Resurrected Entertainment

Archive for July, 2007

Resident Evil 4 on the GameCube

July 26, 2007

Resident Evil 4I had a dream last night…

It was a dark and stormy night. My mood had been sour since I learned of my new assignment. Apparently, I’m a detective and I was being hired to find a teenage girl. Not just any girl mind you, she was the President’s daughter. This was a little weird, since I’m a Canadian and we don’t actually have Presidents with vast amounts of power and a real can-do attitude; instead, we have impotent ex-lawyers who can’t uphold their political platforms because their spines are made of jelly. Jello, in fact. Not the orange kind either, but that old berry flavour which doesn’t really taste like any berry I’ve had before.

I took it all in stride since I knew this was a dream (a neat trick I learned while watching Star Trek Voyager). I began to think about the mission and the team I would presumably be working with. One of these people was a young woman by the name of Ingrid Hunnigan. She was a real looker, and I just knew she was one of those girls who was all quiet and demure on the outside, but on the inside my imagination told me she was really some feral animal waiting to be uncollared. Despite my eagerness to set this poor creature free, I found her external demeanor to be cold and very closed. I think it was her glasses which gave me that impression. Don’t get me wrong, I usually dig a chick with glasses, but her spectacles were so large and formal it was like staring at two street signs that read “STOP – ALL WAYS”, “DEAD END”, or “NO ENTRANCE AT REAR.” I chuckled to myself, as I especially enjoyed that last one. She must have read my mind, apparently, given the number of phone calls she made – probably phoning her girl friends to tell them she’ll be busy tonight.

Before I left the meeting with my boss, he mentioned this would essentially be a solo mission, so I could forget about back-up. His orders were simple: get in, get the girl, and go home. I had to do a double-take, just like the people in those gum commercials; this was the President’s daughter after all, right? Why was I the only man, and a Canadian to boot, sent in after her? My cultural stereotype clearly states that I should abhor violence, discrimination, and meanness of all kinds. According to popular opinion in my country these people may be different than us, but simply because they’re different does it really make them evil? Note to the Jello-men: yes it does. Now shut up and grab your .22 caliber pellet gun.

They explained the reason why I had been chosen over other, more tenable alternatives. It basically stemmed from my experience with the Raccoon City incident. I had to laugh at that one. I told them it was just a video game, but they shook off my remarks including the little anecdote I though in about the fox and the scorpion – it didn’t really apply, but it makes me smile. They weren’t interested in my opinions or my stories and callously chalked them up as venial nonsense. They reasoned I must have been suffering from post-trauma to the brain, probably near the medulla oblongata. They blamed my irrational behaviour on all those untested (but FDA approved) neurological substances I took while playing the first game. I consoled myself against their unfounded criticisms and went back to finding that crazy rascal Hamburgler using one of the cheap paper maps they provided with every Happy Meal.

Yes, as a skilled, um, warrior, I see this kind of violence every day using one of my video game consoles. I’ve single-handedly sent many a demon to the void (/dev/null if you’re playing games on Linux), but I have to say it hasn’t really affected my lifestyle. I still get up, brush my teeth and go to work like every other schmo. Only this time, I’m more than just an anonymous software developer for some multi-national corporation (sort of like a taller, more sturdy version of Neo): I’m the protagonist who’s been assigned to save some hapless American teenager from the ravages of a Spanish cult! And you know they’re savage, because they’re foreign.

Of course, once I met her, I immediately wanted to shoot her. Ashley Graham was attractive, no doubt about it, but her constant whining became insufferable. “Don’t forget about me, Leon!” or “Help me, Leon, this man is trying to abuse my medulla oblongata!” Nag, nag, nag. If she wasn’t the daughter of the most powerful man in the world, I would have considered making her rescue worth my while, if you know what I mean. Wink, wink…

What? Don’t try to tell me you wouldn’t think about something like that if you were in my position. How many times does a person get to control the fate of a girl linked inextricably with the head of a nation so huge and powerful, it requires two Disney theme parks? I wanted free tickets, damn it, and I wasn’t bringing her anywhere until she begged to give them to me. Boy, did her knees get dirty! Normal detergent wasn’t going to get those stains out.

Once the begging had subsided, and it was really pathetic let me tell you, I could finally get on with my “mission.” During our journey together, I had the opportunity to be the hero countless times, but I knew she was stronger than what those politicians back in Washington were telling me. Come hell or high water, she was going to contribute to the mission, even if it meant she would be inadvertently killed again and again. One such opportunity presented itself while trying to escape a series of traps set up by our good friend, Osmund Saddler. He thought he could capture us using a creature coined “El Gigante.” At first, I was frightened and really out of my element. Since I was Canadian, I hadn’t taken a single Spanish class in my three years of high school, so translating this foreign tongue was exasperating and caused me to lose focus on more than one occasion. This confusion often resulted in Ashley’s gory death, but since I knew this was a dream, I could stop and reload it anytime. Kind of like playing a PC game, except with the whole intentional reloading thing. Actually, I should be careful what I say, PC fanboys can be dangerous if they haven’t had enough sugar. I usually subdue them with a can of Coke and a box of Cracker Jacks. They even let me keep the prize sometimes.

Much toil and much fighting later… I was able to find a local who looked a bit shifty, but was at least willing to sell me medicine and supplies. I managed to bargain a used Spanish-English dictionary when buying a couple of medical sprays for 20,000 coins. Often, the salesman started crying after our transactions; honestly, men like that make me sick. He should really learn to barter if he can’t stand losing so much money. I’m not sure what 20,000 pesos, or whatever their currency is, equates to but it surely can’t be more than a few dollars. This is a foreign country, after all.

We met Saddler and his peon Salasar on several occasions. Both of them just didn’t know when to quit. I mean, how many underlings and armies of parasitic men do I have to defeat single-handedly before they acknowledge the certainty of their death? There is nothing wrong with simply dropping what you are doing, hiking up your robes, and hightailing it out of there before I manage to get my hands on you. Their spines were definetly not made of Jello.

Since I knew I was about to wake up, I decided to find a way out of this twisted little world. So, I conjured up a jet ski and told Ashley to hop on. She was a little hesitant at first; I told her to stop being such a baby, if she died I would simply reset the game. After the fifteenth or sixteenth time she died, I finally managed to push all the right buttons. I could tell because she was all over me before we even exited the tunnel. I had to repeatedly decline her offers for love, because I had my eye on this other chick who tried to kill me several times during my mission, and whom I have totally failed to mention in this story. She and I have a long history together, and we’re going to have loads of fun at Disney.

Somewhere off in distance Ashley was still crying, obviously upset and heart-broken. Poor girl. I only vaguely noticed the irritated soldier pointing and gesticulating with his weapon in my direction; I had other more important things to think about, you see. My mind slowly returned to thoughts of Mina… or was it Veronica? Hmmm. I especially liked it when, that girl, got away with the Plagas sample. Denying me the only opportunity I would ever have to sell them on the black market. Which means my dream of retiring rich, fat, and tanned like an immigrant worker may never come to pass if I can’t find her again. Now that’s sexy.

Ghouls N’ Ghosts

July 25, 2007

Ghouls N' GhostsGhouls N’ Ghosts has an intensity rarely seen in video games. You have to go into this game thinking your going to get a tinsy bit further than the last time you played. Just a little further is all you’re really asking, so why are you being punished so viciously? Well, the problem can’t be your overall skill level. After all, you’ve been practicing on and off for about a month. Therefore, it must be either your joystick, your machine, or those screaming kids. Yeah, that’s it. Those screaming kids have been messing with your SuperGrafx system again! Putting their pudgy, sticky little fingers all over your disc and abusing your joystick, which is after all, your lifeline to this game and must be maintained at all costs. You should get up right now and tell those kids to stop screwing around with Daddy’s machine or they’ll be in hot water! Not just the semi-scalding water that comes out of your kitchen tap. No, no, no. You’ll be using heavy water from your local nuclear facility. Yes, they won’t be touching your machine again.

Ahem. Now that you’ve taken care of those pesky kids, we can move on to the real reason you can’t get any further: you just plain suck. Well, believe it or not there is a cure. No, I’m not going to try and sell you some miracle cream or a pill I’ve engineered out of sugar and corn starch – I’ll leave that job to the horde’s of uneducated immigrant workers. All you need to do is practice. Practice longer, and harder than ever before. Practice until your fingers develop blisters, and then become calloused. Yes, with those delicate digits sufficiently toughened, you’ll be playing hardball with the best of them. Just don’t let those rug-rats of yours get a hold of your system, and don’t let them watch you play. Kids have a weird genetic disease which make them instantly better than you are at the best of times. Those kids can be incredibly cruel. Your wife calls it honesty, but what the heck does she know? She hasn’t even heard of the SuperGrafx system, and you’ve owned it for months!

So, why are you watching television when you could be practicing? Why are you washing your car when you could be button mashing your way to victory? Why are you cooking dinner or asking your wife how her day went when you could be attaining the most sought after title in video game history?

Just let me know how the divorce goes, eh? And please, no more profanity.

Microsoft LAN Manager

After I had finished assembling my RetroBox, I was forced to to make a decision on what operating system to use. I chose to go with Windows 98 because I needed to be able to access my network. I also wanted to be able to boot into a DOS shell, but I didn’t want to dual-boot the machine. By writing a few options into the CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT files, the user is presented with a small set of choices which may drop them into the shell. When I need to access files on my network or if I want to print something, I choose an option which boots me into Windows. My RetroBox is not a terribly fast beast, and it takes a while to boot and log-in.

To help alleviate this problem, I installed Microsoft LAN Manager in my DOS environment. Now I can access my network files and print through the network with ease. The process was a little frustrating and your experience may vary. I am providing this information, just in case you’re considering tossing the whole project and moving to Tibet to become a monk (if you’re already a monk living in Tibet, then you may be considering moving to Canada to become a Mountie).

The very first step would be to obtain a network card. For compatibility reasons, a popular 10/100 Mb card would be optimal. I have compiled a list of network card drivers which are bundled with Microsoft LAN Manager (which I will now be calling LAN Man to save some typing). Even if your network card is not on the list (mine wasn’t), you may still be able to obtain a driver from the company’s web site. My card is a D-Link “DFE-538TX Rev. D” and the earliest driver posted on the website was for Windows 98. After decompressing the file, however, I found a driver specifically for LAN Man which saved me from having to create a custom NIF file. I will explain how LAN Man uses these files a little later.

Once the physical card is installed, unpack your installation and run SETUP.EXE to get started. For many people, the setup process should be pain-free. My setup was not so problem free, however. I suppose it was due to the fact that I was running the Windows 98 shell, and not a pure MS-DOS, PC-DOS, or FreeDOS installation. I believe the root of the problem stemmed from the fact that the Windows 98 shell doesn’t like the ‘$’ wildcard. If you take a look at the SETUP.INF file, you’ll notice a number of files ending in the dollar sign. Within the file, a program like NetBEUI would be referenced like this:


Under MS-DOS, this would match the file NETBEUI.EX_. Under the Windows 98 shell, it does not seem to match it at all, so the installer complains that it cannot find the file. What I did to correct this problem was to simply change the wildcard to the ‘_’ character and presto! The installer was able to see the file and continue with the installation.

Because my card was not on the list of available drivers, I needed to add it to the list myself, which meant making an entry in the SETUP.INF file so it could find the driver files (<DRIVER NAME>.DOS and PROTOCOL.INI) and the Network Information File (NIF). After making an additional entry in the SETUP.INF file and copying the files to the right locations (under DRIVERS\ETHERNET), the setup program correctly enumerated the card name and I was able to select it from the installation menu.

After these changes, the install carried on happily, but complained at the very end that it could not find the “NETWKSTA.” file. There is no “NETWKSTA” file; it’s just a directory. This is the eight-character directory shorthand for Network Work Station. I don’t know why it was complaining, but it’s an important program and needs to be installed so you can use network resources like shared files and printers. This is also easily corrected after completing the installation. Just copy the file:


Don’t copy it from the CD-ROM, because that file is compressed and won’t run. That file will end in an underscore, so it won’t match the name I listed above.

During the network setup portion of the installer, if you choose to use DHCP then you don’t need to specify an IP address or sub-net mask. For log-in credentials, just supply a user name without a password if you don’t have an MS LAN Manager or Windows NT authentication service setup. When it asks you for a domain name and you don’t know what that means, just enter in a dummy name or leave it blank (I didn’t try leaving it blank, the installer may refuse to continue). One item to keep in mind: a Windows domain is not the same thing as a work-group, but I used my work-group name anyway since I knew it wouldn’t matter. Eventually, if I choose to setup a domain, I will change the domain name at that time.

After moving the commands inserted into my CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT files around to suit my own taste, I rebooted the machine and ran the NET.EXE program. Using this software, I could enter the UNC path to one of my machines:


Go to the view menu and select “View available network resources”. It will present you with a dialog which will allow you to assign a shared folder to a local resource like a drive letter. I was able to read and write (provided the permissions are set appropriately on the share) to the folder using the new drive letter (F: in this case).

Please note: you won’t be able to mount a printer or a shared folder if the share name is greater than eight characters! It will simply complain that it cannot find the network resource.

Getting Dirty with DOS DOOM

July 15, 2007

The story behind the source code release goes something like this: In December of 1997, id Software released the source code for Doom to much fan fare and adulation. After only a few short weeks, web sites starting popping up and modified (or modded) versions started appear on bulletin board systems. Before the source code was even released, their were already tools available for modifying the existing graphics and levels, or for creating your own levels, on the Internet. These tools operated on the storage format for the game’s resources, which included maps, graphics, sound effects, etc. These resource files were called .WAD or .IWAD files. WAD does not stand for anything in particular, but you could choose to think of it like a wad of gum after eating a burrito. It contains all sort of unrelated bits in it, like green pepper and cheese, but together they form a chewy and cohesive whole. Yummy.

Modification to the actual game engine allows for much greater control over how the game operates. Despite this new found ability, many programmers or modders chose to leave the original code base intact, in order to give their users the freedom to play the older levels designed by the master’s at id Software. I believe this should be an important creed for any aspiring Doom hacker to follow, as it will allow your audience to experience the many thousands of levels available for immediate download. Just in case your levels fail to impress your core audience, such as Mother.

This project is intended to document what you need in order to build the DOSDoom (another port of Doom) source code on your machine. We chose to use DOSDoom, instead of the original code base, because the original requires a fair amount of modification to get it building with the available development tools and environments on an MS-DOS compatible machine. This brings me to my next point, you’re going to need a compatible DOS operating system installed somewhere in your house, if you want to compile this project; Windows 95 actually works quite well too as they are basically one and the same in many respects. As a trusty member of the classic gaming community, I trust this shouldn’t be a problem for those of you who are still reading.

DOSDoom brings a nice set of options to your exisiting Doom game. Features like mouse support, the “look” feature, CD audio, alpha blending, custom resolutions, and a whole lot more! Trust me, when you’re finished setting it up, you’ll think it’s almost like a new game.

Ok, first things first, you’re going to need the source code. It also helps to have a pre-built copy of DOSDoom on hand for comparison, and a chance to try it out just for fun. Personally, I love this version of Doom and will typically opt to play it over the original; unless we’re talking about the Playstation port, then we could be persuaded switch platforms for a while, or the Mac OS X port I wrote about a while ago. Of course, before either version will work, you need an original version of Doom. Please respect copyright laws and get yourself a legal copy; it’s not that expensive when you consider what you’re getting in return. Now would be a good time to unzip the pre-built copy of DOSDoom into your Doom game directory.

For those of you who weren’t born with a debugger in your bonnet, there’s a few pieces you need to have in place before you start unpacking the source code for DOSDoom. First, you need to understand the process by which program code gets transformed into something you can actually use. However, we’re not going to write yet another treatise on “How To Program In Such And Such A Language,” although for your reference, the core programming technologies used in this project are called C and Assembly Language. Learning to become a programmer is an iteresting but terribly long ordeal. I don’t recommend it unless you’re planning on making it a serious hobby or even a profession. Choose to play the game instead, you’ll probably be happier.

Since you’re still reading this article, I think it’s fair to assume that you’re mildly interested in the topics presented thus far, so let’s get a few terms under our belt before we begin. There is one general phase which must take place before you can use the source code provided and that phase is called compilation. A compiler is a tool used for translating source code which has been written in a high-level language, such as the C programming language, into a lower-level language more suitable for native execution within the hardware environment you are using. From a software development perspective, writing a good compiler is one of the most difficult and rewarding experiences a programmer could choose to undertake. However, simply using a compiler is usually no more difficult than learning any other moderately complex tool. Yes, there are usually a plethora of options and fancy doodads available for any aspiring geek, but many of them are rarely used and can be ignored most of the time. The compiler used for this project is part of a free development environment called DJGPP. DJGPP was primarily constructed by a man named DJ Delorie with plenty of help from the open source community. It contains numerous utilities, including a DOS port of the GNU GCC Compiler Collection.

Assembly Language, on the other hand, is much less abstract and tends to be a lot closer to a machine’s level of understanding. This source code does not need to be rigorously compiled and students of computer science will often write simple assemblers for course projects. Instead, Assembly is translated into machine language almost directly. Depending on the software used, “almost” can vary from assembler to assembler. DOSDoom’s source code contains only a couple of assembly language modules and can safely be ignored unless you’re planning on making low-level modifications to the game’s rendering engine. For this project, we’ll be using GCC’s assembler called GAS for all of our assembly needs. There is one item we wanted to mention when using GAS assembly code: it does not follow Intel’s coding conventions for instruction mnemonics, it uses the AT&T style instead. For a great book on coding for the Linux platform (which typically uses GCC as the default compiler/assembler toolkit), pick up a copy of Professional Assembly Language by Richard Blum (ISBN: 0-7645-7901-0).

Now that we’re all a little familiar with the basic process, here is the complete list of packages needed in order to compile DOSDoom:

Now what are these extra packages all about anyway, eh? They’re all required too, except for RHIDE which is a nifty Integrated Development Environment (IDE) very much like Borland’s early C/C++ IDE, and the DJ File Packer which is used to shrink the size of the resulting executable into something more manageable. The DPMI server is required by every 32-bit protected-mode application (in this case it’s DOSDoom) for DOS and gets launched automatically by the client application – just make sure it’s available via the PATH environment variable or in the applications home directory. The item listed only as Make is a set of tools used to easily build applications by managing their dependencies; although the syntax used to create Make files is anything but intuitive. Last, but certainly not least is the Allegro Game Library originally written by Shawn Hargreaves. Allegro is used to fill some of the gaps left by id Software when they released the source code for Doom. It’s a great library and can save you loads of time when you’re trying to write an application. All of these tools or libraries are relatively complex and deserve your attention if you want to make any useful contributions to this code base.

All but the last package, CSDPMI, must be unzipped into the same directory; CSDPMI goes into the Doom game directory instead. To help illustrate where everything goes, here’s a look at our build directory:


Once the packages have been decompressed, modify the DJGPP.BAT file to suit your own directory organization. For example, my batch file looks like this:

@echo off
set PATH=c:\source\dosdoom\djgpp\bin;%PATH%
set DJGPP=c:\source\dosdoom\djgpp\djgpp.env

Execute the batch file whenever you open a new console window (when using Windows 95), or after you’ve booted into DOS. Now, open the file under the Allegro directory and find a file named makefile. Remove the bit of text “-Werror” from the file using your favourite text editor. This is a compiler option which will halt the compilation process when a compiler warning is encountered; normally, it’s not a bad idea, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll remove it for now. The next step is to build the Allegro library by typing the command make.

Depending on the speed of your machine, the compilation process may take a while and you’ll see several messages displayed on screen. If you downloaded everything from this web site, you should experience no errors (provided you removed the compiler option mentioned above); although a few compiler warnings will make their appearance now and then. Once the Allegro library has been built, you should now enter your DOSDoom source code directory and type make again. This will build your DOSDoom executable file. You’ll need to copy this file (/obj/dosdoom.exe) into your Doom game folder (where the main executable file doom.exe is found) . Run the file dosdoom.exe and enjoy!

Remember: When making modifications to DOSDoom, please acknowledge all of the contributors who have made DOSDoom into what it is today. Without the tireless efforts from these people, you would have a lot of work on your plate before you even got started implementing your own vision of what you want Doom to be.

Exult v1.2 API Documentation

July 10, 2007

Since I couldn’t find any on their site, I’ve churned through the Exult engine using Doxygen to produce a usable set of API documentation. It’s a good reference to get a handle on their overall architecture in case you felt like diving a little more deeply.

Introducing CircleMUD

July 7, 2007

During the early 1990s, the Internet was fairly new to most people. At the University I attended for a time, we were using a PC-DOS based environment which had Novell’s Netware stitched on top of it. At the time, I had a small number of Usenet news groups I liked to read every morning, and I stumbled across a post by an individual in alt.rec.gaming or the like. This was before the days of spam and prolific pornography, so when a person posted a message with a subject line like “Check out this cool site!” You had no reservations whatsoever about following the link.

The link he provided wasn’t a URL which could be viewed in a web browser, but looked something like this:


Until I started paying to go to school, the only experience I had with a public network in the late 1980s was through local Bulletin Board Systems. I could e-mail people on other BBS systems through something called FidoNet. Those systems would use a BBS mailer for the users to create their message (or it could be uploaded using a pre-formatted text file), and then copy it over to the FidoNet servers for transmission using specialized protocols. The mailing address was rather complicated and needed to have a series of names, symbols, and numbers affixed to it if you ever expected it to reach its destination. Due to my own inquisitive nature and two very understanding parents, I was able to set up and experiment with computer communication. As a result, I was somewhat more experienced with networking before entering University than your typical freshman, but I had never used a telnet client before. It was certainly a mystery that needed solving. Little did I know what worlds waited for me on the other side. Nowadays, there is a bare-bones telnet client on virtually every desktop. Under the Xandros operating system, the program is called “telnet.” Likewise for Microsoft Windows and MacOS X.

After a bit of research, I discovered what I needed to access the site, so I started poking at the client program. A friend of mine saw what I was doing and thought it looked interesting, so he pulled up a chair and logged into his own terminal. What we saw was disappointing at first. It was essentially a blank screen with a small title surrounded by credits centered in the middle and a login prompt near the bottom left-hand corner. I knew neither of us had an account, so I thought our little adventure would probably end right then and there with a message like “Invalid login” or “Permission denied.” Instead, we received a prompt asking “Are you sure you want to use this name?” Tentatively, I declined and sat staring at the screen for a few seconds. I was familiar with the concept of a “handle” or nickname from the BBS systems I frequented. I remember not wanting to use the name I had entered, which was probably something unoriginal like my first name. I don’t remember the name I chose and it’s probably for the best. Little did I know, the interesting questions would soon follow.

The server accepted my new name and prompted me for a password. It then asked if I wanted to be “[M]ale, or [F]emale?” During my role-playing sessions, I had never considered being a woman, even though friends of mine tended to flip-flop between the sexes just for fun from time to time. I guess it just wasn’t something I even thought about. My teenage philosophy was black and white: how could I be a fearless knight of the realm with breasts? However, faced with the same opportunity on my computer, I did pause for the briefest of moments. Anonymity is not somethings easily overlooked by most people. Not wanting to appear unmanly in front of a friend, I quickly pressed the ‘M’ key. To this day, I have never played as someone from the opposite side of the gender coin. I eventually realized it didn’t really have an appeal for me. If I was going to invest the time creating a character in this new world, I needed to take it seriously and not go galavanting around the realm trying to fool everyone into thinking this body is real and I know how to use it. Besides, I really don’t think I would be able to do a very good job of it. I would probably end up over-acting and annoy everyone in the game while fooling no one at the same time. And then there’s the whole psychological impact of sustaining an Internet female persona…

Depending on the site you visit, the questions don’t necessarily end after you choose your sex. There can be questions about your race, occupation (warrior, cleric, mage, or dentist), attributes, and a description for your character just to name a few. Before you start hammering away at the the keyboard, it’s important to realize these details will be visible to other people. The site I visited that day was classified as a MUD which stands for Multi-User Dungeon/Dimension. There are many other classifications of multi-user software environments such as MOOs, MUCKs and so on, but I have only been interested in dungeons. A MUD is a world tapered in such a way the user will feel like their transported into an interactive book. All of the details in a MUD are described by words; there are no sounds, graphics, or vibrating joysticks. The illusion is helped along by talented authors and other player characters. Just like actors and actresses, most people who enter a MUD want to remain in character while they’re on-line, so information about their personal lives are usually not revealed. If they want to elaborate on their real life, then they usually initiate a private chat or use special abbreviations to illustrate they are speaking out of character.

The software hosting the MUD is stateful. It knows when you’re logged in and when you’re not. When you’re naughty and when you’re nice. By your command or when you log off, it can record vital details about your character like the equipment you’re carrying, the money you’ve accumulated, and other pertinent details. Anyone familiar with games like Dungeons & Dragons will feel right at home in this universe. In fact, it’s often a fun alternative to playing face-to-face, especially when you’re role-playing amigos live far away. Muds essentially run by themselves, but they can also be directed in real-time by controlling characters often called wizards, gods, or heroes. These characters have permissions to modify the world and initiate quests. Ordinary players can sometimes attain these positions by achieving a very high-level character ranking and then be offered a promotion, or simply participating in its day-to-day operations by becoming more involved. Sometimes it’s just easier to befriend one of the wizards and beg for an opportunity to prove yourself worthy. Just try not to cry if they refuse.

Wizards are usually programmers who typically interact with the MUD on a technical level. They usually have a character which is used to logon to the server in order to test the deployment of a new feature. It’s inadvisable to anger these people because they can eject you from the MUDvery easily. Their characters on the MUD are not ordinary players; they usually cannot be killed and they often make themselves invisible to ordinary mortals. This is a kind of power one can abuse. Do what you like on your own server, but I can guarantee no one will want to visit your realm if you abuse your abilities as a Wizard.

Back in the heyday’s of MUDding, there were literally thousands of these servers up and running on the Internet. And as a player, you had your pick of the litter. Low and behold, though, the majority of those servers were rehashes of existing worlds. There were a few bright stars amoung them, but it was a challenge to find a truly original MUD with a decent up-time. If you’re going to spend the time to create and manage a MUD, then I suggest you think of an original theme first and then come up with an interesting environment. It could be used as an interesting spot where you and your friends and family can hang out instead of the typical chat room.

Interaction on the MUD is accomplished via text commands you feed to the server hosting the game. These commands and transferred over the Internet via the telnet protocol and then the response is sent back to your client in a timely manner. So, what commands are available for you to use? It depends on the server software, but they are very similar to the commands used by many classic adventure games. At some point in their history, games like Leisure Suit Larry and King’s Quest all sported a command interface where you typed what you wanted the character to do. For example, commands like “take bottle” or “look at painting” were commonplace. MUD commands were pretty much the same, except they could usually handle more complex sentences and contained a larger set of available commands. There is also the multi-player aspect to consider. A MUD needs a much more extensive set of commands used for communication like “shout,” “talk,” “whisper,” or “emote.” These all have different effects based on your permissions and proximity to other players. For example, some MUDs do not allow just anyone to shout a message, since it will usually be heard by everyone currently logged into the MUD. Players in the past have used this feature to be very naughty.

Due to its popularity, you would expect there to be a lot of MUD software available on the Internet and you would be right in thinking so. From this point onward, we’ll be studying an implementation called CircleMUD. CircleMUD was created by a man named Jeremy Elson in 1993 and is a worthy extension to the DikuMUD codebase which was written by Katja Nyboe, Tom Madsen, Hans Henrik Staerfeldt, Michael Seifert and Sebastian Hammer in 1990. It is stable, well programmed and documented and certainly one of the more popular servers available today.

Before we delve too deeply and greedily, I think it’s worth talking about the software license. You can use the software free of charge, but you must comply with the license agreement, which basically has three requirements. First, you can’t make any money off of CircleMUD. That also includes soliciting funds or accepting donations. Second, you must give the authors credit for their hard work. And lastly, you must comply with DikuMUD license. All of these details can be found in the documents accompanying the distribution.

Building a RetroBox

Playing games through emulators or virtualization software is one thing, playing them on a real box, powered by real hardware is quite another. The tactile sensation, the whir of the power supply, and the smell of electro-static dust crud slowly wafting through the ventilation is enough to send chills down my spine. Seriously, I can’t stand it.

Besides all of those tangible qualities, there is also the very real compatibility of the games to consider. They may not run perfectly in your emulated environment. On my primary machine, for example, DOSBox does not run any of my computationally expensive games very well such as Wolfenstein, DOOM, Hexen, etc – basically, any 3D FPS game. VMWare may also not produce the sound very accurately (assuming I can even find a way to get audio to work in FreeDOS on the machine I am using). I also found it enjoyable building the machine and locating the parts for it. My local used hardware store was a great help as well as raiding my own closets for any spare pieces lying around. This little venture also helped to ferret out any unneeded parts for charitable donations.

As a bench mark, I used Ultima VII: Black Gate and Serpent Isle, since those two games had very demanding audio and memory requirements. The games also required a decent processing speed, mouse support, and a modern video card supporting VGA graphics modes. When I say “very demanding,” I mean when compared to the technology of the day. If you were to use a machine made using today’s technology, it would simply be too fast. Many games wouldn’t operate correctly and it would be next to impossible to find MS-DOS compatible drivers.


The two most important pieces of hardware to consider would be your motherboard and your sound card. You may have noticed I neglected to mention processor and video card. If you pick a motherboard from the same era as Ultima VII, it most likely won’t have a CPU socket (although my RetroBox does and provides a Socket 7 interface) so you would typically be stuck with the on-board processor. The video card is less important, although I would make sure it has a reasonably high number of video modes, and optionally, high-quality video output that suites your taste and matches the capabilities of your monitor. You should also try and get a PCI video card since a 16-bit ISA bus can be a bottle neck for Pentium processors during the early to mid 1990s. The last video card I used in this machine was a Trident Super VGA card. I loved that card, but when I upgraded to a new card sporting a PCI interface the difference in speed was very obvious.

Should you choose to build a machine yourself, I have provided a list of components I used to build mine. You will probably want to alter the list to suit availability and personal preference, but if you choose to build it to my specifications, I can guarantee you the machine will run Ultima VII perfectly:

  • GMB-486SPS 80486 PCI Green Motherboard
  • Intel P133 Microprocessor
  • Sound Blaster 16 ISA Sound Card
  • Matrox G400 PCI Video Card
  • Yamaha 4x4x16 CD-ROM Drive
  • Generic PCI Network Interface Card
  • Microsoft Compatible Mouse
  • 40 GB Hard Drive
  • 3 1/2″ Floppy Drive
  • 250W Power Supply

The size of the hard drive is somewhat arbitrary. Forty GBs is a lot of space for a DOS installation. I could install every game in my collection including Windows 3.1, compilers, word processors, and anything else I could find around the house and it still wouldn’t fill half the hard drive, which is why I partitioned the drive and installed Windows 95 as well. I did this more for network connectivity, so that I could copy files back and forth easily (although I will probably forgo the Windows installation and use an Ethernet packet driver and SSH/SCP to move files around). Just remember that hard drives available today will probably not be compatible with older motherboards. The BIOS or your operating system may not recognize your disk or refuse to utilize most of the space.

Remember, you should probably work out an effective way for you to get files from your home network to your RetroBox. It could be more difficult to find a motherboard capable of interfacing with USB devices, and even if you did find one, you would need to install Windows with USB support.

TIP: Some earlier versions of Windows 95 did not support USB devices, so be careful if you’re purchasing a copy on eBay. Another alternative to Windows would be to install FreeDOS – it has USB support, although I am not sure if it would recognize the hardware on all motherboards. The OS is built for old and new machines, so I’m guessing luck is on your side.


I use a number of light weight drivers and utilities to make my RetroBox compatible with Ultima VII. The CD-ROM, mouse, and sound card all require drivers. I wanted a light weight driver and device extension software for my Yamaha drive so I chose to go with the generic CD-ROM driver provided by Mitsumi called MTMCDAI.SYS and extension software called SHSUCDX.EXE written by Jason Hood and John McCoy. For the sound card I use the standard Sound Blaster drivers and related software. For the mouse, I chose something a lot smaller than the typical Microsoft compatible mouse driver. The mouse driver is called CuteMouse; it’s open source and optimized for size. It’s only 6 KBs compared to the Microsoft driver which is 56 KBs – a huge savings!

However, the best piece of software I found was a program called UMBPCI. It only works for specific CPUs, but if you have an Intel P2, P3, Celeron, or Xeon, then they are all compatible since they are all L2 cacheable. Processors which do not work are 486/SX/DX/DX2/Dx4/SLC, 386/SX/DX, 286/SX, or 8086. If you own one of those processors then you may want to try HIRAM.EXE which works in a similar way to UMBPCI. So, what does UMBPCI actually do? Here’s a concise explanation taken from the documentation (it has been edited for clarity):

UMBPCI.SYS extends Microsoft’s HIMEM.SYS by supplying the ‘Request XMS-UMB’ function. Microsoft’s EMM386.EXE does the same thing, when loaded with the ‘NOEMS,’ ‘HIGHSCAN,’ or ‘RAM’ parameters in CONFIG.SYS.

UMBPCI.SYS creates UMBs (Upper Memory Blocks) using the existing system memory intended to be used as Shadow RAM, but disabled by default, only in the C800-EFFF range, not using the address range B000-B7FF. That particular memory area is normally used for monochrome video (used by older graphics adapters), not for BIOS (ROM) extensions, therefore X86 chipsets cannot enable shadow RAM within this region. UMBPCI.SYS enables this memory and disables its write protection.

UMBPCI.SYS takes only 240 Bs of conventional RAM (224 Bs code + 16 Bs environment), while providing up to 629 KBs of free conventional memory, provided you’re loading all the devices/drivers/TSRs to use high memory!

Microsoft EMM386.EXE creates UMBs from the computer’s physical XMS (eXtended Memory Specifications) by virtually remapping XMS to the upper memory area using the Memory Management Unit (MMU) of 386 and higher CPUs. It needs an additional 150 KBs of XMS, 4 KBs of low memory and 7 KBs of UMA (Upper Memory Area) when loaded. It also switches the CPU into protectedmode, which tends to be slower, because it’s necessary to use the MMU. UMBPCI.SYS leaves the CPU in real mode, for better compatibility and faster performance.

Basically what this boils down to is the ability to load all of your drivers and software to a region other than conventional memory. This makes games like Ultima VII, which is a complete memory hog, very happy indeed.

For some games, I also use a utility called PENTSLOW.COM which slows down a Pentium class CPU by disabling branch prediction, v-pipeline, and internal cache. This produces a more even gradient for speed changes, unlike some software driven tools (essentially TSR programs which simply loop) that produce choppy or ineffective speed reductions. I also down-clock my CPU in the BIOS from 133 MHz to 100 MHz which helps Ultima VII cope with the faster processor. You may also wish to use a disk management tool like SMARTDRV.EXE which can help improve the performance of disk intensive software.

For your benefit, I have made all of my batch files, configuration files, drivers and software available to you. Let me know how your RetroBox works out!

The Hydra Development Kit

July 5, 2007

I’m very excited. I just received the new game development kit from Nurve Networks which includes the Hydra game console, development book, RAM expansion module (extra), storage expansion module (extra), SX-Key programmer (extra), keyboard, mouse, experimenter board, and software. A friend of mine asked why I enjoyed using the kit despite the obvious limitations when compared to development kits and hardware available today. I rambled something out since I was on my way to a meeting, but after further consideration I find it a hard question to answer.

I’m a huge experimenter. I love the possibilities new hardware and software bring to the table. It doesn’t need to be fancy, it just needs to do something interesting or expose possibilities in order to capture my imagination. I’m not expecting to produce commercial quality games with the Hydra development kit, and despite what the documentation and marketing hype implies, it will not show an aspiring programmer how to produce games on today’s hardware consoles. The technology, development methodologies, and tools are so different, you could spend years writing software for the Hydra game console and be completely lost when asked to write software for an XBox 360.

So why does the kit exist at all? I don’t know what the sales numbers are for Nurve Networks, but if this kit existed when I was a teenager, I would have given or done anything to get my hands on it. That’s right, anything! I would have taken on an extra paper route to earn enough money to buy it. I would have done every house chore my parents could dream up, if only they would consider buying one for my birthday. Even today, I have a genuine technical interest in the device, and something at a more fundamental level which drives my desire to learn and create.

I’m a professional programmer by day. I can afford expensive and powerful development platforms, but I do not tend to use them in my spare time. The reason may be similar to why an artist chooses to use acrylic paints on a cloth canvas instead of water based paints on a paper canvas. It’s more than just a personal preference; it’s an attraction to the art itself. There is a certain intimacy with the hardware which is impossible to achieve using high-level production tools. Sure, the compiler may allow you to graft in a few lines of assembly code, but it’s not necessary most of time and can produce problems later, which is why most companies frown at the practice of introducing assembly code into software for no good reason.

The art of programming can be enjoyed by any skilled software developer using almost any tool or language. That in itself can provide great satisfaction to the designer if everything works out, but the synthesis of hardware and software can produce a masterpiece not often experienced by programmers today, and I suppose the elation which follows is what attracts me to development kits like the Hydra.