22
Jan
19

Quick Look: a not so mysterious hard disk

I’ve been quite busy over the holiday break, but whilst visiting my parents I found what I thought was a mystery hard disk. Here’s a photo.

It has Trigem on the label, something I’ve not seen before. I didn’t know until looking closer at the drive much later that it’s actually a Samsung drive manufactured for Trigem, who was the company behind e-machines. So it’s no surprise that it was in an e-machine that Dad found it.

If you look on the underside of this drive you can see that the board is even labeled as being a Samsung Voyager 3A, 4A or 5A.

Having discovered it’s not exactly as mysterious as I thought I decided to power it on and give it a quick test to see if it works. Given that it had been floating around Dad’s shed for quite some time I was quite surprised that it spun up and had no bad sectors. It achieved about 9MB/s using a USB2IDE adapter when reading the entire surface. I loaded up some disk diagnostic software to check out what kind of condition the drive is in.

It identifies itself as a Samsung SV0322A spinpoint drive and despite its age it seems in relatively good condition. It’s quite small at only 3.2Gb, but it will probably be useful for a retro machine running either DOS or Win9x, so I’ll be adding this drive to my collection of other retired hard disks.

Advertisements
30
Dec
18

Shaw’s Nightmare 2 for DOS

Today I’m taking at look at a sequel to the homebrew game Shaw’s nightmare, simply called Shaw’s Nightmare II it was released by Michael Muniko in 2016. There is much in common between the two games, such as being made using the Build engine and being heavily inspired by Doom, Doom 2 specifically in the case of the sequel.

Firstly there are a few things I didn’t notice when playing the first game that apply equally to both. They support VESA graphics with resolutions higher than the standard 320×200 VGA, today I’ve used 640×400, although you can go as high as 1024×768. The sprites look a little better with higher resolutions because the scaling doesn’t cut out as much detail. Also items in the game are rendered using a voxel engine that is part of the build engine.

Running at a higher resolution seemed to required more processing power, it worked reasonably well under dosbox with 60-100k cycles. Later I found turning the cycles up to maximum helped with another issue.

Artistically nothing much has changed in the sequel, although there are some new enemies and a new weapon which fit in well with the pre-existing art style. The main improvement comes from the level design, which has better enemy placement and level layout, creating less issues with sprites clipping and blocking your view. There are a couple of levels which are clearly inspired by some found in Doom II.

The basic sound effects are much the same as the first game, however there seems to be some improved music. It’s no symphony, and the quality varies by song, but it’s generally better than the first game.

The controls still suffer from input lag, and a little bit of sluggishness in the movement of the player. I tried using the mouse in combination with the keyboard, but found difficulty with mouse sensitivity. The demo in the game suggests it’s possible to get something more functional, perhaps requiring more processing power to reduce input lag. I tried setting dosbox to maximum cycles and it helped, but didn’t eliminate the problem.

Shaws Nightmare 2 is an incremental but significant improvement over the first. The control lag is still an issue, but it’s more playable. After getting used to the control issues I did start to have some fun. If you want to give it a try you can find it on the authors website here.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

12
Nov
18

Mainboard: AOpen MX3W

Today I’m looking at a Socket 370 made by AOpen around mid 1999. It’s a clearly budget board as we will see when taking a closer look. I referenced this contemporary Anandtech article whilst writing this. I’m trying out a different device for taking the overview photos today as my old camera has seen better days. Let us begin with a shot of the whole board.

The first obvious thing is the mATX form factor and the lack of an AGP slot. So this was definitely not intended for the gaming or high performance market. It sports an Intel 810-DC100 chipset with the basic on-board video, and an AD1881 soft audio codec for sound. The chipset is interesting as it has the FSB and memory clocks separate. The memory will run at 100Mhz at a maximum, whilst the FSB can achieve speeds well in excess of this. This board can increase the FSB speed but the RAM clock cannot be changed. This means that any overclock could only be effective up until the point the memory bus becomes saturated, at which point overclocking any further would not increase performance.

Cache SRAM chips

The on-board graphics are fairly basic, it’s roughly equivalent to the Intel i740, a GPU that was never known for being particularly fast. It uses the system memory for much of the work involved in 3d rendering, which obviously consumes memory bandwidth the CPU could potentially require. To mitigate this flaw a 4MB cache was added to this version of the chipset, it is used mostly for storing the Z-buffer. I’d imagine this makes a fair difference whilst rendering 3d images, but doesn’t entirely solve the problem.

The on-board sound solution is similarly very basic. It’s an AD1881 audio codec, which Anandtech described as a “soft” audio device. By this they meant that much of the processing work for audio is done by the host CPU rather than specialised hardware on the sound chip. This is much like early sound cards which relied on the CPU for mixing audio channels together as the hardware only played back a stream of samples. At the time this board was made there were plenty of more advanced sound chips available that could do everything in hardware, some even turned up as integrated sound.

In terms of performance this board wouldn’t be all that good compared to the higher end. However that’s not what it was really designed for. For basic use such as office work and web browsing this would have been adequate for the time.

From a technicians point of view there are a few issues with this board. Firstly, there isn’t much variability in how you can build a system with it, only budget machines are really possible. The on-board graphics does not perform well and there is no AGP slot for an upgrade. There are only two memory slots which are limited to 100Mhz RAM, so you’re quite limited in how much and how fast the memory can be. Finally the floppy connector is in an odd spot near the AMR slot, this results in running a ribbon cable across the board which is generally bad for air flow in the case. My particular example is further hampered by one of the memory slots having a broken retaining clip.

For the end user it would probably perform well for most basic tasks, but get bogged down when they do something requiring a little more grunt. The lack of upgrade options would probably be an issue for some depending on what their needs are. Given that it’s a budget model none of this should be surprising, only people looking for a low price would have found this appealing.

09
Oct
18

Wolfenstein 3d for DOS

Todays game is very well known, and can be considered the grand father of the FPS genre. Wolfenstein 3d was released by id software in 1992. It was extremely popular, selling both in the retail and shareware markets, and received several significant awards. The engine was licensed out and resulted in a number of other games, some I’ve already covered such as Blake Stone and Corridor 7. It inspired others to make similar engines and games of their own such as Nitemare 3d and Ken’s Labyrinth. In this way it really spawned a whole generation of FPS games.

It wasn’t without controversy, partly because of the Nazi imagery used as well as the Nazi party anthem being used at the title screen. Because of this some rules were changed in Germany which resulted in the game and some other media being banned there until quite recently. It was also quite violent compared to contemporary games, although looking at it today it is comparably tame.

Today is actually the first time I’ve really sat down and played through a significant portion of Wolfenstein 3d. I’ve had brief encounters with the game in the past, but never really sat down and spent some time with it. I played through the entire shareware episode in a little over an hour total play time.

You need a VGA graphics card and at least a fast 286 machine. I’ve found that 3000 cycles in Dosbox (roughly a 20Mhz 286/386sx) is sufficient to run the game with the maximal screen size and a smooth frame rate. I quite like the art style, the UI elements are generally very minimalist in a pleasing way whilst sprites and textures are detailed and make good use of colour. It’s impressive in both an artistic and technical sense.

The sound effects are a mix of digitised and adlib sound effects, which generally sound quite good. Although it seems that it can only play one digital effect at a time, which can result in odd sound when in a noisy situation such as lots of nearby enemies. The adlib music is quite good and adds quite a bit of atmosphere to the game. Although I was startled to learn the music used at the title screen is the Nazi party anthem.

There are three different options for control, keyboard, mouse or joystick. I used the keyboard for my play through, mainly as I did it on my macbook. The keyboard works fairly well mostly, but sometimes doesn’t have the aiming precision sometimes. Using the mouse and keyboard works much better, but it wasn’t an option for me this time.

The game play is pretty simple, basically you search a maze like level for the level exit. Along the way you have to gun down enemies, pick up ammo and health as needed, and collect various score items. There are some locked areas which require a key, which are usually found simply by exploring a level.

Because of their maze like structure and how many areas look similar it can be easy to get disoriented and totally lost. There is a simple maze solving algorithm that can help, simply stick to walls on either the left or right hand side. This works well for the majority of the levels, only slipping up where there is a loop in the maze.

Guns are an important part of every FPS game, Wolfenstein 3D has 4 basic weapons. The knife, pistol, sub-machine gun, and a rapid firing chain gun. The best weapon for most use is the sub-machine gun as it’s fast firing, but not so fast as to chew up all your ammunition. The chain gun tends to eat ammunition too fast, so is only really useful when fighting the bosses or a large group of enemies. The pistol and knife are basically starter weapons for when you’re low or out of ammunition.

So how does Wolfenstein 3d hold up today? I’d say it holds up fairly well, although there are some issues. The game play works very well, but does get repetitive after a while. The levels are generally well designed, with secrets to find and plenty of bad guys to shoot, however many areas look the same so it’s easy to get lost. I also found I had to wander empty levels after killing most bad guys but having to retrieve a key or find a locked door. On the other hand the guns are still fun to use, it still very atmospheric, and blasting through the levels is still quite fun. Later episodes shake things up by adding new enemy types and are more difficult.

You can play Wolfenstein 3d online at the internet archive, or you can get a copy on steam or GOG.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

03
Sep
18

SS20 Desktop: Basic Web Browsing

Last time I looked at the relative performance of the CPU modules I have on hand, the HyperSPARC running at 90Mhz seemed to be the best option for using the machine in a workstation role. Today we begin to test this out by trying to browse the web. This sounds simple, but it’s actually quite challenging to do for a vintage machine as web browsers tend to require lots of graphics processing and there are very limited options available.

I have managed to get three basic web browsers compiled and working, Lynx, Links and Dillo. I’ve tried building others that are light weight with little success, more main-stream browsers such as firefox are simply too demanding to even try. Three potential candidates for future build attempts are ELinks, Midori and Netsurf.

The first program, lynx is one of the older programs, started in 1992 by students and staff at the University of Kansas it is still updated today. It runs from a terminal and has no graphical capability, because of this it is quite useful for vision impaired users as it works well with screen readers. You would be forgiven for thinking that lacking graphical display is a hindrance on the modern web, but lynx manages to make most pages quite readable. Well behaved/designed websites generally work quite well with some compromises on formatting, I tried google searches, reading on wikipedia and several wordpress blogs which all worked quite well. I was even able to use it to read my email via gmail. Unfortunately there are also plenty of sites that aren’t friendly to lynx (such as ebay), and page formatting isn’t always nice to read. These issues stem mostly from sites that haven’t crossed over to HTML 5, or ones that over use complex formatting. It performs quite well on the Sparc Station.

Links whilst having a similar name is a completely separate project to lynx. It offers the capability to run in a text-only terminal in much the same way as lynx, but can also be used graphically via X, SVGALib, or a frame buffer directly. This makes it quite useful on machines that don’t have a working X server. Much like lynx, well behaved websites are very usable and generally work quite well, again with some formatting compromises. It handles page formatting roughly as well as lynx does, but with the addition of images. This makes some websites like ebay more usable, although the formatting is still wonky at times. I’ve had gmail working on it in the past, but not today due to the current build or changes to gmail.

Example image of Links dithering capability

Dithering example

Performance on the sparc is pretty good, with short delays when images are being displayed for the first time. This happens because my sparc has an 8-bit display and Links will convert images using dithering and colour approximation. To maximise the number of colours it can use Links uses something called a private colour map. This is why other windows have their colours messed up whilst Links is in focus and vice versa. This sounds like it would result in poor image quality, however links manages this conversion quite well. The loading delay would certainly be shorter on 24 bit displays.

Dillo is a light-weight browser with a GUI that looks much more familiar for most users. It requires much more computing power compared to the others, but as a result it tends to display web pages with formatting closer to what you’d expect from the page. I found that many pages worked quite well, but others failed to display anything at all. It seemed to be an issue with SSL, I have the root certificates installed, but it still believed all connections had invalid certificates when clearly they didn’t. However you can see from the screen shot, that sites like wikipedia render exceptionally well.

Performance on the SparcStation unfortunately is quite slow, mostly whilst loading a page. Dillo can consume so much CPU as to even starve the X server of cycles, making it appear the system has frozen (when it hasn’t). From what I’ve read this could be because Dillo is multi-threaded, and is probably starting a number of threads upon loading a page. It may run significantly better on systems with more than one CPU, in my case switching to using the SuperSparc modules would possibly solve this.

Browsing the web on such an old machine was never going to be easy, some things just aren’t feasible such as javascript and video content. However it actually works reasonably well for reading static web pages and doing basic interaction such as posting a comment. Of the three browsers I’ve tried so far I think Links is probably the most usable, it provides images and formats pages reasonably well without consuming too many CPU cycles. Lynx comes second only because it doesn’t show images, it is a good option for text only browsing. Finally Dillo is probably just a smidge too demanding for my particular hardware and fails ungracefully with some sites, although it does provide the prettiest render you also have to wait the longest.

30
Jul
18

Bob’s Fury progress update

You may have noticed that I’ve been playing with a number of homebrew MS-DOS games lately. This has given me a little more motivation to work on my own project, my simple flick-screen platform game Bob’s fury.

The main body of work left is to create the levels for the game and any content required for them. For me this has been the hardest and most time consuming aspect of making the game as it requires a lot of play testing and planning. Recently whilst visiting my folks I had some time to produce a new level, I’ve updated the download to include it.

I’m hoping that it won’t take as long to build the next level, I got one pretty decent tip from watching some interviews of Brenda Romero. Basically the tip is starting at the end/goal and build outwards from there. I had been doing the opposite, which made the process harder, partly because you have to keep where you’re going in mind before having built the area.

The other stumbling block I have is coming up with ideas for levels. There’s not much I can do to stream line this, so it will probably continue to be a road block. I will probably simply make fewer levels for each “episode” so I don’t require as many ideas.

I’ve also released the level editor for any one interested. You can find it here.

27
Jul
18

Dungeons of Noudar 3D for DOS

Today I’m looking at another homebrew game, Dungeons of Noudar 3d made by Daniel Montiero. It’s a simple dungeon crawler game with a similar visual design to something like Eye of the Beholder. After playing with it a while I think it’s in need of some polish, but is really quite impressive from a technical standpoint.

Hardware support is VGA only for the graphics. The main 3d landscape is rendered in a large window and it features fairly detailed geometry. Compared to the basic 3d dungeons that many RPGs had, it offers quite a bit more visual detail. Whilst it doesn’t render fast enough to be comparable to any FPS games, it works quite well for this style of game, which typically doesn’t update the screen as often. The sprite artwork is nice at a distance, but when enemies or items are up close it can be very blocky.

Hardware support for basic sound is included for PC speaker, Adlib and the OPL2LPT. I tried both the PC speaker and Adlib whilst playing using Dosbox. I found that the sounds varied in pitch and length a little, perhaps because of the emulation, it usually coincided with a delayed screen update. The sound effects are fairly basic, and although they sound fine you don’t miss anything by having them turned off. Unfortunately you can only select the sound support with a command line parameter.

The game play consists of some basic puzzles and some bad guys to fight, both within relatively small levels. Puzzles basically involve finding ropes to cut that open doors. Generally this just requires you to explore the level. Enemies roam the levels, the first ones you encounter don’t seem to be very active, but after a few levels they will chase and attack you. Later enemies require you to use specific weapons in order to damage them. If you encounter them without the weapon required you’re generally boned. Luckily you will find the right weapons if you explore the levels thoroughly.

There are some issues which make it more difficult to enjoy. I got stuck on the 3rd level, the prison, and even though I had cut all the ropes I couldn’t find where I had to go next. In a few other instances I reached the level end without having the chance to fully explore the level and find all the items. I think some kind of visual indication on the exit door/location would help greatly, both so you know when you’ve found it and so you don’t accidentally finish a level before you’re done exploring.

I think it could also use the capability to save and load a game in progress, or continue from a check point after death. Not having these features really limited how far I could progress as I’d have to start from scratch each time I started to play. I’d have liked to get further into it, as it was getting more interesting at the point I got up to.

Issues aside Dungeons of Noudar 3d whilst a bit slow to start is an enjoyable experience. The 3d renderer is fairly impressive in it’s capability, even if it’s not fast and the basic game mechanics do work and play quite well. It’s not a deep experience by any means, but it you enjoy dungeon crawlers this might be worth a download. You can get it from his website here.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.




Blogs I Follow

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Advertisements

Mister G Kids

A daily comic about real stuff little kids say in school. By Matt GajdoĊĦ

Random Battles: my life long level grind

completing every RPG, ever.

Gough's Tech Zone

Reversing the mindless enslavement of humans by technology.

Retrocosm's Vintage Computing, Tech & Scale RC Blog

Random mutterings on retro computing, old technology, some new, plus radio controlled scale modelling.

ancientelectronics

retro computing and gaming plus a little more

Retrocomputing with 90's SPARC

21st-Century computing, the hard way

lazygamereviews

MS-DOS game reviews, retro ramblings and more...