Have a Helping of 8-bit Holiday Cheer! (2017 Edition)

‘Tis the season, and that means it’s time to push out the seventh annual Byte Cellar vintage computer Holiday demo video roundup so everyone can feel that warm, fuzzy, pixellated holiday glow. With scanlines. Enjoy!

I’ve been a computer geek for a long time now, but I’ve been enjoying The Holidays even longer.

I got my first computer, a TI-99/4A, on Christmas morning in 1982. I was 10 years old and from that Christmas on, it was nothing but games and computer hardware that I wanted Santa to leave me under the tree. On through my teenage years, part of my ritual for getting into the Holiday spirit was downloading and watching Christmas demos on whatever system I had at the time (and every platform out there had a few of them).

Enjoying these demos is a personal tradition that I had, sadly, long left behind until 2010 (the year before I began writing these posts) when I was inspired to seek out the demo I remember best, Audio Light’s 1985 musical slideshow for the Atari ST. With the help of an emulator, I captured it to share online with readers.

A year later, I fired it up again and watched it run through it’s 16-color, pixellated images and 3-voice musical holiday greetings. As I watched, it occurred to me that it might be nice to gather a few of the other demos I remember from the good ole’ days and present them here, in order to try to share some of the holiday cheer that they used to inspire within me.

The following list of demos ranges across a variety of platforms of olde and is sure to bring the warmth of the season to the hearts of any and all retrocomputing enthusiasts who behold it. Happy holidays, and I hope you enjoy the shows!

Be sure to also have a look at the dozens of demos gathered through the years in the 2011 – 2016 edition of this post.

The 2017 collection:

DOS PC – GENESiS’ Christmas Demo (1999)

C64 – QuantumLink’s Commodore Christmas Album (1980s)

Atari 2600 – Chris Read’s Christmas Demo (2007)

Amstrad CPC – GPA Noel Christmas Demo

Tandy CoCo 3 – Mad Xmas Demo short

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A Program from a 35 Year Old Magazine for “BASIC Month” and a Chat with Its Author

July was BASIC Month over at r/Retrobattlestations and for that competition I decided to reach for my TI-99/4A and type in a TI Extended BASIC game called Pearl Harbor from the 1983 issue of Electronic Fun with Computers & Games…for the second time in 35 years.

In a post I made several years ago, I talk about a particular issue of Electronic Fun with Computers & Games magazine that I purchased in order to get at the Electronic Arts “Software Artists” poster that came packed inside it. After getting the poster setup, I flipped through the issue and realized it looked quite familiar; it was the one issue of that publication that I ever purchased, all the way back in 1983. And I remember why I bought it when I saw the lengthy TI-99/4A type-in BASIC game Pearl Harbor on the back pages.

So, for BASIC Month 2017, I pulled that magazine off the shelf and started typing in the program. I must confess that I used a text editor on my AmigaOS 4 “SAMiga” to type in the code a bit more comfortably. I then connected the Raspberry Pi-based laptop I put together to my TI-99/4A‘s serial port (provided by a Myarc RS-232 card sitting in the large TI Peripheral Expansion Box tethered to the ’99) by way of a Keyspan USB-to-serial adapter and cable. After getting that set up, I launched TIMXT on the ’99 from the FlashROM 99 cartridge I recently acquired and got the machine working as a Linux terminal, and from there used ‘sx’ to send the tokenized BASIC file I generated (with Classic99 on Windows) from the BASIC code over to the ’99, which wrote it out to disk. (The terminal program TIMXT supports the 80-column text mode provided by the F18A video upgrade module that I recently installed in the machine, which is nice!) With all that done, I fired up the ’99 with TI Extended BASIC, loaded the program, and ran it.

An intense throwback to 35 years ago then commenced.

[ The BASIC file for use on a real ’99 or in an emulator: PEARLHARBOR.ZIP ]

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Posted in r/Retrobattlestations, TI-99 | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

The Retro Was Strong at the Smithsonian’s SAAM Arcade 2017 in D.C.

Last weekend my family and I attended the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s SAAM Arcade event in Washington D.C. SAAM Arcade is an annual event, free to the public, featuring a wide variety of video games both modern, spotlighting indie developers, and retro. In addition to a huge number of hands-on gaming opportunities there are various workshops and music performances scheduled throughout the day.

This year the event featured games from 150 independent developers as well as a huge number of retro game consoles, arcade cabinets, and even an assortment of 1980s home computers running various games. The event was centered in the museum’s enclosed Kogod Courtyard, with sessions and arcade machines spread throughout the museum. The event website provides more details of what took place. Nearly 20,000 people attended this year’s event.

As a huge retro gaming enthusiast, I quite enjoyed seeing so many people both young and old enjoying the vintage consoles and cabinets. My daughter was partial to Galaga ’90 on a TurboGrafx-16 console, and we even played a game of Pong (well, a clone) on a Coleco Telstar from 1976.

Despite living in neighboring Alexandria, VA I had been unaware of this local, annual event that began in 2014. I was tipped off by my friends Johan Gjestland and Marco Peschiera who came in from Norway to demonstrate their upcoming meditative bird flying game, Fugl, which I’ve been play-testing (and loving!) on various devices for a couple of years now. Their setup was demonstrating Fugl running in VR on the Oculus Rift headset, which was breathtaking.

Now that I’ve discovered SAAM Arcade, I certainly won’t be missing another. In the meantime, I plan to attend the nearby, annual Magfest (who were a sponsor of this year’s SAAM Arcade) event, which next takes place January 4th-7th, 2018 at National Harbor, MD.

(Back in 2012 I wrote a bit about my trip with my daughter to The Art of Video Games exhibit, also held here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.)

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A Gamer’s Reflections as “No Man’s Sky” Turns One Year Old

Tomorrow, Hello Games’ space exploration and survival game No Man’s Sky will turn one year old. At 600 hours in, I have played the game most days of the past 365. As such, I could not let this birthday pass without comment.

After much anticipation No Man’s Sky launched on the Playstation 4 on August 9, 2016 with the PC version following three days later. And never have I seen a game generate such dramatic reactions from players. Some felt it didn’t live up to the (largely gaming media-fueled) hype. Others were under the impression that a true multiplayer game had been promised. But still others felt that No Man’s Sky was the game they had been waiting for their entire lives. Any of my regular readers are aware that I fall into the last category. Indeed, my deep connection with the game has prompted me on several occasions (such as this one) to use this vintage computing blog to talk about something completely unrelated to the subject, utilizing what soapbox is at my disposal to share my feelings about the singular experience that I find No Man’s Sky to be.

(A podcast that was recently recommended to me sums up the No Man’s Sky launch situation as well as the current state of things rather well.)

I have spent too many hours writing about the game to say it all again, here. For those who are interested, read my earlier write-ups about No Man’s Sky:

A Few Words About the Best Game I’ve Ever Played: No Man’s Sky (Sept. 2016)
My Skylake Gaming PC Build (Oct. 2016)
Procedural Planetary Exploration Across the Decades (Nov. 2016)
Did You Hear About That Nutter Who Dropped $4K $5K on No Man’s Sky?! (Jan. 2017)

Instead, I wanted to mark the occasion by sharing a small selection of photos from the larger online gallery (300 or so, of the ~3,000 I’ve taken in game so far) that I’ve assembled along the way on my No Man’s Sky journey — a journey that is very much ongoing.

I started playing the PS4 version on launch day and then built a high-end gaming PC in early September in order to play the PC version which offered the potential for higher framerate, higher screen resolution, and mods (which I ended up deciding not to use). Hello Games has released two major feature updates to the game (v1.1 “Foundation” and v1.2 “Path Finder”), along with a number of small fix / tweak updates. The switch to PC and the feature additions brought by Hello Games’ updates can be seen in the gallery below, which is arranged chronologically, starting off with a shot from my PS4 insertion moment at the top-left.

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Four Colors Into Sixteen: Terminal Innovation on the Atari ST

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the growing telnet BBS world lately and it’s really been a blast. I’ve been “dialing” in to my favorite BBSs by way of Paul Rickard’s WiFi232 Internet Modems (which I covered in a recent post). So far I’ve used my WiFi232s on five different systems. Among them is the Atari 520ST.

I purchased my first Atari ST back in the fall of 1986. Shortly thereafter I added an Atari SX212 1200-baud modem (my second modem, after the Prometheus ProModem 1200A on an Apple IIe) to the setup. The only terminal program I had ever used on the ST was ST Talk, a rather basic VT-52 terminal emulator program. When I reached for my 520ST to use with the WiFi232, I figured there was probably a more full-featured ST terminal program out there, so I did a YouTube search for people using the Atari ST as a serial terminal and found someone demonstrating the WiFi232 using a program called TAZ. What caught my attention was the fact that it supported ANSI emulation (with the IBM extended character set) and, more impressively, seemed to do so in 16 colors in the ST’s Medium Resolution mode. Medium Resolution on the ST is 640×200 pixels, which can display 80 column of text, but in only four colors (out of a palette of 512 colors).

So, how was it displaying 16 colors?

The Atari ST can display 16 colors onscreen in Low Resolution mode, which is 320×200 pixels, but not in Medium Resolution. So, I left a comment asking the poster what was going on. He responded, saying that the 16-color display was achieved using dithering.

Well, it didn’t look dithered; it looked rather sharp. So, I downloaded TAZ, put it on the SD card that is my 520ST’s floppy library (thanks HxC2001) and fired it up. As soon as it loaded it became clear what the developers had done here, and it was impressive. I logged into an ANSI graphics-heavy BBS and was blown away by the accurate and colorful ANSI display.

TAZ, by Neat n Nifty software circa 1994, does not use dithering in the traditional sense to achieve 16 colors. But it does use dithering of a sort — it uses what you could call temporal dithering. TAZ alternates two different palettes every frame. That means that, on a 60Hz display, TAZ‘s 16-color terminal screen is effectively 30Hz. You would think that this would introduce substantial display flicker — and you’d be right! It flickers notably but, amid the flicker, what is achieved is a very usable, 16-color ANSI terminal running on a machine limited to just four colors onscreen at a time. And the font the developers chose is particularly nice, as well.

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Posted in Atari, BBS, Serial Terminal | 5 Comments

The Wonderful WiFi232: BBSing Has (Literally) Never Been Easier

Over the past year or so, I’ve been loading up SyncTerm and logging in to various telnet-accessible BBSs here and there — nothing too consistent. But, thanks to a piece of kit released by Paul Rickards, over the past month I have become fully immersed in the telnet BBS scene. Paul’s WiFi232 Internet Modem is an inexpensive device that lets you BBS the way it was meant to be done, on hardware from the golden age of the Bulletin Board System.

In a nutshell, it works like this: The WiFi232, as far as your vintage computer is concerned, is a Hayes telephone modem. It accepts standard AT commands as well as AT commands that go rather beyond the standard Hayes commandset. The purpose of the device is to act as a bridge between your serial port and your local WiFi router. It has a 25-pin RS-232 data interface and a Mini-USB connector for power — it should work with any computer sporting a standard serial port.

The WiFi232 is configured by connecting to the device’s built-in web server and loading the configuration page or by issuing extended AT configuration commands. For example,


points the device to your WiFi hotspot. Once things are configured (it supports 300 to 115,200 baud), just load up your favorite terminal program, type:

ATDT bbs.myfavbbs.com

and the WiFi232 “dials” into that telnet BBS. Your vintage computer thinks its talking on the phone.

I had early access to the device (well, I have two) and have been enjoying them on my Apple //c at the office as well as my enhanced Apple IIe, Amiga 1000, and TI-99/4A (recently upgraded to 80-columns with an F18a FPGA video board (that’s a blog post for later)) at the house. The WiFi232 is easy to move around, works exactly as advertised — it is an oldschool modem to my vintage systems — and gives me a compelling, new reason to spend time on a variety of machines in my collection.

I hope the demo video I put together gives a taste of what the WiFi232 enables, and I wholeheartedly recommend that any vintage computing fan grab one and get back online.

Here’s a list of telnet BBSs to get you started.

Posted in BBS, Multi-Platform, Serial Terminal | Tagged , , , , , , | 35 Comments

A Glimpse of Paradigm Simulation’s ‘Certain Impact’ for SGI / IRIX

I’ve been spending some time over the past few days with my SGI O2 which sits on a desk in my DC office. I took it off the shelf and brough it in to work so that it could get a little lunchtime use a few months ago. Adding an IRIX machine to my daily, lunch-at-the-desk, retrocomputing podcast ritual definitely levels-up the experience.

The other day I was running through a number of the IRIX system demos, as one does, and fired up one of the more historically notable programs that’s ever appeared on an SGI. Certain Impact is a WW-I era 3D flight simulator / game created by Paradigm Simulation (later Paradigm Entertainment and later still, acquired by Infogrames) using their Vega and AudioWorks2 simulation toolkits. Unlike a number of other simple flight simulators that can often be found on SGI workstations, Certain Impact is fully textured, adds a combat game element, offers network play, and supports SGI’s VR headset.

What I find most notable about Certain Impact is that it shortly preceded the critically and commercially successful Nintendo 64 launch title, Pilotwings 64 [ video ], which was developed by Paradigm under contract from Nintendo. Pilotwings 64 is one of my favorite games of all time (I’ve always loved flight simulations in most any form) and has a special place in the hearts of many who knew the Nintendo 64. I find the experience of playing Certain Impact to be quite amazing, knowing that I am flying around inside the world (and the minds of the developers) that spawned that superb N64 launch title.

There’s not a lot on the web about this game and many of the SGI-oriented people I chat with have never seen it run in person, so I took a quick and dirty video (with my iPhone 7 Plus) showing a few minutes of gameplay on my SGI O2. The system is based on a 175MHz R10000 CPU and the display is an SGI 1600SW. As can be seen in the video, the game doesn’t take advantage of a widescreen display; it’s rendering at 1280×1024, which leaves 320 pixels free for a system monitor app that shows CPU and GPU utilization while the game is running.

I wrote a bit about Certain Impact here back in 2005 (I’m shocked to see how long ago that was…), shortly after acquiring my O2. At that point I had not yet installed the game from the SGI IRIX 6.5 CD bundle I gathered to freshly setup the system.

Wrapping up, I wanted to give a nod to YouTuber and SGI aficionado “Dodoid” who has put out an excellent 6-part (and counting) video series on the history of SGI and its workstations. Watching part 1 of that series is what prompted me to take my O2 off the shelf and get it up and running, once more. I urge readers to check out all of his videos — they’re definitely worth your time.

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To Upgrade, or Not to Upgrade, That Is the Question

The other day I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, the Retro Computing Roundtable, when the host topic really struck a chord in me. In this episode, no. 148, Paul Hagstrom was hosting and his topic for discussion was: Venturing down the retro upgrade path.

How far should we go down the upgrade path toward modernity? If you have a, say, 68030 Mac, would you want to put a third-party 68040 accelerator in it? You would have in 1993. But what is the point today?

Lately I’ve been taking advantage of the wide availability and relatively low cost of FPGA and Systems on a Chip technologies to upgrade a number of my systems to allow flash-based floppy emulation which brings a huge usability and manageability boost. Also, simply maxing out the RAM on a system is something I’ve often done. These are “reasonable” upgrades from any perspective, really, and are not very costly. But these are not the upgrades that Paul was referring to.

And I definitely have some first-hand experience with the upgrades he was referring to.

I’ve gone far down the road of such upgrades on a few systems, and while the experiences were adventures, oftentimes they weren’t the sort of adventures I originally had in mind. The eventuality in these cases has typically been something like a ball of best intentions, memories of power-user fantasies of days long past, rationalized expenditures, and a dose of regret. Let me share an account of my most stand-out example.

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Posted in Amiga, Apple II, Just Rambling | 4 Comments

The Amiga 1000 Doing Its Thing – A Video

My love for the Amiga began before I got my first, back in October of 1985. Of the various models released during its lifetime, my favorite is the original, the Amiga 1000. Over the past few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time on my 1000 and, as is always the case, the capabilities of this nearly 32-year-old machine amaze me.

I’ve put together a bit of a usage demo to highlight some of the system’s features that stand out to me. It’s quite casual and without any particular direction, just me using various programs and prattling on about them. I hope those familiar will enjoy a bit of nostalgia and those not will be intrigued to some degree by this amazing computer.

Posted in Amiga | 3 Comments

My January 1986 Macworld Is Missing Page 13

The reason why is a funny little story.

I grabbed a few computer magazines from the 1980s off of my shelf the other day and sat down to flip through them, as one does. Shortly after opening the January 1986 issue of Macworld (volume 3, number 1) I noticed it was missing a page. Page 13 had been torn out, fairly cleanly. I pondered this for a moment and then the memory came back to me.

In January of 1986 I owned an Amiga 1000 and had since the first units appeared in the local computer store in October 1985, shortly after the Amiga launch. I had been wanting and waiting (to sell an Apple //c) for a Macintosh during the summer of 1985. And, I got one…but returned it after a week or so because of encountering the Amiga in person at the aforementioned store. I was still receiving my Macworld subscription, though.

On page 13 of the January 1986 issue, in the publisher’s column, David Bunnell ran a piece entitled “If the Mac Only Had Color–and Then What?” The piece spoke of the frustration some Mac owners were feeling, seeing GUI-based machines sporting color displays such as the Amiga and Atari ST hitting the market. (The Macintosh II, offering a color display, did not appear until the following year.) Bunnell tried to allay such reader envy, pointing out that his three-year-old office PC had two monitors, one color and one black and white, and that he almost never used the color display. He went on to speak in high terms of Apple’s new ImageWriter II printer, reviewed within the issue, capable of printing seven colors, even on the Macintosh.

Bunnell then headed in a direction that raised my 13-year-old ire. He indicated he had recently spent time evaluating the Amiga and — well, I’ll let him speak for himself.

I recently spent some time evaluating Commodore’s Amiga, the new computer that features advanced color graphics. What I discovered really surprised me: the resolution of color on the Amiga is actually not that much better than the resolution of color on the IBM PC.

The Amiga’s really super resolution is on its black-and-white monitor, just as it is on the Mac.

So if you want to use serious business applications with the Amiga, you still need a black-and-white screen. If you want color, you need a different screen, and you end up with lower resolution. The color screen appears to be good only for games or for certain small niches in the computer market, such as graphic art or screen presentations.

By not making the Macintosh a color machine right off the bat, Apple recognized that today’s color technology is still too primitive to dabble in. Creating the same screen resolution in color as you have on a black-and-white screen is not really worthwhile at this stage because the color rinses out in the wash.

On the Amiga you can’t even draw a proper circle in color. It looks more like a rounded bunch of jagged lines and is virtrually irreproducible on paper.

Right now color is best for games and educational programs. Therefor having color on the Apple II is a natural, while color on the Macintosh makes less sense.

As a (13-year-old) Amiga user, that really pissed me off. Commodore did not launch the Amiga with or promote any monochrome display. The Amiga’s high-resolution screenmode was 640×400 pixels (plus overscan) in 16 colors out of a 4096-color palette (while the Mac’s was 512×342 pixels, black and white). In order to work with less expensive 15kHz screens, this mode was interlaced (like television), and so GUI-type on-screen images exhibited flicker. I have heard that Commodore planned to release a long-persistence (slow-phosphor) RGB monitor to reduce flicker, but I don’t believe that ever made it to production. I spent hours and hours using Deluxe Paint to create video art in the interlaced mode. And the circles were smooth.

I had recently received an Okimate 20 high-resolution color printer for Christmas and my bedroom wall was covered with full-color printouts of my “paintings.” I was in such a lather after reading Bunnell’s article slighting the Amiga that I sat down and typed out a letter — to Commodore — making them aware of the shots fired, complete with a few (smooth) circles drawn in color at the bottom. I printed it out on that printer, evidence of the Amiga’s ability to reproduce color circles on paper, and mailed it off to West Chester, PA along with page 13. I have no recollection as to whether or not I expected some kind of response. (I received none). I suppose it was mainly catharsis.

Since my copy of this Macworld is missing page 13, I had to consult the Internet Archive to capture the page in question.

Posted in Amiga, Just Rambling, Macintosh | 8 Comments