A voyage of disk-covery.

Posted on June 18, 2015

Earlier this week, I was within close proximity of colleagues discussing the merits of Game of Thrones. One side of the huddle was discussing the time line of the television series against that of the books the show is based upon. The others were summarizing their thoughts of the recent finale episode to the latest season. When I was asked what my opinions were on Game of Thrones, I simply stated that I had seen the first season in it’s entirety, but gave up at that point once the show became a medieval version of Dawson’s Creek. Suffice to say, the reaction upon the brows of my colleagues was more than furrowed, wondering just how I could come to such a conclusion. It’s just an opinion.

Ask any hardcore gamer or computing enthusiast for an opinion on PC games or computing and you’d probably be given a variety of answers. Perhaps championing on-line services like Steam or the popular Humble Bundle packs, to long, drawn-out spiel about which Linux distro is best and why Apple and Microsoft et al are the enemy.

It is reasonable to presume your brow might remain unfurrowed.

Ask any hardcore gamer or computing enthusiast for an opinion on Japanese PC games or computing and only then will your brow likely become not only furrowed, but twisted, crushed, beaten with a steak tenderiser and finally smelted in to a glorious hairy pulp, poured in to a mould and turned in to a gelatinous music box reciting nothing but nursery-like renditions of Donna Summer’s Last Dance and Begin The Beguine by Julio Iglesias.

For it is only when you delve in to the world of Japanese computing, and peel back those first perfectly innocent looking layers, that you discover a world quite unlike anything else you will have ever witnessed before. To the casual gamer, it is a world awash with titles of all genres and infinite degrees of quality. For the keen, a handful of emulators exist, coming already configured along with hard drive images all ready and set to play games from the well-known, to the outer reaches of obscurity. It’s a particular area of computing that I haven’t spent the majority of my attention on over the past couple of decades. I knew it was there, what machines were available and some of the games, but it never really took a great hold of me to become an area I really wanted to unearth in any great amount of depth (at a personal level). Until now.

“I’ve never owned a floppy drive in my entire life”

A couple of weeks ago, I happened upon a bundle of old NEC PC-9801 and X68000 disks on eBay going for, literally, small change. I have absolutely no way of explaining what possessed me to buy them when I had no means of playing the disks. Heck I didn’t even have a floppy drive. In fact, I’ve never owned a floppy drive in my entire life (well, discounting a broken Super Wild Card Unit that I repaired and moved on a couple of years ago, and even then that was a 3.5″ drive, not a 5.25″ drive). I imagine deep down I had seen these disks and thought to myself that they somehow needed rescuing and preserving. It was only after making this impulse purchase that I then began to research ways of getting these disks preserved and, more to the point, playing whatever goodies may be lurking on them.

After a bit of research, I discovered there to be several solutions in place in order to recover and preserve data on floppy disks, which after several decades of use or lying around in storage (the more likely scenario) may have been, or about to be lost forever to the ravages of time. The reason being that the make up of floppy disks, the magnetic flux material, will decay over time. It will happen, and this data will disappear forever unless we take action now. One product that stood out to me in particular, was Kryoflux, a product comprising of both a software and a hardware solution. The hardware solution being a small, credit card-sized controller enabling a user to connect both 5.25″ and 3.5″ floppy drives directly to it. The board then connects to a host computer via USB and from there the end user can install software to control the board and ‘dump’ floppy disks. What sets this particular product apart, at least in my opinion, from the other products available on the market, is the ability to read pure, raw, untouched, unfiltered data directly from the flux, aka at the very lowest possible level. From there the software will spit out data in to raw files which can then be analysed and converted in to something intelligible by hardware-based USB floppy drives, virtual floppy drives, emulators or with a bit more effort, written back to a new, fresh floppy disk (assuming you can find any still for sale these days). Kryoflux doesn’t come cheap. Though if you have a significant amount of data to preserve, it should pay for itself in no time. Or, if you are a curious hobbyist like myself, it’s an expensive, but interesting trinket that, at least in my case, opened doors to worlds I never envisaged I would visit.

With a stack of disks and a Kryoflux unit in my possession, the next item to get was a floppy drive. A kind soul from the community graciously donated an old Amstrad floppy drive to me, gratis. This may well come in handy one day, though for the time being it remains in storage as it only presents 41 tracks when ideally you will require a drive capable of 80 tracks. After visiting the Kryoflux support forum, I discovered a list of drives that other users had confirmed were working with Kryoflux and, more importantly, denoted how many tracks each drive was capable of presenting. The choice is somewhat overwhelming, and debate as to which drive is best does seem to cloud a beginner on the outside from making a firm, confident purchase. Further research in to Japanese computing brought me to the Tokugawa Corporation forums. Mere seconds later, what appears at first glance to be a less than thriving community reveals itself to be one of the most instant, absorbing and important resources for Japanese computing, in English, available today.

After conducting some research within the forum, I felt I still required further assistance. 5.25″ floppy drives don’t come cheap these days alas, and I felt I needed to have my ship pointed in the right direction. I didn’t want to invest heavily in a drive, after all the disks from Japan cost so little. Within hours of making my first post I received a response from a user located in South Africa named peter_j who gave me some very sound advice, pointing me toward a TEAC FD-55GFR drive. Unfortunately prices for these on eBay are rather silly, but I did luck out and managed to purchase a cheap unit from the USA. It arrived swiftly and thankfully the risk paid off. The drive was superbly packaged and arrived in full, working order. I hooked up the drive to my Kryoflux kit and sure enough the drive sprang in to life and presented 83 tracks. I was up and running at last. Phew!

I have quickly learned that preserving floppy disks intended for use on Japanese computers can be a somewhat frustrating, complex and overly convoluted exercise in futility, stupidity and insusceptibility. Scratch that and let me just be blunt and say it is blimmin’ well irritating!

The problem with these disks is that they are all structured varying states of ‘oddness’. The vast majority of disks are written over 77 tracks. No problem there for Kryoflux, just set the disc image to MDM with a start track of 0 and an end track of 76 to cure that. I have however heard of some disks presenting an FM track 0, or some other kind of modified track 0 which then just complicates everything and involves dumping raw tracks, reassembling in FM and MDM images and making some sort of bizarre mutant image from those. Other discs may have specific copy protections on them. This is where Kryoflux really earns it’s medals in being able to read at the very lowest possible level, the actual magnetic flux on the disc. This allows Kryoflux to actually read, interpret and dump the data. At the same time, taking any protection method with it, thereby allowing a full, complete dump of a disc. It really is quite something (and far beyond any knowledge this curious newcomer here can use to construe something intellectually stimulating enough to relay to you, dear reader).

Thanks to peter_j at the Tokugawa Corporate forum, I was able to successfully dump my first PC-9801 disc and get it up and running on an emulator. Albeit with a large degree of difficulty. However as my screen shots show, I got a disc to dump successfully and run. So that is one disc down and several more to go. Hurrah!

The dark side.

There is a dark side to all of this though. If you can call it a dark side I suppose. Since purchasing the small pile of NEC PC-9801 disks, I have purchased more…and more… and more. Not just PC-9801 disks, but any floppy disks going. Scour eBay et al and you will find giant lots of disks for instant purchase or for auction. A lot of these are at silly prices and are not for me. But the cheap lots have me chomping at the bit. With a floppy drive and a Kryoflux board to hand, I’ve developed a bizarre obsession with seeing what’s out there, what data is on the verge of being lost forever. Can the disk be read? Can it be saved? Can I work out what computer it is to be used on? Having recently been given the wonderful gift of a son, my time for playing computer games is short, to non-existent. Preserving disks though can be done in short bursts, and for me there is an excitement factor of wondering what is lying dormant on those discs for all these years. I recently received a pile of 90 floppy disks from Germany and have made some interesting discoveries already. Though these will be documented right here on my blog another day.

Oh and before anyone asks, no, I haven’t found the source code for Parasol Stars on the Commodore 64. Yet…