RetroChallenge 2018/04: Taking The Plunge!

I just found out, thanks to Epooch’s blog, about the RetroChallenges that John W. Linville hosts.

Now that I’ve returned to the cult..errr..club of proud Apple ][ owners, this event seems like a perfect catalyst for putting aside my 30 years of excuses and learning 6502 assembly.

First up, diving into Assembly Lines: The Complete Book. The desired end state? Building the Spy Hunter-inspired driving game I longed to create circa 1985!

We’ll see how impressive it ends up being with only a month (of spare time) to dedicate to it, but I’ll be happy to complete a version 1 with a “car” you can steer, obstacles you can avoid (and/or shoot?!), and some rudimentary scoreboard of sorts.

Stay tuned, April 1st is one short week away!1

  1. This should be fun, amusing, a train wreck, or some blend of the three. 🙂
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SDFloppy II – Rebooting An Apple ][e

I recently (re-)acquired an Apple ][e, the first computer that was truly my own.1

One of the few things I fully regret from my youth was getting rid of my ][e in college,2 as I moved from one residence to another every six months, and got sick of lugging it around.3

Fast forward almost exactly 20 years, and an article sent to me by a friend led me to KansasFest, promptly overwhelming me with nostalgia. An expedition to eBay quickly followed; perusing the vintage computing listings there yielded an Apple ][e setup nearly identical to my long-abandoned childhood system. The only issue was that the seller was in Florida and unwilling to ship it. 🙁 As luck would have it, however, mere days later, a Craigslist listing popped up in Colorado Springs, just down south from me. For only 10% of what I bought my system for back in 1985, I became the proud owner of a very comparable system.4 No 1200 baud internal 212 Apple-CAT II modem but there is a suitable, modern substitute for that once Paul Rickards takes a break from playing games on his Commodore PET (which, for the record, I think is totally awesome!) and decides to make a new batch.

Bob, the fine fellow who sold me the ][e, told me he thought the disk drives still worked, but that he had not tested them in a few years and no longer had any floppies to sell me. I eagerly fired up the system and did a little light BASIC programming (including some spectacular lo-res graphics!) but didn’t want to go too deep without a means to store my work or load anything other than the built-in AppleSoft BASIC. While encouraging, this motivated me to embark on my next mission – acquiring some software, all while worrying, in the back of my mind, that neither drive would work (or that, equally frustrating, the drive controller card wouldn’t work). I figured, worst-case, I could buy a DuoDisk off eBay, since I now had a DuoDisk controller card as well.

Finding blank disks proved somewhat of a challenge, but I did stumble upon Retro Floppy and what I thought might be an effective, if cumbersome, solution in Apple Disk Transfer ProDOS. Still a little concerned about the reliability of buying (even sealed) 30-year-old diskettes, through searching deeper into long-dead forums’ posts, I found Athana, who it appeared had been manufacturing new 5 1/4 floppies up into the early 2000s. After they gleaned, from a brief email exchange, that I was looking for 10s, not 100s of floppies, they kindly referred me to floppydisk.com, from whom I procured a 10 pack of new (and relatively recently manufactured) 5 1/4 inch floppies.

Still, without a means for transferring DOS 3.3, ProDOS, or any previously existing software to my system, from the outside world, I continued searching the internet for modern solutions to bridge the gap between the sea of .dsk image files available for Apple ][ systems and the legacy hardware itself. It didn’t take long for the SDFloppy II to show up in both my search results and links from retrocomputing hobbyist sites. And days later, its creator, Plamen Vasilov, was recognized in a post on, of all places, KansasFest’s site!

The only problem was that the SDFloppy II was out of stock. I sent an email to the contact address, inquiring about future availability, and received a prompt reply, from Plamen, that there might be a few more made available in the coming weeks. And so, I continued to routinely re-visit the SDFloppy II product page, hoping to find that they were back in stock. Fortuitously, only a few weeks later, the product page allowed me to order one! And then I settled in, anticipating a lengthy wait for its arrival from Bulgaria; you can imagine my surprise when it was on my doorstep 10 days later! Though I had some lofty preconceived expectations (based on photos and glowing reviews) about what the device looked like and how it performed, Plamen’s wizardry cannot be fully appreciated until you have an SDFloppy II in hand; it is minuscule, cleanly and solidly constructed, and works like a charm!

I connected the ribbon connector between the SDFloppy II and the drive controller card and turned on the computer’s power, thinking good thoughts. Nothing happened. So I took the DuoDisk drive controller out of slot 7 and tried again;5 the SDFloppy II booted right up, with Lode Runner’s splash screen staring right back at me!

Lode Runner

As it seems likely that, at some point in the future, my disk controller card will wear out, I am eagerly waiting in line for one of the next batch of Rich Dreher’s CFFA3000 cards, which goes straight in to an expansion slot itself, mounting a CompactFlash card or USB flash drive directly on the expansion card.6

But for now, and as long as people are still selling Disk II controller cards, I am going to enjoy the SDFloppy II and the spectacular functionality it delivers. I know Plamen is hard at work building other crazy Apple ][-related hardware products, so availability of new SDFloppy IIs is extremely limited, but this little device is a must-have for anyone looking to breathe new life into a beloved old system! If you can get your hands on one, I’d strongly encourage you to buy one without hesitation!

  1. My family had a Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer and an Apple //c prior; the IIe was mine, which is another story for another time.
  2. The other one that comes to mind immediately was giving my brother permission to sell our Star Wars action figures at a garage sale; I’m not 100% certain he didn’t just take them when I wasn’t looking!
  3. I had a shiny new 486 I was writing C++ code on, at all hours of the night, thanks to a Windows 95/Linux dual boot; this enabled my procrastination on CS projects since I no longer had to abide by the concrete work hours enforced by the on-campus computer lab closing at midnight.
  4. It consists of an Enhanced IIe, color monitor, two disk drives, a joystick, and a bunch of cards: 80 column card with 64K memory expansion, super serial card, serial printer card, Apple II 768K memory expansion card, mouse interface card (anyone have a compatible mouse they’re looking to part with?), Disk II controller card, and DuoDisk controller card.
  5. Yes, I’m a bit rusty on boot sequencing!
  6. Plus, I want to support as many of these people doing impressive Apple II retro projects as possible.
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