Clever name, Multiface. An interface that does many things. Also completely untrue: the Multiface wasn’t an interface like a serial interface, which let you plug new kinds of gubbins into your CPC. It just sat on the back of your CPC and did its thing. Singular.
But that was enough. Because the thing in question, for many CPC users, was a godsend. Loading games from tape is tedious: many games were available only on tape, or on disc at an extortionate price: many CPC users had disc drives. Ergo, why not think of an easy way of getting games from tape to disc?
Romantic Robot did. The Multiface took an exact copy of what was in memory at the present moment, and saved it to disc, ready for you to reload at your leisure. All you had to do was press a little red button then select ‘Save’ from the menu that appeared.
It was such a good idea that at least three other companies had the same plan, and brought out similar-sounding devices, of which the Datel Imager is the only one I remember. In one of those happy coincidences of commerce and merit, the Multiface was the best of the lot, and also the one which survived.
Strictly speaking, the device we all know as ‘the Multiface’ was in fact the Multiface Two – something that confused Amstrad Action no end. The original version (the Multiface One, if you like) was in fact a Spectrum peripheral. Romantic Robot later applied the concept to the Amiga and the ST with very little success, as games for these platforms were inevitably multi-loads. They now make their living selling classical CDs. Funny old world.
Needless to say, this concept of a ‘universal backup (oh, ok, piracy) device’ worried software houses no end, and there were no end of rumours that the Multiface and its ilk would be banned under the Copyright & Patents Act of 1990. In the end, all that happened was that Romantic Robot got the chance to run ‘Buy now! before it’s banned’ adverts, provoking lots of panic sales. They then continued to sell the Multiface. Several years later, they tried the same trick with ‘The CPC is no longer a viable platform – so we’re selling off our last Multifaces!’. This supposed last shipment lasted about two years.
To return to the subject of Amstrad Action, one (wilful?) misconception they put about was that Multifaces were serial-numbered. Thus you couldn’t run Multiface copies with anyone else’s machine. Needless to say, this was b... – er, balderdash – as the only check made (in later Multifaces) was on machine type. This meant that you couldn’t run copies made on a 464 on a 6128, or vice versa: and of course, you needed a Multiface to run them at all.
Tant pis. Enter Serge Querne, usually known as Longshot, the founder of Logon System, but in this case masquerading as Magic Software’s Merlin J Bond. His rather spiffing utility, Anti-Multiface (aka Multimag), made Multiface copies into stand-alone programs.
Suddenly, you could run Multiface copies on any CPC, from the B:-drive, without a Multiface even. You needed 128k, of course, and the original program couldn’t use extra memory. But these were small prices to pay. With this tool, the Multiface reverted from its sheep-like backup identity to its original wolf persona as Ultimate Facilitator of Mass Piracy. Except no European cracker would be seen dead using one.
How did it work?
This was really ingenious, and I’m indebted to Rob Scott for explaining it.
Any CPC program can find out what’s in memory at the moment. It’s the PEEK command in BASIC, and the very foundation of machine code. You, too, can save the contents of memory to disc just with the following line:
OPENOUT "filename" : FOR n=0 TO 65535 : PRINT#9,CHR$(PEEK(n)); : NEXT : CLOSEOUT
Needless to say, the Multiface did just that (except written in machine code). If I could get £40 for that one line of program, I’d be smiling.
But that only records what’s in memory. The CPC also has a barrage of dedicated chips to control the display (the CRTC), colours and memory configuration (the VGA), sound and the keyboard (the PSG), and so on. There is no equivalent of the PEEK command for these chips. So how do you find out what the settings are – what colours are in use, what size and mode the screen is in, and so on?
It works like this. The CPC sends instructions to these chips using the OUT command. Each chip has a different address. So you can send the value 1 to the CRTC with the command OUT &BC00,1; you can send the same value to the VGA with the command OUT &7F00,1; and so on.
The CPC uses the same command to send instructions to anything bolted onto the expansion port. So if you have a 464 with a DDI-1 disc drive connected, typing OUT &FA7E,1 will turn the disc motor on. (It works on a 664 and a 6128, too, proving that the CPC sees no difference between internal and external chips.)
But the instruction doesn’t magically go to the right chip: it goes to all of them. When we sent our instruction OUT &BC00,1 to the CRTC, the VGA will have seen it, as will your disc drive, your Multiface, and anything else you’ve got connected. They just think “oh, this is going to &BC00 – so it’s meant for the CRTC”, and ignore it.
At least, the disc drive and VGA ignore it. The Multiface memorises it, thereby building up a record of what you’ve told each chip to do. To change the screen mode to MODE 2, for example, you send a particular byte to the VGA. The VGA gets the byte, and changes to MODE 2: the Multiface gets it, and makes a little note “we’re in MODE 2”.
All of these settings are saved on disc as part of your backup. So when you load the Multiface-saved copy, it knows exactly how to set up each chip.
When I said that the Multiface only did one thing, I was lying. It does two. Just about.
There’s a very basic memory editor built into the Multiface, which enables you to view and edit the current contents of your CPC’s memory. Er, that’s about it. Something I always found useful is that it would work in both hexadecimal and plain vanilla decimal numbers – so if I’d lost my scientific calculator (again), I still had a hex-to-decimal converter at my fingertips.
Something more people found useful was that you could change crucial parts of a game – notably the memory location that holds your current number of lives. Change it from 3 to 250, and you’re laughing. AA would print lists of such ‘Multiface pokes’ every issue.
Eat my Multiface
Many games, and even the odd demo, picked up on the presence of a Multiface. In order to stop illegal copying (or in the case of the demos, just to look smart), they would then refuse to work.
Most notorious of all was Elmsoft’s Zap’t’Balls. Run it with the Multiface plugged in, press the red button, and you’d get a rather rude message. Ironically, one of the much-vaunted cracks of Zap’t’Balls was accomplished largely with the Multiface’s latterday rival – Siren Software’s Hackit. See BTL 2 for more.
To get around this, Romantic Robot put an on/off switch on the Multiface. When it was turned on, you could make copies, reload games saved with the Multiface, and use the toolkit. When it was turned off, you couldn’t. Seems fine.
But some games constantly checked for the presence of a Multiface. If you turned your Multiface on even one fiftieth of a second before pressing the red button, the game would crash. Since not even Richard Wildey has reactions that sharp, you were still lumbered.
Romantic Robot came up with a typically elegant solution. The Multiface was always off, until you pressed the red button. Then it turned itself on just in time to bring up the menu allowing you to save your game. This done, you pressed ‘R’ to return to the game, at which the Multiface turned itself off again.
There is a small flaw in this solution, of course – namely that if the Multiface is always turned off, you can’t load your saved games, which require the Multiface to be turned on before they’ll run. So Romantic Robot added a blue button. This reset your CPC and turned the Multiface on at the same time. If you wanted to run a game that objected to the presence of a Multiface, you just pressed the red button followed by ‘R’ for return.
It may all sound complicated, but it worked in almost 100% of cases.
Some programs were written to co-operate with the Multiface, rather than fight against it. The Insider, Tearaway, TUSS (The Ultimate Sprite Searcher) and Soundhakker were all hacking programs designed to expand the capabilities of the Multiface: the first-named was written by Romantic Robot, while the others were all third party products. The Insider was also unique in that you could still press ‘R’ to return to the program currently running.
TUSS and Soundhakker, by Richard Wildey and Rob Scott respectively, were particularly specialised tools. TUSS helped you to nick graphics out of other people’s games: Soundhakker helped you to nick Soundtrakker tunes from demos and fanzines. Amstrad Action (them again) once tested Tearaway against TUSS, found in favour of Tearaway, and then completely disproved their findings by using TUSS, not Tearaway, to remove the nipples from the covertape version of Stormlord.
Both Doctor Fegg and Richard ‘The Executioner’ Wilson started work on powerful hacking programs which would work with the Multiface, titled Dr Fegg’s Hack Pack and Amigo respectively. Neither was ever finished.
Fifteen years later
The Multiface originally sold for £40 or so. These days, £15 is a fair second-hand price: any less and you’ve got a good deal.
Most CPC emulators provide equivalents of the Multiface’s two main features. Instant copies can be made with the ‘snapshots’ feature, creating files with an .SNA extension that can be easily reloaded. The toolkit, meanwhile, has been replicated with whizzy new disassemblers/monitors/what-have-you. Of course, since emulators can’t load files from tape, it’s not really the same any more.
Epilogue: AA again
The various complexities of the Multiface meant that Amstrad Action readers were always writing in with questions. It’s actually quite hard to come up with attractive illustrations in a computer magazine. So AA always used to print a picture of a Multiface.
Until one fateful day, when the usual spot was blank. The caption said it all: “We used our picture of the Multiface so much that it wore out. So this is blank until we get round to taking a new one.”
This article originally appeared in WACCI issue 136.