Archive for March, 2014

Triumph of the mod

March 31st, 2014 2:52 PM
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Although improved access to tools and funding are allowing more people to become developers of full-fledged games like Dead Man's Trail, in the days of the Apple II — when almost everyone perforce had some programming ability — the best most of us could do was work within the games others had already created. Usually, this hacking took the form of copy deprotection (and their accompanying crack screens). But sometimes, it was more creative.

In "Triumph of the Mod" a 2002 article by Wagner James Au for Salon.com, Tom Hall, a co-founder of id Software, says he recalls the first mod — "a fan-made modification to a pre-existing game" — as being Castle Smurfenstein, Andrew Johnson and Preston Nevins' hack of Silas Warner's Castle Wolfenstein for the Apple II. Writes Johnson:

The nazi guards became Smurfs, the mostly uninteligible German voices became mostly unintelligible Smurf voices. We created a new title screen, new ending screen, new opening narration, and an opening theme, and changed the setting from Germany to Canada. (I'm still not too sure why we had this Canadian fixation, but then growing up near Detroit does expose one to a fair degree of Canadian culture.)

The conversion was pretty straightforward, needing only a paint program, a sector editor, and Muse Software's very own 'the Voice' to add in the new audio. I think we did this during the summer of 1983 but I'm not completely sure.

As indicated, the hack involved the game's audio, visuals, and text. A deafening WAV demonstrates the Smurf's trademark chant as digitized for an 8-bit computer, and screenshots show the hack's new splash screen. (Oddly, I could find no YouTube videos of Castle Smurfenstein, but Johnson does offer a disk image that works with most any emulator.)

Castle Smurfenstein

Despite the fame of this hack, it was likely not the first-ever mod, since Johnson and Nevins both document an earlier Smurf-inspired hack: Dino Eggs became Dino Smurf. A proposed third hack would've turned Sky Fox into Sky Smurf, completing the trilogy. "Unfortunately the third game only got as far as the new plot and a partial title screen before college beckoned," laments Johnson.

Still, modding has become a lucrative industry and backdoor into the gaming industry. Would it be a stretch to say the Apple II led the way?

Dead Man's Oregon Trail

March 24th, 2014 11:53 AM
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The gaming industry is currently experiencing the popularity of three trends: indie studios, retrogaming, and zombies. All three converge in in an upcoming remake of Oregon Trail in which you travel across the country through hordes of undead.

Wait — didn't I already write that blog post? Three years ago, I was playing Organ Trail, a free browser game that later held a successful Kickstarter to release a director's cut edition on Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android, and Ouya.

So what's new in 2014? Dead Man's Trail, a modern action/resource management game inpsired by Oregon Trail. Development studio E4 Software is aware of the precedent of Organ Trail and is taking their game in a different direction:

We're very aware of the existence of Organ Trail and are actually very big fans of the game. We were in early planning stages when Director's Cut came out but decided to move ahead with DMT anyway because we had ideas for things that differentiated us from Organ Trail, such as giving each party member a specific role, having procedurally generated 3D looting levels, having one resource perform several different functions (bullets are ammo and currency), etc.

Where Organ Trail elicits its charm from using mechanics and presentation elements from the original, think of ours as an expanded follow up that wants to go beyond the original Oregon Trail to create a Walking Dead/World War Z atmosphere. We're hoping that several years on from the release of Organ Trail, fans of that project will see our game and want to play it as a next step.

I'm excited to see a game that offers more customization than the traditional Oregon Trail format — most notably, characters with unique skills, such as firearms expert, paramedic, and mechanic (think Left 4 Dead); and different vehicles. If you had to plow through a sea of zombies, would you do so in a station wagon? No way! Give me a school bus or 18-wheeler… and leave me to be concerned about fuel economy after we break down in the middle of nowhere.

The looting element of the game is where Dead Man's Trail most notably diverges from the Oregon Trail formula. Although inspired by the original game's hunting sequences, looting occurs in urban settings from a 3D, isometric perspective. It's not an experience I looking forward to grappling with on a mobile device's tiny screen.

Whereas Organ Trail kept much of Oregon Trail's gameplay and aesthetic, Dead Man's Trail is potentially much more ambitious. Correspondingly, Organ Trail needed only the realistic sum of $3,000 in crowdfunding, whereas DMT is asking for $50,000 on Kickstarter.

Dead Man's Trail is halfway through its one-month crowdfunding campaign and has raised less than 5% of its goal. The game is far enough along that it will likely see release one way or another, but Kickstarter will help ensure the final product is timely and true to the creators' vision. If all goes well, we'll see Dead Man's Trail hit Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, and iOS this October.

Apple II & feminism at PAX East 2014

March 17th, 2014 1:00 PM
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Two years ago today, I was at GameFest, the opening weekend of The Art of Video Games, an art exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It was the performance of chiptune artists 8 Bit Weapon and ComputeHer that drew me there, but I went home with connections to the National Academy of Video Game Trade Reviewers.

A year later, that connection landed me on stage at Boston's PAX East gaming convention, moderating a panel on the best video games of the year. Having developed my moderation skills at KansasFest, I found PAX an exciting and encouraging venue in which to continue hosting discussions on some of my favorite hobbies.

Emboldened, I sought to return the PAX stage in 2014 with a panel of more critical social value. Inspired by the work of Anita Sarkeesian, whose work I discovered upon backing her Kickstarter, I started brainstorming with Juiced.GS associate editor Andy Molloy as far back as June 27 and finally submitted my proposal last month. With the official schedule for PAX East having been announced last week, I'm pleased to announce that my proposal has been accepted, and I will be moderating the panel "Sex, Sexy & Sexism: Fixing Gender Inequality in Gaming".

The Apple II connection? Not only would this panel never have developed without chiptune artists, Juiced.GS editors, and KansasFest sessions — I was also able to feature the Apple II itself at ten seconds into the above trailer.

The Apple II — it makes all things possible!

Unboxing & Let's Play Retro Fever

March 10th, 2014 1:01 PM
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In November 2012, I stumbled into success on YouTube when I posted an unboxing video. It's a genre I discovered during my six years at Computerworld: point the camera at a new tech product and narrate as you open its packaging and dissect its contents. A month later, I delved into another genre, this one introduced to me by the narrator of Open Apple: Let's Play videos, in which gameplay footage is captured and combined with running commentary.

Yes — people actually watch me open boxes and play video games on YouTube, such that humanity has spent an aggregate of fifty years on my channel.

I don't understand it, but if the interest is there, I'm happy to bring it to bear on the Apple II. I applied these two video styles last year to Zéphyr, the 1987 action game recently published by Brutal Deluxe. Today, I bring my attention to Retro Fever, a new game from budding programmer Brian Picchi.

An unboxing video of a new Apple II product may be even more pointless than the average unboxing. Says PBS of the genre, "[Unboxing] videos show what the products ARE, without the annoying filter of marketing." Yet almost no Apple II product has a marketing budget to begin with, allowing for a more WYSIWYG experience from conception to purchase.

Nonetheless, there you have it: my first experience with the first Apple II game to be published in 2014. Get your own copy for free or in hardcopy, or play it online, at Brian Picchi's website — and learn more about how he became the programmer he is today in the March 2014 issue of Juiced.GS.

Eye of the Dot Matrix Tiger

March 3rd, 2014 12:01 AM
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We already know that storage media are musical instruments, with floppy disks playing the Star Wars theme and hard drives producing a rendition of the Imperial March. Now printers are getting in on the orchestral action. Behold as a dot matrix printer plays "Eye of the Tiger" from Rocky:

Such magic is a combination of custom hardware and software. Says the video's creator on how you too can produce this tune:

Learn about electronics, reverse engineering, embedded software development, maybe some hardware description language, the MIDI protocol and some music theory (how notes relate to frequencies). Then take your printer apart, find out how it works, disconnect the original processor from everything you need and add your custom built electronics…

The MIDI files have to be edited a bit to be played on the printer: some channels need to be disabled (percussion stuff), some are transposed to avoid exceeding the frequency limit. Also the volume of the individual instruments never fits when the original settings are used.

Get started with the MIDI file that was adapted to this purpose; it's available for download.

(Hat tip to Geekologie via Colin Druce-McFadden, Geeks Are Sexy, Brendan Robert, and Mark LaPlante)