18
May
16

Xerix 2 for DOS

Today we’re looking at the sequel to Xerix, a game written by Brendan Reville as a 15 year old. It was simple in many aspects but technically very impressive. Two years later in 1994 he released a sequel, simply named Xerix 2, which is essentially a more refined and polished version of the first game. It was originally released as shareware at the time under the name Twilight Software, but was still a one-man show consisting of Brendan himself.

The graphics engine appears to have had little changed, but it was already fairly impressive. It supports colour VGA and has dropped the monochrome mode, which was probably a wise move as few would have had need for it. The largest difference is in the graphics itself, the artwork appears more refined and there are substantially different themes for most of the levels. The balls of steel enemies are back, but there are other enemies and it’s much clearer where turrets are located. There are 12 levels this time, so there’s much more artistic variety, but some aspects still lack the extra detail you’d find in a commercial game. I still think it’s quite good graphically.

Sound wise a very wide variety of hardware is supported, although for the purposes of running it now-a-days only the sound blaster support really matters. It sounds like he’s used some kind of wave-table style music, which technically sounds great but the music itself is fairly simple and quite repetitive. I don’t think it’s bad, you may just find it better with the music off. I left the music on myself as i didn’t mind it.

Xerix 2 plays much like the original in many ways, but with significant differences. Firstly the enemies aren’t flying randomly, but are following set patterns of flight around the screen. They mostly move diagonally around. There are a number of different types of enemies, however they all behave the same, the only difference being how hard they are to kill.

There are stationary turrets like in the first game, but they only shoot one projectile in your general direction. They can be destroyed, but their shots often block yours and will do significant damage if you are hit. The turret will only have one shot on screen at a time so you can dodge the initial shot then destroy the turret.

Like other shooters there are power-ups for your weapons and shield restoration items. The power-ups come out of dead enemies at specific points in the levels and are different for each one. The main problem is they don’t turn up very often. Luckily you keep the upgrades upon death, so you don’t have to worry about completing a level without the right weapon, but you lose all of them (except the first one you get) at the start of each level. The upgraded weapons work fairly well given the right positioning.

It’s not with-out problems, for a start your ship moves quite slowly making it difficult to do any effective dodging and shooting. There is also no immunity period after being hit, you can get destroyed and lose multiple lives extremely quickly. It is still largely a nice improvement over the original game.

Gemini from Ancient DOS Games did a video on this particular game quite some time ago, and I didn’t completely agree with everything he said. The main thing I am in disagreement about was the comparison of this game versus something like Doom or other shareware he mentioned. The shareware market was a unique situation, companies and individuals of all kinds released software this way. So big companies and smaller shareware authors (often individuals) shared the same space.

Whilst it’s true it doesn’t compare favorably to shareware such as Doom, it’s not really a fair comparison to make as Doom and other high quality shareware was made with essentially the same resources as fully commercial games. That is a small-large team of people did the work. It would be fairer to compare it to other shareware games also made by an individual.

Compared to other one-man shareware authors it is kinda middle of the road. There are plenty of better and worse games within this category. Another one of the beefs Gemini had was with the pricing, and on this I can see his point. I think the author could have chosen a better (cheaper) price point.

It’s a bit of a moot point now, as the game was made freeware by the author some time ago. I actually was pleasantly surprised as I enjoyed the game despite it’s clear short-comings. I had watched the relevant ADG episode and expected something much worse.

Is it worth a play now? Well I think that depends on whether you’re a fan of shmups. I’d say that die-hard shmup fans (which Gemini is as far as I understand) probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much as other players. The lack of speed for your ship may be a source of annoyance, but there is some fun to be had if you can look past that.

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04
May
16

Storage room clean-up

Recently at work we’ve had a little clean out of a storage space that had some old and unused computer parts among other items no longer being used. It turns out some quite interesting and useful old parts were in storage there, some of which I’ve been allowed to keep. This is of course on the condition that any data on any device or media is securely erased.

Most of the computer parts are Adaptec SCSI cards of various vintage, but there are also a few other ISA cards, loose chips, a couple of hard drives, and an amount of tape media that will be useful for some of my tape drives. So too much to show in one post, this time I’ll be looking at the loose chips and ISA cards.

First up we have these spare chips. The four at the top are SRAM chips, although it has been difficult to determine the exact size and pin-out, I think they are 256 x 4bits. The data sheet is proving elusive for these. The bottom three chips are EPROMs, the two left most being hitachi HN462732P chips and the right a NEC chip. The middle chip of the three is a OTP (one time programmable) so is basically of no use unless it is blank, but the other two are UV erasable so may prove useful in the future for repairs.

Here is what appears to be an early SCSI card made by Trantor in 1992. There seems to be little information about Trantor around on the internet, but it seems they were bought out by Adaptec at some point, although this doesn’t seem to be documented. If I remember correctly they were known for the tape drives they made.

This particular card is handy as it will fit an XT class machine and appears to have the chips and ROM necessary for booting of the SCSI disk. There are even still some MS-DOS drivers available for it. The silk screen has the jumper configurations, so I shouldn’t need a manual to use it.

Here we have two IO cards, one with an Acer chip-set and the other with one from UMC. These cards would have been exceptionally useful for 286 and 386 machines as they have most of the IO you would need all on one card. They both have two serial ports, a parallel port, a joystick port, floppy drive connector and a hard disk (ATA) connector. Quite the array of ports indeed for one card! The main problem with having one of these today is finding out what the jumper settings on the board are, there isn’t any silk screen to speak of.

This is an Adaptec AHA-1542b, made in early 1993 from the date code on the main chip. It supports SCSI-2 and can transfer data at about 10Mb/s connecting up to 7 devices. It’s interesting because it has a floppy connecter as well as the usual SCSI connection. You may notice that it has two ROM chips, one is the usual BIOS extension to allow for operating systems like DOS to access the disks. The other is micro-code for the boards controller.

Finally here we have two cards, both Adaptec. One is an AHA-1510A and the other is an AHA-1522A. You may notice that both actually use the same board, just the 1510A has far less components populated. The 1510A is basically a stripped down card with all the extra bells and whistles removed to make it cheaper. The user manual for it says that this cheaper card is “utilizing the CPU’s untapped power to improve system I/O performance.” So I’d say that it doesn’t have DMA support on the cheaper card among other missing features.

I had a look on the Adaptec website for all the cards shown today, and surprisingly despite their age downloads and manuals still exist. I can only applaud them for still offering the downloads, I only wish more manufacturers did the same.

Next time I’ll show the various PCI and PCI-X cards, and yes they are all Adaptec.

20
Apr
16

Motherboard: MS-6153VA

Today I’m looking at a Socket 370 board that would have been made roughly in 1999-2000. It was an interesting period as much of the early legacy technology such as the ISA bus was fading out, marking the beginning of the end for complete backwards compatibility. It is also close to the end of configuring major component with jumpers, replaced with auto-detection and software control. Although this particular board still has a few jumpers.

It’s a MS-6153VA made by MSI, a manufacturer known for making  boards with gaming and over-clocking in mind. It seems they were one of the first to offer over-clocking as a feature quite early in the history of PCs. Surprisingly it was a 286 mainboard, a time when overclocking meant replacing the crystal oscillator. They still cater to the over clocking market with a series of boards dedicated to it.

Here’s an overview of my board.

IMG_2490

It’s remarkable because there are actually two boards with the same model number that differ significantly. This board has a VIA chip-set and is marked MS-6153, but if you search for that online you turn up a board that looks almost identical but has an Intel chip-set instead. The model number used in online references is MS-6153VA for the VIA chip-set. This must have caused some confusion at the time.

IMG_2492Here’s something different, 4 LEDs to indicate the current status of the system. If there was a problem they could use these instead (or in addition to) the standard BIOS beep codes. It wasn’t something you’d find commonly, but was extremely useful if you were lucky enough to have a visual indication. Some manufacturers took it further, using two 7 segment displays instead.

IMG_2493Like a previous Socket 7 board, this has a thermister mounted in the middle of the CPU socket. They’ve used a different package, a small flex with the component built in. I’m guessing they did this in an attempt to get a better reading closer to the CPU.

The chip-set is a VIA Apollo Pro 133A, which would have been quite decent for the time. Around the main chips are some of the reference silk-screen, which are quite handy, but are unfortunately quite distant from the jumpers they are a reference for! This may have been necessary due to the layout of the board, and I’m sure the manual would tell you where to find them, but it is annoying as it seems to effect every single silk-screen reference.

Speaking of the manual, I was able to find a download on the MSI website, however it was in the form of a EXE file! Since I’m using my Mac book I wasn’t able to easily open it, bad form MSI.

IMG_2497Next to the floppy connector is a connector that seldom got use in desktop machines. It’s an infrared header! Wireless technology had yet to really evolve into what it is today, and a cheap and simple technology commonly used was infrared, still used today in TV remote controls. It wasn’t commonly used mostly because IR (as it’s commonly called) relies on direct line of sight, and can easily be interrupted. These IR devices were usually treated as a serial port, so software like hyperterm was usable with them. In use they usually proved to be slower and less reliable than just using a cable.

From a technicians view-point it’s also fairly decent, it supported Intel and Cyrix chips up to 800Mhz which was decent for the time. It could also support the large 256Mb SDRAM sticks running at 133Mhz, allowing for a maximum of 768MB of RAM. There are also some rudimentary overclocking features on the board. The main annoyance is with the silk screen reference being so distant from the jumpers, and not having very descriptive names. Still, you could set this up without the manual.

Feature wise this board would have satisfied most end users, although audio and ethernet isn’t integrated. At that point in time integration hadn’t become the norm for those. Luckily there are plenty of PCI and ISA slots so it wouldn’t have been much of an issue. With the right CPU, RAM and GPU it probably would have even made a decent gaming rig for the time.

07
Apr
16

Charlie the Duck for DOS

Having spent lots of time with the kids lately I thought I’d look at a MS-DOS game suitable for them to play when I have them in my computer room. After some looking around on the Classic DOS Games site I found two games by Wiering Software that looked like good options, these were Charlie the Duck and its sequel.

This weekend I started by just playing the first one which was made in 1996 originally, but has been updated as recently as 2004. This is a little unusual as DOS games were not really being developed much after Windows 95 came out. It’s a relatively simple platform game with design elements very similar to the Mario games.

charlie_001The graphics are VGA as was normal for DOS games. The artwork for the backgrounds and sprites is quite good, it has a colourful cartoon-like style whilst making good use of the available colour depth. The graphic engine is supposed to run on old machines, an 80286 as a minimum, but it seems that it wouldn’t run smoothly on such hardware. Luckily the game has the option to turn off parallax scrolling or the background entirely.

The sound support is fairly basic, supporting anything with the yamaha chip that was also on the Ad Lib card. It does support PC speaker, but either I couldn’t get the game to use it over OPL sound, or it sounds exactly the same in dosbox. There is no music, just some simple sound effects which are fine for what they are.

Game-play wise it shares much in common with early Mario games on the NES, many enemies are analogous. There are some subtle differences, with some unique enemies such as bees and frogs. The level design in particular is quite different, water which is often used as a hazzard is not harmful (as charlie can swim) and sometimes is used as a secret path/door.

I found Charlie to be a bit easier than Mario, probably partly because I didn’t play any Mario as a kid. Also I suspect Charlie the Duck is aimed at smaller children. With this in mind I gave my son and daughter a go at playing the game to see how they would go. They had trouble with the controls, not because they are bad, but because they are used to playing games with touch screens on mobile devices. They’ll need to learn how to use buttons to control a character before they can play.

I played all of the shareware world and found that for the most part it shouldn’t be too difficult for kids to enjoy. Perhaps with the exception of the boss fight, which is a large fish jumping in the air. In order to beat the boss you have to jump very precisely on top of its eyes, but not too close to the spines on its back.

I think Charlie the Duck is suitable for most young gamers in much the same way console games like the Mario series are. It’s not as difficult, but retains enough challenge to keep someone interested.  If you have kids who are interested in playing games on a computer (as opposed to other devices) this is one you might want to try out with them. I’ve read that the sequel is probably also worth a go, but I’ll save that for another day. Wiering software still sells the registered version for $7.50 (USD?) from their website.

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15
Mar
16

Motherboard: ASUS CUV4X-DLS

Today’s motherboard is one of the more unusual in my small collection, it’s a server/workstation board that takes two Pentium III class CPUs. Boards like this one were (and still are) quite unusual for the PC architecture, most only have one CPU socket to keep costs low and the complexity of the motherboard down. Dual CPU sockets were much more common on other architectures such as SPARC, MIPS, and PowerPC. I’d guess this particular example was for the server market as the game-port and on-board audio are not populated, although the foot prints are on the board and it has an AGP Pro slot so it may have been designed as a workstation board. I was given this particular board by a colleague who knew I like to collect old parts. It’s from a decommissioned server.

Here’s an overview of the board.

Here is something you didn’t normally see on socket 370 boards, an auxiliary power connector. This connector was also used later on early Pentium 4 boards, and is used here for a similar reason, to supply additional power. This would have been necessary in order to power the second CPU. Unfortunately this isn’t a common connector any more, so finding a power supply for a board with one of these can be difficult. Note there’s many capacitors on this board, and despite it’s age none appear to be bulging.

Another clue to this boards server origins is this, an on-board LSI Ultra SCSI controller. When this board was made SCSI was the go-to standard for server hard disks, mostly because of how much faster it was, but also because you could connect more disks to one controller. SCSI however was generally fairly expensive, so it usually didn’t make it to workstation or consumer level boards as those machines usually had cheaper IDE/ATA drives. Also note the very large power diodes very near to the SCSI port, quite an unusual feature!

Something I thought odd at first was the choice of a VIA chip-set, but thinking about it VIA made some of the better chip-sets of that era, often out-performing other manufacturers offerings. Later VIA became more known as a value chip-set, but this wasn’t until after Intel made significant improvements to their chip-sets.

Specification wise it supports Coppermine Pentium III up to 1Ghz and up to 4Gb of PC133 ECC(optionally) SDRAM. It’s unlikely that anyone would have actually installed the full 4Gb as the largest SDRAM DIMMs I saw in common service were 256Mb, although larger ones were available they were quite expensive until after DDR SDRAM became the norm. The graphics slot on this machine is an AGP Pro/4x slot which is also quite unusual. AGP Pro doesn’t actually extend the standard much, it mostly just provides more power to graphic card. They were beginning to require much more power, a problem which was later solved with a direction power connection on the graphics card. Luckily standard AGP cards will work quite happily in this board.

Here’s the memory I got with the board, it’s 256Mb 133Mhz ECC SDRAM made by a company called Viking. I’ve never heard of them before so the brand doesn’t inspire confidence, but usually memory of this type is of good quality and reliable. I have a total of 512Mb for this board.

I found the manual for this board fairly quickly but was surprised to not find it on the ASUS website. Not that you’d need it as the silkscreen has all the headers, DIP switches and jumpers described in detail including tables for setting the CPU speed. You only need to set the speed of the CPU manually if you wish to over/under clock them as the board is set for auto-detection by default. You’ll note that there is only one speed control for both the CPUs, this is because dual socket PC main boards require you use identical processors. Most technicians wouldn’t need the manual to work on this board.

I’m guessing this board saw very few end users being from a server, but for those that did use one as a workstation they would have likely used them at work in a CAD machine. With dual processors and the ability to use high-end workstation graphics this would have suited the task quite well with a few caveats. You would have had to use Windows NT (or it’s descendant Windows 2000) instead of Windows 9x as the later doesn’t support SMP. Neither Windows NT or Windows 2000 had as much support as the more consumer oriented Windows 9x series, so software and hardware support either cost more, or was simply non-existant. You could have also used a commercial Unix or a free one like BSD or Linux, which come with their own problems.

I used this board for some time running debian linux as a basic file server and web cache, it performed quite well at the time, but that was some time ago and I doubt a modern Linux distribution would run well now. It would probably suite running something like NetBSD which tends to require much less resources and can take advantage of the second processor. Last time I powered it on only one processor fan appeared to power up, I need to spend some time to determine if the power supply I have for it is the cuplrit or if this board has suffered some kind failure.

29
Feb
16

Nitemare 3d for DOS

Nitemare-3dToday’s game is called Nitemare 3d and was made by Gray Design Associates back in 1994. The company basically consists of one guy, David Gray, who was better known for the adventure games he made. The first being Hugo’s House of Horrors. Nitemare 3d has the same main character, Hugo, who in this game must rescue his beloved Penelope from Dr Hammerstein. It’s in the first person perspective, although I hesitate to call it a shooter, you do have to fight a number of enemies with guns.

Because of the very limited amount of time I’ve had lately, I could only get to the fourth level of the first episode (the shareware one). Gemini of ADG had more of a chance to play it and you can see his review here.

Grey dudeGraphically the game uses a ray casting engine to produce a 3d texture mapped environment, basically the same type as that found in Wolfenstein 3D. The engine run fairly smoothly and has the addition of animated wall textures, but isn’t quite as smooth as Wolf3d. Artistically it doesn’t look as polished as commercial or shareware from a larger software company, but it has it’s own charm and is consistent in its presentation. Some of the death animations in particular are amusing, such as one enemy turning into a flower in a pot!

BatsSound design is fairly similar in the sense that it’s not as polished as games produced by larger teams, but again it has it’s own charm. The Adlib music is decent and can be quite catchy, it fits the feel of the levels quite well and seems to make quite good use of the card. Digitised effects are used for all the usual game sounds, some are better than others such as the gun shot, but other don’t work as well.

The game controls in pretty much the same way as other shooters from the time, with the addition of a key for slow movement as well as fast. This is sometimes needed as the collision detection requires you to hit almost dead centre, with many shot missing appearing to travel through enemies. You can still land shots, but it’s not as intuitive as it should be.

Secrets!The weapons mostly fire projectiles that move visibly through the air (except for the revolver with silver bullets) and can end up being blocked by scenery nearby even though the shot itself is passing through empty space. Enemies have no such issues as they fire instant hit weapons, so if they can see you they can shoot.

Level endWhilst the enemies have an advantage in terms of shooting, they are fortunately relatively easy to deal with. The enemies don’t seem to really be the main challenge of the game, at least in the levels I’ve played. The levels are very maze-like and contain many hidden panels which you have to find in many cases in order to progress. I’ve spent more time searching and wandering the levels than doing much active shooting.

Luckily unlike many other early first person games there is an auto-map function. You have to collect magic eye power in order to use it however, which means you’ll have to use the map as sparingly as possible. You can also collect crystal balls which will plot the enemies on the map for you as well, which can be useful in working out roughly where to go next. Both use their power up over time, but can be toggled off and on as you need them.

SkeletonsAnother feature to help you find the secret panels is the magic eye icon in the status bar. When you’re looking at a hidden panel one of the middle pixels light up as long as you have some magic eye power left. This is really handy when you suspect a hidden panel is nearby, but is harder to notice during normal game play. This however doesn’t seem to help when finding destructible walls.

OutsideSo far I’ve found Nitemare 3d a difficult to place game,  it’s definitely not a bad game, but I would have preferred less secrets, or ones not necessary to progression at least. The main reason I stopped at level 4 was simple, I couldn’t find the panel necessary to progress further. After much searching I gave up. The designer, David Gray, even put a walk-through in with the registered version to help with the more difficult to find secrets. All that being said I did enjoy the time I was playing it.

So do I recommend it? Well that depends. If action isn’t as big a deal to you, maybe you’ll enjoy it. If you’re more into shooting bad guys, maybe this isn’t for you. I suggest tracking down the walk-through to make your life easier. Play the shareware episode first and if you like it, David Gray still sells it on his website for about $12 USD.

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16
Feb
16

On-Board graphics

Most computer enthusiasts instinctively know that on-board graphics doesn’t perform as well as a discrete graphics card, but why isn’t common knowledge. Today I’d like to shed a little light on why this is.

However don’t take this as a criticism of on-board graphics, as they have their place within the industry to provide lower cost solutions for people who don’t need the ability or can’t afford the cost of a GPU card. AMD in particular have had some very nice graphics processors on-board or on-chip and their current line up of APUs does offer very good performance per cost.

I won’t be talking about any specific hardware, as there is just too much to cover. I’ll be talking about this in a more general sense.

Onboard graphicsHere’s a little diagram of how on-board graphics are usually connected to the main system memory and CPU. Where these components actually reside depends on the age of the system. Modern APUs contain everything in this diagram (and more) except the main system memory, older systems had the memory controller and GPU in the North bridge chip on the main board. Some older systems had a separate graphics chip that utilised the main system RAM, and others actually integrated some VRAM on the board. Boards with separate VRAM are completely different beasts, and actually have more in common with systems that have a discrete graphics card.

This story in fact starts off way back in the micro computer era of C64 and ZX spectrum, which essentially had integrated graphics. The graphics chips took up much of the memory bandwidth, essentially slowing down the machines CPU quite severely under certain conditions. Modern PCs with on-board graphics also usually share the system memory with the GPU, and this is where the performance hit usually originates from.

Firstly there is an un-avoidable loss of memory bandwidth in the form of video signal generation. All graphics processors have to actually output to a screen at some point, and this requires reading the entire frame buffer and outputting appropriate data to the screen. This is as true for HDMI and DVI as it was for old school CRTs, except the resolution and colour depth have increased.

Lets take an example, say 1920×1080 at 60Mhz with 32 bit colour. For every frame sent 8,294,400 bytes have to be read (the size of the frame buffer). Do this 60 times a second and you get 497,664,000 bytes per second or about 474.6 MB/s just to output to the screen. Whilst it’s not a huge chunk of the minimum 6400MB/s that DDR3 can deliver, it certainly will reduce the available memory bandwidth to the processor, lessening its potential performance.

On-board GPUs have a significant advantage in some areas, such as the CPU being able to write (draw essentially) directly to the frame buffer, and the GPU being able to read texture data directly from system memory. However this convenience isn’t all roses as we will see.

Lets consider a rendering situation, where the GPU needs to render a number of polygons into the frame buffer. To make it simple lets make the squares of 32×32 pixels (buffer size of 4Kbytes) and we’re going to render a number of them onscreen say 500,000 per frame, now you’re looking at copying 2,048,000,000 bytes which requires both a read and a write, so really in terms of memory bandwidth that’s 4,096,000,000 or about 3.82Gb.

This is a bit of a contrived circumstance, but you can see that it’s easy for a GPU to chew up memory bandwidth when it’s rendering. This can have the effect of starving the main CPU of memory bandwidth forcing it to run slower than it could have otherwise (and vice-versa). In practice that much bandwidth probably wouldn’t be needed as modern CPU and GPU designs incorporate caching, which works very well until you start dealing with data sets larger than the cache. In this case if we were copying the same bitmap repeatedly we could half the bandwidth required as the whole bitmap could be stored in the cache.

So how does this differ from a discrete graphics card?

Discrete Graphics CardHere’s another diagram showing how they usually fit in. The graphics card basically contains everything on the right, with the IO interface being the only means of communication with the computer.

Since the graphics card has its own memory the system isn’t burdened with output of the video signal. This graphic memory is usually dual ported, or in the case of modern GDDR5 which is capable of accessing two pages of memory simultaneously (effectively dual ported although only having one). This turns out to be important as it allows both the GPU and CPU to access the video memory at the same time, which reduces latency when writing to the video memory. This used to be a big problem with CGA, EGA and earlier VGA graphics cards that didn’t have dual ported memory and the CPU had to wait for the video signal to access the graphic memory.

This graphic memory also has the distinct advantage that when the GPU is rendering a scene it doesn’t slow down the main processor by consuming the system memory bandwidth.  It does however require the CPU to communicate via the IO bus to issue scene data and rendering commands. Most scene data (textures and meshes) are pre-loaded into the graphic memory so the load on the IO bus is minimised.

The only real disadvantages of the discrete graphics card are slightly increased loading times, and slower access to Graphic memory. Longer loading times arise from the need to pre-load the scene data to the graphic card, whilst the IO bus can be exceptionally fast, the logic in the graphic card and the speed of the system and graphic memory limit the throughput. There’s also usually lots of data to upload, in the realm of gigabytes these days.

I hope this goes some way to at least beginning to explain why on-board graphics as they are implemented now won’t achieve the same performance as a system with equal but separate parts. It’s mostly the fact that system memory is shared between the two that hampers both the CPU and GPU from achieving maximum performance. If in the future AMD or Intel were to change their chips such that the GPU on-board had its own separate bank of memory, you’d start to see on board graphics become more competitive with graphic cards. This would require either dedicated memory on the main board or an extra socket for it which would add to the cost, so I feel that would be unlikely. After all on-board graphics is all about reducing the cost.




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