Wednesday, June 26, 2013

VIC-VODER now shipping!

VIC-VODER

VIC-VODER is a new voice synthesizer for the Commodore VIC-20 / 64 / 128 featuring some of the latest advancements in speech technology. The system is developed by Rick Melick of San Francisco, California and is available to order at his web site right now. VIC-VODER features an all-in-one design that simply plugs into the User Port to produce quality text-to-speech (English). Talking is as simple as a PRINT statement. A built-in amplifier and speaker complete the entire package. The architecture is "open," which makes it a terrific platform for the development community. You can upgrade your system as new features become available in the months and years ahead.  Click here for VIC-VODER product specifications and sales information.


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Change Observations

Change Observations

Moore's Law, the observation that, over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years, has given rise to a number of other interesting observations:
  • Wirth's Law is a computing adage made popular by Niklaus Wirth in 1995.  It states that, "Software is getting slower more rapidly than hardware becomes faster."
  • Gates' Law is a variant on Wirth's law, borrowing its name from Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft. It is a humorous and ironic observation that, "The speed of software halves every 18 months."  (Presumably at Microsoft.)
  • May's Law, named after David May, is a variant where, "Software efficiency halves every 18 months, compensating Moore's Law."
With most of the world's CPUs running at 99% idle, I don't know that I agree with all of this.  We're doing more with less in many ways:
  • Enterprise and comsumer systems are easier to use then ever before.  This is thanks, in part, to simple interfaces that just have a high overhead.
  • More people have access to more technology than ever, at lower cost, leading to more creativity and educational opportunities for people all over the world.
  • Object Oriented Methodologies and Service Oriented Architectures allow exponentially more opportunites of code re-use, driving down the development time for new innovation.
  • Open Source Software and new licensing models allow many, many individual contributers to collaborate, develop and perfect massive software initiatives, such as Operating Systems, from all over the globe.
  • With new markets and distribution channels, such as app-stores, we see more entrepenureship.  Pull-requests allow for systems to keep themselves up to date with the latest developments.
  • Networking protocols are leveraged to distribute the processing power required to drive many of today's advanced applications.  This has allowed new ways for people to network socially and stay connected.
Of course, most "innovation" is really just the same tired old ideas re-imagined and repackaged.  At the end of the day one has to ask if the world is really any better off for all of this change and "progress."  Are people any more fulfilled or any happier?  We're more isolated than ever.  All the toxic stuff required to produce our technology is impossible to get rid of and destroys our environment.  We consume more non-renewable energy than ever to power all of our junk.  The commoditization of software in our Capitalistic and consumer-driven world ultimately just makes information disposable, and you're left wondering if there is any enduring value to any of it.  Destroying information is akin to burning books, and where they start burning books they will soon start burning people.  The right to privacy and the protection of one's personal identity are just two ways people are getting "burned" in a virtual world where information is a disposable commodity.  The long-term prospects are really very cloudy. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Build a Speech Synthesizer for VIC-20

Build a Speech Synthesizer for VIC-20

Speech Synthesizers for legacy systems are getting harder and harder to find. Back in the day, there were the high-end units that featured text-to-speech translation processors. The Cadillac systems were the Votrax "Type-N-Talk" and "Personal Speech System." Then there were the low-end units, requiring manual translation of allophones or phonemes from tables in manuals, combined with PEEKs and POKEs, to form words and sentences. The purpose of this project is to simulate the high-end units of the time.

The biggest challenge today is finding modern parts that are willing to communicate at 1200 baud. For example, the SpeakJet allophones synthesizer, combined with a 8-bit microprocessor programmed with letter-to-sound rules for text-to-speech (such as the TTS256), popular in today's robotics, will only operate at 9600 baud. That is too fast for poor, old VIC!

These days it is actually easier (and cheaper) to dedicate an entire computer and software to the task versus a purely silicon approach.  The dedication of a computer to a specific task as part of a larger system is not so different than the intelligent peripherals of the day, like disk drives and printers, where processing was offloaded to the device.    Today this is common place.  We're surrounded by dedicated systems interconnected in highly flexible ways.  Even the "walled gardens" of our cell phones, tablets and consumer appliances have full-fledged operating systems underneath their slick user interfaces. 

So, this solution does expose one to some really cool things: Raspberry Pi (University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory); Debian Linux configuration; hardware-level general purpose input/output (GPIO); TTL serial communications; logic level converters; the Festival (offline manual in PDF format) text-to-speech synthesis system (University of Edinburgh's Centre for Speech Technology Research and  Carnegie Mellon University) which has a Scheme-based (SIOD) command interpreter for control; basic soldering techniques and more!

This project can easily be completed in a weekend, and done together with a child or friend. Only a Raspberry Pi, simple components and basic soldering are required.  What you will have in the end is a unit that operates very much like the high-end Votrax systems of the day. ... You OPEN a command channel for writing and PRINT the sentences and words you want spoken.  Now you're talking!

So, what about the Scott Adams adventure games?  My hope was that Commodore was using a similar technique as this project for communicating with the Votrax.  Unfortunately, Votrax had some proprietary control codes that could be sent to their system and not be interpreted by their text-to-speech processor in the manner we're communicating for this project.  My belief is that only a Votrax Type-N-Talk (not even the Votrax Personal Speech System) is the only way to get voice from these adventures.  Bummer!

I have additional VIC-20 material over on my web site: http://www.geocities.ws/cbm

Are you interested in computer history?  Join the irregular regulars Earl Evans, David Greelish, and Carrington Vanston, plus surprise guests, in the show where everything old is news again.  Gather 'round a virtual table where today's talk is about yesterday's computers. Get the skinny from the world of vintage computer hobbyists, collectors, enthusiasts, and old school geeks. They cover modern day vintage tech events, new developments for old hardware, the revival of retro tech, the best of 8 bit culture, and take many strolls down memory lane.  Head on over to http://rcrpodcast.com and explore podcasts, review show notes and be informed of upcoming episodes.  You'll be glad you did!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Unobtainium! (Part 2)...


MPI 020 prototype boards

Only a fellow neomaxizoomdweebie (ultimate modern nerd), like me, could fully appreciate something as cool as these prototype expansion boards. Unobtainium at its finest!

- Original photo prints and docs.
- Rev #0 & Rev #1 (both working).
- 35K RAM and option ROM.
- 3-slot expansion. 
- System reset.  Fused.


I have scanned and placed the documentation up on DLH's Commodore Archive. 

I have additional VIC-20 material over on my web site: http://www.geocities.ws/cbm
 
Are you interested in computer history?  Join the irregular regulars Earl Evans, David Greelish, and Carrington Vanston, plus surprise guests, in the show where everything old is news again.  Gather 'round a virtual table where today's talk is about yesterday's computers. Get the skinny from the world of vintage computer hobbyists, collectors, enthusiasts, and old school geeks. They cover modern day vintage tech events, new developments for old hardware, the revival of retro tech, the best of 8 bit culture, and take many strolls down memory lane.  Head on over to http://rcrpodcast.com and explore podcasts, review show notes and be informed of upcoming episodes.  You'll be glad you did!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

GCE Vectrex


 GCE Vectrex

This obscure, cult, game system is from 1982.  Vectrex was unusual for a couple of reasons: for one, it had its own screen, whereas all other game systems of that time required that you plug them into the TV for display. And secondly, it had a different kind of screen, one that gamers had seen before, in the arcades, displaying games like Asteroids and Tempest: a vector display.  The Vectrex itself was a nice little portable unit, looking quite a lot like the Macintosh that would appear a couple of years later.  Here is a link to my system's serial number registry: http://vectrexmuseum.com/vecsdb/index.php/vectrexes/view/62

The built-in game was MINESTORM and it is widely considered a de facto favorite.  Other original games that are favorable to most include: ARMOR ATTACK; BEDLAM; BERZERK; COSMIC CHASM; FORTRESS OF NARZOD; HYPERCHASE; POLE POSITION; RIPOFF; SCRAMBLE; SPACE WARS; SPIKE; SPINBALL; STAR CASTLE; STAR TREK and WEB WARS.  A top-rated prototype is TOUR DE FRANCE, and ROCKAROIDS is a universally loved homebrew game.

Recommended Accessories:


Dust Cover

This dustcover is custom made.  The manufacturer has made the pattern, thanks to her friend, cut it out by hand, embroidered on her embroidery machine and stitched together on her regular sewing machine. This dustcover is made from soft, black pleather and will wipe clean with just a damp cloth.  The manufacturer has used Snow White thread for the embroidery as she thinks it stands out very well against the black pleather.  I agree and recommend this product and eBay seller.



Light Pen

The original lightpen is a rare accessory for the Vectrex, officially compatible with just three games: Art Master; Melody Master and Animaction.  These games are as rare as the lightpen itself, but demand and prices for the pens have gone up due to increased availability of the lightpen games on several multicarts. As a result of this demand, RecycledGamer began manufacturing reproduction light pens in 2009. They build each lightpen by hand using a custom-designed board and all through-hole components. The pen casing itself is a recycled dry erase marker and the cord is a re-purposed Sega Genesis controller cable.  The quality is good and the price is great.  I highly recommend this shop.


AtariVox+

click to enlarge
The VecVoice was an add on device for the Vectrex.  It would plug into Vectrex controller Port #2 and speak syllables programmed into cartridge.  Three cartridges currently support it:  VERZERK (an enhanced BERZERK); PYTHAGOREAN THEOREM and Y.A.S.I.  The voice sounds robot-like .. and is based on the same technology that went into the Intellivoice and the Odyssey Voice module.  The new AtariVox+ combines both Vectrex VecVox and AtariVox (they both use the SpeakJet chip), and VecVoice emulation. The various modes are selectable from a DIP switch inside.  Maybe only one cartridge uses VecVox, called DEBRIS.


Multicart

This is a 72 game multicart. It includes all of the original Vectrex releases (except for Animaction, because it had RAM in addition to ROM) and a variety of prototypes, homebrew games and demos.  The cartridge is menu based and all of the games are organized in categories (left and right on the joystick select a category, up and down select a game).  It is supplied as an uncased, bare PCB in a labelled anti-static bag. A label to fit an original Vectrex cartridge shell is also included so that you can fit the PCB in a case yourself. The price is very reasonable.  The quality is great, and the shipping is very fast.  I highly recommend this shop.  Here is a video of how to do a cartridge case modification:

Click here for a link to the video.

Recommended Homebrew Games:

Vectrexians and Vector Pilot - Highest quality from Kristof Tuts in Belgium.  Recommended.
 
Click here for a link to the demo video.

Protector and YASI - A two-for-one Defender and Space Invaders cartridge by Alex Herbert.  Recommended.


Verzerk (special order) - A hack of Berzerk, adding speech this time around, with a robotic voice welcoming the player during the attract mode, then states "this is Verzerk". The phrases from the original arcade version of "shoot him", "chicken, fight like a robot", "got you humanoid", etc. are included in this release. The game plays identically to Berzerk though, aside from that and only being for one player.  The attract mode has a rotating display that is pretty much like the "credit disc" that would be included in Protector/Y*A*S*I later, giving credit and web site addresses to Richard Hutchinson (who created the VecVoice and VecVox, which are compatible with this game if played in cartridge form) and Alex Herbert.

Click here for a link to a demo video.

Space Frenzy - A recreation of the Space Fury coin-operated videogame by Sega/Gremlin (circa 1981), along with some speech synthesis that, like Spike, doesn't require an adapter.  Recommended.

 
War of the Worlds - The 1981 Cinematronics classic by Fury Unlimited.  Recommended.

Click here for a link to a demo video.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A microPET house-broken and tamed...

The VIC-1020 Expansion Chassis

My VIC-1020 arrived today from Norway.  It was made in Germany.  The front says VIC-1020 but the back says VC-1020.  The computer was made in Japan, and has been expanded to 40K and fitted with JiffyDOS.  A micro-IEC SD card drive is housed in the chassis and contains my library of software images.  A file browser shown on the monitor.

The VIC-1020 expansion chassis (VC-1020 in Germany) is simply a large metal enclosure which provides the VIC-20 computer with six additional expansion slots for cartridges (five pointing upward and one lying horizontally and pointing toward an opening on the the back of the VIC-1020).

The entire VIC-20 computer is placed into the VIC-1020, as shown, and a male edge connector on the 1020's slot expansion board is mated with the VIC-20's internal cartridge port. A monitor can be placed on top of the VIC-1020, giving the entire setup a PET computer-like appearance. Indeed, the black "CBM" label across the front of the VIC-1020's casing is similar to that used on the the PET line of computers. The choice of sheet metal for this enclosure seems natural, as Commodore had a sheet metal fabrication plant for the production of office filing cabinets and desks.

The VIC-1020's chassis has additional storage space which can be used to hide all of the cables and such, giving a typical VIC-20 set-up a much cleaner appearance.  There is also a metal clip on the underside of the lid which can hold the RF modulator.

Slot expanders allowed the simultaneous use of several cartridges on a single VIC-20. This allowed features of utility cartridges (like the Programmer's Aid cartridge) and RAM expanders to be combined.  Mine just contains a 3K RAM cartridge and a 32K one. 

The 9V AC power pass-through is not merely a way to power the computer, but also provides supplemental power to the 6-slot expansion board, thus relieving the draw on the power supply inside the VIC.  In fact, the computer will not even power up if auto-start cartridges are installed on the board and the supplemental power supply is not used.  RAM is similarly unseen.  Shutting off the unit using the rear switch clears any auto-start cartridge image that may be in memory.

I have the original PET style keyboard, but have swapped it out with a newer one.  The reason is because the numeric keypad is hard wired to the keyboard controller pins and the Japanese VICs are simply not tall enough to fit everything inside without warping the case when closed.  In fact, the height is so short that I had to cut off a six inch section of the plastic keyboard support rail on the top-left underside of the keyboard shown (near the 1, 2, 3... keys) to get the case to close naturally.  I also had to cut a chunk of plastic off the the joystick Y-cable, which supplies +5V DC to the parallel printer adapter, to accommodate the metal enclosure.  

The VIC-1020 chassis are quite rare and I had to look half way around the world to find this one.   The effort paid off and I could not be happier with this VIC-20 set-up.  I am quite pleased with its overall style and appearance.  Finally, I would like to appreciate Lars Hanstad (kronuz) for the quick shipment (door-to-door in one week), excellent packing and chocolate bars from Norway

I have additional VIC-20 material over on my web site: http://www.geocities.ws/cbm
 
Are you interested in computer history?  Join the irregular regulars Earl Evans, David Greelish, and Carrington Vanston, plus surprise guests, in the show where everything old is news again.  Gather 'round a virtual table where today's talk is about yesterday's computers. Get the skinny from the world of vintage computer hobbyists, collectors, enthusiasts, and old school geeks. They cover modern day vintage tech events, new developments for old hardware, the revival of retro tech, the best of 8 bit culture, and take many strolls down memory lane.  Head on over to http://rcrpodcast.com and explore podcasts, review show notes and be informed of upcoming episodes.  You'll be glad you did!

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Stacks of Computer Publications...

www.bombjack.org/commodore
DLH's Commodore Archive - I can not overstate what a wonderful resource this is for documentation on everything that is Commodore.  If you have not seen this huge site, it's worth mentioning again here now.  The DVD archives for sale are exceptional, too, and the best way to get everything in one go!  Please support this resource for the community of users and contributors by scanning/mailing in any missing documents you may have.  

My contributions thus far include:
  • Software - Data20 Plan Manager Instruction Manual (10 pages)
  • Software - Data20 Word Manager [Dated: 04/19/1982] (11 pages)
  • Hardware - MPI 020 Super Action Memory Expander Board for VIC-20 (12 pages)
  • Software - Smoothtalker for Speakeasy by Personal Peripheral Products (6 pages)
  • Hardware - Micrographix MW-350 Printer Buffer Upgrade Kit (3 pages)
  • Hardware - Cardco Cardkey 1 Keypad VIC20 C64 (17 pages)
  • Advertisements - Nufekop 1982 Catalog for VIC-20 (14 pages)
  • Hardware - Computer Place Numeric Keypad Documentation (2 pages)
  • Hardware - Pet Beeper by HUH Electronics (1 page)
  • Hardware - Cardco Cardriter Light Pen Instructions (50 pages) and D64 image.
  • Hardware - SerialBox 64K Serial Port Buffer User Manual (16 pages)
  • Hardware - Speakeasy Installation and Instruction Manual V1.2 (8 pages)
  • Hardware - Speakeasy Phoneme Editor Operating Instructions V1.0 (16 pages)
  • Hardware - Cardco Cardboard/6 Instruction Manual for the VIC-20 (36 pages)
  • Hardware - Promenade Model C1 Operating Instructions (22 pages)
  • Hardware - Data-20 Display Manager (5 pages)
  • Hardware - Protecto 80 Video Cartridge Instruction Manual (10 pages)


archive.org
Ebook and Texts Archive > The Computer Magazine Archives

This rapidly growing collection consists of dozens of magazine runs, digitized from fading piles of older magazines by an army of anonymous contributors. In some cases, quality is variant, due to the rareness of the issues. With the re-branding of computing power and machines as something welcome in the home and not just the workshop, a number of factors moved forth to sell these machines and their software to a growing and large group of customers. Besides the introduction of more elegant cases and an increased presence by larger and larger firms, a strong argument can be made that one of the forces was the proliferation of computer-related magazines and newsletters that gave a central, printed home for writing about computers. Rising from user support groups, computer companies themselves, and publishing houses willing to risk cash and time to fund them, these magazines set the stage for the home computer revolution.  This collection is primarily of computer magazines written in the English language, but there are some additional collections in other languages.


atarimagazines.com
The Classic Computer Magazine Archive is a small crusade to make information from old computer magazines available on the Web.  The site was launched July 27, 1996 with the name "Digital Antic Project" and the goal of putting the full text of Antic magazine online. They met that goal on September 17, 2000, then turned their attention to Antic's sister magazine, STart. In July 2001, they finished putting the full text of STart magazine online, and began work on Creative Computing. They have also received permission to include articles from Compute!, Hi-Res, Antic Amiga Plus, Whiz Kids, II Computing, and other classic computer magazines. It was clear that the name "Digital Antic Project" was becoming increasingly inaccurate, so in July 2001, the name of the project was changed to Classic Computer Magazine Archive.  The head of the project, Kevin Savetz, has received permission from the magazines' publishers to make the material available on the Internet for free.

by Steve Ditlea
atariarchives.org is The Classic Computer Magazine Archive's sister siteIt makes books, information, and software for Atari and other classic computers available on the Web. Everything there is available with permission of the copyright holders.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

There you can read, Digital Deli, The Comprehensive, User-Lovable Menu of Computer Lore, Culture, Lifestyles and Fancy by The Lunch Group & Guests Edited by Steve Ditlea and published 1984.  Highly recommended! 

I have additional reading materials over on my web site: http://www.geocities.ws/cbm
   
Are you interested in computer history?  Join the irregular regulars Earl Evans, David Greelish, and Carrington Vanston, plus surprise guests, in the show where everything old is news again.  Gather 'round a virtual table where today's talk is about yesterday's computers. Get the skinny from the world of vintage computer hobbyists, collectors, enthusiasts, and old school geeks. They cover modern day vintage tech events, new developments for old hardware, the revival of retro tech, the best of 8 bit culture, and take many strolls down memory lane.  Head on over to http://rcrpodcast.com and explore podcasts, review show notes and be informed of upcoming episodes.  You'll be glad you did!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Unobtainium!...

Dataspan-50 expansion board for Commodore VIC-20.
Dataspan-50

Only a fellow neomaxizoomdweebie (ultimate modern nerd), like me, could fully appreciate something as cool as this retro expansion board. Unobtainium at its finest, and now its mine.  Just look at that rotary selector!  From 1982.

- 5-slot expansion. 
- Write-protection on two slots.  
- Fully buffered. 
- System reset. 
- Gold contacts. 
- Fused. 

   
Rotisserie cartridge selection!
Gold; buffers; switches and slots.

 
Rare, magazine, print ad.

I have additional VIC-20 material over on my web site: http://www.geocities.ws/cbm
 
Are you interested in computer history?  Join the irregular regulars Earl Evans, David Greelish, and Carrington Vanston, plus surprise guests, in the show where everything old is news again.  Gather 'round a virtual table where today's talk is about yesterday's computers. Get the skinny from the world of vintage computer hobbyists, collectors, enthusiasts, and old school geeks. They cover modern day vintage tech events, new developments for old hardware, the revival of retro tech, the best of 8 bit culture, and take many strolls down memory lane.  Head on over to http://rcrpodcast.com and explore podcasts, review show notes and be informed of upcoming episodes.  You'll be glad you did!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Benutzefreundlichkeit: Nüfekop

VIC-20's massive marketing campaign.
As any businessman in his forties can tell you, looking back, the VIC-20 had more to do with marketing than technology.  It wasn't so much that it be a user-friendly computer as it be, "The Friendly Computer(tm)."  In fact, one could argue it was the antithesis of user-friendly.  With its antiquated BASIC 2.0, and the way the memory map moved all around, it was actually exceedingly challenging for users. 

Most of our gadgets today don't come with manuals.  For example, it is just assumed that when you see a USB plug you'll figure out in which port it goes.  When iOS first arrived in 2007 that really raised the bar and re-defined the term, "user friendly!" 

The VIC Czar
However, the VIC-20 was the friendly computerCommodore defined our reality.  From the computer's name to its price, it spared no expense to essentially make a PET more approachable to Mom and home.  She could pick one up at Target on her next visit, where they had them stacked to the ceiling!  It had a lot of friendly features, too, and to hear its story is to believe that no stone was left unturned.  A lot of effort went in to educating users as well as making it seem as fun as possible.

Jack Tramiel wasn't the Steve Jobs of Commodore; no, that man was Michael Tomczyk.  He gave the VIC-20 a soul, and that made it a revolutionary product.  When the C64 finally arrived on the scene, which was truly a quantum leap forward in technology, the soul re-incarnated and its momentum propelled it off the charts!

The software industry was in its infancy then, too.  One brand that always intrigued me was Nüfekop, and I didn't know why.  My friends and I certainly owned a lot of their games, but they somehow also managed to create an identity akin to what Commodore was doing with the VIC-20.  The two went hand-in-hand in many ways, which helped define the whole VIC experience at the time. 

Antimatter Splatter (review) - 100% Machine Language!

Compute! rated 5/10.
The umlaut gave their name an aura of mystery.  Were they German?  No, the name was of Druid origin and means, "putting an extraordinarily large amount into a small pocket or enclosure, possibly through the use of magic."  That sounds rather intriguing, but could it also have been subliminal?  Nüfekop is a combination of "fun" and POKE (an archaic BASIC expression) spelled backwards.  One of the company founders was shocked when the decoding was revealed, but said it was basically true; adding, "We're amazed, as always, at the visionary powers of the Druids." - Gary Elder, President of Nüfekop (Compute!, May'83)

Compute! rated 9/10.
Wherever the magic came from, Nüfekop certainly had it.  Co-founder and author, Scott Elder, has a tell-all book entitled, "Nüfekop: Images of a classic game company."  Sadly, I just found out about it while researching this blog entry, but I can say that this book is definitely on my reading list for 2013.  By gathering all his photos and scanning everything, Scott feels he has preserved their little corner of classic gaming -- if only for his kids.  "Actually, if you're into VIC-20, I think you'll find it interesting," he said.

Compute! rated 10/10.
Just like Atari discovered with their VCS, any time you are pushing millions of units it can attract a lot of dirt-bags.  The same was certainly true of the VIC-20, however Nüfekop was different.  They developed all their own titles in-house (as opposed to ripping them off), or entered into licensing agreements with exceptional 3rd-party programmers.  It was reflected in the quality of their catalog, which steadily improved year over year.  Many programs were written in 100% machine language.  Thoughtful features, like self-adjusting to however much memory was installed, really made them user-friendly.  Would it be enough to survive?

Nüfekop cassette tape
Scott had this story to share over on the Denial forum... 
"Right about at the time of the big crash in 1984, a company (I can't remember the name...) out of Canada, with great credit references, offered to buy most everything we had in the warehouse, on 90 day terms. They seemed very legit, they haggled to get the price per piece way down, but it was a huge sale, maybe $150,000. We shipped, they never paid. Over the years I've heard the same story from several other small companies. I think it was a fairly organized attempt to either simply rip off starving companies or intentionally drive them out of business." - Scott Elder (June 30, 2010)

=====  Nüfekop Titles  =====

3-D Man (3K+) ... $16.95 (review)
Alien Panic [CG008] ... $9.95
Antimatter Splatter
... $19.95 (review
Bomber [CG014] ... $9.95
Collide [CG026] ... $9.95
Defender on Tri (3K+) ... $16.95
(review) 

Dodge Cars ... $?.??
Edit'It [CG201] ... $12.95 - Multi-color char editor.
Escape [CG066] ... $9.95
Exterminator by Ken Grant ... $19.95
(review)
Gallows [CE102] ... $9.95
Invasion [CG036] ... $9.95
Journey [CE106] ... $9.95
King's Ransom ... $?.??
Krazy Kong [CG054] ... $9.95 (review)
Rescue from Nufon [CG058] ... $9.95
Search [CG056] ... $9.95
Spellit [CE106] ... $9.95
Target [CG016] ... $9.95
Times+ ... $9.95 -
Educational game.

Vikman [CG002] ... $9.95

For more information on the Commodore VIC-20 home computer system, please check out my other blog entry: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 - Turning Japanese...   

Are you interested in computer history? Join the irregular regulars Earl Evans, David Greelish, and Carrington Vanston, plus surprise guests, in the show where everything old is news again. Gather 'round a virtual table where today's talk is about yesterday's computers. Get the skinny from the world of vintage computer hobbyists, collectors, enthusiasts, and old school geeks. They cover modern day vintage tech events, new developments for old hardware, the revival of retro tech, the best of 8 bit culture, and take many strolls down memory lane. Head on over to http://rcrpodcast.com and explore podcasts, review show notes and be informed of upcoming episodes. You'll be glad you did!  

Monday, January 21, 2013

System-Sellers: Matrix (VIC-20)

Matrix (AMC in the US)
 MATRIX

Back in the day, every game console had its system-sellers; games with quality so good, they justified the purchase of a whole system just to play them.  Matrix (review), a member of the Gridrunner franchise, is my top pick for, "First Place," on the Commodore VIC-20.  This is a follow-up blog entry for my Second Place nomination System-Sellers: Omega Race (VIC-20).
 
The VIC-20 had a lot of good games, and its hardware features were well-positioned to be a leader amongst console manufacturers of the day.  Lacking the power of today's Dolby-Digital THX enhanced photo-realistic multimedia powerhouses, it took some exceptional developers that focused hard on game-play to really develop a truly great game.  Jeff Minter is one such programmer.  I had the opportunity to speak with Jeff on October 31, 1996... what a genuinely nice guy!

Inspired by over-the-top visual effects in arcade games developed by Eugene Jarvis and released by Williams Electronics in the early 1980s, as well as taking inspiration from Atari's Centipede, Matrix (aka, "Attack of the Mutant Camels," or AMC for short) is a shooting game featuring exceptional two-dimensional character graphics.  The story of Matrix is the story of Gridrunner and its developer, Jeff Minter, and the company he founded called Llamasoft.

Matrix on VIC-20
Gridrunner was one of Llamasoft’s earliest games, appearing in 1982 for the VIC-20. The movie “Blade Runner” had just come out and Jeff remembers seeing a poster advertising the film when the name Gridrunner came to mind.  Although it draws its inspiration from the Centipede arcade game, with the concept of a snake-like enemy descending the screen through a series of obstacles, it plays much faster.  

Jeff managed to come up with a game design in Gridrunner that was significantly different from Atari’s bug-themed coin-op, to avoid their legal wrath, and which distinguished itself from the other Centipede clones.  The title has been revisited and re-imagined at various points over the years.  As such, in addition to Gridrunner, Matrix incorporates play elements in higher levels from other Llamasoft titles, such as the use of mutant enemy camels (in Zone 4) and the ricochet apparatus from Deflex (in Zone 5).  The release of Gridrunner iOS marks the endpoint of a development arc that has spanned more than 30 years.  Gridrunner iOS is part of Llamasoft's Minotaur Project revisiting classic gaming platforms with modern hardware.

Tip:  Rotate your iOS device to the right for VIC-20 mode, and to the left for C64 mode.

AMC on VIC-20
Play mechanic was quite simple in the early days of home gaming, largely because of the memory constraints and processor speed.  Jeff used to be into the idea of introducing new styles of control that hadn't been done before - like controlling multiple shooters at once in Laserzone and Hellgate, or the Llama/force field combination in Metagalactic Llamas: Battle at the Edge of Time.  Jeff believes that he never quite got the Jarvis-style explosions down as well on the VIC-20 as Tom Griner did.  Tom was great at bit-mapped graphics, like in Choplifter, but Jeff thinks he redeemed himself in later games like Atari Jaguar's, "Tempest 2000."  When Jeff finally met Eugene the early 1990s, Eugene said that he admired Jeff's explosions!

minotaurproject.co.uk
Jeff was twenty years old when he got his first VIC-20, although he did get experience on a Commodore machine when he was seventeen.  They had a PET 2001-8 (with the calculator keyboard and the built in tape deck) at school on which he taught himself how to code and wrote his first games.  

Jeff is an animal lover and was really intrigued by camelids as a child.  Llamas are a domesticated South American camelid, widely used as a pack animal by Andean cultures since pre-Hispanic times.  Jeff has traveled to Peru twice, just to observe them in their homeland.  So, when it became time for Jeff to pick a name for his new software company, Llamasoft was the perfect choice for him. 

His VIC-20 coding started out in the living room; lying on the floor in front of the family television.  (Gridrunner was written there in one week.)  Once Llamasoft started to really make money, he had an extension built onto his parents' house that became his lair.  It had long tables down the walls for computer systems, lots of power outlets on the walls, and a 10-foot-long mural of Llamas in the Andes!  He still has his  original VIC-20, with its PET keyboard and large expansion pack.  He said that he would never throw it out.

Jeff Minter
Jeff recalls that one of the biggest problems programming the VIC-20 was so little memory.  He felt the only way around that was to just come up with clever designs and code them tight.  Jeff tended to stick to character map graphics in those early days.  He focused more on the sound effects though, and thinks his Laser Zone sound effects were among his best.  He basically just tried to get a good, solid, playable game in the memory provided.  

Many Llamasoft games were published in the US by Human Engineered Software (HES) of Brisbane, California.  Jeff first met HES founder, Jay Balakrishnan, at a computer show in London.  On display was Defenda (aka, Andes Attack), which was a pretty poor and buggy game, Jeff recalls.  What made it special is that it was written entirely in machine code and not BASIC, like most everything else on the market at the time.  That aspect caught Jay's eye.  He asked Jeff if he could put it on a ROM and Jeff said yes - although he had no idea how he was going to do it.  Jeff ended up doing a couple of games for HES before things really took off with Gridrunner.  

Jeff told me that his HES associates were always honest and fair, which was a relief after getting burned a couple of times before.  HES made Jeff more wealthy than a 21-year-old usually expects, so he has no complaints.  Apart from HES, and being self employed most of his life, he has only really worked for Atari.  At Atari he got to meet and  hang out with some of the people who had designed his VIC-20 and 2600 VCS, as well as the majority of systems he owned up to that point.  "It was every childhood VIC-20 coder's dream come true," he exclaimed.  Jeff felt he was well liked and appreciated by his associates at Atari. 



After talking with me for a while about the whole emulator scene and his take on it, he released all of his old software to the public domain.  "All old Llamasoft game images for use on emulators can be freely uploaded on any site anywhere, with my full permission." - Jeff Minter, October 31, 1996

For more information on the Commodore VIC-20 home computer system, please check out my other blog entry: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 - Turning Japanese...   

Are you interested in computer history? Join the irregular regulars Earl Evans, David Greelish, and Carrington Vanston, plus surprise guests, in the show where everything old is news again. Gather 'round a virtual table where today's talk is about yesterday's computers. Get the skinny from the world of vintage computer hobbyists, collectors, enthusiasts, and old school geeks. They cover modern day vintage tech events, new developments for old hardware, the revival of retro tech, the best of 8 bit culture, and take many strolls down memory lane. Head on over to http://rcrpodcast.com and explore podcasts, review show notes and be informed of upcoming episodes. You'll be glad you did!  

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The VIC gets JiffyDOS'd...

New, licensed release for 2013 on VIC-20.
Thirty-three years after the VIC-20's debut, a licensed version of JiffyDOS has just been released for sale.  First announced at the World of Commodore 2012, RETRO Innovations said it had acquired the rights to offer Click Here Software’s port of JiffyDOS for the Commodore VIC-20, thus completing the set of JiffyDOS kernal replacement offerings.  I wanted to take a moment and talk about it the kernal.  

Kernal?

All modern day operating systems have a kernel, but the early Commodore PETs did not.  The kernel is the interface between applications and the actual data processing done at the hardware level.  New hardware can be supported and hardware bugs can often be corrected (compensated for) by modifying code in the kernel.

Like most of the older 8-bit computers, BASIC was not only the out-of-box language you could learn to program, but it was also the operating system.  In the case of the early PET series computers, the ROM code to talk to the hardware was mixed in with the ROM code for the BASIC interpreter.  This was done by Microsoft.

John Feagans introduced the idea of separating the BASIC interpreter routines from the rest of the operating system.  Commodore called their kernel the kernal.  I had an opportunity to talk to John on March 18, 1997. 

John said Bob Russell took his code from the Advanced R&D Facility, and did things like modify the cassette tape routines (with consulting from Chuck Peddle on how the PET cassette worked) as well as the serial interface to the disk drive and printers.  Bob was part of the production engineering team in Santa Clara which later ended up in West Chester.  Bob also ported the Vic-20 code to the Vic-40 (aka Commodore-64).

The disk drive interface was based off the IEEE-488 bus.  That is what Bill Seiler and John implemented on the original PET.  When the Vic-20 peripherals were designed, they had the Atari 400 as a model of a serial system, and hence they altered the parallel IEEE-488 to a serial version with the same handshake lines, because it was cheaper.  However, Commodore's implementation had a shift delay which negatively impacted performance.  (The C-64 serial bus had to be slowed down even more because of hits by the video that cause missed data.)

Technically, the idea was sound:  the 6522 VIA chip has a "shift register" circuit that, if tickled with the right signals (data and clock) will cheerfully collect 8 bits of data without any help from the CPU. At that time, it would signal that it had a byte to be collected, and the processor would do so, using an automatic handshake built into the 6522 to trigger the next incoming byte.  Things worked in a similar way outgoing from the computer, too.

We early PET/CBM freaks knew, from playing music, that there was something wrong with the 6522's shift register:  it interfered with other functions.  The rule was:  turn off the music before you start the tape!  (The shift register was a popular sound generator).  But the Commodore engineers, who only made the chip, didn't know this.  Until they got into final checkout of the VIC-20.

By this time, the VIC-20 board was in manufacture.  A new chip could be designed in a few months (yes, the silicon guys had application notes about the problem, long since), but it was TOO LATE!
A major software rewrite had to take place that changed the VIC-20 into a "bit-catcher" rather than a "character-catcher".  It called for eight times as much work on the part of the CPU; and unlike the shift register plan, there was no timing/handshake slack time.  The whole thing slowed down by a factor of approximately 5 to 6.
- Jiim Butterfield (1997)
So, what is JiffyDOS?

drop-in KERNAL replacement
JiffyDOS is a drop-in replacement ROM chip for the kernal which fixes the poor performance of the serial interface to the disk drive.  Just remove ROM 901486-06 in socket UE12 (located near bottom/right of motherboard), and insert the JiffyDOS ROM.

A DOS ROM upgrade is also required for one or more of your disk drives, but is included natively in µIEC and all other sd2iec-based solid state drive solutions.  The performance improvement is HUGE (approximately 600%).  The only disadvantage of using JiffyDOS is that when it is enabled, the tape routines are not available. The space taken by these routines is used for the JiffyDOS code. However, a switch is provided which allows JiffyDOS to be disabled, should the need arise.

JiffyDOS was created by Creative Micro Designs, Inc.  The VIC-20 version was never completely finished and therefore never released (until now), although bootleg copies were available.  There are only two authorized sales channels for JiffyDOS; no other distributors are currently licensed to offer JiffyDOS at this time:
I have additional VIC-20 material over on my web site: http://www.geocities.ws/cbm
   

Are you interested in computer history?  Join the irregular regulars Earl Evans, David Greelish, and Carrington Vanston, plus surprise guests, in the show where everything old is news again.  Gather 'round a virtual table where today's talk is about yesterday's computers. Get the skinny from the world of vintage computer hobbyists, collectors, enthusiasts, and old school geeks. They cover modern day vintage tech events, new developments for old hardware, the revival of retro tech, the best of 8 bit culture, and take many strolls down memory lane.  Head on over to http://rcrpodcast.com and explore podcasts, review show notes and be informed of upcoming episodes.  You'll be glad you did!