Playing Wing Commander 4 DVD The Old Fashioned Way

As something of a follow-up to my attempts to get Wing Commander 1 running on an ancient Tandy, I thought I shouldn’t neglect what was for a long time my Wing Commander game of choice, Wing Commander 4. The only version ever sold in stores was on CD-ROM’s but in the mid to late 90’s, Creative released a bundle with a 2x DVD drive, MPEG-2 decoder and best of all a DVD-enhanced edition of Wing Commander 4. This bundle was the only way to get hold of this DVD as it was never made available in any other way that I’m aware of.

I seem to recall that I already owned the rest of the equipment at the time but still wanted that DVD enough to buy the whole package when my first DVD drive bit the dust. The hardware is long gone but I do still have the DVD in its unassuming packaging. It’s a single layer DVD but is a flippy disk with the video on both sides. Any earlyish adopters of the DVD format will remember movies coming on these flippy disks and you had to get up and flip the disk half way through the movie.

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Before I get going, I should point out that this is basically a pointless exercise since thanks to the hard work of various people over at the WC CIC, the DVD version is already available to play through GOG. Of course all that ease of setup and convenience wouldn’t be the authentic 90’s experience so with that in mind my aim was to get it running on something approaching the original hardware. Step one was a trip to Ebay to buy one of these:-

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This is a Sigma Designs REALMagic Hollywood Plus DVD Decoder. In the 90’s PC’s were simply not powerful enough to decode a DVD on the fly so they needed dedicated cards just for this one task. Creative’s variant was called the DXR-2 but used the same chip if I recall correctly so it’s the same card to all intents and purposes.

Something I didn’t recall until after I’d got the card was that it needs a special cable to operate correctly. The way these worked in that you would pass the video out from your VGA card into the decoder card with a cable, then connect your monitor directly to the DVD decoder. When doing any DVD decoding, the VGA card would render anything else on the screen leaving an empty box for the video which would then be layered over the top when the signal reached the decoder card. Early 3D cards worked the same way and I’m sure I had to loop my video signal through 3 cards at some point in the 90’s which didn’t do a whole lot for picture quality. These cables are completely non standard but I had a search in my big bag of old cables and lucked across exactly what I needed.

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Getting everything installed then was relatively easy. I’ve already got a Windows 98/DOS PC for just this sort of thing. I did have to swap out the CD-ROM for a DVD drive ruining the beige aesthetic but this PC will never be a thing of beauty. Tracking down some drivers for the decoder was simple enough so I soon had that set up.

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Getting the DVD version to run was slightly tricky. It’s Windows only and refuses to start at all unless your desktop is in 640×480 in 16 bit colour. Of course the readme file neglects to mention this whatsoever. When I figured that much out, the video ran fine but the game would give a DirectDraw error as soon as the spaceflight sections started.

I’ve got 2 video cards in this PC, a Voodoo 3 and an older PCI Trio64 card. I can choose which I want to use by swapping the BIOS over to use AGP or PCI for graphics. The reasons I have 2 cards are firstly because the VFX-1 headset is extremely picky and on the rare occasions it gets used I have to be using the PCI card. Secondly, a whole lot of old software doesn’t like using the Voodoo 3 as it’s just a little too new for it. Usually it would be display corruption rather than actual errors but in this case, swapping to the PCI card fixed the problem and I could finally shoot down a few pirates in WC4.

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So what’s it actually look like? Well, the DVD video quality isn’t too bad at all off the Hollywood Plus and looks much like any DVD player. It’s a far cry from a modern Blu-ray though and has a visible wobble that is hard to describe. It was impressive enough back when the only competition was VHS but considerably less so these days. I seem to remember it working far better through a TV. The decoder has a tv-out for this purpose and I used to watch the video parts of WC4 on my TV while playing the game on my monitor when I first got this. I do like playing these low resolution games on a CRT but it’s only the gameplay segments that benefit here so that was no doubt the way to go back when everything I owned was in my bedroom. The TV is a bit too far away to try that these days.

As ever when I start playing WC4, I didn’t want to stop at any rate and it somehow feels more correct playing it with a creaking 90’s Thrustmaster joystick. If all we had was the CD-ROM version to play these days, this process would definitely be worth the effort. As it is, I do like using the original hardware when possible but for 99.9% of people I’m sure you are better off sticking with the GOG version.

There were a handful of other DVD-enhanced games and I also had these in mind when I was getting this set up. Especially Tex Murphy – Overseer which doesn’t have a decent method of being run on modern hardware that I’m aware of and I’ve not played it for some years as a result. Other than that, the only other DVD game that springs to mind is Zork – Grand Inquisitor which I’ve not had the chance to try at all as of yet. DVD technology arrived slightly too late for the FMV crazed mid 90’s or I expect more games would have seen DVD releases.

One Thing After Another – A Warren Spector Gamebook

I had a look at Warren Spector’s first and so far only novel a couple of weeks back. It may have been his only novel but it turns out he was already a published author as of a year earlier thanks to this:-

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One Thing After Another was published by Puffin in 1987 and based on the TSR Marvel Super Heroes role-playing game. It’s a game book in the regular format with the reader/player flicking between numbered sections as they make decisions throughout. The role-playing elements are very simplistic with the player stats all predetermined and combat simply being a case of rolling one die to decide the outcome. There is the notion of “Karma” points which can be spent at any time to increase the value of a die roll. Learning where to spend these should more of less guarantee victory but a little luck never hurts either.

In this tale, the player takes the role of The Thing from the Fantastic Four. Early on, the gang are all infected by a super hero targeting virus with only the Thing being strong enough to venture out to seek a cure. It’s tricky to describe the plot from here on out as there are numerous paths through the game with no single correct route. The main thread however involves collecting blood samples from Things in alternate dimensions in order to use them in making a cure for the disease. These alternate dimensions feature the familiar cast of Marvel heroes and villains but life has taken a very different turn for all of them. For instance Dr. Doom is on the right side of the law in the first dimension and the Thing is now King Kong sized and indeed climbing the outside of skyscrapers while terrorising the city. This doesn’t make it easy to get a blood sample off him and this was the section that needed several attempts to find the correct path.

You’ll need to collect a sample in all 3 dimensions to win outright on this path but the alternate dimensions can be avoided all together if the player chooses. I found a way to win by visiting a planet populated by some sort of nano-sized dust creatures who had the ability to enter our heroes bodies and cure them. Having multiple successful endings isn’t something I can remember seeing in a game book before. I’m wondering if this is an early example of his disposition toward offering players multiple paths through each situation that we saw in so many of his later games.

I complained somewhat about Spector’s writing style when looking at The Hollow Earth Affair. He uses the exact same style here but being a superhero story it works extremely well and captures the Marvel ethos perfectly, at least in the eyes of someone who has never read a Marvel comic in his life. The book is upbeat, over the top and rattles along at a good pace throughout. It assumes a little more knowledge of the Marvel universe than I possess with some of the characters such as “The Ghost” completely unknown to me. This was never that off-putting – how much do you really need to know about comic book villains anyway?

I will say that the experience of playing this is brief. The multiple paths may offer replay value but it really doesn’t take long to get through any one of the routes as a result. Other than that I’d definitely recommend this one, especially since it’s so cheap and readily available. It’s definitely a whole lot more fun than The Hollow Earth Affair.

Given that I read every game book I could get my hands on as a kid, I’m surprised that I’ve not come across this series before now. My favourite series at the time was always Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf so while I’m on the subject I’ll strongly recommend the Lone Wolf Saga app on Android which is entirely free and so far has the first dozen entries in the series up and running.

Pushover

It’s time for a quick look at another random old game from the pile which this time is going to be Ocean’s Pushover. I only picked this up recently at Revival Solstice although I did play it a little many years ago.

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It was published by Ocean in 1992, developed by Red Rat Software and is a puzzle game with some light action elements. It consists of 100 screens in which you play an ant who has to move dominoes around in such a way as to get every one of them to fall with a single push and a particular one to fall last . There are numerous types of dominoes to contend with. Some will keep flipping until another domino gets in their way, others float upwards before toppling, some explode, disappear, split in two, etc.. It’s a neat set up for a puzzle game giving endless options for levels, some of which get extremely tricky.

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The arcade element comes in as it’s often required that you start dominoes moving and then race around rearranging others before the chain catches up. The level design can be extremely unforgiving here allowing no mistakes whatsoever. It is also possible (and sometimes required) to trigger dominoes without a push by falling on top of a splitter while carrying another domino.

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The motivation and storyline behind all these puzzles is where things get a little strange. Back in the early 90’s here in the UK, Quavers crisps were being advertised on TV in short cartoons starring a character called Colin Curly, voiced by Lenny Henry. For instance:-

I have absolutely no idea how the deal came about but Quavers ended up sponsoring Pushover and Colin became a part of the game. The intro sequence shows him enjoying his Quavers a little too much, to the extent that he floats into the air, they all fall out of his pocket and he loses them down an ant hill. G. I. Ant volunteers to get them and the game starts. The intro only lasts 20 seconds or so but takes up the entire first disk of a two disk game.

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Every 10 levels or so, you collect a packet of Quavers from somewhere that isn’t all that apparent and get a naff little animation of giving it back to Colin. These crisp packets then appear on the menu screen to show your progress. What any of this has to do with toppling dominoes I have no idea. If I’ve ever seen sponsorship shoved onto a product as an afterthought this is it.

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The deal was taken a step further with free Amigas and copies of the game being given away in crisp packets as pushed in the advert below:-

Sponsorship aside, the gameplay of Pushover is really solid. This sort of title has a degree of timelessness and having to control G. I. Ant is quite a nice touch rather than keeping it as an abstract puzzle game. You can’t let him fall too far and have to bridge gaps, blow holes in platforms and the like to get him where he needs to go. I would still say that Pushover is lacking a certain spark but I’m not sure exactly what. I’d just like to see a bit more variety I suppose. The levels get harder for the most part and the backgrounds change every few levels but nothing truly new is ever introduced.

I found the controls could be a little wayward on the Amiga and this was certainly a point of frustration. It’s mainly because on an A1200, it plays considerably faster than it’s supposed to. This wasn’t something I realised until late in the game when I looked to YouTube for assistance with a particularly nasty level and saw everything moving at half the speed. I managed until I got about 80 levels in but reached a point I simply couldn’t progress past at that speed. I swapped to the Atari ST at this point which aside from the worse sound was near enough identical. It’s about time my ST actually saw some use – near enough everything on it slightly inferior to the Amiga version and it never gets switched on.

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The last level of the game is a little devious as all the dominoes are blank and don’t show you what type they are. It all has to be worked out through trial and error but is at least relatively simple otherwise. The scant reward for beating all these levels is a static congratulations screen.

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Pushover is a pretty decent game that probably deserved better than having some inappropriate sponsorship thrown at it. I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly as it’s just not quite special enough but it’s was above average when it was released and hasn’t suffered all that much for the 25 years since. There was a Windows remake done a few years back which may be the best way to play it now but any of the other versions I’ve tried hold up perfectly well.

The Tandy TX And Getting It To Run Wing Commander

The Wing Commander CIC has been flying the flag for Wing Commander for 18 years as of this week so in honour of the occasion I thought I’d look at something to do with Wing Commander. I’ve been looking for games to play on that Tandy I recently acquired and was slightly surprised to see that Wing Commander supported Tandy 16 colour graphics so I thought I’d give it a go. This was never going to work on my EX but I did have a chance of running it on Tandy #2, the Tandy TX.

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I picked this up some weeks back when I figured I would never find a memory expansion for the EX only to then find one days later at a decent price. You can never have too many old PC’s as far as I’m concerned so it’s now been added to the ever expanding collection.

The TX has several things going for it over the EX. For a start it comes with 640K of RAM as standard. It has a 3.5 inch 720K drive by default, built-in DMA, and normal 8 bit ISA slots opening up a world of expansion options. It’s quicker than the EX with a 16 bit 286 processor running at 8 Mhz although it’s not quite a full 286 as all the peripheral interfaces (including graphics) are still 8 bit. Perhaps the only disadvantage over the EX is that it can’t be made to run at 4.77Mhz to support the oldest of DOS games but it does have a half speed mode.

I bought the TX, untested and as is. Getting it to a state where I can actually use it has been a bit of a project. First problem, it didn’t come with a keyboard and this being a Tandy it has a proprietary keyboard using an unusual DIN plug. The same goes for the joysticks. It has native support for two which is a nice feature in a PC of the era but they also use a Tandy only DIN socket. To compound this, you can’t disable the ports meaning that it’s not possible to slot in a joystick card to one of the expansion slots.

Despite a worrying amount of rust on the case, I did manage to establish that the machine would switch on and run a program using a boot disk and an autoexec.bat. I added a 360K drive while I was at it. The machine came with a hard disk expansion card which would have been a nice bonus had it actually worked so that needed sorting out as well. It came with a VGA card installed but that’s far too modern for my purposes so it got removed in favour of the built-in Tandy graphics.

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First things first then, the keyboard was simply a matter of tracking one down, not all that easy but they are out there. It was a little temperamental when I first got it but seems to have settled down after a liberal spraying of switch cleaner.

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The joystick was along the same lines. It’s not exactly the flightstick I would choose for Wing Commander but then I’m not expecting it to be playable anyway. This joystick was certainly cheap but when it arrived the rattling sound and the fact it flopped up and down was not a good sign.

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Sure enough, on opening it up the bracket connecting the vertical axis to the potentiometer had sheared In two on one side. Nothing some araldite wouldn’t fix at least.

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I was less sure about what to do with the hard drive expansion card. It’s a curious one piece card with an ancient Western Digital hard disk attached directly to the 8 bit ISA card. I thought at first, I could maybe swap out the hard disk but the edge connector it uses put me off this. I discovered a much better alternative in the Lo-tech 8 bit IDE adaptor card. This is a modern card allowing you to add IDE devices to any 8 bit PC. The snag is they only sell the circuit board and you have to build it yourself. I took the far easier but pricier option of buying a pre-built one from Ebay. The device is made with CompactFlash cards in mind but also requires an IDE->CompactFlash adaptor if you are going this route.

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With the ISA card in place and connected up, I decided to carefully mask up the CompactFlash>IDE board to insulate it and shove this through one of the expansion slots at the back.. Once taped in place, this lets me remove the card when the case in closed.

Getting Wing Commander onto this PC would have been quite time consuming since it doesn’t support HD disk drives which is what the game shipped on. This solution allows me to just slot the CF card onto a modern PC and copy any software I like to it which is going to make using this PC a whole lot easier.

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At this point, I could nearly run Wing Commander, except for a lack of memory. The original PC-Jr shared graphics and system memory meaning that the Tandy graphics mode eats into the 640K and the game didn’t have enough RAM left to run. One more trick the TX has going for it over the EX here is 4 expansion sockets to drop in some extra DRAM chips. These add another 128K which is exclusively used by the graphics and frees up the whole 640K. These are regular DRAM chips which I thought would be dirt cheap but the price over here was a ludicrous £7.99 each and I needed 4. I took the far cheaper option of importing a set of 5 from Hong Kong for not much over £2 including the shipping.

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I noticed while I had the case in bits that it’s been arranged with the speaker at the front of the case where you would expect except that it points into the case, presumably to shield the components from the magnet. It’s not the most obvious arrangement but doesn’t affect the sound as much as you might expect and it’s still quite loud with the volume switched up to full.

Some time later, the chips arrived from Asia and I was finally able to give Wing Commander a go this week. So after all this effort, how well did it play? My hopes were never exactly high. The recommended specs are 12Mhz or higher. I know all too well how Origin games run on the “recommended” specs by now having experienced it back in the 90’s. My Tandy is only 8Mhz and not really a true 286 putting it considerably below recommended. The results could be described as just about playable but in truth this is Wing Commander – the turn based strategy.

I do quite like some of the PC speaker sound effects actually which I’ve never heard before. I’m not so sure they aren’t better than their Roland equivalents. The graphics hold up far better than I would have expected in 16 colours too. The installation program just converts the 256 colour graphics as part of the install so they haven’t been created with the Tandy in mind. This does result in some odd character graphics such as Spirit looking decidedly red during the initial briefing. Some of the in mission text is completely illegible suggesting that Tandy mode didn’t get all that much testing at Origin. A lot of the screens still look great such as the launching sequence. On the whole I reckon if it was about twice as fast, I’d have been pretty happy playing this back in 1990.

VGA is still clearly the way to go but Wing Commander running on a CGA monitor isn’t exactly a common sight so for the very few who might be interested, I pointed my phone at the screen and had a go at the first mission. I met an ignoble end, afterburning into an asteroid but it gives an idea. Apologies as ever for picture quality – next time I do one of these I’ll figure out how to turn off autofocus on my phone.

It may not have been the best way to play Wing Commander but the upshot of all this is that I now have another fully specced and working Tandy which I will definitely be playing a good number of games on over the coming months.

The Hollow Earth Affair – A Warren Spector Novel

Before getting his entry into making computer games at Origin, Warren Spector had been working for several years in the world of tabletop role-playing games, first with Steve Jackson games and then moving to rival TSR in 1987. He worked on numerous projects while at TSR but what interested me particularly about his spell there was that he became a published author in 1988.

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The book in question is “The Royal Pain/Hollow Earth Affair” which was published by TSR in 1988. It’s the second in a series of 3 novels based upon the Top Secret tabletop game, particularly it’s 1987 Special Intelligence revision. The game involved players taking the role of spies working for the Orion Foundation who would have to do battle with the evil Web.

All of the Double Agent novels were appropriately titled since they contained two stories featuring recurring secret agent characters. In the case of The Hollow Earth Affair, that character is Sebastian Cord, a gambling, womanizing secret agent of some experience who is now getting slightly past his prime. Basically it’s James Bond by another name, although he looks curiously like Bruce Campbell on the book cover. The Origin links to this character go further than just Warren Spector as the first entry in the series had been penned by Aaron Allston, who would go on to create the Claw Marks manual for Wing Commander.

The story starts in Nazi Germany where V2 scientists have to abandon work on their new super weapon at the end of the war but the lead scientist, Karl Unland, is given the opportunity to somehow carry on his work. Before we find out how, we jump forward to current day 1988 where Cord is trying to extract a defector from Web only for him to get sucked up into what appears to be a UFO.

None of Cord’s superiors believe this of course and he is put on forced leave. He ultimately recruits aid in the form of another agent, Rodrigo, a South American magician who does contract work for Orion + two of the backroom staff in an attempt to solve the mystery and in the course save the world.

I spare readers the entire plot but if you haven’t guessed by now, the Nazi superweapon was indeed a UFO. In true X-Files fashion this renders anyone without ear protection unconscious when it lands, although it hints elsewhere that they are rendered unconscious because of the large amounts of CFC gas it leaves behind while cooling the engines. The secret base where these were manufactured turns out to be underground at the South pole thus explaining the hole in the ozone layer because of all the CFC gas being released (yes, really).

There is much jetting around the world before reaching the South pole of course, including to Austin, Texas where a chunk of the novel is set. As well as being Cord’s home town, it’s the location for a secret base in the desert complete with UFO. Unland’s ultimate scheme involves using some sort of super CFC to entirely wipe out the ozone layer and destroy all life before repairing the damage with his CFC-be-gone chemical and taking over the cleansed world with his selected few.

To be blunt, The Hollow Earth Affair isn’t a great read. The story is ludicrous and the characters entirely unbelievable thanks to dialog that lies somewhere between Jeffrey Archer and George Lucas. There is a complete absence of any tension and the editing exacerbates this by doing its best to pull you out of the action at ever turn. It’s the literary equivalent of a Saturday morning kid’s cartoon.

It’s that editing that really got to me. In later stages, the narrative will swap between story threads so frequently there is no chance for the reader to get back into one before they have to start on another. This swapping happens several times on a single page in extreme cases.

The story is more or less a poor mans James Bond throughout, complete with the usual gadgets such as a spy watch which can communicate anywhere in the world via satellite, to the underground secret base which gets blown up at the end and a maniacal super villain intent on world domination. This is the Bond of the Roger Moore movies rather than the novels and I was never a fan of those in the first place.

I still can’t say I hated The Hollow Earth Affair for all that. I’m sure it was never meant to be serious literature and is bad enough to be fun most of the time. It did a decent enough job of passing the time on a long train journey. It’s not hard to see the mind that came up with this coming up with the premise for Martian Dreams as they are both equally far-fetched sci-fi tales. Martian Dreams may well have made an equally terrible novel but it was if nothing else much less derivative.

I’m certainly not going to recommend that anyone track this down. Any of the Ultima/Wing Commander novels that I’ve read through on this blog would be far better choices. It appears to be fairly readily available on abebooks for the curious though. I’ve not read the second novel in the book as of yet and will probably keep it that way.