November 2021 Meta Post
2 December 2021 | 12:43 pm

And out of nowhere, it suddenly was December. I’m struggling to keep up with time lately, and typing this makes me feel very old.

I’ve spotted a trend in many other blogs I read: the weekly or monthly “what happened” meta posts and blogrolls that, besides giving a quick overview of the blogger’s past few weeks, is also an excellent opportunity to share loose ends that aren’t worth it to be converted into full-fetched blog posts. I’d like to chime in for a few months. It seems good fun, and since I don’t like writing small posts that mainly quote or refer to others, this is a great way to share those links.

What happened in November 2021?

Books I’ve read

Papyrus is possibly the best—and thickest—book I’ve read this year! For December, I bought another Haruki Murakami to satisfy the crazy fiction hunger, while Carol Dweck’s Mindset, that has been collecting dust for years, will be the next non-fiction target.

Games I’ve played

Kathy Rain was really, really good, and got me in a point & click mood. I’m trying to pick up Irony Curtain again, we gave up somewhere in Chapter 2. We’re replaying Gobliins 2 while staring at Monkey Island posters, so you know what’s coming next…

Selected blog posts

Random stuff

Curios to see what this month will bring.

By Wouter Groeneveld on 2 December 2021.

From Curiosity To Creativity
29 November 2021 | 12:23 pm

The never-ending murmur of the scouring sand that spans the ancient Egyptian desert has little effect on the traveler’s mood. Equipped with nothing but a walking stick and a light backpack, the stranger defies turbulent seas, sandy deserts, and dusty roads, only to arrive at yet another half-deserted village. He calmly rests his walking stick against a palm tree, shakes off the sand from his clothing, and without hesitating, strikes up a conversation with a local. After a long chat and a shared but meager meal, he unrolls a partially finished manuscript and starts writing, beginning with the iconic words: “I was told that…”.

That man was Herodotus, and he was on a mission: to record the history of the world. his work Histories is now regarded as one of the first meticulously detailed investigations in cultural, geographical, and historical events, in particular the Greco-Persian wars. Herodotus is the world’s first true fearless historians, willing travel long and far, whatever the risks. Histories records not just the world view from the viewpoint of his beloved Greece, but also from the Persian Empire, where he was born.

Herodotus' curiosity about what is happening to ordinary inhabitants of his era combined with his wit and keen senses sprouted literature that was considered essential reading material—and nowadays still should be. Three hundred years later, Cicero called Herodotus “The Father of History”. Technically speaking, Thucydides came first, although Thucydides’s writing isn’t steeped in anthropological questions and answers.

Twenty centuries later, the chaotic but everyday maelstrom of masts creaking, sailors yelling, and waves sloshing indicates a boat is about to set sail. The Beagle, under the command of Royal Navy officer and scientist Robert FitzRoy, was tasked with charting the coastline of South America. A twenty-two years old Brit managed to persuade FitzRoy to join the crew as a naturalist. That young man was called Charles Darwin.

The captain sent Darwin ashore to investigate the local geology while the Beagle itself continued surveying and charting the coasts. Darwin’s curiosity wasn’t limited to geology: it was the perfect excuse for him to explore and collect samples of local fauna and flora, making extensive notes while back on the ship—not only on what he saw, but also on theoretical speculations.

Darwin wasn’t an expert in biology: he only knew a little bit about geology and had the odd beetle collection back home. He was a novice at pretty much all other areas, but his curiosity wasn’t diminished because of it: precisely the opposite happened. Despite suffering from prolonged periods of seasickness, he still managed to write down anything that piked his interest—which was almost everything.

In 1836, the Beagle finally returned to Plymouth, after a journey of five years. Six months after the grand adventure, Darwin slowly but surely started connecting the dots. His extensive notes, reworked into papers and his Journal, revealed that “one species does change into another”. His seminal work, On the Origin of Species, eventually published in 1859, would still be a long way off (23 years!), first requiring several more essays, conversations with befriended scientists, more revisions, and very long thought walks.

Robert Taylor Pritchett's 1890 drawing of the HMS Beagle in Chile. Image public domain.

One hundred and sixty years later, the sizzling of molten tin accompanied with small circles of smoke fill a small office space in Colindale, London. The floor is littered with DIY-printed circuit boards and unscrewed Tetris Game Boy cartridges. A couple of software and electronics engineers are hacking together a Game Boy development kit by reverse-engineering Tetris.

Jez San, founder of British video game developer Argonaut Games, crossed paths with Nintendo’s Game Boy during an electronics fair in 1989. The lovely “little” Gray Brick immediately attracted his attention. Once back home, San decided to direct programming efforts from the Spectrum and Amiga to Nintendo’s ecosystems. Only, Nintendo was very stingy at handing out official development kits, especially outside of Japan. The solution? Build one yourself by connecting wires from a cartridge to chips on a home-made circuit board.

New programming recruit Dylan Cuthbert was tasked with the development of Aronaut’s first Game Boy game that would become X, or Ekkusu. San thought it would be cool to develop a 3D space simulator for the Game Boy—something they had already achieved on other platforms with the Starglider series. Only, the withered Game Boy technology houses a variant of the meager Z80 CPU, running at 3.5 MHz. Even worse, it can only display four shades of drab gray. Luckily, Cuthbert proved to be up for the task. The fully 3D-rendered meshes in the game even impressed Nintendo, inviting the team over to Japan.

X would be the beginning of a shared history between Argonaut Games and Nintendo. Nintendo’s interest in British boldness got Argonaut and Cuthbert heavily involved in the development of the Super FX RISC co-processor, powering Yoshi’s Island (2D sprite scaling), the DOOM Super Nintendo port (Binary Space Partitioning), and of course, Star Fox (true 3D polygons), also developed by Argonaut. Cuthbert’s 3D hardware experience landed him a job at Sony, helping developers unlock the power of the first two PlayStation generations. He eventually started his own company Q-Games based in Japan, well-known for the PixelJunk series.

What is the greatest common divisor between Herodotus' herculean effort to meet people and write down their story, Charles Darwin’s extensive notes on geology and biology, and Argonaut Games' soldering hack to peek inside a Tetris cartridge? All three examples showcase a lot of curiosity: about the tales of others and the history of empires, about the evolution of nature and the origin of species, and about the inner workings of a piece of hardware.

If it weren’t for the curiosity and persistence of these people, we would have lost even more ancient Greek and Persian knowledge, we would still have no idea how nature evolves when sea life crawled upon land, and a Super FX chip might never have been released on time to prolong the life of the Super Nintendo. Perhaps Sega might have won the 16-bit war!

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s interviewed geniuses attribute curiosity and perseverance as the two most important personality traits for their creative success. Without curiosity, there is little motivation to learn or build something. Without perseverance, there is little chance of effectively finishing the work. Creativity is not creativity without the initial curiosity that gets everything started.

As Charles Darwin proved: the best kind of curiosity is an all-encompassing curiosity. Don’t limit the intent to the domains you’re very familiar with!

This is part four of my creativity story. Be sure to also read part 1: collective creativity, part 2: constraint-based creativity, and part 3: creative critical thinking.

By Wouter Groeneveld on 29 November 2021.

A 5.25" Gobliins 2 Surprise
24 November 2021 | 12:20 pm

Few games are as dear to me as Gobliins 2 thanks to fond memories of me playing the quirky early nineties adventure game together with my father on his brand new 80486 machine. He had to drive to Brussels to get hold of the latest and greatest piece of technology, of course paying handsomely. The game is labeled as Big Personal Impact in my favorite game meme list—heck, I even designed my retro game blog Jefklak’s Codex with its sprites!

I still own the official manual and 1.44 MB HD floppies. Unfortunately, as with most of these ancient big box DOS games, the box got lost in-between several moves. Or I might have thrown it out at some point. Knowing how much it means to me, dear retro enthusiast Peter Bridger was kind enough to let go of his copy, which arrived yesterday. After paying the hefty import tax fee of €21—thank you, Brexit. The invoice form kindly informed you of an intricate procedure to dispute the amount in case of a gift, leading up to an even more confusing website, leading up to a dead end called a FAQ. Faq that, I thought, here’s your money, now shut up and send me my game!

Four meaty Gobliins 2 floppies in all its glory, next to my Gob3 bix box containing five High Density floppies.

Our version of the game came with the usual 3.5" floppies, while Peter’s came with chunky 5.25" ones. These are so awesome, I couldn’t stop smiling while flapping them in the air. What else evokes that fuzzy and warm retro feeling besides really old 360 KB floppies? The blue label on the lower right reads:

GOBLIINS 2—IBM PC 5.25". 256 VGA HARD DISK ONLY. 1.2 Meg disks 640k RAM min. DOS 3.0 min. AdLib Soundblaster Microsoft mouse required.

The yellow sticker on the Goblins 3 box is a bit more generic:

3" 1/2 HD. PC & Compatibles. MS. DOS. VGA 256 Colors - Hard Disk. SOFTWAREPROGRAMM UND ERLAUTERUNG.

The side of the Gob3 box reveals more technical requirements: AT 386-16 MHz or more recommended. MS-DOS 3.0 or more. 640 K RAM - 256 K extended memory recommended. Graphic card: VGA 256 colors. Microsoft compatible mouse. Sound cards: SoundBlaster, Pro-Audio, Adlib. CD-ROM version: driver with audio output. Oooh, there was a CD version? That reminds me, I still need to get hold of Woodruff and the Schnibble of Azimuth!

The problem is, my 486 PC I restored last year doesn’t even have a drive bay for these big plastic things! A swift eBay search finally wipes that grin off my face: €100 for an old 5" drive bay, excluding €20+ shipping, not taking any additional taxes into account? Damn, retro hardware can be stupidly expensive. Many old bays don’t even work anymore, some contain brittle rubber bands, some require a lot of tinkering to revive. I had my hopes up for a flea market or retro computer gig this year, but a certain virus put a halt to most events…

The design of the back of each box is lovingly put together.

To prevent early pirates from copying that floppy (Don’t Copy That Floppy!!), game developers relied on all sorts of inventive copy protection use cases. The Gobliins games came with a code book where you’d have to look up a color combination based on a row and column, instructed by the old wizard in the intro screen who also introduced you to the story. It’s reminiscent of Monkey Island’s Dial A Pirate wheel.

Other games asked you to input a word or sentence one-third throughout the game as part of the story. If you didn’t have the booklet, you were stuck. Photocopying the booklet that time was usually done in black-and-white, hence Coktel Vision’s reliance on a color combination instead of gray scales. The way the code book is folded and stapled together further hampers a quick photocopy. Ah, the days before DRM…

Thanks so much Peter, you made my day—or week, or month. Things have been awfully quiet here, so the mental boost was more than welcome. Now I really need to jump-start the Quest For The Five Inch Floppy Drive. I inherited a few big floppies from my grandparents who passed away in 2020, and I was keen to read its contents, so it’ll have to be done, one way or another.

In case you’re wondering what the heck Gobliins 2 is about, read my short review from 2006 that is in dire need of restoration. My wife and I are replaying the game—I promise I’ll write a more lengthy report sometime soon.

I still haven’t found a decent way to capture VGA output though… Still lots to do in Retro Land!

By Wouter Groeneveld on 24 November 2021.

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