Archive for June, 2018

Windows 98: The Quest Continues

My foray into obsolete hardware continues to provide puzzles and frustrations that would not be out of place in an old-school text adventure. I’m seriously considering adapting them to that format.

One bit of progress: I managed to burn a bootable Windows 98 CD. I probably burned several, actually. I wasted a number of CD-R’s, trying different software each time (including the built-in CD burner in MacOS X), but the machine I’m trying to install Windows 98 on didn’t recognize any of them as bootable. But with this last one, I thought to try booting it in my Windows 10 machine, and it worked there. This is most peculiar. The other machine is willing to boot other bootable CDs, such as my Windows XP install disc. The BIOS even displays “BOOTABLE CD DETECTED” in a text-graphics box during the startup sequence, so it’s easy to tell that it doesn’t consider my bootable CD-R to be bootable. Maybe it’s prejudiced against CD-Rs? Is that a thing that can happen?

Over on the other fork, I actually managed to procure a PS/2 keyboard, which allowed me to use the Windows 98 installer boot floppy. But this just led immediately to another blocker: the floppy runs DOS. To read from a CD-ROM drive, it needs a DOS CD-ROM driver, and, while it has several drivers on the floppy, it doesn’t have one that works with the one it has, or for any of the others that I tried swapping in, such as the one from the Windows XP box. I am once again impressed at how running DOS removes functionality that’s in this machine’s BIOS. It’s like an anti-operating system.

Now, it’s actually not hard to find DOS CD-ROM drivers online. There exist sites with incredible numbers of drivers from different manufacturers. But that just leads to the problem: How do I get them from the net to the install floppy? The obvious solution was to mount a floppy disk drive in the XP box, but by this point, between taking out the CD-ROM and installing a new CMOS battery, I seem to have rendered it unusable. For a while, it sometimes showed the POST screen when turned on, then didn’t do anything else. At this point, it isn’t even doing that. I can’t even access the BIOS. So much for having a working XP box.

I do still have one working machine that could be of use, though: the Windows 10 machine, my primary gaming device. Could I install a floppy drive in that? It looks like I can’t; the motherboard doesn’t have the connectors for it. But I could take things to a greater extreme. I know I can boot the Windows 98 install CD on it. What if I were to disconnect its hard drive, swap in the hard drive from the other machine, install Windows 98 there, and then swap it back? This might or might not work — there’s no telling what the Windows 98 installer would make of that hardware. And it has the additional risk that I might wind up permanently breaking the Windows 10 box as well.

Another possibility I’ve considered: Start with Windows 95. I have Windows 95 entirely on floppies. Once I have that installed, I can upgrade to 98 from CD. The 95 boot disk is kaput, though. I could presumably download a replacement boot disk, but then we have the “how do I get it onto a floppy” problem again.

More Adventures with Twenty-Year-Old Operating Systems

Sometimes, you really have to regard retrogaming as a journey-not-the-destination thing. I don’t for a minute believe that the experience of finally playing Galaga: Destination Earth will justify the effort I’ve been putting into it. The only experience that can justify that effort is the experience of the effort itself.

When last we left off, I had more or less given up on running this game on my usual gaming machine, even in emulation. So this weekend, I dug some older hardware out of the closet. First up was my previous rig, in an ingeniously-designed compact case made by Shuttle. It turned out to be completely intact — the last time I upgraded, I upgraded everything. Once I hooked it up to a monitor and keyboard, it booted into Windows XP without problems — it grumbled about the CMOS, due to the battery being run down, but automatically figured out what hardware it had anyway. G:DE made no claim that it would work on XP, but I figured it was worth a try anyway, because at least it was a 32-bit OS and I had vague memories of its compatibility mode being more reliable. Well, no dice. It had exactly the same problems as under Windows 10. I contemplated downgrading the system to Windows 98, but gave up when it failed to recognize my Win98 install CD as bootable. Just as well. I can imagine a working XP machine being useful someday.

Going back another generation took a little more work. My pre-Shuttle mid-sized tower case was missing a graphics card — presumably because I had transplanted it into the Shuttle box when I first got it. But I found a suitable disused one in a box of loose cards. It’s very likely the one I had removed from this machine in the first place. Strange how upgrading graphics cards used to be such a routine part of gamer life, but at this point I haven’t bothered in years. Getting it in was a little awkward, due to the case coming from an era before people got case design really figured out. Oh, it was fairly innovative for its day — the motherboard is mounted on a section that slides out for easier access. But “easier” is relative, and the devices innards are almost inevitably an intestinal tangle of cables, just because that’s how things were back then.

Once it was up and booting, the machine reminded me that it no longer considered its copy of Window XP to be valid and would not me log in. Which is fine, I suppose, seeing how I really intended to install Windows 98 anyway. But, as with the Shuttle box, it wouldn’t boot from the Win98 install CD. Was it even bootable at all? Perhaps not; apparently some Win98 install CDs are, and some aren’t. When I had been trying to get Windows 98 running under emulation, I downloaded a Win98 install CD that I know to be bootable, because I booted it in the emulator, but burning it to a disc failed to produce a bootable CD. Apparently Microsoft disabled the ability to burn bootable CDs back in Windows 7, probably to make it harder to pirate Windows.

But there was always an alternative to booting from the CD: booting from a floppy disk.

This machine actually still had a 3.5-inch floppy drive mounted in it, albeit not connected. After I connected it, I found that the machine seemed no longer capable of getting through its startup sequence. It would get to the point of displaying “Press DEL to configure, TAB to continue with POST”, but no keypresses would get it to do anything more. I almost called it quits right there, but after taking a break, I realized that the only plausible explanation for this change in behavior was that I had wiggled or jostled something in the case while plugging in the floppy cable. Giving all socketed items a thorough additional wiggle solved the problem.

I’m a little surprised that my collection of floppies have survived as well as they have, considering how long it’s been since I’ve used them. Every bootable disk I’ve tried has booted successfully, including the Windows 98 Startup disk. But this leads to an immediate additional roadblock. Every bootable floppy I own boots to some kind of command line or prompt that requires keyboard input to do anything. And, although the BIOS knows how to get input from a USB keyboard, these programs do not. I have a USB-to-PS/2 adapter. I have several, in fact. But it turns out that these adapters only work on USB keyboards that know how to use them. I’m fairly sure I had a PS/2 keyboard around not so many years ago, but got rid of it because it was taking up space and collecting dust and didn’t fit into a neat little box the way those graphics cards did. The lesson here is clearly to never throw away anything.

And there, for now, I stand. My options going forward include figuring out how to burn a bootable Windows 98 install CD and hoping that it’ll recognize the keyboard once it’s into the install process, or gaining access to a PS/2 keyboard for long enough to do the install. My options do not include, obviously, giving up.

Galaga: Destination Earth problems

For reasons I won’t describe here, the team I’m currently on at work recently declared a month-long internal Galaga competition, planned to be the first of a series of contests around different classic arcade games. Well, it’s not without precedent for managers to officially sanction non-work-related recreational gaming. I’m unlikely to win, but I’ve been playing a little every day, and have managed to reach scores that aren’t too entirely embarrassing. But more importantly, after a few days of this, I remembered: Wasn’t there a Galaga remake on the Stack? One of those classic arcade remakes from around 2000, with 3D models and power-ups added?

Indeed there was. Galaga: Destination Earth, a largely-forgotten title for Windows 95/98 and the original Playstation. I have the Windows version, which is unfortunate, because it doesn’t work any more. I vaguely recall that it had some problems back when I first played it, too — graphics glitches and whatnot — but on my current system, although the installer runs without problems, the game itself exits shortly after starting, or sometimes just hangs, without displaying anything on the screen in either case. And that’s a pretty hard problem to solve.

Playing with compatibility modes did nothing but sometimes make it display an error message: “The application was unable to start correctly”. Googling this, I found that it could be the result of a failure to load a DLL — but which DLL? I installed a program from Microsoft called “Process Monitor” to find out, only to learn that galaga.exe was not itself reporting any failures. It was apparently just deciding of its own accord to not run.

I tried looking online for help, but this is not a well-loved game, and therefore not a well-supported one. Hasbro Interactive’s tech support website doesn’t seem to exist any more. Pcgamingwiki.com, an inestimable source of game fixes, had nothing. One disreputable-looking patch site claimed to have a fix, although it wasn’t specific about what problems it fixed. Once downloaded, it was easy to identify as just a malware installer.

As of this writing, the most extreme measure I’ve tried is installing Windows 98 under an emulator to run it there. (I still have my old installer CD, and its sleeve with the license key on it!) This hasn’t worked any better so far, but there may be a better emulator out there. And if there isn’t, I can try to put together a real Windows 98 machine out of hoarded parts, like I’ve been planning ever since starting this blog. Or, alternately, I can buy a copy of the Playstation version on ebay for five bucks. But at this point, that would feel like giving up.

The galling part is that in the process of googling for help, I found some complaints that the game is too short — just a few hours long, apparently. I probably could have polished it off in 2001 if I had just played a little longer.

Gearheads: Finally 25

Sometimes this blog fulfills the opposite of its purpose. I made a three posts a couple of weeks ago about Gearheads, a game that I own on physical media and that therefore qualifies as a true element of the Stack, but I stopped playing it after those two posts, and it’s partly because I doubted I’d have anything more of interest to say about it. It’s cute, and it launched a couple of successful game design careers, but it’s not very deep strategically, and it has no plot. Its whole attitude is that of old coin-op arcade games: you can pick up what it’s about in a second, and that’s not conducive to lengthy analysis.

The controls, too, are arcade-oriented, or perhaps Atari-2600-oriented: it’s clearly designed for each player to have their own four-direction joystick with one button, and the fact that it plays from a keyboard instead can only be attributed to it having been released at an awkward time for PC joystick support. The vertical axis switches which lane you place your toys on — the movement of toys isn’t constrained to lanes, but their initial placement is, which can be awkward when you’re trying to place blockers. The horizontal axis is used to cycle through your toys. Searching through your toy collection this way takes valuable time, which motivates the player to stick with one sort of toy for a while before switching. Which is exactly how the AI plays in One Player Tournament mode, thank goodness. I imagine it would be very difficult to play against an opponent who switches tactics more frequently.

Now, in a normal One Player Tournament level, you get a random assortment of four toys to use. This means the time spent cycling through your collection is never too bad, even if every second counts. But levels 10, 11, 22, 23, and presumably 34 and 35 (which I haven’t reached yet) give you access to all the toys. And despite how good that sounds, it’s basically a bad thing, because it means you can spend a lot more time searching for the toy you want. Maybe the solution is to voluntarily limit yourself to a span of four consecutive ones. Would that work? I don’t know. I only just got through level 23 today, and not by doing that.

Mainly I feel like I pass levels by luck, and finally getting through the second twelvesome of levels was just a matter of playing until all the dice fell in my favor. That is, there definitely is some skill involved, consisting of the rapid application of learned responses to changing circumstances, but there’s a lot that goes on that’s chaotic and unpredictable and beyond your control. Except, that is, in those puzzle-like special levels where both sides are limited to one toy. Not coincidentally, these are definitely my favorite levels.

Level 24 was a particularly good one: it gives the player Krush Kringle and the opponent Orbit. Winning this match-up isn’t so much a matter of getting your guys across the screen as of deflecting the opponent’s toys back, but you have to get the timing and spacing of the Kringles just right to accomplish this. Once I finally reached this level, it took me two tries — and, since I can now start from level 25, I never have to do it again. In other games, I’d take the ability to skip solved levels for granted, but here, I’ve had to restart from level 13 so many times.

And to be clear, that’s a self-imposed restriction. The game lets you start from level 25 whenever you like. But what kind of completist would I be if I didn’t play through all the levels?