Internal Retro-Brighting

Updates are a rarity here these days but the end of the year seems like the appropriate time to come up with something to show I’m still here. As far as actual content goes, I’m still methodically scanning PC Zone’s. The plan was to have them all done before 2020 but the help I was receiving on that front stopped earlier in the year leaving it all to me once again. As of right now there are a mere 9 issues left so the whole lot should be archived by the end of February.

In slightly relevant news, I did a little work on improving Vecalabeth a couple of months back for the limited physical release that is part of the Kickstarter rewards for Through The Moongate part 2. I’ve added a title screen (plotted in true old school style on graph paper), tidied up the bugs and also done some work on map generation. Reproducing the maps faithfully isn’t easy as the original code basically relied on the non-randomness of the Apple II’s random number generator. This worked by supplying a seed number and it would effectively work through a given sequence of numbers from this starting point. It appears that all those years back Garriott simply found some seed numbers which worked reasonably well as a starting point for his map generator and went with it. Every time the code generates the map again, the random number generator gets reset which is why the code behaves exactly the same if you repeat the same events on a given level (a long known means to manipulate the random amulet effects among other things). This sort of psuedo-randomisation cause + effect was still present in later games. E.g. in Ultima 2 you can choose which stat got “randomly” raised at the Hotel California by counting the number of moves taken to walk to the clerk from entering the map. What I can’t find is documentation on exactly what the Apple’s random number generator does so I can reproduce it.

So instead of that, I’ve implemented my own pseudo-random generator for Vecalabeth to have static map levels based on your lucky number. I’ve taken the decision to keep everything else actually random so there is no knowing what the amulet will do this time around. This has gotten the game essentially where I want it to be but I have to tweak the map generation still to find a decent balance between dead ends and too open levels. I should have some help with playtesting ultimately so the port is on hold until then when I can get a second opinion. I won’t be releasing my updated code for Vectrex32 owners until some time after it’s in the hands of paying backers but I expect to put it on here sooner or later.

I thought I’d write about some recent random adventures in retro. I’m still acquiring the occasional piece of old hardware, one of the latest and largest being a 21″ Apple Studio CRT. 21″ monitors were extremely expensive when new and as a result relatively uncommon these days. This Apple Studio would have cost an outrageous £1500 back around the turn of the century. It was made specifically for Mac’s but contains a regular Sony Trinitron tube and uses a standard VGA connector meaning I reckoned it should work on a DOS PC at least in theory. The potential downside was that the picture controls aren’t in a menu on the monitor and were instead controlled by software on a Mac via a USB connection. This lack of compatibility gave me the chance to get it relatively cheap so I took a punt and grabbed it while I could. First impressions were promising. While it may not officially support resolutions below 640×480, the command prompt came up fine. The picture geometry all looked good and it appeared it was going to work straight out the box so I set to fitting it into my desk.

The desk I use for all this stuff is a peculiar arrangement I picked up many years back. The brand name escapes me all these years later, but a company in the 90’s came up with this idea of having glass sections in desks so you could mount your monitor below the surface at an angle and look down through the desk when using it. This saved a ton of space with CRT monitors, which given that I hadn’t even moved out of my parents at this point was a seriously useful feature. It’s a feature I still take advantage of being able to double up on monitors with my flatscreen and CRT being on the same desk. There are a couple of adjustable padded bars to accomodate different size screens, and originally a harness of sorts which wasn’t really needed and is long gone. The desk wasn’t supposed to support monitors larger than 17″ so I had major doubts on getting this behemoth in place. Attempting to manhandle 35kg of monitor into it was a minor nightmare but just about possible with enough perseverance.

It was only at this point that I noticed that the picture was way too dark in some games even with brightness and contrast on maximum. 7th Guest above is a prime example. This could be due to fading of the tube over time but I think it’s more likely to do with Apple’s non standard implementation once again. Additional brightness controls were built into the display drivers on the Mac, working in the same way as a gamma control in a game. I could get a great looking picture in this way on my Mac but could barely see a thing in darker games in DOS. Not great and I was wondering if I’d wasted my money.

So I started looking around for a solution. Were I simply using Windows, I could of course have fixed this in software but this wasn’t what I was looking for being ever the DOS stalwart. There are no DOS software equivalents that I could find so I needed a hardware solution. Around the time HDMI started to become a thing, a company called X-Vue spotted a place in the market for HDMI to VGA adapters so that people with older projectors or CRT’s could connect an HD signal to their existing and presumably expensive home entertainment set up. They produced the HDFury for this job, later versions of which are for sale to this day. They also offered an add-on for it called the Gamma-X which is what got my attention. This gadget could be bolted on to the HDFury adding a slider control to boost the gamma level. It even conveniently uses VGA connections for in/out – exactly what I wanted.

It would have been too easy if these were still being manufactured and they were discontinued 10 years back. Initial hunting found new old stock still for sale in Germany on Amazon. I tried twice to buy them on there from different sellers, both times being sent an HDFury III instead for no clearly obvious reason especially when there was a picture of the Gamma-X on the listings. I got a refund both times, and even got to keep the HDFury in one of those cases so it could be worse. Weeks after I’d started, I ended up on Ebay in the USA instead where there were a good number for sale around the $15 mark. I had concerns about the US power supply not being compatible but it turns out the adapter uses a USB cable which can be plugged straight into a PC.

Initial results were fairly good. The picture was significantly brighter with no washing out. This isn’t the easiest thing to make out in one of my photos but this can particularly be seen behind the lamp on the left with a larger amount of the background behind visible. Only one problem, it still wasn’t quite as bright as I was looking for even if set all the way to maximum. All that the Gamma-X is doing, is raising the RGB values of the signal so having come this far I figured there couldn’t be any good reason why I shouldn’t bolt in another one to boost it further.

Another trip to Ebay and more waiting for the postman and it does indeed work. The chain of cables under the desk is a little extreme but it’s a small price to pay for a usable CRT. It took me several months to get there but the picture is bright and vivid and I would hope that I’ll be using this for years to come.

I’d like to think when I write these posts that someone could eventually find some use out of them but the odds on anyone reading this being in the same situation seem extremely slim. If you do happen to have an Apple Studio Display around and are into DOS gaming, this is one way to get some use out of it at any rate. I’m not sure it’s something I’d recommend over a standard PC display otherwise. Given the extra expense and hassle, this was a gamble that didn’t entirely pay off in my case but I got where I wanted in the end.

Through The Moongate

Back in August last year, I was excited to find out about the forthcoming Kickstarter for Through The Moongate. This two part book would cover the history of Richard Garriott and Origin from school days all the way up to Portalarium. The Kickstarter met its goal and part 1 was duly published in June/July this year, on time no less (a real rarity for a Kickstarter).

There have been a handful of Origin/Garriott histories produced before, the obvious example being the Official Book Of Ultima. That particular book was less than comprehensive, stopped at Ultima 6 and only looked at Richard Garriott’s side of the story. Through the Moongate was something new and far more detailed. While centered around Ultima, it would cover Origin’s other games and tell the stories of all the people behind them rather than just concenrating entirely on Lord British at the top.

The book arrived at my door some months back and it’s about time I had a quick look at it on here. I’ve not seen the paperback in person but the hardback book I received is extremely high quality and I have no complaints there whatsoever. I didn’t want to wait so by the time it arrived I’d already read the early release chapters as they trickled out, usually on my phone while on a train journey somewhere. Not the ideal way to read any book and it’s only yesterday that I actually sat down to read the final product properly.

So far, I’m a third of the way through on the second read and if anything enjoying it even more than the first time. The early stages offer a detailed biography of Garriott’s formative years, while telling the stories of the relevant people and influences around him. It’s extensively researched and the narrative often weaves around to introduce important figures such as Steve Jackson or even discuss the origins of home computing. The author (Andrea Contato) provides a framework for the story never assuming too much knowledge from the reader. As an Origin nut, there are times I’d prefer a bit more knowledge being assumed but I realise I may not be the typical audience.

These early stages of the book include anecdotes from Richard’s family and friends which flesh out the story far beyond the official book of Ultima. The early Ultimas were very much reflections of their author and his environment, something which is shown in far greater detail here than anywhere previously. If you are at all interested in the history of Origin (and if you aren’t this is the wrong site), it’s essential reading. It’s the later chapters where Andrea’s research truly shines for me however, as Origin begins to expand. There are a wealth of Origin alumni whose stories need to be told and it’s these that I most want to hear.

Which is the cue for me to bring up part 2, the Kickstarter for which will begin a few minutes from time of writing. This will cover the story from about 1990, starting with Wing Commander and Ultima 7 through to Portalarium. It was these years when Origin became the behemoth I would know and love in the 90’s. This is what I was most looking forward to reading about from the moment I heard about Through the Moongate. Andrea has spent several years researching and writing these books. The project deserves your support – please head on over to the Kickstarter and splash some cash.

To give full disclosure, I do have some minor involvement in these Kickstarters so I’m not what you would call entirely impartial. I got involved primarily because I want to read the books myself and I’ll still be putting my own hard-earned into the KS like everyone else. I can’t wait to get my hands on the second volume and hope that it gets the backing it deserves.

Another server move…

One thing I’ve noticed with web hosting is that while the price never changes once you take out a server, neither do the specs. It’s been a few years now and I can get a quicker server with twice the disk space for less money so the site has been moved yet again. That means loads of room for the ever growing PC Zone archive. Everything should be as it was although it will take a while for the DNS to move over to the new IP. As ever please let me know if you spot anything that is missing or not working.

101 Best Games Ever – PC Zone June 2007

I might not usually agree with them but I always love a good best games ever article. I ran across this one scanning the latest PC Zone and thought I’d share it here – particularly since it’s always nice to see Origin represented with Ultima 7 at 31, Wing Commander 4 at 29 and an honourable mention of sorts with System Shock 2 at number 8.

My own list would be full of adventure games – this clearly has to more balanced but they are still well represented with Sam & Max, Fate Of Atlantis, Grim Fandango, Monkey Island and The Longest Journey. The latter is an interesting inclusion given the original PC Zone review was the size of postage stamp and panned it (they did apologize a few issues later). I reckon this is a pretty decent list actually but enough rambling from me. If you want the full issue as a PDF, look for issue 181 in with the rest of the scans at http://62.210.205.110/PCZone

System Shock Review – PC Gamer

I’ve been sent some more scans by Ian Williams including this System Shock review from the October 1994 PC Gamer. It gets a suitably high 90% with the only complaint being the music. I really like the System Shock soundtrack these days but didn’t think much of it at the time myself. It’s either an acquired taste or more likely didn’t sound right on whatever sound hardware I had back then. The General MIDI standard is compatible across devices in theory but some of these old games really needed a Sound Canvas.