Jaguar CD System


from AEO Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 6

 |||   First Hand Impressions - Jag CD & VLM
 |||   By: Travis Guy
/ | \  GEnie: AEO.MAG   Delphi: AEO_MAG

Several weeks ago, I received a Jag CD unit and a mid-June copy of
Blue Lightning, and now two hurricanes and a heatwave later (yep,
it's been a busy summer), I'm ready to make my report - well, on the
CD and VLM at any rate. First, the physical nature of the Jag CD, and
its basic functions.

//// A New Boot Won't Bog Down

The Jag CD is a very compact unit. With a case the same color as the
Jaguar itself, the Jag CD slips into the "U" shaped concave top of the
Jaguar. An edge connector slips down easily into what was your
cartridge port, and a tiny tab snaps into a slot near to the Jaguar's
power switch.

Although I had been told otherwise, I was not totally sure about how
steady the newly mated unit would be when it came to inserting and
removing cartridges. You see, with the CD unit attached, the cartridge
port sets over the rear edge of the Jag.

So far, I haven't noticed any physical instability. (i.e., it doesn't
try to tip over backwards when a cartridge is inserted.) And for those
who've asked, ICD's CatBox does fit (snugly) under the rear of the Jag

There's only one button on the CD unit, and it's used to open the lid.
The lid isn't damped, and when opened, it pops up about an inch, and
you have to physically open it to get to the CD inside. (The lid
doesn't go close to vertical, so as far as I consider, it's =not= a
toilet lid! <grin>)

Next, you'll have to hook up another 9V AC adaptor, just like the one
that powers your Jaguar. That's it - it's time for your new bootup

First, your Jaguar will look for the presence of a game cartridge. If
present, Jaguar will run it, and will not spin up a disc. If there's
no game cartridge installed, your Jag will then check for a disc. If
it finds a Jaguar game CD, the Jaguar will then check for a Memory
Track cartridge. If it's an audio CD, the Jaguar will load VLM from
the CD unit, and present you with the VLM control screen.

Before I forget, I should tell you about the new onscreen logo.
Instead of the regular Jaguar startup screen (with the falling
letters, jaguar cube, chintzy music, etc.), a different sized Jaguar
logo appears when you first boot up - accompanied by a random VLM
effect. The logo is the same logo we've all come to know and love,
just spiced up. (I prefer the tiny multicolored Jag logo sitting in
the moving starfield.)

If there's no cartridge or CD present, a picture of a gold CD with a
question mark flashing across it will appear under the new Jaguar
logo. (Bonus tip: If there's no power applied to the Jag CD unit, a
picture of the rear of the Jag/CD unit will appear - with a flashing
arrow pointing at the CD's power jack! Well, =I= thought it was cool.)

The unit itself was built by Phillips, and I've put it under four
weeks worth of use with no problems, and I'm talking -heavy- use.
I've found the Virtual Light Machine to be quite an attention getter
at parties.

Now that I've mentioned the VLM, it's time for a refresher....

The VLM is the latest in a long line of lightsynth programs by Jeff
Minter, author of many award-winning shoot-em'ups on various platforms
(including the Jag's Tempest 2000), and furry beastie follower.
"Trip-a-Tron" & "Colourspace" were two previous efforts I'm the most
familiar with, but like many people, I found the weak point of those
programs was that the listener had to move the mouse or joystick
around to make the pretty patterns dance on the monitor. Heck, you
really didn't need any music playing....

That's where VLM breaks away from Minter's previous lightsynth work.
VLM was conceived as a part of Atari's new Jaguar CD player. By
carefully monitoring the data flow coming off an audio CD, "triggers"
could be set to wait for various audio events - "triggers" that could
initiate and otherwise influence graphic effects. In effect, the
lightsynth would be "listening" to the music, and reacting to it.

he effect of each of Jeff's online announcements on VLM's status was
interesting. VLM reached "cult" acceptance levels among many of those
waiting to buy a Jaguar CD unit. (Which should start shipping from
Atari late this week. <This article's timing intended>) In fact, a few
Jag owners voiced that they would buy a Jag CD player on the appeal of
VLM alone.

When my CD player arrived, I felt that I had to Do The Right Thing.
So, as I would hope that Jeff would deem worthy, I christened my Jag
CD with a playing of my MFSL copy of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the
Moon. Yea verily, the music flowed, the pixels did dance, and my heart
was made light. I knew then, that the VLM is everything the Yak had
said it would be.

Just so everyone knows, the VLM is not part of some magic chip in the
Jag CD player. It's a program, stored in ROM inside the CD player, and
runs on the Jaguar console just like any other Jaguar program. Also
like other Jaguar firmware, the VLM benefits from EEPROM storage - the
current volume, and selected VLM bank/event settings are stored, with
100,000 writes possible. I was delighted to find this out.

//// Taking control

The VLM controls may seem complex at first, but they quickly become
old hat. I managed to figure out most of the functions without
referring to the manual, so I don't think they'll be too much bother
for anyone.

Let me first point out that there are two modes of operation: Audio
Control Mode and VLM Mode. Audio Control mode allows most CD-player
operations to take place, and VLM mode is where Banks and Effects are
chosen. Depending on the appropriate Mode, different functions are
assigned to the joypad, to the fire and control buttons, and to the
keypad. A tiny "VLM"-logo bug appears in the lower right-hand corner
of the screen for a few seconds as you change modes: inverted when you
enter Audio Control mode, right-side-up when you're in VLM mode.

As for the joypad, while in Audio Control Mode, brief Left and Right
taps signal Back and Forward Track respectively. Longer presses signal
Cue & Review. (More on that just ahead.) Up and Down on the pad raises
and lowers the audio volume level with a "transparent" volume graph
appearing on the left side of the screen.

Cue & Review skips through 30 seconds of audio in 8 seconds of real
time (one second per "tick"), then without letting up on the pad,
shifts into 6X scanning speed. Segments of music cannot be "marked"
for loop playing.

The rest of the buttons are easier to remember. Pause pauses/
unpauses, Option toggles Audio Control/VLM Modes, and the A button
cycles between the three different displays. (VLM Only, VLM & Readout,
and Control.)

In Audio Control mode, the B button initiates Play, and the C button
Stops play. In VLM mode, the B button can be used in several bank/
effects to call up a special "Hyperdelic Interactor" effect that the
listener can use the joypad to control. (As in the days of Trip-a-
Tron.) The C button causes the screen to "strobe-to-black" for a brief
moment before continuing with the lightshow.

The keypad has two functions, direct entry of track numbers in Audio
Control Mode, and direct entry of bank/effect pairs in VLM Mode.

//// VLM Displays

As mentioned a few paragraphs back, there's three main displays. "VLM
Only" is aptly named - only the VLM effects are visible here. "VLM &
Readout" superimposes a "digital readout" line of Bank/Effect, CD
Track, and Time over the current VLM display. Time is displayed as
"m:s since track start" when playing a CD, and "total m:s" when the CD
is stopped. There's no way to select a different time value - say,
"m:s remaining in track."

The final display mode is significant in that a few of the controls
operate differently in it. The "Audio Control" display brings up an
overlay of "CD player" controls over the current VLM screen. Stop,
Review/Back, Play, Cue/Forward icons, along with track and time
readouts, fill the top of the screen. Mid-screen are three new buttons
which are referred to as Advanced Control Options, while at the bottom
of the screen, a 2 deep x 10 wide "music calendar" list of track
numbers shows you what's up next.

//// Advanced Control Options

The Advanced Control buttons are accessed by pressing Option. Doing
so, highlights one of the three buttons, cursor-like, and pressing "B"
activates the selected button.

The first button cycles through the three play modes, Normal, Random
and Program. "Normal" plays all tracks in order, from 1 to the end of
the disc. "Random" also plays all tracks, but shuffles the order each
time you start. "Program" enables you to move your "cursor" into the
track list, and create your own playlist. If the 20 visible slots for
programmed steps aren't enough, the VLM does allow for up to 190 steps
by "paging" the 2x10 list up and down.

A very cool thing I noticed is playlists can be edited on the fly.
Indeed, you can change between normal, program, and random modes
without a hitch. (Although every time you enter random mode, all
available tracks on the CD will be reshuffled and displayed.)

The second button sets "No repeat", "Repeat disc", "Repeat track". It
works as advertised.

The last control button lets you set the graphic display to "VLM",
"Random VLM", or "CD+G". VLM mode is the standard mode of the unit,
where one bank/effect is chosen by the listener, and is displayed
until it is changed. Choosing "Random VLM" causes different
bank/effects to be displayed every half-minute to minute or so. "CD+G"
mode displays encoded graphics on special audio discs - if selected,
without a special disc in the player, all you see is a blank screen.

//// What's it like?

I hit a few local music shops this past month in an attempt to snag
-any- CD+G disc to try on the VLM with. No luck finding such here in
proximity to AEO Central - but that wasn't totally unexpected. If CD+G
is a priority for you, sorry, but you'll have to look elsewhere for a

But I =can= tell you what you'll see when you watch VLM performing.
Lots of different visual effects would be the easy definition. "Cosmic
confetti", "pink, ninja throwing stars", "Q's force field wall",
"sparkly floating pixels", and "many undulating strings-o'-fire" are
just some of events that could be used in any given bank/event.
Do+The/Math, there are nine banks with nine effects per bank.
(Although Bank 9 is filled with effects that are primarily user-, not
music-, driven.)

It's hard to put to word just -what- one could see at any given time.
I've seen pastel snowstorms and swirling color cyclones and screens
that look like a Fruitopia commercial gone awry. Some bank/effects
pulsate to the beat and the volume. Some seem to gyrate on their own.

My one piece of advice for VLM watching is, don't get stuck in a rut.
Go into Random VLM mode every so often. Some bank/effects that didn't
appeal to me when playing one type of music (let's say for instance,
loud, hard driving rock) have intrigued me when other types (let's say
for contrast, sweeping choral pieces) were on. Just the other day in
fact, I rediscovered the bold colors of Bank 7....

Overall, the VLM is an often beautiful, sometimes odd blend of light,
color and movement - all in some way set afire by the presence of the
music. That's probably the best way I can describe it.

The VLM can be a nice mood setter, and it wouldn't be out of place to
think of it being used in a dance club. (Bank/effect 2-9 works quite
well with the included Tempest 2000 CD soundtrack. Try it if you want
to check out the response time of the VLM.)

In all of the time spent waiting for the release of the Jaguar CD-ROM
unit, the harshest criticism aimed at the VLM has been, "Sure, it's
going to look Ok, but people will tire of it quickly."

Well after four weeks, I haven't tired of VLM. In fact, I listen to my
CDs on VLM most of the time now. Sometimes when I listen to music, I
want to tune the world out... and lately I have caught myself staring
at a pulsating VLM screen for long periods of time. I don't think I'm
going to tire of this anytime soon.

Thanks Jeff! VLM's well worth the price of admission.

//// Final Ratings

        Title: Virtual Light Machine           JagNet: No
       Design: Virtual Light Company          Players: n/a
 Published by: Atari                     Availability: Late August
       Retail: Included with Jag CD               Age: n/a

 A Summary of ratings:
        "*" is a whole
         "+" is a half
       5 stars maximum

 Graphics -  *****   Often Mesmerizing. (Note to Marketing: VLM should
                                         be a hit with ex-hippies.)
    Audio -  *****   CD quality. <g>
  Control -  *****   Loved the ability to edit a program on the fly.
Musicplay -  *****   The only thing lacking is a CD changer.
  Overall -  *****   It's virtual no more. VLM is here!

Pts Stars  AEO Ratings
""" """""  """""""""""
 10 *****  GAMING NIRVANA!!! - You have left reality behind... for good.
  9 ****+  Unbelieveable GAME!! - Your family notices you're often absent.
  8 ****   Fantastic Game!! - You can't get enough playtime in on this.
  7 ***+   Great Game! - Something to show off to friends or 3DOers.
  6 ***    Good game - You find yourself playing this from time to time.
  5 **+    Ho-hum - If there's nothing else to do, you play this.
  4 **     Waste of time - Better to play this than play in traffic.
  3 *+     Sucks - Playing in traffic sounds like more fun.
  2 *      Sucks Badly - You'd rather face an IRS audit than play this.
  1 +      Forget it - ... but you can't; it's so badly done, it haunts you.
  0 -      Burn it - Disallow programmer from ever writing games again.

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