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.


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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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.


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.


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.


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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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.

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