Motherboard: Another unknown Socket 3

Today I’m looking at another 486 socket 3 motherboard that unfortunately I can’t identify. Unlike the last one, this one actually had it’s model number on the silk screen, but the OEM who put it into a machine has covered the silkscreen label with either white paint or white out so that it is unreadable. Obviously this is a massive pain as I have no chance of finding a manual for this board, which is needed because of the large number of jumpers. I suspect they didn’t want end users finding out that it was a low quality board. Here’s a photo.

Again it’s a later 486 board as it has PCI slots rather than VLB slots. Reading the date codes on the chips reveals it was made in mid 1995, around the same time as the other socket 3 I have. The chipset was made by UMC, which I’m unfamiliar with. After having done some forum lurking over at VOGONS and reading some of the Red Hill Guide, it seems that it’s a fairly common chipset found on a variety of boards. I can’t comment on the performance myself, but others have had success getting decent performance out of their chipsets.

There are very few integrated peripherals, it has an old school DIN keyboard connector and two IDE ports, but strangely no floppy disk controller, serial or parallel ports. This ultimately wouldn’t have saved much money for the end user as they’d have to use add in cards to replace the functionality. Weirdly the IDE ports each use different styles of socket, another sign of cheapness.

The cache chips and system ROM are all socketed, which is a good sign that the cache is probably not a fake. The EPROM unfortunately had the sticker missing, exposing the window for the UV erasable chip. I’ve since put my own sticker over the window to protect it.

In an effort to identify it, I decided to pull the ROM chip and read it in my TL866 universal programmer. I was hoping to find a string that had the model name in it directly,but after an extensive search I only found the BIOS version string, “2A4X5B05”, which was enough to identify the manufacturer as Biostar but not the model.

Another unfortunate feature of this board is this real time clock chip with integrated battery. The idea is great in theory, but results in an unusable board when the battery runs flat, which it has.  Some of these RTC chips had the option of an external battery, unfortunately this isn’t one of them, so the only option I have is to either replace the chip (it’s not socketed) or hack it open and attach an external battery. Unfortunately this board doesn’t even remember the settings through a warm reboot, preventing it from actually booting an OS.

Like many 486 boards much of the basic configuration is done with jumpers. This usually means looking them up in the manual, but this board does have the basic settings for voltage, FSB speed and L2 cache size. Still there are obviously many more jumpers that are undocumented on the board, so the manual would be really handy. Luckily the silk screen has enough information you could install a CPU and not make the magic smoke escape.

At the time this board was made it was fairly low end, and windows 95 was just around he corner. It would have probably performed ok with MS-DOS and Windows 3.1, but would have been inadequate for Windows 95 when it came out later the same year. Most 486 machines didn’t really perform well with windows 95 so that’s hardly a surprise. The lack of integrated peripherals is probably the worst point with this particular board, as you’ll need add-on cards even for basics such as a floppy drive and serial port (which you’ll need for a mouse). Otherwise it would have made a serviceable, but not powerful machine.


Catacomb Abyss for DOS

Today’s game is quite unusual as it’s an early FPS game supporting EGA 16 colour graphics. It was released after Wolfenstein 3D in 1992, but isn’t a clone as it’s a sequel to the earlier game Catacomb 3D (1991). Both Catacomb 3D and Abyss were made using a earlier version of the Wolfenstein 3d engine, the first being made by id software for Softdisk and the second by staff at Softdisk using the same engine. So in that sense you could consider both to be a pre-cursor to Wolfenstein 3d technology wise.

The story is fairly simple and is a continuation of the first Catacomb 3d series. Nemesis, the antagonist from the previous game is now obviously dead, but his evil minions that are still around have built a memorial mausoleum in the town cemetery and are infesting the area. The local town-folk obviously aren’t too happy about it, so knowing you defeated Nemesis himself they send you in to clean up.

Graphically it’s quite impressive for EGA, artistically the sprites and wall textures are fairly well done for 16 colours. Performance wise the engine performs quite well under dosbox, which was configured at 3000 cycles which is roughly equivalent to a 20Mhz 386. I’d expect it to also be quite playable on 286 machines with the exception of slower ones. The engine however isn’t perfect, monsters can get close enough to you that they are no longer displayed. This tended to happen when they spawned very close and made it quite difficult to kill them. I found using the Xterminators usually helped. I also noticed that the texture mapping on the walls sometimes appeared a bit off, and that text on the walls was often hard to read. Despite the faults, the game looks nice and is quite atmospheric.

Sound support defaults to the PC speaker, which sounds ok. You can switch the game over to using Ad Lib sound, but the user interface and documentation don’t make it clear that it’s available and how to turn it on. I played for ages before realising there was another option. Once you manage to get it working the Ad Lib sound effects are quite effective, but they are loud and some of them are a little crackly. This could be down to imperfect emulation of the FM chip in dosbox, but I suspect it’s the pseudo-digital sound effects that are the cause.

The levels are quite short, but still big enough you can get lost. They rely on destructible walls quite a bit, which fortunately are usually easy to spot. They hide them as blocks that are different to those around them or a short and easily recognisable pattern. With infinite basic shots you should be able to find them fairly easily. There are doors with keys, but they don’t have a nice opening animation instead simply vanishing instead. Which could be the reason they aren’t used very much.

As you work through the game there are a variety of settings, each with their own graphic style, and typical monsters found there. You start off in the “towne” cemetery and work your way into the mausoleum and then crypt for Nemesis. For some reason not clearly explained you then end up deeper underground and then the segment that I’m up to, the aqueduct. On the up side each setting is fairly different visually, and some like the aqueduct change things up with different monsters.

There isn’t a huge variety of monsters in each level, but they get progressively stronger and have more variety in later levels. The basic monsters use melee attacks primarily, which can be a problem if they get too close. Zombies, which appear in the earlier levels, are not visible until they climb out of the ground. This sometimes happens when they are already too close to see, so you may need to use a Xterminator as moving away seems futile. In later levels I’ve seen some more interesting enemies such as floating wizards that shoot fireballs at you, large beasts, and what can only be described as aquatic zombies that hide under the water popping up every now and then.

There’s only really one weapon, a fireball that you can rapidly fire. You can’t charge it like the original 2d game, but you can make up for that with volume of fire. The two spells that you get aren’t really different weapons, but rather variations on the basic fireball. The Xterminator previously mentioned basically just fires standard fireballs in a circle around you, useful when many enemies are close, or you want to hit one you can’t see. The Zapper essentially just sends out a pulse of rapid fire and is less useful as you can achieve the same rate of fire manually.

Controls are fairly similar to those in Wolfenstein 3d, but not quite as refined and polished. Turning and moving are as you’d expect, but the control turning faster is the tab or v key, which can be a little cumbersome to reach. The alternative is to turn much slower, giving enemies more time to hurt you. This aside the controls work fairly well.

Catacomb Abyss is the only one of the series that was ever available as shareware, consequently it’s the only one easy to download. From what I’ve played, it’s actually quite decent although a little clunky in some aspects like the controls. Still it has great atmosphere and having short levels means you don’t get as lost as you might with something like Wolf3d. You can buy this along with the rest of the series on the Good old Games website for I think about $8 US dollars.

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Chopper Commando for DOS

Back in my teens I aspired to create my own computer games and actually made some nifty little games, but I didn’t ever distribute them. Today’s game, Chopper Commando was made by Mark Currie when he was 15 and did make it out in 1990. It’s a fairly simple arcade helicopter game in which you’re given a mission to complete.

It was written with Turbo Pascal 5 using the Borland Graphics Interface (or BGI). The game uses CGA 4 colour graphics at 320×200 which are mostly drawn using the basic line and fill functions from the BGI library. So artistically the game has a fairly simple line-drawn style that does the job. Sound is also fairly basic, with a few simple beeps coming from the PC speaker.

Upon starting the game you select your pilot from the roster, the number of bombs you can carry and finally the difficulty of the mission. Each difficulty setting has 5 unique missions which is chosen at random each time you play. There is a bit of variety in the missions, some are strictly destruction, whilst others involve deliveries or retrieval of items.

Controls aren’t as intuitive as I’d like, but once I slowed the game down I managed to progress quite well with the keyboard controls. To move you tap the direction you want to move and you gain speed in that direction, in order to stop you have to tap the reverse direction until you slow down and stop. It’s not the easiest way to handle controls, but I managed to make it work for me. I tried using the mouse, but that just resulted in a crash (the helicopter not the game), this could be because I was using Dosbox to play.

Destroying bad guys isn’t too hard, there are four weapons to use for dispatching your foes. First is a basic gun that fires forward. I found it best for shooting targets in the air but the bullets also slow down and fall to the ground, so you can destroy ground targets with it. There are also basic bombs which basically behave like the gun without the forward movement, these are easier to use on ground targets. You have the option to use missiles, but I found they were more likely to get me killed so I didn’t tend to use them. Finally there is a mega bomb which has a larger explosion radius.

Chopper Commando is a fairly simple game, but it has a lot of little extra details that make it charming and fun. The game uses a different colour palette for day and night missions. You can eject from a damaged helicopter and run around throwing grenades until a spare one arrives, and after missions there is a short piece of text from the office that makes fun of you when you die, or congratulates you upon success.

Obviously it’s not very technically impressive, but it’s quite fun. I looked for the Authors website, but it appears to be down, but you can find this on the Classic Dos Games website with a slightly updated version that fixes some bugs and source code.

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SparcStation Desktop project.

Unfortunately I’ve been neglecting my poor old Sun hardware, mostly because of time and space constraints. I thought I’d try to go some way to correcting this by actually beginning the process of setting up the SparcStation 20 as a vintage desktop work station. I’d been planning on doing this for ages, as long ago as when I built the replacement server machine.

Hardware wise I’ve not acquired anything new, although everything needed a test and some basic cleaning to get it working. I’m still having issues, but I’m unsure if it’s an hardware fault or a problem with the software I’m installing. We’ll get to the software in a moment, first we’ll look at the hardware installed.

At the moment I have 3 CPUs in the machine. They are all V8 Supersparcs with two 50Mhz chips on one module and a 60Mhz one on a module on it’s own. Each module has 1Mb of cache memory which doesn’t sound like much now, but was a large amount when these machines first appeared.

Frame Buffer

Frame Buffer

I’ve currently got about 304Mb of memory installed, I had more but unfortunately one of the sticks that was in it fails to detect anymore. I’d like to have a VSIMM as that would allow me to use the built in cg14 frame buffer (graphics card) which is probably the best performing one available for machines of it’s type. I managed to purchase a 2Mb TGX+ frame buffer and adapter to connect it to a VGA screen, which is doing an odd resolution of 1152×900 at 8 bits per pixel. It’s obviously not the fastest, but it does the job. I’ve selected an 136Gb 10K RPM SCA drive for the hard disk, certainly a bit of overkill, but it would just be sitting on my shelf otherwise.

The initial issue I had was stack under run errors after the boot screen came up and the machine attempted to boot. My first instinct was of course failed memory, which lead me to find the undetected memory module. But no matter which memory I ran I had the same problem. After some poking into the system environment (kinda like the BIOS settings in the PC but without the nice interface.) I found some items that were not at their defaults and changing them back seems to have fixed the stack under run.

Dual CPU MBUS module

Dual CPU MBUS module

Unfortunately that’s not the end of the issues, as after installing and running NetBSD for a while the machine will hang, reset or have a watchdog timer trigger. This certainly could be faulty RAM, but the power supply is also a potential suspect as is the operating system itself. I need to follow this up with some more testing, unfortunately I don’t have a spare PSU to test with.

Software wise I’m much more prepared and have had much more success. I’ve been using Qemu, which does full-system emulation for a number of old and different platforms, including Sparc systems. Qemu has been useful for building packages and the kernel specifically for my machine. Something I had done ages ago when I first intended to do the install.

At the time I built for NetBSD 6.1.4 which is the OS I’ve installed and tried out on the machine. It’s out of date by quite some margin now, so I’ve set up a new virtual machine to start work on getting 7.1 packages and kernel built. It has a bunch of improved hardware support, particularly in the frame buffer acceleration, so I’m keen to see how it goes. I’m still building packages I want for it, but I’m happy with 7.1 under qemu so far. I’m hoping the improved hardware support helps with the hang/watch dog/reset issues.

When it’s all done, I’ll post about what it’s like to use the machine for specific tasks, like say browsing the web and checking email.


Snow White’s Voyage for DOS

Today I’m looking at a platform game called Snow White’s Voyage, originally released by Alive software back in 1996. Of course by this time Windows 95 had changed the scene quite drastically, with most developers having abandoned developing games for DOS. The game has fairly low system requirements, needing only a 386 and about 512K conventional RAM, much less power than many late DOS machines had. So this game is a little unusual when put in the context of when it was released, it’s like it time travelled by about 4-6 years.

The story isn’t quite the same as the fairy tale, the game is divided into 9 episodes with only a few being related to the original story. Each episode begins with a short blurb of story text and a legend of the hazards and treasures to collect for points. The game-play itself doesn’t really rely on the story, so you can ignore it if you wish.

The graphics in Snow White are ok, nothing spectacular, but they do the job. I can totally sympathise, as Alive Software is a one-man software company, I can understand how hard it can be to generate attractive graphics by yourself. The graphics engine seems to be programmed reasonably well, as it appears it would work well on retro hardware like a 386. Although there was one peculiarity, the bottom of the previous level appears to be the ceiling for the one you are playing! Fortunately entities on the previous level don’t seem to be active up there (avoiding slow-down). I’m guessing all the levels are stored together in a single lump per episode. This could have been avoided by restricting the vertical scrolling range, or by only using the tile data from the current level. Apart from looking a bit odd the only problem it introduces is restricting your jump height where it need not be.

Digitised sound and OPL music are supported for the Sound Blaster, and some music with basic sound effects for the PC speaker. The music is implemented quite well, although there are no original tunes, I think the introductory tune is from The Marriage of Figaro and reminds me of a Tom and Jerry cartoon where the music was also used. The music resets every time you die or start a new level, which can sound a bit strange, otherwise it’s generally well done. The sound effects are fairly understated but fairly decent for what they are. PC speaker on the other hand is probably best avoided, it’s not the worst I’ve heard, but it’s not the best either.

The keyboard controls follow a fairly standard layout for platform games of the time, so getting your fingers on the right keys isn’t too hard. Basic movement works well enough but I found the jumping mechanic a bit of a problem. Basically your horizontal movement in a jump is about half as fast as your normal speed. The main problem this creates is difficulty in jumping over obstacles that otherwise shouldn’t be all that hard to avoid. There are also some problems navigating up some tiles that are intended as ladders.

Luckily the game has an easy difficulty option that removes some of the more difficult hazards making it much easier (but still challenging) to progress. The enemies aren’t too hard to dodge, but they are deadly accurate with their projectiles which are difficult to dodge. The worst ones being low flying birds that basically drop un-avoidable eggs on your head. Part of the issue is you basically have to restart the level every time you are hit, making any hit at all very punishing. It’s confusing because you have hearts that are like hit points/health in other games. Fortunately the level doesn’t reset when you start again, so bad guys stay dead if you’ve killed them.

Luckily the levels are quite short, so you’re never sent too far back, but being so short and limited in height has meant there is not that much variety in the map design. I did only get to play the first episode however as I played the shareware episode, and I’ve noted that later chapters do change things up a bit. In the lake for instance the game becomes top-down as you guide Snow White around on a raft, in the later stages of the game you play as Prince Charming, so there’s some variety, just not so much in the shareware chapter.

From what I’ve played Snow Whites Voyage is ok for what it is, but clearly it’s not a classic like say Commander Keen. Alive Software are still around, and you can buy this game in a bundle with some of their other legacy titles for about $5 USD which honestly isn’t too bad if you have any nostalgia for their games.

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Motherboard: Aopen AX34-U

I’ve been rather busy of late, and it’s been raining here in buckets, so finding the time for photographing a board has been tricky. In any case I had some time today and have found a socket 370 board made by Aopen.

I wasn’t able to decipher the date of manufacture from any of the date codes on the board, but it’s almost certainly made around the early 2000’s. It supports the Tualatin and Coppermine cores of the Pentiun III and Celeron chips. The Coppermine ones had a reputation of being quite good at over-clocking at the time.

Looking at the board as a whole the layout is pretty standard for the time, although I’m puzzled as to why the AMR slot is right next to the AGP slot. I’ve never seen an AMR card in the wild, probably because they were pretty poor software modems. On this board it occupies what would be a prime spot for a PCI slot, which I’d much rather have.

You’ll also note it still has a legacy ISA slot, something which disappeared from consumer hardware in a few short years around the time this board was made. ISA slots stuck around for a surprisingly long time, partly due to the amount of hardware that was made for it. It was used for many unusual cards some for controlling industrial machines. I have one somewhere that was used as a lighting controller for dance floor lighting in a pub. Machines made for industrial conditions kept the ISA slot for much longer.

Unfortunately this board seems to have suffered leaky caps, a common cause of failure for many electronics. One has coated a surrounding chip with it’s goo. This kind of problem can be repaired, but it isn’t usually done because of the time or cost involved if you pay someone to do it. If you have the time, patience and skill you can clean up the goo and replace the caps, often restoring the device to functionality. I’m not confident I can repair this yet, as my soldering skills are pretty much hobbyist level. It’s easy to damage a board like this as it has very fine traces and small pads designed for machine assembly.

Performance wise this would have been quite a nice piece of kit. It has a VIA Apollo Pro 133T chipset which was a reasonable performer as well as being cheaper than alternatives. It had room for 1.5Gb of RAM providing you used the expensive-at-the-time 512Mb modules. With only 3 SDRAM slots you couldn’t use many of the cheaper sticks to make up the difference, but few people were going for more than 0.5Gb of RAM at the time.

From a technicians point of view it’s fine in terms of specs, but the board silk-screen isn’t as helpful as others when connecting the front panel and setting jumpers. The front panel is marked, but isn’t real easy to read, which can be worse in the tight confines of a case. Luckily there aren’t too many jumpers as software controls much of the settings, most of the jumpers you won’t need to touch with perhaps the exception of the one that sets the FSB speed. The manual is also still available if you need further help.

As an end user this would have been quite a good buy, it has most things you need integrated (except NIC) and has a decent chipset with support for a decent range of configurations. You could build either a cheap and cheerful machine, or something with pretty good performance with a board like this one.



Space Nightmare for DOS

I’m not much good at shoot’em up games, which is why today’s game, Space Nightmare has a completely appropriate title. It was made by a Canadian company called Microdem in 1994. It is odd for a DOS game as it uses some high resolution graphics and what appears to be Mode X using 16 colours. Like most shooters it has a fairly throw away story about aliens coming to steal our copper, but what’s really important is you get to blow stuff up!

Graphics support is unusual for a DOS game of the period. The menus are drawn at 640x480x256 if set to use SVGA and 640x350x16 for standard VGA cards. In game it appears to use 320x240x16 which is essentially Mode X, but it appears to be only using 16 of the 256 normally available colours in that mode. The game does perform quite well mostly, with some of the smoother scrolling I’ve seen in game. There is some slow down occasionally which seems to happen when the game is loading an image for displaying the first time. You notice this especially when it loads larger images like those for the end of level boss. This might not happen on actual hardware, I was playing using Dosbox.

Artistically the graphics are quite nice and colourful, for EGA. There is dithering in some of the graphics because of the limited number of colours used. This could be a technical issue with the graphic engine, perhaps it only supports a 16 colour mode? Did they limit it for speed? I’m sure they could have gone with 256 colours and not compromised too much on speed and being in Mode X it should have been easy. So the decision to use 16 colours puzzles me.

Sound comes from either the PC speaker or a Sound blaster card. I couldn’t test the PC speaker sound unfortunately because the game disables it as an option if it detects a sound blaster, which I guess is fair. The music is ok, although the tracks all sound fairly similar they do fit the theme of a shooter like this one. Sound effects are also ok, although weapon sounds get louder as you upgrade them. I suspect it plays the sound once for each shot in air, so once you’re upgraded it adds the sound from many shots together. It could have been implemented better, but you can turn down your volume as needed to compensate.

When starting the game you get to choose between one of three ships. Dynamite only fires forward, but is one of the faster ships, upgrades simply add more projectiles. Blaster is slower, but upgrades add increasing amounts of spread shots which can effectively blanket the upper screen with bullets. Lastly Cancer fires forward only at first, but upgrades add shots going backwards and to the sides equally. I found Cancer the most successful as it allowed me to combat foes coming from more directions much easier.

The enemies are mostly mobile air units of some type. They will often fire a burst of bullets directly at you, so dodging is absolutely necessary. I found this quite hard as the hit boxes for your ships are quite large. You can end up being trapped by several barrages and can’t avoid taking a hit. This wouldn’t be a problem if being hit didn’t take _all_ your power-ups, which leaves you very vulnerable. Whilst you can take more than one hit before dying, this is severely punishing.

I found this game quite hard, I couldn’t get past the second level after many attempts. This could just be because I’ve never really been all that good at this type of shooter. I think that having more than one life, and not losing your power-ups when hit would have made this much more playable for me. People who are fans of vertical shooters (and are better than me at it) will probably find some fun, as long as you’re good at dodging.

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