Demoting the BBC Master

Vecalabeth is on hold before I’d barely had chance to start as due to a couple of bugs with the Vectrex32 cartridge (including one to the firmware updating), all of the cartridges are being recalled for repair. That’s a round trip to the states and one to two weeks in the post each way. Plenty of time to play another old game or two but first I’ve got another bit of hardware to try out.

The BBC Master has made an appearance or two on this blog before, not least for a playthrough of the first couple of missions in Elite some months back. One thing that has always bugged me about it, is the fact that the Master is incompatible with a very large portion of the BBC games library, near enough all of which were originally written for the BBC Model B. I’d say about 30-40% of the games I’ve thrown at it haven’t worked and they are often the better ones for the system.

Thankfully there is now a solution and it doesn’t even cost all that much. For £20, RetroClinic.com sell a switchable operating system ROM which allows you to use a couple of variants of both the BBC Model B or the BBC Master system ROM’s. This doesn’t guarantee to get every game working since the two BBC machines are after all still different but it’s apparently near enough everything which will do for me.

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Installing is simply a case of slipping in a new chip and bolting the switch onto the case where the modem lead would be if I had one installed. It’s a very quick and easy installation process attemptable by anyone unless you are unlucky enough to have one of the few machines with a soldered in ROM chip. What took me far longer was figuring out how to get my SD drive working in Model B mode (Tip: *CARD on the command line swaps you from the disk drive to the SD card).

With that worked out, my BBC has now run every game I’ve tried on it and I’ve been having a great time trying some of them out. It’s a system with a bad reputation for games quality but it’s not entirely deserved as it was always capable. The problem it had was the high price point keeping it from ever being mass market outside of schools. As such the library of games was small and the best developers tended to write for systems where there was clearly more money to be had. There are still worthwhile games on there and it’s certainly nostalgic for people who used these in school like myself.

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Plenty of developers got started on the BBC whatever its faults including coincidentally the two biggest names at the moment in space sims, Chris Roberts and David Braben. Prior to this, the only Chris Roberts game that I’ve managed to run on the Master was Stryker’s Run which was one of the rare titles with a BBC Master enhanced version. Now all of his earlier games work including his first release of note, the cute but infuriatingly difficult Wizadore above. Comparing this to Star Citizen, we’ve certainly come a long way in the last 30 years although he did knock the games out a bit quicker back then.

I wouldn’t be half as interested in having all this old hardware without some of the modern upgrades that are available and this ROM kit is a prime example. For the sake of £20, it’s a compulsory upgrade for BBC Master owners as far as I’m concerned and I’m looking forward to trying out some more of the BBC library at long last. I only heard about this last week or I’d have bought one the moment it came out.

While I’m posting, there are two Wing Commander fundraisers going on. First off, possibly the worlds most famous Wing Commander fan, Ben Lesnick is running a GoFundMe campaign to buy all the artwork used for the Wing Commander Academy cartoon series with a view to scanning and preserving it all. This campaign is going extremely well and may well be funded by the time I post this.

More needing of the money right now is George Oldziey’s Kickstarter for a second Wing Commander orchestral CD. The first one of these turned out great and I’m certainly up for another. It could do with some more backers as funding is only about a quarter of the way there after 10 days. I’d expect it to be close at best as to whether this reaches the target.

 

Announcing Vecalabeth

I’ve been something of a fan of the Vectrex console ever since getting hold of one a few years back. The Vectrex was unique in the history of games consoles as it came with a built-in vector monitor. The pin sharp, glowing line graphics this produces are completely unlike the raster graphics we are all used to and give the console a timeless quality as far as I’m concerned. I’ve always fancied having a go at programming on one but never built up enough courage to take the plunge into the assembly coding that would be required. Thanks to a newly released cartridge, (the Vectrex32), I no longer need to.

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The Vectrex32 plugs into the Vectrex like any other cartridge. The difference is that it’s a 32 bit computer in its own right that takes over all the processing duties of the console. This means programs can now be written in BASIC instead of assembly and it vastly increases the processing power available. In addition, the cartridge can interface with terminal software on the PC via USB for easy debugging and copying the basic code over in the first place. Having spent a few hours playing around with it, it’s quite a neat system and it didn’t take long to get my first code up and running. I am finding that I need to stop each program running entirely before copying over my new version of the code every time otherwise I got file corruption trouble. This is slightly tiresome but not a major deal now I figured it out. The other snag with the Vectrex32 is that I need the real hardware to be able to try to run my code. I’d really hate to wear out my Vectrex and would prefer an emulator option in the long run.

Hopefully, the option to code in a high level language will produce a flood of new Vectrex games. I’m going to be giving it a go at least and the project I’m tackling is a reasonably faithful port of Akalabeth onto the platform all those line graphics were clearly meant for in the first place. How successful this will be is yet to be seen as there are still hardware limitations to deal with (mainly the number of lines and buttons). I thought I’d deal with the most difficult and interesting stuff first. I’ve built a single level 9×9 maze array to give me something to work with and set about getting the movement and graphics in place to wander around the level. This has proved considerably easier than I expected actually. You basically draw what’s on the left, middle, and right directly in front of the player, then scale it down a little and repeat, and just keep going scaling it down a little more for each grid of the map. No maths skills or understanding of 3D were needed whatsoever which is probably just as well.

Something you don’t realise about the Vectrex until you start programming on it, is that the lines are all effectively drawn with a virtual pen that you have to move around the screen in the code. This pen drifts a little with each move meaning that your lines don’t necessarily meet up despite having the same coordinates. I keep having to reset my pointer to the middle of the screen and draw things in chunks to get around this.

I only started this weekend and have got as far as being able to walk around the maze, go through doors and have drawn the graphics for a couple of monsters. The Vectrex can only really handle one monster at a time reliably or the cartridges 2K buffer runs out of space + the screen starts flickering with the pen not being able to keep up. This means the monsters in this version will be able to hide behind each other. I reckon with chests, trap doors, ladders, etc. they are much simpler graphics and it will be OK to show all of them at once.

I considered porting the code from the original Akalabeth since it was also written in BASIC but the two variants on BASIC looked far too different for this to be worthwhile. Instead, I’ve written everything from scratch so far other than borrowing the monster drawing code. Even this is quite different but I can still extract the coordinate numbers and scale them down a little to suit my needs. I may borrow some more of that code in the long run for maze generation and the like but I’m nowhere near that point yet. The next stage will be to finish implementing the graphics for all the different monsters and objects, then I’ll have a go at putting some actual gameplay in.

I’ll release the source code once there is something worthwhile to share. In the meanwhile, here’s a few screenshots of what it looks like so far, including a close up of the fearsome balron. You’ll never be able to get quite that close to it when I’m done as you shouldn’t really be able to occupy the same square.

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CGA Composite Graphics And My Attempts To Use Them

For reasons that I’m sure are mainly nostalgia, my favourite gaming platform/era is and probably always will be DOS. PC games have always been fun to revisit over the years partly due to being able to go back and play them with better/different hardware. There aren’t many of these technologies I’ve not been able to get my hands on at this point but one I’ve never been able to try out for real has been composite CGA graphics.

For those who don’t remember back that far, CGA was IBM’s first attempt at colour graphics dating back to the original PC in 1981. Aside from some rarely used tweaked modes, it allowed for 4 colours at once out of just 4 predefined and garish palettes leading to PC games being notoriously ugly until EGA/PC Jr came along.

This reputation was not entirely deserved however as many games used a composite mode which through the use of the TV out built into most CGA cards could be used to produce artifact colours greatly increasing the range of colours available.

I can’t pretend to entirely understand how it works but these artifact colours are produced by the interference when certain dot patterns are sent using the American NTSC TV signal. The dots would smear together to produce a block of solid colour instead. Here in the UK, this was never an option as the PAL system we use didn’t degrade in this way. While there were composite monitors around no doubt, I’ve never seen one. In the States, they are common enough which led to me importing yet another bit of old hardware, an Apple composite monitor:-

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This was in unusually good shape for one of my retro buys as I didn’t want to take a chance on importing something this size. It did of course have a load of writing all over the back of the case. Some isopropyl alcohol (only available at the chemist over here) just about removed it all but the black writing proved stubborn. The more important matter to what it looks like, is does it actually work?

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The answer so far is sort of. I’ve tried it out with my Tandy 1000 and am able to run both the CGA and composite monitors simultaneously thanks to the dual output. There is definitely extra colour produced. It just isn’t necessarily the right colour. By way of example, Kings Quest 2 above. This is rendered in high res monochrome on the RGB monitor on the right, which is converted into the admittedly colourful but clearly wrong image on the left. These composite monitors do have a tint control which can swivelled around to change the colours but I’m unable to get it to anything sensible no matter what. As far I can tell, the problem I’m having is that the Tandy composite isn’t quite the same as real CGA.

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Apart from the hires mono, the other means of rendering composite colour was to use a standard resolution CGA image with all 4 colours shown as normal and certain combinations of coloured dots would merge together to produce the extra colours. I gather the artifact colours produced this way were more flaky but it did mean you only needed one set of graphics for CGA and composite support. This explains a lot about those garish CGA graphics in early DOS games which were clearly meant to be played in composite. One such game was Ultima 2 which doesn’t look too bad at all on the Tandy in composite, although I’m sure it’s still not quite correct.

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Here’s a side by side comparison. Even on the Tandy, this shows the substantial improvement with blue water, green grass and trees and some of the player sprites look to have hair and clothing.

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I had originally planned to do a side-by-side video but trying to film this composite monitor simply wasn’t going to happen by phone. Taking photos was tricky enough. I may experiment with other camera apps but I left it for now since I’ve not got this working correctly as of yet.

I can certainly see the potential improvement to some of these ancient DOS games at any rate. The composite graphics are quite blurred with unclear text but this isn’t much of a sacrifice in your average game of the time. The main problem is my Tandy is clearly not the tool for the job. As luck would have it, I did get a true CGA card thrown in with the CGA monitor I got some months back:-

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It may be about as simple as PC graphics can get but this thing is an absolute colossus of an expansion card. The original plan was to slip this in the Tandy but it’s so large there is no way it’s getting into the case. Due to the connector design it won’t go in anything except an 8-bit slot either so I can forget trying it on my P2. In short, I need another old PC (which I’m sure can be arranged) and I’ll revisit this topic another day.

Fire Hawk – Thexder 2

PC gamers had to wait some years for the sequel to Thexder but it duly arrived in 1990, just 1 year after the Japanese original.

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The name Thexder was relegated to the subtitle not making it obvious at a glance that Fire Hawk was a sequel at all but all the core elements of the game remained largely unchanged. This time there is a proper manual with a cartoon backstory contained within. The Thexder robot was apparently designed for working in space rather than for combat. While the human race is busy expanding into the galaxy, there is an incident involving an asteroid called Nediam in which Lieutenant Arthur is left behind in his Thexder unit while his mothership escapes. The asteroid then starts slowly making its way towards Earth. 7 years later, the Thexder robot has been upgraded for combat and Arthur’s girlfriend steals the prototype to go stop Nediam and rescue her man.

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Whatever the story may be, the gameplay is so similar to Thexder 1 that I’ll keep this post down to a bare minimum. What has changed is the presentation with everything considerably more polished this time around. This means much more colour on the screen, an excellent MT-32 soundtrack with different music for every level/boss and a considerably faster framerate.

The difficulty level has also been stripped back considerably which should be a relief to most of us. You will still have to work to beat this game but it’s very forgiving in early levels. Each level (of which there are 9) is split into 4 sections with the last of those being a boss of some description. You can load from the beginning of any of the levels and get two attempts at each boss before you have to start back at the beginning again. I’d say it strikes a good balance between challenge and frustration.

There is a plotline as such about which bits of Nediam you are taking out at any given time on each level + you can talk to the battered shells of other fighters sent in ahead every now and then. None of this matters other than the occasional hint. It’s just about finding safe routes through every level and trying to pick up as many shield increase power ups as possible along the way.

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The bosses usually provide the greatest challenge and much of the game is still about learning the tricks and techniques to pass any more trying section. Once you have these down a previously difficult section can become trivially easy. This is especially true in the later levels.

There are a much greater array of powerups available this time around of which the player can carry 3 around at any time and select between them. The most interesting is a powerup to stop time for 20 seconds and clever use of this is essential later on to fly around otherwise tricky enemies or fly under boulders before they can fall blocking passages.

The player can also pick up powerful homing missiles to significantly boost firepower and shoot around corners which add a further tactical edge to gameplay. Another major change I should mention is that the shield can be used whenever you like in this version as the reward for not using it is no longer there. This turns the shield into a useful option rather than something to be shunned at all costs. It may as well not have been in the first game other than when exploring levels the first time around.

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The final boss starts out as a giant red spot which has to be shot until a monumentally large uber-Thexder erupts out of the ground. Beating this guy is trivial, you just keep shooting him in the back of the head. It’s a slight anticlimax in that sense but the thing must take up about 5 screens so that much would have been impressive in 1990. The real challenge was the level 8 boss which took me a couple of days to figure out. Level 9 is more of a victory lap really much like the final level of Thexder 1.

After beating the game, you discover that Nediam was heading for Earth because of Arthur (still alive somewhere on Nediam) and his desire to reunite with the heroine of the story. He gets rescued and they presumably live happily ever after while the scientists of Earth get to raid the new moon that now orbits the planet.

Fire Hawk was very much more of the same but ultimately a lot more playable than the original. The new powerups added variety and tactics, the level design was more varied, the faster gameplay gave an arcade edge and the MT-32 soundtrack leant atmosphere to the whole experience. I’ve had this game sat on my shelf for about 15 years unplayed and wish I’d got around to it sooner now. It’s easily one of my favourite PC shooters of this era (not that there is all that much competition) and definitely recommended.

That just leaves Zeliard from the Sierra Game Arts conversions but I’ll leave that for another time and will probably be having a look at some more old hardware next.

Silpheed

Silpheed was the second Game Arts release to be brought over to DOS by Sierra coming out in 1989. It’s a shoot em up consisting of 20 levels of 3D-ish arcade space shooting action. As with Thexder, it originally came out for the PC-8801 a few years earlier before Sierra got the rights to port it. It’s a game I already know well enough but I wanted to try it out on the Tandy anyway.

There is the usual quality Sierra box art even if the version of the game I have is the cheaper re-release. I do have some of the innards of the original release on the right with the more colourful disks and manual.

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The manual does actually tell you the story this time but it’s about as generic as they get. The evil bad guy, Xacalite, has stolen a super powerful spaceship called Gloire and will use it to destroy civilisation as we know it unless you fly a prototype spaceship to stop him. It’s a SHMUP, how much plot do you need anyway?

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The game starts will some utterly incomprehensible speech through the PC speaker as the villain of the piece presents himself as a giant disembodied head. This speech is not improved in the slightest on the Tandy. Later versions would add much-needed subtitles which I didn’t have here. It’s so bad I would imagine early players may well have not realised it was sampled speech in the first place.

The graphics at least are presented well enough in Tandy mode looking barely any different from what I’m used to playing in MCGA. Silpheed is a sort of vertically scrolling shooter but with the axis tilted to give a 3D effect, similar to Mode 7 on the SNES. It’s not especially smooth but the graphics were decent in their day and the sprites all scale as they move around.

Where Silpheed has always stood out for me, is the excellent music which translated brilliantly to all of the early PC soundcards. On the Tandy, it’s still not bad for what it is although it does lose much of the impact. The shooting is still PC speaker beeps but at least it’s more consistent with the music playing it this way.

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The gameplay is straightforward enough. There are a handful of powerups in the levels which can be used to speed up, auto fire, create a barrier to enemy fire or power up your weapons. Silpheed is equipped with a shield which ticks down one notch at a time when you get hit. Once it’s gone, the next two hits will damage one of your subsystems (weapon or engine) and after the third it’s game over. Thankfully, all versions allow the player to restart from the last level played making Silpheed far less hardcore a game than Thexder. In fact, it’s quite an easy shooter as these things go and I can easily play through most of it normally.

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Every 50,000 points gets you a new weapon to pick from before beginning the next level. The only ones I ever really use given the choice are the automatic aim particle guns and the forward firing lasers which are useful in the fortress levels and final level of the game.

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There are about 30 enemy types that come in a wave at a time in predefined patterns + several types of boss ship at the end of each of the levels. You really don’t need to memorise the patterns in this game as it’s quite forgiving and the patterns such as they are, get reused for the various enemy types. The Tandy version can be a little harder though, especially on the planet missions as the colour scheme goes an eyestraining red and blue making it difficult to pick anything out. I gather that they didn’t use the white as there are some graphical tricks going on to speed everything up.

I did a DOSBox longplay of this on YouTube years back (part one of which is above) for anyone wanting to see the whole game. Silpheed is still fun but I can’t say it’s anything too special. The main thing it has going for it over other shooters are it’s accessibility (ironic given how tough Thexder was), and the awesome soundtrack on the MT-32. This was one of the first games I remember playing on a SoundBlaster and after many years of nothing but beeping speakers it blew me away. When I eventually got an MT-32, it only got better still.

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The Tandy does it’s best but Silpheed doesn’t have quite the same appeal when the music is coming through a 3 channel PC speaker set up. It didn’t seem to run quite as well either and I actually struggled to finish the last level. I didn’t ever seem to have any chance to dodge the lasers on the last boss. Booting with the CPU at the slower speed solved this ultimately but kind of feels like cheating. I have no idea what the target CPU was.

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While I was at it, I had a quick blast through the IIGS port. This is considerably more colourful and has music nearly matching the MT-32 without the need for any extra hardware. Where it suffers is a complete lack of planet graphics and it’s really slow (much slower than the slowed down Tandy was). This port is also particularly easy due to a ridiculously high refire rate. You can blast through some levels just by sitting in the front middle of the screen holding down the fire button. It also lacked all the ending graphics when I beat it but the rest of the cutscenes were there.

I still like Silpheed but I can’t really recommend it as there are just so many better options available. The soundtrack is what keeps me coming back and the game is easy enough to not outstay its welcome without ever offering all that much challenge. The FMV packed Mega-CD version looks like it would be more up my street but I’ll leave that for another day.

A game that is offering me a challenge is Thexder 2, which I’m about halfway through. Should I ever finish it, that will probably be coming up next.