28
Nov
16

Heros: The Sanguine Seven for DOS

Today’s game is called Heros: the Sanguine Seven and was made for MS-DOS back in 1993 by Jeffrey Fullerton. He originally sold the game directly himself, but after some minor updates (including correcting the spelling of Heroes) a shareware version was published by Safari software in 1994. It’s an unusual platform game styled after comic book heroes and villains. Some super villains have escaped from gaol, so a band of seven heroes are selected to re-capture them. Today I’m playing the registered version as downloaded from the RGB classic DOS games site, you can also get the game from the authors website here.

It features EGA graphics, but unfortunately suffers from programmers art, it’s not really all that bad, but it’s not a great example of EGA graphics. I totally sympathise as my own graphical efforts suffer from a similar fate. On the flip side the graphic engine is coded exceptionally well, the scrolling is very smooth and the game performs well, even on the equivalent of something like a 286. I also found it cool that cartoon style biff and pow word art float up in the air when ever something takes a hit.

The game supports PC speaker for the main sound effects and Ad Lib FM music. The sound effects are pretty much as good as you can expect from the PC speaker. The music is nicely implemented, but the author chose classical music which is a little odd, but somehow it fits. I suspect the choice of music is partly due to it being royalty free and the difficulty in creating your own.

The game plays much like any other platformer with a few unique twists. The heroes gather in a control room reminiscent of the justice league where you select one to take into the current stage. If your hero happens to run out of strength (your health essentially) a bubble protects them from further harm and you choose another hero to rescue them . You have to rescue every fallen hero before you can finish a stage and the game is over if there are none left in the control room.

The heroes have different special abilities and weaknesses, such as Gumwad sticking to walls and Leadmans inability to swim . Each hero also has some basic stats like in a RPG such as their maximum health and jump height. You can upgrade these stats at the control room with Gems that you find. So as you progress through the game your characters get stronger. The only thing that took me by surprise was the limited ammo that carries across levels, it is easy to run out.

I found the controls work fairly well, but in the context of many of the levels I found it difficult to navigate without taking damage. The level design unfortunately doesn’t work as well, there are many dead ends with no rewards, I ended up wandering around the levels aimlessly never finding the exit. The small screen space makes seeing upcoming hazards difficult to see and react to, unless of course you’ve memorised the level. Enemies continue to shoot and move even when quite a distance off screen, which means you have to dodge incoming fire from quite a distance away. I actually couldn’t finish any of the levels, luckily the archive I got the game in included a save for every level in the game, so I was able to try out more than the first one. Practise and moving more cautiously did seem to help me progress further.

Heros: The Sanguine Seven is certainly very unique for it’s time. There are many really good ideas in the design, such as multiple heroes and the control room. Unfortunately the level design lets it down a little, there aren’t enough health pickups for the amount of damage you take, and there are too many paths with no reward at the end. That being said there is some clever design in the levels and it is quite fun to play. I quite like the quirky heroes and the mechanic around each of their special abilities. The author made it freeware back in 2005, so there’s little reason to not give this unique game a try.

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02
Nov
16

Campbell Scientific C20 Cassette interface

Today we’ve got something unusual, a RS-232 Cassette interface made by Campbell Scientific. They seem to have always been specialised in making data logger and acquisition system. I can’t be sure, but I think this device was used for storing digital data on audio cassette, a common media of the time. Micro computers of the time did this as well, but usually had this function built in. It’s likely that this would have been used with machines that didn’t have that capability natively, like a PC or perhaps some scientific equipment that can speak RS-232.

It’s built in a very sturdy and quite large metal enclosure. It feels very well made, the few switches on it (including the small DIP switches) feel like quality components that have held up quite well.

The enclosure probably could have been smaller, but here you can see it probably wasn’t specific to this one device. The card cage only houses two cards here, but could have had 5 which would have been enough room for something more complicated.

Here is the processor board, it has a Z80 CPU which would be running at 4Mhz. Around it are mostly simple logic chips in the 74 series, but directly bellow the CPU are two 2k word x 8bit SRAM chips as well as the EPROM. Interestingly the SRAM chips (CDM6116AE3) were used in the memory expansion socket on the MPF-1, I may be able to use one of these to expand my unit. Handily every chip is socketed, so repair (or salvage) is significantly easier. The board appears to have been designed by hand, as you can see many of the traces are quite curvy, it’s clear a great deal of care went into its design.

The front panel board has very similar construction, everything in sockets and hand designed PCB. All the input and output circuitry is on this board and includes a Z80 serial IO chip and two CTC (counter timer circuit) chips. Given that this is a tape interface there is a distinct lack of DAC or ADC chips, most of the smaller chips are 74 series logic, a couple of opamps and serial line drivers and receivers. I suppose other machines (like the ZX spectrum) didn’t have those chips for storing digital information on tape, so they probably use a similar technique. It does make it clear that analogue or audio data is not supported by this device.

I’m a bit conflicted about what I’ll do with this particular device, the collector in me says keep it, but I don’t have a lot of space or use for it. I may end up just keeping the boards for parts, as they are all fairly usable chips with data sheets available.

 

19
Oct
16

5th Anniversary and general update

Wow a year goes by so very fast! I have managed to get a lot done during this year such as continuing the photography and documentation of my various mother boards, and posts about MS-DOS games. However I’ve not been able to do everything I wanted, such as working on my home brew DOS game or completing the series I started about graphics library bench marking. This is mostly due to not having as much spare time as I used to. I’ve had to take up more domestic duties, especially with the kids going to school. So I’ve not been posting as often as I used to, often because I use the little spare time I have to rest. I’ve still managed roughly one or two posts a month.

As you might have guessed, I am still playing World of Warships and am still enjoying it. I also started playing Minecraft a few months ago after having played the pocket edition with my daughter. It has been a good game to play after all the work is done as it’s generally pretty relaxing to just do some mining, there is some interesting challenge in building automated farms, and it’s a good creative outlet when building what is essentially your home in game. Here’s a bunch of screenshots from around my world and base.

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I’ve dabbled in playing World of Tanks, but I found I just couldn’t really enjoy the game all that much. I don’t really find it too pay-to-win, I just really didn’t enjoy the new player experience. Basically when you start to get into Tier 2 3 and 4 tanks you get totally nuked by people who have already got 100% crews with skills, equipment and game play experience. The grind to just upgrade your crew is insanely long, at the level I played you’d get the next tank in the line before getting 100% let alone any of the skills. I had plenty of games where I didn’t get to shoot anything because I’d get one-shot by someone I couldn’t see (and couldn’t know they spotted me or how). Because I essentially spontaneously exploded, I had no opportunity to learn what I did wrong. I tried playing artillery, but found that annoying, mostly because RNG meant that many of your shots regardless of aim didn’t count. Needless to say I didn’t have any fun, so I did what anyone would do, I stopped playing.

Content wise I’m getting near the end of my collection of mother boards, so I’ll probably fill its place with stuff that’s been on the back burner for a while. I had considered posting about Minecraft and World of Warships as I’ve been playing them when I get a chance and need to relax, but I didn’t feel they’d fit with what I usually do here, and there isn’t much I could really write about those games. I am still planning on doing Window 9x era games at some point, but they simply will take too much time at this point.

Thank you to anyone who reads, whether it is regularly or just once off.  I still enjoy writing, although I have significantly less time to do so.

10
Oct
16

Space Chase for DOS

Today we’re looking at Space Chase, a little known platform game made in 1993 by Safari Software, one of the first games that they released. It features Jason Storm, a former Marine that takes on dangerous missions. You’re given a mission to stop the organisation known as Evil Guys inc. from taking over the planetary government. It is an platform game much like older games such as Duke Nukem and Dark Ages.

The game uses EGA graphics, which is quite unusual for a game released in 1993. I believe this is because they were supporting old 286 machines, which whilst obsolete, were still common. The game performs well enough that it would probably be playable on a faster 286 machine, but would struggle on the slower machines running at less than 16Mhz.

The sprites and backgrounds are quite detailed compared to say Duke Nukem, but in some ways less appealing. I still quite like the artwork, although many others don’t seem to. Animations look decent and smooth with plenty of frames for each animated sprite.

The only annoyance is with the scrolling, it’s smooth enough, but the distance from the screen edge is shorter moving to the right than it is when moving left. This makes moving right a bit more difficult as you don’t see hazards until you’re nearly on top of it.

Sound effects come from the PC speaker, and are pretty much what you’d expect. Music support is included for Ad lib and compatible cards. The music isn’t quite what you’d expect to find in a platform game, it’s quite relaxed and suites the different pace. I quite liked the music and the mood it set.

If you read the marketing material for the game you’d be expecting a fast-paced action game, perhaps something like Duke Nukem. But Space Chase isn’t as fast paced, although there are action elements and some aspects are clearly inspired by games like Duke Nukem, such as the health pickup which suspiciously looks like a futuristic soft drink can.

The controls are fairly tight, but the jump mechanic is more like what you might find on a console game. For most DOS platform games your jump height is identical no-matter how long or short you hold the jump key. Space Chase on the other hand replicates what usually happens on consoles, the duration of the button press controls the height of the jump. It’s not a bad mechanic, it’s actually quite useful, but as I am more used to DOS games it took a little time to adjust.

As I said before the game play is more relaxed than other more action focused platform games. There are some puzzle elements, such as finding a security node for activating a lift, but it’s not really a puzzle game either. You could think of it as Duke Nukem with simple puzzles added and the action toned down.

There is a limited amount of ammunition for your gun, so you often have to use it sparingly, or simply take a hit from an enemy rather than use a bullet. Avoidance is often the best tactic, and some areas filled with enemies can be skipped altogether. If you run out of bullets you can literally get stuck in some sections as shooting a security node can be necessary for progress.

The level design is pretty decent, exploring them to find score items, ammunition or health is generally a pleasant experience. The only hassle is a few jumps that are difficult because of the low ceiling height. There are areas that are dead ends that you wouldn’t normally need to explore, but they usually contain something as a reward. The difficulty settings change the enemies that appear, with easy have far fewer enemies than normal or hard.

Whilst Space Chase has some minor issues, it is quite a fun platform game to play. It’s relaxed without lacking action, but also not focused on shooting down all the enemies. I played about three quarters of the shareware version and quite enjoyed it. Unfortunately there is no legit way to get the registered version, but the shareware version is available on the Classic Dos Games website.

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15
Sep
16

Motherboard: ASUS P4S800 MX SE

Today is another of my more modern mother boards, the ASUS P4S800. It was made late 2003, roughly half way through the life of the Pentium 4, which was starting to look old compared to the new AMD Athlon 64 processors that were released that year. This board is clearly designed for the cost conscious but still has an impressive feature set. Here’s an overview of the board.

My particular example has had a custom heat sink clip fitted, likely for a custom heat sink made for increased heat dissipation. That’s a little strange as it was later P4 processors that were known for using lots of energy and running hot. Unfortunately the clip is broken, but could be replaced with an original clip to get the board working.

CPU support includes 800Mhz FSB processors such as the Northwood, Williamette and Prescott cores. If you had a newer operating system such as Windows XP or Linux you could also take advantage of Hyper threading which essentially takes unused resources in a core and makes them available for use as a secondary logical core. To the casual user it looks like you get two cores for the price of one, however, if the primary core needs more of the processing resources the second one can get slowed down significantly as it gets starved of resources. It could also cause problems with the cache as both logical processors shared it and it consumed more power adding to the heat problems.

There is support for DDR400 which is as fast as that memory standard went. It does not support running the memory in a dual channel configuration, likely because there is only a single memory channel. Having only two memory slots is probably the most limiting part of this board as it would have meant a practical maximum of 1GB of for most users.

The chip set was made by SiS, which was known for making more of the budget parts. By this stage they had managed to sort out the driver and software problems that plagued earlier chip sets, so you can expect reliability from a board like this one. The chip set integrated graphics would have been ok for basic desktop use, but completely inadequate for much else. Luckily there is an AGP slot for adding your own GPU.

The P4S800 has quite a few integrated peripherals such as USB 2.0, SATA, LAN and audio. For a small form factor board this was basically necessary as there is little room for expansion slots in many mATX chassis which sometimes also require low profile expansion cards. It also has quite a number of useful legacy ports such as RS-232, parallel, and joystick ports (with a header).

img_2536Looking closely at the CPU voltage regulation there are a number of parts not populated on the board. The missing parts are filter capacitors and power transitors/MOSFETs. It’s not really a problem unless your processor requires lots of power. I wouldn’t put a Prescott core P4 processor in this board for this reason, as they have a much higher power demand.  It might work (or not), but would almost certainly shorten the life of the board.

Working on this board is fairly easy, almost all the jumpers are labeled quite well, and the front panel section is colour coded as well. Auto detection and software configuration (in the BIOS) take care of most configuration like modern motherboards. The only reason you would need the manual is to check the compatibility lists within for memory and CPU. Most of the integrated components are either integrated into the chip set or are Realtek devices, both of which are easy to get drivers for.

For the end user this board is very similar to the Aopen P4 board I’ve looked at before, only a little newer and faster. It probably wouldn’t suite someone looking for high performance, and may be have limited expandability depending on the chassis it is installed in. For general office/internet use it would probably have done the job, and would have been reasonably reliable providing the power regulator isn’t overly stressed.

23
Aug
16

Skunny: Save our Pizzas for DOS

gobman corruption!I haven’t had much luck today, two DOS games I tried to play didn’t work out. Firstly I tried the shareware Super Frog by Team 17 and found it to be way too short and lacking for a full post. Then I downloaded Gob Man, a Pac-man clone that is supposed to be pretty good. Unfortunately every time I move up the screen I got this weird corruption, seems some of the sprites are broken.

Save our PizzasYou could argue that my luck hasn’t improved when Skunny: Save our Pizzas did work for me. It was made by Copysoft back in 1993, around the same time as the two other games I’ve already looked at, Lost in Space and Back to the Forrest. They are all infamously bad in one way or another, so whilst I hadn’t played this one before I had low expectations before beginning.

Strange storyThe story is a bit strange, much like the other games, here the evil “CHEF of CADIZ” has brainwashed all of the pizza chefs in Italy so that no-one knows how to make pizza. Presumably he did this to sell his food which is made of old shoes and plastic vegetables. So to solve this the Italian government called in Skunny Hardnut to travel back in time to retrieve the recipe. The Chef travels back as well and convinces the Roman emperor, named Bigus Titus, that Skunny is a spy coming to assassinate him.

It’s certainly a nutty story to match the nutty character! I was also surprised they used the Roman name joke that used to turn up in more adult humour. Especially considering they aimed their games at kids.

Like the other games the art is kinda middle of the road, better than the other games in some ways but still lacking in animation frames. The game engine does seem to perform ok on a 386 rough equivalent, so no performance issues like in Back to the Forrest.

Audio again is fairly similar to the other games, with one annoying music loop that will repeat during gameplay until you hear nothing else but that maddening tune. The sound effects are ok, except for the death screams of the enemies. The PC speaker noises aren’t too bad comparatively, but still you might want to turn the sound off.

Game-play wise there is the germ of a good game somewhere in there as the enemies and level design actually seem quite reasonable, well as far as I experienced anyway, as the controls and Skunny’s movement are so bad I could not complete the first level before filling the high score table and giving up.

So what’s wrong with the controls? They feel jerky, jumping being the biggest problem. Sometimes the jump button doesn’t register at all and you fall off a ledge, other times you find that you over shoot a platform because Skunny does not drop straight down when falling. You have to wiggle back and forth to try and land in a particular spot.

WT_ is Skunny?Also when Skunny takes a hit he’ll fly half way across the screen. This can also happen when you attempt to jump on an enemies head to kill them. Often you’ll land on spikes or fall off the level entirely just from one hit. Combined with the bad jumping mechanic and slightly dodgy collision detection you end up with a very frustrating and unfair feeling experience.

This particular entry in the Skunny series of games could have been good (well at least playable) if only a bit more polish was put in before release. The controls, collision detection and Skunny’s movement mechanic in particular needed re-working as they make movement around a level much more difficult than necessary. Other aspects of the game aren’t perfect, but don’t impact it anywhere near as much. There’s nothing really to recommend it, unless you want to bask in its awfulness.

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29
Jul
16

The Remains of an Epson and Reply Corp PC.

Whilst I was on holiday at my parents place I did some photography of old hardware I  have. I got out the remains of two currently dead PCs, one an Epson PC AX2 and another, a Reply Corp machine.

The first machine was made by a company called Reply Corporation (or Reply Corp for short). Interestingly there is absolutely no information available about the company online, almost as if they had never existed. I did manage to find a few machine reviews within the Google books archive of some PC magazines, but other than that nothing really. There was a segment or two featuring them in the Computer Chronicles (an old American TV Show) but I couldn’t find the particular episode.

As far as I could tell Reply Corp started out making PC cards for Macintosh machines. These cards brought PC compatibility in a limited degree to Apple machines so that popular software like Lotus 1-2-3 could be used. It seems that somewhere along the line they started making their own clone machines. They were one of the few third party manufacturers to actually purchase the rights and make MCA (mirco-channel architecture) machines. With MCA failing in the market and PC cards being a very niche product, it’s no surprise that Reply Corp disappeared into obscurity.

The machine I have is one of the MCA machines, a model 16 with a 486dx 33Mhz chip, note I’ve stripped out the drives and power supply for use else where. Unlike the IBM MCA machines it doesn’t use a fancy modular and tool-less design, instead opting for more standard mounts for the drives and power supply. This made it easier to replace these components without having to buy proprietary ones like those in the relevant IBM machines. Note the CPU is mounted on a module, we’ll take a closer look.

Here’s the CPU module up close. At the time PCs generally had either the CPU soldered onto the board, a standard chip socket (DIP/PLCC for the 286) or an old style LIF (low insertion force) for the 386 and earlier 486 machines. These solutions made upgrading a CPU a difficult task, if not impossible. Reply addressed this by using an easily replaced module, something quite unique amongst IBM PC compatibles of the time. This particular module has a 486dx chip rated for 33Mhz, but when it was running the BIOS reported it as a 486SX @ 25 Mhz, so I wonder if this is the original chip. The oscillator on the board is 50Mhz, which would indicate the module was made to run at 25Mhz (the oscillator frequency is usually halved).

The motherboard has a Chips and Technologies chip set along with a relatively thick layer of dust. It has on-board VGA graphics and unusually 2 25-pin serial ports and 2 parallel ports. Chips was never known for high performance, but they are usually quite compatible. They may have been one of the few to make a third party MCA chipset.

We got the machine originally as a replacement for our aging 386sx, it served us well for playing MS-DOS games for quite a few years. I believe it may have been ex-government as it had a SCSI hard disk and controller as well as a token ring network card. It has an unfortunate annoyance of requiring a setup boot disk to configure the BIOS settings much like IBM machines did. Unfortunately there doesn’t appear any way to get a disk now. The board has since failed, giving a BIOS beep code indicating a parity error. I’ve tried resuscitating it to no avail.

The second machine is an Epson PC AX2, which is essentially a pretty bog standard clone 286 running at 12 Mhz. My uncle gave it to my Dad for some reason, and it was basically dead upon arrival as it was already missing its power supply.

The insides of this machine are looking bare among our reading material on the table. I had stripped out the I/O cards it had some time ago. It had a MFM hard disk controller, an EGA card and a floppy controller. It doesn’t have much integration on the board despite the number of chips, basically only a keyboard port is provided.

It has a AMD made 286 running at 12Mhz. You may notice it has the Intel copyright on it, this is because AMD was a second source manufacturer of the 286 (and other earlier processors) to ensure availability of the parts. This would be the last processor that AMD would second source for Intel, as they stopped co-operating before the release of the 386.

This machine has a module as well, even mounted and connected in a similar fashion. The difference is this module appears to be for the main memory and ROM for the machine. It’s an odd design choice, but perhaps the ROM and memory design were shared across models and designs of Epson machines. This would not be an upgradable module, memory upgrades often came in expansion cards for the ISA bus.

These three chips seem to confirm what I had seen online, that this model was originally released sometime in 1986. What’s interesting is the date code for these chips indicates the 23rd week of 1989, which would have made this machine quite obsolete at the time of manufacture. I’m surprised they didn’t upgrade the design to 16 or 20Mhz as they were common speeds for the 286. The three chips are almost certainly the base mother board components such as interrupt, timer and DMA controllers.

IMG_2530Here is the reason I can’t run this machine currently. It has a power connector with an unknown pin-out, and with the original power supply missing I don’t have much chance unless there is some documentation around. This is unfortunately common for earlier PCs as standards hadn’t been formed yet.

I’ve been keeping both these old machines in the hope that one day I might find or work out the information needed to get them to work again. They’ve unfortunately languished under a table in my room at my parents place collecting dust, I hope they’ve at least been somewhat interesting to look at today, as they aren’t much use as they are.




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