Archive for November, 2012

Halloween pirates abound!

November 26th, 2012 1:43 PM
Filed under Musings;

The recent observance of American Thanksgiving and Black Friday has commenced the holiday season in the United States. Tis the season for dieters to feel guilt and shame as we indulge ourselves on a bevy of feasts and treats. Yet the gluttonous assault on our waistlines did not begin with this past week’s mounds of potatoes, gravy, and pumpkin pie. No, the gastronomical festivities truly began with Halloween.

October 31st doesn’t mean much to my sweet tooth, which I lost a few years ago due to overindulgence. But I do enjoy Halloween much as I did in my youth: dressing up in costume. It’s not much different from my former hobby in community theater, except there, I was in company where strange attire was the norm, and nobody gave each other a second glance. On Halloween, everyone stops to look and marvel at various abnormal accoutrements.

Halloween is an opportunity not just to be funny or strange, but also to uniquely express oneself. It’s an opportunity I didn’t pass up, taking a traditional nautical costume and adding my own 8-bit flair.

Arr! I be a software pirate!

This isn’t the first time I’ve donned this costume; although I wore it in 2012, the above photos are from 2011, and I debuted it in 2005. I’m sure the idea isn’t original and I got it from somewhere else, but the source escapes me after all this time.

I’ve found I get more enjoyment from the costume the less explanation it requires. Walking across the campus of my science and engineering-oriented alma mater, people just laughed and shook their heads. Strolling through Harvard Square, I would get either quizzical looks or a generic “Hey, look — a pirate!”

Curiously, there’s one comment I received multiple times in 2012 that was unheard of in 2005: “Where did you find floppy disks?”

Steve Wozniak and the Apple Historical Museum

November 19th, 2012 12:46 PM
Filed under History, Steve Wozniak;
1 comment.

David Greelish is petitioning Apple to include a visitor center in their new campus. It seems that Apple is quick to forget their history, offering visitors to their offices little opportunity to reflect where in the evolution of Apple’s product lines the user was introduced to the brand.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1984, Steve Wozniak gave a tour of what was dubbed the Apple Historical Museum. As he works his way through the time tunnel, he presents to the viewers examples of original Apple-1 and Apple II hardware, regaling us with tales of design and manufacture.

What I love about this YouTube video, which was digitized from the Apple IIc rollout VHS tape, is how timeless Woz’s presentation is. His enthusiasm, memory, and didactic nature are just as apparent in this 2010 tour of the Computer History Museum:

I wonder when Woz himself will be worthy of a museum and visitor center?

(Hat tip to

An underwhelming Karateka demo

November 12th, 2012 1:31 PM
Filed under Game trail, People, Software showcase;
1 comment.

I had marked November 17th as the date Jordan Mechner would return to the world of Karateka, his classic Apple II fighting game. Ten days early, Sean Fahey announced that my marked date was for the PC, iOS, and PlayStation 3 versions of the new Karateka, but that the Xbox Live Arcade version was now available.

As primarily an Xbox gamer, I was happy to hear this news and immediately downloaded the game, accepting of the fact that I’d be unable to load it upside-down. Up until then, I’d wondered as to the game’s genre and nature: was it best described as a sequel? A reboot? A reimagining? Having played only the ten-minute free trial, I would describe the game as a remake — and one that doesn’t capture modern gamers with its demo.


How much has Karateka changed in the last 30 years?

With an art style and musical underpinning that harken back to the classic Apple II fighting game, Karateka is a visual and aural delight. The Japanese gardens and goofy goons that our hero encounters are evocative of another time and place. There is little freedom to explore these environments, though, as the protagonist (one of three) proceeds through it on two-dimensional rails, unable to move any direction but forward.

Once he engages with a foe, the opportunity for input becomes limited to three buttons: punch, kick, and block. It is impossible to strike an enemy without first blocking his own attack, at which point his guard is lowered and he is open to a chain of attacks. In an interview with Polygon’s Samit Sarkar, Mechner describes the combat system as rhythm-based in which players "have to time your attacks to the score from Grammy-winning composer Christopher Tin". This was not my experience; my blocks were based solely on cues from the castle’s keepers — tells that they were about to strike. A successful block then let me pound the punch and kick buttons, but there seemed to be neither functional difference between the two nor incentive to experiment with a variety of combos.

In an interview with Steve Peterson, Mechner indicates that the simplistic gameplay is intentional, allowing other aspects of Karateka to take center stage:

Mechner believes Karateka is an unusual design, one that will attract a broader audience. "It’s not a fighting game in the sense of trying to rack up points, or fighting for fighting’s sake. It’s fighting in order to get to the happy ending in the story, and it’s a love story. I think we’re appealing to a slightly different audience than most fighting games," he says.

I can appreciate Jordan Mechner, as someone whose ambition has always been to write Hollywood scripts, wanting to focus on that aspect of Karateka. Storytelling has become an increasingly important part of both big-budget and indie games, with hits such as Braid, Portal, and even the BIT.TRIP series having set new milestones for their innovative and memorable plots.

But plot is also the hardest quality for a game to convey in a short demo. It is more effective to draw players in with engaging gameplay, then present them with an increasingly intricate and meaningful narrative. In that respect, the free demo I played falls flat. The only challenges I encountered in my time with Karateka was identifying a foe’s pattern and timing my blocks accordingly. With digital distribution and mobile apps, there are much more involving experiences I could get for my $10, and demos that give me more confidence in that investment than Karateka has.

(Hat tips to Blake Patterson, John August, and Steve Melton)

Shadowgate revisited

November 5th, 2012 3:37 PM
Filed under Game trail, Software showcase;
Comments Off on Shadowgate revisited

I love Kickstarter. There’s something about playing a role in helping artists realize their dreams that’s empowering for all parties involved. And as Jason Scott pointed out in Juiced.GS, the small amounts that backers pay can make the difference between something existing and something not.

For retrocomputing enthusiasts, Kickstarter further represents the potential to resurrect many of the elements of our youth. We grew up playing electronic games on personal computers, many of them in franchises that have seen a resurgence in popularity thanks to crowdfunding. Now we can revive yet another one with this latest pitch:

Dave Marsh and Karl Roelofs, formerly of ICOM and now of Zojoi, look to reimagine their classic point and click adventure, Shadowgate. Rather than a direct sequel, this version of Shadowgate will update the old puzzles as well as implement many ideas Marsh and Roelofs have had while designing and porting Shadowgate over the years. The new game will also include both an original soundtrack as well as Hiroyuki Masuno’s NES composition.

They’ve set a modest goal of only $120,000 — heck, that’s half as much as some cancelled old-school games get on Kickstarter. They met half their goal within the first week of their one-month fundraising term — and since 90% of Kickstarter projects that achieve at least 30% funding prove successful, this progress bodes well!

The most popular reward is the typical $15 for the Mac or PC version, though if you want a tablet edition, that’ll cost you $60. Unless you want your name included in the game’s end credits, a better deal is to wait for the game’s release before buying it for iOS or Android.

Shadowgate, set in a fantasy world of dragons and magic, was one of my first encounters with the genre when it was ported from MacVenture’s 1987 Mac version to the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). I revisited it on the Game Boy Color a decade later and am hard-pressed to justify the low score I gave it. In 2006, I played the GBC game again, this time on the big screen, courtesy the GameCube’s Game Boy Player adapter. I and a friend who was new to computer and video games had a great time spending several hours discovering the solutions to the mystical puzzles we encountered. Remembering that happy experience, I’ve gladly become a Kickstarter backer of the new Shadowgate.

Looking to explore the Shadowgate world around this game? I have fond memories of the young adult novel, Before Shadowgate — but can we pretend the game’s TurboGrafx sequel, Beyond Shadowgate, never happened? Instead, check out Maelstrom’s Mansion, a free online adventure that’s as unforgiving in its deaths as Shadowgate ever was.

You’ve played the game — now wear the shirt!

UPDATE: In the creators’ AMA on Reddit (they answered my question), they acknowledge that there are free, Java-based versions of Shadowgate. Want to play the original? Check it out online!