Archive for March, 2014

31
Mar
14

Skunny: Back to the Forest for DOS

Skunny and Rosie

Skunny and Rosie

Skunny: Back to the Forest is a platform game released by Copysoft back in 1993. It was their attempt at making a Sonic like game for the PC. The main character is of course Skunny Hardnut, who is basically the mascot for the company and appears in all the titles made by Copysoft. This game also includes his “supermodel girlfriend” Rosie. Whilst doing research I found that many of their games are famously bad. I have played one of the Skunny games before and have vague memories of them as I didn’t play them very much.

Yummy items!

Yummy items!

The game boasts 256 colour VGA graphics with parallax scrolling backgrounds, but the artwork is sort of middle of the road. It’s not bad by any sense, but there could have been more frames for animations. Whilst the game boasts speedy parallax scrolling you need quite a powerful DOS machine to get the game to run smoothly. It certainly wouldn’t run well on a 386sx like we had back in the day. Other games such as Hocus Pocus managed faster scrolling on older systems like that.

Spiders!

Spiders!

The sound support basically supports only the Sound Blaster or PC speaker for sound effects, and Adlib/Sound Blaster for music. Sound effects consist of Skunny making noises such as screaming when hurt or saying “oh d-d-d-dear” when on a ledge. The effects sound fine, but you’ll likely find them annoying after a while as there is little variation and they are played frequently in a game session. There is such little variation that Rosie sounds exactly the same as Skunny does. Music wise I only heard one tune play during my brief play session, and well it was kind of annoying as it is short and always looping.

Huge ass Toad

Huge ass Toad

The idea for the gameplay is an interesting one that could be good, but the implementation unfortunately lets it down. The controls feel awkward somehow, making it difficult to make precision jumps. Skunny and Rosie are quick and have momentum, so it’s very easy to overshoot many of the small platforms and fall off spiders or insects that carry you around. The levels seem to be designed with a slower and more precise Skunny in mind making things worse than they really should be. I was so frustrated with the controls and movement that I stopped playing after having difficulty with the second level.

Super Skunny

Super Skunny

This is one of the earlier Skunny games in the series, so it’s not surprising the game is lacking polish. It also seems to me that the developers were pushed to meet a list of features regardless of their effect on game play. Perhaps the game was quite different in an earlier development version and then ‘spiced up’ for marketing purposes. Whatever the case, this could have been a good game had the controls been a little better and the levels designed to better suite the mechanics.

 

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25
Mar
14

Fixing a NEC FD1157C floppy drive

NEC FD1157C

NEC FD1157C

Last time I went to see my family out in the bush I had a look at some of the hardware I had in storage there. I found I had a NEC FD1157C 5.25″ floppy disk drive made in 1989 that had come from an Epson machine one of my uncles had given my father. The drive, whilst badly yellowed looked like it was in good shape mechanically, but upon testing with hardware I had on hand at my parents place it didn’t work. It didn’t even seem to seek properly.

This drive has a number of jumpers on the main circuit board, so I checked online to find out the settings. After trying for a while I still couldn’t get it to work. I decided I’d bring it back with me to try to work out what was wrong. I have better diagnostic equipment here.

The head rails

The head rails

Having been doing other things I hadn’t had a chance to look at it until just this weekend gone. I rechecked the mechanism to see that it moved freely. This type of head travel mechanism is nice in the sense that it doesn’t have a screw to lubricate, so it’s a bit cleaner, easier to adjust, and reliable.  Fortunately it didn’t require service as the heads moved backwards and forwards freely. The spindle motor similarly was in good condition.

It seemed likely a problem on the circuit board, perhaps a bad jumper setting. So I rigged the drive up in my MS-DOS machine and in the process of setting up the BIOS for testing the drive it performed the drive seek test and seemed to work. I was quite surprised by this as I couldn’t get it to do that at all at my folks place. I found the website with jumper settings for some NEC drives.

Circuit board

Circuit board

After setting the jumpers the drive appeared to work but the drive light didn’t ignite when the drive was in use. I tried a few things and found that the LM1 setting on the drive needs to be 1 rather than 0 for the light to work. I was a little disappointed to not get to use my oscilloscope to check the test points.

I’ve done some minimal testing and everything appears fine, but I will test it against my reference working drive to make sure the alignment is right. I want to make sure it reads and writes to disks reliably without damaging them. I might even probe some of the test points just for fun! This drive is a good one to have as it appears more serviceable than others I have. Although I have to wonder why it didn’t work when I tested it at my folks place. Perhaps a bad cable?

22
Mar
14

Electronic Shareware Catalogs

Because of where I grew up we had very limited capacity to find information about games. The internet didn’t exist and we were too far from Australian BBS to make use of them. Consequently we had to get most of our information from magazines and the cover disks that came with them. The cover disks had game demos commonly from shareware companies such as Apogee and Epic Megagames. Often the demos would have an electronic catalog of games along with the ordering information. After having played the demo, and not having much else to do I would look at the catalogs and dream of playing the games therein.

Apogee were one of the larger shareware publishers of the time, and many of my favourite games were distributed by them. I liked reading their catalogs because they were always very detailed and included system requirements, but unfortunately they lack the colour that many others had.

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Epic Megagames were the main rival for Apogee at the time, they had very colourful catalogs that were very nice to look at. They often included some very basic text/ansi style graphics, although the picture of Jill from Jill of the Jungle doesn’t look much like her. The game descriptions aren’t as detailed as those from Apogee, but they got the important information across and let you know if the game had special hardware requirements.

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The bigger players weren’t the only ones to have an electronic catalog. Arcanum computing was basically one guy, Nels Anderson. I posted recently about some of his games, EGATrek and Shooting Gallery. He made a nice colour catalog program to advertise his other games, probably because it was hard to get information about them out there.

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I couldn’t find any other catalog programs in my archive and unfortunately I couldn’t find any information or examples of them on the internet. If you happened to have a software catalog I’d be interested in hearing about it.

16
Mar
14

Shooting Gallery for DOS

Shooting gallery is another game made by Nels Anderson in the early 1990’s. This is another of the many shareware games that was installed on the machines in our computer lab at high school. It has a number of mini-games based on many of the games you used to find at fair grounds and amusement parks.

It runs in the usual 256 colour VGA mode, although it would also work on MCGA. The game was written with Turbo Pascal 5.5, a common language at the time. It also uses the Borland Graphics Interface (BGI) much like I have for my platform game. In fact it has the same VGA256.BGI file that I’ve used for normal VGA graphics. This didn’t come with that version of Pascal (or 6.0 for that matter) so the author would have downloaded it from a BBS or Borland.

The quality of the graphics is quite good, sprites are colourful and animate nicely. We used to only have PC speaker at school for sound, so we only ever heard bleeps and bloops from that, but sound blaster support is also available, and has some ok digitised sound. There is some music on the title screen, but it sounds like it’s coming from the PC speaker even when the sound blaster is enabled. It’s not bad by any stretch, but would have been improved substantially using OPL FM synthesis.

Birds and Bottles

Birds and Bottles

The first mini-game is Birds and bottles, it is a simple shooting game much the same as the fair ground game where people shoot ducks in a row. There is a good variety of targets each with different point values based on how hard they are to hit, the candles in particular being very hard to hit. You shoot until you either run out of ammo or time. You can get extra ammo by shooting boxes containing it. This is good as you can go through a lot of ammo fast.

Are pigeons called Skeet?

Are pigeons called Skeet?

The second game is a computerised version of skeet shooting. It’s fairly simple, you simply have to shoot the clay pigeons as they fly. Ammunition isn’t an issue as you can only shoot once per clay pigeon and enough ammo is provided. It can be quite difficult to hit the targets here as they have don’t move the same way each time and they are fast!

Quick Draw

Quick Draw

The third game is quick draw. Basically there is a target in the middle of the screen, and you are scored based on how quickly you can hit the target from a predefined starting place for the mouse. It’s one of the simpler games as there are no moving targets.

These 3 games are repeated a second time with a few variations to make them harder. For instance the skeet shooting has two pigeons and the quick draw has two targets. They are slightly harder, but are not really all that different to the originals.

Do you feel lucky?

Do you feel lucky?

The final mini-game is probably the most memorable and is called shoot out. You’re in a wild west setting with a few buildings from which people pop out. Your job is to shoot only the bad guys before they shoot you! Like the first game you have an ammunition and time limit so you can’t waste your shots or take a long time. You lose 2 seconds from your remaining time each time a bad guy shoots at you and you lose points for shooting citizens or children.

After all 7 rounds you’re given a score and a high score if you managed to get one. Your score is an indication of how well you can use your mouse. The game could be used as a trainer for precision mouse usage. Most people are fairly proficient with a mouse these days, but this game would certainly challenge your clicking skills.

Double quick draw

Double quick draw

It only takes about 10 minutes to get through all the mini-games so it’s good for a small distraction as a break. If you don’t like some rounds you can opt to skip them or simply just practise the one you like the most. We used to play this game in the computer studies classes partly because of its simple and quick gameplay, you didn’t need much time to get through an entire game and had a score to compete with friends. It could fill a similar hole in your day today, but it’s not something I’d sit down and play given enough time for a more full game. Like EGA Trek before it, Shooting Gallery is still available from Nels Anderson’s website.

09
Mar
14

Amdstrad 386sx revisited

This week I was busy with family visiting me, but today I found some time to revisit a computer I looked at quite some time ago. I have an Amstrad 386sx 16Mhz “laptop” that stopped working. I tried to fix it here, but couldn’t because of a lack of equipment. Now that I have an oscilloscope and ESR meter I thought I might use them both to see if I could work out what was wrong.

Before The teardown

Before The teardown

I disassembled the machine again and rechecked the Nicad clock/CMOS battery for leaks. The issue I’ve normally had with the machine was the graphic card not working, so I checked there first. I used the oscilloscope to check the clock crystals on the video board and that data appeared to be moving across the bus. The data bus didn’t seem very busy, but data was there, and the clock signals for the video board and the CPU all appeared normal. Given the video wasn’t working it’s not completely surprising that there was minimal data arriving at the video board. I performed similar checks on the RAM board as well and it seemed ok.

Inspecting the Main board

Inspecting the Main board

At this point I thought it best to check the obvious, like the power supply. I checked the output and all seemed well, with minimal ripple. This has left me scratching my head a little. I have some spares from a parts machine I bought, so some swapping may be in order. I have another screen and keyboard, but they are in a pretty beat up chassis, so I might use them to check the screen I have is operational.

The other thing I may try is replacing any and all electrolytic capacitors I can find. Most of the boards have either no caps, or surface mount ones only. I don’t know anything about surface mount tech, so I won’t be able to diagnose/replace any of those. I did however find some through hole caps on the riser card that connects the video board, so there is a possibility they could be the problem.

It was an interesting afternoon, and I’ve learned something about the operation of this machine. However I still feel it’s unlikely I’ll be able to fix this old beast, but it will certainly be good practise for using my tools and diagnosing problems.

03
Mar
14

Catacomb for DOS

Catacomb Title Screen

Catacomb Title Screen

Catacomb was created by the legendary John Carmack in 1989 for the Softdisk company before he and others formed iD software. It was one of many games created for the Gamer’s Edge subscription series that SoftDisk was distributing at the time. Catacomb is a 2D scrolling action game that is sort of similar to Gauntlet. You are a magician by the name of Petton Everhail who has to collect treasure. Like many games of its era, the story isn’t really all that important to the game play.

Finding a key

Finding a key

Catacomb supports both EGA and CGA graphics, both of which are quite attractive and work quite well even on old hardware. I believe the reason for this is two-fold. It looks like the game scrolls a whole tile width or height at a time, it also appears that only changes to the game area are drawn. These two techniques combined mean that the amount of drawing required to update the screen would be minimal, especially given the minimalist design.

Sound support is provided only through the PC speaker, and you get the usual sorts of sounds. It’s certainly not stellar compared to what hardware available at the time could do, but quite comparable to many other PC games released at the time.

High Score

High Score

I’ve not played Gauntlet so it is hard to make a good comparison, but I’ll do the best I can based on what I’ve seen of it online. Catacomb is similar to Gauntlet in that it is a top-down shooter in which you navigate dungeons to retrieve treasure, but has some distinguishing features of its own. Unlike Gauntlet your health doesn’t decrease constantly, I suspect because it doesn’t need to eat your quarters (or 20c pieces here in Oz). Also you can carry a number of health potions to use at any time, which are fairly generously scattered around levels. The levels make more use of hidden secret shoot able walls, many of which you have to find in order to complete the level.

Level Exit

Level Exit

The game has some puzzle elements, you frequently must find keys and open doors in a specific order to get to the level exit. If you happen to do it the wrong way you can end up stuck, unable to open any further doors, your only option being restarting the entire game. There are no continues or lives, so this also happens if you die, making Catacomb a little bit Rogue-like.

Enemy Horde

Enemy Horde

It plays quite fast even on old machines, your fireballs travel the full distance of the screen quickly, and monsters will come at you in swarms just as fast. Luckily you can shoot quickly and you can charge your shots into a super fireball, which kills many monsters quickly. There are two spells, Bolt and Nuke, which honestly I have not had much call to use, but they would be handy for getting out of a jam. Bolt fires a powerful lightning bolt which can kill tougher enemies quicker, and Nuke fires normal bolts in all directions at once.

Red Teddy Bears?!

Red Teddy Bears?!

Catacombs controls are for the most part quite good. Moving, shooting and strafing (something relatively new at the time) all work quite well and use keys that feel easy to use together. However the keys for drinking potions and spells aren’t all that well placed. The key placement basically leads to a delay whilst you move your hands to hit the key for potions or special attacks. Fortunately this usually isn’t a big problem.

Don't believe everything you read.

Don’t believe everything you read.

Because of the excellent arcade action and exploration you should certainly give this game a try. The action is still fun today, and later levels can get quite challenging. It’s certainly one of the best action games of it’s era for DOS, and could be considered a classic. It’s pretty easy to find and get running under dosbox, so if you have time I’d recommend you give it a go.

 

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