Sunday, February 04, 2018

The UDG For ZXpand Add-on for the ZX81: Part 1

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One of most noticeable graphic element lacking from a ZX81 is perhaps the ability to define said graphic elements. Enter the UDG for ZXpand from Andy Rea, an expansion module available from around mid 2017 that affords the ZX81 owner the opportunity to create User Defined Graphics.

The UDG for ZXpand Hardware

The UDG for ZXpand is designed to be used in conjunction with memory expansions supporting the WRX extensions / modifications. Modern memory boards such as the ZXpand(+) and the ZXblast support this natively. Note that if using period RAM expansions such as the 16k Sinclair RAM pack or one from Memotech, then hardware alterations are required.

The UDG 4 ZXpand Expansion Board.

For an expansion board the UDG 4 ZXpand is quite small, being the width of the ZX81 expansion bus and approximately as deep again.. The expansion is designed to slot horizontally and directly into the ZX81 expansion port, and to be sandwiched  between a ZX81 and supporting RAM Pack / ZXpand / ZXblast.

Configuring the UDG 4 ZXpand for use with available software is a simple matter of adjusting a jumper setting on the board. A small toggle switch might have been a better choice, still one could easily be added by the end user. The jumper can be set 3 ways:

  1. Open: No effect, ZX81 operates as normal
  2. 64 Mode: Sets the UDGs to a defined limit of 64 Characters. A further 64 characters will be inverse versions.
  3. 128 Mode: All available ZX81 characters can be redefined and made available.

Modes 3 in particular provides scope for a complete overhaul of the ZX81s character set. Need some lower case characters, then replace the otherwise seldom used inverse set with something more useful. I'll cover the creation of character sets and the importation of existing fonts in a second post / article.

It's also worth noting that the UDG 4 ZXpand is supported by the 1.8 release of the EightyOne Sinclair Emulator.

Upadated UDG Gamming Goodness

The ability to redefine all 128 character tiles provides the scope for all existing ZX81 games to be retrofitted with HiRes character graphics. A good case in point would be Quicksilvas Galaxians, originally published in 1983 and written by T. Beckworth

A fast paced arcade game, Galaxians exemplifies just what a standard ZX81 can deliver when asked nicely. With the addition of some well done UDGs Galaxians is elevated to a whole new level, the game rivalling the best early games the ZX Spectrum has to offer.

Galaxians Clone with and without UDGs enabled

You can grab the updated version of Galaxians Thanks to Moggy on the Sinclair World Forums. Be sure to search for other updated tittles while there.

The results of redefined character sets on old games depend largely on the quality of the original, or simply revolve around just how the pre-existing Sinclair character set may or may not have have been used. Even in the otherwise brilliantly updated Galaxians there are some oddities to be seen due to this specific limitation. This is most apparent in the Hi Score tables where an "*" character, normally used in game as a player bullet, leads a certain illegibility the player score listing.

New Game Realses

Zedragon version 1, running on a ZX81
Updates to older games is all well and good, but endowing a ZX81 with near ZX Spectrum like powers (minus to colours) the UDG for ZXpand stands to have major impacts on many a new games releases.

There are effectively no limitations plaguing new tittles , these having the potential to provide complex experiences with a full usage of UDGs.

The first of brand new title being Ze dragon, a game so professional it's hard to believe a ZX81 is running behind it. A clone of Atari Sea Dragon, Ze Dragon is a Scramble like game replacing other worldly action with a Submariner adventure.

Ze Dragon was released in late 2017, and February 2018 has seen it updates to Ze Dragon II. The new version features pixel level scrolling, something not before seen in a ZX81 game. (Perhaps some parallax scrolling in version 3?).

Ze Dragon is an impressive conversion, demonstrating the full capabilities of the ZX81, UDG for ZXpand and the ZXpand(+). Perhaps this is not so surprising as the creators behind the both the UDG 4 ZXpand and ZXpand are behind the game. Game Author Sir Morris (Charlie Robson of ZXpand fame), Andy Rea and other co-mariners should be justly proud.

As with Galaxians, Ze Dragon 2 is available over at the Sinclair World Forums.

Ze Dragon 2 running on the EightyOne Sinclair Emulator

Next Time

Well that's a basic review and some games covered, so what about using Andy Reas' clever little device to do our our own bidding. Next post I'll attempt to cover some basics on generating our own UDGs for own games and programs. Covering some simple coding, then moving quickly onto some software that's already available to take all the hard work out of generating new ZX81 characters sets.

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