Archive for November, 2019

Interplay's cancelled RPG, Meantime

November 18th, 2019 10:26 AM
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Filed under History, Software showcase;
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I spend more time consuming game news than I do playing games, which means I learn a lot about games well before they're released. Alas, not all games that are reported to be in development ultimately enjoy a public debut. From Scalebound on the Xbox One to StarCraft: Ghost on the Nintendo 64 to SimCity on the Apple IIGS, games that are more than a concept and are anticipated by fans nonetheless get axed for a variety of reasons: too complex a development process, insufficient budget, or too late in a platform's lifespan.

Still, I was surprised to find an early Apple II game on GameRant's list of "10 Canceled RPG Games You Never Knew Existed". As I haven't played many role-playing games in the last twenty years, I found GameRant's list to be aptly named: I hadn't heard of a single one of these titles.

But one of them, Meantime, I feel like I should have:

Following 1988's Wasteland, Interplay (again) wanted to publish a follow-up, and Meantime was put into development for the Apple II. The game was deep into development when a couple of detrimental things occurred. For one, key player Liz Danforth left the team. For another, the team realized that the Apple II was declining in relevance and sales. The team attempted to port the progress over to the MS-DOS, but lead Bill Dugan lost morale upon seeing the incredible graphics of Ultima VII. Knowing that his product was vastly inferior and out-of-date, he decided to cancel the project for good.

Wikipedia has an entire page about the game, elaborating that Meantime was to be set in the same universe as Wasteland, also by Interplay, but with a plot more akin to Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure:

The basic premise was that the player would travel through time, and recruit famous historical figures to the player's party. For example, Amelia Earhart joins the party when she is rescued from a Japanese prison camp, and Wernher von Braun does when he is helped to escape the Soviets at the end of World War II. Each character would also have a particular specialty; Cyrano de Bergerac, for example, would have an expert fencing skill. The party would attempt to repair damage caused by a similar party of time-traveling villains, attempting to alter the course of history by influencing events.

Will we ever see a hint of what the game might've been, like we did with SimCity GS? In short, no. Not only does the website JustAdventure.com state that no screenshots of the game exist, but it gets worse, according to Wikipedia:

When Interplay finally did create their spiritual successor to Wasteland, Fallout, none of the Meantime code was used and the only Meantime designer involved in the creation of Fallout was Mark O'Green. No copies of the source code are believed to currently exist.

And yet the Wasteland universe persists: Wasteland 3 was announced just last week as being released on May 19, 2020.

Maybe Interplay will harken back to its lost heritage in an Easter egg still to come.

Which Apple II games are timeless?

November 11th, 2019 10:08 AM
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Filed under Game trail;
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Canadian comedy troupe LoadingReadyRun, true to their eponymous C64 roots, often includes retrocomputers in their weekly news report. This past week was no exception:

Although this news, citing a blog post by Internet Archive employee and KansasFest regular Jason Scott, is specifically about MS-DOS, the concept applies to the Apple II as well: there are at least 3,170 Apple II games currently playable in the Internet Archive — far more than any of us have ever played in our lifetimes or likely ever will.

But how many of them stand the test of time? As Brendan John "Beej" Dery notes in the above LRR report, games aren't always as fun as we remember them being as kids, when basic inputs returned minimal rewards conveyed with simple graphics and rudimentary sound. Cumbersome controls and user interfaces that we tolerated when we didn't know any better have evolved into more elegant designs and complex narratives. What games still hold up and can still be fun, with our without a healthy dose of nostalgia?

Instead of focusing on games that haven't aged well (such as some text adventures or RPGs), I'd argue that these games remain fun:

  • Lode Runner: When I was a guest on the New Game Plus podcast three years ago, I invited its hosts to play Lode Runner. Having never played the game before, all three found it enjoyable. Recent iterations of Lode Runner have introduced new graphics, but the core gameplay remains as fun today as it was upon its debut.
  • Shadowgate: This point-and-click gothic adventure game was worth remaking in 2012, which improved not just the graphics but also the interface. It would've been for naught if the original game weren't fun. It still is!
  • Prince of Persia: While the battle system is somewhat rudimentary, the dungeon platformer is still challenging for those who want to rescue the princess within the allotted time.
  • Snake Byte: Variations on this game have appeared on countless devices (especially mobile) for decades — a testament to the basic gameplay's staying power.
  • Arkanoid: Not only does this successor to Breakout stand the test of time — we need more games like this. Paddle input devices have practically gone extinct; while mobile devices seem well-suited to movement on one plane, something is lost with a touch interface.
  • BattleChess: Creative animations injected this serious game with levity. The computer's time to make each move and then draw the animations was tedious; a CPU accelerator fixes that, but it also speeds up the animations, which should be savored.
  • DuelTris: The Apple II was young enough that most of its games were original, rather instead of improvements on existing franchises, of which there weren't many. DuelTris is an exception, taking the basic rules ofo Tetris and adding power-ups, a two-player mode, and a rocking soundtrack. DuelTris struck just the right balance of classic and enhanced gameplay; mess with Tetris more than this, and you ruin it.
  • Othello, mahjongg, and other tile games: These classic games feature timeless mechanics that don't significantly benefit from faster computers or better graphics.

This list is by no means exhaustive; such an undertaking could span an entire website, with one game per blog post! But I would love my readers' help in filling in the gaps. What are some Apple II games you've revisited and found to still be fun, all these years later? Leave a comment with your recommendations!

Nuclear floppy

November 4th, 2019 12:08 PM
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Every semester that I teach at Emerson College, I start with a lesson on the history of computers and the Internet. This lesson employs several props, including a variety of floppy disk sizes.

"How many of you remember these?" I say, holding up a 3.5" disk. When I started asking that question seven years ago, every hand went up; now, only half do. And when I ask the same question of 5.25" disks, half the hands used to go up; now, none do.

The one constant over the years is that nobody remembers 8" disks. And that's fair: they debuted in 1972, twenty-five years before my students were born. As this was also well before the arrival of personal computers, I infer this floppy size was used primarily in business and industrial settings.

One industry that lingered with the 8" floppy was the United States government — but even they have decided to move on. Reported last month by Engadget is that our country's military will no longer reply on floppy disks to coordinate the launch of nuclear missiles, replacing them with a "highly-secure solid state digital storage solution".

This is not just a transfer of media; the underlying software must be changing as well. The storage capacity of 8" floppies maxed out at 1.2 megabytes, whereas SSD storage usually holds a minimum of several gigabytes. What would that antiquated nuclear system do with all that extra space? Likely we are upgrading to a more complex and bloated system. It reminds me of the sequel to WarGames, where (spoiler) the original JOSHUA software is uploaded to a modern mainframe to do battle with its more modern counterpart. Would an 8" floppy stand the test of time?

It possibly could, as the floppy medium had its advantages. When I interviewed author R.A. Salvatore back in 2002 about his official novelization of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, he said that the book was being written on a computer with no access to the Internet, making it impenetrable except by physical means. Likewise, the US government once defended their choice of 8" floppies: "You can't hack something that doesn't have an IP address. It's a very unique system — it is old and it is very good." Hard to repair and maintain, perhaps, but otherwise reliable.

So farewell to a last bastion of 8" floppies. Like my A2Central.com t-shirt says: It's not obsolete; it's proven technology.

(Hat tip to Eric Reimann)