The Atari 2600, Stella 3.9.3 & What was wrong with us in the 80’s?

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The 80's.  Great times, great haircuts. And great computing? Read on!
The 80’s. Great times, great haircuts. And great computing? Who didn’t want a Hoff haircut? Read on!

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.

It's the Room of Doom running on Stella in Peppermint 4 - What other gaming treats await you within the Atari 2600 library?
It’s the Room of Doom running on Stella in Peppermint 4 – What other gaming treats await you within the Atari 2600 library?

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.


REVIEW: Puppy Arcade 8 (LiveCD 105mb)

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The all new BIOS checker for Puppy Arcade 8. Picture source: Puppy Arcade homepage.

Puppy Arcade is one of the few Linux distro’s that Openbytes tries to keep following.  Since version 5, Puppy Arcade has not only been a favorite with friends and colleagues, but also has a home on a few of my machines around the house that would otherwise be obsolete.  Ive had the pleasure of a Q&A with Puppy Arcade creator Scott Jarvis and Im pleased to say that he continues to keep me updated every time a new version is released.

Puppy Arcade is one of the more difficult distro’s to review because of the plethora of systems it covers and often when I try to write about Puppy Arcade, my article turns into individual reviews of the emulation packages it contains.  I will try to look at Puppy Arcade as a whole and how it performs in respect of a multiple platform emulator (and desktop distro too)  For the purposes of this review, the test machine is a 1.6ghz machine with 1gig of ram and a rather ancient gfx card.  I am reviewing this distro on pretty old tech, so its important to keep that in mind to appreciate how good Puppy Arcade actually is.

Puppy Arcade – The Desktop

I will only briefly mention Puppy Arcade as a desktop, since I would assume that users main requirement for it will be the default packaged emulation.  Since Puppy Arcade is based upon Puppy Linux, its requirements are low and it will absolutely fly, even on the lowest of specs.  The download for Puppy Arcade is only 105mb, which will be pretty speedy even for the slowest of net connection.  The ISO burnt without error and since its a LiveCD, simply throw it into your drive, reboot and you’re off.

Puppy Arcade offers numerous tools and util’s for standard desktop functions (when you are not playing with the emulators) but I’d suggest that to many users most of these will be of little consequence.  There is no Word Processor as such (No Abiword or OpenOffice.org) however I doubt users will be downloading Puppy Arcade with anything else than emulation as their main priority.  Basic text/src editing is handled by Leafpad 0.8.16 or Geany 0.16, the later of which is rather good for src.  You have other utilities available and whilst I could list and comment on everything, it would make this review far longer than it needs.   What I will say is that CD/DVD burning software is included, as well as various media players and rippers.

A point to note is that unlike previous versions of Puppy Arcade, there is no default packaged web browser, you can choose this from a sort of ballot screen, which works very well.  This does pose a slight issue if you are booting from a LiveCD, that being you are going to have to install a browser to ram every time you boot (unless you install to HD).  The reasoning behind the removal of the browser is to reduce the download and to be fair its a great idea.  I don’t think many will mind.  I was pleased to see Chrome offered as I have championed it for a long while and since I have never been a fan of Firefox plugins, the faster browsing experience of Chrome on any desktop is a big plus for me.

All in all as a standalone desktop Puppy Arcade 8 is great on any machine (new or old) and whilst in respect of a home desktop machine, it might seem a little lacking in util’s, there’s a plethora of software to install should you require, that can make Puppy Arcade 8 whatever you want it to be.

Puppy Linux has come on in leaps and bounds over the years and this is reflected in the out of the box experience. Puppy had no issues detecting any of my hardware, from USB keyboard to monitor settings.

Shadows of the Empire plays very well in Puppy Arcade 8! Just one of many titles you are going to enjoy from yesteryear!

Puppy Arcade – The multi-platform Emulation distro!

Here is where we get to the real “meat” of the review.  This afterall is why you downloaded Puppy Arcade.  What is included? What can it emulate? How well does it do it? and what do I need?

As I said earlier on my specs for this test are very low, but regardless of that, the experience is blisteringly fast.  The machines emulated in Puppy Arcade 8 are: Amiga, Amstrad, AppleMac, Arcade, Atari (8/16bit). Colecovision, Commodore, Doom, Gameboy, Genesis, N64, Nes, NeoGeoCD,PCEngine, PSX, Snes, Sega Saturn, Sega (8bit) and ZX Spectrum.  You’ve also got compatibility with DOS binaries (via Dosbox 0.73) and ScummVM to play many of those point and click games from yesteryear.  Openbytes featured a comparison of Dosbox and ScummVM which you can read here.

The standard desktop menu has been hidden by default (expanding when your mouse is over it) in favour of a custom dock with icons for all the emulators included.

Keeping it legal – No system roms included!

It’s often discussed in emulation forums about the legality of rom’s from obsolete machines.  Puppy Arcade removes this problem by not packaging any as default and instead having a simple GUI that allows you to download the system roms as and when you need them.  It’s a completely automated process and it will keep track of the rom’s which you have downloaded.  It’s a great little package which works well.

Whats new in version 8?

The rom loader (for starters) which I detail above.  I look forward to seeing this mature over the next releases of Puppy Arcade.  Importantly VLC has replaced Xine which is a great media player which can handle just about anything you throw at it.  As detailed earlier the removal of a default packaged web browser and theres been many GTK frontends updated (as well as the emulators themselves with later versions) is a change over the last version.

You can read more about the changes here: http://scottjarvis.com/page105.htm


Yet another great release for Puppy Arcade.  I like the idea of having a poll for the browser, which means that not only do you get a smaller .iso download, but you don’t have to waste your time downloading a browser which you are going to replace anyway.  The size of the download is another massive plus and will have you enjoying emulation in no time at all.  It’s quite amusing to think that the whole distro is downloaded in 105mb which is less than many PSX games themselves!

I think Puppy Arcade 8 is a landmark release, Scott, its creator has now had a few versions to fine tune and tweak the direction in which he is taking this project and now as we see more intuitive interfaces, it provides a solid foundation for future versions.  The delivery of Puppy Arcade reeks professionalism and from install to messing around with system BIOS files , there were no broken menu’s or incomplete features.  The only limitation to the emulation Puppy Arcade offers are the limitations of the emulators themselves, of which I’m pleased to say with my testing were very few.

You can download a copy of Puppy Arcade here: http://scottjarvis.com/page105.htm

And if you are interested in reading previous reviews on Openbytes:

Version 7 – https://openbytes.wordpress.com/2010/02/20/7-reasons-to-play-retro-titles-puppy-arcade-7-is-released/

Version 6 – https://openbytes.wordpress.com/2010/01/30/puppy-arcade-6-the-retro-pup-goes-from-strength-to-strength/

Version 5 – https://openbytes.wordpress.com/2010/01/18/puppy-arcade-5-qa-with-scott-jarvis-the-puppy-goes-retro/

So what are you waiting for? Give yourself a little computing nostalgia and download Puppy Arcade!

Goblin – bytes4free@googlemail.com

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SDLMAME v0.130u2 w/Loemu 0.3.1 + WAHCADE 0.99pre7

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Loemu in operation - simple and clear.  Its a shame then that options passed to the MAME binary has to be done with CLI parameters, IMO defeats the whole object of a GUI.
Loemu in operation - simple and clear. Its a shame then that options passed to the MAME binary has to be done with CLI parameters, IMO defeats the whole object of a GUI.

Following on from our previous article on the Linux implimentation of MAME code, Ive had a chance to run through SDLmame, which is a far more recent release and is currently supported (latest release 29 March 2009)  A different choice of frontend this time aswell, reveals IMO a far tighter implimentation of the MAME code via SDL.

The previous MAME article on Openbytes can be found here.

All the greats are still covered here, however it appears that the issue of fullscreen is as default supported with Loemu which wasnt present on our previous articles frontend software.

Loemu does a reasonable job as acting as a frontend for SDLmame although any parameters you want to pass to the SDL binary have to be added manually within the GUI.  What I would like to have seen would have been “tick boxes” for the plethora of features SDLmame offers.   The .deb packages installed without issue, however I would also have liked to see it automatically create an entry in your applications menu and it struck me as strange that I had to go through the command line to run Loemu when in my opinion the whole purpose of it is to make operation of SDLmame simpler and avoid the commandline in the first place.

Users interested in arcade emulation can, IMO do no better than SDLmame, its recent, its fast and the software base is massive.  I do think though that whilst Loemu is a great little program, there are far better frontends out there and for that reason I cannot really recommend Loemu (I think for those comfortable with terminal, its far quicker to simply use that)  Loemu IMO fails to be suitable for new users aswell for the reasons mentioned above and since the last update for it was 22nd Feb 2008, I think its safe to say that this small project is no longer supported.

SDLMame can be downloaded from the homepage (for Ubuntu users) : http://wallyweek.altervista.org/

Loemu can be found at: http://loemu.pegueroles.com/

So as it stands, in my opinion the definitive Linux implimentation of Mame is SDLmame (until I find out otherwise) however the search for the ultimate frontend continues and Im open to any suggestions as to whats the best.


WAHCADE - For me more suited to a dedicated MAME box, not my desktop.

As my search for the ultimate SDL frontend continued, I stumbled across WAHCADE another currently supported project written in Python (using the PYgame binding I beleive) A more graphical implimentation and I think this would be well suited for a standalone Mame box.

As a desktop Linux frontend for SDL I personally cant recommend.  Its not because alot of effort hasnt been put into it, but the default switching to full screen and bizzare control method for navigating the menus instantly put me off.  If I am going to dump the commandline for a GUI, I want compact, simple and clear options, I dont want my desktop hijacked into fullscreen when in most cases I am doing several things at once and require my beloved desktop.

Thats not to say this software is bad by any means, but it simply is not what I am looking for and in my case wholly unsuitable to be my frontend of choice for MAME.  Im happier using the commandline.

The latest version of WAHCADE can be found here: http://www.anti-particle.com/index.shtml

Goblin – Bytes4free@googlemail.com