Watch on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYEP0nzzv6M
Exploring The Dragon32 - An 8-Bit Home Computer From Wales!
The Dragon32 was released by the Dragon Data Ltd in 1982 and is based on the same Motorola MC68883 reference design as Tandy’s TRS-80 Color Computer or “CoCo”, although not strictly a clone, in my opinion.
Join me as I learn all about the story of this computer, take a look inside, and check out what it can do.
Wales. A small country to the west of England, known for daffodils, leeks, rugby, coal mining, rarebit, and male voice choirs. It’s also often used as a unit of measurement, for some reason. Oh, and if you hadn’t guessed by the name, it’s where some very recent ancestors of mine came from, and in fact I still have a lot of family there.
But I digress. One thing that Wales isn’t really known for is its computer industry. OK, the Raspberry Pi is manufactured in Sony’s plant in Pencoed, but what else? Well, back in the 80s at least, there were two noteworthy machines from the land of dragons… Miles Gordon’s Spectrum compatible SAM Coupe, released in 1989 and a few years before that, well, a real Welsh Dragon, actually.
1982’s Dragon Data Ltd. 32, or as it’s more commonly known, the Dragon32.
So join me as I learn a little bit about the story behind this machine, take a look inside, and check out what it can do.
In August 1982, Dragon Data Ltd of Swansea, a spinoff of the Mettoy company founded in 1933, released their 8-bit home computer, the Dragon32. Priced at £175, or around £600 in today’s money, it was based on the same Motorola MC6883 reference design as the Tandy TRS-80 Color Computer, known as the “CoCo”, which was released in the US by the Tandy corporation 2 years previously.
Not strictly a clone, as the ROMs aren’t compatible, the Dragon shipped with 32K of RAM and Microsoft Extended Color BASIC as standard, which were expensive high-end options in the CoCo, and also a much nicer mechanical keyboard. It also featured a dedicated connector for a monitor, albeit composite only, which was lacking on the CoCo until later revisions. But they were certainly close enough relatives that the majority of software could be made compatible with very little modification, and both used the same Motorola 6809 CPU clocked at 0.89MHz, which is roughly equivalent performance-wise to the Spectrum’s Z80 at 4MHz.
The higher end Dragon64 released in 1984 and featured 64K of RAM and a built in serial port, but wasn’t a big seller as there wasn’t really any software available that took advantage of the extra RAM. It was also possible for Dragon32 owners to upgrade to the new improved spec.
So first up, I’d just like to thank Keith at The Digital Orphanage for doing the hard work on this machine for me, this one actually came from excess stock at the Museum of Computing in Swindon where he works as a volunteer, and he’s already cleaned this one up and refurbished the power supply, which means I just get the fun job of playing with it for once. If you’d like to see that refurb in more detail I’ll put links to his videos down in the description - they’re well worth checking out.
So in the box - which I’m not going to take apart here because it’s a bit fragile - was the original external AC power supply unit, a nice Microsoft BASIC programming manual, the computer itself and the original cassette tape interface cable. I source a video cable from Retro Computer Shack here in the UK where I get most of my cables for these machines - this isn’t a sponsored video or anything, just a very happy customer.
Just taking a look at the outside of the machine, it’s a similar size and build quality to that other iconic British machine, the BBC Micro, which was a direct competitor, and the keyboard is definitely a strong point on both machines, although the Dragon is a bit more hollow sounding. Apparently much like the BBC, the back part of the case is designed to take the weight of a monitor, but as it’s bound to be a bit old and brittle I won’t be trying that today.
On the left hand side we have the RF output for connection to a TV, the reset button - and the cool thing about this is that it just resets the CPU and doesn’t actually clear the contents of the RAM which makes testing and debugging programs really easy, and it also returns to the title screen in most games which is quite a handy feature.
Speaking of games, it has two dedicated joystick inputs, there are both analog with one fire button each, a connection for a tape drive which I’ll go into in a moment, and finally a parallel I/O port.
On the right hand side there’s a very large cartridge port, and this was also used as an interface for floppy drives and other peripherals as it was much more capable than the serial port.
On the back, we have this weird power supply connector, the on/off switch, and a connector for a monitor.
Hooking it all up, we can see that it boots straight into Microsoft BASIC from ROM, and that rather in your face green background which as you’ll see later on, is something of a recurring theme with this machine.
Now of course the best way to really get to know an old computer like this is to take it apart - so lets see what’s inside.
So to take the lid off we just remove 4 screws on the bottom of the case, and it lifts away easily. Inside we have the power supply at the back of the case, and this is a bit of an unusual one. The external brick provides 2 8.5v rails and 2 28v, and these are AC. This is then rectified and then regulated down to the more familiar positive and negative 5v and positive 12v rails that we see in other machines. It’s a very high quality and overengineered setup, which is always nice to see. As you can see, this rear board also houses the video outputs, with an RF modulator to connect to a TV and the AV output which provides composite video and mono audio.
Moving on to the motherboard itself, we have a bank of 16 16kbit DRAM chips, providing 32K of system memory. On the right next to the cartridge slot, we have the Motorola MC6809E, which is an 8-bit CPU with a 16-bit address bus, allowing it to address up to 64K of RAM in the case of the Dragon64. The CPU is clocked at a rather leisurely 0.89MHz.
Here we have the two ROM chips, in this case containing Microsoft’s Extended BASIC.
To the left of those is the MC6883 SAM, or Synchronous Addressing Multiplexer, which handles RAM and ROM access, and also generates the clock signals for the CPU and video chip.
Speaking of which, here it is, or to give it its proper title, the MC6847 Video Display Generator. This is a relatively simple video chip even by the standards of the time, providing 12 different graphics modes at a fixed resolution of 256 x 192, with a maximum palette of 9 colours.
The output of this chip runs through an op amp and an LM1889 video modulator to generate the composite PAL signal that is fed through to the AV socket and RF modulator.
Also in this area is the relay for the external cassette motor, which makes a satisfying clunk when cassette programs start and finish loading, and two joystick ports, which are analog and support one button each. The analog inputs from the cassette and the joysticks are handled by this MC14053 analog multiplexer.
Finally we come to a pair of MC6821 peripheral interface adapter chips, providing 2 8-bit data buses each, and their accompanying 7400 series TTL chips. These handle keyboard input, the joystick and parallel ports, audio input and output, and the cassette relay, as well as some other system functions like CPU interrupts.
Personally I think this motherboard is really logical and tidy, which is perhaps unsurprising considering it’s essentially a Motorola reference design - but I suppose the Dragon Data engineers at least deserve some credit for making it a reality.
A really nice tidy logical design, which is always good to see. But there was one glaring omission - a sound chip! Other 8-bits of the time featured chips such as the Commodore 64’s legendary SID chip, Atari’s POKEY, or Yamaha’s AY, which was used in the Orics, the Vectrex, MSX machines, and the Atari ST, and was in fact made available as a separate sound cartridge that could be used with the Dragon and the CoCo.
But I don’t have one of those, so it’ll be interesting to see what sound capabilities this machine has in its stock state.
So, now we’ve seen inside, let’s take a look at what the Dragon can do. Now, back in the day, of course, it was very common for those of us in the UK at least to use cassette tapes to load games and other software into our 8-bit machines, with the benefit that they were readily available, very robust and recordable. The Dragon32 was no exception, although it did have a cartridge port with cartridge games available, and a far less common floppy disk drive that plugged into that same port.
I should mention that there’s also a modern solution for the CoCo and Dragon called the CoCoSDC, which is basically a flashcart that allows software to be loaded from an SD card using the cartridge port, and certainly well worth looking into if you own one of these.
Now I don’t actually own any tapes or cartridges for this machine, they’re starting to fetch silly money on ebay these days, and I certainly don’t own the disk drive, so what I’m going to do is hook my laptop up to the original tape interface cable and play some recorded versions of those original cassettes, which should emulate a tape drive.
I found the complete TOSEC collection of games, but they were all in CAS format, which is a compressed format designed for emulators. I tried converting a few to wave format using a tool called DCWIN, but I just couldn’t get the real Dragon to load the converted files at all. I’ll link to them down in the description just in case they’re of any use to anyone - the CAS files work just fine in the XRoar emulator, if you’d like to run them that way.
Thankfully I managed to find a huge archive of games on a site called World of Dragon, which includes not only the games in wave format but also scans of all of the tape covers, which I’ll be using in this video. I’ll of course link down below, and just want to extend a big thanks to the admins and contributors that have made such a useful resource available.
I found that the most reliable way to get the files to load is to open the file in Audacity, pan it hard left as the original cable is only mono and we don’t want anything on the right channel potentially interfering, and play it at about 90% volume. Then it’s just a case of typing the CLOADM command and hitting play on the laptop.
Oh - and then waiting patiently for 3 minutes, at least in the case of Manic Miner here.
Now according to everygamegoing.com, apparently there are 1,181 games for the Dragon - including variants - so hopefully I’ve done a good enough job of narrowing it down to some old favourites as well as a few exclusives.
I should also point out that the video output isn’t quite perfect on this machine, so I think I’ll be giving it a preemptive recap in the near future and seeing if that makes any difference. The picture is also a bit noisy when it’s loading from tape which I assume is to do with RAM access, but it’s certainly good enough to show what it can do.
So without further ado, let’s play some games!
First up we have Chuckie Egg, a game I know well from the BBC Micro. The aim of the game is to run around the platforms, climbing ladders, jumping gaps, and stealing eggs and birdseed while avoiding the birds. As the game progresses we’re introduced to trickier elements like moving platforms and more enemies. The Dragon version plays really nicely and I can highly recommend it. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never been particularly good at this game, but it’s still a lot of fun and Dragon owners were treated to a very nice conversion.
The only major difference of course being that green background - but it does grow on you, I promise. Or perhaps it’s just making me nostalgic for the Atari ST.
On that note, and before we move on to some exclusives, I’d also like to mention another pair of 8-bit classics - Manic Miner and its sequel, Jet Set Willy, both released on the Spectrum by Matthew Smith, in 1983 and 1984 respectively. Credited with being big leaps forward for platformers on 8-bit home computers, both games were ported to the Dragon by Roy Coates and released in 1985 by Software Projects Ltd.
Much like Chuckie Egg, the gameplay of both games is very close to the originals - although the only way to replicate the complex rooms was by utilizing the Dragon’s high resolution monochrome mode, so unfortunately the garish colours of the Spectrum version are out. To make up for the lack of colour, Dragon owners were treated to an additional 13 rooms in Jet Set Willy, so this unique version is well worth checking out for fans of the original game, not to mention the fact that both games look super sharp on a CRT screen.
Coates even managed to faithfully replicate the music - as painful as ever, with the Blue Danube, Moonlight Sonata and In The Hall of The Mountain King all present and- well, I was going to say correct, but I guess they’re as correct as they can be. Personally I’d mute the TV and put a tape on if I were you.
Back Track Back Track, written by Chris Andrew and published by Incentive Software in 1985, is definitely one of the cleverer Dragon games I’ve come across. The premise is pretty simple - in theory. Explore the house, find the keys in order, and then find the exit, all while trying to maintain your ever-dwindling willpower which is basically a case of random eating food items you find on the floor along the way.
There are 2 aspects of this game that make it really clever, however. The first being that the levels seem to be randomly generated, and with the keys often appearing in no particular order down winding corridors there’s always a lot of backtracking involved - hence the name. I reckon a piece of graph paper might come in handy, particularly on later levels, although there is a map - if you can find where it’s hidden in each level.
The other standout feature of this game, if you haven’t noticed already, is that nifty 3D effect. Games of this era were often based around isolated static screens or “rooms” with no transitions between them, so the top down 3D view with its smooth scrolling really makes this game stand out and work well. In fact the game incorporates this into the gameplay - entering a room with a snake facing inwards will mean that you end up getting eaten, often requiring the player to “hover” between rooms and wait for just the right moment. Tricky stuff - particularly when the maze generator decides to put two snake rooms next to each other.
Definitely one worth checking out, and as far as I’m aware, a Dragon exclusive.
Airball, released in 1987 by Microdeal, was a Dragon game that later went on to be ported to other platforms including the CoCo - of course - the Atari ST, Apple II, MS-DOS, Atari 8-bit and was even revived much later on on the Gameboy Advance. A version was also in development for Nintendo’s NES, but was cancelled.
One highlight of this game is the music - pretty impressive for a machine with no sound chip, and the music in this game almost has a 70s Hammond Organ quality to it, so top marks there.
The aim of the game is to guide an inflatable ball through various maze-like puzzles. Each round starts on an inflation station - but don’t hang around too long or your ball will overinflate and explode. Yep, it’s another one of those 8-bit games that will kill you for doing absolutely nothing.
The ball can jump over obstacles but be sure to avoid the spikes and other nasties, or you’ll go pop - and we don’t want that. I also managed to find and even use - I think - a spell book at one point. I should probably read the manual.
Anyway, the game uses the Dragon’s monochrome mode to great effect, although the isometric view makes it pretty tough to control. A very challenging and rewarding puzzler and well worth checking out.
I thought I’d check out an arcade conversion next, and unlike a lot of the home ports of dubious legality that were doing the rounds on the British micros of the 1980s, this one’s actually officially licensed.
Ported by the Cornsoft Group and released by Microdeal in 1983, Frogger is a really nice home version of the classic Konami arcade game from 1981. I really love the look of this one and the way they’ve managed to squeeze the character of the original down into the Dragon32’s limited palette and resolution is really quite something.
Also the sound is fantastic too, with all of the little flourishes from the original. While it’s nowhere near as detailed as the Atari 8-bit or BBC Micro versions, it’s still a lot of fun to play and has its own charm.
Finally, I’d thought I’d check out some 3D gaming with some proper polygons. Yep, you heard me right.
Rommel 3D - named after the famous World War II German general Erwin Rommel, is a 3D wireframe tank combat game very reminiscent of Atari’s 1980 vector arcade hit, Battlezone.
Released by Microdeal in 1986, it’s yet another high resolution mono game. This one has really nice smooth animation and basic but convincing sound effects.
Now of course, like any other home computer of the 80s there were also a lot of excellent utilities covering word processing, home and business accounts, and even music in the form of the Tandy Orchestra 90-cc music cartridge.
There were also some very comprehensive software development tools, with C being officially supported by Dragon Data in addition to the built-in Microsoft BASIC and 6809 assembly language, and third party support for FORTH, Pascal, LOGO and many more - and with that excellent keyboard I imagine it was a very nice machine to develop on.
At the height of the Dragon32’s popularity, a company called Eurohard had the license to manufacture and sell Dragons in Spain, and it was also available in Finland under the Finlux brand, as well as the Tano brand in America.
So what became of the Dragon? Well, sadly, it kind of fizzled out, to be honest.
Dragon Data Ltd, under the control of GEC, went into receivership in 1984, and after acquisition talks with Tandy broke down, the remaining assets were picked up by their Spanish licensee Eurohard, who continued to sell Dragon-based computers until they themselves went under in 1987.
Apparently they also had an MSX compatible machine in development called the Dragon MSX, but sadly it never went beyond prototype form.
So there we have. I hope you’ve enjoyed this look around the Dragon32, and I just want to thank Keith at The Digital Orphanage and the Museum of Computing in Swindon for letting me get my hands on this machine and doing a lot of the dirty work so I didn’t have to - at least this time.
Finally, I’d just like to say a big “iechyd da”, thank you very much for watching, and I’ll hopefully see you again soon.
The Digital Orphanage Dragon32 Restoration Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YY56UpN37Bo
Retro Computer Shack (Cables): https://www.retrocomputershack.com/RCS-Website/Products-Page/index.html
Dragon32 TOSEC: https://archive.org/details/Dragon_Data_Dragon_TOSEC_2012_04_23
DCWIN CAS Converter: http://archive.worldofdragon.org/archive/index.php?dir=Tools/&file=dcwin02net35.zip
XRoar Emulator: http://www.6809.org.uk/xroar/
World of Dragon Archive: http://archive.worldofdragon.org
Every Game Going Dragon32 Game List: https://www.everygamegoing.com/landingMachineType/index/machine_folder/dragon/thing_type/games
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