Monday, 26 October 2020

PETSCII PETSCII PETSCII

Lately I have used more reference images and/or nostalgia in my PETSCII graphics. Perhaps it's easier to judge the success of the image as it is based on something.

But I've also found there's a kind of "digital history consciousness" theme going on. Let's see.

Although Neuromancer came out in 1984, it's unlikely most "kids" heard about cyberpunk until very late 1980s. So in a sense, Max Headroom was way ahead of its time, an "avatar living inside the television set", an image that was I knew was cool without knowing really why. The faked computer graphics enabled this 1980s figure to false start the 1990s.



This PETSCII of Max Headroom is the closest I've ever come to simply translating a photograph, although I did use multiple images for reference and not just one. Even then it's quite challenging to fit it into character graphics. The likeness is not 100% spot-on but I did not want to use sunglasses to cover the eyes.

The two-part "comic strip" below was done for the physical Kuti magazine #57. (Go check it here) Apart from my dabblings, the issue features other PETSCII works too. Below is the original export from Marq's PETSCII editor, with a height of two C64 screens. The print/digi-version has slightly different appearance.
Maher's book about Amiga reminded me of the Warhol/Debbie Harry promotional event. I was surprised to learn that Warhol actually dabbled in Amiga graphics even after this promotion. And why not, there was scarcely anything else he could have used at the time.

I initially hoped to do a full spread, with 4 or more panels, with a vague notion of connecting different themes in a 'surreal' or diagrammatic way to this event. But I focused on two images and threw away any surrealism, simply relating the 'historical' event in a somewhat comical way. Did Warhol do a PETSCII after all?

PETSCII Non Stop. This is another recreation, but not from a fake CGI head but a real one. I mean, not from an actor posing as a 3D head. It gets confusing. I occasionally take up on "technical" challenges, such as wireframe graphics with a character set. A still from the famous music video Musique Non Stop served as a starting point for this head.


The result does not probably resemble any one Kraftwerk member but approximates the idea.

Winampscii. Now, the recreation of the Winamp basic theme on C64 is old in itself (there's a few on C64 that actually play something), but I haven't come across one that is full PETSCII.



Thanks for Marq for pointing out the nostalgic winamp skin website and suggesting the Winampscii theme. I did try to make it somewhat more SID-specific. Supposing you have two sound chips (a real possibility), the Dual mode might make sense and in theory a pan-slider could be used.

This was done rather quickly and in hindsight I might have changed a few characters here and there.


And the rest

There's a couple of recent works that do not really fit into the above "digi-conscious" theme.

Advanced Pet Dragons. Although this looks like an "animation" it actually has a couple of code effects, significantly a primitive ray-caster. The material could have been crammed into an animation, too.


Since I made Digiloi, I have sometimes toyed around with other PETSCII game ideas. These days they tend to result in small-ish demos rather than full games, but that's better than nothing I guess.

The history with the Advanced Pet Dragons is that I had a somewhat ambitious game in the works, that in the end could not be reasonably completed. So I simply picked up and modified the ray-caster routine to draw dungeon animations.

PETSCII Gunship, to put it simply, is a recreation of the intro screen of Microprose game Gunship (1986).


I saw the screen could be turned into a PETSCII with very little loss. Seeing this opportunity pushed me to do a rendition. 

Although the Commodore 64 version was the starting point I also had a glance at the Amiga and PC versions. For example for the nose I deviated from the C64 source as it didn't look nice.

Hard Eagle, Floppy Disc is a quick and jokey re-imagining.


Ok, it tends towards the digi-consciousness theme, as it is yet another version of the Eagle Soft Inc. crack intro picture, burned into the retinas of a generation of Commodore 64 users. 

This relates to a small scene drama not worth discussing here, suffice to say PETSCII art was under attack too. I felt a need to do a something humorous and have the ever so serious Sam the Eagle to play the part.


Post script

In the past I've been a bit negative about recreating already existing images on PETSCII or pixels. But now I've found it quite educational and become a bit more accepting about using references for building images. 

Still, I've not followed images very slavishly. But even converting an image is a way to learn and discover, as the source image pushes you to try character combinations you might not otherwise use.

The task is also bit like translating. I could try to copy the bitmap image and then ignore positions that cannot be done. But it is more to important to get the sense of the original and even add detail that's not really there.

I didn't bother to build individual links to csdb, but these works and others can be found from under
 

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Book: Tom Lean: Electronic Dreams


I recently skimmed through bunch of early 1980s ZX Spectrum magazines from the archives. The period seemed markedly different from the later games-oriented 1980s culture, so I wondered if there was literature about it. Turns out there is a British book about the home computer boom in the early days, called Eletronic Dreams: How 1980s Britain learned to love the computer (Bloomsbury Sigma, 2016)

The book was exactly spot on for me, as it does make notes on the early computer press in UK, even before the Spectrum days. It also provides some insight into the national zeitgeist and political background that the reading of early Spectrum magazines hinted at, but would not explain. 

The magazines really took upon themselves to educate people about computing and its uses, as a preparatory step to the future. Where and why did such a national fervour originate?

This is less a review of the book and perhaps more about the thoughts it inspired.

The book is prefaced by a concise history of the development of the computer and explaining the distinction between an eletronically-stored program computer with its predecessors. The emphasis on the UK and also the hobbyist angle in US and UK. There is a strong reminder that the UK had the lead on computer technology in various times and sported many "firsts", but lacked resources to keep ahead.

As the heavy industry was on the brink of collapsing, computers looked like a way into renewing the country, and for a short while the bespectacled teens from the suburbs of abandoned steel mill towns became the unlikely icons of this new opportunity.


Here comes the Sinclair

The significance of the low cost of Sinclair's ZX81 is greatly emphasised. Although the Apple II was a complete system for home, it was an import and the price was still prohibitive for an everyman. Magazines like PCW listed various computers systems for the UK market in late 1970s, but often with prices in excess of 2000 pounds.

It is now often too easy to look at just the specs of the old computers and put them into a top 10 list or something. It was the cheap price, marketing, penetration to the high street stores and a national rhetoric that drew ordinary people to buy a computer, not the specifications per se. ZX81 opened the gates for this.

The BBC computers are fairly unknown in Finland, so the story was less familiar to me, although I've known it in connection with Sinclair. As a kid I took it granted that computers came out of UK, but in hindsight it is a bit surprising it would be such a hotspot for the micro era. The Ferranti ULA chip appears to have been a great enabler there.

As an aside, BBC was one of the few 8-bit micros that were made with computing speed in mind. General users did not really discuss processing speed, and had it become a criteria more people might have wanted the Beeb. Look at BBC's Elite to see how it was meant to be. The structured BASIC is indeed pretty fast. Sinclair QL's SuperBASIC, although powerful, was jaw-droppingly slow in comparison. 

Even if most of buyers just dumped their cheap computers after the novelty wore off, the huge numbers and the timing meant a movement, or a cultural wave had been generated. Perhaps this Bit-lemania did not result in a Bit-ish Invasion, but nevertheless it had become something widely known and commented on. 

Although in Finland the Commodore 64 is now recognized as a 1980s cultural artifact of some importance, its reception at the time still pales in comparison to how the Brits loved their Speccies back in the day.

In this telling, Sinclair appears to have been less antagonistic towards games than some narratives have suggested. Spectrum was already designed with games in mind. And it's obvious from the early lineup that included polished games such as Flight Simulation and Chequered Flag, not to speak of Chess, Othello and Backgammon. All of these were relatively high-brow and "educational" and the Spectrum still did not come with a joystick port.

I'm thinking if the Spectrum was nothing more than a packaging of the features the 3rd parties offered for the ZX81: extra memory, better keyboard, pixel graphics. Even the simplest analysis for the uses of ZX81 would reveal that games were popular.

Still, the book maintains the high proportion of games and the whole gaming culture that emerged, came as something of a surprise.


All you need is 1K

The resounding question was "what is it for?" It is repeatedly pointed out that home computers were pushed onto the market without a clear concept what the home needed them for. 

The book strongly points out the educational and computer literacy project was consciously kickstarted in the UK, and this engaged both public imagination and suggested opportunities for private sector.

And it turns out the early 1980s reason truly was "programming", not recipes or games. Therefore the answer the author presents is actually quite clear: From a political and social perspective, home micros were a literacy and educational project, a head start towards things to come.

As much as no one figured you should really type on the computer, it becomes understandable many cheap computers did not have advanced keyboards. If you were expected to write a BASIC program that tops at 1K, you could write it on any moldy log.

The book gives a convincing case of the home micro era as a short exploratory period where the purpose of computing of home was being teased out, paving way for the more task-oriented workstations, "personal computers". Just about then the persistent killer applications for home turned out to be word processing, and in hindsight, spreadsheets, for which the 8-bit micros were somewhat inadequate.

Against this backdrop it is not so surprising that Sinclair would attempt something of a "home business" computer with the QL. As the micros were on the way out something new was needed. Rather than being ignorant of what was happening, Sinclair was simply looking at what the existing uses pointed at, followed his previous formula, placed his bets and lost.

The book is also an important reminder that the rhetoric that pushes "coding" for young people, already existed in the 1970s UK if not earlier. "If you don't teach your kids programming, they will be the losers in the future. If the nation doesn't upgrade itself, it will be a loser among nations."

The author ends the telling with the 2010s perspective, when the "new BBC micro", the Raspberry Pi became a hit. And it's true there is a certain amount of industry and new learning that has spawned around platforms like the Pi and (unmentioned) Arduino. The emphasis is more on learning digital electronics and embedded systems, but it's also possible the Pi is devolving into a cheap "2nd desk computer".

I'm rather wondering if 2010s smartphones and tablets should also be compared with the original home micro boom. At first, many companies rush to the market with devices with poor ecosystems and few standards, producing an industry of gadgets and fixes to problems that might not even exist. A few random people become rich by creating software and games for the new environment, before big business and the logic of the marketplace makes it impossible but for the most dedicated teams. 

Let it Bit

The home micro era was a roughly 5-year period of time sandwiched between the professional, industrial and scientific computers of the 1970s and the personal computer era heralded by 16-bits like the Macintosh, Archimedes, Amiga and the Atari ST.

Whereas the home micros period was marked by self-programming, exploration and learning, the new personal computers were based on launching ready-made applications, with already identified tasks such as word processing and games driving the design.

Although the home micro "paradigm" wasn't sustainable, it had certain important repercussions. As an immediate result Amstrad managed to extend the life of the micro by bundling it anew and also had success at packaging the PC for Europeans. People at Acorn pioneered the ARM processor. The UK games industry was born out of the home micro era. 

To me, Electronic Dreams has an additional subtext. Here newspaper snippets, hobbyist magazines and television programs from an era are used to create the picture of the public reception of the computer.

At the same time these were the medias most people still got their information from in the 1980s. Even the UK had only three TV channels and the BBC shows about chips and computers were seen and discussed by huge number of people.

The depicted age is therefore doubly nostalgic. Now all possible binaries, experiences and facts about old home micros are retrospectively regurgitated on the internet (ahem), but part of the charm is the relative isolation of the 1980s computer hobby and the openings into a wider world that the magazines, clubs, books and the occasional TV program would puncture. 

The book does go through quite a lot of widely known things and anecdotes, which can put off a reader who has already read many computer histories. Yet the landscape painted using these smaller stories is not yet too often seen, and the attempt at somewhat wider picture is very welcome.

Tiny mistakes are unavoidable. The QL did not have a 256-color palette initially (but 8) and the multitasking had to wait a bit too.

The book strikes a balance between a more general history of computing and the often bit too narrowly focused books that celebrate a single computer platform.  It is an unashamedly British-centric book, a  slice of history from a time and place when the notion of a "home computer" was still exciting and about the future.

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Gaming keyboards in general use

It wasn't long ago when a non-wireless, keypadless keyboard was a fairly rare product category. Previously I had used either Apple keyboards or crappy Deltacos.

The Apple keyboard is good but the lack of a pgup/pgdown/home/ins/del cluster made me think of alternatives. I also hoped to try something a bit more physical and "retro".

Now that the market for different varieties of "gaming" keyboards has exploded, I felt I could perhaps find the ultimate keyboard from that category. I've often felt that if computer hardware is good enough for games, it's good enough for pretty much all else, too. Right? Right?

Back: A standard "workplace" keyboard. The difference in footprint can be huge.


I'm steering clear of anything that has a too gimmicky feel, such as angled wings and protrusions and LCD displays. LEDs are ok and almost inevitable anyway in this category. Programmable LEDs can be quite fun too. 

There are a few varieties of layouts even without keypad. Some have the distinct arrow key and PGUP/HOME/INS cluster, as in the PC and Amiga keyboards of old.


Some save further space by joining the arrow and extra keys to the right side of the main keys, laptop-style.

Some keys have no arrow keys at all, a bit too much in my opinion, not to mention a "gaming" keyboard that has no number keys at all!

I have now here two three cheap-ish mechanical gaming keyboards, which of course enables me to say wise words about them in general.

Rather less wisely, I started from low-cost, low-end keyboards. Perhaps eventually I'll grudgingly accept that a proper keyboard costs 150€, after having bought 3-4 cheap brand keyboards.


Exibel wired mechanical keyboard

I don't have that much to say about this low-cost keyboard, as it has little features to begin with.

I really liked the layout of the keyboard, it has everything I could want from keys and nothing extra. The semi-metallic low casing works quite nicely and the keyboard is not too elevated.

The arrow keys are nicely separated, even to the point I might be a bit careful about breaking them if the keyboard happened to fall on an unfortunate angle. But that could happen with any comparable keyboard like the Blackstorm below.

The Exibel keyboard

The features promised partial anti-ghosting, which I naively thought was a good thing. No, it's practically an admission that the keyboard is not that good for games.

Playing surviv.io, you can safely move around but if you have to move (WASD) and switch weapons (1-4) and use health items (7-0) etc., you'll find out that some keys will interfere with each other.

The second illusion on sale are the keyboard LEDs. Yes the box made it clear the keyboard does not have individually lighted LEDs, but the LED coloring is somewhat silly and you're stuck with the rainbow pattern. Thankfully they can be subdued or turned off by using the FN-arrow key combinations.

The keyboard is quite noisy. This is a somewhat common grievance with these mechanical keyboards.

This keyboard has served me well in typing and programming, and it has been good enough for most games (despite the experiences with surviv.io) but I also felt a better deal could have been made.



Blackstorm RGB 2020 Mech

Here I took a bit of a plunge, as this does not have function keys and the pgup/pgdown cluster is a bit limited. So it doesn't have that much more keys than the Apple keyboard, but at least it does have pause, pageup, pagedown and del. The arrow keys have not been separated either.

You are greeted with an animated rainbow


This was a slightly more expensive keyboard to start with, but it was in a sale so I could get it to a price comparable to the Exibel.

Funnily the keyboard appeared taller compared to the Exibel, and brought back memories of writing on old 8-bit computers like the MSX, Commodore 64 or the Memotech. This is mostly a styling and perceptual issue, as the two keyboards are just as tall.

The two rubber pads are just about enough to keep the keyboard in place when typing, so some added pads can come in handy.

Here the anti-ghosting is 100%, or one could say it doesn't have "anti-ghosting" as such but each keypress is transferred independently, without being distracted by other keypresses.

Edit: Here I'm messing up the terminology. Anti-ghosting means no extra keypresses are produced no matter what keys are held together. Fully independent keys are "N-key rollover".

Trying this on surviv.io revealed how blissful it is to have 100% non-interfering keys.

Unlike the Exibel, the Blackstorm has individual key light settings, and is not difficult to set up using the keyboard itself.

FN+G takes the keyboard to a "gaming mode", where three different profiles can be chosen and set up. FN+PGUP takes the keyboard further to "edit mode", after which FN+PGDOWN cycles through the available colors. Then, pressing keys will assign that color to that key. Easy! FN+PGUP will exit the editor.

Over-abundance of information... on a gaming keyboard?

There are seven colors and this correspond with the 1-bit RGB ("ZX Spectrum") colors Blue, Red, Magenta, Green, Cyan, Yellow and White. Of course the key can also be Black with no LED on.

In almost any competent keyboard use, you'll probably not really look at the keys, so the purpose of this feature might be somewhat lost. However it is fun to toy around with the custom lighting, to the point it would have been nice to have more than three profiles. 

The customization is fun. I tried a few color mappings:
  • Surviv.io keys. It perhaps gave a tiny bit of perceptual aid when hitting those far-away 9 and 0 keys (for Soda and Pills, respectively).
  • "Protracker lights", i.e. I colored the musical note entry keys white with the flat/sharp keys red. So it's like a synth keyboard? Not bad as you can enter chords without fear of losing any input. 
  • Match functions in ZX Spectrum game Elite. (As in the emulator). Weapons red, defensive/unarm keys green, movement keys white, data keys blue.
  • Talking of ZX Spectrum, for BASIC programming I could colorize the Symbol Shift as red and Caps Shift as green. It helps a bit as Spectrum emulators tend to be a bit confusing to use without knowing how your shifts have been mapped.
I could imagine that it might be helpful to colorize shortcut keys to some program you are learning to use, but I'll have to wait for that particular scenario to arrive to get some real results.

Currently, I'm highlighting I, left ALT and FN keys as they together make the "print screen (window)" function.

There are also preset light animations, some are really garish rainbows or random lights, and some are interactive: keypresses produce explosions or waves of light. These can only be used for annoying people around you.

I think it's a bit silly that the backpanel for the keys is white, which makes the light reflect back from below keys. This is clearly intentional, but it somewhat muddles the key coloring idea, as if they aren't really meant to be used seriously after all (which is probably true).

This keyboard is not noiseless either, but it might be the tone of the noise is just a tiny bit more pleasant, though.

Edit: After about a week of use, the lack of direct function, INS and HOME keys starts to feel a bit wearisome.


4.10.2020 HyperX Alloy Origins Core (addendum)

Well, it had to happen. Again a somewhat more expensive keyboard was on sale and I rushed to get it.

This has the same desirable keyboard layout as the Exibel, but ought to come with all the fancy things as the Blackstorm.

The build is heavier than both, it's the kind of base the Exibel pretends to be. It is just a teeny bit larger than the Exibel, and obviously not as small as the Blackstorm.

As a bonus, it has three stand setups for different angles. The keyboard does not slide on the table. The typeface is not childish and there's less weird graphical clutter than with the Blackstorm keys.

Great keyboard, crappy photo

The keys feel fine, again less noisy than even the Blackstorm was. The travel distance might be a bit more crispy and the keys don't wiggle sideways as much. They are a bit sharp from the edges but I'll get used to that. I'll develop calluses if I have to.

Surprisingly, all is not perfect.

The obvious limitation is the software for editing the lights and macros works only on Windows, so I can't get to these features. 

With the keyboard I can only change between three ugly profiles and switch the light levels. The lowest light level is already too bright. (This is the one thing the Exibel did well, the lights were really subtle on the lowest setting.)

Despite the specs, Blackstorm is able to transmit more keys at once than the HyperX. I could press the whole qwertyuiop line with Blackstorm and all would be sent.

The HyperX has a limitation. It seems six keys can be sent together, and they don't interfere with each other, so it should be fine for all practical purposes. I am still wondering if this could be driver issue, as it does promise the "N-key rollover".

Reading about this a bit it appears to be a Linux issue, and it's unsure if a specific keyboard can be made to work. The 6-key limit is not something you'd experience in practice, though.

Blackstorm also disabled the context menu key, which was nice.

The few niggles aside, pretty much whatever I was hoping from a keyboard seems to be here.


Some afterthoughts (edited 4.10)

Full-travel, typewriter-style keyboards were rather outmoded around 2010. It's fun to see gaming has brought them back in vogue. That's possibly because in PC gaming the reputation never went away.

It always takes some time to get accustomed to a new keyboard. The Blackstorm felt fine initially but the lack of keys was bothering me after a week. Function keys are crucial to software such as Goattracker, and I found out I do need a Home key. 

Blackstorm's feel is not that different to the Exibel, the HyperX feels most "different" of these.

Looking these three together, I'm thinking the Exibel case is in some ways better than the bit plasticky Blackstorm, but despite having less keys the Blackstorm is otherwise more featured, has a smaller footprint and is generally most "fun" of these keyboards. HyperX seems like the perfect combination of the two and more, especially if you have the Windows software to complement it.

What with the N-key rollover problem on HyperX, perhaps the ultimate, ultimate keyboard would have been a Blackstorm keyboard without the numpad. But given all the positive things in the HyperX I'm not even sure about that.

I guess a direct communication between software and the LEDs in a standard and easy way is not really a thing. There might be a theoretical possibility to program the keys live, as there's supposedly a Windows program for editing the profiles, sadly it doesn't seem to exist.

It would be interesting to write programs to make active use of LEDs. For example you first pick a command from the keyboard and it would in turn highlight keys that relate to that command.

Apple keyboard (wireless version).

When it comes to the footprint, Blackstorm uses the least space, although the (detachable) cable is not the most convenient. When looking at width alone, Apple is still the winner here.

Blackstorm 310 x 102 = 316,20 cm2
Apple 281 x 114 = 320,34 cm2
Exibel 361 x 124 =  447,64 cm2
HyperX 360 x 132 = 475,20 cm2


Sunday, 20 September 2020

Is this the best Manic Miner first cave score?



What is the best possible outcome from the Manic Miner first cavern, from starting the game, using only one life? As the score depends on the AIR meter (timer), the faster you do it the more points you get.

The Manic Miner caverns are very deterministic and the pace is so slow it is possible to discuss the optimal solution to the level.

I know speedrun players do this type of thing, but as of this writing I've not yet seen a player optimize the first cavern to this point. It is difficult to do so it might be frustrating to start a speedrun with an approach that might have something like 1/10 chance of succeeding.

I'm counting score, not time, though, but they should be the same thing in Manic Miner. 

I found one video with far more than 1724 but it appears to have slightly different version and rules. I don't think you can use the conveyor belt to go right after collecting all items.

The route is straightforward but there are a few points about timing.

Ok, here's the Youtube video:



The video is the best explanation, but I have split my approach along the points of a direction change. First you go right, then left, then right again, left again and once more to right.

I'll also explain why some alternative routes fail.

Start the game by holding down the "right" key so as to start walking immediately. This should ensure the monster is always in the same sync. Overall, you need to keep moving constantly in order to reach the "watershed" moment of the cavern.



Running right 1:

Leap 1: Jump on the platform, after walking under the plant

Leap 2: Jump on the brick platform

Don't jump against the brick platform, you may lose horizontal motion=time.

Leap 3: When over the crumbling platform, try to jump near to the edge of the platform.

This is indicated by having two of the crumbling platform tiles intact. If one of them has 1 line crumble, you've jumped a tiny bit late.

This doesn't seem to make a difference, but try at least not to jump later than that.

Leap 4: Immediately jump right to collect the item.


Running left 1:

Leap 5: Immediately jump left to the conveyor belt and continue moving.

Leap 6: Jump left over the plant, onto the brick platform.

Leap 7: Jump left off or drop off the platform, doesn't seem to matter.

Leap 8: Jump over the monster.

The good spot


Leap 9: From the very edge of the conveyor belt, jump directly onto the higher platform. If you don't succeed, the whole run fails.

9b. Walk left just the tiniest bit and turn around-


Running right 2:

Leap 10: Immediately jump right to get to the top platform and continue moving.

Leap 11: Immediately jump right to collect the item.

If you failed to do 9b you'll hit the stalactite.

Leap 12: Time the jump to collect the second item as soon as possible, but not hitting the stalactite.

As you fall on to the second crumbling platform zone, continue walking and do Leap 13 almost immediately. It doesn't seem to matter too much how well the platform crumbles, but it's worth taking a note of.

Going good...


Leap 13: Jump over the plant

After this you need to have just a couple of steps so you can perform Leap 12 correctly.

Leap 14: Jump over the second plant & collect the last item with the same jump.

Immediately turn left.

If you continue walking after the jump you may crucially lose time, but if you have botched Leap 13 and immediately jump leftwards you may fail to pass the plant.



The success of the run might depend on what happens here, but I've not perfected the science of it yet. The video shows like I have a tiny pause before walking left.

Generally, if you succeeded in Leap 3, Leap 9 (9b) and Leap 14, you should be in time or even a bit too early.


Running left 2:

Leap 15: Jump back over the rightmost plant

Leap 16: Jump over the next plant.

Fall to the platform below from the hole made after Leap 10.

If everything has been fast enough, the monster is approaching from the left and you could walk to meet it.

Note: You cannot go right, as the conveyor belt won't allow you to walk right after jumping on it from the higher platform. There may be versions of Manic Miner that allow this, I've seen such a video, but it did seem a bit wrong somehow. Clearly, it would be faster, if allowed.

Leap 17: Jump "with" the monster to fall behind it.

This is the watershed moment. Too early or too late and you'll hit the monster, or you botch the timing and have to settle for a lower score. 

The position to jump at...


If you "feel" you are too soon, you could theoretically wait a tiny bit, but I've never succeeded in that.

Although it might not feel like it, the collision detection is exact. The jump should be done in an exact position/posture, so when Willy falls down he has minimal horizontal size.


Falling just behind the monster, pixel perfect!

There is probably no way to reach this point so early that you could jump or fall over the monster. Either would be revolutionary. I believe it to be impossible.

Leap 18: Jump over the monster, and land on the conveyor belt before falling offing.

Fall to the platform below.


Running right 3:

(Note: The route left and right under the whole platform is slower)

Leap 19: Jump over the plant, not hitting the monster.

If you are not headed for the 1724 score, this can still go wrong, depending on the success of Leap 15. If you were late there is simply no gap left.

If you were very early, this jump can be quite easy.

Leap 20: Jump to the brick platform

fall to the bottom floor, walk right to the exit.

That's it!


Final score:

1722 is a quite common result. I learned to see after falling after the monster whether I'd get 1720, 1721, 1723 or 1724. It depends on how close you can get to the monster before jumping with it.




How was it done

Although I did play the cavern from beginning to end, I did use practice approaches. I used the online Qaop emulator with the F2/F3 remember/recall function. Otherwise, exercising the later points of the run would always depend on the success of the earlier parts.

This also helped in trying out alternatives. Some emulators might have a proper time reversal function which would make it even easier.

I also recorded many videos of the attempts, and analysed some of them frame-by-frame to see what could be improved and if some changes are really faster or not.

I had to play the cavern through once from start to finish to create the video, and I guess to have at least some kind of integrity.

When I had 1724 the first time on video, I managed to accidentally destroy the whole recording, because I had come so used to canceling it :) Then I played some 100 times more before achieving it again, and also understood a bit better what makes the score. After that I was able to get it somewhat more reliably.

I suppose I should play it on the original rubber-keyed Spectrum.

Also I know I perhaps ought to prove this on different emulators than the Qaop. But it does seem to work fine.

To me this is not about speedrunning, I don't think I would have the patience to do that to the whole game. I just wanted to know the objective highest score. If someone writes a robot that plays it better then I'm for it.

Thursday, 17 September 2020

ZX Workstations

Perusing some earlier Your Spectrum and Sinclair User magazine adverts from 1983-1984, I came across all kinds of funniness.

Joysticks that are not really joysticks, joystick adapters, programmable joystick adapters, a joystick that works, computer stands, Microdrives, Wafadrives, sex drives, keyboard replacements, keyboards, keyboards with space bars, computer stands, wobble stoppers, custom keypanels, Sharp computers, amplifiers, echo amplifiers...

I kid you not.
But I'd really like to focus on one particular object type, a product that will turn all your loose home computer gear into a "workstation".

You see, the Spectrum had the main unit, the power supply unit (no power switch), a tape deck, a printer, TV, joystick adapter, joystick, and all these had wires going this way and that. Plus you would have loose tapes and whatever lying around. Some organization might be needed in any case.

Also, it gave an opportunity for companies less focused on electronics or software, to participate in the great ZX Spectrum boom.

These workstation gadget items could be considered as a forerunner to the laptop "dock".

I'll also look at a related product idea that attempts to make the gear more portable. Which is a bit less like a dock I guess. But anyway.

I'm not super-interested in computer tables here, but I'll give this one a pass for warming up the theme:


This perhaps best explains some of the reasoning behind these products. In early 1980s it was not yet a given that people could curl together with their favourite electronic gadget for most of their waking time, so there was this quaint idea that a computer could "gather dust", or be an eyesore "when not in use".

Rotronics (of the Wafadrive fame) have produced a sexy-looking setup, and it's the insert that gives the hint that this could also perform as a workstation.


For the mobile worker, that emergency cut-down toilet paper roll must come in handy.

A company called PAS had a somewhat similar product, but I can't see how to remove that cover so I'll give points to Rotronics here.


Also, it seems they failed to name their product, although "The Rotronics Portable Case" was not such a great name either.

(I realise these kind of cases can be bought nowadays, often with a customizable foam-plastic type array inside.)

Now we're getting to the proper workstation territory. Also, talking of great product names, I almost thought this was called the Space (Saver) Station. However, FORCE ASTRO is almost as good. I think that with this setup, any kid would have felt they were operating the Skylab.


I'm pleased they've taken ergonomics to a point where it addresses the accommodation of the computer to this self-contained unit. The integral reset facility speaks in favor of this product, too, as "now you can leave your equipment permanently set up and beautifully protected". There's also acres of space inside, I really don't know how they did it.

A Kelwood advert shows not one, but two variants on the theme. First is the Microstation, which seems also a concept for moving the setup around, as the telly is not on top of it.


In fact the display is a bit far away, behind that wall of urine samples holders and what looks like a brick-sized power switch. Ok, another ad shows in more detail this concept of different "stackpacks", but damned if I could understand what they do.

The second setup is the Kelwood (almost) Wireless Workstation, which as a product name almost delivers the promise of the Space (Saver) Station. The workstation is not particularly more wireless than any other product on this page, though. It's just a marketing choice to focus on that one particular feature. It's also not as Spectrum-specific, and comes with accessories of its own.


They too promise acres of room for all peripherals, which seems a bit of an exaggeration. Possibly it would have been better to promise (almost) acres of room. The rhetoric and graphics tells me this has something to do with the FORCE ASTRO workstation.

One more naff looking ad, one more space-organizing product:


TTL had the audacity not to call it a workstation, but instead a "desk console", and it seems to deliver all the usual goodies. It's worth noting some of these products offer a way to switch between LOAD/SAVE states for the tape recorders. I guess it was not possible to have both mic and ear cables connected at the same time.

Here's another "console". In case you thought these were expensive, fear no more:


Forerunner of IKEA, they've chosen corrugated board as the material of choice. I can believe this would keep its sturdiness for a better part of a decade. That angle could really come in handy when typing on the good ole rubber keys. If only it had a monitor stand.

The pinnacle of all ZX workstations, is the ZX Workstation. No bullshit, no nonsense, no space-saving tricks, no almost wireless, and no acres of room. It will raise and tilt the TV for better viewing, and angle the computer for easier typing.



Afterwords

There were more of these, I simply chose the more visual ads.

On a bit more serious note, I guess these could have been somewhat attractive for a person who couldn't build a comparable setup. I also very well know how much damage the PSU cord could get on a loose speccy, so helping that problem alone might have made these worthy products. My dad built something similar from a loose garden table so who I am to laugh.

A fun thing is that many of these were soon less than useful as the ZX Spectrum+ form factor would not fit the more spectrum-specific designs. I also suspect Interface I/II might already be a bit tight fit with some.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Saboteur SiO first look

Time flies. It's been about four years since Clive Townsend's Saboteur remake appeared, and somewhat more than two years since the sequel, Avenging Angel. The expansion of the two original games was quite successful in my opinion (My views here and here) and I was hoping a sequel would appear.


Now I got to play Sabouteur 3, or Saboteur SiO to be precise. Clive says this is not the game we've been waiting for, and Saboteur IV will cover that. There's also Saboteur Zero prequel in the works, and as far as I understand that prequel is not IV either.

Now, Saboteur SiO is supposed to be a PC/Windows game, but again, Proton to the rescue and the game launches perfectly on my Linux Mint/Steam. (What's Proton? For example, see the news item here)

What happens now when the game is no longer a re-versioning of an already existing, original 8-bit game?

Well, for example the levels are now scrolling and the ninja moves a bit more flexibly around the obstacles. He'll climb over boxes and stones. The jumps are more forgiving: if there's room for the ninja to do the sideways-somersault, the ninja will sideways-somersault.

Instead of a flying kick, there is a sweep kick, which makes the combat situations a bit different. More about that later.

Still, it has the feel of an 8-bit Spectrum game, and the look if you choose so, "retro", ZX, C64 and Gameboy are available at first.

The screen scrolls in 8-pixel chunks. This is an interesting choice in 2020, and at times I felt it might have been better for my old eyes to have non-scrolling rooms instead.

But a scrolling Saboteur is also something new and I understand the choice to do it this way. The game looks like it could in principle run on an 8-bit computer.

I would have liked an option to add a black border to the screen - it would have given a bit more of that speccy feeling.


Enter the Ninja

As for the game, in a true 8-bit fashion, it's quite difficult. You have to both figure out what to do and then do it. Often the figuring takes more time than the doing, at least for me. There's little or no hand-holding.

I'm going to give some tips on how to go on, but it's clear the missions are intended as puzzles to be solved so I'm not going to be too precise. But if you have difficulties like me, it may be helpful to have the solution to the first missions so you'll understand what kind of game it is.

Took me a few mintues to realise I can hit that box.
The intro is done over quickly. There's a lab and a technician who disappears into a kind of ... purple haze. Break the box and you'll find a way to teleport through another purple cloud.

Teleporting onwards you'll find yourself in different ninja-situations.

The first proper mission is a maze. You have to explore around a cave. Addicted to the purple stuff now, you need to collect the crystals before teleporting again to the next level.

There are no enemies to fight, just some bats, which makes this mission quite easy in the end.

Just as I started thinking I have to map this area on paper, I begun to get it and found all the needed crystals. The area is not that huge, just be systematic with the three mine shafts. Falling isn't generally deadly, but if you are already low on health a long fall could be fatal.

The Commodore 64 mode.
The next mission, the Purple Palace, seems like a more straightforward beat-em-up setting. I say "seems" because the level can't be easily completed by just attacking the foes head on. It almost reminds me a bit of Skool Daze.

Here the shuriken come useful. What would a ninja be without throwing stars? They can be thrown forwards or diagonally up and down. There's a lot of shuriken but they are also needed for other tasks than just plain fighting.

The ninja appears at a parking lot of what must be a very exclusive club: everyone wears purple. The graphics and the style is really nice here.

A huge number of goons will assault you from two directions and there's a big boss too. Fortunately the henchmen are not very fast, but if you let them gang up on you from two sides it can mean game over very easily.

They are not that tough.
I confess I played this stage a dozen of times without having any sense on how to go on, and was a bit disappointed at first. I could jump past the foes and run to the Baron's office, where I got some more crystal. The goons also left tiny pieces of crystal occasionally. The boss appeared to have the third of the crystal, but was unbeatable, so I left him alone. I switched to easy difficulty and nothing changed for me.

The enemies take quite a lot of beating, but any one of them won't do much damage alone. So, these goons have some qualities of the androids from Saboteur II, but are less deadly.

After a while I accepted there is nothing more to this mission than the left-right scrolling area. Then I went about beating up all of the purple suits, and there must be like hundred. Because they leave off some crystal there is progress to be made.

I lured them outside, herding them into small packs and used the sweep kick. Then I found an easier technique, just crouch and hit the front man, you can afford to take the incoming hits. If a rare guy approaches from the left, sweep kick him early enough and let him join the herd. Pick up all the tie clips.

This was quite satisfying and I felt I was finally on my way to solving the mission. Eventually, the Baron was the only one left. I had to assume that he can be somehow beaten, but nothing seemed to affect him and he just blocks all the shuriken!

Then, after trying a ridiculous amount of obscure approaches, I finally cracked it and I'll tell the solution here:

You have to throw the shuriken at the boss, which he will deflect. This will give you time to jump past him and throw another shuriken at his back. This needs split-sceond timing. Do this a few times and he'll die.

This felt really obvious afterwards. This is probably something you can't do as long as the henchmen are around, so deal with them first.

Not the nicest reception!
The third mission has again a lot of fighting, but the catch is a bit different. Although the same fighting technique looks useful at first, it soon becomes clear that a new approach is needed after all. Time becomes more important, too.

The fourth mission is the kind of game I was hoping Saboteur SiO to be, when seeing the very first mission. You now have to explore a two-dimensional maze and you'll encounter only a few enemies (at first).

More of those "angry amazonian antagonists", I guess?

The verdict

I won't give a final verdict as I've only played the game so little and only reached mission 5. (Six and half hours says Steam).

I'd like to say Saboteur SiO is better than Saboteur and the Avenging Angel, because it has all the makings of such a game. But based on these first missions, I can't say yet - time will tell!

The idea of collecting the crystals is bit simpler than the usual Saboteur tasks, but then again there are different types of thinking problems, and this variety helps keep the game alive.


As of 10th of September 2020, I have now completed the game, at least the basic premise of it. Admittedly I used the "easy" option. There is probably at least one more "better" way to complete it but it has to wait. It took me about 12 hours and I can see myself returning to the game.

The Inca temple mission was a turning point, somehow the next missions don't get that much harder and the game was over a bit sooner than I expected.

Incidentally, the temple was the only section I really felt I needed to map. On paper. In 2020! The level has some more complexities than just the maze, so it helped.

The Inca temple

I was prepared to map the later levels too, but having opted for the easy mode this was not really necessary. They are quite huge, though.

Saboteur SiO has an interesting position in the series, as it's the first properly new game after Avenging Angel, but other games are already in the works. It's sufficiently similar, but also different, to the original two games.

My verdict now is a simple Thumbs Up!


Outro

I like the structure of Saboteur SiO. As the game is no longer constrained by an 'original mission', it offers reasonably sized stages, and the next mission becomes a reward. It's like having a collection of small Saboteur games.

The 'retro' mode graphics are occasionally a bit uneven (a combination of Amiga-style sprites and mostly ZX-esque backgrounds) so I sometimes play with the C64 or Spectrum graphics. The blue/black combination in the caves is a bit dark without the new sprites, though.

If you have been pampered with more recent games I have to remind this is a decidedly ZX Spectrum -style game. I'm one of those people who believe the original Saboteur was one of the best 8-bit games overall, so I can persist and trust Clive T. to deliver. For other people, the difficulty can feel unforgiving and the unexplained riddles might put you off. But it is also very rewarding, there's neat things to see and the soundtrack is awesome.

What does "SiO" mean? I have no idea!

Saboteur SiO at Steam

clivetownsend.com


Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Some words

There's an old word square that has the Latin words:

SATOR
AREPO
TENET
OPERA
ROTAS

I was reminded of this when watching the film Tenet. I probably originally learned it from Corto Maltese or something.

The point of the thing is that you can read each of the words either way and they fit that 5x5 square, with a palindrome in the middle.

Reading from Wikipedia, the significance of some words is a bit questionable. It might be there is a forced fit with AREPO, which apparently means nothing as such.

One nice convenient explanation says the square was likely a way to hide PATERNOSTER A O A O (Alpha Omega) for early Christians.

Then I begun to wonder, if there were other such squares possible in English language (dared not to go to Finnish yet).

After struggling with the impossibility of doing it manually, I turned to Processing.

Obviously I just could have looked the results, probably it has been thought over a zillion times. But, nah, I wanted to try it out myself.

First I needed a dictionary. From the web I could find a word list of 5-letter English words (this one), and then another. The shorter list had a couple of words the longer list didn't, so I combined them to a longer list of 9168 words.

I then generated a list of palindromes using Processing. The result was these 26 words:

1:level
2:refer
3:radar
4:madam
5:rotor
6:civic
7:sexes
8:solos
9:sagas
10:kayak
11:minim
12:tenet
13:shahs
14:stats
15:stets
16:kaiak
17:finif
18:dewed
19:alula
20:deked
21:deled
22:semes
23:seres
24:stots
25:sulus
26:torot

Next I made a list of reversable words (that could be found on the same list), but were not palindromes. There were 181 such words, but I'm not going to list them here.

Using the palindromes in the centre, it's a simple and fast task to check if there are words from the reversible-list that would fit together with the palindrome.

Step 1: Start from a palindrome in the list.

..1..
..1..
11111
..1..
..1..

Step 2: Check if the center letter of any of the reversed words fits the first letter of the centre palindrome. The start and end letters don't matter.

22?22
..1..
11111
..1..
..1..

If so, for this word, check the reverse word list again for words where the first letter fits the word in step 2, and shares also the centre letter with the second letter of the palindrome.

(The first letter of the third word should be compared with the fourth letter of the 2nd word, too.)

2?222
.31..
1?111
.31..
.31..

If these conditions are satisfied, the word square should be acceptable.

There are a lot of squares that get to this stage:

REMIT
E I I
MINIM
I I E
TIMER

For example, REFER has the following possibilities (including reverses) for the edges: parts, straw, fires, ports, cares, strap, serum, warts, scram, sirup, mural, serif, tarps, strop, sprat, tared, sprog, worts, airts, arris, derat, gorps, korat, lares, larum, marcs, mures, puris, saros, serac, seral, sirra, soras, stria, strow, tarok

Especially palindromes REFER, RADAR, ROTOR and ALULA have a lot of potential, so I guess just looking and Googling obscure words might get to a result. Not everything is in that dictionary.

DECAL

E I A
CIVIC
A I E
LACED

For the above I did google for AVISE, which is not on the word list at all, and yet there is such a word. But ESIVA does not seem to mean anything. Turns out there are quite many solutions with the third word working in one way, but almost none reversible.

Also, the point was to use the computer to calculate the word lists.

From the original list of 9000+ words, only one full combination could be found:

DEFER
ELIDE
FINIF
EDILE
REFED

Even that is not so impressive, considering the words around the edges have E two times and the inner words also have two Es.

Are those words really even English? They are in the dictionary, though.

Defer is the most normal word here: to put off, to postpone.
Refed is a past participate of refeed, e.g. the dog was refed, which makes sense once explained.
Elide: To suppress or alter by ... elision. (The omission of a sound or syllable when speaking)
Edile is a variant spelling of aedile, meaning a magistrate in ancient Rome.
Finif is an obsolete slang word coming from Yiddish, used to mean a "five-dollar bill".

It should be much more time-consuming to find out all the ways in which the square could be filled with the dictionary, crossword-style, if at all. Perhaps some other time...