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.

Being shorter and less dramatic, with no voiceover or audible narration, the Stranger Things teaser isn't as impressive as The Last Jedi trailer and perhaps was easier to adapt. Yet Pinot's Stranger Things adaptation has seemingly garnered far more interest: 1,771 retweets compared with 519, and 217,000 Google search results compared with 30,500. I'm not a Netflix subscriber, but if enough people are this excited about the intersection of Stranger Things and the Apple II, I may need to jump on this bandwagon!

(Hat tip to Adriano Leal)

1990s kids play Oregon Trail

October 30th, 2017 10:38 AM
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Many of us in the Apple II community were first introduced to the computer in its heyday. And for some younger members, that introduction occurred in the classroom, playing Oregon Trail.

If that wasn't our last encounter with the Apple II, then we wouldn't be surprised if we booted Oregon Trail today and saw blocky graphics and heard rudimentary music — that's typical of an early 8-bit computer. But if we graduated from that classroom and never looked back, then we might be surprised that Oregon Trail isn't quite what we remember — if we remember it at all.

That's what Buzzfeed set out to test in a react-style video: it recruited adults who grew up in the 1990s (a bit after the Apple II's height of popularity) — adults who have apparently never played modern adaptations of Oregon Trail, such as Organ Trail — and asked them to play Oregon Trail.

Despite the hardware and software being from their youth, both seem absolutely foreign to these players. They expect mouse input where there is none; they're surprised by the amount of text and lack of real-time interactivity; the keyboard controls for hunting are indecipherable (I'm guessing it's IJKM); and one couldn't remember where the Oregon Trail led. (Hint: it's in the title.)

Even if this video is a rough reintroduction, the gamers nonetheless seemed to enjoy themselves. Their exasperation at the various maladies that befall their parties has an undercurrent of amusement. One test subject even says he might go home and play Oregon Trail. Now that would be a win!

In the end, these players congratulated themselves — not on making it from Independence to Willamette Valley, but on playing the game at all. They commented, "Kids these days would hate this game… They wouldn't have the patience." Is that true? Stay tuned…

Final Fantasy V by Chris Kohler

October 23rd, 2017 9:50 AM
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The Apple II and its software and community had a tremendous influence on my evolution as a gamer. But as much as I enjoyed its games, many of them would today be described as "casual" games — something I could play for a few minutes before moving on. My Apple II collection didn't include the deep, engrossing titles of Ultima or Wizardry; for those role-playing experiences, I turned to my Nintendo. It was on that gaming platform that I lost myself in the worlds of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. These two Japanese RPGs offered worlds, characters, inventories, and more complexity than any of the action games I was otherwise accustomed to.

So when Boss Fight Books launched a few years ago with the promise to delve behind the scenes of such console games, I was quick to back all four of its Kickstarters — for seasons 1, 2, 3, and 4. Each "season" featured several books by different authors who would offer their own personal experiences with a game, woven with the original interviews with the game's designers.

Boss Fight Books hasn't always lived up to my expectations: of the four I've received, two of them were pretty good, and two were horribly unreadable. Despite that uneven experience, I had no hesitation in backing the latest season, as I knew what I'd be getting when I saw Chris Kohler was assigned to cover Final Fantasy V. Kohler is the founder of the games section of WIRED and is now a features editor at Kotaku, two websites that have done exemplary work covering the video game space. While I don't know Kohler personally, I've read his work and have attended his conference talks, and we were scheduled to be on a panel together at PAX East 2017 before circumstances conspired against us. (I'm still hopeful we'll have a future opportunity to collaborate.)

Sure enough, Kohler's book is a tight, enjoyable, informative tale of this JRPG that never saw an English-language release during its day. It's a game that inspired Kohler to import the Super Famicom version to try playing on his Super Nintendo, and ultimately to study abroad in Japan during his college years.

Having never played FFV, I had much to learn about this missing title in the popular franchise. I thought I knew everything else about the series, though, including the original Final Fantasy, which I'd spent the summer of 1990 playing. Kohler surprised me with an origin story I'd somehow never learned or had forgotten:

Eventually, [Final Fantasy creator Hironobu] Sakaguchi got his act together, graduated school, and entered Yokohama National University to study electronic communications. Unfortunately for his renewed interest in scholastic achievement, he quickly discovered video games. A classmate named Hiromuchi Tanaka owned an Apple II, and their group of friends would stay up all night playing Western RPGs like Wizardry and Ultima. Sakaguchi didn't go in for arcade games, but these RPGs were something else: They had fantastic stories like the ones he devoured in the volumed of Guin Saga, and you could play them for hours on end. Which he did. Sakaguchi and his friends would pull all-nighters on Tanaka's Apple II. He battled monsters in Ultima II until he maxed out the amount of gold his character could carry, and the counter rolled over from 9999 back to 0.

Though the Apple II was not as popular in Japan as it was in the USA, I had no idea it had landed in just the right hands to inspire an entire RPG franchise that continues to this day. While I didn't play Wizardry and Ultima, I'm immensely relieved that Sakaguchi did; the games they inspired him to create became my Wizardry and Ultima.

The official launch date for Kohler's book is tomorrow, but as a Kickstarter backer, I received my copy several weeks ago. I recommend it without reservation to anyone interested in the story of Final Fantasy and the early evolution of JRPGs. A further excerpt is available at Kotaku.

Nox Archaist on Kickstarter

October 16th, 2017 4:19 PM
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Nox Archaist, an 8-bit tile-based role-playing game in development by 6502 Workshop, is currently in the last week of its Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.

Nox Archaist first hit my radar in April 2016, when developer Mark Lemmert emailed me about contributing content for Juiced.GS. Mark has since written three articles about the behind-the-scenes development of this game and recruited me to contribute a unique issue of Juiced.GS available exclusively to Kickstarter backers.

Nox Archaist and games like it are important to me, as I grew up playing the games that inspired it, like The Magic Candle and Ultima III: Exodus. While I love the narrative of modern RPGs, they're often more linear, with a definitive route from the beginning to the ending. By contrast, games like Ultima offered an open world in which I could discover towns haphazardly, receive clues that wouldn't make sense until much later, and marvel with my friends at the different places, people, and monsters we were each encountering in our unique journeys.

Game design has come a long way in the thirty years since, and it's possible to recreate those early experiences while still applying everything we've learned in the intervening decades about elegant user interfaces, character progression, and more. While Nox Archaist isn't the first game to recently promise the best of both worlds, it seems likely to be the first to hit market.

The Nox Archaist crowdfunding campaign is seeking $43,078, which is ambitious by itself but modest compared to Unknown Realm, a similar RPG whose Kickstarter received $126,343 earlier this year. Nox Archaist's campaign started off strong, with donors making an average pledge of $109 each — no doubt enticed by getting in-game towns and artifacts named after them. The campaign currently stands at 41% funded — and 78% of projects that raised more than 20% of their goal are successfully funded. But without continued momentum, the Kicktraq prediction for this campaign is not favorable.

If this Kickstarter does not succeed, then per the platform's all-or-nothing nature, 6502 Workshop will receive none of the pledged funds. But I'm hopeful, even if that happens, that the game itself will nonetheless be a success — whether it seeks additional funding via a more flexible platform, such as Indiegogo, or simply proceeds as an exclusively homebrew effort. The Apple II needs games like Nox Archaist.