Sharp Cyberstick

My quest to get an FM Towns set up continues. I’ve certainly learnt a bit but still had no success with my first attempts with an external hard drive so am going to try a SCSI2SD device next. More on that when it arrives and if I actually get it working.

In the meanwhile, I have received one more relevant bit of kit which I’ll take a quick look at here:-

IMG_20170620_190732

This is a Sharp Cyberstick controller and is about the only option for an analog joystick on the FM Towns as far as I’m aware. There are some more conventional analog gamepad controllers but it has to be a joystick for Wing Commander.  The Cyberstick is also supported on the X68000 (should I ever happen to get one) and apparently on a handful of Mega Drive / Mega CD titles. Those Mega Drive titles don’t include Wing Commander I’m sorry to say.

IMG_20170620_190814

It’s a fairly high end device with a good deal of customization options available. The most striking of these is the ability to remove the stick and throttle and swap their positions around. A little side benefit of this is that all the working parts of the analog controller can be easily exposed and serviced should it be required.

IMG_20170620_190953

The unit is quite large but not as large as I might expect. Comparing it here to the Sony dual analog controller, there is a marked contrast in size and I would prefer the joystick especially to have been considerably bigger. I suppose this was aimed squarely at the Japanese market who presumably have slightly smaller hands on average. As for myself, I’m left holding on with my fingertips. The resistance on the stick is extremely low so it’s still very controllable like this.

The throttle on the left isn’t a true throttle as it returns to the center position when released. When using it in Wing Commander, it essentially acts as a switch to raise and lower speed. A true throttle would have been far more satisfying but limited the controller in other games no doubt. A switch to turn the centering off/on could have cured this but no such luck.

I’ve not played a lot of Wing Commander with the Cyberstick as of yet as I’m waiting until I get a hard drive. My main complaint would be that the controls don’t appear to be re-definable and while there are nice touches like being able to use the little toggle switch on the throttle to lock/cycle targets, the D button on the throttle only duplicates the B button on the joystick to fire missiles. This means that to use the afterburner, I have to let go of the throttle entirely to reach over for the C button in the middle. It works but surely didn’t need to be this clunky.

Truth be told, I’m a little disappointed with this controller. It’s like Sharp set out to make a flight controller and then thought it had better work with other types of games and compromised. The main body of the unit is large and heavy yet the two sticks themselves where you will have your hands 99% of the time are lightweight and a bit cheap. It comes across as a bit of a toy when compared to the Thrustmaster’s and the like that were on the PC’s of that era. As such, I’d rate this behind the Sony dual analog and especially the 3DO CH flightstick when it comes to the options for playing Wing Commander games on consoles. Neither of those systems had the original Wing Commander 1 & 2 though and this is definitely preferable to using a gamepad and/or keyboard. It’s an essential extra if you want to play Wing Commander on a real FM Towns but you’d better be more than a little fanatical about such things to make it worthwhile, or have really, really small hands.

FM Towns Memory Upgrade

I’m still trying to get my FM Towns in a state to play Wing Commander. It might help if I hadn’t spent so much time playing Truxton 2 on it but I have made some progress this weekend. The main problem I’m having is the lack of information and what there is often conflicting. As such, I thought I’d share what knowledge I do gain starting today with the memory upgrade.

My FM Towns II (like most of the models) comes with 2Mb of RAM. This was quite a lot for the time but that single speed CD-ROM drive just isn’t up to loading data on the fly (as shown in the fairly painful first attempt with Wing Commander a couple of weeks back). I gather some machines support EDO RAM, provided you set the appropriate jumper on the motherboard but I opted for what I hoped was the safe option of buying some 8Mb 70ns FPM, Non-Parity SIMMS from Ebay. Early FM Towns machines are limited to 8Mb SIMM’s as a maximum. I expect that’s not the case with my FM Towns II but 10Mb sounds like plenty for the games I have in mind.

The SIMM’s themselves are cheaply available, more so if you happen to be in the USA. I understand that other FM Towns models vary with many having several slots for SIMM’s but my particular UR model just has the one slot, conveniently located at the side of the case under a plastic flap:-

IMG_20170610_152226IMG_20170610_152219

You can just see the Intex 486SX chip nestling behind the RAM slot. It seems pretty strange these days for a PC CPU to have no heatsink whatsoever but it clearly gets by without. I slotted my RAM in here and of course when I switched the PC on, it wasn’t detected. After much Googling I stumbled on a post at http://nfggames.com/forum2/index.php?topic=6150.0

The upshot is that pins 67-70 on the SIMM chip are used to report the size and speed of the SIMM in question. The IBM compatible chips use a completely different standard to those on the FM Towns so a bit of finagling is required. Fortunately, this is fairly easy to achieve with a soldering iron even for me.

The table above (stolen from the forum post) shows the settings required with O being the pins that should be connected. Most (but not all) SIMM’s will have somewhere on them pairs of solder points for this purpose.

IMG_20170610_152131

The jumpers in question are at the top right of the chip I’ve used here. R1-R4 represent pins 67-70 in order. R3 was already bridged with a little connector. From the chart above, I also needed to connect R2 and R4. I just filled the gaps with a bit of solder and I’m pleased to report that my FM towns now detected the memory correctly on boot.

I should mention that the first chip I tried still refused to work as it didn’t pass the memory tests at startup. It may well just have been a faulty chip but I’ve heard that some SIMM’s can prove to be incompatible. The one that did work is an HP D2975A which is available on Ebay for under $3.

As far as improving Wing Commander goes, the difference is marked. During cutscenes, the extra memory appears to largely used as a cache, so the first time a given character or scene is shown it is still slow to load but once you have played a mission or two the CD isn’t even accessed most of the time. Gameplay itself is all pre-loaded before the mission and the game is so much more playable now, albeit with a really, really long loading time for that first mission. It’s still quicker than playing Wing Commander 3 on a 486 was.

I’m going to be needing that hard disk if I’m ever going to play Wing Commander 2 as it requires installation to run at all.  I have the hard disk but am still waiting on the SCSI cable to try it out. One hitch I know is coming is that the BIOS battery on this thing is long dead and it appears I will have to completely dismantle the machine to get to it. The hard disk will need setting up every time I switch the machine on if I don’t fix this but I might just live with it depending on how much grief it causes. I definitely want to get the hard disk up and running first..

The main thing that is keeping me from a Wing Commander playthrough is that I really don’t much fancy using the keyboard to play the game. The solution to that problem is being delivered next week so providing it works I hope to have this fully up and running before too much longer.

Wing Commander 1 FM Towns (First Look)

I’ve been gathering old computers a good number of years now and had managed to get near enough all of the one’s I really want with one exception. The FM Towns was a Japanese PC variant which came out in 1989. It was a 32-bit machine with 640×480 SVGA like graphics, 2Mb of RAM, 8 channel music + 6 channel PCM, built-in CD-ROM, sprite hardware and was basically years ahead of anything here in the UK where I was either still using a 48K ZX Spectrum or just getting my first 8Mhz CGA PC. The name apparently comes from the Nobel physics prize winner Charles Townes but the spelling was changed to make sure people pronounced it correctly. The FM stands for Fujitsu Micro.

As a massive fan of DOS era PC games, the FM Towns is particularly intriguing as it got enhanced ports of many familiar titles of the era. Most famously, several Lucasarts/Lucasfilm Games adventures and the Ultima series. I’ve emulated some of these in the past but I’m far more into real hardware so I decided it was about time I spent some of that pay rise and got myself one of these:-

IMG_20170528_072618 (1)

This is an FM Towns II UR which is a 486SX, with 2Mb of RAM, a pair of 3.5 inch floppies up the front and a really tiny (about 8″) but extremely sharp built-in monitor. Allegedly a few FM Towns did make their way to the UK but the only realistic way of getting one of these is to import it from Japan. They aren’t cheap and they definitely aren’t light so this is one for the real “enthusiasts” only. The power supply over there is only 100V so it needs a transformer to work in the UK. The one I’ve used on my machines from the USA is 110V (presumably deliberately in the middle of the two standards) and this seems to work fine.

IMG_20170528_072730

Round the back are some expansion slots, monitor in/out sockets RS & printer ports and most importantly from my point of view a SCSI port for adding an external drive. FM Towns machines didn’t usually come with a hard drive and needed to boot the operating system from a CD. With just 2Mb of RAM as standard, that doesn’t leave much room to play with and from what I’m seeing, a hard drive is a near essential extra as we’ll see shortly.

IMG_20170528_072708

The keyboard has some interesting keys that I’m not used to including an extra 8 function keys and a ‘000’ key. I can’t say I’m a fan of having extra keys directly below the spacebar but I won’t be doing a lot of typing on this. The mouse is taken from an MSX which has compatible controllers and the gamepad is a fairly simple affair that I’ll probably ignore in favour of keyboard whenever given the opportunity.

IMG_20170528_100743

It’s high time to play a game on here and what better to start with than Wing Commander. The FM Towns release comes with some fancy new artwork for the cover and features CD audio, cockpit speech (in Japanese) and digitised sound effects throughout. On starting it up, however I was greeted with stony silence which was something of a let down. From reading through the installation sheet that comes with the game I gather that on 2Mb machines that are running the game from CD, it defaults to no audio to stop the gameplay getting interrupted. It is possible to switch them back on by pressing ‘M’ for music once you start the game. The sound can’t be turned on until you are in the cockpit with ‘S’ to turn on speech and ‘Ctrl + S’ to turn on the sound effects. The reason for these being off is readily apparent as the game constantly loads off the CD and the music and gameplay grind to a halt every time it does it. I recorded a quick and dirty video playing through the first mission below which will give you an idea of what this runs like on a stock FM Towns. Expect a whole lot of loading from that single speed CD drive:-

The music and sound effects are fantastic. I especially like the crescendo at the end of the briefing but the effect is slightly ruined when the next scene has to load. From what I’m seeing, this could well be the best version of WC1 but the loading times and constant pauses are jarring to say the least. It clearly needs that hard disk so I’ve ordered a cheap refurbished 2Gb IBM laptop hard disk + a 50-68 pin SCSI cable off Ebay. I’m hoping that I can more or less just plug that in and be good to go but I can’t profess to knowing anything at all about SCSI drives or installing them in obscure Japanese computers. I’m also looking into memory expansion. The Towns uses a standard 72pin SIMM (non parity, non EDO) so if I chuck in an 8Mb chip it should in theory greatly reduce the need to load data all the time.

Much like the Turbo button on old PC’s, the Towns has two modes with the slower being compatible with the original machine (386SX). I did try running Wing Commander in fast mode (hold down T at boot) but it clearly ran too quickly and slow mode is the way to go. Other games I’ve tried like Ultima Underworld and Alone in the Dark benefit greatly from the extra speed of fast mode. Alone in the Dark actually caches screens to floppy disk when playing the intro in order to not stop the CD music. When you are using a floppy drive as virtual memory, I think it’s a clear sign that you need a hard disk.

The Ultima games on the other hand are much less demanding and run fine without the hard disk, even the famous Ultima 6 talkie version. Underworld I would have benefitted but didn’t run too badly. Underworld II actually requires a hard disk to run at all although it doesn’t appear to mention this on the outside on the box, only when you read the setup instructions. I’ll play through some of these properly when I get the chance.

For now, and pretty much as ever when buying an old machine like this, I need to throw a bit more money at it. Compared to the IIGS which was a serious money pit, I may have got off lightly this time. I’ll wait for all the bits to arrive and then see if I can take a proper look at Wing Commander.

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).