Ultima 1 – Palm OS

I was asked some months back if I’d take a look at the ports of the first 3 Ultima games for PalmOS. There appears to be precious little information about them on the web so this isn’t going to be a lengthy post. I’m always curious to try out new versions of Ultima so I can take a look at the game at least. With this in mind, I bought myself a Tungsten T3:-

IMG_20170506_130553

This particular PalmOS device was released for around $400 in 2003, a few years before the first smartphones. In essence it does the same job, just with a lot more limitations and of course you can’t make a phone call. It has a 320×480 touchscreen, a 400Mhz processor and 64MB of RAM. These devices aren’t exactly in demand and are pretty much being given away these days.

The Ultima ports in question were done around 2004 by Paul Chandler of SoftwareByPaul. The remnants of his GeoCities site are still available at http://www.geocities.ws/softwarebypaul/ but the purchase link points to the long dead palmgear.com website. This means that for now at least, these games have been lost with only the demos available for download. I’d happily buy the full version if given opportunity but for now will content myself with a quick blast around the U1 demo to get an idea of what the full game would have had in store.

Some liberties have been taken and I assume this is the same engine used for the Ultima 3 port. There are certainly plenty of Ultima 3 elements incorporated with a party of 4 characters, field of view, magic shops no longer selling individual spells but instead offer healing/resurrection, etc… Combat takes place on a single screen allowing each party member to be controlled individually. The dungeons are all 2D and a lot less populated by monsters than I’m used to, with no trap doors, coffins or even secret doors as far as I can see.

Other elements of Ultima 1 are in place with the map appearing reasonably familiar. Lord British’s castle has been shuffled around a bit but the usual elements were all there with a locked up princess, 3 store rooms (I don’t appear to have a command to steal from them?). There is no sound to speak of. Without the ability to buy food, I’m not even going to attempt to get far enough into the game to see how stats work. Lord British does tell me I need to experience more, suggesting that the signposts may also have been gotten rid of in favour of something more akin to Ultima 3’s levelling up system.

I wasn’t sure about this port at first but it looks like it could be OK from what I’ve seen, even if it is different to what I’m used to. I expect the Ultima 3 port will make more sense rather than this hybrid. The T3 is actually not a bad little gaming device for this sort of thing with a nice clear screen for a gadget this old. Using the pen is quite noisy. I could imagine myself infuriating other train passengers were I to be tapping away on this on my commute. If I ever get hold of the full version, I may well try it and find out.

Rather than take all the usual photos, I’ve posted a brief run-around below in what appears to be the only video on the internet of this particular game. Note that there is a bug in character generation allowing you to start all characters out with 25 in every stat:-

Ultima 4’s Native MIDI Support

I had (and still have) plans for numerous things to write about on here this year but real life has been taking precedent for the last few months. I’ve started a new job which currently means many hours of commuting every day and when I’ve not been doing that, I’ve had my hands full getting my house ready to sell. That’s now on the market so in the hopefully brief lull before I have to worry about moving, I might manage a post or two.

I’m sure all Ultima fans are aware of the fan patches that add MIDI support to some of the early DOS Ultimas. What is somewhat less well known is that the earliest two Ultima games to support music had built-in MIDI support from the beginning on the Atari ST. This is something I’ve been wanting to try out for ages.

First off, a quick look at Ultima 4 running without MIDI. Apologies as ever for the usual quality of the video on here as I’m still just pointing my phone at the screen. The built-in Yamaha sound chip on the Atari ST is in effect the same as on the ZX Spectrum 128 or Amstrad CPC, i.e. a 3 channel beeper. It’s not horrible but it lags way behind the Amiga which would come out mere months later.

The built-in MIDI support of the ST was a unique feature, leading to the machine being used for years in music production. Watch enough 80’s Top Of The Pops and you will see the occasional ST driving synths. MIDI didn’t see a whole lot of use in ST games in truth. Sierra included MT-32 support for some of their games and were the main proponents. I can’t imagine many gamers took advantage of this given that the MT-32 would have cost far more than the ST itself. If you had that sort of money, you probably had an Amiga or PC by then. To the best of my knowledge, Ultima 3 and 4 were the only Origin games to support MIDI on the ST.

IMG_20170411_202825IMG_20170411_202831

For the purposes of trying them out, I’ve connected up my SC-155 to the ST’s MIDI out. While fairly ancient, this synth is still more modern than what was available at the time. On starting the game, this is what I got:-

You’ll no doubt have noticed that the music is being played entirely on piano. This is because, while the game is outputting MIDI instructions, it doesn’t send any more than just the notes so it all defaults to the grand piano. Several years layer, general MIDI was introduced with a standard set of instruments but at this time every device would simply do its own thing. This means I have to fiddle around on the SC-155 picking instruments myself. I let the title screen cycle through tracks while changing instruments. After some effort, I came up with this:-

There is certainly room for improvement but that sounded reasonable to my ears at least. A whole lot better than the original beeps anyway. There doesn’t appear to be any subtlety in the instructions, in terms of volume and the like. The notes are simply being switched on and off. The music is split into 6 channels giving me 6 instruments to choose for the various parts. The snag is that those same instruments will then be used on every other piece of music. No doubt there is a suitable combination that will work in all cases but I tried restarting with my new settings and it sounded a little off to my ears:-

A little more experimentation is definitely required but I ran out of time. It’s certainly a nice extra to have included in the game for those ST owners who had the extra hardware. Ultima 3 works in the same way, except all the notes are on the one channel meaning you can only pick the one instrument (at least without more advanced equipment to process the MIDI).

Art D’s Batch Adventures

It’s time at last to get around to the first post of 2017. I’d like to say I’ll be posting more regularly this year but realistically that is unlikely to happen. When I do get round to it, there are still old games to play so lets start with a handful of Origin games I forgot about when I was originally blogging through them all.

Probably the most significant Easter eggs ever to make their way into Origin products were 3 text adventure games hidden away in the files for Privateer, Privateer – Righteous Fire and Wings Of Glory. These were all created by Arthur DiBianca, a coder at Origin during the 90’s.

IMG_20170120_215243

To find these hidden games, you need to search through the files for each game and look for the one starting with tab. The filename is actually reversed and in this case should be advent.bat, so it simply needs renaming and copying into an otherwise empty directory.

IMG_20170120_215341

You then type advent setup to start, except I discovered at this point that with all this batch file trickery going on, DOS ran out of environment space.

IMG_20170120_215451

To fix this, you just need to edit your config.sys file and reboot. The relevant line is shell=c:\dos\command.com /P /E:1024. This maxes out the environment space in DOS and will fix the errors running these games.

IMG_20170120_215645

Running the setup generates a load of little batch files for all the commands in the game. These text adventures play entirely from a tweaked command prompt so there is a look.bat and n, s, e and w.bat files, etc. Each command in the game is actually a call to run the relevant batch file.

These files pass along their calls to the main advent script which does the heavy lifting. If you supply a second word, i.e. look lamp, then lamp is passed as a parameter into the batch file. Presumably all the variables for the game are stored in the DOS environment. It’s kind of ingenious really and shows how much you can do with batch scripting. I would imagine it’s not the most practical language for the job but it clearly works.

Of course with the whole game being played from a DOS prompt, you don’t want to be typing any unwarranted DOS commands while playing this (other than dir which gives a verb list).

IMG_20170120_220127

Having spent a while getting it running, the first game took all of a couple of minutes to beat. I won’t give away too much but it essentially revolves around learning a few magic words to teleport around the world. There isn’t a plot to describe in any of these games, it’s along the lines of Zork with somewhat random locations and puzzles to conquer. At the end of the game, I’m rewarded with a magic word to carry into the next game which was included with Righteous Fire.

IMG_20170121_104404IMG_20170121_110047

The second and third game are substantially larger with maybe 10-20 locations each and a good deal more puzzles. That isn’t to say they will last more than 5 minutes a piece but they did make me think. I’m glad to say there was no resorting to that staple of text adventures, large mazes with identical locations. Did anyone ever actually enjoy those things?

I can’t say I’m any the wiser having got to the end of these as to what exactly is going on. There is some mention of a crowned man apparently obsessed with breadsticks. This has to be Lord British but don’t ask me where the breadstick interest comes from.

Unfathomable as they may be, all 3 games are a fun little diversion and if you want to try them out without using the original files, they can be played through a browser at https://archive.org/details/wcadvent

Building A Composite CGA PC

Back in October, I did a post with my first attempts at getting some CGA games running on an Apple composite monitor that I’d just picked up. I sort of got this to work on a Tandy 1000 with composite colours being produced. Just not the right colours since the Tandy’s aren’t really compatible. I’d been expecting this and the intention was to use an original CGA card instead, except at this point I noticed that my CGA card was far too large to fit into the Tandy’s case. I therefore needed a suitable PC to try it out with. The next post where I got this working properly was supposed to follow shortly after but as ever with these old machines, it wasn’t that simple.

IMG_20161210_194628

This is the CGA card I’m intending to use. It’s a full length giant of a card with an 8 bit ISA interface. ISA was the original PC expansion port interface before PCI Express, AGP, PCI, Vesa and all the others. PC’s still came with ISA slots into the Pentium era but my options with this card are more limited. With the advent of 286’s the 8 bit ISA interface was expanded with a second slot to make the bus 16 bits. As a rule, this was entirely backwards compatible except my CGA card predates the 16 bit slot and doesn’t leave a gap for the extra connector on the motherboard. In short, I need an 8 bit slot if this thing is ever going to work which limited my options.

s-l1600

So with that in mind, I bought myself the above Vanilla 286 PC. OId PC’s have started to get a bit expensive and I no doubt paid more than I should but a machine that has been refurbed, tested and comes with a guarantee is worth a bit with a PC of this age. At any rate, it all worked perfectly in every respect except the minor factor that as soon as I tried to use composite out, I could only get monochrome.

IMG_20161013_201716

Having tried everything I could think of, I wasn’t sure whether it was the PC or the graphics card since I’d never used the CGA card before this. It occurred to me that given how long it was, there was enough flex in the CGA card that I could fit it into my Tandy if I bent it around the side of the case and I insulated it against the edge of the metal case with an antistatic bag. I really don’t recommend trying this at home but it did give me a means of testing it.

IMG_20161013_201908IMG_20161013_201911

Sure enough, it worked perfectly as shown in Ultima 2 above. Ultima 2 was one of the better composite games on the Tandy but comparing this to the screenshots from the last post, there is still a big difference. The blue Ultima text and green dragon more or less merged into one colour using the Tandy but are clearly defined here. In theory, I could have left it at this and just used my Tandy but there is no way I’m going to torture my one and only CGA card like that. It makes me wince just looking at the photo above.

From my limited understanding, the CGA card can be told to run in either monochrome or colour by a bit that is stored somewhere in memory. None of the BIOS settings helped me out here though and I came to the conclusion that this PC may simply be hardcoded to only do monochrome. The other alternative is that there was an adjustable trim switch on the motherboard of a genuine IBM for CGA timings which was entirely missing from this Vanilla PC. Whatever the cause I couldn’t get it to work. These early PC clones were rarely 100% compatible so I gave in and sent it back for a refund.

IMG_20161211_115030

I’d not looked at trying again until earlier this week when having finally got over the post flood house insurance bill, I felt like I could spare the cash to try again with another machine. The one I picked up was a Televideo Telecat-286. This cost more than the Vanilla PC but had the bonus of coming with a working hard disk.

IMG_20161210_190226IMG_20161210_190415

For a supposedly tested machine, this thing was truly filthy inside to the extent that there is no way on earth I’d have tried switching it on without cleaning it out first. I’ve spared you the photos of 30 years worth of decaying clumps of dust and hair. Underneath everything still appeared solid at any rate with no bulging capacitors or the like. I’m not sure if weight is an indication of build quality but this is the single heaviest PC I’ve ever owned. I wondered what exactly was weighing that much until I opened it up and saw the man-size power supply taking up about 1/3 of the case.

This thing was full of expansion cards which I didn’t strictly need . The big one on the left is a monumentally large modem. As for the other two, the bottom one is a network card and the other must be a CGA or EGA graphics card at a guess but I’m not 100% certain.

I slotted my CGA card in to one of the freed up slots and then worked on getting the PC to start up. After being initially alarmed at the turbine like noise produced by the PSU fan, I ultimately decided it was supposed to sound like that and I’d just forgotten how noisy PC’s used to be. It got as far as attempting to boot up but with none of the drive lights flashing couldn’t find a system disk.

All these clone machines are different and since I have no manual and couldn’t find one on the web, I was stuck with trial and error. After a lot of fiddling around, I spotted that the floppy drive did work but was connected to B instead of A and since the BIOS was at default values the drive wasn’t detected. This got me to a DOS prompt but with no hard drive. I ignored this for now and tried to get the composite CGA working since that was the whole point of this exercise.

IMG_20161211_101520

At the first attempt, I managed to get some composite colour but only in a thin band with most of the screen remaining black and white. A bit of searching later and I found that like a genuine IBM, this motherboard does have a small variable resistor for CGA timing located at one end of the motherboard. It’s the small round orange thing in the photo above. A tiny tweak on this with a screwdriver and my graphics suddenly sprung into full colour.

IMG_20161211_114958

You may remember the day glow colours I got when trying King’s Quest 2 on the Tandy in composite. This time I actually got the correct colours which are not all that dissimilar to the 16 colour Tandy graphics on the left. The image is far less sharp in composite and this probably isn’t the best way to play these Sierra games but for the games not supporting Tandy graphics, it’s a massive improvement over the usual CGA palette.

IMG_20161211_111040

I still hadn’t got the hard disk working which was a bit of a learning curve. This machine is using a surprisingly modern 670Mb IDE drive, which allegedly had Windows 98 on it at some point if I can believe whoever wrote on it. I seriously doubt this PC ever ran Windows 98 so I assume this has come from another machine. The drive wasn’t being detected in DOS and I had no idea how to set it up. Aside from an array of unlabeled dip switches on the motherboard (standard in this era), this PC does have something resembling a BIOS except you apparently have to run a setup program from the DOS prompt to set the values rather than holding a key on startup.

Much Googling later, I gave in trying to find that setup program but did come across something called gsetup.exe which is a universal BIOS setup program for 286/386 machines. As luck would have it, this was mostly compatible with my machine. I was only allowed to pick from 19 predefined hard disk types, the largest of which was 120Mb. I really didn’t expect this to work but the drive formatted 120Mb and I’ve been able to get this thing booting up without the floppy drive. I can live with the missing 550Mb. For the software I’ve got in mind for this machine, 120Mb will be plenty.

IMG_20161211_105141

Something I haven’t done yet is swap out the CMOS battery meaning I have to go through the whole setup process every time I switch the machine on. I’d usually expect to see a little CR2032 battery on a motherboard but this has a sizable Lithium battery stuck on the side of the drive bay. This is the same voltage as lots of remote control car batteries so I’ve ordered one of them which I’ll replace it with when it arrives.

IMG_20161211_111159

One last job was to install my first ever sound card which I’ve still got nearly 30 years later. I’ve sold or thrown away nearly every bit of hardware from that era but for some reason this got kept so I may as well make use of it now rather than just having the box on a shelf.

I’ve still got to set up the hard disk with a proper installation of DOS but 6 months after I started, I’m nearly there at last. I’ve been curious about composite CGA ever since I played my first PC games back in the 80’s. I fully intend to dig out a few of those of those relics next week and see what they look like with some extra colours.

Descent Reviews

As I suspected, the UK press liked Descent a whole lot more than I did with all of the reviews I found scoring around 90%. The bulb on my scanner has gone so it’s photos only I’m afraid until I get it fixed/replaced. I’ve uploaded the images unaltered so everything should be just about legible.

The first is a matter of fact review from the April 1995 PC Review:-

img_20161102_195028

Next, the March 1995 PC Format describing Descent as the first game to better Doom:-

img_20161102_194931 img_20161102_194945

This is the harshest of the reviews at 89% from the March 1995 PC Gamer:-

img_20161102_194840

It scored 94% in the April 1995 PC Zone write-up, featuring an alleged guest appearance by David Hasselhoff:-

img_20161102_194601 Zimg_20161102_194614

And finally by request, here is a review for Descent 2 from the April 1996 PC Zone:-

img_20161102_194313 img_20161102_194418 img_20161102_194500 img_20161102_194533