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 device’s 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.

The Humans: Key Disk

Playing The Humans requires keeping the CD-ROM in the drive. Which, okay, is normal for CD-based games. It just stands out for me at this moment because it’s the first game I’ve played this year that has such a requirement.

Although I played the prior games from CD-ROM packages, these were after-the-fact compilations of games originally released on floppy disks. For the earlier ones, there was even a reasonable expectation that they would be played from floppies — in 1986, hard drives were optional. Wizardry and Might and Magic were entirely built around the floppy paradigm, prompting the player to insert the character disk and whatnot; their anthologizers had to rework them somewhat to make them playable from hard drives.

Now, if I’m not mistaken, The Humans was released on both floppies and CD-ROM. Certainly there’s nothing on the CD that couldn’t have been put on floppies — no voice acting or FMV or other enhancements. (Remember “CD-ROM Enhanced”?) And since its installer copies the game files fully to the hard drive (which was no longer optional by 1992), there’s no technical reason why it needs the CD in the drive. It’s purely a matter of copy protection. And it’s copy protection that basically doesn’t work any more. The emulator that I’m using to play the game at all is quite willing to mount an ISO image and treat it as a CD-ROM, and even if it weren’t, copying a CD is child’s play. But back then? What, you have a CD burner in your house? What are you, Bertelsmann Music Group or something?

Copy protection has sort of gone in waves. Early games were effectively “key disk” games simply because they tended to be self-booting floppies that didn’t use a conventional filesystem, but this more or less ended with the rise of hard drives and subsequent player demands that games be playable from them. So instead you got “key word” systems, as we saw in the Gold Box games with their code wheels, but this is an inconvenience for the player, and relatively easy to hack out. (In any key word system, there’s got to be a point in the code where it compares your input to what it’s expecting and decides whether to bail or not. Find and remove that conditional jump and you’re golden.) Then came the CD-ROM, and key disk was suddenly practical again. But now, games tend to come without any disk at all. In the age of digital distribution, copy protection — or DRM, as the kids call it these days — becomes networked as well. I imagine the pendulum will swing back to key disk at some point, but it’s far too early to say how.

Secret of the Silver Blades: Getting Started

So! Let’s get to it. The silver blades: what is their secret? I don’t know. I don’t even know what the silver blades are yet. The game opens with no mention of them, presumably because they’re secret. Instead, we have (ye gods) a something-evil-in-the-mines opening. Well, fair enough: the series hadn’t tackled this cliché yet.

First impressions: They’ve really devoted some attention to improving the engine this time around. The visual presentation hasn’t changed much (apart from reorganizing the character sheets and adding some new wall textures), but they’ve added support for two major pieces of add-on hardware.

One is the Ad Lib sound card — yes, just the original Ad Lib, not the Soundblaster, which means that we just get FM synthesis, not sampled sound effects. Laugh all you want. The Ad Lib was a tremendous improvement over the previous state of the art, the PC internal speaker. It doesn’t seem to get used much here, though: the only bit that really takes advantage of it is the intro sequence, which has background music. Still, even that little goes a long way toward making the game feel more professional than its predecessors.

The other new hardware is the mouse. This makes a big difference in a fundamentally menu-driven game. But then, the menu system had gone through something of an overhaul anyway, mostly for the better. Vertically-aligned menus are now navigated with the up/down keys instead of the difficult and unexpected home/end of the previous two games. Consequently, I’m having to retrain myself; I keep reaching for the wrong keys here. Of course, using the up/down keys like this means that you can’t scroll through a menu and use the up/down keys for movement within the world at the same time, and accordingly, movement has been separated out into its own mode. I complained about having to manually switch into movement mode in combat in Pool of Radiance, but it’s not so bad in this context, because once you’re in movement mode, you tend to stay in it for a long time. In combat, you had to switch back every round.

So I’m a bit disappointed to see that we’re back to having to manually switch into movement in combat as well, undoing one of CotAB‘s chief improvements to the UI. But you can’t have everything, I suppose.

Change of Plans

I think I’ve fixed my recent hardware problems. As you may recall, my system was occasionally turning itself off, suddenly and without warning. Graphically-intensive games seemed to be the cause: I first noticed the problem in Team Fortress 2, but later observed it in other games, including ones that I had played without problems before. This is weird behavior for a PC: the sort of problem that can be triggered by running a game generally manifests more mildly, with the game dumping you back to the desktop with an “illegal operation” dialog. At most, you expect a system lock-up, not a system shut-down.

Well, when I was blowing the dust out of the case the other day, I noticed that some internal cables were out of place. This box keeps its wiring tidied up with plastic clips stuck to the metal of the case walls with adhesive pads, and one of those pads had come unstuck. The cables didn’t seem damaged, but they were hanging vary close to where the video card sits, and some of the dust was actually blackened. My theory is that the cables were actually touching the video card’s heat sink. Once the card started really working, the metal of the wires would carry that heat straight into the heart of the PSU, which has to take things like sudden heat spikes seriously and really has only one way of dealing with them.

With the wires re-secured, I was able to get through all of the TF2 Developer Commentary tracks without incident. So I’m ready to give the high-graphics games another try. Now that I know what was going on, I’m pleased that the system handled the situation as gracefully as it did, and apparently avoided permanent damage.

New Failures

Games on Steam that I’ve tried and failed to play in the last 24 hours:

Majesty 2: Sequel to a game that I quite liked. Steam had it on sale for $10, so I picked it up. Before I was done with the tutorial, it triggered the spontaneous-shut-off problem that I first observed in Team Fortress 2. This has happened in a few other graphically-intensive games lately.

Audiosurf: Included in that Steam indie sale pack that I’ve played most of by now. (Mr. Robot was in the same pack.) Launching it with Steam already running brings up a featureless white window that either goes away after a fraction of a second or freezes up and has to be killed through the task manager. Launching it without Steam already running somehow lets it get far enough to put a bunch of text in that window, then crash with the error “Questviewer.exe has encountered an error and must close”.

Gish: Part of the same sale package as Audiosurf, although I already had a registered copy from pre-Steam days. After twice temporarily feezing up with a dusting of random pixels and then coming back with a video driver error saying that the hardware had to be reset, it finally turned off the machine like Majesty 2. This from a 2D game.

I’m really going to have to get a new video card. I’m willing to put it off for a while, though. There are still plenty of games that don’t need it.

TF2: Tech detectoring

Playing TF2 at home continues to pose problems. I mentioned before how playing the Developer Commentary caused my machine to shut off. Sometimes it does this during a real game as well. Other times it doesn’t. There is one new development: sometimes, instead of shutting the machine off, it just gets stuck for a while, looping a second or so of sound and puting some garbage pixels on the screen before popping up a system dialog stating that the graphics hardware stopped responding and it’s had to reset them. After this, I can resume the game as if nothing happened except the loss of some valuable time during which I naturally got killed.

What’s more, I’ve now seen this happen outside of TF2. It also happened in Darwinia — a game I finished some years ago, but I gave it another look simply because it was in that Steam Indie Pack. Anyway, it’s a pretty clear confirmation that the problem isn’t just in TF2. It really seems like a malfunction of the graphics card, and I turned all my graphics settings down to the minimum during today’s session to see if that would help. It seemed to, and I had a nice crashless session (during which I managed to get one more Achievement as a Heavy), but I still got a crash when I tried Developer Commentary mode.

Well, the one real difference in Developer Commenty is the voiceovers. And in fact I had voice chat turned off in my online session — it seems to get turned back on automatically sometimes, and I specifically turned it off while I had the Options menu open to change the graphics settings. So my working hypothesis at this point is that the real cause has to do with sound, and that the reported graphics problems are just a symptom. We’ll see how that works out.

Everyday Shooter: Controls

Like I said before, I really knew very little about this game going in. One thing that I only just recently learned is that its original platform was the Playstation 3. Which means that it was designed for a PS3 controller, with its dual analog sticks. Which isn’t really all that surprising, given the gameplay…

Suddenly it struck me. I’ve been using the wrong controls. I had been using the keyboard, which limits me to eight directions of movement and fire, when I should have used my PS2 controller and USB adapter to get the intended 360-degree rotation.

I suppose I failed to think of this sooner because of the obvious Robotron influence. After all, Robotron used a pair of 8-direction digital joysticks. And for many years, in the days before dual-stick gamepads became standard, the best way to play Robotron adaptations or imitations at home was with a keyboard. 1This didn’t stop people from coming up with single-joystick solutions, but the results never had the feel of the original. The few existing console ports of Crazy Climber have the same problem. But Robotron is far from the only game to influence Everyday Shooter, or be referenced by it. Level 4, for example, draws heavily from Time Pilot, a game whose feel is more or less defined by the smooth rotation of an analog stick.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get my PS2 controller working under it. I don’t know why. The game makes provision for a gamepad under Windows, as evidenced by its options menu, but it just doesn’t recognize mine, no matter what I do. And this gamepad works without problems in other apps, so it’s not a hardware problem. Perhaps the game’s PS3 origins mean that it won’t accept anything so antiquated as a PS2 controller, even though it seems equivalent for this game’s purposes. At any rate, it looks like I’m stuck with keyboard for the time being, which makes certain parts harder than they should be. Fortunately, extra starting lives will compensate.

1 This didn’t stop people from coming up with single-joystick solutions, but the results never had the feel of the original. The few existing console ports of Crazy Climber have the same problem.

TF2: Blowing Up

In the last 24 hours, I’ve been involved in two more office Team Fortress 2 sessions. The first was apparently on the game’s anniversary of release or something: all the characters wore little party hats (on top of any other hats they normally wear), and, when killed, exploded into balloons and confetti.

As a result, I’ve given a serious try to two more character types: the Demoman and the Sniper. The Demoman, master of the grenade launcher, actually seems pretty bad for this small-team stuff. When there’s only three to a side, you spend a lot of time alone, waiting for your teammates to respawn, and the Demoman is essentially helpless when alone: the delay before his grenades go off means that he can’t really kill any but the most oblivious of victims. His value, it seems to me, is more in the threat of damage than in the damage itself — to limit the opponents’ options by placing obvious threats in front of them. I’m told that the use of grenades in real-life combat is similar — that the point of them isn’t so much to kill the enemy as to make them take cover or flee. Anyway, I found the Sniper much more satisfying, even though I’m rubbish at it. Although classified as Support rather than Offense, killing is all the Sniper does.

The first session left me wanting more, so after I got home, I tried running it on my home PC for the first time. Trying out the Developer Commentary tracks, I was alarmed to find that my machine spontaneously switched off, multiple times. This is an unprecedented problem. I’ve seen games exit to the desktop, freeze up Windows, and BSOD, but never just make the machine power off without so much as a beep of warning. Maybe the graphics card is drawing too much power or something?

Crayon Physics: Minimally Complete

Well, I’ve managed a least-effort pass through every level in Crayon Physics Deluxe. Overall, I find the balance a bit strange: towards the end, most levels were solvable using the same few techniques. For example, I got a lot of mileage out of creating a large weight attached to a stationary structure (that is, one attached to permanent scenery by two pins), then draping a loop of rope, with both ends attached to the weight, over an obstacle and around the ball, then erasing the stationary structure and letting the weight pull the ball upward and to its goal. My first few attempts at doing things similar to this were more complicated and involved more elements, so if nothing else, repetition helped me refine the technique. Still, the number of places where this was applicable makes me wonder if I was expected to come up with easier but less general solutions first.

In my first session, I had used my usual gaming trackball for input, but the second time around, I came to my senses and hooked up the Wacom tablet. It took a bit to get used to the feel of it — I don’t use it very often — but it’s definitely worth the switch (assuming you already have a tablet, of course). Not only does it make it far easier to draw straight diagonal lines, it’s also more mimetic in this context: a stylus, obviously, handles a lot more like a crayon than a mouse or trackball does. I can imagine a world in which tablets of this sort are included with Crayon Physics as a Rock Band-esque custom controller.

Anyway, I’m putting this aside for the moment, because I’m eager to try other new things, but I intend to get back to it before long. There’s still that final spot on the map to be unlocked before I can really feel like I’m done, but that looks like it’ll be a fairly long haul: unlocking it requires Elegant, Old-School, and Awesome solutions for fully half of the game’s levels, and on a lot of the levels that doesn’t even look theoretically possible. My next post on this game will probably describe the physical mechanisms in detail.

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