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This page contains details of the MBX peripheral and modules released by Romox.

Web article Eleven


ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN LIMA NEWSLETTER DECEMBER 1990

NEVER RELEASED OFFICIAL T.I. PERIPHERALS:
THE MILTON BRADLEY MBX EXPANSION SYSTEM
described by Charles Good
Lima Ohio User Group
This device was (and maybe still is) literally years ahead of the competition when first introduced to the public at the January 1983 Consumer Electronics Show. When attached to the TI99/4A it allows speech recognition with specific Milton Bradley game and educational modules.
The user speaks instructions into a microphone, and the 99/4A understands the spoken words and responds accordingly. With the MBX system, our old fashioned 99/4A's can do tricks that even the most sophisticated modern home game machines can't do.
Voice recognition is NOT available even today for Nintendo and Sega game systems. These days you can find voice recognition hardware costing hundreds of dollars advertised in Computer Shopper for use with MSDOS and MAC computers.
In T.I.'s last complete price list of 99/4A products published in June 1983, the MBX system lists for $129.95. It's too bad only only about 300 were ever made!

Although the title of this article might suggest that the MBX system was made by T.I., this is not so. The MBX was manufactured and sold by the Milton Bradley Company. T.I., under license from Milton Bradley, manufactured and sold the specific software modules designed for use with the MBX. The MBX system comes packaged in a box with the the same kind of "photograph of the product on a black background with white letters" style found on 99/4A console boxes.

The actual MBX hardware is in the same gray plastic used for the most recent 99/4A consoles and official T.I. cassette program recorders. As a registered 99/A owner, I received by mail in early November 1983 from T.I. (not from Milton Bradley) an advertisement describing the MBX and MBX specific software. Apparently Milton Bradley intended to have the MBX on store shelves for the 1983 Christmas season, but canceled all further production after BLACK FRIDAY.

There is no serial number on my recently purchased used MBX, but it bears a sticker that says "MBX Control number 8310". This may mean that my unit was manufactured in the 10th week of 1983. My guess of 300 MBX units actually produced is based on the very limited availability of this product for sale at TI shows I have attended and in the possession of T.I. owners known to me, as well as the fact that UNISOURCE once advertised that they had 200 MBX's for sale.

There are three parts to the MBX "system", the control box, the joystick, and the headset/microphone. The heart of the system is of course the control box. It measures 10 x 7.5 x 2.5 inches and includes its own built in speech synthesizer. This box plugs into the joystick AND the cassette recorder ports of the 99/4A console. The MBX system is designed to be used with just the console and specific software cartridges. There is no provision in any of the MBX software modules for disk usage. Since one of the MBX connections occupies the cassette jack, you can't use a cassette recorder either. You must disconnect the regular speech synthesizer to use MBX. To hear speech, the two speech synthesizers cannot coexist.

The control box has a side port for the required AC power source. On the front of the control box are two 9 pin male D ports for joysticks, a jack for the headset/microphone, and an on/off switch. When you slide this switch to the ON position the MBX control box responds by saying "ready" in a well modulated female voice. This voice, and all speech generated by the MBX system, comes from a speaker at the top back of the control box, not from the monitor speaker.

Music and other non-speech sounds continue to be heard from the monitor's speaker. Only spoken words (synthesized speech) are heard from the MBX system's speaker. You have to turn on the MBX before you turn on the console in order for the 99/4A to recognize the presence of the MBX. When activated, the MBX system disables the FCTN/0 QUIT console keypress.

On the top of the control box is a 64 position membrane keypad. The top row of 8 keys on this keypad functions in the same way with all the MBX software modules that utilize this keypad. These top row keys include RESET, VOLUME UP (the volume of the speech coming from the MBX's built in speaker, not the music and sounds coming from the monitor speaker), VOLUME DOWN, MIC (toggles on and off the ability of the microphone headset to "hear" spoken words), YES, NO, PAUSE (stops game action), and GO. The action of other 56 positions on the control box keypad is specific to the particular software module in use. A very decorative keypad overlay comes with those software modules designed to utilize the rest of the MBX control box keypad. These overlays slip easily and snugly over the top of the keypad.

The headset superficially resembles a set of "walkman" earphones, but in fact contains no earphone speakers. The things that cover your ears are just pads. The microphone is positioned in front of your mouth and its position is adjustable. Physically the headset unit is flimsy. The wire leading to the microphone is thin and subject to stretching and damage at the point where it enters the adjustable microphone arm of the headset as the microphone arm is adjusted back and forth. Fortunately a handheld microphone designed to plug into a cassette recorder will also work with the MBX if the headset microphone breaks. The advantage of the headset over a handheld microphone is that the headset allows easy two handed manipulation of the special MBX joystick.

One joystick comes as standard equipment with each MBX system. A second joystick is listed in T.I.'s last 99/4A price list for $29.95 and can be plugged into the second joystick port on the control box. This would give each of two players their own separate joystick. In actual use of the MBX software modules a second joystick isn't really needed.

Only one player at a time uses the joystick. The two joystick ports on the control box respond the same. There is no "joystick #1" and "joystick #2" as there is with the 99/4A console. The MBX joysticks are very fancy and cannot be used by themselves directly from the 99/4A's joystick port. Likewise, you can't use regular joysticks from the MBX console.
Movement of the MBX joystick handle is very smooth. The device is described in promotional literature as a "triple-axis analog control that allows 360 degree object rotation and left to right and front to back proportional control of all movements." The word ANALOG suggests infinitely variable control.

The MBX joystick's arm appears to produce the same kind of 8 direction movement typical of joysticks. The "analog" infinitely variable control is the rotating knob on the end of this joystick arm. With some MBX games this knob will rotate the object under control to face any direction, for example to orient a gun prior to shooting.
In the MBX baseball game this knob controls the force of a batter's swing. Minimum swing power results in a bunt. A trigger style fire button is included with the MBX joystick, as well as three other buttons. These three buttons resemble mouse buttons and have specific purposes when using specific MBX software modules.

How does MBX allow the 99/4A to respond to voice commands? At the beginning of each session with an MBX software cartridge that allows voice recognition as an option, the user is asked if he wants to use voice recognition. This is always optional.
All the MBX cartridges can be used WITHOUT voice recognition by using the keyboard and/or the MBX keypad for input instead. If voice recognition is chosen, the user is asked which commands are to be given in voice.

It is possible to use voice for some commands and the console keyboard or MBX keypad for other commands, or to have all non joystick input by voice. The computer then directs the user to speak the possible commands (big, small, left, right, pencil, pen, centerfield, shortstop, etc) into the MBX microphone.
This "voice training" of the MBX to recognize the user's voice patterns is repeated twice. Voice patterns are stored digitally on chips inside the MBX for the duration of the session, until the MBX is reset or shut off.
This voice pattern storage is probably similar to that of some modern telephone answering machines. My home answering machine does not store the greeting message on cassette tape.

Instead, my "This is the Good household answering machine..." message that greets incoming calls is stored on a chip and played to callers every time I don't answer the phone quickly enough. As with the MBX, I can quickly erase my "stored on a chip greeting" and replace it with another on my answering machine.
An MBX user can use any word desired for a particular command, as long as the user is consistent in using this word. For example, in CHAMPIONSHIP BASEBALL a user can speak the imaginary name of a fielder when asking for a particular fielding position.
During voice training the computer can ask the user to speak the word "shortstop" and the user can reply "Tony". As long as the user remembers that Tony is playing shortstop, the game will work OK.

After voice training the game begins and the computer responds to sounds it hears via the MBX microphone. Users have to be careful to ONLY speak when they want the computer to perform some action.
Casual conversation by the user can result in unexpected things happening as the computer interprets some of this conversation as specific spoken commands.
The solution to this problem is to turn off the MIC using the MBX keypad when response to voice commands is temporarily not desired. A small symbol continuously on screen indicates the ON/OFF status of the microphone.

How well does it work? How reliable is MBX's voice recognition? It is about 80-90% reliable. Sometimes the MBX either totally ignores a verbal command, or the command is incorrectly interpreted as a different verbal command. Part of the problem is that during the excitement of game play, a player's voice may sound different than it did during voice training.
In CHAMPIONSHIP BASEBALL it can be very annoying to command a throw to "second" and instead see the ball thrown to "centerfield".

All voice commands can instead be activated from the 99/4A keyboard of the MBX's keypad with almost 100% reliability.
All the modules designed for use with the MBX, even those that absolutely REQUIRE the MBX, can be used totally without voice recognition. For really serious accurate game play, one should bypass the MBX's voice recognition feature. My testing panel is divided in their preference for voice recognition.
Meaghan, my 5 year old daughter, likes to use voice recognition. I think she finds voice easier then reading the MBX overlay or memorizing complex 99/4A keypress sequences.
Ian and Colin, ages 12 and 9, both prefer not to use voice recognition. High scores are important to these two serious game players, and such scores are easier to obtain with accurate game control.

What software is available? The following cartridges by Milton Bradley were specifically designed for use with the MBX expansion system. All these include speech synthesis and many also allow voice recognition.
The speech synthesis of these software modules (but not speech recognition) can be accessed using the regular TI speech synthesizer without using the MBX system. They were officially released by T.I. in 1983 and 1984.
The last (June 1983) 99/4A catalog published by TI lists these modules for $50 and $60. I have seen some of the "MBX system required" modules listed by TRITON in the past for as little as $3.
Quoting from the booklet TEXAS INSTRUMENTS HOME COMPUTER PROGRAM LIBRARy that came packaged with many TI modules sold in late 1983:
"The BRIGHT BEGINNING SERIES includes four games which teach elementary programming, music, and other learning concepts. Ages 4-8."
HONEY HUNT
SOUNDTRACK TROLLEY
TERRY TURTLE'S ADVENTURE (MBX system required)
I'M HIDING (MBX system is required).

"The ARCADE PLUS SERIES has six arcade style games that take you from home town ball parks to meteor belts far, far away."
CHAMPIONSHIP BASEBALL (MBX system required)
SEWERMANIA
SUPER FLY
SPACE BANDITS
BIGFOOT
METEOR BELT

I have been told that Barry Boone has written some software that will allow programming the MBX and its non standard joystick. Such software would turn the MBX into something much more significant than a game enhancement. So far, this software has not been made available to others.

1 = MUST have MBX system attached to console to use this software
2 = Uses MBX keypad overlay
3 = Uses MBX joystick's analog rotation knob
4 = Uses MBX joystick's buttons 1,2 and 3
5 = Uses SPEECH RECOGNITION as an option

BIGFOOT 4 Limited Use
CHAMPIONSHIP BASEBALL 1,2,3,4,5
HONEY HUNT 2I'M HIDING 1,2,5
METEOR BELT 3,4,5
SEWERMANIA 4,5
SOUNDTRACK TROLLEY 2
SPACE BANDITS 4,5
SUPERFLY 3,4,5
TERRY TURTLE'S ADVENTURE 1,2,5

--------------------------------
NOTES:
-Most software cartridges allow use of the MBX joystick as an option.
-METEOR BELT requires two MBX joysticks if the MBX system is used in a two player game.
-All software cartridges allow limited use of the MBX keypad for RESET, PAUSE, and GO.


ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MICROPENDIUM

MICROREVIEWS for February 1995 Micropendium
by Charles Good
When was the last time you purchased shiny NEW cartridge games for your 99/4A. I don't mean the "recycled and comes in a zip lock bag" cartridges you get at TI shows and by mail from TI dealers, I mean virgin "still in their original manufacturer's shrink wrap container" cartridges containing games you and the kids have probably never played.

Romox was a Campbell CA company that sold third party games for the 99/4A and other computers in 1983 and 1984. These games could be loaded into reprogrammable cartridges that were loaded at retail stores that had Romox's game center. Pay the clerk, insert your reusable cartridge into the machine, and load your game. Games were available for Atari game systems and Commodore computers as well as for the 99/4A.

Romox also sold stand alone (not reprogrammable) cartridges, and the rights to distribute these cartridges were licensed to Navarone Industires in February 1984. The cartridges reviewed here are original Romox products, purchased from L.L. Conner Enterprise

These are unusual shaped and really good looking cartridges that were "made in Philippines".
Each cartridge has a sloping top-front that contains a full color artist's picture illustrating part of the game action.
They are certainly superfically different from the usual "official" TI cartridge, but like the TI products Romox cartridges plug into the 99/4a's cartridge port. Romox cartridges come in a shiny copper colored box with holes in the box that reveal the artwork of the cartridge itself.

These are not generic boxes, since each has the name of its particular game cartridge imprinted on the box along with specific game instructions printed on the back of the box. If you lose the box you lose the only printed game docs. However, most games come with plenty of on screen help as well as an automatic demonstration mode.

All the Romox games make good use of the 99/4A's bells and whistles. Some games use speech. Each has a catchy musical tune and various additional sound effects that play throughout the game. You have the option of turning off the music. All games can use joysticks or the keyboard for control.

I gave these four cartridges to my 14 and 16 year old boys to play with. They turned off our 386 clone with CD ROM, fired up the TI system next to the 386, and played with these cartridges for a week of afternoons before they got bored. At least one of the boys had the TI system going whenever they were home during this time. This is an indication of the entertainment value of these Romox games. Even though the games were made in 1983 they were new and interesting to the boys, for a while anyway.

-------------------------
ANT EATER by Romox

You are an ant (actually 3 ants) in a nest in the ground. You are supposed to tunnel up to the surface, grab some food, and bring it back to the underground nest. Once all the surface food is obtained you go on to the next level. On the surface is the deadly anteater, who will follow you on the surface and back down into your tunnels trying to eat you.

The ant is armed with 5 eggs which it will lay and leave behind in a tunnel at the push of the fire button. The egg explodes seconds later, hopefully destroying a pursuing ant eater. Also, ants can tunnel under rocks in the ground which may then fall into the tunnel squishing the pursuing ant eater.
When you advance to another level you get an additional ant (life) and an additional ant eater appears. At level 2 there are two ant eaters, etc. The speed of the game increases with each of the nine levels.
---------------------------
HEN PECKED by Romox

Navarone's title for the exact same game is Chicken Coop. This is my least favorite of the bunch. There is no demo mode and few on screen instructions. Some aspects of the game seem hard for my little mind to figure out. In this one or two player game the rooster competes against the hens. You press the joystick button (or Q key) to flap your wings and go up, and you move the stick (or arrows) in the desired direction of movement.

Apparently the object of the game is for the rooster to get onto the back of a hen. I wonder what he does once he's there. Anyway, once contact is made in this manner the hen is captured and additional hens appear.
If contact between rooster and hen is any other way (from the front or back or bottom), the rooster dies. That's because the hen pecked him, instead of visa versa.
Things become tricky for the rooster because after the first hen is captured two hens appear, when one of those is caputred two more appear, etc. There may be as many as 4 hens on screen simultaneously.
With all these hens floating around randomly and/or chasing the rooster it is hard for the rooster to approach the hens in exactly the right orientation. In the two player players take turns being the rooster and compete against each other for the highest score.
------------------------
ROTOR RAIDERS by Romox

No, the word rotor does not refer to a helicopter. This is not a helicopter rescue game. In this game the word rotor refers to a remote control drainage pipe auger designed to clean gunk out of drains. The object is to move your rotor around in the sewer maze eating all the dropings (the docs call them footprints) left by mice. Of course you have to catch the mice too, and this isn't easy because the mice can run as fast as your rotor. You have to trap a mouse in a dead end and then roto him to mouse heaven, but meanwhile more mice appear.

This is a maze game somewhat resembling pacman. Instead of energy dots there are mice dropings, and unlike pacman new dropings are continuously deposited by the mice as they run around the sewers. Sometimes your flashlight will go out and you can't see the maze. All you can see are the mice and your rotor. You can still move under these conditions, feeling blindly for barriers.
Soon the lights come on again. There are speed levels, which accelerate the speed of both the rotor and mice.
Of the group of games reviewed here this is my favorite. I like the music, and the fast action just goes on forever. It is hard to lose but it is also hard to win, because you can never quite keep up with the mice. Finally time runs out and your score is displayed.
------------------------
PRINCESS AND FROG by Romox

This is your typical one player "frogger" game with speech and some interesting variations. You move your frog across a field of jousting knights and into a moat filled with alligators and snakes. You jump from one moving animal to another until you get across the moat, but watch out! If you are on the back of an alligtor it may submerge taking the frog with it. In either the joust field or moat it is possible to jump both up/down and left/right to avoid obstacles. Left/right jumping over obstacles is, I believe, unusual in a "frogger" type of game.

On the other side of the moat is a castle with several open gates. Reaching any gate gives you bonus points, but in one gate is a pair of big red lips, the lips of the princess. If your frog manages to jump off of a snake into this gate and kiss the princess, then the frog turns into a prince. Neat! And then there is this little extra, as quoted from the game box: "Bonus points are gained by mating with the female frog of the moat on the journey to the castle gates."

This is my second favorite of these four games. It is easily winable, which is something an arcade game bimbo such as myself appreciates. This cartridge does not work on my 80 column AVPC system. The other cartridges do.
--------------------------

end of article
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