Juiced.GS ships early!

February 27th, 2017 1:00 PM
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As I write this blog post, I am simultaneously proud, relieved, and shocked. The reason: I just delivered the March 2017 issue of Juiced.GS to the printshop.

Note: it is not March.

On all 84 issues of Juiced.GS that have been published to date, every cover has displayed the date of publication. In the 44 issues I've edited, only four of the year's 12 months have been represented on the cover: March, June, September, and December, aligning with the end of each quarter.

I took those months to be the deadline by which I had to deliver the issue to the post office. Sometimes this meant mailing an issue on March 31, with it not arriving in readers' hands until April.

But if you look back at earlier issues of Juiced.GS, you'll see different dates on the cover: February, May, August, and November. Former editor-in-chief Ryan Suenaga published midway through each quarter so as to avoid conflicting with other crunch periods, such as the holidays. I tried to follow his example, but on my very first issue, I slipped a month and never regained it.

But this year, the first issue of 2017 presented the opportunity to get back on track. One article held back from December gave us a head start, but it wasn't just that. I don't normally assign articles until after the previous issue has shipped — but I was able to solicit the author of this month's cover story, Mike Whalen, last fall, and he diligently worked through the holidays so that his submission would be ready as soon as we began work on the March issue. Our other staff and freelance writers, including Chris Torrence and Ivan Drucker, were also very timely with their contributions.

It all added up to us being able to print the magazine with a February date: as long as I got the magazine to the post office before Wednesday, we could accurately say the magazine shipped in February. But it still wouldn't be delivered until March, and although I've cut it close before, this approach felt dishonest, somehow.

So we're sticking with our traditional March date by shipping the issue on March 1. Honestly, it seems the best of both worlds: for possibly the first time ever, every subscriber should receive the issue in the same calendar month, without the staff rushing to meet an end-of-month deadline, whatever month that is.

Will shipping on the first of the month become the new standard? I don't know. At the least, it presents our staff with some leeway — a one-month buffer with which to get the June issue published.

Regardless of what this spells for the future, it's a relief to look forward to a month that's full of conventions, vacations, presentations, and milestones, knowing that I've already given Juiced.GS my full attention.

Dan Bricklin & VisiCalc at TEDx

February 20th, 2017 10:58 AM
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When Steve Wozniak gave a TED Talk, it was a disjointed series of anecdotes that gave us a glimpse into the early days of Apple. It was fun, but it wasn't a story.

Other veterans of that era have a more natural flair storytelling. Enter Dan Bricklin, who in November 2016 gave a TED Talk on the origins of his industry-redefining application, VisiCalc.

It's a familiar story, and one I mostly already knew, having learned it when I taught my high-school students how to use VisiCalc (as detailed in Juiced.GS Volume 10, Issue 1), though a few details I got wrong: I thought the plaque commemorating VisiCalc's conception was at Bricklin's undergrad of MIT, not his graduate school of Harvard.

But what really underscores this talk is just how revolutionary VisiCalc was. While I knew it was the first electronic spreadsheet, I assumed more of it was derived from analog counterparts: the grid-based patterns, the naming of cells, and the syntax of formulae are all so intuitive, I didn't realize that it all had to be created from scratch.

My thanks to my Massachusetts neighbors Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston for making Apple the company it was. For more of the story, this time from Frankston, watch Kevin Savetz's interview from August 2016.

(Hat tip to Dagen Brock)

An Apple II appearance in Beep!

February 13th, 2017 12:48 PM
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I have a growing collection of documentaries in my watch queue, many of them springing from Kickstarter. If I see a topic I like, I can't help but throw $15 at it — especially if it'll get me a digital copy of the movie, years down the road.

Such is the case with Beep: A Documentary History of Game Sound. This movie, crowdfunded in 2014, chronicles the evolution of audio composition technology in the interactive entertainment industry, featuring interviews with composers for such classic games as Marble Madness. A variety of hardware platforms and sound processors are featured, especially the Commodore 64 and its infamous SID chip — but disappointingly, at no point did I hear mention of the Apple II.

But I did see it! In two scenes, the narrators' commentary is overlaid with B-roll footage of convention-goers (perhaps at MAGFest?) using classic computers. At 25:19, the machine on-screen is very obviously an Apple IIGS, though the exact software being demoed is indeterminable; minutes later, at 32:44, an Apple RGB monitor — perhaps the same one previously featured, but from a different angle — can be seen in the background.

Playing an Apple IIGS in Beep documentary

Apple IIGS monitor in background of Beep documentary

Given the breadth and depth that Beep set out to cover, it's unsurprising that they wouldn't have the opportunity to focus on our favorite retrocomputer. But the Apple IIGS's Ensoniq chip was one of the platform's hallmark features, warranting acknowledgement right in the model's name — the 'S' stands for "sound", after all. At least it had its cameo.

For more opinion about Beep, read my review on Gamebits.

Let's Play Stair Quest

February 6th, 2017 12:30 PM
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Last summer saw the release of King's Quest, an episodic interquel based on Sierra's classic point-and-click adventure game. I enjoyed the first hour of seeing King Graham in his youth as he explored a dragon's den and learned to be brave, clever, and kind. But at some point, the game became too open-ended and the puzzles too illogical, frustrating me in much the way its namesake did a generation ago. I expected this game to overcome the design constraints of its ancestors.

At the other end of the spectrum is Stair Quest, a new title with retro sensibilities. It discards all that was good about the original King's Quest and instead relishes in its impossibly unfair challenges: navigating three-dimensional passageways using two-dimensional controls. Players are tasked with using just the four cardinal arrow keys to traverse stairways that bend, curve, and climb in all directions. A pixel too far in the wrong direction, and our hero plummets to his or her death, sending the player back to the beginning of the room… assuming you remembered to save your game.

Although I found this game incredibly frustrating, I was simultaneously delighted by it. These challenges were not a design flaw or constraint, nor was it poor implementation on the behalf of the developers. Everything about Stair Quest is intentional.

Stair Quest is a free download for Windows, Mac, and Linux. The development team at No More For Today is an all-star cast of indie game designers, podcasters, and historians whom I was glad to encounter in my own podcasting journey. Kudos to them for knowing what they wanted to do and for executing it with style.

Spoiler! Apple II game endings

January 30th, 2017 9:07 AM
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Screenshots are glorious things. Disk images offer an interactive experience of classic software, and video helps capture it in action — but a screenshot is a single, discrete work of art — a frozen frame of creativity. For the Apple II, a screenshot captures the artistry of yesterday's programmers who were also expected to produce a game's graphics using a limited palette. Jason Scott created the Screen Shotgun to add thousands of screenshots to the Internet Archive, including crack screens that Kevin Savetz has repurposed as a screensaver and a Twitter account.

But these screenshots are often taken from either the opening scenes of a game, or from random points therein. What about that most rarely viewed moment in a game, the one that we're all driven to see: the end screen?

Now you can finally see what comes at the end of the game thanks to Samuel & Simon Ng, who have compiled 73 game-ending screens.

The collection is missing some obvious titles (Conan, Choplifter, Lode Runner, King's Quest) and has some hacks instead of the originals (Castle Smurfenstein, but it's an impressive start — especially if the screens were captured during the uploader's own gameplay sessions. That would mean they finished 73 Apple II games, which is more than many people. Despite the small floppy sizes, these games could take days, weeks, or longer to complete, due to punishing difficulty, lack of automaps, and Byzantine logic. To have conquered as many games as are seen in this collection is a monumental effort.

Screenshots capture unique moments in gaming history. But sometimes, the screenshots capture us in our pursuit to experience, archive, and share those classic experiences.

(Hat tip to Jorma Honkanen)

Chris Torrence reviews the AP40

January 23rd, 2017 11:28 AM
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In October, Hong Kong hardware developer 8bitdo launched a Kickstarter for a wireless Bluetooth controller for the Apple II. Although I originally backed the project, I eventually cancelled my pledge only out of personal dissatisfaction with the potential product and its management. That said, I was still glad to see the campaign succeed at 135% its crowdfunding goal.

One of the 313 backers is Assembly Lines editor and KansasFest alumnus Chris Torrence. He quickly produced an unboxing video, in which he rightly predicted my critical reception:

This video was followed by a more extensive testing session:

Between the two videos, Chris tested the AP40 controller with a variety of Apple II games, including Lode Runner, Choplifter, and Castle Wolfenstein. The verdict seems to be that it's a great device for games that require digital input — i.e., games that read only the direction, not the degree, to which you are pushing the controller. But since the Apple II can read 0–255 values on both the X and Y axes, games that rely on that analog input will not work as well.

Had I not cancelled my Kickstarter pledge, I would've reviewed the AP40 for Juiced.GS. But I don't think even I could've done as good a job as Chris, which is why I'm excited he'll be making his Juiced.GS debut when we publish his more comprehensive written review in the March 2017 issue!

(Full disclosure: I back Chris on Patreon.)