Procedural Planetary Exploration Across the Decades

nomansfractalus_lqRegular readers are surely aware that I’m rather addicted to the space exploration game No Man’s Sky by Hello Games. I recently detailed my love for the title and gave an account of the high-end gaming PC I built specifically to play No Man’s Sky to the fullest, after having fallen in love with it on the PS4. And while there are those who may look askance at me for cherishing a game that’s not in any way retro, I make no apologies! Recently, however, a particular video comparison came to mind that I believe all of my readers can get behind.

No Man’s Sky provides a universe featuring over 18 quintillion planets to explore, which is made possible by utilizing procedural generation to create the nearly infinite number of worlds. It’s not the first game that has offered up procedural planet generation, however.

In 1985 Epyx released Rescue on Fractalus by Lucasfilm Games. It is a game that puts the player in the role of rescue pilot negotiating a hostile alien landscape in search of downed comrades. What made the game special was the mountainous procedural landscape through which the player would fly. This fractal landscape may appear extremely primitive to the modern eye but they were very impressive at the time, generated by the modest 1MHz, 8-bit CPUs of the day.  I used to spend hours playing the game on my Apple IIe 30 years ago, imagining I had descended onto LV-426 in a bid to save my shipmates from the terrible fate of becoming alien host cocoons. It was pretty awesome.

Because of certain similarities between the two games and the 30+ year span of time separating them, I thought it would be interesting to set them side-by-side, so to speak, for a quick and dirty comparison. (Game maker Jeff Minter also invoked Rescue on Fractalus in his recent blog post about No Man’s Sky.)

Here I have captured a bit of gameplay of both Rescue on Fractalus and No Man’s Sky. For the former, I chose perhaps the best looking version of the game, the original Atari 8-bit release, which is running in an emulator (Altirra) on the PC. For the latter, I chose a planet in the system I am currently exploring (consisting of five planets and one moon) that features no flora or fauna to speak of, in order to present a more or less base No Man’s Sky planetary state for the comparison. (More verdant worlds are out there, however.) The elevations on the shown planet are about half as tall as the tallest I’ve seen in game. Rescue on Fractalus is being rendered in the Atari’s 160×96-pixel color graphics mode (obviously enlarged dramatically in the emulator) while No Man’s Sky is running at the 32-inch LCD’s native 1920×1080-pixels — 135 times more discrete pixels than the Atari is pushing.

What a difference three decades, on both the hardware and software front, make. Not surprisingly, bringing out Rescue on Fractalus for this video has me playing it again after all these years. Both of these games are definitely worth spending some time with.

UPDATE [11/15/2016]: I’ve just learned over at the RetroGamer mag forums that someone is working on a PC (Windows) remake of Rescue on Fractalus entitled Fractalus (video). Looks interesting — give it a whirl.

Posted in Gaming, No Man's Sky | 5 Comments

The Year that ‘Starglider’ and the Atari ST Saved Halloween

(The U.S. presidential election took place yesterday, and today I am greatly in need of some serious distraction, so I thought I’d write a post about a particular computing memory from decades past that’s been on my mind lately, but is not something I would typically sit down and write about. This is going to meander a bit, but I hope you enjoy it.)

pumpkinpixOnce again, Halloween has come and gone. As a youth, the season as a whole and the spooky night of ghouls and goblins in particular, was one of the best times of the year for me. These days, however, it’s my ten-year-old daughter’s candy wrappers that litter the living room floor. These Halloweens are very special to me as a father, but of the Halloweens of my youth, one in particular — 30 years ago — stands out as the best of them all.

In the summer of 1986 my parents went through a divorce and my mother and I moved to a new neighborhood in Newport News, Virginia. I remember, quite clearly, unpacking, setting up my new bedroom, and getting my Apple IIe system up and running on a desk by the window. This was about the time school was starting up after the summer. I was 14 going into the eighth grade.

Around this time the Apple IIgs was released, and I went to one of the launch-day dealer demos on a Saturday in September at Chaney Computers in Newport News. I saw the memorable Dealer Demo and got to play around with the unit a little. I really wanted a IIgs, and shifted into my sell-the-old-, plead-with-parents-for-the-new-system mode. As I was ramping that up, for reasons I can’t recall, I decided that I wanted an Atari ST instead, and so put the 520ST in my sights. I ran the Apple IIe in the local Daily Press‘ classified ads section and got it sold. I recall sitting in Spanish class on the day we were to go to Games ‘n’ Gadgets in the nearby Coliseum Mall to purchase the system after school. I told a classmate sitting next to me, a computer geek like myself, my plans for the afternoon and I remember him trying to convinced me to buy an IBM PCjr setup (like he had, discontinued at that point) instead. It’s odd, the little thing one remembers.

At any rate, my mom took me to the mall and we came home with an Atari 520ST, an RGB monitor, and two games: Time Bandit and Major Motion. I had fun with those titles, but that’s all I had to run on it, well, aside from bundled NEOchrome (paint program) and Megaroids. I didn’t (yet) have a modem for it to dial into BBSs and hadn’t (yet) joined a local users group. So, while I consider Time Bandit to be one of the best games I’ve ever played, I was wanting a new game.

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Posted in Atari, Down Memory Lane, Gaming | 6 Comments

Getting Spooky with the Apple IIe for October


October was Spooky Month over at r/Retrobattlestations. The contest required submitting a photo of a vintage machine playing a Halloween or “spooky” video game. As you can see, I fired up Polarware’s text/graphic adventure Transylvania — one of my favorites — on my 128K enhanced Apple IIe. The 16-color Double High-Res version of the game can be seen on the screen (very sharp).

I was a sticker-winning runner-up at the end of this competition. Go Apple II!

Back in 2013, I tapped my Amiga 1000 and Fright Night for the October “Spooky Week” competition.

A complete list of the fun I've had with r/Retrobattlestations' challenges over the years can be seen below. Good times!

Posted in Apple II, r/Retrobattlestations | Leave a comment

My Skylake Gaming PC Build [Updated]

A month ago I shared my feelings about Hello Games’ space exploration game No Man’s Sky. (Spoiler: I loved it — and still do, about 150 hours in.) In the post I mentioned that parts were in the mail for a high-end gaming PC build that would allow me to enjoy NMS at 60fps with adjustable POV angle as well as mods. Well, the parts arrived, I built the PC, and I wanted to check back in with a brief report. (Apologies for two non-retro-related posts in a row.)

blake_gtx_1080With the exception of the retro-recreation of my circa 1996 5×86-based PC that I put together three years ago, this is the first PC I’ve built in 18 years. The last was an AMD K6 233-based machine sporting (originally) the ill-fated 3dfx Voodoo Rush board (later a Voodoo II). I assembled it in 1998. I went with Asus for the motherboard on that K6, the recent 5×86 rebuild, and this Skylake gaming PC. They know how to make a motherboard.

It’s an Intel Skylake Core i7-6700K 4.0GHz + Nvidia GTX 1080 system running on the Z170 chipset (full parts list here). The tower is on the floor and on the desk is a curved Samsung 32-inch 1080p display plus a 7-inch secondary display that I use to monitor CPU load and temperature so I can see what kind of a workout games are putting the system through. The curved primary display adds to the “cockpit” feel of the setup to a surprising degree. One detail I’m particularly happy about is that I was able to put the 10,000RPM, 6Gb/s SATA WD VelociRaptor that booted my old Mac Pro back to use as a data drive in this build. The system is running Windows 10 Pro 64 and gaming is really all I’m using it for; in all other regards I’m an OS X (/ UNIX) guy. I pulled the ten-year-old 30-inch Apple Cinema Display off the desk in order to make room for the new system, so it’s down to one external screen on the iMac.

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Posted in DOS / Win PC, Gaming, No Man's Sky | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

A Few Words About the Best Game I’ve Ever Played: No Man’s Sky [Updated]

[ I want to note that this post was written prior to the major Foundation 1.1 update released by Hello Games in November 2016 ]

NMS-ATLASThis is one of my very occasional Byte Cellar posts not pertaining to vintage computing, but it’s something I’ve really had on my mind and have been needing to share for the past few weeks.

Earlier this month Hello Games released their much anticipated space exploration / survival game No Man’s Sky for the Playstation 4 and Windows PC. The game was five years in the making by Sean Murray and his small team and just might be the most highly anticipated title to come along in as many years. The promise of No Man’s Sky was a ticket to a procedurally generated universe with infinite worlds to explore. Well, 18.4 quintillion planets (2^64) — entire planets, every inch of which you could explore if you so chose. The media hyped the game incredibly, building up a massive fervor in the months prior to its release. (When, earlier this year, Murray announced that the game would be delayed several months, both he and the reporter who broke the story received death threats.) And then the release came…and so did the haters.

Many review sites who, in previews of the game months earlier, referred to No Man’s Sky in messianic terms were now giving it 6/10 ratings. Particularly vocal hardcore PC gamers were screaming that the online aspect of the game was less than they felt Hello had promised — there was no true multiplayer. People were finishing the storyline quest (which one has the option to ignore at the outset) in a week or two and writing off the game as too short, with too little substance. And the PC launch was, unfortunately, fraught with performance issues. There was much vitriol.


Not everybody felt “cheated,” however. There were some who felt…amazed. In awe. Immersed utterly. Emotionally moved. I count myself among those fortunate individuals.

Playing No Man’s Sky is the best and most breathtaking gaming experience I have ever had in my life. The sense of the infinite and of limitless discovery is tremendous. I am just lost in this game.

NoMansSkyIsAwesome“Game.” Is it a game? It certainly seems more of a pursuit, a hobby, even a passion than a game to me. Inserting one’s self into No Man’s Sky is to begin a potentially endless adventure, visiting world after world after world that no eyes have ever seen before. Worlds placid, worlds violent. Worlds teaming with beautiful and fascinating life both plant and animal. Dead worlds, as well. You can never know what’s waiting down below when you drop into atmo.

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Posted in Gaming, No Man's Sky | Tagged , , , , , , | 15 Comments

A Little App Called ‘FlyLab’ Running on My NeXTstation

Last week was Back To School Week at r/Retrobattlestations. The challenge was to photograph your vintage computer running an educational program of some sort. For this one, a rather obscure little app that I ran across when first loading up the NeXTstation that I acquired in 2000 came to mind. FlyLab by Robert Desharnais of California State University, Los Angeles. It is a genetics application that visually conveys inheritance through mating pairs of flies with configurable traits, sort of a fly construction set. The app really stood out for me because it is an ideal demonstration of what NEXTSTEP could bring to education, and its interface a model of the strengths of the NeXT Interface Builder development tool.


Desharnais and Melvin Limpson of the American Physiological Society developed a variety of NEXTSTEP applications as part of CSU’s Virtual Courseware Project, funded by CSU as well as major grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

In response to an email I sent at the time of my Back To School Week submission, Desharnais shared a bit of history surrounding FlyLab. A portion of his email follows.

FlyLab on NeXTSTEP was my first major app written for that platform. I did create a few more NeXTSTEP educational apps before NeXT went under. I love your NeXTstation! Brings back fond memories.

FYI, FlyLab begat a number of progeny. It’s son, Virtual FlyLab was a web-based server-script that went online in July 1995 and was very popular. In 2001 Virtual FlyLab begat a Java version called FlyLab that was part of a commercial product (Biology Labs OnLine) marketed by Pearson Ed, but is now available on our servers for free. Then came the great-grandchild called Drosophila, also free, which was developed using Flash and has lots more bells and whistles. Drosophila is currently being used in lots of colleges and high schools. The app bred like, well, fruit files.

It’s nice to hear the backstory of this little app that stood out to me way back when. I have searched online and cannot find an FTP archive hosting FlyLab, but will dig through my NeXTstation’s filesystem and try to find the original archive I downloaded (sixteen years ago…) to post shortly. It does little to bolster my personal illusion of youth to realize that my early retrocomputing endeavors are, themselves, becoming retro.

UPDATE (8/28/2016): I have tarballed (v1.0.1) on my NeXTstation and placed it online for anyone interested in playing around with it on their NeXT workstation or perhaps under Previous, the NeXT emulator. (I do not believe it is a Multi-Architecture Binary able to run under NEXTSTEP for PA-RISC, SPARC, or x86.)

A complete list of the fun I've had with r/Retrobattlestations' challenges over the years can be seen below. Good times!

Posted in NeXT, r/Retrobattlestations | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Computer Printout Photo Album from 1986

I got such a positive reaction from my last post about the 33 year old recovered photos of my first home computer setup that I became motivated to finally get a photo album I had spoken of in an earlier post photographed and online to share.

Back in 1986/87 I filled a few pages of a (physical, not digital) photo album with color printouts generated by the computers I owned at the time. One page is a printout from my Apple IIe that was equipped with an ImageWriter II printer, while the rest of the came from the computer that replaced that IIe, an Atari 520ST that sported an Okimate 20 color, 24-pin, wax-transfer printer. The IIe image is a crack screen and the ST images were mainly taken from Compute!’s Atari ST magazine + disk. I recall buying the magazines month-to-month at the grocery store a mile from home in Newport News, VA shortly after we moved to that town. I was 14 years old at the time.

I’ve photographed each page of the album containing a printout and placed them in a Flickr album. (The rest of the album is filled with photos taken while visiting friends at other colleges as well as a photo-chronicle of my 3,500 mile round trip drive (over a weekend…) to the College of Santa Fe, to do with a long-distance relationship gone south. Oh, to be young and to feel love’s keen sting…)

Have a look inside:


As I mentioned earlier, one of the images was the very first GIF (#softG) that I ever saw. I hope you enjoy this little bit of digital-to-analog computer graphics history I’ve been able to share.

Posted in Apple II, Atari, Multi-Platform | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

33 Year Old Roll of Film Offers a Glimpse of My Vintage Computing Beginnings

film_roll_bwI got my first home computer on Christmas morning in 1982. It was a TI-99/4A with 16K of RAM. In the years that followed, I moved on fairly frequently to a new system, selling the old to fund it. I was doing basically the same, with less frequency, when I started building a vintage computer collection back in 1999. It was then that I began re-acquiring systems that I knew and loved from years past as well as certain systems that I badly wanted way back when but were much too expensive at the time.

Collecting configurations that I have previously owned gets me thinking and writing about those original systems. It’s this sort-of reliving of the experience of using those systems for the first time that is perhaps the most satisfying facet of this, my hobby. As such, I value any photographs that I have of those original setups. Sadly, I lack photos of most of them, having owned them in the days long before everyone started packing a pocket internet machine / GPS / camera. On visits to my parents’ houses I would spend considerable time poring over myriad boxes and binders of photos, looking for any undiscovered visual records of the systems of my past. I found a few, but not many. And in searching I found a number of rolls of undeveloped film.

I found a roll of 35mm film from the early 1990s and had it developed locally. The quality was weak after all those years, but it did give me a photo of my second Macintosh, the Mac LC. The rest of the undeveloped film that I found weren’t rolls but discs. Three rather older discs, holding unknown photos taken in the mid-1980s.

disc_4000Discs? In 1982 Kodak introduced a series of consumer-oriented cameras that used disc film which consisted of a disc of film offering 15 10x8mm exposures, contained within a squarish, plastic case. The film and the cameras that used them were thin and convenient for the day, but the image quality left much to be desired and ultimately it was not a highly successful format. I received a Kodak Disc 4000 camera (the mid-tier unit) for Christmas 1983 and used it for several years, taking photos of family, friends, and whatever else … including my computers.

Now, the disc film format died long ago and you can’t just walk into a CVS or even a Ritz Camera and get a disc developed. In fact, there are only one or two remaining places in the country that are equipped to develop disc film. One of them is the Rocky Mountain Film Lab in Colorado. Back in 2012 I sent two discs in to the lab for development and was told that they wait to accumulate a certain threshold of disc film development orders before running them through a development process that involves a special chemical mix geared towards getting the most out of very old film. A year passed with no news, but when I found a third undeveloped disc I sent it in to add to my order. There was no word from the lab for three years, despite a few inquiries, and I came to feel there was little hope of ever seeing what might be captured on those discs (not to mention development fees paid). On just arriving home from a week at the beach, however, I found a package containing three disc film negatives along with two CD-ROMs waiting for me.

With fingers crossed and in great suspense, I popped the CDs into my iMac.

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Posted in Apple II, Atari, Down Memory Lane, Just Rambling, TI-99 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Showing Off the Atari SC1224 for “CRT Week” at r/Retrobattlestations


Earlier this month it was CRT Week at r/Retrobattlestations. There are many CRTs in my vintage computer collection, but for this contest I focused on the one that has the sharpest display of any 15kHz RGB monitor I’ve ever seen, the 12-inch Atari SC1224 made by JVC. Aside from its sharpness and clarity I love the industrial design of the unit, and it’s part of one of my favorite systems, the Atari 520ST.

A complete list of the fun I've had with r/Retrobattlestations' challenges over the years can be seen below. Good times!

Posted in Atari, r/Retrobattlestations | Leave a comment

Gearing Up For Proper BBSing With the Raspberry Pi

modem_iconA few recent retro challenges I’ve undertaken had me wanting to spend a bit more time logged in to BBS’s strewn here and there about the web. I’ve spent an enormous amount of time on BBS’s over the years, nearly all of it long ago on systems that we today consider to be vintage. As such, I wanted to use just such systems to explore BBS’s that are online today, and that means telnet access. Unfortunately, my normal approach to setting this up, using my iMac to bridge an older system to the internet via serial connection, is presently broken. Apple completely redid the USB stack in OS X El Capitan and in so-doing broke the drivers for all of the various USB-to-serial adapters I have on hand. I needed to find another approach, and so I looked to the Raspberry Pi.

I ran a quick search and found that Keyspan USB-to-serial adapters work under Linux with the proper firmware. I downloaded the firmware and installed them on my Pi Model B laptop, which is equipped with WiFi. I dug out a serial cable, several gender changers, a DB9-to-DB25 converter, and a particularly hard to track down null-modem converter, I wired the lot together, and fired up my Amiga 1000. After getting getty properly configured on the Pi (with some help from @pdweinstein, whose Apple //c serial terminal adventure inspired me to start turning everything I owned into a serial terminal), I loaded up NComm on the Amiga and … voila, the Amiga became a serial terminal to the Raspberry Pi. A few keystrokes later, I was logged into @FozzTexx‘s Level 29 BBS,

As you can see from the short video of the adventure I put together, the Pi laptop easily sits on top of the Amiga’s monitor. Previously I had been running a long serial cable from my iMac on one side of the room to whichever system I wanted to use as a serial terminal. With this Pi laptop so configured, I can just walk it over to whatever vintage machine strikes me at a given moment, attach the Pi, and get onto the BBS’s in the appropriate fashion. My laptop Raspberry Pi has found its role and it’s nice to have easy access to BBS’s on proper hardware once again.

Posted in Amiga, BBS, Multi-Platform, Serial Terminal | 4 Comments