Sunday, August 25, 2013

Genesis: The Unboxening

Welcome back, readers! (Both of you.) I have tidings of great gaming cheer to report. A few days ago, a member of the Talking Time forum was looking to trim down his collection, and offered his Genesis and a handful of games for the price of shipping. Being a fan of the system since... well, forever, I jumped on the chance to claim it for myself. Sure, I already own a Genny, but I could always use more games and accessories, and that stuff has gotten seriously hard to find at pawn shops and yard sales. Yesterday, I scoured a local town during an annual summer festival- peak garage sale conditions- and turned up a single Sega Genesis item, a lonely copy of Pac-Man 2. That's what I call slim pickens.

So you can understand why I'd be grateful to have a shot at a big Genesis score, regardless of how that opportunity presented itself. I sent the seller the eight dollars he requested, and just two days later, it arrived on my doorstep, as if it had been delivered by Sonic himself. Let's take a peek inside, shall we?


That's a promising start! Many of the games in the package included the box and instructions. The great thing about Genesis collecting is that the games are complete as often as not, thanks to the sturdy plastic cases they were shipped in for most of the system's life. Unfortunately, later titles like the ill-considered port of The Art of Fighting came in the same flimsy cardboard boxes that Super NES games always had, a move Sega defended as "environmentally friendly" but I'd personally describe as "a huge load of bullshit." The plastic cases might find their way to a landfill, but if my twenty-five years of collecting have taught me anything, the cardboard boxes are destined for one.


Also included in the package were two three button controllers, standard equipment for the Genesis in its early years. These joypads seem perfectly ordinary at first glance, but one of them holds a pleasant surprise. While the one on the left has the usual thumb-wrecking hard plastic D-pad with barely any throw, the one on the right is rubberized and rocks on a central pivot. It's the same design Sega used in its brilliant six button Arcade Pad as well as the Saturn's stock controller, and I had no idea that it ever found its way to the old three button controllers. I originally planned to hack both of these joypads for other projects, but now I'm having second thoughts...


Here's the system itself, a standard model two Genesis. I prefer the design of the original, with its wide frame, circle-rimmed cartridge port, and the promise of "high-definition graphics" on the front, but at least this one doesn't take up much space and plays nice with the later model of the Sega CD. Both models are a quantum leap ahead of the third model, which could nearly fit in a man's pocket but sacrifices all but the most basic functionality to squeeze into that tiny package. (You know, kind of like that Canadian Wii released a few months ago.)


Let's look at the games. Oh god, not this one! I mentioned Heavy Nova in a previous update, but never gave it the thrashing it so richly deserves, so let's open that overdue can of whoopass. What first appears to be a thrilling action game with a strong anime influence quickly devolves into a boring slog spread across two play styles... a sluggish, frustrating platformer and a versus fighter that adds the -anical to mech and puts the "ass" in molasses. After your fifth slow-motion smackdown at the hands of a "Heavy Doll" (really, Micronet? Really?), you'll want to set the cartridge under your opponent's ten ton heel. Problem is, it might take a few years for the mech to step on it.


And here now is an elusive species, the Sega Genesis RPG. Once thought to exist only in myths and rumors, this beast made a rare appearance at the bottom of this box. Enjoy this sight, for it could be a once in a lifetime experience.

Er, seriously. This is Sword of Vermillion, one of the few role-playing games released for the Genesis in its early years. I've spent a grand total of five minutes playing this, and the unflattering reviews on GameFAQs aren't convincing me to give it more of my time.


Championship Pool, endorsed by the Billiard Congress of America! Unlike our current congress, they try to sink the black one last. Anyway, this seems to be an okay adaptation of the sport, although having to switch screens to adjust your power (instead of the timing-dependent power meter in Side Pocket) takes some adjustment.


When the guy who sent me the Genesis listed "Genesis 6-Pak" as one of the games in the package, I assumed he meant the assortment of light gun games packaged with the Menacer, Sega's quickly forgotten bazooka peripheral. To my great surprise and relief, the 6-Pak actually contains six Genesis launch titles, ranging from the ho-hum Columns to classics like Revenge of Shinobi and the first Sonic the Hedgehog. The original Streets of Rage is also squeezed in there, but it shows its age next to its sequel, with limited move sets, shrimpy characters, and a smart bomb that's nowhere near as cool or useful as the special attacks in Streets of Rage 2. Nevertheless, I spent a lot of time with SOR in my teen years, and it's nice to have it back in my collection.


The package included two RF adapters. Problem is, the Amiga 1080 I use with my older game systems isn't compatible with RF. Frankly, neither am I... I was eager to leave that stone-aged standard behind the moment I bought a television set with more than one port on the back. With this in mind, I snipped the RF box from one of the cables and soldered on a couple of composite wires I'd salvaged from a Commodore DTV unit. Twenty minutes of snipping and soldering later, the Genesis was producing an image of acceptable, if not sterling, quality. The Genesis can output in dazzling, razor-sharp RGB, but the parts I'll need to make that cable are a little pricey, so that mod will have to wait.

This was a damn fine haul, especially when you consider the price. The original owner charged me a lot less for shipping than it actually cost, so the Genesis, several accessories, and a buttload of games effectively cost me negative eight dollars. Best of all, I've got a spare system, in case the old one goes belly up or I decide to mod this one. So yeah, I'm pretty happy with the way this panned out. You might even say giddy!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Here Comes Franklin!

First things first... check out the new design for the blog! It's no longer got that Tommy Vercetti Hawaiian shirt look that the old one did. It's probably a little bluer than necessary, but that's nothing a new background image won't cure! I'll plug one in later this week.

So, I was out yard sailing with me madre, and happened across this beast...


I found this mysterious computer at a garage sale a couple of months earlier, but left it behind, thinking it was just another IBM PC clone. Some online research later that evening revealed that it was an entirely different animal, worthy of closer inspection. Luckily, I would get a second crack at the machine when it turned up at a later sale. I wanted the computer and the previous owners wanted it gone, so after two dollars exchanged hands, we both got what we wanted.

So, what exactly did I get? It's the Franklin Ace 2200, the last in the company's line of Apple II clones. Back in the 1980s, when IBM PCs were obscenely expensive and largely relegated to the business sector, it was Apple's hardware that was relentlessly copied by hardware manufacturers. Franklin Computer Corporation led the charge with the Ace series of desktop computers, which one-upped Apple's official systems with higher performance, smaller footprints, and lower prices. The system shown above is roughly half the size of a common PC tower, with built in disc drives and a detachable keyboard you can rest on your lap. These were all luxuries conspicuously absent from the Apple IIe, a tan behemoth that gobbled up half your desktop and looked only marginally more modern than the wood-carved original Steve Wozniak pieced together in his garage.

Okay, that's a slight exaggeration.
(image courtesy of Engadget)
Naturally, Apple wasn't happy about this, and was determined to force Franklin off its turf. Franklin scored an early victory against the company when a district judge ruled that Apple could only copyright code written on paper, not discs or microchips. However, anyone familiar with our civil justice system knows that a company is allowed as many re-rolls as it can afford to emerge victorious in a legal battle. Apple took its grievances to an appeals court, which reversed the decision and doomed Franklin to a long, miserable life of making pocket translators.

However, Franklin must had enough time between the two court cases to thoroughly saturate the market with Ace computers. I've seen three of these in the wild so far, including two 2000 series machines and a 1000 my mother had brought home from a yard sale some years earlier. I don't doubt for a second that there are many more out there... after all, if you were shopping for a computer and had the chance to buy the same hardware as a major brand, but for less money, why wouldn't you?

While we're on the subject of pinching pennies, I guess I could have saved myself two dollars and downloaded an emulator instead. However, I can also use this Ace to retrieve some of the games I wrote in Apple BASIC over twenty years ago. Sure, they were hilariously crude, but the nostalgia would make it oh-so worth it.

(Special thanks to Wikipedia, Oldcomputers.net, and Old-Computers.com for their assistance in writing this article.)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Coleco Gemini: The Second Encounter

You remember this guy, right? Short, black, and ill-tempered, like Gary Coleman after Diff'rent Strokes was cancelled?


Well, after some encouragement from the fine folks at AtariAge,I decided to dig it out from the shed and take it apart, along with the mysterious project box attached to it. It turns out that the box, which I hoped would let me connect the Gemini to a television, offered nothing but an alternate power source, along with plenty of regret for those foolish enough to plug it into their big screen LCD television sets. Iesposta from the AtariAge forums offered this warning:
"Don't use that project box. If that 110V power soldered to the yellow transformer lead touches the Coax Connector and that is connected to a TV, well, it would be very bad, unless by 50/50 chance it was plugged into the house ground. 
If 110V did get into the TV or the RF of the Gemini, it would probably be powdered toast, man."
When I get a word of caution with a Ren and Stimpy reference in it, you'd better believe I listen! So I chucked the awful thing in the shed and turned my attention to the Gemini itself. Thankfully, the wires inside the machine leading to the project box weren't permanently attached... they slipped out of the system almost immediately after I opened it. That was a welcome surprise!

That was the easy part. However, hacking a system with little available documentation is considerably trickier. Sure, A/V mods for the standard Atari 2600 are all over the internet, but there's something you've got to understand about the Coleco Gemini. For all Coleco's efforts, the machine is not the same as a genuine Atari 2600, and if anyone tells you otherwise...


I quickly learned this lesson when I connected Ben Heckendorn's classic 2600 composite mod to the system in the usual way. Instead of a picture, I got a rolling green screen full of gibberish... a clear indication that the Gemini was not the twin of the Atari 2600 that Coleco had made it out to be.

That meant that I had to do a little detective work to discover the functions of the pins on Coleco's TIA knock-off, shown here:


Before I proceed, here's the 411 on the TIA. The Television Interface Adapter is the muscle of the Atari 2600, handling its video, audio, and input/output functions. Anything you see on the screen or hear from the speakers of your television set can be traced back to this little beauty. A real Atari 2600 uses a 10444 for its TIA chip; the Gemini has an off-the-shelf counterpart called the 73192. And that's where the headaches start...

The 73192 is wired differently than the 10444, with several key pins swapped. I was able to find half of them by tracing them back to the 6507, a budget-priced version of the 8-bit processor that all the cool game systems were wearing back in the 1980s.*

And some robots a thousand years later, apparently.
(courtesy DigitalRetroPark.de)
* The guys with Z-80s were all in the chess club, raising a pair of taped-up glasses with one hand while pulling down their wedgied underwear with the other.

The other pins had to be sniffed out with sneakier methods. For instance, the paddle inputs were tracked down by connecting a multimeter to the pins and looking for changes in voltage as I cranked on the dial of the Coleco Gemini controller. 

That wasn't the brass ring, though... I was after the video pins. I only managed to find those through a process of trial and error. Solder a wire here, get a dim monochrome image, solder another wire here with a resistor on the end, get a few more details, etc. Here's how it looked when I finally found the sweet spots on the underside of the board. You'll pardon the annotations!


After wiring up the prototype, I replaced it with something tidier and more permanent, as shown here:


The mod works as shown, but there's still room for improvement. Colorful titles like Pitfall! look great, but games set against a black background, like childhood favorite Crystal Castles and my own Solar Plexus, aren't as sharp as they ought to be. Crystal Castles in particular becomes an annoying challenge of hunting for barely visible gems, an issue I didn't have with the Light Sixer mod I'd done the week before.

You'll pardon the scanline. I chased
the beam, but it got away from me...
There are gems here somewhere! I, uh, think.
So hey, mission accomplished! Sort of. By the way, here's the pinout for the Coleco Gemini's TIA, since it seems to be such a closely guarded secret. The pins listed in red are guesstimates, but since I've got my system running composite video, I'd say they were pretty close to the mark.


All right, all right. I've been hitting the mod talk pretty hard lately, so I'll give it a rest and review some of the games I've been playing on my Atari systems in the next installment. Until then, folks!