December 22, 2020 by Lucian Mogosanu

A couple of weekends ago I made for myself a so-called "mini-home-PC" setup, consisting of a huge-ass TV, a shitty bluetooth keyboard/mouse and last but not least, the actual computer. But then, the question went, what actual piece of computing hardware am I going to use this time? I didn't want to go for much -- in fact I decided to go for the barest minimum possible, an item very popular throughout the "tech enthusiast" crowd, the star kid of the embedded dilettante, the Raspberry Pi 4. After all, why not? the toy in question is readily available and dirt cheap.

So much for the advantages; for one, the RPi 4 harbours the ARM64 CPU flavour, but the only "officially supported" operating system at the moment is a 32-bit ARM build; and the available "beta" 64-bit build has "known limitations", such as the lack of certain hardware acceleration features. What I draw from this is that the Pi people have enough hardware models to support by now, while on the other hand they lack the necessary resources, I suppose, so they're relying on "the community" to help, exposing once again that story of poor old open sores trying to make it in this business.

Anyway, the latest incarnation of RPi is no PC of any sorts; I'm not sure what it was designed for, as the level of haphazardness with which all the pieces are put together is too damn high. The CPU, ARM-64 but running in 32-bit mode, consumes much more power than its older ARMv6/7 cousins, so it dissipates more heat; so the package now comes with some cooling equipment, primitive as it finds itself, with no PWM controller for the fan, which brings the RPi4 about on par with an old Pentium 3. Now, on the other hand, the way that little and, oh, so expensive embedded RAM is used! Remember the Intel740 line? those GPUs with AGP connectors, but which actually used a piece of the host RAM to store textures? Well, that's back in fashion now, and the user can even set the RAM split between CPU and GPU; fortunately, as the defaults aren't enough to run a 1080p video, let alone the muchly boasted 4K. Oh, and don't even think about outputting video through the second HDMI port, your VLC won't work, because bugs and drivers and goat piss.

All these lengthy considerations aside, I tied the raspberry to the TV set with one very precise thought in mind. I knew that it would be able to run, out of all things, a DOSBox; and that it would run it well. From there on, it was only a matter of time until that virus hit: one evening, DOS games were brought up in a conversation and, after a while of shooting ideas at each other, we headed the big screen towards Abandonia. There, among the swathes of old, dusty, forgotten games, we grabbed this game that we all used to play as kids back in the day; we had no idea back then that it was made by the same dudes who published Space Invaders, yet it simply stood as a unique piece regardless. We just knew it by its Japanese name -- Volfied.

Any game of Volfied contains the following interacting elements: a game map, a ship (controlled by the player), a bunch of enemies (controlled by the computer) and a borderline. The game begins with a rectangular map, populated by enemies, and the player/ship sitting on the borderline, lying, expectedly enough, on the border of the map. The player may interact with the game by moving along this border, but more importantly: the player may leave any point on the borderline and travel across the map to another such point; while the ship moves, it will mark a path behind it, and when the path finally unites two points on the borderline, the player will "eat", or conquer, the polygon delimited by the ship's path and the borderline. The game ends when the player is either killed, by touching the enemy or being hit by a projectile, or when at least 80% of the map is eaten.

As far as getting killed goes, the player has some strategic advantages to help him avoid that: for a limited period of time (a few minutes), the ship is protected by a shield, but only while sitting on the borderline, and the depletion process occurs (in other words, the countdown timer goes down) only when the shield is active. Further strategic advantages include power-ups, which are obtained by eating specially marked portions of the map, I won't go into those here.

Then there are the enemies, and how they try to kill you. The enemies, as well as the map "layout", in terms of tiles yielding power-ups when eaten, are different from level to level. But in each level, the player will meet a so-called "boss", i.e. the main enemy, and a bunch of "soldiers", smaller enemies bringing their own strengths and weaknesses to the table: some are faster, while some are smaller, while others are just plainly annoying; enemy behaviour varies from one level to another, so the player will have to adapt his strategy to whatever he finds there. Anyway, the boss is there to be conquered while the soldiers are there to stand in the player's way: there are in principle two ways to "eat" any map that has been partitioned by the ship's path crossing it; and the game will always hand over the portion of the map not occupied by the boss. Moreover, the boss has the advantage of being able to shoot projectiles which not only blow the ship up on collision, but on touching a path started by the (exposed) ship travelling across the map, they follow said path towards the ship and destroy it, unless the player moved fast enough to reach a point on the borderline.

To summarize this: the player has to take degrees of liberty from computer-controlled entities until there remains little to no movement space for the latter; but in doing so, the same may end up removing degrees of liberty for his own ship, as no one wants to go through the pains of conquering a small (remainder of a) map full of annoying little soldiers. Sure, the power-ups can make or break a level, but overall, it's the player's ability to play on the enemies' stupidity that makes a great game, that hand-eye coordination that was built back in the '90s on lots of coins and time spent in the arcade. This all gets more and more difficult as you go past the third level, and the more difficult it gets, the more fun it becomes to get it precisely right and gain all those extra-helpful bonuses that keep you alive.

There is one more thing that makes Volfied stand out, although not necessarily among the games of its time. There exists a quality in man-made things, easily seen by the educated eye and so rarely observed nowadays; some things, observes one's inner eye, contain in them the very seeds of their author's work, the sweat, the headaches, and finally, the victory; some things achieve so much with so little resources, thereby rendering the useful-total work ratio so close to the ideal curve; they are made out of principled, systematic, systematically-applied knowledge, leading to that glimpse into nature itself; they are, simply put, art.

The younger reader might be surprised to find out that this particular type of computer-based art was quite commonplace in the '80s. In fact that's what gave birth to Gaming: Space Invaders, Volfied, Arkanoid, Street Fighter, all these followed only a tad later by the greats of the DOS era, e.g. Wolfenstein 3D. The same reader may bear in mind that this was a time well before the arrival of "software development frameworks" into existence. Imagine the primitive tools they used -- assembly written on single-user systems, no "stack overflow" (although perhaps plenty of the actual kind!), no "Google", no "web", perhaps no internet at all! There aren't all that many possibilities here: either they in fact had the best of tools, or they were the best of people, or both. There's really no way around the question of how all these "tools" became worse as they got better, leading us towards the great nowhere.

That's about as much as Volfied brings to the table, be it technically, or visually, or as far as the ear is concerned. It's a fun little game, harsh towards the player at times, and without all the bells and whistles of "triple-A" games. To be fair, I'm yet unconvinced that there's much left to see in that area anyway, while on the other hand there's a place for Volfied here despite all the achievements of the GPU age. Good thing DOSBox still runs.

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7 Responses to “Volfied”

  1. #1:
    spyked says:

    Anyway, the latest incarnation of RPi is no PC of any sorts;

    I'll second that thought with the observation that trying to copy large amounts of data between two external USB hard drives seems to reset... the whole USB interface of the Pi. Not just the source port and not just the destination port, but *all* the USB ports!

    I don't know how any folks can claim to use this machine as a proper PC. If you've had more luck than I, please share your thoughts here. Maybe I am indeed a fool who has no idea how to use computers, I'm certainly open to this interpretation assuming someone can teach me how to use the thing without running into these kinds of problems.

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  7. #7:
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