The ISA-Bus

One blog to bind them all.

Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Simplicity of Tetris

The fascinating thing about Tetris is its absolute simplicity. There are no maps, no levels, no missions. There are only these seven different blocks falling down in random sequence with increasing speed. Basically each game of Tetris is the same as the one you played last time, yet it is different enough to have you play for hours and hours.

There is no story, no simulation, the game is completely abstract. The blocks do not pretend to be anything they aren’t. They are just blocks, geometrical figures, they exist only for the sake of the game.

You could call it a puzzle game, you could call it an arcade game (though, I think, nobody ever did), it does not belong into any category, it is a category of its own. And while some like arcade games and some dislike them, some like puzzle games and some dislike them, nobody seems to dislike Tetris.

At least nobody I ever met.

It could be played on anything. It has been played on anything. The Electronica 60 on which it was conceived had monochrome phosphor terminals that displayed only basic characters, the squares were drawn as pairs of brackets, like this: [].

For input, you do not even need a keyboard. Four buttons are all that is needed. A digital joystick would do. You do not even need a monitor. Any array of 10×20 LEDs, or light bulbs, would do. An office building has been used as a display for Tetris. You might want something else to display the score, but Tetris would be fun and addictive even without a score system.

Yet, while Tetris has been played on anything and everything imaginable, it has always first and foremost been a PC game. Tetris first put the IBM PC on the map, game-wise. At that time, the PC was anything but a gaming platform. While there had been PC games since the very beginning, they were usually ports or clones from other platforms, mainframes, home micros, video consoles, or arcade coin-ops. And for seven years, Tetris defined what PC gaming was all about. 1992, Christina Erskine, editor of the PC Review, wrote in the introduction to the PC Games Bible:

To the uninitiated, playing games on a PC comes as something of a surprise. After all, aren’t PCs the dull grey blocks seen sitting on a million office desks throughout the country? Those in the know, however, have found that PC gaming is an altogether different experience from alien-bashing on a Commodore Amiga, or platform bouncing on a Nintendo. A PC game is more likely to exercise your game than your joystick trigger finger.

The next year, Doom redefined what PC gaming was all about, and maybe she would not have written this any more.

Wyse Technology WY-700

InfoWorld reports on November 11, 1985, that terminal maker Wyse is entering the PC market with the WY-700, a monitor and graphics board subset that can display 1280×800 on a white-phosphor screen. In standard text mode, characters are 16×32 pixels, the maximum text resolution is 50 lines of 160 characters. The WY-700 is fully compatible with CGA, color programs are displayed as four grayscales. The price is a very low $1,595. In comparison, the Quadram Quadscreen costs $400 more, but its resolution is only 968×512, and it does not support standard IBM software.

Checking out Wikispaces

I have registered an account with Wikispaces and started building a wiki there. I will make it accessible within the next few days, and give you a review of the service soon.

Chess and Computers

Chess programs and chess computers go way back. Checkers programs are older, but chess programs were always more numerous and widespread. Affordable dedicated chess computers were available from the mid-70s on, long before the home computer boom. Some had small digital displays, but the more common arrangement was to have the circuitry underneath a standard chess board. Each field had an LED for the computer to signal its moves. The better ones had sensors in the board so that the human player could just make his moves as usual and did not have to type them in.

1968: Levy’s Bet

It took programmers a long time to come up with chess programs able to beat a good human player. In 1968, International Master David Levy made a bet that no chess computer would be able to beat him within ten years. He won his bet, in fact, it took more than another decade till a chess computer, Deep Thought of the Carnegie Mellon University, could beat him. But even Deep Thought was no match for Garry Kasparov, who would not lose a game to a computer until 1996, against a successor of Deep Thought, IBM’s Deep Blue. It was still only a game, not a match, for Kasparov won three and drew two of the other five games. The next year however, Deep Blue won the rematch.

1978: A Movie

In 1978, the year David Levy won his bet, there was a German-Austrian television production “Schwarz und weiß wie Tage und Nächte” (Black and White as Days and Nights), the story of a whizz kid (Thomas Rosenmund, played by Bruno Ganz) with an unhealthy obsession with chess. He overcomes his obsession, becomes a computer programmer, writes an outstanding computer program. The reigning world champion beats it and makes fun of it. So Rosenmund hones his chess skills again, beats the champion, but ends up in the psychiatric ward, completely burned out. The movie was directed by Wolfgang Petersen, who would soon win international recognition with Das Boot and move to Hollywood.

1979: David Kittinger

At an event of the Santa Clara Chess Club the operator of a Cromemco Z-2 challenged a mainframe running Xenarbor 4 to a match and won. The program that accomplished this feat had been written by an electrical engineer in Anchorage, Alaska, named David Kittinger, who had written it mainly because he had trouble finding computer partners. He had named it Mychess. Later that year Mychess won the ACM North American Computer Chess Championship in the micro class. Subsequently he was hired by Novag and designed numerous chess computers for them, most famously the Super Constellation which due to Kittinger’s PSH (Pre Scan Heuristics) algorithms had an intuitive, almost human style of playing.

It seems that Novag had no use for Mychess itself and never acquired it. In 1984, it was published by The Software Toolworks (later Mindscape) for CP/M and DOS, and later developed into the Chessmaster series. The DOS version of Mychess had nice graphics in hi-res CGA and the option of time limits. The 1979 copyright notice on the title screen caused quite some confusion later on.

1981–85: Cyrus

In 1981, 25 year old British programmer Richard Lang wrote the chess program Cyrus in just six months of his spare time. He was the clear winner of the PCW-European MCC held in London in September of that year, where it ran on a Nascom microcomputer using a 4 MHz Z80 CPU. Cyrus could even hold its ground against a Cray mainframe at another tournament, losing only to its best program, Belle.

Intelligent Software hired Richard Lang immediately after the PCW tournament, and licensed his program. Cyrus became available on many 8-bit platforms, including the Taiwanese Enterprise 64 and 128 and the Hungarian Videoton TV Computer 64. In 1985, they released a PC version that supported IBM’s new Enhanced Graphics Adapter, probably the first game to do so. What more, it made far better use of its possibilities than most other games. Using only eight colors (only one of them outside the standard IBM palette), it presented a truly 3D (not just isometric) view of the chess board. Unfortunately, the company closed down soon after.

1984f: GNU Chess

One of the first projects of the GNU Project, before there was an FSF or GPL, was the development of a chess program. Its main goal was not so much to serve as a game, but as a basis for research.

The first version was written by Stuart Cracraft. The main author of versions 2 to 4 was John Stanback. In this era two widely distributed Windows ports were made (1991 and 1997). However, the program became “pedantically unreadable and unmaintainable and non-valuable from an educational point of view” (Stuart Cracraft in a post to the Bug-gnu-chess mailing list). In 1999, Stuart Cracraft announced a completely new version (5) of GNU Chess that would share no code with its predecessor. Chua Kong Sian would become the main author of this version.

A separate but related project is XBoard, developed mainly by Tim Mann and first released in 1991. It is a graphical user interface and has been expanded to support other forms like Chinese or Japanese chess. It has been ported to 32-bit Windows as WinBoard.

1988: Battle Chess

In 1988, Interplay made an interesting experiment: To create a chess program with some of the features of a mainstream video game. The result was called Battle Chess. Animated characters replace the standard chessmen, they obliterate each other in rather inventive ways (some of them were later re-used in Fallout), but nevertheless strictly according to the rules of classic chess. You can even turn off the fancy stuff and use it as a standard chess program.

It was quite successful, both commercially and in its goal, to wake an interest for chess in those who otherwise wouldn’t. Interplay released many versions and kept it on the cutting edge graphically. The original version was re-released for free distribution, so you can try it out for yourself.

The TMS34010 Promo Video

I linked to it in my previous post, but I think it deserves a post of its own: The TMS34010 promo video. It’s about ten minutes long. The computer used for the video is an XT with a Professional Graphics Controller. This setup would probably have been capable of displaying a typical mid-90s web page.

Games and Graphics Hardware

It is mostly, though not completely, a myth that gaming did a lot to advance computer graphics. Sound systems, yes. Roland’s MT-32 was designed as a versatile yet low-cost synthesizer for semi-professional to professional musicians. It was soon embraced by game developers and ended up being bought mainly by gamers who wanted better music with their games. The Ad Lib Music Synthesizer Card was designed for hobby musicians, it came with a software called Visual Composer. It ended up being bought mainly by gamers who wanted better music but shirked from the MT-32’s price tag, or who, on the contrary, wanted better sound effects along with the MT-32 music, some games supported this setup.

It is probably equally true for the compact disc. From about 1992 on, there was a wide range of games available on CD-I and CD-ROM, usually used for red book audio, digitized speech, or even video. But graphics? For most of the time, game developers did not even take full advantage of the existing graphics capabilities of PC hardware. Let’s take a look.

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A Gaming PC in 1996

In his PC game guide, which gravitates very strongly towards Windows games, Hendric Wehr gives the following recommendations for a gaming PC:

  • A Pentium 133, better 166. The 166 is still a lot more expensive, but prices are going down. The Pentium 200 is too expensive, and even the newest games can’t utilize its power.
  • 32MB RAM. RAM is cheaper than ever, 32MB cost about 300 German Mark.
  • 2GB is the ideal size for the harddrive. Most PCs at the time are sold with a 1.2GB drive. He advises against a second harddrive, since many models are incompatible.
  • The faster the CD-ROM drive, the better, but within reason: Quad-speed is the minimum, but games don’t support more than 8×, so a 12× like Toshiba’s XM3801 B is a waste of money. For about 120 German Mark you get a very robust 6× drive.
  • 14″ and 15″ monitors belong into the museum, 17″ is ideal for gaming. For about 1500 German Mark the Sony 17 sf II offers everything you expect from a monitor. There are others that sell for less, just take care that it can display your resolution of choice (the maximum ever mentioned is 1024×768) at 72Hz and that it is low on radiation.
  • The video card should have at least 2MB. Many recent games won’t install if they find only a 1MB card.
  • Most important about the soundcard is that it supports Plug & Play.

Hendric Wehr then discusses several models of speakers, joysticks and VR helmets. He never mentions 3D accelerators.


I deleted most, not all, categories on this blog. There were too many of them, it had become quite confusing. Over time, I will go through all my posts and give them new categories, for now, most run under uncategorized.

Weirdest Spam Ever

Thank you for your letter of April 17. After careful consideration I regret to inform you that I am unable to accept your refusal to offer me employment with your firm. This year I have been particularly fortunate in receiving an unusually large number of rejection letters. With such a varied and promising field of candidates it is impossible for me to accept all refusals.

Despite Acme Inc.’s outstanding qualifications and previous experience in rejecting applicants, I find that your rejection does not meet with my needs at this time. Therefore, I will initiate employment with your firm immediately following graduation. I look forward to seeing you then.