Archive for the ‘Game trail’ Category

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

Mark Pelczarski & Spy's Demise

March 11th, 2019 2:07 PM
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From the IIe's release in 1983 to when I switched to the Apple IIGS in 1988, I used the Apple II primarily as a gaming machine. Many of our family's games were cracked, pirated copies, though I can't tell you where they came from — perhaps our local Apple retailer snuck them to my dad on the sly, or my older brothers were exchanging floppies on the playground. Regardless, it exposed me to many quirky titles that I may otherwise never have encountered.

One such game was Spy's Demise. As a kid growing up watching Inspector Gadget and reading Dungeons & Dragons novels such as Hero of Washington Square, I knew all about spies! (Mission: Impossible's 1988 revival and reruns of Get Smart! wouldn't come until later.) But demise? Not if I had anything to do about it!

Spy's Demise was an action game in which players navigated a spy across the horizontal floors of a building, avoiding a collision course with elevators as they vertically travel their shafts. It reminded me of Elevator Action, a Data East coin-op that my father and I would play together on family vacations.

I doubt I ever finished the game or even knew that there was an ending. Those who did get that far were presented with a hidden cryptogram and a phone number to call. What they got for their efforts, I don't know, but based on other prizes of the era offered by Nintendo or Atari, I'd guess it was a sew-on patch with the company logo.

It wasn't until researching this post that I also learned the game had a sequel, The Spy Strikes Back!, which offers a top-down view as the spy tries to avoid motion-sensing drones.

What brings these games to mind after so many years is last week's announcement of the KansasFest 2019 keynote speaker. Mark Pelczarski is the co-author of The Spy Strikes Back! and the founder of Penguin Software, the company that published both Spy games as well as many others, including Translyvania and The Coveted Mirror. Pelczarski was also a columnist for Softalk and, before that, a high-school math teacher and college instructor of computer science. His LinkedIn profile outlines his many contributions since then to education, democracy, and web development.

Today, his roles include "consulting regarding software, data mining and integrity, and web security". No doubt this expertise in online security and cryptography originated with leaving clues and secrets for early Apple II spies. I look forward to meeting the secret agent who sent me on so many missions!

Commander Keen & Softdisk PC in the news

February 25th, 2019 2:49 PM
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Ever since game consoles started featuring Internet connectivity and online stores, the number of downloadable games to choose from has exploded. With no need to manufacture or distribute expensive physical units, almost any indie developer can publish a game online. Often, these are small, indie titles with almost no marketing or name recognition flooding the online catalog. But while recently browsing the Nintendo Switch's eShop, I saw a old familiar name that caught my eye: Commander Keen, in his original adventure.

That name may not ring a bell to Apple II users, as Commander Keen was originally released in 1990 for MS-DOS only, with a Game Boy Color sequel arriving over a decade later. But look behind the scenes of this franchise from id Software, and you'll find a familiar lineage: Tom Hall, John Carmack, John Romero, and Adrian Carmack. These four creators founded id Software specifically to publish Commander Keen after originally developing the game while working at Softdisk. It was at Softdisk that Romero and company also created such memorable Apple II titles as Dangerous Dave.

So what's behind this sudden revival of Commander Keen? Once again, LoadingReadyRun has the full story in the latest CheckPoint:

Just like how John Carmack still loves his Apple II, and John Romero ported Dangerous Dave to iOS, it's great to know that former id Software creative director Tom Hall is still passionate about his classic games. Even if we'll never see an Apple II port, let's hope Commander Keen's Switch release is a sign of things to come.

Another World comes to Apple II & Switch

February 4th, 2019 8:46 PM
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When I first encountered Out of This World for the Super Nintendo, I was absolutely fascinated. I'd never played Prince of Persia before, so the realistic art enabled by rotoscoping was new and amazing to me. The puzzles were also nearly inscrutable: playing as a human transported to an alien world, I had a language barrier that left me with few clues, countless deaths, endless experimentation, and victorious jubilation. My only disappointment was that the game was too short: a speedrun takes only 10–15 minutes.

Since the Super NES and the Apple IIGS share the same processor, the game eventually made its way to the IIGS, largely because the developer was told it wasn't possible:

If a conversion to a 16-bit Apple II seemed impossible, Vince Weaver, aka "deater", has kicked it up (or down?) a notch with his 8-bit demake:

Like his previous ports of Portal and Kerbal Space Program, Weaver's version of Out of This World is incomplete, consisting of only the first two levels and deaths. But even this limited proof of concept is fun and and impressive, which you can see for yourself by downloading the disk image and source code from his website. The game runs on any Apple II with at least 16K of RAM.

Out of This World, under its original title of Another World, has been ported to many other platforms and is now enjoying historic re-releases. The 20th anniversary edition first appeared on consoles in 2014; in 2018, it landed on the current generation, that being the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch, available as downloads only.

Despite having the original SNES cartridge, I've nonetheless plunked down USD$29.99 + S&H on the upcoming physical, retail copy of the Switch edition, courtesy Limited Run Games. It was just too good an opportunity to own this game again — be it on floppy disk, disk image, or cartridge. After more than two decades, I'm sure its puzzles will again take me longer than 15 minutes to solve!

UPDATE (March 2, 2019):: Weaver has now ported the introductory cinematic movie as well:

Where is Carmen Sandiego? On Netflix!

January 28th, 2019 10:50 AM
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I like to say that I got my start as a professional writer in the print industry, working for such publications as The Boston Herald and various MediaNews daily papers. But even before then, my first freelance writing assignment was for the Gamers Forum on CompuServe, whose sysop gave me a review copy of a Carmen Sandiego game for the Apple II.

I was still a preteen and was utterly unschooled in how to conduct a professional review. All I knew was that I'd been given a computer game for free, which for a kid was like Christmas in July! The resulting review was gushing, which I thought was a fair exchange for this bounty I'd been given. Between my amateurish writing and my lack of context for the review — I'd never played any DOS / Windows games and didn't know how the Apple II compared — the editor ultimately killed the review. I was more embarrassed by the experience than I was grateful that I got to keep the game.

Nonetheless, Carmen Sandiego has a soft spot in my heart: whatever factors may've unduly influenced my review, I did sincerely enjoy the puzzle-solving and using the reference book the game came with to decipher the history and geography of our country and world. It was nerdy and neat and actually educational in a way that Oregon Trail rarely was.

So my interest was absolutely piqued when I discovered Netflix was premiering a new Carmen Sandiego animated series.

This is not the scarlet thief's first appearance on television. First was the 1991 game show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, perhaps most memorable for its Rockapella theme song, followed by the 1996 game show Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? In between, there was the 1994 animated series Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?. Of the three, I'd seen only the original game show, and even that only in passing; once again, I'm lacking context.

But the biggest change seems to be that Carmen Sandiego is now the protagonist. Whereas the original cartoon had her defecting from ACME Detective Agency to work for the Villains' International League of Evil, Netflix's series flips that: this young, teenaged Carmen Sandiego has defected from V.I.L.E. and now travels the world stealing back that which her former colleagues have stolen from their rightful owners. In both, Carmen communicates with "Player" — but whereas the original Player was an invisible, live-action character, here, he's a white-hat hacker who remotely partners with Carmen to get her past security intended to keep her out.

I've watched the first two of eight episodes, and I've liked what I've seen: Sandiego is a moral character who values teammates and teamwork but will stand up to her friends to be true to herself. I'm told there are homages, actors, and recurring characters from other Carmen Sandiego media, but I've not yet seen anything that references her Apple II roots.

Even if the new cartoon doesn't directly acknowledge the character's origins, it's still great to see the our favorite retrocomputer's legacy continue to this day. Where on Earth would Carmen Sandiego be without the Apple II?

… Just don't ask me to review it.

(Hat tips to TV Guide and Mashable via Susan Arendt and Sabriel Mastin)

No More Heroes: Apple Strikes Again

January 21st, 2019 11:29 AM
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If I had to say what my brand was, it'd be a mix of Apple II, video games, Star Trek, and WordPress. Of them, those first two are the likeliest to intersect — but even I am sometimes late to catch those crossovers.

One recent video game I overlooked is Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes, a Nintendo Switch exclusive released just three days ago, on January 18, 2019, and the latest in the No More Heroes franchise that started on the Wii in 2007. I've not played any games in this series and wasn't planning to start now. But then the Australian video game website Vooks made this passing remark in their review of the game: "The cutscenes … [are] handled through a visual novel with an Apple II filter."

I wondered what "an Apple II filter" was, suspecting it was just lazy shorthand for pixel art or some other retro aesthetic. Some searching on YouTube revealed that Vooks was in fact quite accurate in its description.

It's not a perfect match for the Apple II: the resolution is a bit too high and the font is off, to name a few. (Another review called it a "Apple II / TRS-80 style"; maybe that's the influence.) Regardless, if I were to see these cutscenes without context, the Apple II would probably be the first thing I thought of, too — either that or Plangman, another modern game with an Apple II vibe.

I continued poking into the history of the No More Heroes franchise and discovered this sequel is not the first to reference the Apple II. The original 2007 game featured the Orange II, "a retractable, cleaver-esque beam katana model designed by Orange Computer… The name is a parody of Apple Computers and its first computer sold for public use, the Apple II."

I apparently need to add Travis Strikes Again to my gaming backlog!

Let's Play Prince of Persia Escape

January 7th, 2019 10:53 AM
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Karateka and its spiritual successor, Prince of Persia, have enjoyed diverse incarnations on mobile devices. Karateka saw a re-invention as a rhythmic fighting game, spurring interest in the later release of Karateka Classic. Likewise, the original Prince of Persia was released as Prince Retro but never updated for iOS 11; what took its place in iOS 12 was Prince of Persia Classic HD, which updated the graphics until they're unrecognizable from their Apple II origins.

Now there's a new Prince of Persia for iOS and Android, and it's in the sub-genre of platformers known as a runner. Here, the Prince runs to the right side of the screen while dodging obstacles, but never combating foes or solving puzzles. He moves left and right and jumps at the player's discretion, but beyond that, there's little variety.

That didn't sound like much fun to me, but it seemed an easy Let's Play video to record, so I took the free version of the game for a spin. Spoiler: it's not much fun. But at least I worked some Apple II graphics into the background and outro.

Judging from other Let's Play videos of this game, the level design doesn't get more diverse in the first fifty stages, either. And some reports indicate the game has 500+ levels. Who has time for that?

It's not unreasonable for classic licenses to be reincarnated in new genres. Sometimes it works well: I felt more positive about the similar adaptation of Super Mario to the running genre. Prince of Persia Escape doesn't inspire any strong feelings either way, but if it makes enough profit to keep the Prince alive, then I look forward to seeing his next reinvention.