Author Archive for Andrew Danson

06
Dec
17

Loader Larry for DOS

Today’s game was made by Soleau Software, originally released back in 1993. The company was mostly one person, William Soleau, who was a prolific producer of shareware for MS-DOS machines during the early 1990’s, and is still developing new games today.

Loader Larry can be considered a more advanced version of Block man as it has more game mechanics, although the puzzles aren’t necessarily harder. Interestingly both games came out in the same year, I haven’t seen anything to confirm this, but I assume Block man came first as it is the simpler one. I also noted that Taking Care of Business is very similar as well, which makes me wonder if these games are a clone of something older that I can’t think of or find.

Graphically Larry uses pretty much the same technology that all MS-DOS Soleau Software games did, EGA graphics at 640×350 resolution. This has unfortunately squished my screen shots a bit vertically, so I’ve had to scale them to appear as they would on screen. Artistically it’s a little better than Block man with better detail in the tiles, but both are comparable given they use the same technology. PC speaker sound is present but fairly basic.

The controls are pretty much the same as those found in Block man, the movement however has been slightly improved. You can now turn around without moving a tile, and can pick up blocks that are under another. This makes it easier to move around in general, but care still needs to be taken so you don’t get trapped.

I found Loader Larry to be a challenging and charming despite its technical simplicity. It’s just the right amount of game to fill a gap where you need a bit of entertainment and challenge without being so big you have to invest loads of time. That being said you might not find it re-playable once you solve all the puzzles. Soleau Software is still around, so if you have nostalgia for these games you can still get them at their website, where they still offer registration for the MS-DOS games for $8 US.

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16
Nov
17

SS20 Desktop: Some minor progress

Whilst it has been some time since the original post, I have been a busy beaver trying to get the old Sparcstation 20 running. I’ve been making an effort to get the hardware working with some mixed success, and have made much better progress with the software.

The hardware is of course the much more pressing matter for obvious reasons. I had a recurrence of the problem I had with stack under run errors and just general problems booting in general. Of course this lead me to suspect the hardware, so this week I went about trying to work out what exactly was causing the issue. One way to help determine which part is at fault is by stripping the system back to the minimal and gradually add components while testing the system in between. Having removed most components the stack under run symptom didn’t disappear, trying each memory stick individually didn’t improve things, so I began to fear the worst as surely not all the RAM I have is faulty. It was at this point I decided to run the set-defaults command to reset the computers configuration despite not seeing anything there that should cause any issues, this funnily enough seemed to do the trick, as far as getting the machine to the open boot prompt without any errors and passing all the diagnostic tests with everything installed. I had to scale back to a 17G fujitsu HDD as the larger one didn’t cooperate with the system.

At this point I breathed a big sigh of relief as my hardware is probably in working condition. It’s booting the OS (NetBSD 7.1) and seems to run fine with one problem. Random system hangs. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern such as when the machine is loaded down or network access. I’m guessing that the kernel is having some issue and tries to hand control back to the system ROM, but this some how hangs/fails. I might try running the machine with out the X server in case it is stopping any errors from being displayed. I looked into the kernel messages and noted a few devices that may also be the culprit. The kernel is detecting the on board graphics (comes up as sx0 in the messages) even though I do not have a VSIMM installed, as I’m using a SBUS graphic board instead. The audio chip in my machine is listed as a DBRI, which is known to have issues with the current kernel driver. If you try to play audio in any manner the system hangs, it’s been a bug for a while, it kinda worked under NetBSD 4.0 when I last had that running. With this in mind I’m building my own kernel with the drivers for these two devices and other unnecessary devices removed.

I’ve had much more luck getting software to build in my emulated machine. I’ve got a fairly large collection of software to try out. Although I did have trouble much earlier on when either QEMU or the emulated machine would hang during a build. I can’t be sure if that’s down to the emulation or if it’s a genuine issue with the OS, and a possible cause of my problems on the real machine. Whilst I haven’t really changed anything in the emulation, it hasn’t hung for quite a while, so it’s any bodies guess as to the cause when it did happen.

Progress has been slow, but I’m gradually getting there! I’ve seen some cheap Ross Hypersparc 90Mhz modules that I’m considering buying as an upgrade.

26
Oct
17

6th Anniversary!

Wow time sure catches up on you fast, recently my blog had its 6 year anniversary. It feels like much less than a year, probably because of how busy I’ve been. This year I’ve obviously been doing less writing, mostly because of how busy family commitments are keeping me at the moment. It’s not all bad, as only posting once a month has allowed me to spend more time on each one, and I’ve made a few minor improvements to the layout and writing as a result.

I’ve only got one motherboard left for that series of posts and I’ve finished the graphic library bench marking, so I’m contemplating what new stuff I’ll make. I’ve been considering making a short series revisiting my old BASIC programs one at a time. Not sure how this will work out, or how interesting it would be to readers, but it’s some thing I’d be keen to do. A series for teaching programming to absolute beginners is another idea, which I’m considering producing in a video format on youtube. It would require a bigger time investment, but would probably work better than the written form.

I’ll continue writing about MS-DOS games, largely because there’s plenty of material left, and I quite like writing the posts. I’ve got some shorter term hardware posts in mind as well, such as a few system overviews and revisiting some of my neglected machines that haven’t had a run in a while or are in need of repair. The Sparcstation 20 is one such machine, I have already written the first post, but unfortunately I’ve had difficulty getting packages to build under system emulation with Qemu and NetBSD 7.1 as there are occasional unexplained freezes. I have the X11 server enabled which may contribute to that, so I might try disabling that, a different version of Qemu, or perhaps running the build on the actual hardware instead.

Before I wrap up, just a quick comment on something I’ve seen happening on Ebay. I sometimes peruse the vintage computing sections and couldn’t help but notice that some machines are being parted out (dis-assembled and parts sold individually) to the point where even screws are being sold individually. I’m in two minds on this, I can understand doing this for something that is broken, but still has some usable parts. On the other hand I would be really unimpressed if people did this to otherwise working hardware. It appears this is happening sometimes. Also unimpressive is when sellers label their common as mud machines such as the spectrum and C64 as rare even when they are anything but.

I’ll wrap up here before I launch into a rant about how hard it is to find retro hardware here. Big thanks to any regular readers and commenters.

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.

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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