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Monday, February 11, 2013

I'd love to see a C-64 style intro for a Linux distribution

Back in the C-64 days, if you didn't get all of your software from a place like Babbage's or some other legitimate source, chances are you got to experience some "extras". These were intros which would appear when you first started the program and would do a whole bunch of neat graphics and sounds while telling a story, showing shout-outs to their friends, talking smack about someone, and possibly advertising their BBS.

If you never experienced any of this and want to know what I'm talking about, or if you did and just want some nostalgia, go watch a few. It'll give you a good taste of what it used to be like.

Back from Youtube? Okay. Here's a little background music to keep you occupied while reading the rest of this post. I'll explain where it came from a bit later.

Usually you'd see one intro done by whoever did the "warez" distribution. These were the people who called all over the place, probably by using cracked long distance "extenders", and shipped files around. They'd bring them from the elite overseas people to local bulletin boards where they had limits like "0-2 days". Anything older than that wasn't welcome.

Then you'd usually see another intro done by whoever cracked it. This would be someone who figured out how to get rid of any copy protection and sometimes even reduced what might be a whole disk full of junk to a single binary which could be moved around without too much trouble. Other times, they'd just break the copy protection but would keep it as a full disk, so a system of "zip files" (not like the later PKZIP that you know as .zip) was arranged. These files would have names like "1!FOO" and "2!FOO" and so on, and they could be used to put together an entire floppy image.

A lot of work must have gone into doing this stuff. The people who made those intros clearly wanted to show off their skills. I didn't know anything about the technology involved, but looking back at it now, I wonder if they were trying to do things like have "too many sprites" or "too many colors" on the screen at the same time by doing fancy tricks. The idea was that if the machine had a limited palette and you somehow managed to put up more colors than that on the same screen, you must have been pretty amazing.

I remember someone making a lot of noise about a program which played actual audio which had been painstakingly imported from a cassette tape somehow and was compressed to fit in the machine's tiny memory. While they were proud of that, the real feat was how it managed to keep the screen on while playing things back. Apparently, it was a common trick to turn off the display in order to run other things more quickly. If you had the display on, the other stuff had to run at its normal speed. That meant you had to get your work done with fewer cycles per unit of time. Again, it was all about pushing those limits and showing off.

As someone who just watched this from a user's perspective, it was always interesting to see what would come next. After the second intro, there might sometimes be a "trainer". This is where someone had managed to figure out how the game tracked things like health, lives, bullets, or whatever, and had arranged ways to patch that code for their own purposes. If you wanted unlimited lives, they'd just patch out the part which decremented the counter when you died. Likewise, if you wanted unlimited health, they'd remove the thing which subtracted from that counter when you were hit. The same applied to bullets or other consumables.

There were some basic conventions to all of this. You usually skipped/exited an intro with the SPACE bar. If they did some kind of "unpacking" stage between intros (to decompress data in order to run or display it), they'd frequently use the screen memory as temp space. This meant you'd see a blob of junk appear, and I imagine those probably could be mapped onto 6502 assembler if you knew enough about those things. Sometimes they'd even store the counters for their loops in screen memory, so as it ran, you'd actually get to see it change as the loop did its thing and overwrote one chunk with another.

I kind of miss that stuff. I got to thinking about this recently and realized someone could do this with current software to really blow some minds. Imagine how it might look if someone "packaged" a Linux distribution this way just for a gag.

You'd start it up and it would have some weird scrolly things going on with their raster bars and group initials flying around. Imagine a penguin wearing a red hat while the letters R H E L fly around and cross over each other. At the bottom, text that's hard to read scrolls by and says hello to all of the other distributions out there.

You hit SPACE and it goes off for a minute and then starts something else up. Maybe this one would say something like "LiNuX ReLeaSeD oN FeBRuaRY 11, 2013 BY ..." and would have some more shout-outs to other kernel developers. There would be different music playing here, naturally.

Then, you'd reach the trainer. Instead of having unlimited lives and bullets, maybe you'd have something like "Protection from rm -rf / as root", "Block SQL injection" and "Restrict JSON decoding".

Finally, you'd get past that and the kernel would boot.

Okay, fine, that's silly, I know, but it would still be a trip.

So, have you reached the end of the song yet? Did you hear the little glitch at the end? I made sure to keep that in. I always loved hearing that "PING!" right before the music restarted.

This particular music was extracted from a file called "RAD SU ML 2", which apparently means RAD (as in the "RAD BBS" software), setup, machine language #2. This was a file which loaded in at $C000 (49152) and was started when you went into the setup program for this particular BBS software. It played the whole time you were in there working on configuring things. The author wanted it to be an interesting environment, and I would say that he succeeded at that. I think this particular song was from version 4.5 released in the summer of 1989.

Those were indeed interesting times. Can you imagine the reaction if setting up a database in 2013 kicked off some electronic music to keep you company while you clicked through a bunch of options? People would be out with pitchforks!

February 12, 2013: This post has an update.