Bard's Tale post-mortem at GDC

December 11th, 2017 8:10 AM
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The Game Developer's Conference is an annual event that invites members of the computer and video game industry to collaborate, inspire, and share their stories and best practices. This professional affair is expensive to attend but nonetheless attracts developers both mainstream and indie.

One of the flagship offerings of each year's GDC schedule is the post-mortem, where developers take attendees behind the scenes of their memorable games, be they modern or historical. Past post-mortems have included games Maniac Mansion for the Apple II and Raid on Bungeling Bay for Commodore 64.

At GDC 2018, to be held in San Francisco on March 19–23, another classic game will enter the post-mortem vault: The Bard's Tale I and II. Dr. Michael Cranford, creator of The Bard's Tale series and programmer for the Apple II version of Donkey Kong, will host the session:

Cranford… will share the vision that led him to the game's conception, design, and development from his years as a dungeon master. The games are an expression of Cranford's personal love for the genre and desire to surpass the experience of tabletop gaming. The session will explore the vision behind the game and help illuminate a trajectory in gaming which has remained strong to the current day… [and] many elements in current RPGs are developed in 'The Bard's Tale'.

… this talk is not going to be technical. This session targets those who are interested in concepts behind game design (RPG game design in particular), how that came together in the early '80s, and how it impacted so many people.

Although I've not played many games in The Bard's Tale series, I recognize the role it played in gaming history, as it was named among the top RPGs of all time by both Game Informer and Retro Gamer, inspiring me to back the Kickstarter for The Bard's IV. I would love to be in the audience for this upcoming talk… but alas, attendance at GDC is not for the casual gamer, with passes starting at $999. I will instead hope the video and slides will eventually make their way into the GDC Vault, where they will be preserved and made available to the wider audience interested in RPG history.

(Hat tip to Gamasutra)

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

December 4th, 2017 9:46 AM
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I subscribe to only two monthly magazines, one of which is Game Informer. While it's not my only source for video game news, I enjoy its in-depth features on game development, previews of upcoming titles, and reviews of games I might never play.

One of those games is Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, a first-person shooter and the eighth in the Wolfenstein series, released just this past October. The game follows protagonist William "B.J." Blazkowicz, introduced in 1992 in the series' original first-person shooter, Wolfenstein 3D, as he sets about to free an alternate-history modern America of its Nazi rule.

I haven't played any Wolfenstein games since that 1992 title, but I was struck by this passage in Game Informer's review of the latest game:

The New Colossus does not shy away from tough themes but, on the contrary, aggressively pursues them. The 14-hour campaign tackles racism, being complicit in cruelty, executions, child abuse, despair, patricide, the holocaust, white supremacy, and terrorism. While these themes are dark, the game handles them well, giving a proper amount of drama and emotional depth to each while also refusing to offer easy answers to the questions that plague the characters’ hearts. However, this parade of tragedy is never too much to bear, because the game takes the time to throw in wacky humor, like when machines are zapping Nazis into a fine red goop while Set Roth explains to B.J. just how broken his body is. You also see heartfelt moments of romance and friendship among the crew; amongst all the murder and sorrow, The New Colossus makes room for love and hope. Where these brands of tragedy and comedy might mix as well as water and oil in other games, here they are necessary parts to making this experience work as a cohesive whole.

My first reaction was to be impressed that the game had such a strong narrative. I'm a big fan of narrative-driven games, from Life Is Strange to Gone Home, and while first-person shooters often have story, they're hardly the reason gamers play them. But it seems developer MachineGames and publisher Bethesda Softworks have nonetheless taken Wolfenstein's plot seriously. For the first time in 25 years, I find myself wanting to play a Wolfenstein game.

My second reaction was to laugh at the absurdity of the juxtaposition of such a strong narrative with incredibly violent gameplay. The New Colossus is rated 'M' by the Entertainment Software Rating Board for reasons that include plot and narrative but which focus primarily on the action: "Combat is frenetic, with realistic gunfire, explosions, screams of pain, and large blood-splatter effects. Some weapons allow players to blow off enemies' heads or cut off their limbs; cutscenes sometimes show decapitations and/or acts of disembowelment." It is no doubt this gratuitous violence, not the "heartfelt moments of romance and friendship", that will attract most gamers.

My third reaction was disbelief at how far the Wolfenstein franchise has come. Although it may have achieved mainstream popularity with its 3D incarnation in 1992, the series was founded in 1981 by Silas Warner's Castle Wolfenstein, a 2D, top-down stealth game. Did Warner ever expect that his humble program would evolve to "make room for love and hope"? Would he see any of his genetic code embedded in this descendant? What would he think of The New Colossus?

It's impossible to say: the first and latest Wolfenstein games are so far removed from each other at this point as to share only a name and general anti-Nazi theme, such that Warner may see only a passing resemblance. But as a gamer, I'm heartened that the Apple II has made possible such a prominent, highly anticipated, and well-received entry in the modern gaming landscape. Whether or not most gamers realize it, our lineage persists.

Teens play Oregon Trail

November 27th, 2017 3:35 PM
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Last month, 1990s kids played Oregon Trail. They had nostalgia going for them when they set out from Independence, Missouri. Would a new generation of travelers, untested on the Oregon Trail, find a similar appeal on the road to Williamette Valley?

A year after shooting the original video, Buzzfeed returned to the Oregon Trail with that question by inviting three pairs of teens to play Oregon Trail.

"I have trouble believing this is from the 1990s," said one kid; "it looks prehistoric." Well, sure: the original version was released in 1971, and the Apple II edition from 1985 remained largely unchanged for the 1990 MS-DOS port played here. By that point, the game had nearly 20 years of history behind it. But kids who are teens now likely weren't alive in the 1990s, so in that sense, the game is "prehistoric".

Even though today's gamers may be accustomed to more action and less information, I'm still surprised by the response of one teen who survived all the way to Williamette Valley: "It's pretty underwhelming." Oregon Trail's graphics aren't significantly different from the variety of pixel-art retrogames available today, such as VVVVVV, or the reading required by gamebooks, such as The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Given that many of these kids had never heard of Oregon Trail, I'd be very curious to know if their impressions would've changed had Oregon Trail been presented as a modern game designed with a retro aesthetic.

An Arduino keyboard for the Apple II

November 20th, 2017 7:50 AM
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My first computer was an Apple IIe that my father purchased to help manage the family business. Given the wealth of games that were also available for the Apple II, it was inevitable that its use spread to his four sons. All was going well until one of us reached for a box of floppies on the shelf above the computer and dropped it on the keyboard, busting a keycap. My father angrily decreed his expensive business computer was henceforth off-limits to us kids — a restriction that I don't recall lasting more than a week.

With the exception of that mishap, our keyboard always performed admirably, without failures or flaws. I don't recall the Apple IIe showing any other signs of wear, tear, or distress in the five years we owned it.

The same can't be said for Max Breedon, who recently unearthed his Epson AP-200 an Apple IIe clone he acquired from a pawn shop twenty years ago. The keyboard decoder chip, a C35224E, was non-functional — but that didn't stop Breedon. After consulting Mike Willegal's keyboard page and doing some testing of his own, Breedon put an Arduino on a daughterboard that connects the keyboard to the motherboard. His solution is actually better than the original, since it speeds data entry of program listings found on the Internet — something the clone's manufacturers never anticipated:

[T]he Arduino can not only decode the keyboard but also you can upload text directly into the Apple as if you typed it in. This is achieved through serial communication from your PC to the Arduino: the Arduino is listening for serial data and any that it receives it converts into keypresses and pipes it into the Apple. This means that you can cut and paste basic programs directly off the internet and upload them into the apple as if you typed it in on the actual keyboard!

Arduino keyboard

That's a neat trick! I've never used an Arduino, so I wouldn't be able to duplicate this functionality — but it could be the underpinnings for a product I'd purchase for an official Apple II. There's more technical information on Breedon's website, should anyone else wish to investigate or re-create his work.

(Hat tip to John Baichtal)

Paleotronic Magazine on Kickstarter

November 15th, 2017 12:30 PM
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The current landscape for print publications dedicated to retrocomputing is not vast. Generating enough content and interest for just one computer can be challenging, so there aren't many magazines that focus on specific platforms, like Juiced.GS does with the Apple II. A better path to commercial viability is to cover a broad range of related topics, though even that has its challenges. 300 Baud had a successful but short run in 2000, with all three issues now available online. 8-bit Magazine is still in publication with a new issue being crowdfunded roughly every four months. Its fifth issue is currently on Kickstarter — though it strikes me as time- and labor-intensive to crowdfund each individual issue, instead of offering recurring subscriptions.

A new player is set to enter the scene, and they too are using Kickstarter to fund their debut. KansasFest alumnae Melody and April Ayres-Griffiths are currently crowdfunding Paleotronic Magazine, which promises to "celebrate the best of yesterday’s technology, showcasing the most memorable video games, computers, audio-video technologies and more while also providing fun and interactive learning opportunities through software programming and foundational electronics engineering activities."

The magazine is ambitious in its scope, with seemingly glossy, full-color covers and 33 different departments of editorial content. (The typical issue of Juiced.GS has at most 12 "departments".) But with so many different content types, Paleotronic is likely to have a broad appeal, with retrocomputing enthusiasts of all ages and interests likely to find something that appeals to them.

The campaign includes support for the emulator microM8, an evolution of The Octalyzer, which has impressively added 3D effects to a variety of Apple II programs.

Whenever I teach someone how to run a crowdfunding campaign, I encourage them to have one of two qualities, if not both: a reputation and a prototype. By reputation, I mean that Kickstarter should not be the first place someone hears of you: you should already be established in the field. And a prototype is more than just a concept: you're coming to the table with a viable idea that is demonstrably functional and which just needs funds to be realized or produced.

By these two criteria, Paleotronic is off to a great start, with the Ayres-Griffiths having been contributing to the community for years with their software and a demo issue of Paleotronic (just like Juiced.GS did!). Its campaign earned 80% of its goal in just the first 24 hours, and by the time of this writing, it has already met its minimum, with 25 days still to go before the Kickstarter concludes on December 9, 2017.

I backed Paleotronic at a level to receive the first issue in print and the next five digitally. As you might guess, the editor of Juiced.GS would prefer to receive all the issues in print — but as the magazine is shipping from Australia, the additional cost of postage to the USA almost doubled the cost of the corresponding reward level!

Nonetheless, I'm glad to see our favorite hobby attracting more outlets for writers and readers to share their passion. I look forward to the first issue of Paleotronic being delivered in 2018; anyone else who wants to preorder their copy may do so via Kickstarter.

Stranger Things teaser on the Apple II

November 6th, 2017 4:26 PM
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The next Star Wars movie is a bit more than a month out, but fans aren't waiting for its release to create art inspired by the film. In July, Wahyu "Pinot" Ichwandardi remade the trailer for The Last Jedi on an Apple II. The monochromatic, cinematic result was a sight to see.

Not content to develop this workflow and then apply it only once, Pinot has returned to his 8-bit medium to create yet another trailer. This time, it's for the small screen as he re-imagines the teaser for the second season of the Netflix series Stranger Things.

For reference, here is the original teaser:

Stranger Things is a horror series set in the 1980s, with generous allusions and actors from that era. Reviews have often described it as a lost show that looks like it was created in the 1980s and is being discovered just now. As such, it's fitting that the Apple II would be the medium of choice to create its teaser.

To do so, Pinot once again returned to his Apple IIc and Dazzle Draw, as detailed on Twitter.

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