The ISA-Bus

One blog to bind them all.

Category Archives: Hardware

Two Cards on One Port

Common wisdom has it that you can’t have two devices set to the same port. This may not be true in all cases. At the moment, I have a 286 with a Roland SCC-1 and a Sound Blaster 2.0 (CT1350B). The SCC-1 is set to the default value of 330h, and the MIDI port of the Sound Blaster cannot be configured anyway.

Yet they both work. I can play General MIDI files with the SCC-1, play games with an external module hooked up to the SCC-1, and play MT-32 MIDI files with an external module hooked up to the Sound Blaster’s MIDI port (which both GSPlay and MegaMID support).

The only program that can get confused by this setting is Roland’s CSSCHK utility. Sometimes it works fine, sometimes it reports, not incorrectly, that the port is taken up by another device, and won’t let me set the SCC-1 into MT-32 emulation mode. That’s not really a problem since there are other ways to do this.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The end of 8-bit

Here’s a little list of some popular 8-bit systems, and when they were discontinued:

  • Amstrad CPC: 1990
  • Atari 8-bit: January 1992
  • Sinclair ZX Spectrum: 1992
  • Apple II: November 1993
  • Commodore 64: April 1994
  • BBC Micro: 1994
  • MSX: 1995

The demise of these platforms, which had dominated much of the 80s, happened within a relatively short time. It’s interesting that the demise of the classic 16-bit platforms (Amiga, Atari ST, Apple IIGS, Acorn Archimedes) happened mostly in the same time span, not later. The Amiga is the only exception, since Escom continued it to 1997.