Copy Protection In The 80s, Showcased By Classic Game Dungeon Master

Making a copy of a purchased game used to be as simple as copying a disk. As the game industry grew, so did fear of revenue loss which drove investment in countermeasures. These mainly consisted of preventing the easy duplication of magnetic diskettes, or having users jump through tiresome hoops like entering specific words from the printed manual. These measures rarely posed much of a challenge to the dedicated efforts of crackers, but the copy protection in the classic 80s game Dungeon Master for the Atari ST and Amiga was next-level. It implemented measures that went well beyond its contemporaries, and while it was eventually defeated, it took about a year to happen. In an era where games were cracked within days or even hours of release, that was remarkable.

Dungeon Master was a smash hit at the time, and while the details of its own brand of what we would now call DRM may not be new, this video presentation by [Modern Vintage Gamer] (YouTube link) does a wonderful job of stepping through everything it did, and begins with an informative tour of copy protection efforts of the era for context.

The video is embedded below, but if you’d like to skip directly to the details about Dungeon Master, that all starts just past eight minutes in. What we now call DRM clearly had roots that preceded the digital world of today; an absurd timeline in which even cat litterboxes can have DRM.

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Automated Dice Tester Uses Machine Vision To Ensure A Fair Game

People take their tabletop games very, very seriously. [Andrew Lauritzen], though, has gone far above and beyond in pursuit of a fair game. The game in question is Star War: X-Wing, a strategy wargame where miniature pieces are moved according to rolls of the dice. [Andrew] suspected that commercially available dice were skewing the game, and the automated machine-vision dice tester shown in the video after the break was the result.

The rig is a very clever design that maximizes the data set with as little motion as possible. The test chamber is a box with clear ends that can be flipped end-for-end by a motor; walls separate the chamber into four channels to test multiple dice on each throw, and baffles within the channels assure randomization. A webcam is positioned below the chamber to take a snapshot of each “throw”, which is then analyzed in OpenCV. This scheme has the unfortunate effect of looking at the dice from the table’s perspective, but [Andrew] dealt with that in true hacker fashion: he ignored it since it didn’t impact the statistics he was interested in.

And speaking of statistics, he generated a LOT of them. The 62-page report of results from his study is an impressive piece of work, which basically concludes that the dice aren’t fair due to manufacturing variability, and that players could use this fact to cheat. He recommends pooled sets of dice to eliminate advantages during competitive play. 

This isn’t the first automated dice roller we’ve seen around these parts. There was the tweeting dice-bot, the Dice-O-Matic, and all manner of electronic dice throwers. This one goes the extra mile to keep things fair, and we appreciate that.

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Mini Flickering Torch Effect Uses Neither Wires Nor Solder

Cross section of pillar model.

[ROBAGON] makes miniature, 3D-printable gaming terrain and features like these stone pillars with flickering torch. His model isn’t free to download (though it’s under $2 at the time of writing), but the part that impressed us was his clever way of using electric tea lights to create a flickering torch effect without needing any soldering or wiring whatsoever.

His solution was to make the base of the pillar large enough to fit an electric tea light, which uses a flickering LED to simulate a candle flame. The molded plastic “flame” is removed from the tea light and placed in the torch sconce, while the tea light itself goes into the base. A short segment of clear acrylic rod is used as a light pipe, running from the tea light’s LED to the base of the torch.

It’s a simple, effective, and economical solution that doesn’t require running or soldering a single wire and you can see it work in the brief video embedded below. Now all that’s missing for those Dungeons & Dragons sessions is this custom calculator.

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New Controller For Retro Console

In the world of retro gaming, when using emulators and non-native hardware it’s pretty common to use whatever USB controller happens to be available. This allows us to get a nostalgic look while using a  configurable controller. One thing that isn’t as common is using the original hardware while still finding a way to adapt a modern controller to an old console. This is exactly what you need though, when you’re retro gaming on a platform with notoriously terrible controllers.

[Scott] enjoys his Atari 5200 but the non-centering and generically terrible joystick wasn’t well received even in the early 80s when the console was in its prime. He decided that using a Dual Shock controller from a Playstation 2 would provide a much better gaming experience, and set about building an adapter. He found that in a way the Dual Shock controller was an almost perfect pairing for the Atari because it has two analog control sticks built-in already. There’s also an array of information on pairing the Dual Shock controller with AVR microcontrollers, so he wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel. From there, it was just a matter of pairing communications protocols between the two pieces of hardware.

The project page goes into quite a bit of detail on SPI communication protocols and the needs of both the Atari and the Playstation controller. If you’re a retro gaming fan, really into communication protocols, or have always had a love-hate relationship with your Atari because the controllers were just that bad, it’s worth checking out. If this is too much, though, there are other ways to get that Atari nostalgia.

Thanks to [Baldpower] for the tip!

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This Xbox 360 Is Powered By Steam

Now that we’re far enough into the next generation of home video game consoles that we can’t really keep calling them that anymore, yard sales are sure to be full of lonely Xbox 360s and PS3s that have been put out to pasture. You’ll probably even find a Wii U or two out there that somebody accidentally purchased. This is great for hackers who like cramming new electronics into outdated consumer gear, and accordingly, we’re starting to see the fruits of that generational shift.

Case in point, this Xbox 360 which has been transformed into a “Steam Box” by [Pedro Mateus]. He figured the Xbox 360 was the proper size to fit a full PC plus PSU, while still looking contemporary enough that it won’t seem out of place in the entertainment center. Running SteamOS on Fedora 28, it even offers a traditional game console experience and user interface, despite the decidedly PC internals.

On the outside, the only thing that really gives away this particular Xbox’s new lease on life (when the purple LEDs are off, anyway) is the laser cut acrylic Steam logo on the top that serves as a grill for the internal CPU cooler. Ironically, [Pedro] did spray the Xbox white instead of just starting with a black one, but otherwise, there wasn’t much external modification necessary. Inside, of course, is a very different story.

It’s packing an AMD Ryzen 5 2400G processor with Radeon RX Vega 11GPU and 8GB of Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4 3200MHz RAM. Power is provided by a Seasonic SS-300TFX 300W, and a Noctua NH-L9a-AM4 keeps the system cool. Even with all that gear in there, the thing is probably still quieter than the stock Xbox 360.

[Pedro] helpfully provides quite a few benchmarks for those wondering how this hacked-up Xbox fares against a more traditional gaming setup, though peak performance was obviously not the goal here. If you’ve got 45 minutes or so to spare, you should check out the video he’s put together after the break, which goes over the machine’s construction.

We’ve seen it done with the original Xbox, and now the Xbox 360. Who will be the first to send in their build that guts a current-generation Xbox and turns it into a PC for Internet fame?

[Thanks to Mike for the tip.]

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Dual-Port Memory And Raspberry Pi Team Up For Retro Console Multicart

There’s something powerful about reliving the experience of using a game console from our personal good old days, especially the tactile memories stored up from hundreds of hours handling a chintzy joystick or the sound and feel of inserting a game cartridge. Emulators have their place, but they fall far short of period-correct hardware in the nostalgia department.

That’s not to say that the retro gear can’t use a little help in terms of usability, which is why [Scott M. Baker] built this Raspberry Pi multi-cartridge for his Atari 5200. The idea is to maintain the experience of the cartridge interface without having to keep stacks of cartridges around for all the games he wants to play. [Scott] leveraged the approach he used when he built a virtual floppy drive for a homebrew PC/XT: dual-port memory. The IDT7007 is a 32k chip that lives between the Atari 5200 and a Raspberry Pi Zero and can be addressed by both systems; the Pi to write ROM images to the memory, and the console to read them. He had to deal with some fussy details like chip select logic and dealing with the cartridge interlock signals, not to mention the difference in voltage between the memory chip’s logic levels and that of the Pi. Retro game-play occupies the first part of the video below; skip to 6:45 for build details.

The one quibble we have is trying to jam everything into an old cartridge. It’s critical to replicating the tactile experience, and while we don’t think we’d have gone so far as to injection mold a custom cartridge to house everything without any protrusions, we might have 3D-printed a custom cartridge instead. In the end it doesn’t detract much from the finished project, though, and we appreciate the mix of old and new tech.

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Old Laptop? Mobile X86 Game System!

Between smartphones and tablets, computing is becoming increasingly mobile in nature. It used to be that everyone had a desktop computer, then laptops became the norm, and now many people don’t have anything beyond their mobile device. Unless you’re the kind of person who actually needs the power and versatility offered by a “real” computer, mobile devices are simply a more convenient option to browse the web and consume content.

But what if your needs are somewhere in the middle? You want an x86 computer and full operating system, but you also want something that’s more mobile than a tablet? If you’re like [mnt], you take an old Atom laptop that’s on its last legs and rebuild it as the Hacktop.

[mnt] describes the Hacktop as an “Emergency Gaming/Hacking Station”, and says he uses it everywhere he goes. Inspired by his Nintendo DSi, gaming controls are front-and-center on the Hacktop and he uses the machine to play everything from Half-Life to classic emulators.

But the Hacktop is capable of more than just playing Amiga games. The hand-soldered QWERTZ keyboard can be used with his thumbs, and the D-Pad doubles as the cursor keys. There’s a laptop touch pad on the back of the case, and the ten-inch LCD display is a touch screen as well. Definitely no shortage of input devices on this thing. It’s also packing some interesting special features, such as integrated RTL-SDR and LIRC hardware for mobile exploration and experimentation. [mnt] says the nine-cell battery should keep it alive and kicking for twelve hours or so, but it of course depends on what kind of stuff he gets into while out and about.

Hackers have been building their own mobile devices for a long time, and we’re always struck by the creative approaches individuals take compared to the rather cookie-cutter world of mobile consumer technology.