ASCII by Jason Scott

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Five Unemulated Computer Experiences —

While I and many others work to turn the experience of emulation into one as smooth and ubiquitous as possible, inevitably the corners and back alleys of discussions about this process present people claiming that there are unemulated aspects and therefore the entire project is doomed.

I thought I would stoke that sad little fire by giving you five examples of entirely unemulated but perfectly valid vintage computer experiences.

Disk Drive Spin Vibration

Some games on home computers would feature permanent player death and the requirement to start over in the event of a catastrophic loss. To ensure the death was permanent, the player status would have to be recorded on a floppy disk drive with a floppy disk in it. Therefore, a trick could be implemented: by putting your finger underneath the latch of a floppy disk drive, you could feel the vibration of the disk beginning to spin, and you could flip up the drive door, disengaging the magnetic head and ensuring that the death was not recorded.

Computer Fans

There are currently no attempts to emulate the sound of a computer fan or have it speed up and slow down slightly over time, eventually reflecting the decay of the fan and the steadily noisier experience as time goes on. In a tangential relation, there are currently no emulations of system failure due to overheating.

Chip Unseating

One common cause of machine issues in older systems would be the slow working out of seated chips on motherboards and other circuits. The resulting glitches and behavior would be noticed by experienced owners, resulting in a reseating of the chips, either by full-board pressure or by pressing down on individual chips and experiencing the clicking into place.

Damaged Floppy Noise

One of the most terrifying and disheartening sounds was the sound of a distraught grinding across a damaged or demagnetized portion of a floppy disk. The noise told you that it was going to be a crapshoot whether the data would ever be heard from again. Variations in the sound also told you how close you were to total data loss, and whether you were at the beginning of a slow decline for that sector.

Power Outage

Emulators do not have an option for sudden and dramatic loss of power. Is not possible to indicate a lightning strike, a brownout, a black out, or the yanked out power cord. This is a central and fundamental aspect of the Atari 2600, where careful glitching of a system including yanking and replacing cartridges could allow you to access game options and experiences that would otherwise never be reached.


The point of me bringing all these up is not to be particularly weird, but to point out that emulation is not a binary experience – it is a continuum, a spectrum. For some people, the mere reappearance of older computing information is a miracle. For others, it is a endless opportunity to point out flaws, complain about glitches, and otherwise drag the conversation into a Xeno’s paradox of unfulfilled promises and impossibly high hurdles.

As time goes on, I expect some experiences to fall by the wayside, and to live only in lore and stories. Unfortunately, that is the nature of history, and computers don’t get a pass, just because the material involved gets re-created with such fidelity.

So, let’s focus on what’s been done and refine that, instead of a mystical set of experiences that may never see the light of day again except in our stories.

Categorised as: computer history

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  1. phuzz says:

    Does the MAME team take feature requests?
    “Emulator does not power down unpredictably and corrupt the machine when you mum comes and and just yanks the power cord because you should have started your homework an hour ago mister”

  2. You can glitch a 2600 in the Stella emulator — with a game loaded, hit backspace. I’m completely baffled as to how the emulator programmers did it, but it works exactly as I remember it on a real 2600. (It’s the only way I’ve been able to complete Pitfall II.)

  3. Mark says:

    Virtual ][ (Apple II emulator for Mac OS X) reproduces disk drive noises pretty well, including that heart-stopping grinding on bad sectors.

  4. iPadCary says:

    The “Disk Drive Spin Vibration” is so pronounced, it’s been used to make music.
    Specifically, the “Doctor Who” thæma:

  5. Jac Goudsmit says:

    A friend of mine once wrote a Pong clone for the Amiga. At my request, he put in a feature that emulated the potmeters in the controllers going bad, so the paddles on the screen would randomly jump up and down on the screen as you played.

  6. While at the computer game museum I noticed how strong the smell of burning dust on crts is. Really brought me back. Time for smellemulation.

  7. Rob van Stee says:

    DId anybody else read that as “I expect … to live only in lore and stories”?

  8. Robert Clark says:

    Remote character echo in a terminal, when connected to a BBS. If you attempted to type a word on a proscribed list, the BBS might just refuse to acknowledge what you typed. This lead to alternate spellings. Where “wares” was blocked, “warez” might not be.

  9. Robert Clark says:

    That music is the head stepper motors moving. Are we lumping the disk rotation motor into that same category? They don’t sound much alike.

    The old 8″ floppies often had rotation motors that were always on, and only the heads engaged and disengaged the media surface. I can still recall what the login sequence sounded like on the Alpha Micro.

  10. Robert Clark says:

    Flyback transformer whine from CRTs?

  11. Darren says:

    This is getting really meta…

    But the simple fact that we’re using of this software, thousands of titles, conveniently and all with the click of a mouse, removes the experience that I remember, of scarcity. These programs were often costly and I used most of them only in my dreams. And the experience of waiting, which was so much a part of it. Waiting for programs to load from disk or tape, waiting for programs to arrive via mail, waiting to finish typing them in (because we couldn’t afford to buy them). Not to mention the innocent excitement when first running them, as we hadn’t seen anything like it before.

    The true experience around the work is gone, like the details you mentioned. But what matters is that the true *intended* experience, the ideal of smoothly and swiftly running programs, easily accessible, is what is preserved.

  12. metamatic says:

    Just FYI, Cathode (the retro terminal emulator for OS X) has an option to emulate fan noise.

  13. Daniel G. says:

    Oddly, what I remember MOST about my time on old machines like my C-64 and NES, is the incredible SILENCE. Sure, the disk drive made noise when actually loading or saving, but the vast majority of the time you could sit in complete silence, typing away. That’s actually what I missed most during all my desktop computer years.. and the iPad finally brought back some of that peace to me.

    • Stephen Dowse says:

      Hehehe I know exactly what you mean. To my ears the sound of a friend’s “awesome 386” sounded like an industrial vacuum cleaner compared to my VIC, 64 or A500, no wonder so many PC users didn’t bother buying sound cards.

      P.S. Here’s a noise that will bring back (bad) memories:

  14. […] a reminder that even when we are talking about emulation of games (link to a thought-provoking and vaguely relevant blog post), we’re talking about a […]

  15. guest says:

    Chip unseating? There are many other interesting hardware bugs!
    With some homebrew computers a very characteristical glitch could be achieved when there were wire soldering problems with added capacitance. This acts as a filter. Put it on bit sequences and you have a repeatable but unpredictable bug.
    Example: We have a home-assembled Z80 CP/M computer connected to the serial terminal. Capacitance problem is between Serial IO driver and CPU.
    – We can run software with screen redrawing and spitting lots of characters in different places.
    – We can play text adventures writing paragraphs without any problem.
    – Any try to produce line-art results in garbage.