Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Unearthed arcana, milestones, and anniversaries.

Interplay's cancelled RPG, Meantime

November 18th, 2019 10:26 AM
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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 Knowing that his product was vastly inferior and out-of-date, he decided to cancel the project for good.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.

Apple II in Six, SIx, Six

October 28th, 2019 4:41 AM
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While recently touring the Rijksmuseum, I was reminded just how influential Christianity has been on classical art. The Bible must be the most inspirational and reinterpreted book in history, as evidenced by the many paintings hanging in the Rijksmuseum galleries.

With the Apple II being just as important to the development of personal computers, I shouldn't be surprised that it and Christianity should intersect to make history.

In 1984, six-year-old music band DeGarmo & Key released the record Communication. On this LP was the single "Six, Six, Six", for which they produced this music video featuring Satan using the Apple II as a medium to seduce a young man.

Upon first viewing, I found the premise rather objectionable. The Apple II as a tool the Devil? A Commodore 64 would've been more believable. Also, who loads random software into their computer without knowing where it's from?? Then I remembered that viruses were scarce 35 years ago, and their ability to infect other programs was limited by the nature of floppy disks. As someone who was always hungry for the latest and greatest games, I probably would've inserted any floppy that promised a modicum of entertainment.

Good thing that kid was of a similar mindset, as otherwise we wouldn't have this fascinating music video to analyze. I see in it many motifs that were later repeated in other movies about games, computers, and wish fulfillment. As in the movie Shazam, a powerful figure offers teenagers untold power by first tempting them with great evil. Similar to "The Bishop of Battle", the main character is pulled into the game. Like in The Matrix, anyone in this virtual world could be an agent of the enemy. And ultimately, just like Jumanji, the cursed game is discarded by the hero, only to be found by a new, unsuspecting victim.

But these are not the reasons the music video made history. According to Wikipedia:

DeGarmo & Key were the first American Christian group to have a music video appear on MTV …The original video for the song "Six, Six, Six" was one of a number of videos that MTV pulled from rotation due to violent content. The purge was a public reaction to the U.S. Senate hearings on sex and violence in music. MTV had misinterpreted the song "Six, Six, Six" as an anti-Christian statement. According to industry news reports at the time, MTV executive Sandra Sparrow was unaware that DeGarmo & Key were a Christian band when she included the video in a list of videos to be excised. MTV allowed DeGarmo & Key to submit a re-edited version, which was placed back into rotation. Removed from the re-edited video was a short scene of a man representing the Antichrist being set on fire.

I'm not familiar with those particular Senate hearings, though they're similar to the ones I researched for my thesis on moral panics: when a new form of media or entertainment appears, adults blame it for juvenile delinquency — similar to how the Apple II is depicted here.

The resulting edited, "tamer" music video, which retains the Apple II's role in full, is here:

Whichever the version, this wasn't the Apple II's last appearance in a music video — but it's surely the first time it appeared in a banned music video!

(Hat tip to Randy Brandt!)

Jean Armour Polly put computers in libraries

October 21st, 2019 7:00 AM
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Last month, the Internet Hall of Fame inducted a new class. Among its members was Jean Armour Polly, who pioneered free Internet access in public libraries.

And she did so with an Apple II, according to Syracuse.com. While the Internet and the Apple II were not exactly contemporaries, Polly was an advocate for computers in libraries well before they were put online.

It was 1981 and this was groundbreaking. They set up the computer, a black Apple 2 Plus, in a spot where everyone could use it. The American Legion raised money to buy the printer. At the time, Liverpool was one of two libraries in the country with a computer, said Polly, a Syracuse University alumna.

That's not Polly's only contribution to computer literacy and Internet lore: she also popularized the term "surfing" for Internet activity.

While Polly popularized the phrase, she didn't coin it. The first use of "surfing the Internet" was by Mark McCahill on the Usenet newsgroup alt.gopher on February 25, 1992:

There is a lot to be said for surfing the internet with gopher from anywhere that you can find a phone jack.

I'm a big fan of public libraries, making weekly visits to mine to get free movies, books, and video games (and to look for Apple II software). While I haven't needed to use a library's computers, I realize that making this resource available to the community is an invaluable service with a high return on investment.

Our thanks to Polly for being among those who got the ball rolling with an Apple II Plus!

(Hat tip to Andy Molloy)

Bizarro caller ID

September 30th, 2019 10:33 AM
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When I ran my BBS, I kept a corkboard on the wall above my computer — probably because it's what my dad did above his computer in his home office, of which my BBS occupied a corner. Little that I put on my board was practical or relevant, consisting primarily of mementos or jokes from completely unrelated affairs, like parking stubs from a summer trip to the beach.

But while recently cleaning out my house, I discovered that I'd kept the contents of that board from two decades past. And one such item actually did pertain to my BBS.

Sherlock Holmes speaks into phone: "Did you just dial my number by mistake and hang up before I answered, Watson?" Caption: "Sherlock Holmes gets Caller ID"

This comic strip from Dan Piraro's Bizarro highlights a groundbreaking technology of the 1990s: Caller ID. The strip is from 1995, which was my sophomore year of high school. I distinctly remember how excited I was for this feature to become available: how it arrived first at my grandmother's house one city over, then in my hometown a day later. Phones didn't have inbuilt digital displays back then, so I had to buy a separate caller ID box to sit between the wall jack and my BBS modem.

Finally, I could see who was calling my BBS before they even logged in! And it became an effective deterrent against pranksters and trolls. If I saw multiple accounts log in from the same number, I could call out these sockpuppets (though they always had what they thought was a good excuse, such as "Oh, that's my brother"). If someone used *67 to block their caller ID, I would sometimes use that as grounds to disconnect the call entirely. (In the early days of my BBS, I would verify each new user by calling their landline and asking to speak with them. Needless to say, that got onerous for both parties pretty quickly.)

This comic is a fun reminder not only of my BBS, but of how something we now take for granted — knowing who's calling before we answer " was once revolutionary. Some things don't change, though: I still read Bizarro every day. Its online archives extend only to 2005, so please enjoy this glimpse further back into its history.

A VisiCalc time capsule

June 10th, 2019 12:56 PM
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When I was in sixth grade, my class created personal time capsules. We took various pop culture artifacts, put then in a shoebox, and then applied newspapers to decoupage the assembled work. There was no coordinated effort to bury the capsules, though — we brought them home and did whatever 11-year-olds do with completed homework, which in my case was shove it under my bed. It's still there, and the decoupage didn't permanently seal the box, as every few years, I open it to paw through what I thought was important thirty years ago.

Or, actually, what was unimportant: I couldn't imagine parting with anything I actually valued and bequeathing it to unknown citizens of generations hence. My capsule instead consisted of newspaper comics, McDonald's Happy Meal toys, and other random gadgets I wouldn't miss. It wasn't the most representative selection of the time.

Architect Frank Gehry did a better job of preserving 20th-century history in a time capsule donated to MIT. Its contents were assembled in 1999, a mere twenty years ago. It was meant to remain sealed for another fifteen years, but its creator locked it with a cryptographic puzzle that would've taken the computers of his era ages to unlock, whereas today's machines made short work of it.

Regardless, he did a much better job than I did in selecting artifacts of value. The contents of the time capsule were already old when he chose them, such as the user manual for VisiCalc, the world's first-ever electronic spreadsheet. VisiCalc was invented by Dan Bricklin, an MIT graduate, so its inclusion in the capsule was of local interest as well.

Unlocking the time capsule.

The capsule's other contents would also be of interest to Apple II users. They included a copy of Microsoft BASIC for the Altair, donated by Bill Gates, who attended the 1999 ceremony in which the capsule was originally sealed. Altair's BASIC was Microsoft's first product, laying the foundation for the company to later create Applesoft BASIC for the Apple II.

In sixth grade, I plenty of Apple II paraphernalia that would've been right at home in a time capsule. It never occurred to me to include any not because I thought it was insignificant, but because it was too important for me to part with. The Apple II was a computer I used daily from 1983 to 1997, and via emulation ever since; I was too selfish to sacrifice some aspect of it for historical preservation.

Fortunately, nowadays we can have our artifacts and preserve them, too. Microsoft BASIC's source code has been released; the VisiCalc manual has been scanned; heck, even VisiCalc itself is available for download from Dan Bricklin's website.

But you can't digitize a Happy Meal toy, so maybe I didn't do so badly, after all.

(Hat tip to Jesus Diaz)

An adventure in Rocky's Boots

April 22nd, 2019 1:04 PM
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My reputation as any workplace's resident (and only) Apple II expert began at my first salaried job as a high-school teacher. I'd often annoy the computer-science teacher, Ms. Lang, by extolling the virtues of BASIC as a programming language (she preferred Scheme); and when I had to substitute for her for a day, I taught her students how to use VisiCalc, as detailed in a Juiced.GS article.

One day, that same teacher came to me for help. She'd recently come back from a conference with a copy of an old Apple II program used to teach programming logic using circuits and gates — could I boot it in my emulator so she could assess its usefulness to her class? I'd never heard the game, but as soon as it started, I gasped. "This is the work of Warren Robinett!"

In Rocky's Boots, players control a simple square as it navigates single-screen rooms, picking up items by colliding with them and transporting them through exits. Sword-like arrows guide the player from room to room.

It was the exact same design and interface as a game I'd grown up with: Adventure on the Atari 2600. Using a joystick and a single button, I'd guided that square on expeditions to distant castles, raiding their treasure while dodging and defeating terrifying, duck-like dragons, all while hoping not to be abducted by a random bat. Adventure's place was cemented not just in my memory but also in history for featuring the first-ever Easter egg: a hidden room with the developer's name, Warren Robinett.

Warren Robinett's name in Adventure's hidden room

Warren Robinett's name in Adventure's hidden room.

It was thanks to that Easter egg that I knew who must be responsible for Rocky's Boots. It's rare for a developer to have such an identifiable style, but when I saw Rocky's Boots, I knew it had to be, if not the same developer, then at least the same engine. I'd never researched Robinett's portfolio beyond that historical Atari 2600 game; until that moment in my high school office, I didn't realize Robinett had adapted his work to any other platform. But in a video demoing the 1982 eudcational title, Robinett describes it: "It uses some of the same ideas from the Adventure game for Atari: A network of interlinked screens, objects that you could pick up…"

I haven't played Rocky's Boots since that day in 2005, but it recently become easier to explore this educational curiosity, thanks to the work of 4am:

My thanks to 4am for preserving this classic, to Robinett for developing it, and to Karen Lang for introducing me to it. Now go try it yourself and enjoy this adventure on the Apple II!