Archive for February, 2012

My personal contribution to preventive archiving

February 27th, 2012 11:45 AM
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People like Mike Maginnis and Jason Scott have done a great deal to preserve the history of the Apple II. I got a taste for what it's like to contribute to that effort when I recorded KansasFest 2010, publishing dozens of videos of otherwise ephemeral experiences — but it wasn't until we lost Ryan Suenaga nearly a year ago that I realized the urgency of this work.

Ryan's passing was unexpected, and he left many people lost without him. The consequences to his friends and family make everything else seem trivial by comparison, but I had to contribute what little I could to aspects of Ryan's legacy that may otherwise go overlooked. I reconstituted RyanSuenaga.com, a domain that had expired during Ryan's lifetime but which he was too busy to maintain. Similarly, Tony Diaz purchased A2Unplugged.com, ensuring that episodes of the A2Unplugged podcast — still the most prolific Apple II podcast to date, despite not having published a new episode in nearly two years — will remain available.

In a way, it's too little, too late. We need to think about these worst-case scenarios before they happen. What does that mean for me? I don't arrogantly assume my original work will be missed, but I recognize that my primary role in the Apple II community is as a channel for other people's talents: I solicit and publish writers in Juiced.GS; I help bring people and luminaries together for KansasFest; and, with my co-host, I interview community members on Open Apple. Out of respect for the many volunteers who contribute to these outlets, I want this work to be tamper-proof while I'm alive — and continued when I'm not.

Last year, I devised a method for my digital assets to be accessed by a designated individual in the event of an emergency. It is a convoluted strategy that involves sealed envelopes, cross-country phone calls to strangers, and clues to decipher. Why I didn't simply put my passwords in a bank deposit box to which a relative has the key, I don't know. Perhaps I've watched National Treasure too many times.

But more immediately, I wanted to get data that is already publicly available into more hands, to ensure it doesn't suffer from a single point of failure. I'm relieved to have finally gotten to a point where I believe I have accomplished that goal. With help from Mike Maginnis, Steve Weyhrich, Ewen Wannop, Jeff Kaplan, and more, today marks a series of coordinated announcements:

Distribution and preservation: The benefits of an ISSN
Juiced.GS receives an ISSN from the Library of Congress and is archived by ten museums and universities around the world.
Preserving KansasFest videos: Internet Archive, iTunes, YouTube
KansasFest videos from 2009 and beyond to be made available in the Internet Archive, via an iTunes video podcast, and on YouTube.
Open Apple on the Internet Archive
Episodes of the Apple II community's only co-hosted podcast now permanently available from a 501(c)(3) online library.

Some of these developments were easily accomplished; others required hours of busy work and calling in personal favors. Some were free but for our time and energy; others cost hundreds of dollars. All were group efforts that require ongoing commitments.

The work to ensure our Apple II heritage remains available to current and future generations never ends. Let's make sure that which is unique is never lost.

Hardware restoration done right

February 23rd, 2012 2:14 PM
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There is so much work being done to preserve Apple II software and documentation that we sometimes overlook the value of maintaining hardware, too. But that may be our most precious resource of all; after all, software can be duplicated, manuals can be reproduced, but hardware is unique and something they're not making any more of.

Just this month, two different Apple II users expressed their care and admiration for original hardware by rescuing vintage equipment, painstakingly restoring it — and exhaustively documenting the process in photos.

Kevin Rye of RescueMyClassicMac.com AppleToTheCore.me has saved two peripherals: first, a CH Products joystick; then, a week later, an Apple IIc external 5.25" floppy drive. Useful to the reader are Kevin's instructions for disassembling each piece of hardware, showing how he took everything apart then put it back together in working order. As for the actual cleaning, some of Kevin's techniques may seem crude but are effective: "I could just just wipe the whole thing down with some alcohol and have at it with some Q-tips, but there's too many little nooks and crannies that are caked with dirt and grime. It needs to be taken apart and washed in the sink. I might even give it a quick dip just to lighten it up a bit." But he does apply alcohol, peroxide, and Retr0bright where appropriate.

Meanwhile, Mike Maginnis had the opportunity to restore a full Apple IIc computer. His written documentation doesn't detail disassembly or cleaning techniques, but his photos of the IIc are brilliant, thorough, and artistic, as you would expect from Mike.

IIc keyboard

Before and after. Photo by Mike Maginnis.

For more details on how to restore your hardware to its original function and appearance, Tony Diaz has given multiple sessions on this topic at KansasFest. You can bring your goods to KFest for his expert evaluation, or view one of his previous presentations:

(Hat tip to the 68K MLA forum)

Wasteland sequel to hit Kickstarter

February 20th, 2012 1:28 PM
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Back in September, I called Martin Haye on Juiced.GS business. In this day of Twitter, Facebook, IM, and IRC, it's unusual for me to make a phone call to an Apple II user, and I'm always cognizant of the likelihood for intrusion when I do. In this case, I knew Martin was soon leaving on a camping trip, and I didn't want to interrupt his packing. Nope! He was playing Wasteland, Interplay's post-apocalyptic spiritual precursor to Fallout. "Oh," I said, "so this is a bad time to be calling." "Well, it's not like it's the kind of game that demands uninterrupted attention," he laughed.

Here's something that does deserve your attention, Martin: having recently developed Choplifter HD, original Wasteland co-designer Brian Fargo of inXile Entertainment is looking to reboot the franchise with a new, Kickstarter-funded game. The possible Wasteland 2 would be faithful to its origins by "focusing on top-down, probably isometric, party based, skill based — where if you'd just finished playing Wasteland and moved onto this you'd feel comfortable." But it'll stray from its roots by being for PC only, though an iOS edition would be considered.

Wasteland box art

All this for the cool price of one million dollars — that's how much Fargo estimates it'll take to fund the project. That's ambitious but, as of last week, not unprecedented. Still, it's a ton of dough to pony up for a game that's known to modern gamers more by name than by experience. Is Fargo daydreaming? He revealed his intentions after only 48 hours of consideration, after all. Or will we put our money where his mouth is when the Kickstarter campaign supposedly launches next month?

Will you support such a campaign? What's a new Wasteland worth to you?

(Hat tip to Andy Chalk)

Karateka returns

February 16th, 2012 9:23 AM
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Filed under Game trail, Mainstream coverage, Software showcase;
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I recently asked why Jordan Mechner's Prince of Persia has enjoyed more diverse success and adaptation than other Apple II originals. That's now proven to be a prescient musing, as yesterday Mechner announced on his blog that his debut title, Karateka, will be re-imagined as a new game for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network later in 2012.

Like PoP, the original Karateka for the Apple II employed rotoscoping to create fluid graphics and animations. Its one-on-one martial arts bouts could be seen as a precursor to games such as Karate Champ and even Street Fighter. Yet despite being such an archetype, the game is being approached for a remake with a very different lineage than the many PoP sequels have been. As Mechner told Gamasutra:

In the 27 years since its release, it's never had a sequel or an adaptation. And yet it's stayed in people's minds all this time. It seems to hold a special place in many gamers' hearts, as it does in mine. It's the game that started my career — you can't get more indie than the Apple II — and its compact design, simple story and pick-up-and-play philosophy made it perfect for a downloadable game.

The new Karateka will not be a sequel but a fuller realization of Mechner's original characters and plot using modern technology:

The Apple II was a bit limited, in that a game could be acclaimed as a cinematic masterpiece of fluid animation while actually it was struggling to eke out eight frames per second — or even less, if the palace gate happened to be on screen at the same time. The music could only play one note at a time, no chords, and I couldn't animate the characters and play a note at the same time — given the 1KHz [sic] microprocessor it was one or the other.

So I'm especially excited about what we can do with the graphics and animation and sound in the new Karateka, given the power of today's consoles … I wanted to take advantage of XBLA and PSN technology to push this game to its production limits, and use graphics, sound and music to really put players into the world of feudal Japan in a way we couldn't on the Apple II … I've tried to make Karateka the way I would have made it in 1984 had the technology been available, and had the Apple II been able to display more than 280×192 pixels and four colors.

But the remake won't outperform the original in all ways. As Mechner told GameTrailers.com:

"If you turn both the video game console and your large flat-screen TV upside down, the entire game will play upside down," Mechner joked. "We would have liked to make it do that if you just insert the disk upside down, like the original, but with a downloadable game unfortunately that wasn't possible. See, 1980s technology was actually superior in some ways."

The past three years have provided Apple II users with a bounty of opportunities to revisit their favorite classics as never before seen, with affordable downloads and remakes of games such as Choplifter, Lode Runner, and Prince of Persia. My own history with Mechner's résumé includes more lends itself more to Karateka than PoP, and I'm eager to see how the creative force behind the original will remake such a relatively simple game as Karateka for modern platforms and audiences.

The legacy of Prince of Persia

February 13th, 2012 1:45 PM
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Filed under Game trail, People, Software showcase;
3 comments.

I've written several times about Prince of Persia, Jordan Mechner's seminal platformer that debuted on the Apple II and has since been translated, reimagined, and adapted across video game platforms, comic books, and Hollywood. At its core, the game and its plot are simple yet enduring, having survived across decades and dozens of reinterpretations. Why?

wallpaper_prince_of_persia_warrior_within_08_1600This is not the Prince of Persia you grew up with. What's given him so long a life?

Ryan Lambie at the Den of Geek has an answer. In a thoughtful if occasionally rosy reflection on the original game, he points to Prince of Persia's tension and challenge as its timeless qualities.

It didn't matter that the levels themselves were a comparatively sparse amalgam of grey walls, blue tiles and white spikes — when the Prince hung by his fingertips above a precipice, or leapt through a closing gate with barely a second to spare, the experience was akin to stepping into the shoes of Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker.

[But] was the game's challenge that made it so addictive. No other game could match its sense of danger, nor the horrendous sense of loss when the Prince was inevitably sliced in two, run through with a sword, impaled by spikes, crushed by falling masonry, or had his bones shattered by a precipitous drop. Even now, it's difficult to think of a game whose animation, control system (which, looking back, was extremely fiddly) and level design merge so seamlessly.

As true as it is that Prince of Persia possessed these traits, I'm not sure they can explain what makes the franchise unique. Many early computer and arcade games possessed their own kind of anxiety and difficulty: who can forget being chased by stormtroopers through the halls of Castle Wolfenstein? That game inspired a 1992 first-person shooter and a series of modern sequels, but I've not witnessed it infusing popular (or at least geek) culture of the degree Prince of Persia has.

Is it just luck of the draw that made Prince of Persia succeed in ways that its contemporaries, such as Choplifter and Lode Runner, have not? Or has Jordan Mechner's genius made his opus into something unquantifiable and irreproducible?

Battle of the 'bots

February 9th, 2012 1:45 PM
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Filed under Happenings, Software showcase;
1 comment.

As I've discussed in Open Apple but not previously on Apple II Bits, you absolutely must check out Jimmy Maher's blog, The Digital Antiquarian. His exhaustive, academic, focused writings on the Apple II and aspects of its history and games (specifically what he refers to a "ludic narratives") are fun and informative reads worth making the time for.

His travels through Apple's history have most recently taken him to the works of Silas Warner, best known for the seminal stealth game Castle Wolfenstein but also developer of RobotWar, published by MUSE Software in 1981. True to its PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) origins, the game served as an instructional tool for teaching programming, challenging users to create routines that describe the behavior of a combative robot. As Maher describes:

You don’t get to design your robot in the physical sense; each is identical in size, in the damage it can absorb, in acceleration and braking, and in having a single rotable radar dish it can use to “see” and a single rotatable gun it can use to shoot. The programming language you work with is extremely primitive even by the standard of BASIC, with just a bare few commands. Actual operation of the robot is accomplished by reading from and writing to a handful of registers. That can seem an odd way to program today — it took me a while to wrap my mind around it again after spending recent months up to my eyebrows in Java — but in 1981, when much microcomputer programming involved PEEKing and POKEing memory locations and hardware registers directly, it probably felt more immediately familiar.

Two to five players would then enter their routines into an arena, and may the strongest robot win!

Terminator T-800 vs Robocop

Inspired by the RobotWar competitions Computer Gaming World once hosted, Maher is looking to resurrect these epic duels with a contest of his own. One cool feature not possible at the time of RobotWar's debut: Maher will do a screencast of each battle and upload the video recording, so that players can not just know the outcome but watch how it came to be. Contestants can tweak their winning 'bots between battles, evolving them to face ever stiffer competition. Grand prizes await the mightiest mech.

This sounds like great fun, in the tradition of HackFest and RetroChallenge. I applaud Maher for actively supporting and even expanding the Apple II community, and I encourage anyone reading this to consider entering the contest.

One shall stand… and one shall fall!