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.

The Hoard – Feb 2019

It’s been over a year since the last one so it’s time for another of my semi-regular looks at the hoard of gaming stuff I’m storing round here. I’ve been actively collecting for something like 20 years now but the oldest bits date back to when I first bought them around the end of the 80’s. I’ll keep it shortish as there aren’t massive changes to the last time. The main difference is that I’ve replaced all the bookcases holding the big boxes for much larger and smarter Ikea equivalents. Other than that I’ve added a good few big box games, and a whole lot of PC Zones in my efforts to get them all scanned.

The big boxes are in what would probably be a dining room in a more normal house but I’ve dedicated it to PC gaming (plus the occasional bit of work). Starting on the left, I’ve got a load of posters and a repro Crusader standee on the wall with the radiator. The glass desk is an oddity I’ve had since early 2000’s where someone had the bright idea of putting the CRT monitor underneath so that it doesn’t take up all your desk space. It’s great for that purpose but I really should get something a bit bigger one of these days for my main PC.

Onto the big boxes. I still haven’t organised them particularly well but they are loosely clumped by company or theme. It has on occasion taken me 10 minutes to find something when I can’t remember what the side of the box looked like. Most of the Origin stuff is in that first bookcase. There are Star Trek, Infocom, Access, Westwood and SCI clumps in the other cases.

Next is Sierra corner with everything AGI and SCI. After that, it’s Lucasarts, guide books too big to fit into their boxes, FPS’s and Legend adventure games.

The final case is extremely random, a little bit of an Interplay theme going on but it’s basically everything else. I may thin some of this out this year of the bits I’m not too worried about.

On to the upstairs, the box room is currently storing all the old PC magazines. These are way better organised than the games and all in chronological order – if they weren’t I would never be able to find anything. The PC Zone coverdisks are neatly stored here in order as of about a week ago when I plugged all the gaps in the archive. The drawers on the right are largely full of Origin design docs most of which I’ve shared on this site over the years.

Finally up another floor to the attic room which is where all the consoles and computers go. The stairway up has all the really big Origin posters that I can’t fit anywhere else. I’ve a few old books and the like shoved in the first corner. I expect my guide books may end up in here before much longer.

Going round, most of my old systems are plugged into the B&O TV in the corner via an impenetrable nest of SCART switches and cables.

I don’t especially collect games for any of these systems relying largely on multi-carts instead but I have added a load of Ultimate – Play The Game boxes this last year. My old TV from student days is on the right which is a bit more basic than the B&O. I’ve found that not all the systems will work on the B&O for whatever reason. The picture on the C128 is fairly patchy also and may end up moving to this corner in the foreseeable future.

My favourite bit up here is the collection of old PC’s with a IIGS, Tandy 1000 TX, FM Towns 2, 286 (set up for composite CGA) and the Amstrad CPC at the end. You may spot that the monitors don’t actually match the machine they are sat on (for space reasons). The IIGS actually outputs to the TV in the corner. The rest of the magazine cover disks are nestled in an alcove on the right in a slightly disheveled state having extracted all the PC Zone disks the other week.

I’ve got the heart of the tiger up here at the moment. He was supposed to go on the wall downstairs but is too wide to actually fit. I could move all the pictures around if I was keen enough but for now he lives up here next to the Vectrex and spare controllers.

That’s the lot. The collection isn’t likely to grow a whole lot bigger from here on out. I’d like to keep the rest of the house relatively normal and two games rooms is kind of excessive as it is. I’d rather enjoy what I’ve got at this point and most of these systems haven’t seen anywhere near enough use as it is. There is always room for a few more big boxes though and maybe a 386/486 this next year.

Addendum – By request, here are closeups of all the shelves:-

PC Zone Issues (224 + 225 October/November 2010)

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I’ve been buying up more PC Zones so I’ve skipped forward and scanned the last two issues ever published from October and November 2010. There are some decent games covered in these as well as a lengthy look back at 17 years of the magazine. PC Zone ran for an impressive 225 issues of which I’ve now got scans of 113. That means that about 7 or 8 years after I started I’ve only just crossed the half way point. A lot more scanning to be done if I’m ever going to get there but the pace is clearly a lot brisker than it was. The scans are in the same place as ever at http://www.pixsoriginadventures.co.uk/PCZone

 

 

PC Zone Issue 208 – (July 2009)

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The server is now fully up and running as far as I’m aware. I’ve recovered low-res versions of all the missing images from Google images so all that is missing are a handful of posts and all the comments. To make sure I don’t have this issue again, I’ve set up automatic backing up for the database and fixed the manual backup for the files themselves. With that sorted out, I can actually get on with adding some content again in the shape of this weeks PC Zone scan.

I’ll keep working my way back so this issue is another from 2009. It’s a marked improvement on the last one with a good number of memorable games such as Arkham Asylum, Bioshock 2, Braid (which I still haven’t played!), Borderlands and Plants Vs Zombies which is a game that I’d swear came out years before all those others. The scan is in the same place as ever at http://www.pixsoriginadventures.co.uk/PCZone

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.