Wade Clarke's Victris plays the Apple II

September 1st, 2014 9:27 AM
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Wade Clarke has long been unique in the intersection of musicians and Apple II programmers. Unlike chiptune musicians such as 8 Bit Weapon, who create music entirely from classic computers, Clarke is more free-range, drawing inspiration and instruments from synthesizers, real-world samples, video games, and more.

Since not all Clarke's music is based on the Apple II, it makes it all the more fun when the computer does pop up in his work. Recently, Clarke pointed me to the liner notes for his album, Victris, where he describes the song "Ai no kuni"

I play by ear, so most of my compositions from back then were only stored in my head. I did record some to cassette, but more often I transcribed them into music software on my family's Apple II computer … in the early 1990s using the Apple IIGS program The Music Studio. The synths I had playing these lines sounded bad, but in this case what I really valued was the composition itself.

These intersecting lines were good enough that even two decades later I didn't want or need to change a note when I had the idea to bring them into an Aeriae track. I'd just heard the riffs anew after rescuing my old Music Studio files from the decaying 3.5-inch floppy disk where they'd lived for twenty-something years.

The song "Heiress" also has ties to the Apple II, incorporating output from Paul Lutus' Electric Duet.

Victris is only the latest embodiment of Clarke's work in both digital and musical realms, as he's been fusing the Apple II with his musical pursuits for the better part of a decade. In 2007, he used Fantavision to create this music video for the song "Amay":

More recently, Clarke contributed his art to the Drift demo disk that was bundled with the June 2012 issue of Juiced.GS.

But even that disk was not Clarke's first appearance in the magazine. In Clarke's track notes for the Victric song "Nurse 2 Alyssa Type", he reflects on his experience with survival horror video games. It was this genre of game that inspired Clarke to develop Leadlight, the Eamon adventure that graced the cover of Juiced.GS's first color issue. Two years later, in Volume 17, Issue 2, he wrote a Juiced.GS article about his ensuing experience transitioning from Eamon to Inform for his interactive fiction exploits.

Survival horror, text adventures, synthesized music, journal articles — Clarke is truly a Renaissance man of the Apple II community! Catch him on tour in Australia later this year.

Apple's prediction for the future

August 25th, 2014 9:54 AM
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Noted historian Steve Weyhrich once took to speculative fiction to answer the question: What if the Apple II line had been allowed to evolve in the same way as the Macintosh line has been evolving over the past ten years? The resulting alternative history is a fascinating look at what might've been.

As it turns out, Apple had their own fantasy for a world in which support for the Apple II continued. In 1987, makeup was applied to age key employees, including Steve Wozniak and John Sculley, casting them as their 1997 selves for this video reflecting on the past decade of Apple:

The video is unintentionally hilarious, not so much in the bad acting as in the misplaced optimism. The news anchors report, "Almost all the growth in the last decade happened in one place: the desktop. And of course, that means Apple." Yet the years 1987–1997 saw Apple's market share dwindle under the leadership of several lackluster CEOs.

But you have to admire Apple's intended dedication to our favorite computing platform. "This being 1997, some people feel the Apple II concept is getting old. We don't agree. [Introducing] the Apple II V.S.O.P. (Very Smooth Old Processor) — the computer for the new millennium!" As the video was shot three years after the release of the Macintosh, I have to wonder if Apple really did see a future for the separate product line of the Apple II, or if they were just tweaking their audience with this prediction.

Another augury: "A computer that talks is no big deal. A computer that really listens — that's a breakthrough. Apple computers have always been friendly, but we've gone from friendly to understanding." Siri listens, but we're still ages from machines that actually understand human speech. I discussed in my review of the Joaquin Phoenix film Her: "Accents, background noise, and sentence structures that don't conform to expected inputs can all derail such interactions. Even when Watson competed on Jeopardy, although it could interpret natural language, that input was typed, not spoken."

But the video was worth it for two lines that had me laugh out loud: at 3:43, a Mac diagnoses a PICNIC error; and this zinger: "In other news, Jack Tramiel opened a new restaurant today."

For more historical predictions of technology's future — some of which have come true, but not quite as expected — see the 2009 blog post, "AT&T predicted the future. Can Microsoft?"

(Hat tip to Daniela Hernandez of Wired)

Building an Apple II games database

August 18th, 2014 6:48 PM
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Whenever I've blogged about Brian Picchi, it's been in the context of the games he's made, such as Retro Fever or Deadly Orbs. But his latest undertaking is more meta and Sisyphean: a database of every 8-bit Apple II game.

The list, most recently updated on August 12, 2014, currently indexes the title, publisher, developer(s), year of publication, and media for 2,160 titles. The data are culled from such sources as MobyGames, GameFAQs, YouTube, and wikis

"It started both as a project Alex Lee and I were talking about, and because I was just curious as to how many Apple II games there are," said Picchi in an email to Apple II Bits. "Every site I had seen had under 1,000 games listed, despite claims of several thousand by other sources, including Apple."

But the database's value is in more than just verifying or setting records. "I also thought it might be helpful because I hear lots of people asking questions like 'What was that game from my childhood I can't remember, I know it was in an issue of Microzine?' or 'How many games supported Mockingboard?' or 'How many games did Sierra release for the Apple II?'" continued Picchi. "The list is available to anyone who wants to use it for any purpose." Anyone who wants to contribute to the database may do so via Google Docs.

As a metadata junkie, I'm excited to see so much information being compiling and to consider how much more can be added. Data such as game genre, additional assets such as box art, and links to related resources, such as Virtual Apple II or the Internet Archive's Console Living Room implementation of JSMESS. Picchi agrees: "I'd love to see it built into something like http://www.c64.com/ where you search for the game, can view screenshots, download it directly, etc."
Games databaseCollecting so much information is only half of this vast undertaking, with organizing and presenting it being another. The database is currently implemented using TablePress, one of my all-time favorite WordPress plugins. It's a powerful tool, but one that is ultimately limited in how much data it can associate and present with a single software title. The database may be better served by creating a Content Post Type, which would allow the definition of fields and attachments unique to this database.

The end result would be exactly why I was briefly enrolled in a Master's of Library and Information Science (MLIS) program: I love collecting and organizing information but lack the programming skills necessary to structure and host such vast quantities of data in a useful, meaningful way. But one thing I've learned about Picchi from reading his Juiced.GS article is that he's constantly expanding his boundaries, mastering new languages and platforms. Could WordPress be next? If so, it will be to the benefit of Apple II gamers the world over!

Maniac Mansion design notes

August 11th, 2014 11:34 AM
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Despite growing up an avid gamer, I didn't play many commercial games for the Apple II. (No, I didn't pirate them, either.) We had the Atari 2600 before we had an Apple, and from there, our console collection grew to include every Nintendo system. It was there, on the 8-bit NES, that I encountered many classics that had been ported from the Apple II: Ultima, Archon — and Maniac Mansion.

That last title was a point-and-click adventure developed at LucasFilm Games. Players chose two of six characters to accompany primary protagonist Dave on his exploration of a mad scientist's home to rescue Dave's girlfriend, Sandy. Along the way, gamers encounter a sentient meteor, a disembodied tentacle, an explodable hamster, and one of the first instances of video game cutscenes. Maniac Mansion garnered a cult following, spawning both a sequel and a television series.

The writer, director, artist and programmer responsible for Maniac Mansion was Ron Gilbert, who later wrote several of the Monkey Island games on the Mac, all of which used the SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) game engine. Although Gilbert has moved past these titles and tools, he hasn't forgotten his roots, as evidenced by recent posts to his blog, Grumpy Gamer:

While cleaning out my storage unit in Seattle, I came across a treasure trove of original documents and backup disks from the early days of Lucasfilm Games and Humongous Entertainment. I hadn't been to the unit in over 10 years and had no idea what was waiting for me.

Here is the original pitch document Gary and I used for Maniac Mansion. Gary had done some quick concepts, but we didn't have a real design, screen shots or any code. This was before I realized coding the whole game in 6502 was nuts and began working on the SCUMM system.

If this document… say[s] anything, it's how much ideas change from initial concept to finished game. And that's a good thing. Never be afraid to change your ideas. Refine and edit. If your finished game looks just like your initial idea, then you haven't pushed and challenged yourself hard enough.

His first batch of scanned Maniac Mansion design notes showcases UI mockups, a map of a mansion that never would've fit into 320K, and puzzle ideas that didn't make the cut until 25 years later. A second batch of notes demonstrates the logic and code behind SCUMM.

It's fascinating and wonderful that Gilbert saved these documents and is now making them available. He likely didn't know the place Maniac Mansion would earn in gaming history — surely there are countless other point-and-click adventures of the era that have been forgotten. But this one was not, and now the context and process by which it was created can be examined in a new light. I hope these documents (or their scans) eventually make their way to an institution such as the Strong Museum's International Center for the History of Electronic Games.

Maniac Mansion

It was a dark and clear night…

Want more Maniac Mansion history? In 2012, Gilbert gave a one-hour Maniac Mansion post-mortem at the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC). Due to wonky embed code, the video is better viewed in the GDC Vault, but it's included below for convenience.

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Let's Play Structris

August 4th, 2014 12:00 PM
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KansasFest is a week over, and all I have is memories.

Memories — and an awesome mug.

For the second consecutive year, attendee Michael Sternberg hosted a Structris tournament based on his version of Martin Haye's original Tetris game. I entered and, after a poor showing in 2013, rebounded in 2014: I had the highest score in the first round (100 points); went up against the reigning champion and broke the world record in the second round (249 points on level 17); and, in the third and final round, defeated the developer himself. It was pretty epic.

To give something back, I've created a Let's Play video of Structris, coinciding with last week's 25th anniversary of the North American launch of the Nintendo Game Boy, which came with Tetris. Enjoy!

KansasFest 2014 on Storify

July 28th, 2014 10:33 PM
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Having returned from KansasFest 2014 just a day ago, I find myself with have far too many emails to write, packages to mail, and naps to take. As such, I can offer no words of my own to express the joy and attending my 17th annual Apple II convention — so I will let others' words do so for me.

Please enjoy the following Storify, collecting select tweets, Flickr albums, Facebook posts, and more from #A2KFest.

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