The ISA-Bus

One blog to bind them all.

Monthly Archives: April 2013

Roland in France and Germany

The only French company to consistently support Roland MT-32 was Delphine Software, known mainly for “Another World” and “Flashback”. They did it from 1990, when they started to port their games to the PC, till the end of the DOS era. Cryo Interactive Entertainment did it only for the two titles they developed for Virgin, “Dune” and “KGB”. I guess that Roland had little to no relevance for the domestic French market.

In Germany the situation was a whole lot weirder. Support was very inconsistent and started very late, around 1994, when the Roland era was already over elsewhere. So far the only game I found where Roland is definitely the best choice is the 1995 RPG Albion. This may have something to do with the prices charged for the LAPC-I in Germany. According to one 1991 game guide, an AdLib cost 200 German Marks at the time, a Sound Blaster 350 and an LAPC-I 1,300. Seeing that a German Mark was usually about 50 cents, and the suggested retail price of the LAPC-I in the USA was $425, that’s a bit much.


Roland in Britain

Outside Japan, there are only two countries where Roland hardware was widely supported in games: The USA and the UK. There are several differences between the support in these two countries.

In the USA, support started in 1988. The default device was and remained the first generation MT-32, of which there are large numbers in the USA. You can still get one on eBay for $50. Many games sent messages to the LCD display, not just Sierra games. Very few games used the additional sound effects of the CM-32L and LAPC-I, noteworthy ones are the two Ultima Underworld games and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. That was 1993, when American developers were already moving to General MIDI. Consequently, most (not all) American games that support MT-32 but not GM will run on a 286 or even 8088 with 512kB RAM.

In the UK, support started in 1990 and the default device seems to have been the LAPC-I from the beginning. Many games, starting with Supremacy in 1990, used the additional sound effects, many will not even run correctly with first generation hardware. None that I am aware of sends a message to the LCD display.

MobyGames lists a few 1989 UK games that supposedly support Roland, but at closer look, they all evaporate: Ste Cork’s Chuckie Egg port did not support any sound cards, only speaker, as did the original release of Double Dragon II, though Adlib and Roland support seems to have been added in a 1991 re-release. Bloodwych and Millennium 2.2 are Amiga/ST games where the existence of contemporary PC ports is questionable, while 1991 American releases for PC are well documented.

If British composers and developers discovered Roland later, they also acquired greater mastery. When especially good Roland music is discussed, or games where the Roland score is a lot better than the alternatives, the majority of quoted games is usually British. Some of these games are otherwise quite obscure, like King’s Table: The Legend of Ragnarok.

The end of the LAPC-I era in the UK seems to have come around 1994. The last games I found so far where Roland is the best music choice is Sabre Team. It requires a 386.

Circuit’s Edge and the MT-32

Circuit’s Edge will not play its music correctly on Sound Canvas MT-32 emulation. It will, in fact, be horribly off: Instead of Fantasy and Synth the intro will use standard pianos.

The interesting thing is that there is no detectable activity before the music starts. Dune II, in comparison, takes its time to initialize the MT-32.

Chip’s Challenge and the MT-32

I just tried Chip’s Challenge with an MT-32, I wanted to see if it uploads any custom patches. It does not. There is absolutely no activity before the music actually starts.

Now I know from previous experience that Chip’s Challenge will work with a WaveBlaster connector. Unfortunately, there never was a full-featured MT-32 on a daughterboard. There is, however, a complete Sound Canvas on a daughterboard: The Roland SCD-15. And a game that does not upload patches will work well with the MT-32 emulation of the Sound Canvas.

As a footnote, the music isn’t the same as in the original Lynx version. It was written by David Whittaker, probably the most sought-after British game composer of the time. Except for the famous Windows version, all the ports were made by British outfit Images Software, and mostly to platforms popular in the UK. You can play Pipe Mania on a Mac or NES, but not Chip’s Challenge!

Dune II and the Roland MT-32

I have read in various places that Dune II will work only with a first generation MT-32. Not true. I just tried it with an original MT-32, a CM-32L, and even with the MT-32 emulation of the SCC-1. The emulation, of course, gets the sound effects wrong, but might even be a viable alternative if the multiple sound source patch is installed and Sound Blaster used for the sound effects. The first generation MT-32 may sound somewhat better, but all three setups basically work.

Actually I’m not sure if it is even possible to have a game that works only with a first generation synth. The other way round, yes. Ignoring the 40 ms delay between sysex commands may cause buffer overflows, broken sounds and even firmware lockups. But I think the worst that can happen when a game that exploits the first generation bugs is run on later hardware is that it sounds a bit odd in places.

A Timeline of Japanese Games in the West

This is not intended to be a list of games (I’ve done that before), or to be complete in any way. It just picks a few samples to show how things developed.

1975: Taito’s “Western Gun” is licensed by Midway as “Gun Fight”.

1979: Taito’s “Space Invaders”, again published by Midway in the USA, is probably the first Japanese arcade game to make a real impact abroad.

1985: The Famicom is released in North America as Nintendo Entertainment System. It is completely redesigned to resemble a VCR more than a game console.

1986: Ken Williams travels to Japan with the intention to sell Sierra games there. Instead he returns with a game he has bought: “Thexder” by Game Arts, which will become Sierra’s best selling game in 1987. Other game ports resulting from this cooperation are Silpheed, Zeliard and Fire Hawk. Sierra will also port Nihon Falcom’s Sorcerian in 1987.

1987: Spectrum HoloByte licenses Sokoban and creates versions for Apple II, Commodore 64 and PC.

1988: Koei establishes a Californian subsidiary and publishes at least every other game in the USA, on multiple platforms. The “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” series is probably the most popular.

1989: Brøderbund ports thre PC-88 titles: Cosmic Soldier 2: Psychic War (Kogado), Wibarm (Arsys Software), Ys (Nihon Falcom, first game only). Seika ports “Take the A-Train II” as “Railroad Empire”.

1990: Final Fantasy is released in the USA. According to one survey, Mario is recognized by more American children than Mickey Mouse.

1992: Maxis publishes “Take the A-Train III” as simply “A-Train”. Liberty International Components forms the subsidiary Megatech Software, which brings the first eroge to the USA.

1994: SoftEgg translates Gainax’ Princess Maker 2. They are unable to find a publisher, but the finished translation gets leaked and enjoys some popularity anyway.

1994/95: Hitoshi Ozawa translates a number of freeware Windows games into English, among them Same Game.

1995: The Sony Playstation is released in the USA.

1996: JAST USA is founded.

Some Notes on the Roland MT-32

Roland had not, originally, intended the MT-32 to be used with a computer. They had a very specific setup in mind, that is explained in detail in the manual: A PR-100 sequencer and a Roland Piano.

The suggested setup in the MT-32 manual

A PR-100 and an MT-32 were later released as a single device, the MT-100. The Roland Piano was the main instrument, the one connected to the amplifier or headphone. The MT-32, therefore, had no need for a headphone jack. Its audio output was plugged into the piano. So far, I have not been able to track down this “Roland Piano”. The professional Roland synths are documented very well on the web, the low-end home products less so.

Then, in 1988, Roland released something they called the Musi-kun, a set to create and listen to music on a PC. It seems to have been available for NEC PC-98 only. Unfortunately, only tiny images can be found:

Musi-kun-1 Musi-kun-2

I suppose that it was on this occasion that the second generation of MT-32 was launched. One of the changes was the addition of a headphone jack. Now that the MT-32 was the main instrument, it needed one.

Snakes and PCs in Norway

Recently I uploaded Tom Kristensen’s Snake to Download Central and noticed that it’s already the fourth Snake implementation from Norway. Since there are currently only 21 Snake games, that is quite remarkable.

Another thing that I noticed is that development for the PC seems to have started earlier than in most other European countries. The newly uploaded Snake is from 1984, as is Roar A. Lauritzsen’s. Ivar Gundersen’s Yatzy is from 1985.

In comparison, the oldest British PC game currently on Download Central is Rimtrix (1988), the oldest French PC game Popcorn (1988), and the oldes German PC game Tet42 (1989). Then I remembered that Magnus Itland wrote, more than ten years ago:

Norway is the most Americanized country this side of the big pond. We eat lots of Big Macs and Whopper Cheese and drink lots of Coca Cola and Pepsi. We have more American PCs and visit more American Internet sites. And we have ca the same GDP and the same density of PCs and Internet access as the USA, too.

So I guess it figures.

Technology Usually Comes Too Late

Take, for example, Richard Wagner. His ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk became reality about fifty years after his death in the form of movies with color and sound. Movies tend to use music in a way very similar to Wagner. Some games do, too: The leitmotif concept is implemented very well in Chrono Trigger, for example.

The same goes for computers. The esthetics of the 60’s and 70’s would have been very computer-friendly. Look at Roy Lichtenstein’s Head – Red and Yellow. It uses only three colors, the skin is dithered from red and white. You could easily recreate it, or create something similar, on most 8-bit home computers, or on CGA.

This is one rather extreme example, but take for instance Yellow Submarine. It was a song, it was a book, it was a movie, and it created a style of illustration that remained influential all through the 70’s. It, too, used relatively few colors, and little to no shading.

But by the time computers became small and cheap enough to become household items, the esthetics had changed. The hip thing was now fantasy art in the style of Boris Vallejo, which was a lot more difficult to recreate on a computer.

I’ve often wondered what games would have looked like if personal computers had been born a decade earlier. Alas, we’ll never know.

A Short Timeline of MIDI and PC Games

1983: MIDI is standardized after two years of discussion.

1984: Roland launches the MIDI processing unit MPU-401, designed to connect MIDI devices with a computer. The MPU-401 is a box with its own power supply that is connected to the computer via a card or cartridge. Interface kits for eight computer systems are available: NEC PC-88, NEC PC-98, Fujitsu FM7, Sharp X1, MSX, Apple II, Commodore 64, and IBM PC.

1987: Roland launches the LA (Linear Arithmetic) family of synthesizers. At the bottom end is the MT-32, designed for hobby musicians and garage bands.

1988: With the fourth game in the King’s Quest series, The Perils of Rosella, Sierra introduces a new game engine, Sierra’s Creative Interpreter (SCI). The new engine supports EGA graphics and three music devices: The AdLib Music Card, Creative Labs’ Game Blaster, and the Roland MT-32. They also sell these three devices. If you buy an MT-32, you get two games for free.

1989: Roland launches the “Computer Music” series of synthesizers. They are designed for use with a computer only and have no LED display and no controls but a volume knob. Of these, the CM-32L is an improved version of the MT-32. It has less noise and some extra sound effects for games. For NEC PC-98, Apple II and IBM PC it is also available together with the MPU on a single card, the LAPC (LAPC-N, LAPC-A, LAPC-I respectively).

1991: The General MIDI (GM) standard is published. Still in the same year, Roland adds the GS extension (expanded variously as General Standard or General Sound) and presents a device that supports both, the SC-55 Sound Canvas. Unlike the MT-32, the Sound Canvas is a wavetable device and not programmable. Other companies soon produce GM devices as well, often as daughterboards for the Soundblaster cards that are getting more and more popular.

1992: Dune II is one of the first, or maybe even the first, game to support the new Sound Canvas.