Computing And Retro Gaming

Retro Additions

Over the last few weeks I have been getting a few bits and pieces together for my various retro computers and consoles. So here’s a quick rundown of the bits and the results good or bad.

Commodore 64:

This is a tape interface which you can use to load from MP3 players, phones etc. I got it, plugged it into the C64 instead of a Datassette and tried loading a file from my phone. Tried various volumes, various files, loaders, players on the phone, and couldn’t get a thing from it. I’m not blaming the interface as it is likely the C64 is playing up even though it has had a new switch as the supply to the tape deck kept going away. I need to try again but the Commodore 64 and me ain’t friends.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum:

Back to the good old Sinclair ZX Spectrum, one of my old favourites as this was where it all started for me with home computers (well technically the ZX81 was but moving on) and it’s nice to get back to something which works. Firstly I have been bringing another 48k plus back from the dead with a new keyboard membrane, and an adjustment of the modulator (which you should never touch but I did and it tuned into the TV) and another Speccy brought back to life, and a composite mod done on it for good measure using the videos and tutorials found online (Mark Fixes Stuff Youtube and Retro Games Collector UK tutorial)


Next was a deal too good to pass up for a ZX Spectrum DivIDE MMC on a pre-order from Zaxxon on SellMyRetro for about half the price of other similar products

As soon as it arrived I put some software on a microSD card and added some Spectrum software and plugged it into my 128k plus. Wow, what an amazing piece of kit to add to a ZX Spectrum, as soon as you turn it on and hit the small button on the card you have a listing of what’s on the SD card, select a .tap or .tzx file and click enter and it loads, instantly. This was a bargain, I would recommend this to any Spectrum owner, follow the link to SellMyRetro and seek out Zaxxon for one of his DivIDE MMC boards.

Also on the Spectrum I purchased a Sinclair Lightgun which is a nice addition to the Speccy for playing the few games which use it. It works as well as most lightguns from the 80’s, pretty accurate and fun to play with, I just need to find a few more games to use it with.

Commodore Amiga 1200:

For my Amiga fix I have several machines, A500, A1200 and a CD32. For the 32 bit Commodore I recently purchased a Gotek Floppy Emulator from Ebay.

This morning I opened up my A1200, disconnected the internal floppy drive and connected the extended leads which came with the Gotek kit I bought and put the leads through the floppy drive hole and closed the Amiga back up. Once I’d added some software and a couple of games (Putty Squad the legally downloadable ADF’s thank you) to a USB thumb drive it was time to fire the Amiga up. After a few seconds the loader software has done it’s job and you can use the on screen gui to load .adf files into virtual disk drives on the Gotek. Reset using the on screen display and it loads up the game. Another brilliant buy well worth the money. I also ran Pinball Fantasies from it …

That is all for now, hopefully some more updates will come soon..

Santatlantean For PC Engine and Turbo Grafx short play mini review

Santatlantean for PCE TurbographxSantatlantean is a new homebrew game from Aetherbyte based on Atlantean also by Aetherbyte. A very nice little side scrolling shootemup with a Christmassy theme is the quick and dirty way to describe it. But to go a little further what we have is a beautifully drawn background using the themes from Christmas that we know and love, you can see the toy workshop, and the snowmen dotted about the landscape along with the gingerbread men and a suitably night time background for Christmas eve. All very lovely and festive.

The challenge comes with the other classic Christmas ornaments coming along to kill you, everything from bells to holly leaves will kill poor old Santa, Even the candy canes will crowd around to give you a taste of death, but Santa Claus isn’t unarmed either. This Father Christmas is a bit of a Mother when it comes to blasting the evil bah humbug ornaments, and takes them out with his laser beams. From my short play time it is a lot of fun to pick up and play, with enough challenge to keep you playing to beat your high score.

So how about those all important graphics and sound, I hear you wondering. I’ve got to say the graphics on the PC Engine / Turbografx 16 never cease to amaze me, and this is no different, some very nicely drawn sprites, which all move very fluidly in play. The sounds are also of a good quality with a nice background music which won’t get annoying at all when played for a while (about 10 minutes should do it) and some decent shooting and explosion sounds adding to the christmassy feel.

Santatlantean as a free download is a worthwhile few bytes to wait for, obviously you will need a way to play it (emulator or TurboGrafx with an Everdrive) but it is a little bit of festive fun to play during the holidays.

Score 8/10

A short update – Spectrum – Pi – stuff

So what have I been doing recently you never wondered as you haven’t even given me a thought in the last few weeks. Well I’ll tell you anyway, I’ve been doing very little apart from making excuses not to do any of the stuff I should be doing. But recently that changed when my wife found a huge bundle of Sinclair ZX Spectrum stuff being given away on a local Facebook page, and the angel she is, she went and collected it for me. There was a huge bundle too, including 2 Spectrums which had been taken apart, two mainboards and some peripherals to stick in the expansion port (Cartridge and joystick ports).

Having tested the Speccys, one actually worked but had a naff keyboard, so I ordered a new membrane and sets of screws from Dataserve in Tamworth and today it got fitted as per the pictures below…

ZX Spectrum +2

I took off the top to expose the ribbon cables which had to be unplugged from the board. Note the dark traces which seems to be a common cause of failure I seem to recall from my early Spectrum tinkerings.

Open ZX Spectrum +2

Next we have to remove all the screws from the rear of the keyboard pad

The ZX Spectrum Keyboard pad exposed

Then we align and fit the nice new membrane (supplied by Dataserve remember)

New membrane fitted

And refit the plastic bit which holds it all in place firmly and the two ribbon clamps.

Refitted keyboard backing plate to Spectrum +2 keyboard

After slipping the keyboard ribbons back into their prospective slots it’s time to put the whole lot back together with the new screw kit

New screws fitted to the case

And we’re done

ZX Spectrum back together

In other news, namely Raspberry pi related, I recently bought the pre loaded Aeros on a SD card for the Raspberry. The Aeros is a Linux based O/S for the Pi which includes an Amiga bias and a pre-built emulator. It’s a nice little setup but has little in the way of instructions so it took a while to get Amiga emulation running on UAE4All which is included on the setup. After finding where to put my (legally paid for via 2 or 3 lots of buying Amiga Forever and owning several actual Amigas) Kick roms to make it work, I found it played A500 games quite nicely, tested with Turrican, SWIV and Golden Axe ADF files. It looked pretty good on a big HD screen too until my wife came home and made me stop.

Final note, Debian is still rock solid on my PC. Windows 8.1, however, is still very flaky on my wifes laptop even losing the drivers for the wi-fi network adapter recently and causing plenty of headaches, I can tell you. Now to go test my Spectrum out on some nice fast loading cartridge games…

Latest on Linux and Scratch the programming itch

So it’s been around a month since I ditched Windows and moved to Linux. I’m sticking with Debian and it’s getting better by the day, in the beginning lots of stuff didn’t work but lately I’m finding that as one thing gets fixed, sometimes several things start working. A perfect example was WINE which I was trying to get working for about a week, and gave up. Today I was trying to get Steam working on Debian, found an installer and installed it but it just wouldn’t work. Eventually I found a fix in the shape of some extra driver libraries which needed installing for Open GL to work with Steam. Once I installed them Steam worked, and it was just the same as in Windows, I really didn’t fancy buying any of the available games right now.

The good news was that as I had installed an open GL library for Steam I gave Wine another try, and it worked too. Also another couple of things started working (Amiga Forever for one although sound and video is choppy via Wine) so things are looking up, and Linux still starts and stops much faster than Windows did, and Youtube video still plays much better and smoother. So not only are things getting fixed, I also haven’t broken anything … yet.

Onto other fun stuff, my daughter has been learning to program in Scratch at school. When I was at school I wrote a few programs in ZX Spectrum BASIC and I’ve wanted to try it again but haven’t really had the patience in the last few years. Today I installed Scratch and had a dabble, a lot of it was similar to BASIC as I remembered it (or maybe it is just logical program flow I remember) and in just over an hour I had written a simple catch the baby game. Phoebe came in and between the two of us we added a backdrop and adjusted the difficulty. I have programmed something again and me and my daughter did something fun together, and it was done in Linux. I will post the link to the Scratch script soon so you can all tell me how sucky it is.

Linux Spells

On Friday I got my brand new 2 Terrabyte hard drive and started installing it. Odd things happened, the 2 Terrabyte drive was only listed as 1 terrabyte in the OS install, and when I checked it was the same in the BIOS. Looking for answers I found out that some BIOS’s will add a small file to the hard drive, but put it at the end of 1Tb so blocking the first terrabyte from being seen. A search around found a bootable disc ISO which could be written to a CD, booted and move the file thus giving the full 2 terrabytes. In case anyone else ever needs it and ends up here it’s called HDAT2 and is available at it’s very fast and easy to use.

So with 2 Terrabytes available I had decided to go with Debian Linux (arbitary decision based on nothing much except stuff read online and that it is similar to Mint which I’d been testing before but allegedly more stable and the fact Ubuntu’s interface is incredibly horrible). I installed Debian but it failed to install Grub boot loader (I found out since that it’s a known bug with the DVD ISO) so I still couldn’t boot my pc from my Hard Drive. After some head scratching and surfing on my phone I decided to install Mint as a second OS in a 100 gb partition and hopefully it would install Grub and find Debian.

It worked, I had a dual boot system which booted into Debian or Mint. Then I realised Debian was ugly and had an upside down topsy turvey interface which took multiple clicks to start a program if you could even find it. God damn Linux and all its choices. After a while I found out this was the Gnome desktop environment and I could change it (yay for Linux and all its choices). A scant 3 hours and some spell casting in the terminal (it’s kind of like going back to DOS but harder to do because it’s case sensitive) and I had KDE and LXDE desktop environments loaded as choices at login time, and Gnome is still ther if I ever want to remind myself how bad things could be. As an aside, if anyone developing Gnome ever reads this then NO, Just NO.

So I have Debian, I have Mint, I have no Wireless connection. Lots of tinkering with drivers and I found a forum post in Ubuntu forums which told how to find out the USB stick type and how to install drivers from the manufacturer again all in cli (copy and paste is so useful now). That didn’t work, but the next one I found did have the correct incantations to the gods of cli to make my WiFi work (open a terminal and type lsusb and if you have an entry for a Realtek RTL8188CUS the info is at this Ubuntu Forum Post to make it work I will be trying it on my Raspberry Pi later too).

I also played around with some old game emulators, but can’t get Genesis / Megadrive emulation working as none of the packages work for Debian AMD64, maybe I haven’t invoked the right gods with the spells I cast in cli yet. Amiga emulation is good enough in Debian with E-UAE though and allowed me to play the free to download game Putty Squad which was recently released as ADF’s to the Amiga community and is a great game, download it at System 3’s website. Here is a screenshot of the bit I’ve seen most of so far…

Putty Squad free Amiga ADF download

Now I need to figure out how to get Debian as the default booted operating system in Grub2 and how to make KDE the default desktop when I log in without having to select it. Guess I’ll have to cast the Runes and incantate in the terminal cli some more.

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Technological Breakdown

So Christmas came and went, and it brought our household some new technological marvels and along with them trials and tribulations. And this is in addition to me migrating to Linux on my own PC, so here are my thoughts on my technological breakdowns this Xmas.

Firstly I’m going to talk about the Apple iPad Air my wife got for Christmas, and please bear in mind that I roll my eyes when anyone mentions an Apple product. So the big day came and my wife opened her secret pressie from the family and was in tears at the sight of the iPad air inside the wrapping. She opened it and turned it on. Set up an Apple I.D. it demanded immediately, so we did. Give us your credit or debit card details it screamed (first of my hate Apple reasons confirmed, greedy corporation which sells everything it can to you) so she did. Having forked over £400 I think that one of the first things Apple should do is give you a working device, not demand your details so it can hold the device to ransom until you give them, but there you have it. 
Having setup an Apple I.D. it was ready for use, except it wasn’t, now Apple demand your username and password before it will do anything just to make doubly sure you’re in their power. Start the app store, username and password, start the browser and it asked again. For my money that was piss taking on an unprecedented scale. Anyway, wife is happy and iPad now works, although anything else you want it to do seems to cost money straight from the first app you want to use, and we haven’t told her yet she can’t hook it to her computer without wiping our daughters Iphone out of the iTunes (including all her backed up music) or letting it set it up to be our daughters iPad. Apple, just great isn’t it?
Second piece of technology was the Kindle for our youngest daughter. A few minutes and it was added to my Amazon account with parental controls on downloading books which need to be paid for. Books were added to the list automatically and a new one bought for my daughter and ready to read in a minute or so. Now that is painless technology and a better out of the box experience than Apples I’d say.
Then I went to start up my PC and Linux Mint refused to work again, so that’s removed from my shortlist of OS’s when my new hard drive arrives. I’m still wondering if Linux really is ready to use yet if you don’t want to spend hours each time you start your PC up just tweaking or writing command line codes which have to be looked up online (when the PC isn’t working how do you find them?).

Linux: Woes and Wins

Linux, how’s that working out?

I’ve been messing with Mint Linux 15 for about a week now, and to be honest it’s still got lots if ups and downs. The brilliant software manager is not so brilliant, and badly broken if the truth is told, especially when using Nvidia proprietry drivers which I tried to do. Then it hangs the PC, crashes and dies and at times won’t even start up. That leaves me with two options, either an ugly and very awkward thing called “Synaptic Package Manager” which works but is not very user friendly or easy to navigate, or the obligitary command line which demands that you know everything including the name and whether each letter is upper or lower case.
On the plus side, video playback is much improved over Windows, and once I’d got my DVB-T usb stick drivers on there I can actually watch live freeview tv on my PC. The USB stick stopped working completely in Windows some time back and I thought it had died, in Linux Mint it is working beautifully, except for actually getting some working software (VLC works but channel finding and changing is a nightmare, MythTV is an absolute joke just steer clear it’s the worst software interface I’ve ever seen and after hours of fiddling still wouldn’t work) which I’m still hoping to find. Youtube videos play with much less jerking than I ever saw in Windoze, and make viewing the many fail vids much easier on the eyes.
Old video game emulation isn’t as advanced as I thought it would have been, with most emulators being command line driven it’s like going back to 1998 and running emulation in DOS. Seeking out some front ends does help, but even then some emulators run extremely slowly compared to emulating the same platform in Windows, Amiga emulation being one of the worst so far. I haven’t even got around to MAME or MESS yet as there doesn’t appear to be a package to install MESS and no front ends to make life bearable. Then there’s the problem of accessing drives with my games on, probably there’s a workaround but so far Linux doesn’t like to have the games on my old drive as it won’t pick them up after a restart (probably need to run a command line to ensure the drives are mounted each time or something equally bizarre).
In general use though things like internet browsing and running open office suites (Libre Office is installed by default in Mint) would give nobody any cause for concern and you wouldn’t even know you had moved from Windows to Linux. Much of the interface can be customised to how you want it fairly easily.
Linux Mint Desktop
 As you can see from my desktop screenshot above Mint has a start button (Menu) and bottom bar like the old XP or Windows 7 so it is familiar (unlike Windows 8’s abomination of a start screen with kiddy phone style tiles). It’s only when you do something off the norm that Mint’s geeky underpinnings jump up to nibble at your sanity.

Linux Mint it is

So I finally decided to give Linux another chance before Windows XP gets dropped by MS next year. So far it’s been very trying, if anyone tells you Linux is ready for the normal user, they are telling lies. Configuring the Wireless network was a headache as it did wierd things and would find every wireless network in the area but mine. It took some command line stuff which I found online to sort out, but still don’t understand, but it works now.

I installed the first time on the wrong drive (I wasn’t given the option of another drive by Mints installer) and after using it it ran out of disc space in 24 hours, so I installed again on my main drive and then the boot loader Grub wouldn’t recognise the new installation, which meant… more command line stuff to get it working. Finally I have a working and slightly customised Linux distro on my PC and it’s getting better, but I had to ditch Firefox and find out how to install Google Chrome (Firefox and I have a bad relationship, it has never worked for more than a week at a time so with Linux being so deeply dependant on command line, I don’t need Firefox’s shit messing it up). To install Chrome I needed to use yep you guessed it, command line text inputs.
I’m getting to grips with a lot of it, and now trying this blog posting software which actually installed from a gui software manager (gasps in amazement) so if you can see this then it has worked, and I posted from Linux Mint.

OH No OS Decision Time Looms

I’ve been reading about it for a while now, but dismissing it as too far off to be concerned with, until now, Microsoft ends support for Windows XP in 2014 which is now only a few months away. That means it will become more vulnerable to attacks, other vendors will stop supporting it so drivers will not be updated etc. etc. So it’s time to decide which OS (operating System) I should use next, and there are a few choices to consider.

My computer credentials

Before I weigh up the pros and cons of the various choices I have to say that when I’ve talked to others in the know before I have been accused of not wanting to change, or not being able to adapt to change so I feel I should give some history of my computer ownership and adaptation over the years. My first computer was a ZX81 which only booted to a command prompt and had to either load tapes or be programmed in BASIC to do anything. I learnt enough BASIC to write programs to do stuff, and then moved up to the Spectrum and learned enough to write simple games as well. I skip a few years and went on to MS DOS and Win 3.1 and again had to learn command line stuff to get games working with sound and memory fixes through the Autoexec.bat and config.sys files, so I can use command line and learn the commands I need.

Then I was Spoilt with Windows 95 (not so much with 98) then Windows ME and finally Windows XP which I am still using, all of which can be used with a mouse and keyboard and no need for command line stuff. So I’m no luddite but I do like an easy life with something which is supposed to make life easier. Now with that said, I have to weigh up the choices of OS now that XP is getting left behind.

The Choices from Microsoft

From the Microsoft camp first off we have a choice of 2 Windows OS’s, Windows 7 or Windows 8. Windows 7 is good, I use it at work, I used it on my wife’s laptop and everything works just like it did in XP, and it can be setup, once installed, in a few minutes to browse the web and get emails from my own email account. Windows 7 is a definite contender for my future. But it’s not the latest OS from Redmond so it too may be phased out sooner rather than later leaving me with the same problem for the not so distant future.

That brings me to Windows 8. Oh dear, how did it go so wrong. My wife got a Windows 8 laptop, handed it to me to setup her email account and wi-fi and a few other things. Firstly I was greeted by the front screen from someone’s mobile phone, which is called The Metro Interface or something. Unfortunately her screen’s not a touch screen and it just doesn’t work right with a mouse.

After half an hour finding out how to get at anything under the skin to get connected, it was time to setup email. A big button marked Outlook was promising, only Microsoft decided that Outlook was no longer supporting the standard used by most email providers, POP3, so after ages of fiddling we find we need something else to actually use the email accounts we have (Thunderbird from Mozilla). It’s the same every time you want to do something useful though, Windows 8 and the Metro interface gets in the way, photos- where are they? The photos app looks nice but it’s not intuitive like looking through a list of thumbnails and doesn’t let you grab a picture without getting in the way. Windows 8 isn’t even a consideration, it’s convoluted, looks awful and childlike and keeps popping up useless side bars every time you move and seems to be made to get in the way of what you’re doing.

The Open Source Alternative

I’m now considering Linux – again. I have tried Linux in many flavours before and when it works it is great with a lot of options to make it work how you’d like. But that’s when it works, a lot of the time things just don’t work and when they don’t work it is hard work. All the Linux distro’s (see I even know some lingo) I tried can’t do anything under the bonnet without going back to the command line, drivers usually need a command line command to download and install if your hardware is supported at all.

Moving to Linux would also mean finding new programs to do all the stuff I do on my PC, and if past experience is anything to go by that will mean trawling the net to find a program which might work, then using a command line to download and install it (Linux never seems to download something from a link to where you’d think to look for it and installation is never as easy as double clicking it) only to find it doesn’t do what you needed and then how do you get rid of it?

I want to like Linux, I would love to use it, but it always frustrates me when I can’t just get on with doing something and have to look up some obscure script to type in to make it happen.

My Choice Is:-

I’m undecided right now, I’m pretty certain Windows 8 isn’t going to be the one, even with the pseudo start button supposedly added back in the 8.1 update. So that leaves some flavour of Linux or Windows 7 as the only sensible options so I guess I need to install and run a Linux OS for a while and see how it goes, leaving XP as a stand by for when I need to do something and don’t have time for messing around in command line. I guess I’ll also have to consider the age of my PC in all of this as it’s getting a bit long in the tooth for new OS’s too.

Any comments, suggestions or abuse please comment below.

Retro Review of R-Type on Turbo Grafx

R-Type_(U)_[h1] - 131006_1649 R.Type is one of those classic games that everyone who was around when it was released remembers it. You pilot a spaceship defending the galaxy or something, but you know the story doesn’t matter anyway right, it’s a side scrolling shmup where your aim is to survive and take out the bad guys along the way. And from the outset there are a lot of those pesky enemy ships to take out.

From the very start you have waves of enemy ships coming at you from the right, and the fire slow moving projectiles too so you have to take them out or avoid them as well as their bullets. Just as you get used to all the airborne attacks some ground running robots are shooting from below too and these bad boys can shoot backwards at you leaving you trying to see what’s coming from every which way at once to avoid a quick death. A little further along you get a big boy blocking your path who takes a few hits from the fully charged laser cannon to destroy, allowing you to enter the first of the restricted entrances which cut your manouvering space to a minimum. That’s just the start, as you go along further so the enemies, bullets and obstacles increase in speed and frequency making this a most challenging game.

Graphics in the TurboGrafx (PC Engine) version of R.Type are big, bold and well animated as well as terrifying in their numbers on screen at any one time. The colour is very much spaceship inspired, with whites, reds and black space in abundance, but that really adds to the atmosphere of the game. The music is spot on for alien splattering, with an atmospheric soundtrack which urges you to keep on killing and some proper bleepy sound effects when the killing happens.

Although I suck at it, R-type is one of my favourite shmups on all the platforms I’ve ever played it on, the TurboGrafx / PC Engine version is no exception. A great but very tough game and the NEC console rocks it.

Score 9/10