Archive for the ‘Software showcase’ Category

Old programs, new tricks, and ways to make the Apple II perform.

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)

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.

Story Collider: Diphtheria on the Oregon Trail

January 2nd, 2017 11:57 AM
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If anyone has heard of dysentery, it's likely because they contracted it on the Oregon Trail. A variety of ailments struck players in MECC's classic edutainment title, and though dysentery was the most iconic, it was not the only killer: cholera, snake bites, measles, and typhoid fever were all rampant.

Many of these conditions are now easily avoid or immunized against using modern medicine, as detailed in the Mental Floss article "Where Are They Now? Diseases That Killed You in Oregon Trail". But our lack of familiarity with these conditions only leaves us more susceptible to their ravages, should they be unleashed upon an unsuspecting population.

That's exactly what happened to neuroscientist Rebecca Brachman, who, one night while working in her lab, accidentally injected herself with a syringe full of diphtheria toxin. Diphtheria is more than just a catchy word to use in headlines such as "Sally Has Diphtheria: Is Oregon Trail the Greatest Video Game of All Time?". It's an airborne bacterial disease that can cause nerve damage, organ failure, paralysis, or death. Fortunately, Dr. Brachman has not suffered those worst of fates — at least, not yet. She has thus far lived to share her story on the Story Collider podcast:

It's a horrific tale that demonstrates not just how bureaucracy has made inaccessible our most effective antitoxins, even for those who most urgently need them. It also underscores the even fewer chances that travelers along the historical Oregon Trail had. We've made a game of settlers who gambled against natural hazards with no immunizations, antidotes, or even hospitals to cure them — it's shocking that anyone survived the journey to Willamette Valley.