I continue to work my way through the box of old Commodore 64 floppy disks that I recently uncovered in the loft. A number of the disks are barely readable and I’ve been employing a number of tactics to retrieve the files.
Although the disks don’t appear too dirty it’s clear that in some cases multiple passes of the drive head over the disk surfaces have been successful in scouring through the muck and reaching the data. Of course that muck has to go somewhere and some of it inevitably ends up on the head.
I have therefore also taken the opportunity to carefully clean the heads with isopropanol alcohol a couple of times during the process. Some of the disks that at first attempt would not even give up their directories are now yielding recoverable data.
For some of the more stubborn files I’ve employed a further technical solution, judicious use of my thumb. At the first sign of problems when attempting to read a file, usually disk thrashing, I push the disk up in the drive with my thumb and this will often allow the read to continue.
I still have a few files that seem unrecoverable, however I may try multiple passes with Starcommander running on my PC as a last throw of the dice. Fortunately the surfaces of the disks are not, at least to the naked eye, deteriorating too much.
Some of the files are of the .SEQ variety and these are tied in to the built-in editor of the Commodore Communications Modem which was required to connect to Compunet.
Initially my model of this modem was not working correctly so I was unable to view the files.
However Crys over at the Compunet Facebook Group suggested cleaning the contacts on the modem with a pencil eraser. This did the trick and on reconnecting the modem to the 128 (forcing it in to 64 mode) I was greeted by the Compunet Terminal boot up page.
Typing ‘Help’ brings up the list of available built-in commands:-
EDITOR, unsurprisingly launches the on or off line editor for creating, storing and uploading pages. CONNECT, also self-explanatory, will request the required phone number and dial Compunet. CNLOAD will if I remember correctly restore your last saved session and connect to Compunet. CNSAVE creates the CNLOAD file which contains the link software that would otherwise have to be downloaded on each connection. As yet I can’t remember what OFF does although I assume it turns off the modem and restores the 64 to its normal boot state.
Launching the editor allowed me to load up and start browsing through the collection of saved files I’d recovered. Most of the pages were related to M.U.D. including back ups of my M.U.D. gossip page and some in-game logs.
There were also some Compunet e-mails many of which were chess games I was participating in.
Games could be played via e-mail by sending a graphical representation of the board to your opponent including your latest move, they would in turn edit the file with their move and send it back and so on. There was an ongoing tournament and some of the players were very good indeed.
Once I’d reached Wizard in M.U.D. I spent a fair amount of time just socialising with other wizards within the game and watching other players. It was possible to log your sessions for viewing later and it occurred to me it would be quite fun to produce a weekly round-up of the goings on within the game, hence Feanor’s Mud Gossip.
One particular ‘scandal’ revolved around the death of Doommlord the Legend. Legend status was one level shy of becoming wizard and achieving immortality. To get to such a level required many hours of play, and at £1.75/hour it was not a minor investment.
The death of a legend was pretty upsetting for the player involved, fortunately I only endured it once.
In this case added intrigue was born from the suspicion of foul play. Doommlord was a murderer, and a very successful one at that, there were many players out for his blood. I happened to be snooping on Doommlord (you receive their game feed as well as your own) when he met his bloody end.
Weakened by a fight with a strangely powerful skeleton, Doommlord was set upon by two or three other players. It seems likely that an immortal ‘frigged’ the skeleton.
This involved changing the statistics of the mobile (in-player character) to make them a lot stronger than usual.
Anyway, to cut a long story short I’ve included a video of the game log below. I appreciate this will be of limited interest but you never know, an ex-player may chance upon it one day. Further below I’ve also added a video showing the 64 with the Compunet modem attached and a video of files being loaded into the editor.
I recently discovered a box of 5.25″ floppy disks which had been in storage since the mid Eighties and wrote about how I’d recovered some data from one of them which turned out to be computer studies project I’d been working on at school in 1985. That was one disk in a box of ten or twelve others, others which were unlabelled and I assumed blank.
However whilst recently using my Commodore 128D something, somewhere, deep in my mind prompted me to insert one of the disks into the 1571 drive and type LOAD”$”,8. When I was subsequently greeted with a LOADING prompt I became quite excited. Nervously I typed LIST and was greeted by a directory of various files, mostly related to Compunet.
Back in 1983/4 Commodore UK helped initiate Compunet, a UK specific dial-up interactive service hosted originally on a DEC 10. It was with retrospect an astonishingly ground breaking initiative. An online community where users could create their own areas, upload content and have that content voted on by other users. Content could even be priced, downloaded and paid for. There were also popular online games and chat rooms.
The vast majority of users accessed Compunet with a Commodore 64 and Commodore Communications Modem, the latter of which contained a built-in text and low resolution graphic editor. These allowed you to create content offline before uploading, thus saving on expensive phone charges. Latterly the service would also see users logging on with Amigas and even Atari STs.
While some users had cool handles, youngsters such as myself who relied on their parents to set up their accounts ended up with anonymous handles like TBAH1, my Father’s initials. I believe you could pick something more memorable for an additional charge.
There were originally three subscription choices, Basic, Standard and Gold ranging in price from £7.50 to £15.00 per quarter. Access to the system was free of charge between 6 pm and 8 am although you still had to factor in your BT phone bill which typically ran at around £0.60 per hour. Access to online games such as M.U.D. cost an additional £1.75/hour.
As many of the users were like myself teenagers, this led to some interesting family discussions when the phone bill arrived.
My own experience of Compunet consisted largely of creating and uploading artwork as Spock and playing M.U.D. as Feanor for which I created a M.U.D. Gossip page (or the Technicolour Yawn page as my good friend Urbancamo (DEW2) once referred to it!) After many hours playing M.U.D. at the aforementioned £1.75/hour I reached the penultimate status of Wizard and achieved immortality.
The ultimate status was of course reserved for the Arch Wizards, responsible for running and moderating the game. The two I can remember were Roy and JohnK, the latter of which sent me my Wizard’s Pack which contained amongst other things, full maps of the game which I still have.
As I worked my way through the floppy disks it was a pleasant surprise to find some remnants of my M.U.D. Gossip page and some old artwork. The disks were understandably flaky and many files were unreadable. Frustratingly the artwork I was able to recover was mostly work in progress, however I’ve included some here for nostalgia.
My weapon of choice was Vidcom64 which I bought on Compunet for the princely sum of £4.50. Initially I was forced to use either the cursor keys or joystick to draw with. This meant slow progress to say the least. I eventually cobbled together enough pennies to buy a second-hand Koala Pad which at least allowed a moderate amount of freehand drawing.
After uploading several pictures I was approached to create the artwork for the loading screens of a couple of games.
Unfortunately immaturity and general apathy prevented me from meeting the required deadlines so there ended my career as an 8-bit artist before it had even started.
My M.U.D. Gossip page was quite popular with fellow players. Once I’d made Wizard I’d log on and monitor an evening’s session, jotting down notes of new players, those who’d achieved a new rank and of course those who’d had been killed. At the end of the week I would upload a round-up of events for all to read and hopefully vote on.
I also found a number of demos while working my way through the floppy disks. The demo scene was a huge part of Compunet and every new release was eagerly anticipated. Some of the hacks on display were frankly extraordinary, I’m sure that even the creators of the 64 were astonished by some of the tricks these guys pulled off. Many of the people involved were head hunted and went on to have careers in the video games industry.
Perhaps inevitably given the inexorable rise of the Internet Compunet ceased trading in 1993. Somewhat ironically there’s a Facebook group for ex Compunet users. It was here that I learnt the rather depressing fact that some of the original disks and tapes on which Compunet resided were still in existence as late as 2008 at which point they were apparently thrown away.
This made me quite angry, not with any particular individual, but with the circumstance. When you read about the latter-day exploits of Jason Scott and the Archive Team you have to wonder why at no point did anyone in a position to do so stop and think, we really need to try to recover and preserve this stuff.
I have some more files to look at, a number of them are I believe pages I created with the Commodore Modem’s built-in editor, and some are presumably other pages that I’d downloaded. I did manage to find my original modem, however it doesn’t appear to working correctly so I’m going to try to locate a working model and see what else I can recover.
I’ve pulled together a few resources for those interested in further reading. There is of course a Wikipedia article which goes in to further detail and there is also Mike Berry’s excellent 64apocalypse site which is as far as I can tell the most comprehensive single online resource covering Compunet.
Richard Bartle, co-creator of M.U.D. has some interesting articles on his site, not least of which is this one. A good article from the January ’85 edition of Your Commodore can be found here. You can play M.U.D. here.
I shall be away for the beginning of this year’s Retrochallenge, so in order to hit the ground running when I get back I thought I’d make sure all my machines were primed and ready for action. To that end I’ve recently sorted out the batteries in my PX-8′s and today my attention turned to my Commodore 128D.
The machine is in pretty good condition, the cassette port is a bit flaky and the built in 1571 drive seems to read and write to disks reasonably successfully. My interest lies in using CP/M on the C128 and I really needed to secure a way of getting data into the machine in this mode.
This has caused me some considerable headaches, in its native or C64 mode the machine uses Group Character Recognition (GCR) to write data to the disks in the 1571. The 1571 is also capable of writing Modified Frequency Modulation (MFM) disks as used by CP/M and under CP/M disks using the following formats can be read:-
With third party software such as Juggler even more formats are supported.
Armed with Big Blue Reader, the original CP/M system disk, a clutch of DSDD disks and my bridge machine running DOS and 22Disk I thought I was well prepared. However no matter which combination of disks and formats I use I cannot successfully format a disk with the 1571 nor the 1581. I’m pretty sure the disks are OK, they seem to work without problems with the Epson TF-20 and PX-8 and the 1581 and 1571 drives appear happy to do everything except format.
More in desperation than hope of success I put one of the disks that I’d formatted with the TF-20 and PX-8 in the C128, typed DIR. To my surprise and excitement the C128 came up with some text at the bottom of the screen reading Epson QX-10. I pressed return and the drive chugged away, thought about it for a while and came back with ‘No file.’ uh, there were definitely files on the disk.
I had a search around and discovered that when the format description comes up at the bottom of the screen you can cycle through different options. So I tried again and using the right arrow key found the next selection was ‘Epson Euro’ I pressed return, the drive chugged away and up popped the disk contents, yipeee!
I loaded PIP quickly just to check it worked, which it did and I then formatted a fresh disk in the TF-20, copied the text adventure Snowball onto it and put it into the C128. On the first attempt I got a BDOS error but on the second attempt it loaded.
So I now have a way of getting software downloaded from the Internet into the C128 in CP/M mode, albeit a somewhat circuitous route via the PX-8 but a way nonetheless.
I currently have the C128 hooked up to an IIyama LCD panel via the s-video port which means I can only run in 40 column mode however I do have a cable that will allow me to connect via Scart and run in 80 column mode which I shall try next as much of the software I’ve tried assumes this mode.
So now hopefully I’ll be able to get on with things as soon as I return, try some CP/M software on the C128, hopefully get it talking to the Epson PX-8 via RS232 and I have some unused 3.5″ DSDD disks on the way which I’m hoping I’ll be able to format successfully with the 1581.
Lately I’ve been experimenting with new batteries for my Epson PX-8′s (I have three PX-8′s now, it’s a worry I know.) Of the three’s original batteries, one still holds a reasonable charge, the other two however require the AC adapters to be permanently connected. This is not a huge issue but with high capacity NiMh batteries pretty cheap these days I decided to look into replacing the original NiCad’s.
The original NiCad’s are 4.8 V 1100 mAh packs, ideally I wanted replacements that were of equal or greater capacity. Having hunted around and looked at a myriad of options it became clear the most limiting factor was the size of the battery compartment on the PX-8. Initially I was tempted by a 4 pack of 1.2 V AA cells at 2700 mAh, however there was no way of squeezing these into the compartment even with a homemade pack. I also looked at new NiCad’s but really wanted to go with NiMh.
In the end I tried two options, a ready made four pack of Sanyo Eneloop AAA cells at 800 mAh and some loose Duracell AAA’s at 1200 mAh secured in a simple 4 cell battery holder. Both options are working well and lasting for what seems like forever.
I’m no expert on battery charging so don’t fully understand what the consequences will be of using the supplied Epson adapter and the PX-8′s charging circuit on the modern NiMh’s. From what I do understand the PX-8 will charge for 8 hours and then drop into trickle charge with its standard NiCad. If you disconnect the AC adapter and plug it in again the charge cycle will start again possibly leading to overcharging. The AC adapter is an unregulated 6 V 600 mAh model. (Epson HOOAAU-A)
As far as I can tell, the NiMh’s are taking somewhere in the region of 2 hours to fully charge which seems to me to be what’s considered fast charging.
With July rapidly approaching my thoughts are turning this year’s Retrochallenge. I have a number of possible avenues to explore. Continuing with the battery theme I really would like to try and revive my PF-10′s. I’m pretty sure the problem lies with dead sub batteries inside the units. The main batteries are easy to swap out, however the sub batteries are soldered to the logic boards and it’s been a long time since I’ve been near a soldering iron.
I also have a Commodore 128D which I’d like to get fully acquainted with including using it with CP/M, in fact it would be nice to try and get it talking to a PX-8. On that theme I’ve been experimenting with the PX-8 RS232 ports and quite fancy writing some sort of two player game with communication via this route. Decisions to be made.
I’ve been spending a fair amount of time messing around with the Amiga 1200 that I recovered from the loft a few weeks ago. It has been a little frustrating, I’d forgotten a lot about the Amiga and its idiosyncrasies and progress has been slow for several reasons that I’ll get in to below.
One of the main challenges I’ve found with retrocomputing is transferring files to and from your retro systems. With the Amiga 1200 this isn’t really an issue due to its PCMCIA slot which will happily read and write to standard compact flash cards with the appropriate adapter. A PCMCIA to CF adapter was therefore my first purchase (I later discovered I already had one grrrr.)
My next purchases were an IDE to CF adapter and some Kickstart 3.1 roms. Installing the latter was pretty easy although it’s important to note the manner in which the original chips are installed as there are more sockets than there are pins on the chips.
I then pulled out the original Seagate IDE hard disk, plugged in the IDE to CF adapter and added a SanDisk Extreme III 4GB CF card. I booted the system with my Workbench 3.1 floppy and set up the newly installed CF card.
I divided the card into a 200MB partition for Workbench and the rest as one large partition for games and data. After formatting the partitions (some considerable time) I made a fresh install of Workbench 3.1 and booted the system from the new CF drive. This whole process was a little tortuous as the Amiga kept crashing at various stages. At first I assumed the CF card was incompatible but I soon realised the 128MB SIM I’d installed was causing the problems. I swapped it out for a 4MB stick and the machine become much more stable.
The next challenge was installing AmigaOS 3.9 which is supplied on CD and at the time I didn’t have a compatible drive for the Amiga. Using a Mac I copied the contents of the CD onto a compact flash card in a drawer name AmigaOS3.9 and inserted it into the Amiga. I then fired up shell and entered the following command – ASSIGN AmigaOS3.9: cf0:AmigaOS3.9 and was then able to run the installer with the CF card mimicking the CD. However I ran into a number of problems with the installation and have since learnt that using a non-Amiga system to copy files or open archives destined for the Amiga can mess up the file permissions when you then try to use those files. After much fiddling I finally got a semi working installation of Amiga OS3.9.
I seem to have stopped using my Amiga just at the point that CD rom drives became quite widely used with the system, I personally never had one but wanted to add one now so I could install the OS properly. I ordered a buffered IDE interface and dug out an old Plextor external USB drive.
I opened up the back of the drive and disconnected the USB interface from the IDE connector on the drive and ran an IDE cable out of the box and into the Amiga. I had to make some changes to the Tooltypes of the CD driver that had been installed by OS3.9 to get it working:-
I now had a working CD ROM drive and was able to successfully install OS3.9 without problems and also install the Boing Bag 2 update. My next ambitions are to replace the external drive with an internal one, I already have a slim drive from an old Cubit box, whether I have the courage to cut a slot out of my 1200′s case is another matter, and Internet access. For now some Frontier Elite II.
I decided to have a dig around in the loft as I couldn’t remember exactly what was up there computer wise, I knew there was an Amiga 1200 and a CD32 but I was also surprised to find an Amiga 500 and a barely used Sony Playstation. I retrieved the A1200 and the A500, the first is in great shape, in fact it looks like new and it works, the hard drive even booting into Workbench on initial power up. The A500 is pretty grubby, very yellow and not working, giving only a flashing power LED and green screen. There was also an A590 external hard disk unit with it, I’d forgotten I had that.
The A1200 cost me a small fortune back in 1993, I ordered it with an 80mb drive and a Microbotics MX1230A accelerator board featuring a 68030 CPU, 68882 FPU and 4 Mb of additional RAM. It was and still is a gorgeous system, probably my second favourite retro system, pipped to the post only by the C64.
Thinking back to how much I used to dream about upgrading the RAM which was devilishly expensive in those days, it was odd to find a 128 Mbyte SIM in one of my piles of junk and simply plug it in. For some reason, in my mind, the A1200 still seems really powerful.
There were a couple of games on the drive, Sim City 2000 and Frontier, Elite II. Many, many hours were spent playing the latter which is one of my all time favourite games, despite the bugs. On researching the game I noticed you can download an OpenGL version here and play the game in high resolution under Windows or Linux which is pretty cool.
I also discovered there’s still a thriving community surrounding the A1200 with much ‘pimping’ of the original machines still going on. The most common upgrade seems to be a compact flash internal drive which I’m hoping to attempt. Others have added USB ports and even internal CD ROM drives.
During my Amiga years I still had delusions of becoming a digital graphic artist, I used to dream of ending up at somewhere like Pixar. With the 1200 I found a box of disks including Sculpt 3D and 4D and Deluxe Paint III and IV. I managed to recover some saved files from DPaint but no luck so far with the Sculpt files.
Dpaint produced .lbm bitmap files and after hunting around I found this site that allowed me to convert them to GIF’s. The second image was copied from a 1985 Tolkien calendar and the first from a book lent to me by Urbancamo called Space Wars, Worlds and Weapons. Very odd to see these again after all those years.
No progress on the Silent Running adventure for a couple of days. I got bogged down in trying to resolve a particular issue, realised it was time to walk away and come back fresh which hopefully I’ll do today or tomorrow.
Instead I’ve been messing around with the Equity, trying to understand what it’s capable of. My first experience with a PC as opposed to machines such as the Amiga and Commodore 64 was a Pentium 90 based machine with Windows 3.1, so the pre Pentium days passed me by.
I’ve been trying to compile the code I have written so far with the Equity with no luck as yet. As a point of interest the code compiles on a Core 2 Quad essentially instantaneously. On a Pentium 166 it takes a few seconds. On the Equity it’s taking around 4 minutes before failing on a specific library issue. I need to try the Minform library I mentioned in an earlier post next.
I also wanted to see what games would run on the Equity and found an early version of a Secret of Monkey Island demo which loads and runs. I was never really aware of the limited graphics abilities of the early PC’s having been spoilt by the abilities of the Amiga and its custom chips, it’s pretty basic stuff as I’m discovering.
The Equity has two option slots, one is currently occupied by the hard drive controller card and I believe the only other card produced specifically for the option slots by Epson was a modem card. Somewhat bizarrely one just came up on Ebay, unused, and new in the box so I snapped that up (only bidder) and it’s on its way.
I recently wrote how I’d managed to acquire some classic Level 9 and Infocom text adventures that would run on my Epson PX-8. I’ve always been a great fan of interactive fiction (IF) and some years ago I remember spending many hours writing a Star Trek themed adventure using The Quill on my Commodore 64. As with most of my projects it showed great promise but was never finished.
I’d quite like therefore to make another attempt at such a project although I’m not sure I’m going to be able to shoehorn this in as a genuine Retrochallenge project. Short of writing the whole thing in BASIC, which given my ham-fisted, clunky approach to coding isn’t going to happen, I’m not sure how much development will actually involve a retro machine.
Ideally I’d like to produce a game that can be played on a variety of retro platforms providing they have a Z-Machine interpreter, somewhat unfortunately one of the few platforms I don’t seem to able to find an interpreter for is CP/M. There are a number of solutions out there for creating IF, this morning I had a quick play with Inform7 which uses a natural language approach to building your game. I was able to quickly knock up a few rooms and objects but the system soon had me scratching my head when I tried to create anything complex. Also, having created only a few rooms, objects and descriptions the game file was already too large for the PX-8.
I’ve decided to base the game on the 1972 film Silent Running which in my view is one of the all time great Science Fiction films, so I settled down to watch it this afternoon and used the PX-8 to write some initial room descriptions. I’ll have another play with Inform but given the file size issue it looks as though I’m going to need another solution if this thing is ever going to run on the PX-8, either that or stick to a two or three room adventure.
I had a spare hour or so today and decided to hunt around for some games for my PX-8. Given the limitations of the display and my own fondness for interactive fiction I decided to see what text adventure games I could find for CP/M.
A quick search for CP/M games took me immediately to the Retroarchive where I’m pleased to say the first three games of Infocom’s excellent Zork series were to be found along with a number of other games.
Pleased with this result I wondered if there were any CP/M versions of Level 9′s adventure games out there and I quickly found Snowball and Lords Of Time here.
Annoyingly my plans for a bridge machine with both USB and network support remain exactly that, plans, for some reason Filink will not run on the Pentium III under DOS and I have therefore been forced to resort to my Fujitsu in order to transfer files to the PX-8. The downside of this is I have to burn a CD every time that I want to transfer files downloaded with my Mac on the Fujitsu for transfer to the Epson.
Nevertheless I was soon transferring the games I had downloaded with Filink from the Fujitsu directly on 5.25 floppies via the PX-8 (picture below.)
All of the Infocom and Level 9 games appear to be working fine. Some of the location descriptions are too long for the PX-8 to display without some of the text scrolling out of view and if I’m honest the LCD on the Epson is not one of the best I’ve seen, in fact the PX-4 has a much better screen with clearer better contrast.
However the keyboard is a joy to use, it has that lovely clackety clack that you don’t seem to get with modern day equivalents so I shall get stuck in again to the world of Zork and see what I can remember.
I’ve copied Zork 1 to the ram disk and will store my save games on cassette for the shear hell of it.
I am indeed standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. Maximum verbosity.
That reminds me, I’m sure there was a another version on the Vic 20 called The Colonel’s House? Oh, and I’ve also discovered that you can play Zork in your browser at ifiction.org.
I continue to tinker with my growing collection of old Epson computer equipment. The TF-20 is a strange hulk of a drive. Rather like the old Commodore 1541 the drive has a processor of its own comparable to the computer it serves.
In the case of the TF-20, a Z80 supported by 64 kByte of RAM (presumably these things cost serious money back in the day.) In order for the drive to work with systems such as the PX-8 you must first load the drive’s OS from a system disk. This is causing me some concern as I only have one disk that will boot the system and if that fails the drive will be essentially useless to me.
Along with the drive came a few 5.25 inch floppies with an eclectic mix of files on them. Two that caught my eye were Diskcopy and Copydisk. My first inclination was to try and make a couple of backups of the boot disk.
I thought I’d found what I needed with Copydisk which gave the following options:-
- Copy System Tracks
- Copy Complete Diskette
- Format and Copy System Tracks
- Format and Copy Complete Diskette
- Initialize Directory Tracks
After placing a write protect sticker over the notch of the boot disk (this reminded me of using scissors to cut out notches on the opposite side of disks so you could use both sides) I pretty much tried every combination of these options with some new blank disks I’d managed to find on ebay.
Whilst the formatting and copying all worked well, none of the newly created disks would boot the system so for now I’m relying on the squeeky old boot disk. The OS will remain in memory as long as you don’t disconnect the power cord from the TF-20 however the onboard power adapter gives off the sort of aroma that makes you want to stick a smoke detector directly over it so I’m not relaxed about leaving the power connected.
I’ve also been sorting through the fairly large collection of PX-8 related files I’ve downloaded and have transferred a few basic games via Filink directly onto floppy. There’s a certain buzz from loading these files with no real idea what you’re going to be presented with. I think the most surprising so far was FIF which turned out to be Madame Fifi’s Whorehouse, a somewhat lewd text adventure game.
A lot of the files have extensions such as CQM, DQC, BQS which I initially thought had perhaps become corrupted given their similarity to COM, DOC, BAS however on investigation it transpires these are files compressed with a program called SQ which replaces the middle character of all the files it archives with a Q. So far I’ve been unable to find a way of opening these archives.