Sundry Sunday: Gyruss Themes

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

While there are examples of excellent music from the classic era of arcades (Frogger comes immediately to mind), I don’t think there is much that can equal that of Gyruss’ arrangement of Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor. Here it is, isolated from the rest of the game’s soundtrack, from Youtube uploader StyleK226 (1 1/2 minues):

Wikipedia tells us that the arcade arrangement is reminiscent of a version of the song from the British band Sky, titled just “Toccata” (4 1/2 minutes):

If you only know Gyruss from the NES port, you might be surprised that it’s an almost entirely different arrangement from the arcade version! Maybe it was changed because of the similarity to Sky’s version. Some people prefer that one, it’s got a bit more variety, although I think the arcade’s is a bit better. Judge for yourself (3 minutes):

The Toccata is only used for the intro and the first warp on each planet, which is a bit of a shame, the rest of the music isn’t bad, but it’s not Bach. In Japan, Gyruss was a Famicom Disk System game. The FDS had extra sound hardware, and the result is an upgraded version of the NES soundtrack (14 minutes in all):

There’s been a number of fan versions of the Gyruss soundtrack, although most of them seem to be inspired by the NES port rather than the arcade original. Here’s a metal medley of that particular musical mutation (3 minutes):

As commenter @Fordi says, “What I love is that Intro / Stage 1 is a genre cover (metal) of a game’s adaptation (Gyruss) of a genre cover (Sky – Toccata) of classical music (Toccata and Fugue in Dm).”

Popular Science(?!): Getting Classic WordArt Back In MS Word

There’s many kinds of entertainment you can get from computers. Nominally we’re about games here, but what is a game? There are games implemented in Microsoft Excel. You can have fun at a command line. And you can enjoy making WordArt in Microsoft Word.

Thing about that. WordArt exists in “modern” Word, but it’s not the version that existed in earlier Windows versions. (I can’t bring myself to use the word modern without qualification for Office since they introduced that damn Ribbon and no I won’t let that die.) How to get to it? I don’t know, because Ribbon, but if you search for it in Word’s feature search interface it’ll pop it up for you, not show you where it is in Word’s UI, but just provide it, so if you want to use it again in future you’ll have to search for it again.

Current-day, bad WordArt

Yes, I I recognize this is already turning into a diatribe. But it goes to back up my point that Word is deep into its dotage, and the degradation of WordArt is just another symptom of that.

But as it turns out, the code for classic WordArt is still in Office, it calls out to us despite all the efforts of current-day Office’s hellish UI, and how fitting is it that that other relic of happier times, Popular Science, should be the publication to tell us how to reach out to it.

Classic, good WordArt

Justin Pot is the one who shows us the way there, and let me say, if you think my own writing style is comically florid, you have to see how they described the process.

Pot’s piece is good, but does slightly imply that the main interest of old WordArt is kitsh. That is a factor sure, but the old style of WordArt is intrinsically more powerful than the watered-down version. You can just do a lot more with it! Just look at that example! It is just a tool; what matters is what use you put into it, and I feel like Microsoft tamed the feature’s power mostly because it speaks of fun, and that is something they have made a conscious effort of stomping completely out of MS Office, the same reason they haven’t included easter eggs in “serious software for well over a decade now.

Anyway, to get the old WordArt back, you have to save your document in “Compatibility Mode,” which in this case means in the format of Microsoft Word from 97-03, as a .doc file. I wonder what other aspects of old Word remain in the software? Could it be that the classic menu bar is still in there somewhere? Oh be still my rapidly-beating heart!

Bobbins’ Olde Tomb of Videogames

A new website about retro games! Both new to this blog, but also new in general, its first digest dated to October of last year! Bobbins’ Olde Tomb of Videogames covers much of the same kinds of things that we do on our Retro beat in a weekly digest format. The site is laid out like an email newsletter archive, but to subscribe link is way down the archive page, so if you want to subscribe to that particular type of content emission, that is where you can breathe it in. Aaaah!

So if you enjoy those kinds of posts here you might want to look into them, there! Their main focus seems to be Eurogaming, but items in the most recent issue also include a link to an interview with Kenta Cho and a Pico-8 remake of Amidar! It is worth brief yet intensive investigation, much like that of a dog finding a sudden biscuit. That’s a good thing, BTW.

Sundry Sunday: Dig Dug Explained Stupidly

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

It’s pretty short, at a minute and a half, but here is a brief and silly explanation of the classic arcade game Dig Dug. That’s all!

Chrontendo 64

Dr. Sparkle is back with the 64th installment (Youtube, 55 minutes) of his quest to review every NES and Famicom game. He’s pretty far in! In about ten episodes, he figures he’ll reach the launch of the Super Famicom, which won’t be the end of his journey but will probably mean he’s in the home stretch.

In the meantime, ten games from 1990 are in this episode. They are:

Puss ‘n’ Boots: Pero’s Great Adventure – Technically a retread of a previously-covered Japanese game, this version has substantial differences so Dr. Sparkle decided to cover its U.S. version separately. A very easy game until the last stage where it jumps in difficulty, and then the final boss is absurdly hard. Dr. S expresses confusion why a game made to be so easy that it’s obviously intended for young children would become nearly impossible right at the last second. Personally, I suspect it was done because NES game publishers were terrified of the game rental market.

Wit’s: A Japan-only release, this is basically a de-luxe version of Snake, where your enemies have special abilities that you have to account for. Suprisingly, it’s an arcade port!

Captain Tsubasa Vol. II: Super Striker: A weird RPG take on Soccer, published by Tecmo and based on a manga and anime series. Instead of controlling a player or players completely in real time, the action pauses frequently and asks you what to do. The main screen is mostly animations down on the soccer field. It’s a unique take on soccer, but it’s not the only one: this is the second game to play like this on the Famicom. The Captain Tsubasa game series continues even today: the most recent releases, Dr. Sparkle tells us, are on PS4 and Nintendo Switch, although I don’t know if they take the menu-based RPG approach.

Jyuouki: This is simply a licensed Famicom port of Sega’s Altered Beast, and a pretty bad one at that.

Mahjong G-Men: Nichibutsu Mahjong III: Yet another Mahjong game, although with some interesting features, if you’re into Mahjong. That’s not Mahjong Solitaire, a.k.a. Shanghai, the Activision (and formerly PLATO) computer game where you remove tiles in matching pairs from a tableaux, but the Chinese Rummy-like game using tiles instead of cards. It also has a weird Tetris-like subgame involving Mahjong tiles.

The Pennant League: Home Run Nighter ’90: Yet another Famicom baseball game.

Dr. Mario: The classic Nintendo puzzle game! I always thought it was a bit inferior to Tetris, but then most games are, and that didn’t stop me from playing a ton of it long ago.

Pictionary: Based on the board game, and coming from infamous American NES publisher LJN. Dr. Sparkle is a bit harsh on developer Software Creations, but I think this effort looks pretty well-made to me. It’s not a classic, and it’s actually not really so much Pictionary as a kind of variation on the theme, where players play mini-games to reveal parts of a drawing and then try to guess what the drawing is of. It looks much like one of Rare’s many game show and board game adaptations and creations, and in fact if it weren’t for the Software Creations credit I’d have assumed that Rare made it.

Bigfoot: From Acclaim and developed by Beam Software. It’s fairly well polished for a Beam Software title, but has some weird ideas to it, including a weird control scheme for the events that involves tapping left and right on the control pad. I think the idea has a bit of merit, but that it was probably the wrong place to use it. A Bigfoot game would mostly be bought or given to kids, who would be the absolute last demographic you should expect to master a non-standard control scheme. I’m not one of those people who thinks making a game that goes about its play differently than most other games is always a terrible idea (see: most of what I’ve ever written about roguelikes), and I can kind of see why they did it, trying to make a race game that’s more than just holding to the right. It probably could have used a bit more iteration though.

Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll: A game from Rare that they actually put a lot of effort into, and it shows. And some people really like it, it’s definitely got a cult following. Dr. S isn’t part of it, due to the difficulty of getting used to SRnR’s isometric style. I think what happened was, they had these routines laying around that they used in implementing NES Marble Madness, and decided to do another game that controlled in that kind of way. I think the game was poorly suited to a digital control pad; if it were controlled with an analog stick, or at least a digital control where diagonal movement is easier, I think it’s possible that some people who hate Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll might be able to enjoy it better.

Anyway, here is the whole episode, start to finish:

Romhack Thursday: BS F-Zero Tracks Revived

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

The site of friend-of-the-blog Matthew Green has a wonderful post that describes a new hack that puts the long-lost tracks from two Satellaview versions of F-Zero into the main game, making them playable in a romhack. The creators of the hack, called BS F-Zero Deluxe, went to great lengths to recover them, partly by using tracks recovered from old Satellaview Flash carts, and some by actually recreating them painstakingly from a VCS recording of the tracks being played.

The post has a long discussion with the hack’s main programmer that goes into great detail concerning the origins of the tracks and how they were recovered, and other context surrounding the broadcast versions of the game. I won’t restate all of that here; it’s well worth reading it over on Press The Buttons.

This version of the hack leaves the title screen unchanged. Maybe it’ll get its own title logo later?

The great thing about the tracks is they follow the progression of the original game. The original had a number of tracks that would be iterated over, with changes, as the player went through the leagues of the game, and the new tracks continue that pattern, with Big Blue II, Silence II, and Mute City IV, as well as new track sequences Forest I, II and III, Sand Storm I and II, and Metal Fort I and II.

The ten added tracks have been collected into two new BS Leagues to test classic F-Zero players:

BS-1 League

Forest I

FOREST I: One of only two tracks with no pit area for recovering energy! The Forest tracks are fairly simple tracks, but have large areas with slip zones.

Big Blue II

BIG BLUE II: Many changes from Big Blue in F-Zero, including a branch with a hard jump on the left, and an easy jump on the right. If you take the hard jump and it doesn’t look like you’ll make it, you can fairly easily steer in the air back onto the easy jump route.

Sand Storm I

SAND STORM I: Somewhat like an easier version of Fire Field, and with the Fire Field music to boot. Watch out for the narrow hazard zone with land mines down the middle! It’s hard for me to tell exactly, but it seems like this track uses Death Wind’s gimmick, where you’re constantly being pushed around as you drive.

Forest II

FOREST II: In addition to being the other track with no pit zone, a large part of the track is composed of one long slip zone.

Silence II

SILENCE II: The many 90-degree turns of the original Silence have been simplified, but in their place are two sections with land mines that are worse than any of their use in the original F-Zero. There’s also a highly dangerous section where all the walls of the track have been replaced with jump pads, giving unskilled drivers ample opportunity to launch themselves into oblivion.

BS-2 League

Mute City IV

MUTE CITY IV: The original three Mute City tracks began each of the original game’s leagues, and were mostly the same except for a significant changed area in the middle of the track. In Mute City II it was a difficult branch, and Mute City III added a narrow section and some landmines. Mute City IV does the same thing, except its new area is a huge series of jumps over open space! When you see the big arrows made of jump pads pointing the way back on to the track you had better follow them! It’s easy to die here even if you know what you’re doing, since at high speed you’ll probably have to aim for the narrow parts of the arrow.

Forest III

FOREST III: The only Forest track with a recharge area. It’s still not a complex track, but there are a couple of slippery areas with mines to avoid.

Sand Storm II
I had enough of an issue getting through this that my only screenshot is of finally finishing it. Note how much energy I have left-none!

SAND STORM II: The most difficult track of the new set, with lots of tight turns and an area with the magnets that pull you to the side, in addition to the strong winds.

Metal Fort I

METAL FORT I: Not so hard a track, except for the place where you have a jump onto a narrow section with magnet hazards on the sides. Make sure you’re lined up right, or BOOM.

Metal Fort II

METAL FORT II: For the last of the new tracks, it’s not really that challenging. There are two jumps on the side of the track, with boost pads just before them. For the first jump, if you miss the boost pad you probably won’t have enough speed to make it to the end of the jump unless you steer back onto the track, but if you hit the boost you should be okay. The second pad, you’ll probably have to steer back onto the track regardless, you simply don’t have enough speed to keep going straight even if you hit the boost.

BS F-Zero Deluxe also includes four more vehicles, with notably different properties from the classic four familiar to everyone who played the original (and F-Zero 99 for that matter). They’re presented alongside the first four, and can even be driven on F-Zero’s 15 tracks.

The new cars

When I start thinking about Nintendo’s Japanese consoles in context with these kinds of events, I start to realize that Nintendo’s long been doing special events to connect with its fans, it wasn’t something that started in the Switch era. On the Famicom they released special Disk System releases in conjunction with contests; on the Super Famicom there was the Satellaview; and on N64 there was the 64DD. I don’t know of something similar they did on the Gamecube, but the Wii and Wii-U were internet capable and had special software like the Everybody Votes channel to try to engage players. On the portable side of their lineup, there was the e-Reader, special Pokemon events, the DS Kiosks and software experiments like Dusty Diamond and the Nintendo Badge Arcade, and the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection before they shut it down. I’m sure there’s a lot of things I’m forgetting too.

It’s a shame that Nintendo tends to regard all of these things as trash, never to be revisited except maybe in the occasional trophy or sticker in Smash Bros. The people who all of this would matter to aren’t getting younger; it seems like a huge missed opportunity for them.

Oldweb: Remembering ionpool.net

The World Wide Web is now over thirty years old. In that time, more content has vanished from it than remains now, but some of it can still be dredged up from the shadowy archives of the Wayback Machine. This is the latest chapter in our never-ending search to find the cool gaming stuff that time forgot….

It used to be that the internet was full of thousands of tiny sites. Many of them might only have gotten a few visits a year, if that, but they were there, quietly and earnestly providing a resource for people who might be looking for it.

One of these sites was ionpool.net, which used to host a listing of classic gaming information. Here it is from its last archived version on the Wayback Machine from December 29, 2020. There’s a lot of links there, and the nature of the Wayback is, unless I check every one of those links, I can’t be sure if any of them will work. The few I’ve tried do, which is something at least.

ionpool.net in 2013, this is just the beginning of the list

There’s a lot of interesting documents there, presented in the classic List Of Tiny Links format. There’s far more there than I can summarize in a simple throwaway daily blog post like this one, but I particular point out to KLAX In Three Lessons, a series of Usenet posts written by Lyle Rains of Atari Games himself. In fact, those posts are so interesting that I might call them out in a later post….

Back to ionpool.net. The thing that saddens me is that the site still exists, but instead of providing the information that it helpfully offered back in 2013, now it’s just a black page with a graphic reading “END OF LINE.” This:

I can understand that even the slight resources necessary to preserve a website can, over time, become onerous. But I’d think it would be an equivalent cost to host an image like that, instead of leaving the old content up indefinitely. It was largely text files anyway.

Ah well. There is still the Wayback Machine, after all, slow and incomplete as it might be and difficult to sort through like it is. I can’t help but think that we should have more alternatives, though. The Internet Archive is not forever either.

A Guided Tour of the NES

This tab has been open on my browser for literally months, so I’m finally excising it from the bar….

A while back the site HackADay did a teardown of the NES, going through how to take it apart and reassemble it, and going through some of the elements of its assembly. It doesn’t go into a lot of detail, but that lets it be fairly short, at only nine minutes.

NES Hardware Explained (HackADay post, Youtube video)

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 zimmers.net’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.

Mario Paint Data Overflow Error

There is a subtle flaw in SNES art creation tool Mario Paint. It has 32K of Save RAM, which is not technically enough to save an entire project, normal and animation canvases included. The program uses data compression to get everything to fit, and the compression is good enough that most of the time everything can be squeezed in, but such is the nature of data compression that it is not guaranteed to work on all possible data.

What happens when Mario Paint can’t fit everything into its save file? This:

A comment on the video gives purpose to the numbers the robot displays as it counts down. 100-25 is compressing the image; 25-12 is erasing the save RAM, and 12-0 is copying the data into save RAM.

On Super Mario World’s Score Display

Awesome Mario trivia blog Supper Mario Broth noted on Mastodon that Super Mario World is extremely inefficient in displaying Mario’s score.

There is more information on SWMspeedruns.com, but in brief, SMW stores the player’s score as a 24-bit value as hexadecimal digits, and converts that value to decimal when it’s time to display it. There is no good way to do that that doesn’t involve figuring out the entire arithmetic, but Super Mario World does it particularly slowly: it starts with a copy of the score, then sees if it’s over 1,000,000. If it is, it increases the millions digit of the displayed score by 1, subtracts a million from the work value, then repeats. When it runs out of millions it repeats with the hundred-thousands, and repeats until it finishes with the tens. At least it doesn’t try it with the 1s, seeing as how nothing in the game awards single points!

In a worse-case scenario, with a score of 9,999,990, the code goes through this whole process every frame, consuming up to 8% of the time available for game logic.

What could the game have done to accomplish this better? It could have found out how many of each digit there was once instead of looping and incrementing. It could only figure out the score when the value changes. Or it could save the value as the digits themselves in decimal, just increment them by the right values when its needed, and then copy that figure to the screen. That’s largely what 8-bit games would do.

Even worse, if Luigi is the active character, the game does this twice: it figures out and prints Mario’s score, then it does it again for Luigi’s score, placing it onscreen in the same place.

While printing the score is just one thing the game does each frame, the effect is great enough that complex scores can lag the game, enough that speedrunners take the score into account to avoid it.

This adds to the evidence that Super Mario World development was rushed. It’s already known that a lot of the code in SMW is buggy, allowing for some truly heroic exploits like programming a text editor in SRAM purely by manipulating objects in an early level.

The “No Fire” Trick in Galaga

Arcade Galaga has an interesting bug that’s been known of for a long time, that can be taken advantage of to cause the enemies to stop firing. The inner workings of the bug are explained on its page on the website Computer Archeology, but here it is in brief: on the first level, if you leave the bugs at the far left or right sides of the formation alive and wait long enough, 10 to 15 minutes, just surviving their attacks, then eventually the enemies will stop firing all together, and will never fire again for the rest of the game.

Why does this happen? Galaga reserves eight hardware sprites for the shots of the enemy bugs. Galaga’s graphics hardware has no way to disable the displaying of a sprite, so if something isn’t supposed to be visible it’s kept off screen, at horizontal coordinate zero. A shot sprite at that coordinate is never updated, and never moves. This is in addition to the game’s internal records of which shots are in use. When a bug wants to fire a shot, the game looks at which shots are available, and if one isn’t in use, it puts it at the proper place, and sets its velocity (X and Y deltas). From then until it leaves the screen, it’ll be updated every frame. When it is detected as having gone off-screen, it’ll be marked as out of play, and its X coordinate will be set to 0. Shots at X=0 are never updated.

The problem is, it’s possible for bugs to fire shots while they are at X position 0. This happens most commonly when bugs at the far left and right extremes of the board attack. The shot is marked as in-use, but it’ll never be updated, and so it’ll never be cleaned up and set back to be available for firing. When all eight possible shots are in this limbo, the bugs can’t fire any more. The machine resets the shots at the end of a game, so the problem won’t affect subsequent plays.

Ben Golden Diamond performed the trick in a Youtube video, and he manages to get it to happen in around seven minutes. He doesn’t explain the precise criteria for doing the trick, but his description will still work, it just has unnecessary steps. It will work on any level, but it’s easiest to do on the first. In the video, sometimes the bugs fire wraparound shots from off-screen. That’s a good indication that the bugs are sometimes firing from the 0 coordinate.

Keep in mind, performing the trick on purpose will disqualify a score for world records. The scoreboard on a local Galaga machine probably won’t care, though.