SOLAR JETMAN (& derailment)

This game was released here in late 1991, so quite late in the NES' life. I remember that around the time the SNES came around I had gotten less interested in gaming, but I did end up buying Solar Jetman.

One appeal of the game is the unique enemy design, quite far removed from its ZX Spectrum roots. In general, games on the Speccy had "pictures of random stuff moving about" enemies. I haven't seen a dump of the NES version sprites. It is quite difficult to dump as the sprites were built from 8px chunks placed by the program rather than being aligned in neat 2x2 blocks. Apparently a nearly complete C64 version of Solar Jetman was eventually unearthed, but it seems the Amiga/Atari versions might be lost to the sands. The NES version is said to have sold quite poorly and back then printing physical copies was expensive so it wasn't uncommon to cancel nearly finished games.

As a lad I wasn't familiar with the Jetpac origins (and wacky comics), so the NES version was a standalone NES title for me. I didn't much care for the goofy portrait even then. Solar Jetman's atmosphere feels darker and oppressive, kind of like that of Metroid.

It would've been interesting to be able travel back and forth between planets picking up upgrades, collecting treasure and gaining new abilities/conveniences to explore, though it would've required more memory (& password space) for persistent storage.

Item sketches. The looting mechanic of the game could be taken much further. Maybe something semi-procedural. Random thought: I wonder how it would play if pick-ups were affected by gravity and fell back to the ground. Probably very frustrating. And not as doable on the NES as off-screen simulation was harder to do.

Manual page sketches, with lots of spot illos.

NES booklet sized pages, but in portrait mode. Landscape has the advantage of being more likely to stay open flat on a table though, especially if stapled. It's possible to spread open a loose-leaf booklet if glued just along the edge. If fanned so the glue touches the inner edge of the page, the booklet will tend to close up, though it's more durable.

One of the games I bought back in the day and didn't lose. By the way kids who are now 40+, don't store boxed NES games in piles. That will squish the cardboard sides. Store them standing like books.

Text block press.

On the topic of manual booklets, you can sort of make your own, using a press like this, paper stock, a cutting machine and common wood glue. It supposedly helps adhesion to scratch up the spine with a fine saw, knife, or coarse sand paper (beware of its deadly dust).

It's best to experiment a bit with different techniques and learn what combination of methods work. I've made several booklets of various sizes (NES, GB, FC, DVD, A6, A5, etc) and found that while a booklet takes only a few minutes to make, it's best to leave them in the press over night to prevent paper warp. Using nuts and bolts is preferable over regular screw clamps as those tend to twist the boards when torque is applied.

Floppy & NES sized sketchbook booklets. One can even make tiny booklets out of the leftover cuts, usable when making temporary notes like time stamps, to-do, coordinate numbers, passwords and such.

If there's enough margin to later cut three edges, it's best to align just the spine edge of the papers to ensure all pages take glue equally. It's possible to let the text block (papers) dry for just 15 minutes, add more glue to the spine and then apply a cover. I used black paper here, but it could be cardboard or some printed thing.

I've managed to get 1000 page flips from just gluing the very edge (no fanning), but in some cases if a single sheet was a bit off-edge (or perhaps was covered by paper dust from sanding) it'll fall out pretty quickly. Once these are opened and used, they tend to stay spread slightly open, unlike stapled ones.

NES Replacement Boxes

NES gray version. Not the correct title font but it's what I had installed. I think I might run into trouble trying to write longer titles, like The Adventure of Link - Zelda II. Might have to put part of it in small print. But Zelda used a Serif so a Sans might look wrong.

Above is a WIP for a EU NES blackbox template. Actually not blackbox because I don't want to waste toner, and black toner crumbles off when the paper is folded. Also, if I do blackboxes then I'd be too tempted to make exact replicas which is a lot of work. They're also not very consistent in their design to begin with. I might do my own artwork for the boxless carts which were donated to me. I kept all of my boxes but when I sold my NES to buy an Amiga I lost most of the older must-have games, so now I only have those boxless.

The NES blackbox format is pretty good. It feels "lagom", just right and substantial. We were fortunate enough to get the snazzy JP artwork on our blackboxes here. The NA boxes were a disaster... not only the cover art, but the tilted layout was kinda iffy too.

Poppin' lids.

NES boxes have a few design flaws, mainly around the lid flap area. The side flaps don't leave room for the lid for fold down, resulting in stress and wear. The lid is slightly too long and wide, making it pop out. Boxes like these should be stored standing or on the side, and not stacked flat as this will eventually squish the sides as seen here.

For some reason the Famicom standard boxes are as wide as NES blackboxes are tall (and as thick). I did this mockup just to see what a FC-NES blackbox might look like. I think FC boxes are a bit on the small side. You can't fit extra goodies in them. Namco's Valyrie no Bouken has a smaller but thicker box so a foldout map can fit inside.

FC booklets actually go under the cart in the cart's plastic tray, so the booklets are not sized after the box, and there's not much space left for anything on top of the tray. The tray can be a bit finicky to put back in the box as it has a sharp edge, being vacuum formed clear plastic.

Amiga Box?

Could a NES format box be used for Amiga games? I think so. Amiga floppies would need a cardboard tray of some sort to hold the disks (4-5 might be the limit given the thickness). The manual could be extended a bit to 134x120mm. NES Booklets are around 134x103+-1mm.

It's not easy to design these. Lots of dimensional thinking. Here I resorted to glue points, but there might be a solution with locking tabs. Paper waste should be minimal and factory assembly easy. I'm sure there are considerations to make for folding machinery/jigs. I can see why vac-formed plastic trays are so prevalent.

Here a few gaps is created in the tray but I managed to get make it an interesting shape at least. While I gave the floppies some mm margin, the fit still ended up a bit tight. A hassle to alter now since changes to the measurements cascade and I do this by hand.

Many great Amiga games are 1-2 floppies plus save disk so I made it 3 disks deep. I never kept the care booklets which came with branded disks, so I made up a few symbols of my own to use as decoration.

Rev.1B (test), 200ppi.

The Solid Floppy & Floppy Prices

What would a modern floppy disk look like? I'm thinking it'd be /cheap/ solid state removable media in the 128-256-512 MB range, with archival / redundancy features and hardware/IC level write protection. The smaller capacity is not necessarily a drawback, if the disks are cheap. It might make organising isolated projects and documents easier, especially with the generous label space. Stuff tends to get lost on tiny blank looking SD cards and USB sticks crammed full with everything.

For reference, Looking in a local Swedish home computer magazine from early 1992, MF2DD "NoName"* disks were around 3.50-4.00 SEK each if buying in bulk (10*10 or 5*10). 10 SEK would be ~1€, so 0.35€ per disk. Sony branded were twice that. MF2HD Fujitsu disks were 12.50 and NoNames were 8.50.

But, 2-3 years later MF2DD NoName were down to 3.00 SEK each and MF2HD NoName were rapidly dropping towards 5 SEK or less (with no formatting/verification). I recall that in the late '90s when floppies were dying I saw branded packs of 10 MF2HD stacked in stores, unsold, but I forgot the price. Disc media quality might've gotten worse over the years I hear. Some of my oldest (<1990) generic dark blue MF2DDs mostly held their data (white box "Japanese Media" NoNames iirc), and I had occasional trouble with the fancy coloured case disks later.

In '95 I see DD Nonames (no format+verification) for 2.90 and HD for 3.50, then various brands for 5.75/7.25 (DD/HD).

I found some mid 1988 prices, and MF2DDs were over 10 SEK each then, with Nashua ones at 20 SEK then dropping to 16 by mid '89. Nashua had neat box desgns. DD prices really plummeted in '90.

Judging by the price changes and initial DD-HD price difference, the casing possibly costs less than the media (magnetic disc). Formatting+verification was 0.40 SEK in the ads which mentioned it, so quite a chunk of the price. Adjusting roughly for inflation, a disk might have been 1.5-2€ today, assuming the same economy of scale. So, that's the price point I'd be aiming for.

* We called non-branded disks "NoName" here, but there were also disks branded with NoName. They were of Japanese origin, probably... quite possibly made on the side in big brand factories, but that is my speculation.

Solid Floppy Disk

Actually just a chopped off floppy.

Presenting the

* S o l i d   F l o p p y   D i s k *

Now in stores - Only 24.50€ for a pack of 10

* I was told that SmartMedia cards were originally introduced as "Solid State Floppy Disk Cards". Didn't know. I thought I was being clever. I was thinking of using "Hard Card" first but decided Solid Floppy was funnier. Apparently not a novel thought...

Now, the reason why you might want hardware level protection is that a malicious program could likely get around file permissions and would ignore the write protect on SD cards as it's just a flag the OS respects, or not. Amiga floppies were always safe when wearing protection, and certainly when just sitting in the disk box.

The implementation in my case might be to detect the disk WP hole in the drive, then communicate the state to the OS but also over a pin to the flash memory driver ASIC on the disk PCB, which would then report a suitable error code if any writes are attempted despite the WP flag.

Here I am assuming SD card hardware with an extra pin for Write Protect state signal (but apparently some pins are already NC/reserved?).

The PCB doesn't take up much space, though NES carts were mostly air too. Label being an e-paper screen for a file listing would be sweet (but costly). I drew something like that for a USB stick a few years ago.

I looked at prices for like 1-2-4-8-16-32 GB china sticks and they were pretty much the same price going from 3.5€ to 4.5€ ("with shipping"), but who knows what's inside these.

Serial Flash packages are a lot cheaper than parallel, but larger capacities are not a thing it seems.

When I looked at flash ICs in the 0.1~0.5 GB range, they were like 1-2$, so it would be very hard to hit a disk retail price of 2.0€ with that (which is what a floppy disk might be with inflation if not OoP). There's also the disk casing, controller & PCB. Above that price point we quickly move towards GB-sized sticks. I think a rule of thumb is that final price is at least 4x that of all components, so the flash memory IC alone would have to be like... 20 cents, which it would easily have been if prices scaled linearly with capacity, but they don't.

The hatch is only held/locked by the bottom left corner so it'll possibly eventually bend from stress. Though there are some sliding guide rails on the back that might mitigate that somewhat.

As for a 3.5" drive bay unit... Fortunately it'd be much less complex than a real floppy drive as there's no head or motors (just some metal for the hatch slide and disk lock mechanisms). SD card reader hardware is just a few cents, though I'd need a special contact mate for this.

There have been floppy-flash adapters which work in a regular floppy drive, apparently with a pseudo-disc surface acting as an interface/converter along with some battery powered ICs (including a microcontroller). Limited to 128MB I believe. Hobbyists have put SD cards into gutted floppy shells and then made something in the drive mate with that. I don't like iomega Zip disks. Too whirry.

Case Quality Inspection

Plastic injection is quite difficult and I suspect if someone tried to make a modern case they'd fail, because the attention, experience and worthwhileness is not there anymore.

These dark blue MF2DD floppies were pretty common in here the very early '90, though this one was maybe done a few years in judging by the marked out HD hole. Regardless, it's an example of a well done case, fairly typical for an MF2DD. Case quality (and possibly disc media quality) seemingly degraded as more and more companies began to mass produce floppies (MF2HD in particular), as we'll see below...

Here's an example from Maxell, "Made in England". The casing has some unsightly gloss areas (perhaps flow issues) which look wet or oily. Also, since there's a wall around the disc inside of the case, the thicker plastic there shrinks this causes a circular shrinking artefacting on the exterior. But there are engineering workarounds, as evidenced by older disks with a consistent finish

Some gloss areas can also be seen on this TDK. The edge of the case has an unsightly bevel that I don't care for, but what I wanted to show here is the square edge around the CH (supposedly "HD" if you're on team upside down). I think the square is possibly the edges of a little insert mould. This way both DD and HD disks could be made from the same (expensive) mould. "Made in E.C." (early EU?). I prefer the pad-printed white CH mark (more common early on?) and a metal hatch without much print on it.

This MF2DD disk had a really sturdy hatch. I couldn't even bend the little tabs which lock the hatch into the rail. Three possible assembly techniques: A. Slide and press it on using the two slopes and catch the spring (resting on the left)(This is most likely how it's done in factory). B. Slide the hatch on via open part (right), but this seems too tight. C. Bend the tabs only once in place (difficult with older sturdy hatches).

Sometimes the metal hatches catch onto stuff and bend outwards like a V, which can get them stuck in a drive. It's difficult to bend them back and hatches are tricky to remove. Perhaps it's possible to slide them off rather than bending and prying. When reassembling, the hatch should bend into itself so it hugs the plastic. Don't clean hatches with solvent/thinner as it can actually leave foggy/marbling marks on the metal. As for cleaning the disc media, it's probably unwise to use anything stronger than water + soft soap (to remove e.g. fatty fingerprints) as stronger stuff (windex or isoprop) will erode the coating.

It seems dust can fall into the disk through an opening if stored upside down.

On Disk Reliability

I just went through some twenty MF2HD (mostly TDK and a few Sony branded) black disks from the late '90s. Nearly all of the 1.44MB MS-DOS disks are corrupted it seems, with no files larger than like 50KB ... 10KB no files surviving. Some disk were suspiciously more or less empty but I don't know if files go missing (file table issues) in addition to the ones appearing but not reading fully.

The situation is inverse with my MF2DD Amiga disks (880KB) which retained most of their precious data, and they're like 7-10 years older (e.g. 1991 vs 1999). It's likely density related, or just PC stuff being crap as usual. 3.5" DD and HD disks apparently both use 135 Tracks Per Inch, so with HD the data is instead packed denser in the tracks.

I stored the disks safely (no moisture, dust or magnets around). Haven't tried to run any disk salvage tools on the PC disks but did with some success on the Amiga problem disks. With HD disks I think we're dealing with poor data retention over time as the disc surfaces looks pristine. On the Amiga, dirt was often the issue and fortunately an easy fix. Commonly, scratches were the killer there. The PC disks written by a Mac seem to do a whole lot better (and list faster) than the Windows ones (I managed to load a 300KB file off one), so maybe it's a PC drive or formatting technique issue. Everything about PCs was and still is garbage and we're living in the darkest timeline.

Interestingly, I had taped over the HD hole on some disks as I used them with Amiga CrossDOS (i.e. formatted for PC on my A1200), and these MF2HD->DD disks held all their files from what I could tell. A few didn't read at all but those are likely native Amiga disks and not CrossDOS/PC0.

I used an external slim USB drive and Linux to check the disks now. Peeking into the drive, it looks like the detectors for the WriteProtect & HD holes are mechanical pegs/switches and not optical LEDs (not sure where I got that idea). I had used clear tape on some of these pseudo-DD disks and got worried. Also, while Linux can read taped HD disks as DD, it doesn't seem able to re-format as DD disks this way (out of the box through a simple menu).

On a side-note, I regret not buying any clear case disks, but I don't even remember seeing them in stores. They appeared towards the end of the format's life. Black ones were my least favourite. The colour choices for the opaque coloured cases left something to be desired too. Could even have had some fun there with differently coloured front and backs. Warm Red front, off-black back.

Solar Jetman by Zippo Games & Rare, Art (c) Arne, 2011-2021,