Thursday, August 24, 2017

Basic Fun for Retro Gamers - The Stealth Invasion of the Mini-Arcades

In the late 1970s, the handheld electronic game was born with Mattel Auto Race.  More games like Football, Baseball, Basketball and Soccer followed and they were successful. These games ran on a microcontroller and used red LEDs to represent objects.  Companies like Nintendo followed up with the Game & Watch series, which could display much more detailed objects using monochromatic, fixed-pattern LCD displays.  Coleco provided innovation in its mini-arcade games using Vacuum Fluorescent Display (VFD) technology, allowing for color displays that could be viewed in the dark. Milton Bradley introduced the first handheld system with programmable cartridges in 1979 with the Microvision.

The Microvision had the advantage of having individually addressable pixels instead of fixed patterns, but at 16x16 pixels the types of games it could play was extremely limited.  The Game and Watch series and later, cheaper handhelds like the Tiger Electronics' games survived long after Milton Bradley and Coleco got out of the gaming market.  1989's Game Boy, with its 160x144 resolution screen, programmable microprocessor, PPU and APU and 16KB of RAM made the fixed-screen LCD games obsolete.  When the Atari Lynx introduced color and backlighting later that year, not even the color VFD units could compete.  But we are not here to talk about the programmable consoles today, today we are going to take a look at more modern, fixed LCD games released by a company called The Bridge Direct under its Basic Fun brand label.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Coming Full Circle : Comparing the IBM Model F and M Keyboards

When I started this blog in 2010, the first thing that came to my mind to write about was my love of the IBM Model M keyboard.  From those humble beginnings I then decided to talk about other retro computer and video game topics.  But before there was the IBM Model M keyboard, there was the IBM Model F keyboard.  Back in 2010, I did not have a full appreciation of the many advantages of the Model F.  Now I have acquired both of the major models and would like to talk about them here.  Given that this is officially my 360th blog entry, I would say that I have come full circle.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Mandela Effect - The Nerdly Version

There exists a phenomenon called false memory.  These are memories which a person sincerely believes are true yet can objectively be shown to be false.  A colloquial name for this is the "Mandela effect", so named because many people in the late 1980s and into the 1990s believed that Nelson Mandela was dead.  Given that he was imprisoned by the South African government from 1962 to 1990, people could be forgiven in the pre-Internet days that he was dead.  In the context of suppressed memory cases, usually involving child sexual abuse, the theory is very controversial.  However, I am not going down that road.

Instead I am going to pull some false memories from elements of popular culture which I have found interesting.  James Rolfe did an excellent video in his Angry Video Game Nerd series satirizing the supposed "Berenstain Bears Conspiracy" :  The conspiracy alleges that there has been a concerted effort to change the authorship of the Berenstain Bears books from "Berenstein" to "Berenstain."  After all, doesn't everybody remember the "Berenstein Bears"?  I remember the books and the shows being referred to as the "Berenstein Bears" and used that label to refer to them myself.  I would suggest that the mistakes lies in three factors.  First, "Berenstein" and "Berenstain" are very similar words.  Second, "Berenstein" is a more common surname than "Berenstain"  Third and perhaps most important, "Berenstein" is easier to say that "Berenstain."

So from my own experiences, let me describe two instances where I probably am the subject of false memories.  Originally I was going to describe three memories, but I forgot what the third memory was!  For the first two examples I will explain the origins of the memory and try to explain how I may have acquired the memory falsely.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Unusual Famicom Saving Methods

In the United States and Europe, if you wanted to save a game on your NES, you generally had two options.  If the game supported password saves, you had to write down the password (accurately) and enter it back when you wanted to play the game again.  Some games had rather lengthy passwords, and if you confused a 0 for a O or a 1 for an l, your password would be unusable.  A relatively few NES games also had battery backup saves where the contents of a RAM chip inside the cartridge would be saved with a coin-style battery when the power was shut off.  Early games required the problematic "hold reset as you turn the power off" method, and if the battery ran out replacing it was no easy task in the early days.  Japanese Famicom players had a few more options, and as these can be rather obscure to westerners, I would like to talk about them here.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Famicom Expansion Audio Overview

The Famicom was constructed with a feature which was not available to the NES.  The Famicom always sent its internal audio to the cartridge port.  For most games, the audio was sent back to the system without modification.   26 (of 1,054) licensed Famicom games contained hardware that could produce additional music and mix it in with the internal audio.  In this article, let's take a look at the methods that were used and the games that used them.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Obscure Tandy 1000 Models

When I have talked about the Tandy 1000s in the past, and I know it has been a while, I have focused my discussions on the Tandys that were available to purchase by members of the public at Radio Shack stores.  If you walked into a Radio Shack store in the 1980s and had $1,000 to spend, you could walk out with an IBM PC compatible computer.  The 1000 line was cheap, fully functional as PC clones and played games as well as or better than machines that cost many times their price.  But Radio Shack was not the only source from which you could obtain a 1000, and the 1000 hardware was also available to institutional buyers.  So in this blog entry I am going to pull together every scrap of information I can find on the rarest, most obscure Tandy 1000s in existence.

Tandy 1000 AX - The Friendly PC for Sale at Wal-mart

In the 1970s and 1980s, the idea of walking into a retail store and walking out with a home computer was not an ubiquitous aspect of American life.  If you wanted to buy a computer in the 1970s, you often had to order chips, parts and boards and assemble them yourself.  Computer stores cropped up in the late 1970s when computers had grown from weekend-long soldering projects into ready-to-use products out of the box.  At the forefront of this evolution was Radio Shack, which sold its own designed and manufactured computers in its stores, and it had thousands of stores and over 100 computer centers.  In these stores you could often see units set up for demonstration purposes, listen to a salesman try to persuade you why you need a computer and, if your bank balance was healthy enough, walk out with a system ready to be hooked up.

Other stores would stock home computers in the 1980s, like the Atari and Commodore 8-bit systems, but most consumers looked at these lower-cost machines as toys or video game machines, unsuitable for serious business uses.  Wal-mart had been expanding since the 1960s and was always looking for new products that could sell.  PC compatible machines gained ever more popularity during the 1980s, but the prices were rather high.  Tandy's computers were within the budgets of some of Wal-mart's shoppers, so in 1987, you could have seen the Tandy 1000 AX in Wal-mart stores.

The Tandy 1000 AX is simply the 1000 SX with a change in letter on the front case badge and the rear model identification sticker.  But that was it.  The same motherboard and the same keyboard as the SX was used and the chassis is otherwise the same.  No real effort was made at obscuring the origins of the computer, and often customers walked into the Wal-mart store to buy the cheaper AX and hound the Radio Shack employees across the mall with requests for technical support.

The PC-1000 - The Second Wal-mart Tandy 1000

Radio Shack's second and last effort for Wal-mart came with the PC-1000.  This computer used a Tandy 1000 SL motherboard.  The front of the case was beveled differently from the Radio Shack machines, but the button, port and slot placements were the same, except for the power button's shape.  The rear model identification sticker mentioned Tandy but not Radio Shack, perhaps due to the issues with the AX.  I believe that the idea was to make it more difficult to make the connection in the days before the Internet that Tandy = Radio Shack.  I doubt it worked for long.  The keyboard was the same, except that the name plate now just said PC-1000 Enhanced Keyboard.  This was probably sold in 1989-1990.

Pictures of the 1000 AX, PC-1000 and their corresponding regular 1000 models, the SX and SL, can be found here :

Tandy 1000 SL/E

Like most computer manufacturers, Tandy wanted to get its computers into schools.  Commodore also targeted the educational market, but neither was nearly as successful as Apple.  At some point, it released the 1000 SL/E.  This is a standard Tandy 1000 SL/2 with a different front plate badge.  I assume the "E" meant that this machine was designed for the educational market.  It may also have been bundled with the Trackstar E Apple II emulation card, which was sold by Radio Shack and would have been attractive for schools seeking to migrate away from the aging Apple II platform.  Like the SL/2, this computer hails from 1989-1990.  Interestingly, on this model the socket for the real time chip has switched places with one of the sockets for the BIOS, perhaps to make the chip easier to install.

More information about this model, with pictures, can be found at the bottom of this thread :

A video about the machine is viewable here :

Tandy 1000-WS

Finally, we have what is likely the most interesting machine of the bunch, hardware wise.  This is the Tandy 1000-WS, a machine intended as a low-cost Point of Sale terminal for Radio Shack stores.  It operated the cash register, took in customer information and processed credit cards.  It could be connected to a barcode reader, a magnetic strip reader and a receipt printer.

Tandy started with the SL motherboard, but made changes to it.  First, the ports on the back and front of the unit are different.  The SLhad a 7-pin DIN for the Keyboard, two 6-pin DINs for the Joysticks, a DE-9 male for the serial port, a card edge for the parallel port and a DE-9 female for the video port.  The WS has a DE-9 male for the serial port, a DB-25 female for the parallel port, a 7-pin DIN for the Keyboard and a DE-9 female for the video display.

The SL has a chassis that supports two 5.25" drives and the SL/2 has a chassis that supports a 3.5" drive and a 5.25" drive.  The WS has a chassis like the TL series supporting two 3.5" drives and one 5.25" drive.  There is a plastic insert covering the front controls for the volume dial, reset button and the headphone and line input/microphone jacks.

In one of the expansion slots there is a card with a serial port and what appears to be some kind of network controller.  An extra serial port was needed between the magentic stripe reader, barcode scanner and the receipt printer.  The network hardware would communicate with a server in the back room, which did the real processing.

The motherboard is missing many components found in the SL.  Gone are the floppy controller, cable connector and support circuitry, three of the ISA connectors, the coprocessor socket and the audio and joystick daughterboards.  There is only 128KB of RAM in the system and sockets for only 128KB more.  The system has been confirmed to recognize 256KB of RAM with the existing sockets populated.  There is a socket for an EEPROM to store the system settings, but no EEPROM came with the system.  There are silkscreened holes for the remaining RAM to bring the system up to the 640KB max of the SL.  The system ROM is only 32KB.  On a true SL or SL/2, there is 512KB of ROM in the system, which includes the BIOS, the DOS in ROM and Deskmate in ROM.  Because this system was intended as a dumb terminal, those extra features were not required.

The system was set to boot to a Tandy terminal emulator in monochrome/hercules mode.  It came with an expansion card which provided a second serial port and what appears to be a network interface.  It has a pair of ROMs on it for booting.  Installing an EEPROM will allow the system to look for a system disk and use Tandy graphics instead of booting into the terminal emulator.  There is no third ROM socket or holes to mount one.  That third socket is where you installed the Tandy Smartwatch RTC chip.  Even though the audio board may have been removed, PC Speaker and Tandy music and digital audio output should still be available through the internal speaker.

While you should be able to restore full RAM and expansion capability to the WS, restoring full floppy drive support will be more challenging.  The floppy controller is a standard NEC 765, but the missing support chip at U18 is a custom Tandy part.  It would have to be harvested from another SL or SL/2.  Finally, the ROM sockets only support 28-pin EPROMs (64K x 8 max), so you cannot upgrade to full SL & SL/2 ROM capabilities (Deskmate & DOS in ROM).

More information and photographs can be found here :

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

New Discoveries about the IBM Music Feature and Roland Sound Canvas

I have previously discussed both of these sound device families previous blog entries.  The Yamaha IMFC and FB-01 is discussed here : and the Roland Sound Canvas first generation modules here :  Rather than burying the information in those entries, I would like to add additional new information here.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Early Video Game Content Advisories - Who Needs Ratings Systems?

Prior to the formation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board in 1994 there was no comprehensive content ratings systems for computer and video games in the U.S.  However, that did not mean that video games never provided warnings to potential purchasers and their parents or spouses.  Here let us explore the attempts to advise the public of adult-oriented content prior to and outside the eventual dominance of the ESRB.