Saturday, 1 April 2017

BASIC 2000 / LAMBDA 8300


It's been a while since I have had my mitts on a properly old new hardware. What's it called? It's BASIC 2000 to me, but it's originally a Lambda 8300 from Hong Kong, known by many aliases in different countries. Furthermore, it's supposedly pretty much a ZX81 clone apart from the ROM, with 2K of RAM as standard as opposed to 1K.

Not completely unknown in Finland, I saw this once in a cheapo store, and maybe a picture in one of those tiny shifty-looking mail order catalogs.


Obviously the rubber keys are a bit of an improvement over the membrane keyboard. Looking behind, there's an external bus, Atari-style 9-pin joystick port, ear/mic for tape storage, RF and a "monitor" connector, which is composite video.

Already the key graphics reveal some differences to ZX81 in the character set. There are 45-degree angle blocks, 2x2 pseudo-pixel blocks for a 64x48 resolution, and funnily enough, a "ghost", "space invader", "alien butterfly" and a "car" symbol. I think there are some Sharp computers that went the same route. Seeing as there are only 64 characters + inversions in the set, it's a bold move. The 45-degree blocks are a good idea but the checkerboard "grey" patterns have been discarded.


I opened the computer to get a superficial look at the board before booting up. (The seller made no big promises) Remove three screws and pull out the case top starting from the front. The clips from the sides have to be freed first, then the top part of the case is pulled towards the front to free the case from the back clips.

The layout reminded me a bit of Laser 200/Salora Fellow, but thankfully the circuit board is better quality, I'd say better than the ZX81. This time I didn't pry inside the keyboard part.


Booting up the computer (plug-in, no power switch) with a video monitor gave a beep and a "ready" prompt. Hooray! Yet the screen quality was poor with vertical stripes and I wondered if there was something wrong with the machine. However, comparing to screenshots available on the net this seems to be quite common. Turning brightness down and contrast up pretty much made the effect disappear.

The keyboard? The first hilarious moment made me think something's again broken in there: Pressing each key gave a different pitched warbling beeps out of the loudspeaker. Typing a bit further I realized each key has a distinct tone, meaning this is an intentional feature and not a fault in the hardware. The ZX81 is silent so this is another "improvement" over that hardware, proudly audible as soon as you press the keys.


Messing with BASIC

How do the keys feel? Better than the ZX81 but maybe not as good as the ZX Spectrum. At least the keys work quite well after 35 years. Some functions might be in better positions than in the ZX81, such as the (shifted) cursor and edit keys. A dreadful thing is the "reset" key next to the 0 key which I have often mis-typed. Thankfully it does not reset the computer, it clears the current status a bit like Run Stop+Restore combination does on a Commodore 64.


I managed to type in a tiny 10 PRINT... inspired graphics piece, which uses the 4 diagonal symbols just to produce something that's characteristic of this computer and not the ZX81.

Considering a chess program was once written for ZX81 with a length of under 700 bytes, the 2048 bytes of RAM must have been a luxury.


Despite slowness, the ZX81 version of Sinclair BASIC is already quite neat and goes to show a full-screen editing is not always necessary. The BASIC does not take in Sinclair-style single key keywords, which is sort of refreshing.

However, commands cannot be separated with a colon character, in fact the character does not even exist at all in BASIC 2000. This makes IF - THEN constructs sometimes a bit of a chore. Then again the programs never grow truly large so it hardly matters.


Above shows the BASIC 2000 character and command set, a result of a PRINT CHR$(i) loop. TEMPO, SOUND, BEEP, NOBEEP are interesting as the ZX81 had no sound at all. The typing beeps can be turned off with NOBEEP. As in ZX81, FAST and SLOW commands can be used to turn screen update off and on to improve computer speed.

The image below compares the ZX81 character set with the BASIC 2000 set. The changes are minimal, a different font would have given a more distinct feel to the computer. My problem with the game graphics is that the usefulness of the inverted versions have not been thought out very well. Interestingly, not only the colon but the question mark has been abandoned.



Onwards to the year 2000

The hardware improvements makes this a bit nicer than the ZX81 but the software incompatibility and lack of the Sinclair brand aura loses it some points. But it's not the complete piece of trash I expected it to be, typing little programs is quite comfortable soon as you turn off the beeper and get adjusted to the pace. It seems this computer was really meant to be a very introductory kit for, you know, learning BASIC.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Larn, Larn, Larn


I've sung Larn's praises before. Recently, I have been playing Larn more now that a version is available online at larn.org. I have found it to be the most enjoyable of all Rogue-likes, for not being too pedantic about items, character development, eating and stuff. The caverns are rich, diverse yet compact. For such a game-like approach, Larn is still surprisingly "deep" and well-balanced.

The new version balances the game a bit and brings together some command and interface options you'd expect from other rogue-likes. Playing the game from a browser works very smoothly and as a bonus there are DOS and Amiga visuals to choose from. Now that I saw the Amiga graphics I had a bit of a flashback: It is possible my very first games of Larn were played on an Amiga, before moving on to the Atari ST version where I learned to play it properly.

Amigaaah... except, the font is modern.
One of the changes concern balancing the game in relation to the Volcano, which was a source of some "exploitative" approaches towards the game.

The basic idea of the Volcano is very clever: you can climb down there anytime although it is a highly dangerous place. Even with a weak character, you could enter the Volcano Bilbo Baggins-style, and with some cleverness come back up with highly valuable treasures. This is all fine, and it adds spice and variety to the game.

However, a set of "standard items" emerged that nearly guaranteed a safe way to explore the Volcano to the point you could buy the Lance of Death very early in the game. Now, this version of Larn has been tweaked a little so that although this "historical" approach has been preserved, it can be only be done quickly on the easiest levels.

Below are the main keys and some collected some tips for beginners.

Main keys:

hjklubn keys-move player, as in Rogue-likes
h-help screen (more keys etc)
E-Enter dungeon/building
,-Pick up item
i-Display inventory
I-Show known spells&items
c-Cast spell (three-letter combo)
w-wield weapon
W-Wear armor
q-Quaff potion
r-Read book/scroll
o-Open chest/door

Beginner tips:
  • Don't enter the Volcano unless you know what you are doing, or have pretty much destroyed the dungeon first.
  • The very beginning: Sweep clean the first dungeon level before bothering to go down. There are no really dangerous monsters on level 1, just be a bit careful around hobgoblins (H), gnomes (G) and multiple enemies.
  • Remember, you have the magic missile spell ("mle") from the beginning, but don't trust it to work every time. Protect 2 ("pro") is also useful to cast as it's a significant addition to a poor or no armor.
  • Low level characters: Don't open any chests, avoid the altars, don't wash yourselves in a fountain, don't pry off any jewels off thrones and don't open any doors if possible. You'll live longer.
  • Go down only when you are at least level 3. Hopefully you can afford some weapon and armor, too. There you need to start using your "mle" spell actively, because letting some monster types close on you is never very wise.
  • Armor is generally more important than the weapon. A large amount of hit points or a super-weapon doesn't really protect you if you have poor armor.
  • All rings and magic items carried bring a cumulative effect and work automatically without you having to "wear" them. 
  • Energy rings and rings of regeneration are highly desirable, the former brings back spells and the latter returns hit points faster.
  • Scrolls and potions can be a mixed bag for the low-level player. One nice strategy is to collect as many potions and scrolls as you can, and when you have 3400 gold, buy and read the Scroll of Identity and see what you have in your inventory.
  • Never open a door repeatedly without looking what the effect is. When you get a spell good enough to blast the doors apart, always use it.
  • Chests and books give good prices, but can be more useful to open or read. It's a hard call to make. If you can bring a chest or books from the volcano early on, sell them!

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Black Eye HD macro

I got hold of a Black Eye HD macro lens for my battered iPhone 4S. The device is attached with a clip over the camera lens and off you go.

That's not the iPhone, sadly.
I'm interested in getting close-ups without having to set up a "real" camera, so the Black Eye lens is good for practical shots such as work documentation in micro-scale and the like.


And all right, some funny retro-detail shots of old machines. Boy are those old keyboards dirty...


Checking out the ZX Spectrum Recreated keyboard shows some manufacture quality issues...


The lens gives pretty nice results, considering my old 4S camera is not that great and the lighting was a bit poor for these shots.

When the scale is this small, the phone is pretty easy to set against other surfaces to reduce camera shake. Also, the iPhone camera focus adjust works here, although usually it's better to fiddle with the physical distance to get desired results.

The clip attachment is fine with the flat iPhones, showing that a rectangular form often makes sense in a primitive but clever object-ecosystemic way. I'm not too convinced the lens would fit as easily on "all cameraphones", as some have an inconvenient button or curvature near the camera lens.

You need to click on the images and open them in new tabs to get the larger versions, which are already 50% reduced.

Another pic of the Recreated

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Saboteur II - The Avenging Angel remake

The saboteur, doing her sabotage.
After the excellent Saboteur remake for web browsers, Clive Townsend, the author of the Saboteur games, has released a similar treatment of Saboteur II - The Avenging Angel.

I waited for this release with mixed feelings. On 8-bit computers, Saboteur II from 1987 felt less good than the original. Slow, giant-size map with repeating rooms, difficult and random fighting. This type of opinion was also echoed around the 'net, so I never really found myself back with the the game.

Even then, I also felt that on certain points, the sequel was an improvement over the first Saboteur game. You can select your own entrance by dropping from the glider, and you can sneak a bit around the building and not only inside it. The jumping is much more fluid and there are no frustrating jump sections. The ninja can do a satisfying somersault which has more subtle uses than in the first game.


The Saboteur II remake

Enough of that, what's the new game like?

With the Saboteur 1 update, Clive had done an excellent job of enhancing the outcome without altering the game play inside the original game area. Here I was worried that the second game could not work without fundamental changes.

Now that the game is faster and there is more to see, I'm happy to say Saboteur II becomes much clearer and better without any real alterations to the game core. For example, now I finally see that the different missions encourage taking different routes within the complex, whereas Saboteur I was bounded to the one back-and-forth journey with variations.

An example of the kind of attention to detail that has been put in the new graphics.
There's more visual detail, locations and "intel" points and achievements where you learn about the background of the complex. Another nice added detail is the enemy energy bar, which is also shown alongside the player energy. Although it confused me a little at first, this makes the fighting rules more clear and a bit easier.

The missions and some game play aspects have been tweaked a bit. I see the items are no longer placed in "stashes" of multiple items, and the code locations don't have items in them. This is a reasonable streamlining as there was no real benefit from the stash system. A tiny difference is that the missions are now properly locked away, and you can't use a code from a magazine to unlock them :)

As with the previous remake, there are also added game screens and plot elements, which are here revealed in a more piecemeal fashion. After completing a few missions you'll discover there are doors that lead to new rooms... and yes, there's also a new section after all the effort and that's all I'm going to say for now. Let's just say I like the way the new narrative unfolds. Just take heed of all the intel and achievement notes and you'll get an idea what you might be missing. Also, the background in the loading screen is a map, too.

The Amstrad CPC style shows Nina as a redhead!
But it is a bit difficult at the very beginning! I died a dozen times in the first few screens when I started out, but after this initial frustration I took a deep breath and looked at what was wrong with my play style.


Some playing tips

For absolute beginners I'd recommend avoiding the androids, running away from them, or finding routes where you don't have to engage them. This way you can get a better feel of your way in, out and around the complex.

Eventually you have to learn to fight, ninja-style. Nina can do more fighting moves than her brother, but I'd suggest using the flying kick (run + fire) as the primary form of combat, as you can at the same time distance yourself from the androids and keep on fighting. A flying kick followed with a punch can be a devastating combo, but you need to get the rhythm of the fight correct. The crouching kicks are good for the pumas.

Serious moonlight!
The thrown items are as good as one kick, which can make the difference between life and death in some places. Ideally, throwing an item followed with flying kick+punch will destroy an android extremely fast. Got to appreciate the new splintering effect when throwing stuff at the androids!

Situations where two androids are close up can be dangerous. At places, you need to clear yourselves "home space" before climbing up or down a level, because you can't rest while on the ladders between two floors.

As in the original Saboteur 2, there are also some "silly" points where you can rest. These are spots the androids won't enter, despite what logic might say. Take note of such places.


The Avenging Angel

To me this release is just as good or better as the Saboteur! remake, but for slightly different reasons. I appreciate the way the game is able to enhance and finalize Saboteur II: The Avenging Angel in a way that makes me say this is the game it ought to have been, or always was in its heart. The added material, different graphic modes, various music tracks and other improvements here and there make it so much more. I can only hope Saboteur III will be made, combining the best elements from both games.

Get the game(s) from here

My thoughts on the Saboteur! remake here

Friday, 24 February 2017

8-bit journeys into pop culture

Again, some recent 8-bit images, added with musings and reflections. Funny how it all tends to go back to TV/Sci-fi/film themes...


Dallas (128x192 Texas Instruments 99/4A bitmap)

The first image is for the mega-demo Don't Mess with Texas by Desire, for the Texas Instruments 99/4A computer. The coders have done an amazing work in demonstrating the hidden capabilities of this very limited and idiosyncratic old computer. I had a small piece in the demo, a half-screen image which is shown for a couple of seconds of the eight-minute runtime.

I went with "Dallas", as it was one of the first things that came into my mind with that Texas-theme. It also fits nicely as Desire and Dallas have both a D and the same amount of letters.

I never really watched Dallas but in no way could the phenomenon be avoided
As the TI99/4A has the VDP chip, the graphics capabilities are nearly the same as in MSX. The TI community claims that the palette is at least somewhat different, so although I worked the image mostly in the MSX colors the end result is in an interpretation of the TI99 values.

I don't like to use references, but here I needed to use photographs of the actors. Even then these are not very directly worked from any one photograph, and the 8x1 colorspace really makes you reinvent the images anyway. Ok, the MAD Magazine parody "Dullus" opening shot probably influenced me more than I'd like to admit.

The aim was to showcase the color capabilities of the VDP/TI. So, superfluous horizontal color bars and candy-like coloring here and there. The pic is a bit rough in the details but I supposed that as the authentic target is a television tube, it would not matter so much.


Alien (160x200 Commodore 64 multicolor bitmap)

The second image was made to enhance a cracked C64 version of the game Alien (1984), based on the film. The Hokuto Force crack (Alien +6DG) enhances the original and I was asked for a xenomorph pic to accompany the release.

Somehow it reminds me of the Mortal Kombat logo?
I now examined some images of the Alien, going back to the original film props when possible. The more I looked at images of the actual suit that was used in the filming, the less impressive it became. Don't get me wrong, Giger's work is obviously a classic. It's simply that the way the prop/suit is used in the film does not reveal how humanoid-like the costume really was.

So, the mystique of the Alien is not only about showing it in very few scenes, but also revealing very little of the actual shape, the guy-in-a-suit nature of it. I wonder which then is the "correct" alien, the impression left by the film or the actual prop used?

However, these thoughts did not really impact the result that much. This is more a graphic emblem of the Alien than an impression. I changed the proportions a bit, exaggerating the tail size and shape to create a circular composition that is partly reinforced by semi-circular elements in the centre.

The game is pretty neat, I've played it on a ZX Spectrum a few times. It's a bit similar to the later Shadowfire in having multiple characters that are real-time icon controlled. According to World of Spectrum, John Heap has worked on both of them, so that maybe explains the similarity!

Info about the release at CSDb


Beam Us Up (16x23 characters PETSCII directory art)

The third image is my first attempt to make "dir art" for the Commodore 64. Directory Art refers to graphics made inside the directory portion of the disc filesystem. So instead of seeing the ordinary list of files via LOAD "$",8 there are logos and visuals instead. Crackers and demo groups used to embellish their releases with such graphics, and still do.

Screenshot of the directory, but LOAD "$",8 is the real way to experience them.
I made a very old-school PETSCII that fits the screen. My main motive was to include the " characters into the image, as these normally frame the filenames. I came up with this Star Trek themed pic, a little bit related to the non-standard PETSCII of Mr. Spock that I once made for the print magazine Skrolli (see below).

In my dir art the " characters work as edges for the transporter beam. Also, there is always some motion inherent to a directory listing so Spock and Kirk are sort of being "beamed". This could have been enhanced by having a longer dir list.

Once again I used Marq's PETSCII editor to create the image. The c1541 tool was used to generate a D64 disk image with a bunch of files with dummy names. With a hex editor I collected the offsets for the file names. I then modified the PETSCII editor to overwrite the D64 file using the offsets. The character encoding also needed to be changed for the directory environment. Afterwards the file identifiers were trashed in such a way that the first file could not be loaded, again with the hex editor.

The file at CSDb

The CSDb dir art compo

A "non-standard" PETSCII, for Skrolli magazine

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Fort Django v1.1



I made a small update to my Commodore 64 game Fort Django. The most important changes are:

-A choice of a whole new map with new background graphics
-New enemy behavior (in the new map)
-Music and Sound FX and a choice between them

The old game mode (map1) should play almost identically as before.

Use joystick in port 2. Turn up and down in the title screen to select the map. Turn left and right to switch between sound fx and music. Fire starts the game.

As before, you shoot enemies and try to find the exit. Collecting bags gives extra bonus depending on how quickly you have moved from the last bag. (The bonus keeps decreasing from $900)


Internally, I changed a few things to make the new map fit. The memory use was extremely lazy in the old version. Many c variables and arrays are now changed to direct memory read/writes. I relocated these higher up, so the compiled code and data area have more room to breath.

I added a scanline interrupt for the music routine, which plays out the in-game music I created with Goattracker 2, using subtunes for different program sections. The main game tune can be turned off. The sound effects make use of the Goattracker sound fx routines which are simple but suitable for this type of game. If the music is off, there are more sounds, but one channel is always reserved for sound fx. I'd say overall the sounds are better than the old ones, even though I sort of miss the sharp gunshot sound. The tunes try hard to sound something between Rambo/Platoon but a Galway or Dunn I ain't.

The sprite updates are more rigorously done during the vblank so I have more time during the frame for doing other calculations, should they be needed. However the game pretty much runs during the vblank anyway.


The new map takes the player to a vaguely central american temple, giving the game some more of that Pitfall/Rick Dangerous vibe. The new map has a bit different play style too. The rooms are more open and there's more opportunities for platform game elements.

There's new enemy behavior in this new map. For example, the enemies only shoot when facing the player. The enemies can also crouch like the player, so the player can't use always the same trick when entering the screen. Some of the enemy behavior and timing is adjusted on a room-by-room basis, so the rooms can contain a small pre-defined "action puzzle".

Internally, the two enemies are switched occasionally. Inside the program logic only one of them does the shooting and crouching. But the switching gives an impression of both having the same freedom. This is not especially elegant but given how the two enemies have been programmed it's a nice fix.

The splash screen and ending have been adjusted, but I felt a weird respect toward the old map and did not alter the graphics there at all.

It was nice to revisit the program, but in the future, I'd probably prefer making something new than try to continue adding to Fort Django.

About the first version

Fort Django v1.1 at CSDb