Archive for the ‘Software showcase’ Category

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

Game Informer's Top 100 RPGs

June 19th, 2017 7:51 AM
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In the 1980s, role-playing games, or RPGs, were my favorite genres of computer and video games. The hours of character development and narrative created a much richer fictional world than the era's action games. Perhaps due to their inability to translate to arcades, RPGs were a niche genre, and so I hungrily played any I could get my hands on.

The decades since have seen an explosion in the popularity of RPGs, or at least the willingness to serve that niche — so much, that the cover story of issue #290 of Game Informer is the staff's picks for the top hundred RPGs of all time. To have had that many to choose from in the 1980s would've been staggering, though Game Informer admits that the definition of RPG has become nebulous, now encompassing such modern titles as Mass Effect 3, Destiny, Horizon Zero Dawn, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Fortunately, Game Informer acknowledges the genre's roots by including several Apple II games on their list:

The criteria for the staff's selection were not disclosed, so it's hard to say whether these games were acknowledged because they were fun to play then, are still fun to play, or are important to the evolution of gaming. Wasteland, for example, is noted as being the pre-cursor to Fallout; Wizardry is "often cited as the first party-based RPG"; and for The Bard's Tale, "Some players may still have their hand-drawn graph paper maps tucked away in an old box."

Regardless, with so many franchises, platforms, publishers, and developers at play, it's impressive that the Apple II got so many mentions. But any listicle is bound to be contentious, and no one will fully agree with the choices or order of games. For example, Game Informer has probably never played one of my favorite Apple II games: The Magic Candle. With a jobs system in which player characters could learn crafts and trades, earn money from town jobs, and even split the party, it was an innovative and ahead of its time, being released three years before Final Fantasy V, which is often hailed for its job system.

What Apple II RPGs would you have included on this list, and why?

Steve Weyhrich's Minecraft Apple II

June 5th, 2017 10:30 AM
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When it comes to video games, crafting is something I profess to hate. This is a gameplay mechanism wherein you engage in trivial quests to discover or harvest random materials that, by themselves, do nothing, but when combined, may create a unique, useful, or powerful item. But figuring out what items produce these meaningful combinations, and which others result in meaningless junk, is part of the "fun". The whole process is mundane, tedious, and frustrating.

And yet crafting is the titular theme of Minecraft, which is the second best-selling video or computer game of all time, behind only Tetris. I've never played Minecraft, so it's probably not actually as banal as I expect, especially since 121 million people would disagree with me.

One of those people is Steve Weyhrich, and even I have to admit that, whatever I think of the methodology, his results are astounding. Six years ago, Steve presented the fruits of his labor: a massive, to-scale Apple II Plus that you could walk around in. The attention to detail was remarkable, as was the amount of time and dedication such a creation must've required.

In hindsight, perhaps I should not have been so dazzled — because Steve certainly wasn't. Five years later, unsatisfied with his original effort, Steve set out to create an even better Apple II. In his latest video, released two months ago today, Steve shows off a virtual Apple IIe, complete with modem, retrocomputing magazines, and soda.

I don't know how or why Steve does what he does. And since I've never played Minecraft, I don't know if there's any way to share his creation — a sort of Shapeways for Minecraft creations. But I don't need to play Minecraft or explore Steve's Apple myself to be impressed. I knew both Steve and Minecraft were capable of fantastic works of art, but this latest invention surpasses all expectations.

Maybe crafting isn't all that bad, after all.

Video Game Hall of Fame overlooks the Apple II in 2017

May 22nd, 2017 8:45 AM
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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.

Spectrum's origins

May 8th, 2017 8:27 AM
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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.

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.