Archive for the ‘Game trail’ Category

Lode Runner, Choplifter, Oregon Trail, and other classic diversions from 8-bit gaming.

Which Apple II games are timeless?

November 11th, 2019 10:08 AM
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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!

Prince of Persia turns 30

October 7th, 2019 9:00 AM
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Back in July, I blogged about Prince of Persia's pending thirtieth birthday. Well, it happened! Last Thursday, Prince of Persia turned thirty years old, having originally been published on October 3, 1989.

Several mainstream and gaming news outlets commemorated the occasion, reflecting on the Prince's place in history and how it impacted game design and development. Goomba Stomp's Patrick Murphy waxed about the game's fluid, groundbreaking rotoscoped animation:

Here was a video game character that didn’t go from standing to jumping in one frame, whose run action didn’t come off as robotic and endlessly recycled. The Prince seemed to move like a real person (or at least a beautifully drawn cartoon), with all the fluidity and momentum that living beings have.

In contrast to the game's historical significance, Forbes' Matt Gardner shared a fact that I was unaware of:

Despite great reviews, Prince of Persia sold poorly in North America; just 7,000 copies were bought in its first year. It was only when it reached Japan and Europe that it became a true hit with audiences, due to the game finding ubiquity through official ports.

That slow, international acceptance of the game reminds me of Wizardry. Bitmob once wrote of Sir-Tech's computer role-playing game:

When it first came to Japan in the eighties, Wizardry had also inspired a media blitz across print and video that left a huge impression on the RPG audience. Not only did its phenomenon reach across media channels in Japan back in the day, the series continues on with a list of spin-offs and original productions catering to a dedicated fanbase.

Both Prince of Persia and Wizardry have had spinoffs, some more successful than others. In Let's Play of Prince of Persia: Escape, the endless runner released earlier this year for mobile devices, I was lukewarm at best. PocketGamer's Cameron Bald was less reserved and more decisive, calling it "a sham product: ugly, cynical, and cruelly manipulative." Oof!

I don't remember on what platform I originally played Prince of Persia; by the time it was released in 1989, I was deep into console games, meaning I may have first played the Super Nintendo version published by Konami.

Wherever it's been popular or ported, or however successful its regions or spin-offs have been, Prince of Persia's release was a landmark in computer gaming. May it celebrate many birthdays to come — long live the Prince!

The Oregon Trail Card Game

August 19th, 2019 12:21 PM
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I spend my workdays at Workbar, a co-working space that lets me host a monthly game session. This month, I volunteered my copy of Oregon Trail: The Card Game.

I'd picked up the game from Target when it was released in the summer of 2016, but I never got around to playing it or its expansion pack. Finally, five of us gathered into a covered wagon to collaboratively make our way through a round.

Before departing, I read the enclosed instructions but found them lacking clarity. This complementary video helped clarify a few things.

Then the five of us departed Missouri. We didn't choose our roles (farmer, banker, carpenter), nor did we elect how to spend our allowance — supply cards were randomly distributed to us.

Four adults playing a card game

An unlikely family of pioneers.

We each had a hand of trail cards that we played to span the distance between the starting card of Independence and the ending card of Willamette Valley. The trail cards fell broadly into three categories: no effect; ford a river; or calamity strikes. The latter two cards occasionally left room for interpretation, which confused our merry band. For example, "Roll an even number to cross the river; roll a 1 and die!" But what about 3 or 5? What I should've done before playing was read the Pressman Toys website for "Oregon Trail Rules Updates", whose three bullet points address some of these concerns.

Even with that added knowledge, the game relied mostly on luck of the draw. The rules imply there's some strategy, such as "Sometimes you may want to let one of your friends die", rather than expend a supply card. But we didn't encounter such a scenario, nor could I imagine one. Now I understand what Kate Szkotnicki meant when she reviewed this game for Juiced.GS:

Some people may also be put off by the amount of luck the game is based on—players looking for a game where they can finesse the rules, manage their cards and play well against their opponents may be disappointed.

A complete round, including occasional pauses to consult the instructions, took about a half-hour. Now that we better understand how to live and die on the Oregon Trail, I expect future games will be faster, and that the expansion pack might introduce additional options and choices. Still, it's not a game I recommend rushing to Chimney Rock to buy.

A card saying 'You have died of dysentery.`

A noble (and notorious) death.

Traveling with Agent USA

August 12th, 2019 1:41 PM
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My grade school had an Apple II computer lab filled with educational software from Scholastic. As one of the few students with an Apple II at home, I was allowed to borrow from this collection over the weekends. While issues of Microzine attracted most of my attention, I fondly remember another title: Agent USA, from Tom Snyder Productions.

This game takes the horror of a pandemic (think a cross between Dustin Hoffman's Outbreak and the Borg) and makes it fun! Players control a government agent (represented as a hat with feet) in a United States whose population is being slowly converted to mindless drones. The only thing that can save them is a self-replicating crystal in the agent's possession. A single crystal can turn a drone back into a citizen, but a hundred of them can defeat the brains of the operation, the Fuzzbomb. If Agent USA can cultivate the crystals, read the train schedules, buy train tickets, and adjust to time zones, he just might save the day.

Wikipedia says this game teaches "spelling, US geography, time zones, and state capitals", though I'm unsure how much of that I absorbed. For example, with many cities to be explored, capital cities were distinguished by an info booth where players could see projections of the Fuzzbomb's spread — but I don't recall memorizing which cities had these maps. Learning how cities connect to each other has transferred to understanding which airlines fly to which cities and where their hubs are, but reading train schedules might've proved more useful had I lived in a city that had good public transit.

What I remember most fondly about the game was not the moral lesson my Catholic school wanted me to learn! Trains left the station every thirty seconds, and if you tried to board without a ticket, you'd be summarily ejected. There was little reason to encounter this scenario, since tickets were free (provided you could spell the destination's name). But if you were strapped not for cash, but for time, you could bypass the ticket booth entirely. Trains would call all-aboard moments before departing, and in that brief window, boarding the train would not leave enough time for the player to be returned to the platform; the train would leave with player in tow.

Having only ever borrowed this game as a kid and wanting it for myself as an adult, I bought a copy of this game five years ago on eBay from Ian Baronofsky, whom I would later meet at KansasFest. I didn't get around to opening it until just last month. It's not the clamshell-edition packaging I remember, but inside is the same train-jumping adventure I grew up with.

Prince of Persia is turning 30!

July 15th, 2019 11:46 AM
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The original Prince of Persia game turns thirty years old this October 3, and in anticipation of that anniversary, the game's original creator, Jordan Mechner, has some news to share.

First, his 1980s development journals, which were previously published in paperback and ebook editions, will be re-published in hardcopy with new illustrations. This version will come from Stripe Press, whose "books contain entirely new material, some are collections of existing work reimagined, and others are republications of previous works that have remained relevant over time or have renewed relevance today." The book will be finalized in time for the game's release anniversary this fall, with autographed editions available next February at PAX East, an annual video game convention that Mechner keynoted in 2012. Since Juiced.GS already reviewed the paperbacks back in 2013, we probably won't go as in-depth with the new release, though we'll certainly report the news in DumplinGS!

Being able to publish a book is as magical to Mechner as making a game once was. The democratization of publication he something he attributes the Apple II to initiating:

For me as a kid who dreamed of creating mass entertainment, in the pre-internet days, when you still needed a printing press to make a book and a film lab to make a movie, the Apple II was a game-changer: a technological innovation that empowered every user to innovate. Suddenly, I didn't need adult permission (or funding) to tell a story of adventure that might reach thousands — and ultimately millions — of people.

Second, Mechner was recently interviewed at Gamelab, a game development conference held in Barcelona. Venturebeat has an edited transcript in which Mechner recalls some of his original inspirations:

Anybody here remember Choplifter? This blew my mind in 1982. It was the first game I’d played that told a story. Asteroids, Space Invaders, you had three lives and you had to get a high score. All of that was based on the business model of putting quarters into machines. Choplifter told a story, and at the end it said "The End." That was the inspiration for my next game, Karateka.

Jordan Mechner plays Prince of Persia in 1989.


Third, Mechner not only reflected on the past but also looked to the future, noting that there is no new Prince of Persia game to announce — yet:

Many of you have asked when there will be a new PoP game (or movie, or TV series). If you feel that it's been a long time since the last one, you're not alone. I wish I had a magic dagger to accelerate the process… [but I'm] in the midst of longer-term projects whose announcement is still a ways off.

Until the new books and possible new games come out, there's still plenty of Prince of Persia to enjoy. The source code is publicly available; maybe someone can hack in a two-player mode, as Charles Mangin did with Karateka.

MAD Magazine's Spy vs. Spy

July 8th, 2019 8:46 AM
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I grew up reading MAD Magazine, having inherited a collection of back issues from my oldest brother. I was sometimes too young to get the humor, but I always enjoyed the comics, especially Spy vs. Spy.

Licensed computer games were rarer in the 1980s than they are now; the technology to produce an authentic adaptation from one medium to another just wasn't there. But Spy vs. Spy's simple angles and slapstick antics made for a wonderful two-player Apple II game, packaged in an impressive clamshell case.

My youngest brother and I would wake up early Saturday mornings to compete in this split-screen game. I would always be the white spy as we wandered the embassy, searching for secret documents and setting traps for each other. Like in Space Ship of Death, a BBS door game I later adapted to the Apple II, each trap had a defense: a bucket of acid propped on a door could be protected against with an umbrella. But since we shared a monitor, my brother and I could see where the traps were being set, ruining the element of surprise. If no defense was available, it wasn't uncommon for one of us to simply stop playing, stubbornly refusing to trigger a trap we knew was there. Still, it was a fun game and one of the few areas of my life where I felt I could sometimes best my sibling.

When the pages of MAD Magazine advertised that a sequel to the game was coming to Commodore 64, I wrote a letter to the editor asking why it wasn't being released for the Apple II. I actually got a letter back, explaining how it cost money to make a game and they had to be sure they'd make that money back by adapting it to another computer system. I was confused: didn't they know I would buy it? Wasn't that enough??

Today, my letter would've gotten me added to a marketing email list, with my specific interests indicated as Spy vs. Spy and the Apple II. But back then, this one-time exchange wasn't enough to warrant MAD following up with the official news, prompting me to organically discover when Spy vs. Spy II: The Island Caper was eventually released for the Apple II:

I didn't think it possible, but this game was even better than the original. The setting was more exotic, the traps were more ingenious, the gameplay was more intuitive, and the graphics were more distinct. Although my brother and I were getting to the ages where we were too old to play together, we still got in several rounds of this game.

It wasn't until 2012 that I found out there had been a third game in the series, Spy vs. Spy III: Arctic Antics. Replacing "health" with "body heat" is clever, but the bleak landscape makes me think the series peaked with its second iteration.

A version of the original game was later released for iOS, but it was never updated to be 64-bit; it stopped working with iOS 11 and is no longer available in the App Store. Even when it did work, the touch interface did not lend itself well to the intricate machinations of one spy, let alone two.

The brand was also licensed to a PlayStation 2 / Xbox game, but it has little if anything to do with the original trilogy.

A new game in the series, Spies, is tentatively under development. A lengthy description claims Spies will be inspired by "the original", though it's unclear if they're referring to the Apple II game or the later PS2 title.

Sadly, just as this franchise has struggled in the past decades, so too has its source material. MAD Magazine will cease publication of original content later this year, switching to reprints of classic material with a single annual issue of new content.

I regret the passing of an iconic institution of America's cultural landscape. But just like the Apple II game was better than the PS2, sometimes revisiting the past is better than trying to recapture it with reimagings. For all the fond memories of sibling rivalry it gave me, I hope MAD Magazine finds success in its new format.