Starblaster launching for PS5

February 17th, 2020 1:57 PM
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As my PlayStation 4 sits in storage with a massive backlog of unplayed and unfinished games, Sony is trying to bury me further with news of the PlayStation 5. The new console launches at the end of 2020… and one of its launch titles may be of interest to Apple II users.

According to such news outlets as PlayStation Universe, one of the first games to be released for the PS5 is titled Starblaster. Many were quick to make a connection to an Apple II game by the same name.

Starblaster was a side-scrolling shoot-em-up, or "shmup". It was published by G&G Engineering, a company that included Gifford Computer Systems, as seen in this advertisement from BYTE Magazine. Bill Machrone called Gifford Computer Systems "the firm that first made hard disk subsystems a reality for [Bill Godbout's] CompuPro hardware". G&G was located at 1922 Republic Avenue, San Leandro, CA 94577 (415-895-0798), which is now home to an Enterprise Rent-a-Car.

BYTE Magazine from April 1983
Why would Sony make a sequel to an obscure 8-bit indie title instead of creating their own IP? We'd have to ask Mike or Dale Gifford, the co-founders of G&G. I'm guessing this is the LinkedIn profile for Michael Gifford, based on his location near San Francisco; a résumé that includes Microsoft, Apple, and Dell; and working as an "independent product design consultant" 1983–1987, around the time of Starblaster's release.

Or maybe we don't: other fans are theorizing that Starblaster is not a PS5 launch game, but a reference to a Sony CLI development tool.

In which case… maybe we should make the rumor a reality. Who's up for interviewing Mike Gifford to inquire about a PlayStation 5 port of his classic game?

Burger Becky's Out Of This World

February 10th, 2020 2:21 PM
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Six years after I backed its Kickstarter, and four years after the final product was due, I received the documentary GIRLS GAME: Women Who Game (originally entitled No Princess in the Castle). The film features interviews with women gamers and game developers about their experiences and passions.

GIRLS GAME features a few names that will be familiar to Apple II users: Jeri Ellsworth and Rebecca Heineman. Jeri has been a KansasFest attendee, a Juiced.GS cover story, and a guest on my Polygamer podcast. Alas, the topic of her Apple II origins and passions did not come up in the documentary.

Fortunately, Burger Becky ensured our favorite retrocomputer was represented. Toward the very end of the film, she holds up two games from her impressive résumé, declaring "They said it couldn't be done!". The movie offers little context to that statement, but it's not hard for us to figure it out.

Burger Becky holding up two game boxes
The games in question are Out of This World and The Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate. It's no wonder they said Out of This World couldn't be done: when Jess Johnson asked Becky what her greatest achievement was, she cited this game.

That’s a tough call, since I’ve done so many projects in my career so far. I think I’d have to say was the evil MOD I had to do to get Out Of This World for the SNES to copy backgrounds quickly. Since Interplay wouldn’t pay for a SuperFX chip, I found a way to do it with static RAM on the cart and DMA which got me a great frame rate. Interplay wouldn’t pay for the static RAM either, so I ended up using Fast ROM and a MVN instruction. Interplay wouldn’t pay for a 3.6 MHz ROM either. So, frustrated, I shoved my block move code into the DMA registers and use it as RAM running at 3.6 MHz. It worked. I got fast block moves on slow cartridges and made a game using polygons working on a 65816 with pure software rendering.

This impressive feat could be worth a documentary of its own. In the meantime, thanks for working it into this film, Becky!

The legacy of Adam Rosen

February 3rd, 2020 9:22 AM
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A Massachusetts-based Apple II user recently reached out to me to ask where he could locally donate some aging software and documentation. I came up with a short list of potential recipients, including Adam Rosen of the Vintage Mac Museum, home to over a hundred classic Apple devices.

It was then that I belatedly learned that Adam had passed away on August 31, 2019, from pancreatic cancer; he was 53.

I'd met Adam only once, at a launch party for a proposed Boston-based retrocomputing museum known as the Digital Den, where I snapped photos of Adam and his many machines. We had both known of each other — he of his museum, me of Juiced.GS — and we were pleased to finally make each other's acquaintance. I didn't know that would be the first and last time we'd meet.

David Pierini of Cult of Mac called Adam "one of the biggest Mac fans ever". "Apple museums have popped up all over the world, but none with the quirky love that filled the rooms of Adam Rosen’s Massachusetts home," wrote Pierini. "Adam Rosen was happiest standing over an old Mac computer, all pulled apart with wires sticking out and components scattered across his kitchen table." You can hear that happiness from Adam himself, when the Retro Computing Roundtable interviewed him way back in episode #33 (September 2012).

Adam is gone before his time, but his computers live on. His collection has been donated to the American Computer and Robotics Museum of Bozeman, Montana. In Massachusetts, these machines were privately stored and visible only online; in Montana, they will be available to the public, starting in the fall of 2020.

I'm glad that a home has been found for these Macs — but the collection will be incomplete without Adam. His passion is what brought it together and kept it alive. I'm sorry I didn't have the opportunity to know him better.

Kevin Costner advertises the Apple Lisa

January 27th, 2020 9:58 AM
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Many film celebrities get their start with television commercials. Before Rain Man and Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman hawked for Volkswagen.

Ant Man Paul Rudd shilled the Super Nintendo.

And before he heard a voice whisper "If you build it, he will come", Kevin Costner advertised the Apple Lisa.

I've seen practically every Apple II commercial with their everyday families and dramatic voiceovers. Many are clever and memorable, but I don't know of any that feature the era's contemporary or nascent stars.

I suppose an early Apple Computer Inc. didn't have the budget to afford recognizable talent. The Apple II was released in 1977, with Apple's IPO happening 3.5 years later, on December 12, 1980. By the time the Apple Lisa debuted in January 1983, the company was comfortably profitable with more of a marketing budget.

Or maybe it's just the unpredictable vagaries of Hollywood. By the time Kevin Costner was advertising the Lisa, he'd been in only a half-dozen movies, none of them blockbuster films or starring roles such as "Frat Boy No. 1" in Ron Howard's Night Shift. Who knew that this commercial actor would grow up to be in The Postman, Waterworld, Tin Cup, and Man of Steel?

What a missed opportunity for him to have returned to his roots and make a cameo in any of the many Steve Jobs films!

(Hat tip to Cody Combs)

Dan Bricklin for President

January 20th, 2020 9:06 AM
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In a recent letter to the the Concord Monitor, the daily newspaper of Concord, New Hampshire, a reader submitted a letter about our country's upcoming presidential election. He compared two politicians, saying one was a "visionary", the first to present the ideas; but the other would be the "implementer", the one better suited to execute the ideas.

He then made an analogy using names Apple II users may recognize:

Do you know who Dan Bricklin is? Ever even heard of him? Dan Bricklin invented the spreadsheet. VisiCalc was the product that made the Apple II a viable business tool and the rest is history. Bricklin is a visionary and hero to software people like me.

But as often happens in software, first or even best doesn’t always win the game. First Lotus with 123 took the spreadsheet market and made it a real business game changer, followed by Microsoft Excel years later. Mitch Kapor (Lotus) and Bill Gates got the vision done.

This view of history rings false to me. Perhaps it's my Apple II bias, but Dan Bricklin did everything this reader says Mitch Kapor and Bill Gates did. VisiCalc was the first "killer app", demonstrating the value of personal computers and justifying their existence is offices and businesses across the country. Steve Jobs himself went on the record as saying that if it weren't for VisiCalc, there wouldn't've been an Apple Computer Inc.: "If Visicalc had been written for some other computer you'd be interviewing somebody else right now."

Did Lotus 1-2-3 improve upon VisiCalc? Certainly. According to Wikipedia, "1-2-3 quickly overtook VisiCalc, as well as Multiplan and SuperCalc, two VisiCalc competitors." But that's simply the nature of software development and evolution: any product that comes later will benefit from better hardware and development tools. Lotus 1-2-3's release in 1983 does not diminish the vision and implementation achieved by Bricklin in 1979.

As the Concord Monitor reader acknowledges, Bricklin is a hero and visionary — without whom we wouldn't have Lotus 1-2-3. Bricklin deserves credit not just for VisiCalc, but for helping the personal computer revolution succeed and for paving the way for visionaries to come.

1 MHz's surname pronunciation guide

January 13th, 2020 12:52 PM
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I spent some time this week listening to 1 MHz, the Apple II podcast you can read more about in my tribute post. No, there are no new episodes — I was digging through the archives, listening to classics from more than a decade ago.

As always, I found myself inspired by host Carrington Vanston's enthusiasm for Apple II games. I've never played the Wasteland or Fallout series, but Carrington's passion for the original game, its innovative and quirky gameplay features, and decent graphics make me want to explore it. Even his brief mention of Wizardry brought back my memories of playing Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord on the Nintendo Entertainment System and left me wondering if I would enjoy it today — or, better yet, if I should again tackle Silvern Castle, which I reviewed for Juiced.GS 21 years ago.

But the main reason I was spelunking the archives of 1 MHz was to find a particular piece of audio. I'd found it once before for Juiced.GS's 2017 April Fool's joke, but I had failed to cite the specific episode. So I started with episode #12 and worked my way backward.

As I did so, I heard Carrington mangle several Apple II users' surnames: Sean Fahey, Steve Weyhrich, and other people Carrington had not yet met at KansasFest. But one name he had no trouble with was my own. On the contrary, in 1 MHz episode #8, he made it clear that I am the one who has trouble pronouncing my own name.

I have some trouble with Ken's last name. Now, as longtime listeners to the show will know, I have some trouble pronouncing, everyone's last name but with Ken it's because us Canadians pronounce G–A–G–N–E as "gohn-yay" not "gag-knee". Then again, we say oh, yeah, instead of "foy-yay" instead of "foyer" and "fill–aye" instead of "fillet" and things like "Pardon me" and "I'm sorry" instead of "Give me your wallet." But it's a cultural thing.

I know that Carrington's jest in in good humor, and that he is otherwise a person who respects individuals' identities. He's also not wrong about the original pronunciation of my surname, and depending on the context and audience, I have used either the original Canadian pronunciation or the American one. Both are correct, and I accept either.

I remembered this jab from 2007 because that was still four years before my first time hosting a podcast. Open Apple debuted in February 2011, marking my first time behind the microphone. Up until then, I was an editor of Juiced.GS and Computerworld, where I told stories without being the story. I hadn't yet engaged in a medium that put my identity and personality front and center — so to hear a podcast I was an ardent listener of suddenly talking about me was quite the squee moment… even if it was to poke fun.

I'd say I'm less starstruck now and that Carrington's jabs have since lost their luster, except I know it would only motivate him to redouble his efforts. So I'll just say thanks for reminding me of my own heritage — and for a blog post 13 years in the making.