Archive for the ‘Software showcase’ Category

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

Another look at the Apple II player piano

April 8th, 2019 6:44 AM
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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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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!

4am's Anti-M now available

March 18th, 2019 8:55 AM
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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)

Mark Pelczarski & Spy's Demise

March 11th, 2019 2:07 PM
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From the IIe's release in 1983 to when I switched to the Apple IIGS in 1988, I used the Apple II primarily as a gaming machine. Many of our family's games were cracked, pirated copies, though I can't tell you where they came from — perhaps our local Apple retailer snuck them to my dad on the sly, or my older brothers were exchanging floppies on the playground. Regardless, it exposed me to many quirky titles that I may otherwise never have encountered.

One such game was Spy's Demise. As a kid growing up watching Inspector Gadget and reading Dungeons & Dragons novels such as Hero of Washington Square, I knew all about spies! (Mission: Impossible's 1988 revival and reruns of Get Smart! wouldn't come until later.) But demise? Not if I had anything to do about it!

Spy's Demise was an action game in which players navigated a spy across the horizontal floors of a building, avoiding a collision course with elevators as they vertically travel their shafts. It reminded me of Elevator Action, a Data East coin-op that my father and I would play together on family vacations.

I doubt I ever finished the game or even knew that there was an ending. Those who did get that far were presented with a hidden cryptogram and a phone number to call. What they got for their efforts, I don't know, but based on other prizes of the era offered by Nintendo or Atari, I'd guess it was a sew-on patch with the company logo.

It wasn't until researching this post that I also learned the game had a sequel, The Spy Strikes Back!, which offers a top-down view as the spy tries to avoid motion-sensing drones.

What brings these games to mind after so many years is last week's announcement of the KansasFest 2019 keynote speaker. Mark Pelczarski is the co-author of The Spy Strikes Back! and the founder of Penguin Software, the company that published both Spy games as well as many others, including Translyvania and The Coveted Mirror. Pelczarski was also a columnist for Softalk and, before that, a high-school math teacher and college instructor of computer science. His LinkedIn profile outlines his many contributions since then to education, democracy, and web development.

Today, his roles include "consulting regarding software, data mining and integrity, and web security". No doubt this expertise in online security and cryptography originated with leaving clues and secrets for early Apple II spies. I look forward to meeting the secret agent who sent me on so many missions!

Commander Keen & Softdisk PC in the news

February 25th, 2019 2:49 PM
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Ever since game consoles started featuring Internet connectivity and online stores, the number of downloadable games to choose from has exploded. With no need to manufacture or distribute expensive physical units, almost any indie developer can publish a game online. Often, these are small, indie titles with almost no marketing or name recognition flooding the online catalog. But while recently browsing the Nintendo Switch's eShop, I saw a old familiar name that caught my eye: Commander Keen, in his original adventure.

That name may not ring a bell to Apple II users, as Commander Keen was originally released in 1990 for MS-DOS only, with a Game Boy Color sequel arriving over a decade later. But look behind the scenes of this franchise from id Software, and you'll find a familiar lineage: Tom Hall, John Carmack, John Romero, and Adrian Carmack. These four creators founded id Software specifically to publish Commander Keen after originally developing the game while working at Softdisk. It was at Softdisk that Romero and company also created such memorable Apple II titles as Dangerous Dave.

So what's behind this sudden revival of Commander Keen? Once again, LoadingReadyRun has the full story in the latest CheckPoint:

Just like how John Carmack still loves his Apple II, and John Romero ported Dangerous Dave to iOS, it's great to know that former id Software creative director Tom Hall is still passionate about his classic games. Even if we'll never see an Apple II port, let's hope Commander Keen's Switch release is a sign of things to come.

TimeOut Spellcheck's 5L bug

February 11th, 2019 11:50 AM
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A few months ago, I detailed the "unliprobablyo" bug in AppleWorks Classic's TimeOut Grammar module. But there's another bug that's even more inscrutable. Although I've never personally encountered it, it is such a strange an inexplicable phenomenon that the revelation of its existence has stuck with me for decades.

For many, AppleWorks was their first access to a spellchecker. Although an imperfect tool that often lacked context and was unable to differentiate homonyms, it still introduced an unprecedented level of quality assurance to all writing, from simple to complex.

To this day, I've never encountered a spellcheck with a more efficient and intuitive interface, allowing me to select misspelled words from an alphabetical list instead of going through the document and forcing me to take action on each suspect word. This approach allows me to quickly skip over proper names, acronyms, and abbreviations.

But there was one abbreviation that, in a very specific context, could bring the whole house tumbling down. To the best of my knowledge, it was first reported by Tony Diaz on GEnie on November 1, 1996, as captured in GenieLamp:

I think I have stumbled on something here, and quite frankly, I for the life of me, just do not get it. Some history: I am starting to catagorize my Apple II Collection, I decided to start on paperwork. With the intention of eventually putting major portions of the list into an html table for posting on my Apple II Information web site. That is why I chose to just use the word processor instead of a data base file for this particular part of it, (some of you may say, why not use the database after I describe what lead me up to this.) I have my file boxes (Hanging folder cardboard boxes) labeled 1-12 at this point and the folders A-Z within. The stuff is in no particular order at this point which is why I just figured I'll make a quick list, save it as a TAB delimited format, import it into a database later and swap stuff around, alphabetize/catagorize it… I sure wish I started that way and then I would have had this mess.

Here is an example what I was doing.

 Name                                           What       Box/Folder
 --------------------------------------------------------------------
 Wico Joystick Dealer Kit                       Hardware           1A
 Titan Technologies Dealer Kit                  Hardware           3C
 Analytical Engines Saybrook 68000 Fliers/Kit   Hardware           4H
 Sweetmicro Systems Dealer Kit (Mockingboard)   Hardware           5L

I decided to spellcheck it so I could add some more words to my custom dictionary… and that was the end of that.

I after a long mess of 'WTF!?@@@>#$%' is going on here, I said.. ok, it's choking on something… Lord knows what, no disk access had happened yet. I ditched the (thank god for Macros) the Box/Folder catagory and it worked. To make a long story short, 5L Locked up AppleWorks.

What a completely and utterly SILLY and stupid bug.

Harold Hislop took up the investigation, responding with his own findings:

As far as I have been able to tell, after an extensive amount of trying different things, the lockup only occurs on IIgs machines, and only when a RamFast SCSI card is installed. . . and it does not seem to matter if any volume that is attached to the RamFast has been accessed or not. … I can find -NO- reason for the lockup in this firmware… I =strongly suspect= (but have NOT proved!) that the problem is really in AppleWorks itself, and most likely related to it's use of some 6502/65C02 opcode that does not execute in quite the same manner on a 65C816 processor.

I don't have the resources to test if this bug persists in that specific environment, or if later versions of AppleWorks or the RamFAST firmware resolved it.

RamFAST SCSI manual cover

Were you the culprit, RamFAST?… Or was it AppleWorks?

But I still remember around 2002, telling one programmer-type friend: "If you ran AppleWorks spellcheck on an Apple II with a RamFAST SCSI card installed, and the document contained '5L', it would crash."

I don't think I've ever seen that friend laugh so hard.