Memorable gaming moments: #1 Fractalus Fright
Mar26

Memorable gaming moments: #1 Fractalus Fright

Welcome to the first in a series, where the Retro Games Collector team reminisce about their most ‘memorable gaming moments’. First up we have Trevor Briscoe and his Fractalus Fright. Most people who have played video games over a period of time have experienced a particularly scary and shocking gaming moment.  Maybe it’s the Resident Evil dogs leaping suddenly into the quiet corridor through a window. Maybe it’s the mind games played by the Game Cube’s Eternal Darkness.  Maybe it’s having the T-Rex from 3D Monster Maze on the ZX81 breathing down your neck. This is a story of a moment of terror I experienced while playing a computer game that lives intensely in my memory to this day. My tale takes place in the winter of 1983 but I remember it as if it were yesterday. The home computer boom was at it’s height and I had watched the great Commodore vs Spectrum playground battles of the early 80s as a bit of an outsider being the owner of the under-supported Texas Instruments TI-99/4a. As I said goodbye to school and headed off to university I also said goodbye to the TI, bought a 16K Atari 600XL and soon afterwards the extra memory to bring it up to a magnificent, for the time, 64K. Along with granting access to the much increased library of games requiring at least 48K, this memory expansion would allow my machine to use a disk drive and leave behind unreliable and slow cassette software forever but disk drives were costly and out of range of my student financial resources. I began my degree course in Physics at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne but took Computing Science as an option in my first year little knowing that it would become my major by the time my second year began and the basis for my career. In one of my first lectures, I was informed by one of my new friends that another student in the group also had an Atari and was looking to sell his spare disk drive to raise some cash. Introductions were made, a deal agreed and before I knew it I was excitedly on my way to pick up my nearly-new Atari 1050 disk drive holding a box of blank disks that the seller had said he would copy some games onto while I was there. The copied games I left with included two titles I had not previously heard of and that had not yet received an official release and went by their working titles of “Behind Jaggi Lines” and “Ballblaster”. The two early and innovative Lucasfilm titles...

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The Starpath (Arcadia) Supercharger for Atari 2600 – a retrospective
Sep24

The Starpath (Arcadia) Supercharger for Atari 2600 – a retrospective

Atari 2600 Limitations Every console manufacturer at every generation has had a decision to make on how much memory (RAM) could be put in the console with an eye on production costs. The VCS designers back in the 1970s were severely constrained RAM-wise and could afford to add just 128 bytes of RAM to the design. Read-only memory used in game cartridges for the VCS was also expensive and it was only expected that games would use a maximum of 4K (4096 bytes) of ROM in the plug-in cartridges to contain all of the game code. In fact many early games used just 2K of ROM. Now, 4K is not a lot for game program code and 128 bytes of RAM is a real pain. This all meant that probably the biggest concern for a developer was to keep the ROM size down and minimise the number of variables that the game needs to record during gameplay and this would of course lead to compromises in the amount of change that could be fed into the screen graphics. In vintage consoles and computers, larger amounts of RAM mean that less compact code can be produced that can execute faster and so do more in the limited time available to manipulate the screen, potentially even using tricks such as re-writing portions of the code as it executes (self-modifying code) which is impossible in ROM. Enter The Supercharger The Starpath (formerly Arcadia Corporation) Supercharger unit plugs into the 2600 cartridge slot and boasted the claim that it would bring ‘action and detail not possible in conventional cartridge systems’. This was a little misleading perhaps as there were no graphics hardware changes in the cartridge which was in fact a 6K (6144 bytes) RAM expansion. The cartridge was designed to reduce the memory restrictions on the game developers, freeing them to produce larger code focused more on performance with more variables recorded and greater graphical changes made possible through techniques not possible when space is the overriding concern. It may seem a small amount but this extra memory was nothing to be sniffed at in those days and some of the Supercharger games really show the effect of having more space to breathe. However, the Supercharger also includes a cassette interface so that programs can be loaded directly into the extra RAM from cheap-to-produce (and so to buy) tapes rather than more expensive ROM cartridges with their expensive memory chips. With code loaded into the RAM from tape the Supercharger runs game code just like any ROM cartridge, in fact some enterprising hackers dumped released cartridge contents to tape so that the...

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Atari 8-Bit Memories
Apr11

Atari 8-Bit Memories

After reading Danny Major’s recollections of owning a Commodore Amiga, I was taken back to my own memories of owning an Amiga 500.  I loved my Amiga, but there was a hint of sadness about its arrival into the household as my beloved Atari 800XL died that same day. It was almost as if that 800XL felt betrayed, that it had decided it wasn’t going to function anymore and couldn’t cope with being ousted as the top dog even though it shared the Amiga’s father, Jay Miner. In many ways the Amiga architecture was an evolution of the Atari 800 that had itself evolved from the Atari VCS console (later rebranded the 2600).  The Atari 800 was released with it’s cut-down sibling 400 in 1979 in competition with the Apple II, TRS-80 and Commodore PET.  It outperformed the competition significantly in graphics and sound as you would probably expect from a company synonymous with games after the success of the VCS.  With graphics co-processors “ANTIC” and “GTIA”, a sound chip “POKEY” used in many Atari arcade machines and 48K RAM, the 800 outclassed every home machine for games until it’s nemesis, the Commodore 64, appeared in 1982.  To compare them I would say the 64 was tailor made for the sprite-based 2D games you would typically find in the 80s and in which it excelled with a higher colour resolution than the Atari. The Atari has a more “raw” feel – a slightly lower colour resolution, graphic changes over the screen that show off it’s colour palette along with a healthy dose of speed as a result of the flexible graphics modes and faster processor. In sound I believe it’s a matter of taste, the 64’s SID chip is legendary but I don’t believe the Atari’s POKEY is inferior, just different. For me SID is better for music, POKEY for sound effects but then beauty is in the ear of the beholder. Atari 800 Atari 800 Atari 800 XL Atari 130 XE box Atari 130 XE The 800 was replaced with the restyled and cost-reduced 800XL and 600XL computers that increased the available memory to 64K in an attempt to match Commodore’s all-conquering machine.  Commodore’s sacked chairman Jack Tramiel would later buy out Atari’s computer division and release the last in the 8-bit range, the XE range, styled to match the new 16-bit ST machines and sporting up to 128K in the 130XE.  This took production up to the beginning of 1992 and not a bad run at over 12 years for the platform.  All of the peripherals, whichever styling they had, worked on all of the 400/800/XL/XE ranges...

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Guide to Flash Storage for Vintage Computers
Mar15

Guide to Flash Storage for Vintage Computers

All of the popular games consoles of the cartridge era now seem to have very capable Compact Flass (CF) or secure Digital (SD) Card units that greatly enhance their use and can store a whole catalogue of games in one cartridge, but what about our vintage computers?  How do we preserve all of that fragile magnetic media for future years?  It turns out that almost all vintage computers have CF or SD units available if you search around. The variety in storage card solutions available for computers is even larger than those for consoles as each platform may have a number of options for implementation meaning that the units vary wildly.  Some machines have cartridge slots and so can have similar units to those for the consoles, but often the connection of such a device will be through an expansion connector and these connectors are almost always unique to each vintage machine and operating system.  There may also be a decision to be made on the usage of the storage, some units treating the card as one or more hard drives, some using the media to hold a library of selectable floppy disk image files or cassette image files. As an introduction, I’ll go through a few of the SD/CF card options for machines in my own collection and give an overview of the modern storage solutions I‚’ve used to reduce my exposure to the nostalgia of tape errors and floppy disk failures.  Most of the products are created in small production runs, so availability may be limited, but keep an eye out on the developers’ sites, retro computing forums or eBay and I’m sure they can still be picked up. Commodore Amiga The A600 and A1200 support CF or SD cards easily as they have built-in PCMCIA slots and adapters are freely available.  One issue though is that they won’t boot from the PCMCIA slot and of course only hard-drive installable software will work but check out the various hard drive installers such as WHDLoad. For the A600, A1200 or A4000 you have a standard option as these machines have internal IDE connectors for ATA hard drives.  CF to IDE adapters are easily found for very little cost and can replace an existing drive for a faster, cooler and quieter performance.  Capacities are much higher than the old hard drives so you may need to partition the storage into a number of virtual drives but setup and use should be identical to a standard hard disk.  AmigaKit.com can supply an Amiga SD-IDE kit pre-formatted with software installed and it’s well worth checking them out for this and many...

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An Introduction to SD Cartridges for Vintage Consoles
Jan06

An Introduction to SD Cartridges for Vintage Consoles

Whichever console you owned as a child, it’s hard to recall just how difficult it was to choose which of the many games available for your platform would be the one to ask for at Christmas or for a birthday. How I would struggle with the decision on how to spend my precious saved pocket money and how I dreamed of having all of those games. That childhood dream may not be something that can come true however much I try to buy up a complete Atari 2600 collection but it is possible with the power of the internet and some 21st century hardware to have access to all of those games for cartridge-based consoles and also save on the wear and tear on precious cartridges and cartridge connectors. For some platforms intrepid hardware engineers have created multi-carts with ROMs containing many or all games available for the system but these can be expensive and hard to come by as they are often available for only a short time in limited quantities. However in the past few years SD Card storage hardware has been created for most of the vintage game platforms. These allow you to use ROM images on your actual hardware and with the great increases in available storage capacity over the years typically provide enough storage to include every released game for a platform on a single SD or micro-SD card. Mostly these flash storage solutions are old cartridge shells with the insides replaced with the modern circuit board and a slot cut in the shell to allow the SD-card to be inserted and removed. A menu screen is displayed when the console is switched on or reset that allows you to select the game required from those on the SD-card and the game is loaded from the storage card into the internal cartridge memory. From that point on the cartridge behaves exactly as the original game cartridge would. The cartridge ROM images are copied to the storage card by taking it out of the cartridge shell and using normal file copying on your more modern computer with SD-card reader. There is of course the legal aspect to take into account and strictly speaking you should not be downloading and storing ROM images for cartridges you do not own unless they have been made freely available by the copyright owner. Having said this, ROM images for cartridges you do own are widely available and there is a very healthy homebrew scene producing some excellent work for old platforms that require these storage solutions to run on original hardware. The three I will list here are examples...

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