It’s been a few weeks (apparently) since I announced my new podcast episodes here.
Episode 127 is about BASIC programming. This one has old stories about programming in BASIC, a few new stories about Visual Basic, and some new forks of the BASIC programming language that are still being updated.
Episode 128 is (fittingly) about the Commodore 128. Packed in and around stories about the C128 are a couple of stories about S.A.M., the old voice synthesizer for the Commodore.
Episode 129 is all about the collection of arcade games I owned while I lived in El Reno, Oklahoma. The six machines I owned back then were Elevator Action, Mat Mania, Shinobi, Street Fighter II – Championship Edition, Power Instinct 2, and Star Wars.
Over the years I have set up and broken down my old gaming systems and computers many, many times. Sometimes — often times, actually — it seems like I spend more time connecting and configuring and reconnecting and reconfiguring them than I do actually playing games on them. When it comes to old hardware I have a softer spot in my heart for old computers than old console gaming systems, but the biggest problem with them is that they take up so much space. At one time in our old house I had over 20 video game consoles sitting on a relatively small set of shelves all hooked up to one single television. In that same room I had my three favorite old computers (a C64, an Amiga, and an Apple II) hooked up to three separate monitors tying up an entire 8′ table.
The other day I decided, why can’t I do that with my computers as well? Almost every flat screen television on the market now has multiple connections that would support these old computers. Last night while shopping at Sam’s Club I decided to pull the trigger and do something I’ve been thinking about doing for a while now.
For just under $350 I purchased a Sanyo 40″ flatscreen LCD television. They had bigger and smaller models with more and fewer features (actually there were few there with fewer features than this one), but it had all the right inputs for the job and the price was right.
As I said last night on Facebook, “the milk crate is temporary.” The television’s stand isn’t tall enough by itself so I needed to lift it up a bit. I’ll replace the milk crate this weekend with something else, but in the meantime it’ll do. My old trusty Commodore 64 plugged right into the television’s composite input and looks great. I did have to figure out how to set the default picture size on the television to 4:3 instead of 16:9 letterbox to keep the picture from being stretched out.
With the C64 up and running, the Amiga was next. The Amiga looks particularly crappy when connected via the composite cable. I found a couple of “VGA Flicker Fixers” in the ~$100 range that I will research and look into purchasing. So it’s not a great picture at the moment, but it’s working.
With the two Commodore products out of the way it was time to hook up the old Apple II. In a recent episode of You Don’t Know Flack I talked about the CFFA 3000, a compact flash/USB card reader for the Apple II. After reconnecting the composite cable from the Apple into the television and selecting a disk image, I was immediately greeted by the familiar sounds of Karateka. I don’t mind saying, the project took a back seat for a few minutes as I kicked and punched my way through a few enemy combatants.
That’s what they all look like now, sans any real cable management and with a milk crate in the picture. This weekend I’ll re-run all the cords and replace the milk crate with a proper stand.
Commodork reader Frank Burcaw recently e-mailed me the following screenshot from his iPad:
I’m not sure how deserving my book is to sit on the same shelf with The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine and Jobs’ biography — even virtually — but I’m tickled nonetheless to see it there.
Thanks again for sending me the picture, Frank! As a reminder, both of my books (Commodork: Sordid Tales from a BBS Junkie and Invading Spaces: A Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Arcade Games) are both available via Amazon or from this site as a DRM-Free PDF.
This weekend marked the 9th annual Oklahoma Video Game Expo (OVGE) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I attended the first show in 2003 as a spectator, but have participated as a presenter (almost) every year since then.
Along for the ride this year were my friends Robb and Steve, who I previously mentioned flew in from Colorado and New York (respectively) to attend the show. Robb Sherwin is, among other things, the author of the award winning interactive fiction game Cryptozookeeper. Steve and Robb have known each other since the BBS days.
Photo by Brandon Staggs
Since our local NBA team (the Oklahoma City Thunder) are currently in the NBA Finals, I decided to go with a basketball theme this year.
Due to a slight table misconfiguration I only ended up with one table instead of two this year, but we made it work by just cramming everything together and leaving a few things under the table. From left to right we had my NES playing Double Dribble, my (blue development) PlayStation running NBA Showtime, and my Commodore 64 running a couple of different games, including One on One and Street Sports Basketball. I wouldn’t say I had the most popular table at the convention, but lots of sports fans stopped by to play a few quick games of basketball. At the table I also had a playlist of basketball-related songs and sports anthems going throughout the day, playing songs like “Basketball Jones,” “We Will Rock You,” and of course the parody song “Beard Like Harden.” I apologize to the people across the aisle from me who got bombarded with this music all day long.
Along with all the console and computer games available to buy and play, there were also several pinball machines and arcade games set up to play at the show. These are machines that are brought in by private owners and set up for people to play for free all day long. They’re a great hit every year and really add to the show.
Besides games, there were a lot of other game-related items on display and up for sale, including these animation cells over at Drew Stone’s table. I probably should have bought one of these when I had the chance.
Photo by Earl Green
You may notice that I’ve had to borrow a few photos from my friends Brandon and Earl for this post. That’s because, before I knew it, the show was winding down. I only got out from behind my table a few times, and when I got home I found I had only taken a dozen or so photographs … so I went to Facebook and borrowed a few from other people. I added the ones I took to my photo album of the show along with theirs, renaming them to give them proper credit.
Photo by Earl Green
Photo by Earl Green
Although OVGE is pretty console gaming-centric, Ed Martin brought another giant stack of retro Apple computer hardware, along with an impressive spread of classic boxed text adventures.
Several local groups and websites were on hand this year, including Nintendo Okie who did a live podcast from the show. They did a decent job of capturing some of the in-show action going on throughout the day.
Brandon Staggs also uploaded this video of OVGE 2012 to YouTube. He did a great job of capturing all of the booths there. You can catch my basketball-themed table just after the 2:30 mark.
Thanks to everybody who came out to OVGE this year and everyone who stopped by and said hey. Next year will be the 10th anniversary of OVGE, and I know people are already talking about what they will be bringing to next year’s show. I know I am!
The 9th Annual (wow!) Oklahoma Video Game Expo (OVGE) will take place this Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As always, I and some friends will have a table set up and once again the entire hall will be filled with people buying, selling, and playing video games.
At my table this year, I will be joined by two friends: award-winning Interactive Fiction author Robb “Ice Cream Jonsey” Sherwin, and the creator of the infamous remote controlled phone video, Steve “Aardvark” Davis. Additionally, I will be sharing a bit of table space with Charles “Ubikuberalles” Pearson, who will be showing off some of his game-related creations.
To attend this show, Sherwin is flying in from Denver, Colorado; Davis, from New York; and Pearson, from Albuquerque, New Mexico. If you enjoy old video games and live closer to Tulsa, Oklahoma than any of those guys, you should make an attempt to be there.
Anyone who hasn’t been to one or is on the fence about attending can check out my photo albums. I have pictures of the shows going back to the first year (2003).
Here’s a picture of my table from last year, where Sherwin, my friend Jeff, and I ran a table dedicated to text adventures. At the show we had text adventures running on a Commodore 64, an Apple II, an Amiga, a DOS machine, an ancient portable TRS-80, and even an iPad.
Speaking of my buddy Jeff, he has since moved out of state and won’t be able to attend this year’s show. While Jeff tries to stay behind the scenes, he is the one that keeps me organized and makes stuff happen. For the past five years, Jeff has been the one who helped me watch my table when I had to run to the bathroom or free me up when I was mingling with visitors, who helped me set up and break down my displays, and keep things running smoothly. Jeff has been an integral part of my displays for the past five years, and will sorely be missed. I will be pouring out a bottle of Croyn Royal Black on the ground in honor of his absence. (I would never actually do that; Jeff would kill me for wasting good Crown like that!)
Jack Tramiel once said “business is war,” and based on his track record, he must have meant it. He was said, “anybody who sells a product against me I would like to wipe out.” Jack Tramiel was ruthless in business. One of his first tasks at Atari was cutting his new staff of 1,200 employees down to 100 . Chuck Peddle, Tramiel’s right hand man at Commodore, once said of the man, “he destroyed me, he destroyed my family, he did all kinds of terrible things” .
If Tramiel’s actions were considered ruthless, he had good reason; up until the age of 10 he lived in a Jewish ghetto in Poland; after that, he and his family were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. According to Tramiel, his father died at the camp after being injected with gasoline. At the age of 17, Tramiel and his mother were liberated by the United States Army. If the guy was a jerk later in life, I’m willing to cut him some slack.
If you want to read the Cliff’s Notes version of his life you can do so here, but here are the highlights as they pertain to me: after moving to the United States (with $10 in his pocket) and serving his time in the US Army, Tramiel opened up a typewriter-repair business in the Bronx. According to Tramiel:
“I was sitting in a taxi cab and I was trying to get the name for the company which I was building, and I was really looking to make it call it General, I’d just come out of the army and I was in the army for three years and seven months, so I was looking for something strong, so I was looking for a name like General which I couldn’t get because it was taken. Then I was looking for a name like Admiral, and that was taken, and as I was talking to a friend of mine in the cab right in front of me this car with the name Commodore. I said well let’s try this one.” – Jack Tramiel
Tramiel’s Commodore dabbled in typewriters, adding machines, and digital calculators before one of his employees (Chuck Peddle) told Tramiel that calculators were a “dead end” and computers were the future. Using a combination of off the shelf parts and chips designed in house, Peddle created the Commodore PET, an all-in-one computer. To keep up with the rapidly changing home computer market, Commodore released first the VIC-20, followed by the Commodore 64.
Tramiel’s infamous quote “We need to build computers for the masses, not the classes,” may not sound groundbreaking today, but in the early 1980s, it was. At a time when home computers cost thousands of dollars, the Commodore 64 launched in 1982 with a $599 price tag. Even more incredibly, it’s estimated that each one only contained $135 in parts. Commodore’s aggressive price drops and market saturation directly drove Texas Instruments out of the home computer market, and certainly got Apple and IBM’s attention.
One thing I always thought was genius about the Commodore 64 was that all of its peripherals attached to the outside of the computer, as opposed to internal upgrades like the Apple and IBM required. Adding an internal modem to a PC or an Apple required disassembling the case and adding a card into a slot; adding one to the C64 was as simple as plugging a cartridge into a slot on the rear of the machine. The design took some of the mystique out of computers. By being able to add a new peripheral to your machine in seconds without needing a screwdriver, Tramiel succeeded in delivering a computer that the masses could use.
Tramiel’s reign at Commodore didn’t last long — he retired from the company in 1984, and used his money to purchase the home division of Atari. By that time Atari, along with everyone else, had just suffered through the video game crash of 1983. Tramiel’s first win for Atari was the Atari ST computer. During Tramiel’s time at Atari the company released several other computers (including the XE line), and although Tramiel wanted to get out of the console business, it was under his watch that the Atari 2600 Junior, the 7800, the Lynx, and the Jaguar were all released. In 1996 Tramiel retired from Atari.
In 2007, Jack Tramiel met Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak for the first time at a celebration party for the 25th anniversary of the Commodore 64, held at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. When I read about their meeting at the time I thought how crazy it was that these two had never met before.
I also thought the meeting was interesting because Tramiel was once referred to as the “anti-Jobs.” Tramiel believed in function before form. The beige, breadbox design of the Commodore 64 stands in stark comparison to the sleek lines of Apple’s products. Still, asthetics aside, I’m sure Woz and Tramiel found things to talk about — perhaps they swapped stories about how Tramiel abused his engineers, and how Woz was abused by Jobs.
Both Wikipedia and the Guinness Book of World Records still list the Commodore 64 as the best selling computer of all time, thanks largely to its lengthy production run, Tramiel’s bottom-of-the-barrel pricing, and his insistence that his computers be available on department store shelves.
If you want to read more about Jack Tramiel and the early days of Commodore, I highly recommend On the Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore (2005, Variant Press). And if you want to read what it was like to grow up using a Commodore, there’s always this book … :)
My parents bought my Uncle Kenny’s Commodore 64 for me back in 1985. If I remember correctly the sound chip had blown out, so the first thing we they did was have it fixed. Sixteen years later, I still own (and use) that same Commodore computer.
I’ve owned dozens of other Commodore computers over the years (many of which are sitting out in my garage, acting as “donor machines”) but I can always tell my main one apart from the others for a couple of reasons. One being, many years ago one of my friends modified mine for me by adding a manual reset button to the side of the case. I can also tell it’s my old standby because there are no screws anywhere holding it together. I used to take the thing apart so often that I finally quit screwing it back together. Every memory I have of playing games, calling BBSes, or causing electronic mischief in general on my Commodore 64 took place on this specific machine.
The computer “nook” in our new house has a long built-in desk with enough room to house two or three computers. After getting my main workstation up and running, I determined the corner space would be a perfect spot for my old Commodore. Despite being outdated in every way imaginable, it’s still a fun system to play games on.
After getting my old Commodore up and running, I ran it through some paces by playing a few games on it. It wasn’t long before Mason stuck his curious mop of hair in the doorway to investigate the antiquated beeps and blips coming from my room. The two of us spent about an hour playing old classics like Moon Patrol and Burgertime. Some of the other games he wasn’t able to get into as easily, but he really liked the ones where we played together, both as a team and as head-to-head opponents. I’ll have to dig out some more two-player games for us to try in the near future.
Last night, he came back. “Can I play Moon Patrol again?” he asked. What sweeter words has a child ever asked his father? After several rounds of Moon Patrol, he went back for some more Burgertime.
I don’t expect Mason to grow up being a big fan of Commodore computers like I am. Someday he’ll have his own misty-eyed moments about the days when hard drives were measured in terabytes, and maybe he’ll spend his weekends searching thrift stores for old Nintendo DS units. But right now he’s getting a kick out of 30-year-old games that I enjoyed as a kid, and I’m getting a kick out of that.
I don’t really know “how” to release this. I don’t even know if anyone will be interested. I hope somebody is.
In March of 2007, via Craigslist, I purchased a large lot of Commodore hardware and software. For the grand total of $39 I ended up with six Commodore 64s, six 1541 disk drives, a couple of 128s, one Commodore 16, a bunch of monitors, and boxes and boxes of software. A few of the floppies were original games; most of them weren’t.
While recently digging through the boxes of disks, I found several disks labeled “CUON.” These disks came from a local user’s group, the Commodore Users of Norman. Back in the day, it was common for computer user groups to compile disks of public domain software. Some clubs sold copies of these disks to members at a minimal cost (usually just enough to cover the cost of the disks). Some clubs sold them with a slight markup as an on-going “fundraiser” for the club. Some clubs let you copy the disks freely if you brought your own floppies.
A Google search of “Commodore Users of Norman” returns two things: scanned in magazines which contained the group’s name in their “active club” listings, and robohara.com. :) Although I haven’t been able to find out much (any) information about the club using Google, I can tell by the dates on the disks that they came from between 1984 and 1986. The man I bought the lot from (David Cowan) appears to have been a member. I recognized two of the members’ names: Bruce Yarbor used to be the owner of an old local computer store (Second Hand Software), and Bill Lyons … well, if you’ve read Commodork, you know Bill and I go way back. I was able to track down one additional former member via Google, who I hope can give us some more information about the club.
As many of you know I picked up a ZoomFloppy not too long ago, which is a great device for converting physical Commodore 64 floppies over to virtual D64 disk images. I was able to convert about 45 disk images, error free. One disk had errors, and two disks (#1 and #43) were missing. In addition to disks #2-#45, there were half a dozen non-numbered disks, also attributed to the club.
I don’t expect anyone to find anything on these disks earth shattering. Like most club libraries from that era, these disks contain of public domain games and utilities. I’m not sure where one would even check (help?), but I assume all the programs found within have previously been discovered elsewhere. Then again, maybe not. Dig in and let me know!
The entire collection can be downloaded here: D64-CUON.ZIP. (Right-Click, Save As.) The collection is just under 7.5 megabytes in size, and includes not only all the D64 disk images, but actual physical pictures of all the diskettes as well. If you would like to simply browse through the pictures of the diskettes, I have uploaded them to my photo album as well.
Again, don’t expect to be dazzled by most of the programs contained within. That being said, I think this little collection serves as a pretty neat time capsule. I was glad to find the disks in such good (read: error free) condition, and I hope you enjoy them.
(Sorry kids; another technical post. I finished this project late Wednesday night and scheduled the post to go live at noon on Thursday. I’m warning you now — it’s late, and there could be tpoys … er, typos.)
ZoomFloppy (which I wrote about earlier today supports parallel file transfers. This would be great news, except for the fact that the 1541 disk drive doesn’t come with a parallel port. If you want one, you’ve got to add one.
On his website, Peter Schepers sells pre-wired piggyback kits for installing parallel ports into 1541 disk drives. Peter was super easy to deal with and super helpful. On his website, Peter also provides all the pinouts for people wanting to make their own cables. It’s a win/win situation. I went with the piggyback (read: solderless) solution. The custom cable, a 15-pin parallel cable, and shipping (from Canada) set me back a little over $30. Absolutely worth it, in my book.
Before ordering one of Peter’s kits, you’ll need to determine which model of 1541 you actually have. The easiest models to modify are the old white VIC-1541 drives, and the common beige C64 1541 drives (both pop-tab drives and the turning-handles models). 1541C, 1541-II and 1571 drives can also be modified, but each of those require additional and extensive disassembly of the drive. Fortunately for me, my garage looks like this:
Most of the drives work. Most of the C64s do not.
After choosing a victim, “Project Parallel Punch” began! As you can see below, the one I picked still had a price written on it in “thrift store grease pencil” — $3.98. One summer several few years ago I managed to snag half a dozen or so 1541 drives at thrift stores and garage sales. Hey, you never know when, five years from now, you might need one to install a parallel port into!
Once the patient was moved to the operating table, the first order of business was to remove the case and the metal shielding. The case is held in place by four metal screws — the shielding, another two.
With the shielding off, you can see the middle (6522) chip that needs to be pulled. With the 6522 removed, the socket is inserted, and the 6522 is reinserted. This was by far the hardest part of the installation. The socket pressed in with no problem. When I reinserted the 6522 chip I managed to smash half of the chip’s legs. ARGH. I really suck at this! It took me half an hour and four or five attempts to get all the legs straight enough to reinsert into the socket. Why am I so bad at this?
Eventually, this is what it looked like.
The next part of the install was making a hole in the back of the 1541 for the parallel connection. Using a Dremmel, in about two minutes I shaped out a workable solution. It ain’t pretty, but it works. Going against Peter’s suggestion I mounted the port from the inside of the drive, rather than from the outside. This is a terrible idea because the plastic is so thick that I had to Dremmel an extra 1/4 inch all the way around the socket to make room for the metal housing around the cable.
Here the drive is, reassembled and ready for action.
Unfortunately, mounting the port on the inside made it to where I couldn’t push the parallel port in far enough. After a quick trial run, I mounted the plate on the outside of the drive with a couple of computer screws. Not only does the cable work better with this mounting, but it hides my shoddy Dremmel work to boot!
With the parallel port in place I fired up D64Copy and ran a quick test:
— Serial only: About 90 Seconds.
— Serial w/Parallel: About 25 Seconds.
As I mentioned earlier, the parallel port not only transfers data more quickly, but it also allows for the capturing of the entire disk’s contents, not just the programs. This is invaluable for people wanting to not only capture programs, but preserve disk formats and study copy protection. I’m having trouble with some of the advanced tools in Windows 7/64-bit at the moment, but since the ZoomFloppy is USB, trying it on other machines won’t be a problem in the near future/
Today I will be giving my first impressions of the ZoomFloppy, a new PCB that allows people to connect old Commodore floppy disk drives to modern PCs via USB.
(I’ll pause a minute while most of you leave the room. You are excused. See you tomorrow.)
I have, on several occasions, talked about the process (and difficulties) of converting physical Commodore 1541 diskettes into D64 disk images, the format used by most Commodore 64 emulators (including WinVice). Most recently, I talked about it here, here, and here. To save you an hour of back-digging, here’s the gist of those posts: I’ve found two reliable methods to convert real disks into D64 images (and back). One involves using a 486 running DOS and a special cable (x1541). The other involves using a 1541 Ultimate, a device that attaches to a Commodore 64. While both solutions work great, neither is without its drawbacks. The 1541 Ultimate runs around $200 US (with tax and shipping) and requires a working C64 computer to run. X1541 cables work best with older parallel ports on 486 computers running DOS, which brings its own unique logistics.
There’s also the FC5025, a USB controller for 5.25 floppy drives. The FC5025 is $60 (shipped), plus you’ll need to supply your own 5 1/4 floppy drive. The FC5025 is good at what it does, but it doesn’t do what I need it to do. It archives PC/DOC-based disks perfectly, but can only read the front side of Commodore 64 and Apple II disks. The FC5025 is also a read-only solution. I own one and use it for archiving old DOS disks, but for archiving Commodore 64 disk collections (almost all of which contain disks with information on the flip side), it’s not a good solution.
This brings us to the ZoomFloppy.
The ZoomFloppy was developed by Nate Lawson and is being manufactured by Jim Brain. It currently sells for $35 US, which makes it the most inexpensive solution to date. It’s USB, so “installing” it is a matter of connecting the card to your computer using a standard mini-USB cable and supplying the drivers.
The ZoomFloppy’s packaging is sparse. The card shipped in an anti-static bag. Inside the box there was also some tissue paper, and a folded-up piece of paper with the GNU General Public License printed on it. Something noticeably missing was a piece of paper with some instructions. A sticker on the anti-static bag pointed me to http://www.go4retro.com/products/zoomfloppy. After searching that page longer than I’d like to admit, I found the link to Nate’s page, which contains links to the installation manual and drivers. The driver installation on my 64-bit Windows 7 machine did not work like the documentation suggested it would, but after manually installing the driver, Windows 7 saw the card. It wasn’t a particularly difficult installation, but the whole process reminded me that the ZoomFloppy is currently, and probably always will be, intended for computer-literate hobbyists.
The 1541. She lives.
ZoomFloppy supports transferring data to and from 1541 disk drives using either serial or parallel cables. Serial cables are the ones most Commodore owners are familiar with. On its side, the ZoomFloppy has a female serial connection identical to the one found on the back of a 1541 drive. A standard C64 serial cable is used to connect a 1541 to the ZoomFloppy. That configuration supports both converting real C64 diskettes to D64 images, and writing D64 disk images out to real floppies. I suspect this is what most people will use the ZoomFloppy for. The ZoomFloppy also supports parallel connections. This requires, at a minimum, modifying your 1541 by adding a parallel port to it. I purchased my parallel port kit from the highly recommended Peter Scheper. (I haven’t installed it yet, but when I do, expect another post on the topic.) Using the advanced parallel connection allows the ZoomFloppy to also read and write nibbled G64 disk images. It’s not a feature most people need or will even want, but if you’re interesting in backing up (or studying) copy protected diskettes, it is well worth the effort.
The ZoomFloppy is designed to work with the OpenCBM tools which are command line tools available for Windows, Linux, and Macintosh machines. For those who prefer GUI interfaces, there are also free front ends available. I downloaded CBMXfer, just to give it a whirl.
Within fifteen minutes, I had discovered the ZoomFloppy in my mailbox, opened the box, installed the drivers, found online documentation, got the card installed, fetched a working 1541 drive from my garage, retrieved a random C64 floppy from the archives, transferred a real disk to a D64 disk image, and launched the image in WinVice.
Click to Enlarge
The only real issue I’ve encountered so far is that one of the D64 images I copied was corrupt. I couldn’t find an option for retries or error checking on CBMXfer, but I see it as an available option via the command line. I’ll do some more experimenting with that tonight. It “seems” like I got better results by turning “warp mode” off, which increases the copy time from just under a minute to just over one.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but once I get a parallel port installed on my 1541, it looks like I’ll be transferring my old C64 collection over one more time. It’s a Herculean task, but doing it and doing it right is important to me.