Friday, December 2, 2022

So Many Floppies! - Late DOS/Early Windows Era Installations

The CD-ROM format continually promised to make floppy disks obsolete.  First introduced in a usable form in 1986, the CD-ROM's 650MiB capacity was enormous when 1.2MiB 5.25" floppies were largest available removable media at the time and hard drives maxed out at around 50 MiB.  While CD-ROMs were standard equipment on current PCs by 1995 and the principal method for software installation by that year, the PCs reliance on floppy disks for operating system installation lasted for much longer than anyone anticipated.  How long you ask?  Let's find out.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Re-Modding a Game Boy

One day, while browsing through a local collectibles store, I came across some Game Boys.  I saw that two of these Game Boys were unusual and decided to bring one home to play with.  With this Game Boy I was able to fill a small but nagging hole in my handheld console collection.  So in today's blog post, I will discuss an unusual Game Boy to find in the wild and what I did to fix and improve it.

Before I talk about the Game Boy, I would like to talk a bit about the collectibles store.  Normally when you go into an antiques or collectibles store, you would assume that the items for sale are owned by the store.  This store was different, it was more like a co-op.  Various items in the store had stickers or tags on them with initials indicating the owner.  The owner sets the price of the item and writes it on the sticker.  When you bought something, the store clerk would write down a description of the item and ring up the sale.  At some point thereafter the owner and the store would split the sale price.  

The Game Boy with its Original Mods
At least one of the individuals who uses the store to sell his property is a gamer.  I have bought a few things in the store, but a few weeks ago I saw some items that were unusual.  A rather large number of video game handhelds and all-in-ones had been added to the shelves, and while most were too new to be of any interest to me, there were also three DMGs, a GBC and a GBA.  One of the DMGs looked stock but very yellowed and the GBA and GBC were unremarkable.  Two of the DMGs had been modded, one with a Prosound mod and one with a knob and a dial whose purpose I could not figure out while in the store.  Their shells were not quite-stock Nintendo shells.

What interested me the most was that both units had a backlight mod installed.  Now in the past I had tried and failed, multiple times, to mod Game Boys with a backlight.  One time I cracked the screen, another time I tore the ribbon and a third time I caused dead lines in the center which I did not know how to fix permanently.  More recently I was able to restore the last Game Boy I tried to backlight but broke the screen.  The CPU board is where the heart of the machine lies and that was good, so I installed a replacement screen and LCD board, a new case and such and the result was a fully working and restored Game Boy.  

The first time I went to the store I had no batteries, so I came back a few days later with batteries to test the systems.  The DMG with the Prosound was selling for $10 more than the one with the mysterious knobs.  The backlight seemed stronger with the Prosound unit, so I decided to save a little money and take home the the cheaper unit.  

When I got home I found out why this was the cheaper unit.  The polarization filter had been placed to show inverse video, and I thought that made the screen difficult to see with the backlight.  However, when I opened up the unit I discovered that the backlight was not showing any light at all.  The other unit at the store did show light, but that unit had not had a bivert mod installed, so contrast left much to be desired.  No bivert mod was in this unit either.  It had been wired in correctly so I assume it had burnt itself out.  There was a resistor in the strip with the LEDs, so the backlight panel had not been burnt out by incompetence.  Rotating the polarizer screen 90° restored the original pea-soup green color to the screen and made it a little easier to see.  The blue LED is not stock, blue LEDs did not exist during the DMG's lifespan, DMGs came with red LEDs.

The mysterious switch and dial turned out to be a variable clock speed mod.  The switch enables or disables the mod and the dial adjusts the clock speed output by the Game Boy's 4.194MHz clock crystal.  This can overclock or underclock the system, but if you underclock the system too much, the screen will start to flicker too much and will no longer show graphics.  In order to fit the mod, the modder had to drill a pair of holes in the top of the system to access the button and the dial.  

The front half of the shell turned out to be a normal gray shell which had been painted blue.  It was obvious that the completely white screen lens and the buttons were not stock components.  The rear shell looked to be an original clear shell from the "Play it Loud" line.  The battery cover was also painted blue as was the inside RF shield, strangely enough.  A fair number of original screws were missing.

Having fully inspected this DMG, I found it hard to believe my luck in that I found a system for such a reasonable price that was fully ready for a backlight installation.  The most difficult part of the backlight mod is removing the reflective and rear polarizer layers, but someone else had done this and was successful, sparing me the trouble.  I resolved to not only fix the existing mod but improve it as well as refashion the console to satisfy my own aesthetic tastes.  The existing mods were too dated anyway and the paint job seems to predate the easy availability of replacement shells.

In order to get the parts I needed, I had to shop around.  This was not my first rodeo, my previous experience with a full mod had conditioned me to expect that I'd need to tap more than one resource to obtain all the parts I needed.  Hand Held Legend (HHL) had the best selection of backlights, and I ordered a yellow-green v3 backlight because that color most closely matches the original color of the unbacklit screen.  They also distribute the CleanPower DMG DC-Regulator Board v2.0 from RetroSix.  These boards improve battery life, reduce audio noise and make life a little easier for the DMG in its twilight years.  Retro Modding (RM) has a unique bivert board that is smaller than other boards.  I had difficulty the last time I tried installing a bivert board with video issues, but that board was larger.  

The shells on offer from HHL and RM were not particularly inspiring.  I wanted a clear shell but one that had the Nintendo GAME BOY logo on the front.  Apparently the trend is to not put the logo on the front of the shell, perhaps due to pressure from Nintendo.  Neither HHL nor RM had shells with that logo, but Retro Game Repair Shop did, so I ordered the shell from them.  Their "Factory A" shells came with membranes, buttons and screws, although I was not expecting great quality from throw-ins.  I forgot to order a replacement for the blue LED, so I won't get a less bright signal for low battery.  I had a pair of glass LCD screen lenses so I did not order any, but the lens I used shows more border than it should, I think it was meant for a modern display.  Modern display mods have a slightly larger active pixel area than an original DMG screen.  

Having to order from three separate suppliers meant that shipping costs were higher than it would have been if I could only order from one supplier.  For this rather modest bill of materials I had to pay $65.76.  If I had to replace the screen, as I did for last year's mod, it would have cost me about $100.  

Once all the parts had been delivered I replaced the DC Regulator Board, a process which was manageable without using desoldering braid or pump.  By applying heat to the end of the pins on the LCD board ribbon cable connector, I was able to lift the two pins on that connector for the bivert board using a craft knife.  I put the bivert board underneath, tacked it down to the points on the PCB where it is anchored and then bent the pins back over the pads, pushed them in and soldered them.  It is not impossible to break these pins by applying the force required to lift them from their pads.  I removed the dead backlight from underneath the LCD glass screen, soldered wires to the new backlight panel and fit it underneath the LCD glass.  The wires were soldered onto either side of the capacitor below the ribbon.  Then the polarizer was rotated 90° and placed between the LCD glass and the backlight panel.  The polarization gives the LCD screen a characteristic navy blue look when the screen is off.

The Game Boy after my Mods
The last stage of the modding process is also the most frustrating after the process of removing the reflective and rear polarizer layers of the original screen.  The LCD and CPU printed circuit boards have to be screwed down into their respective halves of the shell.  The standoffs into which the screws go in are not predrilled, so you have to use tremendous force to cut threads into these holes by screwing the screws in manually.  You can strip screws or screw holes if you are not careful and there are twenty screw holes to fill.

My mods were successful, although I reused a D-Pad from an original console because it had a larger pivot underneath than the replacement D-Pad.  I found the start and select buttons are too short and I will replace them with original buttons.  I may also replace the A and B button membrane.  The RetroSix shell I used for my previous Game Boy mod had a small "For" above "Nintendo GAME BOY", which I find to be a distraction.  This "Factory A" shell does not and feels to be more authentic.  The "Factory A" shells are not molded for IPS screen mods such as the one my previous DMG has.  

So how does a backlit and biverted original screen compare to a stock screen and an RIPS v4 OSD Backlight Mod Kit?  The RIPS uses a modern LCD display designed for cellphones.  Well, once you see the backlit biverted screen in action, it is very hard to go back to a stock screen.  The bivert mod does a tremendous job of improving contrast and it does not notably improve vertical streaks you can sometimes see on these screens, at least with the DMG's screen.  You might see a little flicker here and there with some games that rapidly alternate between shades to show intermediate colors, but modern displays will show a distracting amount of flicker.  Due to the slow LCD pixel refresh of the original screens, the screen is a little blurry with moving objects compared to a modern display.  The backlight's lighting is not perfectly even across the screen, leading to characteristic humps at the bottom of the screen.

Other benefits to performing a backlight mod to an original screen is that you keep the system nearly 100% Nintendo and the backlight and bivert mods are cheaper than a screen replacement.  You can save about $35 by backlighting the original screen.  The downsides to backlighting the original screen are that you can easily ruin the screen, there is more soldering to do and the soldering is more difficult.  

It cost me just under $110 to buy this Game Boy and mod it to something I can be happy with.  That might seem expensive but that gets you a fully working system with the ability to use a flash cart like the EverDrive GB X7 regardless of lighting conditions.  Here is the photo gallery of this Game Boy with its original mods and this photo gallery shows the Game Boy after my mods.

Three Game Boys: Stock DMG, Backlit Original Screen, Backlit Replacement Screen


Sunday, September 25, 2022

Atari 400 - An Atari 2600 on Steroids and More

The Atari 400 and Atari 800 were released by Atari in late 1979 as a follow up to the successful Atari Video Computer System (VCS).  Unlike the VCS, the 400 and 800 came with keyboards as well as more powerful hardware and more RAM.  Having recently acquired an Atari 400, let me talk about some of the issues I have encountered with it.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Apple II Sound Cards & Gaming - A Niche Precursor to PC-Compatible Sound Cards

The Apple II was distinctive when it was released because it was the first microcomputer and the only one of the "1977 Trinity" of consumer-friendly computers (TRS-80 and Commodore PET being the other two) to come with any kind of audio capabilities built in.  Those capabilities were primitive, a speaker that could be clicked in software by the CPU.  Other computers followed with sound chips built in like the Atari 400 and 800, the TI 99/4 & 4A, the Commodore VIC-20 and 64 and so on.  But the Apple II was more flexible than any of its 8-bit competitors in having expansion slots to allow for less expensive and less bulky expansion options.  Eventually games began to look at some of those expansion capabilities, and in this article we will talk about how they explored them in terms of sound.  

There were many expansion boards for the Apple II that plugged into one of its expansion slots and played better sound than the system itself was capable of playing on its own.  There were cards with Programmable Sound Generators like the ALF Music Card MC16 and MC1, wavetable synthesis devices the Mountain Computer Music System and speech-producing cards like the Software Automatic Mouth (S.A.M.)  These cards either came with their own software and came with instruction manuals informing buyers how to program.  Programs for these cards were limited to the companies that made the hardware or an occasional music teaching program that might have support, although most music programs limited themselves to an Apple speaker.  

Mockingboards and Phasor

Sweet Micro Systems Mockingboard Sound II

Things began to change in 1982 when a company called Sweet Micro Systems released a sound expansion called the Mockingboard.  The Mockingboard was a sound expansion for the Apple II and it initially did not offer much over the competition except for its relatively cheap cost (under $200).  The Mockingboards supported music and sound effects via the General Instruments AY-3-8910 PSG.  This sound chip supported three independent square wave generators, a 12-bit frequency selection and 4-bit volume control as well as envelope generation and noise generation. 

Unlike other companies which offered a music or a speech board, SMS did not really offer a software suite with their cards.  Instead SMS aggressively pursued third parties, in many instances giving away cards in the hopes that they would be used in program development.  Game developers expressed a level of receptivity to a non-Apple product that had previously not existed in the Apple II game developing community since the Sirius Joyport.  SMS would eventually sell ten products under the Mockingboard brand.  

Mockingboard Sound/Speech I

Initially the Mockingboards were sold in four varieties, the Sound I, the Speech I, the Sound/Speech I and the Sound II.  The Sound I had a single AY sound chip and the Sound II had two AY sound chips.  In the Sound II, one AY chip was assigned to the left audio output and the other assigned to the right audio output, permitting stereo sound if both chips were used.  Stereo sound had not been supported in other home computers, the Commodore Amiga, the Roland MT-32 and the Creative Game Blaster were the only other options for stereo sound for home computers until the 1990s.  We will talk more about the Mockingboard Speech cards a following section.

One overlooked feature of the Mockingboards was the usage of the MOS 6522 Versatile Interface Adapter (VIA) chip.  The VIA in the Mockingboards was used for two purposes.  First it was used to adapt the interface of the AY chips to something compatible with the Apple II's bus.  All data to and from the AY chips goes through the VIAs.  The Mockingboard could have done this with 74-series logic for lower cost but the VIA had other capabilities that were vital for a sound card if the programmer wanted to do more than just play sound.    

Mockingboard "Transitional"

Second, the VIA provided hardware timers and interrupt generation via the 6502 IRQ and NMI signals.  Timing is very important for music and the Apple II and II+ did not have any hardware timing mechanisms available without expansion slots.  The Apple IIe and IIc had (different) methods to read the status of vertical blank, which can function as a crude timer as it occurs 59.92x per second, but it is a rather coarse timing mechanism.  But if you want your music to work in a II+, those methods were unavailable.  

Mockingboard A

So unless you wanted to count 6502 CPU cycles, you were limited to very short sound effects and music during gameplay on an Apple II.  I do not know of any other Apple II music boards that came with hardware timers and did not use AY chips, so timing music would have required more CPU cycles to drive these boards than the Mockingboard.  The inclusion of a Programmable Interval Timer in the IBM PC is the reason why the PC Speaker can play music and more than simple sound effects during a game and the Apple II speaker cannot.  In the original Mockingboards, each AY or SC-01 chip was accompanied by a VIA.

Mockingboard C

Votrax, the maker of the SC-01 had filed for bankruptcy in 1983 and the SC-01 would shortly be discontinued.  The chip fab, Silicon Systems Incorporated, was making a new speech chip Votrax had just finished developing prior to its bankruptcy, the SC-02.  SSI renamed the chip as the SSI-263.  This chain of events encouraged SMS to revamp their product line and discontinue their older products.  At first they released a card in new packaging and sold it just as "Mockingboard"  This card has two AY-3-8913 chips, two sockets for SSI-263s, two VIAs but these big chips are laid out on the board vertically whereas every other SMS Mockingboard uses a horizontal layout.  This card has the designation SSP-2000 on the back  of the board.  In this configuration each VIA would send and receive data from an AY chip and an SSI chip.  

This Mockingboard turned out to be a transitional product as SMS soon further revamped their Mockingboard line with four new products.  SMS named these products the Mockingboard A, Mockingboard B, Mockingboard C and Mockingboard D.  The base Mockingboard would be sold as the Mockingboard A, which had the same functionality as the Transitional Mockingboard but uses a more traditional horizontal layout for its chips.  This card has the designation SSP-2000C on the back of the board.  The Mockingboard B is just a SSI-263 speech chip, sold as an upgrade for the Mockingboard A.  The SSP-2000C board with one SSI-263 speech chip would be sold as the Mockingboard C.  The Mockingboard D was an external box with two sound chips and a socket for a speech chip which communicated with the Apple II via a serial port.  It came with a power supply and a DIN-5 cable, intended to connect to the serial ports of the Apple IIc.   

Mockingboard M

The final Mockingboard product is  called the Mockingboard M and only has one socket for an SSI-263. The board revision is SSP-2000D. Removal of one of the SSI-263 sockets made sense as stereo speech made little sense.  This card has an input for the Apple Speaker and is the only one with a 3.5mm jack.  It also appears to have been bundled with Mindscape's Bank Street Music Writer.

In 1986, a company called Applied Engineering (AE), which was well-known for its Apple II peripherals, developed the Mockingboard-compatible Phasor card which came with four AY sound chips, two VIA chips and two sockets for SC-02 speech chips.  The Mockingboard was cloned back in the day several times as the card used off the shelf chips and many times since, which I will talk about below.

Applied Engineering Phasor

I have been able to personally confirm that 35 games and 3 music composition programs that supported the Mockingboard during the its portion of the Apple II family's long lifespan (June 1977- November 1993).  Other games were mentioned in magazine ads at the time, but the available versions of these games do not produce any sound with a Mockingboard.  Some claimed games may never have been released while some of the music programs which have claimed support have not been archived.  SMS and AE also released software along with their cards.  The first games with support bear 1982 copyright dates but 1983 was the year when the greatest support by third parties was evident.  There are a few more games in 1984 and 1985 but very little after that time.  There were thousands of games released for the Apple II, so these 35 games are basically a drop in the bucket.  

There are also at least 11 homebrew games released since the discontinuation of the Apple II line and many, many demos which take advantage of the Mockingboard.

Mockingboard and Compatibility

Street Electronics Echo+

Street Electronics, which made the Echo line of sound cards, released the Echo+ which has a single VIA and two AY-3-8913 sound chips but does not appear to be Mockingboard compatible.  It uses the TMS5220 speech chip, which is totally incompatible with the SC-01 or SC-02. The Cricket is similar to the Mockingboard D but uses the TMS chip and requires specific software support for Cricket.  It is quite possible to control two AY chips with a single VIA, the Phasor does this in its "native" mode and has an Echo+ compatibility setting.  

In terms of compatibility, all Mockingboards, other than the Mockingboard D, and the Phasor work the same for purposes of the AY sound chips.  Stereo sound boards provide 6 voices of sound but requires two AY chips.  You will find the stereo reversed if a game allows you to select a Sound 2 and you have a Mockingboard A or later and vice versa.  The 12 voice sound support of Ultima V requires two Mockinboards with two AY chips each or a Phasor card.  The Mockingboard D requires specific support by software and will not work with software that only supports expansion slot Mockingboards.  If a program is compatible with the Mockingboard D, it is noted on my list.  

Mockingboard D

A bigger compatibility issue with the Mockingboard is with the Apple II mouse.  Apple assigned the mouse communication ports and firmware to use those memory locations reserved for Slot 4, which just happens to be the most popular slot for the Mockingboard.  Most games expect the Mockingboard in Slot 4 and most mouse programs expect the mouse card (for an Apple IIe) to also be in Slot 4.  The IIc and IIc+ have a modern solution which gets around this issue, and the IIgs can disable its emulation of the Mouse Card for Slot 4 for 8-bit software via the GS/OS Control Panel without disabling the mouse for 16-bit software.  With the IIe, you'll be working Slot 4 if you routinely switch between mouse-controlled programs and Mockingboard programs.  There are several Mockingboard games in Total Replay which will remap Mockingboard accesses to any slot, so that helps quite a bit.

The Ensoniq synthesizer in the Apple IIgs has no Mockingboard compatibility.  Ultima IV and Ultima V may not work in an Apple IIgs with a Mockinbgoard or Phasor without a patch disk being loaded.  One on One will hang instead of run if run in a system with a 65C02 like the Enhanced Apple IIe or a system which simulates one like the Apple IIgs.  

Speech Chips and Speech Devices

The two speech chips which found support in Apple II games were the Votrax SC-01 and SC-02.  The SC-01 could produce 64 phenomes of sound and could be programmed to select from four inflection settings.  User adjustments to the master clock signal sent to the chip via a potentiometer can vary the speed of the speech.  

The SC-02 was significantly more advanced than the SC-01 but is physically and programmatically incompatible with the earlier chip.  While it also has 64 phenomes, it has many more inflection settings and adds articulation transition, filter frequency, speech rate and amplitude adjustment settings.  The result can be a more natural, less robotic sound than its predecessor.  

The SC-01 was a popular speech synthesis chip when used in pinball (Mars God of War, Rocky) and arcade games (Wizard of Wor, Gorf, Q*Bert, Reactor).  The SC-02 was not nearly as popular as its predecessor, finding very few mainstream uses.  The SC-01 commands a high price due to their demand for pinball and arcade machines, while the SC-02 commands a similarly high price due to its rarity and obscurity.  

The SC-01 found its most notable use in the home with the Votrax Type 'n Talk (TnT).  The TnT was distinctive in that, unlike most other speech chip products, it was not tied to a single console or home computer platform.  This external box communicated via an RS-232 serial interface, so any home computer which had such an interface could use the TnT.  Inside the TnT was an 6850 ACIA UART, a 6802 CPU, 4KiB of ROM and 1KiB of RAM as well as the SC-01.  All this extra hardware was necessary so that the TnT could turn ASCII text into speech.  

Judging by the 1981-82 copyright dates, the Scott Adams' Graphic Adventures, which were text based adventure games updated with graphics, were the first Apple II games to use anything other than the internal speaker to produce sound.  As you might expect, the text portion of these adventures could be spoken to you if you had the Votrax connected to a serial card.  The Commodore VIC-20 versions of Adventures 1-6 could also do this with a TnT, but the VIC-20 versions came on cartridges and did not display graphics.

Internally, the SC-01 found its way into the Mockingboard Speech 1 and the Sound/Speech 1.  The Speech I card solely supported speech synthesis and presumably used one SC-01 and one VIA.  The Sound/Speech I had an AY chip and an SC-01 and a VIA for each chip.  The Sound/Speech 1 board has a separate volume control wheel for the speech chip as well as a pitch control wheel and splits music to one speaker output and speech to the other speaker output.  I have never seen a photo of the Speech 1 board (or a Sound 1 board for that matter), but games that have options for Speech 1 and Sound/Speech 1 run under the same emulator, so I assume they work pretty much identically.

All the Mockingboards from the Mockingboard A and beyond offer SSI-263-sized sockets (if they offer speech sockets at all).  Except in two known instances, games will either work with the Sound/Speech or Speech 1 boards, or the "new" Mockingboards, but not both.  

MIDI Interfaces

Passport Designs MIDI Interface

There were many MIDI interfaces for the Apple II, but only one saw support in a game.  Ultima V supports the Passport Designs MIDI Interface.  Ultima V supports mono-timbral MIDI devices will send one Program Change message to change the instrument per song.  Ultima V gives the player suggestions on what instrument to choose for each song and allows you to choose the slot in which the Passport card is located.

Modern Solutions

While Mockingboards were popular as far as Apple II sound cards go, they are not ubiquitous like the more common Apple II expansion cards like the Disk II controllers, Language Card, Super Serial Card and the 64K cards. Original Mockingboards are rather hard to come by, and just as often found inside system as they are standalone.  Except for the Mockingboard M and the Phasor, they use a 4-pin header for connecting to audio and a custom cable ending in two RCA male plugs, so you're likely going to have to build a cable to get audio out of them if you're hunting for an original board and the cable is not included.

Currently, ReactiveMicro (RM) sells a clone of the Mockingboard A and a clone of the Phasor.  I own both and can state the build quality on the cards is good and they work.  They sound rather muffled by comparison to emulation of the AY chips, especially the Mockingboard, but that is squarely laid the doors of SMS and AE.  The RM cards have a flaw that the originals do not have, however.  On the original cards, SMS and AE used adjustable potentiometers to set the volume of the left and right speaker outputs, RM uses fixed resistors on their cards.  The problem lies in that these amplifiers were intended to power passive speakers, so the output becomes rather hot if powered speakers are being used.  This can lead to audio distortion and clipping, or in the case of my Phasor, wavy video output from my Apple II.  It can also lead to volume imbalances and audio bleed.  I had to replace the fixed resistors with a potentiometer on the Phasor to eliminate the wavy video output.

It should be noted that the AY chips are strong enough to drive a line input without any assistance from an amplifier or a pre-amp.  You can easily take a common point where the three audio output channels of each chip or pair of chips is combined and send that directly to the headphone jack on these cards.  Of course when dealing with speech chips things become more complicated.

A South Korean hobbyist named Ian Kim made a Mockingboard that can be installed in the Apple IIc computers.  The Mockingboard 4c and 4c+ plugs into the CPU socket of the Apple IIc and IIc+, respectively.  These bypass the compatibility issues of the Mockingboard D, which was the "official solution" for the slot-less Apple IIc and IIc+.  

There are also clones of the Passport Designs MIDI Interface from a2heaven and Ian Kim.  In these cases, the clone are superior to the original card because the clone has ENIG or Gold plated slot contact pins while the original cards used silver-colored HASL finish over their contact pins.  HASL finishes will wear out much more quickly over repeated insertions and removals of the card than an ENIG or Gold plated finish.  I have seen Mockingboard clones sold on eBay from Hong Kong that also use HASL on their contact pins and these should be avoided.  Ian Kim's solution ditches two of the non-essential DIN-5 ports but adds a Waveblaster header for MIDI sound devices.  

On the speech front, I am afraid there are no complete solutions widely available yet for the Apple II.  There is a pin-compatible SC-01 hardware emulator but it needs an adapter to fit into a modern Mockingboard.  The adapter is fairly simple, but I do not know if the designer will make it available beyond a private group.  There is no hardware emulator for the SSI-263 and the only software emulator which supports it, AppleWin, does not sound nearly as good as the real chip. 

Look here for photographs of boxes and package materials.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Doctor Who on VHS - Exclusive Content

The BBC has been releasing Doctor Who stories on home media since 1983.  VHS was the home video format to become truly successful, everything from the classic series that was available was released for that format over a twenty year period.  Then DVDs consigned VHS to history and everything was re-released over a sixteen year period (11 if you factor in the special editions).  But while the DVDs were generally superior to the VHS releases in just about every way, there were a few instances where VHS had exclusive versions or content that would not be released on DVD.  This blog entry will attempt to break down the major differences between the VHS and DVD ranges.  

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Media and Console Longevity - Lengthy Support for Cartridges and Discs from Certain Consoles

Some consoles, even some of the most popular ones, can only have their games played on those consoles within that "family" of consoles.  Other games, through backwards compatibility, can be played on a more advanced family of consoles.  Some game had hardware made to play them for an exceptionally long period of time.  Today we will explore some of the console systems whose games' medial were given an exceptionally long (about 10 years) official lifespan.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Turn your DVD Player onn. - A Review of the $25 Wal-mart Wonder

DVD and DVD players were once considered necessities for gracious living.  The technology has been around for over 25 years now and remains the lowest common denominator of delivering film and television in a permanent (non-streaming) form to the masses.  Although the venerable disc format has been eclipsed by Blu-ray and more recently 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, some of us still find value in our DVD libraries, especially for those discs which have content unique to them or can only be put on a Blu-ray as an upscale.  And sometimes you need just a DVD player.  Wal-mart has a house brand called onn. which manufactures an inexpensive DVD player.  Last year I found I needed a DVD player to play discs on my CRT, having rediscovered the benefits of watching certain discs on a CRT, and saw that the onn. DVD Player was only $25 and decided to take a chance on it.  In this blog entry, I will relate how I discovered some rather pleasant surprises with this player with you.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Sears (Atari) Tele-games Pong vs Magavox Odyssey 100 - Battle of the First Pong Consoles

Debuting in the fall of 1975, the Sears release of Atari's home version of Pong was a big success for that holiday season.  Owning a first-generation video game console like Atari Pong had been something of a dream of mine for quite a while.  The importance of Atari's first Home Pong console cannot be understated and much has been written about it.  I recently acquired a Sears Telegames Pong and wanted to talk about the machine and its significance in this blog article.  I also obtained a competitor to Sears/Atari's Pong, the Magnavox Odyssey 100, and wish to compare the two here.  

Thursday, August 4, 2022

The Godzilla Series Japanese Film U.S. Non-Theatrical Releases

In the prior blog entry, I worked to document the titles, credits and logos affixed to the theatrical releases of the Godzilla series.  Not all those films were given a wide theatrical release and as the blog entry covering theatrical releases was rather long, I decided to talk about the films which did not have theatrical releases in this entry.

Monday, August 1, 2022

The Godzilla Series Japanese Film U.S. Theatrical Releases

Godzilla was first introduced to the wider world through the medium of the cinema.  Western theater audiences were exposed to Godzilla and other Japanese sci-fi films on a fairly regular basis during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Godzilla's theatrical releases have garnered particular attention, the series is still going after almost seventy years.  A theatrical release of a foreign film in the US is a particular mark of distinction and prestige, and many people believe it is important to try and preserve these films as close to the way they were exhibited as possible.  The Godzilla franchise is one of the most successful in history but during its films theatrical runs would the greatest number of people see the film at one time.  

Some of Godzilla's theatrical releases are well-known and readily available, but most have fallen into obscurity.  Even in the VHS era when theatrical releases were more available, there was usually something missing or altered such as credits and title screens.  In this blog article I will identify what you would have seen in terms of credits and titles if you saw these films in a US theater during their wide release theatrical runs.  

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

The Last Gasp of the Intellivision Amico

Back in 2019, I wrote a blog article about the Intellivision Amico and predicted that there were significant hurdles which it would have to overcome if it was going to succeed in the marketplace.  Nearly three years later, the company behind the Amico, Intellivision Entertainment's, prospects of releasing anything other than a Chapter 7 or 11 Bankruptcy petition are looking exceedingly remote.  Millions of dollars in public and private investment were poured into Intellivision Entertainment and thousands of preorders with $100 deposits were placed for the console and thousands of RFID tag game boxes were sold.  All that money is probably gone now with almost nothing to show for it.  Formerly once rabid fans of the Amico have turned, one by one, against the company with bitterness previously reserved for the Amico's "haters".  Preorder backers are waiting increasingly long for the company to process cancellation requests.  Staff have been let go in order to cut costs, but Intellivision owes a lot of money to a lot of people, no consoles manufactured and increasingly fewer opportunities to find funding for its console.

But let's turn the clock back just a bit, back just to last year.  In 2021, the Amico was still a possibility, Tommy Tallarico was still the CEO, still willing to give lengthy interviews to anyone willing to listen and still able to contribute post after post to the AtariAge Forums.  Amico cheerleaders like Atari Creep, Retro Bro, SmashJT and Saggy Melonz were still touting the Amico and bashing the haters with tireless enthusiasm on YouTube.  Tommy was making the rounds with the console and the games that were sufficiently developed to show off to the general public.  I was present at one of those events, but while one could not have predicted with certainty, now it highly probable that it may have been the last.  In this blog article, I will relate my personal experiences at the last Amico demonstration of 2021 and then discuss why that potential is likely never to come to pass.  

Friday, July 1, 2022

Mass Storage and the Apple II - Conquering the Final Frontier

When we think about storage devices and the Apple II, everyone's first thought is usually the same, the 5.25" floppy disk.  Maybe the more historically informed of us may think of cassette tape or 3.5" disks or even the Apple Hard Disk 20SC, but those devices come a distant second to the mainstay of Apple II program and data storage, the 5.25" floppy disk.  When one is introduced to the Apple II, one must at least understand how floppies work on the basic level.  But what can you do when you want to go beyond the standard floppy disk to explore faster, higher capacity storage solutions.  If all software of any note was originally released on copy protected floppy disks, why bother looking for something else?  And if you want to explore, what will you need?  In this blog entry, I will try to answer these questions.

Monday, June 20, 2022

The Successors: Evolution of Monochrome Handhelds after the Game Boy

When the Nintendo Game Boy was released in April/July, 1989 (Japan/North America), there was nothing like it on the market.  The Game Boy was the first programmable handheld system with sufficient capabilities to play games that were similar to the home consoles of its day.  The Game Boy was intended to be an inexpensive device, so it used a monochrome reflective green screen rather than a difficult-to-manufacture and power hungry backlit color screen like its main competitors, the Atari Lynx, Sega Game Gear, NEC Turbo Express and later the Sega Nomad.  Although the Game Boy definitively ruled over the color competing systems, dominating the market until its successor, the Game Boy Color, was released in October/November of 1998, that does not mean it was the only monochrome handheld game console on the market.  Early in its lifetime it had competitors from Taiwan which tried to take away some of its market with little success.  Later, more established companies tried to get on the monochrome bandwagon, only to find that lightning does not necessarily strike twice.  Recently, as retro style gameplay experiences have found a market in the age of the Nintendo Switch, we have seen at least one or two companies try their hand at a monochrome handheld.  In this article we will trace the evolution of the consoles that tried to compete with the Game Boy or invoke its success.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

The Modern Unfriendliness of 8-bit Keyboard Layouts

Keyboards today have a standard layout.  All keyboards are based off the 104-key standard layout from the mid-1990s, and before that the IBM Model M 101 key layout.  But back before the IBM PC line introduced the 101 and brought uniformity to the home computer world, things were not standard at all.  Every home computer manufacturer had its ideas about what keys should be on the keyboard and where they should be.  This tends to cause some annoyances for emulating those computers, especially when the program relies on certain keys being in certain places.  

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

List of PCjr. and Tandy Exclusive Enhanced Games

The IBM PC computing platform supported gaming from the beginning, but at first its graphical and sound capabilities were not that much more advanced than an Apple II's. Other inexpensive home computers of the day (Atari 800, Commodore 64, TI-99/4A) could run rings around the IBM PC in the video and audio departments. IBM sought to improve its PC line's graphics and sound in an affordable system which became the PCjr., but that was a flop.  Tandy cloned the graphics and sound of the PCjr. and put it into a much more PC-compatible system, the Tandy 1000.  Between the two, the exclusive PCjr./Tandy graphics and sound hardware received wide support from game developers in the mid and late 1980s.  In this article, I will attempt to give a definitive list of games which have "better" graphica or sound on a PCjr. or Tandy 1000 due to this support or have unique video and audio support even if the game can utilize EGA, VGA, Adlib, Game Blaster or Sound Blaster or MT-32.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Mastering the Sega Master System

The Sega Master System was Sega's first major attempt to market and sell a home video game console overseas.  Its Japanese predecessors, the SG-1000, the SC-3000, the SG-1000 II, and the Mark III, were not very successful compared to Nintendo's Famicom and similarly the US release of the Master System was not very successful against Nintendo's NES.  In the European market did Sega sell more consoles than Nintendo, thanks to Nintendo's fractured distribution system and Sega's placing the Master System as a budget console.  Sega also did extraordinarily well in Brazil whereas Nintendo floundered.  In this blog entry we will go over the various issues with the Master System and why you would want one.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Baldur's Gate Version, Release and Demo History

Baldur's Gate is one of my most favorite games and has a surprisingly complex patching, release  and demo history.  I have written this blog article to help enlighten people on the version and patches available for the original game, significant physical releases and localization changes and finally the three demos of the game which were sold at some point.  I will not discuss any unofficial patches (such as the Baldurdash and Dudleyville fixpacks), engine conversions (such as BG1Tutu or Baldur's Gate Trilogy) or Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition.  

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Combat & Complexity in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

When Gary Gygax was transforming Original Dungeons and Dragons into Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, one of the core components of the rules he focused on were the combat rules.  Combat was rather sketchily defined in OD&D, and that is being kind.  His priorities for the Advanced system were that combat was to have a sufficient rule structure so that one game of AD&D would play more or less the same as the next.  This was at a time when campaigns often had 35th level fighters and 26th level balrogs in the same party!  But perhaps Gygax was a little too overzealous in laying down rule after rule to govern every conceivable aspect of combat he had encountered to that time.  In this blog article we will explore some of the more obtuse rules and see how they worked in print, what may have happened in practice and how the 2nd Edition of the Rules tried to address issues with the 1st Edition.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

The Official Nintendo Player's Guide - Review of the First US-Based NES Game Guide



When the NES was just starting out in 1985 and 1986, there really was not a whole lot of information available about the games for the system other than TV and magazine ads and the manuals, advertisements and posters included with the games.  At the beginning of 1987, Nintendo began publishing a subscription newsletter called the Nintendo Fun Club.  Priced at $2.50 an issue and continually improving for its seven issues before Nintendo expanded the magazine to become Nintendo Power, it was one way by which Nintendo could connect with its ever-growing audience of fans and game players.  The magazine began by offering tips and previews for the latest games, but the early issues were fairly limited in their ability to provide a comprehensive look into more than one game per issue.  So Nintendo advertised a special book in its later issues of the Fun Club, The Official Nintendo Player's Guide, copyright 1987.  In this blog post I will take a look at it and its significance to Nintendo's history.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Removed or Changed References to J.R.R. Tolkien and His Works in D&D

When Dungeons and Dragons was first released, it made no secret of its many literary influences.  Authors which helped inspire the game included Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance.  One author which stood above all others in the fantasy writer canon was J.R.R. Tolkien, whose work, The Lord of the Rings, had a popularity unmatched by any other fantasy author at that time and arguably since.  

Even though Gary Gygax, the author of Chainmail (1971) and co-author of Dungeons and Dragons (1974), was not the greatest fan of Tolkien's work, he had no compunction about including certain of Tolkien's creations in his published work.  The most notable was the inclusion of Hobbits as playable troop types characters whose characteristics were described in the above-mentioned works.  Other Tolkien creations, like Balrogs and Ents, also featured in the games.  Their inclusion continued in the five D&D Supplements and the D&D Basic Set published from 1975 to 1977.  

While D&D was a small niche hobby publication, this unapproved borrowing did not attract notice, but as the popularity of D&D increased it started receiving mainstream attention.  Sometime in mid-to-late 1977 TSR, the publishers of D&D, received a letter from representatives of Tolkien Enterprises (which held the film rights) demanding they cease using Tolkien's literary creations in their products.  TSR then complied with the demand by trying to rename every instance of a Tolkien-derived name from their products and reprinting them.  But some references were thought too blatant to just handle with a name change, so the balrog and several references to Tolkien got cut from the texts.  This blog entry will try to identify every change in these works.

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Dungeons and Dragons, Chainmail & Outdoor Survival - The Intersection of Wargame, Boardgame and the RPG Ur-Text


When one reads the Three Little Brown Booklets (3LBB) which constituted the first publication of the Original Dungeons and Dragons rules, several issues become apparent.  The first issue is that they are a product of their time, written by people who were charting a course into something new and whose potential they had yet to fully grasp.  The second thing is that the authors were not masters of explication, with many assumptions made of the reader which turned out to be unwarranted in many instances.  The third is that the original release of D&D does not stray far from its wargaming roots, the first booklet says it requires a copy of Chainmail to play. 

In this blog article, we will examine how much of a requirement this turned out to be and how the Chainmail rules could have and likely may have been incorporated into early D&D combat and other procedures.  At the end we will also consider how well Outdoor Survival, also mentioned as required for play in the 3LBBs, is incorporated into D&D.  Hopefully one can impart some of the challenges in trying to understand a ruleset from almost fifty years ago and how interpretation informed by experience is vital to understanding the development of the Role Playing Game.






Sunday, February 6, 2022

Dungeons & Dragons (Holmes) Basic Set - Beginnings of the Friendly RPG

Cover to Holmes Basic Book by David C. Sutherland III

The Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set, released by TSR in 1977, was the first time a table top role playing game tried to break into the mainstream.  Although role playing was already a few years old at this point, it was not an approachable game for the novice even by the standards of its day.  Role Playing had evolved from wargaming and was still somewhat confined to that crowd after Original Dungeons & Dragons had been released.  One admirer of the D&D game was a physician and neurologist named John Eric Holmes.  He approached TSR and offered to consolidate the existing ruleset into something more approachable for new and younger players.  Gary Gygax accepted his assistance, as Gygax was developing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons in order to move away from the unstructured nature of OD&D.  

Holmes compiled a manuscript which turned into a 48-page booklet, which was put in a colorful box with a module or supplementary dungeon building material and a set of polyhedron dice which was released in 1977 as the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set.  Intended to be only an introductory product to help players understand how to play and run an RPG, it proved to be very popular and spawned many successors.  For several years it was one of TSR's most popular products, selling upwards of 12,000 copies per month by 1980.  But is it playable today when those successors are as easy to find and buy?  Let's take a look on how Holmes' distilled OD&D and presented it as a game in comparison with the later versions of the Basic Set.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Dark Shadows - The Complete Original Series Review


Dark Shadows is a landmark of classic television, introducing the concept of a supernatural, gothic horror soap opera to daytime television.  The series ran for 1,225 22-minute episodes from 1966-1971.  While I could wax on all day about the history of Dark Shadows and its significance, and have in the past, there are other sites on the internet which can do that in a more knowledgeable manner.  Today I am hear to talk about the epitome of Dark Shadows, the Complete Original Series boxset (DS:COS) and offer my review of it.