A blog about tabletop hobby and or strategy games, with a side order of electronic turn based goodness here and there. Now with tons of retro gaming content both electronic and tabletop. Also with 20% more self loathing douchebaggery!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Retro Computing: Why Bother? Part 2: Terminology and Technology

Ok kids.  Here is where things get hairy.  Retro Game Computing, just like computing in general, is a bit of a pain.  Unlike game consoles which at their most complicated normally involve just getting an old tv, a game system from wherever the heck you are playing it at, some cartridges (or CDs), and plugging system to wall, controller to system, shoving game in the appropriate spot, and system to TV usually with RCA or RF cables, computers are much more in depth.

(Unless your computer is a portable one, or your console is a full Sega Genesis with CD and either 32x or Master System Converter.)

There are many computer types in the old days, and even more types of connectors and such.

Consider this your primer of terminology so we have an idea where to go.

First off you need to figure out WHERE you are playing your games and WHERE your games are coming from.

See for us English language folks there are really 3 places to be aware of.  North America and Japan which both use the same NTSC television output and have roughly the same power cords and voltages.  (Though it is HIGHLY recommended to get a convertor or voltage regulator if you plan on using Japanese machines in the US for more than an hour at a time.)  However in Europe their voltage and plugs tend to be different and they have the PAL and SECAM TV formats.  (PAL being the big one.)

PAL games don't always work on US computers.  In many cases they will either run too fast (hello Genesis port of Shadow of the Beast!), not work at all, or due to the resolution differences between the two regions, video may be discolored or go beyond the screen.

(In my Amiga days a convertor disk would allow many PAL programs to run on my NTSC Amiga but on my 19" TV set some programs would have 10% or so of the image out of the screen, making Pinball Dreams a bit difficult.  Now with a monitor you can adjust image size and prevent this.)

If you want to know about the joys of getting a UK computer system like the Sinclair Spectrum (which I insist is only beloved in the UK due to Stockholm Syndrome) I highly recommend this video:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqnIa4rXK_c&list=PLFDCFCDFCF7E7ACDD&index=7&feature=plpp_video

This is something to keep in mind.

But we will be talking about a lot of hardware and connections in this series/thread so we need more terminology.  Some of it I will go into greater depth in my Atari 8 bit coverage.  (If you are a blog follower of mine you will have already seen this.)  Some of it you the reader will add in.

First off.. computer keyboards.  In the 77-97 timeframe I think makes for the age of retro computing (meaning Windows 98 is out even though its a mostly superior version of Win 95 and if anyone is interested in old Wintel era computers I would HIGHLY recommend it over 95..) there were really 3 big formats of keyboard.

(The "standard" keyboard, in this case a PS/2 connector version from the Win 9x era.)

A standard keyboard is most like a typewriter keyboard.  More of the upscale computers used them.  You will find these in IBM clones, Commodore computers, most of the Atari 8 and STs, the Apple machines, and pretty much any machine that was halfway decent.  Some came built into the machine and others were detachable.  Many people STILL swear by the keyboard that came with the original IBM PC from 1981.

(The "membrane" keyboard on an Atari 400.  (Image from Wikimedia Commons))

Membrane keyboards tended to be on the cost reduced home computers made for children and families.  They were cheaper to make and more durable than a proper keyboard.  They also sucked royal ass for typing as you needed to use more pressure than a real keyboard plus no real tactile feedback.  On the upside they were pretty survivable.  Spill a little coffee on your modern Mac keyboard?  You are screwed.  Spill some on this?  Soft cloth.  (And maybe like, turn the machine off and unplug it.  Just in case.)

(The "chicklet" keyboard on a Sinclair Spectrum.  (Image from Wikimedia Commons))

Chicklet keyboards were a half measure between a proper keyboard and a membrane.  More tactile feedback than a membrane, more survivable than a proper keyboard, cheaper than a full keyboard.  But.. its a half measure as I said.  Have you used those older calculators with rubber keys?  Imagine coding on one or writing a college term paper.  Yeah.  They tend to have smaller than normal keys too.  

If you retro game compute those 3 keyboard types will be the ones you see and hear about the most.  Thankfully the proper keyboard won out.  (Though these days we have a wide variety of keyboards doing all sorts of things. So.. its back to square 1 again.)

Also most old computers had non universal game ports and controllers for such.  As this is about GAMING on the old computers I won't really go into detail about the joys of mice or paint tablets or such but they too exist.

In the short run there were 3 main types of controller for games (and a fourth if we count the mouse which ok yes.  Mice too.)


(A pair of digital joysticks using the Atari 9 pin connector.  A genuine 2600 stick and a late Amiga era Konix Speedking (Epyx 500 XJ) with 2 fire buttons.)

Digital sticks were most popular with the true home computers.  Normally having 4-8 way directional control when the stick was pushed in a cardinal direction with 1 fire button, most 80s computers had these as the standard.  While thanks to some companies like Sega we got multi button sticks and pads towards the end of the 80s, most games only know of a single button.  (Which is why so many UK computer platform games have pressing UP on the stick as jump.  Which on the Epyx stick above feels RIGHT, on a Sega Master System Control Pad it does not.)  These digital sticks aren't too great for games that could use analog control like racing or flight simulators, but for action and arcade titles they were pretty good.  When games started requiring more than one fire button hilarious things were done like using the keyboard (which in the case of many C64 games folks would take the computer, unplug it all, put it on the floor, plug it all back in, take off your shoes, and use your foot to hit the space bar!), making dongles for multistick games (great if you have 2 of the exact brand stick the item was made for..), or even things like the Lipstik which was a headset that would give you an extra fire button if you made a noise into it.

(This is why a single handed joystick that looks like a trigger with either a button on the top of the stick or the front, and a suction cup base is a HIGHLY recommended purchase.  One hand can control the stick, the other can manipulate keyboard commands.  One doesn't always have a NUMBER TWO you can give orders to in Star Raiders.  Plus its sort of nasty to stick the Epyx stick in your mouth while playing Ghostbusters because you NEED to be ready to hit that damned BAIT key when Stay Puft shows up.  I can neither confirm nor deny that I do this in spite of having at least 1 of these sort of suction cup sticks.)

There were SOME analog controllers as well such as Paddles and Trackballs. (And Mice of course.)

(A paddle (in this case a TV GAME paddle but a paddle nonetheless.  Note the RCA cable when we get to video! ) and a Track Ball.)

These were used for games that needed analog controls.  Not very popular or well utilized because not as many people had them.  But for the games that took advantage of these more analog devices they played far better than a digital joystick could ever control.  For games like Arkanoid, Missile Command, and Kaboom!, these sorts of controllers made all the difference.

While most of the old computers use the Atari 9 pin interface I have shown above, some require an interface to plug said sticks into (like many of the Spectrum line) unless you want to have to play with the keyboard, others use a "DIN" connector if not their own proprietary connections.

(A NEC Turbostick (yes its a console controller.  But its a good example dammit!) showing off a pair of DIN connectors.)

Of course on the IBM PCs and Apple IIs the main input were Analog joysticks.  Normally having two fire buttons, analog sticks had.. well they do what analog sticks do today.  Except they required calibration by adjusting the X/Y dials on the controller.  For flight games they were excellent.  For precision arcade action they.. were not so good.  Which is why for many people in the days they just used the handy keyboard controls.  (Really easy on most IBM clones as they have those handy arrow keys.)  I do not have a standard analog controller but I do have a Flight Stick type:

(A CH Flightstick (Normal version, not the 4 button and "hat" Pro edition sadly) with late DOS era joystick connector.  Note the throttle dial on one side (that few games ever acknowledged), and the calibration dial on the other.  This stick lead me to victory in many a classic title.  Kilrathi and enemy Battlemechs all fell to this stick's near perfection.)

In the latter DOS days there were digital joypads made and I HIGHLY recommend a Gravis Gamepad or Gamepad Pro if you want to play action and arcade titles on the PC.  

I am sure you all know what a Computer Mouse is.  The only note I will make is that in the days of retro computing 2 button mice were the most common (unless you were a Mac user then enjoy 1), though there were some 3 button jobs available.  Mice were great for RPGs, strategy games, or for later era machines that had games which in earlier years would have had trackball or paddle support.

We can't forget light guns either but for retro computing they were rather rare.  
(Just get a good S Video tube TV set, and a Playstation 1 and 2 with the Guncon 1 and 2.  Its all the light gun glory you REALLY need.  Maybe a Saturn if you are a Virtua Cop sort.)

Of course now that we know how to control our machines to play games on them, we need a manner of feeding games to our new old toys.

(The 4 main storage solutions of the 80s.  (Left to right.) Cassette, 5 1/4" floppy, Cartridge, 3 1/2" floppy.)

(An Atari 1010 Cassette Drive.  My Play button is broken so I have to have the front lid off so I can manually press the button.)

Cassettes were the main purview of the late 70s and to the early 90s if you were in the UK and Europe.  Many tape drives were dedicated with their own proprietary controllers (like the Atari and Commodore), but many were just your run of the mill tape recorders' output cable plugged into the computer.  (Which allows for modern types to use a computer or MP3 player sometimes.)  

These sorts of drives were popular because they were cheap (many people already owned tape recorders in their homes, or at least it was easy to just use your average C 30 or C60 blank tapes).  However they were slow and temperamental, also usually not allowing for large games.  I honestly do NOT recommend cassette drives or any system using one.  While the tapes tend to be pretty durable in comparison with some of the other magnetic media, they are slow, annoying, and sometimes the drive just feels like eating and killing your rare game.  (Like my single side edition of Temple of Apshai.  Bite me Atari 1010.)

Cartridges should really be simple to anyone interested in old gaming.  It is a little plastic box with some metal contacts.  Many old computers had spots in the top or back to plug one in.  The benefit is they were durable as hell, did not require folks to buy additional hardware besides the base computer unit, and at the time hard to pirate.  The downsides are the expense of the cartridge hardware, the lack of being able to save game data, and the price tended to keep the games on these things on the small side.

Now the main media storage device of the retro computer:

The Disk Drive!

(An Atari 1050 5 1/4" drive from the XL series.)  

For North American computer enthusiasts, the humble 5 1/4" disk drive was the alpha and the omega.  Being relatively speedy compared to cassettes, allowing for loading in of assets when required, allowing for easy saving of game data, and allowing for nearly limitless game size depending on how many disks and disk sides the game publisher was willing to splurge for, the 5 1/4" disk was the king of the 80s.  Nearly any computer worth a damn used them in some fashion.  The only problem was the expense of the drive (usually equal to TWICE what the base machine cost), and it being mechanical lead to many drives dying, especially when publishers came up with particularly brutal forms of copy protection on the disk, or end users smacking them around.  (Which sometimes happened when one was trying to quickly eject the disk before Wizardry decided to permanently save your entire party you spent 100s of hours developing as dead and gone for good because you ran into a bad encounter.)  

5 1/4" disks were generally cheap to buy, and a pair of scissors or a hole puncher could turn a single sided disk into a double.  Some machines even had non flipping double sided disk access.  Also in many cases one could buy a second floppy disk and many games (and of course pirating software) would take advantage of the extra disk to keep one from swapping disks every time you moved from Area A to Area B.  (Or any time you tried to talk with someone in Ultima 6 on the Commodore 64.)  5 1/4" disks require a sleeve when not in use as there is a BIG hole where the magnetic surface is exposed to the elements.  These disks are a bit on the fragile side.

Most 5 1/4" disks held around 300 kilobytes of data over both sides, though some had more or less depending on the era of the drive.  (Early Atari 8 bit drives held less than 100 K a side.  Late DOS era 5 1/4 drives had 1.2 megabytes of space.)

(A 3.5" floppy drive from the last days of DOS.  And its friend nearby, a super speedy 8X CDROM.)

In the 16 bit computers and DOS machines around 1991 or so, 3.5" floppy disks took over.  Not requring a paper sleeve to protect the disks and being capable of automatically accessing both sides, the 3.5" disk improved upon the 5 1/4 in nearly every way.  They were smaller, tougher, held around 720K (late DOS was 1.44 megs) and normally loaded faster with write protection being a simple sliding tab as opposed to needing a piece of tape over the notch hole.  In my experience they don't seem to have the durability of their 5 1/4" counterparts in spite of normally being made of sterner stuff.

I don't really need to bring up Hard Disk Drives and CD ROM Drives as we still have them today.  Outside of the later DOS and Macintosh machines, these 2 now common (in the case of CD ROM merely a legacy component as part of the DVD and Blu Ray standards that themselves are slowly dying as we become a high speed web connected and property owning disconnected society..) media storage and playback devices were uncommon if not ABSURDLY expensive.  

The final part of this installment is VIDEO SOLUTIONS.  One needs a way to connect their machine to a video output system so one can like see what is going on.

While some machines had integrated monitors, more did not.  

Going in rough order of worst to best we have:

VHF Screws
  (A VHF switchbox screwed into a 19" TV from 1987.  This is AFTER I dusted it.  It is a very dusty room and a very old TV set.)  

VHF screws were a common sight in the 70s and 80s TV.  You took your RF cable from the computer, plugged it into the switchbox, and then screwed the 2 leads in as shown above.  This was the WORST picture quality possible, with tons of interference.  It can be even worse if you need a VHF to Coaxial convertor.  (Not shown because if your computer is so old you have to do this?  FOR CTHULHU/GODZILLA/THAT ALLICORN PRINCESS HORSIE'S SAKE EMULATE INSTEAD!)  These days on Ebay you can find little plugs that let you take the RF cable and plug it into said plug you stick in the Coaxial spot.

(A Coaxial plug (screw type) and a Coaxial input next to a pair of RCA audio in jacks.)

And hey.. Coaxial (or Cable Ready, if you're nasty)!

See once Cable became common in the US, TVs started to come CABLE READY with the coaxial inputs built right in providing a better picture.  So instead of needing a TV/Game switch you just plugged or screwed the Coaxial right in, providing a better and more reliable picture.  

But for many of these computers, the best output solution at the time was a Composite Monitor!
(RCA Jack styled Composite Monitor connectors)

Composite monitors were sharper, smaller, better TV sets, many of which could even have VCRs play through them at a higher quality.  Things you could not do with most TV sets of the day like horizontal and vertical image adjustment were standard.  The IBM PC CGA even used Composite as a way to get more than 4 colors out of its hideously dismal and laughable on screen palette!

(The party in the back of a Commodore 1084 monitor.  Note the VCR mode button, the RCA style inputs, and the 2 DIN type video connectors next to it.  You also see a couple of the image adjustment dials.)

Different machines used different sorts of connectors to connect to a Composite output.  In many cases you could use the same monitor provided you had the correct cables.  Though some machines in the same family had some that were RF ONLY!   

(Or in the Amiga 500's case you needed to buy a 50 odd dollar dongle to connect to a TV set or certain types of outputs...)

And last but not least is the PC VGA! 
A PC VGA cable.  

(A flat panel but not flat screen SVGA era monitor.  Because the one that came with this machine is smaller and has SD Sailor Moon stickers on the side.  What the hell was WRONG with me in the 90s?)

Super crisp and super sharp, the VGA standard was around for years.  Depending on what monitor and video card your machine has you can cover almost every PC video mode in the retro era.  (Except for Tandy Graphics.  We will get to that in a later post.)

While in many cases one CAN use modern flat screen LCD TVs (and possibly a VCR or DVD player to improve video for some machines), or get improved modern solutions like SVideo dongles for older computers, the above are more or less the main types of video you will be dealing with.

Of course these older monitors and TVs are large, heavy, awkward, and thick, but you can use light guns with them which sort of counts for something.  And ALMOST makes up for the lack of widescreen that almost nothing in that era used anyhow.

But now that we have our concepts.. how the hell do we store some of our stuff?

First off:

Keep your hardware and software out of your basement or attic.

A huge percentage of my 3.5 DOS and Amiga disk collection are dead because of my humid basement.  Try to keep your collection in a low humidity 60-80 degrees F. environment.  

Also dust and clean your stuff properly.  (We will get into that later.)

(My main Atari 8 bit computer storage tub.  Boxed games stacked carefully, loose cartridges in a Zip Loc type baggie (baggies: not just for dank nugz any more!), loose manuals kept flat.)

Plastic storage tubs are a great bet.  You can fit a lot in them depending on size of the tub, and possibly even put in those DO NOT EAT dessicant thingies.  A good way to keep your boxed games safe.  Given how many games are in cardboard boxes this keeps the dust away, the light away, and keeps them from crushing each other.

(My loose Atari 8 bit floppies including ancient as hell disk sleeves.)

For loose 5 1/4" floppies I recommend getting the biggest disk holder you can find.  These things were quite common in the day and do a good job of keeping your loose floppies from being destroyed or damaged.  You can still hurt these disks even with the sleeves on them.  I had some douchebag in Junior High (who was 13 in 6th grade.. making him 15 or 16 when this happened in 8th) rub his hands over the data spot on one of my disks to destroy my copy of Gauntlet even with the sleeve on.  Luckily he being obviously hard of thinking didn't realize all he did was mangle a backup copy.  Keep your disks safe folks!

(My DOS 3.5" mega disk container.  It protected them from everything but the humidity of the downstairs closet.  But for the disks who died I have ebay and "Abandonware" sites to recover the data for games I bought back in the day.)

And there are even more for 3.5" disks as well.  If you don't have the original packaging to keep your games in you should get a specialized case.

For you poor sods with Cassette games you can sometimes use normal Cassette tape storage boxes that were sold at the time and the rest can probably just be binned.

If possible get dust covers for your hardware and if you have access to them, the packing cardboard or plastic that were placed in disk drives for storage.

Next time:

What machines are available?

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