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 marketing director for annual Apple II convention KansasFest and and co-host 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 and Google+.

Video Game Hall of Fame overlooks the Apple II in 2017

May 22nd, 2017 8:45 AM
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Filed under Game trail, Mainstream coverage;
3 comments.

Every spring, the World Video Game Hall of Fame expands its list of inductees. This virtual recognition, hosted by the International Center for the History of Electronic Games at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, acknowledges games that "have significantly affected the video game industry, popular culture, and society in general".

Since the games are assessed not for their cutting-edge graphics, replayability, or "fun factor", it makes sense that many inductees would be older titles. Despite being constrained by the technology of the era, these early games were foundational in creating an industry and its franchises. And few machines were as elemental in that process as the Apple II.

However, The Strong rarely recognizes native Apple II games. The first class of inductees, announced in 2015, passed over Oregon Trail in favor of Doom, Pac-Man, Pong, Super Mario Bros., Tetris, and World of Warcraft. Oregon Trail finally got its due in 2016, but at the same time that John Madden Football got sacked to make room for The Sims, Sonic The Hedgehog, Space Invaders, The Legend of Zelda, and Grand Theft Auto III.

Now it's 2017. Another class has been accepted into the Hall of Fame, and for the first time, no Apple II game was even nominated. Nominated but not accepted this year were Microsoft Windows Solitaire, Mortal Kombat, Myst, Portal, Tomb Raider, and Wii Sports; the winners were Donkey Kong, Halo: Combat Evolved, Pokémon Red and Green, and Street Fighter II. While Donkey Kong and Solitaire originated in the 1980s and had Apple II iterations, none of these titles and franchises were made popular by the Apple II, like Oregon Trail and John Madden were.

Rather than feel slighted in 2017, Let's ensure the 2018 ballot doesn't similarly overlook our favorite retrocomputer. What games should we nominate for consideration in next year's class — again, taking into account not how much time we spent playing these games, but their lasting impact on the industry and genre?

So as to not spread ourselves thin and divide our votes among too many choices, I have only two suggestions: Ultima and King's Quest. Both games created fully realized worlds and new ways to interact with them, introducing both franchises and gameplay mechanics that continue to this day. What more could the World Video Game Hall of Fame ask for?

Let's get the Apple II the recognition it deserves. In the meantime, as a platform-agnostic gamer, I offer my congratulations to all the non-Apple II titles that received this honor in 2017 — many of which made lasting impressions on both gaming culture and my own childhood.

Learning HTML at A2 University

May 15th, 2017 12:00 PM
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I just finished my sixth semester of teaching at Emerson College. My course is an overview of all forms of electronic publishing: websites, e-books, podcasts, crowdfunding, and more. But we ground all these lessons in the basics: HTML and CSS.

Learning hypertext markup language might today be equivalent to learning cursive writing: it's a nice skill to have, but for the average user, one that computers have made obsolete. Rich-text editors (RTE) and WYSIWYG editors have enabled the composition of text, tables, and inline images without ever seeing any HTML code. Only developers and theme designers may ever need to delve into a site's source.

But I feel it's important to understand what's happening underneath the hood, so to speak. If a student can't get a page layout just right, eliminating the middleman of an RTE and manipulating the code directly is the best way to ensure the realization of one's intentions.

When I learned HTML, we didn't have to choose between those two options: with the possible exception of WebWorks GS, there was no intermediary between an Apple II user and their code. All HTML was crafted by hand. And since HTML is inherently text, it made sense that I learned it in a text environment: GEnie.

The Apple II RoundTable on the GEnie online service had as one its services the Apple II University, run by Charlie Hartley. Members could sign up for free courses in a variety of topics based on or tangential to the Apple II. Unlike today's Lynda or Udemy courses, A2U courses were taught in real-time with a live instructor who set the pace and evaluated the homework. It was through this process that I first learned HTML.

I don't have any of the lessons I received or or homework I produced in that course — perhaps they're available as part of the "Time in a Bottle" (TiaB) CD archive of GEnie assets. But I do proudly retain my certificate of completion, earned 21 years ago yesterday:

Apple II University

While this accomplishment might not carry much weight in today's developer and designer circles, I do recall bringing it to at least one job interview, where its longevity and legacy carried more weight than its academic value. HTML has changed a lot since 1996, but being able to say I first learned HTML just five years after the World Wide Web became publicly available demonstrates a foundational, historical knowledge that can't be taught in today's classroom.

Spectrum's origins

May 8th, 2017 8:27 AM
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Filed under Musings, Software showcase;
1 comment.

I've been thinking about my dad a lot lately. He's the one who introduced me to the Apple II and enabled (if not supported) my BBS and CompuServe habit when I was in grade school. I made those online connections with ProTERM, which was 8-bit, but I was eager to switch to an application that took advantage of our Apple IIGS. I eventually got it when, after many delays, Seven Hills Software released Spectrum.

My dad didn't use the telecommunications aspects of our computer; his only application was AppleWorks Classic, with which he maintained the financial records of the family business. All he knew about Spectrum came from whatever I mentioned.

One day, my dad asked me if I knew that Spectrum was based out of our home state of Massachusetts? I was bewildered by this remark: Spectrum was a product, not a company, and it was developed by a European programmer. I doubt my dad was referring to Seven Hills Software, the Florida publisher whose name I'd had no reason to mention to him and which I doubt he would've remembered from the credit card bill. But Dad insisted that, while driving through the next town over, he'd seen a billboard advertising Spectrum.

Once he mentioned the billboard, I knew what he was talking about: Spectrum Health Systems, a Massachusetts-based organization that offers counseling and recovery services. Sure enough, they had advertisements in some of the rougher parts of town.

Spectrum Health Systems

My dad had an odd sense of humor that often relied on teasing or on playing dumb to mislead people. I never found out if he sincerely thought my Apple II program had come, out of all the places in the world, from a nearby city, and that he would be the one to inform me of it — or if he was playing some harmless but humorless joke.

It's not something I ever begrudged my dad, but it was such a weird exchange that, even decades later, it's left me wondering: what was he thinking??

Open Sorcery & the power of text

May 1st, 2017 1:00 PM
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In the course of producing my IndieSider podcast, I discover a variety of surprising, fascinating indie games. Wading through tons of clones and me-toos is worth it when I find a game that refines an old concept or executes something new — or both.

Such is the case with Open Sorcery, a Twine-based interactive fiction Steam game that replaces text adventures' traditional parser with hypertext and links. I saw Open Sorcery at two different game conventions before I finally got some one-on-one time with it at home. I ended up playing far longer than I do more visually complex games, growing attached to the characters and replaying it to get a "better" ending.

I was surprised — not that text can be so engaging, but that I'd ever forgotten it could be. I grew up on the Apple II playing text adventures and MUDs, from Eamon to British Legends, exploring worlds of fantasy and science fiction and getting lost in their puzzles and decisions. When away from the computer, I filled my time with Choose Your Own Adventure and Endless Quest. With text leaving so many gaps for my imagination to fill, it was easy to inject myself into those adventures.

It was wonderful to rediscover the power of text, as described by Richard Bartle in this excerpt from Jason Scott's documentary, GET LAMP:

Modern-day shooters may strive for adjectives such as "gripping" and "compelling"; the best words I can use to describe Open Sorcery are "thoughtful" and "delightful". I highly recommend it.

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.