Monday, December 26, 2016

Community Produced DOS Game Enhancement Hacks

In the past several years, ambitious and talented programmers and hackers have made some substantial improvements to some classic DOS games.  Here in this blog entry I will highlight some of the hacks I consider to be the most impressive or most useful.  I am particularly interested when elements of a game, such as unique sound effects, that could have been experienced at the time of the game's release in a less than ideal way have been added to the DOS versions of these games.

This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of every hack out there.  I am not including simple speed fixes or DOSBox compatibility patches.  I also am not including any hack which I feel violates the "spirit" of the original DOS code.  Some of these hacks are more involved than others, but I wanted to give an overview of what kind of hacks are out there.   Some of these hacks are nearly 10 years old, but all were given to an organized community of vintage computer and DOS gaming enthusiasts.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Getting a Roland/Edirol UM-1X and Windows 10 64-bit to Work Together

About ten years ago I found myself in need of a hardware MIDI solution for my Windows XP machine.  At the time I had a Sound Blaster X-Fi in the machine, but it did not have a hardware MIDI IN and OUT port.  The add-on that would add these ports was very expensive at the time, but I needed a hardware MIDI solution to use my Roland MIDI modules such as the CM-500 I had at the time.  A less expensive solution was a USB MIDI interface, so I decided to buy one.  The one I bought was the Edirol/Roland UM-1X, and it was not particularly inexpensive but I figured I needed a good quality solution for non-GM devices like the MT-32.

The UM-1SX is the same interface as the UM-1X but you need to plug in your own MIDI 5-pin cables.  There were earlier UM-1 and UM-1S, which appear to function identically to the UM-1X and UM-1SX except they do not have the Advanced Driver Switch on them.  After the UM-1X is the UM-1EX, which adds a switch for toggling MIDI OUT and MIDI THRU functionality and the UM-2EX, which adds a second MIDI OUT.  After the 1EX and 2EX came the UM-ONE and the Roland UM-ONE mk2.  The UM-ONE mk2 is the only one of these products which is not discontinued.  The ONE and the ONE mk2 are the only one of these interfaces that have Windows 10 drivers.  The rest have drivers only until Windows 8/8.1.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Windows 3.0 Multimedia Edition - Early Windows Multimedia Gaming

Microsoft Windows 3.0 was the first widely adopted and truly successful version of Microsoft's graphical "Operating System."  It was released on May 20, 1990 and came on five 1.2MB floppy disks.  It could be purchased in a box and was the first version of Windows that was noted for being bundled with new PCs.  It had an incremental update, Windows 3.0a, released on October 31, 1990.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Spin the Knob, Roll the Ball, Drag the Puck : Rotary-Based Video Game Controllers

A rotary encoder is a wheel that sends positional information as it is moved.  The rotor or disk looks like a wheel with spokes and holes.  The wheel is attached to a shaft which is moved.  The movement can be tracked electromechanically or optically.  Electromechanical rotary encoders send information as an electrical circuit is made and broken by movement of the rotor.  Optical rotary encoders send information as the spokes and holes of optical transmitter/receiver allow and break an infrared beam.

A rotary encoder can be found at the heart of several input devices, namely spinners, mice and trackballs.  The earliest arcade spinners, such as those found on Pong and Breakout, were just knobs stuck on the shaft of a potentiometer.  Movement would typically be calculated by measuring the charge or discharge time of a resistance/capacitive circuit. These knobs could be moved in either direction to a stopping point, they could not perform a full 360 degree rotation.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Diagonsing and Fixing DOS Games - King's Quest VI and the Sound Blaster 16

On Friday, I sat down at my 486DX2/66 computer and decided to play a little King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tommorow.  KQ6 is definitely one of Sierra's best games and it had been a long time since I last tried to play it through.  I had the floppy version installed on my hard drive, so I started up the floppy version.  Unfortunately, it took the whole weekend to track down the problem and implement a solution for it.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Windows 3.1 - The Dawn of Windows Gaming

Microsoft Windows released Windows 3.1 on April 6, 1992.  This was the first version of Windows that Microsoft really designed for gaming applications and was available to purchase at retail.  (Windows 3.00a with Multimedia Extensions was available from OEMs).  Windows 3.1 main draw was its support for multimedia, essentially sound cards, MIDI devices and CD-ROM audio.  Unlike the text command line parser of DOS, Windows was a graphical operating system with nary a command prompt in sight.  Most control was accomplished using a mouse.  For the first time users could easily access more than one program on a PC through the task switcher because the operating system was built for multitasking.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Arcade Games Potpourri

Donkey Kong

Where is the Original?

Donkey Kong's historical importance cannot be understated.  The huge international success of Donkey Kong was closely tied to the rise of Nintendo as a force in the video game industry.  It also marked the first of many masterpieces by Shigeru Miyamoto.  It also made important legal precedent with Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd., 746 F.2d 112 (1984) giving games more freedom to take inspiration from popular culture without risking being sued.  The game was widely ported and the NES version is very good, especially in the Original Edition version released by Nintendo with all four stages at times for the Wii and Wii U Virtual Console.

Donkey Kong Arcade

Friday, November 11, 2016

A Better Alternative to the NES Classic Edition

In the final entry in what has turned to cover way too much blog space, I am giving my reasons why I cannot recommend the NES Classic Edition (CE).  The CE has a lot going for it, an attractive price, a cute look, the official throwback factor, 30 classic games, a good replica controller.  But it has a few downsides.

The first is obvious, the cables are way too short.  They are only 2.5' long.  An original NES controller is over 6' long.  If you want to play with the CE while sitting on the couch, you will need either a long HDMI cable or controller cable extenders.  A 25' HDMI cable will run you about $15 on Monoprice, but the controller extensions coming out for the CE run $10 each.  If you want to play a two player game, that is another $10.  Ultimately, the problem can be fixed, but the fixes will turn a $60 device into a $90 device.

The second is equally obvious, the console is not upgradeable.  When you finish playing those 30 games, what then?  It will be back to the Virtual Console.  Want to play Mega Man 3, Castlevania 3, Startropics 2, Ninja Gaiden 2, Contra or Tecmo Super Bowl?  You may have to wait for something like the CE 2.0 Edition.  Given that Nintendo included virtually all its first party classics in the existing CE, the game lineup in the CE 2.0 would prove interesting to say the least.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Godzilla - International Obsession

When Toho first began offering their Godzilla films for release for U.S. markets, it would supply a  copy of a Japanese print.  The U.S. distributor would then make whatever edits and additions it deemed appropriate, dub the film into English and release it.  Typically the print would be sent to the U.S distributor without text credits, leaving the inclusion of credits to the local distributor.  

However, by the mid 1960s Godzilla and other Toho films were increasingly offered in two versions, a textless version suitable for alteration and an International version which could be put into theaters or on TV immediately.  International versions could be sold to other English-speaking countries or non-English speaking countries where it would be easier to dub the film into the local language by translating English instead of Japanese.

An International version of a Godzilla film is characterized by several features.  First, the Japanese credits are translated into English.  The typeface used will invariably be white.  Second, the film will be distributed uncut from its Japanese version.  Third, the film will be dubbed into English in Tokyo (until 1972) or Hong Kong (1972-2004).  International versions were deemed appropriate for the TV and home video markets, but more quality-conscious distributors like American International Pictures, New World Pictures and Sony Pictures decided to commission new dubs for the films they released theatrically. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Reasons for Owning a Gravis Ultrasound - Sound Quality Comparisons

It is an unfortunate fact of PC retro gaming that the Gravis Ultrasound cards are very expensive to buy off the second-hand market and the auction sites.  You may ask why should I want one, my Sound Blaster and my Roland does the trick for me.

For most games, you would be correct, the GUS is not especially impressive.  Some games, like anything using the DOOM engine, mix all the digital audio in software and then send the result to the sound card.  This eliminates one of the most important advantages of the GUS, mixing multiple streams in hardware at reasonable bit-sizes and frequencies.  In this instance, the GUS is no better than a Sound Blaster 16.  In benchmarks, it is actually worse than a SB16.

But for other games, the GUS can have a distinct advantage.  In these games, all audio, music, speech and sound effects, is digitally generated and mixed.  The Sound Blasters must mix this audio in software, but the GUS mixes it in hardware.  The result is always a higher quality sound from the GUS than an SB, even if the SB is a Pro, 16 or AWE model.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Video Potpourri II

Sometimes, one needs to discuss related subjects that do not by themselves warrant a full blog entry.  Hence the video potpourri series, in which I can talk about aspects of display technology.

I.  Composite Artifact Color Emulation

Composite artifact color emulation has been around for a long time.  Unfortunately, in many cases it just isn't very good at trying to replicate the look of a composite monitor.  Simple schemes just assign a color arbitrarily to a group of two or four monochrome pixels.  Mainline SVN DOSBox tries to simulate CGA composite color as if it were a VGA mode.  The colors are reasonably accurate to the real IBM CGA cards, but the text color fringing is rather blocky.  There are custom builds that use filtering and 16-bit color to give a more subtle impression of the composite color, but it still looks much, much cleaner than the real image.  You can obtain a custom build with better composite color emulation here :

Monday, October 3, 2016

Restoring the Fluid Look to Analog Video

As we all know theatrical sound film releases are typically projected at 24 or 25 frames per second.  Film is a progressive medium where each film frame captures an image at a discrete point in time.  However, film must be developed before it can be exhibited and must handled by experienced technicians, making it a costly medium in which to produce artistic works.  To reduce flicker, a shutter in the camera would open or close twice for each frame.

Prior to the advent of television, celluloid film was the only commercial means to display visual moving images.  However, the introduction of wholly-electronic television broadcast and receiver systems meant a massive change.  TV broadcast cameras were able to achieve acceptable image quality by broadcasting images in an interlaced format.  A broadcast camera and a TV tube display images in a set number of lines, and the electron scanning beam inside the tube scans or displays each line sequentially, then returns and draws the next line.  (Think of a typewriter.)  When it gets to the bottom of the tube, it returns to the top of the tube and draws the next set of lines.

In order to allow the electron beam sufficient time to draw all the lines, interlacing was used.  In an interlaced format, "frames" become "fields". A field only captures the odd or the even lines of the TV camera lens.  After all the odd lines in the first field are captured, then all the even lines of the second field are captured.  In the NTSC countries, 59.94 color fields (formerly 60 fields for B&W NTSC) are captured each second.  In PAL and SECAM countries, 50 fields are captured each second.  When this is broadcast to a TV screen, the fields are displayed as they are captured.  The high number of displayed fields avoids flicker on the TV screen.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Nintendo Mini Mania Redux - The Classic Mini Family Computer

Nintendo has released another retro-themed surprise.  Back in July, Nintendo announced the NES Classic Edition/NES Mini, an emulation box containing 30 classic NES games.  Here is the original trailer for it :  I discussed it here :

Yesterday, Nintendo announced a Famicom version for the Japanese market.  Like the NES Mini, the "Classic Mini Family Computer" is a miniature replica of a Famicom with a power and a reset button.  It also has 30 games and will cost 5,980 Yen, which is close to the NES Mini's $59.99 price.  It is going to be released on the same day as the NES Mini, November 11, 2016.  While the official trailer is in Japanese, the visuals are self-explanatory :

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Older Sci-Fi Shows in the HD Era

So, you want some of your classic sci-fi shows on Blu-ray?  How do they do that you may ask?  Well, in many cases it depends on when and where the show was created.

In the 1950s through the mid 1980s, U.S. science fiction TV was shot entirely on film.  Classic shows like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Star Trek, Night Gallery, Kolchak: the Night Stalker, The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman, Battlestar Galactica, The Incredible Hulk, Buck Rogers and V: The Series all had the Hollywood look.  Effects were done on film, practical where necessary, optical as required.

Then in 1986, Star Trek: The Next Generation started its seven year run.  This series initiated a revolution in special effects.  While live action was still caught on film, wholly special effects scenes depicting the Enterprise and the various ships and worlds it encounters would often be generated on video with the use of computer graphics imagery (CGI).  CGI would often make its way into the live action as well.  Unfortunately, these images would be constructed in standard definition.  This method of production continued for almost two decades, every Star Trek series (except the last season of Enterprise), Babylon 5, Farscape, Firefly, The X-Files, Hercules and Xena used this method.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Accessible Good Famicom Games

The Famicom had over 1,000 games released for it during its lifetime.  Hundreds of those games were never released outside of Japan, and there were only a few releases of Japanese games exclusively in Europe.  Of course, many, many of those games that never officially made it out of Japan are terrible, as were many games that did make it overseas.  In this post I am going to list many good Famicom cartridge games that were not released for the North American NES console.  Not all the games identified below are classics, but all have their virtues.  Famicom Disk System games have already been mostly covered elsewhere :

The first list is of games that are English-friendly.  These games do not use a lot of Japanese text and what text there is is not essential to completing the game.  Most of these games have translation patches as well.  Many tend to be simpler games, namely shooters and platformers :

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Two Late Classic Apple II to PC Ports, Unalike in Dignity

Even though the Apple II was very long in its lifespan by the end of the 1980s, there was a fair bit of software still being released for it.  The Apple II was very strong in the educational market, computer labs across the United States had yet to upgrade to the PC platform.  The Apple II had many, many classic games.  Most of them were ported to the PC at some point, but by the end of the 1980s the number of A2-to-PC ports (that did not have the name Carmen Sandiego in the title) was dwindling.

Even so, two classics of the Apple II did make their way to the PC platform in the late 1980s and they are the subject of this blog entry.  The first is MECC's 1985 update of The Oregon Trail.  The second is Jordan Mechner's Prince of Persia, programmed on and released for the Apple IIe, IIc and IIgs in 1989.  MECC ported the Apple II version of The Oregon Trail to the IBM PC in 1988.  Mechner and Broderbund ported the Apple II version of Prince of Persia to the PC compatibles in 1990.

The Oregon Trail is the simpler game, in fact it was an update of an earlier version MECC made for the Apple II in 1980.  That version was mostly text-based and occasionally displayed simple wire-frame graphics and a little music.  Before personal computing, Oregon Trail was played on mainframes on a time-share basis.  But the 1985 Apple II version is undoubtedly the most popular version of the game.  The 1985 version requires 64KB of RAM on an Apple II.  This version was ported to the PC by MECC in 1988.  The PC port requires 512KB of RAM and at least a CGA card.

Prince of Persia is a spiritual successor to Mechner's Karateka, another big hit.  Both were published by Broderbund.  Prince of Persia takes the rotoscoped graphics and one on one combat of Karateka and combines them with running and jumping mechanics, obstacles, traps and triggers.  It requires 128KB of RAM and an Apple IIe capable of displaying double high resolution graphics, a IIc or a IIgs.  It only uses double high res graphics on the title screen and story text screens (four screens).  Mechner supervised the ports of the game to the IBM PC compatibles and the Amiga in 1990.  It supports CGA, Hercules, Tandy, EGA and VGA and a variety of sound cards and 512KB-640KB depending on the graphics mode.

When it came to porting these games to the PC, MECC did an outstanding job.  Broderbund and Mechner, not so much.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Recording the IBM PC Speaker's Sound

The PC Speaker was the first audio device that PCs used.  In some form or another, it is contained in almost every PC ever made.  In the original IBM PC, the Model 5150 released in 1981, the speaker was a distinct cone 2.25" in diameter.  And it was loud, but it had to be in order to compete with the noisy power supply fan and the seeking of the disk drives!  The tones it output were pure, and while they were rather harsh they were also clear.

However, eventually the PC Speaker began to shrink in size and eventually give way to the tiny piezoelectric tweeters that are just too quiet to do justice to any kind of complicated audio.  (You can blame IBM for putting the idea into other manufacturer's heads because the IBM PCjr., released in 1983, used a piezo tweeter for the PC Speaker.)

When emulators like DOSBox became mature, they could easily output basic PC Speaker audio.  Basic PC Speaker audio is essentially a square wave with a fixed volume level and a 16-but frequency selector.  They can have difficulty with the more complex sounds produced by Pulse Width Modulation, which essentially sends changes to the frequency of the square wave to the speaker faster than the speaker cone's driving circuitry was intended to handle.  This requires a much more rigorous emulation of the CPU, the timer and the "analog" characteristics of the audio generation.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Famciom vs. AV Famicom External - Internal Audio Mixing

There is a myth that the AV Famicom is too quiet when it mixes internal audio with external audio.  The myth goes that the external cartridge audio drowns out the internal audio from the console and gives an unbalanced and unfair impression of what the programmer intended the music and sound effects to sound like.  The conclusion is that an original Famicom, preferably an earlier model, is the ideal way to experience Famicom audio.  However, this conclusion is too simplistic and the internal/external mix is not as extreme on standard Nintendo Famicoms and AV Famicoms as one may be led to believe.

Of course Famicom audio has its own problems.  The first problem is that genuine Famicom audio is encoded into RF and decoded in a TV.  The baseline audio has a buzz and the output of the audio sounds like it was run through an oppressive low-pass filter.  The second problem is that playing a Famicom with its RF video and hardwired controllers is something of a chore.

I have made some recordings of several games which use Famicom expansion audio and internal Famicom audio.  The games in question are :

Zelda no Densetsu (Famicom Disk System, The Legend of Zelda)
Akumajou Densetsu (Konami VRC6, Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse)

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

More Keyboard Adapters : The Tandy 1000 Keyboard to Tandy 1000 TL or SL

The earlier Tandy 1000s, the 1000, 1000A, 1000 SX and 1000 TX came with a 90-key Tandy Keyboard.  The Tandy 1000 EX and HX had the 90-key Tandy Keyboard built in.  This keyboard uses its own communications protocol and timing and is not compatible with an IBM PC, XT or AT or their clones.  This keyboard uses an 8-pin DIN plug.

The later Tandy 1000s from the TL and SL onward came with 101-key keyboards.  These keyboards, called the Tandy Enhanced Keyboard, were an autoswitching keyboard that could work in an IBM PC, XT, AT or their clones.  This keyboard uses a 5-pin DIN plug and do not work in an earlier Tandy 1000.

In the technical reference manuals for the TL and SL, which are the last Tandy technical reference manuals available online, the keyboard controllers do mention Tandy 1000 Keyboard compatibility.  These computers have a 7-pin DIN connector even though an XT or AT keyboard only uses four pins.  The schematics indicate that the extra pins are used for Tandy 1000 keyboard-specific signals.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Pleasant Suprises : The Epson MGA Q205A

Sometime ago, I acquired an 8-bit ISA card called the Epson MGA Q205A.  I figured it was a CGA compatible card because it had one DE-9 female port and one RCA jack, which the standard CGA configuration.  The only unusual thing about the card was a two-position switch on the bracket plate.  The switch is labeled color/mono.  I couldn't find anything about the card in Total Hardware '99.  I noted that the card displays in color on startup instead of B&W on a color composite monitor, I figured the switch was there to turn it to B&W.  An IBM CGA displays in B&W on startup in an IBM PC or XT.

After testing the card out a bit, I was pleased that it gave composite colors reasonably close to an IBM CGA card.  I was also pleased that the card is less than 10", meaning it will fit inside a Tandy 1000 computer.  However, Trixter's CGA Compatibility Tester demonstrated that the CGA compatibility was weak when it came to the 6845 tests.  This is not particularly surprising when I determined that the card does not have a 6845 CRT Controller onboard.  Since I have three IBM CGA cards, the card rarely has surfaced in my thoughts.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Northgate Omnikey 101 vs. IBM Model M Keyboard

I have had the privilege of being lent a Northgate Omnikey 101 keyboard.  This keyboard is identical to the layout of my IBM Model M keyboards.  I am going to first identify the features of each keyboard and then give my impressions of the Northgate compared to the Model M.


Model M's use PBT plastic on the top and bottom enclosures, on the key caps and the key stems.  For this reason Model M do not yellow through exposure to ultraviolet light.  On the other hand, PBT can be somewhat brittle and it is not a rare thing to see cracked keycaps on a Model M.  Because keycaps come off very easily, it is often the case that you will find a keyboard for sale with one or more missing.  The enclosure is held together with hex screws requiring a long-barreled 7/32" driver to access.  Later Model Ms, mostly made by Lexmark and Unicomp, often have drainage holes cut into the bottom half of the enclosure for liquid spills, but the IBM-made keyboards rarely have them.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Famicom and NES Expansions and Peripherals

Famicom Peripheral List

Devices that Plug into the Famicom Cartridge Slot

Nintendo Famicom Disk System
  • 199 Official Licensed Games + Prize Cards (and unlicensed games, copying programs etc.)
  • Comes with a disk drive and a RAM Expansion.
The RAM Expansion is inserted into the cartridge slot and the cable from the RAM Expansion is connected to the rear of the disk drive.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Northgate Omnikey to Tandy 1000 SX & TX Keyboard Adapter

The Tandy 1000 computers, more specifically the early Tandy 1000s, had many good features, graphics, sound, expansion, performance, integrated peripherals.  To save development costs, Tandy imported some of its designs from prior, non-IBM PC compatible computers.  The Tandy 1000 card edge printer port can be traced back to the TRS-80.  The Tandy 1000 joystick ports came straight from the Tandy Color Computer.  And finally, the Tandy 1000 keyboard is the same keyboard used in Tandy's MS-DOS (but not IBM PC) compatible Tandy 2000.

The 90-key Tandy 1000 keyboard is not exactly a pleasure to use.  Its layout is cramped and awkward, its keys are mushy and there is no tactile feedback.  Compared to the IBM PC or IBM PC AT keyboard, it feels cheap.  Typing mistakes are frequent with this keyboard.  It has some odd key omissions.  There is no Scroll Lock, and while there is a separate Home key, there is no separate End, Page Up, Page Down, +, -, or * keys.  The shift keys are too small.  While it does have F11 and F12, software made during the Tandy 1000 (except by Tandy) lifespan rarely used these keys.

Finally, the Tandy 1000 has the dreaded Hold and Print keys.  Both keys are next to important keys like Enter, Alt and Num Lock,  The Hold key acts like a true Pause key, everything is frozen until you hit the Hold key again.  People who do not know or forget how the Hold key works may think their computer has crashed.  However, the really evil key is the Print key.  Press this key twice and, unless you have a printer attached to your computer, your computer will freeze as it vainly tries to print what you are typing on the screen. Your computer will appear to freeze.  IBM avoided this issue by assigning the function to Ctrl+Print Screen.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

RetroUSB AVS vs. Analogue Nt mini - Comparison of the Enthusiast FPGA NES Clones

Until now, any kind of accurate Nintendo NES or Famicom console had to use Nintendo's CPU and/or PPU chips, whether that console was manufactured by Nintendo, Sharp or anyone else.  While the idea of implementing a NES on an FPGA was an idea with a long history, only this year are products finally making it to market.  Here I am going to compare the features of the two announced FPGA NES implementations, the RetroUSB AVS and the Analogue Interactive Nt mini.

Console AVS Nt mini
Producer RetroUSB Analogue, LLC
Hardware Designer Brian Parker “bunnyboy” Kevin Horton “kevtris”
FPGA Type Xilnix Spartan 6 XC6SLX9 Altera Cyclone V
Included HDMI, USB Cable (mini-to-standard), Power Supply HDMI, USB, 8Bitdo NES 30 Wireless Controller, Retro Receiver, Power Supply
Outputs HDMI, USB HDMI, Analog Video, RCA Stereo
Inputs 4 x NES Controller Ports, 1 x Famicom Expansion Port 4 x NES Controller Ports, 1 x Famicom Expansion Port, Microphone Input
Upgrade USB Port SD Card Slot
Resolution Support 720p 480p, 720p, 1080p (HDMI)
240p (analog sources only)
Video Display Support HDMI Composite, S-Video, Component, RGB, HDMI
Buttons Separate Power & Reset Combined Power & Reset
Unique Special Features NA Scoreboard, Built-in Game Genie, Turbo-in-Software Scalers, Famicom Expansion Audio Generation, Audio Visualizer, Famicom Microphone, NES Zapper/Famicom Gun Support (Analog video only), R.O.B/Family Robot Support (Analog video only)
Price $185.00 $449.00
Availability September, 2016 January, 2017

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 the PCjr. 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 software supporting the Sound Blaster 2.0 or lower 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.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Video Potpourri

I am going to discuss a pair of video topics in this post which do not by themselves merit full blog entries on their own.  Each discussion will have a link to a Youtube video demonstrating the topic discussed.

I.  Hercules Graphics Tidbits

Someone remarked on the VOGONS forum that certain 16-color LucasArts SCUMM games, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Adventure Game and LOOM, do not support Hercules Graphics.  Earlier SCUMM games, Maniac Mansion and Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders support Hercules Graphics in both their original and Enhanced releases.  The Secret of Monkey Island, which came immediately after LOOM, also supports Hercules Graphics in its original 16-color release.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Memories of Ultima Online

In September of 1997, I considered myself a very lucky person.  I was in my freshman year in college and I quickly fell in love with the high speed internet access available to colleges and universities.  I was looking for a new game to play and Ultima Online was the game I had to play.  I had ordered it and it shipped to my home address, but my mother drove an hour to deliver it to me at college so I would not have to drive home in the middle of the school week to take possession of it.

Starting the Ultima Online Demo on The Second Age CD
In those days, you had to pay full price for the game ($64.95) and an additional monthly subscription fee ($9.95).  I did not buy the Charter Edition (which came with 3 months free), I bought the regular retail edition.  That edition came with the cloth map, the UO pin and rather sparse documentation.  I was puzzled because there was little more than a pair of quick reference cards to tell you how to play this massive game.  Nonetheless, I installed the game on my computer, registered an account, gave my credit card information and began my journey by logging in.  

Monday, July 4, 2016

60 Game Boy Color Games Worth Playing

The Game Boy Color is often seen as something of a stop-gap.  Released in late 1989, the original monochrome Game Boy was already nine years old when the GBC was released in 1998.  Color had already come to handhelds with the Sega Game Gear and the Atari Jaguar, but the Game Boy had firmly established its dominance over those competing systems and every other competitor.

The GB had several advantages over its rivals, lower price, Tetris and a much higher battery life.  Nintendo was designing a true 16-bit successor to the GB, but it would take time.  By 1997, the GB's lifespan was already unprecedented in terms of a console generation, and sales and games were slowing.  So in order to extend the life of the basic 8-bit design, Nintendo decided to add color capability.  Instead of four gray shades, you could have up to 56 colors chosen from a 32,768 color palette.  CPU speed was doubled, CPU RAM quadrupled, Video RAM doubled.  A higher speed Game Link connection and an optional infrared port was now available.  Sound capabilities and input remained the same.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Famicom Homebrew : So Close, Yet So Far

NES homebrew has been around for a very, very long time.  Chris Covell's Solar Wars, which is the first complete NES game developed independently, came out in October, 1999.  This was a mere four years after the NES was officially discontinued in 1995.  In those days, the Nesticle was the emulator of choice for playing NES games, but was very inaccurate at emulating the hardware.  Nonetheless, Solar Wars established an important precedent by working on real Nintendo hardware.

Unfortunately, if you wanted to play Solar Wars back in 1999, you had to modify an existing NES cartridge. Fortunately it uses a common PCB, but not everyone had access to an EPROM programmer and soldering and desoldering tools.  The next step was the release of the first homebrew cartridge the Garage Cart, was released by Joey Parsell (Memblers) in 2005.  It cost $42.00 and included Solar Wars and two other small games.  While it still used a donor board, it was significant in that you could purchase one and play it on your real NES without any programming or soldering hassles.  

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Recovering 240p from Video Capture Devices and Putting it Online

Video capture devices are often used to backup NTSC video sources like VHS cassettes and DVDs.  Many consumer level devices on the market have this purpose in mind.  You can use these devices to backup old video recordings, unprotected commercial video tapes and DVDs.  Your retro consoles and some computers also output an NTSC signal, but there is a substantial difference between the two.

Your standard NTSC-M video source uses a 480i resolution.  The picture is constructed from two fields, each containing half the data of a frame.  These fields are interlaced so that the odd lines of the frame are displayed first, then the even lines of the frame.  The eye usually cannot notice the interlacing effect when viewing a CRT TV screen at a reasonable distance.   In NTSC, there are 59.94 fields displayed in each second, half odd, half even.  This gives an actual frame rate of 29.97 frames per second.

All consoles from the Atari 2600 to the Nintendo 64 typically output 240p video.  Many computers, including virtually all the 8-bit home computers from Apple, Commodore, Atari, Texas Instruments, Timex Sinclair, Mattel and Coleco output 240p.  Some more advanced home computers, like the IBM PC with CGA, the IBM PCjr and Tandy 1000, the Atari ST, Apple //gs and Commodore Amiga also can output a 240p signal.  All these hardware devices output 240p do this by tricking the screen.  Instead of sending the proper signal for an odd and an even field, they send the signal for two odd fields.  The resolution is reduced to no more than 240 lines, and often there are fewer visible lines drawn and the rest of the lines are filled with a background color, often black.  On the positive side, the images are drawn twice as frequently, 60 times per second.  Because the screen is not evenly covered, scanlines are more visible in 240p than 480i.  This was not part of the NSTC-M standard, but works on every NTSC CRT TV and monitor ever made and most LCD monitors and TVs that could accept a composite input until recently.

Friday, June 10, 2016

DRAM Addressing Capacity

Dynamic RAM is typically used in computers because it is cheaper than Static RAM.

Dynamic RAM must be periodically refreshed by an access to RAM or the data contained within the RAM cell decays.  Static RAM does not need refreshing, all it needs is a steady supply of power.  Computers typically had a method of refreshing the RAM, often tied to the video controller, which refreshes the screen fifty or sixty times per second.  Steve Wozniak for example used a unified memory architecture where the video controller circuitry would access the RAM 50-60 times per second, which was sufficiently reliable to keep the RAM contents from degrading.

Virtually all vintage home computers used discrete DRAM chips.  However, if you look at the printed circuit board of any old computer, you will see memory chips in columns of eight (or nine) chips.  Why is that?  This is because a DRAM chip typically holds one bit of data for each memory cell.  So you need eight chips to hold a byte.  By contrast, you only need one SRAM chip to hold a byte.  Despite the need for a refresh circuit and the extra space and complexity required to interface eight DRAM chips compared to one SRAM chip, DRAM was still so much cheaper that it was almost always used.

Vintage consoles more often used SRAM because it made their boards cheaper to manufacture, an important concern when you intend to sell millions of systems based on the same board design.  The Atari 2600 used 128 bytes of SRAM, but it was embedded within the RIOT chip.  The Atari 5200 used 16KB of DRAM chips, but it was based on the design of the Atari 8-bit computers.  The Colecovision uses 1KB of DRAM chips for CPU memory but also a 16KB SRAM chip for the video memory.  The NES uses 2KB SRAMs for CPU and PPU memory, but its sprite RAM uses embedded DRAM on the CPU.  The SNES uses DRAM throughout, which tends to cause the white stripe issue with its video due to the refresh signal.

In a system with a sixteen bit data bus, you need sixteen chips.  In this system, the CPU deals in two bytes (a word) at a time.  So the first eight chips hold one byte and the second eight chips hold the next byte.  An earlier IBM PC AT system has two banks of eighteen chips each (see parity below).  When fully populated, you will have a whopping 512KB of RAM.  Each socket uses a pair of 64Kb chips, one piggybacked on top of the other, for 128Kb.  So each row of chips provides 128KB.  The CPU sees a pair of rows in a 128Kx16bit configuration, but in real purposes you have 256x8bits.

IBM systems, except for the PCjr., use parity memory.  Parity memory uses a ninth DRAM chip for each eight DRAM chips.  The extra chip is not usable memory, it instead alerts the system to a memory error.

By the mid eighties, some companies were using four bit DRAMs.  Four bit DRAMs hold four times the bit capacity as a one bit DRAM.  So when you used to need eight chips to form a bank of eight bit DRAM, now you only need two chips.

One bit DRAMs typically have a marking on them like 4116 or 4164, denoting 16Kb and 64Kb parts, respectively.  (In this article, a "B" as in KB means byte and a "b" as in Kb means bit).  Four bit DRAMs have markings like 4416 and 4464 for the same respective parts.    They are also commonly shown as 16Kx1 and 16Kx4.

You can find 1Kb, 4Kb, 16Kb, 64Kb, 256Kb and even 1Mb DRAM chips.  You will not find 2Kb, 8Kb, 32Kb, 128Kb or 512Kb chips.  Why is that?  This is because of the way DRAM is addressed.  DRAM is addressed more in a matrix-fashion than a true linear fashion.  DRAM uses address lines just like SRAM and ROM chips, but fewer than you would expect.

SRAM can be had in virtually any power of two capacity.  1KB, 2KB, 4KB, 8KB, 16KB, 32KB, 64KB, 128KB, 512KB and 1MB SRAM chips exist.  Many chips of the lower capacities can be found in NES and SNES cartridges.

A 64KB SRAM chip has sixteen address lines, but a 64Kb DRAM chip only has eight.  We all know that 2^16 = 64KB, right?  In order to get to 64Kb in a DRAM chip, you need the Row Access Strobe (RAS) and the Column Access Strobe (CAS) signals.  So, first you send a read or write via the address lines and RAS signal, then you send the read or write via the address lines and the CAS signal.  Since you are using eight bits twice to get to the correct memory cell, you get your sixteen address bits.  If you add a ninth address line to your chip, you will get eighteen bit addressing, which gives you 256Kb.  This is why there is no such thing as a 128Kb DRAM chip.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

More HDMI-ifying your Consoles, the UperGrafx for the NEC Turbo/PC Engine Systems

Today I found out about an upcoming Japanese product called the UperGrafx. The UperGrafx, as its name suggests, is intended to be used with a NEC PC Engine. What it does is it upscales the native PC Engine graphics (typically 256, 320 or 512 horizontal pixels by 224 or 239 lines) to the 720p resolution (1280x720). It plugs into the back of the PC Engine, Core Grafx or Core Grafx II, where there is a 69-pin expansion connector. It has also been confirmed to work with the US TurboGrafx-16 expansion connector. It won't work with a PC Engine Shuttle or any of the handhelds, Duos or the SuperGrafx.

Although the Expansion Connector supplies the analog RGB signals, it also supplies a lot more video information. The UperGrafx takes this information and builds a digital picture, then upscales it for the 720p resolution. The UperGrafx works similarly to the NESRGB and HiDef NES Mod.  

The PC Engine has sixteen sixteen color palette entries available for backgrounds and sixteen sixteen color palette entries for sprites. The first color entry of all background palettes is set to the universal background color and the first color entry of all sprite palettes is set to transparency. This gives a maximum of 482 colors on the screen at once. The Expansion Connector is constantly outputting these palette indexes on a separate video data bus that usually goes to the Color Encoder chip. Unlike the NES it also has a special signal to distinguish sprite palette indexes from background palette indexes, so you can still view the native video signal. The PC Engine displays 9-bit RGB for 512 colors maximum. The UperGrafx must be able to snoop on the color values stored for each palette index like the NES mods. The full CPU address and data bus is available on the Expansion Connector, so the color values for the palettes have been available. The result, when combined with the dot clock and sync signals, can give a truly digital representation of the screen image. Even better than the NES is the fact that there is no need to guestimate a composite to RGB palette.

There is a minijack next to the DVI port, which would suggest that audio is passed through from the Expansion Connector. The Expansion Connector supports stereo audio. The audio is output through the DVI connector, which is something of a pseudo-standard. Essentially the audio must be converted from analog to digital inside the UperGrafx.

Finally, the unit acts similarly to a Hudson Tennokoe 2 Backup Unit or a NEC Backup Booster. It allows you to save games to battery backed RAM instead of using passwords for those games that supported it. Unlike the original devices, there will be a USB port which you can use to transfer saves to and from the UperGrafx. The original devices came with 2KB of RAM, I do not know how much RAM will be available for the UperGrafx, but it is likely to have more RAM than the old devices.

The greatest benefit to the UperGrafx is that you are getting a pure digital video signal. There is no analog to digital conversion or degradation. There is nothing like jailbars induced by analog noise. When I had an RGB-modded PC Engine Duo last year, I could observe alternating bands of light and dark areas in the green background of Bonk's Adventure through RGB but not through composite. This cannot happen on the UperGrafx.

The second greatest benefit to the UperGrafx is that you do not need to mod your system to get perfect quality video out of it. The original PC Engine and TurboGrafx 16 only support RF output and the Core Grafx only handle composite video. No NEC console handles RGB without a mod, and there are more than one school of thought about what the perfect RGB mod should be. The unit I was using last year had a mod from doujindance, who has an excellent reputation for modding within the PC Engine/Turbo community. However, given the banding in his RGB mod, there is room for improvement.

There are some downsides. First, there is no passthrough for the expansion connector, so you cannot connect a CD-ROM unit. Second, you need a DVI to HDMI cable if your TV or monitor does not have a DVI input, but they are pretty cheap ($5-10). Third, it only upscales to 720p, not the more common 1080p of higher end displays. Fourth, it attaches to the back of the console like an "L", sticking straight up into the air, and there is nothing but friction keeping it attached to the console (not unlike attachments for the ZX Spectrum). Finally, it always displays "UperGrafx" in the borders of the frame, which some people may not appreciate.

So, for the suggested retail price of ¥40,000/$368, why should anyone buy this unit over a Framemeister? The Framemeister costs just as much and can work with almost any system. Also, if you buy this modern version of the Turbo Booster for $65, you can get the highest quality analog signals (RGB + CSync, S-Video and Composite) at a fraction of the cost.

You can see Jason of test the device and give his initial thoughts here :

A pure video of the DVI output for the device is available here :

Here is more information and pictures about the device, translated from Japanese :

The guy who supplied Jason with the device says that the lag on the device is between 0 and 1 frame. By comparison, kevtris' Hi-Def NES gives lag in the 2-4ms range. One frame is 16ms. The Framemeister gives lag in the 16-24ms range, depending on the settings used. But both the Hi-Def NES and the Framemeister support 1080p. The UperGrafx and the AVS only support 720p. What processing speed advantage given by the pure digital signal may be taken away by the upscaling done by non-true 720p displays (I am not even sure if there is a such thing as a true 1280x720p display). Lag comes from many sources and is quite insidious. Given the large number of shmups for the Turbo/PC Engine where timing is critical, maintaining a latency of well under one frame per second is essential if you want to buy this device over a Framemeister.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Working with ST-506 Interface MFM Hard Drives

If you have an IBM PC, XT or compatible of similar vintage, historically accurate options for mass storage can be a bit tricky to work with.  No XT-IDE, compact flash or Disk on Modules were available during the first decade after the release of the IBM PC.  Drives were huge but storage capacity was small by today's standards.  Still, if you want to go 100% Oldskool PC, you should use a vintage drive.  Even a vintage hard drive is far superior to being relegated to floppies.

The first hard drive interface in the PC compatible world came with the IBM PC/XT.  The XT included a "fixed disk drive" controller designed by Xebec.  The controller used an interface called the ST-506 after Seagate ST-506 hard drive.  The ST-506 was a 5MB drive and used a two-cable interface.  The IBM original controller only officially supported one type of hard drive in its first two iterations, the ST-412.  The ST-412 functioned like the ST-506 but had a 10MB capacity.

Later, Seagate released the ST-225, a 20MB hard drive that could be found in late model XTs and perhaps the IBM PC XT/286.  IBM released a final revision of its fixed disk controller to support this drive.

MFM drives can take up a full-height 5.25" drive bay.  These bays are seldom found outside the original IBM PC, XT and XT/286.  The ST-412 is a full-height drive, the ST-225 is a half-height drive.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The RetroUSB AVS - A Potentially Worthy FPGA NES HDMI-Output Clone

This year, bunnyboy (Brian Parker) of is going to release his long-awaited (if you are a NintendoAge forum member) AVS.  The AVS is a clone of the NES done within the programmable logic of an FPGA.  It comes in a NES-front loader influenced case, has a front loading 72-pin connector (no push down tray) and a top loading 60-pin connector for NES and Famicom games, respectively.  It only outputs HDMI at a 720p resolution.

The FPGA is a hardware recreation of the internals of the NES, namely the 2A03 CPU and the 2C02 PPU, the RAM and the glue logic required for a functioning NES.  An FPGA is a large, programmable surface mounted chip which allows the programmer to define the logic elements on the chip.  In this case, the programmer is attempting to model the CPU and PPU chips to perform an identical function to the logic contained in the discrete, through-hole chips Nintendo used.  Fortunately, these chips have been decapsulated and their dies have been imaged at very high resolution.  How they work on the hardware level is reasonably well-known, although there are some minor variations between the various revisions of each chip.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

IBM's CGA Hardware Explained

The IBM Color/Graphics Card has been widely seen as a poor attempt at a video adapter.  Released with the IBM PC back in 1981, it was not particularly impressive by the standards of its day. Limited colors and no sprites did not make it very attractive for games.  However, when you look at the hardware and what it could do, it becomes more impressive.  Even though the card is a full length card, it was built from off the shelf logic chips, memory and video controller.  Looking at the hardware also helps one understand the limitations of the device.

The BIOS Modes

Mode 00h - 40x25 B&W
Mode 01h - 40x25 Color
Mode 02h - 80x25 B&W
Mode 03h - 80x25 Color
Mode 04h - 320x200 Color
Mode 05h - 320x200 B&W
Mode 06h - 640x200 B&W

On an RGBI monitor, the identical Color/B&W modes have no distinction except in Modes 04 and 05. On a color composite monitor or TV set, color modes enable the color burst and b&w modes disable the color burst.  The IBM PC defaults to the 40x25 or 80x25 B&W modes depending on how you set a dipswitch.  Text, especially 80-column text, is much more difficult to read on a composite color display.

The CGA card has 16KB of RAM.  A full screen of 40-column text required 2KB of memory, allowing for 8 separate pages.  A full screen of 80 column memory required 4KB of memory, allowing for 4 separate pages.  Graphics modes took up all the 16KB of memory.  In order to really put the CGA card to work, one has to go deeper and look beyond the BIOS and what could be done by accessing its registers directly.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Metro ED500 DataVac - A Verse Review

The Metro ED500 DataVac 500-Watt 120 volt 0.75-HP Electric Blower Duster :

It will blow quite strong,
It will blow rather long,
Enjoy someday the money you will save,
No cans burying you into an early grave,
With nifty attachments to spare,
Away will fly the dust and hair,
Computers and gadgets clean up swell,
But it heats up like hell, and "burnt rubber" fairly conveys its smell.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Worth the Loading Times? - Famicom Disk System to Cartridge Conversions Worth Playing

The Famicom Disk System may offer games that saved to disk and enhanced music and sound effects, but it came at a cost.  The disks can fail, the drives' belts can snap and the disk system introduced loading times to the Famicom platform.  With devices like the FDSStick, the first two issues have been eliminated but the last issue remains.  Here I am going to list all Famicom disk system games with a later port to NES or Famicom cartridge and determine whether the extra features (if any) are worth the drawback of putting up with loading times.

First, here is the list of games :
FDS Title / NES Tile (if Different) What Is Saved? FDS Audio Sound Effects FDS Audio Music Disk Sides
Akumajō Dracula / Castlevania 3 Games N N 2
Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa (Unreleased for NES) Does not Save N Y 2
Bubble Bobble Highest Level N N 2
Dr. Chaos 3 Games N N 2
Dracula II: Noroi no Fūin / Castlevania II: Simon's Quest 3 Games N Y 2
Exciting Basketball / Double Dribble Does not Save Y Y 2
Final Command: Akai Yōsai / Jackal Does not Save N N 2
Green Beret / Rush 'n Attack Does not Save N N 2
Gun.Smoke Does not Save N N 2
Gyruss Does not Save N Y 2
Hao-kun no Fushigi na Tabi / Mystery Quest 3 Games Y Y 2
Hikari Shinwa: Palthena no Kagami / Kid Icarus 3 Games Y Y 2
Ice Hockey Does not Save N N 1
Karate Champ Does not Save N N 2
Konami Ice Hockey / Blades of Steel Does not Save N N 2
Zelda no Densetsu / The Legend of Zelda 3 Games Y Y 2
Metroid 3 Games Y Y 2
Moero Twinbee: Cinnamon Hakase wo Sukue! / Stinger Does not Save N N 2
Nazo no Kabe: Block Kuzushi / Crackout 3 Games N N 2
Pro Wrestling: Famicom Wrestling Association Does not Save N N 1
Roger Rabbit / The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle Does not Save N N 2
Section Z 3 Games N N 2
The Legend of Zelda 2: Link no Bōken / Zelda II: The Adventure of Link 3 Games Y Y 2
Tobidase Daisakusen / 3-D Battles of the World Runner Does not Save N Y 2
Volleyball Does not Save N N 1
Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic / Super Mario Bros. 2 Worlds Beaten by Each Character Y Y 2
Zanac Does not Save N N 1

Bold means that there is in-game Famicom Disk System Expansion Audio music, which is rare.  

Friday, April 29, 2016

Recommendations for Two Player Simultaneous Non-sport NES Games

The NES has quite a few good two player games.  When you have a friend over and want to play the NES, it would be nice to have a good game or two ready.  However, two player alternating games are not much fun when you are watching the other person play all the time.  Not all two-player simultaneous games are great either.  Here I am going to give my recommendations for good two player simultaneous NES games.  Since I am not a big sports fan, I am excluding those games.


Archon is like Battle Chess without the strict chess rules.  It is a port of the Atari 8-bit game.  Each player gets a nearly mirror image set of "pieces" to use, one side representing the Light and the other side representing the Dark.  When a piece enters the square of an opposing piece, the players control the pieces in an arena and fight to the death.  You can win the game by controlling all five squares or by killing the enemy wizard/sorceress.  The various pieces have different strengths and weaknesses.  Some pieces have a melee attack, some have a ranged attack and some have a touch attack.  The color of the board and some of the squares shifts between light and dark, giving the favored side an advantage.  The wizard and sorceror have some one-time use magical spells.  As a one player game, the AI is exploitable and cheap, but two players can have a lot of fun with this game.  The game is easy to pick up and play and there is plenty of strategy to be employed.

Balloon Fight

Balloon Fight is essentially Nintendo's clone of Joust.  The object of the game is to break your opponents' balloons by landing above them.  Then you have to kick them off the platform, otherwise they will inflate another balloon.  You have to dodge lightning sparks and the computer enemies.  Be careful, you can break your friend's balloons just as easily as you can an enemy's.  It's pretty simple, but the late Satoru Iwata's classic really captures the spirit of Joust.  The control is easy to grasp yet hard to master, like all good Joust ports.  Its even better than the official Joust NES port.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Sierra's Short-Lived Tandy Color Computer Support

In 1980 Radio Shack released its budget line of computers with the Tandy TRS-80 Color Computer.  Originally priced for $399.00 for the base model, it came with a 6809 CPU running at .894MHz, 4K of RAM and could display only upper case characters.  It could be expanded to 16KB, then 32KB and finally 64KB.  It had a built-in BASIC, a cartridge slot, two joysticks and a 53-key keyboard.  Its most often used graphics mode was a 256x192 artifact mode capable of four primary colors (black, white, blue and orange). It used single sided, double density 5.25" drives that held 156,672 bytes per side for user data using Radio Shack DOS.  Its sound hardware was a 6-bit DAC and it had a serial port and a cassette port.  The Color Computer 2 was essentially the same machine with a better keyboard and more easily expandable RAM.  Later CoCo 2s supported lower case text characters, unofficially.  Both of these early CoCos were essentially limited to 64KB of RAM.

In many ways, the CoCo 1 and 2 reminds one of the Apple II+.  Both machines really had a widespread maximum of 64KB of RAM.  They used 8-bit processors running at speeds close to each other.  Both machines can produce low resolution direct colors but really show detailed color images with NTSC composite artifact colors. If you subtract the purple/green combination from the Apple II, the graphics of a CoCo and an Apple can look very, very similar.  Both machines had somewhat limited (pre-IBM layout) keyboards and did not support lowercase characters officially.  Both came with ports for analog joysticks and cassette storage.  The sound hardware for each machine was rather crude and neglected.  Disk storage was only slightly better on the CoCo.

The CoCo 3 was a much more significant upgrade.  It came with double the CPU speed, 128KB of RAM and could be officially expanded to 512KB of RAM.  There were four extra keys on the keyboard.  It had new RGB-based graphics modes which could support 16 out of 64 pure colors and supported several higher resolutions in 2 colors (640x192), 4 colors (320x192 and 640x192) and 16 colors (320x192).

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Nuby Game Light - Best Contemporary Light Source for the Game Boy

The Nuby Light alongside the Game Boy
The Game Boy was better than its competitors in many ways, more compact, longer battery life, better sound (against Game Gear), more buttons (against Game Gear), higher resolution (against Lynx), lower price, first to market, superior pack-in game.  Otherwise, the screen was its achilles heel : poor contrast, four color monochrome, difficulty in displaying fast moving objects and non back-lit.

Today we have mods that can fix most of the Game Boy's screen problems.  Backlight kits can be installed and the contrast issues can be dramatically improved with a bivert mod.  However, these innovations were not available during the monochrome Game Boy's official lifespan (1989-2003).  You had to put up with the screen, and the best you could do was either buy a light peripheral or play your games on the non-portable Super Game Boy.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Early PC Game Miscellaneous Notablility

IBM's First PC Game Releases

IBM released games for the PC and PCjr. from 1981 to 1985.  However, IBM did not always develop the games.  The earliest games came in a gray plastic over cardboard folder or folio without artwork on the covers.  The game and manual would fit into plastic sleeves on the inside of the folder. The disk label was originally gray, but turned to red for Casino Games.

These were the among the first commercially sold games released for the PC.

Adventure in Serenia - Sierra
Casino Games - IBM
Microsoft Adventure - Microsoft
Microsoft Decathalon - Microsoft
Arithemitic Games Set 1 - Science Research Associates, Inc.
Arithemitic Games Set 2 - Science Research Associates, Inc.
One Hundred and One Monochrome Mazes - IBM
Strategy Games - IBM

Microsoft Adventure was the first commercial PC game ever released, it was available at the PC's launch, August 12, 1981.  The first actual PC game was the Donkey game included with PC-DOS 1.0 and run in BASIC.

One Hundred and One Monochrome Mazes is the first non-text game released exclusively for the Monochrome and Printer Display Adapter, and only works with that display hardware or compatible hardware.  It does not work with the PCjr.  It also uses a black folio instead of a gray folio.

Microsoft Decathalon does not work with the PCjr.  Adventure in Serenia relies on CGA Composite Color and will show incorrect colors with the PCjr.  You can run Microsoft Adventure on the PCjr. but cannot set the foreground and background colors.  

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Quick Look - Outrun PC Versions

One of DSI/USI's more competent porting jobs from the late 1980s, Outrun received a decent port to the PC.  It was released three times in English-speaking markets.  All versions properly support CGA, EGA, VGA and Tandy and a Joystick.  I have sample screenshots of the 16-color graphics as displayed on EGA, VGA or Tandy, the 4 color graphics of CGA or Tandy and the monochrome Hercules graphics.  I also have attached speech and sound effect sample recordings that played on startup.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Winnie the Pooh Tandy/PCjr. Graphics Recolorization

Recently, I learned that Winnie the Pooh had support for Tandy/PCjr. graphics and 3-voice sound.  However, whoever was responsible for the colorization either must have had cloudy memories of the Pooh cartoons or problems with perceiving colors.  I took a screenshot for each character and tried to make them closer to their colors from the Disney films.  I made sure to only use the 16 RGBI colors available to the Tandy/PCjr. and not to do violence to the backgrounds.

The real graphics are on the left side, my retouched graphics are on the right side.

The Pooh Bear doll only needed to turn the shirt from light magenta to light red.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Early Game Jukebox - Ultima III through Ultima VI

Did you know that you can play all music from Ultimas III-VI on their native platforms without creating a character?  Origin pioneered the use of a sound card add-on for music in its games, and for its early games it always had a method to play all the music in a game without having to get into it.  However, these methods are not always intuitive, so I will reveal how to listen to the music in each game.

First, I must discuss the Sweet Micro Systems Mockingboard.  The original Mockingboard was released in four varieties in 1982 :

Mockingboard Sound I - One AY-3-8910 chip
Mockingboard Speech I - One Votrax SC-01 Speech Chip
Mockingboard Sound/Speech I - One AY-3-8910 chip and one SC-01 Speech Chip
Mockingboard Sound II - Two AY-3-8910 chips

You must have a board with at least one AY chip to hear music in any Ultima game. The Ultima games do not use speech chips. Each AY chip gives you three voices.

Later Sweet Micro Systems re-released the Mockingboard line in 1984-85 as :

Mockingboard A - Two AY-3-8913 chips and and two sockets for Votrax SC-02/SSI-263 Speech Chips
Mockingboard C - Two AY-3-8913 chips and one SSI-263 Speech Chip and a socket for a second SSI-263.  The board is the same as the Mockingboard A.
Mockingboard D - An external box containing two AY-3-8913 chips and one SSI-263 Speech Chip controlled by an Apple //c serial port.  Not compatible with any games.
Mockingboard M - Two AY-3-8913 chips and one SSI-263 Speech Chip, no second socket but does include a mini-jack for audio, bundled with the Bank Street Music Writer.

They also released the "Mockingboard B", but that is not a card but a SSI-263 Speech Chip to upgrade a Mockingboard A.  

Musically, the Sound II is equivalent to the later Mockingboards, but the stereo may be reversed.