January 24, 2019

"The Valley" Cartridge for C64 - Interview with Dale from Dungeon Dwellers Inc.

The Valley for the Commodore 64 - Enhanced DDI Cartridge (Prototype)
A couple of months ago, I was fortunate enough to help Dale from Dungeon Dwellers Inc. test the special upcoming Cartridge release of his enhanced version of "The Valley" for the Commodore 64. In doing so, I thought it would be neat to conduct an interview for my readers about this new release.

If you aren't familiar with Dale's work, but are into the Commodore scene, you most likely have seen his influence without even knowing it. He has helped with countless projects over the years through his expertise in PCB design and engineering. He is the creator of the Magic Cart series of PCB's (Micro Magic, Black Magic, etc) and has helped with game cartridge releases such as Sydney Hunter And The Sacred Tribe & L’Abbaye des morts. Just to name a few.

He also released the enhanced DDI Telengard for the C64 and continues to perfect his digital art across the Commodore scene.

So, without further ado... Let's take a journey into The Valley!

DnR:
First off, Dale, thank you for taking the time to chat about this. I have been really excited watching this project through the different stages and now finally, seeing it coming to fruition.


DDI:
Discovering The Valley for the Commodore 64 was an unexpected connection back to the days of the Commodore PET, where a playable version of the game was first coded. It was a game I came across while sifting through a collection of primarily small text adventures released for the Commodore 64 by The Guild Adventure Software. It was one of those games that was so poorly implemented that I almost wrote it off at first glance. However, had the Commodore 64 version not been in such rough shape, I would have never explored this gem of a game. It's my pleasure to talk more about my journey into The Valley.

DnR:
Can you tell us a bit about The Valley and some of the enhancements you've made to the code for this DDI version?


DDI:
The Valley is an early micro game first published as an incomplete BASIC adventure program back in 1982 in a British magazine called Computing Today. In The Valley, experience is gained D&D style by finding treasure and killing creatures, where ultimately it's a quest to find the Helm of Evanna, the Amulet of Alarian, and the six gems that fit the Amulet. It was not written for any particular micro of the day, but rather printed in an article with a rich backstory, along with several BASIC code modules that could be adapted to the BASIC language of any machine. Additional code modules for The Valley were published in subsequent articles as well throughout 1982. And so it was adapted to a number of systems, both micro and mini systems. Several commercial versions emerged, where Argus Press who published the Computing Today article, also published a working version of The Valley on tape for the CBM PET, the Commodore 64 and several other micros. Most of the commercial versions offered very primitive graphics using the native and often monochrome character set of a given micro. There was one version published back then by The Guild Adventure Software group for the Commodore 64 that offered a custom character set and was a fairly good attempt at a commercial quality release, but was riddled with imperfections and game play that was difficult at best. It was this version I had reworked in to a playable game, correcting and enhancing the code, using the original as a framework to build out and on top of. The game lacked an end check, and being clearly a quest natured game, it definitely deserved one. Before the game was reworked, machine code was written to combine several game files in to one loadable file that could be placed on a cartridge, which is how I started to take a closer look at the game itself. From there, I started to correct graphic elements that were off, and then went on to the game mechanics to adjust the timing for combat response, and added features that never existed in the original. Some such are enhanced color coding, 7 additional character classes, randomized event descriptions, idle encounter timer, pause, stairwell logic fixes, memory arrays to track items, expanded the number of lairs and temples by four and the height of the black tower by two, expanded loads and saves, various graphic tweaks, and many more enhancements and fixes, along with algorithm tweaks that now factor in level, class and relics found. A machine code driven ending to the game was created complete with some animation and SID sound. Much of the refinement to the game was done back in 2015 to make The Valley a very enjoyable RPG in the spirit I felt the original was intended to be.

DnR:
I'd love to hear more about the special DDI Cartridge version(s) you've been designing. Can you please tell us about it and what your plans are for release?


DDI:
Back in early 2018, I started to visualize a few high calibre cartridge designs for The Valley with etched graphics for the Amulet of Alarian and the Helm of Evanna that would include LED's for the six amulet stones, along with a LED for the Amulet and the Helm as well. Knowing I could design the hardware and write the code to control them, I drafted a new PCB based on an enhanced Magic Cart design and added the code to The Valley to control the LED's. Along with the additional code, several minor imperfections have been found and corrected. Two special cartridge versions were designed, one with PCB's as a case, and the other in transparent purple acrylic. Both are high end works of digital art, comprised of military grade components and fastened with brass and stainless hardware, both engineered to be very thin. LED's in the acrylic version illuminates the PCB substrate below the etched graphics for the Helm and Amulet and looks gorgeous in low light. The LED's for the PCB cased version rise up and through the graphics, peering just above the surface, where this version of The Valley cartridge looks brilliant in a well lit room. Everytime a relic is found, the LED for it will illuminate. There's an additional array of seven LED's on the back side of the cartridge that will slowly pulsate when all items have been found and the quest is nearly won. Returning to one of the two castles in The Valley with sufficient experience and all relics found wins the game. Both cartridge versions include a red LED illuminated reset switch, and comes in a transparent flip open tape case with beautiful artwork.The Valley cartridges are out of the prototyping phase, with a commercial release of both cartridge versions in the works for early 2019 via Shareware Plus.  All cartridges for The Valley are hand crafted by DDI and will soon be available to order from the DDI Projects page, or by contacting me via sysop at sys64738.net, for anyone interested in a copy prior to the official release.

DnR:
You have designed some really cool PCB's over the years. What are some of the challenges you've faced with this cartridge design that you haven't faced before?


DDI:
The initial challenge was to design and implement graphics for the Helm and Amulet, and size them to allow for the needed trace space to implement the additional logic and components needed to support the LED's. The level of detail in the PCB graphics pushes the limits of current PCB etching capability such as the individual bricks and text in the two castles for the PCB cased version, or the detail of the intricacies within the Amulet graphic, where efforts were made to insure the fine graphic elements would resolve though the etching process and not left fused together. I was really pleased with how the styled message that lines the circumference of the Amulet is very legible, if not requiring a magnifier for many to read. The routing and layout of the PCB is much simpler by comparison to some past projects otherwise and draws on past innovations such as reverse mounted SMT LED's from the PCB's back side, which does the PCB substrate illumination beneath the etched graphics for the acrylic cased version. I enjoy and appreciate fine hardware, with the aim of every DDI project to make a digital work of art that is as enjoyable to look at on the desk as it is to plug and play.

DnR:
Following the April 1982 issue, Computing Today continued to include articles in subsequent issues, offering modification to the game code submitted by readers. Were you aware of these modifications when you began your journey into The Valley?

DDI:
Not back in 2015, where during the creation of the cartridge for The Valley, I did become aware of the subsequent articles with suggested game variations that were published for The Valley.  The DDI revision of The Valley has similar features to some of these variations, such as Circles of Sorcery will seldom raise PSI.  Likewise, the mapping of items within temples to fixate their locations in the DDI revision is similar to the variation where temples disappear after being explored, as once items are found, they will not re-appear.

DnR:
Now that you've been in the nitty-gritty of the code, do you see any chance of DDI taking this game even further, new scenarios or a sequel so to speak?

DDI:
Unlikely, as it would require a complete re-write of the code to optimize and free up memory that would be needed for such expansions.  It's certainly possible, especially in a banked cartridge format.  In that a regard, a sequel would be more likely.  The expanded number of temples, lairs and the height of the Black tower now provides a nice game length and balance such that the needed amount of experience to win the game is achieved right around the time all the items have been retrieved from the temples, lairs and the 12 levels of the Black Tower.  The Valley was something I never intended to really make a project out of.  It's similar to finding an old antique in rough shape, and once you clean one spot, you end up cleaning it all up until it shines and works as intended, and then you polish it up further and embellish it some, but try not to change it too much to preserve what it was originally meant to be.  I simply wanted to make it an enjoyable game to play, as it had a lot of potential and work put in to it, where the history of the game as an early CRPG was a very pleasant surprise.

DnR:
While on my journey through The Valley, my barbarian decided his favorite move was to decapitate stunned foes. Do you have any favorite attack combos?

DDI:
I enjoy using the PSI Lance to reduce the lethal strength of Dragons, followed by body blows to quickly dispatch and capitalize on experience.

DnR:
This game definitely has some similarities to Telengard (in both gameplay and your enhancements) and I must say, I really appreciate how you choose to enhance these games, rather than totally modify them into something else. Have you run into any other similar antiques you feel could use a good DDI polishing?

DDI:
Nothing in the dungeon queue at this time for any olde CRPG's, but you never know what may still be lurking out there.

DnR:
So what's next on the agenda for Dungeon Dwellers Inc.? Have any new projects we can look out for?

DDI:
The MasterCart II is another current project for the Commodore 64 and is a massive 6MB monolithic menu driven cartridge that can be filled up with over 250 disk based games, offering a single scrollable menu, and an infrared remote reset option for gaming from the comfort of a reclined position.  The MasterCart II is a wonderful device to store all your favorites on one cartridge, where the menu can be customized with graphics and a background SID tune, scrollable via either joystick.  The software to compile the ROM images is easy to use and does not require any advanced programming skills.  However, assembly coders will appreciate how easy and direct the banking is to implement.  Perfect for ambitious projects, the MasterCart II is ideal for implementing a massive game that has hundreds of rooms or levels.  The MasterCart II can be used to stream large files, or simply provide fast access to a large storage space for graphics, code, and SID data.  My next project will be to take a wonderful C64 classic that has had thousands of levels written for it, and implement them all in one MasterCart II cartridge, along with the several variations to the original game engine.

DnR:
This about wraps it up for this interview. Dale, my very gracious thanks on the work you've done here. You have really enhanced a somewhat simplified old RPG type-in and made it more fun to play and even interact with in the physical world with your custom cartridge. My hat is off to you. Any closing words/links you'd like to add?

DDI:
Revising The Valley has been a wonderful and entirely unexpected excursion into one of the earliest CRPG games written for Commodore machines, where creating two very unique cartridges for The Valley has been a genuine pleasure.

RELATED LINKS:

sys64738.net - Home of DDI Projects
Shareware Plus - Keep an eye open here for upcoming release info!


I'm almost there!
Dale's Jewel Case Release - Contact him for purchasing details