Archive for the ‘Software showcase’ Category

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

My father, the original gamer

June 16th, 2014 10:24 AM
by
Filed under Game trail, People;
no comments yet.

When I think back to my childhood, there are two things I don't remember ever not having: an Apple II, and video games. From computer games like Castle Wolfenstein and Choplifter to Atari 2600 classics such as Space Invaders and Adventure, I've always been gaming.

Having such entertainment opportunities is typical in the modern household — but thirty years ago? It was almost unheard of. Who decided I should grow up to be a gamer?

The answer is my dad — and to commemorate Father's Day, I found out what makes him the family's original gamer.

I'm so grateful my father gave me this opportunity to interview him. The subject matter may not be so serious, but it answered some questions I'd always had, like: how did we end up with a pinball table in the basement? (It was Gottlieb's Spirit of 76, if you were wondering.) Why don't you game much anymore? These questions were always in the back of my mind but never important enough to ask.

When I asked Dad if he had any specific memories of me growing up playing games, I thought he might remember how I excitedly relayed to him every plot point of the original Final Fantasy, one of my first RPGs, as I encountered them. Or how he accompanied me to the Nintendo World Championships in 1990, where I placed second for my state and age group. Instead he abstracted out the concepts of what made me unique in a family of gamers. I could never dominate an arcade machine like my brother Dave could with Q*bert and Pac-Man, but it's true that I really appreciated the context and minutia of these imaginative worlds, which I don't think I ever consciously was aware of until my dad said it on camera.

I expected this video to teach me about my dad, not myself. But Apple II user ionfarmer commented, "I really enjoyed your Father's Day video and appreciated hearing your father's video gaming experience, and by extension, your video game pedigree! That was awesome!" And Dave's partner Dawn wrote, "The memories you capture are truly amazing ( listening to your dad talking about his childhood, and of course the differences between you and Dave).&quot.

So thank you, Dad, for this opportunity to remember that the Apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Happy Father's Day!

The ultimate game: Archon

May 12th, 2014 4:41 PM
by
Filed under Game trail;
1 comment.

In the Austin Grossman novel You, our hero is asked, "So what's your ultimate game?

"You know, the game you'd make if you could make any game at all," the long-haired designed explained.

"Forget about budget," the short guy added. "You're in charge. Just do anything! Greatest game ever!"

"The Ultimate Game," I said, "I can do just… anything?"

They nodded. I felt ridiculous. Was the Ultimate Game the one in which I ride a hundred-foot-tall pink rhino through the streets, driving my enemies before me? The one where the chess pieces come alive and talk in a strange poetry? Is it just a game where I always win?

"So… okay, okay. You're playing chess, right, but all the pieces are actual monsters, and when you take one you have to… actually fight… it?" Why were they looking at me that way?

"You mean like in Archon? For the C64?"

"Um. Right."

Archon, a Greek word that means "ruler" or "lord"1 — also a monster in Dungeons & Dragons2 — was a multiplatform action-strategy game distributed by Electronic Arts in 1983. I played it on the NES, but it was also available for the Apple II. Players took turns moving pieces across a board that fluctuated through a spectrum of light and dark, with each extreme favoring a different team. The game pieces had different strengths and capabilities, from shapeshifting to spellcasting, that they brought into combat. I loved playing Archon with my older brothers, as its mix of fast-paced battle with more thoughtful tactics played to my jack-of-all-trades nature. Some of my brothers were faster than me, and others were smarter, but needing having to be both leveled the playing field more than other games did. (The Super NES game Actraiser would later take a similar approach, to great — and inimitable — success.)

A 1984 sequel, Archon II: Adept, was also published for home computers but never got ported to game consoles, thus escaping my notice.

But I did get to revisit the concept almost two decades later. At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) 2003, my last year attending the still-ongoing event, I visited the LucasArts booth, which had more than just Star Wars games:

I briefly left a galaxy far, far away to observe Wrath Unleashed, an action-strategy game. It struck me as bearing a slight resemblance to another game, but the more I saw of Wrath Unleashed, the less slight the resemblance became, until I had to ask the LucasArts rep, "Have you ever played an old game called 'Archon'?" Rather than profess ignorance or extort the differences, he simply nodded and said, "Exactly."

But somehow, the core mechanics hadn't aged well. Perhaps it was because my brothers had grown up, leaving video games (and their gaming sibling) behind. But I didn't find the same engagement and tension in Wrath Unleashed that I did in Archon.

Is Archon the ultimate game? No. That title would likely belong to Zork, or The Legend of Zelda, or something equally revolutionary and genre-defining. But what Archon has in common with those games is timelessness: even today, playing the ruler of a shifting battlefield is still fun.

For a more thorough review of Archon, including a "Where are they now?" of the game's programmers, read The 8-Bit Game: Digesting Archon | 8bitrocket, by Jeff Fulton. (Hat tip to Blake Patterson)

The superiority of obsolete operating systems

April 14th, 2014 10:09 PM
by
Filed under Musings, Software showcase;
3 comments.

The savvy comedians of LoadingReadyRun — who have previously tipped their hat to computers of yore with their Desert Bus fundraiser, references to HyperCard, and spotlight on the Apple II — are at it again. In today's weekly video, "The New Old Thing", they put forth an earnest proposal: replace Windows 8.1 with MS-DOS.

Earlier this year, MS-DOS's source code was donated to the Computer History Museum, joining a collection that already includes Apple's DOS 3.1. LRR's video makes a compelling argument for why this newly available older operating system is a superior productivity platform. An excerpted transcript follows, though I've replaced references to MS-DOS with DOS 3.1:

Newer stuff isn't necessarily better. Think of DOS 3.1 as a hand-crafted, artisinal operating system. [A GUI, mouse support, 3D graphics, 1080p video, the Internet] — all that stuff just slows you down. DOS 3.1 turns your computer into a mean, lean computing machine. Background processes hogging up all your memory? DOS 3.1 only runs one program at a time. Distracted by TVTropes at work? DOS 3.1 doesn't go on the Internet! It just gets out of your way and lets you get your work done.

What's so great about a GUI anyway? How many times have you lost a file in that maze of folders on your computer? With DOS, you just type the name of the file, and bam! You're there! And you don't have to worry about remembering the name of the file, because they can only be eight characters long, anyway. And another thing! A Windows 8 install is almost 20 gigabytes. DOS 3.1 is only 300K — as in kilobytes! It takes up less space than that picture you tweeted this morning of your venti ice non-fat hazelnut macchiato.

Bottom line: if you want to mess about and play Angry Birds, just use your phone or your tablet. When you want to get some serious, distraction-free work done, DOS 3.1 is for you.

I made several similar observations six years ago when I argued that GS/OS is better than Windows Vista and OS X (an article I've since wished I'd written for Juiced.GS, not Computerworld). We keep using this software because it provides a focused environment with familiar, fast methods for accomplishing specific, basic tasks. Older software is more stable, secure, compatible, and portable.

Like A2Central.com once said: it's not obsolete — it's proven technology.

Let's Play Death in the Caribbean

April 7th, 2014 11:39 AM
by
Filed under Game trail;
no comments yet.

This winter, I launched a Google+ page for my YouTube gaming channel. As I began exploring the gaming communities on this social network, I discovered Leigh Alexander, a Gamasutra editor with a large following. She is an accomplished fiction author and columnist, and I've now enjoyed her writing for some time. But when she chose to expand into video, I was pleasantly surprised by the subject that a journalist on the cutting edge of technology would choose for her YouTube debut.

Alexander's first foray into video is a Let's Play of the Apple II game, Death in the Caribbean:

A "Let's Play" is a video game walkthrough with commentary that focuses on the player's experience, instead being a tutorial that provides strategy (though it can do that, too). Alexander follows through with that promise, having grown up playing this game with her father. On a recent return to her parents' home in Massachusetts (hey, that's where I live!), she recorded this video that reflects not only on how the game expanded her vocabulary with words such as "crevasse" and "brazier", but on other lessons: "[Death in the Caribbean] taught me from an early age that disaster can happen anywhere, at anytime. Even if the whole world sprawls out in front of you like a beautiful place ready to be explored — you can die, just by being a little bit wrong" — something you're never too young to learn.

The launch of Apple II Bits in 2010 coincided with my discovery of Let's Plays, at which time the genre was relatively unknown. I imagined myself being one of the first to bring this video format to the Apple II. While I've since recorded dozens of Let's Play videos of Nintendo games, I've never executed on the idea to apply that experience to my favorite retrocomputer.

Four years later, Let's Plays are booming, with no less prestigious an outlet than The Atlantic giving the issue coverage, detailing how PewDiePie, the most popular channel on YouTube, makes millions of dollars a year producing Let's Play videos. If you're baffled why Let's Plays are so popular, Jamin Warren of PBS Digital Studios explains the appeal of Let's Play videos:

Between the proliferation of Let's Plays and the age of the Apple II, you might think, what more remains to be said about our favorite games? Plenty, reminded one of my YouTube followers. "I hate it when people who LP an older game and say 'I have nothing original to contribute'," commented Gaming Media. "YES YOU DO! If you grew up with the game, you have stories about the game that no one else has."

Even those who didn't grow up with a game can still provide unique commentary. As Alexander did, Gaming Media recently turned to Virtual Apple ][ and recorded a Let's Play of Oregon Trail, a game that came out decades before he did:

(Skip to 4:52 into the first video for a fun blatant plug!)

Neither of these recent videos is the first Let's Play to come from the Apple II: Jesse Hamm recorded his own playthrough of Death in the Caribbean three years ago; Brian Picchi has recorded reviews of games like Gold Rush! that could be considered Let's Plays; and I in turn recorded a similar hybrid video of Picchi's Retro Fever, a year after unboxing and playing Zéphyr.

There indeed remains much to be preserved, shared, and experienced of the Apple II on YouTube. I hope that Alexander, Gaming Media, Picchi, and I continue to find the time and enthusiasm to explore this fun intersection of old and new media. What games would you like to see us play next?

Triumph of the mod

March 31st, 2014 2:52 PM
by
Filed under Game trail, History;
no comments yet.

Although improved access to tools and funding are allowing more people to become developers of full-fledged games like Dead Man's Trail, in the days of the Apple II — when almost everyone perforce had some programming ability — the best most of us could do was work within the games others had already created. Usually, this hacking took the form of copy deprotection (and their accompanying crack screens). But sometimes, it was more creative.

In "Triumph of the Mod" a 2002 article by Wagner James Au for Salon.com, Tom Hall, a co-founder of id Software, says he recalls the first mod — "a fan-made modification to a pre-existing game" — as being Castle Smurfenstein, Andrew Johnson and Preston Nevins' hack of Silas Warner's Castle Wolfenstein for the Apple II. Writes Johnson:

The nazi guards became Smurfs, the mostly uninteligible German voices became mostly unintelligible Smurf voices. We created a new title screen, new ending screen, new opening narration, and an opening theme, and changed the setting from Germany to Canada. (I'm still not too sure why we had this Canadian fixation, but then growing up near Detroit does expose one to a fair degree of Canadian culture.)

The conversion was pretty straightforward, needing only a paint program, a sector editor, and Muse Software's very own 'the Voice' to add in the new audio. I think we did this during the summer of 1983 but I'm not completely sure.

As indicated, the hack involved the game's audio, visuals, and text. A deafening WAV demonstrates the Smurf's trademark chant as digitized for an 8-bit computer, and screenshots show the hack's new splash screen. (Oddly, I could find no YouTube videos of Castle Smurfenstein, but Johnson does offer a disk image that works with most any emulator.)

Castle Smurfenstein

Despite the fame of this hack, it was likely not the first-ever mod, since Johnson and Nevins both document an earlier Smurf-inspired hack: Dino Eggs became Dino Smurf. A proposed third hack would've turned Sky Fox into Sky Smurf, completing the trilogy. "Unfortunately the third game only got as far as the new plot and a partial title screen before college beckoned," laments Johnson.

Still, modding has become a lucrative industry and backdoor into the gaming industry. Would it be a stretch to say the Apple II led the way?

Dead Man's Oregon Trail

March 24th, 2014 11:53 AM
by
Filed under Game trail;
Comments Off

The gaming industry is currently experiencing the popularity of three trends: indie studios, retrogaming, and zombies. All three converge in in an upcoming remake of Oregon Trail in which you travel across the country through hordes of undead.

Wait — didn't I already write that blog post? Three years ago, I was playing Organ Trail, a free browser game that later held a successful Kickstarter to release a director's cut edition on Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android, and Ouya.

So what's new in 2014? Dead Man's Trail, a modern action/resource management game inpsired by Oregon Trail. Development studio E4 Software is aware of the precedent of Organ Trail and is taking their game in a different direction:

We're very aware of the existence of Organ Trail and are actually very big fans of the game. We were in early planning stages when Director's Cut came out but decided to move ahead with DMT anyway because we had ideas for things that differentiated us from Organ Trail, such as giving each party member a specific role, having procedurally generated 3D looting levels, having one resource perform several different functions (bullets are ammo and currency), etc.

Where Organ Trail elicits its charm from using mechanics and presentation elements from the original, think of ours as an expanded follow up that wants to go beyond the original Oregon Trail to create a Walking Dead/World War Z atmosphere. We're hoping that several years on from the release of Organ Trail, fans of that project will see our game and want to play it as a next step.

I'm excited to see a game that offers more customization than the traditional Oregon Trail format — most notably, characters with unique skills, such as firearms expert, paramedic, and mechanic (think Left 4 Dead); and different vehicles. If you had to plow through a sea of zombies, would you do so in a station wagon? No way! Give me a school bus or 18-wheeler… and leave me to be concerned about fuel economy after we break down in the middle of nowhere.

The looting element of the game is where Dead Man's Trail most notably diverges from the Oregon Trail formula. Although inspired by the original game's hunting sequences, looting occurs in urban settings from a 3D, isometric perspective. It's not an experience I looking forward to grappling with on a mobile device's tiny screen.

Whereas Organ Trail kept much of Oregon Trail's gameplay and aesthetic, Dead Man's Trail is potentially much more ambitious. Correspondingly, Organ Trail needed only the realistic sum of $3,000 in crowdfunding, whereas DMT is asking for $50,000 on Kickstarter.

Dead Man's Trail is halfway through its one-month crowdfunding campaign and has raised less than 5% of its goal. The game is far enough along that it will likely see release one way or another, but Kickstarter will help ensure the final product is timely and true to the creators' vision. If all goes well, we'll see Dead Man's Trail hit Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, and iOS this October.