MonsterManorplus3DO.jpg

[This week's Beyond 3DO column is a look into the modern 32-bit homebrew mines. Not the swanky, well lit Sega and Sony mines, resplendent with running hot can cold water and matching water feature. Oh no - these are the dank, dark, dismal mines of the Atari Jaguar and the 3DO Multiplayer, where the Motorola and Arm dwarves mine - perhaps too deep?]

“He hoped and prayed that there wasn't an afterlife. Then he realized there was a contradiction involved here and merely hoped that there wasn't an afterlife.” – Douglas Adams.

I often wonder - do the likes of Trip Hawkins or Sam Tramiel put the name of their long forgotten consoles into Google from time-to-time, just to see? Do they grimace or grin? Do they care? Do they suffer the same pangs of nostalgia – the memories – the same love that we do?

The 3DO multiplayer and the Atari Jaguar have been dead twice as long as they were alive – yet a handful of e-Necromancers keep the spirits of these long since gone consoles alive. In the dark places on the web, past the Xbox 360 groups, beneath the PS3 and the Wii - the fans of early 32bit generation hardware keep these machines alive.

So what support, some 10 years on, do these consoles enjoy?

Let us start with the Atari Jaguar's afterlife. In fairness, this has been more prosperous than its actual life. It’s living the games console equivalent of heaven, packed with saucy scantily clad female angels, fluffy clouds and a free bar. So, where to begin? Well the first thing you notice about the Jaguar is how well it is supported online. The forums aren’t easy to find - however, the Atari Age network acts as a central hub for all things Atari. Fair enough. But the Atari Jaguar forums really confound me – there are still people on there chatting. Chatting about the Atari Jaguar. Incredible.

Fine. I admit it. Atari has a rich history, sure, but the Jaguar was not its proudest moment - surely? It was a closed system with a proprietary architecture. It had very very few games. It was a cartridge-based system. It had no I/O to speak of. Face it, they can't have sold more than half a dozen worldwide. Hey - Atari fans - it was the Jaguar that sent Atari "Chapter 11" - that and bad management. It’s difficult to imagine anything much could have be done with it, especially now that even Atari (not the re-branded software publisher we see today, but the old Atari) has stacked all the chairs on top of the tables and turned all the lights out.

So, assuming the Jaguar forums are not full of Rev. Johanasson Blithe-s from Nigeria, trying to offload $1 million or endless Viagra adverts, the questions begs – what the hell do they talk about? After gabbing on about Tempest 2000 and Alien vs Predator, the conversation must have ran dry after 14 years?

Prepare yourself for a shock. There is homebrew hardware and software, and commercial hardware and software still being released for the Atari Jaguar. Yes, that’s today, in 2007. Yes – you heard me right. Yes - my flabber was ghasted too …and that’s a lot of ghasting. It’s not a steady trickle either – it’s a bloody flood.

So assuming you want to run some Atari homebrew, you are going to have to prep your Jaguar to do so first, right? So how do you get homebrew running on a 15 year old cartridge based games console? As it turns out, there are plenty of ways. The cheapest most effect way for you and I, at the moment is the BJL Chip. This stands for 'Behind Jaggy Lines' – you will need to open the Jaguar, solder in a chip and know what you are doing. Oh, and perhaps even flash your own EPROM chip. I studied computer science at University and I’ve been a geek all my life. Still, I baulk at the very idea of doing this, but I’m reliably informed that it is easy and relatively cheap.

It is sort of tempting. This kind of thing can be more fun than actually playing some of games out there – especially when considering Jag's back catalogue of games – but I can understand the fear others may have.

If you do bite the bullet, this modification will open access to a world of homebrew for the Jaguar. Your PC, assuming it is old enough because of such things as parallel port speeds and the like, will be able to talk to your Jaguar via a cable, allowing you to upload, download and execute homebrew straight to the Jaguar's RAM.

Other alternatives, for those terrified of the smell of solder, can be via an Atari ST, Mega ST, TT or Falcon. With these you can use Jag server to do much the same thing - or if you are really lucky, you could use the Alpine development kit

Other means of getting homebrew working is by the moderately hard to come by Jaguar CD-ROM and an Encryption bypass cartridge, both of which are expensive and rare - but homebrew can be run from CD. Occasionally discs get distributed without the need for bypassing the encryption, but the need for the elusive CD-ROM remains the same.

For those of a nervous disposition, or less of a geek disposition, or a financially restricted disposition, I would recommend you wait for the JagCF. Coming in ’07, the Jaguar Compact Flash cartridge to be used with the optional USB Catnip cable will remove the caveats, and bring Jaguar Homebrew as close to the mainstream as it is ever likely to get. You will simply copy the homebrew game or application to the CF card using a standard PC and then plug it into the Jaguar. Hopefully it will be easy, painless and risk free.

Also in 2007, new homebrew games are to be released, targeted at the JagCF. Project Apocalypse and Seaplane are shoot ‘em ups for the Jaguar due to be released in 2007, and even a port of Another World has been promised. Because obviously, for the talented, porting Atari ST games to the Jaguar is, I hesitate because you know what? It’s not, but I’m going to say it anyway – “straightforward”.

You can also buy new stuff for Jaguar. That’s right. ‘Buy’. Proper cartridges, not homebrew, not made in a shed - well not obviously made in a shed, anyway - proper-proper games, proper hardware, with a manual and stickers and everything. And you buy them using money. Not trading for shells or high res pictures of Carrie Fisher in a gold bikini, or other esoteric geek items. 'Buy'. From a commercial business. Insane? Perhaps. There are those still releasing commercial hardware and software for the Jag. Yes – it’s true.

JaguarsMultitap.jpg

Local lad, well local to me in Cambridge, UK, anyway, has released a Multitapfor the Jaguar! There are other hardware vendors releasing a Rotary Controller for the Jaguar – so you can enjoy Tempest in the way the Minter always wanted, or Worms the way Team 17 envisaged. This is the tip of the iceberg.

…and of course, there are games still being released. Battlesphere, now something of a holy grail for Jaguar owners, was released in February 2000. So what, you cry? Graphics equivalent to a second generation PSX game? 32 player options? And the game play is said to be equal to Tempest 2000? Isn’t that tantamount to Atarian blasphemy?

Telegames and Songbird Productions sell shrinkwrapped games for the Jaguar online, releasing games that were still in production when the Jaguar was alive. Songbird released a game called “Protector”, for which the owner of this garage based company did 20% of the coding. He also designed the cartridge, took the order, stuck the stamp on the box and popped it in the post – and also has a full time job and family!

The icing on the cake is E-JagFest and JagFest UK. This is where a few like minded souls gather together to play games and indulge in their favourite hobby. Jagfest UK ’07 is promising the only Jaguar VR Headset in the world as the star attraction.

Now - It would be easy for a chap like me to pour scorn on this, and I probably will at some point ,but surely this is equivalent to a Morris Dancing Club or the Real Ale society. But... hmmm. Hell, I might even go to Jagfest UK just to see that VR headset. Damn - stupid - geek impulses. I'd organise a 3DOFest for the same day as the Jagfest, if I could stomach all the pointing, staring, laughing and verbal abuse. From the wife. ...Yeah - I will just go to JagFest UK.

As the facts stand, then: the Atari Jaguar is alive and kicking.

…so what of Trip's mighty machine: the 3DO?

3DOSonic.jpg

You know, even summoning the mighty powers of 3DO fanboyism – the 3DO’s life after death is far from the glamour the Atari machine enjoys. If the Jag enjoys heaven to the max, the 3DO has got a job there cleaning urinals. With its own toothbrush.

...but it's still there, clinging onto digital heaven for all it's worth. And it's all thanks to one group of people, namely... the Russians.

You see - the 3DO still enjoys popularity in certain parts of the world. The reason being that it is, all things being relative, an exotic system. Exotic in Russia, where it was upon release hideously expensive, and exotic in South America, where it wasn't released at all. And other parts of the world too - but a quick scan of Google, and the number of 3DO websites in both Russian and Brazilian is formidable.

The hub of 3DO homebrew development of any kind hinges on the guys over at Freedo. Their Russiandeveloped emulator is streets ahead of the Virtual Jaguar emulator or Project Tempest Jaguar emulator. In terms of compatibility. In the fact it works. And the fact it is still being developed for. Also it has played host to the first and only 3DO Homebrew work. Although considerably less homebrew is available for the 3DO - it does exist.

OK. It may only be a Sonic sprite running down a street, and it has no interactivity whatsoever, it does suggest that homebrew on the 3DO is possible and means the 3DO ain’t quite dead yet. More impressive when you learn that this homebrew was developed without the aid of an SDK or an official developer's kit. So - although the 3DO's vital signs have something of Elvis Presley about them, 3DO homebrew may still be alive.

The homebrew hardware side is equally ambitious, if somewhat undersubscribed. Mnemonic - the user handle for the Russian chap responsible for the first ever 3DO homebrew - also offers a guide on how to build a 3DO to PSX pad converter – ideal if you find the 3DO pad inadequate. Sadly, it's in Russian.

The only other hardware device is also on a promise – the ability to connect an IDE drive to a 3DO multiplayer. Details are sketchy, but the developers over at Freedo have promised that if I, that’s me, 3DO kid, can drum up 100 pre-orders, I get one free. So – what are you waiting for? Chop-chop. 3DO Kid likes free add-ons for his stuff.

Joking aside - this device might bring Linux to the 3DO and other utilities. Fitting a hard drive to enough 3DO machines, for the right price, might breath life back into the 3DO ARM architecture yet. We can but hope. There are also rumors of an SDK to allow homebrew development for the 3DO, again from the Freedo chaps. It's at that acorn stage for the 3DO. Or perhaps the 3DO is truly dead? Dammit, not while Cell flows through 3DOkid's veins, its not.

The developers.

I pinged an email over to an independent Jaguar hardware developer based in my home town of Cambridge - a company called SgM Electrosoft - and asked - why keep developing for the Atari Jaguar?

The answer was simple: He had been a fan of Atari since the early arcade days and the days of the VCS 2600. He also believes the Jaguar is a good system. He says he saw people at Jagfest UK playing Worms (Yes, worms on a Jag!?) passing the controller around and thought he could make an elegant solution to fix that. He then did. Frankly – that’s amazing. He also wishes to continue supporting the Jaguar.

Asked what he would develop with unlimited resources the answer was simple. A VR Headset. He also talked of a lightgun. It’s difficult not to get enthusiastic – a lottery win and I’d happily hand over the money for a VR headset or a lightgun to be developed for the Jaguar – I really would. But this chap isn’t the only one. There is a small army of homebrew hardware developers laboring away in the Atari hardware mines.

But there is a problem. Money. It costs to make this stuff, yet some people don’t seem to appreciate this. Charge too much and people won’t buy it. Charge too little and you won’t cover your costs. It is perhaps the way of the world – still, it would be nice if something could be done.

The ambitions of the Freedo guys are well documented on their forum: A Dreamcast port, an Xbox port, a Freedo hardware machine – that’s right, Freedo running on dedicated Freedo hardware. Close your mouth. But again money and time stands between these guys and their ambitious dreams. Perhaps someone could support these homebrew developers? They could provide a pool of cash and marketing. It would be a hot bed of recruitment potential if nothing else. Someone to offer a gentle nod of approval to these guys that keep the original 32-bit dream alive.

The only conclusion.

The 3DO gets a bit of a kicking in the homebrew department. The Jaguar is truly king of the two, but in my honest opinion, all the 3DO needs is support.

Which brings me on to my final topic: an unholy alliance. Devin from the CDi Interactive network and yours truly, 3DO Kid, famed for the last truly great 3DO blogs, have formed an alliance – in part to defeat the evil Atarians, in part to start a online forum. It's something like the AtariAge site and the Jagware site combined?

The new 3DO Zero forum includes general 3DO related chit-chat, information and 3DO-related chin wagging, and a private forum for anyone with esoteric 3DO curios, ARM, Oprah or Cell programming experience, or something to share. “Join us”, or bow to a world with a blood red fountain.

…Trip? Trip? Are you there…?

So - Round 3 in this epic battle of 32-bit hardware goes to the Jaguar. Bugger.

Jaguar: 2. 3DO: 1.