Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

Archive for October, 2018

October of Horror #6: Warlock (1989)

Posted by Trixter on October 6, 2018

(For an explanation of what these posts in October are, see the parent post.)

Synopsis

A warlock flees the Puritan era to modern day, looking for the three halves of the Dark Grimoire:¬† The Devil’s Bible that can undo all of creation.¬† A witch hunter from the same era gets help from a young modern woman to track the warlock and try to stop him.

Opinion

15 minutes into the film, I got the sense that this wasn’t really a horror film, but more along the lines of medieval fantasy.¬† Turns out I was right:¬† If you’re expecting scares, revulsion, and dread, you won’t find it in Warlock.¬† But does that make it bad?¬† On the contrary, I found it very entertaining.¬† There is a surprisingly small amount of outright scenery chewing; everyone plays it straight, which works.

While I never got the feeling anyone was truly emoting (Julian Sands as the titular character looks the part but never really feels the part), what was entertaining was learning all of the witch lore:

  • You can cripple a witch’s foot by hammering their footprint
  • Witches hate salt, and are both hurt and bound by it
  • Witches can fly by making a potion primarily out of the fat of a young boy
  • Witches cannot set foot on hallowed ground

…and so on.¬† Everyone knows vampire lore, but not everyone knows witch lore, and I found that maintaining my interest throughout the film.

Bonus points for a played-straight appearance by reliable 70’s and 80’s B-movie staple Mary Wolonov, who delivers exactly what was necessary for the character.

Recommendation

For some fantasy fare that is sideways from science fiction and lighter than horror, you could do a lot worse (like the two Warlock sequels I’m dreading).

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October of Horror #5: The Night Stalker (1972)

Posted by Trixter on October 5, 2018

(For an explanation of what these posts in October are, see the parent post.)

Synopsis

News reporter Carl Kolchak covers a series of murders, and discovers a link between them that suggests the killer is imitating a vampire.¬† But when he witnesses the killer evading police, he sees things he cannot ignore, and comes to the conclusion that the killer might actually be a real vampire.¬† How do you convince the police department a real vampire is on the loose — and worse, how do you stop it?

Opinion

Originally a made-for-TV movie, The Night Stalker¬†was something I’d hear about from time to time but never had a motivation for watching it until Dana Gould mentioned it on his podcast.¬† Based on that recommendation, I finally tracked down a pristine copy and watched it (sans commercials), which put it at a short movie length.

So how does it hold up today?¬† Very well!¬† The movie is populated completely with character actors (Darren McGavin, Claude Aikens, even Larry Linville before he was a staple on M.A.S.H.) and they all do a fine job.¬† The pacing is great; you’re never bored.¬† As an added bonus, the movie doesn’t shy away from an honest ending.

Recommendation

At only 1h15m, it’s definitely worth your time — and, if you ever have a need for such a thing, it’s appropriate for the family (no swearing, no nudity, and genuine tension without being disturbing).

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Vintage DOS MIDI Game Music Explained

Posted by Trixter on October 5, 2018

For people who are just getting started into vintage DOS gaming, MIDI music device support in games can be confusing:¬† What’s MIDI?¬† Why don’t MIDI devices play digital sound?¬† If all you have is MIDI, how do you hear sound effects?¬† This¬†article will attempt to explain, as succinctly as possible, how MIDI devices became a part of DOS gaming music history, and how they were used for composing and playing back game music.¬† This article is not an extensive technical dive, but is meant to be an explanation for the novice DOS gamer who is new to the platform.

This information originally appeared as correspondence with Fabien Sanglard, who is working on the next book in his Game Engine Black Blook series.  His previous book, Game Engine Black Book: Wolfenstein 3D, is highly recommended.

What is MIDI?

MIDI is a synthesizer music control protocol, and stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It was created in the 1980s as a way to connect keyboards, drum machines, other synthesizers, etc. together. Once connected, they could do things like have one instrument (like a keyboard) control another (like a drum machine), they could all refer to the same time sync signal, and also be connected to a computer using a computer MIDI interface. Once connected to a computer, the computer could record all of the notes passing along the MIDI protocol, effectively capturing the live performance.  Once captured, the computer allowed the user to edit the performance, make changes, and play it back out to all of the connected instruments.

MIDI instruments were connected to each other using cables employing a male 5-pin circular connector.

What was the Roland MT-32?
What was the Roland LAPC-I?

The Roland MT-32 was an external, standalone MIDI music synthesizer that you could connect with MIDI cables to a computer fitted with a MIDI adapter, such as the Roland MPU-401. This hardware allowed high-quality (for the time) music playback, better than the FM/OPL-based AdLib (and later Sound Blaster) cards. Sierra supported the MT-32 (and other sound and music devices) as early as 1987 and pushed for sound/music devices to be better-supported throughout the industry, leading with their own products first.¬† It is fair to credit Sierra with establishing higher-quality sound devices, and the MT-32 in particular, as a PC gaming “standard”.

The Roland LAPC-I combined the MPU-401 MIDI interface with an upgraded version of the MT-32 called the CM-32L into a single ISA card, so adding just that card would give you “MT-32” music playback, plus 33 additional sound effects.

The MT-32 was primarily a music synthesizer. Like any traditional musical keyboard synth, it had over 100 preset instruments, and some canned sound effects (gunshot, rain, explosion, wind, etc.). It also had the ability to change the parameters of those instruments and modify them to sound differently. Changing an instrument was done via SYSEX (SYStem EXclusive) MIDI commands. The MT-32 was not based on the Yamaha OPL series like the AdLib/Sound Blaster, but used a Roland-proprietary combination of prerecorded samples and subtractive synthesis.  You could not fundamentally create your own instrument or sound effect, but you could modify what already came with the MT-32.

The MT-32 only communicated via MIDI. MIDI does not have the ability to transmit PCM samples, so it had no ability to play custom digitized audio. The LAPC-I also lacked this capability:¬† While it was an add-in ISA card, it didn’t add digital sound playback to the existing CM-32L + MIDI interface combo it was designed to reproduce.¬† (A later card, the RAP-10, added this functionality.)

What was the Roland SC-55?
What was the Roland SCC-1?
Why were they a significant milestone of DOS gaming music?

The Roland SC-55 was the very first General MIDI standard device. The General MIDI standard was significant in that it defined 128 instruments that every device following the standard could adopt. Before General MIDI, there was no standardization: Instrument #4 could be “organ” or “flute” or “snare drum”, etc…¬† but in General MIDI, instrument #4 is always “Honky-Tonk Piano”. This standard was the real breakthrough for DOS gaming music, because it meant all MIDI music devices following the standard could reproduce the music nearly the same, as they would all be using the same instruments.¬† (That said, the SC-55 also had outstanding sound quality, which was also a breakthrough.)¬† Of the 128 instruments, 16 were sound effects.¬† An additional 46 percussive sounds (snare drum, hi-hat, etc.) were also available on a specific playback channel.

Like the MT-32, the SC-55 connected to the computer using MIDI cables and a MIDI interface installed in the computer. The Roland SCC-1 was like the LAPC-I: It combined an SC-55 and an MPU-401 onto a single ISA add-in card.

How was MIDI music for DOS games composed?

Standalone synthesizer modules like the MT-32 and the SC-55 can only be controlled via the MIDI protocol, sent over MIDI cables to the module. If you want to compose music to be played back on those modules, it is best practice to compose the music using the module itself. Because the module has no musical keyboard attached, it was common to use a synthesizer keyboard connected via MIDI to control the module. This was typically done by capturing a live performance on the keyboard into a MIDI note recording program called a MIDI sequencer, usually on a computer. Once captured on the computer, it could be edited like any media.

Why do I still need a Sound Blaster to hear sound in DOS games?

MIDI devices like the MT-32 and SC-55 were primarily designed as music synthesizer modules, and only contained a small number of sound effects.¬† The sound effects were so limited that most games didn’t bother trying to support them, so if one of those devices were all that you had, then you only heard music in a DOS game and no sound effects or speech. So, most DOS gamers also installed a card to play PCM sound, such as a Sound Blaster.¬† To hear both sound devices at the same time, users could run both to a mixer which output to a single set of speakers, but a cheaper option was to run the audio output of the MIDI module into the “line in” jack on a Sound Blaster, then connect the “line out” jack of the Sound Blaster to speakers.¬† Then the Sound Blaster internal mixer could be adjusted via software such that Line In was mixed into the output even while not recording.

While most games didn’t use MT-32 or SCC-1 canned sound effects, there were a few exceptions.¬† Sierra games using the SCI interpreter would occasionally use them (see Space Quest III for an example of MIDI sound effect use on the very first gameplay screen), and Another World (USA title “Out Of This World”) used the additional effects in the LAPC-I/CM-32L.

What music device should I pick when running a DOS game that has multiple options?

If you have an emulator configured for all possible DOS game sound standards — or, if you’re lucky and rich, a choice of sound hardware to put into a vintage DOS gaming system — then you should usually pick General MIDI with any sound extensions first, then General MIDI, then FM-based.¬† Here is a general list of sound options listed from best MIDI music quality to worst MIDI music quality; pick the highest option you have available:

  1. General MIDI (Yamaha XG or XG extensions)
  2. General MIDI (Roland SCC-1, Roland SC-55, Roland GS extensions)
  3. General MIDI
  4. Turtle Beach Multisound
  5. Roland LAPC-1 or CM-32L
  6. Roland MT-32
  7. Sound Blaster 16, Sound Blaster Pro 2 (Yamaha OPL-4 or OPL-3 FM compatible)
  8. Sound Blaster Pro (Yamaha OPL-2 stereo FM)
  9. AdLib or Sound Blaster (Yamaha OPL-2 FM)
  10. Creative Music System or Game Blaster
  11. Tandy/PCjr 3-voice audio
  12. PC speaker

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October of Horror #4: Fright Night (1985)

Posted by Trixter on October 4, 2018

(For an explanation of what these posts in October are, see the parent post.)

Synopsis

Charlie is almost certainly sure that his new neighbor is a vampire: He sees a coffin being brought into the basement, and women have a nasty habit of turning up dead once they visit next door.  Problem is, nobody believes him.  Desperate, he enlists the help of his friends and a washed-up horror movie actor to confront the vampire once and for all.

Opinion

I’d somehow missed this movie when it first came out, but my wife Melissa had seen it nearly a hundred times as it was in regular rotation on HBO in the 1980s, so we watched it together.¬† Unlike yesterday’s disaster Return of the Living Dead II, Fright Night mixes together just the right amount of comedy and horror.¬† The supporting players (Chris Sarandon, Roddy McDowall, and¬†Stephen Geoffreys) are standouts, with Geoffreys in particular striking an unnerving, off-balance character that made him perfect for his later starring role in 976-EVIL.

The story is simple but engaging, the pacing is even throughout, it hits all of the right vampire lore notes, and the practical effects are cheesy but fun to watch.

Recommendation

While it may not be the best film ever made about vampires, it’s great fun, and definitely worth your time.

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October of Horror #3: Return of the Living Dead II

Posted by Trixter on October 3, 2018

(For an explanation of what these posts in October are, see the parent post.)

Synopsis

That pesky toxic chemical Trioxin returns to transform the dead into living zombies that crave the taste of live brains.  The four main actors from the first installment return in an alternate storyline similar to the first film.

Opinion

The original Return of the Living Dead is one of my favorite horror movies:  It strikes the perfect balance of horror and black comedy.  I not only own it on blu-ray, but I made my own version that uses the 1080p video with the VHS audio, retaining the excellent soundtrack.

This sequel, Return of the Living Dead II, is not that movie.  It strives for 50% physical comedy, 50% horror, and misses the mark at nearly every turn.  An original screenplay forcibly adapted to the Living Dead series, it feels like the filmmakers were trying to create a kid-friendly version of the original.

Recommendation

Not worth spending time on.¬† If you’re thinking of seeing it anyway, know that it has 0% on Rotten Tomatoes.¬† Skip it and watch the vastly superior original instead.

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October of Horror #2: A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)

Posted by Trixter on October 2, 2018

(For an explanation of what these posts in October are, see the parent post.)

Synopsis

Teenage kids are killed by a burnt madman, who comes after them in their dreams once they fall asleep.

Opinion

Believe it or not, I’d never seen A Nightmare On Elm Street all the way through from start to finish until tonight.¬† It was the basis for many movie sequels, reboots, tie-ins, and even a horror anthology series in the late 1980s (as was trendy at the time).¬† Based on how many VHS copies are available on ebay, A Nightmare On Elm Street contributed massively to keeping rental stores afloat.

So, how did it hold up?¬† As a teenager, I’m sure I would have been very scared by this.¬† I recruited my wife Melissa to watch it with me, and while there were some legitimate I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened moments, they are few and far between.¬† The movie is less horror, more campy-slasher catered to the teenage crowd.

Recommendation

The original Nightmare on Elm Street series is probably best left in the 1980s, but if you want a conclusion to the original film, skip to the 3rd entry in the series, Dream Warrior, where the good guys actually win for a change.  And if you really want to see Freddy go at it, Check out Freddy vs. Jason which is way better than it deserves to be.

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October of Horror #1: The Visitor (1979)

Posted by Trixter on October 1, 2018

(For an explanation of what these posts in October are, see the parent post.)

Synopsis

A late 1970s cross between The Omen and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Visitor is, as the name implies, a visitor from another planet comes to Earth to try to stop a child with evil powers.

Opinion

I was expecting pure Italian cheese, being another in a long line of Italian sci-fi/horror knock-offs, but I was very pleasantly surprised by how much this film pulled off.¬† It starts with some science-fiction mythology that will confuse you if you don’t know the synopsis of the film beforehand, but then from about the 15-minute mark to an hour later, it’s a genuinely interesting and well-crafted film that holds your attention.¬† As an Omen knock-off, it works very well.¬† The evil girl in question, Paige Conner, is very talented (not just acting, but we see her performing some impressive gymnastics and ice skating as well), and strikes the correct tone for something sinister under the surface.¬† Other players (including John Huston, Shelly Winters, and a young Lance Henriksen) all play it completely straight.¬† (Fans of Henriksen won’t be disappointed; his acting is very natural.)¬† Some of the practical effects are fantastic for the late 1970s, including the best live bird manipulation I’ve ever seen in a film.¬† Some of the locations and Ennio Guarnieri’s cinematography are also really great throughout most of the movie.¬† The sound design is also excellent, and less heavy-handed than The Omen.

Unfortunately, the last 45 minutes of the film has some severe pacing problems, some character turns that don’t feel quite right (and others, such as Shelly Winters, chewing up the scenery), and a slightly clumsy final act that feels like the film ran out of time or money to complete properly.¬† There is also a God/Devil allegory that is hinted at, then not hinted at, then clumsily mixed with science fiction?

Recommendation

If you remember the 1970s and can overlook its problems, it’s worth seeing, if anything to see the idealized perfect 1970’s house (A pool in the living room! Front-projection TV playing Pong! A Desert Patrol arcade game!).

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