Over the years I’ve looked at DosBox many times, I’ve covered it when it was included as part of the Puppy Arcade distro and I’ve covered it as a package in its own right.
To say the package is impressive is to grossly understate this piece of software.
But let me rewind a little as there may be people here who don’t know what DosBox is. This is taken from the website:
DOSBox is a DOS-emulator that uses the SDL-library which makes DOSBox very easy to port to different platforms.
There you go. Simple eh? Clear as mud. For those who have a social life and don’t see technology as the be all and end all, I’ll explain. Remember when you used to load software on your PC before the days of Windows? Where you would type “dir” to see what was in a directory rather than clicking on an icon? That’s the stuff this runs. Not as exciting a description as “SDL libraries” and all, but at least the average user will get it. I could go on to explain the SDL aspect of what sounds an impressive description, but you’re not reading this article to learn that nor are you interested in different platforms, modifying the source and forking it, or indeed doing anything to it which is the sole remit of those who often have beards (unless they are female) and sit in darkened rooms infront of a black screen and green text.
And I’m sure you don’t want to hear about the processor(s) it emulates either.
Getting past the tech speak, the good news is its available for ChromeOS. The first thing you should note is that this is an offline app, which means that you don’t even need a connection in order to run your old software. It’s difficult to review Dosbox because it performs exactly like any other version on any other platform and I feel as if I am repeating myself.
I tested Dosbox with my Kings Quest series, which was a purchase many, many years ago and a computing experience so unique that it stuck with me through my Amiga days and returned back to me when, in the late 90’s I jumped back aboard the desktop PC. Everything is featured perfectly, the sound, the speed and my Chromebook is now a retro machine paying tribute to one of the greatest adventure games I ever played.
The version under review here is 0.1.4 which was released in March this year. It’s file-size is tiny (less than 5mb), so although its an offline app it’s going to take up no noticeable space at all. You install your dos executables in any directory you wish and again if you look at the software you will be running on this, the file sizes of it will be tiny also.
There is a massive selection of DOS abandon-ware too, so you are going to be spoilt for choice reliving your memories of yesteryear and playing some titles which never really managed to get a better modern day version.
DosBox is highly recommended for all Chromebook users and can be found in the Chrome store.
I was born in the mid 70’s and consider myself lucky to have enjoyed the 80’s with the introduction to our home of the Atari 2600. Like many people reading this article, those will be fond memories of hours spent in-front of a TV playing Space Invader type clones. It’s funny, just like when you watch old television footage peoples hairstyles and clothes give away the age, so do computer game titles. Anyone fancy a game of “Room of Doom”? Now, what do you think? Is that a PS3 release or an Atari 2600 one?
For those people who want to relive those memories, help is at hand with Stella – not the drinking sort that keeps me awake all night I hasten to add, but the software which gives you Atari 2600 emulation on your Linux, Apple or Windows PC.
This article is split into two parts, the first being a look at the latest release of Stella (3.9.3) and then I’m going to look a little into what games we were playing in the 80’s and asking the question, what was wrong with us in the 80’s? How were we able to spend so much time with these “games”. First though lets look at Stella (and if you are not so much into technology talk, skip to the second section)
The Stella package is tiny (around 3mb to install) with a simple but functional UI which allows you to select which directories you wish to load your Atari roms from. This comes as something of a relief for me as a Linux user, as all too often, upon installing an emulator project, you find there’s no generic UI and have to go to the bother of choosing and configuring a 3rd party one, or worse, mess around in the CLI trying to find the directory in which the roms are supposed to be placed then running the emulator with a plethora of options & flags or if you are very lucky, having a .cfg file to modify.
Using the CLI is not for the expert user, its simple, its just a major pain for the majority of people who see one click fixes for things on other operating systems and have no need for the “power” of the CLI. I say that not as someone who doesn’t use the CLI, but as someone who has introduced many new users and non-tech interested folk to Linux over the years, who upon seeing a requirement to delve in the CLI go running for the hills.
So rant aside, in very little time you have Stella set up. It seems to default on standard settings to get you up and running and to be fair you are not going to need to be playing around with them much. You can of course use your joypad, you can configure all manner of graphical options (and run the emulator full screen) and you can also tweak the system so that it performs at its best. At this point I’ll say, if you need to tweak the options to get a decent framerate out of this emulator then its time you got rid of your machine, even the oldest of PC’s should have no problems emulating an Atari 2600 and if you find you need to frame-skip to get the emulation running at 100% then take your machine to the natural history museum, where it can sit in with pride next to a skeleton of a Velociraptor.
The recent release has fixed some bugs, from the site:
- Added bankswitch schemes BF, BFSC, DF, DFSC and 4KSC, thanks to RevEng and CPUWIZ of AtariAge.
- Updated ROM properties for several ROMs, thanks to Omegamatrix of AtariAge.
- Fixed program crash when specifying a bankswitch type that Stella didn’t recognize; an error message is now displayed.
And if you are scratching your head after that, just nod and pretend you understand. Suffice to say fixed bugs = good and take it on good faith that these enhance your experience, even if you’ve not the first clue what they are.
Stella is a very accurate emulator of the old Atari system, easy to use and there’s no reason why you should need any other emulator when Stella accommodates most requirements. Its a mature package too and even when I reviewed Puppy Arcade (which was a few years ago) Atari emulation was pretty much complete. It is unlikely you will have any problems with its game library.
What was wrong with us in the 80’s?
Running Stella for more than 10 minutes, may like me have you asking the same question. In those days computers/consoles and gaming in the home was a new thing and that was great, but how on earth were we able to sit through hour long sessions playing these games when, to be fair they are crap.
Before you say “don’t use the crap word” or “thats computer history”, I use that word intentionally for effect. Lets look at this for a moment, regardless of this computing experience in the home being new at the time, the games hardly offered any substance. Were our brains less developed in those days and even though we were blissfully unaware of what 30 years later would be computing in the home, did our simple minds find frogger et al enough to keep us occupied?
My trip down memory lane playing some of these games lasted all of about 2 minutes. Dodgy graphics, even dodgier AI and code so predictable (in the case of the bowling game) you could get a strike on every go just by knowing where to place your man. Why didn’t we see this at the time? Why, at the very least didn’t we say “this is all very predictable and shallow” even though we had never conceived of the idea of GTA or COD?
Apparently there are Atari 2600 enthusiasts, which is something else I cannot fathom. I can understand collectors, thats different and I know many people who collect retro computers, but are there really people out there deriving fun from ET or the 2600 version of Commando where our “tough” hero loses a life if he touches a building? I don’t remember Arnie having such issues in the film. Are there people playing “Room of Doom” clapping their hands with excitement as they “progress” further in the game? – I hope not, I really hope not.
For quirky value Stella is excellent, but can I suggest if you start spending hours playing these titles, you calmly get up from your PC and do something else, because if you are having “fun”, there’s something very wrong. If I have spare time (and thats a rarity) I would not be spending it reliving my Atari days and if I was going to spend it playing games, I’d go to my Playstation.
I do have one observation. Whilst our 80’s selves may have been happy with mind-numbing shallow games, we were a more patient person. Try getting far in any of the Atari games – and if you can prevent your brain from melting as its drawn into a quatum singularity of shallowness. they are damn hard. We now demand more indepth and complex gaming, but it seems the difficulty level has been dropped over the years. All the way through to 16bit computing, I cannot remember completing a game. Fast forward to today and completing a game is almost a given when you buy that new title.
There’s a little irony in an open source emulator such as Stella, since it is the antithesis of open source in a way – it’s designed to run proprietary software. Whilst there may be a few hobbyist coders who will be playing about with the system, it doesn’t change the fact that the majority of people will be using this to play proprietary, the big “evil” of the open source world.
I hope you have enjoyed my trip down memory lane courtesy of Stella 3.9.3 and hope you will take it as a slightly tongue in cheek poke at retro computing on the Atari 2600.
The worrying thing is, will we look back in another 30 years and scoff the gaming of today in the same way?
I hope so, I’m still waiting for Holodeck technology to be developed – but that’s another story.
On the 26th February version 2.3 of this popular emulation package was released over on Sourceforge.
Since I am a keen Commodore user (and still own working original hardware) I thought I would take a look at the latest version to see how things have progressed.
Providing emulation for the Commodore family of computers (C64/128, Vic20, Pet, Plus4, CBM-II), Vice is known as a solid emulator and a great addition to the library of any Linux user who has an interest in emulation, the machines supported are a valuable and integral part of computing history and whilst most users will merely want a trip down memory lane, there is an active homebrew community which still actively supports these old platforms.
Probably of most interest to myself in Vice 2.3 is the cartridge support, which the site states: Action Replay 2, Action Replay 3 , Capture, Diashow Maker, EXOS, Final Cartridge Plus, Freeze Frame, Freeze Machine, Game Killer, MACH 5, Magic Voice, MMC Replay, Prophet 64, Snapshot 64, Super Explode V5, Super Snapshot – have all had fixes and/or been added. There has been numerous other fixes and additions which can be read about here.
Whilst Vice can be run from the command line with options, it has a very comprehensive GUI which allows all manner of tweaking to whichever member of the Commodore family you are emulating.
Look for Vice in your repo’s, but failing that (or should it not contain the latest version) 2.3 can be downloaded from here.
Vice should not challenge even the most basic of systems, I think we are now past a point where performance issues impact on emulation of an 8bit platform.
You can also contact me on Skype: tim.openbytes
If you are new to this blog (or have not yet read it) please take time to view the OpenBytes statement, here.
Hot off the press for Saturday 4th December is Puppy Arcade 10, which was kindly announced to me by Scott Jarvis its creator. Openbytes and Puppy Arcade have a history. It’s a distro that I have been following and reporting on for a long while and during that time I have watched it mature into a solid, stable, unique distro which still manages to improve and build upon every release.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of interviewing Scott and its hoped that sometime in the future he will be appearing on the TechBytes audiocast as a guest.
So on to Puppy Arcade 10. For those that are interested in looking at the progression this distro has made, you should check back on the previous reviews/features.
For version 10, emulation includes (from the site):
Plays Amiga (500, 1000, 2000), Apple (68k, 128k, 512k, SE, MacOS, Plus), Atari (ST, 800, 800XL, 130XE, 5200), Amstrad (CPC, Plus, VEB), Arcades, Colecovision, Commodore (64, 128, VIC20, PET), Doom, GameBoys (GB, GBC, GBA), GameGear, Genesis/MegaDrive, MasterSystem, MS DOS, MSX, N64, NDS, NeoGeo, NeoGeo CD, NES/Famicom, PC Engine/TurboGrafix, PSX, ScummVM, SNES and ZX Spectrum (16k, 48k, 128k, +2, +2A, +3) and more!
And if that isn’t enough, theres new features added to version 10. Probably the one that I think most notable is support for joystick/pad support for the ROM loader. The potential of this could be exploited by those who are considering making their own cabinet to hold this emulating distro. Its a welcome new feature.
From looking at the improvements/updates from version 9 (which can be seen here) it appears Scott has been very busy, as I’ve said countless times before Puppy Arcade appears to be a labour of love for Scott and that shows in the results.
The wealth of software that Puppy Arcade opens up to you is staggering. There are thousands of titles that you will be able to run on the multiple platforms, many of which will not only bring back fond memories but are damn fine titles in their own right. For many younger users, the idea of an 8bit CPU running on 48k will seem as alien as the tape recorder required to load the software and in this respect Puppy Arcade acts like a history lesson with the included software emulating the systems/software that were the pioneers for today’s software/hardware. Credit also needs to be given to the hundreds of developers who created the emulators that are packaged with this distro.
Puppy Arcade is derived from Puppy Linux, which deservedly has a strong following due to it being a great solid distro. Although designed to run quite happily as a LiveCD, Puppy Arcade can also be installed to your harddisk or USB stick and coming in at just over 100mb download, it’s not going to take you long to be emulating systems of yesteryear!
Whether you are after bringing life/purpose to an old rig, or merely just keen on emulation, Puppy Arcade 10 comes highly recommended! and you should also keep in mind (since its derived from Puppy) that Puppy Arcade can quite happily sit as a distro in its own right (not just as an emulation platform). I hope people will support Scott and his project.
Visit: http://scottjarvis.com/page105.htm and download your copy.
You can also contact me on Skype: tim.openbytes
If you are new to this blog (or have not yet read it) please take time to view the OpenBytes statement, here.
Driving home from London on Friday at 8pm is not a chore for me. It’s at this time the tech hour is broadcast on LBC 97.3 and no matter how bad the traffic, it’s always a great journey home hearing the producers mostly concentrate on proprietary software whilst trying to avoid any questions from the phone-in that involve copyright issues, lest they find themselves in hot water. Its a hoot.
I have to give LBC some credit here, since they have an app of the week feature, which I thought would be a good for Openbytes. Unlike LBC though, I don’t have an iPhone, so it will only be Android apps covered.
Those readers whose beards are showing the first signs of greying (or indeed have completely succumbed) will remember the ZX Spectrum 48/128 range of computers, the glory days of loading software from tape, loading screens, multi-load and unexplained crashes….good times. It seems a little ironic then that for many users who eventually found themselves on a PC, they would still be experiencing unexplained crashes for some time to come (until they discovered Linux) as Windows users get their fair share.
Marvin is a free ZX Spectrum emulator for phones running Android. Currently in v1.3, the package can be found in the market place and better still, its free! Marvin offers emulation of both the 48k and the 128k Spectrum, so lets look at how well it performs that task.
For the purposes of this review I am running Android on an HTC Desire which is a phone I have a great love for. My affair with HTC started with the Hero and saw me upgrading to the Desire well before I was entitled to a free upgrade from my service provider – a cost I consider to be more than fair for such a great phone. I wont elaborate on my praise of the HTC since this review is about Marvin.
The download is small and within seconds I was booting into that all too familiar “Sinclair Research LTD”. Marvin offers itself for operation in both horizontal and vertical positions on the Desire. The former displaying the Spectrum keyboard (yes, the beloved rubber keyed delight) and the later in joystick mode where you can use the touch screen to control movement via an emulation of the Kempston Interface (or a selection of other joystick options such as Cursor or Sinclair)
The menu system (accessed by the “menu” button on the Desire) is really self-explanatory and gives the option to reset into the 48k mode or the 128k.
Marvin handles the following file formats for spectrum files: .z80, .sna, .tap, .tzx and also allows them to be played within a .zip. For those looking for the true Spectrum experience, .tap files can be loaded at a variety of speeds depending on how patient you are. Whilst all these features alone would be great, Marvin manages to bring another surprise out of the bag…
Marvin’s killer feature, is the ability (from within the package) to connect to the World of Spectrum website, opening up a massive catalogue of software, which except for titles where there is a copyright issue or no permission, are able to be accessed/downloaded from within Marvin. Should you be interested in Spectrum emulation on the desktop, you can visit the World of Spectrum here. It’s a great site and a fantastic resource for your Spectrum needs!
Since Marvin has been awarded “app of the week” I think it goes without saying that its a great app. Emulation is accurate in both speed and sound emulation. For me Marvin brings back happy computing memories of years gone by with the World of Spectrum integration meaning that I have a massive library of software at my fingertips.
Today’s game player may never remember a time where the “save game” feature was rare and Marvin provides a very handy “save snapshot” option which will effectively dump the spectrum memory to a file, allowing you to continue your game where you left it.
Kempston emulation worked well, although I am not keen on the touch screen of modern smart phones.
I suppose this highlighted the only flaw in Marvin and is the fault of HTC itself, not Marvin. It can sometimes challenging to play a game with a touch screen virtual keyboard and I would prefer a “solid keyboard” to the touch screen affair that HTC provides. If only the HTC released a phone with the same size screen as the Desire and a pull out mini-keyboard……
Marvin comes highly recommended to any ex-Spectrum user and whilst the younger generation may not appreciate the gfx of an old 8bit machine, oldies will be in tears as they remember happy computing times with a “Spectrum in your pocket” – thanks to Marvin!
If you are interested in Spectrum emulation on the desktop (and emulation in general) you should check out the Openbytes feature on Puppy Arcade 8.
The homepage/blog for Marvin can be found here and of course you can get Marvin from the marketplace.
Goblin – firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are new to this blog (or have not yet read it) please take time to view the Openbytes statement, here.
Look to the end of this article for the 7 reasons to use Puppy Arcade, but before you do that lets consider this distro which is much loved here at Openbytes. Previously I have spoken with the creator (Scott Jarvis) and one of the most impressive things about this distro (other than its excellent) is the enthusiasm and genuine love Scott has for emulation and people enjoying old classics on hardware that may have been otherwise written off as an “old PC”.
I would suggest that anyone who didn’t read the article I wrote on Puppy Arcade (shame on you!) visits the link here as what was true there is as true now, except further improvements have been made. I had the pleasure of putting questions to Scott Jarvis and you can read that article here. Here is Scott’s forum posting briefly outlining Puppy Arcade 7:
Puppy Arcade 7 is now much better in terms of gaming playability – it now supports full-screen in nearly all emulators, while gamepads are supported in all emulators, usingRejoystick and has had a few more emulator additions and replacements.
More Atari emulation has been added, and Spectrum support has also increased. NES and MasterSystem emulation is also now much improved. The ‘pup’ emulator frontends have been updated where possible to include the extra benefits of the emulator changes.
Wbarcc has been added to more easily manage the emulator bar and there are now no issues with 800×600 desktop setups- users can choose a wbar profile that suits their screen resolution. (thanks to trio)
A lot of people said they would like Puppy to connect to the internet automatically, so Puppy Arcade 7 SHOULD also connect to the internet (via LAN/eth0) automatically… It worked for me.
So here are my 7 reasons why you should use Puppy Arcade:
1. There is a wealth of games/systems that you are able to relive your childhood/youth with.
2. Scott Jarvis is dedicated to this distro and updates are regular.
3. Spec requirements are low.
4. It puts the best of the emulation scene in one distro.
5. Puppy Arcade runs from a modified Puppy Linux which is as fast as hell
6. It has a really groovy backdrop!
7. It really is that damn good.
Goblin – email@example.com
Since the Puppy Arcade review gave me a little inspiration for a few emulation related articles, here is the “battle” which I mentioned on Twitter that has ScummVM and Dosbox going head to head with each other with the game Kings Quest III by Sierra.
The idea that Linux users would want to play old MS-DOS games might seem strange to some, whats even stranger for me is the fact that this task needs similar software to do exactly the same thing under the latest Windows versions.
So when Microsoft can’t get backwards compatibility sorted itself and when Linux users want to play those old games too, what is a computer user to do?
The answer can come in the form of Dosbox or ScummVM. Why two products to do the same tasks? I’ll explain.
Dosbox is aimed at emulation of the entire MS-DOS environment and any runtime you throw at it, whereas ScummVM concentrates on a set list of titles that use the same/similar game engine.
The Dosbox statement at their website says:
DOSBox is a DOS-emulator that uses the SDL-library which makes DOSBox very easy to port to different platforms. DOSBox has already been ported to many different platforms, such as Windows, BeOS, Linux, MacOS X…
DOSBox also emulates CPU:286/386 realmode/protected mode, Directory FileSystem/XMS/EMS, Tandy/Hercules/CGA/EGA/VGA/VESA graphics, a SoundBlaster/Gravis Ultra Sound card for excellent sound compatibility with older games…
You can “re-live” the good old days with the help of DOSBox, it can run plenty of the old classics that don’t run on your new computer!
DOSBox is totally free of charge and OpenSource.
and ScummVM says:
ScummVM is a program which allows you to run certain classic graphical point-and-click adventure games, provided you already have their data files. The clever part about this: ScummVM just replaces the executables shipped with the games, allowing you to play them on systems for which they were never designed!
I decided to put the two packages to the test with a game that is reported to run under Dosbox and is also catered for in ScummVM. That title is a favorite classic of mine, Kings Quest III. It should be noted that without packages such as these, as a Linux user Kings Quest III would be nothing more than cardboard and plastic.
One could argue that out of these two projects, Dosbox is the more ambitious. Upon loading you will presented with a Window containing the environment that as a Linux user you never thought you would see again!
The first order of the day is to mount a directory as a virtual hard disk, this really is simple as for example mount c ~/dosb (or whatever directory you are using) you would then change to your “C:” whereby you could access everything there as you would in a native ms-dos environment. Whilst for the purposes of this review I am looking at it from an angle of Kings Quest III, it should be noted that everything I have thrown at it so far has worked. That ranges from some very old Pacman clones which I never thought I’d ever play again, to Wolfenstien 3d (arguably the game that started the FPS)
Due to the nature of Dosbox being an emulator, the mammoth task of catering for a multitude of software, there are always going to be optimizations/modifications/bugfixes to the code. In order to get around any performance issues, a handy frame skip option is included which will also allow users with older hardware to make the most out of Dosbox.
ScummVM works slightly differently from Dosbox, its not an emulator, it merely looks at the data files for you chosen game and runs then with its own engine, which means its certainly not going to eat up CPU cycles with trying to emulate code and rather its going to work more like a native Linux program. ScummVM also has a variety of graphic modes which will enhance the original experience (or you can if you wish stay with the intended original and be “hardcore retro”!?!) One of which was SuperEagle and if you have a look at the screenshots here you will be able to see the difference.
ScummVM is designed only to run a set list of titles however the list is quite large and if you are a fan of point of click adventures (and have the relevant games) then its great.
Sound in ScummVM is also very good with little or no distortion making for a more pleasant experience.
Installing your chosen games in ScummVM is no more complicated then using the simple, clear GUI to select the directory the files are in. ScummVM will automatically detect and identify the files it needs and the game they refer to. Great stuff.
Whilst it must be stressed that only one game (that which I own the original of) was put to the test on both products, the results I think show clearly the differences between the two packages. Dosbox performance wise could out perform ScummVM, although it went past the realms of being at the intended speed of KQIII. Slow operation of Dosbox can be sorted with the frameskip option, however I don’t think many machines will be too challenged by Dosbox. Sound on Dosbox can be described at best as internal speaker music and rather a hit an miss affair with KQIII title theme slipping into what sounded like a rendition by Les Dawson 
ScummVM on the other hand ran the package fine and sound was a far more pleasant experience than in Dosbox. So now comes the part where I have to recommend one over the other.
I would say, if the software you wish to play is listed with ScummVM then definitely go with that. The different graphics modes which can be used (SuperEagle for example) can remove the rough edge from the GFX (if you wish) and make it more visually appealing. In addition ScummVM is far simpler to set up and rather easy to select the game of your choice. Dosbox on the other hand wants you to mount directories as virtual hard disks, which whilst a simple task for most of us is going to be daunting for others.
Dosbox obviously has far more scope and unlike ScummVM not limited to a set software list, thats its strength and also its weakness since you are going to encounter issues with some software just down to the sheer massive job the Dosbox coders have of making an authentic, compliant ms-dos environment.
Taking all that into consideration, I have both on my system (and why not) ScummVM for my KQIII et al and Dosbox for those titles which ScummVM does not cater for. Both are great packages, both deserve your support!
ScummVM homepage: http://www.scummvm.org/
Dosbox homepage: http://www.dosbox.com
 Les Dawson was a comedian known for having an act where he played a well known tune on the piano intentionally out of tune, but just enough so you could still tell which song he was playing. For those interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWDphFwocAM
Goblin – firstname.lastname@example.org