Tuesday, April 16, 2002

Amiga emulation - back with a boing!

Tuesday, April 16, 2002 1

Let me take you back, no not through the streets of London. Do I look like Ralph McTell to you? We're going boldly where not all that many people have been for, oh, at least a good while; planet Amiga! My love affair with the Amiga began back in 1991 when lots of historically important events relating to this particular era were taking place and other equally fascinating early 90s trends were all the rage. I was eleven years old and was about to embark on what was then known as the 11+, the exam you took in the fourth and final year of junior school which would shape your destiny for the next five years, and possibly even the rest of your life. If you passed you went to grammar school and if you failed you went to comprehensive school. It was assumed that going to the local comprehensive would either turn you into a hardened criminal over night or result in you being mercilessly bullied for half a decade. In contrast, prepubescent legend had it that by going to the local grammar school you would become a snotty, elitist swot and thereby develop a forehead much like that of the Tefal professors. Naturally the truth fell somewhere in between this extreme dichotomy, but in any case this is irrelevant to my preamble. If I passed the exam, as a reward, I was promised an Amiga 500. Well that's not totally accurate; I was promised half an Amiga 500 since they were so darn expensive (£399.99 at the time). Because this was such a hefty price tag we came to an arrangement whereby my brother would pay for half of it, I'd 'win' the other half and we'd share it. Now bribing one child to perform well at school while simultaneously having the other, who would never have the same opportunities to do so, pay for the same gift raises the issue of dubious parenting skills, but I think Oprah has this one covered so I'll move on. As you can probably guess I passed the exam and we became the proud owners of a state of the art games machine. I say games machine, but I think what really convinced by parents to buy it for us was the fact that I'd fed them the line "it will help us with our school work and teach us essential information technology skills". I think most kids and adults alike can relay a similar story; it's a classic which will never wear thin.

When you go through as many joysticks as we did it says a hell of a lot about how much use a computer is getting, yet playing computer games just wouldn't account for the number of broken joysticks we managed to accrue; what was to blame was Wrestlemania, or more to the point my brother playing Wrestlemania. Let me explain: before I came to my senses I liked to watch WWF wrestling (I was young and impressionable, OK?) as did my brother. We liked wrestling so much we bought Ocean's Wrestlemania and from then on fought against each other day and night. So far so good you might say, far better than pounding each other into the ground for real, so why would this ring the death knell for so many joysticks? Well remember the strangle hold thingies (he says as he tries to pretend he doesn't know the technical term) you used to be able to get into if you bumped into your opponent without pressing any buttons? Well whenever you got into this position you had to waggle the joystick from left to right as quickly as possible to throw your opponent onto the floor before attempting to squish them into oblivion; the person who waggled the fastest won the tussle (and you can keep your smutty jokes to yourself, this is a family site, lol :p). Despite telling my brother to go easy with it what must have been hundreds of times he never listened and our bouts always ending with him snapping the stick away from the base leaving him with just the joy, which was ironic really since we could no longer play.

In the end I got so sick of watching him break joystick after joystick after joystick and never learning a thing from the experience, as well as running the computer into the ground in every other respect, I decided to save up and buy an Amiga of my own, this time the later 600 model. This was aside from the fact that I could never get near 'his' Amiga to play on it unless we were playing against each other at Wrestlemania. He never did pay for his half of the computer, but I no longer cared because I had my new Amiga 600 and could use it whenever I wanted. It took me two years to save up enough pocket money to buy it and from that day forth I promised my beloved Miggy that I'd never let the evil cretin near it and we lived happily ever after. And that's the story of how I reclaimed the lemon tree from those thieving Shelbyville scoundrels and returned it to its rightful home here in Springfield.

After that there was no stopping me. I had every game in existence, well all the ones which were worth having anyway, because of course there were few financial restraints where Amiga games were concerned. If you knew the right people you could buy copied games for £1 per disk, and even then you didn't have to buy all of these yourself because your friends all had Amigas as well. They'd buy one game, you'd buy another, you'd make them a copy of the one they didn't have and vice versa. Your collection grew over night and there was never a dull moment if you invited a few friends round to play against, or with even, since some of the best games were designed to be cooperative. Anyone remember Chaos Engine for instance? This was a concept the console kids, no matter how hard they tried, couldn't quite grasp. They'd smugly claim to have saved £300 by buying a console rather than a computer, but what they didn't include in this equation was the £50 a pop price of the game cartridges. If they were lucky they'd get maybe one game for Christmas and another for their birthday and still they thought they were better off because they had *drum roll* Sonic the Hedgehog or *fanfare of trumpets* the sacred Italian plumber. While we were permanently swamped with the latest games they were left with nothing but the very mediocre titles which came with the console itself. I wonder if the message has hit home yet, lol. Oh god, I've regressed to that "my computer is better than yours" stage. Ahem, moving swiftly on...

Console games are child's play to get up and running mainly because they were designed for units with identical specifications which means that the emulators only have to make provisions for a single configuration. In contrast, computer emulators require a lot more tweaking ...and frustration and monitor pounding. Well they're not quite that bad although some advice on getting them up and running might help to flatten the learning curve for you. As we all know, the Amiga is the only classic computer worth emulating. It was light years ahead of its time and produced some of the most innovative, quirky and fun to play games ever released and nothing in the world, past or present can compare (shush, I don't want to hear any arguments! :D). The Amiga marked the era of the bedroom programmer who would spend hours lovingly crafting games which were fun to play rather than just pretty to look at. Anyone remember the PD (public domain) scene? Back then commercial games developers also had their priorities in order; they didn't care about creating games which would appeal to the widest possible audience and hence shift x number of units. Instead they let their refreshingly off-beat imagination guide them, not marketing executives who know zilch about the games industry.

Sadly we've now reached a stage where developers are content to keep on churning out slight variations on archaic themes which add nothing to the industry. If we face facts, most modern games are merely flashy, shallow drivel designed to pander to the whims of kids passing through one phase or the other. It's all about half heartedly knocking together games which will sell, rather than creating new and innovative genres. Who gives a damn if the latest game pushes your new-fangled graphics card to its limits if it's boring and totally lacking in gameplay? Now we have multinational corporations playing it safe by producing sequel after sequel after sequel because they know people will stick to what they know and throw their money away on the familiar names irrespective of their quality. This is exactly why you should take a moment to step back in time to see just how far wrong we've gone. Cue the Amiga emulators!

For all intents and purposes there are only two Amiga emulators worth considering, WinUAE and Winfellow. What you get with Amiga Forever are just repackaged (and outdated) versions of WinUAE and Winfellow which are freely available to begin with. How they get away with it is beyond me, but there you go, that's basically what you're getting if you invest in Cloanto's commercial emulator. Fair enough, it also comes with legally licensed versions of Kickstart and Workbench so is the perfect solution for anyone wanting to play old Amiga games without blemishing their pristine halos. For everyone else the latest build of WinUAE or Winfellow downloaded directly from the author's home page and accompanied by less than legal Kickstart ROMs will do nicely, thankyou very much. Amithlon isn't an emulator in the usual sense of the word and won't be of any use whatsoever for playing the Amiga game images you will be downloading shortly. Rather than re-creating an Amiga setup inside Windows, Amithlon replaces your operating system with AmigaOS effectively turning your PC into a real Amiga rather than adding an extra compatibility layer. If you found yourself struggling to setup the Amiga OS all those years ago when you had the genuine article, or are completely new to this, Amiga in a Box is a useful gadget you may wish to equip yourself with. Again, it's not an emulator per se, but a ready made, optimally configured version of the Amiga OS which is designed to be used in conjunction with WinUAE. AIAB is free to download, just add Kickstart and you're ready to rumble. What could be simpler?

As you would expect you don't have to own any original Amiga games to be able to play them on your PC. All the best games have, over the years been turned into ADF (Amiga disk format) images and uploaded to the internet to be shared and cherished in a lovey dovey hippie kind of way. Aww, doesn't that make you feel warm and fuzzy all over? If you're searching for Amiga ROMs you need look no further than two sites, Emu China and PE2000. These two monolithic wonders alone contain what must be 90-something percent of the software ever released for the Amiga. More games than you'll ever have time to play in your lifetime, that's for sure!

You can't simply load these floppy images into your emulator and expect them to work 'out of the box' like you would with a console emulator because, like PCs, they need an operating system to act as a sort of launch pad. The launch pad in question here is known as Kickstart. Surely you hadn't forgotten the picture of the hand inserting a floppy into a disk drive which welcomed you each time you switched on your beloved Miggy had you? Doh! You really do need a refresher course don't you. Oh well, you've come to the right place so fret ye not retro wannabe. Kickstart ROMs constitute single files with a .rom extension and can be found online providing you know where to look (IRC channels, newsgroups, emulation sites which the IDSA have not yet collared). Strangely enough it is still illegal to download and distribute these files, erm... solely because the people at Amiga Inc. say so. They are still being sold as we speak so Amiga are reluctant to give up this nice little earner. Big meanies the lot of them! Hmmff you might say (and you'd be right!), but don't let this put you off. They are out there like most other digital delights and if you look hard enough you will find them, which is good news really considering you can't do a damn thing without them.

When playing console ROMs you tend to pick one emulator and stick with it, whereas with Amiga emulators it's best to keep both of them handy because some games will only run with WinUAE while others will only run with Winfellow. Using both allows you to back your horses both ways so to speak, avoid putting all your eggs in one basket, and lots of other tired clichés I could bore you with all night long if I don't press on. Perhaps it would be helpful to start with a comparison of the two emulators.

Winfellow is simpler to use and is the more robust of the two emulators. It remembers your settings as you go along, which is very useful for trial and error tweaking and does a much better job of emulating sound than WinUAE. Winfellow runs more smoothly than WinUAE and doesn't require as powerful a PC in addition to providing an anti-aliasing feature which makes game graphics look slightly more polished rather than blocky. Achieving your preferred screen resolution in Winfellow is more straight forward and the whole program is generally more intuitive than WinUAE. That's it for the praise, now let's move onto its flaws. One of the biggest disappointments is that it lacks a save state function which would allow you to save your game position at any time or place even in games which didn't originally have an inbuilt save feature. Purists would denounce this as cheating, but who has the time to play computer games from start to finish in one sitting? Winfellow's other major fault is that it suffers from compatibility problems with many games and unfortunately these tend to be some of the best ones. For instance, if you try playing Superfrog the main sprite is invisible. In short, it's a superb emulator but in desperate need of an update. Any hope, Winfellow team?

And in the red corner weighing in at *trails off*... WinUAE has a plethora of options to tweak that are unavailable in Winfellow, which makes it more difficult to get to grips with initially, but in the long run gives it the potential to be compatible with a greater range of games. WinUAE does provide the save state feature lacking in Winfellow and also allows you to save as many virtual Amiga setups as your hard drive has space for. One thing which is especially frustrating is that it doesn't save your settings as you go along in the same way that Winfellow does, so if you spend an hour tweaking the settings to get a particular game running you can't then save those settings if you are in the middle of a game; you have to save your configurations before running a game or not at all. This means that if you find a winning combination you have to remember what it was, 'reboot' the Amiga, reconfigure it and then save the settings. Let's continue bashing it shall we? Just to be thorough you understand - I love WinUAE really, and have tremendous respect for the programmers. Also to its detriment, it lacks any anti-aliasing features so the graphics don't look quite as slick as they do in Winfellow, the sound in many games is awful (it stutters, is out of synch, crackles, pops, you name it) and the whole thing operates with all the grace of a stoned elephant. You need a very beefy PC to make it run smoothly and even then it's slow. The speed problem isn't totally WinUAE's fault, however. Amiga emulators operate by recreating every aspect of a real Amiga down to all the various RAM and processor configurations found in the different systems (the Amiga 500, 500+, 600, 1200, 3000, 4000 etc etc), so in effect you are not running an Amiga game using PC hardware, but running it on virtual Amiga hardware at the speed of an Amiga. Virtual Amigas can be speeded up by adding virtual RAM, but this can lead to compatibility problems if the games weren't designed to recognize more than a few megabytes, as was the case with the vast majority of Amiga games.

To get the best of both worlds I would suggest using Winfellow to play shorter, more simple games which don't need to be saved and use WinUAE for games which are too long and involved to be played in a single session or don't have a proper save function at all. Winfellow can save game states but only if the game has a built-in save function to begin with and then only if you save your game to a 'blank disk' (blank disks in Winfellow speak are really just empty ADF images). It may be a cute touch, but it's a wee bit debilitating once you've cooed over it a couple of times.

Analogously to PC games, Amiga games require certain minimum specifications to run. Some games only work with Kickstart version 1.3 (mostly older games designed for the 500 or 500+) and others will require later versions like 2.04 or 3.1 (2.04 was the default setup for Amiga 600s and 3.1 came shipped with Amiga 1200s). Then there are all the different processors and memory configurations to tweak. Between them the two emulators can pretend to be all these different setups, the difficult part is figuring out which configuration is required by which game and then bringing the two things into a harmonious alignment. While you can do this yourself by means of trial and error, a much easier and faster way to achieve the same goal is to look up the game you wish to play at Back 2 Roots to find out how best to configure WinUAE or Winfellow in order to get it running. Winfellow does not yet support multiple configurations so if you download a configuration file for this emulator you have to extract it to your installation folder replacing the default one. The file you need to overwrite will be labeled default.wfc. If you want to save any changes you have made to this file a simple way to do it is to rename the file and leave it where it is. WinUAE does support multiple configurations so there's no need to overwrite or rename the original .uae configuration file. Instead extract all the files to the 'configuration' folder and load them into the emulator as and when they are needed. As long as they all have unique filenames they can happily live alongside each other in the same folder. It is isn't essential that you download these ready made configuration files if you don't want to, as Back 2 Roots also provides written details of which settings you need to alter to achieve the best results with particular games. This means you can recreate the configurations yourself using this information and then save the files to your configuration folder manually, although why you'd want to make an easy task more difficult is harder to explain.

Let's start with Winfellow and see if together we can get your first Amiga emulated game to run. First of all, extract the files to a folder, open this folder and double click on the Winfellow executable. The emulator frontend (or GUI if you prefer) should now be glaring back at you waiting for your input. Before the emulator can load ADF files you are required to let Winfellow know where your Kickstart ROM is stored. To do this, click on the 'configuration' button and select the 'memory' tab. From the 'image' section of the 'Kickstart' menu you should now click on the button marked with three dots, browse for your ROM file and select it. Click on the 'OK' button and you will be returned to the main menu where you will see four dialog boxes labeled DF0, DF1, DF2 and finally DF3. These are your virtual floppy drives into which you 'insert' your ADF files. If you wanted to play a one disk game you would click on the button with three dots on it next to the first drive (DF0) to open up an explorer window, locate the game and double click on it to insert it into the drive. Assuming you have already configured Winfellow using the ready made configuration files found at Back 2 Roots all you have to do to load the game is click on the 'start emulation' button. To jump back to the GUI from within the game you would press the F11 key. If you want to load a different game you have to press the 'hard reset' button, eject the disk from the drive and insert a new one. Multi-disk games can be loaded by inserting the disks (ADF files) into the drives sequentially until each slot is occupied. Whenever a disk change is necessary the emulator will automatically attempt to read the disk in the next drive. If it fails to locate the next disk in the series, as it sometimes does, you can assume the game doesn't support additional drives. Under these circumstances it will be necessary to eject disk 1 from drive DF0 replacing it with disk 2 or whichever disk has been requested. Sometimes it helps to resolve compatibility issues if you disable the drives you are not currently using by unticking the relevant boxes from the 'floppy' tab of the configuration menu. The 'fast disk DMA' option can also be disabled to achieve the same goal, but is best left ticked to speed up disk access if possible.

OK, so now you know the basics of using Winfellow we'll move on to WinUAE. As before, extract the files, locate the executable file and double click it to load the emulator. By default the emulator presents you with the options available under the 'configurations' tab allowing you to choose which configuration file you'd like to use before proceeding to load any games. Providing you have extracted the config files to the relevant folder as detailed above you will see a list of possible choices. Click on one of these to highlight it and then press the load button to open it. Next click on the 'ROM' tab and select your Kickstart file using the button marked with three dots as you did previously in Winfellow. Flip over to the 'floppies' tab and insert the disk containing whatever game you wish to play, hit the 'OK' button and the game will commence loading. Piece of cake, eh!

Up until now I've deliberately been vague regarding the more intricate setup details. This is partly because you don't need to concern yourself with them if you are planning to use the ready made config files discussed in detail above and partly because the majority of the options are mutual to both emulators and hence explaining their relevance twice would be of little use. For this reason we will consider them collectively below. The positioning of these options in WinUAE and Winfellow will differ slightly although the fundamental principles are identical. By randomly prodding buttons within the configuration menus of these emulators you'll get there in the end, but wouldn't you rather know something about the technical specifications of the computers you are trying to emulate? The tables below list these specs in an easy to read format and can be used as a guide to tweaking WinUAE or Winfellow. For instance, if you want to get the game Flood working, start by trying to remember roughly which year the game was made (1990 in this case), then look below to see which models were available in this year and hence which models the producers (Bullfrog in case you're interested) would have had in mind when they designed it. This would most likely be the A500 or A500+ so by my reckoning you'd have a better chance of getting it to run if you tried to emulate one of these two setups. There's a good chance Flood will also run on the more recent Amiga computers of course, but this is generally a good rule of thumb if you are experiencing difficulties. If you want to run an AGA (advanced graphics architecture) game you would check the chart below to see which models came equipped with AGA support and try to emulate this setup (either the A1200 or the A4000). The CD32 console also provides AGA support, but CD32 games are not imaged using the usual ADF format so you're not likely to get them confused. They are much harder to come by online than floppy images and generally are available in two flavours, these being BIN or ISO format. Once you have successfully emulated your chosen model you can then try adding more RAM and boosting the clock speed etc etc to improve performance. Obviously if your game suddenly refuses to load you should go back to your last known working setup.

Model Number A500 (1987)
Processor 68000
Clock Speed 7.16 MHz
Chip RAM 512K
Kickstart 1.2 or 1.3
Chip set OCS or ECS
Fast RAM -

Model Number A500+ (1990)
Processor 68000
Clock Speed 7.16 MHz
Chip RAM 1MB
Kickstart 2.04
Chip set ECS
Fast RAM -

Model Number A1000 (1985)
Processor 68000
Clock Speed 7.16 MHz
Chip RAM 256K
Kickstart 1.0 - 1.3
Chip set OCS
Fast RAM -

Model Number A2000 (1987)
Processor 68000
Clock Speed 7.16 MHz
Chip RAM 512K or 1MB
Kickstart 1.2 - 2.04
Chip set OCS or ECS
Fast RAM -

Model Number A600 (1992)
Processor 68000
Clock Speed 7.16 MHz
Chip RAM 1MB
Kickstart 2.04 or 2.05
Chip set ECS
Fast RAM -

Model Number A1200 (1992)
Processor 68020
Clock Speed 14.19 MHz
Chip RAM 2MB
Kickstart 3.1
Chip set AGA
Fast RAM -

Model Number CD32 (1993)
Processor 68020
Clock Speed 14.19 MHz
Chip RAM 2MB
Kickstart 3.1
Chip set AGA
Fast RAM -

Model Number A3000 (1990)
Processor 68030
Clock Speed 25 MHz
Chip RAM 2MB
Kickstart 2.04
Chip set ECS/GFX Card
Fast RAM 4MB

Model Number A4000 (1992)
Processor 68030/040/060
Clock Speed 25 MHz
Chip RAM 2MB
Kickstart 3.1
Chip set AGA/GFX Card
Fast RAM 16MB Max

If you find that a game is running too fast it can be slowed down by reducing the CPU emulation speed and if it's running too slow, doing the opposite will help to speed it up. In Winfellow clock speed can be modified independently whereas in WinUAE you have to reach a compromise between CPU and chipset speed by moving a slider back and forth between the two poles. Moving the slider towards the left will speed up emulation, while pushing it to the right will dedicate more resources to graphics and sound processing.

I would recommend choosing 640 x 480 (16 bit) as your screen resolution, running in full screen mode and using the scanlines option in conjunction with 2x horizontal pixel scaling. Even if you normally utilize the 32 bit colour mode in Windows you will not benefit in the slightest from using the same mode in either Amiga emulator, in fact it will actually have a detrimental effect if anything. This is because Amiga games were not designed to make use of so many colours therefore by forcing your virtual Amiga to do so you will actually slow it down drastically. This can often cause the sound to break up or lag as it does when you get a bad reception using a mobile phone. Surprisingly, the root of many sound problems can be traced back to the way you have configured your display. While we're on the subject of screen resolutions, another feature which is worth tweaking is the display frequency (or refresh rate if you prefer). This should be adjusted so as to match the frequency settings of your Windows environment. Doing this minimizes the need to adjust the physical screen dimensions of your monitor when you 'boot' the emulator. Set this to the maximum range your monitor can output to avoid screen flicker and minimize the strain on your eyes. Scanlines add a black line between each line of colour to make the graphics look more like they would on a TV screen and 2x horizontal pixel scaling doubles the screen width to achieve equilibrium when used with the scanlines option. Note that the use of these options is a matter of personal preference, not necessity. In WinUAE you also have the option to use the 'correct aspect ratio' feature to ensure that the screen isn't distorted, although I've come to discover that setting up your display options in either emulator is far from being an exact science since Amiga and PC screen resolutions and refresh rates do not directly equate with one another.

Perhaps the settings you'll be most interested in at this stage are the ones that define which keys you'd like to use. If you don't intend to use a joystick or joypad you have a number of different configurations to choose from. In Winfellow you have two options whereas WinUAE gives you three alternatives to choose from (the second fire key is very rarely used which explains why WinUAE does not provide support for it). These are as follows:

  WinUAE Keys
  Config A Config B Config C
Up Keypad 8 Up cursor T
Down Keypad 2 Down cursor G
Left Keypad 4 Left cursor F
Right Keypad 6 Right cursor H
Fire 0 Keypad 0 Right control Left alt
Fire 1      

Winfellow Keys
Config A Config B
Up cursor R
Down cursor F
Left cursor D
Right cursor G
Right control Left control
Right alt Left alt

The majority of the settings under the sound tab need little explanation. I would suggest using 'enabled' sound emulation rather than the '100% accurate' option as this will speed up emulation in general. The difference in sound quality is negligible in any case. The sound buffer toggle allows you to increase the amount of system memory used to process sound information in the hope that by allocating more RAM to the process less stuttering will be heard, but again there is a trade off whereby improving quality in one field or another will reduce emulation speed.

Both emulators also allow you to use 'hard files', which are designed to emulate Amiga hard drives. This feature comes in very handy when you want to play multi-disk games without having to swap disks (remember those monster Lucasarts adventures?), whilst it also helps to speed up anything else you might like to 'install' to the virtual hard drive regardless of the number of floppies it occupies. To do this you simply select 'create hard file', choose a place to store it, give it a name and tell WinUAE how much space you'd like it to occupy. In WinUAE it's also possible to use a directory as a hard drive which is more convenient as it doesn't have a limited capacity (the size of your real PC hard drive obviously sets the boundaries). If you plan to use your virtual Amiga solely for playing games, hard files are probably overkill seeing as most Amiga games came on fewer than four disks and so can be pre-loaded into the floppy drives to avoid disk swapping. For this reason you may want to skip this stage altogether.

The remaining settings are fairly self explanatory so I won't dwell on those. In any case, what works well on one PC doesn't necessarily work well on all PCs. As I've said numerous times already, Amiga emulation can be a bit hit and miss and requires a lot of patience to achieve accurate reproduction. Some games of course will remain unemulatable for the present (hey, it's my party and I'll neologise if I want to!), but since there's always a new release of WinUAE on the horizon, getting them to work in the future is not totally out of reach.

I'm going to button it now while you trundle off and reacquaint yourself with some of the greatest games ever produced. To which other format could you possibly look to with this in mind? Go on, I'll still be here when you get back. I can amuse myself. I'll just sit here twiddling my thumbs, don't you worry about me. Are you still here? Shoo! :)

Ah, there you are. I thought you'd never return. Get a little carried away did we? So what do you think? They take some beating even now don't they. It's just a shame that to find gameplay of this caliber nowadays you have to delve into the dim and distant past. How did it all go so horribly wrong? Personally I think the exponential and unrelenting development of technology had a lot to do with it. Before the boundaries of the current hardware had been fully explored the next big thing was made available and people simply had to have it whether this entailed faster processors, extra RAM or more sophisticated graphics cards. Rather than concentrating on researching and designing new and original titles, games developers were set the goal of producing games which would fully utilize this new technology. A steady decline of interest in the 'fun factor' soon followed while at the same time much greater emphasis was placed on flashy, but ultimately shallow graphics and special effects. Remember the brief era when cinegames were all the rage? Our jaws dropped in amazement when we saw the visuals in the magazines but when we played them and realised there was almost zero interaction on offer we saw them for the garbage they really were. They were soulless and trashy and gave you the impression you were watching a movie rather than playing a game. This would be fine if they turned out to be good movies, but clearly they weren't. They were the gaming equivalent of grade B horror flicks, or even worse, straight to video releases.

The final nail in the coffin came with the advent of 3D graphics cards I believe. I'm not saying that all 3D games are terrible or that 3D graphics cards are totally to blame, just that they shifted the goal posts transforming computer games beyond recognition, and not for the better. There has been the odd blip in the very lifeless pulse of modern gaming but sadly these minor tremors are the exception rather than the rule and alone aren't enough to breath life back into the industry. It has been demonstrated time and time again that you can create ground breaking games without resorting to using the latest video card technology. 3D graphics cards should have added an extra dimension, erm, literally, to games giving them new foundations on which to build, while maintaining the quality and playability of the 2D games of yesteryear. What happened in reality, however, was a far cry from progress; all the emergence of 3D cards has managed to achieve is an unyielding flow of mediocre titles, the production of which was induced by waving the wrong carrot on a stick in front of the game developer's noses.

These days it's the hardware manufacturers who call the shots, the games developers are merely the obedient puppets forced into a procrustean bed of repetition. Whenever a new all singing, all dancing graphics card is released there is a frantic rush to create games which will push the technology to its limits with the aim of producing demos to showcase this latest kit. When I say demos I mean it in the original sense of the word as it is (or should that be was?) used in the 'demo' scene, not cut-down game tasters or trailers. There is far too much back scratching going on for my liking. Could it be that the games developers and the hardware manufacturers are actually one and the same company? I wouldn't be surprised at all; the hardware manufacturers fulfill their part of the bargain by churning out the latest, greatest kit, the gaming branch of the same company then responds by producing games which require, demand even, this latest technology. Subsequently Mr. or Mrs. average gamer must purchase this new gadgetry to be able to play it. Shouldn't we be witnessing the reverse of this situation? Games developers work with what they've got until they reach a point where they can go no further without a hardware upgrade and then look to the manufacturers to keep the wheels turning. Would this not at least provide some motivation to diversify, creating new and interesting genres rather than state of the art peep shows?

As it is we have old titles being rehashed but with more polygons, greater levels of realism and flashier special effects. Surely if people wanted to see special effects and art for art's sake they'd go to the movies, or dare I say it, an art gallery? How is it then that the gaming industry has managed to delude people into thinking realism and hollow imagery is what they want? Now I could be suffering from delusion myself but I thought games were about escapism, not realism. If games get any more 'real' we'll be playing the role of characters who sit in front of their computers playing computer games. It'll be like glaring into an endless mirror image of a mirror image of a mirror. How on earth did The Sims manage to become the phenomenal success that it clearly is? Do people really want to be put in charge of people who wash the dishes, cook, mow the lawn and bath the dog? Who knows, maybe it's some sort of sadomasochistic power fantasy.

Just think how many great games have been ruined by the 'progress' of 3D sequels. Lemmings is one of the most innovative and entertaining games ever. Then look what happened; Psygnosis clearly high on acid became like their own creations, and jumped on the bandwagon by creating Lemmings 3D for no good reason other than to follow current trends. It was a very average game and it tarnished the reputation of the original (as well as the previous 2D sequels). Exactly the same thing happened with Syndicate. The original is one of the most absorbing and addictive games of all time and the add-on was pretty good too despite being aimed at the hard-core gamer. Then Syndicate Wars came along; it looked very pretty, but that's all it achieved. The RTS genre went down the same route too, the examples are endless. Game development is now a one dimensional, never mind 3D, matter of imitating what has sold well in the past and therefore poses no risk of failure, and until things change people will continue to be force fed "Game X + Year of Release" forever and ever amen. When will these people realise that gameplay should come first? Answer: when people stop buying conveyer belt software titles and demand quality over quantity!

Well at least Nintendo seem to be making some inroads with the release of the Gameboy Advance; a back to basics 2D handheld computer which will hopefully inject a bit of fun back into what is by definition supposed to be an entertainment industry, and provide a glimmer of hope for the future. If other developers take note maybe it's not too late to turn back the tide of production line tat.

So what was so great about the Amiga I hear you ask? Ah yes, I was getting to that. Aside from the games being infinitesimally more playable, they worked 'out of the box' and patches were unheard of. In those days the ethic was to release games which worked rather than rushing them out of the door half finished and then fixing the mistakes later while passing the extra code off as an update instead of the bloody great Band-Aids they really are. Multiplayer games really found their niche on the Amiga. Since they came equipped with two input device ports you could plug in two joysticks and play against a friend, and if you were really lucky and had two or three friends, some games even allowed you to configure the keyboard so you could play three or four player games. When was the last time you huddled around your PC with a few mates to play a multiplayer game? Admittedly those of us who grew up playing Amiga games are now of an age where this really isn't the done thing, but even so you don't hear of kids throwing PC parties these days do you. Whereas what is mostly now considered a solitary, antisocial even, form of entertainment was anything but that during the heady heights of Amiga's success. Lest we forget, the groups who are currently cracking and releasing PC games are some of the very same people who began their 'careers' making games available to the Amiga generation in the late 80s and 90s. Would they exist today if it wasn't for the Amiga? Perhaps we will never know for sure, but it certainly makes you stop and think. Secondly, the operating system was streamlined and efficient and only did what you wanted it to. One thing you'd never hear an Amiga OS say (on the proviso that Amiga OSs can talk) is "how would you like me to think for you today?". Then there's the fact that they didn't need constant upgrading to be able to run the latest games. OK, you could, if you wanted to, buy add-ons and extra RAM but this was entirely your decision. These extras would speed up a game or an application (remember they weren't just games machines), but very rarely were they an essential purchase, as for example RAM or hard drive space is today. While we're talking hardware, the systems themselves were miniature marvels when you consider how much processing power was contained within their all encompassing, self contained shells.

Ask three different people what brought about the demise of the Amiga and you'll get three very different answers. The most plausible one, however, is that CBM went bust due to a combination of a mismanagement of funds and the fact that they shot themselves in the foot by not outsourcing hardware manufacture to third parties thereby drastically impeding their potential growth. Whatever the reason, the Amiga was cut down in its prime and the computer world has never been the same since and possibly never will be again. Luckily the heart of Jay Minor's creation lives on and is enjoyed throughout the world on a daily basis through the miracle of emulation. Of course, the only thing better than emulating an Amiga is using the real thing. Despite the fact that you're unlikely to see brand new Miggies being sold in the high street, not just yet anyway, you can still purchase new ones at a small number of online outlets, and since second hand ones are always available at eBay, there's really no excuse for not embracing gaming at the pinnacle of its evolution. Remember, the path forward is not necessarily the most progressive and there is no shame in appreciating the past.

Wednesday, April 03, 2002

Backing up your system - the Ghost story

Wednesday, April 03, 2002 0

Wouldn't it be great if every time something went wrong with your Windows set-up you could just click a few buttons and have everything restored to its original state in a matter of minutes? Well it can be arranged... more quickly and painlessly than you would imagine.

What you need to do is get hold of some 'imaging' software. What this will do is store an exact copy of your fully functioning Windows installation in a compressed format, which can at a later date, be restored to its former glory when things start to go wrong. The best imaging program around at the moment for the Windows platform is without a doubt Norton's Ghost. This is effortlessly simple to use and runs from DOS so is capable of backing up all those essential system files which are inaccessible while you're actually within the Windows environment.

This backup process isn't as complicated as it sounds. All you have to do is store your Windows set-up on one partition of your hard drive and backup to a separate partition. The reason for this becomes clear after you have restored your backup to a partition that is already full of valuable data and find that it has all been wiped out as a result! Unless you are using Partition Magic you will have to start with a formatted hard drive and use 'fdisk', a DOS executable which comes as standard with Windows 95, 98 and Me. Make sure you are in DOS (not within the Windows environment, but in real DOS mode), now type fdisk and select 'create new partition'. It is advisable to use somewhere between 2 and 5 gigabytes of your hard drive for your boot partition - this will contain your Windows installation and any other essential applications. Now create an extended partition to be used for everything else you wish to store on your hard drive. Re-boot your computer and format both partitions using the 'format' command followed by whichever letter has been assigned to your drive(s), not forgetting to append a colon to the end like so: 'format c:'. Re-install Windows to your c: drive and then backup the whole partition to your extended partition using Norton Ghost.

Of course, if you already have more than one hard drive installed you can skip all of this and simply back up to your second drive, although this will involve wasting a hell of lot of space. The main reason for all this partitioning is to make more efficient use of the space you have available. When you backup a partition, you can't select which bits you want to compress and which bits you don't - it's either all or nothing. For example, if you have two 80 gigabyte drives and you store your Windows installation on one of them and everything else on the other, when you backup what's on your boot partition everything is compressed and stored in a single file, not just your Windows and Program Files folders. The upshot of this is that when you decompress this image file back onto your drive you lose everything else which you may have copied to it after making your backup, and this is why it makes sense to have a small-ish partition just for Windows.

Once you have installed Ghost within the Windows environment, exit to real DOS using your boot disk and enter your Ghost installation directory. Now copy the main executable (ghost.exe) to your extended partition and run it from there - it is imperative that you don't run the file from the drive you wish to backup. Since this is the only file you will need to perform a successful backup or system restoration within DOS, by backing it up at this stage you can ensure that you will never need to re-install the full Windows application ever again should the need for a fresh drive image arise. The main executable, being a mere 600kb in size will fit very neatly onto any kind of boot media you care to use (floppy disk, CD, flash drive etc) so you may also like to store a copy of it there. I'm sure the nice chaps at Norton spent a long time programming the extra Windows utilities which come as standard with Ghost, but in my opinion they are nothing more than gratuitous fluff.

You look like you've seen a ghost! Oh, I see you've met the GUI then. If you click on the menu button in the bottom left hand corner of the screen we can steam ahead with the backup process. Simply select the 'create image' option and choose the drive you wish to back up as well as the drive you want to store the image on, pressing enter in between to confirm your preferences. Next give your image-to-be a suitable name and press the 'OK' button. Give Ghost a few minutes to work its magic and voila, everything should be safely backed up to a single compressed archive, ready and waiting to save your PC from the dreaded blue screen of death in the future. It's worth remembering at this stage that these system images are merely standard data files like any other so can be shunted around, deleted, backed up to a CD or DVD, chewed up and spat out, sat on and so on and so forth.

Now when Windows inevitably starts doing strange, inexplicable things or simply refuses to boot (curse you Microsoft!), you can just format your primary partition and restore your original Windows set-up using Ghost. This process can seem a bit daunting at first so let me explain it in a bit more detail. Before doing anything as a drastic as wiping out your Windows partition, make sure you have created a boot disk for yourself. This can be done via your Windows control panel in Windows 95/98 or Me, but is a bit more awkward in Windows 2000/XP because the data used to construct official boot disks is not contained within the operating system itself. The constituent data of the standard Windows 2000/XP boot disk, well boot disks actually, occupies four floppies. God only knows what the justification for this is. Regardless, if you can't find the 'floppy boot disk set construction kit' disks which came supplied with your Windows setup CD, or refuse to be party to this exercise in data obesity, you can use Norton's 'make boot disk' command from within Windows (OK, I admit this is one of the less fluffy features of the Windows interface!).

When you've created your boot disk, stick it in the floppy drive and reboot your computer. Providing your computer has been setup to first read from the floppy drive before looking for the Windows installation on your hard drive, your boot disk will take the reigns and boot your computer into real DOS mode. If on the other hand, when you reboot, your computer ignores the floppy disk completely and boots into Windows as usual you will have to edit your BIOS settings. To do this, press the reset button, wait for your computer's stats to appear in that familiar black and white table and press the delete key (if you're unsure of exactly when to do this just keep hammering your delete key until something happens, or look out for the "press the del key now to enter your BIOS" message!). From the basic settings section of your BIOS menu you should be able to select your first, second, third and fourth boot device. Make sure your floppy drive is selected as the first boot device followed by your hard drive, save the settings and reboot once again.

As soon as you arrive at the DOS prompt, format your Windows partition using the command 'format c:/q' - the q switch allows you to format a previously formatted drive in a matter of seconds rather than many minutes or even hours. If you've never formatted your drive before, leave out the q switch and commence thumb twiddling while you wait. Formatting isn't strictly necessary at this stage as Ghost will overwrite everything for you, but I like to be thorough to make sure everything runs smoothly. Now, to restore your compressed image file, enter the directory where your Ghost executable resides using the 'cd' (change directory) command and type 'ghost'. Browse through the menu until you come to the 'restore image' option, select it, locate your image file and then press the 'OK' button. Tell Ghost where you want to extract it to (i.e the c: drive) and click 'OK'.

When the decompression process is complete, eject your boot disk if you haven't already done so, reset your computer and let it boot into Windows as usual. And finally, taking a deep breath, step back from your screen in astonishment to admire your brand new, good-as-the-day-it-was-first-installed Windows setup. Once you recover from the shock of discovering how easy all this was, you can proceed to fill up your computer with useless programs and games that you'll never use, safe in the knowledge that you can wipe the whole lot out and restore your setup to its former glory whenever you like with a few effortless steps.

 
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