Archive for October, 2011

30
Oct
11

Lincity on NetBSD

Title screen

Title screen

Lincity is an interesting simulation game very much like SimCity for DOS.  It seems from the documentation and the website that the first version was released in 1995, and updated until 2003. Whilst the main premise of the game is very similar to that of SimCity, there is actually a goal. You must either manage to build a sustainable society, or build rockets to escape to another planet. Fortunately you have much more control over the economy, as opposed to SimCity where the free market decided what zones were filled with what industry. Here’s a brief description of some of the important elements.

Residences

The first thing you’ll notice that’s different is that you select and build buildings instead of zoning land. Positioning your houses needs to be carefully thought out, they need access to several basics in order to be happy. Jobs, food, and goods are the basics they will need, they can either get these from transport (such as track, road or rail) or from a nearby market within walking distance. In order to make locations more desirable you will need to have cricket grounds nearby to keep them entertained and nearby health care, and fire protection. If people are unable to find a decent home they will build a shanty town on their own that causes large amounts of pollution and fills map space you often want for construction.

Markets

Advanced tech level city

High Tech City

You can think of markets as being like commercial zones, they are the locations that people come to buy and sell goods. Almost every type of building will require a market to get workers (called jobs), or raw materials for operating. The markets act as a conduit for goods and services to get where they need to go, so connecting them together by transport  is a good idea. Transport can be used instead of the market, but they do not keep a lot of stock of items, so anything required in industrial quantities best come from a nearby market.

Industries

Industries provide raw materials,  and jobs to local transport and markets. In order for them to run and be productive, they must be provided with particular goods, workers from nearby houses, and in some cases electricity (for the higher tech stuff). You can often enhance the production capability by providing power from windmills, or other extra materials that speed up the process. Again like residences you select which type of industry you are going to build, so it is important to make sure to balance the construction out across the different industries. If you fall short on a particular type of goods or workers, you will be left with unused buildings or worse, people will run out of food and start starving, or will be unable to  get a job and draw money from the cities purse.

Technology

Zones mixed together

Another building strategy

Technology plays an important part of this game, it unlocks the buildings that can be constructed, and can also affect their efficiency after they are built. In order for the tech level to go up you have to build a structure that boosts it, either a monument, school or university. The monument only uses jobs, and only during its construction. It is only really useful to unlock the first building to unlock, the school. Schools use jobs and goods to boost the tech level. Universities operate the same way schools do, except on a larger scale in both tech increase and resource usage.  Your tech levels can drop if your schools or universities run out of goods or jobs. Getting high-tech levels can require a large amount of jobs and goods, so having a large economy and industrial base is important.

Despite the amount of depth and complexity you never feel lost, or find yourself not knowing what to do. The online help system is very good and describes in detail how all the different elements work together. When you first unlock a building and click the icon to build it, the online help shows you the basics of how it works. This can be a bit tedious if you’re a veteran player and already know what the buildings do, they could have perhaps had a setting to turn this off.  The main display has some graphs that are informative, left clicking changes the type of graph, and right clicking brings up the online help for the current graph. This was a bit counter intuitive, and there was no visual cue to let you know help was available. I found out about how they work purely by accident. The graphs themselves are quite useful, and you can overlay the minimap on the main screen using the V key, which was quite useful when trying to line up a coal mine, or locating unemployment. To scroll around you use the arrow keys, you can scroll with the mouse by holding the middle mouse button.

Expanded first strategy

Expanded first strategy

The graphics are simple yet colourful and appealing. It is easy to identify the buildings, and see which buildings are actively producing. There is no sound to speak of, at least where I was playing it. I found that the gameplay was addictive, but could be quite slow. With the Simcity games, you would basically go on a building spree as long as you had funds. With this game I found myself trying a few different strategies and waiting to see how they panned out. Once I succeeded in creating a decent sized city, I basically tuned and tweaked things here or there trying to achieve the sustainability ending. Whilst this certainly is enjoyable and addictive, it takes an extremely long time to achieve sustainability. I found that the slightest small thing could set you back to square one, and you be waiting again for a long time. If you were to play the game with the goal of getting the rocket into space, I’m sure it would be more exciting, and have more involvement in building up the economy to achieve it. I suspect however that this too would take a long time, although I may be wrong, as I have not tried this for myself (yet).

First Strategy

First Strategy

I’ve been playing on my Sparc Station under NetBSD, and didn’t have any trouble building Lincity from pkgsrc. It is available on pretty much any platform however so you don’t have to set up a special system in order to play. Like with jetpack I had to use X over the network in order to play, and I found that this worked pretty well providing you are on a LAN. The only time I noticed any slow down was when I accidentally changed desktops and switched back. I had to wait a little less than 5-10 seconds for the screen to complete refreshing. Otherwise the animation works quite well. The amount of CPU resources used depended on the game speed I set, but even at the highest setting the game played quite well. I thought this was pretty impressive considering the hardware I’m running it on!

All in all Lincity is a good city building game, I wouldn’t call it a clone of SimCity though, and that is what makes the experience new and fresh. I had to think about the design of my city in a whole new way. I found it to be addictive, fun, and a good way to make hours and hours of time disappear.

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24
Oct
11

Jetpack on NetBSD

Jetpack is a simple arcade game written for X windows. Not to be confused with the DOS game jetpack written by Adam Pederson, it is according to its man page written by Mark Bradley in 1992. The premise is simple, you are a nondescript blue person wearing a jetpack who has to retrieve a key in order to move onto the next level. All whilst avoiding various baddies that move around the level. You begin in a door that protects you until you leave it. Upon finding the key, you return to the door in order to complete the level. You have a bonus that counts down whilst you search for the key and return, making it imperative to move through the maze quickly to get a high score. The graphics are simple yet functional, and remind me of the really old school arcade games from back in the day. The game performs quite well over a network connection and doesn’t require high specs because of this. I built and ran my copy on my old Sparcstation using pkgsrc with pretty much no problems building it at all. In theory it should work across multiple platforms, but I’ve not seen it on any Linux distribution, or in any repository other than BSD based systems. The controls are simple using the mouse buttons to move left, right and firing the jetpack. There are some keyboard controls, but there is no key for firing the jetpack. Because of this, it is kind of mandatory that you have a three button mouse to play this game. I used the mouse button controls myself, they were a little bit clunky and confusing at first but I got used to them relatively quickly. The gameplay whilst simple in its design, quickly becomes entertaining, and gets harder very quickly. The mazes quickly  get bigger, the keys further away, and enemies are arranged in patterns that are more difficult to avoid the more you progress through the levels. I found the fireballs the most confounding as their patterns are usually the ones that get in the way the most. Your jetpack in the game requires fuel, which you can pick up during the course of a level. Whatever you have left carries over to the next level so it is important that you keep stocked up on fuel, lest you be caught out with very little in the next level. It’s not too difficult early on to deter new players, but provides a decent challenge as you progress. All in all this game is still a pleasant distraction that doesn’t take up too much of your time. You probably wouldn’t play it constantly, as the gameplay does get repetitive over time, but in short bursts this is a good bit of old school arcade fun.

20
Oct
11

NetBSD and my Sparc Station 20

A couple of months ago I purchased a Sparc station 20. This was because back when I was at uni, I used to use sun Solaris on similar machines and Intel workstations. I wanted to recapture a bit of my history, get a unique piece of hardware, and in part play with Solaris. Much to my dismay, when I got the machine I found that the installed version of Solaris was basically broken, and without discs to reinstall it I would be unable to fix it. So began the search for an appropriate free OS to run on it.

The Hardware

Before I selected the OS it was kinda important to consider what hardware I had on my hands. The processor installed is rather limited, it has a SuperSparc 50Mhz module, which fortunately for me was at least on a dual mbus module. There are mbus modules that run faster (and have more cache) but I couldn’t find any locally that suited my budget and my needs. I was fortunate that this computer had been upgraded to hold about 320Mb of ram, so it has a reasonable amount considering it’s age. Storage is in the form of two 2g scsi hard disk drives which is enough for my purposes. As a bonus I also got a DDS tape drive, some scsi cables for external drives and some tapes.

Selecting the OS

Finding an OS to run on this hardware was interesting. Linux was out for several reasons, basically modern versions are too bloaty to work well on such old hardware, and no current distros support the sparc (32bit) platform. I couldn’t get a copy of Solaris that would work on it for free, as with Linux they had dropped support for the platform. FreeBSD did not seem to have support, so that left me with the option of either OpenBSD or NetBSD. I’m a bit of a BSD newb, so I spent several days reading about the two before settling on NetBSD. This was mainly because SMP support is not really functional on OpenBSD, and machines with multiple CPU’s can have issues booting. Also NetBSD being famous for running on anything (almost) made me think it would be a better option.

Installation

Installation on my machine was pretty straight forward. This machine has a CD drive which I could use to boot up the machine, I just had to connect my PC to it via serial so I could control the boot rom and go through the install process. I installed NetBSD 4.01 as at the time this was known to be more stable on the sparc platform. I haven’t seen any information to the contrary yet about either 5.0 or 5.1 yet. The base system is pretty neat, you can install all the basics for a unix machine, and it only has the minimum of programs started by default. This makes NetBSD excellent for running on old machines such as this one. The full installation with X and everything (including games) was about 400Mb from memory. The only caveat is that you really have to know your unix stuff as everything useful is disabled by default. For the most part it’s pretty easy to get going, in a matter of an hour or two I had all the basics I wanted (that were in the main install disc) set up and running. I set up SSH and xdm first so I could tinker with the server over the network instead of having to use the serial link. As I don’t have the appropriate keyboard or mouse I set up xdm to not run a local X server, but to allow connections via xdmcp.

Adding More Software

The package system that NetBSD uses is called package source (pkgsrc for short). There were few pre-compiled packages available for the sparc platform and version 4.01, so I downloaded the current pkgsrc repository to build my own software from source. I had a bit of a mixed experience with it, finding that many more complicated pieces of software that I wanted would not compile, usually stuff such as firefox or other web browsers. I was able to compile addition software that I really think should be in the main distro, such as nano and rsync. I put lynx on as I couldn’t get a graphical web browser running, and a few other small command line utilities.

As for X programs I did manage to get fvwm2 working as a better window manager. I used to use it back in my uni days so there were no surprises there. Icewm also works quite well but isn’t as fast as fvwm over a network connection. I also built some other utility programs such as nedit and a few others, as long as a few particular libraries were used the programs would compile.

You may ask, why would I install X and associated programs on a machine that has no head (for the uninitiated that means screen, keyboard and mouse). The big reason is this is how I used to use the terminals back in the day, and I wanted to try out some games, and programs available on NetBSD. I may write a short review/description of some of these in the near future.

Now for the software that makes it a useful server, I found that I was able to build and install most of the basic services you may want to run on a unix machine. Samba, apache, subversion, and openvpn all work quite well. You do need to know how to configure these programs as the default configurations are those from the maintainers of the software. I also built php and mysql, but the combination of the two (or php on it’s own) was too slow to be useful on my hardware. Php was difficult to build as well, a couple of the versions available did not pass the basics tests or just segfaulted when run, although this may have been corrected by now.

Conclusion

NetBSD is a great operating system for people who have good unix knowledge. It has a very small footprint on first install and is customizable to the nth degree. Unlike many newer *nix like systems, it isn’t ashamed of its unix heritage, and exposes you directly to it. This can be a bit of a downside if you’re not used to systems like that already, but if you are, you’ll find it relatively easy to install and set up. If you’re running sparc hardware, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything much better (unless you have a functioning version of solaris), and on other platforms such as Intel, it will run on pretty much any old hardware you can lay your hands on, and likely out perform other operating systems. These factors make it an excellent choice to install on any vintage hardware you may happen to have.

Links

Guide to MBus modules

Sparstation 20 wikipedia page




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