Graphics cards of the IBM era

Not all computers were created equal. Some were born to educate, others for playing and in the case of the IBM PC it was for business. This has been already discussed in my famous article about golden age of sound cards (in Spanish, not yet translated to English). This time we will focus in the graphical aspect of the ancient and ubiquitous computer of the Big Blue. CGA, EGA, VGA… does it ring a bell to you?

Unlike contemporary home computers, PC architecture didn’t use an integrated graphics chipset, it would use expansion cards to undertake graphical tasks. This –along with its philosophy of a more-or-less open architecture– would result in many solutions coming into existence along its lifetime. I’ve devoured quite a lot of old computer magazine pages and thus my impressions.

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Sid Meier’s SimGolf – Retroview

Since early 90s and until the end of that decade there were two undisputed giants making strategy and management video games in the PC world: Maxis and MicroProse. These two companies are behind a practical grand total of the best strategy games, “five minutes/turns more” style: SimCity (1989), SimCity 2000 (1993), Los Sims (2000), Civilization (1991), X-Com: Enemy Unknown (1994)…

MicroProse (at a later stage, good old pal Sid Meier founded Firaxis) and Maxis had a fundamentally opposed nature: the first offered reflexive, long, deep and slow paced products, while Will Wright‘s company designed kind of humorous games of a certain fantasy fashion. I am excited to imagine what could come out of this joint venture.

It was 2002 when Sid Meier’s SimGolf came out, produced by Electronic Arts in a time in which the company was engulfing other myth-enshrouded companies. The result is a surprising mix of company management with the loaded people’s sport. Again surprisingly, despite bearing the name of the Civilization saga creator, it is a game not of an excessive complexity, straightforward enough for everyone to play with the funny touches of a Sims game. Everything in a very visual interface, with a golf playability part in the style of role playing games. (you aim and I’ll shoot)

The player has inherited a sum of money which would use to buy a plot of land to make his dream come true: design and build a golf course worthy of the SGA (Sim Golf Association) and winning the million-dollar prize. Everything while juggling budgets so posh people will continue burninig  simolleons in the 18 course. The way to do this is rather simple: we decie the distance between the tee and the green, we add the fairway and decide the difficulty of the hole with hazards and break. Everything while managing club facilities to make our guests stay more enjoyable, as well as the club staff of gardeners and “refreshment” sellers who will walk our paths.

Technology used is not a wonder, even considering it is more than 15 years old at the moment of writing. Its 2D graphics are pleasant and music is very appropriate for the game, but there are very few settings and you can’t even change the 800×600 pixel resolution. You can’t barely change the difficulty, which is not explained at all throughout the game, so it’s unknown to me how does it work or what does it do. It is not possible to expand or mod anything, and does not have any multiplayer capabilities. Its interface is also a nuisance (suddenly it’s your turn to hit the ball, but you are clicking elsewhere to edit a green, so you hit a homerun with the darn ball). It would be acceptable for an early 90s game, but for it sure downplay a 21st century product in an absurd way.

It is true that it has many negative technical points, but the playability is so fun it makes you forget (partially at least) these aspects. It’s not only joyful to build the holes, it’s very gratifying to watch these old fogies trying to carry the blessed-be ball to the hole. That and watching them dropping the simoleons when finishing, whose quantity depends on how fun was the hole itself. We can see them chatting, having “histories” like “my goldfish is ill” or “I saw an UFO” (literally). We have to manage the beverage distribution so they don’t get dry, give them electric carts and deterring them to slack so they play fluidly.

A very fun aspect of the game is the sound. Fitting in a CD is no problem for having many funny sound effects, with multiple details (as playing classical notes in each click building the fairway) or playing Hanna Barbera effects. Musical effects, even when they aren’t a hit, give some colour and contribute to the general ambient of the 90s rich celebrities. Part of its charm is actually the imagenierie of this subculture like the sims-like cartoons.

The sporty part of the game complements perfectly the management end, and it’s all the unenforced we like. Of course the vital objective of the main character is to win the course tournament, but we can ignore it completely and just concentrate being a mogul. If we like to play the sport there’s no hurry either, and doesn’t need any special dexterity. In fact it is more in the like of japanese role playing games: the character has some statistics (dive, irons, hook/slice etc.) and we’ll just indicate him the hits to be done. Depending on our abilities the shot would be more or less successful. In the long run we will be able to get better on every aspect of the sports and win the tournament. Well, or get utterly thrashed.

The reception of this launch was colder than a mother-in-law hug. It wasn’t big on news, and people was more worried praising (or giving criticisms) the Sims games, or shooting in some Grand Theft Auto. In any case critics gave mostly positive scores to the game… and player critic was mostly non-existant. As a curious note there was another launch titled SimGolf programmed by Maxis in 1996, which received even less attention. Was this game a second attempt? Beats me.

Playing nowadays Sim Meier’s SimGolf is still a fun experience. Graphics are not severely outdated and the only real downsides are the technical problems or the out of date interface, which can be ignored with not a lot of effort thanks to the fun factor. Well, unless you use Windows 10: the damn DRM exploited an operating system flaw that was corrected in Windows 10 and it’s no longer possible to play it “legally” in this operating system. (Hint: it will work if updated to 1.02 version and properly cracked thanks to the MyTH crack scene group)

This is yet another game to add to my “deserves and remake and won’t have” list. Too bad it ran mostly unnoticed, since Electronic Arts will never do something similar again. In golf games we recently had Golf Story (Sidebar Games, 2017) in Nintendo Switch, and in the business management gameplay it could be compared to Theme Hospital (Bullfrog, 1997). There’s no big deal after even after all these years.


About using arcade games at home

What do nowadays children dream of? Probably playing in Real Madrid, win America’s got Talent or being dinosaur veterinarian. Not a clue, to be honest. I remember however what was mine: having my own coin-op arcade. Well, that and play in Real Betis, but I could only fulfil one.

Neogeo MVS board, model MV-1FS (or 1F, not sure)

Unfortunately it wasn’t playing in Real Betis, given my abilities with the a football is the same as Kayne West with a violin: I don’t even know what to do with it. I could, however, get myself a NeoGeo MVS, the SNK arcade board. Very famous among anyone young in the 90s for it very high quality games and being the base of NeoGeo AES console, which shared hardware and games.

Well, having an arcade at home is a bit inaccurate, mostly because my flat has the size of an average service room. Instead, I’ve managed to get an apparatus to use these boards in a normal TV set, along with the cables and gadgets needed to play. These devices are generically known as Supergun, and I’m about to explain how to use one.

This is my SupergunThere are many like it, but this one is mine.

To begin with, arcade circuiot boards doesn’t have a connector to plug them to your mother’s TV, nor they have one to plug them to the mains power. How do they work, then? Most boards after mid ’80s use the JAMMA (Japanese Amusement Machine and Marketing Association) standard, which is supplied energy and controls and outputs analog video in RGBS format. Most european TV sets from mid 80s will admit this signal one way or another, via SCART or a VGA connector if it’s modern enough. Power supply is another thing, requiring both 12V and 5V, and sometimes even a -5V line.

Wiring on a real arcade

In a real arcade cabinet a multifrequency monitor is needed along with a power supply with all these voltages, an awful lot of cables, coin slot device and switches an joysticks for the controls. With an appropriate cabinet, of course, everything covered in grime and fluff if possible. Needless to say that if you touch something you shouldn’t (the display, in particular) it can shock the heck out of you, so better leave it to professionals. (i.e. not like me)

JAMMA pinout, specifically NeoGeo variation. Click to enlarge, don’t burn your eyes.

Here is where Supergun comes into play. Instead of having a plethora of stripped filthy wires we can use more common appliances: a TV, a console controller and a ATX power supply, in the likes of a PC. They provide a nice button to “insert coin” and many other useful features. Some models would adapt to standar extensions, like the one NeoGeo uses (providing two additional buttons and stereo sound) or CPS2‘s. (that has a lot of buttons and stereo QSound)

NeoGeo’s JAMMA connection in detail.

This Supergun in particular has some interesting features. First, it’s able to provide approximately one watt of a -5V line, needed for some old boards (apparently, NeoGeo doesn’t need it). It allows to adjust the video sync, along with the red, green and blue lines individually. It includes a voltmeter, to check in beforehand if the supplied voltages are appropriate. It comes with autofire too, but either it doesn’t properly work of I’m too silly to understand it. For the controller it uses two male DB15 in the likes of the NeoGeo and a female DB9 for the extra buttons, also known as “kick harness”.

Good thing we can use, through an adapter, a six-button Mega Drive controller, or other controllers for more common systems. The NeoGeo controllers are expensive as hell, so it’s a good alternative. It has also jack and RCA stereo connectors, so we can use some high speakers if we want.

Typical Supergun connectors

Most NeoGeo MVS models would allow to connect NeoGeo controllers directly. They look like standard DB15, but unfortunately they are “deeper”, so a common DB15 plug won’t work. Other SuperGun models will directly allow Mega Drive controllers, but sometimes supporting two buttons per player, three at most.

Supergun adapter for Mega Drive controllers. Unfortunately it won’t work on a NeoGeo, as the plug is not long enough.

This Supergun model, along with controller adapters, can be found on eBay for example. Doing the appropriate query you can find many models and other similar devices. Some will come with some assembly required, others will come in a case… there are models to fulfill any desire. As usual, keep an eye on the seller’s reputation and read the advertisement correctly. The price is usually between 40 euros for a basic model to 70 for most complex. Sometimes you can find one in a case for around 100 euros, and some even with controllers and power supply for an arm and a leg.

A standard ATX power supply. Any would do, it doesn’t need to supply 1.21 gigawatt.

Other possibility is, of course, to build your own Supergun. It’s usually not worth the time, but of course hobbyist would like to try anyway, and connectors are not expensive. None of the signals are multiplexed, and no encoding is needed. Controls are registered (i.e. switch signals) when the precise pin is connected to ground, and they stop doing so when in high impedance. The RGBS signal can go directly to a TV set or a display via SCART, BNC or RCA connectors. Some will provide VGA, 31KHz output, so will be displayed nicely on a computer monitor.

Everything set up

Some old boards, in particular old Konami boards and most from early 80s would need an adapter because the connection is not an standard JAMMA. This would introduce a further layer to the setup, but it’s not the usual for non-antediluvian games.

One more thing: in my setup I use a SCART switch, but I don’t recommend doing so unless really necessary (for example when the cables won’t reach the back of the TV) as these switches usually add noise to the image. With this SCART connection we won’t usually get stereo sound, as the JAMMA standard is only in mono. Some boards, however, (like the NeoGeo) uses the negative audio signal for a second audio channel, something the Supergun must manage. Otherwise, the boards usually have a direct audio connection.

NeoGeo MVS cartridge. Now that’s cute.

NeoGeo games come in two formats: MVS and AES. MVS are the arcade games, somewhat bigger, and AES are for the the home version, and are region locked. They don’t share the connection and it’s necessary an adapter to use it in a system they weren’t designed for, but technically are the same gadget and hold the same date. Ok, time to test everything.

3… 2… 1… ignition.

Once everything is connected we can play already. This Supergun model has more lights than Las Vegas (Nevada, not Sevilla), noting that there’s voltage on lines 12V and 5V. There’s an “insert button”, since it’s something the controllers won’t have. Otherwise it would be a run for the arcade owner, doesn’t it?

This screen has attracted more quarters than all the mimes in Barcelona altogether
It’s alive!

Now we can finally enjoy our games. An advantage that NeoGeo MVS offers against the home model is that, in spite that home model was cheaper back then, the MVS sold more and it’s easier and cheaper to find nowadays. It takes such a mess to set everything up, but we can use any arcade board we want with it. We can find a NeoGeo board for like 40 or 50 euros, and games ranges from 30 for the most common to a few hundred for the hardest to find.

I hope this article, describing my experience, can help somebody. In any case it must be noted that I don’t have any relation with the eBay sellers I make reference of, and I cannot be responsible of anything you buy or try to set up. Some links are sponsored, meaning they would give me a misery if somebody buys anything. If you are going to try anything described here at least follow your common sense: don’t touch with your filthy hands the connections, don’t play with electricity and take caution of not short-circuiting anything, as you can find yourself without your game. Or carpet.

Edit: It seems eBay doesn’t like my links so they have been removed.

Sound chips that shaped video games

Sound is present since videogames are such. From little beeps to the complex, positional digital audio system nowadays. Sound effects and music in the digital entertainment have come a long way, and so the necessary hardware has.

Among the electronic circuits that have made possible the sound aspect of the digital world there are really notable ones. Because the melodies they have been written for, the impact in the gaming (or general) culture, its capacities or simply because the leap they meant. As the dumb lists enthusiast I am, here is a list of some which, in my judgement, are the most interesting and deserve to be remembered.

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Kero Blaster – Impressions

My first reaction to an “indy 8bit pixel shooter” is skepticism. Rationale is no other than a market already stuffed with, at best cases, mediocre games, faux retro posers and, definitely, games I won’t play even getting paid. Why should I bother with this game?

There is something in Kero Blaster (2014) that dispels all my doubts at first glance: it’s signed as the second completa game by Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya, the mastermind after the legendary Cave Story (2004).

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Afterlife – Retroview

When one thinks of Lucas Arts it immediately comes to mind the incredible adventures that provided us of many great (and not so great) memories. However, this company is also author of many other interesting and crazy works. Until… well, it went to be yet another victim of Electronic Arts and went to the EA Hell. (The Turnip Inn, if you can read Spanish)

In 1996 they created a game strongly inspired in the great Sim City 2000 (1993, Maxis), this is, a city simulator. However its subject is so unique and different: instead of cities we must create and take care of Heaven and Hell, so Planet’s souls can have their eternal rest. With the advice of our two assistants, we should make their journey to the Great Beyond profitable for us.

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Taking Sim City 2000 into pieces

SimCity 2000 (Maxis, 1993) is one of my superfavourite games, ever. I’ve been playing it for 20 years and it’s partially responsible of my terrible grades at high school. I have always liked modifying games, but so far I haven’t been serious about decoding the data files of this city simulator. And I have found some quite interesting things!

There were ports in a great number of platforms, from the Macintosh (the original) to GameBoy Advance, but my favourite is MS-DOS, and it’s what this article is about. There are two interesting files: the executable (SC2000.EXE) and the data file (SC2000.DAT). Unfortunately, Windows version didn’t came out in Spanish (my mother language), and Network Edition version works awfully bad (and it is available only in English). Continue reading “Taking Sim City 2000 into pieces”

JSF converter for SelectOneMenu

The main JSF feature (or, at least, the one I like the most) is the ease to link controller bean attributes to xhtml view. However there’s an inherent important limitation: in the HTTP standard keys and values always will be strings, because they are sent that way. Of course you could serialize an object to base64, but a barbaric thing like that should be avoided in almost any circumstance.

Then how can we link a HTTP control to an object? For that, JSF provides converters. Well, it will allow you to program them, of course. Neither PrimeFaces, my library of choice, includes these converters. Thus, I’ve programmed a simple one for SelectOneMenu, the dropdown menus in the like of a combobox. I’ll leave it here for my own reference, and for anyone that could use it.

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State of the Art: mémoires

At this stage is needless to say that Amiga is one of the most loved architectures by its fans, or that its multimedia capabilities made its demoscene one of the most important. One of the most long-remembered productions is, of course, State of the Art, by the group Spaceballs, from 1992.

Technology behind this demo is not groundbreaking. It is true that the use of rotoscope made it very interesting, but for the rest it could go unnoticed. It was however very bold regarding one thing: it was one of the first demos that used mainstream techno themes. For first time you could show it to a person not from demoscene circles (those nerds with their computers!) and exclaim: “That’s dope, dude!”

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