Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A few words on old floppy and tape media for retro gaming

Happy New Year :3

If you own a C64, an Amstrad CPC, an Amiga or a ZX Spectrum you might know the problem with old media. floppy and tape lasts not a long time and soon you are confronted with a vanishing game collection.

There are a lot projects that are trying to work against this process. I consider these different ways:

(1) Don't use legacy hardware. Use emulators.
(2) Use reconfigurable computers.
(3) Buy games from ebay.
(4) Use Floppy / Tape-Emulators or alike
(5) Buy Hardware that can transfer images to blank media.

As a gaming console collector option 1 is not tolerable... no authentic video and no authentic sound.... especially in the case of the C64 and the NES.

Option 2 is not very common yet. There are a lot of products for some systems. For example minimig, the c-one, the mmc-216 and the turbo chameleon 64. These solutions are perfect for preserving legacy hardware for the future. At time of writing I do own a turbo chameleon and it's most of the time like an emulator in terms of authenticity and not even 100% compatible if you want to play games that are not well known. You can say emulators did have a lot of time to be lead to perfection.

Option 3 is awful as the bought media someday will also lose data after a few years. If you are really retro and you don't want to spend a lot of money on ebay the options 4 and 5 are the way to go.

To further differentiate the option 4 I would like to split it in true drive emulation and system expansions.

Take for example a few floppy emulators.
SD HxC Floppy Emulator for Amiga 500, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST and SD2IEC for C64.

I have to admit, I don't own one of these. And I can tell you why. You get some kind of "emulation load time waiting syndrome". Just try to use winuae for amiga emulation without any floppy acceleration. Sometimes you wonder if the software is still loading or maybe has crashed as you are unable to hear the step motor of your floppy and sense the loading process.
You can also say that something like this destroys the whole experience of your retro gaming session. The only benefit is the obsolence of physical media, which maybe is easier and doesn't needs any space of storage.

A different solution in technical meaning is the usage of software to archive the goal. The WHDLoad Project has the goal to crack modify amiga games to make them possible to be installed on a hard drive. No disk swapping (not even virtual ones). And NO loading times. divIDE is a hardware expansion that does something simililar on the zx spectrum.
I don't know a c64 solution, but MMC64 seems to be the way to go for single loader games.

So, If you want to go for fast loading and no physical medium the latter ones are the way to go. I do especially like WHDLoad as these modified games are less crippled and less buggy than the ones in the past that had to fight with available disk space.

After these tinkering words lets dive into my favourite possibilitly: Bringing the real physical disk or tape back to life with the usage of images and hardware support. I want to share the ways I've discovered during my retro gaming life.

My Solutions

Amiga - Floppy

I always wanted to have a catweasel controller. It's a very flexible floppy controller that is capable of writing various formats. Amiga, c64 and some others. But the price tag was at the level of an amiga 1200 itself, so i gave it a pass.

The first solution I discovered was the Amiga Explorer. That was 10 years ago :-D. It offers access to filesystem and storage devices over the serial port. You just need some sort of serial cable as the software could be paired happily with amiga dos 1.3 that is installed on most amiga 500 models.
But it was rather slow and took about 11 minutes for a disk transfer. :-(

After that i tried crossdos. It makes your amiga capable of reading 720kb FAT formated disks. Use a software to split the 880kb adf image, transfer it using 2 disks and write it back to an floppy using the marvelous programm adf2disk.
But also slow and tedious.

... of course you can also use a terminal software with xmodem....

After I bought an amiga 1200 2 years ago I discovered a much better and faster solution. Hook up a cheap IDE hard drive to it and buy a amiga network card. It was only about 15€ if i remember. Install the miami tcp/ip stack and the ftp server ftpd. Transfer adf images using ftp and write them again using adf2disk. If you actually possess an 1200 model this is really the way to go if you don't want to use whdload, which needs a ram expansion for preloading. And that costs a lot of money .... but it was worth it. I've expanded my 1200 using the aca1230 from individual computers.

C64 - Floppy

This is one thing the MMC64 was created for. Grab your d64 images, put them onto a sd card, slam this device in you commodore and dump them all on real disks. The only problem is that you need to buy it.... and it doesn't exists anymore as it is replaced by the turbo chameleon. And this costs 200€... but was worth it... anyway...

A very cheap and successful solution is the usage of a XM1541. This is a cable that connects to your average gigantic and power hungry 1541 floppy station and your pcs parallel port. You can then use a linux or windows program to transfer d64 images with a lot of comfort.... I have very good experience using the OpenCBM linux drivers.
There is just one problem. It needs a parallel port and to make it more awful it has to be a true 5V one. Last year I've bought a new computer and yes it has a parallel port. And NO!! its not 5V compatible. Of course an alternative is created. The XS1541... but there is a lot more hardware on it as it isn't just a cable.

So this is difficult. If you still have a pc with a "real" parallel port, go for the XM1541 as it is very cheap and gives fast results.

The turbo chameleon is insanely expensive if you just want to use it as a "floppy / mmc64 - emulator" but it sure is an easy solution I will soon try do discover. The floppy emulation works great but..... "emulation load time waiting syndrome" in it's worst case. I've tried loading turrican using this and I've asked myself 2 times if it crashed before even playing the first level. I'm such an impatient person. >:-)

Atari ST - Floppy

The Atari ST offers two different solutions. As it uses a floppy controller that is very simililar to the ones inside your pc you could just use some imaging tools to write the .st image to a disk. Very easy and cheap if you still own a floppy drive in your pc that you just bought in 2012 :-P. (Worked great with Rodland for example)

But a lot of games (Turrican, Turrican 2 to name a few) use a special disk geometry that could not be handled by the rather restrictive controller inside the pc. So you need a different solution and It took me a long time to find it.

I created myself a 720kb disk using my pc with the programs JayMSA, Ghostlink, HSModem and HyperFormater. Don't ask me where I got it. The disk is now a few years old.

Connect your atari st with a null modem cable to your pc and use dosbox with the dos master program of ghostlink. You get an atari st that has mounted a folder on your pc and can write a disk image which does the job quite well.

I think the atari st was the most difficult of the things listet here as these tools were scattered around. Also it has the same problem as the "Amiga Explorer" as the solution is very slow as the baud rate is limited to 19200.

Amstrad CPC - Floppy

Same situation as with the atari st and !NO! special disk geometry. Just use disk imaging software and some adapter that can be easily built with 2€ to connect a 3.5" floppy to your cpc. I combine it with komacopy to copy the 3.5" to a real 3" (no spelling error here) floppy as I don't want to modify my cpc to be able to boot of the external drive.

The adapter is very simple. Just cut an average floppy cable and connect it to an centronics adapter. But before you do that, look at the back of your cpc as the german cpcs seem to have a different connector compared to english ones.

ZX Spectrum, C64, Amstrad CPC - Tape

Do you know the feeling if you just used a cracked image security backup of your game and it crashes because some cracker didn't do it's job right. It happens a lot on c64 and cpc games if you try some cracked modified floppy versions. So what do you do if you couldn't find any different floppy version. Without any special hardware it's impossible to dump the original floppy version to a real disk. Even finding it is rather difficult. Yes, you bite into the sour apple (you say that in german) and use the tape version... the original and uncracked unmodifed ones. Also on most spectrums you have to do so as only the +3 posesses a floppy drive.

So first you try to take your tapedeck, plug it in to your line out of your pc and then use some software to simulate the playing of the audio waves to dump the image back to tape. And yes it works. But most of the time only with cracked tape images. I can hear you laughing! Yes! There is a copy protection on music tapes. It works using rather high frequencies that could not easily copied using your average stereo with noise reduction and all that shit.

So you need some device that is able to replay the image in a better way than the soundcard of your computer.
Stay tuned on this channel for the next article !! :-)
I want to describle a tape emulator that I've build myself to overcome this problem.


  1. << Sometimes you wonder if the software is still loading or maybe has crashed as you are unable to hear the step motor of your floppy and sense the loading process.>>

    That's why there is a small speaker on the SD HxC Floppy Emulator... ;)

    1. Wow! First I feared that nobody is reading the stuff I write here or not even able to find the blog. So thank you very much for this comment as you've proven it wrong.

      I guess you are Jeff, the developer of this project. Please don't get me wrong. I haven't seen one of your videos yet. I've just seen "Final SDCard HxC Floppy Emulator on AtariST" and yes, this is enough sound to ensure there is still something going on. :-)

      How did you even find this post? It's not even one day old and the developer itself finds a mistake in my ramblings.

    2. Google scan everything every day ;). I regularly do some google search to see what happens on the last day/week with the hxc floppy emulator on the web ;)