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.)

A journey through Chivalry

January 16th, 2017 7:25 AM
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Interactive fiction author Wade Clarke recently encouraged me to engage in a two-player game of Chivalry, a 1983 Apple II game I was previously unfamiliar with. So, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, Jess and I played a round.

Chivalry is an electronic board game where players become knights and ladies who are charged with rescuing the medieval king from his kidnapper, the Black Knight. Each turn, a wheel or die determines if a player advances one, two, or three spaces forward on the board. The board itself is never seen, nor are the players' relative positions, so it can be hard to tell who's winning. But each space on the board is a fixed location with its own challenges and encounters, so players start recognizing them as they watch each other move forward and backward.

Each location is either a random encounter or an action-based mini-game. Games include archery and jousting competitions, catching sacks of flour as they are tossed out of a window, crossing a bridge while dodging a troll, and more. Some locations require no dexterity, instead requiring a simple decision, such as which door to open or path to take. Still other locations offer an automatic and random result — for example: if the bear is awake, you get mauled; but if the bear is asleep, you can sneak by.

The encounters that most intrigued me were those that prepared you for future locations. At one point in the game, a dwarven passerby handed me some rope, without any indication what it might be used for. Later, Jess's travels brought her to an insurmountable cliff, requiring she backtrack. I figured if she'd had my rope, she would've been equipped to proceed. At another point, I had the choice to buy one of three foodstuffs from the market, but only one had a distinctive name: "bear potion". Had the bear not been asleep, I could've used this potion to escape a mauling. In both these examples, the items ended up not being used, which seemed a missed opportunity. But it was a clever mechanic that introduced the possibility of each player having a different experience, even at the same points on the map.

The action-based sequences were less interesting, partly because it was difficult to assess the parameters of success. There are two dart mini-games, for example, but with different, invisible goals. Hit the bullseye in the inn, for example, and you win; but hit the bullseye in the thieves' den, and the thieves will punish you for swindling them. Without knowing the rules, success was as much chance as skill.

After about a half-hour of passing the laptop back and forth (Jess and I were playing with keyboard controls, not paddles), Jess reached the Black Knight's castle, which involved a Dark Castle-like action sequence to leap to the top of the parapets. She succeeded on the first try, winning the game — but she wished I had made it there first. "You're more the action gamer and would've enjoyed it more," she commented. Perhaps she was just being chivalrous — but after watching both of us struggle with the previous action-based tasks, it was fun to see one of us get the final level right on the first try.

Chivalry is an interesting way for 1–4 players to spend an hour, and it's an intriguing example of an early attempt to add an electronic component to the classic board-game experience, well before Anticipation or Mario Party hit the scene. Chivalry demonstrates some of the struggles but also creativity that game designers worked with back then, without necessarily offering a sufficiently compelling experience for repeat rounds of play.

An Apple in Christmas Vacation

January 9th, 2017 8:54 PM
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This holiday season, I revived a long-dormant tradition of watching one of my favorite Christmas movies: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. There are at least six movies in this franchise, but I've seen only Christmas and Las Vegas, with Christmas being my favorite by far.

Even though I haven't seen the original film in the series, that being 1983's Vacation, I'm aware that it featured a computer contemporary to that era: the Apple II. Clark Griswold used the household computer to plot the family's trip to Wally World, establishing a route only slightly less harrowing than the Oregon Trail:

No classic computer was featured so prominently in the succeeding Vacation films — but, despite having seen Christmas Vacation dozens of times, it was nonetheless hiding an Easter egg I'd never discovered.

One of the highlights of the film comes near the end, when Clark Griswold finally loses his cool and flips out, unleashing a torrent of epithets at his boss:

But, hey — what's that in the background?

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

Enhance!

Apple Macintosh Plus

Why, it appears that, by 1989, the Griswold family had upgraded to an Apple Macintosh Plus! Having not been a Mac owner before 1997, I didn't recognize this model, but the reliable website Starring the Computer had the details. This must be the computer that many of my friends reference as their "first Apple II — you know, the one built into the monitor." (sigh)

I would've preferred to see that Clark had upgraded to an Apple IIGS… but still, knowing that he at least stuck with the Apple brand makes me appreciate one of my favorite films just a little bit more.

(Thanks to NMRJess's eagle eyes for spotting this!)