More 1% finished shit

As promised mere minutes ago, I have a few more half-baked ideas ready to foist upon the unsuspecting world.

I should have made it clearer that all these were dreamed up in the depths of time – between 1986 to 1991 or so I reckon.  That will at least give me some leeway when it comes to explaining why they are hand drawn and not full 3D models.

So as you can see, I had a book which was clearly character focussed.  I think the bit at the bottom was supposed to represent the lava tunnels or whatever the hell they were of Rygar.  Damn that was a wicked game.  Don’t be fooled by all the videos on YouTube; they are all weird-arse versions.  Go to this link and check out the original arcade game complete with sweet atmospheric music (and a bass line that I’m totally going to use one day).  The fact that it morphs into some sort of hacked version isn’t too bad, as the soundtrack also turns into some banging 303 mayhem.  The ironic thing is that the 303 pre-dates many of these games.  If only pioneers like DJ Pierre and Armando turned their skillz to computer game sound-tracks …

So here we have some designs for some sort of shoot ’em up.  I still tried to work within a limited colour palette, but these sprites would have been pretty large for any 8 bit machine of the era.

More shoot ’em up material, this time modelled on Gradius I think.

Ahh, yes.  The moai statue gives it away – must be Gradius.

Hmm, some power-ups for Gemini Wing plus some sort of character from Joust?

Moon Patrol?

Ok, so I must have run out of textas by now.  These icons were for a sort of role playing game with spells and weapons and such.

And now we come to the main characters.

It’s a tank, complete with 8 directions of movement.  There is only so much re-scaling and rotation you can do algorithmically within a 16×16 square with 8 colours.

Moving towards something more serious – trying to create some sort of GUI on the BBC.

Ditto for this – a font designer?  Pretty sure there wasn’t a standard font file format so of limited use unfortunately.

A further example of my GUI concept for the BBC, clearly borrowed from the RISC OS platform (which borrowed from an amalgamation of every other GUI in existence – although the ability to drag files between applications without the tedium of saving and loading them was unique as far as I know).  As always, if you can’t afford to buy one, build it instead …

I got a bit further with this ‘Mario Killer’ platform game.  I actually coded this up far enough that you could run and jump around a game level.  Nifty …

Notes on a game where you drive a tank around picking up weapons and blowing shit up.

Now this is different.  I was slightly into role-playing games and war games (sci-fi and fantasy ones only of course; in case my mum is reading), and combining that with a love of anime (long before I’d even heard the term) and robo-suits I came up with this.  It was great not having to worry about screen resolutions and pixels and just draw something.

I used to enjoy reading the Middle Earth Roleplaying game books (which were fantastic), as well as Role Master and the Star Wars roleplaying game.  As my wife reminds me, I spend a lot of time reading and not enough time doing, but it isn’t always that simple, especially if other people are involved.

Still, I’ve gotten back into my Fighting Fantasy books again but time isn’t on my side.  It isn’t like I can read a couple of pages before I go to bed.  I’ve reacquired the ‘Sorcery’ series again but like everything important to me, I’d want to give it my full attention.

How does one find the time to spend an hour of uninterrupted attention to devote to anything these days?  And by uninterrupted I don’t just mean that the phone doesn’t ring.  I mean no-one talks to me, no-one emails me, no-one rings me and I can’t hear anything that requires a response from me like a baby crying.

I miss being a kid/teenager and living at home.  I could close the door to my room in the evening and that was it – the rest of the world could get stuffed.

I love artists like Steve Roach, Robert Rich and Thom Brennan, but how do you appreciate a 20+ minute ambient soundscape with so much going around you?  I really miss having that time.  I might have to buy this to recreate the same feeling while taking the bus to work.  Not the same is it?

Ironically I now have all the trappings to enjoy it more than I could have dreamed before – a beautiful sound system, comfortable lounge room, stand-alone house where my ears will implode long before the neighbours complain about the noise and piles of CDs filling the walls.

But no time to enjoy it …




Back again!

Beside being the title of really awesome track by General Base, Back Again signifies my return from the trial and tribulations of moving house and settling in to a new life (almost three suburbs away from the old one!).

Despite my silence I’ve been doing a lot more than merely organising my CD collection. In between that I’ve been out in the new garage turning it from the cesspit of the previous residents into a retro hideaway. I’ve removed the nicotine stains of most of the walls and vacuumed  the carpet numerous times (I’ll replace it all eventually, but one step at a time) and it is finally at a stage where I can sit for prolonged periods of time without my eyes watering.

Of course like any garage it is full of crap, in particular my wife’s work stock, but thankfully that will be going back soon, so I’ll be spreading out and setting up some proper lounge chairs and a second music system to make a home away from home.

The only downside (beside being f’***ing cold as we go into winter) is the fact that I’m sitting in a big metal box (akin to one of these I guess) and wi-fi reception from the house is pretty patchy.  Not to worry, I started with a 36k modem so it is all part of the retro experience – which just goes to prove there is good retro and bad retro: good retro is playing a game with simple sound and graphics that I have fond memories of as a kid, while bad retro is putting up with shitty internet access like it is 1998.

So what does it look like I hear you ask? Wonder no more:

My quarter of the garage

This is it so far – I’m squashed in the corner but will swing the TV around against the wall on the right eventually when other stuff has been taken away.  There are two old armchairs behind the TV which will eventually form the lounge.

You can see my stack of hifi gear too with a nice Arcam A75 and a suitably retro cassette player and record player along with a whole bunch of records (mostly techno, trance and eclectica, including my much loved ‘Emerson Lake and Powell’ album. All I need now are some decent speakers as the ones on the desk are only really used for the computer via my ancient ‘Dual’ amp.  I have three boxes of cassettes in the bookshelf, mostly recorded off the radio when I lived in Sydney in 1994 (big shout out to Nik Fish and his Musiquarium show).

Finally on the right you can see the BBC itself in its temporary home.

My BBC Micro collection so far

It’s great finally having a place to put these things and lay them out.  All my (remaining) original items are here, along with a few things I’ve acquired from ebay over the last couple of months.  There are a few comics in the magazine holder on the far left, and that copy of ‘The Micro User’ is volume 1, issue 1 – I figured if I can’t have the whole set I might as well have the first one as a memento. The whole bookshelf is normally covered with a sheet to keep the sunlight and dust out.

Of course it wouldn’t be a real garage if there wasn’t some tool action going on, so my first projects were to get the computer hooked up the Loewe TV and to an external amplifer.

Sure, I could have used a standard aerial cable for an RF signal to the TV, but lets face it – it’s crap: real men use RGB.  Following the instructions found here: Connecting a BBC micro to a Television, I wired up a SCART plug that a friend had given me ages ago and I somehow never got around to throwing out. After a false start where I somehow thought I needed a mini-DIN plug, I got this working first time.

The glorious combination of my Loewe TV and my hand-made RGB cable

You can see how clear the image is compared to a standard RF connection – no ghosting or interference and the colours are extremely vivid (the sort of stripy effect is from the camera).  And damn those pixels are large, although we retro fans prefer the term ‘cuddly’.

I made sure I used a long cable so this should be pretty sweet once I can set up the computer on a coffee table or something in front of the TV.

So that takes care of the visuals, but what about the audio?  The instructions on that same page show how to connect a resistor to bring the speaker level output down to line-out voltage so I wired this up to a couple of RCA sockets (although unfortunately despite having a left and right socket it is a mono output) and hung this out the back of the computer (once again after a false start where I hung the resistor and terminal blocks outside the computer, which was hella ugly).

After hooking this up to the little Dual amp I was able to enjoy the dulcet tones of Galaforce, Firetrack and XOR at their best.

The only thing left now was to get some fellow beeb enthusiasts over for a beer and Chuckie Egg night, which is precisely what happened last night (ok, so it was really a housewarming), and thankfully I managed to not get hungover and was thus able to post this and enjoy a glorious sunny day outside rather than in bed with all the curtains drawn.

I’m indulging in one of the many beers left over and about to have a quick bash at Arcadians, and really, life doesn’t get any better than this …

What’s in the Box?

After passing the first hurdle of having a working computer and a working floppy drive, it was time to rummage through the rest of the box and see what are goodies were in store.

Having sort of gotten over the loss of my books and magazines (whenever I say ‘books and magazines’ I’m reminded of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (or Mormons or whatever the blazing hell they were) visiting Bernard in Black Books), I figured let’s savour the moment and closely examine what is left.

Let’s begin …

Computer Concepts Wordwise Plus

Ok, so not the most exciting start – a word processor.  Near mint original box of Wordwise Plus.  I have no idea how I acquired this.  I don’t know if it works, but it is in such good condition that I assume it does.  I’d better send in that registration card perhaps, as Computer Concepts are still around (I think: the website doesn’t look like it has been updated for a while).  Note the function key strip at the bottom – you could insert this behind the clear plastic strip above the functions keys to get a reference for the shortcuts.  Someone’s thinking …

The Music System

From Island Logic (a division of Island Records strangely enough), I bought this new to try my hand at making some music but didn’t get very far.  As I didn’t read music and had no other experience in making music, it was too difficult to try and get my ideas down – I really needed the immediacy of being able to play around on a synthesizer keyboard and then edit the results into a song.  I haven’t tried it again yet, but flicking through the manual suggests that it is a pretty sophisticated bit of software.

Superior Software - Play it Again Sam 13

In the dying days of the BBC, Superior mostly released compilations of older games, with the occasional new game included that wasn’t ‘big enough’ for a standalone release, as well as games from other companies even.  Barbarian II by Peter Scott is the highlight here, being a hack ‘n’ slash fighting game.

Superior Software - Play it Again Sam 8

Another great compilation spread across 3 (count ’em!) discs.  As yet I haven’t played them, but I’m itching to get back into Repton (the game, not the village, which of course I have never been to).

Superior Software - Play it Again Sam 7

Definitely one of the best in the series.  Firetrack was a pretty amazing technical achievement and great fun (go Orlando!), while Bonecruncher kept me tied to the screen for a while.
Snapper is as perfect a Pacman clone as you could expect without legal issues and Ghouls was a great little platformer.

Superior Software - Play it Again Sam 6

I love shoot ’em ups, and Galaforce 2 had plenty of that plus a fantastic Martin Galway soundtrack.
Yet another faithful arcade conversion by Acornsoft in the form of Hopper and I remember Hunchback being fun for a while.
Looking forward to giving Sentinel another go, and thankfully my Dad kept our list of level codes so I’ll take it as a personal challenge to fill in the rest.

The Fourth Dimension - White Magic

Coming later into the BBC scene, The Fourth Dimension produced some cracking games for the Beeb and the Archimedes later on.
I was always a fan of the arcade game ‘Gauntlet’ but it was so damn hard (and with the ability to top-up your health at any time simply by inserting more money it was more financially crippling than any poker machine), so I was keen to get my hands on this game.  Can’t remember much about it but looking forward to it again.

Superior Software - The Palace of Magic

Can’t remember much about this and I’m not sure if I’d have the patience to complete it without some sort of cheat sheet, but once again I’m looking forward to finding out.

Logotron - XOR Designer

I didn’t realise that BBC games manufacturers sold so many copies of anything that they felt able to release the game and the designer as two completely separate products and you really needed to buy them both.  The designer comes with a paltry 3 levels all taken from the original game and that’s it.
I used to own the original game too (taken from the cover of A&B Computing and then registered to unlock the rest of the levels) but I lent it to someone and never got it back. It was the first game I ever bought and it took about 5 months to arrive from England by swallow (obviously a heavily laden one).

The Fourth Dimension - Nevryon

Awesome shoot ’em up.  Much as I enjoyed this, when I saw screenshots of the Archimedes version I was absolutely blown away – I don’t think I had ever seen something as cool as that.  Still haven’t played it …

Superior Software - Exile

What can I say?  I may have completed this game, or at least got damn close.  Yes, I used a hint sheet but it wasn’t easy.  I don’t think I’ve ever played anything so atmospheric except maybe the original Quake game (with the Trent Reznor soundtrack and effects).
It was so tense, and you could feel it every time you got hit by something.  The physics was so realistic that it was hard not to feel like you were there, particularly on the surface of the planet with the wind.
Simply an amazing combination of gameplay and technical achievement.  I’m simply in awe of the people who have the skill to produce work like this (and sick to death of the idiots who somehow make all the money).

Superior Software - Exile (contents)

I’m so happy I own a copy of this.  All I need is a box set of Elite and anything else is just a bonus.  Note all the different keys that are in use.  In this game you can crouch, fly, pick up and throw things and change the angle at which you fire/throw.
I might sit down and read the novella …

Hmm … there was a kid at school with a copy of Elite which I borrowed for a while.  Might need to find out where he lives.

Acornsoft Logo

Early on I felt it was important that I learn another computer language, and clearly Logo was the language of choice.  I think it just came down to the fact that a local computer store had this in stock so I bought it. If only they had Acornsoft ISO Pascal instead things would have been a lot different.
This is a pretty hefty package and comes on two ROMs, along with a sternly worded copyright notice on the box that starts “You are reminded that the software …”.  Back in those days I didn’t always feel guilty until proven innocent when it came to copyright, and no fines were mentioned that totalled multiple year’s salary.

Like the average person could duplicate two ROMs anyway.

Finally, despite the mysterious disappearance of the actual user manual, I still had two versions of the disc interface manual.

Inside front cover

Interestingly, this manual claims to be modified for Australia and is presumably printed locally.  Not sure what the differences could be, and I didn’t see any places where ‘By Jove!’ was replaced by ‘Strewth!’

So folks, that is the sum total of my collection at the moment and it looks like I need to hit Ebay for some more choice pieces.

I’ve had some good news recently however – finance has been approved on the house so we’ll be moving in within a couple of weeks, and that means I can start setting up the garage out the back into some sort of retro pad.

First thing to get setup is my trusty Loewe Xelos 5270 television.

Loewe Xelos 5270 ZW

Pretty much as good as a CRT can get, and I held off buying a plasma/LCD TV for a long time because the picture quality wasn’t as smooth as this. Sure the resolution was better, and they were less bulky and with more screen area, but they all looked so ‘digital’ for a long time.
Still, once the Bravia arrived it got packed away, but I couldn’t bear to get rid of it.  Good thing too – it has something that fewer modern TVs have – SCART, and better still it supports RGB input signals.
And guess what the BBC supports besides shitty RF?  Oh, boy!

I just need to make me up a rewired SCART cable and I’ll have a beautiful display that will look better than the Bravia (which can only support RF).

At least I didn’t throw away the TV.  I discovered a few days ago that I did in fact give my magazines and books away many years ago to a fellow Beeb owner, and he moved out of home a year ago – and threw them out.


On ‘tracking, SID, Koyaanisqatsi and more … (Part 1)

I mentioned in an earlier post the topic of Soundtracker modules.  So what?  So it was a way of creating and playing music in a relatively compact format using patterns and loops of samples?  Big deal.

Well, I guess it opened up the ability to make music on the computer to an audience of people who weren’t necessary programmers but were frequently interested in making music for programs – yes, that’s right folks, we are talking about the ‘demoscene’ (and games of course).

Starting life on the Amiga and quickly moving to its’ arch-rival the Atari ST, the variations on the Soundtracker concept became the standard way of producing and embedding music into a variety of programs, as well as a standalone app of its own, with people producing tracks just for the hell of it and compiling them together into music discs.

As someone who was pretty much into electronic music from the moment I first heard Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis and Doctor Who incidental music from the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, I was hooked on them.  There was just something so ‘electronic’ about them.  Being a pattern-based format and with the limitations of disk and memory capacities of the time ruling out vocals and long string sections, they tended to be rhythmic, arpeggiated and at first, limited to four simultaneous channels.

As always, when faced with limitations like this, people would embrace the format for what it could do well, and some awesome stuff came out.  You see, with computers being as powerful as they are, and with the ability to just simply include an MP3 recording of pretty much any style of music you want, from any source, the art of computer music has been lost, or at least subsumed as a sub-genre of ‘electronic’.  What would be the point of trying to write music using 4 tracks and 8 bit samples now?

My original thought was to share some links to some of my personal favourites, and ones that I think really show off what I consider the real soundtracker ‘style’.

As part of doing some background work on this (yes, it is not all made up), I came across some really cool stuff, and the web being what it is soon found myself drawn down numerous paths which I really want to share somehow (I’m letting Foxy Tunes/Yahoo Music Player play through all the tunes found here as I type).  Let’s see if I can pull it into something vaguely cohesive.

One thing I found that got me really excited (and a little misty eyed when I saw the dedication these guys have put into it) is the Amiga Music Preservation (AMP) site.  They have tried to link up every soundtracker module ever made with the people who did them and the groups they belonged to.  There are even interviews with many of the musicians – absolutely fascinating for me, but must be an amazing site for people who were actually involved in the scene at the time.  I’m so glad someone is cataloguing all this for the future.  I might slip them a fiver or two for their efforts.

Yet again this reminds me of what it is like living here away from everything when all this exciting stuff was going on.  I love it here, but not for the first time have I imagined what life would have been like if I grew up in Germany or something.  I really want to go there one day …

So with this new found resource I thought I’d try and fill in the blanks and give credit where it is due to all the artists responsible for my picks…

But first, you are going to have to find yourself a player.  I used to use Modplug, but recently tried XMPlay, which I don’t find quite as usable, but sounds noticeably better, and that’s what really counts.

And one last thing:  I couldn’t upload files to WordPress using their real extensions, so I renamed everything to be “.doc”.  Unless mentioned otherwise, rename these files to “.mod” so your player picks them up.

Yo, here we go:

Bass Sketch – Not off to a great start, as this didn’t seem to exist in the 100,000+ library of the AMP website.  This is a nice little number with a great spacious feel.  Love that analogue bass and anything that samples Art of Noise and comes off not sounding like Art of Noise is doing pretty well.  Then again, it does sound like something they could have done if they only had a couple of hundred kilobytes to play with.

Classical – This is classic soundtracker style, but at the time I’m sure the name meant something different.  Created by Random Voice, this utilises what was a standard set of sounds back them.  To actually make your own samples required equipment that wasn’t commonly available so people tended to use libraries of samples that were passed around.  I believe early on there were a couple of discs that pretty much formed the basis for the scene and many modules used them, so don’t be surprised if some of the sounds in these mods are familiar.  I have a suspicion that many of them come from a Yamaha DX-7 but could be completely wrong.
This has that ‘minor key’ feel that I love and lots of plinky-plonk sounds.

Complications – Composed by Tomas Danko, this is more upbeat, and has some nice echo effects.  It’s inna bit of a dub style too, which always wins me over …

TAR concert in air – One of my all time favourites – this just keeps growing and growing.  Thanks to Sledge Hammer, this creeps up and then hits you with that awesome bass lead and sweet percussion. Plus it has a sound called ‘Ninja’ so what more could you want? Love it!

Crack of Dawn – Until AMP came along I had no idea this was another Romeo Knight masterpiece.  Edgy and industrial, this is a perfect cyberpunk soundtrack.

Cream of the Earth – Still amazed how he managed to pack so much into four tracks – the new sounds just keep coming.  Not sure how to describe this one, but thank Romeo Knight again.

Daisy Chain – Would have loved to see the demo this came with. From Rhesus Minus, this is really out there and really shows off what is possible when you can get hold of some great samples.  That deep horn sound just hangs in the air and underpins the sense of menance.  Even though I have always liked this track, it blew me away when I hooked up the laptop to the hi-fi one day and played it in surround sound with the sub – just magic.

Delta2 – This was included as a fine example of classic soundtracker style but joining the dots in various places led to a whole new view of it.  Firstly I don’t know who wrote this as there a heaps of matches on AMP and after going through all the ones around the same file size I couldn’t find this version.  It is simply a great track, even though it uses the standard sample set – it just has something going on that really grabs your attention.

However, there is more to it than meets the ear.  While the BBC Micro was totally incapable of playing modules, there was some great music floating around. One game that I always remembered fondly for its music was Galaforce and Galaforce 2.  While the game was a very capable Galaga clone, the music was a stand-out by one Martin Galway.

Anyone who owned a Commodore 64 would remember his mastery of that machine’s sound processor – the infamous SID chip.  Interestingly, he actually started on the BBC but eventually focussed on the Commodore as I’m sad to say that it did have superior sound capabilities over the Beeb.

It was at this point that I began to get a sense of what an impact things like this had on a lot of people and the amount of interest it still gets today.

Firstly, I need to post a link to the Stairway to Hell music page for the BBC just because it has to be done.  I’ve moved away from the Doctor Who remixes for now and I’m letting that play through in the background.

Secondly, one thing I came across very quickly while trying to find out more about Martin was the C64 Audio Page.   What can I say?  An entire site, or rather, label, devoted to the Commodore 64 and its music.  Featuring recordings of original tunes from the machine as well as numerous remix albums this is a great site, and the fact that you can buy their stuff from iTunes must mean something.

By this time I was also seeing references to Rob Hubbard, a similarly gifted C64 SID musician, and by whatever means I found myself on YouTube.

Now the thing about YouTube is that it does a pretty good job of suggesting related stuff.  Before I knew it I was listening to an orchestral version of the soundtrack Rob did for a C64 game called … Delta.

Wow … once again I’m blown away that people are so into this that not only do they spend time scoring this for an orchestra, but they do it so bloody well.

However, reading the comments led to another surprise: this soundtrack is based on the music Philip Glass did for the film Koyaanisqatsi.  I have seen this film but it was quite a while ago, but after hearing it done orchestrally I have flickerings of recollection.  Still, accusations of plagiarism I think are unfounded as Rob has certainly brought a new vision to it – at the least I’m sure the pulsing bass-line of his version wasn’t in the original.

While I’m itching now to hear the original again, there were a couple more stops to be made before I could move on:

Delta with Powerchords

Some dudes at a festival with guitars and bongos

So what have we learnt from this?  Through a bit of creative cutting and pasting, Philip Glass’ work has now potentially been brought to the attention of a whole new generation of music fans.  I’d love to know what he thinks about it.  I actually went to the contact page of his site and was confronted with a bunch of crap regarding his publicist and various distributors of his music but no way of actually talking to the great man himself.  I might have to look further afield …

Maybe he might decide to sue instead, but that would just be illogical.  That just makes no sense. No real artist would do that.  What could you possibly gain by pissing off your listeners and fans?

Still, it does happen from the more artistically bankrupt people who are living off the royalties of the only half-decent song they ever did.  Sorry, too tired to find an example right now, I’m sure you can fill in the blanks.

I’ve decided to split this post and go to bed, but I need to share one last song:

Monty Mole – I couldn’t find the author of this particular version on AMP either.  Love that house piano, and really, the orchestra hit never completely went away, it’s just lain dormant since the 80s and resurfaces in times of need. I never had the pleasure of playing this game or hearing the original C64 music by Rob Hubbard, but once again there is a bit of a culture around this one too.

First, check out the C64 Orchestra‘s version.

That was the entrée, now for the main course.

And finally for dessert, not really music related but piss funny: A ‘review‘ of the Monty Mole game.

‘Till next time … auf wiedersehen.

Actually, one last thing – I started this with Martin Galway, so I’ll finish with this fine rendition of his Wizball theme.  Plus that guy looks like one of my clients (hi Paul!).  All this makes me want to learn the guitar.  What is the world coming to!

The great day arrives (Part 2)

With a working relic from the 80’s sitting in front of me (completely noiseless – no need for a fan for a processor that runs at 2Mhz.  In fact I’m not sure which chip IS the processor), it was now time to move on to the next bit if kit – the floppy drive.

The floppy drive

Back in those days discs really were floppy, and size was little indicator of capacity.  This particular piece of hardware supported a disc capacity of a couple of hundred kilobytes (I think. I should look it up), but you could usually flip the disc over and use both sides.
Being a mechanical device, this is what I was most concerned about, especially as I have only seen two for sale on ebay the whole time I have been looking.

If I couldn’t get this working then I’d be back to an emulator like everyone else.

Let them eat dust

It is a bit of a beast.  I have no idea who built it, but it was built to last, with a solid metal frame and even the plastic bits aren’t going to drop off in a hurry.

Mechanical stuff

Shown here in the open position, you can see the circular bits that clamp over the centre of the disc when the system is closed and to the right is the read/write head.  This is only a single-side drive so the disc has to be flipped over to read the other side.

Close up of the head

The magic that makes it all happen.  Trust me on the fact I cleaned this all up before letting any discs near it.

With everything cleaned up, screwed back and then plugged in (with the computer turned off of course – this ain’t USB) , it was time to see if it could still deliver the goods.

It lives even more!

Well-remembered muscle movements prompted me to press Shift-Break to boot off the disc.  With a heap of noise that to most people would suggest that the floppy disc was being mangled to bits but to me was exactly how I remember it, up came the Stryker’s Run: Codename Droid game …
… in black and white.  Damn, that is a bit disappointing.

Still, there had to be a solution.

Colour settings

Not sure what any of this means and this option is not documented in the manual of my TV.  It was originally set to ‘M’ and changing it to ‘B/G’ restored the glorious colours.  I think a couple of those other options worked as well.  Don’t you love how easy it is to turn a frown upside down sometimes?

Codename Droid

With the colour sorted and the strains of the Airwolf theme pumping out of the speaker it was time to sit back and admire my work. It was a strange feeling looking at something that at the time was so familiar yet now feels alien and out of place.  I need a smaller screen …

Without wanting to dawdle on anything I had a quick bash at Codename Droid, jumping around, shooting, ducking and climbing ropes.  It was like being back at school (in the old days when kids did stuff that may, heaven forbid, result in them getting the occasional cut or bruise).  Maybe without the shooting.  That only came later … and mostly in America.  Sorry.

Moving on …


One of my favourite games – great music and game play and a dash of humour.  It had a bit of a different slant in game play in that there was no time limit and instead you had a limited number of moves.  A great puzzler, and a freeware version is available for modern machines:

So that pretty much wrapped up an exciting and fruitful night.

I’m impressed that something that has been sitting around that long still just needs to be plugged in and is as good as the day it was purchased.  Maybe when people talk about our ‘consumerist” society it is really the act of ‘buying’ that drives people, not the ‘having’.  Too quickly people dismiss something merely because it is old (i.e. six months), and feel compelled to buy something new to replace it.  How often can these people say they got real value out of it while they owned it anyway?  How many people buy something that is good quality like a DVD player, and the hook it up to TV using a composite cable?  I’m busier than anyone I know, but still find a few minutes to read the manual.

It is such as short term view on so many fronts.  Even setting aside the environmental factors of all the waste, people are too quick to say they can’t afford ‘the best’, yet are happy to throw money away because they need it now, and buy crap instead of waiting a bit longer and buying something that not only lasts longer but gives them more satisfaction for every minute that they do own it.

Anyway, I’m sure I’m preaching to the converted.  If you have read this far then you are probably not a dumb-arse, blind consumer, but instead have an appreciation for the craftsmanship that goes into products like this.  Sure, it is old, but seeing it as a product of the time you can admire the elegance. and as programmer myself I’m blown away at what was achieved with so little resources and such primitive (or more accurately: non-existent) tools.

I’m also a bit of a hi-fi buff, and while my budget doesn’t stretch into the stratosphere like some (or rather, I balance my desire for the perfect sound with the desire to eat good food, enjoy fine wine, smoke the rare cigar and drive a car that doesn’t belch smoke or leave pools of oil everywhere), I have a rather fine and balanced system which may be the topic of another post one day…

But for next time, I’d like to proudly display the rest of my BBC collection that escaped being thrown out.

The great day arrives (Part 1)

Let’s just get stuck into it shall we?

A few days ago I had the house to myself and decided that the time was right to haul everything out and see if it still worked.

I was a little nervous.  What if it sparked and smoked and then fizzed out never to beep again?  Or worse, what if it did absolutely nothing, thus robbing me of at least the opportunity to say goodbye before it departed to 8-bit heaven?

Then what would I write about?  Still, at least I could grab a few pictures, and if worse came to worst I could photoshop a screen shot in and pretend that it was all good for a little while.

To that end, here is the beast unearthed for the first time in almost 20 years.

Straight out of the cellar

Here it is in its somewhat yellow, spotty glory. It is a bit dusty and one of the front LEDs is misaligned, but otherwise looks like the trusty workhorse I remember.

Like many plastic items of any reasonable age it has started to go a bit yellow, although there is a suspicious white patch in the middle which I believe was the disc drive.  The computer was setup most of the time in front of the TV so that makes sense.

I was hoping that there was something I could do about that, but a quick search around suggested, as always, that prevention was the best cure.  For more information, the following is an excellent analysis of the problem of yellowing of our beloved retro machines.

So, moving on I figured a spit and polish would at least remove the fly crap, but hopefully the inside remained pristine.  Two screws from the back and 2 from the front-bottom and flipping off the lid revealed the following:

First view with top cover removed

A bit dusty inside, but I’ve seen worse (any modern computer with a fan that sits on the floor springs to mind).  The wires sneaking out the back were a dodgy pass through for the speaker so I could hook it up to an external speaker for more audio goodness.

View of keyboard

A better view of the keyboard.  Back in those days each key was individually switched mechanically, at least on quality keyboards like this.  Cheaper machines had membranes or rubber keyboards that made an electrical circuit but didn’t have proper on/off switches.  They sucked for typing on.  I think modern keyboards use membrane-like technology, but with effort put into giving that real ‘switch’ feeling so you feel like you are making a connection.

Close up of internals

Pretty standard really.  Just above the keyboard ribbon cable you can see the text ‘Issue 7’.  This may have been the last revision of the BBC Model B main board.  I’m not sure, but it does seem the most common.

The underside

The beeb was famous for its array of expansion options, including the ability to add a second processor (and not just another 6502 – a Z80 was an option amongst others).  This is available via the ‘Tube’ connector.  On the far right, partially obscured, is a black connector for auxiliary power, in this case I use it to power the disc drive.

The backside

More options on the back, including three different video output options (no HDMI unfortunately), an analogue port for things like joysticks, an obligatory tape input and the famous Acorn Econet system.  Not fitted to this machine, Econet was Acorn’s low-cost networking system which proved popular in schools. I’m not sure what is involved in adding this option but it was pretty sophisticated for the time and included filesharing capabilities via a fileserver.

Cleaned up and ready to roll

Cleaned up and ready to roll

Spit and polish has been liberally applied and it is looking a lot more respectable.  I’ll get in between those keys a bit better once I know the bugger is still running.

I unsoldered my dodgy speaker cable and fixed it back to the original configuration.  After realigning the LED at the front and cleaning up the function key strip (the clear plastic above the keyboard allowed you to slip in dedicated function key templates above the red function keys that explained what they did depending on the program you were using)

Only one way to found out if it works.  Luckily that weekend a friend of ours had her garage sale and I picked up an antenna two-into-one connector in anticipation of this moment, so after wrestling to get to the back of the TV managed to hook it up neatly.

Turning it on produced that satisfying two-tone beep that everyone remembers, and I knew that we were in with a chance, but first I had to tune the TV.  Switching to the long forgotten analogue tuner I got the TV to scan everything in, and lo and behold, there is was!

It lives!

The old and new come crashing together as I fire it up hooked up to the Sony 52 inch Bravia.  Who could have imagined this back in the 80s?
Exactly as it says, it has 32 kilobytes of RAM, and is fitted with a 1770 Disc Filing System and of course the famous inbuilt BBC BASIC.
It appears all the keys work, include the real ‘pound’ symbol.  The fact that the BBC has a key that produces this symbol is yet another reason why emulators aren’t as good as the real thing 🙂

Ok, so I get a prompt, but could I make it do anything useful, or was my collection of games and half-finished software no more use than an old America Online coaster CD?

Find out next time!

Reality Check

So a few weeks ago I went to my parents full of anticipation of the retro goodness that awaited me.  After the usual pleasantries I look in the corner of the lounge where the computer had sat alone, forlorn and unloved for all these years under a pile of papers and other boxes of unknowns.  After a bit of scrounging I accepted the fact it was no longer there, and upon asking was informed it had been packed away under the house.

A shudder went through me as under the house was most definitely the last place things were ever seen, as I swear that the spiders under the floor fed not on flys and their own children, but paper, plastic and choice bits of metal.  I clung to the assertion that it had only been put away recently, so was hopeful it hadn’t succumbed to rust or was being used as a nursery for god knows what.  Anyone remember the old show ‘The Trapdoor‘?  Kind of like that.  Oddly I was a garage sale the other day and they had a cassette tape of that show, which actually turned out to be a game for the Commodore 64.

Anyway, I grabbed the torch and the key for the lock.  Need to replace that lock one day as it looks about as secure as one you would find in a Christmas cracker and is purely there only to deter people with no arms or legs.

I only had to go in a metre or so on my hands and knees before finding a worrying small box labelled ‘BBC micro’.  I quickly hauled it out and brought it back into the house.

I started rummaging through it and discovered the following:

  • Like most things at my parents it was dusty as hell, which is worrying when one of the major components is a 5 1/4 inch floppy drive that is older that Generation Y (but luckily much more robust)
  • In order to save space my dad threw out all the plastic jewel cases for the software, leaving the folded inlay wrapped around each floppy disc which were then piled together in a plastic bag in a vain attempt to keep the dust in, I mean out
  • There was not a single book – including the user guide.  All I found were a couple of smaller manuals for the DFS (Disc Filing System)

It was at this point that a horrible thought, which was already brewing at the back of mind, came fully to the fore: I had thrown out all the 20 or so books that I owned about 8 years ago.  Until this moment I wasn’t sure if I had thrown them out but clearly they weren’t here.  Obviously I didn’t rate that as the smartest thing I ever did, especially when weeks later I realised the price that some of them were going for on Ebay and Amazon second-hand.

I was already pretty sure I had thrown out all of magazines which included about 4 unbroken years of Micro User and a heap of others.  However I have just had a thought that I may have in fact given them away to someone – I must chase them up as he is probably lining a litter tray with one as I speak.

Nevertheless I had a box containing my original BBC Micro Model B, complete with a singled-side disc drive and about 10 original games or compilations and a couple of boxes of backups and software I written myself or, if the title ‘Typed Out Games vol. 1 and 2’ is anything to go by, had been typed out from magazines.

I triumphantly loaded the car and took them home where they have sat in the entranceway of the house until just the other day…