A Planetary Anachronism: “No Man’s Sky” Beautifully Rendered on the Amiga 1000

It should be evident to anyone viewing this website that I have a bit of a vintage computer obsession. And regular readers who’ve been paying attention over the past year and a half or so likely know that my other obsession is the space exploration game No Man’s Sky. After watching an episode of The Guru Meditation (YouTube channel) the other day I got a nifty idea for combining the two and sharing the results with anyone who’d care to see.

No Man’s Sky is a game with some of the most beautiful visuals I’ve ever seen. And what’s more, those visuals render out an infinite universe made up of over 18 quintillion planets. Of all of the systems in my vintage computer collection, the Amiga stands out as having been furthest beyond the capabilities of its peers when it came to graphics rendering, among other things. The original Amiga’s 4,096 color palette seemed an infinite range of colors when compared to the 16 colors that was the typical best case scenario of the other machines of the day. And, with a clever graphics mode known as Hold-And-Modify or HAM, the Amiga could render with its full palette onscreen at once.

In the episode of The Guru Meditation in question, the hosts walk through converting modern, true-color images to the HAM8 mode of the late-model Amiga 1200. The results were impressive, shown on both LCD and CRT alike in the video. This inspired me to select a few of the beautiful in-game photos from the thousands I’ve taken along my No Man’s Sky journey and render them on my oldest Amiga, the original Amiga 1000 circa 1985.

The Amiga 1000 features what is known as the Original Chipset or OCS which delivers the 4,096 colors mentioned previously. The Amiga 1200, which came in 1992, introduced the Advanced Graphics Architecture or AGA chipset which expanded on the original HAM mode by introducing the new HAM8 mode capable of displaying 262,144 colors onscreen from the system’s 16.7 million-color palette, using eight bitplanes to work the magic that previously took six.

Investigating a reasonable way to convert the images, I discovered a fairly amazing Java-based application known, colorfully, as “ham_converter” which uses extremely optimized algorithms to get the most out of the Amiga’s bizarre HAM mode. The results, rendered in a 320×400 pixel interlace (and a 4:3 aspect ratio), are well beyond the quality that I recall seeing my Amiga 2000 generate with early, basic HAM converter programs, rendering MCGA images to the screen in HAM mode back in the early ’90s. In fact, they are so good that their shockingly high quality takes a bit of the “retro” out of this post; the images look a little too good! And, just to let you know this wasn’t just a click-and-drag process, the systems involved in the conversion were: a gaming PC [specs] able to run the Java app, an iMac [specs] not able to run the Java app (apparently) but also running an FTP server, an accelerated Amiga 2000 [specs] with a LAN connection and a floppy drive (and an FTP client), and the Amiga 1000 [specs] with a floppy drive, SCSI hard drives, and no LAN connection. Getting data to and fro was … involved.

After the images were converted, I moved them to the Amiga 1000’s SCSI hard disk and then spent a staggering amount of time searching for a slideshow program that would run on so early a machine, running AmigaDOS 1.3. But, I finally found one (QuickFlix from 1987) and the results can be seen in the embedded video. I felt that “going analog” and conveying the CRT experience, despite a bit of mild refresh-ghosting, got to the core of the experience better than simply throwing up a thumbnail gallery in the middle of this post. (Note that after the first pass through the slideshow showing the entire system at work, it repeats with a closer camera zoom for a better look at the images onscreen.)

I’m quite pleased with the end results (which can be downloaded here in IFF format). In developing No Man’s Sky, Hello Games have stated that they were visually going for the covers of the sci-fi novels of olde. Rendering the visuals of this modern title on the a 30+ year old Amiga platform seems something of an analog of that goal. I hope you enjoyed the show.

Related Links from this blog:

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Highlighting My Bedside Apple //c for “Wedge Week” at r/RetroBattlestations

This week was “Wedge Week” at r/RetroBattlestations and I chose to focus on my Apple //c which I recently moved to a bedside configuration for leisurely retrocomputing BBS and IRC usage. This //c has lived in two D.C. offices and a bookshelf in my basement computer room (and it will likely take post in my new cubicle at American University in a short while).

Apple IIc

“Wedge Week,” as described in the subreddit:

As my collection grows I’ve found it fascinating how many computers were jammed entirely into the keyboard. This style of computer has pretty much disappeared, although at one time it seems like the majority of the marketplace was filled with them. There’s early 8-bits like the original TRS-80 and Ataris, ’80s computers like the ZX81 and Sinclair, and even some 32 bit computers like the Amiga were all jammed into the keyboard.

The challenge this week is to show off your wedge shaped computer. The main logic board (MLB) with the CPU, RAM, and ROM must reside within the case that holds the keyboard, and of course the case should have an overall resemblance of a wedge shape.

On the shelf below sits a WiFi-equipped Raspberry Pi 2, a USB-to-serial adapter, and power supply bricks that let me telnet into BBSs and attach to my favorite IRC servers. I use ProTerm 3.1, AgaTe, and Modem.MGR — terminal programs that let me connect with various emulations (VT-100, ANSI, ProTerm Special, etc.) to online destinations.

I have quite a few “wedges” in the collection, but as this is the system I most recently setup in a new location, I thought it would be a good choice to share for this week’s r/Retrobattlestations competition.

A complete list of the fun I've had with r/Retrobattlestations' challenges over the years can be seen below. Good times!

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Have a Helping of 8-bit Holiday Cheer! (2017 Edition)

‘Tis the season, and that means it’s time to push out the seventh annual Byte Cellar vintage computer Holiday demo video roundup so everyone can feel that warm, fuzzy, pixellated holiday glow. With scanlines. Enjoy!

I’ve been a computer geek for a long time now, but I’ve been enjoying The Holidays even longer.

I got my first computer, a TI-99/4A, on Christmas morning in 1982. I was 10 years old and from that Christmas on, it was nothing but games and computer hardware that I wanted Santa to leave me under the tree. On through my teenage years, part of my ritual for getting into the Holiday spirit was downloading and watching Christmas demos on whatever system I had at the time (and every platform out there had a few of them).

Enjoying these demos is a personal tradition that I had, sadly, long left behind until 2010 (the year before I began writing these posts) when I was inspired to seek out the demo I remember best, Audio Light’s 1985 musical slideshow for the Atari ST. With the help of an emulator, I captured it to share online with readers.

A year later, I fired it up again and watched it run through it’s 16-color, pixellated images and 3-voice musical holiday greetings. As I watched, it occurred to me that it might be nice to gather a few of the other demos I remember from the good ole’ days and present them here, in order to try to share some of the holiday cheer that they used to inspire within me.

The following list of demos ranges across a variety of platforms of olde and is sure to bring the warmth of the season to the hearts of any and all retrocomputing enthusiasts who behold it. Happy holidays, and I hope you enjoy the shows!

Be sure to also have a look at the dozens of demos gathered through the years in the 2011 – 2016 edition of this post.

The 2017 collection:

DOS PC – GENESiS’ Christmas Demo (1999)

C64 – QuantumLink’s Commodore Christmas Album (1980s)

Atari 2600 – Chris Read’s Christmas Demo (2007)

Amstrad CPC – GPA Noel Christmas Demo

Tandy CoCo 3 – Mad Xmas Demo short

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A Program from a 35 Year Old Magazine for “BASIC Month” and a Chat with Its Author

July was BASIC Month over at r/Retrobattlestations and for that competition I decided to reach for my TI-99/4A and type in a TI Extended BASIC game called Pearl Harbor from the 1983 issue of Electronic Fun with Computers & Games…for the second time in 35 years.

In a post I made several years ago, I talk about a particular issue of Electronic Fun with Computers & Games magazine that I purchased in order to get at the Electronic Arts “Software Artists” poster that came packed inside it. After getting the poster setup, I flipped through the issue and realized it looked quite familiar; it was the one issue of that publication that I ever purchased, all the way back in 1983. And I remember why I bought it when I saw the lengthy TI-99/4A type-in BASIC game Pearl Harbor on the back pages.

So, for BASIC Month 2017, I pulled that magazine off the shelf and started typing in the program. I must confess that I used a text editor on my AmigaOS 4 “SAMiga” to type in the code a bit more comfortably. I then connected the Raspberry Pi-based laptop I put together to my TI-99/4A‘s serial port (provided by a Myarc RS-232 card sitting in the large TI Peripheral Expansion Box tethered to the ’99) by way of a Keyspan USB-to-serial adapter and cable. After getting that set up, I launched TIMXT on the ’99 from the FlashROM 99 cartridge I recently acquired and got the machine working as a Linux terminal, and from there used ‘sx’ to send the tokenized BASIC file I generated (with Classic99 on Windows) from the BASIC code over to the ’99, which wrote it out to disk. (The terminal program TIMXT supports the 80-column text mode provided by the F18A video upgrade module that I recently installed in the machine, which is nice!) With all that done, I fired up the ’99 with TI Extended BASIC, loaded the program, and ran it.

An intense throwback to 35 years ago then commenced.

[ The BASIC file for use on a real ’99 or in an emulator: PEARLHARBOR.ZIP ]

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The Retro Was Strong at the Smithsonian’s SAAM Arcade 2017 in D.C.

Last weekend my family and I attended the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s SAAM Arcade event in Washington D.C. SAAM Arcade is an annual event, free to the public, featuring a wide variety of video games both modern, spotlighting indie developers, and retro. In addition to a huge number of hands-on gaming opportunities there are various workshops and music performances scheduled throughout the day.

This year the event featured games from 150 independent developers as well as a huge number of retro game consoles, arcade cabinets, and even an assortment of 1980s home computers running various games. The event was centered in the museum’s enclosed Kogod Courtyard, with sessions and arcade machines spread throughout the museum. The event website provides more details of what took place. Nearly 20,000 people attended this year’s event.

As a huge retro gaming enthusiast, I quite enjoyed seeing so many people both young and old enjoying the vintage consoles and cabinets. My daughter was partial to Galaga ’90 on a TurboGrafx-16 console, and we even played a game of Pong (well, a clone) on a Coleco Telstar from 1976.

Despite living in neighboring Alexandria, VA I had been unaware of this local, annual event that began in 2014. I was tipped off by my friends Johan Gjestland and Marco Peschiera who came in from Norway to demonstrate their upcoming meditative bird flying game, Fugl, which I’ve been play-testing (and loving!) on various devices for a couple of years now. Their setup was demonstrating Fugl running in VR on the Oculus Rift headset, which was breathtaking.

Now that I’ve discovered SAAM Arcade, I certainly won’t be missing another. In the meantime, I plan to attend the nearby, annual Magfest (who were a sponsor of this year’s SAAM Arcade) event, which next takes place January 4th-7th, 2018 at National Harbor, MD.

(Back in 2012 I wrote a bit about my trip with my daughter to The Art of Video Games exhibit, also held here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.)

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A Gamer’s Reflections as “No Man’s Sky” Turns One Year Old

Tomorrow, Hello Games’ space exploration and survival game No Man’s Sky will turn one year old. At 600 hours in, I have played the game most days of the past 365. As such, I could not let this birthday pass without comment.

After much anticipation No Man’s Sky launched on the Playstation 4 on August 9, 2016 with the PC version following three days later. And never have I seen a game generate such dramatic reactions from players. Some felt it didn’t live up to the (largely gaming media-fueled) hype. Others were under the impression that a true multiplayer game had been promised. But still others felt that No Man’s Sky was the game they had been waiting for their entire lives. Any of my regular readers are aware that I fall into the last category. Indeed, my deep connection with the game has prompted me on several occasions (such as this one) to use this vintage computing blog to talk about something completely unrelated to the subject, utilizing what soapbox is at my disposal to share my feelings about the singular experience that I find No Man’s Sky to be.

(A podcast that was recently recommended to me sums up the No Man’s Sky launch situation as well as the current state of things rather well.)

I have spent too many hours writing about the game to say it all again, here. For those who are interested, read my earlier write-ups about No Man’s Sky:

A Few Words About the Best Game I’ve Ever Played: No Man’s Sky (Sept. 2016)
My Skylake Gaming PC Build (Oct. 2016)
Procedural Planetary Exploration Across the Decades (Nov. 2016)
Did You Hear About That Nutter Who Dropped $4K $5K on No Man’s Sky?! (Jan. 2017)

Instead, I wanted to mark the occasion by sharing a small selection of photos from the larger online gallery (300 or so, of the ~3,000 I’ve taken in game so far) that I’ve assembled along the way on my No Man’s Sky journey — a journey that is very much ongoing.

I started playing the PS4 version on launch day and then built a high-end gaming PC in early September in order to play the PC version which offered the potential for higher framerate, higher screen resolution, and mods (which I ended up deciding not to use). Hello Games has released two major feature updates to the game (v1.1 “Foundation” and v1.2 “Path Finder”), along with a number of small fix / tweak updates. The switch to PC and the feature additions brought by Hello Games’ updates can be seen in the gallery below, which is arranged chronologically, starting off with a shot from my PS4 insertion moment at the top-left.

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Four Colors Into Sixteen: Terminal Innovation on the Atari ST

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the growing telnet BBS world lately and it’s really been a blast. I’ve been “dialing” in to my favorite BBSs by way of Paul Rickard’s WiFi232 Internet Modems (which I covered in a recent post). So far I’ve used my WiFi232s on five different systems. Among them is the Atari 520ST.

I purchased my first Atari ST back in the fall of 1986. Shortly thereafter I added an Atari SX212 1200-baud modem (my second modem, after the Prometheus ProModem 1200A on an Apple IIe) to the setup. The only terminal program I had ever used on the ST was ST Talk, a rather basic VT-52 terminal emulator program. When I reached for my 520ST to use with the WiFi232, I figured there was probably a more full-featured ST terminal program out there, so I did a YouTube search for people using the Atari ST as a serial terminal and found someone demonstrating the WiFi232 using a program called TAZ. What caught my attention was the fact that it supported ANSI emulation (with the IBM extended character set) and, more impressively, seemed to do so in 16 colors in the ST’s Medium Resolution mode. Medium Resolution on the ST is 640×200 pixels, which can display 80 column of text, but in only four colors (out of a palette of 512 colors).

So, how was it displaying 16 colors?

The Atari ST can display 16 colors onscreen in Low Resolution mode, which is 320×200 pixels, but not in Medium Resolution. So, I left a comment asking the poster what was going on. He responded, saying that the 16-color display was achieved using dithering.

Well, it didn’t look dithered; it looked rather sharp. So, I downloaded TAZ, put it on the SD card that is my 520ST’s floppy library (thanks HxC2001) and fired it up. As soon as it loaded it became clear what the developers had done here, and it was impressive. I logged into an ANSI graphics-heavy BBS and was blown away by the accurate and colorful ANSI display.

TAZ, by Neat n Nifty software circa 1994, does not use dithering in the traditional sense to achieve 16 colors. But it does use dithering of a sort — it uses what you could call temporal dithering. TAZ alternates two different palettes every frame. That means that, on a 60Hz display, TAZ‘s 16-color terminal screen is effectively 30Hz. You would think that this would introduce substantial display flicker — and you’d be right! It flickers notably but, amid the flicker, what is achieved is a very usable, 16-color ANSI terminal running on a machine limited to just four colors onscreen at a time. And the font the developers chose is particularly nice, as well.

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The Wonderful WiFi232: BBSing Has (Literally) Never Been Easier

Over the past year or so, I’ve been loading up SyncTerm and logging in to various telnet-accessible BBSs here and there — nothing too consistent. But, thanks to a piece of kit released by Paul Rickards, over the past month I have become fully immersed in the telnet BBS scene. Paul’s WiFi232 Internet Modem is an inexpensive device that lets you BBS the way it was meant to be done, on hardware from the golden age of the Bulletin Board System.

In a nutshell, it works like this: The WiFi232, as far as your vintage computer is concerned, is a Hayes telephone modem. It accepts standard AT commands as well as AT commands that go rather beyond the standard Hayes commandset. The purpose of the device is to act as a bridge between your serial port and your local WiFi router. It has a 25-pin RS-232 data interface and a Mini-USB connector for power — it should work with any computer sporting a standard serial port.

The WiFi232 is configured by connecting to the device’s built-in web server and loading the configuration page or by issuing extended AT configuration commands. For example,


points the device to your WiFi hotspot. Once things are configured (it supports 300 to 115,200 baud), just load up your favorite terminal program, type:

ATDT bbs.myfavbbs.com

and the WiFi232 “dials” into that telnet BBS. Your vintage computer thinks its talking on the phone.

I had early access to the device (well, I have two) and have been enjoying them on my Apple //c at the office as well as my enhanced Apple IIe, Amiga 1000, and TI-99/4A (recently upgraded to 80-columns with an F18a FPGA video board (that’s a blog post for later)) at the house. The WiFi232 is easy to move around, works exactly as advertised — it is an oldschool modem to my vintage systems — and gives me a compelling, new reason to spend time on a variety of machines in my collection.

I hope the demo video I put together gives a taste of what the WiFi232 enables, and I wholeheartedly recommend that any vintage computing fan grab one and get back online.

Here’s a list of telnet BBSs to get you started.

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A Glimpse of Paradigm Simulation’s ‘Certain Impact’ for SGI / IRIX

I’ve been spending some time over the past few days with my SGI O2 which sits on a desk in my DC office. I took it off the shelf and brough it in to work so that it could get a little lunchtime use a few months ago. Adding an IRIX machine to my daily, lunch-at-the-desk, retrocomputing podcast ritual definitely levels-up the experience.

The other day I was running through a number of the IRIX system demos, as one does, and fired up one of the more historically notable programs that’s ever appeared on an SGI. Certain Impact is a WW-I era 3D flight simulator / game created by Paradigm Simulation (later Paradigm Entertainment and later still, acquired by Infogrames) using their Vega and AudioWorks2 simulation toolkits. Unlike a number of other simple flight simulators that can often be found on SGI workstations, Certain Impact is fully textured, adds a combat game element, offers network play, and supports SGI’s VR headset.

What I find most notable about Certain Impact is that it shortly preceded the critically and commercially successful Nintendo 64 launch title, Pilotwings 64 [ video ], which was developed by Paradigm under contract from Nintendo. Pilotwings 64 is one of my favorite games of all time (I’ve always loved flight simulations in most any form) and has a special place in the hearts of many who knew the Nintendo 64. I find the experience of playing Certain Impact to be quite amazing, knowing that I am flying around inside the world (and the minds of the developers) that spawned that superb N64 launch title.

There’s not a lot on the web about this game and many of the SGI-oriented people I chat with have never seen it run in person, so I took a quick and dirty video (with my iPhone 7 Plus) showing a few minutes of gameplay on my SGI O2. The system is based on a 175MHz R10000 CPU and the display is an SGI 1600SW. As can be seen in the video, the game doesn’t take advantage of a widescreen display; it’s rendering at 1280×1024, which leaves 320 pixels free for a system monitor app that shows CPU and GPU utilization while the game is running.

I wrote a bit about Certain Impact here back in 2005 (I’m shocked to see how long ago that was…), shortly after acquiring my O2. At that point I had not yet installed the game from the SGI IRIX 6.5 CD bundle I gathered to freshly setup the system.

Wrapping up, I wanted to give a nod to YouTuber and SGI aficionado “Dodoid” who has put out an excellent 6-part (and counting) video series on the history of SGI and its workstations. Watching part 1 of that series is what prompted me to take my O2 off the shelf and get it up and running, once more. I urge readers to check out all of his videos — they’re definitely worth your time.

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To Upgrade, or Not to Upgrade, That Is the Question

The other day I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, the Retro Computing Roundtable, when the host topic really struck a chord in me. In this episode, no. 148, Paul Hagstrom was hosting and his topic for discussion was: Venturing down the retro upgrade path.

How far should we go down the upgrade path toward modernity? If you have a, say, 68030 Mac, would you want to put a third-party 68040 accelerator in it? You would have in 1993. But what is the point today?

Lately I’ve been taking advantage of the wide availability and relatively low cost of FPGA and Systems on a Chip technologies to upgrade a number of my systems to allow flash-based floppy emulation which brings a huge usability and manageability boost. Also, simply maxing out the RAM on a system is something I’ve often done. These are “reasonable” upgrades from any perspective, really, and are not very costly. But these are not the upgrades that Paul was referring to.

And I definitely have some first-hand experience with the upgrades he was referring to.

I’ve gone far down the road of such upgrades on a few systems, and while the experiences were adventures, oftentimes they weren’t the sort of adventures I originally had in mind. The eventuality in these cases has typically been something like a ball of best intentions, memories of power-user fantasies of days long past, rationalized expenditures, and a dose of regret. Let me share an account of my most stand-out example.

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Posted in Amiga, Apple II, Just Rambling | 4 Comments