Archive for the ‘Software showcase’ Category

Old programs, new tricks, and ways to make the Apple II perform.

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 Knowing that his product was vastly inferior and out-of-date, he decided to cancel the project for good.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.

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!

Bitcoin on the Apple II

August 26th, 2019 11:27 AM
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Every April 1st, Juiced.GS publishes an April Fool's joke, such as that we'd be encrypting all print issues, or cryogenically freezing our staff. Most readers find it amusing; some find it confusing ("Is this real?"); one found it so offensive that they cancelled their subscription.

To avoid a repeat of any extreme reactions, I aimed for this year's to be so absurd that no one would ever believe it or feel betrayed by it: Juiced.GS was introducing JuicyBits™, an 8-bit cryptocurrency. How ridiculous! The processing power of the Apple II, while impressive for its time, was nowhere near the minimum to compute modern blockchains. Clearly the impossibility of anyone attempting such a thing made the press release an obvious joke.

Charles Mangin didn't get the memo.

As detailed in his thorough blog post, Mangin was inspired not by Juiced.GS, but by last month's KansasFest, to mine Bitcoin on the Apple II for real. With plenty of time on the ride home from Kansas City to theorize his approach, followed by some insightful assistance from Peter Ferrie, it wasn't long before Mangin had an actual, working algorithm for computing cryptocurrency on his Apple II. Not only that, but he rigged a setup that outputs the computer's video to Twitch, the popular streaming network, allowing us to watch the computations in real-time.

Watch live video from 8BTC on www.twitch.tv

Don't sit on the edge of your seat waiting for that magic moment when a Bitcoin is mined, though:

… mining Bitcoin successfully at 3.8 hashes per second will happen, on average, once in 256 trillion years. But it could happen tomorrow. It's a lottery, after all.

At this point, I'm not sure if the joke is on Charles or on Juiced.GS.

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.