Wednesday, November 22, 2017


The Button Pad
Star Raiders
In the very early 80s when I was around eight or nine, my family had come across the pinnacle of home video game entertainment. It was an Atari 2600, and it had with it the staple of your classic games. Of these, the one that really stood out for me was a game called “Star Raiders”. What made it so engaging was how revolutionary the interface was. Here your TV became the forward view of a star fighter. You could see stars whiz past your ship in 3D as you took the joystick and jockeyed for position to fire upon hapless aliens. What made the game truly amazing was a special button pad that came with it. Here you could open up a galaxy map, set your course, and engage hyperdrive to other sectors. While barreling at light speed to you destination, you could go back to you forward view screen and watch even more stars fly past you until you arrived. One dropping out of hyperdrive you were often greeted with an alarm klaxon and more enemy alien ships to destroy.

I remember taking all the couch cushions, pillows, and blankets I had access to and constructing an elaborate pillow-ship in front of the TV. I draped the blankets around the television, blocking out the outside world. Once ensconced within my fluffy cockpit, my imagination went wild. To me I was in space. My spaceship held the battle lines until it was ultimately destroyed. Not by the alien invaders, but by my little sister who was mad I was “hogging the TV” and wanted to watch “Land of the Lost”

I’ve been told I’m not the first person to do this.

Rules of Engagement
Fast forward about 10 years and now it’s the early 90s. To set the stage Star Trek: The Next Generation was in full swing and I came across a game called “Rules of Engagement”. Once again the box art showed you could pilot a spaceship, but this time using a snazzy touch screen interface much like the starships of Next Gen. Keep in mind this was around 1992 and touch screens being commonplace was more then 20 years off. The “touch” interface in this game was a mouse pointer that looked like a hand with fingers splayed open. (Keep in mind, the hand/index finger mouse pointer was not really standardized at this time yet.)

“Rules” was a deeply engrossing game for me. I would play on my 8088 PC and from time to time I would pretend my CRT was an actual touch screen; tapping the screen with my left hand while my right hand moved the mouse and did the actual articulation. I felt like I was in control of a starship fleet, issuing commands on my screen and battling 16 color alien races.

Jumping time once again, let’s skip to a few months ago. Somehow Rules of Engagement popped in my head I decided to see whatever happened to the company that made the game. As it would seem they are still around. The company appeared to have moved on to making communications software, and the old games they used was nowhere on their website. On a whim I decided to send an email to the generic looking sales@ email address and asked of the game even existed anymore or if anyone at the company even heard of it.

I was thinking to myself, “If they still had the source code, couldn’t it be pretty cool to port this game to a device with touch screen, or at least get it into a state where it was playable again?” You see the game itself has not fared well with time. It’s a 16-bit DOS game that will simply not execute under 64-bit windows. Graphics chips nowadays are beginning to drop lots of the old legacy video modes like the 2-bit CGA and 4-bit EGA. Heck, I’m beginning to see 8-bit VGA modes being depreciated too. Another issue is that it runs very poorly in both virtual and emulated environments. If I was a betting person, it’s most likely due to the frame rate limiter. Hedging all my bets there is probably an interrupt that’s firing that’s a bit time-sensitive and causing the system to hang on the opening credits.

This next bit of the store is going to be a bit vague as it deals with company email correspondence that I’m not sure I’m allowed to divulge. The upshot was I able to contact one of the original developers of ROE. Though what I can only guess as my winning charm, I was able to procure the original C source code and project files for the game. I pitched that the idea of porting this game to modern architectures and giving it a bit of a face lift is a good idea, and they agreed.

This blog is going to be my adventure as I port a professionally developed and sold video game from 1991 to something platform independent. Trust me, having looked behind the curtain a little, it’s time capsule of glorious treasure. Old programming philosophies came flooding back at me as I did my assessment of the code. This is going to be a fun ride I think..

Thanks again Tom, for the opportunity to do this.

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