Monday, January 26, 2015

Over The Wall

We are now in the final lap of the Retrochallenge 2015/01 event! Time is short, and Fahrfall still lacks some key features (like keeping score)... Worse, I got a bit distracted while chasing a performance issue!!

Candy Canes Aloft

In Fahrfall, as the game progresses the color of new platforms changes periodically. I enjoy this feature, as it is both an indicator of how far the game has progressed (almost like a score...), and it rewards the player with something new in return for playing a bit longer. The graphics in the Apple II version won't allow for the "checker board" patterns available on the CoCo, but it will allow for both solid colors and a striped pattern that looks a bit like a "candy cane".

The existing code for drawing platforms only worked with single-colored platforms. I made the necessary modifications to allow for multi-colored platforms, and added some scaffolding to feed random color patterns to Fahrfall. This resulted in multi-colored platforms, but it also resulted in Fahrve's head disappearing before he reached the top of the screen!

Crossing The Line

For a while, I struggled to find the cause of this issue. I carefully checked the code changes, and I even went so far as to rewrite and test the changes in a step-by-step manner. I was almost at a loss as to the cause of this problem, until I noticed that Fahrve's head seemed to make it slightly higher up on the far right of the screen than on the far left. That observation led me to believe that I was overrunning the end of the vertical blank interval before finishing with drawing Fahrve.

With that suspicion in hand, I applied a trick for checking the timing of my vertical blank drawing work. When I start the vertical blanking period, I switch the video mode to showing text instead of low-resolution graphics. (These modes share the same video buffer on the Apple II, and the background data for the graphics screen displays as visible characters in text mode as well.) I switch the video mode back to graphics after Fahrve is drawn, which would be indetectable if done before the end of the vertical blanking interval. But as suspected, it was clear that my drawing code was not completing in time.


Up until now, the code in the Apple II port of Fahrfall has largely grown organically. Heeding the axiom that premature optimization is the root of all evil, I have largely focused on getting things working rather than making them run as fast as possible. Unfortunately, at some point things that run too slowly simply aren't working, whether they are correct or not. Drawing during the vertical blanking interval is, in fact, a "real time" programming task! :-)

In my game loop, I was erasing the old platforms and the old Fahrve, calculating movement and detecting collisions, then drawing the new platforms and the new Fahrve. As an optimization, I delayed the movement calculations and collision detection until after drawing the new objects. This bought a little time, but not enough to meet the required deadline.

Something else I was doing sloppily was erasing the platforms. For this I was actually using the same routine I use to draw the platforms but with the data changed to use the background color. The new multi-color platform drawing code takes longer to do its job, and using that routine for erasing the platforms made that take longer as well. I replaced the platform erasing code with a simpler loop, and this was enough to meet the drawing deadline.

So, there you have it -- multi-colored platforms are possible on the Apple II port of Fahrfall. There isn't much time left during the vertical blanking interval for any other drawing tasks, but right now what is needed are less time-sensitive measures -- like scoring! I don't think I'll be able to reach a totally finished game by the end of the month, but I hope to get a bit closer than I am now. If you are curious to see where I end-up, then you will just have to stay tuned!

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