An Ad From Compute Magazine #001

This is an ad, on the first page of the first issue of Compute Magazine, for “the pet program” from “softside software,” names all in lowercase. I have no idea if any copies of these programs remains in existence in our universe, but two places to look would be’s FTP archive and the Silicon PET Archive, and even in this era of the internet there are a fair number of PET software archives remaining.

Softside was far from the only company to put out its hopeful shingle through the pages of early computer magazines. At the time, magazine publishing worked with a lead time of several months. It is possible that Softside Software had gone under even by the time this ad saw print, but then again maybe not. A forum thread on AtariAge mentions several BASIC games sold by a “SoftSide,” apparently an Atari 8-bit magazine-on-disk, but they were based in New Hampshire, and the Softside of the ad was in New York.

Notes on the programs proffered:

  1. Graphics Pac 2: I’m not sure what they mean, as the reference I’ve found claims the PET didn’t have a bitmapped display, but there were several models, and further add-on cards that added bitmapped displays, an 80-column mode, and even (gasp) color. A simple “Microsette” itself would not be enough. We are near the end of the PET’s reign as Commdore’s core product though.
  2. Assembler 2001: It is easy to laugh this off nowadays when assemblers are mostly free software (and thank frog for that), but this was before that, and before the internet. $16 is a great price for an assembler from that time.
  3. Bike. Apparently it was a Hammurabi/Lemonade Stand style game, where you made business decisions through simple menus and entering figures. Maybe someday someone will write such a game about running Commodore. You might scoff at the warning that “Bike is dangerously addictive,” but standards were lower then. It was 1979; Wizardry wouldn’t be published until 1981. “Worth a million in fun, we’ll offer Bike at $9.95.” I admire their chutzpah.
  4. Pinball. “Dynamic usage of the PET’s graphics features” would have meant using its hardcoded, unchangable ROM graphics character set, with no sprites. “With sound!” That would mean its simple piezoelectric speaker. Don’t expect Raul Julia’s voice, or even Gorgar’s, to talk to you from the machine.
  5. Super Doodle. Certainly of no relation to Omni Software’s popular Commodore paint program. Super Doodle lets you use any number of colors so long as they’re black or green, and a resolution of 40×25 characters. “Why waste any more paper.” Well probably because loading your notes off of tape would take too long.
  6. Driving Ace. Offers two games for $9.95. The description doesn’t give a good sense of what they were like, but there are essentially only three kinds of racing game: scrolling in one direction (Monaco GP style), one screen or scrolling all around (Sprint style), and 3D (Pole Position through to Ridge Racer to F-Zero). I presume one of these is like Sprint and the other is like Monaco GP; I don’t think the PET was capable of even a slight approximation of 3D, but then, Pole Position’s hardware shouldn’t have been capable of what it could do either.

The ad is from Compute Magazine, most often stylized as COMPUTE! with an exclamation point, grew out of The PET Gazette in 1979. That former publication centered around the computing devices from Commodore International’s subsidiary, Commodore Business Machines. CBM had been around for over two decades up to that point as a maker of typewriters, adding machines and calculators, but in a maverick move by its co-founder and president Jack Tramiel, they bought MOS Technologies, which had just startled the nascent computing world by creating an ultra low cost microprocessor, the 6502. Tramiel had learned from a bit of a bastard move by Texas Instruments, who used their ownership of much of their supply chain to release a line of calculators that sold for less than Commodore’s production costs. Now, Tramiel owned the company that produced the chip that would soon launch the personal computing revolution, and could make other chips too, and Commodore was set to soon pull off Texas Instruments’ trick on the home computer industry with the VIC-20 and Commodore 64.

But until then they made other computers. They made the KIM-1 “single board computer,” and the PET 2001 and other machines with the PET branding. The PET Gazette’s audience was originally those machines, but burgeoning success convinced them to publish a more generalized 6502-focused magazine, and that magazine was Compute.

I have more to come on Compute, which in many ways was the archetypal type-in program magazine. It was far from the only one; other magazines offering type-in software at the time, names now even more obscure than Compute’s, were Creative Computing, Family Computing, and Commodore’s own publications Commodore Magazine and Power Play. Compute would for a while languish somewhat in the shadow of its own sister publication, borrowing part of its name from its predecessor, Compute’s Gazette, which focused on Commodore’s computers, the VIC-20, the Commodore 64, and later the Commodore 128.

The PET Gazette was founded by Small System Services Inc., and was published out of a shop, the Corner Computer Store, in Greensboro, North Carolina. Presumably that changed as the subscription rolls increased. Eventually Compute would be sold to ABC Publishing, a subsidiary of the broadcast network, and it would continue happily for several years. When its fortunes began to wane it was sold, first to Penthouse Publishing (really!), where its logo was redone to resemble that of its own publication Omni, then later to Ziff-Davis, who only wanted its subscriber list anyway; I don’t think they ever published an issue. As it became clearer that the future would be MS-DOS and Mac, its focus shifted, but they kept up their small systems focus for surprisingly long. I don’t think the Penthouse era provided any coverage that wasn’t DOS, Windows or Mac, but it would take time to check. Corrections later, if necessary.

Randy Glover, Creator of Jumpman

Here is a talk by the creator of the brilliant 8-bit platforming game Jumpman (who isn’t Mario). That’s all the lead-in I have time to provide right now. And if you get the chance to try Jumpman, do it. There’s a version on Steam! (Note, the C64 version is preferable to the DOS version.)

The Man Behind Jumpman: Retro Gaming Revealed (Youtube, 58 minutes)

NES and Commodore 64 Games Compared

Greg’s Game Room on Youtube looked at 28 games with both NES and Commodore 64 versions. It’s not by any means all of them, but a good selection. Usually its the NES version that’s better, but there are some surprising upsets, especially if the game originated on a microcomputer platform.

The Commodore games that won out are Ballblazer, Castelian, Die Hard (but the C64 version’s really different), Ghostbusters, Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins, Q*Bert and (surprisingly) Smash T.V. Decent C64 games that nevertheless lost are Blades of Steel, Commando, Donkey Kong, Mighty Bomb Jack and Super Mario Bros. (rated were both the similar Great Giana Sisters and the recent fanmade version of SMB that uses advanced scrolling tricks). Gyruss, Mario Bros. and Pac-Man were rated at a tie.

Nintendo vs Commodore 64, 28 Games Compared (Youtube, 46 minutes)

On The Red Obelisk

In 1987, programmers Robert Germino and David Todeshini wrote a weird and obscure Commodore 64 game called The Red Obelisk. It barely made a dent in the market, which is kind of a shame. It’s nearly entirely unique, which is a difficult thing to say of any game 36 years after its publication.

Part of why it’s not remembered much today might be how unique it is. It’s mostly a game about alchemy, but not as much in an Opus Magnum kind of way. You’re given an object, kind of like a gemstone, found in an asteroid belt. You shock it with electricity, zap it with lasers, and shoot sound waves at it. All of this is depicted in an illustrated laboratory, with surprisingly atmospheric graphics and sounds. Doing these things may increase its value. You can sell it at any point to earn energy proportionate to its value, which you need to run your ship and guard against hazards, and points. Your real goal though is to create a Red Obelisk

An earlier work of theirs was Sentinel, of which there’s even less information online.

I played a bit of The Red Obelisk and uploaded a recording to Youtube. I don’t do too well. Here is that video (7 minutes):

Both The Sentinel and The Red Obelisk, and another game I think they made called Phaserdome, were included on a disk called Master Blaster put out by Keypunch Software. Keypunch wasn’t a great organization; there are tales of them taking freeware games, scrubbing them of information by which their creators might be identified, and then selling that on a disk. It was before the widespread adoption of the Internet, the World Wide Web was still three years away, so it was easier to get away with that sort thing than it is now.

Later on The Red Obelisk got picked up for an issue of Loadstar, and the veracity of its editors I vouch for completely. I haven’t yet checked their products for the other games. Sentinel is also on Loadstar. The documentation I retyped below suggests they have another game on Loadstar as well. Both The Red Obelisk and Sentinel are on the Internet Archive, but you can get legal and paid-for copies for $15 of the first 199 issues (Loadstar was amazingly long-lived) via LOADSTAR COMPLEAT, still sold by its long-time Managing Editor, my friend Fender Tucker. The Red Obelisk is on LS64 issue 58.

The game is fully described in its instructions, below, so I’ll just give you some of my own impressions. It’s interesting! It has to have something to it for it to have persisted in my memory for so long. I think the game is implemented in BASIC with some machine code routines to handle the real-time portions. This is a perfectly valid way to implement a game; I did it often myself back then. It’s pretty much the only way to get the smoothly-moving asteroids and slick sound effects the game has.

What I remember the most is the Object Mode, where you zap various objects on your workbench in the hopes of creating a hugely valuable Red Obelisk. Everything you do costs energy, and running out destroys your ship, so efficiency is a must. In order to succeed you must take notes as to how each object behaves. Basic directions are given in the instructions: get the Tolerance below 100 with electricity, and the Temperature above 500 with lasers. Is that all there is to these tools? It has been too long for me to remember, but I do remember finding a string of Red Obelisks at one point, so there must be some process to it. Experiment to see what you can find.

The other thing I remember is the noise that your ship makes when you collect an object. All of the sounds in The Red Obelisk are effective, but that noise found a home in my brain when I played it decades ago, and it has never left. I think it probably never will.

What follows are the instructions to the game as included on Loadstar 58, as written by Fender himself, with section headings and minor formatting added by me.


by Robert Germino and David Todeschini

One of the safest bests of the 21st Century is that treasures will be found in space in the form of small meteors. They may be grey and drab-looking on the outside but inside will be jewels and precious gems, just waiting for the mining engineers to extract them. But it won’t be easy.

If you are a veteran of the universe of STURGRAT (on LOADSTAR #54) you will have an idea of the complexity of 21st Century space mining.


In THE RED OBELISK you are in control of a mining company. You must gather some object from space and by using the powers of your factory, you can ‘sell’ them for the maximum profit. Your goal, as is any capitalist’s, is to garner as many shekels as you can.

Let me describe your ship first. It is a Sturgrat space mining/laboratory and short-range fighting vessel. It operates in three modes, the Object Mode, the Mining Mode and the Attack Mode. You begin in the Object Mode (which is the inside of your laboratory) where you get a readout of all the capabilities of the Sturgrat.

Object Mode

The most important thing to keep your eyes on is the POWR rating in the lower right of the screen. If this gets too low, you will lose your ship, and, as is shown right above the POWR display, you only have two, not counting the one you begin with.

But your power is running down so you can’t tarry too long making decisions. And believe me, there are a lot of them to make.

You begin with an object on the conversion table. Its type is shown on the left. The idea is to process this object and then convert it into SCORE and POWR. You have to get the tolerance down and the temperature up.

These two values are shown on the left, TOLR and TEMP. You hold down the E key (for the electrodes) for a short period of time and notice that when you let up the TOLR has gone down. Get it down below 100. Press L (for the lasers) the same way to get the TEMP above 500. Since your POWR is going down all of the time, it pays to do these two things quickly and efficiently. They MUST be done for each object.

In the bottom left hand corner is the value of the object (VALU). As a true capitalist, you will want this figure as high as possible before you convert it into cash (SCORE).

You can increase the value of the object by bombarding it with Ultrasonics. Press U and then push the joystick forward and listen to the pitch of the sound. Press the firebutton and the VALU will increase by a certain amount. If you want to increase the VALU faster, push forward on the stick, the pitch will increase and so will the amount the VALU increases when you press the firebutton.

You can get too greedy with VALU. If you’ve increased it too high, the object will be destroyed and will disappear from the screen.

A good Sturgrat miner will write down the TYPE of object and try to discern the maximum VALU an object of that type can attain WITHOUT destroying itself at conversion. Write this figure down, too.

If you convert at too low a VALU, you will only get the VALU, but if you convert it at just below the ‘peak’ VALU of an object, it’ll be transformed into the incredibly valuable RED OBELISK, which, in more ways than one, is the name of the game. It’s up to you to determine each object’s ‘peak’ value.

You cannot do much more in the Ultrasonics mode. Press U to toggle out of it (if you are in it) and then you are ready for conversion. You do this by pressing RETURN. You’ll either (a) convert it for the present VALU, (b) create a RED OBELISK (which pays off handsomely) or (c) find yourself looking at a dreaded FALSE OBELISK. If you see one of these, you have to act quickly and destroy it by firing Caps at it (the F key) or by bombarding it with Ultrasonics. If a FALSE OBELISK is left to itself it will destroy your current ship and its cargo.

Mining Mode

Which brings up the question: Where do objects come from?

You have to space-mine them. Press the SPACE bar to go from the Object Mode to the Mining Mode. You’ll see your Sturgrat drifting through a meteor field. Use the joystick to maneuver around the meteors trying to capture the small, shining object that is floating slowly across the screen. The object must be captured DIRECTLY in the Sturgrat’s scoop. Even a small bit off-line will cause your ship damage.

You have a tractor beam which you can enable with the firebutton. It will draw the gleaming object up the screen where the action is less hectic.

As a matter of fact, the top of the screen is a safe place where you can scoop up hydrogen molecules with your tractor beam and slowly boost your POWR if you are running low.

You can gather up to nine objects at a time or you can gather just one and head back to convert it. To go back to the Object Mode, press RETURN.

Attack Mode

You begin your stint as space-miner with 3 ships and 3 Caps, but as your POWR gets higher (above 1500 megajoules) your Sturgrat becomes more attractive to marauding space-hijackers. When you least expect it you will be attacked.

The message says that you have lost the object on the conversion table and that the marauder wants to know if you surrender or not. If you surrender, you won’t lose your ship but you’ll have to continue with what you have. If you answer N to the surrender prompt you go to the Attack Mode.

This is the arcade portion of your mission. Move the joystick so that the cross-hairs are on the middle of the attacking ship and press the firebutton to fire. Keep an eye on your POWR level. If you are in danger of losing your ship you can weaken or destroy the marauder with a Giga-Gem by pressing the G key.

Giga-Gems can destroy any cargo that the attacker may have, so you should use them only as a last resort. When you have bludgeoned the attacker into submission he’ll ask if he can trade his cargo for his life. If you feel in a benevolent mood (or in a greedy one) you’ll probably do better accepting his offer and letting him limp off into space.

If you choose to destroy the enemy, you may be able to salvage some of his Caps. If you let him live you may get CRGO (objects), Krystals or Giga-Gems. Base your decision on what you need most.

The Krystals (KRYS) cam be converted in the Object Mode by pressing K. A Krystal is mainly a bonus score you get for defeating a marauder and being kind enough to let him slither off alive.

That’s about it. It will take a little practice with the controls of your Sturgrat but soon you will be grabbing objects and converting them like crazy hoping to find a level for each TYPE of object that will give you a RED OBELISK. As your POWR rating goes up you will have to fight off space-raiders more. Try to get the highest score so that you can head back to Earth a rich man.

As for the trip back to Earth, that’s another game, but one I’m sure Bobby and David will be creating soon. Sturgrat rules! Long may it run.


**** End of Text ****

Romhack Thursday: Doom on a Commodore 64, kinda-sorta

On Romhack Thursdays, we bring you interesting finds from the world of game modifications.

Look at that title and marvel a bit. Doom on a C64! What an idea. How could it even be possible? What an age we live in. It is a time of wonders. Children are our future.

Of course there’s more to it than that. There is a whole class of “retro” game that amounts to implementing the actual game on separate hardware, and using the supposed host platform as a glorified display and input device. That’s what’s going on in this case. Doom is really being run on a Raspberry Pi in a plug-in cartridge on a processor that’s underpowered by modern standards but far outpaces that of even Doom’s base configuration, and is thousands of times more powerful than the Commodore 64 to which it pipes its output.

But there’s still some technical interest in the means. The device that runs it is a “RAD Expansion Unit,” a DIY device that emulates a C64 RAM expansion, and apparently can even take over from the 6510 CPU and drive the system’s hardware directly. It works by writing to the VIC-II video and SID sound chips itself.

There was still a lot of coding work required to make this possible. A C64 has somewhat decent sound hardware, but the VIC-II chip has severe limitations on what it can display. The Raspberry Pi has to take the game’s display and port it, in real-time, to a graphics chip that can only display up to four colors (out of only 16) in each character cell, and that’s by sacrificing half of its horizontal resolution. Doing that on the fly itself is a noteworthy hack.

Could it be possible to run DOOM on a C64 without such assistance? At native resolution, ha ha ha: no. The memory limitations are too grievous, so at the very least you’ll need a RAM expansion.

I’ve mused at times on whether it might be possible if one uses the character screen as a kind of super-low-resolution graphics mode, each 8×8 character block representing either a 2×2 pixel grid (so, a resolution of 80×50) or a single pixel (40×25). Even at such a resolution 60 fps is probably out of the question, for it takes a lot of cycles to change every tile every frame, but maybe at 30 or 20? 15, 12, 10? (60 is divisible by a lot of numbers.) I will leave that question to people who are more current with C64 assembly coding.

Here is a demonstration video:

Doom on C64 – A playable tech demo for the RAD Expansion Unit for Commodore 64/128 (Youtube, 19 minutes) – Github repository

Gamebase 64 is in Trouble

According to this forum post, classic Commodore 64 database and information archive site Gamebase 64 has been stricken by the death of their webmaster Steven Feurer, and unless they can find someone to replace him soon, and likely provide alternate hosting too, their site will follow him into the Great Beyond.

As time passes, these kinds of events will happen more and more often, so please, if you maintain a website, of any kind sure but our remit is games so let’s say game-related site, please take measures to ensure its continuity in the unfortunate event of your passing. And if you can help Gamebase64 out, please consider it?

Bye, bye, Gamebase64?

M.U.L.E. Turns 40

Dani Bunten’s classic economic simulation M.U.L.E. is one of the all-time greats, still fairly obscure even among people who know and talk about video and computer games, but hugely influential. Wikipedia tells us that Shigeru Miyamoto considers it an influence on the Pikmin games (although other than in theme I really don’t see it).

There are three current ways to play M.U.L.E. One is Planet M.U.L.E., an official port sponsored by Ozark Softscape, which is several years old, and I was certain I had posted here about before. It’s a proper update with new graphics and a lot of character. A thing about M.U.L.E. is that the original versions were intricately designed in a lot of ways, not just in game rules but the little details. The way the phase ending noise speeds up, the exact difficulty of catching a Wampus, the speeds with which players walk through terrain, the many details of auctions, even the time it takes to outfit a mule and leave/enter town, it’s all finely calculated. You can tell that Dani cared deeply about the game, and it’s a polished as any game I’ve ever seen, and that’s the old 8-bit computer versions. Planet M.U.L.E. isn’t as polished, but it’s still very nice, and you can tell its makers thought hard about it. It offers both local and online play.

Sadly, Planet M.U.L.E. seems to be on life support. While games can still be played, and the automated best player posts still go up on its blog, it’s not gotten an update in years, and it’s even possible they’ve lost the source code.

One legacy of Planet M.U.L.E. is a wonderful Youtube video they made that explains the game and how to play. It’s a great introduction:

M.U.L.E. Returns was a mobile port. It has a website, that’s still around, but apparently none of those versions are available. It’s got a page for a Steam version, but it’s not available despite the original game being released in 2013. The site claims it may come back some day, but it cannot be purchased currently.

Then there’s the new roboanimal on the block, M.U.L.E. Online, which is on for a very reasonable $5. It has the blessing of Ozark Softscape, and is a near match for the Atari 800 version. You won’t get any improved graphics or sound here, but you will get a game that copies the original very closely, which is perfectly fine in my opinion. It offers local single and multiplayer, as well as internet-based online play. They also promote a board game version of M.U.L.E, which I’ve long wanted to try!

Or there’s emulation. Back in college I played M.U.L.E. with roommates via an Atari 800 emulator burnt to a Dreamcast disk, a great way to play if you have the system, controllers and means to construct the disk because the Dreamcast has four controller ports. (M.U.L.E. is by far at its best when you have four people playing.) The Commdore 64 and IBM PC versions were also made by Dani and the others at Ozark Softscape. The C64 port is close to the Atari 8-bit version. I don’t know about the DOS PC version. I can say that the NES version made by Mindscape is a terrible version, while sadly possibly the most-played because of the great popularity of the NES. If you tried that version and wondered what the fuss is about, you should seek out the Atari 8-bit version and play it before writing off the game entirely.

World Of Mule is a fansite dedicated to M.U.L.E. in all its forms. For its 40th anniversary, they’ve published a long retrospective on the game, its history and the new versions. (That’s where the above image comes from.) It’s a fitting tribute to one of the most influential computer games ever made.

Long ago, on primordial wiki-like site, I personally wrote a long examination and play guide to M.U.L.E. While my writing style back then was pretty crazy, I think the information holds up. If you have an interest, you may want to take a look.

Planet Mule ($0, Windows, Mac and Linux)

M.U.L.E. Returns (versions currently unavailable)

M.U.L.E. Online (, Windows, Mac and Linux, $5)

World of M.U.L.E. (

M.U.L.E. The Board Game (boardgamegeek item page)

The Graphics of Trap Door and Popeye on the Commodore 64

In my teens I got started coding on my old Commodore 64s. Learning to program was a much different process back then, there was no internet to answer basically any question you’d have almost on a whim, everything I picked up came from some written matter, mostly programmer’s guides (including the definitive guide to using the hardware, the Programmer’s Reference Guide) or periodicals like Compute’s Gazette, Ahoy! and Commodore Magazine.

The C64 had a lot of graphics features, made possible by the machine’s powerful VIC-II chip. All of the home computers of the time had tricks one could use to get extra mileage out of their bespoke graphics hardware. The Atari 8-bit computers had display lists, for instance. The VIC-II had a powerful raster interrupt facility, the ability to share memory with the processor (at the cost of delaying the whole machine while it did so), eight surprisingly large hardware sprites (in double-width mode they could fill a whole scanline, something the NES’ sprites could only dream of doing), and a collection of interesting and flexible graphics modes.

Most of the time the C64 was in character mode, which was the standard kind of tile-based mode that pretty much all home computers at the time used by default, suitable for displaying messages, coding and some graphics. The ’64 three such modes: the standard mode where each character had a single color along with the screen-wide background color; a multicolor mode that gave a character its own color, up to two colors shared throughout the screen and that background color, and (mumble mumble). Sorry, what’d I say? I’ll get to that later.

The system also had two bitmapped modes that worked similarly, just directly viewing a region of memory instead of using each byte as an index into a character set. One mode was like the standard character mode, where the 1s in the bitmap were colored and the 0s were the background color; the other was multicolor mode, which similarly worked like it did in multicolor character mode: one color per 8×8 region, two colors shared throughout the screen, and the background color.

The problem with multicolor mode was, you had to trade horizontal resolution to use it. The big limiting factor to many computers’ graphics then was memory use: finding a way to encode the graphics information so the chip could access it and convert it into a video signal quickly enough to meet the needs of the display. So, to fit an 8-pixel-wide section of screen into the single byte it needed to be squeezed into, it could either use a one-to-one dot to screen ratio, or sacrifice two bits for one extra-wide pixel of up to four possible colors.


The Commodore 64 had a fifth graphics mode. The one I mumbled over earlier. The much-ignored Extended Background Color mode.

It was another character based mode that, instead of forcing you to make use of one background color over the whole screen, gave you up to four such colors. Every cell on the screen could display a character using its full 8×8 resolution, but could also pick which of those background colors it could have. Useful!

Well… not as useful as you’d think. There’s always a tradeoff, and Extended Background Color’s tradeoff was a dire one. How does the VIC-II chip know which background color to use for each character cell? It uses the two high-order bits of each character byte. Meaning, while you could decide which of two colors would be used in each cell with a lot greater nuance, you only had 64 characters to work with! A full screen of 1,000 characters is a lot to fill with just 64 possible tiles. A lot of repetition would be unavoidable, which is probably why it was so little-used.

It essentially was either this:

or this

These images are a little misleading, because I used the Commodore 64’s default ROM character set to make them, and the second half of its characters are just mirror images of the first half. But if you define your own characters, which basically any game worth its salt will do, it greatly reduces the number of tiles at your disposal. There may be some sneaky ways around it, sure, but they all involve their own tradeoffs.

I explain all this because Extended Background Color Mode is my best guess as to how Trap Door and Popeye do their graphics.

Here’s video of a playthrough of Popeye. It’s about 21 minutes, but it shouldn’t take long to get what I mean. It’s not Nintendo’s Popeye, it’s a completely different game.

And here’s a playthrough of Trap Door, with graphics by the same person:

Look at those huge characters! How could this be possible, and with that color depth? The C64 can have huge sprites, but only at the cost of making all their dots twice as tall and/or wide. And the pixels aren’t even multicolor mode wide. I can’t quite make sense out of it! Unless, maybe the games are displaying their large characters using the character set, which explains why they jerk along the screen? And the colors are using Extended Background Mode? That might explain the simplicity of the backgrounds, with only 64 characters to work with that means a lot of reused tiles.

I guess the point of this post is: what gives?


We’ve brought up a couple of examples of Commodore PET software lately, which as I keep saying, is interesting because the PET has no way of doing bitmapped graphics, sprites, or even definable characters. Its characters are locked in ROM and cannot be changed. So, it includes a set of multi-purpose characters that was used throughout all the Commodore 8-bit line, even as late as the C64 and C128, which having definable graphics didn’t need these kinds of generic graphics characters, but they were still useful for people who didn’t want to create their own graphics.

The PETSCII characters, as used on the Commodore 64 (image, with some editing, from Wikipedia). The graphics set also includes reverse-video versions of each character.

Back on my Commodore coding days I became very familiar with these characters. I think they’re much more universally-applicable for graphic use than the IBM equivalent, the famous Code Page 437, although that’s mostly because PETSCII doesn’t bother defining supporting so many languages. Code Page 437 also uses a lot of its space for single and double-line versions of box-drawing characters, although on the other hand it doesn’t waste characters defining reverse-video versions of every glyph.


  • A space and reversed space, of course.
  • Line drawing characters for boxes of course: vertical and horizontal lines, corners, and three- and four-way intersections. There are also curved versions of the corners.
  • More line-drawing characters for borders.
  • Still more horizontal and vertical lines, at each pixel position within their box.
  • With the reverse-video versions, enough characters to effectively do a 80×50 pixel display, as if it had a super low-res mode.
  • Different thicknesses of horizontal and vertical lines too.
  • Diagonal lines, and a big ‘X’. Note that on the PET and Vic-20 these lines were all one pixel wide, but on later computers with both better resolution and color graphics they were made thicker, which means diagonal lines have “notches” between character cells.
  • Other miscellaneous symbols: playing card symbols, filled and hollow balls, and some checkerboards for shading. On the PET and Vic, the shading characters were finer, while on the other 8-bit computers they were made of 2×2 boxes.

There are resources that let you use PETSCII to create old-school computer art, like this PETSCII editor, Petmate and Playscii, and for a bunch of examples of what you can do with it you can browse through the Twitter account PETSCIIBots. And this blog post from 2016 both makes the case for PETSCII as a medium for art and provides some great examples of it.

Some robots from PETSCIIBots


Now is the beginning of a fantastic journey!

Aah that’s a screen I haven’t seen in a long long time.

1982 saw the founding of the Apple II computer magazine-on-disk Softdisk. Soon after Softdisk Publishing produced disks for other home computers too. One of them, Big Blue Disk, has gone down in history as previous employer of some of the original principals of id Software, especially John Carmack and John Romero. But another of Softdisk’s legacies was their Commodore 64 product, Loadstar, probably the longest-lived Commodore 64 software publisher. They published C64 software from 1984 to 2007. And most, if not all, of it is available online!

Loadstar is yet another of those computer gaming stories that must be told, and I’m in a pretty good place to tell some of it, because I beta tested for them for many of those years, and sold programs to them as well. Yes, several of their releases bear the programmer name John “The Mad Gamer” Harris. You have to understand, this was long before the word gamer reached common usage. In fact, as someone who may have primacy over the use of the term, I hereby forbid its use by anyone with misogynistic, anti-trans or racist intent. It is so decreed, hey-nonny-nonny!

Loadstar was lots of fun. Every month they’d send you two disks in the mail with several new pieces of Commodore 64 software on it. Under the watchful eyes of Fender Tucker and Jeff Jones, and later on Dave Moorman, it’s not that they grew an empire of Commodore programs, but they did manage to sustain that platform for a small but avid userbase for far longer than you’d have thought possible.

I plan to start doing Loadstar reviews eventually, but in the meantime, you can try out some of the later issues of this important piece of computing history at the site linked below. Note that you’ll have to have a means of running C64 software to use them, of course. The emulator VICE is known to work well. And if you want to hear the words of Fender, Jeff or Dave yourself, all three are on Facebook.

The LOADSTAR Library

News 1/24/22: Pokemon Collecting, Universal Mario World, Commodore 64 of Theseus

“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter

Let’s make it quick this week-

Oli Welsh at Polygon tells us what we already knew, that No Zelda Game is Closer to Breath of the Wild Than The 1986 Original. We can’t recommend it whole-heartedly though because it gets in some digs on the older game, saying it’s nowhere near as much fun as Link to the Past, a statement I disagree with.

Hope Bellingham at GamesRadar tells us that U.S. Customs wrecked a sealed-in-box copy of Pokemon Yellow valued at over $10,000. I rather disagree with that valuation too. I thought all the misguided young people were losing their money in crypto these days? (Note: GamesRadar is one of those sites that waits until you start reading an article then puts up a blocking box begging you to subscribe. Hint to GamesRadar: NO, and if I were interested in subscribing my generous impulse would have been destroyed by your prompt!)

Image from The Guardian, probably ultimately from a promotional photograph

At the Guardian, the very British-named Oliver Wainwright reviews Super Mario World, not the game but the theme park in California, a part of Universal Studios Hollywood. The verdict: 8/10, good graphics, some replay value. I’ve been in a melancholy frame of mind as of late, so seeing those brightly-painted dioramas makes me wonder what they’ll look like in twenty years, when Universal Studios’ attentions have drifted to another big thing. Nothing ages quite as badly as a happy prop painted in primary colors.

I said I was going to make this quick, let’s keep moving. Maya Posch at hackaday talks about a project to build a Commodore 64 using new parts.

Ollie Reynolds found some Donkey Kong design documents on Twitter, from the days when it was planned to be a Popeye game. He found them retweeted by blogfriend Mike Mika of Digital Eclipse, who in turn found them looking through Mario history site Forest of Illusion. Documenting Habitat and its descendants

Long, long ago, three full ages before Zuckerberg’s doomed Metaverse, there was Lucasarts, formerly Lucasfilm Games, and Maniac Mansion, and the SCUMM engine.

Lucasarts went on to have a long legacy of adventure games, and while it’s gone now and most of its progeny is owned by some mouse creature, it survives in a number of forms, like the upcoming Monkey Island re-revival.

Another legacy of Lucasarts and SCUMM is what is possibly the first graphical MUD, called Habitat.

Even though it’s blurry, it deserves the head spot on a blog post, just one more time.

What? You don’t know what a MUD is, or a MOO or a MUCK? A lot of knowledge is in danger of being lost, but we don’t have time to remind you of rudiments here.

Habitat was an early experiment in online communities, a server-based virtual world whose clients were Commodore 64s. In appearance it looks a whole lot like a multiplayer version of Maniac Mansion.

It never went public, but did eventually become a paid feature, in modified form. on the C64 online service QuantumLink under the name Club Caribe. Then, with the wane of the Commodore 64 as a viable platform, QuantumLink closed their servers and rebranded as America On-Line, a.k.a. AOL. And that is not only history at this point, but ancient history. Read more about it here.

While there was still competition in the dial-up online service space, two creators of Habitat, Randy Farmer and Chip Morningstar, partnered with Fujitsu to have another go at a Habitat-style service, this time called WorldsAway. They partnered with AOL competitor CompuServe, and didn’t do badly for a while.

There’s all kinds of things to talk about here, and I have rather more knowledge than most because I was involved with this, I was volunteer staff at the flagship WorldsAway world, called Dreamscape. I was a participant in the CompuServe forum before the main service even opened, I spend an entire night on the phone as a teen, our old 486DX running Windows 3.11 downloading the client software.

WorldsAway was basically my life for a few years. It could be incredibly addicting, and spirits were high in the early days. There was a feeling of being at the forefront of something. The Internet was just starting to become really big. Who knew what it would become?

What happened to WorldsAway is a story, one that I’m probably not qualified to tell. I know there were problems with business management even from the start. The world staff was constantly said to be fighting with higher-ups, who wanted to cheapen or diminish the project. In size, certainly, the initial world Dreamscape never got anywhere as large as what we hoped for. Even compared to the size of its Commodore 64 predecessor Club Caribe, it was pretty small.

It’s said that they were a west coast operation, and many of their staffers were queer. One of the eventual spinoff worlds that WorldsAway would spawn was explicitly queer-friendly. Given the successes and continued struggles of queer-friendly media on the internet today, I feel like WA’s acceptance of alternate lifestyles should probably be better known.

I still have a couple of friends from those days. Others I’ve sadly lost touch with. A few friends from that time, notably Tiggles, Esme, and Rosaleah, have departed our physical world as well. Maybe some comfort could be had in the idea that maybe they’re users in some higher-order reality, who may have logged-off of our world, but are still out there in a more profound form. If they’re out there and somehow seeing this: please spare a thought for me. I’ll be back out there some day.

The Reno Project is a website devoted to preserving as much of those early projects, those ancient times, as possible. You could immerse yourself in the screenshots there, and dream of a past era that barely was. One of its competitors at the time, which is a bit better known today, is The Palace. One other service that still exists that competed with it is There, although good luck making an account (I tried). And Second Life of course continues to chug along. All of these things seem to me like more worthy projects than Zuckerberg’s latest progeny.