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!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Retro Computing: Why Bother? Part 4: Basic Systems Overview: 16 Bit Era Machines

(As usual this is a work in progress.)

The 16 Bits:  The 16 bitters are machines based around a 16 bit CPU and graphics.  For our purposes Intel CPU PCs will be considered true 16 bit as of the VGA and MCGA graphics standards.

Apple IIGS:

Apple IIgs sans monitor (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Description: Apple's upgrade path from the Apple II series.  It was a beefed up Apple II capable with nearly all the software and some of the hardware (hell you could get GS guts put in a E machine!) yet also being mostly competitive with the 16 bit computers and consoles of other companies.  Sadly Apple was obsessed with the Macintosh line at the time and intentionally made the GS slower than it could have been, and didn't really support it the way they should have.  It could have been a contender.  It should have been a contender.   Instead it was the II line's swan song.

Specs:   2.8 mhz65C816 Western Digital CPU, 320x200 256 color-640x400 16 dithered colors, 4096 color palette, 256k RAM, 16 stereo voice sound.

My Experience:  I have only seen this machine in the flesh once.  My English High School teacher had one.  I thought it was a cool machine but I don't think I had a chance to do anything with it but putz about while writing some report on it.  I kind of want to play with one more.  But with the current Apple fanaticism being similar to that of Firefly fandom prices keep shooting up.

Recommended Model:  Rom Version 3 model.  It has all the revisions to the machine, plus 1 megabyte of RAM.  This model came out in August 1989.  So look for these older machines if possible.  Unless you really love the legendary Steve Wozniak and you want the original Woz Signature edition.  The March 1988 model had 512k.  But.. go for a 1990 or later made machine if you want the best fly hooptie.

Release Date/Original Price:  1986/1000 US dollars.

Notable Games:  Another system without really many exclusives, it does have some killer ports of the Taito arcade games of the day like Arkanoid and Rastan.  But it had some good versions of titles that would have been better had Apple not intentionally hobbled the thing and given it any real support.

Emulation Options:  I am pretty sure AppleWin covers the machine, and the Virtual Apple website has some IIgs games to play.

Average Current Price/Amount I Would Pay: 350 without shipping/325 with shipping, 3.5" and 5 1/4" drives, monitor.

Apple Macintosh:

The dual disk drive Macintosh SE.  The bane of my Sophmore-Senior year High School existence.  (Besides you know, everything else making my life miserable.  Image Wikimedia Commons by the way.)

Description:  The successor to the II line, the Macintosh line was and still is in production, going to various forms of incompatibility, CPUs, Operating Systems, and other things.  The 3 main CPU lines used were the 68000 series, the Power PC chips, and now Intel X86 series chips.  The original series started out as all in one black and white machines with the first major machine to use a graphical mouse based OS.  The II line brought in color and an absurd price point and things went on from there.

Specs: Original: 7.86 Motorola 68000 CPU, 512x342 black and white, 2 color palette, 128k-512k RAM, 4 voice 12 octave monaural 22 khz sound.  (Color Classic from 93: 68030 16 mhz, 256 color palette, 4 megs RAM, 16 bit sound.)

My Experience:  My first experience was in the 89-90 Sophmore year of High School in my Vocational Electronics class.  We had to use these overpriced and underpowered things to write reports on every single project we did, using a drafting or painting program with a font/graphics type to be circuits.  So instead of doing and learning electronics we spent most of our time on these stupid machines.  On the upside, there were a couple fun versions of games we somehow got on it...

Recommended Model:  As I mentioned there are THREE core eras of Macs, that become increasingly incompatible with each other.  For the classic 68000 series era your best bet would be a Color Classic I or II or  IIfx if you want the best color Mac II series machine.  You can sometimes run old Mac software on their later OSX releases through 10.4 (Tiger) and a PPC machine but.. not always and usually quite slow.  I got Bard's Tale to run nicely on a late 05 PPC Imac but Quake and Wolfenstein 3D ran terribly.  Do your research.

Release Date/Original Price: 1984 Mac/2500 US dollars.  1993 Color Classic/1400 US dollars.

Notable Games:  Macs didn't have a ton of games because Apple of the era considered games beneath them.  But there are some killer versions of Ultima III, Wizardry, Bard's Tale, PT-109, and the Bungie FPS s out there.  While its PPC era, Kill Monty is a GREAT single screen arena shooter in the Robotron tradition.

Emulation Options:  I don't really have any experience with this.  I have experience running PC programs in OSX but not the other way around.  Go figure.

Average Current Price/Amount I Would Pay:  There are so many bloody models its hard to say.  Usually 250-1000 depending on type, age, and condition.  /I would pay around 100 for a B&W or all in one 68000 machine, 200 for a II series, and maybe the same for the original era Imacs.

Atari ST:

Atari 1040 STf (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Description:  Jack Tramiel's battle against his old company Commodore began with the introduction of the Atari STs to counteract their Amiga.  Built mostly on the quick to get in the market fast, it used the GEM graphical OS and shared the same CPU as the Amiga and Macintosh.  Never really popular in the US, it isn't as good as an Amiga which normally had twice the colors.  The machine did well enough in Europe/UK to have a fairly decent lifespan with a number of machines and a fair suite of titles.

Specs:  8 mhz Motorola 68000 CPU, 320x200 16 color-640x200 16 4 color, 512 color palette, 512k-1 megabyte RAM, 3 voice 1 noise 8 octave sound.

My Experience:  Another system I never owned and only knew one person who claimed to have one.  A guy who was such a terrible human being both teachers in my Vocational High School Electronics class kicked him out.

Recommended Model:  This one is EASY.  The 1040 STFM.  Unlike the earlier 1040 ST it has a built in RF modulator so no monitor needed.  The later STE, TT, and Falcon machines have some software incompatibilities with the original ST software that was waaay more popular.

Release Date/Original Price: 1985/750 UK Pounds.

Notable Games:  Much of its stuff was also on other computers of the day.  However it was the home of Midi Maze and Dungeon Master.

Emulation Options:  I seem to have issues getting ST stuff running in emulators for some reason so can't really help here.

Average Current Price/Amount I Would Pay:  150 for a 1040 ST of either variant, though a bit less in the UK/100 bucks.

Commodore Amiga:

Amiga 500 with monitor and extra floppy drive (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Description:  The greatest computer that failed.  This was the Amiga.  It did more for less years before the competition caught up to it.  Multitasking.  Graphical OS.  Awesome graphics and sound.  And since it was from Commodore it cost WAAAAY less than the competition in spite of owning their faces.  Sadly Commodore barely marketed the thing in the US, and it mostly was popular in Europe.  The failure of the Amiga in the US and the reign of the Intel PC is one of the greatest crimes of the 80s and 90s.

Specs:  7.16 mhz Motorola 68000 CPU, 320x400 32 color-640x400 16 color, 4096 color palette (capable of showing all colors on screen in a special mode, 256k-1 megabyte RAM,  4 8 bit channel stereo sound.

My Experience:  I knew a douchebag in Junior High (see my mention of him who tried killing my Gauntlet disk) who said he had one.  In High School one guy had one who was kind of a tool that actually worked at a Commodore retailer for a while.  It must have been where he found the high resolution pictures he showed us on his Amiga 500 one day towards the end of Senior year.  It involved a man, a woman, and a dog.  That was messed up.  However I got a 500 that year as my graduation present I would sadly only enjoy for like a month before going into the Navy 4 months earlier than planned.  I enjoyed the machine for what limited time I had with it, but I sadly saw the writing on the wall and got a PC.  I both regret and don't regret that decision.  I do wish I had left the machine at home.  It and the games I had would be in better shape.

Recommended Model:  In general there are TWO models worth buying.  The 500 with the RAM expansion installed, and the 2000 which is a full desktop machine.  The 600 is a good option but especially in NTSC land its really kind of rare.  And you lose out on the numeric keypad.  However it can have a hard drive or SD card replacement solution which is something that was very hard to do with the 500.  There is also the 1200 which was the upgraded 500 replacement though many older games don't run on it.

Release Date/Original Price: 1985/1300 (1600 with monitor)

Notable Games:  A ton, though mostly in the UK.  The Amiga was the home of Shadow of the Beast, Worms, Lemmings, Gods, Myth, and Stunt Car Racer, as well as having sometimes the best late 80s version of many 8 bit and DOS games.  This would change in the 90s as PCs got faster and faster, and VGA became king.

Emulation Options:  This begins and ends with UAE.  If you are lazy and don't want to deal with the sheer volume of options this finicky and diverse line of machines had, the Amiga Forever emulation package is a legit purchase and does all the hard work for you.

Average Current Price/Amount I Would Pay:  150 or so for a 500/100 dollars.

Intel 386-Pentium DOS/Windows 95:

 My still working Tandy 425 SX DOS PC.  Upgrades include 16 megs of RAM from the original 2 megs, 3 button mouse, an extra 210 megabyte hard drive, replacement black 3.5" floppy drive, Creative Labs 8 speed CDROM and Soundblaster 32.  Oh, and a bigger flat glass CRT monitor.

Description:  Starting with the 386 series of CPU chips, Intel (and AMD and Cyrix) based machines on the DOS compatibles standard really began destroying the computer market for anyone else.  Their expandability meant any holes could be filled, and their near constant standard and being almost everywhere meant more and more people were buying them.  And all the developers who still were making primarily computer games jumped ship from the normal home computer market.  For our purposes the 386 25mhz machines with an MCGA or VGA video card through 1995 and the arrival of the  Windows 95 graphical operating system will be the 16 bit DOS era.  Or as I like to call it "The Last Days of DOS".

Specs:  Given the depth and breadth of PCs during this rough 8 odd year timespan it is nearly impossible to lock down specs.  There really wasn't any Tandy 1000 series of machine as a good baseline.  IBM was quickly falling out of the market entirely.  See me in the Recommended Model section for my opinion of a good machine setup!

My Experience:  Everyone was going PC.  All the good games were going PC.  So in the Navy I bought my first PC, a 486 25 with 2 megabytes of RAM, Windows 3.1,  SVGA capable video (with only 256K of video RAM so really just VGA), 2 button mouse, .44 megabyte 3.5" floppy drive, MS DOS 5.0, 130 megabyte hard drive, 2400 baud modem, keyboard, 13-14" monitor, and not a whole lot else!  I spent the next 3-6 months upgrading the thing as I could afford to from the original 1500 dollar price in 93 with a sound card and good joystick.  Later on I would put in way more RAM, another hard drive, a better sound card so I could have a CDROM interface, and the Overdrive chip slots which allowed for faster CPUs in your older machine.  Mine currently has a 133mhz chip.  I loved the hell out of this machine and I still do.  So many fantastic games and its really the only thing that kept me sane in Naval A school.

Recommended Model:  To do the best justice to this era of DOS computing I recommend MSDOS 6.22, Windows 3.1, a Gravis Gamepad Pro, 1.44 megabyte 3.5" floppy drive, a CH Flightstick Pro, a Sound Blaster 32, a 4 or 8 speed CDROM drive, 16 megabytes of RAM, 500-1 gigabyte of hard drive space, a 3 button mouse,  a good SVGA video card of the era (Diamond Stealths were well regarded.) and probably a Pentium class CPU.  Your best bet would be the MMX series which were early Windows 9x era CPUs.  A 166mhz would do nicely.  If you don't really need THE last days of DOS, a 50-100 mhz 486 machine would be just dandy though a few of the last games won't run well.

Release Date/Original Price:  386-486 machines started coming out in the mid-late 80s and the Pentium class machines showed up around 95 or so.  A decent rig back then was 1500-2500 dollars US.

Notable Games:  Oh man where to even START?  Wolfenstein 3d!  Doom!  Eye of the Beholder!  Dark Sun!  Wizardry Crusaders of the Dark Savant!  Wing Commander!  X Com!  If it was worth playing from 1988-1995 it was probably on the PC.  Unless you are some Nintendo loving console scum.  The games of your youth were inferior to the games of my Naval career.

Emulation Options:  DosBox has your back again.  Also online game sellers like Steam, GOG, and DotEmu have a lot of great games cheap already preconfigured to run at a click if you don't want to bother with Dosbox and everything that goes with it.

Average Current Price/Amount I Would Pay:  DOS machines were so bloody common back then and its somewhat easy to sometimes find an old machine for FREE or nearly so.  But if you have to go on ebay or just have to have certain hardware and such maybe 125 or so for a decent setup.  Don't forget a number of modern things work on the old machines too!  Just keep some PS/2-USB dongles handy!

There we go!  All the computers you really should care about.

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