XGamestation, you still there? (Answer: Yes)

xgs_pic_03Three years ago, I purchased the XGamestation XGS PIC 16-bit video game development kit.  The XGS is a small, 16-bit microcomputer with 8-bit graphics and sound. It uses the PIC-24 microcontroller for its brains. I dabbled with it for a bit and then it got put aside while I dealt with some personal issues.  Eventually, it was packed up in a box (I bought a new home) and sat for another two years.  Recently, I unearthed the board and its accessories. The software still lived on my main desktop.  Surprisingly, everything survived the move two plus years ago and, it still works.

So, now I am playing around with some lower level coding on a very unsophisticated computer. The maker, Nurve Networks (XGamestation) calls it a video game console development kit. I think that might be a bit grandiose, it’s hardly a console but it does fit the bill for development and learning. It is a nice, clean design and fairly simple.

For getting reacquainted with the board, I’ve been doing some coding in the XGS Basic, which I want to use to help teach my son how to code Atari 2600 type games.  Well, the dialect of Basic is more akin to the Tiny Basic of the 1970’s than a more modern dialect like Visual Basic. And it is such that you must write and compile on your Windows PC and then either download it to the XGS via Serial OR to an SD card to run on the board itself.  Not difficult, but an added layer of complexity.  The XGS Basic runtime lives on the board (after, of course, sending it via the PIC 2 programmer.)

After messing around a bit, I had some questions and also wanted to get a second controller, for two player gaming, so, I went to XGAMESTATION.COM.  Funny thing happened, though…the web site was pretty much exactly as it was in 2010 when I was actively coding for this thing. I was participating in the forums and communicating with the owner.  I went back to the forums and…nothing. There were just a few message boards and few messages.  Several links appeared broken or were getting redirected to a nasty page. Worse, many of the downloads were just broken links. It appeared to me that the company was no longer in business.

On a whim, I sent an email to the support.  Low and behold, I got a response almost right away.  The response was a bit defensive, I think I offended someone by pointing out a few things I thought were wrong with the site (like the broken links, intercepted link and nearly empty forums.)  Well, after a few emails, the tone changed and the support person said that they would be fixing the links (well, the intercepted one, anyway.) The inquiries about the Basic, however, were met with some not so kind remarks about it and my desire to use it as well as the email address of the guy who developed it. (Who, by the way, seems to have completely washed his hands of it and has not answered any of my questions other than to reiterate that it is XGamestation’s software, was free and that the source code is on the DVD. I detected some bitterness between the two.)

Now, I have to say, I am a bit miffed that a product that I bought with the understanding that a certain aspect of it (the XGS Basic) was promised – and heavily promoted as a feature – has been swept under the rug.  The support person suggested I’m wasting my time with it and should use the more documented and better C language. Well, OK, C is nice and they have documented the hell out of developing with C, that’s not the point.  The reason I picked the XGS over the other products was because THEY made a big deal out of ‘ease of developing with XGS Basic.’ I figured I would have some fun with writing Atari like games for my kid as well as teaching him some programming and C is so NOT the way to teach programming to someone who is not bit twiddler. And the response from the developer of XGS Basic was NOT what the support person had promised. I think I very mistakenly thought that the developer actually worked for Nurve, but, apparently, he does not and is very bitter and unhelpful. 

I was thinking I might purchase the company’s ‘Hydra’ product, which is a somewhat morehydra_sml_annotated_01 advanced version of the XGS and has an on board development piece. However, I am having second thoughts.  I have to wonder how a company can go THREE YEARS without significantly updating its sight and having a customer point out obvious flaws…well, I’m not sure I would trust them. However, the support person did share that some bigger and better things were on the way. So, maybe I will just wait.

Web presentation, in my humblest of opinions, is key here.  If I had not actually taken the time to email this company, I might have seen the ‘pre-order before Christmas’ (of 2010!) and just left. I don’t know how they have stayed in business with content that has not been updated in three years. At least change the text.  There are numerous references to months that are long gone (January in August, etc.) or years that are long gone. It really seemed like they were long gone.

As for the XGS itself, I am going to have some fun. I have an idea for a Mario style side scroller that I am going to try in XGS Basic first.  I plan to share my adventures, again, with this cool little board, so stay tuned!

NOTE: to be fair to XGamestation, I went back to the site and it looks like the issues I spoke to them about are, in fact, gone. The download links seem to work, the hijacked link is gone (but, unfortunately, the feature I was trying to use is gone) and the forums seem to be fuller, but many of the posts are still gone. The support person explained that the forums were hacked, multiple times and that’s why the content is missing. Fair enough.   And the support person did respond, very quickly and has been helpful.

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