Category Archives: Woulda Coulda Shoulda

Before Sub-Etha Software…

…it was going to be Custom Programs Limited.

My first computer was a Commodore VIC-20 back around 1981 or 1982 (whenever it first came out for “under $300” – $299.99 is what my father paid for it, I believe).

But my buddy, Jimmy*, suggested “Unlimited” because then it would be C.P.U. (I had not even heard the term CPU yet). And thus, CPU Software  was born.

Screenshot 2016-02-23 21.57.52

The letters appeared to the musical notes of 2001, one at a time, then the title screen would come up:

Screenshot 2016-02-23 21.58.07

That was to be our startup for all our custom programs. It was going to be me writing for the VIC-20, and Jimmy writing for a Timex Sinclair ZX81, and another guy at school writing for a TRS-80 Model III (he didn’t own one, but had access to them at school). We thought we could custom write programs for people.

Our first program was a horse racing game, and it was written for each of these platforms, though I don’t seem to have a copy of it (or it’s on one of the tapes that is bad).

I don’t know why we didn’t pursue this, but I did write a bunch of small games for the VIC-20…

Brick Layer

Bricklayer was a simple game based on the Atari VCS cartridge Surround. I apparently wasn’t date-aware back then, and the comments inside the program only list the title and author. Bummer. I really would like to know when I wrote these.

Bricklayer for the VIC-20

Bricklayer for the VIC-20

The game screen animated as it drew the black walls (with sounds), then the game began. Using a joystick (I think), you started “laying bricks” around the screen, trying to cover as much area as you could without running out of room or crashing.

Screenshot 2016-02-23 20.56.14

If you got over 200, it would congratulate you. If you crashed, it would summarize your accomplishment.

Bricklayer for the VIC-20

Bricklayer for the VIC-20

Yeah. There was a time when this would have been considered a game. Interestingly enough, the movie TRON would come out a year later, taking the “draw lines” concept to a new level with the Light Cycles. The TRON arcade game featured Light Cycles as one of the four games it had, and this became my favorite arcade game of all-time.

I guess I had a thing for drawing lines.

Gold Grabber

Next up was a chase game.

Screenshot 2016-02-23 21.26.39

You moved around the screen (you were the clubs symbol) trying to catch the gold (the diamond) while avoiding the bad guy (the +).

Screenshot 2016-02-23 21.27.05 Screenshot 2016-02-23 21.27.43

I have no idea what the “+” represented, and the game logic just had it wandering around randomly so I had to actually try to run in to it to see what it did.Screenshot 2016-02-23 21.29.30

Factory TNT

In my mind, this was called Factory TNT, but for some reason, the cassette was just labeled as TNT. This was a “Kaboom” catch the falling objects game. I had previously written a text version of the same type of game and called it Eggs. In it, you were catching falling eggs. This game was printed out in the VIC-NIC NEWS newsletter.

I almost had this program distributed by a company, but due to my very similar game being printed in a newsletter (which they also subscribed to), they decided to pass on it. (I’m not sure, but this may have been the “FOX 20: the magazine for VIC 20 users” newsletter, published out of Pasadena/Deer Park, TX. (I lived in both those towns at one point, and recall going over to the house of the publisher – it was a home run operation – and meeting them once.)

The tape is bad, so the custom graphics are not loading, but it should look like a conveyor belt on the bottom, and pipes on the top. Classic round bombs would fall from the top and you moved your cup along the conveyor to catch them. If they hit the ground, they would turn in to a mushroom cloud. It has decent sound effects.

Factory TNT for the VIC-20

Factory TNT for the VIC-20

Apparently, it tracked high score (not saved to tape or anything, so it would reset any time you reloaded).

Factory TNT for the VIC-20

Factory TNT for the VIC-20

Factory TNT for the VIC-20

Factory TNT for the VIC-20

Apparently I had different rankings! Cool. I need to check the listing and see what all they were.

Thick Brush

For some reason, I did a blocky drawing program.

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

What in the world was this good for? There didn’t seem to be a way to save the “artwork” either. I guess I was, yet again, inspired by the Atari VCS Surround cartridge, which had a simple drawing mode (but the Atari version didn’t let you draw in colors – take that, Atari!).

Sky-Ape-Er

In a previous post, I mentioned my Donkey Kong inspired game, Sky-Ape-Er. Actually, it was really inspired by a VIC-20 game I bought that was inspired by Donkey Kong. I remember seeing it at the only VIC-20 store in Houston (I had my grandmother drive me across town to go to it), and they were out of stock, but they made a copy and sold it to me, and said I could get the real tape when they got more (I never did). On the label, they hand wrote “Krazy Kong”, so it might have been this one, or this Super Kong one. They appear to be the same game, but with different colors.

The important breakthrough was that they solved the problem of ladders and such by just making the level wrap around and go up. I had been working on a Donkey Kong style game and planned to use teleporters so you would stand on a spot and it a button and be teleported to the level above (I guess I had no idea how to make the climbing work then). When I saw the Krazy Kong approach, I knew I could do that, and make it better.

I worked on a few versions of this, with some graphics that looked like Donkey Kong girders, and some that looked like bricks. I think the brike

Later versions had instructions!

Unlike one I bought, my version had instructions!

The graphics were more Kong-like here. Sorta.

I think mine looked better than the one I bought.

It turns out to be a very difficult game! I finally cleared the first screen and found out there were multiple levels! I wonder how many are in there??? This is level 2 (using the prototype graphics):

Sky-Ape-Er for the VIC-20

Sky-Ape-Er for the VIC-20

And the “continue” screen was kind of snarky. I seem to have put some work in to these things.

Sky-Ape-Er for the VIC-20

Sky-Ape-Er for the VIC-20

I don’t know what my intentions were with this game, but I expect I was trying to sell it as well. I had no idea that an individual could just make tapes and put ads in newsletters and sell copies back then. I wish I did — I probably could have made some money in those early days.

Maze Gobbler

I was annoyed with Pac-Man games not looking like Pac-Man (I’m looking’ at YOU, Atari VCS), so I started working on my own. I replicated the Pac-Man maze very accurately, but by the time I had done that, I was out of memory on this 3.5K computer. Nothing exists from that maze except a title screen, as far as I have found:

Maze Gobbler for the VIC-20

Maze Gobbler for the VIC-20

Meteor Clash

My attempt at a Defender-style game (maybe – I’m not sure that game even existed yet) was Meteor Clash. You moved a spaceship up and down and dodged endless meteors that headed to you.

Meters Clash for the VIC-20

Meters Clash for the VIC-20

This game had an intro that printed out text letter-by-letter like a typewriter, with beeping sounds! Fancy.

Meteor Clash for the VIC-20

Meteor Clash for the VIC-20

Spell checkers did not exist for the VIC-20, apparently.

Meteor Clash for the VIC-20

Meteor Clash for the VIC-20

I don’t know how to use those cursor control keys on the emulator yet, so I wasn’t able to play it. I was able to fly for a bit until a meteor hit me.

Meteor Clash for the VIC-20

Meteor Clash for the VIC-20

Oops. This screen shot was taken when the meteors were being redrawn, so it’s just the ship. It wasn’t much of a game yet, anyway. It did have sounds, and an explosion, though! Maybe that would have been enough to be a game, but I hadn’t even customized the graphics yet. (Maybe that’s “Meteor Storm” I keep remembering.)

Rover

I seem to recall that this was going to be a Moon Patrol style game, but all I can find is a test of the title screen.

Rover for the VIC-20

Rover for the VIC-20

I found a few other things, too, including stuff written for the Super Expander cartridge which I cannot run on the emulator I am using. I need to figure out if that is possible in another emulator, since I have some games I wrote for it (enhanced graphics commands and such).

I also did a bunch of video titles for a booth at the Houston Boat Show for my father. I remember having an animated fish that swam back and forth on the screen in one of them, and drawing blue water waves. I later did graphics using my TRS-80 CoCo 1, and my dad was never impressed with it since the colors were so much worse than the VIC-20.

Interesting stuff, even if most of the tapes won’t load in 2016.

Man… I was, like, 12 years old when I was doing this. I really should have done more with it, but who knew computers were going to become such a part of life!

To be continued…

*Jimmy J was a kid I met in 7th grade. I had seen a listing in TV guide for “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” on PBS and had watched it. In English (?) class, I quoted a line from the show, and he turned around and said something like “you watched that to?” We became friends, and I think he’s the one that let me know about Douglas Adams and the book versions of Hitchhikers. He also introduced me to computers. He had a book on programming and we would go down to Radio Shack to type things in on the TRS-80 Model III. He’s likely the one that introduced me to BBSes too (again, we’d go down and get online at Radio Shack before we had our own computers and modems), and he was also the one that introduced me to the concept of hacking and phone phreaking. Fun times! Beyond my parents, I can’t think of any other person that had such an impact on the direction of my life at an early age. Thanks, James!

CoCo VR

Over the years, there were a number of cool ideas at Sub-Etha Software that I really wish we’d followed through on. Last year, I mentioned some unfinished software projects I uncovered when going through all my old floppies, but there were also a few hardware projects that never made it out of the idea or concept stage…

Reveal VM100 "voice mail" device for PCs.

Reveal VM100 “voice mail” device for PCs.

For instance, once I found a low-cost gadget at Walmart that interfaced a telephone line to a computer. It was controlled by a serial port, and plugged in to the audio in/out ports of a sound card on a PC. It came with software to turn the PC in to an answering machine.

I bought one to hook it up to my CoCo, and had plans to create a simple CoCo answering machine. On a 128K CoCo 3, it would be possible to play a short greeting, and record a short message from the caller then save it out to disk. Sure, the audio quality would have been poor and it would probably be cheaper to just buy an answering machine, but wouldn’t it be fun?

VM100 ready to hook to a CoCo via cassette cable and RS232 pak.

VM100 ready to hook to a CoCo via cassette cable and RS232 pak.

Concept software was witten (in assembly) to record audio from the VM100 (using 1-bit cassette input, or 6-bit joystick input) as well as play back digital audio.

Concept software was witten (in assembly) to record audio from the VM100 (using 1-bit cassette input, or 6-bit joystick input) as well as play back digital audio.

I was even wanting to do touch tone decoding in software and create a simple voice mail system with mailboxes. There was even a plan to create a “telephone adventure game” where a description would be read and the user could make a choice by pressing buttons on their phone. (Years later, the Tellme company did something similar with a version of blackjack you could play over their 1-800-555-TELL demo line. It was so cool, Microsoft bought them!)

Woulda, coulda, shoulda…

I will try to share some more of these “lost” projects in the future, but today I wanted to focus on a virtual reality project I was working on.

VR was a big buzzword in the early 1990s, and many thought it was going to be the next big thing. As we know know, it fizzeled out rather quickly, with Atari, Sega and Nintendo abandoning their home VR products.

The Atari Jaguar VR project was being done in conjunction with Virtuality, the company I previously wrote about that created the VR game I first experienced.

The Sega VR project has a CoCo connection, since one of the launch titles was being worked on by legendary CoCo game programmer Steve Bjork**! I believe this is the game that Bjork was working on: Iron Hammer

Nintendo’s effort eventually came out as the failed Virtual Boy where, instead of wearing an immersive helmet over your eyes, you peered in to a 3-D viewer that remained stationary on a table. Hey, at least they tried!

But I digress…

In the pre-world wide web days, we had things called catalogs which were like paper versions of Amazon.com. One of the catalogs I received always had interesting items often at cheap liquidation prices. One such item was the VictorMaxx Stuntmaster VR helmet. The wiki page claims this was the very first commercial VR helmet made available.

TODO: I need to add a photo of my VR helmet, as soon as I figure out which storage box it is in.

The Stuntmaster wasn’t a real VR helmet, though. It did not provide a stereoscopic display, and did not have any head tracking capability for use with true VR games. Instead, there was an analog dial on one side that connected to a shaft which you clipped to your shoulder. As you turned your head left or right, the shaft would turn the dial, allowing a simulation of left/right head tracking.

You could plug this helmet up to a Sega Genesis game console and then play some games where you held the game controller to play, but used your head to turn left and right. It seems unlikely that this would have worked well with any games not specifically designed for this, but hey, it was the first.

Here is a video of it in all it’s glory:

Me playing Dactyl Nightmare again in 1994.

Virtuality’s Dactyl Nightmare (I am shown here playing it in Dallas in 1994) had a helmet and a hand grip controller that featured a trigger and a thumb button.

When I saw this in the catalog, I immediately ordered one to see if it could be used with the CoCo. My plan was to send CoCo video and audio to the helmet, then wire the left/right control shaft up as a joystick. Taking a nod from the controls of the Dactyl Nightmare arcade VR game I played, I was going to use the two joystick buttons for “walk” and “shoot”. My thought was you could turn your head left or right, then walk in that direction using the button. I guess I was thinking we’d build a special pistol grip controller to work with the helmet.

I had become friends with Vaughn Cato*, who did the original bouncing ball demo when the CoCo 3 first came out. He had been writing routines to do bitmap scaling and such, and I was hoping to use some of this in some CoCo game projects.

Toast 3-D maze engine by Vaugn Cato.

3-D maze engine by Vaughn Cato. It ran under OS-9.

On of the coolest things he created was a 3-D maze engine that drew everything using lines (I guess we would call this a vector engine). It looked similar to Dungeons of Daggorath but you could move through it in all directions, like Wolfenstein 3-D or DOOM did.

I cannot remember why, but for some reason the demo executable was called toast. It would read a small text file that represented the maze, then you could walk through the maze in 3-D. Things never went much further than the demo, but I thought it would work well with the VR helmet as the basis of some kind of VR maze game.

I think I was planning to create something like Phantom Slayer VR (a tribute to the old MED Systems 3-D maze game by Ken Kalish). I certainly know I had worked on this concept before without VR in mind, as well as a 3-D Pac-Man game. The Pac-Man one was interesting, as I got as far as recreating the original Pac-Man maze in 3-D and had it populated with dots you could walk over to “eat.”

Woulda, coulda, shoulda…

I still have the helmet. Who knows . . . maybe some day CoCo VR might still get done, even if there is no longer a supply for helmets to make it a sellable product.

*Vaughn Cato may be the only former CoCo guy to accept an Oscar. He was working with a company doing motion capture and he was on stage to receive a 2005 Technical Achievement Award. That’s quite the trip from a bouncing ball demo on a TRS-80, don’t you think?

**Steve Bjork has also had encounters with movies. If I recall correctly, he was an extra in films like Rollercoaster and The Goonies, as well as working on movie related video games like The Rocketeer and The Mask. Oh, and his CoCo program Audio Spectrum Analyzer appeared in Revenge of the Nerds, and his CoCo Zaxxon program appeared in Friday the 13th Part 4.