ReelMagic

This is going to be a quick post as it’s a tale of abject failure. When I played The Horde a few weeks back, one of the reviews mentioned a ReelMagic version of the game which got my curiosity going. The ReelMagic was an MPEG-1 decoder card released around 1993 which could be used to play back full screen video at a time when PC’s weren’t really up to the job. This card predates DVD decoders and was used in a handful of games at the time such as Return To Zork. Full motion video in gaming was still in its absolute infancy so this was cutting edge stuff on a 386 at the time. The games it supports are clearly going to be the definitive way to play them and I’ve always been intrigued so I picked one up.

IMG_20180221_190150

This is what arrived. It is one of the later models of the card and is considerably smaller than the originals. The first models used a VESA cable to connect to the video card in the same way as the VFX-1. This one uses a pass through cable instead just like an early 3DFX card or the later Hollywood Plus DVD decoder. It does of course use a proprietary cable which it didn’t come with. My first thought was that to test it out I could just connect my video card to one monitor, the decoder to another and see what it would look like.

IMG_20180221_191237IMG_20180221_185449

The drivers are available on the VOGONS website so I installed these. There was some protesting during installation but I got it through in the end. My PC still wasn’t having it though and hung on boot up when trying to load the drivers to memory. There is apparently a test when starting that the connection is in place so I definitely needed that cable.

IMG_20180221_190203

Another trip to Ebay later and I have the cable. This does indeed cure the first problem and I can boot the machine up. What I haven’t managed to do is play any video on it. Every time I try to run anything, I get an “Interrupt Not Found” error. I’ve tried various driver versions, messed about with the IRQ settings, pulled out every other card in the system, all to no avail. I’m about ready to admit defeat and beginning to think that this card just won’t work correctly in a PII – it was really intended for 386/486’s.

IMG_20180221_191301

You can’t win them all I suppose. What I really need is a 386 to try it out with but they are getting thin on the ground these days. If anyone has any bright ideas, let me know. Failing that, I’ll write this one off to experience.

Revisiting a ZX Spectrum Type-In

A couple of weekends back, I had possibly the most nostalgic day I’m ever likely to have clearing some of my old stuff from my parents house. We moved into that house when I was about 5 years old and the oversized loft has been something of a dumping ground ever since. Despite moving out years back, I’ve never got round to sorting out all my stuff as there was never any pressing need. My Dad is planning on moving himself this year though so it all needs to be cleared. The biggest find were all my childhood comics of which there are hundreds (now sold off on Ebay). I also discovered a Sinclair Programs magazine from February 1985 containing loads of ZX Spectrum game listings. Anyone above a certain age will probably remember magazines like this where you were expected to type in the code for each game from the pages. These would frequently have errors leading to much frustration in trying to figure out why it didn’t work. This process provided an early insight into programming for lots of kids like myself and you will find plenty of developers who started out from type ins. The most obvious example from an Origin standpoint being Chris Roberts whose Kong type-in game appeared some years back on this blog.

IMG_20180209_192157

If you had asked me before I found this, I’d have said that I remembered typing in games from numerous magazines as a kid. The fact is that every game that I can vaguely remember is included in this one magazine. There are some reviews in there as well but the majority of the pages are code listings for a score of games.

IMG_20180209_192209

Of personal note is this back page with an advert for the keyboard that I got to replace the ever unreliable rubber keyboard of my Spectrum. Given the cut out part of the page, this must be the very advert that we bought it from all those years back.

IMG_20180209_192227

At any rate with all this nostalgia in the air I thought I’d keep it going by doing something I’ve not tried in 30 years, typing in some game listings. There are several of these games I can recall well enough to know that I played them but the details are patchy. I’ll go for a relatively short one first which impressed me with its graphics at the time with something of a city landscape drawn with lots of lines and dots. I was no doubt easily impressed back then so we’ll see what it looks like now.

The process of typing this in is a whole lot easier than on the original 16K or 48K ZX Spectrum. For those that haven’t ever used one, there were various types of “shift” mode for every key meaning it could type in all the basic commands like PRINT and LOAD with one keypress. This was in fact the only way that it would accept BASIC commands so you needed to learn where all these keywords were and couldn’t just type the word in. This system was also on the ZX81 which had a keyboard that was far more board than it was key being a flat immovable piece of plastic. Reducing typing probably made sense in those circumstances. It also saved memory as I understand by just storing a reference to the basic command rather than the whole word in the program listing. Again on the ZX81 with a frankly ludicrous 1K of RAM by default, probably a good idea.

The 128K spectrum improved matters by actually allowing you to type in the commands. This is the machine I own these days but I’m cheating here and typing it on an emulator first just so I don’t have to save to tape every time I want to test it.

Cheating or not, typing in the program is quite a lengthy procedure, a lot more than I expected. The Spectrum can’t always keep up with my typing and misses out characters. Everything has to be exact and I ended up having to proofread through much of the code after I’d typed it in. To make debugging somewhat easier I decided to type out relevant lines and test as I went along rather than going in strictly line number order. I had at least a couple of dozen typos of my own to sort out before I got this working. Everything in the magazine was correct at least so I didn’t have to fix any existing errors.

One point to note is that the program redefines some of the character graphics by poking new ones into memory so that the ufos, trees, etc.. in the game can be represented by these tiles. Where a letter is underlined in the text, it means I have to swap the spectrum to graphics mode, enter the letter, then swap out again to continue typing. This took a little figuring out and doesn’t appear to be mentioned anywhere in the magazine.

IMG_20180209_192612

IMG_20180209_192625

To get the program to an actual Spectrum, I save it to a virtual cassette in the emulator, then use a utility to convert the tzx file to a wav which I emailed to my phone. I’ve got one of those car audio cassette adaptors for this purpose which plugs into the headphone jack and I can then just play it into the Speccy as if it was a cassette. If you ever want to use one of these things by the way, just slide the cassette into the open deck as above, don’t try to load the cassette conventionally as it will slice off the cable within a few uses.

IMG_20180209_194554

IMG_20180209_194619

So what does the game look like after all that. Graphically, it isn’t bad actually for a type in. Most of the code deals with drawing the city using lots of draw/plot commands. This takes some time on the Z80 in BASIC. The game plays like the spaceship sequences in Ultima 1 if anything except with two UFOs at a time instead of the one. I have to move a cursor around trying to blast them before they destroy the city. Everything moves in character jumps so it’s not smooth or fast but for a type-in, it’s ok. After an hour of typing, you will probably be bored with it within a couple of minutes mind you.

I got a watered down version of the experience here but reliving this little piece of the 80’s, it’s kind of hard to believe this was ever a thing. The reward for the effort is incredibly minimal but I did learn/relearn a bit about Spectrum BASIC in the process. Who knows, I may not have got into programming myself if it wasn’t for this particular magazine so it must be at least partly to blame for my career since. It would be hard to imagine a kid having the patience these days. For anyone curious enough to try this out, the tzx is available here.

After a severe lack of Origin in recent posts, I probably ought to consider renaming this site but there is no way I can be bothered to create a new banner. So instead, I’ll get back on topic and finally have a proper playthrough of Wing Commander 2 on FM Towns next week.

Manhunter New York – Part 2

Manhunter is set in 2004 a couple of years after the orb invasion of Earth that must have passed me by at the time. These orbs are aliens resembling giant floating eyeballs who have enslaved the population, implanted them with tracking chips and forced them all to dress in brown hooded cloaks. A select few humans get chosen to be Manhunters who work as detectives for the Orbs and the game starts with my first day on the job.

RIMG_20180121_205904RIMG_20180121_210124

My first case involves tracking down whoever caused an explosion at the Bellevue hospital. I do this with the aid of my CAD laptop with which I can track the movements of people involved in the crime. These tracking devices apparently didn’t include identifiers which is something of an oversight but at least I’m in a job. As may have been seen in part 1, the hospital contains the corpse of another Manhunter being eaten up by lots of baby orbs. If I look up the name on the toe-tag up on my laptop it tells me he has been transferred to Chicago…

RIMG_20180121_205519 RIMG_20180121_205606

I have to work a case a day over 4 days discovering a human resistance movement along the way. Using their plan, I can ultimately defeat the orbs in New York. The way this story is told can be rather cryptic being almost entirely without dialog (maybe speech has also been banned?). The only time anything ever speaks in the whole game is when the orb gives you a mission at the start of each day.

The Manhunter series plays like no other AGI game. It’s nearly all in 1st person mode and as previously mentioned has no parser. There is still an inventory which can be brought up with the tab key. Select an item in here and you can attempt to use it in whatever situation you are in. For someone who had only just discovered Sierra games, the lack of a parser may have been part of the appeal. This stripped down approach is essentially point and click except without any pointing or clicking and takes the guess the word side of text parsers away.

RIMG_20180121_202916RIMG_20180121_210632

There are also a stack of little mini arcade games dotted throughout. I wouldn’t say any of them are great in their own right but they don’t outstay their welcome. In this first one here, I have to prove myself by throwing knives between this guys fingers. Miss and I’ll be thrown out of the bar I’m in and unable to get the vital clue hidden on the arcade machine. Like so much of the game, why there is a clue on the arcade machine in the first place is less than clear. In this particular arcade game I have to work through a maze avoiding the walls and doing so will show me a pattern which is supposed to lead me to knock down some keypie dolls in a certain order when I get to Coney Island later in the game. You will need to be using a good deal of trial and error and lateral thinking to get through these puzzles.

RIMG_20180121_205140 RIMG_20180121_205340 RIMG_20180121_205401 RIMG_20180121_205434 RIMG_20180121_205436

Knocking down the kewpie dolls and showing a medallion I found earlier earns me a data card containing a short ditty. You want to take serious note of the name Phil here. From day two on, most of the suspects I’m chasing start turning up dead with the perpetrator showing up on the tracking system on my laptop but I’m unable to select him and follow him around. As I’ll ultimately learn it’s the mysterious Phil to blame and begs the question why I’m even on the case if the orbs have this guy killing everyone before I get chance to find them.

RIMG_20180121_211517RIMG_20180121_211624

One of the suspects on day 2 is led by Phil through Central Park which has now been turned into a minefield. I have to be very careful to follow the exact route shown on my laptop if I don’t want my body parts spread around central park. Phil has already done in my suspect by the time I arrive but he has scrawled a clue onto a rock with his blood (“COO …”) which is supposed to lead me to the fact that the guy doing this is called Phil Cook, in turn meaning I can look him up in my laptop and find his home address. This is where I got hopelessly stuck back in the 80’s and requires a serious leap of logic. There is another clue of sorts when I enter the park where the Murry’s warn me to “not get my goose cooked” but no real reason to tie this to his name. I seriously doubt many people figured this out – it’s frankly a terrible puzzle but did sell me a hint book which may have been the point.

IMG_20180123_184244 IMG_20180123_185000

Skipping ahead to day 4, I learn that humans are being ground down for meat in true Soylent Green style. To put a stop to this I get to steal an orb spaceship and go around bombing the 4 orb centres of operation around New York.

IMG_20180123_191342IMG_20180123_191407

Manage this and there is a brief celebration, cut short when Phil vaporizes everyone except me. I fly off after him and into Manhunter 2 which moved over to San Francisco. This sequel never made it onto the IIGS so I’ll have to move back to PC again if I ever blog through that one. Manhunter 2 had even more of a cliffhanger ending only to never get the sequel I so badly wanted. It’s about time we had a Manhunter 3 Kickstarter if you ask me.

IMG_20180123_191433 IMG_20180123_191458

So how well does the game hold up these days? It’s arguably a little more playable that your usual AGI title since there is no walking a little character around a screen or text parser. The puzzles can be seriously obtuse to counterbalance this. It’s hard for me to judge just how obtuse when I know the solution from nearly 30 years back but there is no way I’d have been solving all of these without a walkthrough. The sections tracking people on the laptop are quite neat and it’s a good setup for a game. Manhunter 2 would take more advantage of it.

The mixture of horror and sci-fi + the big colourful graphics and arcade sections won me over as a kid and as AGI games go it’s something of a looker. The graphics are all very strange and quirky with little touches of humour throughout. I’d have been very interested to see what an SCI Manhunter 3 could have been like but am unlikely to ever see one now. The storyline is all a little muddled and random if I’m honest but you do gradually learn about the world you are in. More exposition would certainly have helped but you are left to work it all out for yourself. The world of Manhunter is all certainly strange but it’s still one of my favourite AGI games. I’ve far too much nostalgia for my opinion to count for much here but it’s got to be worth a go for adventure game fans.

RIMG_20180121_203757 RIMG_20180121_203833

As for playing it on the IIGS, it generally added to the experience but PC gamers weren’t missing out on all that much. You aren’t going to be overly impressed with the new soundtrack but it does have more to offer than the original. The horribly slow IIGS processor does reduce the pace when loading screens. This is especially painful when navigating the 3D maze on day 1. It also can’t keep up on the laptop tracking screens if lots of people are in a room with the framerate dropping to about 1 FPS. This is the exception rather than the rule and Manhunter runs at a reasonable speed 95% of the time. The IIGS is probably the best version to play but maybe whack your emulator speed up a bit or see if you can find one of those overpriced Transwarp cards to get some more speed.

Manhunter New York – Part 1

After very briefly taking a look at Origin’s IIGS ports in the last post, I thought I should try out a game that was actually enhanced for the IIGS. One of Sierra’s AGI games seemed like the obvious choice so I’m going to be replaying a childhood favourite of mine – Manhunter New York.

Sierra’s AGI engine was effectively a virtual machine within which their games would run. This meant that once that VM was ported to another platform, in theory at least, all of their games would then be compatible. It was all quite slick for the time but not without consequences. Since AGI had originally targeted the PC Jr’s very limited sound and graphics capabilities, the upshot was that all the AGI games looked years out of date when ported to everything else. Even the Amiga versions of these games were near enough the same down to the beepy music and low res graphics. If you wanted to show off the capabilities of your Amiga, you wouldn’t have touched these Sierra games with a barge pole.

For whatever reason, the Apple IIGS actually saw slightly enhanced ports of a number of these Sierra games. They still didn’t exactly push the system but they are a real curiosity for someone who grew up on AGI games like myself. At one point in my life, I would have told anyone without irony that Manhunter was the best game ever. I won’t be telling you that here but playing this again will be a definite nostalgia trip. I still know the game inside-out so I’m expecting to play through it at some speed.

IMG_20180122_184122 IMG_20180122_184138

Before that, I’ll take a look at the box for the PC version. It’s in a typical late 80’s Sierra slipcase with the back showing the Murrys who developed the game dressed up in brown cloaks as Manhunters. This is the same team that developed The Ancient Art Of War some years earlier, a title I will definitely be playing at some point on this blog.

IMG_20180122_184157   IMG_20180122_184129

The inside of the box is stuffed full of disks and paperwork. The day-glow pages in the manual were probably an attempt to throw off photocopiers since it’s also used for keyword copy protection every time you start the game. The included map has lots of information most of which will be used in the games puzzles in one shape or form. You can still finish the game without it but it definitely helps.

To get around to those IIGS enhancements, the graphics changes are so subtle as to be almost non-existent with an altered palette being used for some screens. This is minimal being mainly seen in more realistic skin tones than the Tandy could manage. There is also a slight tweak in the credits sequence to add the author of the IIGS port on the side of a box in the alley. The major difference is in the sound with the music being ported to the IIGS’s MIDI synthesizer and in some cases new pieces being composed. The IIGS also uses digitized sound effects throughout rather than the usual beeps.

To illustrate, I’ll break habit and use video which if nothing else is a chance to see if my new phone is any better at capturing video from CRT’s. First off, here is the intro and early stages of Manhunter running on a Tandy:-

And now, the all new and improved IIGS port:-

I have to say that I’m already won over by the changes. It’s still so close to the original that the nostalgia isn’t lost which is a good thing in my case. The music isn’t fantastic but is an improvement and the actual sound effects have to be better than PC speaker. As for the ability of my phone for videoing this stuff, it’s debatable but isn’t any worse than my last one. It’s a whole lot better for photos at any rate which will certainly help.

What is blatantly missing from this port is some proper mouse controls. The Manhunter series was highly unusual among AGI games in that it dropped the text parser entirely and used a context sensitive icon instead. This had to be controlled using the cursors on PC and was always crying out for being mouse driven instead. Sierra have added mouse control on the IIGS but all it does is slowly move the cursor to the position on the screen you clicked at which point you can press return to select whatever you clicked on. I’m not impressed with this but it’s no doubt still due to the underlying AGI engine which is in effect being automatically driven by a bolted on bit of mouse handling code.

The interface is a bit of a lost opportunity then but I’m still looking forward to playing this again. I’ll take a look at the game and storyline in the next post when I’ve played through the rest of the game.

The Horde Review – PC Format

This will be a short one as I found all of one review for The Horde in the July 1994 PC Format. They liked it a whole lot less than I did citing the repetitive gameplay and lack of enough to do.

doc0003

I don’t have the issue but it was also reviewed in the July 1994 PC Zone. They used to include scores from the old issues at the end of their magazine which are usually my first port of call to figure out which months I need to look at to find a given game. In contrast, they gave it 87% saying “Not an original concept but extremely well implemented.”