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.


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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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.


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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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.


Bubble Pop for DOS

It’s been about a month since I’ve been able to write a post, so apologies for the un-announced hiatus. I’ve been slightly burned out with work and kids keeping me extremely busy, but I’ve taken a nice holiday to my parents place in the bush to recharge the batteries.

So to kick things back off I’m looking at a small game called Bubble Pop made by Software of Sweden back in 1997, quite a while after MS-DOS games were main stream. It’s quite obviously inspired by Bubble Bobble, and shares much in common with the arcade game. Today I played the shareware game which only includes the first 10 of the 100 levels.

There is a little bit of history in the readme about the company, they were originally a demo group on the Amiga starting back in 1986. I have never really been into the demo scene, so I haven’t heard of them before, but being a part of that explains some of the art style and technical prowess in the game.

bubble#_006VGA is the only graphics mode as you’d expect, and the art is generally very colourful and nicely drawn. The item pickups look very much like those you’d find in Bubble Bobble, but the other sprites are quite different. Speed wise it performs quite well and everything animates quite smoothly. Whilst the readme recommends a 486 @ 66Mhz, it could probably run acceptably on a slower machine, although I suspect a 386sx would be too slow.

bubble#_007The only sound card support available is for the Sound Blaster and Adlib cards. There is some pretty decent music and sound effects, unsurprisingly much like you’d find in demos from the PC or Amiga. It doesn’t perform as well as the graphics do, the music and audio pauses  and stutters during transition effects and loading.

bubble#_008Game-play wise it is similar in design to Bubble Bobble with a few differences. Your default attack is essentially a melee attack that traps the enemy in a purple bubble. You can’t pop the bubbles, instead you have to push them and attack to make them fly around and eventually burst. The purple bubbles can hurt other enemies as they fly around the screen, causing a cascade potentially knocking off many bad guys in one go. This can be a problem if you want to collect all the score items, but have killed all the enemies before getting a chance to.

bubble#_009The bad guys themselves are fairly simple with only a few types available in the shareware episode. At the end of the shareware episode is a mini-boss, which is essentially just a larger normal enemy. You have to use the smaller enemies to kill it by bouncing them off the boss in purple bubble form.

bubble#_012Some other elements are almost identical to Bubble Bobble, such as a dangerous enemy appearing after not completing the level in time, and the food themed scoring items. The few enemies I’ve seen are similar in behaviour with a few exceptions, and whilst the levels are different, they have very similar basic designs.

The shareware version of Bubble Pop is extremely limited with only a very few levels and enemies compared to the full game. So I’m sure the full game has much more content, but as it is Bubble Pop isn’t as fun as the game that inspired it, and with the price of about $24 AUD I doubt many people would have forked out for it.

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Storage room finds – part 2

A few weeks ago I salvaged some equipment from a room clean-out, see the first post to see all the ISA bus parts and loose chips. Today we’ll be looking at the PCI cards, which are unsurprisingly all Adaptec parts. They are different from the older parts from last time in a few ways, firstly their construction is radically different because they use mostly surface mount components. They have fewer component counts with much much more integration on ASIC chips instead of off-the-shelf parts. Finally, Adaptec typically made some of the better SCSI cards with more processing done on the card rather than the host machine, this meant more CPU for applications and higher data through-put.

The first card here is an AHA-3940uw. This card was available for UltraSPARC systems as well as PCs. It doesn’t have RAID capabilities, but will do DMA transfers with-out CPU intervention to save processing on the host.  It requires the host system meet PCI specification 2.1 and that PCI-to-PCI bridges work on the host chip-set. I believe that this is because the middle chip is such a bridge and the chips on each side manage one channel each. The bridge chip appears to be manufactured by DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation also known as Digital for short) which is interesting as they weren’t really in the expansion card market.

This card appears to be from the late 90’s, it even still has MS-DOS support even though that wasn’t relevant at the time.

Here we have an ASC-29160 a 64bit PCI-X card from around 2000. PCI-X allowed for faster transfers to and from the card, which could have made quite a difference. Cards such as these could have something like 15-30 devices connected at maximum, although many fewer in practice (due to physical limitations of having that many HDDs). Many hard drives could easily generate more data than the standard PCI bus could handle (133MB/s) thus making the bus a bottle neck in the data flow.

The PCI-X standard can achieve twice the speed of PCI if running at the standard 33Mhz, but can get much faster with higher clock speeds that were offered. The most common speeds you’ll find are 33Mhz, 66Mhz and 133Mhz, but higher speeds were developed although not widely used.

This is a AHA-3940AUW which is essentially a redesign of the first card. It offers the same number of ports (at the same speed) plus a legacy SCSI connector all from the one integrated chip. It seems from the date codes that it was manufactured about a year later, so it’s probably just an incremental improvement (perhaps just for cost).

Adaptec also made lower end cards, here’s an example of one, an AVA-2906. It was made roughly mid 1999, but only supports the older SCSI standards at much lower speeds (10MB/s). It could have been used in the consumer market for scanners and early CD burners, both devices with lower bandwidth requirements. Whilst not being any faster than the ISA cards from last time, it would most certainly have cost significantly less.

Lastly here is a AHA 2940UW, which is basically just a scaled down version of the 3940 cards shown earlier. Whilst it’s not remarkable, it is a handy card as it supports most of the SCSI standards without being complicated or expensive.

That’s all the PCI SCSI cards that were saved, I did note a few things about them collectively as a group. Firstly most of these cards appear to be similar in both age and features, and they are all Adaptec cards. This was a common practice for a few reasons,  mostly ease of replacement (and fewer spares required) and less hassle when commissioning new equipment. It can save lots of time.

I’ve used Adaptec cards frequently specifically for their RAID feature, none of the cards here have this feature. The original machines mustn’t have needed either the additional space, speed or redundancy that RAID affords, as most of the cards featured also came in a version that supported RAID, but would have been more expensive.

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