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.


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!


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

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Some words

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


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:


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.


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.


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.)


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

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


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.



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:


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...

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Book: The Future was Here

I finally managed to read Jimmy Maher's The Future was Here from 2012.

Before the Amiga 500 models hit shelves, Amiga really had a rather vague existence somewhere at the horizon of my experience. One of those computers that might be cool but would never ever be relevant to me, perhaps even a bit boring. The comparatively high-brow images of Botticelli's Venus and even the King Tut image were not very alluring to a 10-year old.
Probably my first impression of an Amiga, MikroBITTI magazine 9/1986. Bleurgh boring adult computer.
It's fascinating to read about the birth of the Amiga and the early handling of the platform by Commodore. When I finally saw an Amiga at the end of 1980s, things like the boing! demo were already ancient history and not that well known to a casual newbie like me in Europe.

I was also surprised to learn that the Commodore-bashing from Amiga owners did not start in the 1990s, but was almost inherent to the platform from the very beginning, including the logo debacle and poor marketing.

As the book points out, the North American Amiga experience was quite different to the European game- and demo-oriented culture, and the two overlapped very little. In the US, computer industry stalwarts, Unix alumni, scientists, professional artists, Fred Fish, adult people, flocked around the platform in the mid-1980s, eager for a revolution that seemed just around the corner, but also abandoning the platform at a point when it looked the promises failed to materialize.

Sorry it's a bit flat.
I hadn't figured the boing! and Juggler demos had such a large impact on the audiences at the time. The bouncing ball was even more "fake" than I had presumed, not a single pixel is drawn during the animation.

Maher suspects part of the reputation here was that people thought it did something it really didn't. He further points out the value of the demo is in the ingenuity of making the computer do what it was good at doing.

Today it might make a quirky, endearing GIF.
Juggler demo was more transparent in what it did, because obviously the Amiga could not do real-time ray-tracing. But that the animation frames were produced on an Amiga at all, was already a huge achievement and paved way for a kind of cottage industry of 3D and ray-tracing applications. The use of the 4096-color HAM mode and animation itself proved inspiring, regardless of the raytracing.

The portion opening up the Juggler and boing! was an insightful read and I hadn't really understood their appeal in these terms.

Although the author doesn't say it directly, one possible reason why early Amiga demoscene demos had lot of spheres and checkerboard patterns, could be because of these two "industry" demos.

Vectorballs from Dual Crew, 1990.
They might also be quite obvious choices. You need a very generic small, simple object that can move anywhere? It's a ball. What's a non-expensive yet somewhat complex background that works well to bitmap graphics? A checkerboard.

In any case, the Juggler was sometimes explicitly referred in early scene demos, such as in the Vectorballs demo from Dual Crew (and the Red Sector Megademo and the Cebit'90 demo and others.)

The Heyday

The paint program Deluxe Paint enjoyed a kind of "killer app" status, and the Amiga was long bundled with a version of DP. The author makes a neat analogy that Macpaint was a drawing program whereas Deluxe Paint was a painting program, demonstrating that a line can be drawn (cough) from the platform characteristics and the respective company cultures to the final product.

Yes, as a "platform study" book the author shows routes from Amiga's hardware design decisions to the software and use cases. The object under study is best understood as "emergent". Software such as Deluxe Paint or Sculpt-3D is not a determinist result of the platform's technical features, but part of a kind of sub-cultural wave that grows layer upon layer on that initial technical seed.

Deluxe Paint III
The platform's journey has early software milestones such as the boing! and Juggler Demo, but the culture of Commodore and essentially its "fanboys" will carry it onwards. Deluxe Paint and Protracker were in turn hugely important for the game- and demoscene culture that came after.

Amiga's important niche as a video authoring tool is also examined. This was also something very much in the far periphery for me back in the day. NewTek's Video Toaster was more of a new computer on top of Amiga than just an add-on. Its achievements barely fall into Amiga's basket, unless taking into account the aforementioned view of a 'cultural wave' emerging from and surrounding the Amiga.

Looking the Amiga's role in semi-professional and even professional video editing circles, Amiga's significance in this area is very much tied to the analog video era, very different from 2020s internet digital video ubiquity. The flickering interlaced high resolution output was a bane for traditional computer users but a boon within the video circles. The value of genloc, the logical mixing of computer image with input video, could also be puzzling unless factoring in the reigning analog video format.

Protracker 2.3D. Ok, this is a clone version.
The Amiga demoscene gets a looksie, using TRSI's Megademo and Spaceballs' State of the Art as opposing poles to represent the scene's technical achievement on one hand and dedicated audiovisual tinkering on the other. The standard story of the scene emerging from crack intros is told. The outcome (echoing one Viznut!) is that the scene should be examined in its own rather than shoehorning it into pre-existing categories of 'free software hackerism', 'art' or 'youth subculture', despite having some characteristics of all these.

Discussing games, the author takes an interesting standpoint that Amiga could be seen as a forerunner of today's casual games, citing Defender of the Crown and Lemmings as prime examples. Amiga is also a platform where a visually story-heavy game started to come into its own, in contrast to earlier video games that were more reaction- and rule-oriented.

The End

The author generally balances praise with critical tones. But perhaps the one area where Amiga's myth is more openly torn apart, is the multitasking operating system. Although Amiga's OS and the Workbench were landmark systems, there was also a crucial lack of memory management and the experience was hardly as friendly as the surface made it appear to be.

Workbench often needed the kind of tinkering that user of a simpler Mac or ST might never need to see. Also, some of the Amiga's innovative features would not survive a second in our security-obsessed world.

Maher argues that at least part of Amiga's downfall was hard-coded into its, despite all, somewhat shortsighted and complex design. The inventive approach that combined cheap parts for vastly more than the sum of those parts in 1985, was not as conducive to upgrading as were the more straightforward IBM PC clone components.

I'd still like to think that none of the 1980s home computers really got proper upgrades, and in this race Amiga fared a bit better than most.

Overall, Maher's Future Was Here gives a convincing case that Amiga was the first true multimedia computer, a forerunner for many desktop computer use trends that are now incredibly commonplace: creation and distribution of music, images, animations, demos, photographs, videos and much more.

To point out Amiga was not a harbinger of the mobile internet cultures of today is to miss the point. Sharing and consuming of Amiga-originated creations might have happened in the loosely-knit network of Bulletin Board Systems or the even slower network of mailed physical floppy disks. But shared they would be. Criticism and response could likewise be found in the diskmags and scrolltexts of the era.

The "I'll show mine" attitude prevalent in today's internet is already very much in evidence in the Amiga subcultures. These days, one's exploration of a musician- or visual artistship may just as well begin on a computer as on a so-called traditional medium. Amiga was the first computer to make that genuinely possible.

Sunday, 16 August 2020

It's a Moose, Moose, Moose Life with proton/linux

Jeff Minter's Moose Life has arrived. I passed Polybius because it seemed so decidedly 'VR', this felt something like I could play.

It's a Windows game, but as Proton works so well, I thought I'd buy this game from Steam even if there were no positive (or negative) reports at that moment in the proton database.

Happy to say it works on my Linux Mint/Steam.

Trying to 'configure keyboard' did throw me out, though. Also, if I launched it in a windowed mode it would not sync to the vertical refresh and was over-fast. (Ticking vsync on in Nvidia settings did not help.)

I'm also doubtful if the VR/3DTV options can be made to work in Linux.

But apart from these choices, there was no tweaking.

Off we go!

You control this voxellated moose that can move left, right, forward and backward in a flat 3D plane.  And shoot everything.

In addition you can jump back and forth between the upside down plane at the top of the screen. In the beginning this has no immediate value, but later you'll find uses for it and eventually it becomes a necessity.

Instead of mining Tempest or Robotron for inspiration, the game somewhat brings into mind a less known Eugene Jarvis game Blaster from 1983. But it's far from a remake of that game.

Although some ideas from all the above games might be found here, it's more clearly a Llamasoft creation.

At least in this Linux workaround setup, some of the game keys (control, alt) pressed together will tend to loose the window focus. Possibly I could just change my system settings, if I can't get to the keyboard configuration. Fortunately this does not result in a crash, in fact the game gets paused and can be continued.

Apparently you can't play the non-arcade mode without a gamepad. Didn't have one at hand just now.

Like with many Jeff Minter games, it's a bit tricky to make a screenshot that would somehow do justice to the moving graphics. No doubt it looks really fascinating in VR.

The wide variety of power-ups brings about hilarious effects, such as creating a vertical mirror double of your moose. Various beasts appear, rotate and whirl around in different formations. Pixels, voxels and particles form clusters of explosions.

Even if the cumulative amount of effects can get very high, they are never too 'violent', which I guess is a result of considering the VR environment. In any case it gives a particular tone to these effects - there might be a second or two where you can even appreciate the expanding particle clouds.

A very nice game altogether. I'm somewhat afraid to get too deeply into it, as I might get addicted. Soo... a thumbs up I guess!

Friday, 31 July 2020

Book: Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany

Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany, by Uwe Schütte, 2020, is another 'introductory' book to Kraftwerk. I recall when Pascal Bussy's Man, Machine and Music from 1993 was pretty much the only book on the topic. Now it seems there's nearly an industry making stories out of Kraftwerk and the krautrock phenomenom.

Not that I complain. It does make an interesting read and is still a little known story. Kraftwerk are known for a certain elusiveness, which further separated from the usually rather pushy pop-acts. Therefore the fans are even more hungry for any potential new snippet or insightful interpretation.

The book traces the evolution of Kraftwerk from a local art-scene band to an internationally known electro-act. The book structure is firmly mapped over the album releases, and it's not a long nor a very detailed book. If you read the ANTENNA mailing list actively in the early 2000s, there's probably not much new in this book, despite the 2020 perspective. In some of the details, the book does read like a compendium of the collective insight in that group.

Perhaps following these times, there's more need to re-examine the band's strategy of flirting with fascism, and to discuss racial themes in relation to the band. Despite some early bad international publicity and poorly calculated attempts at playing a game of stereotypes with journalists, it's long established Kraftwerk do not condone nazism. But, despite that, now the somewhat flippant notions of 'ethnic music from Ruhr area', 'industrial folk music' and the band's apparent celebration of western technological values (irony and all) need some re-evaluation too.

However, the way I read the book, the widespread appeal of Kraftwerk's music in different localities seems to testify in favour of a fundamentally anti-nationalist standpoint. Whereas rock/blues was appropriated to be the standard western white (male) music, Kraftwerk could help invent pop music that was a sufficiently blank slate, music for people who 'came from nowhere'.

Between the lines, I'm thinking the author says that Kraftwerk's asexual, 'anti-male' approach kind of rescues Kraftwerk from the sins of rock artists' maledom, despite being something of a boys' club music. The book does not do much to open the sexism of The Model, though. Is it somehow saved by a layer of irony or not, I'm wondering?

Instead the author offhandedly says the Sex Object is an oddity, and, in my opinion, misinterprets the song. It is perhaps time to say The Model is the odd one out in Kraftwerk canon, and the author is already giving tools to decipher the song this way. At least I've felt that Sex Object is now a more a song for our times than The Model.

Interestingly, the author points out the cultural stream of 1970s afro-futurism, which means that in likelihood the electro-influences in hip-hop would have emerged even without Kraftwerk, or the very least it was already a fertile ground for Kraftwerk's 'mothership' to land on.

This is a nice touch in a book that otherwise tends to follow the hype and elevate Kraftwerk as the single most important band of the 20th century. Yet, when enthusing about who Kraftwerk influenced, authors rarely discuss who influenced them. Sadly the book stops short of doing that, giving an impression that Kraftwerk transposed high art ideas of Warhol, Beuys, Gilbert&George and Stockhausen directly into pop music. To balance this out somehow the author points out Kraftwerk were not past 'copy-pasting' sound and melodic elements themselves, but this is more of a detail rather than a major reveal about the origins of Kraftwerk's sound.

It seems to me there is a route from early synthesizer music, such as Wendy Carlos' work made famous through Kubrick's Clockwork Orange. Especially the march, with overlaid vocoder singing works almost as a blueprint for Kraftwerk's Trans Europe Express -era music. I recall Pascal Bussy had this in mind with his earlier book, rightly tracing the emergence of Kraftwerk as a result of the evolution of the synthesizer, making notes of the moog music era and novelty songs en route to Kraftwerk.

I recall fans have sometimes suggested that Kraftwerk brought the funk-like elements for their music from, well, funk. I've not yet found the famous Numbers beat from funk music, but that may be because I'm not an aficionado. Captain Sky might be a starting point here. I believe Kraftwerk were actively mining any new music styles behind the Atlantic ocean, especially after visiting US themselves. Was Kraftwerk simply one more band to take elements from world music, but just being more clever and more tactful about it? Even if the beats might owe something to funk I guess the insistently monotonic and minimalized beat in Numbers is really their invention.

The book repeats the fan-historic and journalistic consensus that Electric Café was a misfire and does not belong to the canon of great Kraftwerk albums. I always disagree. Perhaps I should argue this in more detail some day!

Let's say I really suspect the criticism always came from older Kraftwerk fans, those who started with Autobahn and saw the band further themselves from that sound and conceptual point of origin. But I think for us, the Commodore 64 generation and 1990s techno musicians, it was a very important record, and working backwards towards Autobahn and the older records was always a bit of a challenge.

What I find most valuable in the book is the way it connects Kraftwerk's themes and concepts with locally german cultural and political events, such as the debate on nuclear power and the terrorist scare of 1970s-1980s. This nicely ties with the central idea that Kraftwerk was a project of building a new European and German identity into the void after World War II. But I think Pascal Bussy already suggested as much.

There could have been more discussion on musical connections, because as I already opined Kraftwerk did not simply filter high-art and political-societal concepts into music in an isolated bubble. Saying Trans Europe Express contradicted punk in late 1970s, does not say much because a whole futurist-disco theme existed in parallel to punk. Is Kraftwerk to thank for that too, or did Kraftwerk derive from it?

It is also a sobering to point out that although the band was known early on in Germany, it was not particularly revered there during the time when they were already internationally famous.

All in all, a very entertaining and inspiring read. Still I cannot help but point out some tiny mistakes and what I felt were omissions.

No, Afrika Bambaataa did not sample Numbers or Trans Europe Express for Planet Rock. Many journalists and writers tend to get the story somehow wrong. The beat was recreated on a drum machine, and a TEE-like melody was overlaid on it, creating a kind of a mash-up without actually doing a mash-up. I guess that because of the way music copyright worked a that time, only the melody from TEE became a point of contention and later pressings of Planet Rock credited the songwriters.

The computer on cover of Computer World has been identified and it is a terminal rather than a 'computer'. Interesting detail here is that supposedly the band had this particular item, and it was used for working on speech synthesis.

Schütte bluntly says that first home computers arrived after the album Computer World (1981), stating that the Commodore 64 from 1982 was the first 'true home computer'. No, Apple II was available from 1977. Commodore's PET (1977) models likewise predate the album. Atari 400/800 were also from 1979. Even in Europe, Sinclair ZX80 hit the shelves in 1980.

It is true the home computer 'fad' properly hit Europe only later and in a sense Kraftwerk had hit on a fashionable concept early on, possibly by having a whiff of what was already happening in the US.

Digressing a bit, I've never felt the rather excellent album was particularly 'prophetic' (an adjective often associated with it). I'd say it was observative about things that were already going on. Computers had permeated trade, banking and logistics already at that point. This would be especially true of highly industrialized centres in the USA, Japan and Germany. It's just that computers had not yet entered home life to the extent we now know.

So, to me it would be better to say that with Computer World, Kraftwerk managed to identify the concepts that had real staying power.

Yes, Rebecca Allen (not 'Allan') set up the computer graphics for Electric Café album and the video Musique Non Stop. But it was not a new invention, it was basically re-use of the techniques that had been used for the film Futureworld (1976), and partly showcased in Allen's earlier contribution to the Adventures in Success music video project from 1983. The technique dates back to early 1970s and research into computer graphics at the University of Utah. Of course, stylistically and artistically the bold Kraftwerk rendition is the most impressive. But purely from a technical viewpoint it was hardly state-of-the-art anymore.

When it comes to The Mix, to me it seems an omission not to say that the album could be considered Kraftwerk's idea of a 'live' album, in that the songs now resembled what they sounded in concerts.

Despite mentioning the new concerts, the author does not mention Kraftwerk gave album-themed concerts, and generally being more flexible as to what songs to include in a concert. This meant a sudden influx of revamped songs that were never before played live. To me this is the most significant, last step in the Kraftwerk archival process, and perhaps not so much the 3-D visuals and sound.

I don't get what the author has against Daft Punk.