Friday, August 23, 2013

The NES and the Powerpak - An Oldie but Goodie

Once upon a time, if you wanted to play a game on the Nintendo Entertainment System, you needed the cartridge of that game.  The idea of a flash, programmable or rewritable cartridge, either with a single game or a multi-cart, was something strictly in the domain of hackers and pirates.  Unlike other cartridge systems, where the internal hardware inside the cartridge rarely varied, there were enormous numbers of different cartridge hardware for the NES.  While the basic NES cartridge could support either 16KB or 32KB of game code (Program ROM) and 8KB of graphics tiles (Character ROM), anything beyond that required hardware to implement a bank switching scheme to allow the game to overcome those limits.

When a NES or Famicom cartridge uses extra hardware, that hardware is called a mapper.  With the Japanese Family Computer (Famicom), Nintendo created several methods, some using simple glue logic, others using custom application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) which it termed Multi-Memory Controllers (MMCs).  It allowed its initial partners, Namco, Konami, Sunsoft, Irem, Bandai, Jaleco and Taito to make cartridges and whatever hardware they could put on them.  Later partners had to use Nintendo's boards almost without exception.  Some Famicom mappers supported additional sound channels.  Many games used battery backed static RAM (S-RAM) in the cartridge to save games, and a few used EEPROM to save.

When the Famicom came to the USA and became the NES, Nintendo implemented stricter controls over cartridge manufacture.  Almost without exception, it manufactured all cartridges and its partners had to use the hardware Nintendo offered or their game would not be released.  The number and variety of different mapping schemes was greatly reduced compared with the Japanese cartridges.  This situation carried over into Europe.  However, all versions of the NES added a lockout chip, one region for the US and Canada, a region for the U.K., Italy and Australia (PAL-A), a region for the rest of Europe (PAL-B), and even a region for short lived Hong Kong version of the NES.

Still, when unlicensed third parties entered the scene, they quickly devised their own mapping schemes, although sometimes their schemes function identically with a Nintendo mapper.  Unlicensed manufacturers were Tengen (began as a licensed third party), Camerica/Codemasters, Color Dreams/Wisdom Tree/AGCI/Bunch Games, SEI/American Video Entertainment, Racermate, Inc., Panesian, Caltron/Myriad and Active Enterprises.  These cartridges contain various methods to defeat the lockout chip in the NES.

In Japan the Famicom had an add-on peripheral called the Famicom Disk System.  This allowed the users to load games off special, 3" floppy disks into a special adapter cartridge containing 32KB and 8KB of RAM and an ASIC containing the logic and code necessary to control the disk drive and provide an extra sound channel.  Disks were much, much easier to manufacture than ROM cartridges and far cheaper to make. Nintendo considered releasing it in the west, but the disks did not have a great profit margin, were easy to pirate, not very reliable and the peripheral was not a smash success in Japan.  Because of all those issues it was never released overseas.  Still, several of Nintendo's classics like The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Metroid, Kid Icarus, Super Mario Bros. 2 and Doki Doki Panic and Konami classics like the first two Castlevania games were released first for the Disk System.

The NES hardware found its way into the arcades.  The Playchoice-10 was an arcade machine that allowed people to play NES games for as long as they had quarters to buy time in the machine.  The games themselves were on PCBs that inserted into special slots on the arcade PCB, but the code was little changed from the consumer cartridge and can easily be run with the appropriate NES cartridge.  This was the only exposure The Goonies had in the West.  The Vs. System was an arcade machine dedicated to playing an adapted NES or Famicom game like Duck Hunt or Super Mario Bros.  The game would usually be more challenging for the arcades and often have some additional graphics.  The NES hardware would still be the basis for the game, however the games started via coin slots and multiple, incompatible PPU chips were used with the games.

Most licensed NES games use only a few mappers.  0, 1, 2, 3, 4 & 7 are the most popular.  5, 9, 13, 34 & 66, 69, 105, 118, 119 & 206 are also used by NES games, although often only one to five games may use a mapper.  Unlicensed NES games use several more mappers, including 11, 34, 41, 64, 68, 71, 79, 113, 144, 158, 168, 228 & 232

As anyone might observe, this dizzying array of hardware would have made anyone wary of trying to make a cartridge that could play multiple games as a multi-cart.  Early copiers are very obscure nowadays and never covered a complete variety of hardware.  Emulators began to be able to play a large number of games and the ability to dump games was focused on in the mid-to-late 90s.  Not until 2007 was a cartridge released that allowed people to play a wide variety of games on a real NES or Famicom.  That cartridge is called the NES PowerPak, and it revolutionized the way multi-carts were made for retro-systems.  It was released by RetroZone, which had previously offered USB converter kits and adapters for NES, SNES and Genesis controllers.

There had been multi-carts before, but they used odd methods to transmit games (the Atari 2600 Cuttle Cart required the game to be converted into an audio signal) or only had a fixed and relatively small amount of memory (Tototek) to hold games.  The PowerPak's chief innovation was to allow removable storage in the form of easily available Compact Flash cards to hold games.  Thus the number of games that the cartridge could access at any one time was only limited by the size of the card and the file system.  The result was that the whole NES library could easily be fit within a 1GB Compact Flash card.

The PowerPak required a second innovation to work particularly with the NES.  Since the NES contained so many mappers, few of which could co-exist with each other, each had to be emulated by the cartridge. Bunnyboy, the inventor of the cartridge, used a large Field Programmable Grid Array (FPGA) chip that would be programmed to emulate each game's mapper as they game loaded.  The FPGA is RAM based, so it can be reprogrammed long after you and I are dead, in theory.  Other programmable logic chips may be flash memory based and have a finite number of rewrite cycles.

I was a very early adopter of the NES PowerPak, and there were some growing pains with the device. Early cartridges required a resistor pack soldered to the data pins of the video bus to avoid graphical tile corruption. I had to send my cartridge back for the modification.  The mod instructions are here for anyone who has not had their early device modded :  In the beginning some NES games did not read the joystick properly loaded from the PowerPak, and a BIOS update, which had to be done with a Flash Programmer, was needed to fix these games.

For Famicom users, the PowerPak will require a 72-to-60 pin connector, and they are hard to find.  You will also need to make sure that the converter does not tie pins 48 and 49 on the Famicom connector.  Many, many games do tie these pins together, but some games do not and the PowerPak needs them separated to work properly.  Also, you need to consider a housing for the converter to add stability to the setup.  The PowerPak must face the rear of the Famicom when inserted into the adapter.

The PowerPak can support the expansion audio of games that use VRC6, N163, Sunsoft-5B chips and the Famicom Disk System.  If using the cartridge on the Famicom with an adapter, a 10K resistor will need to be run from pin 54 on the NES side of the connector to pin 45 of the Famicom connector, and another 10K resistor needs to be run from pins 45 to 46 on the Famicom connector.  The resistor values may need to be changed for a Famicom AV, because those resistors make the system audio virtually inaudible on the AV unit.

To obtain expansion sound on a Front Loader NES, you will need to solder a 47K resistor from pin 3 to pin 9 of the expansion connector.  To obtain expansion sound on a Top Loader, you will need to solder a wire connecting pins 51 and 54 in the PowerPak.  Next you will need to solder a 1.2K resistor between pin 51 and the audio out pin on the NES PCB.  See here for details :

The PowerPak can have a bit of trouble with some Compact Flash cards.  I would use genuine Sandisk CF cards and they should not be especially fast.  There are fakes floating around, see here for more details :

The card requires a set of files to be put in a PowerPak directory to instruct the cartridge how to program the FPGA for each mapper or feature.  Mapper support was a bit weak at first, but it eventually improved. Also, programmers other than Bunnyboy began making their own mappers to add features beyond the intended scope of the NES PowerPak like Famicom Disk System support.  This is how the PowerPak supports mapper 5 games, which use the most complex Nintendo MMC, MMC5 at all.

In my experience, the PowerPak requires mapper files from a few sources to ensure that almost every non-Famicom game will play correctly on it.  Here is my mapper mix :

Start with the lastrelease of the official PowerPak mappers, found here :  Place those mappers into a directory labeled POWERPAK in the root of your CF card.

Next download loopy's latest PowerPak mappers, found here :  You will also need to download his mapper 5 file separately.  They will overwrite the older mapper files (also from loopy) from the official set.

The most frequent issue with games is that they have wrong or missing headers.  All NES ROMs require a 16-byte header (iNES) for emulators to make them work.  The actual ROM in a GoodSet or No-Intro set may be perfectly dumped, but information in the header may be wrong.  Pay close attention to the mapper number, the mirroring and the battery backed flag.  I used to see a warped racetrack for Mach Rider for years in emulators and I erroneously believed it to be due to poor emulation when it was due to the wrong mirroring being set in the header.  Super Cars has a similar issue.  The NES Cart Database will give the proper mapper, mirroring and battery backed memory settings for every US/European game.  Alien Syndrome and all the Mapper 206 games should be set to Mapper 4 for the PowerPak.

At this point, you may be able to enjoy fully glitch free NES games and many Famicom and Famicom Disk System games.  Some games, like Gimmick! and Akumajou Densetsu, (the original version of Castlevania III) use expansion sound that their NES ports cannot.  Famicom Disk System games need the 16-byte header before the disk code, the crucial byte informs the PowerPak how many sides the disk is supposed to have.  FDS image = 65,500 bytes, one sided disk; FDS image = 131,000 bytes, two sided disk.  (The mapper could have determined this easily enough by the file size alone).  The PowerPak does not support two disk games.

More information about the mappers the PowerPak supports can be found here :

Fixable Issues with Games

I had some issues with certain NES games after the PowerPak folder had been setup in this way.  Here are my solutions :

Mapper 4 Games (used by many, many games, best candidates are ) :

Mega Man 3
Kirby's Adventure
Startropics 1-2
Super Mario Bros. 3
Mickey's Adventures in Numberland

Issue : Portion of Screen Shakes uncontrollably

Solution : These games use the MMC3's IRQ Scanline Counter to change tilesets.  On real hardware you may notice one scanline flicker a bit before a status bar, this is normal.  However, the portion of the screen after the line should not shake (with the exception of some games like Zombie Nation).  On the robot master screen of Mega Man 3, the scanline counter should cause the top line of Shadow Man's box to flicker back and forth.  I found that the save state mappers from thefox, available here :  make the scanline counter behave in every game.  Thefox has save state mappers for Mappers 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 7 and 69 (except for Japanese Gimmick!), which encompass 95% of all Licensed NES games.  Use v1.6 and turn off the save state support.  His later NES PowerMappers are not as accurate with the MMC3 scanline counter.

Four-Screen Mirroring Games :

Rad Racer II

Issue : Tile Corruption or Wrong Tiles

Solution : The use of the save state mapper breaks these games.  Use MAP04.MAP from loopy's latest PowerPak mappers and rename the file to MAP06.MAP.  Set the mapper from 4 to 6 for both games in the ROM header.  I would recommend the Nintendulator emulator to change the mapper number in the ROM header, which can be found here :, ROMs must have four screen mirroring set in the header for these games to work correctly.

Nintendo World Championships :

Issue : While the PowerPak supports this game, the official mapper does not support the dipswitches to change the time allowed for the game, and acts like no dipswitches are set, giving the player just over five minutes.  The official competition time was six minutes and twenty-one seconds.

Solution : Join, download the file MAP695.MAP attached to this thread, rename it to MAP69.MAP and overwrite the official MAP69.MAP.  This mapper file will give you the official competition competition time of six minutes and twenty-one seconds.

Broken, Buggy, Incomplete or Non-working Games :

Incomplete MMC5 Emulation : 

Bandit Kings of Ancient China - Severe Graphical Glitches due to incomplete MMC5 emulation
Uncharted Waters - Severe Graphical Glitches due to incomplete MMC5 emulation

No Mapper Support :

Racermate Challenge II
Super Mario Bros./Tetris/World Class Track Meet (PAL only)

Game Size :

Action 52 - PowerPak not big enough to fit a 1.5 Megabyte PRG-ROM, so most games will not work

CHR-ROM/CHR-RAM Conflicts:

All games are still playable :

Noah's Ark (Konami PAL only) - Background tiles corrupted
Addams Family, The - Pugsley's Scavenger Hunt - Extraneous lines on text and menu screens
Baseball Stars II - Extraneous lines and moderate graphical glitches on menu screens, game is playable
Bigfoot - Extraneous lines on title screen
Krusty's Fun House - Extraneous lines on text screens
Fisher Price - Perfect Fit - Garbled Graphics at times

Acclaim MMC3 Clone :

Mickey's Safari in Letterland (shaking status bar)

MMC3B/C Behavior :

Star Trek 25th Anniversary (glitches when character text boxes appear on screen)
Kid Klown in Night Mayor World/Mickey Mouse III: Yume Fuusen (glitches in warping effect when beginning first level)

PowerPak Menu and ROM Naming :

The PowerPak does not sort files alphabetically, it displays them as they were copied to the card.  A program called DriveSort, available here : can be used to sort the files in a directory or subdirectory.  It does not sort files in subdirectories automatically, you have to enter each subdirectory and click on Sort.  The resulting sort may not be ideal for games that start with the same word like Super.  Due to the way long file names in FAT works, each title will be truncated to an 8.3 filename, and after the tenth game with the same first seven characters, the names start to get weird.  The result is that the sort will not work properly unless you rename the 8.3 names into something sortable.

The PowerPak menu uses an 8x8 pixel fixed width font within a 256x240 resolution.  30 lines of characters can be seen on the screen, but the TV bezel may totally or partially obscure the first and last line.  For cosmetic purposes, I place a dummy directory named ! so it gets obscured.  The menu will display 26 characters in a file name.  For a clean looking menu, I recommend shortening names whenever possible.  You can use abbreviations like Adv for Adventure and eliminate unnecessary portions of titles.  For sports games I usually shorten the title to the name of the athlete or organization and the type of game (basketball, baseball, etc.).  Arabic numerals should replace roman numerals.

The PowerPak does support battery backed S-RAM games which use the RAM for saving games.  There has to be a file with the exact same name as the ROM, with the extension .sav instead of .nes, in the SAVES subfolder of the POWERPAK folder.  The PowerPak has the capability to save to the appropriate file automatically.  However, the user cannot simply turn off the NES, he must hold the reset button down until the PowerPak menu reappears.  Later multicartridges from Krikzz will automatically create save files and keep the save if the user turns the console off.  All NES games use an 8KB S-RAM except for Romance of the Three Kingdoms II, which requires 32KB.  If using the save state mappers, the .sav file must be 32KB to save the game's state.

Competitors :

While the PowerPak is currently available for sale, there is a similar device for the NES and the Famicom made by Krikzz called the Everdrive N8.  It comes in a 60-pin version for the Famicom and a 72-pin version for the NES.  Its support for Famicom games is may be better than the PowerPak's,  It uses SD cards, which are more common nowadays than CF cards.  It has a save battery socket on the PCB, so you don't have to press reset to save a game.  Firmware updates do not require a reprogrammer, and more mappers have support for save states.  It even has enough MMC5 support to play Castlevania III, but not enough for other MMC5 games like the Koei games, Just Breed or Laser Invasion.  Among the few other NES ROMs it does not support is Nintendo World Championships, Action 52 and Cheetamen II and Maxi-15.  However, it is somewhat cheaper than the PowerPak.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Doctor Who on DVD for North America

I can say without a doubt that the classic Doctor Who is the most expensive series to buy today.  Twenty-six seasons (or portions thereof) are sold not in season/series box set like every other TV program released in the past decade, but by story.  Nor are complete seasons available for download.  Of the 157 stories produced before the year 2000 (including Shada and the TV Movie but not The Curse of the Fatal Death which had been released on VHS), 18 do not have a sufficient number of existing episodes to release separately, two stories with half their episodes can be released (The Underwater Menace & The Crusades), but only Underwater Menace will be released.  That leaves 137 stories that have been released on DVD since 1999.

As of October, 2015 all Classic Doctor Who stories will have been released with the exceptions noted above. Now is the best time to begin purchasing DVDs if you haven't already.  Unlike the VHS releases, which were released over a span of 21 years, the DVD releases were never released as movie editions which eliminated the cliffhangers (The Seeds of Death, Spearhead from Space, Day of the Daleks, The Time Warrior, Death to the Daleks, The Ark in Space, Revenge of the Cybermen, Terror of the Zygons, The Deadly Assassin, The Robots of Death and The Talons of Weng-Chiang).  Other stories were noticeably edited (The Web Planet, Carnival of Monsters, Pyramids of Mars (also movie), The Brain of Morbius (also movie)).  Thus with DVDs you can have an almost totally consistent release of the series, (with the obnoxious release of The Chase in the US and Australia)  More importantly, for the First and Second Doctors, almost all of their episodes have been subject to the VidFIRE treatment to restore the video look to the film telecines that exist today (exceptions include The Time Meddler and Episode 1 of the Crusade. The Moonbase DVD in the U.S. should have had the process applied byt did not)  The Third Doctor's stories that are only available as B&W film telecine and poor quality NTSC tapes have also been colorized with the best technology available.  The Restoration Team that has supervised the releases of Doctor Who has done an extraordinary job with the existing library to produce the best quality releases.

The U.K., (Region 2/Region B) the U.S. (Region 1/Region A) and Australia (Region 4/Region B) are the three major markets for releases of Doctor Who (including the current series, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures).  Everything is available (except for Seasons 4 & 5 of Sarah Jane Blu-ray) in some form or another in each region.  Nonetheless, if you wish to purchase a uniform collection, you should really purchase the Region 2 U.K. releases.

First, new Doctor Who releases in the U.K. begin expensive, but within a few months the prices almost always fall sharply.  New Doctor Who releases in the U.S. begin expensive and seemingly remain expensive to purchase new, seemingly no matter how old.  Older titles (by DVD release date) in the U.K. are often extremely inexpensive (£5-6).

Second, every story is still in print and can be purchased new, today, in the U.K.  In the U.S., there are several stories that have gone out of print, and the prices for them can rise dramatically.  The stories that are out of print in the U.S., with no planned Special Edition to replace them, are :

The Sensorites
The Rescue / The Romans
The Web Planet
The Time Meddler
The Gunfighters
The Invasion
The Krotons
The War Games
Terror of the Autons
Colony in Space
The Time Monster
Planet of the Spiders
City of Death
Black Orchid
Earthshock (included in a barebones edition for The Doctors Revisited Volume Two)
The Awakening
Planet of Fire
Attack of the Cybermen
The Mark of the Rani
The Two Doctors
Happiness Patrol
Ghost Light
The Curse of Fenric

2003 is the first year where prior DVD releases have not been superceded.  Here are the stories were originally released and have been later replaced with Special Editions :

The Aztecs
The Tomb of the Cybermen 
The Seeds of Death 
Spearhead from Space
The Claws of Axos
The Three Doctors
Carnival of Monsters
The Green Death
The Ark in Space
The Robots of Death
The Talons of Weng-Chiang
The Ribos Operation  US Only Key to Time Box Set
The Pirate Planet US Only Key to Time Box Set
The Stones of Blood US Only Key to Time Box Set
The Androids of Tara  US Only Key to Time Box Set
The Power of Kroll US Only Key to Time Box Set
The Armageddon Factor  US Only Key to Time Box Set
The Visitation
The Five Doctors 
Resurrection of the Daleks
The Caves of Androzani
Vengeance on Varos
Remembrance of the Daleks
Doctor Who – The Movie UK Only

Special Editions are more expensive than the earlier releases, but contain more extras (usually an extra disc) and improved picture and sound quality.  Most Special Editions today have dropped in price so much as to make them not any more expensive than buying now-OOP original DVD releases.

Third, copyright clearances are easiest in the U.K., which makes export versions for the U.S. and Australia comparatively more expensive.  Moreover, sometimes music cannot be cleared and must be replaced.  In one instance in the first episode of The Chase, two minutes had to be excised from the U.S. and Australian DVD releases because the Doctor and his companions were watching a concert of The Beatles.  The footage is available on the VHS version of these stories for each country.  Similarly, The Beatles can be heard on the soundtrack of Remembrance of the Daleks on all VHS copies, but that had to be replaced for the U.S. DVD releases.

Fourth, since 2006 the BBC has been releasing story collections of the classic serials in Region 2.  These collections can follow a particular monster like Beneath the Surface, which collects the Silurian and Sea Devil stories, a series of related stories, New Beginnings, which presents the stories surrounding the Fourth Doctor's regeneration, or a looser collection of weaker selling titles like Earthstory, which includes the First Doctor story The Gunfighters and the Fifth Doctor story The Awakening.  In the U.K., virtually none of these box sets had the stories released separately.  Most of the box sets that made it to the U.S. also allowed the stories to be purchased separately.  There are at least nine box sets that never saw a U.S. release, and while the prices may have been high in the beginning, the prices on them have so decreased as to make them very good bargains.  In the U.S. you would have to purchase these stories separately at increased cost.

US Release UK Release Stories Available Separately in US? Stories Available Separately in UK?
Earthstory No Yes Yes No
Bred for War No Yes Yes Yes
Mara Tales No Yes Yes No
Revisitations 1-3 No Yes Yes No
Peladon Tales No Yes Yes No
Mannequin Mania No Yes Yes No
Time-Flight & Arc of Infinity No Yes Yes No
Beneath the Surface Yes Yes Yes No
New Beginnings Yes Yes Yes No
The Beginning Yes Yes No No
E-Space Trilogy Yes Yes No No
The Key to Time Yes Yes Yes No
Lost in Time Yes Yes Yes No
The Invisible Enemy with K-9 and Company Yes Yes No No
The Black Guardian Trilogy Yes Yes No No
Dalek War Yes Yes No No
The Space Museum & The Chase Yes Yes No No
The Key to Time (Original Edition) Yes No Yes N/A
The Doctors Revisited 1-4 Yes No Yes N/A
The Doctors Revisited 5-8 Yes No Yes N/A

Finally, the packaging of the U.K. releases is superior to the U.S. releases.  Each U.K. release came with a booklet discussing the story and giving a listing and description of all the special features on the disc.  These booklets are not available as a paper copy on the U.S. releases.  Also, some U.S. box sets like The Beginning, The Invisible Enemy with K-9 and Company and The Space Museum & The Chase did not have separate cases for each story.

There are, however, a pair of hurdles if you wish to buy Region 2 DVDs outside of the U.K.  First, you must find a seller willing to ship to your country and be prepared to pay for shipping. will ship Region 2 U.K. DVDs or Region B U.K. Blu-rays to the U.S., and their shipping charges are very reasonable.  There is a delivery charge of £0.99 per CD, DVD or Blu-ray and a £2.09 combined delivery charge.  This delivery charge does not increase on the number of items in the order.  The delivery time is 5-7 business days.  No VAT or U.S. state sales tax is collected unless perhaps you live in a state where collects the tax.

Second, you will need a region 2 or region free DVD player to play these discs.  I think that the vast majority of people who play Region 2 DVDs in a Region 1 country these days use VLC Player.  VLC will work fine with Doctor Who Region 2 DVDs, so long as the drive does not have a region code (RPC-1) is hard-coded to Region 2.  I now recommend using MakeMKV to backup your Doctor Who episodes.  MakeMKV is a modern program that is trialware, but you can always get a new trial period when it upgrades to a new version.  MakeMKV will easily rip all video and audio tracks losslessly from a disc.

Ripping four episodes of Doctor Who takes about 15 minutes on my PC.  To figure out what to rip, I use VLC or PowerDVD to select each individual episode and mark down the Title number when that episode plays.  Having a list of the episode times helps, which are provided at the excellent and venerable Doctor Who: A Brief History of Time Travel site :

Even though the PS3 will not play PAL content from a DVD, even if the DVD is a region free copy, it has no problems playing the extracted, uncompressed content via a media server.  My flat screen LCD and my CRTs have no trouble displaying the resulting streamed video.  With the latter, presumably the PS3 is outputing an NTSC-compatible video signal (NTSC color encoding, 525 lines/59.94i), and it does it very well.  While the PS3 does not natively play MKV files, with PS3 Media Server, that is not a problem.

Last month, I began ordering all available DVDs from, buying the regularly released boxsets (not limited editions) to save money. On, you can only order 50 items at a time, so for a complete classic Doctor Who set you will need at least two orders.  I was able to get my first batch of purchases into two orders, but the site can get error prone when trying to order so many things at one time.  Prices fluctuate frequently on Doctor Who DVDs, so you may get a better or worse price depending on when you put an item in your shopping basket versus when you actually complete an order.

Fortunately, the value between the British Pound Sterling and the U.S. Dollar has been fairly favorable for the past three years, generally hovering around $1 USD equaling between £1.50-1.70.  However, your credit card will charge a fee to perform the conversion.  My card charged me approximately 3% of the total cost of the order, including shipping.

If you place a large order, Amazon will ship out DVDs several at a time.  You will not get one big box, but maybe eight smaller shipments.  Each time a shipment is sent from the factory, your card will get charged.  I have not encountered a damaged disc, but three cases have had some minor issues with damage.  Also, for one story, the DVD insert booklet was not present, but I understand that the issue does occasionally rear itself.

Having purchased all the Region 2 Doctor Who DVDs, I can definitely say that now is the time to buy.  The BBC apparently is not keen about producing new Special Editions of previously released stories.  The last was back in August, 2013.  Additionally, there are no classic episodes left to be released, save for The Underwater Menace Episode 2.  That story may receive a release with animation or telesnap reconstruction, probably the latter.  Buy before stories go out of print.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Apple II Gaming and Hardware

Gaming on the Apple II and useful hardware is mostly straightforward.  In this post I intend to identify hardware upgrades and their usefulness to Apple II games.  We start with the original Apple II of 1977 :

Paddles and Joystick - Apple II and II+ machines included a pair of paddle controllers.  They are black in color and each has a pushbutton and a knob.  The cable is plugged into the 16-pin Game I/O socket on the motherboard.  Apple did not release a joystick until the Apple IIe and //c machines.  Apple II Joysticks operated like a pair of paddles, but usually supported two buttons.  Rival machines from Commodore and Atari only supported one button on their controllers.  Apple IIe and //c did not come with paddle controllers when bought from Apple, one had to purchase the Apple II Hand Controllers.

RAM - The Apple II and Apple II+ can support up to 48KB on the motherboard.  The Apple II has three rows of RAM sockets and can support 4KB or 16KB in each row.  Except on the last Apple II+ machines, there were configuration blocks which the user would use to inform the system whether he had 4KB or 16KB in each bank.  While some commercial games could work with 16KB or 32KB, most required 48KB.

Revision 1 and later Motherboards - Adds the blue and orange colors to the High Resolution Graphics (HGR) mode. Absolutely essential for games, thousands of which use the HGR mode.  Without this functionality, only purple and green colors are displayed in HGR mode.  Also useful in eliminating color fringing in text modes on color monitors, making it easier to load and save onto cassettes and turning the system on. Usually not an issue, since Apple IIs with revision 0 motherboards command the highest prices and most people probably would want to keep those in pristine condition.  With some user modifications, the revision 0 boards can have the features of a revision 1 board.

Disk II - Another essential upgrade, cassette tapes were seen as too slow and unreliable for most commercial software after it was released.  Most Apple II games come on 5.25" floppy disks.  The Disk II Interface Card is needed to connect the drives to the system, and each card can support up to two drives.  I know of no game that supports more than two disk drives.  The card is installed into one of the expansion slots in the Apple II, and eventually slot #6 was settled upon as the de facto standard installation slot.

When the Disk II was first released in 1978, it had two 4-bit PROMs on the card that supported 13 sectors per track (256 bytes per sector) on each of the 35 tracks of a single sided drive.  The earliest public releases of the Disk Operating System, DOS, only supported 13 sector disks.  This encompasses DOS 3.1, 3.2 and 3.21. Apple later found that using 16 sectors was within the tolerance of the drives, and updated the PROMs in the Disk II Controller Card and released DOS 3.3 to support 16 sector disks.  DOS 3.3 had three releases, the first in 1980 and two bugfix releases in 1983, and the vast majority of games were released on 16-sector disks.  Some early games were intended for 13-sector disks, but most have been converted to 16-sector.

Games will often require DOS 3.3 to format blank disks for save games.  ProDOS will not work for these games.  Some really early versions of Sierra's Mystery House and other early text adventures may require DOS 3.2 13-sector formatted disks for saves.  Later versions of these games include a utility to format the disk for the appropriate geometry needed for the game.

The Apple II+ is an Apple II with Applesoft BASIC ROMs instead of Integer BASIC ROMs.  Many games and programs require Applesoft in ROM.  I cannot think of any that cannot get by by having Integer BASIC loaded into the RAM of the Language Card.

Language Card - The Language Card was released with the Apple PASCAL system and added 16KB of bankswitched memory to the Apple II or II+.  It was installed in slot 0, which was specially made for RAM or ROM upgrades.  Many, many games require 64KB, especially after the Apple IIe was released.

When DOS is booted, it loads a copy of the BASIC version not found in the ROM.  So when DOS is booted on an Apple II, Applesoft BASIC is loaded into RAM.  Conversely, when DOS is booted on an Apple II+ or IIe, Integer BASIC is loaded into RAM.  The version of BASIC currently in use can be selected with a simple command.  This way, older programs written for Integer BASIC can still be run on newer Apple II+ and IIe machines.

Apple released a Firmware Card that was inserted into slot 0 and contained the ROMs not found on the system board.  The ROM used could be changed with the flip of a switch.  However, this did not allow for the Language Card to be used, since both used slot 0.  The Language Card is more flexible and adds that extra crucial 16KB.

Mockingboard - In the early 1980s, Sweet Micro Systems released a sound card for the Apple II/II+ in four varieties: the Sound I, Speech I, Sound/Speech and Sound II.  The Sound I came with one AY-3-8910 three voice programmable sound synthesizer, the Speech I came with one Vortrax SC-01 speech synthesizer chip, the Sound/Speech come with one AY-3-8910 and one SC-01 chip, and the Sound II came with two AY-3-8910 chips.  Many games assume that the board would be located in slot 4 of an Apple II, II+, IIe or IIgs.

Eventually, Sweet Micro Systems refreshed their line and released the Mockingboard A, B, C and D.  The Mockingboard A has two pin reduced AY-3-8913 chips and two sockets for SSI-263 speech chips.  The Mockingboard B was a SSI-263 speech chip.  The Mockingboard C included two AY-3-8913s and one SSI-263.  There was a Mockingboard M that had identical capabilities to the C that was bundled with the Bank Street Music Writer.  The Mockingboard D was an external unit that connected to the Apple //c's serial port.  The Mockingboard D is utterly incompatible with games.

Games typically only supported one AY chip.  Ultima IV supported two AY chips and Ultima V three AY chips, requiring two Mockingboard Sound II, A, C or M.  A few games like Crypt of Medea and Crime Wave supported the speech chip.

Applied Engineering released the Phasor sound card, which could emulate a two AY chip Mockingboard.  It had four AY-3-8913 chips, one SSI-263 speech chip and a socket for a second speech chip.  Ultima V could take full advantage of it.

Super Serial Card - One of the most popular expansion cards for the Apple II, II+ and IIe is the Super Serial Card.  This was typically used to connect to printers like the Apple ImageWriter II and Modems like the Hayes Smartmodem line.  They typically go into slots 1 & 2.  A few games supported printer output, like Wasteland, which could use a serial or parallel printer.

Apple IIe - This is an Apple II+ with a Language Card built in, far fewer chips integrated on the motherboard and added DE-9 port for game controllers.  The official Apple II Joystick and Hand Controllers plug into this port, which is much easier than plugging older joysticks into the Game I/O socket.  The Apple II Joystick could operate in self-centering or free-form mode by a switch for each axis on the base of the joystick.

The Apple IIe has a newer keyboard with a much more IBM-like layout.  Gone is the REPT key, its function is contained in the ROM.  Added keys include Up and Down cursor keys, Open and Closed Apple keys (corresponding to joystick buttons 0 and 1) and a Caps Lock key.  The Apple IIe has true lowercase support and fully functional shift keys.  Initially, BASIC commands could not be entered in lowercase.  The IIe machines also have a socket to connect the Apple IIe Numeric Keypad, except for the Platinum, which has most of the previously-separate keypad built-in.  The Numeric Keypad, whether attached or detached, functions as duplicate keys, they do not report their own scancodes.

The Apple IIe has an AUX slot for memory expansion.  This could house the 1K 80-Column Memory Expansion Card, which allowed 80-column text.  Later releases of Infocom text adventures supported 80-column text.  Wizardry does not intentionally support 80-column text, but will display its text in an 80-column mode with each character separated by a space if there is an 80-column card in the system.  The other option was the 64KB Extended 80-Column Memory Card, which added 64KB of Bankswitched Memory and the 80-Column Text Mode.

Revision B Motherboard - Changes in this motherboard allowed Apple IIe machines to use Double High Resolution Graphics Mode with an Extended 80-Column Memory Card.  While an Apple IIe Revision A Motherboard could use the extra 64KB, it could not display DHGR graphics.  A user modification exists to fix the Revision A boards.

Third party boards like the Applied Engineering RAM Works exist to expand the Apple IIe to well beyond the extra 64KB of the Extended 80-Column Memory Card, but it relies on an extension of the bankswitching memory scheme and it is unknown whether any game ever used more than 128KB of RAM.  There is also an Apple-branded Apple II Memory Expansion that fit in one of the seven slots of an Apple II=//e can could provided more memory, but the memory addressing is utterly incompatible with the addressing of the 80-Column Memory Card, which is what games used.

Apple //c - The Apple //c was a portable version of the IIe with 128KB and contains the equivalent of two Super Serial Cards, a Disk II Interface.  Its DE-9 port also supports a one-button mouse.  One floppy drive is built-in, a second external drive can be added.  First versions of this system did not allow RAM to be expanded beyond 128KB, later versions did.  It supports DHGR graphics.

Apple Mouse - The mouse was supported in approximately fifteen or so games, so it is not a major peripheral.  Balance of Power was one such game.  The Apple IIe required a Mouse Interface Card to be installed, while the Apple //c's mouse connected to its joystick port.  The IIe can use standard Macintosh mice from the time period, but the //c requires its own mice.  However, its de facto slot is slot 4, which is where many games expect to find the Mocking Board.

ProDOS - This is Apple's successor operating system to DOS 3.3, and it came with the Apple //c.  Several later games have obvious ProDOS derived boot loaders, and they often load far more quickly than older games based of DOS 3.3.  Unless a game informs you it needs ProDOS, stick with DOS 3.3 as needed.  Several games will require the user to format save game disks, but they will insist on the DOS 3.3 format.

Apple //e Enhanced & Platinum - This exchanged the original 6502 for the slightly more advanced 65C02 and new character and firmware ROMs.  I have never seen any box state that the game requires an enhanced Apple //e, only that it requires an Apple IIe with 128KB of RAM.  This would suggest that no game uses the extra features of the Enhanced model.  Except for some minor backward compatibility issues regarding games that used illegal opcodes of the 6502 (the original Ultima's space battles are an example), the Enhanced //e is just as good as the IIe with a numeric keypad.

Apple //c+ and Accelerator cards -  The Apple //c+ is an Apple II running at 4 MHz.  Many accelerators for the II-//e run at 3.58MHz.  While rare, these accelerators can really help with games that use double high resolution graphics like Rampage or King's Quest.  However, most games assume that the Apple will be running at 1.02MHz and time everything by that speed.  Moreover, transfers from and to the 5.25" floppy drives will occur at the 1.02MHz speed.

Upgrades Not Useful for Gaming :

Apple II/II+ 80-Column Cards - Games would simply not support 80-column text prior to Apple standardizing it with the IIe.  Earlier cards had no particular standard, but the Videx Vidterm was a popular choice.  Games also do not like lowercase characters until the Apple IIe became popular, so there is no immediate need for a shift-key modification or a character ROM replacement.

Microsoft Z-80 Softcard - This card enabled Apple II users to run the CP/M operating system.  CP/M games are generally text-based and platform agnostic.

Apple IIe Video Upgrade Cards - No game is known to use one.

3.5" Floppy Drive - The Unidisk 3.5" drive required its own special controller because the Apple IIe could not quite keep up with the drive.  The 3.5" drives on the Apple //c+ provides the same functionality.  Very, very few games were released on the 3.5" disk format, and all have more common 5.25" versions.

Modem - Only two games I know of, The American Challenge: A Sailing Simulation and Battle Chess, support modem play, and the latter game is too slow to be enjoyable on an unaccelerated Apple II.

This blog entry does not cover the Apple //gs, which deserves its own discussion.