Unearthed: Dark Fortress for the Atari ST

The title screen from the Atari ST game “Dark Fortress”

Hey Atari ST fans! Want to play something new?

Today I’m happy to share “Dark Fortress,” a previously unreleased game written by Herb Flower for the Atari ST in the late 1980s.

In recent weeks I’ve been corresponding with Flower and Paul Witte to unearth the story of their Atari ST BBS door game Thieves’ Guild, which they developed together in 1988-93 under the “Mythyn Software” banner. I’ll have much more to say about TG in future blog posts.

Witte was the architect of Thieves’ Guild. Flower, a talented young pixel artist, developed a graphical front-end client for TG which featured superb visuals as well as some sound and animation. But Flower’s first foray into games was Dark Fortress.

Flower went on to found the Rewolf Entertainment studio, which produced Gunman Chronicles. Witte and Flower teamed up again in 2001 as “Mythyn Interactive” to develop the MMORPG Linkrealms.

A screenshot showing the first level of the game Dark Fortress.

The existence of Dark Fortress has been noted in the past, but this is the first time the game has been shared widely.

Below, Flower discusses “Dark Fortress” in his own words. His essay his been edited for length and clarity.

Dark Fortress was my first game, written in GFA Basic at age 14. My previous games had been primitive Pac-Man type games using ASCII, written in ST Basic, so GFA was mind-blowing with its “bit blit” function that let you grab and place arbitrary blocks of pixels anywhere you wanted! It wasn’t enough, though — it didn’t have alpha capabilities. I had to dive into my own experiments and research for the first time. I figured out that if I had a monochrome cut-out version of my graphics, I could place it down first to erase the background, and then place the real art on top of it in XOR mode. Success! But I still had the problem of how to update the screen without people seeing the results as it drew — I needed page-flipping. With the purchase of MichTron’s “GFA BASIC Book” from the mall’s computer shop, I found a particular XBIOS call that would let me set the physical screen’s pointer! Now it was time to make the game itself.

Dark Fortress turned out to be a massive experiment, something that taught me about gameplay as I made it. In the end, every map had a theme: Was it a puzzle, based on doing things in the right order, like breaking bricks and pushing skulls? Was it going to be a speed run, like the mermaid level? A jumping puzzle like the vine level? You never knew what the next map would be, and that made getting to the next one kinda fun.

Code-wise, Dark Fortress is a simplistic pile of spaghetti. I was still teaching myself programming and I never thought about ways to be more efficient. For example, I made the maps on graph paper, writing little numbers in the squares to represent the different 8×8-pixel graphics blocks. Then I’d have my sister read me the numbers as I typed them into data statements. Why didn’t I make a map editor? Because I’d never heard of one. While I did think about it as the tedious work went on and on, I didn’t yet know how to do disk storage.

I began realizing that there were better ways to do things as I finished the game, but I figured I’d use them in the next project and I let Dark Fortress stand as it was.

I never released it. Our Utah ST users group (possibly “Central Utah STar Group”) kinda died off after a guy with the disk library got in a car crash on the way to a meeting. The disks were scattered and jumbled and damaged. At the time, with no internet, distributing the game was a mystery I never solved. To this day, I wonder how anything got done at all in those days without networking.

I wish I had added more to the game. There was plenty of room for more graphics, and since I’m an artist more than a coder, I wonder why my younger self didn’t add more animation frames and dungeon variety. Still, having a finished game at that age was an accomplishment — and it’s even kinda fun! I’m glad I made it.

Unearthed: My Atari 8-bit cassette tape

Side 1 of an old cassette tape I used to store programs for my Atari 8-bit computers.

Last weekend, I was rummaging through my old Atari ST disks when I came across something I hadn’t noticed in 30 years: A cassette tape for my Atari 8-bit.

As I have recounted before, I used hand-me-down Atari 800s, a 130XE, a 410 program recorder, and lots of other equipment and disks from family members when I was a kid before later graduating to the 16-bit ST series. Alas, I got rid of most of it when I was in college.

But here was this little tape … perhaps my only tangible link to my old Atari 8-bit equipment.

Each side of the tape was only 10 minutes long. What was on it?

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Slack API documentation mentions BBS door games

Screenshot of Slack API example that includes list of BBS door games.

I discovered tonight that Slack’s API documentation has a page which uses a list of BBS door games as an example of how to create option fields.

Pretty wild. I would love to know who was responsible for that. Whoever you are, my hat’s off to you!

Fidonet archive update

A couple updates with regard to the 300,000 FidoNet messages I archived.

First, I have added my FidoNet message cache as a new Break Into Chat “Special Collection” (similar to the existing AtasciiTube, Door World Magazine, and BBS podcasts collections). I have included a lot supplemental material that adds context; as well as a Python parser that can convert the ExecPC message scrape into individual Fidonet .MSG files.

Second, it appears that Andrew Clarke’s fidonet.ozzmosis.com archive is gone. It has been down for months, unfortunately. It contained millions of messages. While copies of this data still exist inside the Wayback Machine, this is a major loss. As a commenter noted on my original blog post, this may mean that new FidoNet messages (yes, people still post to FidoNet!) are no longer being archived by anyone.

Gary Martin, creator of “TradeWars 2002”

Gary Martin created TradeWars 2002, “the granddaddy of all BBS games” which has been played by tens of thousands of enthusiasts around the world.

Gary Martin

In this interview, Martin discusses rocking the University of Kansas campus as a DJ, founding Martech Software, and running one of the biggest bulletin board systems. He also describes two tantalizing projects that never came to fruition: “TradeWars 2112” and “Draconis”.

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Archiving 300,000 Fidonet messages

In 2015, I began looking for archives of networked BBS messageboards, hoping to find contemporary discussions of BBS door games from the 1990s. The best source I found was the fidonet.ozzmosis.com archive.

The Ozzmosis archive is awesome — and it’s still active, archiving any new messages posted to Fidonet. (yes, Fidonet still exists!) But I quickly realized the archive was heavily weighted to the new millenium. I analyzed the dates of every message in the Ozzmosis archive, and found that, only 7% of the archive was from years prior to 2000.

That realization set me on a search. I began visiting long-running BBSes, looking for caches of old Fidonet messages.

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Using high res on my Atari STe with the CosmosEx and a wire

This image shows a CosmosEx screencast of an Atari Mega STe in high resolution.

Throughout my Atari ST-owning life, I have only ever owned Atari’s color monitor, the SC1224. It can display two of the ST’s video modes: low resolution (320×200, 16 colors) and medium resolution (640×200, 4 colors).

The Atari also had a 640×400 high resolution mode, but it required a different monochrome monitor.

I never had one, but recently I came across some high-res software I wanted to test. What to do?

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Modding an iPod 3G to use a CompactFlash card

interior of the iPod 3G, showing the CF card

This year my family was planning to take a trip to South America. As we prepared, I was struck by the idea of fixing up my old iPod 3G so that the kids could use it to listen to music while we traveled.

I’m talking about my 15-year old touch-wheel iPod 3G. The battery has long been shot, and I have had trouble with the hard drive over the years.

I found quite a few tutorials online about how to install a new battery, as well as some which explained how to replace the hard drive with a CompactFlash card. Sweet! Sounded like a great way to soup up some old hardware: better battery life, more durability, and lighter-weight.

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New ANSImation: Star Trek: The Trouble With The Rangifer Tarandus

In December, I created a new ANSI animation for the holidays called “Star Trek: The Trouble With The Rangifer Tarandus”, which was released in Blocktronics’ “Darker Image #2” artpack.

Here’s a video version of the ANSImation:

But (as always), the best way to view this is to use SyncTerm to connect to my BBS, Guardian of Forever, and watch it there.

So far, each of my ANSImations have been a way to try a new technique in ANSI, whether that’s parallax scrolling, perspective transforms, or whatever. This time was no exception.

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Web browsing on the Atari ST with a CosmosEx

This screenshot shows CAB rendering my personal website. This instance of CAB is running on an Atari Mega STe.

Probably the best retrocomputing purchase I’ve made in recent years is the CosmosEx, a cool peripheral for Atari ST, STe, TT, and Falcon computers.

Soon after I bought it, creator Jookie added “screencasting”, a feature which lets you control your Atari remotely through a web browser. Amazing!

Around that time, Jookie was also working on a replacement STiNG-compatible internet driver. The idea was to provide TCP-IP to the Atari through the CosmosEx. Internet apps which support STiNG, such as CAB, the Crystal Atari Browser, would “just work.”

Fast-forward to this week. I decided to see if Jookie ever got the drivers were working. Turns out he did!

Keep reading to see how I set everything up.

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