Archive for March, 2012


Chess games on Dos

My dad started to teach me how to play chess when I was a little boy of about 5 as far as I can remember. I’ve been playing ever since, and consider myself to be an above average player. My father is a much better player, and studies and practises the game on a regular basis. Consequently we had a few chess programs on our computer, there are three that we made use of on a regular basis, Battle Chess, Sargon 4, and Cyrus chess.

Cyrus chess

Cyrus Chess

Cyrus Chess

Cyrus chess was created by Intelligent chess software in 1985.  There are many options and setting that allow you to set the level of play, and the engine seems to be reasonably strong. The 3d graphics for the chess board are quite pleasing and make it easy to identify the pieces on the board. The program keeps a record of your game that you can print out or save for later analysis. The user interface is not so nice to use as it does not seem to support the mouse, and the menu system is a little counter intuitive at times. Still this is a good chess engine that will give you a reasonable challenge, it’s just not for novices. You can play the game multiplayer via hot seat, but there isn’t a lot of point as a real chess board is much nicer.

Battle chess

Battle Chess Title Screen

Battle Chess Title Screen

Made by Interplay and first released in 1988, Battle chess is the first of its kind. The version I have is for DOS and uses EGA graphics to display the playing area and are very pleasing to the eye, especially considering the era of the graphics. The pieces in the game are animated and engage in combat to destroy each other when one piece takes another in the normal game of chess. All of these animations are amusing, and some have reference to popular movies such as monty python and the holy grail. The chess AI is not as strong as other programs, which makes this program suitable for novice players who don’t have a lot of experience playing. There is no facility to record your games, but there is multi-player over modem or hot seat play which is nice, and lets you have fun smiting your friends. I found the chess AI adequate for my needs, but it would not suite someone who is training for competition or is already a very good player. I’d recommend it for anyone looking for a bit of fun, or anyone who is a casual chess player.

Sargon 4

Sargon 4 Title Screen

Sargon 4 Title Screen

Sargon 4 was made by Spinnaker software back in 1989 and is descended from other chess programs of the same name that were on multiple platforms. This program has many features that can be helpful in becoming a better chess player. It is by far the favourite program that my Dad uses when he is trying to prepare himself for a competition. The engine has quite a history of being quite strong in its previous incarnations on other platforms, and this version for DOS does not disappoint. It has a full opening book that it uses to decide the early phases of the game, it tells you what opening you’re using and what variant which makes study easier if you need to look up whats happening in a book at a later time. The interface is mouse driven and is usable by someone who isn’t a computer genius. You adjust the computers difficulty by adjusting the amount of time that the computer has to think. This means on modern systems you can be playing against a very strong player if you’re not careful! I recommend using Dosbox to play this game as you can use the cycles count to also help adjust the difficulty of the computer opponent. You can print out board positions and game listings for later analysis which is good if you want to study the game you’ve played. I recommend this program for better players who want to improve their game or just want a decent opponent.

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Starfire on Dos

Starfire is an arcade game written by an Australian, Paul Turbett in 1992. The game appears to be based on a commodore 64 game called Uridium. It is a vertical scrolling space shooter that has the player destroying large vessels that have come to destroy earth. You do this by travelling to the main power reactor at the end of the ship and destroying it. In order to get to the reactor you need to fly past the ships defences which consist of fighters, turrets, homing mines and physical barriers. Of course like other games of this type the main goal is to get a high score which you do by destroying as much of the enemies as possible. To assist you in doing this you get power ups on a regular basis, some for weapons, some to restore shields or bombs, and the most useful one, invincibility.  You will note that power ups you don’t need do not appear. This can be handy if you manage to get yourself to full health, lives and weapons you will usually get a invisibility power up. In this way you can get through a level without much damage. The graphics are fairly simple and attractive, and the sound is ok in PC speaker mode. Adlib and sound blaster support is included, but there is a peculiar hissing sound in some of the sound effects. I quite enjoy the gameplay, but there is little challenge once you start getting a string of invincibility power ups. The levels and the game itself are quite short, and can be completed within a very short time frame. The controls in game are quite good, I found the best way to maneuver was with the numeric key pad, keeping my left hand free to use the other keys as needed. However it is not shown anywhere in game which keys you use for control in game, or within the menus. It could make things difficult for someone new to the game.

There is a two player mode, but all that really does is allow two players to play the game in a hot seat style. It makes the feature pretty much pointless, and it should have been easy enough to add simultaneous play, although I suspect that may have made the game too easy. There was also a registered version which I’ve never played. The documentation says that it only adds four more levels.


Hocus Pocus for Dos

One of my favourite gaming genres is the platforming game, one of the first that I played was Hocus Pocus by moonlite software. This game puts you in the shoes of a young wizard who wanting to join the council of wizards, needs to perform a series of tasks to gain admittance. In addition he can’t marry his love Popopa until he has joined the council. The game consists of 4 episodes, each of which consist of 9 levels, the end of which will have a number of boss enemies. You complete levels by collecting the power crystals scattered around them. I only ever played the shareware game, and hence only the first episode – Time Tripping. The game is pretty much your standard run and gun fair, the enemies are pretty similar in how they behave across the levels but do have some graphical variation.  I played this game a lot as a kid, the main thing I was trying to do usually was maximise my score, you do this by collecting all the treasure including that which is secret, and by finishing the level within a pre-determined time frame. This requires knowing the levels back to front and practising the best path to collect all the treasure and crystals. It isn’t necessary to kill the monsters to progress through the levels, but it is easier if you do. The graphics are quite pleasing to the eye, and incorporate some nice backgrounds with parallax scrolling which even works quite well on the 386sx 20Mhz that I ran it on as a kid. We didn’t have a sound card on our old computer so we used the PC speaker for sound effects, which proved adequate but not as good as the adlib and sound blaster support. I recently got the registered version of this game and found the later episodes much more difficult that the first. The traps are more deadly, but there are more power-ups to assist you in your travels. The enemies are more varied but still very similar to those found in the first episode. One of the biggest differences is the end boss for each episode, you have to take a different strategy in killing each different type of boss.  Graphically, each episode is unique, but they borrow elements of design from each other sometimes re-using a monster, background or tile. This ties them all together without feeling like you’re playing the same episode again.

I still find this game fun to play today, but it lacks the depth that many other platformers have, so I usually play in short bursts. The registered version is worth getting, and you can still buy it from the 3D realms website.


FreeBSD 9.0

I downloaded a copy of FreeBSD 4.7 many years ago intending to try it out, but never did for lack of spare hardware. Along with its siblings (NetBSD and OpenBSD) to be the closest descendant of the early BSD systems made through out the 80’s and late seventies. I won’t go into details about the history, as I’ll be terribly inaccurate, and there are a lot of documents around the web already detailing the history of Unix and BSD. Here are a couple of links.

The Wikipedia page

The Open Group: Unix History and Time line

Recently I installed NetBSD to run on my old sparc, which re-sparked my interest in the BSD platforms. This week I installed FreeBSD 9.0 on my virtual machine I have on my Macbook Pro as a matter of experimentation to find out what it was like.


Installation was relatively simple and performed via a text mode using simple keyboard commands. There wasn’t much to configure, but also not many options for the base system, which I think is because of the nature of how slim the initial install is. Most of the installation is dealing with setting up the disks and partitions, and which basic services are enabled. I did note that there was no option to install the X windows portion off the disk. Like NetBSD it is important to know your Unix stuff before jumping in, you should be able to use a shell and preferably also know the basics about building software. The amount of disk space you need will depend on the software you intend to install. The base system once installed is quite slim requiring very little in the way of disk space and other resources to run quite well.

Adding More Software

The main package management system for FreeBSD is called ports, it is one of the older package distribution systems and as such has more packages available for it than the other BSD systems, and more than many of the Linux distributions with some notable exceptions. You have two options for installing packages, one is installing binaries provided to you by either CDROM, or download. I wanted to try out the ports system for automatic download and building of packages and I wasn’t disappointed. First I installed bash and nano as the base system didn’t have either of these two there by default. The build process was pretty simple, you just located the directory of the port you want to install, and then type make install. During the build process you are asked about the options you want to use when building the software. This is better than pkgsrc as it required you to edit some files to change what options you wish to use. I went on to build X and attempted to build Gnome 2. I must have changed an option that gnome didn’t like as I couldn’t get it to build completely, but I am sure this was my mistake, I just couldn’t work out how to fix it within the limited time frame. I had a bit of trouble getting gdm to work as well, but that was solved after a bit of reading on the FreeBSD website, but other software such as xdm and FVWM were very simple to get up and running. Xfce built, installed and ran quite well, and to me looks like the best option for user interfaces as it is lighter than both Gnome and KDE, but has many of the features that most users want out of a modern operating system. If you’re after a minimalist user interface, FVWM is a good choice and has one of the later versions in ports as compared to pretty much all the other systems out there. In doing all this I found that it can be a very lengthy process to build the larger bits of software from source, the upside being when it is done, it’s optimized by the compiler for your hardware, and you get the latest version if you keep your ports collection up to date. Otherwise you should pick the binary install option as this will save you alot of time.


FreeBSD is better supported than its cousins NetBSD and OpenBSD, and as such has more in the way of packages that are updated more frequently. FreeBSD and it’s siblings have the advantage over Linux in that they seem to have a more mature and stable code base. For instance, in the time that I’ve been using Linux, the kernel and supporting utilities have changed dramatically, making some older software completely un-buildable now, where as the BSD systems seem to move slower and are keeping compatibility for older software alive. I think this contributes to them being more mature than Linux as the software has time to have the bugs worked out. I’d say this methodology also affects how the design and user interface is built. Configuration via configuration files seems to be easier than Linux, as all the files were generated by humans and as such are easier to read. For instance setting up gdm to start with the system required only adding two lines to the rc.config file.


It seems that some software creators for various reasons are dropping support for BSD and various other Unixes in favour of only supporting Linux. I think some of it is ideological, which I disagree with. Some of it is because of the problems supporting multiple platforms, this particularly applies to projects that are supposed to be libraries or system utilities for other programs. This has a ripple effect making software further down the line also incompatible with non-Linux systems. What is the point in using a library or package that interfaces with the kernel for you if it doesn’t support many kernels/operating systems? You might as well write it yourself! You may have heard that Gnome is officially only going to support Linux in its future releases. I’m not sure how true this is, but it could be quite an inconvenience for a good many BSD users as well as people on Solaris and commercial Unixes that use Gnome. It seems the root cause is that the automounter package used by gnome and a few others (Xfce for example) have decided to drop support for the other operating systems. I hope I’m wrong, as I’d hate to see the community of free software developers divided.

BSD versus Linux

There seems to be a difference in how both the communities view what an operating system should be. The bigger Linux distributions take the view that everything is part of the operating system, which is very evident in something like Ubuntu. There also seems to be a move towards hiding the traditional Unix portions of the operating system from users, which can be a good thing when not over done. BSD seems to see the operating system in a minimalist kinda sense, where the base system is small, stable and mature. Everything else including the user interface is up to the end-user to customise. It’s also not afraid of being a traditional Unix system.

There are also some differences in licenses, but that’s not really something I’ve ever really cared about. I only want to know that the system is free, and the source is available and can be modified.


FreeBSD is a good place to go if you’ve been curious about BSD systems and have some experience with the command line on something like Linux. You’ll find there are more packages, that are updated more often than its siblings NetBSD and OpenBSD. However it’s not as well suited as NetBSD is for using on exotic hardware such as the sparc platform, so you will want to run it on a PC or PC compatible. There is very little in the way of cruft in the base system which means there are few points of entry for hackers, so it would actually be a better option for running a server than many other systems. But you do have to set up all the components yourself, which does give you more control, but also takes more time to do. To use it as a desktop system workstation again needs a lot of time to set it up initially, but you’ll have exactly what you want.

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