Canned food on the Oregon Trail

December 19th, 2016 8:36 AM
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I've seen Apple II software take a variety of forms: be it original, emulated, or interpreted, the computer's iconic palette and icons have shown up on televisions, subway murals, 404 pages, theatrical stages, and more.

But this one is new to me. Even though I've heard of programming "on the metal", I didn't know the metal could be aluminum:

Canstruction

This Rev. 0 Apple II playing Oregon Trail is the product of a recent fundraiser in Texas. From the event page:

Using only canned food items, Canstruction participants are challenged to create innovative structures that will be displayed in a giant art exhibition throughout the 2016 State Fair. Canstruction is a unique charity that hosts competitions across the nation to showcase colossal canned masterpieces. At the end of the competition, all canned food will be donated to the North Texas Food Bank.

Writes the AG&E Structural Engenuity team:

The iconic Apple IIe was the first computer experience for millions of students, educators and professionals. This canstructure aims to capture the style of the machine, along with the Oregon Trail software that made players think about issues that faced 19th century American settlers—including disease, extreme weather and hunger.

Although this particular team didn't raise any funds, their contribution nonetheless calls attention to an important issue. As these artists stated, "Society has come a long way [since the Oregon Trail], but hunger is still an age-old problem that we must continually address." Despite what some critics may say, food banks serve a vital function in our communities, especially during this cold holiday season. Find and support your local food bank — preferably with cash, not canned food.

(Hat tip to Bob Minteer via Open Apple)

Pittsburgh Dad plays Oregon Trail

September 5th, 2016 10:51 AM
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Members of the Apple II community can at times express a certain "get off my lawn!" mentality, railing against today's youth and their new-fangled computers. Fortunately, this behavior is often in good fun: while a reasoned critique comparing old and new computers and enthusiasts can be well-founded, any actual castigation against a younger generation is often more self-effacing, tinged with a note of jealousy of how much better and easier things are now.

Actor Curt Wootton has made such parody his entire schtick with his YouTube series, "Pittsburgh Dad". His one-man, five-minute episodes offer a crotchety perspective on modern media and conveniences, including Pokémon GO, iPhones, and Captain America.

In the latest episode, Pittsburgh Dad plays Oregon Trail:

It's funny to see this behavior from someone just four months older than me. And yet, it's hard to imagine anyone I know from KansasFest playing Oregon Trail with this attitude. We tend to be enthusiastic evangelists for our niche hobby, and beating someone else over the head with it isn't going to convert them to our cause. I suppose that's why it's parody, eh?

(Also, I wonder if Dad knew that the malapropistic floppy label "Organ Trail" represents an actual game?)

For more of Pittsburgh Dad's takes on retro technology, check out the episode where he replaced his kids' Grand Theft Auto game with E.T. for the Atari 2600.

(Hat tip to Cat Morgan)

Steamed Apples at KansasFest 2016

August 1st, 2016 7:06 PM
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I love presenting at KansasFest. Speaking at such an esteemed gathering of Apple II aficionados reaffirms that I nonetheless have something to contribute to this community, despite not having extensive knowledge of Apple II hardware or software.

In brainstorming this year's presentation, I emailed KFest schedulemeister Andy Molloy for ideas. He suggested:

How about something like "10 influential Apple II games" and then you talk about them, demo them and show how they are cool. There's certainly a segment of the audience (i.e., me) who loves to watch old Apple II games, which is why I liked Bruce's stuff. Or something like "here are 10 Apple games that were later remade on modern systems".

It was a great idea — so great, that it'd already been done: I presented "Classic Gaming Inspirations" at KansasFest 2009 and "Classic Gaming Inspirations, Part Deux" in 2010. In each, I demoed modern games for Mac, PC, and iOS that were reminiscent of classic Apple II games. Despite being a familiar theme, I enjoyed giving those talks and felt that enough time had passed, so I decided to dust off the theme for 2016.

This year's constraint: all the games had to be available for Steam, the digital distribution platform for games. And they had to be available for Mac, PC, and Linux. Fortunately, even given these limitations, I was not wanting for ideas, as I'd discovered many such games through IndieSider, my biweekly podcast where I interview indie game developers. Most KFesters know my podcasting efforts in the vintage computing realm, specifically on Open Apple and the Retro Computing Roundtable, but were not aware that I host gaming podcasts as well. It was fun to share this other side of myself with the audience.

Here are the Apple II genres and games I started with and the Steam games in which a modern gamer might find an echo of the past.

GenreClassic gameSteam gameIndieSider?
Point and Click (First Person)ShadowgateShadowgateYes
Point and Click (First Person)ShadowgateRead Only MemoriesYes
Point and Click (Third Person)King's QuestKing's QuestNo
Point and Click (Third Person)King's QuestKathy RainYes
Point and Click (Third Person)King's QuestThe Blackwell LegacyNo
SurvivalOregon TrailOrgan TrailNo
PlatformDangerous DaveVVVVVVNo
PlatformDangerous DavePlangmanYes
PlatformImpossible MissionMaster SpyYes
ActionPac-ManPac-Man 256Yes
RPGWastelandWastelandNo
RPGWastelandWasteland IINo

Thanks to Jason Scott's speedy turnaround, a video of the presentation is already available online:

I had so many games in mind for this year's talk that I had to keep many in reserve. Expect to see more Steam games at KansasFest 2017!

A literary Oregon Trail

June 27th, 2016 11:07 PM
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Oregon Trail has been adapted, reimagined, and rebooted more times than we can count. It's become a live-action role-playing game, a movie trailer, and a zombie apocalypse. But at no point has the real-life journey of American pioneers circa 1836 been recreated — until now.

The Oregon Trail is a hardcover book released last summer, with the paperback hitting just this month on June 7. With a title like that, I assumed it to be an ode to the computer game that introduced a generation of students to personal computers. But this book — the fifth from Rinker Buck, born in 1950 — is something far more daring. Here's an Amazon.com synopsis from Jon Foro:

Well into middle-age, Rinker Buck found himself divorced, at the edge of bankruptcy, and growing blunt through the twin demons of ennui and alcohol … On a whim, he found himself in a museum at the head of the Oregon Trail, realizing that even as a fairly serious American history buff, he knew virtually nothing about the pivotal era when 400,000 pioneers made their way West in quests for land, gold, and new lives. On a much bigger whim, Buck decided to travel the 2,000 miles of ruts and superseding highways in a mule-driven wagon on his own “crazyass” quest for a new beginning. The result is a dense-yet-entertaining mix of memoir, history and adventure, as Buck– joined by another brother, Nick, and his “incurably filthy” dog, Olive Oyl–struggle with the mechanical, environmental, and existential challenges posed by such an unusually grueling journey. Buck is an engaging writer, and while the book pushes 500 pages, the story never lags. By the end, you’ll know more about mules than you ever thought you would (just enough, actually), and you’ll have a better perspective on the Trail, its travelers, and the role it played in shaping the modern United States. (And is Rinker Buck not a pioneer-worthy name for an tale such as this?)

The book is available now on Amazon.com. Here's an excerpt of the author reading from the audiobook:

I'm not a huge fan of history, but The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey hits a sweet spot by intersecting with real and digital history. Even if the book never once mentions the game, I may need to pick it up to see what Buck's experience was and how it compares to that of the early settlers after two hundred years.

Apple Games Done Quick

July 27th, 2015 8:41 AM
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This month at KansasFest, I gave attendees a crash course in two genres of YouTube gaming videos: unboxings and Let's Plays. There's yet another genre that I have no participatory experience with but am nonetheless in awe of: speedruns.

A speedrun is an attempt to finish a game as quickly as possible without using any external cheats — by which I mean emulation, ROM hacking, Game Genies, or other devices. What is allowed are exploitation and manipulation of glitches (intentional or otherwise) within the game. This approach can allow the Super Nintendo game Super Mario World to be finished in under five minutes — even though the programmers never intended it, they nonetheless laid the groundwork for their game to be abused in this fashion.

Speedruns are extraordinary for the players' intimate knowledge of the game. They've memorized minutia and can predict likely outcomes, demonstrating a depth of mastery that few casual or even hardcore gamers can ever hope to achieve. Unlike unboxings or Let's Plays, which are done for fun or profit, speedruns are highly competitive, even if the player is challenging only himself to shave a second or two of world record.

When it comes to organization Games Done Quick, that competitive force is used for good. Their twice-annual events — Awesome Games Done Quick and Summer Games Done Quick — are video game marathons that raise money for charity. Players — as many as 150 — congregate in a single location and stream their speedrun trials, encouraging viewers to donate to various non-profits. For SGDQ15, which began yesterday in St. Paul, Minnesota, and runs through August 1, the charity is Doctors Without Borders.

That's all well and good — but where's the Apple II connection? The answer to that question comes at 6:45 AM CDT this Thursday, July 30, on the speedrun schedule. At that wee hour, under the subcategory of "Silly Games Done Quick", runners will be playing Oregon Trail. Confirmed Facebook user Cat Morgan: "Yes, they are hoping to do it on an Apple — they are waiting for the hardware to arrive to test it with their streaming rig." Their intended completion time is a mere 15 minutes — which should be feasible, given that a tool-assisted speedrun uploaded to YouTube just this month shows the game being completed in 8:24.63:

The hardware and software demonstrated in my Let's Play tutorial opens the door for many more Apple II speedruns. Maybe you'll be the next gamer whose retrocomputing will help Games Done Quick raise money for a good cause!

UPDATE (Aug 1, 2015): A YouTube record of the #SGDQ15 speedrun of Oregon Trail is now online:

9 myths about the Oregon Trail

March 16th, 2015 10:15 AM
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At a recent PAX East 2015 panel on empathy games, I asked: "Since empathy games are often based in reality, do developers of such games hold themselves to a higher standard in terms of being authentic — as opposed to a more fictional game world, which doesn't purport to represent a real-life situation?"

Perhaps it was unfair of me to suggest empathy games are alone in this higher standard, as games have been founded in reality for as long as there have been games. Oregon Trail was based on a 2,200-mile route travelled by 400,000 settlers in 1846–1869. No work of fiction, the game is the product of some serious research and was widely used in classrooms as an early form of edutainment.

But, like many grade-school history lessons, some of the details weren't quite right. Phil Edwards recently did some historical research of his own and determined 9 myths you learned from playing Oregon Trail. The article is a fun and fascinating read, with far more details than these succinct headlines:

  1. Not everyone used oxen. Some people used handcarts.
  2. Traveling at a "grueling" pace was less fun than it sounds
  3. You wouldn't have randomly forded a 40-foot-deep river
  4. You couldn't kill thousands of pounds of buffalo
  5. Dysentery was much, much worse than a punchline
  6. No one got a funny headstone with curse words when they died
  7. Native Americans didn't really want your sweaters
  8. The rafting trip at the end of the game was insane
  9. Starting out as a banker was even better than you realized

References to a rafting trip don't ring a bell for me, so I suspect the article is based on a version of the game that didn't appear on the Apple II — likely the 1990 MS-DOS edition. Still, it's fun to see where fiction diverges from fact.

But what if it went the other way, and instead of a game or book based on reality, we had reality based on a game? It'd probably end up looking like the Oregon Trail movie trailer (Oregon Trailer?), which I originally shared on this blog five (!) years ago:

Fortunately, fan films aren't the only media we have to rely on. Any armchair historian can learn more about this unique expansion of early American settlements in The California and Oregon trail, a 1901 book by Trail veteran Francis Parkman.

Or you can just play the game.

(Hat tip to Inside.com via VideoGames)