Sundry Sunday: Ken Woodman’s Mexican Flyer and Space Channel 5

Sundry Sunday is our weekly feature of fun gaming culture finds and videos, from across the years and even decades.

I find myself looking back upon the Dreamcast’s library, which was outrageously experimental. Sega tried so many things to see what would stick, but sadly few of them did, even though they’re really cool games.

There’s probably no better example of this than Space Channel 5, which I sometimes like to call “How Many Ways Can We Remix Mexican Flyer?”

Mexican Flyer is a real song, that existed long before Space Channel 5 and the Dreamcast. It was first published by Ken Woodman and His Piccadilly Brass in 1966 on their album That’s Nice. Here’s audio from Youtube (2 1/2 minutes):

Space Channel 5 remixes it several ways. Here’s the beginning, which is a fairly straight rendition. (That link was made with Youtube’s Clips feature, which doesn’t embed too well in WordPress.) Here’s the start of the second level (5 minutes):

Space Channel 5 isn’t a very long game, with only four levels, and although there’s alternate sections of a couple of levels that unlock after finishing the game and a subgoal of rescuing all the hostages, it doesn’t have a lot of replayability. It’s an enjoyable trip while it lasts, though.

It ends with a (mostly) a capella version, about ten minutes long:

And here’s the music isolated without the gameplay sounds overtop it (3 minutes):

Ken Woodman passed away in 2000, only a few years before Mexican Flyer began its video game afterlife. He also did music for a couple of British radio productions, and arranged music for Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones and Sandie Shaw.

Indie Showcase for 6/12/24

The weekly indie game showcases highlight the many games we play on the channel, if you would like me to cover your game please reach out. All games shown are either demos or press key submissions.

0:00 Intro
00:14 Sunshine Manor
2:02 Spirited Thief
3:40 MF-01 Aerostrike
5:44 Swordship
7:50 Josh Journey Darkness Totems
9:49 Whisker Squadron Survivors
11:46 Saga of the Moon Priestess

What is a Game Dad?

I refer you to the question in the title. It’s not GamerDad, or The Game Dad Blog, or Board Gamer Dad, or Video Gaming Dad, or the Youtube channel GameDad. It’s a GameDad, as opposed to a GameBoy.

A Game Dad is a frankly awesome idea! It’s any portable, pocket-sized game-playing device that has a focus on emulation. I myself would say it needs physical controls, not a touchscreen, to control well, but that’s not part of the “official” spec given by Dan over at It looks like site owner Dan agrees with me to an extent.

Game Dad is not a brand name. No company yet calls their device a Game Dad, it’s more an adjective that you can apply to things. Two special cases: A Steam Deck is not a Game Dad because it’s not pocket-sized. A smartphone is not a Game Dad because it’s not dedicated to playing games. Game Dads shouldn’t be something you do work on, or will pester you while you play. Game Dads don’t host apps. Game Dads don’t try to feel you algorithmic bullshit. Most Game Dads, when you turn them off, they don’t go to sleep. They turn off.

The picture here, from the site’s header, might help to fix the idea in your head. Notice that unlike a Gameboy it has four buttons and dual analog sticks, but it otherwise looks a lot like a Gameboy.

Lots of companies make Game Dads, or Game Dad-adjacent devices, and you should be able to get a pretty good one for around $70. That will typically get you something capable of playing up to PS1-era games. N64 games are a little more challenging since its processor was weirder. But as the site says, the best Game Dad is the one that plays the games you want to play. Dan’s site is full of advice and opinions, and all of them are good. The one he has personally is an Anbernic RG353V/RG353VS. Both run Linux, but the V version also has an Android partition and a touchscreen, two features that Dan considers inessential to Gamular Dadiness, and lowers the price by $20 to about $78, but the more expensive one also has more RAM and built-in storage, if those things matter.

Please ignore that the page says that it “let you fondle admiringly,” the device is not emotionally needy.

At this moment a lot of the interest in retro gaming circles is in FPGA devices like the Analogue Pocket, which will be more expensive than this. This isn’t a device for complete cycle-accurate recreations, it’s for inexpensive, pretty-nice emulation for good-enough gaming fun.

By the way, Dan is on Mastodon as Yes, I’m still using Mastodon. You should too! I’m on Bluesky because I feel like I have to be, but I’m on Mastodon because I want to be.

Coleco’s Tarzan for the Atari VCS/2600 Found After 40 Years

The lost Atari 2600 version of Coleco’s Tarzan game, from the VGHF article

As reported in a post at the excellent Video Game History Foundation, a copy of the unreleased Atari port of the Colecovision Tarzan game has been found, bought from a former Coleco employee. It used an unusual bankswitching scheme, but has been hacked to use a more common system, and both versions of the ROM are available from the Internet Archive. Both are 16K, very large for an Atari game, but microscopic by the standards of data today.

The Colecovision version of Tarzan was a late release, and had unusually good animation for its time, and repetitive, yet atmospheric, music. Here’s a Youtube link of the first loop of that version of the game (5 1/2 minutes):

I tried a little of the 2600 version, and I couldn’t make out how to get further than a few screens in. That single button control scheme is a real hassle! Here that is (four minutes 1/2). Dig that opening theme song! Don’t dig that gameplay music, though. It didn’t sound as bad when I played it, I think it was an issue with the recording.

The article has a run that gets further into it (7 minutes):

How Many Super Mario Games Are There NOW?

For the best results, read the title with a whiny stress on the word NOW, like you’re a kid asking “Are we THERE yet?”

Let me see, off the top of my head. It’s Super Mario, so the original Mario Bros. or anything before it are out. I assume these are “mainline” games, meaning tentpoles for their platform. Okay, let’s go:

Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2 (Japan), Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA), Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario Land, Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, Super Mario World, Super Mario Bros. 4: Yoshi’s Island, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario Galaxy 2, New Super Mario Bros., New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Super Mario 3D Land, Super Mario 3D World, Super Mario Odyssey, Super Mario Wonder. That’s 18, but I’m sure I missed one or two. Super Mario Maker & 2 are more like side games; All Night Nippon Super Mario Bros. is basically a romhack, if it’s not a platformer in some way it’s not really a Super Mario game so Paint and sports and karts don’t kount. Bowser’s Fury is like a parallel universe, and the later Yoshi and Wario games made themselves distinct from the original series. Mario Clash for Virtual Boy doesn’t have Super in the title, and it feels more akin to Mario Bros. anyway.

jan Misali (talk to them about their name’s capitalization) did a video covering the matter in an extreme amount of detail. It’s two hours and eight minutes long! Can you hang in there that long? I just finished the video about the Star Wars hotel and I’m frankly exhausted. Tell me how this one ends.

Hare Basic for the Commodore 64

Our friend Robin at 8-Bit Show And Tell lets us know of this cool and free Commodore 64 BASIC 2.0 extension, of a sort, called Hare Basic. It’s a successor to an earlier version called Bunny Basic. Here’s the video, 48 minutes long. My comments on it follow below, which you can read either after having watched the video, or before, depending on of you have most of an hour to spare right now.

Here are the downloads, which are hosted on the creator’s Dropbox, so availability may fluctuate.

Commodore BASIC is, in many ways, the worst of all worlds. It’s a slow interpreted language, a variant of infamous Microsoft BASIC, and it has almost no machine-specific features, but it comes with the machine, and it’s burned into ROM. You can swap it out for extra RAM if you have a replacement OS or are running something in pure machine code.

I could go on for a long time about the problems with Commodore BASIC 2.0, a language I’m quite familiar with having spent much of my teens programming in it. Sometimes it feels like it was designed especially to run slowly. One example: it supports floating point math, which ordinarily would be a good thing, right? Use integer math for performance, and just use floats when you need decimals, right? But no: internally, Commodore BASIC converts integer variables into floats when doing any math with them, and converts them back to store as integers when it’s done. Wilberforce Trafalgar Franklin?! Why?! It does these unnecessary extra steps to do all arithmetic as floating point even when it doesn’t need do, and doesn’t offer a way to do performant integer math at all! Need I remind you that Microsoft BASIC is based upon software written by Bill Gates himself? I suspect that I don’t!

Hare Basic is a highly optimized subset of Commodore BASIC that can be switched on and off as needed. It has to be coded in a special way which might throw beginners for a loop: Hare Basic can’t abide whitespace, for example, only allows for variables of one letter in length, has no support for modifying strings, and contrary to Commodore BASIC can only do integer math. There’s lots of other differences too, and if you want to play around with it it’s essential that you study the manual.

But once you get used to it, it runs blazingly fast, sometimes as much as 10 times faster! And the best part is you don’t have to use it for everything. You can start out with a standard Commodore BASIC program, then enter into Hare Basic mode with a USR function call. You could write your whole program in Hare if you’re up for it, or just loops, or other places where performance is necessary.

Of course, this is ultimately an enhancement for a programming language that runs on a home computer made in 1984. It’s not what one might consider of universal interest. But it might be of interest to the kinds of people who read this site. It’s interesting to me, at least. Maybe I should dust off VICE and see what I can do with it? I haven’t coded on a ’64 in nearly three decades, maybe I should get back into that….

Wherefore Pac-Man’s Split Screen?

I did a search of the blog to make sure I haven’t posted this before. I’m really an obsessive tagger, and it didn’t show up under the tag pacman, so I think it hasn’t been seen here before. Let’s fix that now!

It’s a video from Retro Game Mechanics Explained from six years ago, and it’s 11 1/2 minutes:

Here’s a terse summary of the explanation, that leaves out a lot. Like a lot of 8-bit games (the arcade version uses a Z80 processor), Pac-Man stores the score in one byte, making the maximum it can count to 255. Since it doesn’t use signed arithmetic, it doesn’t use the high bit to signify a minus sign and so flip to negative at 128.

As an optimization, Pac-Man’s code uses the depiction of the maze in the video memory, itself, in the movement of both Pac-Man and the ghosts. If a spot has a maze wall tile, then Pac-Man can’t go there, and the ghosts won’t consider that direction when moving.

At the start of every level, the game performs some setup tasks. It draws the maze anew, including dots, Energizers and walls. One of these tasks is to update the fruit display in the bottom-right corner. It was a common design idiom at some arcade manufacturers, especially at Namco, at the time to depict the level number with icons in some way. Galaga shows rank insignia in the corner; Mappy has small and large balloons and mansions.

Pac-Man’s code shows the bonus fruit for each level, up to seven of them. If you finish more than seven levels, only the most recent seven are shown. If you get far enough eventually this will be just a line of Keys, the final “fruit.”

The code draws them from right to left. There’s three cases (the video goes into much more detail), but generally it starts from the fruit of six minus the current round number, draws it, counts up once and moves left two tiles, draws that one, and so on.

An interesting fact about Pac-Man’s graphics hardware is that the screen doesn’t map as you might expect to the screen! A lot of arcade games have weird screen mappings. Most consumer programmable hardware will map characters horizontally first vertically second, like a typewriter*.

In Pac-Man, the bottom area of the screen comes first in memory, starting at memory location hex $4000 (16384 decimal), and it doesn’t go forward like an English typewriter, but is mapped right to left. The first row of 32 tiles comes at $4000, and the second row is $4020. Then the playfield area is mapped completely differently, in vertical rows going down starting from the top-right of its region, then the next vertical row is the one to the left of that, and so forth to the left edge of the playfield. Then comes the score area at the top of the screen, which are two final rows mapped the same way as the bottom area, right to left.

From the video, this chart shows how Pac-Man’s screen memory is mapped.

When Pac-Man’s score counter overflows, it breaks the check for the limit for only drawing seven fruit, and causes it to draw 256 fruit. This is why the tops of keys are drawn beneath the upper-halves of the fruit at the bottom of the split screen. It also breaks the tile lookup for the fruit.

As it continues writing its missourced fruit tiles in memory, it goes back in memory each time to draw the next fruit, and after the fruit section of the display it keeps going to the left, into the area where Pac-Man’s lives are displayed, then it keeps going and overwrites half of the maze tiles. Then Pac-Man’s lives (and any empty spaces that indicate the lack of lives) are plotted, overwriting fruit after the first ones drawn and obscuring some of the memory corruption.

Since the game’s actors use that data to decide where to move, and where dots and Energizers are placed, it means they can move outside the bounds of the maze, and that there won’t be enough dots for Pac-Man to eat to complete the level. That’s what makes it a kill screen: if Pac-Man loses a life, a few dots will get placed in the maze as the fruit are redrawn, but it’s not enough to bring the dot-eaten count to 244, which triggers the level clear function.

If the fruit-drawing loop didn’t stop at 256 (another artifact of using 8-bit math for the loop), it’d go on to clobber the rest of the maze, the score area at the top of the screen, then color memory (which has already been clobbered by the palette-drawing portion of the loop). Then, going by a memory map of the arcade hardware, it’d hit the game logic RAM storage, which would probably crash the game, triggering the watchdog and resetting the machine.

The visual effect of the split screen is certainly distinctive, enough that since Bandai-Namco has capitalized on its appearance at least once, in the mobile (and Steam and consoles) game Pac-Man 256. I’ve played Pac-Man 256: it’s okay, but, eh. It’s really too F2P unlocky.

* Yes, I just used a typewriter’s operation as a metaphor for something a computer does. It didn’t feel acceptable to use another computer thing as the comparison, since ultimately the reason they do it that way is because typewriters did it that way too. I guess the fact that it’s English reading order would be better to use, but I’m really overthinking it at this point.