Prince of Persia is turning 30!

July 15th, 2019 11:46 AM
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The original Prince of Persia game turns thirty years old this October 3, and in anticipation of that anniversary, the game's original creator, Jordan Mechner, has some news to share.

First, his 1980s development journals, which were previously published in paperback and ebook editions, will be re-published in hardcopy with new illustrations. This version will come from Stripe Press, whose "books contain entirely new material, some are collections of existing work reimagined, and others are republications of previous works that have remained relevant over time or have renewed relevance today." The book will be finalized in time for the game's release anniversary this fall, with autographed editions available next February at PAX East, an annual video game convention that Mechner keynoted in 2012. Since Juiced.GS already reviewed the paperbacks back in 2013, we probably won't go as in-depth with the new release, though we'll certainly report the news in DumplinGS!

Being able to publish a book is as magical to Mechner as making a game once was. The democratization of publication he something he attributes the Apple II to initiating:

For me as a kid who dreamed of creating mass entertainment, in the pre-internet days, when you still needed a printing press to make a book and a film lab to make a movie, the Apple II was a game-changer: a technological innovation that empowered every user to innovate. Suddenly, I didn't need adult permission (or funding) to tell a story of adventure that might reach thousands — and ultimately millions — of people.

Second, Mechner was recently interviewed at Gamelab, a game development conference held in Barcelona. Venturebeat has an edited transcript in which Mechner recalls some of his original inspirations:

Anybody here remember Choplifter? This blew my mind in 1982. It was the first game I’d played that told a story. Asteroids, Space Invaders, you had three lives and you had to get a high score. All of that was based on the business model of putting quarters into machines. Choplifter told a story, and at the end it said "The End." That was the inspiration for my next game, Karateka.

Jordan Mechner plays Prince of Persia in 1989.


Third, Mechner not only reflected on the past but also looked to the future, noting that there is no new Prince of Persia game to announce — yet:

Many of you have asked when there will be a new PoP game (or movie, or TV series). If you feel that it's been a long time since the last one, you're not alone. I wish I had a magic dagger to accelerate the process… [but I'm] in the midst of longer-term projects whose announcement is still a ways off.

Until the new books and possible new games come out, there's still plenty of Prince of Persia to enjoy. The source code is publicly available; maybe someone can hack in a two-player mode, as Charles Mangin did with Karateka.

MAD Magazine's Spy vs. Spy

July 8th, 2019 8:46 AM
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I grew up reading MAD Magazine, having inherited a collection of back issues from my oldest brother. I was sometimes too young to get the humor, but I always enjoyed the comics, especially Spy vs. Spy.

Licensed computer games were rarer in the 1980s than they are now; the technology to produce an authentic adaptation from one medium to another just wasn't there. But Spy vs. Spy's simple angles and slapstick antics made for a wonderful two-player Apple II game, packaged in an impressive clamshell case.

My youngest brother and I would wake up early Saturday mornings to compete in this split-screen game. I would always be the white spy as we wandered the embassy, searching for secret documents and setting traps for each other. Like in Space Ship of Death, a BBS door game I later adapted to the Apple II, each trap had a defense: a bucket of acid propped on a door could be protected against with an umbrella. But since we shared a monitor, my brother and I could see where the traps were being set, ruining the element of surprise. If no defense was available, it wasn't uncommon for one of us to simply stop playing, stubbornly refusing to trigger a trap we knew was there. Still, it was a fun game and one of the few areas of my life where I felt I could sometimes best my sibling.

When the pages of MAD Magazine advertised that a sequel to the game was coming to Commodore 64, I wrote a letter to the editor asking why it wasn't being released for the Apple II. I actually got a letter back, explaining how it cost money to make a game and they had to be sure they'd make that money back by adapting it to another computer system. I was confused: didn't they know I would buy it? Wasn't that enough??

Today, my letter would've gotten me added to a marketing email list, with my specific interests indicated as Spy vs. Spy and the Apple II. But back then, this one-time exchange wasn't enough to warrant MAD following up with the official news, prompting me to organically discover when Spy vs. Spy II: The Island Caper was eventually released for the Apple II:

I didn't think it possible, but this game was even better than the original. The setting was more exotic, the traps were more ingenious, the gameplay was more intuitive, and the graphics were more distinct. Although my brother and I were getting to the ages where we were too old to play together, we still got in several rounds of this game.

It wasn't until 2012 that I found out there had been a third game in the series, Spy vs. Spy III: Arctic Antics. Replacing "health" with "body heat" is clever, but the bleak landscape makes me think the series peaked with its second iteration.

A version of the original game was later released for iOS, but it was never updated to be 64-bit; it stopped working with iOS 11 and is no longer available in the App Store. Even when it did work, the touch interface did not lend itself well to the intricate machinations of one spy, let alone two.

The brand was also licensed to a PlayStation 2 / Xbox game, but it has little if anything to do with the original trilogy.

A new game in the series, Spies, is tentatively under development. A lengthy description claims Spies will be inspired by "the original", though it's unclear if they're referring to the Apple II game or the later PS2 title.

Sadly, just as this franchise has struggled in the past decades, so too has its source material. MAD Magazine will cease publication of original content later this year, switching to reprints of classic material with a single annual issue of new content.

I regret the passing of an iconic institution of America's cultural landscape. But just like the Apple II game was better than the PS2, sometimes revisiting the past is better than trying to recapture it with reimagings. For all the fond memories of sibling rivalry it gave me, I hope MAD Magazine finds success in its new format.

Old-school Dark Mode

July 1st, 2019 9:41 AM
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Last year, Apple introduced a new display option in macOS Mojave: Dark Mode, an alternative color scheme that emphasizes dark tones and minimizes white light. Reading on backlit screens is hard on the eyes — just compare an iPad to an e-ink Kindle. Apple's theorizes that essentially inverting the default display will be easier on the eyes.

There's just two problems with that. First, science says Dark Mode achieves the opposite of its intended effect. Mark LaPlante pointed me to this TidBITS article, in which Adam Engst of explains:

… a dark-on-light (positive polarity) display like a Mac in Light Mode provides better performance in focusing of the eye, identifying letters, transcribing letters, text comprehension, reading speed, and proofreading performance, and at least some older studies suggest that using a positive polarity display results in less visual fatigue and increased visual comfort.

The second problem, and one Engst briefly acknowledges: Apple's earliest products already had a "Dark Mode", back when Apple II and Macintosh computers used monochrome monitors. It was considered an evolution to move from that to full-color, lighter displays. Why revert now? Sure, I get a kick out of using a monochrome display on my Mac every now and then; I even wrote a Juiced.GS article about WriteRoom, a modern word processor that can easily emulate the appearance of AppleWorks Classic. But it's not a work environment I'd want to make a habit of.

AppleWorks' Dark Mode seems awfully familiar…

But by recognizing the disadvantages of a monochrome display, some interesting thought experiments result. Someone could arrive at KansasFest announcing that they're releasing Dark Mode for the Apple II, and ta-da, it's the default display — hilarious. But to be earnest, what would it take to invert the Apple II display, producing a near-equivalent to the Mac's "Light Mode"? Or are there any 8-bit word processors that already use dark text on a white background?

If I were writing a Juiced.GS article, I would determine the answers to these questions and present you with my findings. But for a weekly blog post, I'm content to leave it as an exercise for the reader — and as a potential HackFest entry for the writer.

Activating HTTPS for Apple II Bits

June 24th, 2019 12:29 PM
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In 2016, I mused how the Web's move toward encryption — specifically, free Let's Encrypt SSL certificates — was leaving retrocomputers behind.

In 2017, I installed a Let's Encrypt certificate on this website, but configured the domain to be a "dual front-end", accessible via both HTTP and HTTPS. Other than some issues when trying to submit comments — issues that stumped even my host's tech support — this arrangement has worked well.

Then, in 2018, I started working at Automattic. As a technical account engineer (TAE), I assist enterprise clients in migrating their websites to our WordPress VIP hosting platform. I've collaborated with many large news organizations around the world, some of whom come to us because their previous hosts' service or features didn't meet their needs. From learning those histories, and in my own experience as a webmaster, I've seen and heard horror stories about exploited users, passwords, code, infrastructure.

Any site and any CMS can get hacked, as I learned seven years ago with WordPress. Those hard lessons taught me to use security plugins, strong passwords, and other best practices. This mindset has served me well as a TAE, as a platform is only as secure as the software you put on it and the clients who use it.

Now I need to practice what I preach — not to be consistent, but to be secure. One of WordPress VIP's key features is security, which includes free, auto-renewing SSL certificates from Let's Encrypt, with additional HSTS headers to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks. I want that VIP level of security for myself, not because I think someone is out to get me or the Apple II, but because bots and spiders don't discriminate when seeking vulnerabilities.

But if I transition this website fully to HTTPS, what about the Apple II users that'll be excluded? In my annual report of this site's statistics, one granular detail I omit is web browser usage. In the first nine years of Apple II Bits, the most popular browsers were, unsurprisingly, Chrome, Safari, Firefox, and Internet Explorer, constituting a combined 92.44% of all traffic. The remaining 69 browsers each constitute no more than 1.3% of my traffic. There are plenty of browsers I've never heard of, like Rockmelt, Maxthon, Puffin, and Dolfin; several game consoles, including Sony's PlayStation 3 and Vita and Nintendo's 3DS; and mobile devices, from Nokia and BlackBerry.

In very last place on that list is "APPLE ][" with a single visit: on January 20, 2017, someone spent 45:52 reading seven pages on this site.

Maintaining compatibility between this site and its target audience was always more about principle; now, armed with WordPress experience and Google Analytics, I lean more toward the practical. Maintaining an insecure website isn't the best way to support the Apple II; better ways are to attend KansasFest, read/write for Juiced.GS, develop hardware and software, sell merchandise — and build secure websites.

In the march toward those goals, I offer my condolences to the one user from 2.5 years ago who I may never see again in that fashion. I value the appearance you made, and your singular place in my logs shall forever stand.

Shirts & game crossovers

June 17th, 2019 9:43 AM
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Chris Torrence, host of the Assembly Lines video podcast and volunteer at the Media Archaeology Lab, recently added an e-commerce store to his online offerings.

T-shirts based on 8-bit franchises and artwork are nothing new; my closet is full of KansasFest, A2Central.com, and even InTrec shirts. But one item in Chris's catalog caught my eye.

This shirt doesn't just juxtapose Choplifter and Oregon Trail; it actually has them interacting in an unexpected fashion. I was tickled by this unique approach! After Chris confirmed that it is an original design, the Twitterverse requested other crossovers. Chris quickly responded by mocking up Lemonade Stand and Karateka:

Karateka guy kicking Lemonade Stand

Mark Lemmert of 6502 Workshop proposed a Lemonade Stand / Castle Wolfenstein mashup, which caught Kevin Savetz's attention:

I then responded to @rubygolem's proposal for The Bard's Tale and Carmen Sandiego, prompting them to rise to the occasion:

I proposed a boatload of other crossovers, too:

There are plenty of other crossovers I'd like to see, either in game or shirt form, some which may be more a stretch than others:

  •  Leisure Suit Larry / Space Quest: Meet exotic aliens. Have sex with them.
  •  One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird / Olympic Decathlon: Play basketball while simultaneously breaking your keyboard.
  •  Tass Times in Tone Town / Escape from Antcatraz: The colony's grandfather ant has gone missing! Trace his disappearance across several anthills.
  •  Jungle Hunt / Impossible Mission: Avoid drones and alligators while saving damsels and cracking safes.
  • Video game crossovers are becoming more common: just this past week, Nintendo joined forces with Sega for a Mario & Sonic game and with Square Enix for a Smash Bros. team-up. In those scenarios, companies collaborate to lend each other their well-known brands and icons. That wouldn't be possible with many Apple II games, whose copyright holders are defunct or just not good with sharing.

    But it doesn't mean a creative entrepreneur like Chris Torrence couldn't mock something up!

    (Full disclosure: As an Automattic employee, I recommended Chris use WordPress as his store's content management system (CMS) of choice and gave some minor advice upon its launch. I also support Chris' Patreon.)

    A VisiCalc time capsule

    June 10th, 2019 12:56 PM
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    When I was in sixth grade, my class created personal time capsules. We took various pop culture artifacts, put then in a shoebox, and then applied newspapers to decoupage the assembled work. There was no coordinated effort to bury the capsules, though — we brought them home and did whatever 11-year-olds do with completed homework, which in my case was shove it under my bed. It's still there, and the decoupage didn't permanently seal the box, as every few years, I open it to paw through what I thought was important thirty years ago.

    Or, actually, what was unimportant: I couldn't imagine parting with anything I actually valued and bequeathing it to unknown citizens of generations hence. My capsule instead consisted of newspaper comics, McDonald's Happy Meal toys, and other random gadgets I wouldn't miss. It wasn't the most representative selection of the time.

    Architect Frank Gehry did a better job of preserving 20th-century history in a time capsule donated to MIT. Its contents were assembled in 1999, a mere twenty years ago. It was meant to remain sealed for another fifteen years, but its creator locked it with a cryptographic puzzle that would've taken the computers of his era ages to unlock, whereas today's machines made short work of it.

    Regardless, he did a much better job than I did in selecting artifacts of value. The contents of the time capsule were already old when he chose them, such as the user manual for VisiCalc, the world's first-ever electronic spreadsheet. VisiCalc was invented by Dan Bricklin, an MIT graduate, so its inclusion in the capsule was of local interest as well.

    Unlocking the time capsule.

    The capsule's other contents would also be of interest to Apple II users. They included a copy of Microsoft BASIC for the Altair, donated by Bill Gates, who attended the 1999 ceremony in which the capsule was originally sealed. Altair's BASIC was Microsoft's first product, laying the foundation for the company to later create Applesoft BASIC for the Apple II.

    In sixth grade, I plenty of Apple II paraphernalia that would've been right at home in a time capsule. It never occurred to me to include any not because I thought it was insignificant, but because it was too important for me to part with. The Apple II was a computer I used daily from 1983 to 1997, and via emulation ever since; I was too selfish to sacrifice some aspect of it for historical preservation.

    Fortunately, nowadays we can have our artifacts and preserve them, too. Microsoft BASIC's source code has been released; the VisiCalc manual has been scanned; heck, even VisiCalc itself is available for download from Dan Bricklin's website.

    But you can't digitize a Happy Meal toy, so maybe I didn't do so badly, after all.

    (Hat tip to Jesus Diaz)