Archive for May, 2016

New Game Plus: Lode Runner

May 30th, 2016 9:56 AM
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Filed under Game trail;
4 comments.

It's hard for Apple II enthusiasts to be unbiased about our favorite games. Whenever we play or discuss Oregon Trail, Choplifter, or Tass Times in Tone Town, our experiences and memories are inevitably colored by nostalgia as we recall how groundbreaking these games were upon their release and how derivative their successors seem by comparison.

What if we could wipe the slate clean and come at these games afresh? Would they stand the test of time and still appeal to a modern gamer's sensibilities?

New Game Plus
That's the charter of New Game Plus, a podcast that launched this past October. Each week, three young men select a random classic computer or video game that they then spend seven days playing before reporting back their experiences. I discovered the show with episode 7, when they played their first Apple II game, Prince of Persia. I then cherry-picked other episodes to listen to, selecting games that I recalled fondly to see if these enthusiastic whippersnappers would enjoy them as well.

When they reviewed Contra III, a game I'd previously recorded a Let's Play video of, I was surprised to hear the show deviate from its format: instead of the game selection being random, it was chosen by their first guest. It was fun to hear someone with passion and familiarity for the week's game be brought into the mix — and it also gave me an idea.

Now that I knew New Game Plus had a precedent for allowing guests, I brazenly emailed them, touting my Apple II credentials, to ask if they would consider having me on a future episode. To my surprise and delight, they thought this was an excellent idea!

Their homework for me: select an Apple II game. This was a tougher assignment than I expected! My first thought was to nominate Conan: Hall of Volta, one of my favorite games from childhood. But at only six levels, I thought it might wear thin and not leave the hosts much to discuss. I instead turned to the Apple II Enthusiasts group on Facebook and asked for recommendations. I received many suggestions, including from John Romero.

But readers' comments only cemented the second choice I'd already settled on: Lode Runner. With 150 levels, a storied lineage, and web-playable versions — both the emulated original and a native remake — I felt this game would be both technically accessible and sufficiently substantial to record a podcast about. And, having originally been released in 1983, it would also be the oldest game yet to have been featured on New Game Plus.

But just because I'd played the game as a kid didn't excuse me from joining the other hosts in "researching" it! I played the game for just an hour or so and was able to make it to level 17. Although the difficulty of those levels varied wildly — as early as level 6, there are as many as 16 pieces of gold to collect! — I was surprised at my ability to progress. I attributed my success to the game freely awarding an extra life for each level completed. By the time I closed my browser window, I could've easily continued playing with the dozen lives I had remaining.

All this work was in preparation to record the actual episode, which has since aired as episode 35 of New Game Plus:

I had a blast chatting about Lode Runner and its creator, Douglas E. Smith, with Dustin, Nolan, and Kenny, and I was much relieved to hear that they enjoyed their first experiences with this classic game, earning it an across-the-board recommendation for modern gamers.

My thanks to New Game Plus for hosting me. I hope they continue to feature the Apple II on future episodes of the show! What games would you recommend they play next?

(Hat tip to Paulo Garcia)

Say goodbye to Tekserve

May 23rd, 2016 8:56 AM
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Filed under Mainstream coverage;
1 comment.

When my father brought home our first Apple II, it came from Computer Systems & Software, an authorized Apple dealer. Back then, this was one of the only ways to get an Apple product: there was no online ordering, few mail-order opportunities, and definitely no Apple Stores, which didn't debut until 2001.

When Apple opened its first retail stores, doing so cut out the middleman — small businessmen such as the proprietor of Computer Systems & Software. That competition, combined with the advent of Internet sales, made it difficult for mom-and-pop, brick-and-mortar shops to stay in business. It was unpleasant but unexpected when CS&S closed up shop some time ago.

The next victim appears to be one of CS&S's contemporaries. Tekserve has served New York City since 1987, providing sales and service to consumers and businesses alike. And while Tekserve will continue to exist, its quaint retail outlet — featuring not only classic computers, but "ancient radios, an antique Coke machine… massive old RCA microphones… and a stereoscope with hundreds of photographs" may soon be closing shop.

As reported by Jeremiah Moss, Tekserve will be reducing or eliminating its consumer retail presence this fall. They will continue to sell and service products for small- and medium-sized business clients, so the company as a whole is not going away. But a lot of employees, services, and artifacts are likely to disappear as a result of this transition.

I visited Tekserve in 2012 and received a behind-the-scenes tour, resulting in the below photo gallery. It's a damn fine place with a heritage of and respect for Apple products — including the Apple II — that you don't often find. If you can visit the store before their September transition, please do.

(Hat tip to Jason Scott)

Oregon Trail Hall of Fame

May 16th, 2016 8:47 AM
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Filed under Game trail, History;
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The International Center for the History of Electronic Games at the Strong Museum of Play recently inducted the 2016 class of the World Video Game Hall of Fame. Back in January, I encouraged readers to submit nominations to correct the oversight made in 2015 when no native Apple II games were inducted into the inaugural class.

We had better luck in 2016, with Oregon Trail now being recognized as one of the most important video games of all time. Granted, the game may not have debuted on the Apple II, but it's inarguable that it's on the Apple II that Oregon Trail found its place in history.

And how fitting that should be, given that it's a game about history! One of the game's original creators, Don Rawitsch, recently hosted a reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything). He addressed everything about what was cut from the original version, to the iOS remake, to his views on gamification, to his favorite parody of Oregon Trail (that being Organ Trail).

The conversation also unearthed this 2011 gem: a one-hour presentation by Rawitsch on the history of Oregon Trail.

But what about the history not of Oregon Trail, but the Oregon Trail — the grueling, 2,170-mile route on which so many pioneers died? We may think it was an adventure filled with dysentery and bison, but the truth is that many travellers lost their lives making that trek. "The R-rated Oregon Trail" is, despite its name, not a snuff film, but an unfiltered look at the challenges faced by those settlers for whom the Oregon Trail was not a game:

The AMA, two of the three above videos, and the Hall of Fame induction all happened in this calendar year. Oregon Trail has always been a popular source of nostalgia, but especially lately, it seems our sights are set firmly to the west. Wagons, ho!

(Hat tips to Javier A. Rivera and Tony Diaz)

Retro-style iMac

May 9th, 2016 10:35 AM
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Filed under Hacks & mods;
1 comment.

Apple makes it hard to associate their current products with their legacy products: from abandoning the rainbow logo to rewriting history in their press releases, Apple Inc. rarely wants to acknowledge the Apple II. But some new after-market modifications make it easier to draw a direct line from our favorite retrocomputer to its modern descendant.

Marketing and branding company ColorWare specializes in a variety of cosmetic alterations to consumer electronics, from iPhones to Xboxes to PlayStation controllers. But instead of sending your own hardware to be modified, you buy it originally from ColorWare. Following the success of their iPhone mods, they've now set their sights on Apple's desktop, introducing retro-themed Macintosh computers and peripherals. Each replaces the default aluminum color with beige, in the style of the original Apple IIe.

Expect to pay more for these devices than you would an unmodified original. The keyboard and mouse combo go for $399, or get them with a 27-inch iMac (3.3GHz processor, 8GB 1867MHz DDR3 SDRAM, 2TB Fusion Drive, AMD Radeon R9 M395 with 2GB) for $3,799. That may sound like a lot of money — and it is: the same iMac direct from Apple is $2,299, representing a $1,500 markup, or 65% more than the MSRP. Further, it looks like there'll be only a limited run of 25 of these retro machines, with both the price and the quantity marking it as exclusive.

When we have our original Apple II computers prominently displayed and regularly used, it's hard to justify spending this much money on a faux Apple II.

Still, it is pretty.

ColorWare iMac

(Hat tip to Julie Lasky via Tim Locke)

CaptionBot fails to recognize the Apple II

May 2nd, 2016 8:35 AM
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Filed under Musings;
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At KansasFest, you'll discover software and hardware you're unlikely to see anywhere else — yet diehard retrocomputing enthusiasts will no doubt recognize the floppy disks and circuit boards, identifiable by their unique schematics and labels. By contrast, a modern computer is more ubiquitous and even more powerful, but it's unlikely to be able to identify what makes the Apple II special… or even what the Apple II is.

That's a theory I put to the test with CaptionBot, Microsoft's online tool that accepts image uploads and attempts to describe their contents. Is it a group of people posing for a photo? Someone holding a book? CaptionBot is surprisingly good at recognizing people and their daily activities.

What it's not so good at is recognizing hardware and software. As a test, I threw at it some photos from the Apple II Enthusiasts group on Facebook and found the results laughably terrible. So for this blog post, I more extensively trolled my KansasFest 2002–2015 photo archives to see what other guesses CaptionBot might get wrong. Here's what it thought we see and do in Kansas City:

Computers may be able to defeat humans at chess — but we're still one up on visual recognition. Let's see what we can capture at KansasFest 2016 to stymy Microsoft's latest attempt to bring about the singularity.

(Hat tip to Andy Hartup at GamesRadar+ for the inspiration!)