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Tag: 80’s

CollectorVision Phoenix: A modern, premium FPGA-based ColecoVision compatible retro console

Help CollectorVision reach their crowdfunding goal and make the Phoenix a reality!

Earlier this week, CollectorVision announced the crowdfunding campaign launch for their Phoenix console on Kickstarter. CollectorVision has in the past developed modern homebrew games for the 1982 ColecoVision videogame console, and in addition to that have partnered with OpCode games, developers of the ColecoVision Super Game Module expansion, which augments the system with more RAM and improved graphics capability.

I’m very excited about this system. ColecoVision was a great system, which died too young due to the videogame industry crash of 1983. It offered graphics nearly on par with the NES, a full year before the Famicom was released in Japan, and delivered home ports of early 80s arcade games that offered greater fidelity to the originals than was possible on the Atari 2600.

The Phoenix’s feature list is amazing: FPGA hardware implementation for 100% compatibility and fidelity with the original system, HDMI-out video, SD card slot, built-in Super Game Module and F18A enhancement hardware, 10 built-in ROMs of modern ColecoVision homebrew games, DB9 controller ports for original ColecoVision controllers, as well as SNES controller ports for compatibility with more common/comfortable SNES gamepads, and even a PS/2 keyboard connector. There’s even been talk of including an FPGA core for support of Atari 2600 games, much like the original ColecoVision’s Expansion Module 1 adapter for Atari 2600 games.

This is a dream system, and considering that, its price tag of $200 is very reasonable. Compared to the RetroUSB AVS system and the Analog Super NT, the Phoenix will fill a nice in retrogame preservation and it deserves to make its crowdfunding goal of $230,000.

To hit this goal, CollectorVision will need about 1000 backers to sign up. The kickstarter campaign is off to a somewhat slow start, however — three days into the campaign, they’ve only managed to secure $28,000 in pledges. Usually, a system like this would be fully funded in the first day, or even the first hour of the crowdfunding campaign going live. If the campaign received steady contributions every day at the level they have for the first 3 days, they would make goal, but it’s most typical for kickstarters to get most of their funding on the first few days, and the last few days. So I’m worried that they will not hit their goal. 

Perhaps retro gamers are wary of crowdfunding for yet another modern retro game console. People enthusiastically backed Ouya to the tune of $8 million dollars several years ago, and the recent AtariBox/Atari VCS crowdfunding was also successful in reaching goal, but only made $3 million dollars amid serious doubts about the current company calling itself Atari’s capabilities to deliver on what it has promised, and alleged mis-representation of their prototype hardware.

I don’t have any insider knowledge of CollectorVision, but everything I have seen from them about the Phoenix looks good, and I have faith that they care capable of delivering on their promises, if they can make their fundraising goal. Their hardware really exists, and all they need is capital for manufacturing. If you have fond memories of the ColecoVision and the early-80’s era of videogames, definitely check out the project, and consider becoming a backer.

Classic Videogame Quotes

Since their invention, almost overnight videogames have made a lasting impact on the greater culture. Here are a few of my favorite memorable quotes from video games.

It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this!

It's dangerous to go alone! Take this.

Game: The Legend of Zelda

System: Nintendo Entertainment System

Year: 1986

It’s the mid-80’s. The NES is new, and a chip shortage has made this already-hot game a hard to find must-have for the holidays — despite being released in February. Limited quantities of the special gold cartridge meant that a lot of kids had to wait a long time to get their copy of the game everyone was talking about: The Legend of Zelda. In Link’s first encounter, he finds an old man in a cave with a gift and some memorable advice.

Welcome to adventure, kid.

It’s a secret to everybody.

It's a secret to Everybody.

Game: The Legend of Zelda

System: Nintendo Entertainment System

Year: 1986

There’s something seedy about taking free rupees from a cave-dwelling Moblin. Is this a legit offer? What’s the catch? Why is this overworld enemy helping us? But yes, it’s true. Everyone knows that the secret to getting ahead in the world is to have a little money. It can get you into places, and out of jams. You can never have too much, but you can only carry $255. Don’t spend it all in one place, unless it happens to be the hidden shop that sells the Blue Ring!

Uh Oh. The truck have started to move!

Uh-oh! The trick have started to move!

Game: Metal Gear

System: Nintendo Entertainment System

Year: 1987

Most videogames for the NES were developed in Japan, and accurate translation never seemed to be a high priority. So many memorable quotes from mid-80’s videogames are remembered for their quirky, incorrect grammar and hilarious misspellings.

In Metal Gear, you sneak about a military base attempting to keep a low profile lest you be discovered and create an international incident. While looking inside a few parked trucks for supplies to aid you in your mission, one of them happens to start up with you inside! Better lie low and hope that you will not be discovered, and that wherever it takes you doesn’t bring your mission to a premature end. Fortunately for you, the blundering enemy has in fact just made it easier for you to succeed, by taking you to an area on the base where you could not get to otherwise.

Earlier in the game, you encounter this tired guard, who, if you wait out of sight long enough, will fall asleep. Oddly, before nodding off he announces, to no one in particular, “I feel asleep!!” Either the designers meant to say he fell asleep, which makes no sense because he’s already asleep, or perhaps they meant to say he feels sleepy. Either way, it’s pretty funny.

The NES port of Metal Gear was a bug-ridden mess, but since most of us didn’t have an MSX to compare against, we had no idea, but we didn’t care. The sneaking about, using stealth tactics to infiltrate the base while quietly eliminating guards, and finding an arsenal’s worth of gear to blow up a nuclear-armed super-weapon were too important to let some bad English stop us.

I feel asleep!!

Congratulation.

Congratulation.

Game: 1942

System: Nintendo Entertainment System

Year: 1986

A number of early Capcom NES games rewarded the player who successfully beat the game with this stingy accolade, “CONGRATULATION.” What, just one measly congratulation? Isn’t plural, multiple congratulations nearly always in order when complimenting someone’s happy success? After dogfighting your way through thirty-two (!) stages of bland, slow-moving shoot-em-up “action” against an unbearable monotone soundtrack, this is the thanks we get?

Literally, this is the entirety of what you get when you beat the game. Screw you, Capcom!

Fortunately, they more than made up for this with the sequel, 1943, which features improved everything, including one of the best soundracks on the NES. Capcom went on to produce some of the best titles on the NES, and found even greater glory in the 16-bit era with Street Fighter II. All is forgiven.

A winner is you!

A winner is you

Game: Pro Wrestling

System: Nintendo Entertainment System

Year: 1986

Pro Wrestling is one of those games that is pretty dumb, and yet really fun despite that, with a one of the hardest boss fights to win, the championship bout against Great Puma. But each time you manage to win a wrestling match, your reward was this message: A winner is you! All right! It really pumps up your self esteem!

You are in a maze of twisty passages, all [alike|different].

You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike.

You are in a maze of twisting passages, all different.

Game: Colossal Cave Adventure

System: DEC PDP-10, and others

Year: 1976

There’s so much quotable in Colossal Cave Adventure, considering the entire game is entirely text, and one of the first computer games ever. But this quote from the Maze is the one that I come back to the most. To create the feeling of being lost in a maze, the game just repeats the same text in each room, until you manage to solve the maze. There’s no feedback to tell you where you are, or to give yourself a reference point to have some idea where you are. After puzzling over this conundrum, successful players eventually figure out that if they drop an item from their inventory in a room, it will help them to make that room in the maze stand out from the others, enabling them to map out the maze with pen and paper.

To this day, whenever I’m in a confusing situation where there are many options and I don’t know which is the right one, I’ll think back to this one.

I am Error

I am Error.

Game: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

System: Nintendo Entertainment System

Year: 1987

A genuine WTF moment in gaming occurs when you meet the infamous Error. This is all he ever says to you, “I am Error.” Is that his name? Or is he just a chronic screwup? Or is the game telling you that it has an Error? This was a matter for deep contemplation in 1987.

What a horrible night to have a curse.

What a horrible night to have a curse.

Game: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

System: Nintendo Entertainment System

Year: 1987

Castlevania II attempted to innovate by introducing adventure and RPG elements into the action-platformer formula. There’s a level-up system, and shops where you can spend money that you spend hours grinding for… so much grinding for XP and hearts in fact that this game is usually remembered as the least-liked of the NES Castlevania titles. Luckily the music was excellent. Unlike the first Castlevania, rather than having a linear progression through a series of stages, the game featured an open map that you could go back and revisit, and likely would need to several times while trying to figure out some extremely obscurely hidden secrets. Another innovation the game features is a day-night cycle, where during the nighttime hours, the enemies were stronger, doing twice as much damage, and taking twice as many hits to be defeated. Every couple of minutes, day would turn to night, or night to day, and every time the game would freeze and display this message to you… one character at a time… for about 30 seconds. It was… memorable, let me tell you.

Winners don’t use drugs

Game: Various arcade games

Year: 1989-2000

If you went to an arcade in the 1990s, you surely saw this message on a regular basis. I don’t know whether it ever stopped anyone from trying drugs who wanted to, but we sure did know who the Director of the FBI was.

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

Game: Zork

System: PC

Year: 1980

The early text adventure games borrowed liberally from one another. In Colossal Cave Adventure, you could die if your torch went out, falling into a pit in the pitch black darkness. In the Zork series, there were locations where you could die without a light source, but it made no sense to have a hole that you could fall into. Enter the Grue, a loathsome fell creature that inhabited only the darkest reaches, and had never been seen by anyone who lived. But what is a Grue? No one knew. Some speculate that the name derived from the word gruesome, which is certainly a likely sounding explanation. On the other hand, the term “grue” is also found in the philosophy of Nelson Goodman, which might have been familiar to the MIT students who formed Infocom. But they’re also a monster in the Dying Earth novels by Jack Vance. So which is it?

Fight, Megaman! For everlasting peace!

Fight, Megaman! For everlasting peace!

Game: Mega Man

System: Nintendo Entertainment System

Year: 1987

After winning the original Mega Man, we are informed that Mega Man has to continue to fight (basically telling you that you could now play the game again, enjoying it for “replayability”). “Fight, Megaman!” the game extolls us, “For everlasting peace!” What? How? That oxymoronic statement always gives me a chuckle.

President Ronnie has been kidnapped by the ninjas! Are you a bad enough dude to rescue Ronnie?

President Ronnie has been captured by the ninjas

Game: Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja

System: Arcade (Data East)

Year: 1988

What could be more 80’s than a President named Ronnie? In the last year of Reagan’s presidency, this 2D beat-em-up gave us the attitude of cool badness that we all needed. Are you a bad enough dude? The game play in Bad Dudes wasn’t necessarily great, consisting of mostly standing around on platforms as the level slowly scrolled by, delivering repetitive one-punch or one-kick knockouts to an endless supply of cookie cutter Ninjas, without a great amount of depth or variety to the entire affair. This was a game anyone could beat, pretty much regardless of their skill level, as long as they had enough money. But the giant-sized, 16-bit sprites and (somewhat) challenging boss fights were enough to suck us in and drain the quarters from our pockets.

Barf!

Barf!

Game: River City Ransom

System: Nintendo Entertainment System

Year: 1989

The famous last words of many dying students at River City High school, uttered as they blinked out of existence and left behind their bouncing pocket change. It’s funny that they apparently literally say “Barf!” rather than making the sounds of barfing, such as “Bleaugh!”

Finish him!!

Finish Him!

Game: Mortal Kombat

System: Arcade

Year: 1992

The voice narration gave these words a chilling malevolence. When you hear this, having won two out of three rounds in the Mortal Kombat tournament, it’s time to unleash the combo that triggers your fatality move, giving your opponent a death worthy of the game’s title. Or, if you’re the loser, it’s time to endure the indignity and shame of having your body torn asunder, in the most unpleasant way imaginable. Yet, no matter how many times they die in the MK tournament, you everyone still gets to fight again in the endurance rounds.

Game Over

Game Over

Game: Just about every one, ever.

System: All of them.

Year: Eternal

Game Over, man. Game over!

To be sure there are many more memorable videogame quotes that I’ve left out. What are your favorites?

The Space Invaders: In Search of Lost Time

I just watched The Space Invaders: In Search of Lost Time, a documentary about the golden age of video games, and the stories of a few collectors of arcade games who are keeping them alive in basements and garages and museums around the country.

A heavily nostalgic look at the games, people telling their stories and what the games and the arcade experience meant to them. It wasn’t as heavy on history, research, and data as I would have liked, and being an enthusiast who lived through this period I didn’t feel like I really learned anything, but I feel qualified to say that the film is accurate in its treament of what it covers, and it is quite enjoyable to watch if you love the the golden age of arcade videogaming, or if you want to learn about that period.

The film did focus mainly on gamers who grew up in the late 70’s/early 80’s, and did not seem to include any interviews with people from the industry — designers, programmers, company presidents, or anything (although, a number of the collectors they interviewed do work in the computer technology field in some capacity). So it’s very much a gamer/fan oriented story, and not an insider story. But you’ll come away from it with a good feel for what the games meant to the generation who came of age during their heyday, and a lot of cabinet envy, if nothing else, and perhaps a desire for more wall outlets in your basement.

Strangely, the actual game Space Invaders seems to have been largely ignored by the collectors who shared their stories. For serving as the inspiration for the film’s title, it’s a bit odd that they didn’t spend a little more time talking about the game somewhere in there.

It’s available as an Amazon Instant Video, and if you watch it through the link below, I’ll get a little compensation through their affiliate program.

The Space Invaders: In Search of Lost Time

The Early 80’s Arcade Aesthetic

My friend Sam recently asked the internet if there were any books on early arcade game aesthetics. I’m not aware of any books that particularly stand out as being focused on game graphics, so I didn’t have any titles to suggest, although there are starting to be quite a few really good books on the history of the arcade.

To help him out, I brainstormed as much as I could, and since I think this ended up being pretty valuable, I figured I’d turn it into a blog post.

Basically every design principle in the graphics of early 80’s arcade games was governed by the insane limitations of the tiny systems of the day. Memory was SUPER expensive, 16k of RAM was a LOT in the late 70s/early 80s. CPU was 8 or 16 bit and SLOW – 1MHz or so. At the time there often wasn’t a dedicated video processing unit, or even dedicated video memory — everything was handled by the CPU, which often dedicated most of its processing power to simply drawing each frame of video, leaving relatively little processing power left over for handling game logic.

Here’s a list of qualities and factors that fed into creating the early 80’s aesthetic:

  • Portrait aspect ratios. Most of the old games, particularly vertical scrolling shooters, had monitors mounted in the cabinet in Portrait orientation (3:4 aspect ratio, as opposed to 4:3 ratio). Portrait gave vertical shooters more range to fire, and enabled manufacturers to build narrower cabinets, which allowed them to store, ship, and display more units in a given area.
  • Large pixels. The dot-pitch of those old screens was pretty coarse. You might have had a 15-, 17-, or 19-inch screen displaying 320×240 resolution, or even 240×160. Individual pixels were quite apparent, particularly in the late 70’s. Macro lens photos of the screen would reveal visible gaps between pixels. Early home computer monitors were capable of displaying a mere 40 or 80 characters of text, and the screens were tiny — 13″ or smaller.
  • Tiny sprites (usually 16×16 or 32×32 max)
  • Animations typically limited to 2-3 frames, though there were sometimes exceptions. Each frame of animation in a sprite cost valuable storage.
  • Bright colors and pastels. Here’s a great collection of color palettes available to home consoles and computers.
  • Grid-based graphics. Most terrain, characters, etc. were sized to fit within a standard grid size. Terrain, mazes, etc. were generally built out of repeated tiles.
  • No alpha channel. I don’t recall seeing any translucency (colors blending when two sprites overlap) in this era. Any transparency would have been all or nothing, provided by a mask. Before masking techniques became widespread, many early games had the background color drawn into the sprite, resulting in artifacts when two sprites would overlap.
  • Limited color palette. 2N colors to pick from, where N <= 8. So, generally 256 or fewer colors on screen. The most common color depths were 1-bit (B&W) and 8-bit (256-colors), although there were a few notable grayscale games, such as Fire Truck. 8-bit color ruled in the arcade until the 16-bit revolution came to the arcade, around 1986-87 — the golden era (roughly, 1978-1984) of the arcade was exclusively B&W, and 8-bit.Oftentimes, computers of the day had a pre-defined color palette and were further limited by the number of distinct colors they could draw on the screen at any one time, such as out of a total of, say, 4096 possible colors, which were baked in to the hardware and could not be changed, and you can only draw 16 (or 64, or 128) of them on the screen (or, in some cases, up to 4 colors in any one sprite) at any one time. If you want to emulate specific hardware, it’s a good idea to research the capabilities and narrow your color selection to match the authentic palette of the original hardware. These limitations often resulted in workarounds such as dithering (drawing two colored pixels closely together to allow the eye to blend them to a middle value). Here’s a fascinating article about the Commodore 64, describing a technique for getting “secret” colors to emerge from the C64’s limited palette by rapidly switching between two colors in the palette to synthesize a new color. It also meant that smoothing your images with anti-aliasing wasn’t possible, because there weren’t enough available colors to do proper tweening. Jaggy pixels ruled the day. Many home computer games of the era did their graphics in Text Mode, which has its own distinct look.See also: MDA, CGA, EGA, VGA
  • Palette swapped sprites. Old computers used color palettes, or indexed color. Out of a gamut of, say, 64 or 256 or 1024 or 4096 possible colors, a sprite typically could only use, say, 4 or 16 out of the 256 available colors. These four chosen colors were defined by a “palette”, and each color on the palette had an index value used to refer to it. By changing the colors in the palette to different colors, or in other words swapping one palette for another, the indexes in the sprite would be updated to use the new colors. Re-using and re-coloring the sprite, saved on storage space. A palette swap took a bitmap and re-mapped the values in each pixel to a different color from the new palette. This is why Mario is red and Luigi is green, for example. It was also very common to have different power levels of enemies denoted by using palette swaps.
  • Blinking and flashing. Rapidly flashing colors as a cheap, eye-catching form of pseudo-animation.
  • Flicker. If the processor couldn’t handle drawing all of the sprites on the screen in every screen refresh, something had to drop. So a sprite might not draw every screen update if there are too many on the screen, or too many in a horizontal scan line.
  • Abstract, iconified representations of things, and cartoony drawings, as opposed to realistic drawings.
  • Reliance on clichés, tropes, and popular idioms to help make graphics more easily recognizable, and a willingness to extend the idiom in a clever/absurd/zany fashion.
  • Fruit and keys and things are canonical bonus items.
  • Giant head/face, tiny body/limbs. They tried to fit the entire character into a 32×32 square, and most of the detail needed to go into the face/head to make the character recognizable and memorable.
  • High contrast is important for foreground/background.
  • Shigeru Miyamoto once gave an interview where he discussed why the original Donkey Kong sprites for Mario…mario
    • had white skin (the background was black, so they wanted strong contrast),
    • had a mustache (it helped his nose stand out and a mouth and chin were too complicated for the number of pixels left in the region)
    • wore red overalls/blue shirt (the overalls helped with the contrast of his swinging arms, which you otherwise wouldn’t get from a solid colored top.)
    • Wore a hat (his dark hair would have stood out less against a dark background, and presented problems with animation.)

Don’t forget vector!

Notable vector titles of the era:

  • Asteroids was the first hugely successful arcade game that used a vector display. Note the intense glow of the UFO and missile in this image, due to the vector display over-drawing those lines many more times than the refresh rate of a raster scan CRT would have allowed.
    asteroids_630x[1]
    I’m not sure what the very first use of a vector monitor was in the arcade, maybe Lunar Lander?
  • Battlezone When gamers of the area think about vector games, probably the first two titles they’ll think of are Asteroids and Battlezone.
    battlezone[1]
  • Qix Actually, Qix used a raster monitor, but it was primarily line based art, so I’m including it anyway for inspiration. Plus, it gives you an idea of how a line art game would look on a low-res raster display of the period.
    Qixingame[1]
  • Tempest Tempest was the first color vector game, and was a sensation at the time of its release.
    maxresdefault[1]
  • Space Duel is one of my all time favorite games. It featured innovative 2-player co-op/competitive play, and awesome graphics.
    Spaceduel[1]
    Note the distinct difference in this photo of an actual vector monitor screen photograph vs. how the game looks when emulated on a modern display:
    score8055_20140504190722[1]
    spacduel2[1]
  • Star Castle An often overlooked classic, the arcade version Star Castle used a color overlay over a monochrome vector CRT:
    star_castle_large[1]
    Later cabinets made use of a color vector CRT display, and looked much better: screenshot1[1]
  • Star Wars (really impressive achievement vector graphics, actually — convincing 3D, accurate wireframes of familiar star fighters from the movie, simulated fills, etc.)
    Star_Wars_Screen[1]
    1181242172192[1]

There might be other notables that I’m forgetting, as well, but these should have you pretty well covered.

Color vector screens were something rare and expensive, most vector games were B/W or monochrome (green or amber). I believe before proper color vector monitors became cheap enough, some vector games may have made use of cellophane overlays attached to the screen which filtered the vector image painted on that part of the screen to make it appear colored.

When you DID have colors, they were very bright colors, almost always primary colors (RGB).

The way the vector monitors worked:

  • There are no pixels (not easy to emulate, but maybe the retina display on the new iPhone/iPad can help make this more convincing?) This meant no aliasing or scaling artifacts.
  • A->B, not scan lines. The cathode beam was drawing from A to B for each line segment, not drawing scan lines from top to bottom.
  • Bright and sharp. As such, a vector display could spend much more time drawing each line segment, far faster refresh rates than the 30Hz that is typical of pre-HDTV raster CRTs. Unlike a raster CRT, there was not a fixed refresh rate; the cathode beams traced over the line segments as quickly as they were able to. This resulted in a very bright, flicker-free vector line (again, not easy to emulate) compared to the brightness of a white pixel on a raster display. There was often some ghosting as the intensely bright phosphor dimmed after the object on the screen moved. This was a hardware artifact, not something programmed in to the graphics routine as a special effect. Vector displays GLOWED and were sharp and gorgeous.
  • More stuff to draw means dimmer lines. This also meant that the more stuff being drawn on the screen at once, the overall brightness of each individual line was diminished, ultimately resulting in visible flicker if too many things were being drawn at once.
  • Even brighter vertices. Where line segments intersected, or at vertices, the beams additively excited the phosphors resulting in an even brighter point at the corner in relation to the brightness of the rest of the line segment. We’re talking REALLY excited phosphors!
  • Geometric shapes and polygons, not curves. Curves would have required far too much computing time to calculate precisely. Curves were always approximated with line segments. Linear functions are way faster than polynomial and trig functions, and the processors of the day didn’t even have dedicated floating point units (FPUs).
  • (Usually?) a single line thickness for all graphics. I can’t think of any vector games where the line thickness varied, but it’s possible there may have been some. Typically the lines were quite thin, like pencil lines.
  • No fills. Everything is a wireframe — maybe a simulated fill by drawing in a bunch of lines in a pattern. Fancier 3D games would occlude line segments that were “behind” the surface of some other object, but a lot of them just let you have a kind of x-ray vision effect where you could see through the wireframe.
  • Black background. You can have any background color you want, as long as it’s black.
  • Favorable to 3D. These properties made 3D games much easier to draw in vector than for raster graphic displays of the time. So a lot of the early 3D experiments were done with vector displays, most notably Battlezone.
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