Sunday, October 23, 2016

Reasons for Owning a Gravis Ultrasound - Sound Quality Comparisons

It is an unfortunate fact of PC retro gaming that the Gravis Ultrasound cards are very expensive to buy off the second-hand market and the auction sites.  You may ask why should I want one, my Sound Blaster and my Roland does the trick for me.

For most games, you would be correct, the GUS is not especially impressive.  Some games, like anything using the DOOM engine, mix all the digital audio in software and then send the result to the sound card.  This eliminates one of the most important advantages of the GUS, mixing multiple streams in hardware at reasonable bit-sizes and frequencies.  In this instance, the GUS is no better than a Sound Blaster 16.  In benchmarks, it is actually worse than a SB16.

But for other games, the GUS can have a distinct advantage.  In these games, all audio, music, speech and sound effects, is digitally generated and mixed.  The Sound Blasters must mix this audio in software, but the GUS mixes it in hardware.  The result is always a higher quality sound from the GUS than an SB, even if the SB is a Pro, 16 or AWE model.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Video Potpourri II

Sometimes, one needs to discuss related subjects that do not by themselves warrant a full blog entry.  Hence the video potpourri series, in which I can talk about aspects of display technology.

I.  Composite Artifact Color Emulation

Composite artifact color emulation has been around for a long time.  Unfortunately, in many cases it just isn't very good at trying to replicate the look of a composite monitor.  Simple schemes just assign a color arbitrarily to a group of two or four monochrome pixels.  Mainline SVN DOSBox tries to simulate CGA composite color as if it were a VGA mode.  The colors are reasonably accurate to the real IBM CGA cards, but the text color fringing is rather blocky.  There are custom builds that use filtering and 16-bit color to give a more subtle impression of the composite color, but it still looks much, much cleaner than the real image.  You can obtain a custom build with better composite color emulation here :

Monday, October 3, 2016

Restoring the Fluid Look to Analog Video

As we all know theatrical sound film releases are typically projected at 24 or 25 frames per second.  Film is a progressive medium where each film frame captures an image at a discrete point in time.  However, film must be developed before it can be exhibited and must handled by experienced technicians, making it a costly medium in which to produce artistic works.  To reduce flicker, a shutter in the camera would open or close twice for each frame.

Prior to the advent of television, celluloid film was the only commercial means to display visual moving images.  However, the introduction of wholly-electronic television broadcast and receiver systems meant a massive change.  TV broadcast cameras were able to achieve acceptable image quality by broadcasting images in an interlaced format.  A broadcast camera and a TV tube display images in a set number of lines, and the electron scanning beam inside the tube scans or displays each line sequentially, then returns and draws the next line.  (Think of a typewriter.)  When it gets to the bottom of the tube, it returns to the top of the tube and draws the next set of lines.

In order to allow the electron beam sufficient time to draw all the lines, interlacing was used.  In an interlaced format, "frames" become "fields". A field only captures the odd or the even lines of the TV camera lens.  After all the odd lines in the first field are captured, then all the even lines of the second field are captured.  In the NTSC countries, 59.94 color fields (formerly 60 fields for B&W NTSC) are captured each second.  In PAL and SECAM countries, 50 fields are captured each second.  When this is broadcast to a TV screen, the fields are displayed as they are captured.  The high number of displayed fields avoids flicker on the TV screen.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Nintendo Mini Mania Redux - The Classic Mini Family Computer

Nintendo has released another retro-themed surprise.  Back in July, Nintendo announced the NES Classic Edition/NES Mini, an emulation box containing 30 classic NES games.  Here is the original trailer for it :  I discussed it here :

Yesterday, Nintendo announced a Famicom version for the Japanese market.  Like the NES Mini, the "Classic Mini Family Computer" is a miniature replica of a Famicom with a power and a reset button.  It also has 30 games and will cost 5,980 Yen, which is close to the NES Mini's $59.99 price.  It is going to be released on the same day as the NES Mini, November 11, 2016.  While the official trailer is in Japanese, the visuals are self-explanatory :

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Older Sci-Fi Shows in the HD Era

So, you want some of your classic sci-fi shows on Blu-ray?  How do they do that you may ask?  Well, in many cases it depends on when and where the show was created.

In the 1950s through the mid 1980s, U.S. science fiction TV was shot entirely on film.  Classic shows like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Star Trek, Night Gallery, Kolchak: the Night Stalker, The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman, Battlestar Galactica, The Incredible Hulk, Buck Rogers and V: The Series all had the Hollywood look.  Effects were done on film, practical where necessary, optical as required.

Then in 1986, Star Trek: The Next Generation started its seven year run.  This series initiated a revolution in special effects.  While live action was still caught on film, wholly special effects scenes depicting the Enterprise and the various ships and worlds it encounters would often be generated on video with the use of computer graphics imagery (CGI).  CGI would often make its way into the live action as well.  Unfortunately, these images would be constructed in standard definition.  This method of production continued for almost two decades, every Star Trek series (except the last season of Enterprise), Babylon 5, Farscape, Firefly, The X-Files, Hercules and Xena used this method.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Accessible Good Famicom Games

The Famicom had over 1,000 games released for it during its lifetime.  Hundreds of those games were never released outside of Japan, and there were only a few releases of Japanese games exclusively in Europe.  Of course, many, many of those games that never officially made it out of Japan are terrible, as were many games that did make it overseas.  In this post I am going to list many good Famicom cartridge games that were not released for the North American NES console.  Not all the games identified below are classics, but all have their virtues.  Famicom Disk System games have already been mostly covered elsewhere :

The first list is of games that are English-friendly.  These games do not use a lot of Japanese text and what text there is is not essential to completing the game.  Most of these games have translation patches as well.  Many tend to be simpler games, namely shooters and platformers

English Friendly Famicom-Exclusive (or Near-Exclusive) Games
Atlantis no Nazo
Attack Animal Gakuen
Babel no Tō
Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa
Cosmic Epsilon
Crisis Force
Devil World
Dig Dug
Doki! Doki! Yuuenchi: Crazy Land Daisakusen
Flying Hero
Gradius II
Holy Diver
Insector X
JJ: Tobidase Daisakusen Part II
Joy Mecha Fight
Moai Kun
Nangoku Shirei!!: Spy vs Spy
Parodius da!
Recca - Summer Carnival '92
Spartan X 2
Splatterhouse Wanpaku Graffiti
Star Wars
Super Star Force Jikūreki no Himitsu
Super Xevious GAMP no Nazo
The Goonies
Uchuu Keibitai SDF
Wai Wai World 2: SOS!! Paseri Jou
Wizardry II: Legacy of Llylgamyn
Yōsei Monogatari Rod Land

Devil World, Parodius da! and Doki! Doki! Yuuenchi: Crazy Land Daisakusen (Trolls in Crazyland) and Yōsei Monogatari Rod Land (Rod Land) were released for the PAL NES system.   The Goonies was only released for the PlayChoice-10 arcade, it never made it to home cartridge.  Weirdly Thunderbirds was not despite its origins as a British TV show.  Star Wars is a very, very loose adaptation of the film and is a very different adaptation from the LucasArts/JVC game.

Atlantos no Nazo was almost going to be an entry in the Pitfall series, but it never got past the prototype stage.  Bio Miracle was a late Disk to Cartridge port, the music may be a little lacking but the gameplay is still there.  Spartan X2 is a sequel to Spartan X, a.k.a. Kung Fu.  JJ: Tobidase Daisakusen Part II is a dark sequel to The 3-D Adventures of the Lode Runner and takes advantage of the Famicom 3-D System glasses.

There are several fine shooters on this list, Crisis Force, Uchuu Keibitai SDF and of course the technically stunning Recca - Summer Carnival '92.  Good platformers include Holy Diver, Gimmick! and Moai Kun.  Joy Mecha Fight is weird but one of the few good one on one fighters for the system.

The second list include games that really require a translation to fully play and enjoy.  It is extremely fortunate that the Famicom catalog has had many fine hackers and translators for it over the years.

Japanese Games Worth Playing with a Translation
Akumajou Special: Boku Dracula-kun
Downtown Special: Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki Dayo Zen'in Shuugou!
Esper Dream 2: Aratanaru Tatakai
Famicom Wars
Final Fantasy II
Final Fantasy III
Fire Emblem Gaiden
Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryu to Hikari no Tsurugi
Ganbare Goemon! Karakuri Douchuu
Getsu Fuuma Den
Ike Ike! Nekketsu Hockey Bu: Subette Koronde Dairantou
Just Breed
King of Kings
Konami Wai Wai World
Kunio Kun no Nekketsu Soccer League
Lagrange Point
Musashi no Bouken
Nekketsu Kakutou Densetsu
Nekketsu! Street Basket: Ganbare Dunk Heroes
Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken
Shufflepuck Cafe
Sweet Home
Takahashi Meijin no Bouken Jima IV
Takeshi no Chousenjou
Tenchi o Kurau II - Shokatsu Koumei Den
Wily & Light no RockBoard: That's Paradise
Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished - The Final Chapter
Ys III: Wanderers from Ys
Yume Penguin Monogatari

In this list there are a lot of RPGs.  The NES library was rather weak on RPGs, so supplementing them with the Famicom's is a good idea if you like 8-bit RPGs.  Some of the best are the VRC7-sound enhanced Lagrange Point, the charming Mother (the US prototype is Earthbound) and the intricate job system of Final Fantasy III.  

Tactical-based RPGs are also given a heavy emphasis here.  We got almost nothing, so with the Nintendo-developed Fire Emblem games, the Namco-163 sound enhanced King of Kings and the MMC5-graphics and sound enhanced Just Breed, you will have plenty of opportunities to explore this genre.  

There are a couple of games I really would not recommend if they stood alone.  Ys II is a far superior port of its game compared to Ys.  Final Fantasy II's improvement system is broken.  Similarly, other games are more recommended for their historical interest.  Takeshi no Chousenjou is not an objectively good game but it is pretty insane.  Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken shows the beginning of what would become Enix.  

If you like River City Ransom, Nintendo World Cup or Super Dodge Ball, I have listed most of the other Kunio Nekketsu games.  Technos just could not stop making them for every kind of sporting activity.  

My final list is of Japanese games that did get a release in North America, but have some feature which makes their Japanese version notable :

Japanese Name North American Name Major Differences
Akumajou Densetsu Castlevania III - Dracula’s Curse Enhanced VRC6 Music, More Balanced Difficulty
Akumajou Dracula Castlevania Easy Mode
Arabian Dream Scheherazade The Magic of Scheherazade Graphics Changes, Shorter Sword for Warrior
Argus no Senshi Rygar Several Different Music Tracks
Contra Contra Introduction and in-game Story Cutscenes, Animated Background Tiles
Donald Duck Snoopy's Silly Sports Spectacular! Major Graphics Changes
Double Dragon III - The Rosetta Stone Double Dragon III - The Sacred Stones More Balanced Difficulty
Final Mission S.C.A.T. - Special Cybernetic Attack Team More Difficult
Golgo 13 - Dai 1 Shou - Kamigami no Tasogare Golgo 13 - Top Secret Episode Uncensored
Gradius - Archimendes HEN Version Gradius Graphics Changes
Gun-Dec Vice: Project Doom Uncensored
Kamen no Ninja Hanamaru Yo Noid! Major Graphics Changes
Karnov Karnov Extra Endings, Story Cutscenes
Mad City The Adventures of Bayou Billy Much Fairer Difficulty
Magic John Totally Rad Graphics Changes
Magical Doropie The Krion Conquest Story Cutscenes
Mickey Mouse III: Yume Fuusen Kid Klown in Night Mayor World Major Graphical and Sound changes
Mighty Bomb Jack Mighty Bomb Jack More Difficult
Moero TwinBee - Cinnamon Hakase o Sukue! Stinger Three-player support
Ninja Ryukenden III: Yomi no Hakobune Ninja Gaiden III – The Ancient Ship of Doom Much Fairer Difficulty, Infinite Continues, Password
Obake no Q-tarō: WanWan Panic Chubby Cherub Major Graphics Changes
Parody World: Monster Party Monster Party Red Blood, Prototype that was never Released in Japan
Power Blazer Power Blade Significantly Less Polished Version
Rolling Thunder Rolling Thunder Enhanced Namco-163 Music
Saiyuuki World 2 - Tenjoukai no Majin Whomp 'Em Graphics Changes
Salamander Life Force 3rd Option Powerup, Different Endings, Translucent Cartridge
Strider Hiryuu Strider Buggy, Prototype that was never Released in Japan, Textual Differences, Graphics Differences
Super Mario Bros. 3 Super Mario Bros. 3 Somewhat More Difficult
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II - The Arcade Game Somewhat Less Difficult, No Pizza Hut Ads
Tokkyuu Shirei Solbrain Shatterhand Graphics Changes, Level and Boss Changes, Intro
Top Secret Hitler no Fukkatsu Bionic Commando Uncensored, Somewhat More Difficult
Wanpaku Kokkun no Gourmet World Panic Restaurant More Balanced Difficulty, Graphics Changes
Obviously, games with cutscenes will need a translation patch or improvement hack to fully enjoy.  All the above listed games seem to have such patches, so do some of the censored games.  

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Two Late Classic Apple II to PC Ports, Unalike in Dignity

Even though the Apple II was very long in its lifespan by the end of the 1980s, there was a fair bit of software still being released for it.  The Apple II was very strong in the educational market, computer labs across the United States had yet to upgrade to the PC platform.  The Apple II had many, many classic games.  Most of them were ported to the PC at some point, but by the end of the 1980s the number of A2-to-PC ports (that did not have the name Carmen Sandiego in the title) was dwindling.

Even so, two classics of the Apple II did make their way to the PC platform in the late 1980s and they are the subject of this blog entry.  The first is MECC's 1985 update of The Oregon Trail.  The second is Jordan Mechner's Prince of Persia, programmed on and released for the Apple IIe, IIc and IIgs in 1989.  MECC ported the Apple II version of The Oregon Trail to the IBM PC in 1988.  Mechner and Broderbund ported the Apple II version of Prince of Persia to the PC compatibles in 1990.

The Oregon Trail is the simpler game, in fact it was an update of an earlier version MECC made for the Apple II in 1980.  That version was mostly text-based and occasionally displayed simple wire-frame graphics and a little music.  Before personal computing, Oregon Trail was played on mainframes on a time-share basis.  But the 1985 Apple II version is undoubtedly the most popular version of the game.  The 1985 version requires 64KB of RAM on an Apple II.  This version was ported to the PC by MECC in 1988.  The PC port requires 512KB of RAM and at least a CGA card.

Prince of Persia is a spiritual successor to Mechner's Karateka, another big hit.  Both were published by Broderbund.  Prince of Persia takes the rotoscoped graphics and one on one combat of Karateka and combines them with running and jumping mechanics, obstacles, traps and triggers.  It requires 128KB of RAM and an Apple IIe capable of displaying double high resolution graphics, a IIc or a IIgs.  It only uses double high res graphics on the title screen and story text screens (four screens).  Mechner supervised the ports of the game to the IBM PC compatibles and the Amiga in 1990.  It supports CGA, Hercules, Tandy, EGA and VGA and a variety of sound cards and 512KB-640KB depending on the graphics mode.

When it came to porting these games to the PC, MECC did an outstanding job.  Broderbund and Mechner, not so much.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Recording the IBM PC Speaker's Sound

The PC Speaker was the first audio device that PCs used.  In some form or another, it is contained in almost every PC ever made.  In the original IBM PC, the Model 5150 released in 1981, the speaker was a distinct cone 2.25" in diameter.  And it was loud, but it had to be in order to compete with the noisy power supply fan and the seeking of the disk drives!  The tones it output were pure, and while they were rather harsh they were also clear.

However, eventually the PC Speaker began to shrink in size and eventually give way to the tiny piezoelectric tweeters that are just too quiet to do justice to any kind of complicated audio.  (You can blame IBM for putting the idea into other manufacturer's heads because the IBM PCjr., released in 1983, used a piezo tweeter for the PC Speaker.)

When emulators like DOSBox became mature, they could easily output basic PC Speaker audio.  Basic PC Speaker audio is essentially a square wave with a fixed volume level and a 16-but frequency selector.  They can have difficulty with the more complex sounds produced by Pulse Width Modulation, which essentially sends changes to the frequency of the square wave to the speaker faster than the speaker cone's driving circuitry was intended to handle.  This requires a much more rigorous emulation of the CPU, the timer and the "analog" characteristics of the audio generation.