Pinnacle of Robotron:2084 Emulation

Here’s something fun.

Robotron 2084 Welcome Screen

My second favorite arcade game ever is Robotron:2084. This was a frenetically paced game, with dozens of onscreen targets and enemies converging on you first inevitably, then instantly. You got two joysticks for this, one controlling move, one controlling fire… so you can fire backwards at things chasing behind you. As is common in the genre, you are saving the last human family while taking out as many of the evil machines as possible. Here you see mommy in her pink dress and daddy in his blue business suit… and where you should see little mikey in his red t-shirt and shorts you will instead see a skull and cross-bones indicating a tank already ran the poor lil guy over.

Robotron:2084 Save the human family

Harder waves send more and different enemies at you… and apparently this family was a particularly fecund bunch, so they had that going for them, anyway.

Robotron:2084 Brain Wave

What did it take to get that screenshot? Everything, as they say… here’s the screenshot timestamped one one-hundredth of a second later.

Robotron:2084 Brain Wave Death

I also caught the brain’s “breathing” in that one. But, still dead. So many women left un-picked-up.

As you can see, I can play a pixel-perfect representation of the original arcade machine on my current main computer, a MacBook Pro, using OpenEmu software. This is an amazing (to me, anyway) jump in technology during my lifetime, even considering how popular Robotron was in its day and how often (and how well) it was reproduced. I own copies of Robotron:2084 for the Atari 8-bits, for the Atari 5200, Atari 7800, and the Atari ST… and along the way, I’ve played the versions for DOS, Apple ][, and Commodore 64. They all do a pretty good job… I mean considering the various hardware limitations in each case, the game always seemed to look good enough and play fast enough compared to other games available for that system. Yes, I like my statements well qualified.

But there has always been something missing. For the vast majority of those playing a Robotron port, they were playing with one joystick to move… and a button that shot in the direction you were running.

Completely unplayable.

Okay, that’s a bit far, but it was really hard to do well on the ports. And even with the few ports that allowed you to connect two joysticks to use as God and Williams intended… have you ever tried to control two separate lightweight joysticks, one in each hand? Think about those 2600 joysticks slamming over when you move in any direction… think about those 7800 controllers just sliding everywhere. I have two Wico sticks that it took me years to scrape off the duck tape residue where I taped them to a plank to make a Robotron setup. And that has been about the height of my Robotron play for years.

New day, new tech, new take on retrogaming, and I’m back at Robotron:2084. OpenEmu is showing me the most precise image from the original that we are going to get. And OpenEmu allows us to personalize the controller setup. I invested in a couple Logitech F310s, Sony-style controllers with dual thumbsticks.

Logitech F310

Once the joystick is connected, OpenEmu identifies it and allows you to determine how OpenEmu will use the different buttons, sticks, and pads in the game. The thing that’s a little quirky about setting up Robotron’s controls is that there is no obvious “map to second joystick” function. This is because “second joystick” just isn’t something that gets used much, so it’s not present in the standard format for the programs emulating the systems. OpenEmu happens to use MAME as the engine for arcade emulation, in particular MAME 0.149. MAME knows about the four-directional firing, but, there being no “second joystick” to map to in the format, those functions get mapped to buttons.

It only took a couple games of trial and error (with a couple face palming backslides along the way) before I found the secret of mapping Robotron’s fire controls the the Logitech F310.

OpenEmu Robotron 2084 right joystick configuration

With that set up, my scores jumped significantly.

Robotron_highscore

I happen to know my high score on the arcade original is over 1,000,000. Know this because I’ve been cleaning out the garage, and I found my Bronze and Silver Joystick Awards issued from The Endless Challenge arcade sometime in the eighties. So I know I still have a ways to go. But this is the best version of Robotron:2084 that I’ve been able to play without a quarter or a token handy.

There are actually two more options to possibly take this further. Already on my list of Things To Buy Next is a pair of 2600-dapters, little hardware interfaces that allow you to plug in old-school 9-pin joysticks to USB ports to use with emulators. The issue here will be the same as it was with the 7800, though… Wicos and duck tape as the best alternative.

And finally, I could build or buy a custom heavy duty controller. X-Arcade has a model with 2 joysticks and a trackball, which would cover almost all my retrogaming needs.

Almost all. Yes, Robotron:2084 is my second favorite game, despite the odd controls that make decently emulating it’s gameplay such a difficult task.

My favorite game is Tempest.

 

Boundaries and Expectations

I admit it: I have an addictive personality. When I find something cool, I want to find out all I can about it and how it got that way… and I want to see and understand the variations. Although I feel this has ultimately served me well in my life, there are times when it can become a stumbling block. The best idea is to approach these things with some idea of your limits in mind… not to mention an idea of what you actually want to get out of the interaction.

It’s like I keep trying to tell my kids, “You can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want.” As I’m rebuilding my website to better reflect and serve my life, I’ve realized that some boundaries and expectations are in order.

The Roles of jjewell.com

In my personal life, I have tried to use some of Stephen Covey’s methods to be and do more. One of the main ideas I pull from Covey is that of Roles: we each play a certain number of roles in our life, and there must be a balance among and between them when it comes to our attention and effort. In that same way, I am expecting jjewell.com to serve several roles for me.

Information Repository – I want to be able to easily store and access all types of information and data that is important to me.

Connection Interface – I want to be able to easily share and enable collaboration on all types of creative projects that are important to me.

Neocapitalism – I want to be able to easily buy, sell, and trade my own goods and services in ways that avoid pitfalls associated with modern capitalism.

Information Repository

At one point, jjewell.com featured a MediaWiki installation focused on my life. I started making entries about certain events or topics of interest, with the intention that slowly but surely, everything I ever knew and loved would be connected and accessible through my website.

The wiki is not an aspect of jjewell.com that has been revived, at least as of yet. With that wide open a mission, there were just way too many rabbit holes to start down. These are the rabbit holes that I need to block off before we spelunk that cave, again.

I do have some idea of things I definitely want to have curated here. Most importantly, I want to create a repository for personal media: the photos, recordings, videos, documents, and other digital bric-a-brac I want to hold onto for personal reasons. I want to be able to add to and access the data wherever I am at the moment, and I want the access and backup options to be under my control.

I also want a repository for a more public type of media… things I want to curate for use beyond my own brain. In my case, this kind of media includes songs to practice and perform; recording tools and data; emulation tools and data; and comic books, art, and animation. These are things that I want to have access to for myself, but that would also be useful and of interest to others. Again, I want to be able to get to the files from anywhere and control access and backup.

Connection Interface

A sometimes overlooked aspect of our technological present is our ability to communicate, work, and play with people separated by distance. I am a musician, a writer, a collector, and a cook, among other roles, and all of those roles benefit from collaboration with others. I want my website to to an enabler of this collaboration.

Neocapitalism

Some history: I came of age during the 1980’s in America, a time when making money seemed easy, desirable, and honorable in and of its own right. Even at that stage, it seemed to me that “business” was being used as code for, and rationalization of, selfish greed and a lack of human morals and empathy. I equated the words “sales” and “marketing” with “lying long enough for the check to clear.” My work history is filled with 1 to 5 year stints where I systematically lost faith in the good intentions and nature of every employer I ever had. Early versions of jjewell.com featured a Capitalism Capitulation page… where I acknowledged the need to involve yourself in capitalism to some extent in order to simply survive.

I’ve decided that almost all of that is the wrong attitude. Despite the glaringly audacious greed of the owning class and the systematic destruction of the working class as featured in Modern American Capitalism, the concepts of using capitalism as a basis for trade in organized societies are sound.

We aren’t going to replace capitalism. But we do have to fix what is broken about it.

And that’s what I mean by neocapitalism: doing business the most “fixed” way possible can in what is undoubtedly a broken system.

Moving Forward

I will be building the website with those basic expectations in place. I know that a personal photo library with automated backups will be a part of the plan. The restructuring I’m doing of my physical environment has meant that my vintage hardware, particularly Atari computers and games, has taken a primary spot in my focus.

Perhaps most importantly, as I uncover artifacts in my garage and life, I’m going to create a model of both the boundaries and the expectations of jjewell.com in the structure of the website itself.

 

Technological Amnesia

A first step in changing my life is changing my surroundings, organizing my belongings, environment, and habits to make the most of what I have and expand upon that foundation. All that makes “dig through a bunch of old boxes” sound almost noble. Excavating my own history has gone, in one way, much as anyone would expect: old comics, toys, and games; old musical instruments and recordings; old technology of all varieties. What I didn’t expect was a different way of looking at these artifacts and forebears, and an examination of why they are actually important to me.

I started feeling the discomfort with comics… and it actually happened years ago. Collecting comics had been the great passion in my life for decades, but a change in my financial situation first left no budget to collect, and eventually led to a massive liquidation of the heart of my collection. Complete runs of Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-man, The Uncanny X-Men, The Avengers, basically every Marvel Silver Age first appearance and key issue… it was necessary at the time, but the experience took a toll on my love of collecting comics. Although I hear the call of old comics, the thought of starting over on a collection just isn’t appealing. I did miss a lot of the stories and characters, though.

A few years ago, I discovered a thing called Marvel Unlimited. Long story short, for a pretty reasonable yearly subscription, I get access to thousands of issues of Marvel history… even through my iPhone, wherever I am. I like this service. I get to re-read all my favorite stories whenever I want, and even try a lot of new-to-me comics that I wouldn’t have gotten interested in, back when reading the story meant tracking down back issues in comic stores and conventions scattered across this great land of ours. In many ways, technology has left the physical comic book behind; paper comics aren’t well-suited to modern methods of distribution and consumption. Comic books are still what they always were, but the essence of the stories and characters are traveling so much faster and more widely through digital means. The books weren’t able to keep up with things changing around them… almost like an anterograde amnesia, comic books couldn’t process or adapt to the inevitable future.

But there was another part to my comic collecting. Yes, I liked reading the stories and spending time with the characters, but in the days before instant global full-video communication, there was much more of a thrill of the chase to it. I finally found my last Fantastic Four, issue #14, when I was set up at a small local convention, and a guest was looking to sell this and some other books, and another dealer who knew I was looking for it pointed me out to the guy. I had been looking for it for years… it wasn’t because I couldn’t afford it, I didn’t have the book in my collection because I had simply never come across one in all that time of looking. That was part of comic collecting, and comic dealing, knowing about who wants what and making connections. Knowing your business. You can now buy and sell pre-graded, plastic-sealed comics that you can never actually touch or open, without leaving your chair. Completing a collection is less about archeological detective work, and more about having a credit card without a limit. Modern comic collecting, actually buying old comic books, has become less about knowing the comics than about picking the right lottery ticket. In our zeal to make the transfer and sale of comics easier and faster, we lost a certain amount of institutional knowledge: collectors at the highest levels are often investors or speculators in a stock, and not necessarily a fan, advocate, or expert on the actual comics. The modern methods of both casual consumption and high-end collecting have forgotten important aspects of their history… they suffer from retrograde amnesia.

All that had been floating around in my head for awhile, and I’d thought about it in different directions trying to make sense of it; trying to figure out the essence of what drew me to comic collecting. It was only more recently, as I’ve been curating various old computers, tvs, stereos, and music instruments, that I started thinking about tech in those same terms. For instance, I have paid for at least five different copies of one of my favorite songs, Man Out of Time, by Elvis Costello: vinyl album, cassette tape, CD, and digital download. At several junctures, I realized that I was paying for something I already “owned,” in principle: when I bought that first vinyl album, I bought the right to listen to that song as many times as I wanted for perpetuity; but I rationalized the purchase as a fair trade of dollars to avoid the time, hassle, and expense of acquiring and operating the equipment necessary to do a quality conversion. The formats of their time had anterograde amnesia, and couldn’t continue to function with excellence as time and tech went on. The next greatest formats always had retrograde amnesia, and my tape player forgot about all the music my record player knew, as the CD would in turn forget about my institutional knowledge from the tape.

Everything came neatly together for me when I got to the computers. I got my first computer in 1981, an Atari 800… and I still have it and it still works. Everything about it is just as amazing to me as it was almost forty years ago: the games are still fun, the applications still perform their assigned functions… but that fun and those functions have not stood the test of time, were not adaptable enough to stay relevant, to keep up with the current and move ahead. Anterograde amnesia. I got my second computer in 1987, an Atari ST… and I still have it and it still works, too. That was an interesting time for me, because I “needed” to have two computers running: I depended on software on the 800 to do things in life, and that software would not run on the ST. The ST had retrograde amnesia, and forgot the institutional knowledge that came before it. I had to buy new programs for the ST to serve the same function… often enough  called the same title and written by the company or individual who wrote the one for the 800.

Computers are particularly gifted at battling retrograde amnesia. The ST wasn’t too old before a clever programmer wrote a program that could pretend it was an 800. You could actually run those old programs written for different hardware on this newer machine through this emulation program. By overcoming the amnesia, the ST gained the 800’s institutional knowledge.

Emulators are now a part of our everyday lives; computer evolution favors those who are able to retain or regain that institutional knowledge. One of my favorite emulators makes my MacBook Pro think it’s an Atari 800. It’s amazing to be able to play the best games of my youth here on my regular computer anytime. But I still have an 800 (several from the line, in fact) and I still use it sometimes. Emulators are cool… but there are differences in the way a wireless PS4 joystick interacts with an emulator than the way an old-school 9-pin joystick interacts with an 800, not to mention the differences in the way a modern computer interacts with its monitor compared to the way old computers interacted with analog tv sets. Long story short, although the emulators are amazing, there is something tangible lost in the translation.

I like to think that I am becoming more self-aware; that I am considering my tendencies and motives to improve in every way I can. So when something like this spends so much time in my headspace, I try to figure out the lesson. There’s a primary layer to this, which reflects a certain bitterness about things that were once important to you losing their meaning: perhaps my best songs includes the line “Your passions turn to clutter there in front of your eyes;” I’ve felt this disconnect between what I thought I was and who I actually am for some time. I’m realizing how relatable the amnesias are to this thought: it’s not so much that I’ve lost interest in an activity, it’s that some kind of amnesia has gotten in the way of my connecting to my past, or in the way of learning more capabilities for the future… and that frustration, that miss, that lack of connection… is what leads to the activity becoming less important to me.

So I’m going to try to be more like a computer. I am going to confront my retrograde amnesia, and build whatever emulators I need to process the value of my past. I am going to expect my anterograde amnesia, and remain open to whatever adapters I can use to process new value the future offers.

Retrogaming on Mac: Getting started with OpenEmu

I started retrogaming when it was cutting edge gaming, and I still have all the hardware I accumulated along the way. And while I still enjoy dusting off an old machine and loading some forgotten format into a reader no longer made, I have grown into an Apple ecosystem user… and appreciate when something is simple and just works. I’ve toyed with the more complicated setups of individual emulators, and due to Atari allegiance have gotten a few of those working in the past, but it is with OpenEmu that the world of emulation has become simple and just works for Macs.

Before you start, figure out where you are going to store some files. Like a lot of files. Millions of little bitty files… and thousands of big fat ones. We are talking dozens to hundreds of gigs of stuff, depending on how complex you want to get at the start.

Download OpenEmu… not the big red “download” button, but the little red text underneath that says Experimental. This is the version that is starting to offer support for the MAME engine for arcade machine emulation. There will be warnings that MAME is not fully supported yet, but this is currently the best and easiest way to go.

OpenEmu is something called a frontend: it organizes the files needed for other programs, the emulators themselves, to run the game ROMs. ROM is an acronym for Read Only Memory, a type of chip used in things like game cartridges to hold the actual game program. Loading a ROM file into an emulator is like sticking the cartridge into your Atari 2600. OpenEmu works as a middleman to stick the right ROM files into the right emulators.

In addition to ROMs that are similar to cartridges or program files, there are ROMs that are more like operating systems. Because of the nature of copyright law, some emulators cannot be distributed with the ROM files from the machines they emulate; these files must be found by the user. Thanks to the Internet Archive, these files are easily found. The OpenEmu BIOS Pack includes all the files needed to activate the different cores, or machine emulations. Download and extract the files to your chosen storage location, then go to OpenEmu and select Preferences… System Files. You will see a whole list of warning symbols that we want to turn into green checkmarks. Just drag the files to the System Files window and OpenEmu will know what to do with them.

When all our checkmarks are green, OpenEmu is ready for some game ROMs. The Internet Archive Software Collection is your best friend in this process. This page links to libraries of archived software for different machines, and perhaps most importantly of all, for archived arcade machine ROMs… MAME ROMs.

MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) is the gear OpenEmu kicks into when it is time to emulate arcade machines. While it is astonishing that MAME can do what it does, there is a certain amount of learning curve in getting MAME to sing to your tune. OpenEmu takes a lot of that confusion away for you, but there is still one thing you have to do correctly for all this to work: get the right MAME ROMs. In particular, the right MAME ROMs for OpenEmu’s version of MAME is 0.149. This is the sort of thing you are looking for. Download, extract, and drag the files into OpenEmu’s Arcade Library window.

At this point (well, after OpenEmu does a huge amount of chewing. Maybe you shouldn’t have dropped all 20K or so files on there at once, after all), you should able to play at least some of your old arcade favorites. If you downloaded the full MAME ROMset, there will be a lot of files that are for gambling machines that aren’t going to seem to work at all… and some of your favorites won’t look right, or may not run at all. This gets into more advanced MAME issues, and I bring it up here just so you won’t think there’s something broken.

At this point, it’s time to play around with your console emulators. I’m a longtime Atari guy, so those are the first ones I checked out. Once you have installed the BIOS ROMs mentioned above, you will just need game ROMs to play. Rather than downloading entire sets (this was important for MAME mostly because of how difficult it is to reliably source individual files from a particular ROMset version), I found a few sites where it was relatively easy to download individual ROMs, Planetemu.net and CoolROMs.com.au being a couple I used most often. I also found the very interesting ROMCollector.com; if you decide you do want to have a full archival ROMset for some of these emulators, it looks like this guy has done the hard work for you.

One more thing about OpenEmu: the controls. In general, OpenEmu has a best guess as to how to map keyboard keys to game functions. You can open Space Invaders and expect the arrow keys to move your base left and right, and depending on what system you are emulating, there will be some key that fires. You can edit these settings, including telling OpenEmu to use attached controllers, in OpenEmu’s Preferences… Controls section. It may take a little while with some games for you to figure out your controller mapping, but it’s worth it if you happen to be, say, a Robotron 2084 fan who figured out how to set up his Logitech F310 controller’s two joysticks to move and fire like in the arcade. I lost minutes figuring it out, then I lost hours enjoying it. Also, if you do take the time to map something special like this, make some manual note of the settings: I’ve not been able to figure out how to make OpenEmu save game specific controller configurations.

Discussion thread for this post in the jjewell forum.

Success Story Number Two

Multiple small successes rolled into one: I have an online shop for physical items, I have, again, finally, online forums, and I’m running a website primarily from iOS. The website from iOS thing was primarily the purpose of the fireapplered.com web address… not sure what I’ll do with that at the moment, since I’m now accomplishing its purpose here.

This is a particular victory for me at the moment because I’ve been working through some depression… and things haven’t seemed worth doing, recently. Making some visible changes is a good sign.

Success Story Number One

OK, so. I’ve got the tools set up to write anywhere, at any time. I’ve got a 22 year old domain name ready to host writing. I’ve been given the time. I actually have quite a few ideas, in notes, drafts, or other similarly skeletal forms of things to write about. So why don’t I write?

I’ve heard an unexamined life is not worth living, but I am acutely aware of the dangers of over examining. When I ask myself, why don’t I write, I already know the main reasons that flummox most people… those things are already automatically out there as possibilities. So it’s really easy to pick one of those that sounds logical. I do know I have perfectionist tendencies… and that is something that holds some people back: the thought that “it’s not ready yet, I need to work on it more…” But I’m not even getting to that point. It’s not a type of feeling that I can’t do good work, I’ve done in the past, there continue to be bursts of which I am particularly proud and I can see the quality of what else is out there: I’m ready to actually post something.

 So why haven’t I been writing? Other things seem more important at the time. When I think about sitting down to write about something, a whole list of things pops into mind, passes in front of my eyes, is on the iPhone somewhere. And I keep going around in circles doing that: it seems to be the common thread is not following through on anything, hell, barely getting started on anything… because I keep feeling like something else is more important… that my time would be better spent doing something else, even if I don’t know what that is. Maybe a different way for me to think of Attention Deficit Disorder: I can’t wrangle attention enough to carry through with things. Over the past two weeks I’ve bailed out on watching Archer, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and playing Minecraft because it just didn’t seem like I had the attention span to make it through the next episode or the next five minute Minecraft day.

So, success story number one on the way back: this is getting written. It’s only being written because I put things in place earlier on the phone to be able to do this. I am currently driving, but dictating into my iPhone. I like Apple’s iOS voice recognition just fine, but it quits listening after a brief time. So I installed a dedicate dictation app that will listen indefinitely and send the text over to my writing workflows… I have actually written this entire piece while I was driving back home from running errands today with dictation. 

This was a manufactured success: I want to highlight to myself that getting this posted was the result of looking at what wasn’t working and establishing different patterns that do work. First brick down. 

jjewell.com X – Rock Bottom Edition

jjewell.com has been around since the summer of 1996. It has changed formats and platforms and hosts and topics, reflecting changes and realities in my own life over that time.

And here we are. This is Rock Bottom. I don’t feel like enumerating failures or negative mileposts right now, plenty of time for that as this goes along if it seems as though it will help.

This is the start of my story out of here.

Re-presenting The jjewell North American Tour 1998

I first established the jjewell.com domain in 1996.  I can’t really remember what it looked like, right at first, and neither does the Internet Wayback Machine.  But when 1998 brought the closing of the manufacturing plant where I was working and provided me with a severance package, my fledgling web empire became the home of my first weblog (although they weren’t even called that, yet… much less “‘blogs”), the story of the jjewell North American Tour 1998.

And actually, the Internet Wayback Machine doesn’t even remember what that looked like… but I do.  It was raw html coded in notepad.  At first it had a dark grey marble background image with bright text in blue, green, and yellow.  Yeah, I know: that didn’t even last the length of the tour, it ended up in more classical looking greys and navys by the time I returned home.

At any rate, those updates from a cross-country road trip contain some of what I consider to be my most entertaining writing, and I’ve wanted to repost the series somewhere.  I finally decided that jjewell.com was where they were born, jjewell.com is where they should dwell.  So I’ve retroactively posted all the NAT updates here.

Now… between these old posts and the Wayback Machine, it’ll be days before I find time to do something useful… Start here…