REVIEW – Android TV and Retro Gaming

There has been a lot in the media news recently about Android TV, which is the big new feature in the 2015 line-up of new TVs from Sony and Philips. But what does it have to offer the retro gamer?

Bravia Android TV

A Sony X90C displaying the Android TV interface

Android TV is an attempt to make ‘Smart TV‘s even smarter, by integrating the Android OS that many of us use on our mobile devices into our TV’s. This has loads of promise, but we shall have to wait and see how useful it is in real day practice.. ..Google‘s previous attempt (Google TV) did not take off.

We needed to replace our main TV at the ‘Woody’ household this summer and as such I have now had a chance to look at this new exciting OS from Google.

In general I am fairly impressed with what Android TV can do.. ..however, I am not totally convinced you need all of this on a TV and there are currently several performance issues.. ..lag and freezes are fairly common place (fortunately, subsequent updates have largely cured these issues). But seeing that all of this Android goodness comes with the TV anyway, there is very little to actually complain about.. certainly enriches the interaction you have with your TV.

Being an avid retro gamer, only one question mattered to me after ‘setting up’ the new TV (a Sony KD-55X9005C).. .. “if you can run emulators on your Android phone, can you run them on an Android TV“?

Well, in short, yes you can!

As you can see in the above image a lot of the most popular emulators are available for download from the Google Play store for Android TV and with a little bit of tinkering they work great!

Here’s how to get your favourite emulator configured for use on Android TV.. ..firstly you need to connect a USB device to your TV, which contains your ROM images (which for legal reasons, you obviously own, :-)) already installed. I used a small 500 Gb NTFS formatted HDD and plugged it into one of the USB ports.. was recognised immediately!

After installing an suitable emulator from the Google Play store the next task was locating the ROM images stored on my HDD.. ..this was a little difficult as the directory structure is somewhat different to Android on a mobile device. Anyhow, after a little investigation the path you need to find is – rootfilesystem/mnt /sda1 – where ‘sda1’ represents the HDD.

Then came the problem of navigating the directories with the TVs remote control.. ..finding how to go back up a directory level was initially perplexing.. ..’up’ and ‘down’ are self-explanatory as is ‘enter’, but going back requires you to press ‘left’ on the remote,not ‘back’. After this it was easy to set up each emulator, just as you would on your Android smart phone.

How well does Android TV run the emulators?

Well I had my doubts, as it occasionally appears that the processor in the TV has difficulty just running the OS, but I needn’t have worried all the emulators run perfectly. I think the OS is just a bit buggy and feels unfinished at the moment.. ..looking forward to some updates!

Retrollection recommendation?

The fact that you can run emulators via your  Android TV is absolutely fantastic and all of the ones I have tested so far work at full speed!

My Sony Bravia also revealed  some other bonuses.. allows you to use a DualShock 4 controller to control the emulated action and also comes with PlayStation Now built in.. ..what more could a retro gamer want from a TV?

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REVIEW – Windows 10 and Retro Gaming

VAIO R Master Windows 10

Well we can now finally wave goodbye to Windows 8/8.1 as 10 is now available to download for most users of 7 or 8/8.1 (and it’s free!). For me, and I suspect many others, this is a blessing as whilst I liked the speed of 8/8.1 it was conceptually a real mess.. ..trying to integrate both tablet and desktop features and not really succeeding fully at either.

The good news is that 10 gets the design aesthetic and user experience right for the desktop user. The start menu is back and contains all that was good about the ‘live tiles’ in 8/8.1, without them getting in the way. I am also happy to report that it is fast, not quite as fast as 8/8.1, but no slouch either.

I could wax lyrically about the new features.. .. there are many e.g. better searching, control, universal apps, virtual desktops, Cortana etc., but there are already many reviews on the web which provide more than enough information on these aspects. What I want to tell you is how Windows 10 is for running your older games and emulators.

However, I should first start by saying that Windows 10 is not all about the new additions, some things have gone for good. If you are a regular reader of my blog you will know that I have already lamented the removal of Windows Media Centre.. ..this is the big ticket item that has been removed, but it is gone and we have to move on. There were also rumours that support for floppy disk drives would also be absent from 10, but this is not my experience.. ..I plugged in a USB 3.5” disk drive into my ageing VAIO* R Master and it was recognised immediately with no problems. Other things that have been removed are Solitaire and desktop gadgets, but these are no great loss and have been replaced with better alternatives. One final removal that is perplexing, is native DVD support (it’s about as daft as Sony having removed CD support from the PS4.. ..a format they co-invented!).. ..but again there are better replacements out there for free (if you had Windows Media Centre installed before upgrading to 10 you do get a very minimal DVD playback app called ‘Windows DVD player’ for free, but according to the feedback its appalling.. ..I would just stick with VLC) .

So how does it handle the older stuff and emulation?

Well now I have spent some time with Windows 10 I am happy to report that it works great with old games and emulators! I have so far not come across anything that 10 will not run as well as 7/8/8.1.. ..which is a huge relief. Games run really well, as does DOS Box, MAME, GOG, STEAM etc. I did download the latest driver for my Radeon HD7750, which I was automatically prompted for when the Windows upgrade process had completed.

Finally, it is also worth mentioning that the upgrade process was quick and easy.. ..a huge improvement on past experiences and all my files were exactly where I had left them – even my start menu tiles were carried over from Windows 8.1, very nice. In addition, the product key is also a thing of the past.. ..hurrah!

Upon upgrading to Windows 10, the activation state from a prior version of Windows (be it Windows 7, Windows 8 or a prior build of Windows 10) is seamlessly carried over,”  a Microsoft spokesperson told PCWorld. “Once activated, a digital entitlement for your PC’s hardware is created in the Windows 10 activation service. This entitlement can be used by the same PC again for re-activation of the same Edition of Windows 10 in the future.”

Retrollection recommendation?

This is really a no brainer, especially for those of you running Window 8/8.1.. ..upgrade to 10!

It is as easy to use as 7, but contains the useful parts of 8/8.1.. ..however, this time they don’t get in the way of doing things! It is also as good for the old games and emulators/games as Windows 7 was.

There are some caveats, if you use your PC as a home theatre hub or PVR and depend on Windows Media Centre you may want to pause before upgrading as this has gone and won’t be coming back.. such my HTPC will be staying with Windows 7. But to be honest most modern ‘smart’ TVs do most of this media stuff now anyway, especially now Android TV etc. has arrived.

* WARNING FOR VAIO USERS – Sony is warning VAIO users against upgrading to Windows 10 at the moment as they do not have drivers available yet.. ..for more information follow this link. I am happy to report though that I upgraded both my VAIO R Master (desktop) and my VAIO FIT 15e (laptop) to 10 with no problems whatsoever.. ..but do so at your own risk.

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REVIEW – Sabre Wulf (Ultimate, 1984)

I hinted in our Mire Mare‘ retrospective that I would get round to reviewing where the Sabreman series started from.. ..and well here we are. ‘Sabre Wulf‘ was originally an 8-bit computer video game developed and released by Ultimate Play The Game in 1984 for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

Sabre Wulf Box

It is the first in the Sabreman series and was written by Tim and Chris Stamper; later being ported to many other computer platforms. In 2004 a new ‘Sabre Wulf game, with completely different gameplay, was released for the Nintendo Game Boy Advance. However, in this review I am going to concentrate on the original ZX Spectrum incarnation.

Your character, Sabreman, has fallen down a deep chasm and must fight off all manner of enemies to escape the maze of a jungle he is now trapped in. After your fall you see a message ‘etched deep into the stone‘:


So the point of the game is to escape the maze, which is a wonderfully colourful jungle that makes the absolute most of the ZX Spectrum’s limited colour palette. There are a total 256 screens to navigate in order to find four pieces of a lost amulet, which when brought together depicts the titular Wulf.


‘Sabre Wulf’ in game screen, start

Once all four have pieces have been collected and assembled the keeper guarding the exit gate will allow you to safely pass through.

However, between the entrance and exit, Sabreman must fend off a constant army of tropical foes, such as scorpions, snakesspidershippos, rhinos and natives that emerge regularly from the undergrowth with his sabre. The scorpions, snakes and spiders are easily dispatched, but the larger adversaries can only be made to run away by fencing with them first.

If the you remain on a screen for too long, an invincible and lethal bushfire appears and moves around the screen, occupying all space that the player can move in, forcing you to leave the screen. In doing so it prevents you from camping, or placing Sabreman in a corner and amassing points from dispatching the constant stream of jungle creatures that appear.


‘Sabre Wulf’ in game screen, note the ‘Wulf’ near the top

Towards the bottom of the map is the titular Wulf’s territory.. ..upon encountering the Wulf you must run as, unlike the other enemies, it is totally unaffected by your sabre.

Another item that affects the game play are the colourful orchids that grow in the jungle.. ..each colour represents a different variety and if collected will affect Sabreman in different ways. Some being useful, some not. Useful orchids will give you immunity to the jungle beasts or increase your speed. The more ‘poisonous’ varieties can inflict paralysis or leave you disorientated (i.e. the controls reverse). This introduces a great tactical element to the game as wise use of the orchids can make your progression through the jungle much easier, or not.

       Sabre Wulf Box Open

The game was universally acclaimed and won the CRASH magazine ‘best maze game’ and ‘best advert’ of the year awards. It was converted to the BBC Model B, Commodore 64 and the Amstrad CPC, but none of these versions retained the ZX Spectrum’s charm (but they weren’t far off).

It was also the first of the Ultimate ‘big box’ games and retailed at £9.95 when released, this was a much higher price than typical releases of the time.. ..but the quality of the game and packaging more than made up for it.

Sabre Wulf Map

A map of the ‘Sabre Wulf’ jungle © Paul Dunn – click to enlarge

Both ‘Sabre Wulf‘ and the Sabreman character have featured in several Rare Ltd. games since the original game as either cameo or a main character:

  • A new ‘Sabre Wulf‘ game was released for the Game Boy Advance in 2004, featuring both Sabreman & the titular Wulf;
  • The ‘Killer Instinct series features a werewolf character named Sabrewulf;
  • The Xbox 360 game ‘Viva Piñata‘ features a minor cameo by ‘Sabre Wulf‘ – the creature known as Mallowolf launches broken ‘Sabre Wulf‘ amulets as its attack;
  • Sabreman makes a cameo in the game ‘Banjo-Tooie as a frozen explorer who must be revived and returned to his camp;
  • The game’s rom is allegedly hidden in the code for ‘GoldenEye 007 on the Nintendo 64, along with a ZX Spectrum emulator;
  • In the Game Boy Advance version of ‘Donkey Kong Country, Sabrewulf’s head has been stuffed and is mounted in Cranky’s hut.

Unfortunately, Ultimate games are still copyrighted, so you need an original copy to play, but they are easy to find on the bay.

UPDATE – you can also now play ‘Sabre Wulf‘ via the fantastic Rare Replay compilation for the Microsoft XBOX ONE – which fortunately keeps the idiosyncrasies of the ZX Spectrum, including colour clash and slow down.

Retrollection recommendation?

Hell yeah – find it, buy it, load it and have fun in the jungle!

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REVIEW – Manic Miner (Bug-Byte, 1983)

As the results of the General Election are coming in now here in the UK I was trying to think of a classic game to review that was related to politics.. the end I couldn’t. There are loads which relate to war, but none (that are any good) to politics, particularly those of the UK. So, as I was reflecting on what has happened politically during my lifetime my thoughts turned to the miners strikes in the mid 80’s and my decision was made.. ..there was only one game to talk about today – the seminal ‘Manic Miner‘!

The author

Written by Matthew Smith and published by Bug-Byte in 1983 (a year before the start of the strikes), ‘Manic Miner‘ is a platform video game, probably one of the best. It is the starting point for the adventures of miner Willy, who would go on to become a household name in the mid 80’s.

Smith and several other ‘kids’ (in his own words) used to hang around their local Tandy store in Liverpool playing with the computers and in doing so he met several fledgling computer industry pioneers and got into coding games. There were a couple of these ‘kids’ groups in Liverpool at the time; Smith recalls that Eugene Evans was a member of the other group. Evans would later also go on to find fame with Imagine Software as well as being the star of one of ‘Manic Miner’s levels!

The first game Smith wrote was a clone of ‘Pacman‘, but was never released as the company soon folded.. ..mainly because one of the other coders in the company had blatantly ‘ripped off‘ Alligata Software’s ‘DefendercloneGuardian‘ (only changing the copyright message), leading to a legal challenge.

Smith wrote his first commercially released game ‘Styx’ in six weeks on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum that was loaned to him by Bug-byte. Upon completion of the game he was allowed to keep the machine, which he promptly painted metallic green.. ..oh yes, they also gave him £300k!

With some of this money he went on holiday to Italy, brought a red notebook in which he designed all the levels to ‘Manic Miner’. Upon his return to ‘Blighty’ he coded the game in a mere 8 weeks. He coded it mainly at night.. ..maybe as a result, the design of the some of the enemies is ‘trippy’ to say the least.

Manic Miner’ was an instant hit and things looked good for the Smith/Bug-byte collaboration. But Smith had plans of his own.. ..”it wasn’t particularly a falling out, I just had business plans of my own. Initially, I was going to be — we were going to start Software Projects as a publishing company, but I was going to leave Bug-byte with Manic Miner. Because I had an agreement, they were going to publish it, and they were going to pay me. But they were a bit slow with their money, and I was young and impatient — and I was a business rival by this time of course. It was very nice to be able to publish it ourselves and keep all the money, so I took it off them. That’s… I wouldn’t say there was any massively hard feeling over that, although they were sore to lose their cash cow”.

As a result of this Smith formed his own software company, ‘Software Projects’ and ‘Manic Miner’ (as well as its successful sequels) were re-published under the new label.

Manic Miner Inlays

The three released versions of ‘Manic Miner’, including the rarer Bug-byte ‘whistler’ inlay

The game

Manic Miner’ is clearly inspired by ‘Miner 2049er’, which appeared on the Atari 800 in 1982.. was later converted to numerous platforms because of its popularity.

Manic Miner Logo

The ‘animated’ loading screen

When initially released on the ZX Spectrum in 1983 it achieved many firsts and was quite revolutionary. It was one of the first games on Sinclair’s platform to feature in-game music as well as sound effects (thought impossible at the time), had high re-play value (again, rare at the time) and made excellent use of colourful graphics which made good use of the famous ‘colour/attibute clash’. Smith also cleverly used the ability of the ZX Spectrum to alternate background and foreground colours automatically without software attention to make the loading screen ‘animate‘.

The in-game music was achieved by alternating the CPU cycles between playing individual ‘beeps’ and the game itself. This makes both the music and the gameplay stutter slightly, but not enough to negatively affect either. The in-game music is In the Hall of the Mountain King from Edvard Grieg‘s music to Henrik Ibsen‘s play Peer Gynt. The music that plays during the title screen is an irritatingly screechy arrangement of The Blue Danube.

There are twenty caverns for the player to guide ‘Willy’ through, within are objects to collect. Once all of the objects have been collected a portal activates, which will take ‘Willy’ to the next level. However, a limited supply of Oxygen, which depletes as soon as the level starts, confounds your task.. do all manner of curiosities – ranging from telephones to robots.  These enemies are described in the cassette inlay as “…Poisonous Pansies, Spiders, Slime, and worst of all, Manic Mining Robots…“. They move along predefined paths at constant speeds. ‘Willy’ can also be killed by falling too far, so the timing of jumps etc. can be critical to prevent fatal falls or collisions with the enemies.

Extra lives are given for every 10,000 points scored. The game ends when: (i) the player has no lives left, or (ii) all twenty caverns are traversed and ‘Willy’ escapes the mines to a life above ground.

Manic Miner Title Screen

The title screen.. ..that music, arrgghhh!

Manic Miner Gameplay

The first of twenty – ‘Central Cavern’

There are differences between the original Bug-byte releases and the later Software Projects re-release:

(i) The copyright scroll text is changed;

(ii) In ‘Processing Plant’, the enemy at the end of the conveyor belt is a bush in the original, whereas the Software Projects one resembles a ‘PacMan‘ ghost;

(iii) In ‘Amoebatrons’ Revenge’, the original Bug-byte Amoebatrons look like alien octopuses with tentacles hanging down, whereas the Software Projects Amoebatrons resemble the Bug-byte logo – smiling beetles, with little legs on their side;

(iv) In ‘The Warehouse’, the original game has threshers travelling up and down the vertical slots, rotating about the screen’s X-axis. The Software Projects version has ‘Penrose triangle‘ (the Software Projects logo) sprites instead, which rotate about the screen’s Z-axis;

(v) The Bug-byte cheat code was the numerical sequence “6031769” – based on Matthew Smith’s driving licence. In the Software Projects version this changed to “typewriter“;

(vi) Changes to the code meant that a new POKE was required to gain infinite lives.

Manic Miner Levels

The twenty caverns of ‘Manic Miner’, click to enlarge

There were numerous ports of ‘Manic Miner‘ to other machines, mainly retaining the excellent game play, but somehow not having the charm of the ZX Spectrum original. A special mention should be made of the SAM Coupé version, programmed by Matthew Holt which retains the pixel-perfect play of the ZX Spectrum original, but avoids the colour clash and as a bonus adds an additional 40 levels!

Retrollection recommendation

If you only ever play one ‘platform’ game in your life, make it this one!

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REVIEW – Mazogs (Bug-Byte, 1982)

Mazogs’ starts our reviews of games for the Sinclair ZX81. This was one of the best and most critically acclaimed for the system, so this will be fairly brief. I remember excitedly picking this up on a Saturday in Redditch Shopping Centre, Autumn 1982.. ..anticipation was high as my mate had been going on about how good it was.

The game

Written by Don Priestly and released by Bug-Byte in 1982, ‘Mazogs’ is a maze based action adventure video game. The 59 x 45 maze is randomly generated and you look down on a 5 x 4 part of it whilst playing. The maze scrolls around your character, who although appearing to move, never leaves the same part of the screen; simply animating within the same frame.

Mazogs Advert

Full page advert for Mazogs (1982)

Your quest is to find the gold hidden in the maze and then the exit. The gold is placed at least two hundred moves from the start position. However, to complicate matters further the maze is patrolled by monsters called ‘Mazogs’; who will chase and attack you, on sight.

The maze is generated prior to game play and sometimes, if the computer considers the maze is not challenging enough, it will automatically be re-drawn. This is based on a time limit and a minimal amount of passages being generated; if either of these parameters proves problematic, the algorithm restarts.. .. all of which seemed rather incredible back in 1982!

Also trapped in the maze are prisoners. They are occasionally found in cells within walls of the maze. They will help the player by ‘highlighting’ the path to the gold.. ..for a short period of time. Your previous path taken through the maze is also shown throughout the game, until you lose a life.

The titular ‘Mazogs’ can only be killed efficiently with a sword.  Several swords can be found in the maze, but they can only be used once. An additional gameplay twist is that a sword cannot be carried at the same time as the gold. These factors lead to tactical gameplay where you are best avoiding groups of ‘Mazogs’, but killing as many as possible before collecting the gold.. ..the maze then being easier to escape from.

Mazogs Title

Mazogs title screen

Mazogs Game Screen

Mazogs game-play screen

Mazogs End

The end of the game

The main game screen shows a fraction of the maze, but a ‘view mode’ expands the view to show a 16 x 16 detail of the maze, centered around the players present position within it. Whilst this mode is useful for scouting purposes, the player cannot move whilst viewing it, but can still be attacked by ‘Mazogs’.

Mazogs Maze

A Mazogs maze – “1” is the player (at the starting point in this case), “T” the treasure, “X” are Mazogs, “S” swords and “P” prisoners – maze generation is based on both radomised and sequential phases; the latter considering whether there are passages next to the player to be created, one at a time

Moving through the maze and fighting ‘Mazogs’ decreases the player’s energy, which can be replenished by finding food.

The author

Don Priestly was a freelance coder associated with software house Bug-Byte. He produced two classic ZX81 games for them; ‘Dictator’ and ‘Mazogs’. ‘Dictator’ was the first of the ‘banana republic’ trading simulations, but ‘Mazogs’ was by far the most popular of the two. Indeed, it was one of the most popular ZX81 games in general, creating a real stir in June 1982.

Mazogs Cassette

Mazogs cassette, inlay and instructions

Later in November 1986 Don Preistly was interviewed by Crash magazine (issue 34) and offered the following explanation – “I was trying to get away from all those games which revolved around a dollar sign being chased by an asterisk. Mazogs featured large mobile sprites in a solid maze, all constructed using Sinclair’s sugar cube graphics. It was my first game which got itself a full page advert”.

Don later adapted ‘Mazogs’ for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and the MSX, changing the name of the game to ‘Maziacs’. Published by dk’Tronics in 1983.. was obviously in colour this time and at a higher-resolution. ‘Maziacs’  was also one of the first games to support the Currah MicroSpeech peripheral on the ZX Spectrum.

For me ‘Maziacs’, whilst playing almost identically to ‘Mazogs’, loses some of the charm (although I like the sound effects, particularly when fighting the ‘Maziacs’).. ..I don’t know why but ‘Mazogs’ is a bit of a rarity in that it actually seems more suited to the primitive graphics of Sinclair’s earlier machine than ‘Maziacs’ was on the more advanced hardware. ‘Maziacs’ also runs faster than ‘Mazogs’, but this is not a good thing.. ..there always seemed a bit more ‘dread’ and tension playing on the ZX81.

Maziacs Game Play Screen

Maziacs on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum

An OK Commodore 64 port of ‘Maziacs’ was written by Andy French, but to the games detriment, this ran even faster (but much smoother) than the ZX Spectrum version; the graphics remained the same. In 1987 Dietrich Raisin developed a version for the Atari ST in Omikron BASIC and released it as Public Domain software. The gameplay of this port was identical to the original version, but the graphics are newly designed.

Retrollection recommendation?

Oh yeah.. ..get this one, just as good now as it was in 1982!

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REVIEW – Atic Atac (Ultimate, 1983)

Another of my all-time top favourite video games this one! ‘Atic Atac’ was a flip screen cartoon adventure game originally released in 1983 for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, by the awesome Stamper brothers via their Ultimate Play the Game label.

Atic Atac Cassette

The player had to traverse almost 150 rooms in a haunted castle (including its underground caverns) looking for separate parts of Golden key of ACG (‘Ultimate’ was the trade name for Ashby Computers & Graphics). There were all manner of ghosts, witches and goblins chasing you as well as Count Dracula and Frankenstein!

You could choose from three different characters – a  WizardKnight or a Serf. Each character has access to a secret passage which was unique to them. This introduced a re-play element which was rare in the early 80’s. In addition, the Serf has momentum and will continue to run briefly, as does the Knight to a lesser extent, whereas the Wizard comes to a dead stop as soon as a direction key is released.

Atic Atac Start

‘Atic Atac’ game play screen – start/end

Atic Atac Caverns

‘Atic Atac’ game play screen – caverns

Similar to other games by the Stamper brothers, enemies appear in each room after the player has entered and randomly attack the player, collision with them drains a portion of health (indicated by a rotting chicken carcass). There are also stationary poisonous fungi which will drain health constantly if the player is in contact with them. Boss enemies such as the Count and Frankenstein cannot normally be killed and must be avoided; however certain special items will distract, repel or kill these enemies. The boss enemies generally guard pieces of the ACG key, or attack the player.

You have a number of lives and your health can be replenished by collecting food scattered around the castle, however as your health constantly drops and food is limited and replenishes slowly, the player must eventually escape or die of starvation.

Atic Atac Map

Atic Atac map © Paveroclick to enlarge

Doors randomly open and close in each room, so it is possible to be briefly trapped in a room whilst the ‘chicken’ life meter ticks down. Upon death the player is replaced by a gravestone which stays in place for the remainder of the game.

This is a universally accepted classic Sinclair ZX Spectrum game and whilst re-released on other computer systems the ZX Spectrum version was always the best.

Unfortunately, Ultimate games are still copyrighted, so you need an original copy to play, but they are easy to find on the bay.

UPDATE – you can also now play ‘Atic Atac‘ via the fantastic Rare Replay compilation for the Microsoft XBOX ONE – which fortunately keeps the idiosyncrasies of the ZX Spectrum, including colour clash and slow down.

Loading Atic Atac

Retrollection recommendation?

As you can probably guess, I love ‘Atic Atac‘.. does my youngest, seen above patiently waiting for it to load!

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