Bacioiu Constantin Ciprian, known online as “Zapa,” was born in Buzau, Romania, in 1991, not long after a revolution toppled communist rule there. He loved technology as a kid, but it was expensive and hard to get. And soon enough he realized how much he loved Apple products — especially those around in his youth.
Now a longtime resident of Bucharest, he designs and develops games to run on vintage equipment. And get a load of that retro setup!
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“I’m a game designer and developer and I run my own business called Bearded Giant Games,” he told Cult of Mac after we spotted his retro computer setup photos online. “I specialize in fast game prototyping for modern systems, porting to Linux and, when time allows, indie game development.”
The headline at the top of his homepage says, “Hello 1994 — it’s good to have you here.”
Ciprian’s ‘pre-vintage Apple era’
Ciprian’s parents traveled abroad when he was a kid. They’d often bring back catalogs of tech products and clothing.
“I was in love with the ’80s and ’90s tech I could see in them, with one of my earliest tech memories being of a Commodore 64 in a German magazine offering a huge discount on it. So I grew up wanting those computers,” he said.
But money wasn’t plentiful enough to get that sort of thing. By the time his folks scraped together enough cash, all they could get was “a standard beige box Wintel machine with Windows 95 and a Pentium processor.” As Ciprian put it, “Safe to say that Macs were [not] even remotely available in Romania, and if they were, we’d be three or four mortgages away from being able to afford one.”
Goodbye Windows, hello Linux — and game design
Around 2006, Ciprian got to know Linux and dropped Windows “then and there,” he said.
“As I grew up, I was interested in designing and making games, and that’s were I set my focus,” he told Cult of Mac. “I think I started doing game jams early on, before even finishing high school, and got my foot officially in the industry in 2010 as a game designer at Gameloft in Bucharest.”
Over the years he created his own commercial games and freelanced. In 2017, he started his own company to focus on indie game development. He continued freelancing to make ends meet.
Mac: first contact
As recently as 2019, Ciprian had never had access to a Mac. He’d only read about them. But then he got a gig designing and developing games for iOS. So he borrowed a 2014 MacBook Pro and got to it.
After about eight months of difficult but lucrative work, he used his earnings to buy a professional work station for iOS development — “A decently decked-out iMac Pro, and after purchasing it, I fell in love with Apple,” he said.
His build times for “hypercasual games” went down dramatically. He churned out a couple per week, he said.
Ciprian’s first vintage Apple
Flush with earnings, Ciprian could buy some of the technology he’d always wanted — like the stuff his dad brought home in catalogs in the 1990s.
“One of my first purchases was a Commodore 64, I always wanted one. I bought it, did a hacky setup involving an LCD and a RCA-to-VGA-to-HDMI converter,” he said. “Got my hands on a SD2IEC convertor, allowing me to put games and software on an SD card. And for a while I loved it. I was spending 8 to 10 hours a day writing games for my clients and 4 to 6 hours learning to code for retro platforms. But the itch wasn’t scratched yet.”
What Ciprian really wanted was to emulate the development processes of the 1980s and early ’90s.
“I grew up reading about John Carmack, [John] Romero and Rebecca Heineman, and I had a bit of a designer-crush on Jeff Vogel, all of them being extraordinary game devs who talked about game development back then and I wanted to walk a bit in their footsteps,” he said.
Vintage machine with power for game dev
His C64 lacked the power for game development, but he tried anyway. Realizing he needed something with more oomf, he browsed local marketplaces and came across a Macintosh SE for about $300. He loved its compact design. Though released in 1987, it reminded him of his iMac, he said — so he got it.
“First time booting System 6 was a mix of shock and wow,” he said. “It was so funny to see how modern Mac OS (Catalina at that time) still has a lot of the quirks that were introduced 30 years prior. You could take screenshots with CMD+Shift+3, the Finder panel at the top had similar options as modern Finder. A lot of principles still apply.”
Ciprian had a problem, though. He had no way to get software onto the SE so he could work on development. Modern computers and floppy disks can’t write Macintosh-formatted disk for drives that read 800K disks. And so the tinkering began.
“I grabbed one of my Raspberry Pi’s, installed Linux on it and set it up to emulate a DialUP ISP,” he said. “I purchased an Asante Ethertalk box that would allow me to get the SE on the network (via localTalk) and a 30-meter-long Cat5 cable (don’t ask me why I had 30 meters of Cat5 at my disposal) and Macgyver’ed a solution to bring software onto it.”
Ciprian pointed to a YouTube video showing the “janky setup” that allowed him to transfer files from his iMac Pro to the SE.
Game dev on vintage Macs
Before long, he fully worked out the setup and began developing games for vintage Macs. He said his first project, a first-person 3D Dungeon Crawler, “would have wowed people back in 1987.”
Looking for higher performance and faster speeds, Ciprian read about accelerator boards used to speed up old Macs. He joined the 68Kmla forum for vintage Mac fans and met a German enthusiast who became a big help.
“[He] makes new versions of old Mac gear, from accelerators to cache cards, to adapters and network interfaces,” Ciprian said. “A Wozniak of modern times [who] uses a modern soldering iron like a Renaissance painter. Within days of meeting him he sent me a 68030 accelerator for my SE that not only gave me a better CPU but also helped me break the 4 MB of RAM barrier on it.”
The forum also taught Ciprian much more about the care and feeding of vintage Macs. To his girlfriend’s dismay, he said, an avalanche of new-old hardware began showing up on the doorstep.
“Soon enough, I had upgraded the SE itself to the maximum,” he said. “I couldn’t fit any more upgrades into it. I kept hearing how the SE/30 (its successor) was everything the SE was, only better. Like a M1 Macbook vs its Intel equivalent. I had to get one so I can streamline development even more. After all, it was called the ‘king of the compacts.'”
He nabbed an SE/30 from a Romanian collector. It featured an elusive graphics card, allowing a second monitor. And it provided much more speed than his SE, with 32 times the RAM.
After that, he went back to his German friend, who airmailed him upgrades. And that’s not all. With more purchases and some hacking, he got the SE/30, released in 1989, running macOS 8.1. He found he could run Photoshop 3, along with many more programs.
But he couldn’t do everything. Old systems have a hard time seeing the modern world online.
Getting on the internet
The SE/30 was on a local network and the internet via a Raspberry Pi. But on the internet, 90% of the websites wouldn’t work due to modern HTTPS and SSL standards, Ciprian said. But then he found an aggregator, 68k.news, that allows old browsers to view Google News. And a search engine called FrogFind! formats search results that work in Netscape and other old browsers.
Ciprian wrote his own HTTPS stripper and hosted it on his Raspberry Pi. It worked well for online text, but not for most images. But an HTTPS proxy called WebOne served as a useful internet relay in that regard. He got to a point where he could even watch YouTube clips on his SE/30.
“The fact that so much of the web was usable on a 40Mhz computer was both amazing and sad,” he said. “Amazing because it could run things that didn’t exist when it was created and sad because so much of the web is gated off to old hardware due to advertising and ‘modern standards.'”
Always more to do
About now it probably seems Ciprian’s setup must’ve been done. But he did much more. He was close to having what he wanted for making small games for vintage platforms. He added a Color Classic II from Japan, planning to take advantage of its 33Mhz 030 processor and color screen at game jams after the pandemic.
Then came the upgrades. Then came the itch to play more complex games, and so more upgrades. His reliance on the German vintage Mac tinkerer continued as he made his machines worthy of playing more modern games. He wrote a hack that tricked them into thinking his screens had high-enough resolution to handle them, which they did not. He showed it off in a YouTube video.
And even then, work on the SE/30 continued. Soon it had two CPUs that Ciprian could toggle between, a graphics card and ethernet. But the SE/30’s LCD screen was killing him, Cirprian said, so he set about getting a “gorgeous” Macintosh Portrait Monitor. Months later, he had it.
And that’s how the SE/P04rtrait — Ciprian’s nickname for the system — was born. And is it done? Probably not. He has a laundry list of possible upgrades.
The post-vintage era
Ciprian hopes to release the game Ebony Spire: Quest for Compact Macs sometimes in early 2022. He partnered with BitMap Soft to produce a physical release of the game with a box, manual and floppy.
Ciprian also has plans for another new game for vintage Macs.
“It requires at least three compact Macs (or any Mac with a modem port) to play it, with each Mac having a specific function of a Starship Computer. One handles navigation, one weapons and one has the view and can accommodate up to four players,” he said. “The release of the Cowboy Beebop live-action series on Netflix sealed the deal for me to do this, as they feature vintage Macs everywhere. Vintage Macs look good in a sci-fi setting.”
Shop these items now:
With vintage gear, it’s not always easy to find the exact items. Some links are provided. And perhaps you can find others using Ciprian’s descriptions below.
Vintage and custom computing equipment:
- Macintosh SE/30 running macOS 7.5.3
- SCSI2SD for storage with a 128GB SD card
- Custom 68040 Carrera clone at 40Mhz
- 68030 PowerCache 50Mhz CPU socketed to clone motherboard
- Custom TwinSpark Adapter clone with Ethernet
- 64 -> 128 MB of Purple RAM from Silicon Insider
Vintage display, audio and storage:
- Asante Ethertalk Box for LocalTalk networking with other Macs
- Apple CD300e external SCSI CD-ROM drive
- Kensington Tilt Swivel from 1989 for Compact Macs
- Apple Portrait Display with 640 x 870 pixel resolution at 75Hz
- 800K external floppy drive
- Powered Speakers for Macintosh
Networking and web hosting:
- Raspberry PI 4 with 4GB of RAM and a 32GB SD card
- WebOne Proxy for HTTPS stripping
- PHP and Linux web services
Other Apple gear used for business:
- iMac Pro, 12 Core, 32 GB of Ram, 1TB space
- 2020 M1 Macbook Pro with 16 GB of RAM and 1TB SSD
- 2014 Macbook Pro with 16GB of RAM and 512GB storage
- iPad Air 4, 128GB, running Basilisk II (68K emulator) and MacOS 8.1 for development on the go
- LaCie 2Big Dock with 16TB (8 in Raid 1)
- DVD RW attached via USB-C to write CDs for the SE/30
- TEAC external USB floppy drive to write floppies for the SE/30
If you would like to see your setup featured on Cult of Mac, send some high-res pictures to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please provide a detailed list of your equipment. Tell us what you like or dislike about your setup, and fill us in on any special touches or challenges.