Author Archive

I'm Ken Gagne, the editor-in-chief and publisher of Juiced.GS, the longest-running Apple II print publication, as well as co-founder of Open Apple, the Apple II community's first and only co-hosted podcast. I've been an active member of the Apple II online community for over two decades, including on CompuServe, GEnie, Delphi, and Syndicomm Online. Follow me on Twitter.

An adventure in Rocky's Boots

April 22nd, 2019 1:04 PM
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Filed under Game trail, History;
2 comments.

My reputation as any workplace's resident (and only) Apple II expert began at my first salaried job as a high-school teacher. I'd often annoy the computer-science teacher, Ms. Lang, by extolling the virtues of BASIC as a programming language (she preferred Scheme); and when I had to substitute for her for a day, I taught her students how to use VisiCalc, as detailed in a Juiced.GS article.

One day, that same teacher came to me for help. She'd recently come back from a conference with a copy of an old Apple II program used to teach programming logic using circuits and gates — could I boot it in my emulator so she could assess its usefulness to her class? I'd never heard the game, but as soon as it started, I gasped. "This is the work of Warren Robinett!"

In Rocky's Boots, players control a simple square as it navigates single-screen rooms, picking up items by colliding with them and transporting them through exits. Sword-like arrows guide the player from room to room.

It was the exact same design and interface as a game I'd grown up with: Adventure on the Atari 2600. Using a joystick and a single button, I'd guided that square on expeditions to distant castles, raiding their treasure while dodging and defeating terrifying, duck-like dragons, all while hoping not to be abducted by a random bat. Adventure's place was cemented not just in my memory but also in history for featuring the first-ever Easter egg: a hidden room with the developer's name, Warren Robinett.

Warren Robinett's name in Adventure's hidden room

Warren Robinett's name in Adventure's hidden room.

It was thanks to that Easter egg that I knew who must be responsible for Rocky's Boots. It's rare for a developer to have such an identifiable style, but when I saw Rocky's Boots, I knew it had to be, if not the same developer, then at least the same engine. I'd never researched Robinett's portfolio beyond that historical Atari 2600 game; until that moment in my high school office, I didn't realize Robinett had adapted his work to any other platform. But in a video demoing the 1982 eudcational title, Robinett describes it: "It uses some of the same ideas from the Adventure game for Atari: A network of interlinked screens, objects that you could pick up…"

I haven't played Rocky's Boots since that day in 2005, but it recently become easier to explore this educational curiosity, thanks to the work of 4am:

My thanks to 4am for preserving this classic, to Robinett for developing it, and to Karen Lang for introducing me to it. Now go try it yourself and enjoy this adventure on the Apple II!

Affordable — unlike the Apple II

April 15th, 2019 9:46 AM
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Filed under Mainstream coverage;
3 comments.

The Apple II was a turning point in the computer revolution, making spreadsheets and games available in an attractive, accessible fashion to
professionals and students everywhere. Garry Kasparaov called it "the last technological revolution", and many entrepreneurs and innovators have since tried to recapture that magic. But they aim is sometimes off in identifying what made the Apple II special.

Project BLUE is a robotic arm being developed in UC Berkeley’s Robot Learning Lab as part of the answer to the question, "How can AI change the robot design paradigm?"

After a three year effort across a multidisciplinary team of more than 15 researchers, we’ve designed, built, and tested BLUE — the Berkeley robot for Learning in Unstructured Environments. BLUE is a low-cost, high-performance robot that is intrinsically safe, developed from the ground up with ever-increasing Artificial Intelligence capabilities in mind.

MIT Technology Review reported news of BLUE's development, focusing on its affordable, low-cost nature. The headline for that story was "This may be the Apple II of AI-driven robot arms". The headline is derived from UC Berkeley postdoc Stephen McKinley saying, "Without a low-cost platform— an Apple II-type device— experimentation, trial and error, and productive research will continue to move slowly."

But the Apple II was never affordable. When it was first revealed 42 years ago, it cost $1,298 — the equivalent of $5,445 today. Compare that to the Commodore 64, which cost $595 in 1982, or $1,567 today. A consumder could buy almost four Commodore 64 computers for the cost of one Apple II — a leading factor why the Commodore 64 sold 12.5–17 million units, compared to the Apple II's 5–6 million.

Burt Ratan had it more accurate when he compared space tourism to the Apple II: something that affluent early adopters bought into. Whether it's a trip to the space station, a personal computer, or a robotic arm, investment in any early technology will pave the way for more affordable and innovative products. But when shooting to replicate the success of the Apple II, don't pretend that affordability is something your product it has in common.

Another look at the Apple II player piano

April 8th, 2019 6:44 AM
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Filed under Hacks & mods, Software showcase;
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I know some classical musicians who are quite up in arms over virtual orchestras. Why hire a violinist or flautist to interpret your sheet music when you can simply set your composition software to flawlessly perform your digital score?

This is not a new phenomenon: the player piano, invented in 1895, requires no human operator, either. The last time I saw such an instrument was at Hildene, the summer home of Abraham Lincoln's son, Robert. The estate's player organ boasts an extensive collection of vintage music scrolls, most of which are now too brittle to be used. But to keep the organ fed, it has been modified with a USB port through which the scrolls' digital equivalents can be loaded.

This isn't the first time player piano and computer technologies have been integrated. In the 1980s, the Apple II often played a critical role in creating music for these automated performers, as seen in this profile.

The Apple II has only a brief visual cameo and little mention in the narration. But fear not! A more exhaustive look at the Apple II can be seen in a similar video I shared here eight years ago.

Pianos don't need computers to make music; and, with the power of MIDI, computers don't need pianos. But no matter the era, the two together are an inimitable duet.

(Hat tip to rryland on reddit)

Razer's Min-Liang Tan

April 1st, 2019 12:20 PM
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Filed under Game trail, Mainstream coverage;
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Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft are well-known developers of game consoles — but some players prefer to interface with those devices with third-party peripherals. When they do, Razer is one of the go-to manufacturers of controllers, keyboards, and mice. Razer is also yet another modern game company that might not exist if not for the Apple II, which got 41-year-old Razer founder Min-Liang Tan hooked on gaming. He waxed eloquent about these classic games in this recent interview with Abacus News.

Tan got his start on Lode Runner and Rescue Raiders, but he specifically called out Ultima IV's virtue system as being groundbreaking. "All of a sudden, it wasn't just about hack and slash and killing everything. You need some kind of a moral code."

I'm not familiar with the Apple II's adoption rate in Tan's native Singapore, but it apparently made its way into Tan's hands when it mattered most. As far as I know, Tan never developed hardware or software for the Apple II, unlike Steve Chiang, the current Executive Vice President of Worldwide Production and Studios at Warner Bros. Games. But that he remembers those classic titles all these decades later and cites them among his favorites is a testament to the influence and staying power of Apple II games.

Maybe we'll see Razer developing new Apple II joysticks next!

Iconic 1977 Apple pillow at PAX East

March 25th, 2019 10:31 AM
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Filed under Happenings;
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Last fall, I contributed to Roberto Hoyos' Kickstarter for "The Iconic Pillow Collection", which would deliver soft, plush pillows modeled after classic Apple products. Mine arrived about a month ago and is everything it was advertised to be.

It's also a great complement for my handmade, one-of-a-kind floppy pillow — though clearly there's a discrepancy in scale between the two.

A floppy disk pillow next to the Apple II pillow.

Objects in pillow may be larger than they appear.

The Apple II pillow is now on sale in the Throwboy store for $39.99. But the best outcome of this Kickstarter is still to be realized.

Every year, I attend PAX East, a massive video game convention in Boston, Massachusetts whose attendance is roughly 600 times that of KansasFest. I do my best to represent the Apple II at PAX, whether by hosting panels about classic game genres or bringing an actual Apple II to PAX.

This year, I was assembling a panel of artists who make crafts inspired by classic gaming hardware and software. It didn't take me long to realize I had just backed such an artist on Kickstarter! I reached out to Roberto Hoyos, CEO of Throwboy and co-host of the podcast That Thing You Made, and he enthusiastically answered my call.

Our collaboration will be "The Art of Craft: Inspiring Game Creations", being held Sunday, March 31, 1:30–2:30 PM in Arachnid Theatre.

Slide with panel details

Video games are art — and art imitates video games. The characters, colors, and aesthetics of our favorite digital worlds have spawned an industry of apparel and crafts that keep us warm and add a flair of the fantastic to ourselves and our homes. We'll hear from amateur, hobbyist, and professional artists and creators about the inspirations and tools they use to create, enjoy, and sell their custom clothes, jewelry, furniture, paintings, and more.

Featuring:

Follow along with the #paxcraft hashtag on Twitter, and expect Apple II pillows on display in force!!

4am's Anti-M now available

March 18th, 2019 8:55 AM
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Filed under Software showcase;
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Editing several Juiced.GS articles on copy protection and assembling them into a single PDF has given me a second-hand opportunity to learn all the ways that Apple II floppy disks could be made uncopiable. While defeating piracy is a publisher's right, copy protection can also create unnecessary and often unanticipated hurdles for legitimate software owners.

4am to the rescue. This anonymous hacker debuted on the Apple II scene five years ago last month and has since preserved hundreds of programs that might've otherwise been lost to history. Not only does 4am tackle individual disks and protection schemes; they also look for patterns that can be anticipated and automatically defeated, resulting in the cracking program Passport.

4am's latest challenge: a pre-boot program that enables floppy disks to boot on machines not yet invented when the software was published. Its prerelease name was BroderBooter.

Just a week later, the program was officially released under a different name, Anti-M.

Having never directly encountered the problem that Anti-M solves, I asked for more details. 4am patiently walked me through this program's purpose.

They wrote:

Certain early games by Broderbund and Gebelli Software failed to boot on a //e or later. They would boot partway then display an "M" error code because they were looking for a "genuine" Apple ROM and didn't recognize the //e. I wrote a program to control the boot process long enough (just patching in memory, never on disk) to disable the ROM check and allow these games to boot on any Apple II. [S]o you run my "pre-booter" program, insert your original disk (Choplifter or whatever, lots of different games supported), and press RETURN. That's it. Then the magic starts, boot tracing and patching memory. But all you'll see is your game boot and load instead of erroring out. It'll be open source and hosted on GitHub, but I won't link to it here until the big 1.0 announcement.

Twitter being what it is, even the creator of that ROM check popped into the conversation.

I'm glad we have someone like 4am watching out for those Apple II users trying to keep their machines and floppies alive!

(Hat tip to Andrew Roughan)