Author Archive for Andrew Danson

19
Oct
17

Motherboard: EPoX EP-8K3A

Today’s motherboard is a Socket 462 board (also known as Socket A) it is an EPoX EP-8K3A made in early 2002. The CPUs that fit this socket type have an exposed die that makes direct contact with the heat sink, this is generally good for heat dissipation, but makes installing or removing a heat sink a risky business. Here’s a photo of the board.

The board has a VIA KT333 chip-set, which at the time was one of the first to support the then new DDR333 standard. VIA chip-sets were very common at the time, especially where AMD CPUs were installed. An interesting feature was it’s ability to run the memory and FSB clocks asynchronously, although in practise this wasn’t that useful. If the memory was slower it became a bottle neck for the entire system. If it was faster the CPU wouldn’t have been able to make full use of the extra bandwidth, although that bandwidth could be used by other devices such as a graphic or sound card. Also noteworthy is the fact that this is a single memory channel board, later systems made use of the dual channel architecture which had a memory bandwidth advantage.

It has the usual suspects as far as peripherals go. It has a HDD/FDD controller, Serial/parallel ports, two USB ports, AC97 audio and a game port, which would have covered most users needs at the time. It lacks on-board LAN and USB 2.0, which would have been nice to have, but are easily added via the 6 PCI slots. There were two models, one had extra IDE ports connected to a RAID controller along with a diagnostic module that displayed the status on a two digit seven segment display. I have the board without these extra features, which doesn’t worry me as I can add a RAID card if needed.

EPoX was known for making boards for the enthusiast and over-clocker, and this board doesn’t disappoint on that front. You can see the voltage regulation circuitry has more capacitors and chokes than contemporary boards. They called this three-phase, but that’s not really a good description, basically it has three separate voltage regulator circuits just for the CPU core voltage. This results in a power supply with less noise on the line, and with the larger capacitor bank it also handles spikes in workload/power drain better. It probably increased the boards reliability over the long term, even if you didn’t over-clock. I found a review of the board that was written at the time it was released that has more details.

By the time this board was made jumpers were mostly a thing of the past, with everything under software control in the BIOS settings generally. With the front panel connectors clearly marked this board would have been quite easy to install and set up for an end use. This board would have been favoured by technicians partly because of this, but also because it would have almost certainly been more reliable, was fairly cheap, and was even forward compatible with processors and RAM that was yet to be released.

For end users this would have been a great work horse board for anyone, it is cheap, reliable, and has extensive upgrade options. However now as an old board, there are better socket A boards from the era with more features, better compatibility and faster chip-sets more capable of over-clocking. It would still be good in a vintage PC build, but not for a high performance machine of the era.

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26
Sep
17

Framed for DOS

Today’s game is an obscure adventure platform game made in 1994 by a two man company named Machination. The story is fairly simple at the beginning, you’re a journalist who has been framed and you find yourself in jail. The first and shareware scenario is set within the jail, your job is both to escape and find any information about why you’ve been framed. The game play is unique as it’s an inventory based adventure game but with conventional platform style movement and environment.

The game engine supports VGA graphics, but only 16 of the 256 colours, which is exceptionally odd. Obviously this affects the art style which doesn’t appear to be as polished as contemporary games usually were. I don’t think the art work is bad, it does do a good job of setting the scene of a dreary prison space. There isn’t much animation apart from moving objects such as the enemies and the player, but the animation is nice enough and the level scrolls quite nicely.

Sound Blaster, Ad Lib and PC speaker are all supported. The sounds are fairly basic, with simple sounds for actions like jumping, walking and being hurt. There is basically no music in the game other than the funeral march when you die and a short ditty at the title screen. Generally the game is fairly quiet except for the sound of your footsteps and the occasional boing noise when you jump. This fits fine with the prison scenario where a more eerie atmosphere is appropriate.

The movement controls are fairly reasonable, although you press up to jump I didn’t have any trouble with movement generally. The other controls, which are used mostly for interaction with items, aren’t quite as easy to use. There are many keys that are spread around the keyboard. Luckily you don’t usually need to use them whilst dodging a hazard, so it’s tolerable after you get used to them.

The platforming aspect of the game works fairly well for the most part, but has issues. Most enemies come in the form of guards, fireballs and spiders. You can’t harm any of them until you get the gun, so you have to dodge them where you can. The guards roam the levels in predetermined patterns, so you can exploit that to get past them usually, although there are some tight spaces where you basically have to take a hit to get past. The fireballs are emitted from broken pipes and will travel even when off screen. In one case a long corridor has one at the end, and you can have to dodge fireballs with no warning they are coming. The spiders look very innocuous being quite small, they basically wander around a small area looking like a background object. A small group blocks one particular space I found annoying.

The scenario is basically one larger level representing the prison and it’s hallways connected to smaller levels by doors representing each section like the dining area. Items can generally be found in the area you’d expect to find them, such as food being found in the dining area. I found that there wasn’t much food (or other health items) around, so whilst the hazards are fairly sparse it can be quite difficult to stay healthy. I had hoped that the food in the dining area would respawn or that you could get healed in the medical area but neither was the case.

The adventure aspect of the game revolves around inventory item puzzles. The trouble is the story is very sparse, so I spent my time wandering around gathering random items as I found them, not sure of their purpose. There are a few missed opportunities to tell part of the story as you have to trade items with some prisoners, they don’t talk or request the item they want, and don’t say anything other than thank you when you deliver. The other prisoners are the only NPCs I’ve encounter so far.

If I used one word to describe Framed it would be sparse. The main part of the level has long sections to travel between areas that could easily have been condensed. This makes both the platforming and adventure aspects less interesting as you spend a lot of time just walking around. If they had wanted to make the platforming more prominent, more challenges and health pickups would have gone a long way to making that work. Had they wanted to emphasize the adventure aspect they could have added more detail to the story through more dialogue, NPCs, and some prison activity to make the situation seem more active and to guide the player.

That being said I don’t think it’s a bad game. The engine is well made and there is a lot to do within the scenario as a whole, just there’s a bit of walking around in between. After watching a play through it was clear how much I’d missed simply because there was basically no guidance on where to go next, no goals and no indication of what was required to reach them. A guide or walk through would probably make your experience better if you chose to give it a go. There isn’t any way to get the registered version anymore, but you can get the shareware version from the RGB Classic DOS games website.

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24
Aug
17

Motherboard: Another unknown Socket 3

Today I’m looking at another 486 socket 3 motherboard that unfortunately I can’t identify. Unlike the last one, this one actually had it’s model number on the silk screen, but the OEM who put it into a machine has covered the silkscreen label with either white paint or white out so that it is unreadable. Obviously this is a massive pain as I have no chance of finding a manual for this board, which is needed because of the large number of jumpers. I suspect they didn’t want end users finding out that it was a low quality board. Here’s a photo.

Again it’s a later 486 board as it has PCI slots rather than VLB slots. Reading the date codes on the chips reveals it was made in mid 1995, around the same time as the other socket 3 I have. The chipset was made by UMC, which I’m unfamiliar with. After having done some forum lurking over at VOGONS and reading some of the Red Hill Guide, it seems that it’s a fairly common chipset found on a variety of boards. I can’t comment on the performance myself, but others have had success getting decent performance out of their chipsets.

There are very few integrated peripherals, it has an old school DIN keyboard connector and two IDE ports, but strangely no floppy disk controller, serial or parallel ports. This ultimately wouldn’t have saved much money for the end user as they’d have to use add in cards to replace the functionality. Weirdly the IDE ports each use different styles of socket, another sign of cheapness.

The cache chips and system ROM are all socketed, which is a good sign that the cache is probably not a fake. The EPROM unfortunately had the sticker missing, exposing the window for the UV erasable chip. I’ve since put my own sticker over the window to protect it.

In an effort to identify it, I decided to pull the ROM chip and read it in my TL866 universal programmer. I was hoping to find a string that had the model name in it directly,but after an extensive search I only found the BIOS version string, “2A4X5B05”, which was enough to identify the manufacturer as Biostar but not the model.

Another unfortunate feature of this board is this real time clock chip with integrated battery. The idea is great in theory, but results in an unusable board when the battery runs flat, which it has.  Some of these RTC chips had the option of an external battery, unfortunately this isn’t one of them, so the only option I have is to either replace the chip (it’s not socketed) or hack it open and attach an external battery. Unfortunately this board doesn’t even remember the settings through a warm reboot, preventing it from actually booting an OS.

Like many 486 boards much of the basic configuration is done with jumpers. This usually means looking them up in the manual, but this board does have the basic settings for voltage, FSB speed and L2 cache size. Still there are obviously many more jumpers that are undocumented on the board, so the manual would be really handy. Luckily the silk screen has enough information you could install a CPU and not make the magic smoke escape.

At the time this board was made it was fairly low end, and windows 95 was just around he corner. It would have probably performed ok with MS-DOS and Windows 3.1, but would have been inadequate for Windows 95 when it came out later the same year. Most 486 machines didn’t really perform well with windows 95 so that’s hardly a surprise. The lack of integrated peripherals is probably the worst point with this particular board, as you’ll need add-on cards even for basics such as a floppy drive and serial port (which you’ll need for a mouse). Otherwise it would have made a serviceable, but not powerful machine.

25
Jul
17

Catacomb Abyss for DOS

Today’s game is quite unusual as it’s an early FPS game supporting EGA 16 colour graphics. It was released after Wolfenstein 3D in 1992, but isn’t a clone as it’s a sequel to the earlier game Catacomb 3D (1991). Both Catacomb 3D and Abyss were made using a earlier version of the Wolfenstein 3d engine, the first being made by id software for Softdisk and the second by staff at Softdisk using the same engine. So in that sense you could consider both to be a pre-cursor to Wolfenstein 3d technology wise.

The story is fairly simple and is a continuation of the first Catacomb 3d series. Nemesis, the antagonist from the previous game is now obviously dead, but his evil minions that are still around have built a memorial mausoleum in the town cemetery and are infesting the area. The local town-folk obviously aren’t too happy about it, so knowing you defeated Nemesis himself they send you in to clean up.

Graphically it’s quite impressive for EGA, artistically the sprites and wall textures are fairly well done for 16 colours. Performance wise the engine performs quite well under dosbox, which was configured at 3000 cycles which is roughly equivalent to a 20Mhz 386. I’d expect it to also be quite playable on 286 machines with the exception of slower ones. The engine however isn’t perfect, monsters can get close enough to you that they are no longer displayed. This tended to happen when they spawned very close and made it quite difficult to kill them. I found using the Xterminators usually helped. I also noticed that the texture mapping on the walls sometimes appeared a bit off, and that text on the walls was often hard to read. Despite the faults, the game looks nice and is quite atmospheric.

Sound support defaults to the PC speaker, which sounds ok. You can switch the game over to using Ad Lib sound, but the user interface and documentation don’t make it clear that it’s available and how to turn it on. I played for ages before realising there was another option. Once you manage to get it working the Ad Lib sound effects are quite effective, but they are loud and some of them are a little crackly. This could be down to imperfect emulation of the FM chip in dosbox, but I suspect it’s the pseudo-digital sound effects that are the cause.

The levels are quite short, but still big enough you can get lost. They rely on destructible walls quite a bit, which fortunately are usually easy to spot. They hide them as blocks that are different to those around them or a short and easily recognisable pattern. With infinite basic shots you should be able to find them fairly easily. There are doors with keys, but they don’t have a nice opening animation instead simply vanishing instead. Which could be the reason they aren’t used very much.

As you work through the game there are a variety of settings, each with their own graphic style, and typical monsters found there. You start off in the “towne” cemetery and work your way into the mausoleum and then crypt for Nemesis. For some reason not clearly explained you then end up deeper underground and then the segment that I’m up to, the aqueduct. On the up side each setting is fairly different visually, and some like the aqueduct change things up with different monsters.

There isn’t a huge variety of monsters in each level, but they get progressively stronger and have more variety in later levels. The basic monsters use melee attacks primarily, which can be a problem if they get too close. Zombies, which appear in the earlier levels, are not visible until they climb out of the ground. This sometimes happens when they are already too close to see, so you may need to use a Xterminator as moving away seems futile. In later levels I’ve seen some more interesting enemies such as floating wizards that shoot fireballs at you, large beasts, and what can only be described as aquatic zombies that hide under the water popping up every now and then.

There’s only really one weapon, a fireball that you can rapidly fire. You can’t charge it like the original 2d game, but you can make up for that with volume of fire. The two spells that you get aren’t really different weapons, but rather variations on the basic fireball. The Xterminator previously mentioned basically just fires standard fireballs in a circle around you, useful when many enemies are close, or you want to hit one you can’t see. The Zapper essentially just sends out a pulse of rapid fire and is less useful as you can achieve the same rate of fire manually.

Controls are fairly similar to those in Wolfenstein 3d, but not quite as refined and polished. Turning and moving are as you’d expect, but the control turning faster is the tab or v key, which can be a little cumbersome to reach. The alternative is to turn much slower, giving enemies more time to hurt you. This aside the controls work fairly well.

Catacomb Abyss is the only one of the series that was ever available as shareware, consequently it’s the only one easy to download. From what I’ve played, it’s actually quite decent although a little clunky in some aspects like the controls. Still it has great atmosphere and having short levels means you don’t get as lost as you might with something like Wolf3d. You can buy this along with the rest of the series on the Good old Games website for I think about $8 US dollars.

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27
Jun
17

Chopper Commando for DOS

Back in my teens I aspired to create my own computer games and actually made some nifty little games, but I didn’t ever distribute them. Today’s game, Chopper Commando was made by Mark Currie when he was 15 and did make it out in 1990. It’s a fairly simple arcade helicopter game in which you’re given a mission to complete.

It was written with Turbo Pascal 5 using the Borland Graphics Interface (or BGI). The game uses CGA 4 colour graphics at 320×200 which are mostly drawn using the basic line and fill functions from the BGI library. So artistically the game has a fairly simple line-drawn style that does the job. Sound is also fairly basic, with a few simple beeps coming from the PC speaker.

Upon starting the game you select your pilot from the roster, the number of bombs you can carry and finally the difficulty of the mission. Each difficulty setting has 5 unique missions which is chosen at random each time you play. There is a bit of variety in the missions, some are strictly destruction, whilst others involve deliveries or retrieval of items.

Controls aren’t as intuitive as I’d like, but once I slowed the game down I managed to progress quite well with the keyboard controls. To move you tap the direction you want to move and you gain speed in that direction, in order to stop you have to tap the reverse direction until you slow down and stop. It’s not the easiest way to handle controls, but I managed to make it work for me. I tried using the mouse, but that just resulted in a crash (the helicopter not the game), this could be because I was using Dosbox to play.

Destroying bad guys isn’t too hard, there are four weapons to use for dispatching your foes. First is a basic gun that fires forward. I found it best for shooting targets in the air but the bullets also slow down and fall to the ground, so you can destroy ground targets with it. There are also basic bombs which basically behave like the gun without the forward movement, these are easier to use on ground targets. You have the option to use missiles, but I found they were more likely to get me killed so I didn’t tend to use them. Finally there is a mega bomb which has a larger explosion radius.

Chopper Commando is a fairly simple game, but it has a lot of little extra details that make it charming and fun. The game uses a different colour palette for day and night missions. You can eject from a damaged helicopter and run around throwing grenades until a spare one arrives, and after missions there is a short piece of text from the office that makes fun of you when you die, or congratulates you upon success.

Obviously it’s not very technically impressive, but it’s quite fun. I looked for the Authors website, but it appears to be down, but you can find this on the Classic Dos Games website with a slightly updated version that fixes some bugs and source code.

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01
Jun
17

SparcStation Desktop project.

Unfortunately I’ve been neglecting my poor old Sun hardware, mostly because of time and space constraints. I thought I’d try to go some way to correcting this by actually beginning the process of setting up the SparcStation 20 as a vintage desktop work station. I’d been planning on doing this for ages, as long ago as when I built the replacement server machine.

Hardware wise I’ve not acquired anything new, although everything needed a test and some basic cleaning to get it working. I’m still having issues, but I’m unsure if it’s an hardware fault or a problem with the software I’m installing. We’ll get to the software in a moment, first we’ll look at the hardware installed.

At the moment I have 3 CPUs in the machine. They are all V8 Supersparcs with two 50Mhz chips on one module and a 60Mhz one on a module on it’s own. Each module has 1Mb of cache memory which doesn’t sound like much now, but was a large amount when these machines first appeared.

Frame Buffer

Frame Buffer

I’ve currently got about 304Mb of memory installed, I had more but unfortunately one of the sticks that was in it fails to detect anymore. I’d like to have a VSIMM as that would allow me to use the built in cg14 frame buffer (graphics card) which is probably the best performing one available for machines of it’s type. I managed to purchase a 2Mb TGX+ frame buffer and adapter to connect it to a VGA screen, which is doing an odd resolution of 1152×900 at 8 bits per pixel. It’s obviously not the fastest, but it does the job. I’ve selected an 136Gb 10K RPM SCA drive for the hard disk, certainly a bit of overkill, but it would just be sitting on my shelf otherwise.

The initial issue I had was stack under run errors after the boot screen came up and the machine attempted to boot. My first instinct was of course failed memory, which lead me to find the undetected memory module. But no matter which memory I ran I had the same problem. After some poking into the system environment (kinda like the BIOS settings in the PC but without the nice interface.) I found some items that were not at their defaults and changing them back seems to have fixed the stack under run.

Dual CPU MBUS module

Dual CPU MBUS module

Unfortunately that’s not the end of the issues, as after installing and running NetBSD for a while the machine will hang, reset or have a watchdog timer trigger. This certainly could be faulty RAM, but the power supply is also a potential suspect as is the operating system itself. I need to follow this up with some more testing, unfortunately I don’t have a spare PSU to test with.

Software wise I’m much more prepared and have had much more success. I’ve been using Qemu, which does full-system emulation for a number of old and different platforms, including Sparc systems. Qemu has been useful for building packages and the kernel specifically for my machine. Something I had done ages ago when I first intended to do the install.

At the time I built for NetBSD 6.1.4 which is the OS I’ve installed and tried out on the machine. It’s out of date by quite some margin now, so I’ve set up a new virtual machine to start work on getting 7.1 packages and kernel built. It has a bunch of improved hardware support, particularly in the frame buffer acceleration, so I’m keen to see how it goes. I’m still building packages I want for it, but I’m happy with 7.1 under qemu so far. I’m hoping the improved hardware support helps with the hang/watch dog/reset issues.

When it’s all done, I’ll post about what it’s like to use the machine for specific tasks, like say browsing the web and checking email.

04
May
17

Snow White’s Voyage for DOS

Today I’m looking at a platform game called Snow White’s Voyage, originally released by Alive software back in 1996. Of course by this time Windows 95 had changed the scene quite drastically, with most developers having abandoned developing games for DOS. The game has fairly low system requirements, needing only a 386 and about 512K conventional RAM, much less power than many late DOS machines had. So this game is a little unusual when put in the context of when it was released, it’s like it time travelled by about 4-6 years.

The story isn’t quite the same as the fairy tale, the game is divided into 9 episodes with only a few being related to the original story. Each episode begins with a short blurb of story text and a legend of the hazards and treasures to collect for points. The game-play itself doesn’t really rely on the story, so you can ignore it if you wish.

The graphics in Snow White are ok, nothing spectacular, but they do the job. I can totally sympathise, as Alive Software is a one-man software company, I can understand how hard it can be to generate attractive graphics by yourself. The graphics engine seems to be programmed reasonably well, as it appears it would work well on retro hardware like a 386. Although there was one peculiarity, the bottom of the previous level appears to be the ceiling for the one you are playing! Fortunately entities on the previous level don’t seem to be active up there (avoiding slow-down). I’m guessing all the levels are stored together in a single lump per episode. This could have been avoided by restricting the vertical scrolling range, or by only using the tile data from the current level. Apart from looking a bit odd the only problem it introduces is restricting your jump height where it need not be.

Digitised sound and OPL music are supported for the Sound Blaster, and some music with basic sound effects for the PC speaker. The music is implemented quite well, although there are no original tunes, I think the introductory tune is from The Marriage of Figaro and reminds me of a Tom and Jerry cartoon where the music was also used. The music resets every time you die or start a new level, which can sound a bit strange, otherwise it’s generally well done. The sound effects are fairly understated but fairly decent for what they are. PC speaker on the other hand is probably best avoided, it’s not the worst I’ve heard, but it’s not the best either.

The keyboard controls follow a fairly standard layout for platform games of the time, so getting your fingers on the right keys isn’t too hard. Basic movement works well enough but I found the jumping mechanic a bit of a problem. Basically your horizontal movement in a jump is about half as fast as your normal speed. The main problem this creates is difficulty in jumping over obstacles that otherwise shouldn’t be all that hard to avoid. There are also some problems navigating up some tiles that are intended as ladders.

Luckily the game has an easy difficulty option that removes some of the more difficult hazards making it much easier (but still challenging) to progress. The enemies aren’t too hard to dodge, but they are deadly accurate with their projectiles which are difficult to dodge. The worst ones being low flying birds that basically drop un-avoidable eggs on your head. Part of the issue is you basically have to restart the level every time you are hit, making any hit at all very punishing. It’s confusing because you have hearts that are like hit points/health in other games. Fortunately the level doesn’t reset when you start again, so bad guys stay dead if you’ve killed them.

Luckily the levels are quite short, so you’re never sent too far back, but being so short and limited in height has meant there is not that much variety in the map design. I did only get to play the first episode however as I played the shareware episode, and I’ve noted that later chapters do change things up a bit. In the lake for instance the game becomes top-down as you guide Snow White around on a raft, in the later stages of the game you play as Prince Charming, so there’s some variety, just not so much in the shareware chapter.

From what I’ve played Snow Whites Voyage is ok for what it is, but clearly it’s not a classic like say Commander Keen. Alive Software are still around, and you can buy this game in a bundle with some of their other legacy titles for about $5 USD which honestly isn’t too bad if you have any nostalgia for their games.

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