Apple II on Retronauts podcast

March 6th, 2017 12:29 PM
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There are a lot of great podcasts about the Apple II where you can get a weekly, biweekly, or monthly fix of classic computing news and camaraderie. But there are many other shows that cover retrocomputing more broadly, where the Apple II is only an occasional guest.

Such is the case with episode #87 of Retronauts. This weekly show focuses on console and handheld platforms, such as Nintendo and Game Boy, and their games, such as Mario and Castlevania. But this past week, they invited retrocomputing scribe Benj Edwards to review the milestones of the Apple II's gaming history.

Familiar titles such as Choplifter and Castle Wolfenstein got plenty of mentions, but what most caught my attention was the glowing praise for Temple of Apshai. The Retronauts crew elevated this game to the same pantheon shared by ADVENT and Akalabeth — yet I'd never heard of it. The first a trilogy that was later released as part of the Dunjonquest bundle, Temple of Apshai was awarded "Best Computer Game of 1980", being notable for its graphics and complexity upon its original release in August 1979.

I can't find any YouTube footage of the Apple II version of Temple of Apshai, but it is playable on the Internet Archive.

The rest of the podcast serves as an introduction to the Apple II for listeners who aren't accustomed to hearing about it in their other podcasts. As such, it doesn't cover a lot of ground that readers of this blog would consider new. But it is a fun listen and an opportunity to hear the voices of writers whose bylines you may recognize.

As a bonus, if you choose to support Retronauts on Patreon for at least $3/month, you'll get an exclusive Apple II-themed wallpaper.

Thanks for covering the Apple II, Retronauts! I hope to hear more topics and guests from our community in future episodes.

Full disclosure: I support Benj Edwards on Patreon.

Story Collider: Diphtheria on the Oregon Trail

January 2nd, 2017 11:57 AM
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If anyone has heard of dysentery, it's likely because they contracted it on the Oregon Trail. A variety of ailments struck players in MECC's classic edutainment title, and though dysentery was the most iconic, it was not the only killer: cholera, snake bites, measles, and typhoid fever were all rampant.

Many of these conditions are now easily avoid or immunized against using modern medicine, as detailed in the Mental Floss article "Where Are They Now? Diseases That Killed You in Oregon Trail". But our lack of familiarity with these conditions only leaves us more susceptible to their ravages, should they be unleashed upon an unsuspecting population.

That's exactly what happened to neuroscientist Rebecca Brachman, who, one night while working in her lab, accidentally injected herself with a syringe full of diphtheria toxin. Diphtheria is more than just a catchy word to use in headlines such as "Sally Has Diphtheria: Is Oregon Trail the Greatest Video Game of All Time?". It's an airborne bacterial disease that can cause nerve damage, organ failure, paralysis, or death. Fortunately, Dr. Brachman has not suffered those worst of fates — at least, not yet. She has thus far lived to share her story on the Story Collider podcast:

It's a horrific tale that demonstrates not just how bureaucracy has made inaccessible our most effective antitoxins, even for those who most urgently need them. It also underscores the even fewer chances that travelers along the historical Oregon Trail had. We've made a game of settlers who gambled against natural hazards with no immunizations, antidotes, or even hospitals to cure them — it's shocking that anyone survived the journey to Willamette Valley.

Interactive fiction on Polygamer

October 3rd, 2016 10:28 AM
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Last summer, I explored interactive fiction in my biweekly podcast, IndieSider, when I interviewed Apple II user Wade Clarke about his Eamon-turned-Inform game, Leadlight Gamma. I enjoyed our discussion interactive fiction, one of these oldest forms of electronic entertainment, but it was only recently that I finally gave the medium the coverage it deserved on my other podcast, Polygamer.

Polygamer finally turned its focus to interactive fiction with this summer's founding of the non-profit Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation:

The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation (IFTF) helps ensure the ongoing maintenance, improvement, and preservation of the tools and services crucial to the creation and distribution of interactive fiction, as well as the development of new projects to foster the continued growth of this art form.

To discuss this important step in the development and preservation of text adventures, I spoke with IFTF co-founder Chris Klimas. That hour-long conversation can be heard in Polygamer #50:

Chris isn't just on the board of the IFTF; he's also the creator of Twine, an open-source storytelling engine. It and Inform are possibly the most popular modern tools for the creation of interactive fiction. Its accessible architecture has made game developers of those who previously considered themselves only storytellers,
removing the gatekeeping that has kept so many narratives from being shared. One of its most notable manifestations came from Zoë Quinn, a game developer who has also been on Polygamer, when she used Twine to create Depression Quest, one of the first entries in the emerging genre of empathy games.

My discussion with Chris ranged over all these topics and more: gatekeeping, education, crowdfunding, and the annual IFComp, which is currently underway. It was one of the most enjoyable episodes of Polygamer I've recorded in awhile, and even if we didn't directly discuss the Apple II, I'm confident that retrocomputing users will find it a fascinating discussion about the complexities and possibilities of a medium our platform helped give birth to.

For more discussion about IF and the IFTF, listen to Retro Computing Roundtable #136:

[Full disclosure: I have donated to the IFTF.]

RCR at the Living Computer Museum

July 11th, 2016 9:17 AM
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Last summer, en route to KansasFest 2015, I stopped in Minneapolis at the Charles Babbage Institute, one of ten archives with a complete collection of Juiced.GS.

Behind the scenes at the Charles Babbage Institute

This past December, I made my first visit to another such institution, the Computer History Museum of Mountain View, California. And this week, again en route to KansasFest, I'll visit the Living Computer Museum in Seattle, Washington, whose 2012 opening was also covered by Juiced.GS.

As it turns out, Michael Mulhern, frequent co-host of the Retro Computing Roundtable podcast, had the same idea. To make the lengthy trip from his native Australia to the United States worthwhile, he's hitting up all the sights on his way to KansasFest 2016. He asked me to tweet an invitation for RCR listeners to join him on his tour of the LCM on a Thursday night, at a time when the museum was offering free admission. At the last minute, I realized we had an opportunity to extend the invitation to even those who couldn't join him: would Michael be interested in live-tweeting his event? I hurriedly set him up with access to the official RCR Twitter account, resulting in many great tweets that solicited responses from fans, enthusiasts, and even the LCM itself.

The entire Twitter exchange is archived in this Storify:

Now I know what to look for when I'm there myself, just a week later. Thanks, Michael!

New Game Plus: Lode Runner

May 30th, 2016 9:56 AM
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It's hard for Apple II enthusiasts to be unbiased about our favorite games. Whenever we play or discuss Oregon Trail, Choplifter, or Tass Times in Tone Town, our experiences and memories are inevitably colored by nostalgia as we recall how groundbreaking these games were upon their release and how derivative their successors seem by comparison.

What if we could wipe the slate clean and come at these games afresh? Would they stand the test of time and still appeal to a modern gamer's sensibilities?

New Game Plus
That's the charter of New Game Plus, a podcast that launched this past October. Each week, three young men select a random classic computer or video game that they then spend seven days playing before reporting back their experiences. I discovered the show with episode 7, when they played their first Apple II game, Prince of Persia. I then cherry-picked other episodes to listen to, selecting games that I recalled fondly to see if these enthusiastic whippersnappers would enjoy them as well.

When they reviewed Contra III, a game I'd previously recorded a Let's Play video of, I was surprised to hear the show deviate from its format: instead of the game selection being random, it was chosen by their first guest. It was fun to hear someone with passion and familiarity for the week's game be brought into the mix — and it also gave me an idea.

Now that I knew New Game Plus had a precedent for allowing guests, I brazenly emailed them, touting my Apple II credentials, to ask if they would consider having me on a future episode. To my surprise and delight, they thought this was an excellent idea!

Their homework for me: select an Apple II game. This was a tougher assignment than I expected! My first thought was to nominate Conan: Hall of Volta, one of my favorite games from childhood. But at only six levels, I thought it might wear thin and not leave the hosts much to discuss. I instead turned to the Apple II Enthusiasts group on Facebook and asked for recommendations. I received many suggestions, including from John Romero.

But readers' comments only cemented the second choice I'd already settled on: Lode Runner. With 150 levels, a storied lineage, and web-playable versions — both the emulated original and a native remake — I felt this game would be both technically accessible and sufficiently substantial to record a podcast about. And, having originally been released in 1983, it would also be the oldest game yet to have been featured on New Game Plus.

But just because I'd played the game as a kid didn't excuse me from joining the other hosts in "researching" it! I played the game for just an hour or so and was able to make it to level 17. Although the difficulty of those levels varied wildly — as early as level 6, there are as many as 16 pieces of gold to collect! — I was surprised at my ability to progress. I attributed my success to the game freely awarding an extra life for each level completed. By the time I closed my browser window, I could've easily continued playing with the dozen lives I had remaining.

All this work was in preparation to record the actual episode, which has since aired as episode 35 of New Game Plus:

I had a blast chatting about Lode Runner and its creator, Douglas E. Smith, with Dustin, Nolan, and Kenny, and I was much relieved to hear that they enjoyed their first experiences with this classic game, earning it an across-the-board recommendation for modern gamers.

My thanks to New Game Plus for hosting me. I hope they continue to feature the Apple II on future episodes of the show! What games would you recommend they play next?

(Hat tip to Paulo Garcia)

Plangman on IndieSider

March 14th, 2016 11:03 AM
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Candidates for my biweekly IndieSider podcast can be difficult to come by. The show looks behind the scenes at the development of indie (self-published) computer and video games, of which there are many — the indie tag on software distribution platform Steam currently lists 7,391 titles, with more being added every day.

But I limit IndieSider to games that I like, so as to avoid an awkward conversation with a developer of "Why does your game suck?" I instead look for games that offer original experiences and progressive gameplay in genres that I like: action, adventure, puzzle, narrative. There's then an evaluation period where I test a game to determine if it'll be a good fit for the show.

The latest episode of IndieSider features a game that bypassed that evaluation entirely. No game has hit my sweet spot as neatly as Plangman, which caught my attention in the first two seconds of its trailer:

A platform game with the puzzle elements of Hangman and featuring what appeared to be the runner from Microsoft's Olympic Decathlon as the protagonist? Was this game somehow made for me?!

I was quick to get developer Ehren von Lehe on the phone for episode #39 of IndieSider. Through Facebook and Juiced.GS, I thought I knew almost all the major Apple II players out there. I was pleasantly surprised to discover Ehren's interest in the Apple II is as alive and well as any retrocomputing enthusiast. Plangman was inspired by watching his daughter play with his own Apple II, recently taken out of mothballs. The playable character is based on Captain Goodnight, not the Olympic decathlete. Ehren mentioned an Infocom documentary also played a role. Aha! Another fan of Jason Scott's GET LAMP. When I added that Jason had been the keynote speaker at an annual Apple II convention, Ehren asked, "Is that KansasFest?" It was almost as if Ehren and I had been members of the same community for years and had never met!

The resulting conversation can be heard in this audio podcast:

or this video

It's not unusual for my gaming pursuits to introduce me to people who got their start on the Apple II and who remember the platform fondly. It's unprecedented for me to encounter in that course someone who's actively keeping the Apple II alive through modern software development. If you want a retro aesthetic in a new game, I highly recommend you check out Plangman.

(Hat tip to Javy Gwaltney)