The ISA-Bus

One blog to bind them all.

Monthly Archives: March 2011

Sometimes DOSBox gets the colors wrong

I wrote before that when running Windows 3.x in DOSBox, you should always get SVGA drivers and set it to 256 colors, or the palette will be wrong. This is an extreme example of the colors even being wrong in display, but something else is more common: That the colors look right on screen, but are corrupted when you take a screenshot. Take a look at this Super Nibbly screenshot, for example:

Super Nibbly, wrong palette

Yes, ouch. This is definitely not what it looked like on the screen. What do? How do we shot screen in such a case?

The answer is really frightfully simple. If we can’t let DOSBox take screenshots, we take screenshots of DOSBox. On Windows, an excellent tool for this is IrfanView (it should work on Linux with Wine too). IrfanView has a capture utility (started by typing c) that can be set to automatically take screenshots at certain intervals. This in itself is often an advantage (look here what happens when you concentrate too much on the screenshots, and too little on the game), but there will usually be some editing to do afterwards. This is what we get:

Super Nibbly, correct palette

Well done indeed. This is what it looked like on the screen. The IrfanView method is not only useful for palette troubles, but also for some arcade games, where DOSBox does not catch the explosions.

Here are some Super Nibbly screenshots, correct palette, of course. If you want to download a shareware game with similar gameplay, try Nibbly’96.

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Some Funsol screenshots

Funsol is a package with no less than 113 different solitaire games for Windows. Even in the shareware version they are all playable, the only difference to registered is the number of shuffles. I uploaded the last 16-bit version (Funsol 2.1) and the otherwise identical first 32-bit version (Funsol95). Here are a couple of additional screenshots, showing the various card backs and table backs.

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Five games running in small windows

These are not the five games running in the smallest windows, either in general or among the games I know or offer for download. They are just five games, four for Windows 3.x and one for Windows 9x, running in small windows, none of the screenshots has more than 40,000 pixels, but still looking rather nice. I have omitted any games where the menu bar wraps, for example. Nor have I included any games with scalable graphics. Except for P. Höhn’s Memory, all the games below are from the USA.

Triplets

Triplets is a sort of board game where two players try to uncover three smileys in a row or column. Pixel count 38,880.

Slider

Slider is an implementation of the standard puzzle of Klotski. The window is not only small, it is also completely custom, having no title or menu bar. The menus are accessed by right-click, a rare thing for a Windows 3.1 game. Pixel count 25,344.

Memory

P. Höhn’s Memory is concentration with a few extra features. The playing field can be set to a larger size, but this is how it starts by default. Pixel count 33,128.

Button Madness

Button Madness is an implementation of Lights Out (but before the concept was known under this name), the nicest I’ve come across yet. Pixel count 29,340.

Bear Resemblance Game

Bear Resemblance Game is a simple tile puzzle. It has the smallest window in the bunch, pixel count 21,600.

Update 2011-07-26: There are meanwhile four more games running in small windows.

Style sheets override HTML tags

I verified this in Internet Explorer 6.0, Firefox 3.6 and even a very old version of Opera, 8.5 from 2001, which I still use for email: When there are conflicting instructions for background colors or images in style sheets and HTML tags, then the style sheet instruction will override the one in the HTML tags. This can be used to advantage.

When I designed Download Central, I did not want it to be too dependent on style sheets. They define only the font, justify the margins of paragraphs and handle a few details. The background images of the pages, and the white background of the table that contains the text, are defined in the HTML tags. This ensures that a browser that does not support style sheets (Arachne, for example) will still display the pages approximately as intended.

As I have now verified, if I ever wanted to set all the pages to a single background image, or change the table color, either temporary or permanently, I could do so by just adding the appropriate instructions to the style sheet. And I could revert to the status quo ante any time by removing them again, or commenting them out.

Neat.

Five games that kept me playing

It’s funny, but when you write about games as long as I have, you don’t really play them that much any more. Nowadays, when a game keeps me playing, it’s something special. Out of the 600 games I newly added since I started Download Central half a year ago, these are five that did keep me playing.

Zeek the Geek

If someone had shown me, some time ago, a screenshot of Zeek the Geek and told me that I would play this game, play it a lot, I might have laughed. But I did. I played it and played it until the levels got too hard for me. What’s so great at collecting flowers and avoiding the carnivorous ones as a bonneted cephalopod in a game designed for children? I really don’t know. It’s cute. Everything fits. Just try it yourself.

Slay

I discovered Slay on some old shareware CD I had owned for years. It’s a simple yet complex strategy game. Even though the shareware version is restricted to only one map, only one setting, and every game starts exactly the same, I found Slay strangely addictive. And I never really found anything like it, not even among Sean O’Connor‘s other games.

Raptor: Call of the Shadows

There aren’t many arcade-style shoot ’em ups for PC, not from the classic epoch. Half a dozen, maybe a dozen. Among these, Raptor: Call of the Shadows is in my as usual not all that humble opinion the best. It perfectly combines arcade quality graphics with PC style, somewhat RPGish gameplay. You control your plane with the mouse, which quickly gets very intuitive. Instead of lives that you lose with one shot you have a sort of hitpoints. You get money from your kills and use it to buy power-ups. If you want to know how much I played that game, just look at my collection of Raptor screenshots.

Nibbly'96

I’ve already mentioned Nibbly as the perfect example of the German arcade puzzle. Nibbly’96 frustrated me a lot with its pointless system of lives and time limits. But I kept on playing. Again, look at the screenshots. Currently I’ve reached level 8, but have not solved it yet.

Lomax Boulders

Another German arcade puzzle. Another huge screenshot collection. The gameplay elements of Lomax Boulders are all from Boulder Dash, but the way they are used here is unique and insane. There are five games, the shareware versions have about five levels each (the later ones less, I think), so combined they are a good sized game.

Arcade games as a business model

As an afterthought to my previous post: Arcade games are determined mainly by their underlying business model.

Usually a game is sold to the player. How long or how often he will play it is of no concern to the designers, as long as he feels he got his money’s worth. Online games are a bit different. They make money primarily through monthly fees, so the player must keep playing it for the game to be profitable. But online games are relatively new, and their predecessors, the BBS door games, were never more than a niche.

Arcade games are among the oldest forms of games, they were never a niche, and their business model is completely different. They are sold to publicans and amusement hall proprietors who want the games to make them money. They must be designed in a way to keep the player inserting quarters.

The predominant system here is inherited from pinball machines, in part because arcade machines were often manufactured by pinball companies and in part because it is a tried and true system.

A pinball player gets a number of balls for his first coin. He can keep on playing as long as he keeps his ball in the game. He can score points with skillful play, and if he amasses enough points, he will get a free ball. A really good player might play for hours on his first coin, but he has to be really good. Arcade machines replaced balls with lives and changed little else about the system.

Of course, the designer has to keep a careful balance. If the game is to easy, players will not lose enough lifes and not insert enough coins. If it is too difficult, they might get frustrated and play elsewhere. This and nothing else is what defines an arcade game.

It is interesting that this system of lives and points was so pervasive, got so much accepted as part of the gameplay and not a business model, that many pure home platform games feature it as well. Even Wolfenstein 3D still has it, though it has a system of savegames as well, and lives thus don’t even make much gameplay sense.

German arcade puzzles

This is a curious type of game that’s mostly popular in Germany, or maybe I should say the German-speaking world, for a few examples are Austrian. From their gameplay, these games are puzzle games, relying on logic and contemplation. But additionally, there are arcade concepts like lives and time limits on the levels.

Strictly speaking, these type of game is not a German invention, but a Japanese one. The two earliest instances that I know are two arcade machines, Puzznic and Shisen-Sho Joshiryo-Hen, both from 1989. But these are coin-ops, they have to have these arcade elements or they wouldn’t make their proprietors any money. Japanese puzzle games for home computers (Sokoban, SameGame) are free of them. Germans seem to love this concept as an end in itself.

Brix

The two abovementioned arcade machines found followers, and clone makers, mainly and for a while even exclusively in Germany. Puzznic got only few clones and look-alikes, the most remarkable one probably Michael Riedel’s Brix. But there are lots of Shisen-sho games—nearly all of them from Germany, and, as an added curiosity, mainly on Atari platforms.

But new games of this type were created as well. The most remarkable is, I think, Nibbly. It gave a new twist to the Snake/Nibbler concept. In Nibbler, the snake moves through a maze and is therefore in more danger to block its own way. In Nibbly, the maze is completely filled with fruits, the snake will thus grow much faster. You will have to spend a lot of thought on how the maze can be solved. But, even though it was never an arcade machine, time limits and lives are still in place.

Nibbly'96

Nibbly is an Austrian invention, created by the demo group Cosmos Designs. It started out as a Commodore 64 game, Nibbly ’92. The next year the group ported it, with many enhancements, to Amiga and PC as Super Nibbly. A few years later, it found a shareware clone in Nibbly’96, which is how I came to know and love-hate it.

For as good as any of these games might be, I never understood the idea behind the concept. If you don’t have to keep the player inserting quarters into your machine, why limit his time? Why force him to repeat already solved levels because his lives ran out?

Six months Download Central

Today it is exactly six months that I announced my new download site, Download Central. I’m quite happy with the way it has grown. A couple of days ago there were 900 downloads. At the moment, there are 921. I know a lot of similar sites that are far older and have maybe half as many.

I’d like to point out that in spite of this number I very rarely upload something that I haven’t tried out. The whole PC section contains nine screenshots that I know I didn’t take myself. There may be an equal number where I just don’t remember, but even in these cases I have usually played the game at least long enough to get an idea what it’s like.

It’s different in the Amiga section. There are a number of games that I didn’t get to run on WinUAE, and there are a few where I didn’t even try. I guess the screenshot relation here is about 50:50.

Lately I’ve made a number of structural improvements to the site. Whenever I know which country a game is from (note: I always go by the country where it was written, not the nationality of the designer), I put the flag of this country on the description page. There are now games from 48 countries, 27 of these flags are linked to a page on my old site that usually contains a list of all the games from this country I have something about (not just those on Download Central). The flags not linked are the USA (due to the immense number of American games a list would be impractical) and those countries where I have so few games that making a separate page is not worthwhile. The threshold is usually four or five games.

Nearly all concepts are now linked as well. I have made a lot of new concept pages lately. They often start out with nothing but thumbnails of the games for download, but sometimes, as in the case of Snake and Mahjongg, develop into articles of their own right.

Lately I’ve started adding pages for game designers and groups. Currently only two names are linked, Adrian Millett and Digital Nightmares. More will follow. When I transfer a game from the old site to Download Central, the description page often becomes useless. Because of this and the fact that I can’t make server-level redirects on the chello server, I’m reluctant to just delete them. In many cases it makes sense to convert them into a page about the designer(s) instead.

It is interesting that while meanwhile two out of three downloads were added within the last six months, those that are downloaded most are still mainly those that I already had up on the old site for a while. The most successful new addition is without doubt QBasic. The program itself is usually number two, and the two sample games are quite popular as well.

Among the other games, only GobMan and Xonix32 have made it into the top twelve. The system & support files enjoy quite some popularity, as do DOS GUIs.

It will be interesting to see how things look in six months, when the site is one year old.

Update 2011-10-03: It turned out that not all that much had changed.

Neglected shareware and freeware

In August 2006 I wrote on my old changelog:

The vast majority of the games I added this year were freeware and shareware games, and most of them were puzzle games, board games, and Tetris clones. There are several reasons for that. First of all it is simply nice to be able to directly offer the game you are writing about. Then I increasingly became aware that many of these games are in danger of getting lost. The BBS that were their main channel of distribution have long ceased to exist, more and more of the big FTP servers vanish too. Occasional a BBS got converted into a website, but this is the exception, not the rule. Some old shareware CDs have been put on the web, too, but not every author allowed his games to be put on CDs.

Besides, these websites are little more than collections of download links, there are no screenshots, maybe a short description that is not always accurate. There is no way to look for a certain type of game. Many of the games I have uploaded you could not easily find elsewhere. And it’s getting more and more difficult. Some of these games were easily available only a few years ago. There is a high motivation in this. Whether or not I write an article about (say) Dungeon Keeper will not change anything. But whether or not I upload an old Othello or Tetris clone may make the difference whether or not this game is still available a few years hence.

I find that this is still true in part. When I added Connex to Download Central, I had trouble at first getting it to run on WinUAE. So I looked if I could maybe find a screenshot somewhere I could use.

No.

Hall Of Light and EAGER both restrict themselves to commercial games. Lemon Amiga does not, but doesn’t have it either. A number of google searches yielded no results.

There’s a certain paradox here. Since the late 90s we have an abandonware scene dedicated to distributing old commercial games. Occasionally sites have been shut down, DMCA notices have been sent and specific games removed. There is now a working infrastructure, any potential abandonware webmaster can easily find out which games he may offer with impunity and which not.

On the other hand, the shareware and freeware, what used to be incorrectly called PD in the golden age of computer gaming, the games that are perfectly legal to distribute, get ignored. Databases often shut them out. Nobody seems to care about them. Gamebase64 is really an exception here: They’ll document any game that ever existed. Unfortunately, similar databases do not exist for most other platforms.

Of course—on a lighter side, this means that Download Central is now the only place where you can download Connex and see a screenshot. Heck, maybe it’s even the only screenshot on the web!

And this is, at least in part, why I’m doing all this.

The myth of the Captain’s Mistress

The story goes that Captain James Cook took a Connect Four on his exploration voyages and became so engrossed with it during the long periods at sea that his crew gave it the name Captain’s Mistress, a name that has remained till today. This is most likely baloney.

Apart from this anecdote, there is absolutely no evidence that Connect Four existed in any form before it was published 1974 by Milton Bradley. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that it did.

Why?

Because it’s far too complicated, not complicated to play, but complicated to make. Traditional games have always been very simple in their physical form. One of the reasons that Mancala is so popular is no doubt that it can be played anywhere, with anything, starting with six holes in the ground, with coins, in an egg carton.

A game that needs a relatively complex contraption for playing makes sense only if you want people to be only able to play that game if they buy that contraption from you. That was definitely the Milton Bradley’s reasoning in 1974, but nobody’s at the times of Captain Cook.