The Tandy 1000 EX

It’s hard to believe it’s been two months since the last post but time has been scarce and it’s been hard to do much in the way of retro-gaming while my house has been getting fixed up after the Xmas floods. 6 months later, repairs are still ongoing but I expect to be back in residence within a couple of weeks. It’s been a long time coming but the place will at least be considerably improved at the end of this. On the downside, I’ll have to redecorate the next floor up to get it up the same standards but that can wait for a while.

So to get back vaguely on topic, I haven’t entirely stopped collecting and something I’ve fancied getting hold of for ages is a Sinclair PC200. For the majority who no doubt haven’t heard of this, it was an 8088 PC released at the end of the 80’s by Sinclair (after purchase by Amstrad). It was a CGA PC in the form factor of an Amiga/ST with the keyboard and PC built into one unit and a TV out on the back so you didn’t need a monitor. I was one of the very few who owned this at the time, mainly because of brand loyalty having owned the Spectrum before. The Amiga or ST would have been a far better choice for any gamer as the PC200 was a pretty terrible machine for its day. As a result, hardly any were sold and it was the last computer to carry the Sinclair brand. These factors have combined to make it something of a collector’s item these days. After my latest attempt to get one at a reasonable price failed by some margin (it ended up selling for £200+), it occurred to me that if I were to get an old PC, it would be far more fun to have a Tandy 1000 with its enhanced sound and graphics, not to mention a whole lot cheaper. So after some shopping around I got this:-

IMG_20160621_152651

It’s a Tandy 1000 EX, first sold in December 1986. It was a more affordable all in one version of the original Tandy 1000 which in turn was a clone of IBM’s ill-fated PC-Jr. This particular version has a miniscule 256K of RAM, CGA/Tandy graphics support, an 8088 7.12Mhz processor, a 5.25 360K drive built into the side and a whole lot of dirt on all the exterior surfaces.

IMG_20160622_084412sIMG_20160629_192941

I never let a bit of grime put me off buying anything if it is solid enough underneath and this certainly needed some cleaning. It brushed up well after a little effort and as luck would have it was already in great shape internally.

The PC-Jr/Tandy 1000 had a couple of things going for it over a regular IBM PC. The first of these was a sound chip capable of 3 channel music + a separate noise channel. This wasn’t the most sophisticated of sound devices when compared to the SID on the C64 but it was a massive improvement on PC beeper. All of Sierra’s games were famous for supporting this throughout the 80’s and it was the best available for a DOS gamer prior to sounds cards coming into play with Kings Quest 4 in 1988.

IMG_20160622_084500

The other thing it had going for it was support for Tandy’s proprietary 16 colour graphics mode. This was actually a clone of the 16 colour graphics mode introduced by the IBM PC-Jr but with that being such a dismal failure commercially, Tandy dropped all mention of it from the start. The Tandy does include a composite out which should let me see these graphics on a TV but I imported this from the US. This means the output is in the American NTSC format which leads to black and white for me trying to run it on a UK PAL TV. I’m sure Tandy 1000’s were around in the UK but only in small numbers so importing was definitely the cheaper option, especially when I already have a voltage converter for the IIGS.

IMG_20160622_105222

So I had to come up with a solution to get colour graphics. CGA PC’s used a 9 pin monitor connector (identical to many joysticks of the time) which sends a simple digital RGB signal to build the picture. The colours are built using 3 on/off RGB lines to create the first 8 colours and a fourth pin controls the intensity of these colours giving lighter/darker shades to make the full 16 colours.

One of the advantages of being in the UK is the SCART connection we have on all our old TV’s comes with RGB support built-in so it is in theory possible to build a little circuit  board to convert one to the other. My early attempts at this are pictured above.

I got some way with this but my limited soldering skill and lack of proper equipment was making the job go extremely slowly. This solution would also have got one of the colours wrong since the CGA monitors of the time converted light yellow to brown in their hardware which wouldn’t have been supported. The parts cost a couple of pounds so it’s no great loss and I’m sure I could have succeeded eventually but when the opportunity arose to get an actual CGA monitor instead, I decided to treat myself.

IMG_20160629_192836

Coming at a considerably higher price than the computer itself, this is an IBM 5153 CGA monitor which is a little beat up on the outside but the picture is still as crisp as ever and gives my modern LED screen a run for it’s money.

sIMG_20160629_192902 sIMG_20160629_193111 sIMG_20160629_193524

The computer came with a single floppy disk with “The Tandy FUN-damentals”. This is a simple introduction to the PC with some 3 channel music and a load of instructions on how to use DOS and what the various bits of the computers do. This sort of thing harks back to the days when learning how to use a computer was educational in its own right. Just like back then, I’m only really wanting to play some games on this thing which is where the next problem comes in. I have plenty of old games on 5.25 disks but precious few of them are bootable which means I need MS-DOS on a 5.25″ floppy disk.

sIMG_20160629_194500

I debated for a while about how to do this. My first thought was that I could use my Kryoflux but it doesn’t actually support writing PC disk images for some unfathomable reason so I came up with a plan B. My Windows 98/DOS gaming machine has a floppy emulator connected to it (shown on the right above) which I got some time back from http://lotharek.pl/ . This connects to my modern PC with a USB cable and to my old PC via a regular floppy disk drive cable that I’ve routed out of the back of the machine. The upshot of all this is that I can load up a disk image into some software on my new PC which will then be readable as though it’s a real floppy on the DOS PC.

I found images of the original Tandy boot disks at http://www.oldskool.org/guides/tvdog/system.html, loaded them up into the floppy emulator and copied them to a real disk through DOS. I had to connect up an old 360K 5.25 drive on the top of the PC since the floppy cable was already routed out of the back. Finding standard density 5.25 inch disks was tricky but I had some hidden in amongst some of my old Sierra games.

sIMG_20160629_195803sIMG_20160629_200234

This worked a treat and allowed me to boot up DOS and subsequently Ultima 1, and the original PC-Jr game Kings Quest 1 both of which do run amazingly slowly on a machine this old but look great in 16 colour mode. I’m seriously looking forward to playing a few games on this thing now it’s finally up and running.

Plenty of Origin games supported Tandy graphics but sound support was limited to a handful of games around the late 80s. The one that may benefit the most could be Tangled Tales since it has no sound card support. The snag is that just about all these games require more memory than 256k so I can’t actually run them.

The 1000 EX used a proprietary memory expansion which slotted into its unique expansion port at the back of the machine. Now I start to look for one, these aren’t exactly all that common or cheap. In fact, I expect it will ultimately be cheaper to buy a later model of Tandy with more memory built-in.

The moral of all this if there is one is to do a bit more research before you buy and don’t get into old computers unless you can throw a bit of time and money at them. I’m definitely going to have a bit of fun with this machine at any rate, even if it doesn’t run quite everything that I’d like it to. The first port of call has to be King’s Quest so expect a playthrough to follow shortly. Before that I really should have a look at the System Shock remake demo.

Lemmings – The Official Companion

To go along with my recent playthrough of Lemmings, I’ve broken out the book scanner for the first time in some months and had a quick look at the Official Lemmings Companion.

LemmingsGuideCover

This was published by Prima back in 1993 quite some time after the game was first released. It’s one of the largest books I’ve scanned in clocking in around 350 pages but doesn’t offer a whole lot more than solutions to all the levels. The main point of interest for me was the disk tucked into the back cover with 16 bonus levels. The disk was missing from my copy but included with my copy of Lemmings as a bonus disk. This despite the use of the phrases “exclusive game disk” and “not available anywhere else” in big letters on the guide’s cover.

There are 4 new levels for each difficulty and it has to be said that they aren’t of the highest quality. You can expect to play through this lot in about 30 minutes if you’ve made it through the main game.

IMG_20160424_205305

The early levels are painfully simple. E.g.. the one above in which you merely have to dig down then mine across.

IMG_20160424_205123

They do get harder but nothing like as much as the original game. Perhaps the most memorable involved making it safely across the Prima logo but it was more for the novelty than it being a well designed puzzle. The final level requires making your way across the letters of congrats. It’s just a case of sending a lemming ahead to dig and build with masses of room for error. The book solution mentions there being a hidden exit above the entrance but it’s easy enough to do it properly.

IMG_20160424_205232

The levels do include additional graphics from Oh No More Lemmings with some curious new traps but I’m sure they were made better use of in the official expansion. The reward for beating them all is a bit of text advertising a game you would already have bought. The overall impression is that these levels were dashed off as quickly as possible to provide an extra for the book.

As such, I won’t recommend bothering playing it but I’ll put the disk image in the downloads section shortly if anyone wants it. It didn’t appear to require the original game to play. The book itself is already scanned and can be downloaded from here

Lemmings

After beating Contraption Zack in an afternoon, I was still in the mood for another puzzle game and decided to revisit Lemmings for the first time since its original release in 1991. I just about remember buying a shared copy at the time for which I kept the 3 1/2 inch disks. The box and 5 1/4 floppies went to the other guy who paid the lions share of the asking price. Not sure if that counts as piracy or not but it was an obvious downside for publishers of games published on dual format back at the time when the only copy protection was on the disks themselves.

Back in 1991, I beat the game in 5 or 6 days presumably doing little else for that week. I can’t invest that sort of time these days hence the long gap between posts.

IMG_20160419_172511 IMG_20160419_172521

I’ve bought a full copy at some point since the 90’s so there is no question of piracy this time around. The box is certainly nice and colourful as you would expect from Psygnosis.

IMG_20160419_172541

This particular copy is a slightly later release than the one I first bought coming with an extra bonus disk of levels that was also included with the official guide book (more on than in the next post). Lemmings is actually available for free these days in the Microsoft store in an updated version. I briefly tried this and it appeared to be fundamentally broken as I was unable to change the status of any Lemmings that I’d already given a task to. As such I certainly can’t recommend it but I presume it must work better on tablets or some other PC setup.

Lemmings was originally created by DMA design who would go on to become Rockstar and create the Grand Theft Auto series. The idea for Lemmings famously came whilst working on the game Walker which was an Amiga side scroller in which you would drive a giant Mech around blowing things up. The mech in question was supposed to be huge and in order to give it this sense of scale tiny people sprites were needed. It was questioned whether this would be possible in 8×8 pixels but programmer/artist Mike Dailly managed it in short order even managing to give some character to his miniscule sprites. This concept later morphed into a game in its own right, spawning one of the most ported and successful franchises in gaming.

Rather than sticking to one version of Lemmings, I’ve been swapping around between systems as I’ve played this. Instead of saving progress, a series of level codes are used meaning that it’s possible to swap around at will picking up where you left off. I must confess I’d prefer being able to save and not having to type lengthy codes in each time I returned to the game but it does have it’s advantages. I started out with the original platform of the Amiga.

IMG_20160327_184106 IMG_20160327_184115 IMG_20160327_184122 IMG_20160327_184132 IMG_20160327_184133

The Amiga version has a nice little intro with Lemmings climbing around on the games title. This is entirely missing on the DOS version as is the two player mode which would utilise the Amiga’s ability to use two mice at once.

IMG_20160327_184313 IMG_20160327_184501

There are 4 difficulty levels in the game each of which has 30 levels. To beat Lemmings, you technically only need to beat the 30 “mayhem” levels but I decided to work my way through the lot starting at fun. These early levels gradually introduce each type of Lemming of which there are 8.

I’m sure everyone is familiar with Lemmings gameplay by now but just in case the concept is that all your Lemmings will fall out of a trapdoor and start mindlessly walking forwards. The goal is to get a target number of them safely into the exit inside the time limit and to do this you can individually transform any given lemming into either a climber, floater, bomber, blocker, builder, basher, miner or digger. You only have set amounts of each skill although these early levels are usually very generous on this front.

IMG_20160327_190927 IMG_20160327_192412

That’s the entire game in a nutshell. It’s an extremely simple concept and alters little throughout all 120 levels. There are techniques to be learned and mastered however. For instance a builder lemming will build a short staircase but stop building and turn around if he hits a wall while laying down tiles. You can use this to turn around a lemming by digging a small pit and then turning him into a builder to hit the wall of this pit. Provided the pit is shallow enough he’ll turn around, climb back out, and have changed direction. Figuring this particular technique out when it was first needed halfway through the game was where I was stuck the longest.

IMG_20160327_194740 IMG_20160327_194858

It’s possible to pause the game and look around the map to plan ahead but there is still a degree of arcade action mixed in with the puzzle solving elements. You are required to be quite quick with the mouse at times and pixel perfect in some later levels. I wouldn’t say it gets too frustrating but there are times where you rely on dumb luck and have to keep replaying levels when things don’t work out. This is mainly when dozens of Lemmings get tightly packed together and selecting one pointing in the right direction to bash through a wall or build a staircase is a 50/50 shot. Often it’s possible to plan around this in advance but not always.

vgalemmi_005vgalemmi_007

Around halfway through those 120 levels, the novelty was starting to wear a little in all honesty. The early levels don’t always provide enough challenge and each level can start to look much like the last. There were some variations such as having multiple entry points or mountains that can only be dug through in one direction. The level on the left was curious having a hidden exit that had to be found by digging all over the map.

vgalemmi_009

Once I got into the 3rd tier of difficulty (Taxing), the game started to get my attention again and become a lot more fun. The options here tend to be a lot more limited and it’s about figuring out the solution that’s possible with the supplied lemming types. Most levels involve finding a way to send a solitary lemming or two ahead of the pack to prepare the way but the solution is rarely immediately apparent. I also enjoyed the occasional level with just one or two Lemmings which needed to be guided around one their own.

vgalemmi_004IMG_20160401_165442

Hidden among all the regular levels are 4 that are based on other Psygnosis games (Shadow of the Beast 1 + 2, Menace and Awesome). These use the graphic style of each of those games + the music but aren’t the most interesting levels in terms of gameplay. It’s pretty clear the art came first on those four but they did impress me back in ’91. The free advertising was a lost cause for us PC gamers since none of those games ever made it onto our platform.

vgalemmi_008 vgalemmi_003

I ended up playing the majority of the game in DOS as it’s more convenient at the moment. Pretty much all of the electric sockets in my house still don’t work since the boxing day floods and moving an extension just to plug the Amiga in is more grief than it’s strictly worth.

Having said that, the Amiga version is clearly superior in just about every way. The audio is vastly superior to the adlib only PC soundtrack. The game is also faster and supports more lemmings. The PC version has a maximum of 80 whereas the Amiga levels tend to have 100 of them running around. Most oddly of all, the gameplay is slightly different. E.g. the bashers on the Amiga will decide to stop bashing their way through the scenery at much smaller gaps than on the PC. This can make life difficult at times given that all these levels were designed for the Amiga and copied straight across.

The one place the DOS version wins out is that the function keys are mapped out to select the options at the bottom of the screen. This proves highly useful and is a lot quicker than having to use left/right arrows to scroll around on the Amiga.

IMG_20160423_131235 IMG_20160423_131313

I found that DOSBox didn’t especially like running Lemmings and after an attempt at a level would often throw me back to the title screen which would then immediately lock up unless I went in and out of full screen. As such I swapped over to my Pentium 2 after a while. It has to be said the game looks better on a CRT due to the dithered artwork so it’s a better way to play the game but I still prefer the Amiga.

It took me about 3 weeks but I eventually made it through all 120 levels. The last few levels were tough in just about every aspect but I’d say the difficulty was exceptionally well judged throughout and I would never call it unfair. What I would call unfair is the reward for all my efforts which was nothing but a paragraph of text. This brings back memory of numerous earlier ZX Spectrum games and I’d expect a bit more in the 16-bit era.

IMG_20160423_152633 IMG_20160423_152659 IMG_20160423_152716

I swapped over to the Amiga and replayed that last level to see if Amiga owners fared any better. There is a little screenshot with some unconvincingly enthusiastic cheers and applause from the developers. It’s an improvement at least.

Lemmings certainly holds up better than most games from 1991 and I ended up enjoying it more than I expected after a slightly dull middle section. It wasn’t as difficult as I’d remembered but still holds a mammoth amount of game for a single floppy disk. It could do with some more variety along the way for me. It’s the same skills types, same music and similar graphics near enough the whole way through. While I wouldn’t say it ever got boring, I do like to know there is something new coming to give me incentive to progress.

The music is a mixed bag with some of it sounding awful on the adlib. I don’t ever want to hear that out of tune version of “She’ll be coming round the mountain” again if I can help it. I’d have liked to see SoundBlaster support really with some samples for the lemmings.

The level design is where Lemmings shines and for the most part this does a great job of gradually increasing the difficulty and offering original challenges. Looking at this 20 years later, there were a few copycat games at the time (e.g. Humans) but Lemmings is almost it’s own sub-genre. As such it’s certainly a classic but I can’t help but think that Lemmings 2 fixed most of my complaints and is the better game. It’s been so long since I played it, I’d need to give it another go to be sure though. Lemmings’ first incarnation is still worth playing in any of its versions and I’ll definitely be having a go at the first expansion “Oh No! More Lemmings” some time down the line.

Contraption Zack Reviews

I found a handful of Contraption Zack articles among the magazines. This first from the April 1993 PC Review is the cover disc I must have originally played the demo from.

tImage 0008

As for reviews, here is a tiny write-up from the February 1993 PC Format.

tImage 0007

And this is a full review from the March 1993 PC Review. Both of these reviews broadly match my own opinion. I don’t reckon the repetition is as big a deal as stated here given how short the game is though.

tImage 0005 tImage 0006

Contraption Zack

Contraption Zack is an isometric puzzle game published by Mindscape in 1992. I can’t say it’s a game I know much about but I saw it for sale fairly cheap and remembered playing a demo version many years back which was enough to reason to pick it up and several months later I thought it was time to play it.

IMG_20160330_080058 IMG_20160330_080112

The version I have was published by Slash who typically repackaged games more cheaply after they were slightly past their prime. I gather they are often avoided by collectors for this reason. The box exterior is nice enough at any rate although the materials are a little cheap.

IMG_20160330_080207

The contents are where the real money has been saved with the manual looking like a cheap handmade photocopy. The entire game fits onto a single floppy with an equally cheap label.

zack_000zack_001

zack_006zack_009

zack_012 zack_013

As for the game itself, there is a nice cartoon intro on starting up. It’s Zack’s first day on the job working as an engineer in a plant of some description for Gadget Corp. His new colleagues take an instant dislike to him and decide to “borrow” all his tools only to not return them when duty calls. The graphic style is goofy but colourful. I particularly liked the panicked boss with the waving arms for some reason. Probably because he reminded me of a particular ex boss of my own. At any rate, he sends Zack off to fix a piece of machinery in the plant.That’s where the player comes in. You have to guide Zack around 6 levels retrieving his tools and fixing the parts of the factory at the end of each level.

zack_016 zack_018

The mechanics of gameplay are straightforward and introduced gradually starting with this room where each coloured switch will open or close the same colour of spikes. The trick is simply to head right instead of left here. If you go the wrong way, you will get stuck and have to start the level again. The designers had no qualms about dead ends so expect to do plenty of restarts when playing this. They do show an element of sympathy with a couple of save points per level.

zack_019

The next room is a more complex timing puzzle. The grey gates open slowly one at a time trapping Zack behind them for a time if he goes in. All the coloured buttons only stay down for a short while when pressed meaning the key is not to step on the back buttons until the gate is about to reopen so there is time to get over the spikes before they spring back up again. Once more, it is easy to get trapped between spikes and have to restart.

zack_021zack_028

Soon after this I get the chance to reclaim all my lost tools. Each tool can be used at specific points throughout the level to affect gates or machines. In this case, I need a screwdriver to turn the screw on the screen in the top right and reverse the direction of the conveyor belt and allow me to pass.

zack_031 zack_032

That clears my route through to the feeder. I step on the floor switch to get it working and that’s the first level.done. I’ve missed a good few rooms out here but the 6 levels in this game really aren’t very big. They do involve a lot of back and forth to make up for it.

zack_037zack_049

Level 2 is much the same except with a couple of rooms more, lots more dead ends and a whole heap of extra switches to complicate matters.

zack_080

And each level after that progresses in much the same way. The difficulty ramps up but the gameplay elements are all introduced early on. I’ll give particular mention to the room above on level 5 which was especially evil. The basic goal is to get to the wire on the red wall and back out to the bottom left. Each button at the edge of the grid will lower most of the spikes on that row one at a time with just enough of a gap to walk across before they raise again. It will also start the same sequence off on another row so it is possible to swap between the two if you are quick. Miss the gap and you are stuck and have to restart the room.

Completing the room involves going through everything in the right order, setting two buttons off at once at a couple of points, along with having all the coloured switches in the right position at the right times. It took numerous efforts to complete but the save point at the start of the room stops it becoming too frustrating.

zack_087zack_094

Level 6 proves to be a bit simpler than the previous one if anything. There are plenty of switches but once I realise that most of them do the same thing, I’ve soon fixed the last machine and the plant springs into life.

zack_096 zack_103 zack_107 zack_113

After all these efforts, the plant erupts out of the ground creating a giant metallic skyscraper. Despite the size of this thing all it does is print and stamp letters.

zack_115 zack_118

Those letters turn out to be the end credits before a final epilogue in which Zack gets his revenge.

zack_126 zack_131 zack_133

Contraption Zack proved to be a short, simple game that I finished in one sitting. It certainly wasn’t anything brilliant but I enjoyed it enough. The bright graphics offer plenty of character and the puzzle gameplay hasn’t dated at all. What has dated is the amount of replaying required which you wouldn’t normally see in a game these days. I wouldn’t say it was a game breaker though given the size of the levels. Provided you like logic puzzles, Contraption Zack offers a pleasant if unspectacular way to spend an afternoon. The MT32 soundtrack wasn’t the best so I’d be tempted to try the Amiga version if I was to play it again in hopes that it was an improvement.