Robomaze III: The Dome for DOS

WetwareSince I’m still setting up my computer lab space today I’m looking at a game called Robomaze III. It was made by a company called Wetware for MVP software back in 1991. This is of course a sequel to Robomaze II, but unlike it, this game is a top down adventure game.

Robomaze III: The DomeThe story seems to be a continuation of the last game where you defeated everything in the tower. Now you’ve traveled to The Dome in order to defeat the dictator currently dominating the land. Unfortunately you left your gun in the tower and your suite of armour doesn’t work in the Dome.

In the beginning there were no weapons

In the beginning there were no weapons

Whilst the story between the two games is continuous, both games don’t feel very connected otherwise. The environment, enemies and weapons of both games is quite different with the only real commonality being the main character. In Robomaze III you fight various fantasy style enemies using weapons such as swords and axes. Guns do enter the game later, but they are effectively just more powerful arrows.

Witches House

Witches House

Again graphics support comes in the form of CGA and EGA and like many older games there is a different version of the game for each mode. I used the EGA version which runs at 640x200x16, which is unusual for games of that era, but does allow for more effective use of the dithering technique. I think the graphics are implemented a little better this time around, although I did see some flicker. Sprites are easier to identify this time around and animations look reasonable.

Sometimes it's easier being green.

Sometimes it’s easier being green.

Sound is once again PC speaker exclusive and again the title screen has some of the worst music ever. In game sound however is much better, but isn’t strictly important to the experience. It’s perfectly playable with the sound on or off, so choose what you think best.

A hospital with guns?

A hospital with guns?

Game-play wise Robomaze III is an adventure game more in the vain of Zelda on the NES rather than a normal PC adventure game. There is an over world  of sorts which connects everything together. Traveling around is fairly simple, but because you have a large sprite (larger than many trees!) it can be difficult to maneuver.

Licked the red frog.

Licked the red frog.

You encounter enemies randomly with the exception of a few fixed enemies that usually have something for you to pick up. Combat involves flinging your weapon or ammunition at the bad guys. Unfortunately it can be difficult to hit them if you are shooting vertically, so shoot at enemies from the horizontal if possible.

Field of Death!

Field of Death!

This has to be one of the harder games I’ve attempted, the first weapon you get is incredibly weak and not really strong enough to defend against even the weakest enemies. Normally it’s best to avoid combat, but that can be tricky, and some enemies need to be killed to make progress. The only way to make the game a bit more balanced is to engage all the cheats so your weapon is more powerful and power-ups have more effect.

Luckily you can continue the game after you die, retaining everything except your score. Because the combat is so awkward even with the cheats enabled you will die on a regular basis. It’s not punishing, but it makes the combat feel largely pointless.

Robomaze III has not really aged all that well, mostly because of the poor combat mechanics and balance. Otherwise it has some redeeming features such as relatively nice graphics and large area to explore. However I feel this is probably one game best left to those who remember it fondly, the problems in game-play out-stink its good qualities.

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Still Unpacking and Cleaning

I’m still in the process of unpacking and cleaning my old place, so no detailed post this week either. I don’t have the internet on at home yet so I don’t know how long I’ll be until I’m ready to do much, but things are starting to settle down and I should get a lot done in the coming weekend.

Until then here’s a link to an interesting video by Gemini (Kris Asick) about whether Doom is technically a Raycaster or not. It’s an interesting view, although rendering an 3d image is a difficult process to follow. Gemini has a web-show called Ancient DOS Games which is pretty cool, and develops games. Check out his web-site.


Moving House – again

Just a quick heads up that I’m presently moving house. I’ve done much of my packing and moving this weekend just gone, but it will take me a little while before I have my computer lab set back up for photography, gaming and experimentation. I’ll try to make a few DOS game posts if I have time, but I can’t make any promises and my server hosting the download section will be off-line until I’m able to set up a mirror or internet connection.


Linux Misinformation

I’ve been using Linux in it’s various forms for quite some time (around 15 years) in one form or another. I quite like some aspects of it, and now with modern distributions it has become a decent contender for a main stream desktop operating system. However there is a lot of misinformation floating around the net about just how good it is, and after stumbling upon a website called www.whylinuxisbetter.net I thought it might be an idea to dispel some of these myths.

It is often claimed that Linux doesn’t get viruses, which is blatantly not true. I’ve personally cleaned viruses and worms from Linux machines owned by clients. Granted many of these were because of poor decisions made by the person responsible for the machine, but this is also frequently true of infections on windows PCs. Also other OS’s such as Mac OSX and the various flavours of BSD use many of the same tools and are roughly at least as secure as Linux, if not arguably more so.

Linux is often said to be more reliable or stable than windows. This is something that was true historically when comparing Linux to say Windows ME or 98. But compared to a machine with Windows XP sp3 or later? Not really. I used to repair many windows machines during the hey-day of windows XP and the main causes of instability were hardware and third-party software, hardly Microsoft’s fault. For the most part Linux has little third party software to speak of, so only hardware could cause faults. Linux is not immune to hardware faults or third-party drivers.

Hardware support in the form of drivers is another bug-bear for many people. Sure you don’t have to install drivers for most of your hardware under Linux, but if your particular hardware isn’t supported you have little recourse but to get different hardware. I found this recently with a Creative sound card not functioning correctly. Sure there was a kernel module for it, but it didn’t work correctly and I didn’t have time to trawl the vast technical documents to fix it. Under windows this would have been a five minute install the correct driver job.

That doesn’t count the fact that you still do need to worry about drivers for you graphics card. Xorg will work with most hardware out of the box, but with little or no acceleration. If you own an Nvidia or AMD graphics card you need to have installed their third-party driver to really get the best out of your card. Some distributions like Ubuntu have packages for these drivers, but because they are non-free many distributions do not install them or make them available by default.

Other hardware that requires third-party drivers also exists but is fairly unusual. When you do need to install these kernel modules it is not as simple as running a driver wizard under windows. You usually have to compile the module from source which requires a certain amount of technical ability. It’s not all that hard if you know how, but the average user would not cope.

If you’re using older hardware, there is generally pretty good support, except for more obscure hardware. Performance wise it all really depends on your definition of old. A machine say less than 5 years old will work fine in most cases, but be a little sluggish. Older machines however struggle unless you’re willing to make compromises to improve performance. So whilst using older hardware is possible, some things will be unavoidably slower. Much of this is down to the software rather than the OS, so for something like Firefox you can expect similar performance as with windows on the same machine.

Getting software is another interesting point. All Linux distributions have a nice package system that allows you to get software that you need fairly easily. The software available is of varying quality however, some being very good like OpenOffice or GIMP, whilst others aren’t anywhere near as good.

Also older software disappears from the packaging systems once development has stopped or development focus has shifted elsewhere. There is much older software available on other Unixes such as FreeBSD that has disappeared from Linux repositories, some of them still being quite useful, or entertaining in the case of older Unix games. If you use Linux for long enough expect some of your favourite software to change dramatically or disappear, even after just updating your machine. This happens because of the focus amongst some distributions on being cutting edge rather than retaining compatibility or useful software.

The main problem with getting software for Linux (or any BSD for that matter) is that if it is not in the package repository/system it is incredibly difficult to get and install most of the time. It’s difficult to distribute binaries out side of the packaging system for simple download and install on Linux systems. It can be done, but most of the time source code is distributed instead. Again this requires technical knowledge most people don’t have, and this doesn’t include the possible dependency hell involved in the process. If you think about downloading software for Windows or Mac OSX, they are much simpler, you download an installer and away you go, and developers provide good installers for both most of the time.

Updating can also be troublesome, I’ve had updates on several distributions severely break my system or software. Updates to the kernel or X can also result in needing to re-install graphic drivers just to get the display to work again. This varies wildly from distribution to distribution depending on how they perform updates and technical information.

I could cover more of the points in the list, but I think I’ve made my point. For each OS whether it be Windows, Linux, Mac OSX, or a BSD there are a number of advantages and trade-offs. I’m not saying Linux is bad by any stretch, but it does have many of the same issues and issues all of it’s own that can and will put off many end users. We have to remember most end users can not do many of the things that could be required of them when running a Linux system.


Cyber Sphere for DOS

Breakout is one of the classic games that has lots of clones, some like Arkanoid are quite well known. Today’s game, Cyber Sphere is one of these clones. Originally made in 1996 near the end of the DOS gaming era by Clay Hellman under the Psycon name. It is notable for having been written exclusively in x86 assembly, using OPL3 sound, and having irregular shaped play areas.

Graphically it’s quite nice, it has a simple design consisting of blocks/stripes of solid colour that look really quite good when combined with the palette shifting animation. It is consistent throughout and has an easy to use menu system that gets you into the game quickly. The play area is similarly simple, but with more detail in the game play elements. The only real gripe I had was it was easy to lose a ball in a sea of power-ups or gems making it really hard to track.

The sound design is also exceptionally polished. It makes excellent use of the OPL3 chip to produce some quite good music and sound effects. There are 9 music tracks, each with their own distinct sound. This is definitely a game to have the sound on for.

Game play wise it’s obviously very similar to many other breakout clones, but there are a few things that set it apart. Firstly, the play area is often an irregular shape instead of filling the entire upper portion of the screen. Some of the walls are angled, reflecting the ball in ways I didn’t expect at first. These angled walls sometimes make it easier to get the ball into tricky areas, or up around the back of blocks.

The power-up system is fairly simple, each power-up has an effect such as making your paddle wider. Collecting one the first time enables the power-up, but collecting one a second time disables if possible, meaning you should try to dodge power-ups you already have. Some such as the guard rail and extra balls can’t be disabled, so those are instead extended with more balls or longer time with the guard rail.

Collectable Gems also come out of broken blocks, and are there mostly for bonus points at the end of a level. You get 50 points for every gem collected at the end of the level, but you lose all your gems during a level if you lose a life. So it’s important to stay alive to get the bonus points for gems you collect. Unfortunately sometimes lots of gems are released by a block, making it extremely hard to see the ball.

Cyber Sphere is very nicely polished, and despite not quite getting used to it I quite enjoyed my time with it. There are some downsides, such as gems obscuring the ball, and I also found the difficulty curve was strange. Some levels are much harder than others, with a few being hard enough to be a road block. However I didn’t really get frustrated as I could choose another sector to play, and the game is quite easy to jump into again.

Cyber Sphere was released as freeware, so if you like Breakout games you should definitely try it out.

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ZX Spectrum Update

ZX Spectrum mainboard

ZX Spectrum mainboard

Some time ago my ZX spectrum had another failing in the video RAM department, but at the time I couldn’t easily diagnose the problem. Some parts of the machine still appeared to work such as the display circuit which could still manage to display the usual pattern when video RAM isn’t working. I put it aside to work on other projects until I could build up some knowledge.

Recently reading around the internet I came across a youtube channel with a nice guide for the basics of repairing ZX Spectrums. His name is JoulesperCoulomb, he has a number of good videos about repairing Spectrums and some other electronics such as amplifiers. He also sells some replacement memory modules for spectrums from his website. I watched the first video and decided I should check the power circuits on my unit.

Following his instructions I found a few problems with the power circuitry. Firstly the resistance through the 7805 was low by his standards at 22K ohms and the inductor seems to have a resistance value between windings that it shouldn’t. So there’s two issues to look at straight away. Further testing revealed that two transistors TR4 and TR5 have failed, which are a part of the power supply circuit. Apparently these are all common problems.

Luckily important components like the Z80 CPU and ULA seems to be working from what I can tell with my scope.

So my Spectrum is one sick puppy. The faulty power circuitry explains the problem completely, as I found out later that the -5V line to the video memory is not getting power whilst the 12V and 5V lines appear to be working. I’ll have to replace the two transistors and do some more testing. I may also replace all the electrolytic capacitors as they are all old with a few having been replaced by a previous owner. The inductor and voltage regulator I will have to investigate as measurements could have been affected by other components.


Motherboard: DataExpert TX531

This week I’m taking a look at the first of many socket 7 boards I have in my collection. The Socket 7 standard lasted a long time compared to most others because of the wide array of hardware support the chip-sets had for CPU and and memory technology. The faster Super-Socket 7 even competed with the next generation of chip-sets from Intel, having comparable memory transfer speeds for quite some time. AMD and Cyrix both stuck with the Super Socket 7 for much longer.

Today’s board is actually my older brothers, one he bought in the first PC he bought for himself. It was an AMD K6 rated at 233Mhz equivalent speed, which wasn’t bad for when he bought it. There are a few things that set this board apart, it was made by a company called DataExpert (also known as ColorExpert) and the chip-set was made by Acer.

Judging by the date codes on the chips the board was made late 1997 or early 1998, which was very much a transitional time in terms of memory technology. SDRAM was taking over from the older 72-pin EDO and Fast Page RAM that was the staple of the late 486 and pentium machines. Many boards like this one included sockets for both, but almost all only allowed one type of memory be installed at a time. Unusually this board did allow both types to be installed at the same time, it was configured with 16Mb of each at purchase. Although this was un-documented.

I couldn’t find out much about the Acer chip-set, except that it is a clone of an Intel design. It doesn’t have much in the way of on-board hardware, just the usual storage controllers, serial, parallel and keyboard interfaces. There is some on board cache in the form of two UMC chips that make up the 512Kb pipeline burst cache.

Another interesting thing you don’t often see on digital electronics are the two glass-envelope style diodes shown here. I’m used to having seen these as a signal diode in a crystal set or basic AM radio, I’m sure that’s not the case here.

You’ll notice that the battery clip was broken, Dad accidentally did this late in this boards life when changing the cell. He installed this strip of metal as a kludge to keep the machine going for just a little longer.

In service we probably got at least 10 years (maybe a bit longer) out of this board. Which I think is pretty good considering the manufacturer! I did eventually find a manual for it, but DataExpert have long since disappeared. The manual is a bit hard to read as it suffers from engrish, but it does have the information you need for installing the board.

From the service technicians point of view it’s reasonably easy to work on, but not perfect. Setting the processor and bus speed is done via DIP switches, luckily there is a silk screen reference for these, but some details on some jumpers are absent from the silk-screen. You should be able to install and set this board up without the manual.

With information about this board scarce on the internet it’s hard to pass much more comment about it. Our example was reliable over it’s life-span, and performed reasonably for the tasks given to it at the time. It isn’t really all that remarkable really, there were many different manufacturers making Socket 7 boards of this standard and better. Perhaps that is why DataExpert isn’t around any more, they were crowded out of the market.

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