Archive for March, 2011

Choplifter lifts off

March 31st, 2011 2:58 PM
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The Apple II is proving an endless font of inspiration for modern-day video game remakes. Not only is Wizardry coming to the PlayStation Network, but it will soon be joined on that service by Choplifter, that seminal side-scrolling action game, set on the landscape of a far-off purple desert.

I remember playing Choplifter on my Apple II, one of the few games for which I could use the joystick instead of the keyboard. I enjoyed the dichotomy of the player's charges: not only did I have to evade unfriendly fire and destroy enemy tanks, but I also had to rescue captured hostages and diplomats. Such realistic humanitarian directives were rare in an era where video games were about shooting down space invaders or rescuing damsels in dysfunction. Choplifter was even good for a lesson in vocabulary, having taught me the word "sortie".

Check out the experience that the remake hopes to recapture:

Dan Gorlin's Choplifter was the first second game to make the transition from computer to arcade, instead of the other way around. It enjoyed many console-exclusive sequels as well, most recently the 1994 release of Choplifter III for Super Nintendo, among others.

The latest sequel, Choplifter HD, comes from inXile Entertainment, the company headed by Interplay founder Brian Fargo. Originally announced two years ago, the game received received more details this week, including a tentative release date of Fall 2011. Here's the trailer:

It looks like the core gameplay hasn't changed much, with action still occurring primarily in two dimensions, keeping it from straying too far into the Desert Strike franchise that Choplifter itself inspired. Time will tell if it captures more than the look and feel but also the spirit of the original.

The affordability and accessibility of downloadable games certainly seems inviting for industry veterans to dust off old ideas. What other Apple II classics would you like to see remade for modern consoles?

UPDATE: This game will launch in Fall 2011. Dan Gorlin is onboard as a consultant, and players will get to save both POWs and survivors of the zombie apocalypse.

Mac Mini in a Disk II video tutorial

March 28th, 2011 12:47 PM
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One of the first blog posts to Apple II Bits was old news even when it was published: a hardware hacker had gutted a Disk II drive and replaced its innards with a Mac mini. It was a creative marriage of new and old tech, reminiscent of the many unnatural monstrosities of Ben Heck.

More recently, John Bumstead has decided to make his own go at such a conversion. Due to not wanting to permanently damage his hardware, he aborted the process halfway through, but his video tour of the Disk II still provides some insight into how one would go about inserting a Mac mini inside this Apple II peripheral's case.

What other combinations of new tech with a retro look — or vice versa! — can you imagine?

The history and future of Wizardry

March 24th, 2011 5:08 PM
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The Magic Candle is one of my all-time favorite role-playing games — though on the computer platform, it doesn't have much competition for that title: I honestly can't recall any other RPG I've played for the Apple II or Mac. All other games in that genre were either console exclusives, such as Final Fantasy, or ports from the computer, like Ultima.

One such port was Wizardry, which you wouldn't think would work on a two-button controller, but with no basis for comparison, I enjoyed the Nintendo version just fine. There was little the interface could do to strengthen or soften what was already a punishing experience. As Wizardry's adventurers explored the labyrinthine dungeon of despair from a first-person perspective, developer Sir-Tech made sure they encountered wave after wave of more powerful foes. It was only by playing it safe, not venturing far past the dungeon entrance, and fighting only minor foes before escaping to the safety of camp — a process eventually known as "grinding" that players could slowly prepare themselves to pursue more tempting treasures.

At the dawn of electronic entertainment, "challenge" and "gameplay" were practically interchangeable, so for the reasons above, I found myself drawn to Wizardry. Unlike with the more narrative Final Fantasy, I was not locked to a specific party but could design my own, encouraging endless experimentation. In fact, by some fluke, the very first character I ever rolled up was given enough discretionary building points that I could've created a ninja, right off the bat. But I'd never played the game before and didn't know what a high number I'd rolled; I must've hit "reset" to see if I could do better, as I never did get that ninja.

Bitmob recently published a history of Wizardry, detailing its origins, successes, and anime adaptations (the game was even bigger in Japan than in the USA). The article ends with the series' ultimate demise in North America — or ultimate, up until recently. Announced yesterday was the return of this franchise for a new generation of gamers, marking the first Wizardry title in a decade. But unlike with the series debut, where players could choose between the console or computer versions, this time, there is no choice: Labyrinth of Lost Souls will be exclusive to the PlayStation Network, an online "app store" for the Sony PlayStation 3 video game console. If that weren't change enough, the game will have a distinct Eastern flair, as seen in this screenshot of the character creation process.

Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls

Photo courtesy RPGFan

It's too soon to tell how this spring 2011 release will be received, and whether it'll be too modern for retrogamers or too hard for PS3 players. In the meantime, if you'd rather return to the age of classic Wizardry, I highly recommend Jeff Fink's Silvern Castle. This ridiculously comprehensive RPG offers everything Wizardry did on the Apple II and more, all while running from Applesoft BASIC on any 8- or 16-bit Apple II.

The Apple II player piano

March 21st, 2011 9:35 AM
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Depending on your definition, computers have been around much longer than the Apple II. For example, Charles Babbage's analytical engine was documented in 1837, demonstrating a mechanical means of computing and converting data.

But such devices weren't always so pragmatic; starting in the late 19th century and peaking in 1924, another sort of computer was the player piano. By "reading" a spool of paper, the machine could interpret the data encoded onto those sheets and translate it into aural tones.

Although player pianos have waned in popularity, there was a brief period in which their manufacture was aided by the Apple II, itself a musical machine. This video shows an Apple II being used to create spools of music for player pianos:

(Hat tip to IonFarmer)

The brains behind the first PC virus

March 17th, 2011 12:16 PM
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Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the debut of Elk Cloner, the first microcomputer virus. It was created for the Apple II in 1982 by Rich Skrenta, who was only 15 at the time. Unlike modern viruses, which can disable networks and cripple businesses, Elk Cloner was fairly harmless, presenting a poem upon the fiftieth boot of an infected disk. Skrenta has since created a Web site that offers Elk Cloner as both a disk image and source code.

It was four years after Elk Cloner's release that the emerging PC platform caught its own virus. The Brain virus, like its Apple II predecessor, was a harmless boot sector virus that renamed the infected disk. But unlike most viruses of unknown origin, Brain contained the contact information of its creators. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of its release, USA Today published this video by F-Secure, in which researcher Mikko Hypponen travels to Pakistan to interview the virus's creators, Amjad Farooq Alvi and Basit Farooq Alvi:

I was intrigued to note the similarities between the two viruses, created in different countries for different platforms and without knowledge of each other. The technology of the era prevented swift distribution, yet even with the manual distribution and transportation of floppies, these viruses spread throughout the world and exist to this day. Both were created with mischief in mind, not malice. But is there a difference? Both qualify as the unauthorized reconfiguration of a third party's hardware or software. To what degree do the ends absolve the means? Could a new Apple II virus be created today without anyone upsetting anyone?

SimCity at GDC

March 14th, 2011 11:56 AM
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Juiced.GS associate editor Andy Molloy and I are exhausted from a weekend spent at PAX East, an annual video game convention held in Boston. There were some fun classic computer references: Bill Amend put up a picture of an old, non-Apple II computer as representative of the state of technology when he started drawing FoxTrot; Paul Saunders of LoadingReadyRun and The Escapist cited Hard Hat Mack as one of his first and favorite games as a kid (he can expect an issue of Juiced.GS in his mailbox later this month), while his colleague Graham Stark acknowledged The Interbank Incident; and Jerry Holkins reminisced about thinking for a week that he'd lost his Wasteland save game before realizing it was on the other side of the floppy. He actually hugged his mom, crying, "We're back!"

For gamers, there were several classic arcade and console rooms, the former courtesy the American Classic Arcade Museum to which Andy and I made our annual pilgrimage last month, but other than the aforementioned hat tips, there wasn't much here for retrocomputing enthusiasts. Such was not the case at the Game Developers Conference earlier this month, where an iOS version of Out of This World was announced. But there was some other insight out of GDC of interest to Apple II users.

A popular form of GDC panel is the post-mortem, in which developers talk about the thought and processes that went into a game that was released anywhere from a day to a decade ago. Will Wright of SimCity fame was one such presenter, discussing the origin of Raid on Bungeling Bay:

When he decided to make a game after learning BASIC and Pascal, "It was almost more of a whim," he said. At that point, a lot of people on the Apple II were on their second or third generation games, so he was worried about competing with them.

But the Commodore 64 had just come out, "so I thought I'll just buy one of these new computers, make a game on that, and level the playing field," said Wright. He actually programmed the game on the Apple II, then dumped it onto the C64.

"I remember I was 4 or 5 years old, and I went on a helicopter ride, and it was one of the coolest things in the world," he said, so he knew he wanted helicopters in the game, as well as some sort of clockwork world. And since the Apple II's games were all very simple screens, "I wanted a very large world that I could really get lost in, and feel like it was that large."

He made two tools to build the game world: Chedid was a character editor, which was “really primitive,” he said. Wedit lets you scroll around the world and place the characters from Chedid. “Wedit eventually evolved into Sim City,” he said. “I was scrolling around the world and having a lot of fun with it.”

So, there you have it: SimCity was designed to be a map editor for an Apple II game. How frustrating that the Apple II's role in the creation of one of gaming's most celebrated franchises has not been rewarded with its own version of SimCity. With the source code having been made available some years ago, shouldn't it just be a matter of time? It's a popular topic in csa2, but AFAIK, the only attempts to port the game were made before the source was released. How about a renewed effort?

UPDATE: The video, audio, and slides from this GDC presentation are now available.

(Hat tip to Jason Scott)