Archive for April, 2013

28
Apr
13

100th post!

Todays post is my 100th post, and I intended on doing something special, like looking at an OS or game that is different or one of my favourites. Unfortunately I’ve been unable to think of anything special to write about, and having been fairly sick over the last week hasn’t help stimulate my brain juices. So here I am strangely awake at midnight trying to write something special for my 100th post.

Firstly, project updates! I’ve been working on a gwbasic game intermittantly since I wrote the original article about gwbasic some time ago. I’ve written a good portion of the game now. I have all the major mechanics coded. I just have to splice it togethor, polish the game a bit and either create some levels or re-do the automatic map generator. I recently downloaded BASCOM which is the compiler for gwbasic programs. I may see if it is possible to generate a native DOS executable!

My new MS-DOS machine has undergone some more tests, and I’ve found I’m going to have to find a way to configure the sound card. Digitised sound seems to work, but FM synthesis doesn’t seem to. I’ll have to find the DOS drivers and mixer program for this card or replace it for something I know works better.

My Sparc station 20 was recently overhauled and in the process I tried a DDS 3 tape drive in it. It worked quite well, but unfortunately I don’t have any DDS 3 tapes to really take advantage of it. I did get a bunch of spare DDS cartridges and am getting a cleaning tape as well in order to service the drives.

I have got FreeBSD 8.1 on my Sunfire R280 machine and have set up workstation style software on it with window maker as the window manager. I’m now looking at the feasability of adding a proper frame buffer card and attaching a USB keyboard and mouse (yes it has ports)  so I can use it properly as a workstation. It’s actually a reasonably powerful machine when you consider it has 2Gb of RAM and two 1.015Ghz UltraSparc III+ processors in it. I’m guessing it was released in the early 2000’s (based on its EOL date) so it would have easily outpaced the contemporary PC’s of the time.

I’ve also finally gotten around to getting the final components I need to get the sunfire V440 machine up and running. I got given a number of server hard drives for the machine earlier this year, but found that the machines required something called the system configuration card. This card is a smart card that basically stores MAC addresses and configuration information for the machine. This meant that you could in theory replace a machine easily by just migrating the hard disks expansion cards and the configuration card. The downside being the machines won’t boot without the cards, with seemingly no response on the serial device.

It turns out these cards are oddly a rare find on ebay, and I had to wait quite some time to be able to order one. It’s coming from overseas so I’m hoping to see it in the next few weeks so I can try and get the machines working.

An annoying bug in the wordpress software you may have noticed affects any screenshots of EGA games. It seems the resizing code doesn’t understand how 4bit indexed colour fits in an image, and ends up converting a 4 bit pixel into an 8 bit one without changing other aspects of the image. So when a browser sees the malformed 4 bit image you get vertical stripes of the original image interspersed with the background colour. I’ve tried a number of different methods of encoding but had the same problem, and strangely it seems intermittant in that no image is affected by it all the time. I checked the original images and they always work fine in everything I’ve opened them in. There doesn’t seem to be a good solution as of yet.

Looking back today over all my old posts, especially the older ones, I’ve realised how much my writing has improved in some areas. I’ve also gotten better at laying out the posts and interspersing them with photos. It’s been a good experience and has motivated me to try games and systems that I wouldn’t have tried if I had not been writing about them. It’s also been interesting reading other peoples work and seeing the different perspectives they bring to some of the same topics.

I realise that there are many others that cover the same material in a more entertaining or interesting way either by video or blog. When I started writing I decided that I wouldn’t worry about what others were doing so much, but to document my genuine experiences with technology and games.

Finally I’d like to thank the people that have been reading and responding to some of my posts. It is sometimes disheartening to see the amount of spam comments I get with so few genuine comments, but it’s been very nice to hear from people when they’ve had similar experience or advice!

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22
Apr
13

Kings Quest 4 for DOS

King Graham is sick!

King Graham is sick!

Kings Quest 4 – The Perils of Rosella was released by Sierra Online back in 1988 and was the first Kings Quest game to use the then new SCI adventure game system. This was the first adventure game we had back on our 386. It was difficult for us to get commercial games because of where we lived when I was a kid, we got this game in the early 90’s from a friend of my older brothers who was kind enough to give/sell us some of his old games.

Genesta the Fairy

Genesta the Fairy

Rosella is the protagonist of this game, and after her father falls ill, her goal is to find the magic fruit that will save him. Genesta the good fairy transports Rosella through the magic mirror to the land of Tamir to find the fruit and to help her get her talisman back. The evil fairy Lolotte had stolen the talisman, and Genesta would not be able to send Rosella back without it.

The Unicorn!

The Unicorn!

When we first played this game I was very impressed with the graphics even though they were technically out of date by the time I played the game. We had fun exploring the land of Tamir and just generally messing about trying to solve the larger puzzle of the game. Many elements of the game are based on fairy tales and myths, but are woven together so that the land doesn’t appear to be fragmented.

The stone bridge

The stone bridge

I’ll always remember finding the seven dwarfs house for the first time, cleaning it for them and getting the lantern and pouch of diamonds. The animation and music were quite immersive and I remember watching and listening as the dwarfs came in sat down and ate their soup.

The dwarf house

The dwarf house

The game supports EGA graphics at best, but also supports a wide variety of older hardware such as hercules and CGA graphics. The backgrounds are very well drawn and colourful. The land is very detailed and animated in some areas. Animations could get slow if your machine wasn’t fast enough to handle the game, but we never had a problem on our 386.

The Dwarves

The Dwarves

Kings Quest 4 was one of the first games to have comprehensive sound support, and as it was released in 1988 there were still many different types of sound card available. An impressive array of sound devices are supported including the Roland MT-32, CMS, IBM music feature card, Tandy sound, and PC speaker. I of course used to use the PC speaker, but playing recently on dosbox with ad lib support I found the sound and music to be very good indeed. I didn’t try the other devices, but I suspect the MT-32 probably would have the best sound.

Diamond mine

Diamond mine

Playing the game is very simple despite not having the complete point and click interface. You controlled Rosella with the arrow keys or by clicking where you wanted her to go, so moving was pretty straight forward. To perform actions and use your inventory you had to use the text parser to tell the game what you wanted to do. This turned out to be fairly straight forward as the text parser was pretty good, and the manual has a nice list of words and phrases that it understands. Of course as kids we typed random naughty things in to see if we could get Rosella to do bad things!

Death screen

Death screen

The puzzles are the most difficult part of the game. For most of them we could work out what we had to do eventually, but finding the bridle for the unicorn eluded us. We had even gone to the island where the bridle was located but didn’t spot it as it was cleverly hidden inside a boat. If you didn’t know it was there you would have had little chance of finding it, and before the internet there was no way to find out where to find it. I found out about it’s location watching a play-through not all that long ago!

Lolotte's throne room

Lolotte’s throne room

Despite never being able to finish the game as a kid I really enjoyed playing it. The puzzles we could solve and the land we had explored felt like a part of a much larger world. Revisiting the game now after such a long time it was still very fun, and I still enjoyed the music and scenery. After completing the game I can see you’d have less incentive to play the game again, but most adventure games have this problem. If you like adventure games you’ll probably replay it even knowing the solutions to the puzzles.

16
Apr
13

Cleaning my Sparcstation 20

Tape drive enclosure

Tape drive enclosure

Every change of season I find it’s a good idea to service any of your main computers that you run the most. My Sparcstation 20 is basically in use at the moment as a SVN server and a few other services so is on pretty much all the time. So I decided that it would be a good idea to take it apart and give it a good clean.

PSU crud

PSU crud

The main places that need cleaning in computers are usually around the important fans in a system, so this is usually a good place to start. The SS20 has no fans except for the two within the PSU that draw cool air in around the CPU MBUS modules, so this is where pretty much all the dust should be (and was). I also decided to clean the external tape drive.

Machine without the PSU

Machine without the PSU

To clean a machine I like to use soft brushes like a long bristle paint brush and soft tooth brush. They are often better than compressed air for moving larger lumps of dust caught in grills. Compressed air is a useful tool for cleaning where the brush can’t go.

Dual CPU MBUS module

Dual CPU MBUS module

The SS20 doesn’t have any heat sinks that need to be cleaned, but most newer machines with faster processors do. It’s important to remove shrouds and fans when cleaning them so you can get the worst of the dust off and out of the fins. It’s sometimes a good idea to remove the heat sink altogether so you can clean it more effectively and to refresh the thermal paste. Thermal paste eventually dries out and loses it’s heat conductivity, so it’s a good idea to change it occasionally. Running a stress test is usually a good indication as to whether you need to replace the paste.

RAM slots.

RAM slots.

I would like to mod the machine to have better cooling and filter out the dust from the air intake, I need to get some fans to add to the case and work out a decent scheme of filtering that won’t make the PSU overheat. A temperature probe for the CPU area would also be nice so I could tell how hot the machine is running.

15
Apr
13

Flight of the Intruder for DOS

Title Screen

Title Screen

Flight of the Intruder was released by Spectrum Holobyte back in 1990, created by a software team called Rowan Software. It was the fourth game in a simulation pack that we got as kids that came with Silent Service II, Vette! and F117a Stealth fighter. This was the only game that came with a full colour printed manual in the pack, all the others having black and white paper booklets. It was also the only game that we never could get to work on our 386sx as it required an amount of EMS that our poor old machine wasn’t configured for.

So I recently tried the game on DOSbox to see what it was like. I didn’t have the manual for the game so I had to guess the controls as best I could. I wasn’t able to really get to grips with the game completely as I couldn’t work out controls for many basics of combat flight, such as using weapons!

The duty roster

The duty roster

The game offers EGA and VGA graphics. The EGA graphics are quite good, but VGA graphics look simply like translated EGA graphics. It’s sort of difficult to describe, it looks like they simply replaced colours on-screen to achieve a better effect, but without removing dithering or changing very much else. In fact it appears that each screen still uses only 16 colours. That being said the VGA graphics aren’t ugly, they could be better and don’t meet the same standard set in F117a.

Sound comes from the PC speaker or Ad Lib sound card, and are fairly sparse in-game. It does offer digitised sound, but it doesn’t sound very good. I actually didn’t really hear all that much sound from the game, so it’s hard to say which device sounds better. I’d recommend Ad Lib sound on the basis of what I did hear.

Short Briefing

Short Briefing

Again because I don’t have the manual it was very hard to gauge how good the game play was. I managed to work out the basic flight controls, the default settings using the mouse as an analog for the flight stick. I found the mouse controls were difficult to use and I couldn’t turn without losing lots of altitude, so I switched to keyboard control. The keyboard was better and easier to fly but I still had trouble handling the plane. Every time I tried to change course or do anything else I lost altitude. Perhaps this is the reality of flying these particular planes but I found that it wasn’t a particularly fun flight mechanic. A joystick would perhaps make the game easier to handle.

A large part of the difficulty I had with the game in flight was the cockpit itself. It is difficult to read all the dials and tell what they are supposed to be reading. I also wasn’t able to work out how to use the targeting system or radar, so I wasn’t able to see what enemies were around me easily. Now I’m sure this is quite realistic for how the cockpit works in the real plane, but it made it impossible to understand what was going on easily.

The cockpit

The cockpit

I didn’t have as much fun as I’d hoped with Flight of the Intruder. It does have some nifty features such as automatic carrier landings and missile evasion. But without the manual it was difficult to work out the controls, and the cockpit was difficult to understand. If I had of been able to play this game as a kid back when I was playing F117a I certainly would have favoured it over this game. It’s not bad by any means, but I think it caters to the more serious simulation players.

08
Apr
13

Building a DOS Machine

Testing the machine

Testing the machine

This weekend I finally got around to building a proper DOS machine for playing my old school games and testing my Pascal code. I am fortunate enough to have an extensive collection of old PC hardware because I used to work in IT support for a local computer repairer, so I was sometimes able to get my hands on some old hardware.

I decided to use an old Pentium 200Mhz MMX machine that I had donated to me by one of the clients I did work for in the past. It was running windows 95 and has 64Mb of memory so DOS was no longer used by the time this hardware existed, but I figured it would be great for running games such as Doom, Quake, and Duke Nukem 3d. Also running older DOS games is easy using moslo, which is an utility for slowing the CPU down for programs that require it.

The machine was donated to me basically complete with a few minor technical issues. The main hard disk and OS had failed and failed badly, fortunately the secondary hard disk (a western digital 10G drive) was in exceptional condition so I simply removed the master hard disk and adjusted jumpers as necessary. The lithium clock battery was dead, which was an easy fix as I had a few good spares in my drawer. Lastly there was some extra hardware which I didn’t really need and decided to remove. I removed a ISA based modem card and an ISA SCSI card along with the CDROM that was attached. I kept the IDE CDROM drive that was installed.

Servicing

Servicing

So the hardware I have left in the machine after servicing it is;

  • Pentium 200Mhz MMX processor
  • main board (I didn’t bother checking out the model, it has everything I need)
  • 64Mb SDRAM
  • 10G IDE Western Digital HDD
  • CDROM drive (it’s a CDRW drive that is fast enough for pretty much any DOS games)
  • S3 Virge Graphics card 2MB (more than enough for my needs)
  • an ISA sound blaster card that came in the machine.
ISA Modem

ISA Modem

It’s actually much faster than I really need for a DOS machine, but I don’t have a functional 486 main board to use instead. I would like to set up a genuine 386, 486 or 286 system as well but I don’t have tons of space and unfortunately don’t have the parts to build a complete system.

So it came time to install DOS on the system, but I had some strange troubles getting it to boot from the floppy drive! It seemed like everything was fine, but the BIOS wouldn’t attempt to boot off the floppy. I tried a number of different floppy disks and tested the system in a few ways, finding out along the way that booting of the CD drive worked. So I ran a memory test, checked out the hard disk, erased it and performed some other tests but couldn’t turn any problems up. It turned out that the floppy drive itself was the problem despite it appearing to work. A spare floppy disk drive solved the problem.

VGA Card

VGA Card

So now the install disks booted, and installation of MS-DOS 6.22 itself went very smoothly. The maximum partition size that I could use was about 2GB which obviously was more than enough for DOS and 3 other partitions. I made the extra partitions so I could sort and categorise what I was putting on the machine.

More Testing

More Testing

Configuring the system was pretty easy, especially compared to more modern systems! The default configuration was pretty good so I simply added the extras I wanted such as a mouse driver and CDROM driver. Because I have so much memory in the machine I decided to include a 8MB RAM disk for some occasions where fast disk speed is handy (such as using VGA Planets). In the end I had plenty of memory left over and over 600KB of conventional RAM available, so pretty much any DOS game should run.

Installing DOS

Installing DOS

Having everything set up I decided to start transferring software across to the machine. I did this with a null modem cable and laplink software for DOS (version 3). Laplink makes it very easy to transfer large amounts of data from one machine to another, allowing you to view the directory tree of a remote machine, and copy files in both directions. The only trouble with using serial is that it is comparatively slow, in hindsight I could have used the CDROM drive if I had some blank CDs.

Serial Transfer

Serial Transfer

I’ve been tinkering with the machine since, testing games and thinking about what shell I would like to use. I used the dosshell on MS-DOS 4.01 back when I was a kid and found it was pretty easy to use, so I decided to try the shell that came with MS-DOS 6.22. I found that it was also pretty easy to use and has some nifty features such as task switching, but unfortunately games like Quake do not like it very much where as the old shell from DOS 4.01 works fine. I do like the newer file manager better however.

Dosshell

Dosshell

I am planning on adding windows 3.11 to the machine eventually as this will mean I can run some of the cool games and software that ran on it. I’ve also since found that the fan in the PSU isn’t working, it’s supposed to be thermally controlled so as to make as little noise as possible, but I’ve never seen it fire up. I added a bit more ventilation to the case and it seems to run ok for now, it doesn’t generate much heat as it is a fairly low power machine.

File Manager

File Manager

The experience has been fun and nostalgic at the same time, using real floppies and serial cables, and adjusting the configuration were all fun and fairly simple. Once done the system is lightning fast, and all the software I’ve tested so far works quite well. It responds even faster than my modern machines do. This makes me wonder if we have really gained anything over the old technology, why are machines that are orders of magnitude faster in hardware feeling slower than old machines?

07
Apr
13

Elfland for DOS

The Elfland title screen

The Elfland title screen

Elfland is a simple platform game written by Carl Erikson back in 1992. The game was inspired by other popular platformers of the time such as Commander Keen. The game has you playing as a young elf (either Elfie or Elfita) who is tasked with helping protect the small elf village where they live from evil trolls. The game is broken up into two episodes, the first one being shareware. In the first one you need to acquire a potion to protect the village from a wizard who lives nearby.

The Elf Leader

The Elf Leader

The game is EGA like many other platformers of the time, despite it being outdated technology. The graphics in game aren’t that attractive and it seems the reason is to do with a weird feature of the game. When you go into certain parts of levels that are darker, the game switches to a darker colour sprite set. It seems from observation that only the bright EGA colours are used for the outside area, and the dark ones for the inside cave sections. This effectively limits the available colour palette that could be used when generating sprites. The graphics would have probably been better off without this feature as interesting as it is. That aside the animations are nice, and the sprites are reasonably nice given the colour limitations.

Crossing a river

Crossing a river

Sound blaster sound cards are supported for sound, and the music sounds pretty nice. However there are only two songs that change when you go from the dark into the light (or vice versa) so the music can get a little repetitive. The digitised sound for the sound effects doesn’t sound right running the game under dosbox. It sounds like it’s running at an extremely low sample rate, so I’m not sure that the sound blaster is responsible for them. Some clever programmers were able to use the PC speaker for digitised sound, so I suspect that is what is actually generating the sound effects.

The castle

The castle

The game play is reminiscent of other platformers of the time but suffers from collision detection problems at times. I often found it difficult to hit enemies, some times because of their position relative to where my projectiles go. Many parts of the game do work quite well such as the jumping mechanic, and the controls. I just found it awkward dealing with enemies. Perhaps more practise with the game would help with this. Unfortunately you only get one life and no continues so you can be punished severely for making mistakes even on the easier modes of play.

The darkened graphic mode

The darkened graphic mode

Whilst Elfland has its faults, it is an impressive game given that one person built it on their own. The games basic ideas, structure and mechanics are sound, and the EGA code is impressively fast. The game basically just needs a bit of polish around its rough edges to make it quite good. It’s still fun as it is now, albeit a little difficult given the names of the difficulty ratings, but it’s worth a go if you enjoy platformers from this era of DOS gaming or for nostalgia because you played it as a child.




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