Sunday, 22 October 2017

That time when North Korea developed Wii games

A while ago, my friend, Misty put out a tweet asking about about a company called Nosotek, which was reported as having made video games. The part that stood out was this:
Nosotek is known for developing computer games for various platforms, such as iPhone, j2me and Wii; including Pyongyang Racer, a browser-based racing video game developed in 2012, to promote tourism to North Korea.
So what Wii game or games originated from North Korea? Down the rabbit hole we went to figure this one out.

The first thing I quipped about was a news article from 2011 that included the following statement:
North Korea is also making computer games (including Facebook games, Wii, Blackberry, iPhone and iPad games) for foreign clients such as Dutch companies.
The part that stands out is the mention of "Dutch companies" which then circles back to Nosotek.  The two foreign investors involved as per the linked Wikipedia article are Felix Abt and Volker Eloesser. Abt is a Swiss national whose background is in investment in North Korea, but Eloesser (a Dutch national) is actually directly involved in the video game industry.

Eloesser's MobyGames profile seems to indicate involvement going back into the 1980s. However, when you look at the list of games, there are no Wii games mentioned and the most recent entry was from 2007 for a J2ME game.

We know that it is very likely he was involved as Nosotek's Internet Archive page made mention of him being president of the organisation.

We also know based on the same archive that it made mention that it was involved in Wii development!

I eventually dug up another article that laid claim to a Men in Black game having been developed by the Nosotek team.
And what are the games in question? Games based on the Men in Black movies and a bowling game based on the Big Lebowski, both of which are over a decade old.
However, some re-reading of the article and Misty's digging lead to the suggestion that it was mobile ports and not anything released for a home console. There was a Men in Black game released in 2012 that may fit with the whole timeline, but it was developed by another developer--Fun Labs, based in Romania and is a subsidiary of Activision. It's possible it may be the subsidiary outsourcing aspects of development to another party, but we do have some further evidence to say that it's not the case.

Let's keep this screenshot of the MIB Wii game in mind as we talk about a video that was released about Nosotek:

About 38 seconds into this YouTube video showing Nosotek's studios, we see a game being played on what I can assume is Wii development kit with a completely different HUD:

The red device you see on the left is a Wii RVT-H development kit, which is rather different than your typical Wii as it has an internal hard drive! The timestamp on the photo is also important to keep in mind here.

The black box on the bottom left is a Wii NDEV kit--also strangely in a seemingly different office. One thing we overlooked in our tweet thread were two 3D models.

These models are way too detailed to be meant for a mobile game at the time. So what Wii games involved a chicken in 2009? Well, none, but one did in 2010 and its box art strikes a really stark resemblance to the 3D model we've just seen.

Chicken Riot was released in 2010 by City Interactive, a Polish studio. It's basically a game where you shoot chickens--what a really strange premise. Here's a trailer:

The thing that is interesting here is that City Interactive and Nosotek have no obvious connection. However, CI claims that it developed the game, so did they contract it out to Nosotek? 

We have no concrete evidence to say that this Chicken Riot game is using the same models as the promo video, but the comparison is way too much of a coincidence. 

But then the rabbit hole gets larger. Remember Abt from earlier? Well here's a Flickr photo that he posted in 2013:

While the posted photo isn't all that interesting, the caption is:
Nosotek has quietly churned out various popular games, including one “very big” role-playing game for the Nintendo Wii.
So what is this "very big" RPG?

Unfortunately this is where the rabbit hole runs out. What I did notice is that the trailer for Chicken Riot shows a game that is seemingly different from what is being shown on that display connected to the red development kit, but because we're dealing with a low-resolution promotional video and basically an obscured HUD on the TV, it's difficult to say what it really is.

If someone can figure this out, please do let me know!

Apple A/UX on a SCSI2SD

I really, really like 680x0 Macintoshes; in particular my Quadra 800. I've had it for a few years after buying it for the intention of running Apple A/UX, an operating system long forgotten.

If you're unfamiliar with A/UX, it was a System V-based operating system that ran the Macintosh Toolbox alongside. This meant that you had a full-fledged UNIX operating system that was capable of running your typical Macintosh System software parallel to local X11 applications. It was really Apple's first foray into environments that strayed away from their traditional model.

I've long had an interest in this operating system as it is neat to think that we could have ended up in a world where System V instead of BSD ruled the roost at Apple. Apple struggled a lot in the 90s with trying to port their flagship operating system to IBM PCs (codenamed "Star Trek"), tried to reinvent the whole wheel with Copland (cancelled when Jobs took back the helm), and its eventual flirting with both Be and NextSTEP, with the latter leading to what was initially Rhapsody, then Mac OS X, and finally macOS.

Yes. I do happen to like Apple history.

Going back to the project, I have had this Quadra 800 sitting in storage for years but knew one day I'd probably be able to get around to this project. Eventually, I got the urge to do it and ordered an SCSI2SD, a device that allows me to emulate an HDD. This was ideal to me as I can swap out the drive at will should I ever decide that I want to run a different OS on this machine.

Getting it configured is relatively easy. You need to make sure of a few things however:

  • You'll have to have a customised copy of HD setup installed on a floppy disk to get the drive initialised. I'll be providing a disk image and details a bit later here.
  • Make sure that you can somehow get easy access to the USB and SD card slots. My solution works fairly well if you don't mind having something sticking out.
  • Do not bother to use anything larger than 4 GB as your SD card. I tried with a 16 GB SD card and it was painful.
Regarding getting easy access, this is my solution:

In my case, I bought a micro-USB extension cable as well as a microSD one too. I have them sitting outside of the case through a slot on bezel (not shown). You don't really need access to the micro-USB port but I do recommend it as there are tools available for the SCSI2SD that allow you to troubleshoot and debug what is going on.

Once you got the device hooked into your Macintosh, you're going to need to create a new drive. This requires you to boot into an environment that allows you to run the Apple HD SC Setup tool. What I opted to do is actually buy a USB floppy drive and a bunch of floppy disks in order to boot into a System 7 environment. However, while normally if you're running a standard SCSI HDD on your Mac that you can use any disk image with SC Setup on it, since we're dealing with an HDD that doesn't have an Apple compatible firmware, we're going to have to do something slightly different.

Instead of making you pull your hair as you try and patch a 25-year old application to recognize non-Apple drives, I'm just going to give you a disk image to boot off of instead. You can download this, image it to a diskette (it may even image to a CDR if you try), and then boot off of it.
MD5: 7c5299dae9e19ea041bc04ffd0552868
Size: 1,213,948 bytes
Once you've booted it you can then use any A/UX installation guide! I won't be covering this part but will share a few screenshots of its successfully installing!

You may run into disk errors as you've seen above, but otherwise it works!

I'll be publishing a few more entries on this as I go along. One of my goals is to get the machine to run fairly up to date libraries. Of course with its meagre 33 MHz 68040 CPU and 64 MB of RAM, it will not be at all very fast. I could consider installing an upgrade board to increase the CPU speed, but I am hampered by the fact that the SCSI bus itself is fairly slow and will always be a bottle neck--just because it has solid state storage doesn't mean it will be fast!

More to come!

Friday, 20 October 2017

Getting your hands on TransLink's SkyTrain audio files

If you look at this screenshot here, I am staring at a number of audio files that contain announcements from TransLink's SkyTrain system. This means that I have station name announcements for every stop on the Expo and Millennium Lines as well as the associated chimes and extra messages.

I do not have any of the Canada Line announcements for reasons I'll explain later.

This was inspired by Seattle's Sound Transit having released said files last year.

The annoying part in all of this is that TransLink is forbidding me from distributing these files even if I stipulate that they're not to be used for commercial purposes. This is despite the fact that I have received them under the rules of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).

Here's how the e-mail exchange went post-release:

Dear Cariad,

The recordings have been provided in response to a Freedom of
Information request. Any further dissemination or use of the
recordings requires TransLink's prior written consent. In order to
assess whether consent would be granted, TransLink will need to
receive information about the purpose and time period of the intended
use. If consent is granted, TransLink and the person requesting
consent would need to enter into an agreement regarding the use of
recordings. If you are interesting in seeking consent to use the
recordings, please send your request to

Yours truly,

My initial reply:
So if I were to disseminate them on my blog and make clear that 
they're not to be used for commercial recordings without TransLink's 
written consent then that would be acceptable?

Okay. So let's see what they say:
Hi Cariad,
Our Commercial Programs area would have to answer your question.
I've copied them on this reply.
Dear Cariad,

Further to Colleen's response below, any further dissemination 
(including on your blog) is not permitted.
Should you want to request consent, please include all of the details 
on your request for use, background and context for TransLink's 

Best regards,

While I am not a lawyer, this seems to be violating the spirit of the FIPPA laws. As a result of this frustrating e-mail exchange I cannot distribute these files and am not up for fighting this further. I can however make it easy for anyone to file a request for these files so you can do goofy things like have the SkyTrain door closing chime as your text messaging notification sound.

So what did I do to get them? Simple! I asked via their customer feedback form!

Fill out the form as per usual with your details, that you require a response, and that this is regarding SkyTrain (use anything for the date of occurrence) and then include the following in the details box:

This is a request to have audio files containing train announcements for SkyTrain's Expo and Millennium Lines. You may cite FOI request 2017/512 filed by Cariad Keigher as reference to the contents being requested.

The request will take probably 45 days to complete upon which you'll get access to a "secure" portal to retrieve the files and be able to engage in any further communications.

Because Canada Line is not operated under the TransLink umbrella in the same way (thanks, Gordon Campbell), they opted to not provide the files citing that it isn't a safety or privacy issue.

I've decided to complain to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) since it is my understanding that there should be no limitations on disseminating the information I received from TransLink--that and ProTrans BC (operator of the Canada Line) should in my mind still be subject to honour this request. I can understand their request to not have these audio files used for commercial purposes, but it seems really ridiculous that they cannot just attach a licence to these files.