Sunday, 21 February 2016

AM I BLOGGING OR NOT?!

So, so far I've written a few introductory posts to show my rediscovery of this machine kicking off and then one review of a superlative book.  But nothing else.  Does that mean my attention is waning already?  Does it mean I've been too busy elsewhere in my life to give any time over to the 64?  On the contrary, the answer is quite the opposite.

Who else remembers this hot air balloon sprite from the manual?

These past few weeks my spare time has pretty much revolved around the 'new' computer in both direct and indirect ways.  I've continued to read through the manual and am still enjoying teaching myself BASIC again including in areas I never explored previously such as sprites and sound.  A little, still sealed and brand new blank cassette I was able to purchase in Cash Converters (after trawling the streets of Belfast) is being used to save my first programs in about twenty years and it's been a blast so far.

This produced some strange looks from the young 'uns in work!

I've also been spending most of my weeknights simply lying on my couch with iTunes playing in the background and a Commodore Format in my hands.  I've plugged a few gaps and now have an unbroken run up to issue 10, then issues 12 and 14 and have been absorbing every single page of each 100-page magazine.  Currently I've just started the sixth edition and already have a huge list of games I'm gagging to find on eBay and play!  It's also been interesting to read the technical stuff with a better understanding of them and take part in the fun exercises the monthly used to set its readers as they learned BASIC programming.

Easy peasy!

I've also had word of a small but very exciting writing opportunity which I'll fill you in on when I can.

So why have I been silent on the blog if the Commodore has been taking up so much of my time?  Well here's why:

Coded a simple little lottery program as my first one in decades!
(FYI - they didn't win.)

Yup, those pesky CRT TVs never really did like having their pictures taken.  For the Oink! book I'm hoping to write (see my other blog for information on that) I'd been searching for a good webcam for the Mac Mini at a decent price, with a mind to purchasing it with my February wage from the boring office job.  I'd found one too, a great Logitek one on offer on Amazon and I thought it'd be the answer to this problem above too.  However, while I waited I began thinking if this was really necessary.

I have an iPhone and the camera on it is superb (if it's good enough for National Geographic it's good enough for me) and indeed it's the camera I've always used for any photos on either blog, but when trying to capture an image on an old TV the set's refresh rate wasn't playing ball.  This is true across the board with any camera, which professionals get around with ISO and shutter speed controls etc. (I may sound like I know what I'm talking about but that's only thanks to several Bing searches later), things which camera phones simply don't have to any great degree.

But I've been experimenting as the iPhone does have some great extra controls for live exposure settings (how much light the lens picks up) while taking a photo, and this can stop the flickering before I take a shot, though not the light and dark patches.  I also tried the Burst Photos feature, taking dozens of shots in a few split seconds in quick succession from which to choose your favourite, but they still produced those patches on the screen.  I even hooked up the 64 to the big screen LG HDTV I have thanks to the special cable I got with my computer but these old machines were really designed to be used on CRT.  As such the result came out like it was too crisp; Everything that look like smooth circles and curves on the older set just looked jaggy and over-pixellated on the new one, which is fair enough as it's doing its job.  But the iPhone's HDR mode, where the camera takes a few shots and pieces the best parts from each together automatically without you even noticing, produced some great shots!

By reading up it's all about the shutter speed though.  These CRTs refresh half the horizontal lines of pixels at a time, flicking back and forward between the two sets of alternate lines so quickly our eyes can't see it, but the camera does.  The incredibly fast shutter speed is picking up the updates and producing the light and dark patches.  The HDR mode on the iPhone along with the live exposure is producing some great shots but I know they can be better.  So an afternoon of researching has brought up some really powerful apps which I'm testing at the moment.  With the basic settings already producing some really good results, these apps should be all I need to add without having to fork out for that expensive camera (and the Apple store in Belfast has already helped me with setting up my iPhone as the only device I'll need to record interviews over the internet for the book too).  Which is great as that's more money to spend on all those bloody games these magazines keep telling me about!

So this week I'll get cracking with these and you'll then begin to see the start of some more posts of the quality that I want.  Stay tuned folks.    

Sunday, 7 February 2016

COMMODORE 64: A VISUAL COMMPENDIUM

Sam Dyer and Bitmap Books are becoming synonymous with retro video game
books based around the visuals of machines such as the Spectrum, Amiga and our
beloved C64.  With a second volume of Commie goodness about to be released
I'm taking a look back at their inaugural title, Commodore 64: a visual Commpendium


Once you have this tome in your hands it's hard to imagine how it could ever have been thought of as a risk, its success never guaranteed when the idea was floated on fund-raising site Kickstarter.  Yet its quality and craftsmanship belies such humble beginnings; this is truly a love letter to the Commodore 64 and one which no one who grew up with this computer will want to let pass them by.

You know those coffee-table books people have for no other reason than to show off to visitors over a cup of tea and a foil-wrapped biscuit?  Full of lavish photographs of Aston Martins or various countrysides the book's owner has never visited?  Well this is kind of a similar idea; taking the visuals of Commodore games and combining them to produce a real treat for the eyes.  There are two key differences between this and those aforementioned books though.  The first is that you don't actually need a coffee table to rest this on as it's just the right size (17cm x 23cm) with large enough pages to fully capture the beautiful artwork.  The second difference is that it's actually something the owner will have owned or be interested in, and is full of images you'll want to spend hours looking at.


Of course there have been books about the Commodore before and plenty of magazine articles of varying accuracy looking back at the greatest computer that ever did grace our TV screens.  But there's clues to the main selling points right there on the cover.  Not only is there a lovely, high-quality shine off it but the inclusion of a certain little dinosaur hints that unlike the vast majority of coverage the computer receives, this one won't be cutting off at the point when the Amiga was released or when Zzap!64 faded away.  From the earliest games like Jupiter Lander, International Soccer and Aztec Challenge from 1982/3 the book takes us on a gorgeous journey through to the likes of Mayhem in Monsterland and Lemmings in 1994 and beyond to the Prince of Persia conversion released in 2011.  In fact it concludes with some of the new titles released in the year of the book's publication of 2014!


Each of the 100+ games is given a double-page spread and the variety of shots on offer is superb.  Some games have a full screenshot, others a certain aspect such as a close view of the main sprite, or perhaps many screens pasted together to form huge maps, for example with Fantasy World Dizzy and Turrican.  There's also a sumptuous selection of loading and title screens which really show off those brilliantly detailed pictures that'd get us so fired up for a game while we waited for it to load.  These are shown in groups of four over a double spread with information on their creation from their artists, although there's also a couple of pages with several such screens all collected together to hit you with a tidal wave of nostalgia.  Others are represented with gloriously painted images from Oliver Frey or in the case of The Last Ninja the box art, although we do get a lovely close-up of the intro sequence for the second sequel of that particular series.



Above grabs courtesy of Sam at Bitmap Books (click here for more)

Each game is accompanied by a paragraph-length quote from one of the many contributors, who range from the original programmers, artists and musicians to contemporary video game journalists and editors amongst many others.  Some may baulk at the limited amount of reading there is per game, but when this book was created the whole point was that these act as something to go alongside what you're looking at.  The main point of the book is to collect together these amazing pictures and to reminisce, but obviously more was needed than just simply page-after-page of screen grabs and the quotes are as fascinating as the graphics.  It was something Bitmap Books ran with for their follow-up titles, which included full interviews and lengthier, more detailed insights and you'll see that developed even further for the second Commodore 64 volume due this year (see boxout).

(click to enlarge)

The actual game screens are also broken up a few times with some beautiful close-up photography of the original bread bin C64, the remodelled C64C and the short-lived C64 Games System console.  These are the perfect finishing touches on an already faultless book.

I constantly found myself surprised at just how long I'd spend looking at some of these pages and I can't emphasise enough the quality of the images throughout.  This is a highly professional and polished volume, put together with real loving care by a real fan.  It may seem pricey upon first glance at the £24.99 price tag but Sam Dyer has crafted something not only unique but of such brilliance it's a bargain!  There is a PDF version available at a much cheaper price but this is a title which just begs to have pride of place on a shelf after being leafed through, the printing process used making each image positively shine.  I'm not a fan of reading books, magazines or comics the digital way (unless that's the only version available of course and the format is opening doors for many budding creators) and always prefer the physical form if it's available, so just crack open that wallet I assure you it's worth every single penny.


You may have guessed I'm rather a fan of Commodore 64: a visual Commpendium and you'd be right.  I received it for Christmas and when I finished it I instantly knew that even though I'd some games ready for review, this was going to be the first C64-related opinion piece for the blog.  I wanted to share the good word and hopefully convince some more of you to purchase it for yourselves or for the Commodore fan in your life.

Testament to the quality of this book is the Kickstarter for volume two.  The target goal of £20,000 has not only been reached, it's been smashed and at the time of writing this post it currently stands at a whopping £63,467 with seven days still to go.  So unless you're reading this after that date head over to the pledge page (click here) and you can help donate too.  After you've bought the original of course.    
(click to enlarge)
Sam Dyer
232 pages, softcover with jacket
Publisher: Bitmap Books
£24.99 (£10 PDF available)