Have a Helping of 8-bit Holiday Cheer! (2020 Edition)

Pixellated 8-bit style plastic Christmas wreath

‘Tis the season, and that means it’s time to push out the tenth annual Byte Cellar vintage computer Holiday demo roundup so everyone can feel that warm, fuzzy, pixellated holiday glow (which I think we could all especially use this year). 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, apparently I wasn’t alone in this, as Benj Edwards explains in his piece, “The Oddball, Nostalgia-Inducing Christmas Tech Art Of The 1980s And 1990s.”

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 2019 edition, the 2018 edition, the 2017 edition and the 2011 – 2016 editions of this post.

Amiga — Gallery of Christmas Images and Sounds by Ken Costello (1986)
Atari ST — Xmas Demo ’91 by Imagina (1991)
Commodore 64 — Christmas Music Album by Waveform Corp. (1984)
MSX – “Merry Christmas 2012” competition entry by MSX45 (2012)
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VidHD and “Total Replay”: Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together!

Over the past few months I’ve been enjoying my Apple IIe in a few new ways, and that’s something that feels pretty nice to be able to say, here in 2020.

Back in 2018 I became part of the hardware beta testing group for an Apple II video interface that was being engineered by noted Apple IIgs developer John Brooks (who wrote the well-loved IIgs version of Rastan, among others). Known as the VidHD, it is a unique and capable solution to bridging the Apple II to a modern HDMI display, and with some features you might not expect, along the way. As John describes it,

The VidHD card is unlike other video options for the Apple II because its all-digital HDMI 1080p output is upscaled directly from the byte values written into the Apple’s video memory. Because VidHD is all-digital, it does not suffer the noise/crawl of analog converter boxes, or the color variance of VGA converters. VidHD has better clarity and color accuracy than composite, SCART, or even the original Apple IIGS RGB monitor.

Because the VidHD hardware constructs its own rendering of whatever screenmode is active on any Apple II from the original II to the IIgs in real time, all of these screenmodes can be enabled on any Apple II. An Apple II Plus, for instance, can support the IIgs’ 640×200 256-color Super High-Res display. There are a number of rendering modes to choose from that handle the II’s NTSC artifact color in different ways, emulate scan-lines, etc. What’s more, VidHD allows setting text mode foreground and background colors and also provides several extended text-modes beyond the standard 40×24 and 80×24 modes: 80×45, 120×67, and 240×135. (See a screenshot demonstrating one of the extended text modes, by Jay Craft.) It’s a very impressive piece of hardware.

I have enjoyed using my VidHD in the 128K enhanced Apple IIe since I’ve had it. It makes for a cleaner graphics display than the composite Apple Color Monitor IIe I’ve been using with the system, and the monochrome text-mode sharpness is beyond compare. I do a great deal of BBSing on the IIe and the sharpness of text rendered via the VidHD to an LCD is much easier on the eyes. (I won’t be retiring the composite CRT, though; sometimes I really want to see those fuzzy artifact colors, glow blur and all.)

Aside from BBSing, I’ve been gaming and watching scenedemos more frequently on my IIe lately than in any time since it was my main / only system back in 1986. And, that’s because of an amazing assemblage of software known as Total Replay.

Officially launched at KansasFest 2019, Total Replay is a 32MB ProDOS disk image that is basically a magical one-stop-shop that meets (and exceeds) the needs and desires of most any Apple II retrogamer. All this is thanks to the duo of 4am and qkumba, but putting it together was no small feat.

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I Sit at the Round Table (And Dance Whene’er I’m Able)

Just a quick post here to share a notable update to my retrocomputing activities of late that has proven to be a very enjoyable addition, indeed.

Early this year, I sat down at the Retro Computing Roundtable and partook of the best hour (or two…or three…) of discussion of software and hardware of olde, along with related current events, that can be had in all the land (and with footwork im-pec-cable…🎶). Episode 208: Why BBS? was the first episode in which I joined the discussion and marks my start as a member of the podcast’s “irregular regulars…”

Shows are recorded at 4pm Eastern (U.S.) every other Sunday (usually) and a YouTube live stream of the show’s recording can be seen at the Retro Computing Roundtable channel. The show recently hit its 10-year mark with Episode 225. Soon the podcast itself will be vintage!

It has been a true delight, for me, to be part of this amazing group of folks, discussing computing across the decades. I certainly feel honored to be aboard. I do hope that readers who haven’t checked out the show will have a look. Stop in on the live-feed chat and say, “Hello!”

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Looking Back on 35 Years as an Amiga User

Thirty five years ago I became an Amiga user. One of the first, actually. This is a meandering and reminiscent post of sorts, written to mark the Amiga’s 35th birthday and the 35 years I have known and loved the system.

On July 23rd, 1985 Commodore officially unveiled its new Amiga computer at a black tie event at the Lincoln Center in New York City during which, among other demonstrations, artist Andy Warhol took the stage and used an Amiga to paint portraits of singer Debbie Harry (“Blondie”), seated across from him, with a paint program and the mouse. The attendees present at the event that day were witness to a leap in technology that was nothing short of revolutionary.

In early 1985 I had an Apple //c, my second computer, that I was trying to sell in order to purchase an (original) Macintosh. At the time, I read passing mentions in the newspaper of a new machine on the way from Commodore, far more capable than the C64, but it didn’t really register with me for whatever reason. It wasn’t until I picked up an issue of Personal Computing magazine in the summer of 1985 that I understood just what the Amiga was capable of, and my focus quickly shifted to owning an Amiga. (I actually carried that magazine around everywhere with me for about a month.) And, here the details get hazy. I think it was to do with the months that passed without new Amiga info (time passes slowly when it’s summer and you’re 13), reading issues of MacWorld magazine that were coming in the mail, and spending lots of time at Next Generation Computers in Williamsburg, Virginia playing with their Macs, but when the //c finally sold we went up to Next Generation and purchased a Mac 128k. I brought it home and was in geek heaven. For a while…

I had owned the Mac for just one week when I went to a different local computer store, Chaney Computer in Newport News, Virginia, to purchase a ($45) 10-count box of 3.5-inch floppy disks. My mother waited in the car while I ran in.

And there on the table I saw it.

The Amiga — the first one I had ever encountered. It was sitting there, fired up and running an animation demo of some sort. All of the things that made me so excited about the system before flooded back to me right there. I bought the box of floppies, but they never made it into that Macintosh.

Later that night at the dinner table, I started off a conversation I had been frenziedly honing in my mind all afternoon. And, I carried it off well, it seems; my parents agreed to changing gears, and the next day my father returned the Macintosh to the Apple dealer and we went and put a deposit down on the $1,285 Amiga. (Incidentally, It was always called the “Amiga 1000”, but no one really noticed until the Amiga 500 and 2000 landed in 1987.)

A few weeks would pass before the dealer got any stock from Commodore beyond the demo unit. But, on what I believe was the 21st of October, the phone rang and they told us to come on down, the first two units had arrived and one of them had my name on it. When my mother picked me up at the end of the school day, we headed to the dealer and left with the first Amiga that they would sell.

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The Infinity Modules Player: Never Turn Off Your Amiga Again

Vintage computing aficionados take various approaches to the hobby. Some enjoy the platforms of olde exclusively through emulation on modern systems. Others assemble shelf after shelf of as many computers and peripherals of their fancy as they can find. While, still, others use their allotted space to host various complete and working systems that can be powered on and used with the flip of a switch. I happen to fall in this last camp of those who compute nostalgic. And, as such, I am happiest when my systems are in use, doing their thing in interesting ways. It is for this reason that I have been so very enthralled by a new MOD player for the Amiga since I discovered it earlier this week.

First, a bit of history. A MOD file or “module” is the original “tracker” file format, combining musical note information (akin to MIDI data) along with the digitized audio instrument samples (of which there can be 16) needed to play back the contained score. The format originated with Karsten Obarski’s Ultimate SoundTracker application for the Amiga computer, which was the first tracker ever developed, released in 1987. (I recall finding someone on the Usenet in California willing to ship me a box of floppies containing Ultimate SoundTracker and many dazzling MOD files for use on my Amiga 2000.) The Amiga’s sound hardware is capable of playing digitized samples across four audio channels with little CPU intervention. A tracker is an application that allows the entry of musical note information (by way of a computer or musical keyboard (if a MIDI interface is present)) and the arranging of sound samples called upon by the note information. Many other trackers would follow on Amiga, PC, and other platforms, bringing improvements such as higher sample rate, more audio channels, L/R panning, etc. The tracker scene is a subset of the demoscene.

The Infinity Modules Player (or IMP), written by Pawel Nowak, is a tiny (23Kb currently) MOD player, written entirely in M68K assembly language, that packs a dizzying array of features and provides a reason for anyone with a networked Amiga to never turn it off again. It was first released earlier this year.

At its core, IMP is a networked module player that pulls tracks from a server hosting ~100,000 MODs and plays them, one after the other. The program will run on any networked Amiga with a MC68000 CPU or better, running Kickstart 2.0 on up, as well as Morphos and AROS 68K.

Like most networked Amiga applications, IMP uses the bsdsocket.library to connect to the internet, so it should work fine with TCP/IP stacks such as AmiTCP, Genesis, and Roadshow (as well as the ubiquitous UAE Amiga emulator). Most of the sizable array of Ethernet adapters for various Amigas should work fine in this capacity, as well as the open-source Plipbox, an ethernet adapter that attaches to the parallel port of any Amiga (and, as such, is a particularly easy way of getting an Amiga on a network).

Brief demo of IMP running on my networked Amiga 2000 ‘020
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Apple //c Scene From ’80s Bond Film “A View to a Kill” Perfectly Re-Created With Applesoft BASIC

a View to a Kill movie poster image

When I think back to the ’80s (as I do quite often), part of that lovely feeling I am conjuring is formed from various stand-out movies of the time. Among those, one that I recall enjoying best is the James Bond film, A View to a Kill. I saw it in the theater as a 13-year old over the summer of 1985. It’s also one of the movies that we had at home on tape that I remember watching the most on our new-fangled (Betamax) VCR.

While, on reflection it is a pretty cheesy movie, it did have it all: action; adventure; settings across the globe; an evil mastermind (Christopher Walken, no less!); a villainous, destructive plot involving Silicon Valley; Grace Jones; a struggle atop the Golden Gate Bridge, and the memorable cameo appearance of an Apple //c computer carrying out a seismic analysis.

At one point in the film, Bond (Roger Moore) and leading lady State Geologist Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts) are in Stacy’s home, and beside her bed is an Apple //c (what a weirdo she must be). Bond and Stacey feel a minor tremor and so she uses her //c to connect to The Earthquake Center and find out about the quake. She types a few keystrokes and a series of waveforms appear on the screen, along with some text indicating the strength of the tremor. A couple more keystrokes and the screen changes to a map of the San Francisco Bay area, with a sort-of bulls-eye animation zeroing in on its source (spoiler: it’s near Zorin’s oil fields…).

Apple 2c scene from A View to a Kill film

When I saw this movie, I had an Apple //c of my own (my second computer), and the scene really stood out to me for that reason. I used my //c constantly, and it was easy for me to tell that the program running on screen was actually being (or had been) output from an Apple II, not canned from some unrelated video effects system (noting that the power LED of the pictured main unit (on the right, just above the keyboard) appears to be dim).

It is for the various reasons I have just laid out that I was so struck with amazement in discovering the recent efforts of Max Piantoni. The Apple //c scene in A View to a Kill clearly stood out to Max, as well. What he has done is nothing short of incredible, in my book. As he explains it,

There’s nothing cooler than a computer in a movie, and A View To A Kill has a particularly cool Apple IIc. Join me as I forge this Faberge bit by bit, byte by byte. In this video I meticulously reverse engineer the application from the movie and recreate it on my Apple IIc using Applesoft BASIC and a variety of development tricks. No one was asking, but I sure delivered.

Indeed, Max has perfectly re-created the seismic analysis program, as we saw it in the movie. In his video, he shows the scene in question and walks the viewer through his approaches, the challenges he faced, and his actual BASIC code listing. Within, we get a nice look at Beagle Bros’ Apple Mechanic toolset, used to assist with the on-screen animation. And, what’s more, Max has released the Applesoft BASIC code listing, as well as a booting disk image, on Github.

It’s running on my Apple IIe, right now!

Hats off for the heroic effort, Max. What an incredible tribute to the Apple II and the 1980s, as well! Visit Max Piantoni’s website to have a look at many other great projects he has has worked on.

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The eMate 300 Out In Front for “BBS Week V”

Last weekend marked the end of “BBS Week V” over at r/Retrobattlestations. For my part in this competition, I brought out the eMate 300, which I found new-in-box on eBay back in 2004. Here it can be seen logged into the Level 29 BBS.

The eMate has a proper eight pin micro-DIN RS-422 serial / AppleTalk port, driven by a Zilog SCC serial chip. To this port, I attached a serial cable leading into a Keyspan USB-to-serial adapter, itself plugged into a USB port on the Raspberry Pi 2 I keep in my D.C. office to (usually) connect my desktop Apple //c (via a similar serial link) to the net. The //c was my machine of choice for the last r/Retrobattlestations competition, “Not x86 Week.” The RPi 2 has a USB-based WiFi connector that keeps it linked to the guest WiFi network at the university.

Visit a gallery of all my r/Retrobattlestations entry photos. A complete list, with links, of the fun I've had with challenges in that subreddit over the years can be seen below. Good times!

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Firing Up the Apple //c for “Not x86 Week”

Apple 2c with "Intel Outside" logo shown on the screen

As I write this, it is the last day of “Not x86 Week” over at Reddit’s r/Retrobattlestations. As one might guess, this week’s competition is to display a vintage system based on any CPU other than an Intel 8086 or any of its descendants. For this round, I featured the Apple //c that’s situated on my desk in my D.C. workplace.

I setup the //c, which has lived in a few different spots since I acquired it back in 2005, on the desk in my cubicle over a year ago. Its serial port is connected (with a wire I put together from an old Atari 8-bit video cable) to a USB-to-serial adapter, which is plugged into a Raspberry Pi 2, which itself is connected to the guest WiFi network at the university. This allows me to use a terminal program on the //c, such as ProTerm, Modem MGR, or AGate, to allow it to become a standard serial terminal to the Raspbian Linux OS running on the Pi. (Old-school serial terminal support is still baked-in to modern Linux distributions.) I go into greater detail on the overall approach in my 2007 post detailing my first go at using this //c as a serial terminal — to a Mac mini, in a previous workplace.

Close up of hacked together serial cable in the Apple IIc serial port

It occurred to me this past Friday to use the //c for my entry, and as I mentioned, the competition ends tonight. Rather than just turning on the //c and putting some text on the screen, I thought it would be a nice touch to display an “Intel Outside” logo (quite popular over the years with Mac and Amiga folk) on the screen, but that meant finding the logo online, somehow converting it to an Apple II high-res (HGR) image, and getting it over to the //c. If the notion of using the //c for the competition had occurred to me earlier in the week, I probably would have just used my LAN-connected Apple IIgs at home to write out a 5.25-inch floppy with the image file on it, but this was my last day in the office before the weekend conclusion of the competition. Much was already in place, as described, to get this done, but it was a bit of a process to go the full distance.

I dug around online and found a program called Buckshot, which is an image conversion utility for macOS, Windows, and Linux that can convert modern format images to an image in any of the 8-bit Apple II image modes. It’s a nice little utility with a handy image preview function and is based on a program called bmp2hdr, which I covered / demoed in an earlier post on this blog. With this in hand, I did a few searches, found the amusing logo image, and created a mono, high-res Apple II image (280×192 pixels) from it.

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Announcing “NMSspot” – My New “No Man’s Sky” Blog

Just a quick post here to spread the word regarding a new blog I’ve started in the past month. Called NMSspot, the new site will cover my adventures travelling within the universe of the procedurally infinite space exploration / adventure game, No Man’s Sky.

The new blog will mark the end of my admittedly “off-topic” posts about No Man’s Sky to this website, likely to the joy of my regular, vintage computing-oriented readers. (I have copied the NMS-related blog posts I’ve written here over the past three and a half years to the new website.) It is also my third plate in the air, so to speak, in the blogging arena, the other blog (aside from the one you’re presently reading) being a Virginia history blog, of sorts: Nostalgic Virginian.

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A Quick “Heads Up” for My New BBSing Resource Page

Just a quick post here to point out my new BBSing Resource Page which I’ve posted to serve as a basic resource for readers wanting to give BBSing, a frequent topic here of late, a try. On the page, I list a few of my regular go-to boards, along with several modern devices that make it a pretty easy process to get going, and a couple of other resources as well. I set it up as a page in the sidebar to the left, rather than a blog post in the timeline, in order to keep it findable, hence this little “heads up” post.

Black Flag BBS login screen screenshot

Have a look if you’re interested and I’ll see you on the boards!

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