Archive for October, 2016

KansasFest goes to Funspot

October 31st, 2016 9:41 AM
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At KansasFest, Apple II users from around the world meet and share a unique experience. The games we play there — be it computer games like Structris and KABOOM!, board games such as Lode Runner, or the card game Oregon Trail — forge friendships that are often revisited only once a year at KansasFest.

But sometimes, the stars align to reunite those friends in new and unusual venues. That happened this past weekend, when Juiced.GS associate editor Andy Molloy, staff writer Ivan Drucker, Retro Computing Roundtable co-host Carrington Vanston, and I made the trek to the American Classic Arcade Museum at Funspot in Laconia, New Hampshire, USA.

ACAM is the world's largest video game arcade, as determined by Guinness World Records. With over 300 machines from the 1970s and 1980s, the arcade is home to coin-ops both classic and rare — all still just a token each. I first discovered this arcade thirty years ago, when its games were new. I returned every summer for over a decade, then relegated it to a childhood memory for another ten years. I finally started going back in 2006 and recruited Andy in 2007. Having now been making an annual pilgrimage to Funspot for nearly a decade, we decided it was time to evangelize and spread the good word to Carrington and Ivan, who'd never been there.

Carrington, who co-founded the podcast No Quarter, was of course familiar with many of Funspot's games, but Ivan knew few beyond his favorites. He schooled us all in Donkey Kong but then proved vulnerable to the first shrubbery he encountered in Paper Boy. We each sought out individual rounds of Marble Madness, Frogger, Asteroids, and Robotron 2064, but the most fun was had when we went head-to-head. Ivan, Andy, and I lost to the computer in Super Sprint. Carrington, Andy, and I then demolished cities in Rampage, after which Carrington, Andy, and Ivan launched bombs at Sinistar; we all four finally teamed up to play to the eleventh dungeon of Gauntlet II.

There were two surprising discoveries of the day. The first was Donkey Kong II, which looked and played like a sequel to the Nintendo classic — except Ivan had never heard of it. Was it possible for a game with such storied lineage to have escaped his notice for so long?

Donkey Kong 2 at Funspot

The answer is no: Donkey Kong II is an unofficial ROM hack consisting of the original game's four levels and four new levels. It made its arcade debut at Funspot in 2006 but is more easily playable online.

The other surprise was Chiller, a disturbing lightgun game. Developed by Exidy of Death Race infamy, Chiller challenges players to shoot as many human prisoners as possible in a short amount of time. These living targets are found in torture chambers, ensconced in guillotines, racks, and other vehicles of pain, waiting for the player to deliver the fatal blow. While it sounds perverse, my gaming buds excused it by how cartoonish its artwork was, saying they'd never play a modern game with motion-capture video that featured such ghoulish, gratuitous violence. Still, I enjoyed playing the role of the disapproving prude, sternly frowning and shaking my head in their direction with each playthrough, while in the back of my mind wondering how I could excuse my ownership of the NES port.

Due to how far our far-flung party had to travel to return home, we did not have time to cap the evening at Pinball Wizard, another excellent arcade in southern New Hampshire. We were also left with a heavy cupful of leftover tokens from Funspot. With this many games, there is never enough time to play them all.

Fortunately, Funspot — much like KansasFest and the friendships it forms — is forever.

Encrypting the web for retrocomputers

October 24th, 2016 11:53 AM
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Earlier this month, for only the second time ever, I took the helm as host of the Retro Computing Roundtable podcast.

Whoever hosts an episode of RCR must come to the table with an opening topic: some issue that the co-hosts can debate and articulate in the show's first ten minutes. For this episode, I raised an issue inspired by this very website: should we support emerging web standards at the cost of backward compatibility with retrocomputers?

This matter landed on my radar when my two web hosts, DreamHost and WP Engine, started supporting Let's Encrypt, a source for free Secure Socket Layer certificates that would otherwise cost tens or hundreds of dollars per domain per year. SSL ensures that a user's online experience was secure, which historically has been important for sites trading in e-commerce, healthcare, and other confidential consumer data. But now, Google is giving a search engine ranking boost to any website that uses SSL, whether or not the site's contents and transactions would benefit from it. Since SSL certificates are now free and every site benefits from having one, there was nothing stopping me from applying them to all my WordPress blogs.
Let's Encrypt
I stopped short on Apple II Bits, though. This is a website about 8-bit and 16-bit computers, and the only browsers I know of for those machines — Contiki and Spectrum Internet Suite — support only websites that begin with HTTP, only HTTPS. Enabling SSL on Apple II Bits would mean that the website would no longer be accessible by the very computer the website is about.

How much should this concern me? Very little, suggested the hosts of RCR, arguing that few people surf the Web from their Apple II computers except as an amusement. Google Analytics supports this notion: examining the list of browsers used to access this website in the last year, I see 28 different browsers, from Chrome, Firefox, and Safari down to BlackBerry, Nintendo, PlayStation 3, Sony Vita, Amazon Silk, and even Cốc Cốc. But out of 13,520 sessions, I don't see a single one from a browser that identifies itself as running on an Apple II.

Besides, content can be intended for Apple II users without being accessible from an Apple II. The Retro Computing Roundtable is distributed as an MP3, and Juiced.GS is published in hardcopy; neither can be downloaded and consumed using an Apple II.

The World Wide Web is an evolving medium with emerging standards; thanks to the W3C, we rest assured that most modern browsers will comply with these standards, producing a uniform user experience. If webmasters make their best effort to comply with these standards, then we mustn't put the onus on them to accommodate browsers that do not or cannot meet these standards. Sadly, that may mean excluding the Apple II; fortunately, it's a price to be paid by no one visiting this site.

8bitdo brings Bluetooth connectivity to Apple II

October 17th, 2016 8:18 AM
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Games are my favorite genre of Apple II application, so anything that makes it easier to play my favorite Apple II games is something I'll line up for. It's why I just bought Alex Lukacz's 4play card (reviewed in the September 2016 issue of Juiced.GS) and am now awaiting the AP40 controller, currently on Kickstarter.

The AP40 is a Bluetooth controller with an aesthetic reminiscent of the classic Apple logo. Its name is both an evolution of the developer's previous model, the AP30, as well as an acknowledgement of 2017 being the 40th anniversary of the Apple II.

By itself, this play on nostalgia is nothing special — skins and themes for Bluetooth controllers are not hard to come by. The killer app aspect of the AP40 is that it comes with a wireless receiver that plugs into the Apple II, enabling the use of any Bluetooth controller. Although the project description cites compatibility with the Apple IIc specifically, I emailed the developers and confirmed that any model of Apple II will work.

If you're interested, there are a couple purchasing options to consider. The AP40 gamepad alone costs $49, but if you have another Bluetooth controller you're happy with, you can get just the receiver for $49; or buy both for $85. A limited-edition controller with mini-Apple II stand costs $69, but there is no turnkey package that includes both this special edition and a wireless receiver.

The AP40 has made headlines like few other pieces of retrocomputing tech has, having been featured in Forbes, Gizmodo, TechCrunch, Cult of Mac, and more. For all that, there may nonetheless be a marketing issue, because the controller seems to be getting more press coverage than its Apple II compatibility; when I mentioned the Kickstarter on the Retro Computing Roundtable episode #138, one of the other hosts who'd seen these headlines was flabbergasted to discover the controller worked on actual Apple II hardware.

For personal use, I wanted just the receiver, for use with my PlayStation 4's DualShock controller — but for the purposes of a proper review in the pages of Juiced.GS, I've emailed 8bitdo and assembled a package of limited-edition controller complete with receiver. The Kickstarter currently has nine days to go but has already exceeded its crowdfunding goal of $16,111 USD; given the developer's track record, I'm confident the products will ship on or near the promised delivery date of January 2017, in time for the March 2017 issue of Juiced.GS.

Wasteland 3 hits Fig

October 10th, 2016 9:18 AM
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Some Apple II games never die, no matter what post-apocalyptic future they endure. Not even a nuclear holocaust can stop Brian Fargo, the inimitable founder of game studio Interplay, where he developed both The Bard's Tale and Wasteland. Now the head of inXile Entertainment, Fargo has brought both of those former franchises to Kickstarter, resulting thus far in the release of Wasteland 2 in 2014 for Steam and in 2015 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

It's been four years since the successful Kickstarter for Wasteland 2, so Fargo is going back for more: last week, he announced Wasteland 3, extending the adventures of the 22nd-century Desert Rangers. But this time, instead of Kickstarter, Fargo has launched a crowdfunding campaign on Fig.

Fig (whose advisory board includes Fargo) was founded in August 2015 as a crowdfunding platform specifically for computer and video games. Besides that dedicated focus, the biggest difference from Kickstarter is that Fig allows not just donations and preorders, but actual investments, establishing equity in the final product and its success. Investments occur in $1,000 increments up to $2.25 million. If Wasteland 3 sells 500,000 units, investors receive a 1.36x return on their investment; if 1,000,000 units are sold, the return is 1.8x. It's by no means a get-rich-quick scheme, especially for small investors such as I would be. I've instead donated a mere $5 to show my support, knowing that my contribution won't make or break the campaign; at the time of my pledge, Wasteland 3 was already 99% of the way to its goal, needing only another $50,000. (The campaign will succeed if it raises $2,750,000 by Thursday, November 3, 2016.)

Upon completion of the Fig campaign, Wasteland 3 will go into inXile's development queue. Two of inXile's previously crowdfunded projects are still unreleased: Torment: Tides of Numenera; and The Bard's Tale 4. But that shouldn't count against inXile's track record. As the Wasteland 3 pitch video explains, game development occurs in stages, and those artists who contribute to a game's early stages, such as the writers, have completed their work on those other two projects and are eager to begin something new.

But what about the game itself? I never played the original Wasteland (which inspired the Fallout franchise) or its sequel, even though I mentioned both in my KansasFest 2016 presentation of Steam games. But it looks like the series' third entry introduces many new features, including drivable vehicles, multiplayer mode, a Colorado setting, and simultaneous releases for Steam and consoles (PS4 & Xbox One) in late 2019. Take a gander at the turn-based combat in this (NSFW) gameplay video:

It's exciting to see a series that originated on the Apple II continue to resonate with modern gamers who are willing to pledge their dollars to ensure the franchise's future. Long live Wasteland!

Interactive fiction on Polygamer

October 3rd, 2016 10:28 AM
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Last summer, I explored interactive fiction in my biweekly podcast, IndieSider, when I interviewed Apple II user Wade Clarke about his Eamon-turned-Inform game, Leadlight Gamma. I enjoyed our discussion interactive fiction, one of these oldest forms of electronic entertainment, but it was only recently that I finally gave the medium the coverage it deserved on my other podcast, Polygamer.

Polygamer finally turned its focus to interactive fiction with this summer's founding of the non-profit Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation:

The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation (IFTF) helps ensure the ongoing maintenance, improvement, and preservation of the tools and services crucial to the creation and distribution of interactive fiction, as well as the development of new projects to foster the continued growth of this art form.

To discuss this important step in the development and preservation of text adventures, I spoke with IFTF co-founder Chris Klimas. That hour-long conversation can be heard in Polygamer #50:

Chris isn't just on the board of the IFTF; he's also the creator of Twine, an open-source storytelling engine. It and Inform are possibly the most popular modern tools for the creation of interactive fiction. Its accessible architecture has made game developers of those who previously considered themselves only storytellers,
removing the gatekeeping that has kept so many narratives from being shared. One of its most notable manifestations came from Zoë Quinn, a game developer who has also been on Polygamer, when she used Twine to create Depression Quest, one of the first entries in the emerging genre of empathy games.

My discussion with Chris ranged over all these topics and more: gatekeeping, education, crowdfunding, and the annual IFComp, which is currently underway. It was one of the most enjoyable episodes of Polygamer I've recorded in awhile, and even if we didn't directly discuss the Apple II, I'm confident that retrocomputing users will find it a fascinating discussion about the complexities and possibilities of a medium our platform helped give birth to.

For more discussion about IF and the IFTF, listen to Retro Computing Roundtable #136:

[Full disclosure: I have donated to the IFTF.]