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UK Mike (miner2049er)

The Bi-Weekly British Backtrack – Dragons Are Real You Know!

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Hands up America!

Actually I probably shouldn’t say that to you should I? Does that count as Terrorism now?

Let’s try this:
Hands up if you’ve heard of the Dragon 32?
Hands up if you’ve heard of the Dragon 64?
Well, you’re just about to.

The Dragon 32 and the Dragon 64 computers are from the real heyday of the home computer boom in the 1980s and they take their name from the Company that made them, Dragon Data Ltd who were based in Port Talbot, Wales. They were quite similar to the TRS-80 Colour Computer and actually share some cross compatibility with them as well. The other part of the name comes from the amount of RAM they had, obviously 32 kilobytes and 64 kilobytes respectively.
Like I said, they come from this real boom time in the market and they arrived in 1982 for the 32 and 1983 for the 64. They sold quite well and were quite well supported at the time by software vendors and developers, probably helped by the fact that they used Microsoft BASIC like the TRS-80 did, hence the cross compatibility, which didn’t extend to everything but meant they could share peripherals and some software.

The Dragon had a big advantage over the CoCo though because it had a much better keyboard, a proper typewriter style keyboard where the CoCo didn’t so it made much more sense as a business tool. The CoCo had a qwerty keyboard and a traditional layout, but the keys were not the traditional and responsive type, not quite a chicklet style but close to it. It was just easier to type for long spells on the Dragon than the CoCo and all home computers coming out of this boom time tried to market to business as well as home users, some with more success than others obviously.

Unlike a modern PC with the operating system on disk, the Dragon boots from its ROM based OS instantly when powered up. The author of the Dragon BIOS allegedly encoded his initials into the final image so all dragons may well have the initials DNS hidden within their ROM as an Easter Egg.

Some software providers also produced compilers for BASIC, and other languages, to produce binary (or "machine") code that ran much faster and made better use of the small amount of system RAM. Dragon Data also released an assembler/disassembler/editor suite called Dream but it came towards the end of the systems’ life and wasn’t that popular.

As an alternative to this ROM based BASIC operating system both the 32 and the 64 are capable of running others such as FLEX, Forth and even OS-9 (Level 1) which meant that Dragon users could make use of multitasking, and the 64 was functionally identical to the 32 and could even boot in 32 compatible BASIC mode.

So hardware wise it ran on a Motorola 6800 CPU, a 6809E running at 0.89Hz and had like I say, 32 or 64 kilobytes of RAM, both had a parallel port and the Dragon 64 had a serial port which the 32 did not, so you could get a range of hardware for them. The 64 also had some minor ROM changes over the 32, bearing in mind that the ROM contained the Operating System and Basic as well.

They supported resolutions up to 256x192 through a composite video port so you could use a dedicated computer monitor or hook it up to a TV, and they also supported analog joysticks which most computers didn’t at the time so you could also use things like light pens as well.

The media of the day was of course cassette tape and the Dragons were no different in that respect, and they also had a cartridge slot like other contemporary systems.

The Dragon proved such a success for Dragon Data that they became the largest privately owned company in Wales and soon moved to a new and much larger production facility where they were immediately able to produce 5,000 machines every week, which soon rose to 10,000 per week.

Price-wise they were very competitive with the 32 launching in 1982 at £169 and the 64 launching at £225, compared to the British failure of the Tandy CoCo which launched in the UK at £400 and was only a 16K machine.

Part of the success of the different computers in the era was of course their ability to play games and the support that they got from game publishers, but sadly the Dragons suffered from having fairly poor graphical grunt and for games they paled in comparison to their rivals like the Ataris, the Commodores and the Sinclairs. As a business tool they also suffered because they couldn’t easily display lower-case letters without using high res graphics in software, but most didn’t bother and stuck to purely upper-case characters. That sadly killed it as an option for the education market which was also looking to move into the computer age, and as you know from previous shows, the BBC range did exactly that and swamped the education market leaving no room for the Dragon and most of the others as well in fact.

So with all of its markets slightly compromised, the Dragons didn’t stick around for long and Dragon Data collapsed in June 1984, meaning the line was discontinued.

We’ve seen examples in the past in other areas where competing technologies fight out the war for supremacy, and the better option doesn’t always win. Now I’m no expert but the Betamax format is always touted to be technically superior to VHS, yet VHS won through and Betamax all but disappeared. The same with Minidisc which is allegedly a better technology than Compact Disc, but try and find an album on Minidisc if you can.

The same could be said of the Dragon Computer because it was based on the Motorola MC6809E processor running at 0.89 MHz which was an advanced 8-bit CPU at the time, certainly newer and more advanced than the older 6502 from MOS Technology that ran the Apple 2, the Atari 800, the BBC Micro, the Vic-20 and the Commodore 64 among others, and the Zilog Z80 that was found in the Osborne 1, the TRS-80, ZX80, ZX81, the Spectrum and the Amstrad CPC. The trouble is, around this era graphics was king and games ruled the roost, so a computer without the ability to run graphically intensive games was always going to be at a disadvantage.

They did give a real good go though because they supported a lot of peripherals with the I/O for them being handled by two MC6821 PIAs (Peripheral Interface Adaptors) which you know all about from listening to me trying to fix my pinball machine, as that uses the same PIAs.

You can tell the two machines apart because they are slightly different colours with the 32 being beige and the 64 being light grey, and of course I’ve mentioned the serial port on the 64 which is missing from the 32. The Dragons were ripe for modding though because it was possible to upgrade a 32 and make it a 64 and a lot of 32 owners did that with a simple RAM upgrade, and some even went as far 128, 256 or 512 kilobytes with homebrew memory controllers or MMUs (Memory Management Units).

Another reason they were so ripe for modding was that they were pretty solidly built machines physically and they were very reliable too, the mainboard was renowned for being robust and there was lots of spare room inside the case which helped with adding ports and peripherals and not requiring any additional cooling. This was similar to the BBC range of computers that were easily upgradeable from one level to another making it an almost completely different computer in the range.

It was even possible to convert a CoCo into a Dragon by swapping the original CoCo ROM with a Dragon ROM and doing a slight modification on the wiring of the keyboard.

The Dragon's main display mode is 'black on green' text but this mode only supports blocky graphics made from a quarter of each block, so for games you have to switch to one of the other graphical modes, of which there are five, named PMODE 0 to PMODE 4 and each of these modes has two colour palettes selected by alternating from colour to monochrome, hence the poor graphical performance for games in comparison to its peers.

On the business side a third party company called Premier Microsystems from London produced a Disk Operating System for the Dragon called Delta, but Dragon Data weren’t happy about that at all and came out with their own version called DragonDOS which made it quite clear that Delta was not compatible with their “standard” version. It was also more expensive than the official DragonDOS too at £300 but as usual you get what you pay for because it widely regarded as being much superior in that it was bug free, easier to use and had more features.

So this fragmentation added to the confusion at the time for businesses who were spoilt for choice with not only what machines to use in their company, Commodore, Atari, BBC, Amstrad and Sinclair, but if they chose the Dragon they might also have to choose an OS to use as well. Understandably, most stayed away and Dragon was in trouble. Even if Dragon had not competed with Delta they might not have fared any better but now they were in real trouble.

As a last ditch attempt to recover the situation Dragon Data started work on the next range of Dragon computers, again two models of different specs, the Dragon Alpha, known as the Professional, and the Dragon Beta, known as the 128. In an interview for the magazine Dragon User in December 1983, the Managing Director of Dragon Data (Brian Moore) officially announced that the 128 was under development and that it would be compatible with the Dragon 64 through the use of OS9 but not Dragon Basic.

The Alpha was an altogether different prospect though and Dragon were clearly aiming it at the high end market based on its rumoured specs. It allegedly used dual 6809 processors, 256K RAM that would be expandable to 768K, twin 3.5” floppy drives, an optional external hard disk, an 80 column display with resolutions up to 320x256 and 16 colours along with modes that had support for teletext and its 40 column display, no doubt in an attempt to cash in on the end of the Prestel system and to compete with other systems that were able to run teletext at the time.

Estimated retail price for this monster was rumoured to be around the £2500 to £3000 mark which is a lot now and was certainly a lot then too, but if you aim for the moon, you may just land on a star.

During this development period Dragon Data were taken over by GEC who rebadged the existing 32 and 64 and quite a few of them were sold with GEC branding and known as the GEC Dragon.

Unfortunately though, the new systems only made it to the prototype stage during 1984 when the company went into receivership and were bought lock, stock and barrel by a new Spanish company, inexplicably called Eurohard, who acquired them for a reported £1 million. Eurohard had actually already signed a deal with Dragon Data to manufacture Dragons in Spain for the home market both in Spain and in other Spanish speaking countries, but now they had the freedom to do whatever they wanted with it, and what they wanted to do was move in on the education market, backing up the computer hardware with a television show that used it and demonstrated it in much the same way that Acorn and the BBC had done in the UK as they cornered the UK education market. Eurohard were so successful in their strategy that the Spanish government subsidised any Dragon computer bought by a school making them an even cheaper prospect.

Of course this had a knock on effect on the home market too because the computers on the television and the computers used in schools would be complimented if the same computers were also used at home, so lots of Spanish children ended up with a Dragon at home.

Production in Spain was delayed, so to meet the increasing demand and the 25,000 pre-orders Eurohard purchased 13,000 Dragons from GEC at a very low cost and sold them at a huge markup, £200 for the 32 and £300 for the 64 which was still cheaper than their rivals, and don’t forget, they were subsidised to the education market so schools didn’t have to pay anywhere near that.

Eventually the production issues were resolved and the Spanish Dragon 200 model, a 64 clone, started to roll off the production line at a rate of around 500 per day.

On the US side of things, Dragon Data was originally set up by a toy company called Mettoy, and in the early days when sales were doing quite well they were in negotiations with the American Tano Corporation and looking to open a North American branch of the company, but then when things began to slow down a little those negotiations came to nothing and collapsed, but Tano did release an Americanised version of the 64 called the Tano Dragon under license from Dragon Data, and sold around 36,000 of them in the first two years.

The European Dragons used a European video output as standard with 625 lines as oppose to the NTSC standard of 525 lines, but the Tano Dragon had NTSC video output as well as 110v input and some subtle differences like the case colour and the power button. Until recently the Tano Dragon was available for purchase from a distributer called CA Digital who bought up the unsold Tano stock.

Well as this is a retro gaming show let’s have a look at some of the library of Dragon games. A lot of the popular game publishers of the day programmed for the Dragon range including some of the big hitters like Bulldog, Imagine, Mastertronic, Melbourne House, Ocean, Quicksilva and Virgin and they made a mixture of original games and ports from other systems. They also seemed to show something of a sense of humour with their game titles, as a few did back then.

There were ports of popular games of the time like the Spectrum game Chuckie Egg, the arcade game Hunchback and the multi system game Manic Miner, but the Dragon had its own game mascot called Cuthbert who starred in several games of varying quality. Cuthbert Goes Digging was a clone of Lode Runner, Cuthbert Goes Walkabout was a clone of Amidar and both had very poor, almost stick figure graphics, but King Cuthbert was a clone of Donkey Kong that looked much better. The original games were Cuthbert in the Mines which was a platformer style game but played much like Frogger with you making your way up the screen while avoiding things, Cuthbert and the Golden Chalice was a black and white game but had a huge Cuthbert sprite and was a run and jump affair, albeit run slowly and jump slowly affair. Cuthbert in Space and Cuthbert in the Jungle are basically the same game but with different platform layouts, and they look somewhat similar to JetPac where you are collecting things and returning them to your ship at the bottom of the screen.

It had text adventures as most did then and a notable one was Adventure: S. S. Poseidon which is purely text based, but we didn’t mind that did we?

An interesting couple of games were Alcatraz which actually asks you if you are playing on a Dragon or a Tandy Colour, and Astro Blast which says on the title screen that it is a “Hi Res Action Game” yet it plays in black and white. What the game does do though is demonstrate this necessity to switch graphical modes to display different graphical resolutions because the game is in black and white, but when you get shot the sprites and the explosions go into colour. Surely they could have made the whole game colour.

There are some good games on the system and we played them quite a bit back then but honestly, in comparison to our Commodores and even Spectrums, most of them end up looking very garish with horrible bright colours from the limited palette, and they’re fairly blocky and graphically poor like Cave Fighter or Skramble, more clones from other systems. There is an amusing clone though, and I mentioned the sense of humour in the game titles earlier, and in fact Cuthbert is something of a humorous character name, but there was game called Zak’s Son, as in son of Zak, which as you probably guessed is a clone of the arcade game Zaxxon.

Like all good retro systems the Dragons still have an active community, and we’ve talked before on the show about modern day releases for retro systems, and the Dragon is no different in that respect, with a new cartridge game called “Glove” being released in 2007 which was a clone of Gauntlet, and a remake of 3D Deathchase being released in 2009.

So is the system worth owning? Well I would say so, but I think you’ll always find yourself drawn to something else. If you’ve got a retro hour to fill, I think you’ll fill it doing something different, just because the Dragon does a lot of things the others did, but just doesn’t do them quite as well. Of course if you want to run Forth then it may be a good option for that, but when we were kids, the Dragon was always seen as the little brother of the systems we owned and was always the underdog.

Not that the underdog doesn’t have some redeeming features or isn’t worthy of your support, but it is the underdog for a reason after all.

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