General update – March 2021

Belated Happy New Year. I hope that you, your family and friends are well and keeping safe during these difficult times.

It’s been a long time since I posted even though I have been up to various retro computing activities on and off since I last posted in November 2020. It’s almost 12 months that I’ve been working remotely now which brings with it challenges around space and separating home and personal life but I count myself as very lucky in that I am able to work remotely and still do my job. I know others have not been so lucky.

Since I last posted I began re-working my old Alternate Reality X (ARX) code on the Pi 400. I started to restructure the code to try and make it much tidier especially around the display routines and game loops. So instead of having lots of different display and game loops for different things I was moving code into a single over-arching loop with a number of different states depending on whether you were exploring, in an encounter or at the main menu. I made quite a bit of progress with this but it was hard going moving some very old code around which often broke many other parts of the game. I also added an option to scale the window size with a key press; X1, X2 and so on based on your preference.

I’m not really sure I had a clear endgame with this re-working of ARX such as a public release or whether I would use the reworked framework as the basis for an Alternate Reality inspired game. Part of this was me just wanting to make ARX a lot better organised from a coding perspective – more for personal satisfaction that anything else. I haven’t done any further work on this since the end of 2020 but I’d like to get back into some coding on this soon and try to bring this project to some sort of logical conclusion.

Alternate Realith: The City box art

I’ve done some retro gaming and emulation on the Raspberry Pi 400 and also tried out various alternative operating systems on the Pi 400 such as Twister OS – https://twisteros.com. One problem I have with the Pi is keeping track of what is on each of my MicroSD cards – bring back 3.5” floppy disks! At least you could put a label on them.

As many long time readers may know I’m a Commodore Amiga fan and after my Amiga emulation above I went ahead and bought an Amiga 600 from eBay which I’ve been spending some time working on and trying to get to the point where I can maximise my enjoyment on it gaming and possibly some light development. Not my favourite Amiga model by a long stretch but it does have the smallest physical footprint (important for me just now) and does have some features that make it very useable in 2021. Maybe I should have gone for an Amiga 1200 but they cost a lot more. I’ll post about this separately.

My “new” Amiga 600 running Workbench 2.1
Ultima VI – The False Prophet running on the Amiga 600

I plan to post more frequently in the coming weeks and months but feel free to drop me a note if there are any interesting retro gaming / computing things you’ve been up to or think I might be interested in. Take care.

More Pi?

I’ve recently bought a Raspberry Pi 400 which I am planning to use for most of my coding projects going forward. If you’re not familiar with this, it is a Pi single board computer but integrated into a keyboard with the relevant ports accessible at the rear very much like the classic computers that you know I love such as the Commodore 64, Amiga 500 and Atari 800.

I opted for the desktop bundle which includes the main Pi 400 computer / keyboard combo as well as a wired mouse, SD card, micro HDMI to full HDMI cable and a USB C power supply. It also comes with a nice beginners guide book which is in full colour. The keyboard isn’t bad and very compact. The Pi 400 has a faster ARM processor than it’s predecessors and 4Gb of memory as opposed to the 1Gb my Pi 3B+ had so some things which were a bit slow for me are that bit smoother on the Pi 400.

The only slight annoyance just now for me is that the composite/audio jack present on the earlier Pi’s is not included on the Pi 400 so I can’t connect up my recently purchased speakers without a HDMI to VGA splitter which isn’t producing a great picture on my monitor. I’ll maybe just pick up a monitor with an audio out jack for my speakers.

I’ve been very busy with work recently so not had a lot of time for my coding projects but I have a number in progress that I’m really excited about. I’ll not say anything else about these just now until I have a bit more to show.

The easy to use Raspberry Pi Linux environment is working quite nicely for my coding efforts but I’m very focused on ensuring that any coding I do is easily portable to other systems such as Microsoft Windows so I am continuing to use C/C++ with SFML, both of which are very easily set up on the Pi. I found Code::Blocks a little unstable on the Pi 3B+ but haven’t experienced any issues with it on the Pi 400 yet. I’ve also been using the Geany editor which comes pre-installed in Pi OS but requires a little bit more set up for me than Code::Blocks. SFML is extremely easy to set up on the Pi compared to Windows.

I’m looking forward to some enjoyable emulation on this version of the Pi such as some Commodore Amiga and classic DOS games and also in trying out some of the other operating system choices that are available such as desktop release of Ubuntu.

C64 CRPG: Adding a map

Since I last posted I’ve been doing most of my game development on a Raspberry Pi 3B+ under Raspberry Pi OS . There has been a little bit of a learning curve with getting this set up and some of the utilities I was using aren’t available under Linux but overall it’s working quite well. One of my biggest frustrations was getting a usable version of the Vice C64 emulator running. I failed to compile it successfully from source and ended up installing it using the PiKiss utility (https://github.com/jmcerrejon/PiKISS). Vice doesn’t seem to perform very well on my Raspberry Pi so I would appreciate any suggestions anyone can provide in how to improve its performance.

My Raspberry Pi 3B+

Most of my work on “The Citadel” has involved reorganising memory again. I’ve not successfully managed to move all my graphics into the top 16K of memory. The Commodore 64’s VIC-II chip can only see 16K of memory at a time and this top 16K of memory includes other things including the Kernel ROM. Usually these need to be “switched out” in order to access the RAM underneath but the VIC-II can apparently see the RAM underneath for character sets, the screen, bitmap graphics and sprites – very useful as I can continue to use the C64’s KERNEL routines such as print a character, screen the screen etc but also make use of the RAM underneath for graphics. This means that CC65 can use a contiguous block of RAM, around 50K just for program code and other data. This also means I was able to simplify my linker configuration file (as shown in my previous post) and remove all the segment references which have been a bit of a distraction when I’ve been using CC65.

The C64 Programmers Reference Guide

I’ve moved the other data files such as map and wallset data onto a C64 disk image and I’m loading these into memory when the game starts. This seems to be working well and my program file is now down to around 15K leaving plenty of space for extra game code.

I’ve also added the feature of switching between the 3D view and an overhead map. Currently this just shows the half the map (32×16 locations) regardless of where you have explored but I’m going to modify this so that the map only becomes visible as you explore. So you can now move around the map either in the 3D view or in an overhead view. I need to think this through a bit as both views need to have their purpose and be useful. I thought the game should switch into 3D view when you have an encounter or enter a shop (if you’re not already in this view).

Moving around the map in overhead view

I also plan to make the map more interesting in terms of better use of characters and colour rather than just using simple blocks. I think I can now focus on adding some gameplay and have a brief playable demo out soon with some initial encounters and combat included.

C64 CRPG Update: The Citadel

I’ve been working away on my Commodore CRPG as time allows and making some good progress with it. It’s provisionally called “The Citadel”. I’ve made a number of visual changes including moving the map display to a separate screen which I think works quite well, tweaked the wall graphics a bit and added a custom font. Raster interrupts are used to provide some flexibility with screen colours and character sets for different vertical slices of the screen. My build process also adds the executable and data files to a Commodore 64 disk image file allowing me to swap in maps or wall graphics as required. Currently I have lots of free space on a standard 170K disk.

There are some locations with flavour text and examples of special locations where you can find objects and add them to what is currently a simple inventory. Content wise, the next things I really want to add are some wandering encounters, an initial combat scheme and a shop where you can upgrade your weapons and armour.

Before that though I need to take a look at the way I’m currently using memory for the game. I started to experience some strange behaviour the other day and decided that the code segment of the game was overwriting some sensitive area of the C64 memory. My current executable file appears to be about 37K (36,929 bytes). This hasn’t been an issue so far as I’ve been very free with my use of memory so far. For example the wall set character data is larger than the final data will need to be to allow me to easily and quickly update graphics and see them working in the game immediately.

As mentioned before I’m using a mixture of C and 6502 assembly language using CC65 https://github.com/cc65/cc65. It’s a suite of tools including a C compiler and a full assembler and can be used with a variety of 8 bit systems such as the C64, Apple II and Atari 800. It uses a configuration file to determine the memory layout of your program. Here’s a portion of my current file:

One change I made from the original file was to move my CODE segment to come after my data files. This possibly isn’t the best approach so if anyone has experience of C64 coding or particularly using CC65 then I’d welcome your advice. Currently I have my character set (font) starting at $3000 (12288 in decimal) so this can be moved to a lower position in memory, providing I pick one of the valid character set locations. The screen memory sits at 1024 – 2024 by default but can be relocated if required. Even if I leave the screen where it is and move the character set and wall character sets to sit after the screen that will still open up another 10K or so for code.

There are lots of inefficiencies in some of my data files / data areas which I can reduce and I also have some old routines that I’m not using that I can take out to free up additional space.

My next job however is to review the C64 memory map again (https://sta.c64.org/cbm64mem.html) and see whether I can move my data to sit under some of the areas of the C64 memory that can be switched in and out to access the full 64K of memory that the C64 has. These would normally include the BASIC ROM and the KERNAL ROM areas. I also need to check where CC65 stores its stack of C data structures and variables. I believe the C stack grows downwards into memory but I need to check and maybe look for a good CC65 forum that can advise me.

Overall I’m still really enjoying putting this game together and finding the C / 6502 hybrid programming approach is working well for me.