A 30+ Year Old RPG System for the Commodore 64

It’s been months now since I announced my plans to release some project involving LOADSTAR, a 17-year computer magazine on disk, either here or on itch.io, or both. I’m still working on them.

In the meantime, I present this, a packaged-up release of Dungeon on itch.io, a complete old-school RPG gaming system for the Commdore 64, as it was released on the disk magazine LOADSTAR back in 1990.

Written by David Caruso II, Dungeon is a way of creating adventures for others to play, and a system of creating, maintaining and playing characters in those adventures. It was kind of a throwback even in 1990 (the SNES was released that year), but it definitely has charm, and an old-school kind of appeal.

You start out on the Guild screen, where you create a character from one of five fantasy races, then venture out on adventures stored on floppy disks, which in this release are provided as C64 1541 disk images. Fight monsters to earn experience points, find the object of the quest and then return to the Guild by the exit to have the chance to advance in experience level. If your character dies they’ll be revived, but only up to two times! If something happens and you don’t make it back, but don’t die either, your character will be marked as “GONE,” meaning they’re stuck in limbo until they make it back to the Guild on their own!

Your character advances in level between adventures, but they don’t get to keep any items they found on their journey. If they advance in level however, they get to permanently improve two of their stats. Getting to the maximum score of 25 grants them a special ability, but it’s really hard to get there!

This presentation of Dungeon is being made with the permission of Fender Tucker, owner and former Managing Editor of LOADSTAR. It isn’t free, but for $5 you get the Dungeon system and five pre-made adventures for it, culled from the 240+ issues of LOADSTAR. I include a stock copy of the open-source Commodore 64 emulator VICE, configured for playing Dungeon. (If $5 is too much for you, rumor has it Loadstar issues can be found online elsewhere. Dungeon was first published on issue #74.)

If you want to know more about it, I have constructed this 40-page PDF of documentation on Dungeon, from the disks of LOADSTAR in 1990, along with the instructions for the adventures and further notes on playing it from me. Here:

(file size: 2.6 MB)

The document refers to an itch.io release, that’s what I’m currently working on. Late in the document there are some spoilers for a particularly difficult adventure using the system.

Dungeon was created by someone named David Caruso II. Neither I nor long-time LOADSTAR managing editor Fender Tucker knows what became of him. I have what is almost certainly an old address for him. It’s been 33 years, and I suspect that Dungeon itself is a couple of years older than that, so it’s possible that Caruso has passed away by now. If he hasn’t, though, I’d like to talk with him. I think (hope?) he’d appreciate that people are still thinking about his creation even now.

Homebrew Atari 7800 Arcade Ports

Just a quick post today, last year user PacManPlus made available free downloads of some of their Atari 7800 remakes of arcade games. For people who aren’t in the scene this might be of limited interest, but these games were formerly sold commercially on AtariAge’s website and not generally available for free. Atari 7800 emulation is, of course, easily available in RetroArch, but this page on the EmuGen Wiki lists some standalone emulators.

One of the included games is a game that is very rarely ported, Baby Pac-Man, because it contains a significant pinball component. The pinball physics in the remake are uncommonly good! The Youtube account The Atari Network reviewed it with gameplay video so you can see for yourself:

Baby Pac-Man isn’t the only game in the collection, but its especially notable. I haven’t even had a chance to look at the others yet, but there’s some interesting titles in there.

The remakes were originally sold commercially on cartridges, but they were recently delisted and removed from sale, so PacManPlus was kind enough to make them available for anyone to download and play. I for one appreciate his kind generosity!

PacManPlus’ Atari 7800 Arcade Ports (atariage.com)

Quick Browser-Based Multiplayer Emulation

NES Party and SNES Party are sites that do a think that would have seemed like magic 10 years ago: they make it easy to pick out NES and SNES games, load them into the browser from the Internet Archive, and not only let you play them yourself but share a room link with another person and enable internet-based multiplayer. It’s all as simple as that.

Well, mostly. When I tried using it, emulation was much faster than normal. The game load screen suggests, if this happen, that you reduce the refresh rate of your display, which seems like kind of a kludgy solution. But on the plus side, snes.party has Rampart!

NES Party and SNES Party

Alien Invaders Plus for the Commodore 64

Last year we put a spotlight on a Commodore 64 remake of possibly the most popular Odyssey2 game, K.C. Munchkin. Well, here’s another, of Space Monster, a.k.a. Alien Invaders – Plus! I assure you, the exclamation point there belongs to Magnavox.

The Odyssey has gotten more talk on this site than its much-more-powerful successor, which was still kinda weak compared to its competition. People still talk about the Atari VCS/2600 even now 45 years after its introduction; the Intellivision still gets some love; but who talks about the third place system, the Odyssey2? Fourth if you count the Colecovision, but that machine, released in August 1982, was only on the scene for a relative instant, the Crash already fomenting by that time.

Alien Invaders – Plus (I’m going to leave off the bang now thanks) was Magnavox’s attempt to capitalize on the gigantic success of Space Invaders. The box didn’t hide its inspiration, outright saying: A fiendish new dimension comes to one of the most popular arcade games of all time! By that time, the market had already determined that Atari’s miraculous licensed version of Space Invaders was probably the best, a game that, while subtly different, actually improved on the original in some ways. Similarly, while everyone now can play the original Space Invaders in MAME if they’re inclined, Alien Invaders – Plus (which Craig Kubey in The Winner’s Book of Video Games derided as Space Invaders – Minus!) is more interesting for the interesting departures from the arcade game, and the Commodore 64 remake mimics them faithfully.

At first it looks vaguely similar to Taito’s arcade hit. There’s rows of aliens in the sky, there’s a roundish alien going back and forth above them, you have a base at the bottom that can move back and forth and shoot up at the enemy, and there’s even shields above it that can be dodged behind for safety.

Loading screen for C64 version of Alien Invaders Plus.

The first difference comes from the aliens themselves. In Space Invaders, while they looked different and were worth different amounts of points, they all behaved exactly the same. Here, each of the three rows of foes plays by different rules. The bottom-most are just barriers, they can’t be destroyed but they don’t shoot at you either. Any shot that hopes to hit targets higher up on the screen must get through them. The middle row are yellow laser cannons, and they shoot down at you. The top row are red humanoid robots that operate the cannons. The wandering eye-like alien at the top is called the “Merciless Monstroth,” but I’m sure its mother loves it just the same.

Like Space Invaders, the alien formation rains down bombs on you, and it’s easy to get hit. Unlike Space Invaders, there’s a limit to how far the aliens can descend, right above the shields, and you’ve never in danger of being overrun. If you wait beneath a shield you cannot be shot, but neither can you shoot the enemies. Also, in each row, all you have to do is hit either the robot or the cannon in order to stop them from shooting down at you.

To finish a level, you have to shoot all the robots and cannons on the screen. This will cause the Merciless Monstroth to get serious about you, swoop down from the top of the screen and hover just above your shields, trying to bomb you. At that range dodging its shots is very difficult, and it’s evasive of your shots, but you can still zap it safely with a well-timed shot as it reaches your base’s horizontal position.

Your reward for doing all of that is one single point. Your score is just how many boards you’ve cleared. No bonus points or anything like that are awarded.

If your ship gets hit you don’t perish immediately. A little person is revealed to have been moving it. If you can move it to beneath one of your shields and press the fire button, you’ll be given a new base! This, however, costs you that shield. The shields are basically your lives; if you run out of them, and your base gets destroyed again leaving your guy, then you’re essentially screwed. Your little base-inhabiting person has no weapons of their own. If you get down to no shields left before destroying all the aliens, M.M. will sense its opportunity and swoop down at you early. Destroying it at this time, or while its at the top of the screen, before all the other aliens are obliterated doesn’t clear the wave; the game will just send another one out, again and again, until you’ve finished the job.

If your base person is shot while outside of a base, you don’t quite die. Instead, the enemy gets a point. While you’re trying to get to ten points yourself, the enemy is also trying to get to 10, and the side that gets there first “wins the game.”

Despite all the chances the game gives you, it’s really hard! You’ll find the green circles block most of your shots, and the cannons are really good at predicting where you’ll be and aiming a shot there, and the enemy shots move quickly. Since reforming your base costs you the shield you’re beneath, often you’ll get your base back and lose it again immediately as the barrier disappears.

The Commodore version was created by demo group Second Dimension. It’s worth playing in preference to the Odyssey2 version if only because C64 emulation is understood than Odyssey2 emulation. There’s multiple Commodore emulators, at least, while only one Odyssey2 emulator that I know of.

Here is the Commodore 64 version is action, from the channel C64 Masters on Youtube.

Here is the game’s page on CSDb. Prepare be humbled!

Jason Scott Reminds Us Of Software On Cassette Tapes

I had one of these, although it got pretty decrepit later on. Images here from the article on the Internet Archive.

Commodore users of a certain intersection of class and age will remember the Datasette, a custom tape player that early Vic-20 and C64 users could use to load and save their programs on standard “Compact Cassettes.” This was a very slow process, that was so timing intensive that the C64 had to blank its screen during it, because its graphics chip demanded exclusive access to memory while it got the needed data each frame to render graphics. Of course things were rather different in Europe, where cassette tapes were a much more viable medium, and tape loading could actually be faster than the 1541 disk drive (a notably flawed and slow design).

The Atari 8-bit counterpart to the Datasette

Scott walks through this unique period of home computing history. I still have tapes of old Commodore software lying around (because I rarely can bring myself to throw such things out). Maybe some day, if I can get my old Commodores working and displaying again, I’ll try them out and see if they work.

But fortunately, for commercial cassette software archived on the Internet Archive, you don’t have to go through such lengths! Although you can still wait for software to load if you want to! The IA offers emulated software for both the Sinclair ZX-81 and Commodore 64 that are supplied on virtual tapes, so you too can experience the exciting process of waiting for programs to load. In Scott’s words: “Incomprehensible! Mysterious! Uninformative! Welcome to home computing in the 1980s!

I notice that much of the Commodore 64 software mentioned in the article actually had tape loading graphics. I can’t explain this. It kind of makes me feel cheated, from the many times I sat watching a blank light-blue screen. Presumably the UK coders who made much tape-based 64 software had, in their tape-loading bag of tricks, a way to overcome the VIC-II’s timing issues. I wouldn’t doubt it.

The Easy Roll and Slow Burn of Cassette-Based Software (Internet Archive)

Now, on the Sharp X68000

The SuperGrafx is a failed system that had only five games, only three of which seem to be worth playing. The Sharp X68000 series of high-end personal computers, which were only released in Japan, on the other hand, is probably the popular gaming system Westerners have heard the least about.

As I said yesterday, the X68000 cost three grand, and that was just for the base system. If you thought the NeoGeo was expensive, hah. It’s price was justified in that it was a computer, indeed a workstation, and had a variety of software other than games. But it did still have a lot of games, including some of the best arcade conversions, including excellent ports of Rygar, After Burner, Strider, Final Fight, Street Fighter II and Detana! Twinbee, and a well-remembered recreation of the original Castlevania up to then-current aural and visual ideals. The X68000 even got conversions of Atari arcade games like Marble Madness, and even KLAX, that would I would have loved to have played back then.

The X68000 also worked a lot like a MS-DOS machine from the time. It ran mostly HUMAN68K as its OS, a DOS clone made by HudsonSoft, although it also had windowing OSes. Despite how it seemed in use though, it used Motorola 680X0-family processors, like original iteration of the Macintosh. But while it has a DOS-style OS, it’s a home computer with a dedicated sprite chip!

At times it feels like this blog is a recap of my gaming-related Youtube explorations, but I have no qualms about it when they’re as excellent as the two I have this time. One is a review of the “pro” version system from four years ago, from someone who went and obtained one:

Three years later, RMC returned with a more thorough exploration of a different machine of the line:

And this one is about emulating it, which is probably the closest most of us will ever come to trying out any of its software:

Vector Kong

Please pardon the stuttering, evidently capturing the game at high resolution was a bit much for OBS to bear.

Vector Kong is not a romhack of Donkey Kong. Instead, it’s a LUA script, run through MAME’s plugin support, that makes the graphics display as if they were on a vector monitor.

It doesn’t leave the game unaltered otherwise: the only boards playable are Girders, and it also skips over the scene at the opening. Still though, it definitely looks sharp! Here’s hoping creator 10yard applies this treatment to the rest of it someday!

Vector Kong (github)

Macromedia Director Support in ScummVM Improves

News from the Mastodon of blogfriend Anatoly Shashkin, the increasingly inaccurately-named ScummVM project, which started way back in 2001 as an engine to play classic Lucasarts adventures but has since expanded way beyond that remit, will be getting improved Macromedia Director support!

It’s already available in its testing version, so if you want to play around with some new older games (many of them Japanese titles), go have a look!

ScummVM: Let me take you to the time warp!

A Non-Invasive Gameboy HDMI Adaptor

This one’s crazy. The Gameboy does not have external video output. In order to get its display to appear on a screen other than its built in LCD dox matrix, you absolutely have to at least crack open the case. Don’t you?

Well, actually, yes, if you always want a perfect image. Sebastian Staacks (an awesome name) figured out a way to do it that mostly works. It’s a cartridge that goes into the Gameboy, that itself has a slot into which you plug the cartridge that you wish to play. Simple, right?

No, no, wait. There’s a problem. The Gameboy doesn’t expose its video through the cartridge port. There is no pin leading out providing a video signal that can be converted for display. There’s no way this could work!

Well, there is a way, kind of. The device contains a Raspberry Pi that runs its own Gameboy emulator, that it tries to keep synced with the version running on physical hardware. It does this by watching bus activity exposed to it through the cartridge port!

But while there’s a lot that it can do with this information, there’s also a lot it can’t see. It can’t, for example, see directly what buttons are being pressed. However, by watching how the cartridge reads the cart ROM, it can deduce what inputs were pressed.

The process is not perfect. While it can spy some memory accesses, a few things escape its inspection. While it can recreate the layout of the starting blocks in Tetris Game B, it can’t catch their randomized appearances. Also, while a Raspberry Pi is much faster than a Gameboy, it’s not fast enough to carry out its display in the same frame as the main unit, so it lags behind a couple of frames. Still though, it’s a very clever idea, and it’s amazing that it works as well as it does!

Sebastian made a Youtube video explaining and showing off his work, here. (It’s the same one embedded above.)

There Oughta Be A Game Boy Capture Cartridge

News 11/16/22: Ubisoft on Steam, Mac System 9 on Wii

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

It’s been a few days! It’s been Globmas on our planet which has filled up my time with various gelatinous timewastes. I gather that the situation has been similar down on Earth, with the advent of an event that I hear is called “Dark Friday.” I hope that soon you manage to unseat whatever terrible villain has been causing you so much trouble.

Because of Dark Friday filling blogs, there seems to be less good news to convey to you this time out. I only have a couple of articles to recommend.

Kyle Orland at Ars Technica tells us that Ubisoft has come crawling back to Steam, after snubbing the service for a while in favor of the Epic Game Store. Exclusivity is awful of course, although it does sometimes give us some pretty nice deals as various strategists and marketers jockey with each other in order to convince customers to join up with their places of market. In Epic’s case, these deals have sometimes been free games, although often what is given away is simply the base or least-featured version of some product. Anyway. I don’t even buy many games at the moment but I still have four game store apps on my PC: Steam, Epic, GOG and itch.io. Of them, Steam and itch are the ones that I actually like. GOG and itch’s apps are in fact optional, although convenient. I suspect that many other people and blobs have the same opinion.

Image from Pierre Dandomont’s blog

Jenny List at Hack-A-Day tells us of a French hacker named Pierre Dandomont that has gotten Mac OS 9 running on an unmodified Wii! Now before you have visions of running Glider on your TV, there are a whole raft of caveats. The Wii’s hardware is unmodified, granted, but to run anything that Nintendo didn’t approve on your machine you are going to have to modify its software. Mac OS 9 is not unmodified, for while the Wii has a Power PC chip similar to that which used to run Mac computers two whole platform changes ago, the rest of its hardware is unstandard to say the least. And while they did manage to get OS 9 running (not OS X, a.k.a. macOS, or any of its more modern updates), it is not in a form that one can just easily drop into their own Wii if they want to run original iTunes for some reason. The hacker themselves tell us that it’s not really a good way to run classic Mac software, which is actually being run on an emulation layer within Linux running on the Wii. So, probably not something you’re going to do yourself, but maybe interesting to read about?

Let’s Learn About Pixel Scaling and Rotation

When you start using emulators, it won’t be long before you’re brought up against the choice of which scalers to use, a bewildering collection of options with names like Nearest Neighbor, AdvMAME3x, and RotSprite.

Resizing pixel images in an intelligent way is a difficult problem for many reasons. Most techniques intended for use on photographs won’t apply, since they’ll produce unacceptably blurry results when applied to extremely low resolution art. Pixel art is designed so that every dot matters, and adding new pixels carelessly can cause problems, such as Mario flipping us the bird in the right-hand image below:

Mario vs MMarrioo:A possible result of bad upscaling.

Additionally, being done frequently in real-time emulation, scaling algorithms must be fast. Yet the fastest solution, called Nearest Neighbor, produces very blocky results, and also only really works well if images are scaled up to an integer multiple of the original in X and Y dimensions.

A good backgrounder of various issues is available from an old blog post here, but there’s been some interesting advancements in the field since then. RotSprite is a good contemporary solution that also can rotate pixel art images well.

The problem of rotation is made simpler by a nifty trick that’s used by many image editors and libraries. It turns out you can rotate an image by an arbitrary amount with three simple shear operations. (If you don’t know what shearing is, it’s just tilting an image by some amount in a direction. It’s pretty awesome that this works since shearing is easy to do.)

Example image borrowed from the above linked page. I’m amazed this works.

Reviving the Ouya

The Oyua was a beautiful dream that was not to be. It was a notable early success on Kickstarter, bringing in much more money than they expected, but the money soon ran out and what they were able to produce turned out to be not as enticing as people expected, with weak Wi-Fi and flimsy controllers.

And yet, the premise was, and still is, pretty sound: an Android device connected to a custom app store, dedicated to games, and taking no money out of software sales.

That last bit might have harmed it, since it reduced the income they could make. But this post isn’t about what-might-have-beens, but about as-they-now-ares, how they are now is not that bad! A community of Ouya buyers have gotten together to support each other. When the Ouya servers went down in 2019, it had the effect of nearly bricking many of the consoles, but there are fan-made replacements where much of its origin al software has been made available again, and even including some new games!

Dan Wood explains the current scene in a YouTube video on the state of the Ouya in 2022, and it’s interesting reading. For those with Ouyas who want to connect with others, he mentions the site Ouya World (check out the Tutorials section!), and a Discord server called Ouya Saviors (which I can’t link to because of Discord’s invitation policy, YAY).

The tutorial that Dan recommends in his video is the stouyapi Ouya API server. It should help get people with inoperable Ouyas up and running again.

Dan Wood: Playing The Ouya in 2022

EDIT 7/10/22: Someone mentioned in comments that they didn’t think Ouya’s cut was nothing, and I think they may be right. Until I can find confirmation, I’m going to acknowledge their concern with this note.