The BBS you can't telnet home to


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Earlier this month, I received an email that BBSmates was resuming operation as of October 4. I had to read the full email to figure out what this meant, as apparently BBSmates had been out of commission long enough for me to have forgotten signing up for this email list in the first place! It is a telnet-based bulletin board system in the style of old-school dial-up BBSs that offers one of the most attractive features of that pre-Internet networking landscape: door games.

Legend of the Red DragonThese multiplayer online games were often played asynchronously, much like today's mobile apps such as Draw Something and Words With Friends. Since many dial-up BBSs had only one phone line, gameplay was limited to one player at a time. Gamers would log in, use up their allotted daily turns (in any number of text-based environments from a medieval forest to a futuristic space station), then log off and wait 24 hours to see what happens next. BBSmates offers plenty of classics — Legend Of The Red Dragon (LORD), Food Fight, Trade Wars, Usurper — playable by telnetting to the service or using a Web-based Flash interface.

I was excited to learn about BBSmates, as I was heavily into running and using BBSs from 1992 to 1997. Door games could make or break a caller's experience, and my favorite was Space Ship of Death, available for Commodore 64 and PC BBSs (and, once upon a time, playable on the Web at MurderMotel.com). I enjoyed it so much, I ported it to the Apple II for the Warp Six BBS software. Despite being only 624 lines of Applesoft BASIC code, it stands as the most complicated program I've written to date.

Despite these fond memories, I started wondering: can one truly go back again? I'd already tried once before — three years ago, when Zork was reimagined as a graphical Web-based game that ran from April 1, 2009, to May 31, 2011. I played it for the first two months, and the daily allotment of turns both reminded of the experience of early BBS games and encouraged me to play regularly. But ultimately, I fell off the wagon because I realized I wasn't connecting with the game. There were two factors missing.

One was a sense of community, which wasn't surprising, given the new Zork's its global audience. By contrast, access to a dial-up BBS was restricted by finances — only if you could afford long-distance charges was the world your oyster — so though I didn't know the people I was playing Trade Wars against, I knew they were nearby. Even that unexpressed commonality was enough to bring us together. I was fighting with and against potential neighbors, classmates, and citizens; on the Internet, I'm fighting the unknown world.

The second absent quality was a sense of investment. As prohibitive as those telephone charges were, it also gave the dial-up connection an intrinsic value. Time spent online was quantifiable at an hourly rate, which subconsciously trickled down to the actions and interactions one experienced on the service. Whether I played Zork or not, I wasn't at risk of losing anything; I had no stake in the experience.

I don't mean to disparage telnet BBSs in general or BBSmates specifically — door games still have the potential to be fun and need to be preserved and made accessible, both for those who enjoy them and for those curious for a hands-on experience with telecommunications history. In the latter category, BBSmates offers other valuable features, such as a BBS index, similar to Jason Scott's TEXTFILES.COM list but more searchable. (Yup, I'm in there!). And if it's just the games you want, BBSmates is not alone in offering a retro experience via telnet; The BBS Corner indexes over 350 such services still in operation — still a shadow of the peak in 1994 of 45,000 dial-up services.

Wherever you telnet to, if you want to go home again, the software is there to let you. It just may not be the home you remember.


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