Minecraft Oregon Trail

September 25th, 2017 12:26 PM
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Steve Weyhrich has gone whole-hog on Minecraft, having used the construction game to develop multiple Apple II models. Now Microsoft, the owners of Minecraft, are getting in on the retro action by infusing their virtual world with the most emblematic of Apple II software: Oregon Trail.

Now available is an Oregon Trail world. Just download the free package, install it in Minecraft Education Edition, and you'll find yourself in the town of Independence, Missouri, deciding whether to be a farmer, banker, or carpenter — just like on the Apple II.

Said Caroline Fraser, senior vice president of Oregon Trail publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: "We are delighted to partner with Minecraft Education, giving students a new way to experience one of the most popular educational games of all time, The Oregon Trail. Through the unique magic of Minecraft, students will be drawn to discover the wonders and challenges that pioneers encountered on this famous journey."

However, this version of the Apple II classic comes saddled with limitations. First, the downloaded world does not change Minecraft's rules of game mechanics; it does not introduce new features. While there are signposts along the journey asking players how they want to ford the river, for example, this is more an opportunity for classroom discussion than it is part of an interactive branching narrative; the game doesn't require any action in response to these billboards.

Also, the world works exclusively in the educational version of Minecraft, which was released in 2016 to schools and educators. The average consumer will not have access to this version of the game, nor will the Oregon Trail world work in any other version of Minecraft.

What happens if you try installing the world in a non-educational edition of Minecraft? In an email, the Apple II community's resident Minecraft expert, Steve Weyhrich, suggests there are further differences under the hood:

The original Minecraft, written in Java, is what runs on Mac and Windows, and has it's own data structure and format. Microsoft is now calling this "Minecraft: Java Edition". The newer Minecraft, now just called "Minecraft", is written in some version of C, and they are trying to make all of the various platforms (pocket edition, Windows 10 edition, etc) use the same world structure… That Oregon Trail world in that download you linked does not work on the Java edition.

It's a rare case of the Apple II version actually seeming more accessible and educational by comparison!

(Hat tip to Stephen Noonoo)

Risk Factions introduces Commandant SixFour

December 12th, 2016 12:30 PM
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I grew up playing all sorts of computer and video games, but there was something especially magical about online multiplayer games. There weren't many of them back then, but in lieu of face-to-face interaction, the friendships I forged in CompuServe chat rooms were reinforced through those friendly competitions.

I still use online games to connect with people I know from other venues, such as KansasFest. The Xbox 360 was the first broadband console I used in that fashion, though I had a hard time finding two-player games that weren't sports or first-person shooters. Need for Speed and Castle Crashers fit the bill, but for more retro experiences, Worms and Lode Runner scratched that itch.

There's one game I enjoyed that I never finished, though: Risk: Factions. I enjoyed this 2010 release enough to rank it as one of my favorite Xbox Live Arcade games of the year — but, like the classic board game, a session of Risk can last an unreasonably long time. Alas, my counterparts and I could never find enough hours in one day to sit through an entire round.

But I did enjoy this game's cartoonish presentation (as opposed to the more realistic approach taken by its 2015 update, Risk). And I especially appreciated that it acknowledged the roots of early computer tactical games. Each country in the game was represented by an animated avatar, with one militaristic individual being identified as Commandant SixFour:

Like its namesake, the Commodore 64, the Commandant doesn't have the highest graphical fidelity. In Terminator fashion, we occasionally see the world through the Commandant's eyes, where everything is pixelated:

Pixelated image as seen by Commandant SixFour

INTRUDER ALERT

This lack of resolution isn't just a cheap joke: it becomes a vital plot point in the above cinematic video, introducing a new villain to the Risk storyline in Wargames style.

Both the Commandant and the Commodore are worthy enemies for their eras. Perhaps some day, I'll find the time to defeat one.

(Hat tip to Open Apple)

CaptionBot fails to recognize the Apple II

May 2nd, 2016 8:35 AM
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At KansasFest, you'll discover software and hardware you're unlikely to see anywhere else — yet diehard retrocomputing enthusiasts will no doubt recognize the floppy disks and circuit boards, identifiable by their unique schematics and labels. By contrast, a modern computer is more ubiquitous and even more powerful, but it's unlikely to be able to identify what makes the Apple II special… or even what the Apple II is.

That's a theory I put to the test with CaptionBot, Microsoft's online tool that accepts image uploads and attempts to describe their contents. Is it a group of people posing for a photo? Someone holding a book? CaptionBot is surprisingly good at recognizing people and their daily activities.

What it's not so good at is recognizing hardware and software. As a test, I threw at it some photos from the Apple II Enthusiasts group on Facebook and found the results laughably terrible. So for this blog post, I more extensively trolled my KansasFest 2002–2015 photo archives to see what other guesses CaptionBot might get wrong. Here's what it thought we see and do in Kansas City:

Computers may be able to defeat humans at chess — but we're still one up on visual recognition. Let's see what we can capture at KansasFest 2016 to stymy Microsoft's latest attempt to bring about the singularity.

(Hat tip to Andy Hartup at GamesRadar+ for the inspiration!)

Internet Explorer on the Oregon Trail

February 4th, 2013 10:46 AM
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Although Web browsers are far more standardized in their interpretation of HTML than they were in the first decade of the World Wide Web, the "browser wars" for market share continue. For users who want more than the default browser their operating system comes with, the choices are plenty: Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Camino, Lynx, and more are still actively developed.

Of those, Microsoft's Internet Explorer has perhaps the worst reputation — even though, thanks to the support of such a commercial juggernaut, it may outlast its competition. Despite that, it struggles to remain relevant in the eyes of tech-savvy consumers who remember the days of IE6 — or, worse, those employees whose corporate policies have them continuing to use outdated, unsupported versions of IE.

Knowing this, Microsoft began a campaign of gentle self-mockery, running commercials that poked fun at the browser's history, calling it "The Browser You Loved To Hate". The first video showcased the estranged relationship a long-time user had with his browser; its follow-up focused on retraining a traditional Internet troll. The latest empathizes with its target demographic by saying, "Hey, we're a product of the same era you are."

I showed this commercial to a class of college juniors and seniors who were born no earlier than 1990. They got almost all the references, even the one that spoke to my generation: Oregon Trail. These students may not have had that experience on the Apple II as I did, but it is nonetheless a franchise that was born on the Apple II that has influenced the education of many.

It's remarkable that, for literally decades, students have grown up dying of dysentery. Hats off to Microsoft for acknowledging the cultural relevance the Apple II has for the first generations of personal computer users.

(Hat tip to Alex Knapp)

Apple II invented the Microsoft Kinect

June 13th, 2011 2:50 PM
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The annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, was held last week in Los Angeles. This convention invites members of the electronic entertainment industry to bear witness to the innovations that will grace home computers and consoles in the coming year.

The Kinect, a peripheral released for the Microsoft Xbox 360 last November, is proving a versatile platform for playing games without any contact or manipulation of a physical controller — "Your body is the controller", says the advertising. Here's a recent tech demo from E3:

Although the particular application and technology of Kinect may be new, the concept is not. Thirty years before Microsoft set out to redefine gaming, Tom DeWitt had demonstrated a similar tool, Pantomation:

According to astrosmash, "The mini-computer they talk about in this video is the PDP-8/L, not an Apple II, although the system was later ported to Apple II in the early 80s."

Although Pantomation may not have made it out of the lab and into consumer applications, it's still a fascinating (and unsurprising!) example of the potential of the Apple II to redefine history.

(Hat tip to timothy)