Public libraries aren't archives

April 22nd, 2013 12:25 PM
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Filed under History, Software showcase;
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I ardently support public libraries: I consciously opt to get my movies from their collections rather than Netflix, so as to increase their circulation numbers and thus their budget; I've written letters to the editor in support of these democratic institutions; I even dabbled in the education necessary to work in the field. There's little that public libraries aren't good for.

Once upon a time, libraries were even a source of Apple II software. In those days, there were so many computing platforms that it was unlikely an underfunded library would support any one, especially since computers in general were still so limited in their accessibility and penetration. But with educational institutions being one of the few that could afford such an investment, the software you were likely to find at libraries were edutainment titles such as Microzine. Even more rarely, you might find software of a more diversionary nature.

I thought that's what recently happened to me as I prepared the March issue of Juiced.GS, for which Andy Molloy submitted a review of Jordan Mechner's The Making of Prince of Persia. Curious as to the availability of this book to our readers, I did a quick search for all materials by Mechner in any public library that's recognized by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC). Though I was looking for paperbacks, I was stunned to find a copy of Karateka, right here in Massachusetts!

Recycled library card catalogEver think to look for computer games at your local library?
TOO LATE NOW.

Unfortunately, though this title was listed in OCLC's WorldCat, I could not find a matching listing in the catalog specific to the holding library system, the North of Boston Library Exchange (NOBLE). I emailed a librarian to ask about the discrepancy. Assuming I didn't realize the lateness of my request, she replied:

If you look closely at the record copied below, you will see that it is a 5 1/4 disk for computer (Apple II+)! I do not believe that a library today would have any equipment able to use one of these now "prehistoric" disks!

It's disappointing but unsurprising that the library would not have kept its Apple II software on file. With the limited budget and space afforded to public libraries, they must dispose of those items with limited circulation to make room for new materials. It's doubtful anyone had requested an 8-bit 5.25" floppy disk in years, if not decades, so away it went. To where, we may never know — a good home, I hope.

Interested in locating libraries in your area that may be holding onto these artifacts? OCLC lets you conduct a search for computer files published 1977–1992, which reveals 17,759 hits. But without a means to sort by location or vicinity, finding the disks near you is hopeless. It was only by chance that I thought I'd found Karateka in my own backyard.

Libraries make available materials that the general population may never otherwise have access to. But libraries are not archives or museums. As I discovered when I archived hardcopies of Juiced.GS, there are organizations around the world who will accept such materials, from academic institutions to the Computer History Museum. These non-profits are the proper places to consider donating your historical hardware and software. But Apple II software in public libraries? It's time not to check in, but to check out.

The Making of Karateka

December 10th, 2012 1:51 PM
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As I previously blogged, I'm not a fan of the new Karateka. I admittedly did not play the full, commercial version of Jordan Mechner's new game, but those who have reaffirmed my opinion: the game has a 62% aggregate rating on Metacritic, based on two positive reviews, one negative review, and 11 mixed.

But I'm still glad Mechner revisited his classic Apple II property, as it's proven an elucidating experience, one that he's chosen to share with the retrocomputing and game design communities. On his blog, Mechner reflects on making and remaking Karateka. Much has changed from the original game's release in 1982 to the remake three decades later, with Mechner commenting on the experiences and inspirations across four short videos themed around inspiration, animation, audio, and gameplay.

For those who prefer a more textual experience, Mechner has followed up his previous e-book, The Making of Prince of Persia, with a complement, The Making of Karateka. Both books are published in ePub, PDF, Kindle, and (coming soon!) paperback, with free samples available for download.

With his recent iOS re-release of The Last Express, I think Mechner has now tapped all the properties with which he launched his career. Might we see something original next?

An underwhelming Karateka demo

November 12th, 2012 1:31 PM
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I had marked November 17th as the date Jordan Mechner would return to the world of Karateka, his classic Apple II fighting game. Ten days early, Sean Fahey announced that my marked date was for the PC, iOS, and PlayStation 3 versions of the new Karateka, but that the Xbox Live Arcade version was now available.

As primarily an Xbox gamer, I was happy to hear this news and immediately downloaded the game, accepting of the fact that I'd be unable to load it upside-down. Up until then, I'd wondered as to the game's genre and nature: was it best described as a sequel? A reboot? A reimagining? Having played only the ten-minute free trial, I would describe the game as a remake — and one that doesn't capture modern gamers with its demo.

Karateka

How much has Karateka changed in the last 30 years?

With an art style and musical underpinning that harken back to the classic Apple II fighting game, Karateka is a visual and aural delight. The Japanese gardens and goofy goons that our hero encounters are evocative of another time and place. There is little freedom to explore these environments, though, as the protagonist (one of three) proceeds through it on two-dimensional rails, unable to move any direction but forward.

Once he engages with a foe, the opportunity for input becomes limited to three buttons: punch, kick, and block. It is impossible to strike an enemy without first blocking his own attack, at which point his guard is lowered and he is open to a chain of attacks. In an interview with Polygon's Samit Sarkar, Mechner describes the combat system as rhythm-based in which players "have to time your attacks to the score from Grammy-winning composer Christopher Tin". This was not my experience; my blocks were based solely on cues from the castle's keepers — tells that they were about to strike. A successful block then let me pound the punch and kick buttons, but there seemed to be neither functional difference between the two nor incentive to experiment with a variety of combos.

In an interview with Steve Peterson, Mechner indicates that the simplistic gameplay is intentional, allowing other aspects of Karateka to take center stage:

Mechner believes Karateka is an unusual design, one that will attract a broader audience. "It's not a fighting game in the sense of trying to rack up points, or fighting for fighting's sake. It's fighting in order to get to the happy ending in the story, and it's a love story. I think we're appealing to a slightly different audience than most fighting games," he says.

I can appreciate Jordan Mechner, as someone whose ambition has always been to write Hollywood scripts, wanting to focus on that aspect of Karateka. Storytelling has become an increasingly important part of both big-budget and indie games, with hits such as Braid, Portal, and even the BIT.TRIP series having set new milestones for their innovative and memorable plots.

But plot is also the hardest quality for a game to convey in a short demo. It is more effective to draw players in with engaging gameplay, then present them with an increasingly intricate and meaningful narrative. In that respect, the free demo I played falls flat. The only challenges I encountered in my time with Karateka was identifying a foe's pattern and timing my blocks accordingly. With digital distribution and mobile apps, there are much more involving experiences I could get for my $10, and demos that give me more confidence in that investment than Karateka has.

(Hat tips to Blake Patterson, John August, and Steve Melton)

Rescuing the Prince of Persia from the sands of time

October 15th, 2012 2:17 PM
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Jordan Mechner is a hot ticket these days. I don't know exactly when that happened — in 2003 when his Apple II classic Prince of Persia got rebooted for a modern gaming audience, or 2010 when the franchise was adapted to film, or 2012 when he was the PAX East keynote speaker. Regardless, he and his properties seem to be popping up everywhere these days, with The Last Express coming out for iOS this month and a new Karateka due out real soon now.

The Mechner story that was perhaps of most relevance to Apple II users occurred earlier this year, when the source code for his original Prince of Persia was found and salvaged. The effort was 95% Tony Diaz, with the other 5% being Jason Scott knowing to bring Diaz into the equation. As the connective tissue, Scott observed the entire experience and gave a presentation about it on Friday, September 28, 2012, at Derbycon. The entire 52-minute session is now available online (note: contains NSFW language):

Remove the foul language and the tendency toward eccentric clothing, and Scott is still an entertaining speaker who knows his material and has a good delivery style. I recommend this and any other presentation of his you have the opportunity to attend.

What's next for Jordan Mechner? At PAX East, he commented that computer gaming was essentially a sidequest toward his goal of becoming a Hollywood scriptwriter. Yet gaming seems to be where he's known best, and he continues to return to that scene. Whichever one makes him happy, I look forward to his continued works.

Karateka sequel's unknown genre

September 17th, 2012 1:26 PM
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In February, I shared the news that Jordan Mechner's original Apple II game, Karateka, is being relaunched. But as discussed in the September episode of Open Apple, the direction this reimagining is taking could leave traditionalists perplexed.

When an iOS port of the new Karateka was confirmed, Touch Arcade reported this summary of the game:

In this rhythm-fighting game, players assume the role of three Japanese warriors attempting to rescue a kidnapped princess from an evil warlord. Players engage in frenetic one-on-one battles with various enemies, using timed martial arts moves (i.e., punch/kick combos) to stun opponents and drain their health meters. Matches are highlighted by battle cries, colorful light flashes, and slow motion effects; when players' character is knocked out, a brief cutscene depicts him falling down the side of a mountain.

A rhythm game? One in which players time their input to match the game's soundtrack — like PaRappa the Rapper?

At the time of PaRappa's release for the original Sony PlayStation in 1997, I gave it a score of 8.0 out of 10 — not terribly compelling in today's competitive video game market. But PaRappa has stood the test of time better than I expected, and most gamers who knew this quirky little title look back on it fondly. It's often considered the first modern rhythm game, a genre that grown in popularity thanks to titles such as Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero, and Elite Beat Agents.

So yes, rhythm games can be fun — but I'm having a hard time envisioning the hero's ascent of Akuma's fortress to rescue Princess Mariko as a music-based game. What sparse soundtrack the original Karateka featured was not central to the gameplay experience, so to introduce a core mechanic absent in the series origin strains the continuity of the franchise.

It's also possible that Touch Arcade was fed inaccurate infomration. We'll find out when the game is released for Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii U, and other platforms later this year.

Jordan Mechner releases Deathbounce

April 12th, 2012 8:38 AM
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(Note: I originally wrote the below blog post for Apple II Bits but ultimately sent it to PCWorld, with whom I now have a relationship to publish gaming articles after covering last month's GameFest.)

Last week, Jordan Mechner was the keynote speaker at PAX East, Penny Arcade's annual three-day celebration of gaming and gamers. Mechner kicked off the event with his personal story of how creating Karateka and Prince of Persia indirectly led him to fulfill his life goal of breaking into Hollywood, and how he has since revisited those properties many times across various media.

Mechner's tale was one of persistence and perseverance. When he first tried his hand at programming in 1982, his debut game garnered the attention of Broderbund's Doug Carlston. "Unlike in Asteroids, where you're a triangle-shaped ship shooting at rocks," described Mechner, "in my game, you're a triangle-shaped ship shooting at colored balls. It had physics and everything." Despite the wicked awesome name of Deathbounce, the game remained unpublished — "There's a reason [Carlson] passed on that," said Mechner.

But once Mechner went public with the story of Deathbounce, PAX attendees demanded its release, going so far as using the Q&A session to hand Mechner money toward a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. Hey, if it's worked for Tim Schafer, Brian Fargo, and Al Lowe, why not Jordan Mechner?

Continue reading this story at PCWorld.com »

(Hat tip to Jordan Mechner, via Paul Marzagalli of NAVGTR)