Saturday, 16 June 2012

My Raspberry Pi and I - Part One

I received a new toy earlier this week! As the title of this blog kind of gives away, my new toy is a Raspberry Pi, something I ordered back at the end of March and which finally found its way through my letterbox on Tuesday. I've read quite a bit about the Raspberry Pi over the last few months, admittedly without really understanding what it was at first, but it was a segment that I saw on BBC News one night which convinced me that I needed one. My initial thought was that I could use it as a way of 'creating' my own little retro gaming device, maybe even something I could programme in an 80s-era stylee.

Before I continue, and for those who have never heard of the Raspberry Pi or who have, but don't really get it, here's a quick introduction. A Raspberry Pi is basically a "computer on a chip". It's a credit card-sized chip which contains everything you need - memory, a processor and relevant ports and slots - to plug into your TV and get computing. Well, almost everything. It's also very cheap. The main reason it exists is to encourage kids to get into computer programming, and ties in nicely with the government's plan for schools to replace Computer Studies, or Information Technology, or whatever it's called nowadays (I knew it as Information Systems at my school for a while) with Computer Science. Basically. instead of kids learning what they can do with a computer (e.g. conjure up a Word document, knock up a Excel Spreadsheet, browse the web and verbally abuse their mates on Facebook), they will instead learn how a computer works and how they can develop their own apps and programs on it. It's a bit like the difference between learning how to drive a car and learning how to fix one.

The people behind this Great British invention is the Raspberry Foundation, a charitable organisation which aims to get kids programming again, just like us kids of the 80s did with our BBC Micros and Speccies and suchlike. It's no coincidence that some of the names behind this scheme are names that were big in the 1980s, at least in the world of home computing. One of those names is David Braben, who co-wrote the classic computer game, Elite, and that 3D flying demo thing on the Acorn Archimedes. Lander, or Zarch, or both. I remember playing it at a Open Day for my high school back in 1990 and being mightily impressed. It's also no coincidence that the two current models of the Raspberry Pi are called Model A and Model B, referencing the BBC models of bygone days. Yep, the Raspberry Foundation want to get those days back, and get people programming again, or coding, or whatever you like to call it.

I suppose the desire to create the Raspberry Pi, and the government's aim to push Computer Science, has come about because nowadays, when you switch on a computer, you can do pretty much anything you want to do just by double-clicking an icon. Kids are probably more capable of using a computer than their teachers. Microsoft, Apple and so on have all designed their operating systems so well that you don't need to understand how your computer works to get it to do stuff. It just does. But, what if you do want to find out how they work? Or, you don't have that desire, but if you had the opportunity to find out, it might just interest you? The nice clickable icons don't make digging deeper into the actual workings of a computer easy, or make you really want to do any deep digging to find out. However, if you were a child of the 1980s, switching on a computer back then was a completely different experience. They weren't quite as friendly and inviting, but they made getting into programming and finding out how your computer works much much easier. Instead of the fancy graphics and colourful icons you get now, back then you were basically provided with a mostly blank screen and a flashing cursor, with your computer waiting patiently for you to tell it what to do next. You generally had two choices: either type out a program or type in whatever command you needed to enter to get it to start loading whatever was stored on the cassette in your tape player. Sometimes the "load" commands themselves were mini programs. I'm sure the command to load Commando or Football Manager on my Acorn Electron was a few lines long. I never did just try Chain"" to see what happened for fear of breaking something.

Having access to the computer's programming environment immediately on boot up was enough to encourage you to find out what you could do with it. I had an Acorn Electron, and its user manual began with a few pages on how to plug it in, switch it on, play tapes, etc. but then went on to talk about how to write your own programs. In a way, it was as if you were expected to use your machine for this purpose. It wasn't an option, just part of the learning curve of getting to know it. And program it I did. I copied listings from Electron User, The Micro User, and even Let's Compute! for its short lifespan - I've still got all issues of that magazine! - and I even got capable enough to write my own programs, despite them being mostly crap. I experimented a bit on my sister's Spectrum, but by the time she had that, I had a Sega Master System and was drawn into console gaming instead. On the Amiga, I couldn't figure out how to program it, basically because the ability to do so wasn't shoved right into my face, and I suppose since then, I've always assumed that to create programs, you have to have certain software and a degree in computing, due to the way that computers were getting more and more complex and able.  About a year or so ago, I decided to have a look at ways of programming on a Windows PC, but gave up after discovering that there are nowadays dozens of programming languages, and it all seemed quite complex and messy. What I needed was a simply little device, a bit like the Acorn Electrons of the 1980s, that made it easy and accessible to program. Enter the Raspberry Pi, rather conveniently. Small, basic and, importantly, cheap. A Model A board is $25, and a Model B board is $35, which translates roughly to £16 and £25 in the UK (despite being a British invention, they insist on pricing it in dollars - apparently something to do with exchange rates). At this price point, it should be fairly easy to get loads of these into schools all over the country.

So, the above is pretty much the reason and my interpretation of why a device like the Raspberry Pi exists. But, what exactly is it? Well, it's a bare-bones computer chip with all of its innards on display. It's small, about the size of a credit card. Speaking technically, which isn't really one of my strengths, the Pi has a chip on board which contains its 256 MB of RAM and an ARM processor. Oh yes, even its processor has its origins from the Acorn computers of old. Apparently. It also has ports and connectors for you to plug into it the things that you need to get it to work. This adds some additional cost to the device, but the stuff you need are likely to be things you can find scattered around. Firstly, on the Model B, which is the one I ended up with (I don't think the Model A is actually available to purchase yet), there are a couple of USB ports. These are handy for a USB keyboard and mouse. Alternatively. you can plug a USB hub thingy into one of the slots to add other USB stuff you may need. There are two ports for display - a HDMI port to display stuff in glorious High Definition, and a composite port to plug into most other TV sets. It's worth noting that there is no VGA port so it's not easy to get your Pi to work with slightly older computer monitors. There is a 3.5mm audio port too, which can be used for headphones, speakers and the like. If you want to get surfing, there is an Ethernet port for all of your online needs. And finally, there is a slot for an SD card. Well, I say finally. There are actually all kinds of other connections and things on the chip, but you don't need these for now to get your Pi working, and I'm not actually sure what they're for anyway, so I'll ignore them for now. Anyway, the SD card slot is important because it's where you need to slot an SD card containing an image of your operating system of choice. Oh yes, this all baffled me at the beginning, but I'm pleased to say I managed to get things working after hours of faffing. Oh, there's also a Micro USB port for power.

That's the device introduced. As it's late, I'll not go into my experiences of setting the Raspberry Pi up and getting it working - kind of. Instead, I'll leave that for another day.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Edd the Duck! - TV Tie-ins: Number One

Game: Edd the Duck!
Format: Commodore Amiga
Developer: Impulze
Year Released: 1990
Also released on: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64 
Now available on: Nothing

Andy Crane, Edd the Duck and Wilson the Butler
in the Children's BBC Broom Cupboard
If you were a child of the mid-to-late 1980s or early 1990s and you grew up watching Children's BBC, you may remember The Broom Cupboard. In broadcasting-speak, The Broom Cupboard was an in-vision continuity studio situated somewhere in BBC Television Centre. It was basically a little room where presenters provided information about other BBC shows for kids, interviewed celebrities, announced competitions and provided introductions and links into other shows. Arguably, The Broom Cupboard became more famous than the programmes themselves, and gave several presenters their first big breaks into broadcasting. The Silver Fox himself, Phillip Schofield, found fame from the Broom Cupboard, as did Andy Crane and Andi Peters. Amongst the clutter of the Broom Cupboard (pictures, props, toys, monitors, illuminated signs), Phil, Andy and Andi shared their little studio with puppets, who became personalities in their own right. A young Phillip Schofield was accompanied by Gordon the Gopher, perhaps the most well-remembered of the Broom Cupboard puppets. Even today, he still makes appearances on TV, and recently appeared as Phillip's co-presenter on Dancing on Ice, a vast improvement on Christine Bleakley.

It's Edd the Duck!!!
Gordon and Phillip went on to present Going Live on Saturday mornings, leaving a couple of empty places in The Broom Cupboard. Andy Crane filled the presenter's seat, with the puppet's chair first occupied by a banana, called Ben (or Bobby), and later a duck with punk green hair. That duck was Edd the Duck. A huge fan of Kylie Minogue, Edd the Duck spent several years in The Broom Cupboard, assisting Andi Peters with presenting duties after Andy Crane departed. For the BBC, he was fantastic, as his image could be licensed to appear on all kinds of merchandise to fill their coffers even more. Inevitably, and rather handily for this blog, one of the licensed products was a computer game. Edd the Duck's game, called Edd the Duck! appeared on several home computer formats. And today, we shall look at the Amiga version.

The fish in this picture reminds me of Ben from EastEnders.
In Edd the Duck! you control Edd through various TV-studio related levels. Levels are based on the weather department, although there is no Michael Fish in it to deny any forthcoming hurricanes, special effects department and children's TV department (quick fact: The Broom Cupboard was used as an emergency news studio during the "great storm" of 1987, as it was the only studio at TV Centre with power!). On each level are a number of stars. Edd must collect all of these stars to complete each level. Quite conveniently, a counter at the bottom of the screen tells you how many stars are left on each level. Levels on Edd the Duck! scroll vertically, with Edd starting at the bottom of each level, working his way upwards a la Rainbow Islands. Oh yes, the influence for this game is quite obvious, with the only thing missing from this being the rainbows themselves.
This is where Microsoft got the idea for the design of the Windows logo. It's true.

Bees and the EastEnders Ben fish give Edd a headache.
Each level features a number of enemies. These cannot be killed, but they can be frozen, literally, by throwing snowballs at them. This stops them from moving and makes them harmless, although this is only temporary. When the snow melts, they begin moving again and become fatal to the touch. Put simply, the idea of the game is to collect stars and avoid enemies.

Edd the Duck! is presented really well, with some nice pre-game screens, intermissions, a good game over sequence and leader board. Graphically, it's all very nice and colourful, with well-defined cartoon-style sprites, detailed platforms, and a general feel of overall quality. Sound-wise, the music is terrific. There's only one tune that plays throughout the game, although this is actually quite a good, catchy tune, sounding very Children's BBC in style, and there is nice intro music, game over and leader board music too. There are no sound effects to speak of, but all in all, the game's presentation is all quite nice and jolly and captures the TV studio context well.
The sun is rather happy in this colourful picture

An image from the "Special Effects Department"
level. This is where the BBC made Doctor Who.
Onto the gameplay, and again, it's not too bad. Edd moves at a good pace around the levels, and responds quickly to your instructions. One of the problems comes when jumping as it isn't possible to make Edd move when in mid-jump. The makes precision-landing quite difficult and causes the game to become frustrating in parts. This results in you taking your time and freezing all enemies in your path when it comes to attempting to reach stars in their vicinity, rather than relying on well-honed arcade skills to leap and jump wherever you want. This flaw is what gives the game its main challenge, as I suppose it would actually be quite an easy game if the controls were better. This is because, other than enemies scattered around the level, there is nothing else to cause you any problems. Edd can survive any fall, there's no rising water level to put pressure on you to hurry up, there are no dangerous inanimate objects, such as spikes, and there are no end-of-level bosses. Yep, the iffy jumping method adds challenge to the game, but takes some of the fun out of it. With better controls, the developers could have added various other features to the game to make it more of a test of gaming ability.

Moons, stars, mouldy green platforms and a smiley space
shuttle populate this screenshot.
Another problem is that the game is quite short. There are only the three levels (weather, special effects, kids TV), each split into three stages. And the first level and the third level look fairly similar to each other. It is possible to get through the game quite easily, just by taking it one bit at a time, freezing enemies, collecting a star, and then moving to the next bit. But, doing it that way isn't much fun and you'll end up trying to whizz through the levels, but failing to get very far because the jump control isn't that great and it's all too east to accidentally jump into an enemy. Given that the game is obviously aimed at kids, I can't imagine that kids would get much pleasure out of it as they aren't exactly known for possessing much patience!

Edd the Duck! feels like a game that could have been so much more. A little extra work on the controls, and a few extra features, and it could have been a minor classic, maybe even giving Rainbows Islands, the game on which is it obviously attempting to cash-in, a run for its money. Instead, it remains a nicely-presented, moderately fun little game which will keep you amused for a short while.
It's the end of Edd's TV career after colliding with too many enemies. Oh dear.


: 90%
Nice loading screen and intro screen, with polished intermissions and leaderboard.
Graphics: 83%
Clear and colourful, with attractive cartoon visuals, good animation and, on level two, a nice background.
Sound: 85%
The Amiga's sound chip provides some great tunes, although it would have been nice to have different music for each level.
Playability: 76%
Easy to pick up and play, but suffers just because Edd can't change direction when jumping, and can get frustrating.
Overall: 78%
An enjoyable platform game, but missing a few elements that could have made it amazing.

Edd on the Speccy! A game that can't be completed!
Edd the Duck! elsewhere
Being the worldwide superstar that he was, Edd the Duck made appearances on a few other computers at the time. In addition to the Amiga version above, he also graced the Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 with his presence. I gave the Spectrum version a go, and found that Edd is actually able to move while in mid-air in it, which makes controlling him a little easier. However, apparently this version of the game isn't possible to complete due there not being enough stars in one of the levels (the counter wants you to get 20, but there are only 19 on the level). A poke fixes this, but it does make you wonder what kind of playtesting went on before releasing games back then!

Here's a video of the game in action...