Apple II Bits' seven-year itch

April 24th, 2017 10:00 AM
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The seven-year itch isn't just a classic Marilyn Monroe film; it's also a predictor for the shelf life of my own hobbies. It's after that period of time that I tend to find myself growing weary of a particular pursuit and begin looking for new interests. For seven years, 1997–2004, I wrote video game reviews; 2001–2008, I performed in community theater; 2004–2011, I taught at a high school or worked toward a master's degree, each satisfying my desire to be involved in education.

But I find the Apple II bucks this trend. This summer will make my twentieth consecutive KansasFest; this year makes my eleventh volume of Juiced.GS. And this month marks my seventh year of writing this weekly blog. I don't see myself discontinuing any of these pastimes anytime soon.

Seven apples

Each year kinda snuck up on me.

What is it about the Apple II computer and community that manages to hold my interest? Perhaps it's the nostalgia factor, dating back to my childhood in a way that writing, acting, and teaching do not. Maybe it's that it serves as a safe space in which to develop new talents — it was editing Juiced.GS that put me on the path to getting a master's degree in publishing, and Open Apple was where I honed the skills for my two current podcasts. It could be that, despite the discontinued nature of the Apple II, it continues to produce remarkably unique experiences: every KansasFest attracts a new crowd with whom to form new bonds and new memories.

While all those factors are true, perhaps the most compelling reason is the continued challenge. I lose interest in something when I find I can't get any better at it — not to say I've mastered it, but that I've reached the limits of my own ability to excel. After writing three hundred video game reviews, the process had become rote and formulaic; after 28 community theater productions, I no longer worried about forgetting my lines, any more than I believed myself capable of achieving a starring role.

But every issue of Juiced.GS is like none other, both in assembling the content and in marketing the publication. I've tried many new ideas to grow the magazine — some worked, some didn't. But the result is a net gain, with the subscriber base having quintupled in the last eleven years, and the magazine on the cusp of publishing its one thousandth piece of editorial content.

I have abandoned many hobbies after seven years. I don't have a fear of commitment; I have a fear of complacency. And the one place I don't have to worry about growing complacent is, ironically, the community and creations surrounding a 40-year-old computer.

So happy 40th birthday to the Apple II, and happy 7th birthday to Apple II Bits. Forget the seven-year itch — this is just the seventh-inning stretch!

Marilyn Monroe on subway grate

Here's to many more.

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Lode Runner Legacy trailer debuts

April 17th, 2017 8:37 AM
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I waited a long time for Lode Runner to arrive on Xbox 360. I remember listening to Major Nelson's Xbox podcast when it was announced that Doug E. Smith's classic Apple II game was being resurrected with a new installment on Microsoft's platform. It was another year or two before the game was finally released, eight years ago this month, exclusively for the Xbox 360.

In video games, eight years is an entire generation — a time during which Lode Runner has again lain dormant. There have been some very fun classic titles, including 2013's mobile port of the original 150 levels, but home consoles have not seen a new Lode Runner: no title in the franchise has graced the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U, or Switch.

This year will see that oversight corrected, as Tozai Games has announced the imminent release of Lode Runner Legacy.

The game features all-new levels, as well as the original 150, now all in 3D. Other features include a puzzle mode and editors for levels, characters, and items, as well as online rankings. The game will debut on Windows, with later releases for Mac and Linux. No console versions are specified, but Tozai promises, "Our ultimate goal is to release a new Lode Runner on every gaming platform available."

I shared the trailer with the Apple II Enthusiasts group on Facebook, where it garnered a generally negative response. "That looks weird to me," wrote one. "They've destroyed the minimalist spirit of the original game," added another; "Adding a bunch of flashy graphic effects doesn't make [it] better."

The reception on Steam has been more positive, perhaps due to the number of fans sent there by this enthusiastic video by Jim Sterling:

Of the two camps, I'm with those who are more optimistic. I agree that the new visual style with large characters and scrolling levels seems a bit too Duplo for me. But while stubbornly sticking with a retro aesthetic might appeal to us old-school gamers, we are the minority in today's gaming demographic; I acknowledge that it's important that Tozai innovate to appeal to a larger audience, even if it doesn't include me.

It doesn't have to be one or the other, though. Look at these two screenshots:

These levels look consistent with the aesthetic and gameplay of the original! Yay!

We've already seen the original game's levels released for modern platforms, though, courtesy the aforementioned mobile port; we need something new. To that end, Lode Runner Legacy's level editor and online features should be paired to give us a truly original offering: compilations of new levels with classic gameplay, much as Championship Lode Runner once did. This kind of world-building and world-sharing was central to the popularity of Super Mario Maker, in which Nintendo took their most popular franchise and added content creation tools. Imagine if we could curate and distribute each other's Lode Runner levels as well!

Overall, Lode Runner Legacy has more going for it than against it. I'm cautiously optimistic and am eager for its release sometime in 2017.

A timeline of monitors and displays

April 10th, 2017 11:18 AM
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There are as many ways to connect an Apple II to a display as there have been display types across the decades. Each machine had its own protocols, standards, and benefits. Although the Apple II was designed for color — hence the six-color Apple logo — most people remember a monochromatic experience, due to the black-and-green monitors to which many early computers were connected. The first laptop Macintosh I ever used had a black-and-white display, which was great for playing Crystal Quest but not much else.

A new interactive infographic, "The Evolution of Computer Screens", attempts to chronicle the different ways computers have visually presented data to us over the eras, inviting us: "Take a trip through time and experience the most noteworthy achievements in computer screens, from little known discoveries way back in 1968, to the heated battles between Apple and PC and beyond."

Naturally, such a timeline would be remiss to overlook the Apple II:

Monitor timeline

There are a couple problems with this artistic rendition, though. First, that looks like a mockup, not an actual screenshot, of VisiCalc — the font just seems odd to me. Second, the accompanying text offers the prompt A>dir, which would never be valid on an Apple II unless it had a PC Transporter running MS-DOS, or a Microsoft Z-80 SoftCard running CP/M — a more representative prompt would've been ProDOS or DOS 3.3's native ]CATALOG. Third, the text doesn't actually say anything about the monitor or the display — there's no explanation justifying the Apple II's inclusion on this timeline.

This timeline is produced by AT&T with no individual bylines attached to it. I don't believe corporate sponsorship of a product is inherently suspicious, but not knowing the pedigree of the creators leaves me wondering what their familiarity with or interest in the topic was.

Fortunately, the timeline includes citations to resources referenced during their research. One such link is to Benj Edwards' 2010 feature for PCWorld, "A Brief History of Computer Displays". As a slideshow, it may lack the pizazz of the above timeline, but Edwards' content is, as always, top-notch. Spanning 1951–2010, the twenty slides cover a range of technologies and applications, including both the Apple-1 and Apple II, with technical explanations for what made each innovation a milestone.

Any acknowledgement of the Apple II in mainstream media is one I appreciate; early Apple's flagship product is otherwise too often overlooked. But clarity of audience, intention, and detail do the Apple II justice and ensure that the reference will be understood and appreciated by those familiar with the topic.

(Thanks to Paul Hagstrom for added details.)

Cliff Spohn's Art of Apple

April 3rd, 2017 9:47 AM
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Like many of my generation, I got my start in gaming on an Atari console. The Atari 2600 was home to countless classic games, from Adventure to Indiana Jones to the notorious E.T. Whereas my Apple II had games that came on unremarkably labeled floppy disks, Atari's games sported works of art on their boxes and labels, evoking worlds of excitement and intrigue far beyond the console's ability to render.

The history, process, and impact of this art is detailed in a new book, The Art of Atari, released in October 2016. This hardcover coffee-table book features gorgeous blow-ups of published Atari creations, as well as concept art and early drafts. Many of the original artists were interviewed about their inspirations and workflows.

One such artist is Cliff Spohn, who gets a two-page profile on pages 70–71. Accompanying this spread is a piece of art that is decidedly un-Atari. Its caption: "Spohn's illustration for an early Apple Computer manual. His artwork was personally commissioned by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs."

I'm unsure where this art would've originally been published; the only references to it that I can find on Google refer back to this very book. According to Spohn's website, he "also did Apple's first one or two instruction booklet covers", but I don't recall having seen this artwork before, either.

UPDATE: Will Scullin cites this art as appearing on Jef Raskin's Apple II BASIC Programming Manual, and Sean McNamara has proof:

Nonetheless, Spohn's legacy could be felt even in recent years of Apple media. Spohn writes that "demand for my kind of illustration was and is slowly disappearing". But Apple II enthusiasts may remember that the style of Spohn and his contemporaries inspired the art for the Jason Scott documentary GET LAMP, as illustrated by Lukas Ketner.

GET LAMP art by Lukas Ketner

GET LAMP art by Lukas Ketner

Atari was the proving ground for many early computer pioneers, including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Let's remember the geniuses like Cliff Spohn that made them look good, too.

(Hat tip to Susan Arendt)

Connecting to an Apple Cinema Display

March 27th, 2017 10:07 AM
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It sometimes feels like display technology has outpaced the Apple II's evolution: connecting to a modern display, such as via VGA, often requires expansion cards that are rare or still in development. I'm hopeful a future Juiced.GS article will outline all the possibilities for bridging these technologies.

In the meantime, Matthew Pearce has demonstrated how to connect the Apple II to a relatively modern and high-quality monitor: the Apple Cinema Display.

This setup has its own hardware requirements and challenges: used in this video are a Portta AV/CVBS RCA composite-to-HDMI mini-converter ($18.99), a Kanex XD HDMI-to-Mini-Displayport converter ($71.49) — and, of course, an Apple Cinema Display, which was discontinued six years ago, in 2011. With Matt's video having been produced in 2015, that means he was showing us how to connect two equally unsupported Apple products.

It's not a perfect solution, and one that we saw Matt demo in 8-bit mode only with Oregon Trail; Herbert Fung warns it won't look great with the 640 x 200 mode of the Apple IIGS. But as a proof of concept, it's a pretty cool configuration — and one that could have applications for other HDMI or MiniDP devices. For lack of turnkey alternatives, this hardware combination is a good one to add to your bag of tricks.

For more from Matt, check out his factual overview video of the Apple II.

(Hat tip to Buster Hein)

Hard Hat Mack in Taiwan

March 20th, 2017 11:22 AM
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Although the Apple II was invented and was popular in the United States, it's fun to see all the other places our favorite retrocomputer has popped up. We know the Apple II community has active contingents in Australia and France, but we've also seen the Apple II in more far-flung locations such as from Russia to Korea.

Thanks to a recent YouTube video, I've now seen the Apple II somewhere I hadn't before: Taiwan. It was the focus of a short segment on a television show in which the host introduced several girls to the 1983 game Hard Hat Mack on an Apple IIc:

I don't have many details about the show seen here: the Chinese caption translates only to "old game era Apple II". But I wonder what the standard format of the show is, that the host didn't seem to let his audience get their hands on the game.

I can commiserate, though: I too have never gotten my hands on Hard Hat Mack. As a young gamer, my attention was evenly divided between consoles and computers, which may've caused me to miss several classic computer games: not only Hard Hat Mack, but Tass Times in Tone Town, King's Quest, Ultima, and others. It looks like the kind of game I would enjoy, since Donkey Kong always earns my quarter on any visit to Funspot. As one of the first games (if not the first) to be published by Electronic Arts, Hard Hat Mack is a piece of history deserving an experience.

I don't have much excuse now, though, since Hard Hat Mack can be played online:

There's no need to go on a Taiwanese talk show to discover the classics — Hard Hat Mack is alive and well!

(Hat tip to Luke Hsu via Jorma Honkanen)