Captain Comic for DOS

Before 1990 the platform game genre existed almost exclusively on game consoles like the NES. It was thought that the PC didn’t have the capability to produce scrolling graphics quickly. This of course is debatable as the technology existed much earlier in the form of the 286 processor, EGA and VGA graphics cards. I’d argue that it could have been possible by around 1985-7, as the 286 had become more powerful, and the graphics cards of the time had the capability.

Today’s game, Captain Comic, was released in 1988, two years before Commander Keen and the rise of the platform game on the PC. It was created by an individual, Michael A. Denio and was self published under the shareware model. It has historical significance as the first side-scrolling platform game on the PC.

The game uses EGA graphics, which I think are designed well. The sprites are colourful, easy to identify, and animate nicely. The levels have unique backgrounds which give the context for the levels and are quite attractive. I thought the author had done quite a nice job with the pixel art in general.

comic_001Although playable and quite an achievement at the time, the engine doesn’t seem capable of either smooth scrolling or a higher frame rate. This is hardly surprising, smooth scrolling on EGA requires specialised knowledge of the cards registers and memory map and using them cleverly to reduce the drawing load on the card. Impressively there is absolutely no flicker, which was a common problem on consoles and many old PC games. I’m guessing he used EGA page flipping or a double buffer to achieve this.

The game supports PC speaker sound, which is fairly basic and is ok for what it is. The Adlib came out the same year, and as the game was made by one guy it’s understandable he didn’t include support for it. There weren’t any other sound devices he could have used.

I used the keyboard controls for playing and found they were pretty good. The only problem being that you can end up moving about half a tile more than you thought depending on when you released the key. I suspect this is because of the games lower frame rate, you could release the key during the screen redraw, but after you’ve actually moved. Otherwise the controls for movement and jumping are accurate and responsive.

The game itself is fun and challenging, and it isn’t overly punishing of mistakes. Enemies can hit you 7 times before you die, and they are destroyed when they make contact with you. Every Screen edge and door is effectively a check point as you return to the last one used when you die. The only thing that does punish you really is running out of lives, although you get extra lives if you pick up a shield when at full health or for every 50,000 points.

I didn’t get as far as I would have liked, but I found Captain Comic a charming, fun and challenging game. I didn’t get frustrated with it when I died, because it was usually my own fault. Each time I started again I got a little better, and a little further in. I even managed to find some of the items such as the cork screw and gems.

Unfortunately it wasn’t a commercial success when it was released, but it seems to be fondly remembered by others on the internet. I’m rather impressed with what was achieved by a single guy. Whilst not smooth scrolling, the graphics are technically impressive, the game play is solid and the levels are challenging and fun. If you have a chance and like old DOS games give it a go.

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Building a Replacement Server

I’ve been using my old SparcStation 20 for about 3 years for storing my source repositories, allowing VPN access and web serving among other functions. I originally set it up like this as an interesting project to see if I could make good use of exceptionally old hardware with more modern software (NetBSD in this case) and it turned out to be quite handy. The experience as a whole has been a very positive one.

Sun Keyboard and Mouse

Sun Keyboard and Mouse

Now the time has come to not so much retire the SparcStation, but move it into a new function as a vintage workstation. I was very fortunate to receive a donation of a type 5c keyboard and mouse suitable for use with it, all I have to get is a frame buffer card and I can plug in a screen and use it as a desktop. Fortunately frame buffer cards are much easier to find than keyboard/mouse combinations so I shouldn’t have an issue finding one.

Having decided to build a new server machine, I went looking through my collection of old hardware to see what I could build out of my spare parts. I already had the large tower case recently donated, so I checked out what was installed in it. Turns out it was a Duron 800, which is quite reasonable, but after measuring its power consumption (about 70W without hard drives) I decided I could make a machine that was cheaper to run with some other parts.

Obviously I want something more efficient than the SparcStation, which uses around 130W with everything installed. It turned out to be quite difficult to find x86 hardware that is efficient once everything is installed. After looking at what I have and doing a bit of research I decided to try out the old Coppermine Celeron 800Mhz as it had quite a low TDP. Powered up with a graphic card but no hard disks it used about 60W, unfortunately it didn’t want to boot, and no amount of prodding got it to work.

Looking in my collection of old hardware I didn’t have many alternatives. I could use a socket 7 based system, but that would likely be _slower_ than the sparc and may use a similar amount of power. I have some Pentium II boards, but I wanted them as spares for my Win98 system. In the end I used some suitable socket 478 (Pentium 4) hardware, which initially looked bad efficiency wise. The P4 of course was known for running hot, and hence also using lots of power.

My older brother donated a MSI socket 478 mainboard to me some time ago without a CPU. I looked through my collection of CPUs and found a Celeron 2.4Ghz and heat sink. I installed it and 1Gbyte of DDR and it worked with little effort, but the power consumption without hard disks was about 80 something watts, not ideal. I decided to press on with this hardware as I had no other vintage parts that would be suitable, and that power usage ought to be the worst for the board and processor. That and I don’t have money for new hardware at the moment.

Machine Assembled

Machine Assembled

So I assembled the machine in the chassis with a Pioneer DVD drive and two Western Digital hard drives. I selected two 80Gb ATA WD drives as they turned out to have the best power consumption and reasonable capacity. All together, just sitting at the BIOS screen the machine used about 100W. Again a worst case and not that great a saving, but at least it’s significantly faster.

I decided to stick with NetBSD for this build for a few reasons, firstly it is simpler to migrate the configuration and data from the old machine. Secondly I like NetBSD because of how light it is and how easy it is to work with. I downloaded the latest version (6.1.4 as of this writing) and went through the install process. Installation was fairly easy, but I couldn’t get X to work correctly on my hardware. I didn’t have a local X server before, so I didn’t worry about getting it to work beyond XDMCP.

After installation I measured the power consumption of the machine at idle, I was pleasantly surprised that it dropped to about 65-70 Watts, a nice improvement over the sparc. Power usage peaks at about 100W when the machine is under full load as I first thought. After setting up the hard disks to power down after idle for a while I managed to reduce this to just bellow 60W.

I’m now happy with the hardware I have set up, although I could use modern hardware and save even more power. I’m currently in the process of setting up the software. I’m rebuilding the kernel and userland for NetBSD. It’s a surprisingly easy process, and well worth it especially for older hardware. I’m not ready to deploy the machine yet, but it looks like it will work well.


OpenBSD on a Sunfire 280R

Last weekend I tried a number of different operating systems on my Sunfire V440 in an attempt to get the Wildcat expert3D-lite frame buffer I have working. None of the systems I tried had any luck on the v440 and the one system that has official support for the wildcat – OpenBSD – would not install because of crashes during the process. I have another Sunfire machine which also needed a new operating system, this one a Sunfire 280R, so I transferred the frame buffer card into the 66Mhz slot in the 280R and began the OpenBSD install process.

Like last time, I was not impressed with the installer. It is very simplistic at best, and not very noob friendly. Fortunately since I’ve installed the other BSD systems a few times I managed to work out how to get it set up. I’d say the least intuitive part would have to be setting up your hard disk partitions, this is done with a command-line utility that wasn’t very easy to use. At least this installer can be run from the machines console instead of over the serial line.

So I booted the new installation up and was happy to see in the kernel messages that the frame buffer is indeed supported by the ifb kernel driver. So I set up xdm to start the X server and configured X with the wildcatfb driver. After rebooting I was greeted with a graphical login! I logged in and found a hideously out of date FVWM installed as the default window manager, time to install some software!

I tried out installing some of the binary packages available, but found the package system a little bit clunky, so I downloaded the ports system for OpenBSD to build stuff from source. It’s often a good idea to build your packages from source with any of the BSD systems as you usually get better performance and can choose features in the software you want to use. Binaries are often compiled for the lowest common processor on the architecture you’ve installed, this makes them slower and they have only the default options enabled.

I installed the latest FVWM from ports and various other bits of software. I found the ports system was fairly easy to use, but it doesn’t have as many packages available as the other BSDs. Many of the packages I installed were also older version than those found on other systems.

It wasn’t until I tried to run some software, such as a web-browser, that I discovered something annoying about the support for the frame buffer. The supported pixel depth for the display is 7 bits per pixel! This was quite annoying and most software is looking for 8bpp at a minimum, and 7bpp has never really been used historically. I may be able to run the display on a lower depth (I haven’t tried this yet), but that probably won’t help for the vast majority of software.

In the end I did manage to find and install some X software that works at 7bpp, but I don’t feel like I have a workable workstation. I couldn’t find all the bits of software I felt I wanted on the machine, and many in the ports collection wouldn’t run on the local X server. Given that OpenBSD isn’t really a desktop OS this is hardly surprising. I’ll be looking for a copy of Sun Solaris for this machine now, as that will have proper support for the frame buffer and I can use either pkgsrc (from NetBSD) or FreeBSD ports to install free software.


Skunny: Lost in Space for DOS

Skunny the Mercenary

Skunny the Mercenary

Skunny: Lost in Space is another game featuring Skunny the Squirrel and was made and published by Copysoft back in 1993. I vaguely remember playing this game for a very limited amount of time, and I played Back to the Forest earlier this year, so I didn’t have high expectations today. Lost in Space is based on an arcade game called Moon Patrol, a classic Williams game that was ported to many systems in the early 80’s.

What is a Shoola?

What is a Shoola?

Once again the graphics are in VGA and support parallax scrolling. It seems many assets from earlier games have been reused where possible, so the artwork is similar quality. The animations are however better, as they seem to have more frames of animation and are smoother. The graphics performance is also better as it appears to run much better on the equivalent of a 386sx in Dosbox fine.

Title screen

Title screen

Sound comes in the form of PC Speaker, Sound Blaster and Adlib support. I couldn’t run the game with Sound Blaster support under Dosbox as it locked up the game, but given previous experience that may not be a bad thing. The PC speaker noises were fairly simple, but they were a bit annoying although not really bad. The game has Adlib music that you hear only in game and was loud, very loud. It is a fairly simple tune that repeats over and over, so it’s probably best to turn it off as it gets annoying quickly. It is best to turn off everything except the PC speaker sound (it as well if you don’t like it) otherwise your ears will bleed.

Strange story

Strange story

The game-play of these older DOS games is usually their redeeming feature that makes them worth returning to, no so with Lost in Space. It is brutally difficult, and not in a good way. Enemies have longer range guns than you, making it near impossible to avoid taking damage. You have a limited amount of ammunition which can leave you vulnerable when you run out. You can fortunately pickup more ammunition and health, but these are uncommon and spaced too far apart.

The controls also contribute to the difficulty. Moving around isn’t so bad, but it is quite difficult to jump over the various holes in the terrain. At first I thought the height of the jump was almost random, but I worked out that to jump over the larger holes you need to be moving faster. This can be achieved by moving towards the right until you speed up, the downside being you need quite some space to achieve this longer jump. This makes it quite difficult to jump a large hole that you didn’t know about or didn’t have space to prepare for.

Sweet Death

Sweet Death

The difficulty is very punishing as you have to start the level from the beginning every time, unlike the arcade game which had many checkpoints along the way. You can go through your three lives very quickly and there is no option to continue from where you left off. This results in playing the same segments repeatedly for a long time.

I only attempted the first two levels as they were too difficult to beat in the short time frame I had this week. I suspect the reason I didn’t play this much was because of the difficulty, and it seems to have deterred many other players not only from this game, but other Skunny titles.


OS Shootout: Trying to get the Sun Frame Buffer to work.

Frame buffer

Frame buffer

Quite a while ago I bought a Sun frame buffer (Wildcat Expert3d-lite) on ebay in the hopes of turning either my Sun Fire machines into a workstation. I had FreeBSD on the 280R and Gentoo Linux on the V440. FreeBSD didn’t like the card as it doesn’t have support for it, the version I have installed has become out of date and was having trouble updating packages. The Gentoo install had suffered a similar fate, I went to update it and found that the package system had become broken and couldn’t download the latest update.

So this weekend I decided to try a number of different operating systems to see if I could get the frame buffer working and see if there was a newer OS that would work better. Here are some notes about the different systems I’ve tried.

I decided to use the V440 as the base machine for performing the tests. I had been using Gentoo linux on it and had some minor success using the frame buffer. I was able to get a basic text console working beautifully, and it even displayed Tux the Linux penguin during boot up. But unfortunately the fbdev driver for X didn’t work producing some horrific corruption on screen, but the mouse and keyboard appeared to work.

Sunfire V440

Sunfire V440

The first fresh OS I decided to try out was NetBSD as it works well on my older Sparc machine. The installation went relatively smoothly, but I had to use the serial console in order to do it. I looked for support for my particular frame buffer but didn’t find any, even for some of the other available hardware. At this point I went to the documentaion online and realised I need not have tried it as the UltaSparc machines I have are not in the supported list for NetBSD. Although most hardware works, it seems that older machine are supported much better.

Next I decided to try the latest FreeBSD, the first time around I was using 8.3 which was quickly superseeded, but it was the only one that worked on the Sunfire 280R. So I downloaded the latest at the time of writing this, 10.0. Reading the documentation seemed to indicate that I’d be unlikely to get anything on this frame buffer at all, but if I buy a different type in the future there is good support. The installer was much easier than last time, again it required the serial terminal but it had everything set up very quickly. Of course the downside is the amount of time needed to build packages from ports, but thats a minor inconvenience if you leave it to build over night. I built and installed X, and with no surprise this frame buffer didn’t work.

In searching the internet for systems that support this particular device I came across OpenBSD. I had not really tried it out before so I didn’t know what to expect, but my hardware was listed as supported including the frame buffer. So I downloaded the install CD and began the process of installing. Compared to the other systems the installer is very _very_ basic, but at least you could do it from the computers console. Unfortunately I couldn’t get this one to complete installing, as the system rebooted every time it tried to extract the base system. At first I thought it likely this would be a hardware fault (as I had some in preparation for this) but I ran the system through its diagnostics multiple times and it passed every time. I may transfer the frame buffer into the SunFire 280R and try this system out again, but I think there’s something wrong with the installer/disc. The real shame is I saw in the kernel messages that it does indeed support my card!

Lastly I returned to an old favourite, Debian Linux. It is similar to Gentoo in that it supports the basic hardware and some framebuffers. Since Gentoo had some basic functionality I hope Debian might work better. I booted up the installer and was surprised to get the normal console-based Debian installer on the machines frame buffer. The installer was nice and easy, no major problems. I reboot into the new installation to see what would happen. Just like Gentoo the text console worked beautifully on the frame buffer, but X didn’t work. You could see the login screen behind some kind of strange corruption, but it seemed the keyboard and mouse were working as I could log in! I suspect Debian would work very nicely if I had a different frame buffer, but perhaps the guys working on the kernel will eventually fix the wildcat support.

So to summarise I found that Debian and FreeBSD would be quite workable if I had another frame buffer (or didn’t want to use it) and that OpenBSD might work well with this one if I could just manage to work out why it is crashing during install. NetBSD just doesn’t support the newer UltraSparc hardware well enough to use with a frame buffer, but might work quite well as a server. Basically I’m going to have to get another frame buffer card, then I can install either FreeBSD or Debian and have quite a nice Sun workstation.


Cosmic Crusader for DOS

Today I was pretty unsure what I’d write about, I’ve had a bad case of procrastinitus. I don’t know why, but today I’ve just not really felt like doing a whole lot. So in an effort to try to break the feeling I decided to have a look in my folder of _really_ old PC games. I found something interesting that I hadn’t played before.

I found a game called Cosmic Crusader written in 1982 by Michael Abrash for Funtastic. Michael Abrash is of course better known for his later work, his technical writing and working on Doom and Quake. I’ve read a good portion of his black book on graphics programming and found it quite the interesting read. I’m still part way through reading about the VGA and getting the most out of it.

Now that I’ve been thoroughly distracted lets return to the game itself. It supports CGA and PC speaker sound, which is unsurprising as there was little else. The graphics are well drawn but the speed of the graphics is perhaps the most impressive feature. There are many moving objects on screen, and they manage to do so at a reasonable pace. Something that wasn’t easy on the original PC. The only flaw I noticed is some flicker when sprites overlap, perhaps unavoidably.

Sound is as you’d expect, your usual assortment of noises that is pretty good given the hardware. You can of course turn them off if you find them annoying.

The game is very much like Galaxian, but of course on a reduced scale. There are some extra elements that make it different to the original game. Firstly you have a shield to protect yourself, you engage it by pressing the space bar and it lasts a fixed period. Whilst your shield is up anything that collides with you is destroyed. However you only get a limited number of shields, but you can increase this by shooting a power-up that travels across the screen.

Sometimes a large mothership descends to join the enemies at the top of the screen. It shoots a large and fast projectiles that are quite dangerous, combined with the diving enemies it can be difficult to dodge everything, a good time to use a shield.

The only thing I found that let the game down was the controls are a bit fiddly. You press a button to move either left or right and you will keep moving until you either press the other direction or a stop key. This resulted in me zig-zagging a little bit as I got used to it, which sometimes got me hit and sometimes helped me dodge, so it all evens out.

The game is CPU dependant for speed so the best way to play it now is via Dosbox. I use a setting of 250 cycles normally to be roughly the same speed as the original PC, but this game is quite playable at 350 cycles. I had fun with Cosmic Crusader, it is enjoyable as a new experience even today. It seems to have at least cured my procratinitus, at least temporarily.


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Hardware Donation

It’s not everyday that someone moves house, and when someone I know moved house recently they found a pile of old computer gear they didn’t want anymore. They asked me if I wanted any of it and of course I said yes! So last weekend I got this rather large box of old computer gear. I just had enough time this weekend to unpack it and take some photos.

Continue reading ‘Hardware Donation’

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