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Imagine being able to play games in high quality at a smooth 30 frames per second and in full screen. It’s a silly thing to ask gamers or those that stream their favorite movies off the internet these days but in the 1980’s and early 90’s it was a wonder to behold being done on a lowly 386 or even a 486. Decoding video was a hefty task for those CPU’s of yesteryear and many just were not powerful enough for the task. Video cards eventually helped with the task of decoding video as they did with 3d rendering but this was still years away. Compromises then were forced to be made as we entered the brave new world of Full motion video or FMV as it is often referred to. To allow the use of FMV on the less capable CPU’s of the time videos screens were often shot in fairly low and grainy quality. Many times FMV was also reduced to a small section of the screen to ease the burden on the CPU in much the same way one is able to reduce the visual play area in a game such as DOOM to increase frame rate. Enter the Reelmagic Mpeg decoder card. A card that was ment to install next to your primary video card and whose sole purpose was to decode Mpeg1 video and send it to your monitor. Finally PC users were able watch actual full screen FMV videos on their PC at smooth rates and at acceptable quality.

First were going to look at an older Reelmagic card which is also the card I used in all my testing.

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(remember all images can be enlarged by clicking on them twice)

This is the Reelmagic CD lite from 1993 by Sigma Designs. It is a fairly long 16 bit ISA card meant to be installed alongside a primary video card. The CD lite card differs from the full version of the Reelmagic CD card by its lack of an IDE connector meant to connect to a CD drive as well as the lack of a pin header to attach an OPL3 FM card which basically turns the card into a sound blaster compatible. Since I already had a CD drive controller as well as a Sound Blaster Pro 2.0 installed I felt the Lite version was a better buy. The full Reelmagic cards can also go for quite a lot of money so weigh your needs.

The card has both a VGA output and a 1/4″ inch audio jack output port.

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The card works by connecting internally with your primary video card via a vesa feature connector located on the upper right corner of the card nearer the output jacks. Generally the cable ends in both a pin style and edge style connection so you can connect to video cards that use either style. Here is my Tseng Labs ET4000 card with its vesa feature connector highlighted which is where you would connect your cable from the Reelmagic card to.

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older cards sometimes had this connector in a edge card form.

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The cables themselves aren’t to hard to find and offer a superior image quality to using an external connection solution. The downside to this method is some video cards may lack a vesa feature connector making the Reelmagic card unusable with these video cards.

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Reelmagic card connected to ET4000 video card via vesa feature connector

 Later Sigma Designs changed the name to their Mpeg decoder cards to Realmagic. These cards also come in a PCI variety and are much shorter in length, significantly more common and less expensive.

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Unfortunately these later cards switched to using an external proprietary dongle to connect to the primary video card and works in the same way as early 3DFX voodoo cards in connecting externally. Unfortunately the dongles can be hard to find and the image takes a slight quality hit compared to the internal method. The plus side is these cards can be used with virtually any primary video card.

Besides video the Reelmagic card also streams audio directly from the CD through the 1/4″ audio jack so be sure to connect this to your sound cards line in and then use the mixer to output all sound to your speakers since your sound card is still going to be doing most of the music and sound effects while your RM card will be streaming sound from the FMVs from the CD.

There weren’t very many games released that were able to take advantage of the Reelmagic cards and unfortunately these days they tend to be hard to find. Also finding a reliable list of confirmed games also seems to be a challenge. Below I’ve compiled a list of games believed to have Reelmagic versions produced though I can only confirm the games with a “*” placed after the title. If I’ve placed a “#” after a title that means I strongly believe this game was never produced as a Reelmagic version.

 Matinee
MPC Wizard
The Nature of Hunting
Learning Fly Fishing
Mozart Visits Yosemite
Mozart Visits Grand Canyon
Mozart Visits Yellowstone
Mozart Visits Hawaii
Animal Kingdom
WorldView
Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia
The Sporting News
20th Century Video Almanac
Police Quest 4 #
Man Enough
Return to Zork *
Dragon’s Lair *
Video Cube-Space
SoundTrack
Space Ace *
The Lord of the Rings
The Phychotron *
Conspiracy with Donald Sutherland (AKA KGB)
The Horde *
Escape from Cyber City
Kings Quest VI #
Gabriel Knight #
Under a Killing Moon #
Brain Dead at 13
Dragons Lair II

In my experience these games usually only came in jewel case form and clearly have “Reelmagic” printed on both the cover and the CD’s themselves.

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Although the Reelmagic versions of games can be hard to find and may require sifting through tens or hundreds of jewel case versions on EBay once found the Reelmagic versions tend to sell for about the same price as the regular versions likely due to the general ignorance that these are even “special” versions. Reelmagic versions of games also make calls to the Reelmagic card requiring it to be present, as far as I can tell Reelmagic versions have also not been emulated in any way such as via DOSbox. There is also some reported incompatibilities with getting the later PCI versions of the Realmagic cards working with older RM games such as Return to Zork.

Supposedly the Reelmagic cards can also play VCD movies which were basically movies on CD and I’ve even read within the driver readme file that with the right CD drive you can watch CD-I format movies though I can’t confirm this at present.

Take note that the card also needs a driver install to function properly. I initially had a lot of trouble getting my card working due to resource conflicts with my sound card but driver version 2.01 offers a test which checks your system for conflicts and a menu to switch IRQ and DMA if needed.

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Some of the games I tried also were a little odd to get running. Return to Zork for instance installed and was executed like most any game from the era. You put the CD in and run the install off the CD. After installation you simply run the EXE from the directory you installed to, simple. The Reelmagic version of Dragons Lair on the other hand does not allow you to run the game off the EXE on the CD without manually initializing the RM card. Actually when you install the RM drivers it also installs a file named “dragon” in the directory you installed the RM drivers in. With the CD in your drive the game will start if you run the “dragon” file from the RM directory. Space Ace works the same way except there is no special run file created for it when you install the RM drivers so you need to run “FMPDRV” in your RM directory to initialize the drivers before Space Ace will play by running the EXE on the CD.

Here are a few comparison gameplay shots.

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Return to Zork

The Reelmagic version of Return to Zork features a smooth and better looking full screen intro when compared to the retail CD version. It also features more animated segments and some improved backgrounds effects as well as some changed conversations and puzzle’s.

My Dragons Lair Reelmagic version was captured on a 33mhz 486DLC with an ET4000 ISA video card. Windows version from the Dragons Lair Deluxe pack on a 550mhz K6-III+ and a AGP Voodoo Banshee.

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In the end would I recommend a retro PC enthusiast to pick up a Reelmagic or later Realmagic card? I’d have to say no. The later cheaper Realmagic cards are a bit questionable with dongles being hard to find and reports of game incompatibilities while the earlier cards are just hard to come across and expensive when you finally do. If you did come across one cheap then by all means but I cant recommend searching one out especially with the number of games supported being so low and hard to find.

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2 Comments

  1. I’ve never seen a decoder card before, it certainly looks interesting. They weren’t very common for obvious reasons, so I’ve never had one cross my path. Nice to see 🙂

    Sparcie

    • I saw later mpeg2 and DVD decoder cards but they were fairly generic. I found this card particularly interesting since it seems like they really pushed “enhanced” games with it and made ReelMagic specific software where as later cards basically were just for letting you watch DVD’s on the PC. Creative put out special DVD decoder card at one point which could play a few DVD enhanced games but it was supported even less then the Reelmagic.


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