Archive for July, 2016

29
Jul
16

The Remains of an Epson and Reply Corp PC.

Whilst I was on holiday at my parents place I did some photography of old hardware I  have. I got out the remains of two currently dead PCs, one an Epson PC AX2 and another, a Reply Corp machine.

The first machine was made by a company called Reply Corporation (or Reply Corp for short). Interestingly there is absolutely no information available about the company online, almost as if they had never existed. I did manage to find a few machine reviews within the Google books archive of some PC magazines, but other than that nothing really. There was a segment or two featuring them in the Computer Chronicles (an old American TV Show) but I couldn’t find the particular episode.

As far as I could tell Reply Corp started out making PC cards for Macintosh machines. These cards brought PC compatibility in a limited degree to Apple machines so that popular software like Lotus 1-2-3 could be used. It seems that somewhere along the line they started making their own clone machines. They were one of the few third party manufacturers to actually purchase the rights and make MCA (mirco-channel architecture) machines. With MCA failing in the market and PC cards being a very niche product, it’s no surprise that Reply Corp disappeared into obscurity.

The machine I have is one of the MCA machines, a model 16 with a 486dx 33Mhz chip, note I’ve stripped out the drives and power supply for use else where. Unlike the IBM MCA machines it doesn’t use a fancy modular and tool-less design, instead opting for more standard mounts for the drives and power supply. This made it easier to replace these components without having to buy proprietary ones like those in the relevant IBM machines. Note the CPU is mounted on a module, we’ll take a closer look.

Here’s the CPU module up close. At the time PCs generally had either the CPU soldered onto the board, a standard chip socket (DIP/PLCC for the 286) or an old style LIF (low insertion force) for the 386 and earlier 486 machines. These solutions made upgrading a CPU a difficult task, if not impossible. Reply addressed this by using an easily replaced module, something quite unique amongst IBM PC compatibles of the time. This particular module has a 486dx chip rated for 33Mhz, but when it was running the BIOS reported it as a 486SX @ 25 Mhz, so I wonder if this is the original chip. The oscillator on the board is 50Mhz, which would indicate the module was made to run at 25Mhz (the oscillator frequency is usually halved).

The motherboard has a Chips and Technologies chip set along with a relatively thick layer of dust. It has on-board VGA graphics and unusually 2 25-pin serial ports and 2 parallel ports. Chips was never known for high performance, but they are usually quite compatible. They may have been one of the few to make a third party MCA chipset.

We got the machine originally as a replacement for our aging 386sx, it served us well for playing MS-DOS games for quite a few years. I believe it may have been ex-government as it had a SCSI hard disk and controller as well as a token ring network card. It has an unfortunate annoyance of requiring a setup boot disk to configure the BIOS settings much like IBM machines did. Unfortunately there doesn’t appear any way to get a disk now. The board has since failed, giving a BIOS beep code indicating a parity error. I’ve tried resuscitating it to no avail.

The second machine is an Epson PC AX2, which is essentially a pretty bog standard clone 286 running at 12 Mhz. My uncle gave it to my Dad for some reason, and it was basically dead upon arrival as it was already missing its power supply.

The insides of this machine are looking bare among our reading material on the table. I had stripped out the I/O cards it had some time ago. It had a MFM hard disk controller, an EGA card and a floppy controller. It doesn’t have much integration on the board despite the number of chips, basically only a keyboard port is provided.

It has a AMD made 286 running at 12Mhz. You may notice it has the Intel copyright on it, this is because AMD was a second source manufacturer of the 286 (and other earlier processors) to ensure availability of the parts. This would be the last processor that AMD would second source for Intel, as they stopped co-operating before the release of the 386.

This machine has a module as well, even mounted and connected in a similar fashion. The difference is this module appears to be for the main memory and ROM for the machine. It’s an odd design choice, but perhaps the ROM and memory design were shared across models and designs of Epson machines. This would not be an upgradable module, memory upgrades often came in expansion cards for the ISA bus.

These three chips seem to confirm what I had seen online, that this model was originally released sometime in 1986. What’s interesting is the date code for these chips indicates the 23rd week of 1989, which would have made this machine quite obsolete at the time of manufacture. I’m surprised they didn’t upgrade the design to 16 or 20Mhz as they were common speeds for the 286. The three chips are almost certainly the base mother board components such as interrupt, timer and DMA controllers.

IMG_2530Here is the reason I can’t run this machine currently. It has a power connector with an unknown pin-out, and with the original power supply missing I don’t have much chance unless there is some documentation around. This is unfortunately common for earlier PCs as standards hadn’t been formed yet.

I’ve been keeping both these old machines in the hope that one day I might find or work out the information needed to get them to work again. They’ve unfortunately languished under a table in my room at my parents place collecting dust, I hope they’ve at least been somewhat interesting to look at today, as they aren’t much use as they are.

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11
Jul
16

Bubble Pop for DOS

It’s been about a month since I’ve been able to write a post, so apologies for the un-announced hiatus. I’ve been slightly burned out with work and kids keeping me extremely busy, but I’ve taken a nice holiday to my parents place in the bush to recharge the batteries.

So to kick things back off I’m looking at a small game called Bubble Pop made by Software of Sweden back in 1997, quite a while after MS-DOS games were main stream. It’s quite obviously inspired by Bubble Bobble, and shares much in common with the arcade game. Today I played the shareware game which only includes the first 10 of the 100 levels.

There is a little bit of history in the readme about the company, they were originally a demo group on the Amiga starting back in 1986. I have never really been into the demo scene, so I haven’t heard of them before, but being a part of that explains some of the art style and technical prowess in the game.

bubble#_006VGA is the only graphics mode as you’d expect, and the art is generally very colourful and nicely drawn. The item pickups look very much like those you’d find in Bubble Bobble, but the other sprites are quite different. Speed wise it performs quite well and everything animates quite smoothly. Whilst the readme recommends a 486 @ 66Mhz, it could probably run acceptably on a slower machine, although I suspect a 386sx would be too slow.

bubble#_007The only sound card support available is for the Sound Blaster and Adlib cards. There is some pretty decent music and sound effects, unsurprisingly much like you’d find in demos from the PC or Amiga. It doesn’t perform as well as the graphics do, the music and audio pauses  and stutters during transition effects and loading.

bubble#_008Game-play wise it is similar in design to Bubble Bobble with a few differences. Your default attack is essentially a melee attack that traps the enemy in a purple bubble. You can’t pop the bubbles, instead you have to push them and attack to make them fly around and eventually burst. The purple bubbles can hurt other enemies as they fly around the screen, causing a cascade potentially knocking off many bad guys in one go. This can be a problem if you want to collect all the score items, but have killed all the enemies before getting a chance to.

bubble#_009The bad guys themselves are fairly simple with only a few types available in the shareware episode. At the end of the shareware episode is a mini-boss, which is essentially just a larger normal enemy. You have to use the smaller enemies to kill it by bouncing them off the boss in purple bubble form.

bubble#_012Some other elements are almost identical to Bubble Bobble, such as a dangerous enemy appearing after not completing the level in time, and the food themed scoring items. The few enemies I’ve seen are similar in behaviour with a few exceptions, and whilst the levels are different, they have very similar basic designs.

The shareware version of Bubble Pop is extremely limited with only a very few levels and enemies compared to the full game. So I’m sure the full game has much more content, but as it is Bubble Pop isn’t as fun as the game that inspired it, and with the price of about $24 AUD I doubt many people would have forked out for it.

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