Archive for June, 2010

Life & Death in the Trauma Center

June 28th, 2010 12:08 PM
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I was searching on YouTube for videos of Apple II games and came across a ten-minute tour Life & Death. I'd never heard of this game, despite its proliferation in 1988 to Mac OS, DOS, Amiga, Atari ST, and, of course, the Apple IIGS. It appears to be a medical simulation game in which you interact with patients, make diagnoses, then perform surgery. Here's the video:



On the Apple II, this game is reminiscent of Operation Frog, a game by Tom Snyder (who later went on to create the animated television series Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist). Naturally, there is far less dialogue and diagnosis in Operation Frog, as the game recreates the experience of a high school biology lab and lessons in basic anatomy.

But more striking to me was Life & Death's resemblance to Trauma Center, a series of video games that launched on the Nintendo DS in 2005 and now enjoys popularity on the Nintendo Wii. In these games, interaction with patients is drawn out into a cohesive storyline. Diagnosis occurs automatically, but you still need to choose the proper tools for surgery; failure to act wisely or swiftly will result in the patient's death, or game over, returning you to the beginning of the level. Check out the similarities for yourself:



Given the popularity of edutainment software in the 1980s, I'm not surprised that a real-life profession would be simulated in a video game as far back as 22 years ago. What is impressive is that technology has not dramatically changed the nature of electronic entertainment. The interface and complexity of Life & Death and Trauma Center are noticeably different, but the theme and gameplay of the two are almost identical. No one acknowledges the Apple IIGS for pioneering this particular genre, even though it continues to be an unconscious inspiration. For example, it wasn't until the fifth game in the Trauma Center series, Trauma Team, that players were given the opportunity to diagnose patients themselves.

There's nothing unusual about Apple II classics inspiring modern hits; I presented on the topic myself at KansasFest 2009 and will be pursuing the issue further at next month's event. But I never expected Trauma Center, which I previously considered unique to the Nintendo, to have its genesis on the Apple II. It truly was a computer ahead of its time, even recreationally.

Apple Two: ROM 01 vs. ROM 03

June 24th, 2010 12:47 PM
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I recently signed up for as many Apple II email lists as I could find, be it by RSS or email digest — anything I can quickly scan for content. One such list was Low End Mac's Apple2list, which since 2006 has been hosted by Google Groups. Earlier this month, the list included a for-sale listing. I rarely, if ever, purchase anything for the Apple II online, preferring to do business in-person at the KansasFest vendor fair. But the opportunity to buy a ROM 03 IIGS for $15 + S&H was too good to pass up.

I don't have any immediate need for another Apple II. After all, it was only recently that I found room to set up my ROM 01. That machine was purchased in 1992 as a backup to our original IIGS, bought in 1988, which itself was an upgrade to the family IIe that powered the family business. Since the IIGS in my office was originally a backup, I decided it now needed its own backup. My father still keeps his Apple II handy for accessing and maintaining some legacy files, so I needed to get my own.

Besides, no one in my family had ever owned a ROM 03 before. The differences between it and the ROM 01 are minor: a bit more onboard memory, a slightly faster boot time. I was more interested in expanding my collection of officially released IIGS models than I was in upgrading to a better model. Besides, so much software was written for the ROM 01 that a few of them actually break on the ROM 03. But now I could extract a ROM image and legally emulate either model with Sweet16.

The Apple II was shipped and received quickly, and I eagerly unboxed it. I pried open the case to see what the insides of a ROM 03 looked like. I expected it to look different from my ROM 01, and even though I hadn't taken the top off my main computer in years, what I now found myself looking at seemed too familiar. I quickly booted it up and let the splash screen confirm my suspicion: I was now the proud owner of another ROM 01.

Apple IIGS ROM 01

What I hoped would be a ROM 03.

The seller quickly acknowledged his honest mistake, and we negotiated a compromise that satisfied both parties. I'm more frustrated with myself than with him. Had I been more familiar with the technical differences of the two models, the above picture, provided prior to purchase, would've been all the information I needed to determine the error. Even without that knowledge, comparing that photo to those in this side-by-side comparison (English translation) would've sufficiently enlightened me.

Even though I ended up with a working Apple IIGS for an even better price than I expected, I'm still slightly disappointed to now have a computer that offers nothing beyond what I already had. Still, if my goal was to have an Apple II that I could swap into the place of my main machine when and if it fails, then mission accomplished. A few more such accidental purchases, and I could start my very own AppleCrate!

What would you do with more than one Apple II?

Communication is key in vendor-client relationships

June 21st, 2010 11:57 AM
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An Apple II user recently posted to csa2 his concern over the service he'd received from an Apple II vendor, who took 12 days to ship an order. His complaint is legitimate, but his respondents provided a perspective that he hadn't considered. He followed up later: "I did not know that the company was a one-man operation. That helps to explain the delay."

Despite the proliferation of Apple II software and especially hardware these days, the platform is sadly no a longer financially viable means of earning a living. What motivates those vendors who remain is their enjoyment and passion for the Apple II, with the hope of at least breaking even. It's this spirit that drives them to pursue their hobby in their extracurricular hours, even after a grueling day job leaves them exhausted. As a result, a customer's order does not always receive the attention that both the customer and the vendor want to give it, and delays such as the above do happen.

When this happens, guessing at the vendor's situation isn't the only solution, as some commenters on the csa2 post suggest. Communication from the vendor can help the customer set appropriate expectations. The hosting service with which this site currently resides, DreamHost, is especially good at this. They have a blog and a Twitter feed dedicated to communicating the status of their servers to their customers, so that no one is ever left uninformed of planned maintenance or unexpected outages. It's also an efficient means of communications: rather than fielding the same support ticket dozens of times, they can publish one blog post in anticipation of such questions. And finally, it's honest: DreamHost isn't covering up their outages but posting them for all to see.   Big money
This is about how much money there is to be made from the Apple II these days. Photo by Stavros Karatsoridis.
 

The Apple II community also has many examples of vendors who practice this habit. Eric Shepherd of Syndicomm sometimes falls a month behind in fulfilling orders. When that happens, he usually posts a message to csa2 informing folks of his backlog and his progress. Likewise, I recently placed an order for an issue of 300 Baud magazine. Before I ever handed over my money, I was informed right on the product's homepage, "PLEASE ALLOW 4-6 WEEKS FOR DELIVERY". Even the vendor at the focus of the csa2 thread had updated his Web site last summer to indicate a significant delay in shipping, as some recent publicity had led to a spike in the popularity of his product. Unfortunately, he has no such notice posted today that could've precluded the above complaint.

I'm an Apple II vendor myself, and for each Juiced.GS order I receive, I personally email the buyer to let him know when his order has shipped or will ship. However, my philosophy is a bit more selfish than the principles outlined above. There are so few Apple II users these days that I want to reach out to each one individually and learn their stories: How long have you been using the Apple II? How did you hear about Juiced.GS? Your name seems familiar — did you happen to write that program I used in 1988? Making such connections is vital to community solidarity and growth. That's how Brian Wiser, a first-time subscriber as of earlier this year, came to be someone with whom I now regularly communicate about podcasts, Firefly, scanning techniques, and more. At the least, the more I learn about my customers, the better I'm able to serve them in the future.

So, yes, vendors have a responsibility to their clients and their community — but it is the customers' responsibility to remember that we're all in this together, and though our patience must still have limits, we should adjust them accordingly.

Apple II gaming in Retro Gamer

June 17th, 2010 12:07 PM
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As recently mentioned on the Juiced.GS blog, and as first told to me by Andy Molloy, Retro Gamer magazine issue #76 features an eight-page profile of the Apple II as a gaming machine. As not just an Apple II user but a long-time gamer, I enjoyed this retrospective, which featured many of the games I grew up playing. The text focuses on the Apple II and its history and fate, while high-quality pictures of dozens of games capture the unique look of the era and genre.

I especially enjoyed reading quotes from Jordan Mechner (Prince of Persia), Bill Budge (Pinball Construction Set), and John Romero (Wolfenstein 3D) reminiscing about developing for the Apple II. As luminaries who acknowledge their origin, they're in good company. In my role as KansasFest marketing director, I'm often the first contact with potential keynote speakers. Everyone we've approached has always been kind enough to respond to our invitation, and of those who did not accept, each has cited scheduling or personal conflicts. Never have I heard anything akin to "Sorry, but the Apple II doesn't interest me anymore." The gentlemen interviewed in Retro Gamer are proof of the magnanimous spirit of those whom the Apple II made famous.

The article includes a Top Ten list of the best Apple II games, all of which I believe are 8-bit:

Retro Gamer #76

  1. The Bard's Tale
  2. Pinball Construction Set
  3. The Oregon Trail
  4. Karateka
  5. Choplifter
  6. Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness
  7. Lode Runner
  8. Prince of Persia
  9. Beyond Castle Wolfenstein
  10. Taipan!

Seven of the games spawned sequels and franchises, some of which exist to this day. That's a powerful legacy. The article's last two pages consist of a collage of 56 different Apple II games, many of which I've never played but am now desperate to. Apparently, I'm not the only one, given how popular the trend is to port Apple II games to the iPhone.

What are your memories of growing up gaming on the Apple II? How did it compare with other computers of the era?

Every office needs an Apple II

June 14th, 2010 1:31 PM
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Ever since I moved out of my parents' house in 1997, I've not had space for a proper Apple II setup. I'd left behind two Apple IIGS computers in the basement: one from which my father ran the family business, another leftover from when I ran a dial-up BBS (1993–1997). In December 2008, I finally rescued the latter from years of inactivity when I installed it in my office cubicle.


It was a great relief, though not a surprise, to find that everything still worked fine after 11 years. Only two things failed me, both memory-based. The first was the ROM 01's inbuilt battery, which stores various settings in the BRAM. But I had previously installed Bill Tudor's BRAM.Checker, which stores the contents of BRAM to the hard drive on shutdown and restores them on startup, so it wasn't a big deal. Nonetheless, it was cheap enough to buy a battery pack from ReactiveMicro.com at KansasFest 2009.

The other failing was my own memory. For more than a decade, I had relied on emulators — first Bernie ][ the Rescue, then Sweet16. I've now been reminded that computing on the metal is a very different experience. I was soon asking myself and others many basic questions: to ensure my revived machine is still good, how do I run a self-diagnostic test at boot time? (Hold down Open-Apple and Option.) What does it mean that the test returned "0C000003 GS Diagnostic Self-Test error/ Sound Test: Data register failed"? (It means I have a ZipGS accelerator card installed.) All sorts of little things, I had to relearn — though strangely enough, I danced around ProTERM's various keyboard shortcuts for several minutes before realizing I had no reason to remember these esoteric commands.

It was also vaguely embarrassing to boot up a machine that represented my teen philosophies. The startup splash screen made it clear that no IBMs were allowed, and the mouse pointer was replaced by an ominous skull. What I saw in the 1990s as amusing frivolities, I see in 2010 as a waste of resources.

The first new acquisition I made for my computer was from RetroFloppy, run by David Schmidt, creator of ADTPro. The combination of hardware and software he provided allowed me to create disk images on my Mac of the Q-Drive from which I'd run my BBS. As Jason Scott would say, I don't know what among this data needs to be preserved, but it's better to make backups now, lest it not be available later when I decide it is worth preserving.

My IIGS hasn't seen a ton of use since its initial corporate installation. I sometimes spend lunch break playing Lode Runner or trying out old copies of Scholastic's Microzine. I want to put it on the corporate network, but the Uthernet card sells as quickly as they're produced. (I can't wait to see the look on the helpdesk tech's faces when they get that support ticket!) An easy way to transfer individual files between the Apple II and my MacBook would also be handy; to that end, I am an eager future customer of Rich Dreher's CFFA3000 model of his historically popular IDE/CompactFlash interface card. I'm also awaiting the delivery of a ROM 03 machine — my first of that model, and my first Apple II purchase in eighteen years — that will serve as a backup (or maybe even a replacement) to my primary machine.

My Apple II was to be the subject of a Computerworld.com video, as I teased on the A2Unplugged podcast last year. We shot a half-hour of footage and winnowed it down to about 12 minutes, which was the longest video we'd ever produced in-house. Unfortunately, we never found the appropriate context in which to launch the video, and a few months later, its producer was laid off. We found the raw footage on his workplace hard drive, but the final cut was never found.

The bright side is that I now have a cubicle that sports three generations of Apple computers: an Apple-1, an Apple II, and a MacBook Pro. I still get some amused looks from my co-workers — unfortunately, nothing quite as delighted as this gentleman was with his surprise retrocomputer:



Guitar Hero for the Apple II

June 10th, 2010 10:43 AM
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This week at the WWDC, the iPhone 4.0 was unveiled, and with it, several new apps, including Activision's own Guitar Hero, a music rhythm game that first debuted on the PlayStation 2 and allows players to use a plastic guitar to strum along to on-screen color-coded symbols. Games in the Guitar Hero franchises have sold over 40 million copies, warranting its first appearance on an Apple platform.

It's encouraging that an entire genre has sprung up around a game's audio component. Game soundtracks have often taken the backseat to visuals, which is unfortunate; years after we last play a game, it's the melodies that we remember best, rising unbidden to our whistling lips. Apple IIGS users are especially fortunate to have enjoyed this element of the gaming experience, as the machine's Ensoniq sound chip performed far better than stock IBM clones of the era. I have a Soundmeister sound card in my IIGS, though I don't recall exactly what benefits it bequeathed; all I remember is that, even prior to that upgrade, my DOS-based friends were jealous of my computer's capabilities.

With all that aural processing power, I can't help but wonder why the iPhone has Guitar Hero but the Apple II doesn't? Turns out, we do:

Guitar Hero for the Apple II

Guitar Hero for the Apple II!
Image courtesy Mac-TV.

This advertisement is for a sound card that Steve Weyhrich's Apple II History site describes: "ALF Music Card (ALF Products, Inc.) was strictly a music synthesizer, with some included software to aid in producing the music." This card, released in the early 1980s, was outclassed a few years later by the Apple IIGS. But in theory, both 8- and 16-bit model of Apple II should be capable of a Guitar Hero-like game, sans peripherals. It requires playing music and accepting input simultaneously, but also matching the accuracy of the input with the time of the music. That too shouldn't be difficult: the input routine doesn't need to be aware of the music, so long as it has its own counter by which to judge input. (Five seconds into the game, it looks for the letter 'A'; six seconds in, it'll accept only 'F'. etc.) If the keyboard input and sound output routines were in fact separate, then the former wouldn't even be complicated by the latter using Vince Briel's MP3 peripheral. Even barring that, there are so many chiptune artists who use the Apple II to create original or remix songs that assembling a sweet soundtrack should be trivial. On the visual side, it's already been proven that the Apple II can produce music videos in time with external audio, so such a game could truly be a complete package.

Has anything like this been done before? Since music rhythm did not emerge as its own genre until the 1990s, I can't think of any software titles that predate that label which would nonetheless suit it. Are there Apple II games that rely predominantly on sound to prompt user input? If not, why not?

(Hat tip to dangerman and Mac-TV)