Interplay's cancelled RPG, Meantime

November 18th, 2019 10:26 AM
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I spend more time consuming game news than I do playing games, which means I learn a lot about games well before they're released. Alas, not all games that are reported to be in development ultimately enjoy a public debut. From Scalebound on the Xbox One to StarCraft: Ghost on the Nintendo 64 to SimCity on the Apple IIGS, games that are more than a concept and are anticipated by fans nonetheless get axed for a variety of reasons: too complex a development process, insufficient budget, or too late in a platform's lifespan.

Still, I was surprised to find an early Apple II game on GameRant's list of "10 Canceled RPG Games You Never Knew Existed". As I haven't played many role-playing games in the last twenty years, I found GameRant's list to be aptly named: I hadn't heard of a single one of these titles.

But one of them, Meantime, I feel like I should have:

Following 1988's Wasteland, Interplay (again) wanted to publish a follow-up, and Meantime was put into development for the Apple II. The game was deep into development when a couple of detrimental things occurred. For one, key player Liz Danforth left the team. For another, the team realized that the Apple II was declining in relevance and sales. The team attempted to port the progress over to the MS-DOS, but lead Bill Dugan lost morale upon seeing the incredible graphics of Ultima VII. Knowing that his product was vastly inferior and out-of-date, he decided to cancel the project for good.

Wikipedia has an entire page about the game, elaborating that Meantime was to be set in the same universe as Wasteland, also by Interplay, but with a plot more akin to Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure:

The basic premise was that the player would travel through time, and recruit famous historical figures to the player's party. For example, Amelia Earhart joins the party when she is rescued from a Japanese prison camp, and Wernher von Braun does when he is helped to escape the Soviets at the end of World War II. Each character would also have a particular specialty; Cyrano de Bergerac, for example, would have an expert fencing skill. The party would attempt to repair damage caused by a similar party of time-traveling villains, attempting to alter the course of history by influencing events.

Will we ever see a hint of what the game might've been, like we did with SimCity GS? In short, no. Not only does the website JustAdventure.com state that no screenshots of the game exist, but it gets worse, according to Wikipedia:

When Interplay finally did create their spiritual successor to Wasteland, Fallout, none of the Meantime code was used and the only Meantime designer involved in the creation of Fallout was Mark O'Green. No copies of the source code are believed to currently exist.

And yet the Wasteland universe persists: Wasteland 3 was announced just last week as being released on May 19, 2020.

Maybe Interplay will harken back to its lost heritage in an Easter egg still to come.

Which Apple II games are timeless?

November 11th, 2019 10:08 AM
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Canadian comedy troupe LoadingReadyRun, true to their eponymous C64 roots, often includes retrocomputers in their weekly news report. This past week was no exception:

Although this news, citing a blog post by Internet Archive employee and KansasFest regular Jason Scott, is specifically about MS-DOS, the concept applies to the Apple II as well: there are at least 3,170 Apple II games currently playable in the Internet Archive — far more than any of us have ever played in our lifetimes or likely ever will.

But how many of them stand the test of time? As Brendan John "Beej" Dery notes in the above LRR report, games aren't always as fun as we remember them being as kids, when basic inputs returned minimal rewards conveyed with simple graphics and rudimentary sound. Cumbersome controls and user interfaces that we tolerated when we didn't know any better have evolved into more elegant designs and complex narratives. What games still hold up and can still be fun, with our without a healthy dose of nostalgia?

Instead of focusing on games that haven't aged well (such as some text adventures or RPGs), I'd argue that these games remain fun:

  • Lode Runner: When I was a guest on the New Game Plus podcast three years ago, I invited its hosts to play Lode Runner. Having never played the game before, all three found it enjoyable. Recent iterations of Lode Runner have introduced new graphics, but the core gameplay remains as fun today as it was upon its debut.
  • Shadowgate: This point-and-click gothic adventure game was worth remaking in 2012, which improved not just the graphics but also the interface. It would've been for naught if the original game weren't fun. It still is!
  • Prince of Persia: While the battle system is somewhat rudimentary, the dungeon platformer is still challenging for those who want to rescue the princess within the allotted time.
  • Snake Byte: Variations on this game have appeared on countless devices (especially mobile) for decades — a testament to the basic gameplay's staying power.
  • Arkanoid: Not only does this successor to Breakout stand the test of time — we need more games like this. Paddle input devices have practically gone extinct; while mobile devices seem well-suited to movement on one plane, something is lost with a touch interface.
  • BattleChess: Creative animations injected this serious game with levity. The computer's time to make each move and then draw the animations was tedious; a CPU accelerator fixes that, but it also speeds up the animations, which should be savored.
  • DuelTris: The Apple II was young enough that most of its games were original, rather instead of improvements on existing franchises, of which there weren't many. DuelTris is an exception, taking the basic rules ofo Tetris and adding power-ups, a two-player mode, and a rocking soundtrack. DuelTris struck just the right balance of classic and enhanced gameplay; mess with Tetris more than this, and you ruin it.
  • Othello, mahjongg, and other tile games: These classic games feature timeless mechanics that don't significantly benefit from faster computers or better graphics.

This list is by no means exhaustive; such an undertaking could span an entire website, with one game per blog post! But I would love my readers' help in filling in the gaps. What are some Apple II games you've revisited and found to still be fun, all these years later? Leave a comment with your recommendations!

Nuclear floppy

November 4th, 2019 12:08 PM
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Every semester that I teach at Emerson College, I start with a lesson on the history of computers and the Internet. This lesson employs several props, including a variety of floppy disk sizes.

"How many of you remember these?" I say, holding up a 3.5" disk. When I started asking that question seven years ago, every hand went up; now, only half do. And when I ask the same question of 5.25" disks, half the hands used to go up; now, none do.

The one constant over the years is that nobody remembers 8" disks. And that's fair: they debuted in 1972, twenty-five years before my students were born. As this was also well before the arrival of personal computers, I infer this floppy size was used primarily in business and industrial settings.

One industry that lingered with the 8" floppy was the United States government — but even they have decided to move on. Reported last month by Engadget is that our country's military will no longer reply on floppy disks to coordinate the launch of nuclear missiles, replacing them with a "highly-secure solid state digital storage solution".

This is not just a transfer of media; the underlying software must be changing as well. The storage capacity of 8" floppies maxed out at 1.2 megabytes, whereas SSD storage usually holds a minimum of several gigabytes. What would that antiquated nuclear system do with all that extra space? Likely we are upgrading to a more complex and bloated system. It reminds me of the sequel to WarGames, where (spoiler) the original JOSHUA software is uploaded to a modern mainframe to do battle with its more modern counterpart. Would an 8" floppy stand the test of time?

It possibly could, as the floppy medium had its advantages. When I interviewed author R.A. Salvatore back in 2002 about his official novelization of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, he said that the book was being written on a computer with no access to the Internet, making it impenetrable except by physical means. Likewise, the US government once defended their choice of 8" floppies: "You can't hack something that doesn't have an IP address. It's a very unique system — it is old and it is very good." Hard to repair and maintain, perhaps, but otherwise reliable.

So farewell to a last bastion of 8" floppies. Like my A2Central.com t-shirt says: It's not obsolete; it's proven technology.

(Hat tip to Eric Reimann)

Apple II in Six, SIx, Six

October 28th, 2019 4:41 AM
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While recently touring the Rijksmuseum, I was reminded just how influential Christianity has been on classical art. The Bible must be the most inspirational and reinterpreted book in history, as evidenced by the many paintings hanging in the Rijksmuseum galleries.

With the Apple II being just as important to the development of personal computers, I shouldn't be surprised that it and Christianity should intersect to make history.

In 1984, six-year-old music band DeGarmo & Key released the record Communication. On this LP was the single "Six, Six, Six", for which they produced this music video featuring Satan using the Apple II as a medium to seduce a young man.

Upon first viewing, I found the premise rather objectionable. The Apple II as a tool the Devil? A Commodore 64 would've been more believable. Also, who loads random software into their computer without knowing where it's from?? Then I remembered that viruses were scarce 35 years ago, and their ability to infect other programs was limited by the nature of floppy disks. As someone who was always hungry for the latest and greatest games, I probably would've inserted any floppy that promised a modicum of entertainment.

Good thing that kid was of a similar mindset, as otherwise we wouldn't have this fascinating music video to analyze. I see in it many motifs that were later repeated in other movies about games, computers, and wish fulfillment. As in the movie Shazam, a powerful figure offers teenagers untold power by first tempting them with great evil. Similar to "The Bishop of Battle", the main character is pulled into the game. Like in The Matrix, anyone in this virtual world could be an agent of the enemy. And ultimately, just like Jumanji, the cursed game is discarded by the hero, only to be found by a new, unsuspecting victim.

But these are not the reasons the music video made history. According to Wikipedia:

DeGarmo & Key were the first American Christian group to have a music video appear on MTV …The original video for the song "Six, Six, Six" was one of a number of videos that MTV pulled from rotation due to violent content. The purge was a public reaction to the U.S. Senate hearings on sex and violence in music. MTV had misinterpreted the song "Six, Six, Six" as an anti-Christian statement. According to industry news reports at the time, MTV executive Sandra Sparrow was unaware that DeGarmo & Key were a Christian band when she included the video in a list of videos to be excised. MTV allowed DeGarmo & Key to submit a re-edited version, which was placed back into rotation. Removed from the re-edited video was a short scene of a man representing the Antichrist being set on fire.

I'm not familiar with those particular Senate hearings, though they're similar to the ones I researched for my thesis on moral panics: when a new form of media or entertainment appears, adults blame it for juvenile delinquency — similar to how the Apple II is depicted here.

The resulting edited, "tamer" music video, which retains the Apple II's role in full, is here:

Whichever the version, this wasn't the Apple II's last appearance in a music video — but it's surely the first time it appeared in a banned music video!

(Hat tip to Randy Brandt!)

Jean Armour Polly put computers in libraries

October 21st, 2019 7:00 AM
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Last month, the Internet Hall of Fame inducted a new class. Among its members was Jean Armour Polly, who pioneered free Internet access in public libraries.

And she did so with an Apple II, according to Syracuse.com. While the Internet and the Apple II were not exactly contemporaries, Polly was an advocate for computers in libraries well before they were put online.

It was 1981 and this was groundbreaking. They set up the computer, a black Apple 2 Plus, in a spot where everyone could use it. The American Legion raised money to buy the printer. At the time, Liverpool was one of two libraries in the country with a computer, said Polly, a Syracuse University alumna.

That's not Polly's only contribution to computer literacy and Internet lore: she also popularized the term "surfing" for Internet activity.

While Polly popularized the phrase, she didn't coin it. The first use of "surfing the Internet" was by Mark McCahill on the Usenet newsgroup alt.gopher on February 25, 1992:

There is a lot to be said for surfing the internet with gopher from anywhere that you can find a phone jack.

I'm a big fan of public libraries, making weekly visits to mine to get free movies, books, and video games (and to look for Apple II software). While I haven't needed to use a library's computers, I realize that making this resource available to the community is an invaluable service with a high return on investment.

Our thanks to Polly for being among those who got the ball rolling with an Apple II Plus!

(Hat tip to Andy Molloy)

Jeri Ellsworth of Tilt Five

October 14th, 2019 8:51 AM
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Sometimes, Apple II users have ambitions bigger than their humble retrocomputers. Steve Chiang went to work at Zynga and Warner Bros. Richard Garriott flew into space.

And now, Jeri Ellsworth is setting out to redefine reality with Tilt Five.

Jeri's mixed reality rig is impressive in its own right. But it's all the cooler due to Jeri being an Apple II rockstar, too… Well, maybe more Commodore 64.

But she was a cover story for Juiced.GS, too!

Jeri Ellsworth on cover of Juiced.GS

Doug Cuff's interview with Jeri opens:

She's a self-confessed hardware nerd, and she has a mission. She wants to rebuild one of the most popular and beloved microcomputers of the 1980s: the Commodore 64.

On the way, she's going to be a big help to the Apple II. But even if she wasn't, you would still want to pay homage to Jeri Ellsworth.

When she was 16, Jeri Ellsworth was playing with her Commodore 64, and she wanted it to have more colors. (Just as with the Apple II, people mentally dismissed the C-64 long before production stopped. The last C-64 rolled off the production line in 1992.)

By the time she had explored the idea of improving on the C-64's hardware, Jeri wanted to create a C-64 on a single chip. She liked the idea of a C-64 palmtop. And she was still being driven by forces that most of us can understand: she wanted to play all her old games, and at the same time, she wanted them to have better graphics.

Jeri is also an alumna of KansasFest, Vintage Computer Festival East, and the JoCoCruise, at all of which our paths have crossed.

Tilt Five's Kickstarter was the latest opportunity for me to intersect with Jeri, as her project was a perfect fit for my monthly gaming podcast, Polygamer. Our hour-long chat (with a few opening and closing remarks about the Apple II) aired last week.

It was a pleasure to catch up with Jeri. It was also completely unsurprising to discovery she is as much an ambitious yet humble geek as ever. I didn't feel like I was talking to someone who had outgrown the Apple II; rather, it was two old friends picking up right where we left off.

Jeri asked that I not air the video of us singing karaoke. In truth, no such video exists —  but there is video of her beating me badly at arm wrestling. So really, even if I did have any dirt on Jeri, I'd be highly incentivized to keep it to myself!