the rights owners.  However, the guy who runs Piko Interactive used to have a separate label called RetroQuest which sold reproductions without authorization.

Here are some categories of games where the moral issues of reproduction cartridges become increasingly difficult :

1.  Pirates

Games like Somari and Final Fantasy VII for the Famicom go in this category.  In this case, the reproducer is a thief stealing from a thief.  The Taiwanese and Chinese pirate outfits who programmed these games use graphics and sound and often code taken directly from the games whose success they are trying to cash in on.  Final Fantasy VII for the Famicom also liberally helps itself to graphics from the Famicom Final Fantasies.  However, there is usually some original content here.  Does whatever original content lose all moral rights to protection because it is coupled with stolen content and sold with the intention of profiting off the creativity of others?  If someone made a reproduction of Leisure Suit Larry and the Long Look for a Luscious Lover, it would also fall into this category.

2.  Prototypes

Time Diver: Eon Man, the prototype versions of Maniac Mansion and the English translation of Final Fantasy II, and Star Fox 2 fall into this category.

In this case, the original cartridges were usually supposed to be destroyed or returned to the publisher or developer.  Other times, they were simply abandoned as trash when a company went out of business.  In the first sense, the person who buys a prototype may really be buying stolen property.  There is assumption that a 35mm print of a feature film in a private collection has a questionable chain of title. In the second, there are complicated questions of whether something was truly abandoned or whether the copyrights remain for the artistic elements or because of a finished game.  However, video game companies usually had atrocious storage abilities, so the first scenario may very well become the second scenario if someone did not rescue it.

Especially in the case of prototypes which never saw an actual release, there is an important concern in preserving these games and distributing them far and wide.  Star Fox 2 and Earthbound Beginnings are important examples of prototypes that should have been released then and provide a lot of enjoyment since.  Unfortunately, copyright law will protect this software for as long as it would officially published software, so if it is not distributed, it could be lost.

In Earthbound Beginnings' case, Nintendo has recently made it available on the Wii U Virtual Console.  This is unfortunately only one example of a prototype receiving official exploitation.  [Update : in 2017 Nintendo made the final, never-leaked version of Star Fox 2 available for the SNES Classic Mini, finally giving fans of the beta version and a franchise a legitimate way to play the game.]

3.  Contest & Limited Time-Availability Games

I include Nintendo World Championships 1990 and its successors in this list.  These games typically used unique hardware on their PCBs, making them unplayable as intended with ordinary hardware.  Also, one should consider the Sega Genesis Sega Channel Games and the SNES BS Satellaview games as also falling into this category.  The Nintendo Campus Challenges, 1991 (NES) and 1992 (SNES), and Nintendo PowerFest '94 cartridges also fall into this category.  They were never released to the public but were playable by the public for a period of time, often short

Nintendo World Championships 1990 gray cartridges were given to competition finalists and could be won as gold cartridges in a Nintendo Power competition, but Super Star Fox Weekend (Official Competition) and Donkey Kong Country Competition Cartridge were offered for sale in Nintendo Power.  Their print runs were low so they command high prices.  I actually did purchase a  Super Star Fox Weekend cartridge from Nintendo Power and regret the day I let it go.

4.  Hacks & Translations

Hacked games like Zelda Outlands and Super Mario Bros. 3 Mix fall into this category.  In this case, the reproducer is rarely reproducing his own work.  In this case, the reproducer is profiting off the hard work of not only the original developer but the hacker, who released his hack to the public gratis.

Porting a Famicom game to the NES often involves applying a translation patch.  Popular titles include Lagrange Point, Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti, Final Fantasy II & III and Sweet Home.  SNES games include large RPGs like Tales of Phantasia and Star Ocean.  Not only do these games need to fit hardware, most have to be translated as well.

Japanese Famicom games are playable with a pin converter and a minor modification for those games with expansion audio.  Japanese Super Famicom and N64 games are playable either by putting them in a SNES shell or breaking off a pair of tabs inside the SNES or N64.  Sega systems require a pin converter (Master System) or a trivial mod (Genesis).

Virtually no reproduction outfit produces their own translations, they use the typical translations available at  (Super Fighter Team is a notable exception) Here is another ethical issue, not only is the reproducer profiting off the original game but the translator's efforts.

5.  Extremely Rare Release

This is when you make a reproduction of rare games like Little Sampson or The Flinstones: Rescue of Dino and Hoppy.  Collectors often react with scorn for these reproductions, even when the seller clearly states that it is a reproduction cartridge.  Many rare games use common boards and can be converted with little more than an EPROM programmer and a soldering iron.  Considering the high prices that sellers tend to charge for these, it is much cheaper to buy a NES PowerPak or Everdrive N8 and play these games with a multi-cart.  Collector-oriented sites like NintendoAge and AtariAge have no compunction about allowing forum members to sell cartridges falling into ##1-4 but get into a real hypocritical frenzy when it comes to #5.

I am aware of video game completionists who have to have every game on their shelf.  They may buy a reproduction to fill a hole, but while may satisfy their OCD-need to fill a hole, the reproduction will never legitimately acquire value anywhere near the real cartridge.

Consider Stadium Events, by far the most pricey of any licensed NES cartridge.  It is estimated that only 1,000 survived the recall when Nintendo took over the distribution of the Power Pad from Bandai.  Nintendo subsequently re-released it as World Class Track Meet, both individually and as a multi-cart with Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt.  WCTM in both releases is very common and has only cosmetic differences with Stadium Events.  There is no legitimate reason to make a reproduction of this game when the gameplay is so readily accessible.

Piko Interactive made a reproduction of Super Noah's Ark 3D for the SNES, but it obtained the permission of Wisdom Tree to release it.  Its reproduction uses a standard SNES shell instead of the unique one the original release used.  It also does not require an official cartridge to be plugged-in to a passthrough connector to bypass the lockout chip, unlike the original from the 1990s.  Clones of the SNES lockout chip exist which will allow the game to work with regular consoles.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Slipped by the NES Censor

Nintendo had a reputation of being a tough censor in the days of the NES and SNES before the establishment of ratings boards.  In these eras, the big-N implemented a modern day version of the Hays Code.  Who needed a video games rating system when every game has been vigorously inspected and cleansed to make it appropriate for children?  Nintendo controlled all licensed cartridge production, and if it did not approve a game then it would not be produced.  (It is a myth that Nintendo manufactured all cartridges, there are PCBs and chips in licensed US cartridges made by Konami, Sunsoft, Namco, Acclaim and Virgin Games).

Maniac Mansion is the best example of how Nintendo would control the approval process.  It required developers to send a prototype cartridge and a text dump.  Any objectionable content would be noted and sent to the company to fix.  Often, developers and publishers would engage in self-censorship to speed the approval process along.

References to sexual activity and nudity were not allowed.  Graphic, life-like violence was also forbidden. Language was to avoid words like "hell", "damn", "crap" and no stronger expletives were allowed.  Over time, Nintendo became more strict about what it would allow on its system.  Most of these examples given below were from the earlier years of the NES's development.

Nintendo of Europe was even more strict on violence.  Germany has long video games on its List of Media Harmful to Young People, the BPjM.  River Raid for the Atari 2600 was the first game on that list and it stayed there until 2002, so Nintendo games had to be very circumspect when it came to depicting any kind of realistic violence.  Thus games like Contra were given a sprite overhaul, replacing all human-like characters with robots and released a Probotector in Europe.  Unfortunately, because of the German standards, all of Europe suffered from this type of lowest common demonimator censorship.

Eventually, Nintendo's strict censorship began to work against it.  When Mortal Kombat for the Sega Genesis, which had the blood and graphic fatalities unlockable with a code, drastically outsold the SNES version, Nintendo began to realize the value of the ratings system.  Both companies and their eventual competitors submitted to the ESRB.  The sales for Mortal Kombat II, which was not censored, were better than the Genesis version.

Bionic Commando

At the end of the game, you must destroy the helicopter of the main villain of the game, "Master-D".  Master D's portrait had a death animation that was very graphic for the time.

Also, Master D's facial features obviously resemble Adolf Hitler's.  This is intentional because the original Japanese game, title : Hitler no Fukkatsu: Top Secret, made explicit that Hitler was the main villain.  While Capcom removed visual and textual references to the Nazi Party in the U.S. version, they kept Hitler's portrait unaltered.  Years later, when Wolfenstein 3D was ported to the SNES, not only were all Nazi references removed, but the posters found on the walls of Hitler were adjusted to reduce the resemblance to the Fürher.

Master-D also calls the hero a "damn fool" for challenging him, and "damn" is a Bad Word which shouldn't have made it into the U.S. release, but it did.


Level 3 of Castlevania features nude statutes in the background.  They may have been harder to notice on small TVs back running the NES video through an RF input back in the day, but the graphics were not changed.  By the time Konami ported Castlevania III to the U.S., the nude statute graphics were changed, but there were more examples of nudity in that game.

Eventually Nintendo would get around to removing crosses in the SNES era, but in the NES era, crosses were not particularly objectionable. All three Castlevania NES games have them, as does Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest

We have the use of "Hell" in this game, right in the introductory text that scrolls if you do not press start at the title screen.

Golgo 13

The censor must have been asleep when this game was approved!  On at least two occasions during the game, Golgo 13 sleeps with female operatives he meets during the game.  He goes up to their hotel rooms after making prior arrangements, suggestive words are spoken, an animation shows the two coming together from their window, the lights go black and all your health is regained.  The voyeuristic view of the latter portion of the sequence only highlights the inappropriateness of this sequence by Nintendo's guidelines.   The Japanese version shows the ladies actually take their clothes off, showing toplessness.

In addition, this game is rather graphic when killing enemies in a first-person view.  When you shoot enemies, blood spurts from their heads.  This happens in the sniping sequences and the maze sequences.  At one point, you smoke a cigarette to regain health.  What kind of message did that send to the kids?

The enemy organization in the US version is called DREK, but in the Japanese original they are clearly identified as Nazis.  The file you obtain in the Greece Maze has a Swastika in the Japanese version and the true enemy is a cyborg version of Adolf Hitler, not "Smirk".  The US version keeps Hitler's likeness for "Smirk".

The sequel The Mafat Conspiracy: Golgo 13, is much more tame but does feature Golgo 13 smoking in the cutscenes and plenty of violence with Ninja Gaiden like cutscenes.

Kid Icarus

The statutes in world 4-1 are topless, as is the illustration of the Syren enemy in the game's manual.

The Legend of Zelda

The third Dungeon in the first quest is called "Manji" and the rooms are in the shape of a swastika.  This followed the Buddhist usage and faces counter-clockwise, not the Nazi usage which is usually clockwise and angled at 45 degrees.  The swastika had been in use in Japan for over one thousand years before Hitler appropriated it.

However, the counter clockwise version of the swastika was used by the Nazis, perhaps most notably as part of the standard for the 1st SS-Panzer Division Leibstandarte [bodyguard] SS Adolf Hitler after the fall of France.  No one complained about the use of the symbol at the time The Legend of Zelda was released apparently.  A decade later, parents did complain when the symbol was found on Pokemon cards and Nintendo announced that it would no longer use the symbol on Pokemon cards it released to the United States (and probably Europe) because of the negative cultural connotations.

Also, Link's shield and the Darknut shields have crosses on them.  Nintendo let religious symbols like crosses by in the early days.  

Magic of Scherezade

The boss of the second world, Curly, has obvious breasts.  "Curly" should really have been "Kali", the Hindu goddess of death, who is typically depicted topless and with six arms, which Curly's second form has.

Maniac Mansion

Although this game was heavily censored to remove objectionable content, Razor or Sid can explode Weird Ed's hamster by putting it in the microwave in the U.S. version.  Nintendo got wise to this and this act of animal cruelty was no longer possible when the game was later released in Europe.

Here is the original article "The Expurgation of Maniac Mansion", which describes what was left out and what was later removed from the game :

Metal Gear

In Metal Gear, cigarettes as a usable item, helpful when trying to beat the timed sequence at the end of the game where you must escape the building after beating the final boss before a bomb blows it up.  Smoking is bad, but in the NES era it was not high on the censor's priorities.  This would eventually changed as demonstrated by the cigarette item being changed to "fogger" in Metal Gear Solid for the Game Boy Color. The item still looks like a cigarette.

Ninja Gaiden

Ninja Gaiden has a rare use of the verb "to kill" when Foster is discussing the death of Dr. Smith.  Use of the verb "to kill" or any of its conjugations was strongly discouraged in the NES era.  In RPGs, a character is never "killed", usually they "died", were "slain" or "perished".  A party may be "annihilated".  This went to goofy levels when Final Fantasy II/IV's U.S. SNES release used the word "swooned".

Also, in Jaquio's lair and on his chest you can see six-sided stars, better recognized as a Star of David. During the NES and SNES era, Stars of David were frequently removed from RPGs like Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II/IV, where they alluded to mystical abilities.  These were altered or removed for the Ninja Gaiden Trilogy release.

Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos

Similar to Ninja Gaiden, Jaquio has a pentagram (instead of a hexagram, maybe he lost a point because he died) on his chest.  This was altered for the Ninja Gaiden Trilogy. When you defeat Jaquio, his blood touches the Dark Sword of Chaos, transforming him into a demon.  The blood was turned from red to green in the Ninja Gaiden Trilogy.


At the beginning of the game, Colonel Trautman tells Rambo : "You've got 36 hours to get in, complete your assignment, and get the hell out."  H-E-Double hockey sticks was a big no-no thereafter.

Ring King

Ring King has become particularly infamous for its in-between round animation of the corner men.  When looking at the animation, it is hard to find a non-obscene explanation.  The animation is not quite as suggestive in the arcade original.

I was too lazy to make an animated GIF, but there are no intervening frames.

River City Ransom

River City Ransom has a spa area where your character can recover his stamina.  The game shows you showering in Pop's Health Club, and among the graphics is a shot of your character toweling off his bare backside.  They show a dimpled butt.


Sqoon has a topless mermaid enemy, which appears on the title screen and later in the game.  This would not have gone unnoticed during a later period.

Taboo: The Sixth Sense

Taboo was practically unique in the NES library because it advertised on the box that it is not intended for children under fourteen.  Taboo is a tarot card reading simulator.  You input your name, date of birth and your gender, ask a question and the game will deal ten tarot cards and give you its interpretation of them. Among the cards that can be revealed are The Lovers, which shows rear male nudity and nearly-nude female nudity.  After it reads the cards, it will give you some "Lucky Numbers", asking you to select your state of residence.  The name/birthdate/gender screen has a cross and a pentagram.

This is a RareWare game, and I would suggest that only Rare's close relationship with Nintendo allowed them to publish this simulator.  Divination, occultism and fortune telling is offensive to Biblical Christianity.