Saturday 18 January 2020

The C64 Microcomputer (revised post)

The C64 Microcomputer! I didn't get it for Christmas, but it's close enough...

The first physical impressions are good: it weighs more than you'd expect for something that is basically an empty box. The keyboard has a nice enough feel although it is a bit clunky and gives a somewhat "hollow" sound. I wouldn't know how pristine C64 keyboard might have felt straight out of factory gates, though.

Connect it to the wall with Micro-USB style power connector, connect to TV via HDMI. Insert the included joystick using one of the four USB connectors and you can go. The cables are all included.

(The box I think will be used for storing a real C64. A plastic dust cover is included.)

A few seconds after turning the power on, the computer boots into the games carousel mode. So it should be very easy to use. Select a game and play your emulated C64 classics.

Your own software? Simply insert a USB memory stick and if it has d64 files in it, it will be listed in the media menu. Then run the first file on the disk by using one button, or do the LOAD "*",8,1 manually from BASIC in the "Classic" mode. So it couldn't really be much easier.

All the menus are accessible from the one special button on the joystick, which is a surprisingly handy addition to the emulation environment. Whether this means you need to have the joystick connected all the time I'm not yet sure. (Edit: No, you don't)

The menus are clear and have pretty much all the options you'd expect from a consumer-oriented box, but not much more.

The computer can be made to boot directly to BASIC ("Classic Mode"). From the power on it takes roughly 15-20 seconds. But the subsequent resetting & loading new games etc. does not need this time at all. Games when launched from the carousel take only seconds.

The games and music run too fast, and this was NOT fixed by just changing the PAL/NTSC mode. I am guessing that the television goes to 60Hz mode and it is not for some reason able to use 50Hz, as The C64 gave no boot option for it, as stated in the manual.

Edit: Turns out The C64 decides this for itself, if the TV video mode has not been yet initialized. I did a factory reset, turned the TV on properly before The C64, and I got the 50hz/60hz question after boot.

This is a pity as the very same TV is able to show a real C64 image via SVideo! I tried to fiddle the crappy menus of this fairly old Philips flatscreen TV but to no avail. Although the image appears to be 720p video format and the TV should be able to handle in 50hz, it doesn't do it.

So I am still somewhat willing to blame the TV instead of The C64 here.

Which brings me to the slight real omissions. There's no Composite connection so I'm stuck with the HDMI. Also no separate audio jack. For someone else these might not be a problem at all, but the composite video would have been a really, really good feature.

Scrolling seemed to be smooth and tearless whenever needed, but I'd have to make some more definite tests before giving my final verdict on that. I had no problems with the games included. Edit: I tried the Giana Sisters attract mode scroll and it seemed to give no tear or hiccups.

With the Competition Prof-esque joystick I could not really experience much lag with the games, until I really focused on the issue.

Oh, by the way the software offers a variety of aspect ratio/display blur modes so you can get the screen look correct on a widescreen TV.

The keyboard was good enough for typing the above small code snippet, even in the somewhat cramped conditions I had. The shift lock key does not lock physically, but the state is visually indicated in the screen corner. The run/stop + restore combo works.

The keyboard and the PETSCII markings on it are things that clearly elevate this product above a common emulator. The keyboard responsiveness is maybe not as immediate as one could hope, in terms of time between keypresses and the characters appearing on the screen. But at least no typing got lost in the process.

There are two extra fire buttons on the joystick and the 4 extra control buttons. As mentioned, one of them accesses the emulator menu. Funnily, two of them map to Y and N keys and the third to return. Possibly these can be remapped.

My immediate verdict is on the positive side, even if I had some hiccups here. Unlike with some retro products, I don't get the impression this is a cash-grab. It's within a reasonable price and tries to cater to the slightly more advanced users and not just games players.

Yes, for the price you could get a second-hand real C64, but getting all the needed peripherals would likely make it more expensive.

I might get back later with more detailed examination of the features, such as the VIC-20 mode, cartridge files, different displays and the more advanced file-naming and setting options.

Deltaco HDMI -> VGA with audio split (22.1.2020)

The HDMI turned out to be a bit limiting, so I wondered if a conversion could help here.

I bought a cheap Deltaco brand HDMI->VGA converter with separate 3.5mm audio out. I used the VGA to connect it to a Dell display and the audio to a small JBL chargeable loudspeaker.

The Deltaco thing is the black box connected to the blue VGA connector.
I am somehow suspicious of HDMI and especially HDMI conversions, but I was initially pleased that this worked at all.

I also got the speed to 50hz, judging from music playback speed. However, testing the scroll with Giana Sisters it is no longer smooth but a bit jittery and tearing. Sad but perhaps I should not have expected that much from this.

EDIT 24.1.2020:Another edit! So of course the jitteriness is because the display does not handle 50hz, but it attempts to conform to it anyways. However, if I again do the factory reset, connect THEC64 to the VGA display with the Deltaco cable, I get to choose 60hz. Yes, this is "wrong" speed for C64 but at least it was again smooth. Some games might even benefit from it a bit :)

So, it goes to reason if another similar display could handle 50hz the adapter might work fine, so perhaps I should not blame the Deltaco adapter.

*end of edit (goes to show I should have waited a bit before writing the whole post)

Scaling is not that bad, but I had to turn off the CRT scanline emulation as it produced a kind of mild screening artefacts when scrolling vertically.

The picture was not initially centred but this could be adjusted from the monitor settings.

It only now occurred to me to ask, where is the SID selection?

Now with bunch of cables, added visual artefacts and jitteriness, I'm not sure if this setup is so handy after all, compared to the HDMI TV. But, it has to do in a situation where nothing else is available.

Deltaco HDMI -> DVI adapter

This 4€ adapter did not result in an image at all. Firstly, it barely fits with the power cable and the memory stick at the back, and secondly... well, as I said no picture. So I guess even though THE C64 might be based on a 'reduced PC' it can't handle this. The adapter does not have the sound splitter so even if it did work here it would not be that useful to me.

Wednesday 1 January 2020


Recapping the year 2019 for me, concentrating on the blog angle but as usual some other observations too.

Programming, developing

Again, Multipaint was revised into 2019 version and the inclusion of pull-down menus and file safety makes it much more robust program.

The new ULAplus mode took a lot of time to make, fortunately it was also quite an interesting task to work with. It's not even finished, as it's not obvious how it ought to work.

An entry to the competition celebrating the original compopic
I've come to a point where I get some sort of message about Multipaint nearly every other week. Mostly these are good pointers towards bugs and bad program behavior. Sometimes I get feature and platform requests that I simply don't feel are within the scope of Multipaint, or don't fit to what I intended the software to be.

It's not likely I can or want to make Multipaint fit everybody's workflow, nor will it cover every possible platform. After all I made it for myself to make some ZX Spectrum pictures, everything else sort of grew out of it.

Problems with certain Mac/Java versions still persist, and in the future I can hopefully address these a bit more.

It's now one year after the Commodore 64 Digiloi game release!

The web accolades include "9.9 after 63 votes on CSDb" and "mentioned in an 8-bit Guy video", but I also noted there were print reviews of the game.

As an author of the game, a part of me says "wow, my game is reviewed in a magazine!" Another part of me says that we're really living a weird LARP of 1980s conditions, with different people playing the role of game developers, software houses, magazine publishers, reviewers and it's not always clear whether this all really serves the same purpose as back in the day.

Computer magazines, they still exist
Retro Gamer magazine from Future Publishing was the most "real" magazine (200+ issues, found from newsstands) to feature the game and they had about 2/3 page review, with the pleasant score of 86.

The English version of the K&A magazine not only featured the game on a tape but gave a full spread for the review. Acknowledging some of the problems the reviewer is still mostly positive about it and figures some of the deficiencies could be seen as virtues too.

The Zzap!! annual came later, and although the text is rather positive, they dissected it pretty thoroughly and dealt the rather rough score of 44%.

Jukka O. Kauppinen, a Finnish game journalist legend made a review for the Retro Rewind magazine in his inimitable gonzo style. The Digiloi review goes back and forth from an overview of PETSCII games, reviewing a couple of other PETSCII games in the meantime, and even includes a short comment on the actual game, finally landing on "thumbs up".

Apart from the reviews, I've also read many comments and discussions about the game. It seems more strongly to me now that many are prepared to champion a game they have not really tried that much, or at all.

I tried my best to make it work as a game, but again, as with Multipaint, I made something I'd prefer to play myself. I'm not that keen to play a new C64 game for more than a few minutes at a time or am just happy to see a video about it.

I couldn't find it in me to make another game yet, only the tiny Nine Rings demo showcases some improvements over the Digiloi routines. A scrolling game could be made with the same approach, but that might not be wise from a game design standpoint. At least I have slowly upgraded my 8-bit developing techniques, and perhaps something comes out of this eventually.

The Fall of Rome
The beginning of the year was a bit slow for Commodore 64 graphics, but I made it up in the end with releasing a bunch of new PETSCII images and the bitmap at the top.

My renewed interest into PETSCII was mostly thanks to the new Facebook group PETSCII World, check it out!

Back in Videoland
The major retro hardware acquisition of the year was the Atari Falcon. Updating the hard disk to an SD card reader and transferring software over to the computer was more interesting than doing anything with it really.

So, as a side-effect I got to learn more about Unix and Unix/Linux shells and writing shell scripts. It goes to show that if one gets intensely involved with retro platforms, apart from the intrinsic fun they can also result in learning that may be useful for today.

(I recall that figuring out Panasonic JR200 tape format in 2011 and the QL disk format in 2017 resulted in some practical "computer science" knowledge. Perhaps I'll save these reflections for the 10th anniversary blogpost.)

Speaking of QL, although I also bought the Sinclair QL Super Gold Card clone, it didn't result in that much new QL tinkering. I'm starting to suspect the 16/32 bit generation is just not worth the effort for me.

On another note, Unix-descendants seem to have taken over about everything in the roughly 50 years of their existence, so in the long run learning something about it may be a good investment into the future. I am also slowly building some more server, web scripting, programming and network expertise.

On the more physical side, I've continued building cases and boxes for devices, sometimes out of some perceived "need" but also simply for enjoyment. I also often need new tools for the next work stage, and the collection is growing. This is also going to some direction that I'm not yet quite aware of, possibly instead of casing old computers I'll try to build some Arduino thingy.

Games, Films, Books, TV

I have persisted with chess, with 1000 online games behind me at Lichess, not to speak some over the board games in beginner tournaments and even one park tournament, all in which I performed rather poorly. No obvious breakthrough in play skill has arrived. Although my online rating has improved overall, it seems my play quality suffers nearer the darker season and from other stresses a bit too randomly. A blog post about these experiences is in gestation...

As usual, I read a bunch of science fiction books which I also hope to review in a blog post in near future. The most important might be the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons, a 1990s kind of sci-fi rife with ideas that found re-use in Matrix and even as late as Insterstellar.

To me 2019 was not too memorable in terms of new films and TV. But at least we got to the end of the Star Wars saga, at least from a certain point of view. The technical oomph of Star Wars is somewhat diminished as it has become the movie standard these days, but at least the promise of nine films was fulfilled and I enjoyed this final ride. The new trilogy had perhaps less solid story trajectory in it, as they were rather isolated stories with a fragmented plot.

We had a full year without Doctor Who, but she's coming back real soon.

I hardly ever play the latest games. I finally saw myself through Portal 2, and completing Half Life 2 every few years appears to have become a ritual. But it seems I'm getting closer to the zero moment, especially now that my computer has processor, GPU and SSD updates. It almost feels I've spent more time tuning the thing than actually doing anything with it. Well, can't always be "productive." Completing Everspace took a chunk out of summer, Inside was a short but pleasant spiritual successor to Limbo and Broforce was a nice piece of 2D action candy.

And that's about the most kills I can achieve!
The Long Dark, Virginia and Firewatch introduced me to the 'walking simulator' genre, something that I thought wouldn't care much about but as the games are short they can be rather pleasant. in the browser was nice end-of-the-year snack but after the addictive 50v50 mode was removed (a temporary event) I found going back to the solo mode less appealing.

In 2019, Proton was the key to making Linux a proper gaming platform. I could launch complex games like Elite Dangerous and Prey, but did not really find the time and energy to get into these.