1990s kids play Oregon Trail

October 30th, 2017 10:38 AM
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Many of us in the Apple II community were first introduced to the computer in its heyday. And for some younger members, that introduction occurred in the classroom, playing Oregon Trail.

If that wasn't our last encounter with the Apple II, then we wouldn't be surprised if we booted Oregon Trail today and saw blocky graphics and heard rudimentary music — that's typical of an early 8-bit computer. But if we graduated from that classroom and never looked back, then we might be surprised that Oregon Trail isn't quite what we remember — if we remember it at all.

That's what Buzzfeed set out to test in a react-style video: it recruited adults who grew up in the 1990s (a bit after the Apple II's height of popularity) — adults who have apparently never played modern adaptations of Oregon Trail, such as Organ Trail — and asked them to play Oregon Trail.

Despite the hardware and software being from their youth, both seem absolutely foreign to these players. They expect mouse input where there is none; they're surprised by the amount of text and lack of real-time interactivity; the keyboard controls for hunting are indecipherable (I'm guessing it's IJKM); and one couldn't remember where the Oregon Trail led. (Hint: it's in the title.)

Even if this video is a rough reintroduction, the gamers nonetheless seemed to enjoy themselves. Their exasperation at the various maladies that befall their parties has an undercurrent of amusement. One test subject even says he might go home and play Oregon Trail. Now that would be a win!

In the end, these players congratulated themselves — not on making it from Independence to Willamette Valley, but on playing the game at all. They commented, "Kids these days would hate this game… They wouldn't have the patience." Is that true? Stay tuned…

Final Fantasy V by Chris Kohler

October 23rd, 2017 9:50 AM
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The Apple II and its software and community had a tremendous influence on my evolution as a gamer. But as much as I enjoyed its games, many of them would today be described as "casual" games — something I could play for a few minutes before moving on. My Apple II collection didn't include the deep, engrossing titles of Ultima or Wizardry; for those role-playing experiences, I turned to my Nintendo. It was on that gaming platform that I lost myself in the worlds of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. These two Japanese RPGs offered worlds, characters, inventories, and more complexity than any of the action games I was otherwise accustomed to.

So when Boss Fight Books launched a few years ago with the promise to delve behind the scenes of such console games, I was quick to back all four of its Kickstarters — for seasons 1, 2, 3, and 4. Each "season" featured several books by different authors who would offer their own personal experiences with a game, woven with the original interviews with the game's designers.

Boss Fight Books hasn't always lived up to my expectations: of the four I've received, two of them were pretty good, and two were horribly unreadable. Despite that uneven experience, I had no hesitation in backing the latest season, as I knew what I'd be getting when I saw Chris Kohler was assigned to cover Final Fantasy V. Kohler is the founder of the games section of WIRED and is now a features editor at Kotaku, two websites that have done exemplary work covering the video game space. While I don't know Kohler personally, I've read his work and have attended his conference talks, and we were scheduled to be on a panel together at PAX East 2017 before circumstances conspired against us. (I'm still hopeful we'll have a future opportunity to collaborate.)

Sure enough, Kohler's book is a tight, enjoyable, informative tale of this JRPG that never saw an English-language release during its day. It's a game that inspired Kohler to import the Super Famicom version to try playing on his Super Nintendo, and ultimately to study abroad in Japan during his college years.

Having never played FFV, I had much to learn about this missing title in the popular franchise. I thought I knew everything else about the series, though, including the original Final Fantasy, which I'd spent the summer of 1990 playing. Kohler surprised me with an origin story I'd somehow never learned or had forgotten:

Eventually, [Final Fantasy creator Hironobu] Sakaguchi got his act together, graduated school, and entered Yokohama National University to study electronic communications. Unfortunately for his renewed interest in scholastic achievement, he quickly discovered video games. A classmate named Hiromuchi Tanaka owned an Apple II, and their group of friends would stay up all night playing Western RPGs like Wizardry and Ultima. Sakaguchi didn't go in for arcade games, but these RPGs were something else: They had fantastic stories like the ones he devoured in the volumed of Guin Saga, and you could play them for hours on end. Which he did. Sakaguchi and his friends would pull all-nighters on Tanaka's Apple II. He battled monsters in Ultima II until he maxed out the amount of gold his character could carry, and the counter rolled over from 9999 back to 0.

Though the Apple II was not as popular in Japan as it was in the USA, I had no idea it had landed in just the right hands to inspire an entire RPG franchise that continues to this day. While I didn't play Wizardry and Ultima, I'm immensely relieved that Sakaguchi did; the games they inspired him to create became my Wizardry and Ultima.

The official launch date for Kohler's book is tomorrow, but as a Kickstarter backer, I received my copy several weeks ago. I recommend it without reservation to anyone interested in the story of Final Fantasy and the early evolution of JRPGs. A further excerpt is available at Kotaku.

Nox Archaist on Kickstarter

October 16th, 2017 4:19 PM
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Nox Archaist, an 8-bit tile-based role-playing game in development by 6502 Workshop, is currently in the last week of its Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.

Nox Archaist first hit my radar in April 2016, when developer Mark Lemmert emailed me about contributing content for Juiced.GS. Mark has since written three articles about the behind-the-scenes development of this game and recruited me to contribute a unique issue of Juiced.GS available exclusively to Kickstarter backers.

Nox Archaist and games like it are important to me, as I grew up playing the games that inspired it, like The Magic Candle and Ultima III: Exodus. While I love the narrative of modern RPGs, they're often more linear, with a definitive route from the beginning to the ending. By contrast, games like Ultima offered an open world in which I could discover towns haphazardly, receive clues that wouldn't make sense until much later, and marvel with my friends at the different places, people, and monsters we were each encountering in our unique journeys.

Game design has come a long way in the thirty years since, and it's possible to recreate those early experiences while still applying everything we've learned in the intervening decades about elegant user interfaces, character progression, and more. While Nox Archaist isn't the first game to recently promise the best of both worlds, it seems likely to be the first to hit market.

The Nox Archaist crowdfunding campaign is seeking $43,078, which is ambitious by itself but modest compared to Unknown Realm, a similar RPG whose Kickstarter received $126,343 earlier this year. Nox Archaist's campaign started off strong, with donors making an average pledge of $109 each — no doubt enticed by getting in-game towns and artifacts named after them. The campaign currently stands at 41% funded — and 78% of projects that raised more than 20% of their goal are successfully funded. But without continued momentum, the Kicktraq prediction for this campaign is not favorable.

If this Kickstarter does not succeed, then per the platform's all-or-nothing nature, 6502 Workshop will receive none of the pledged funds. But I'm hopeful, even if that happens, that the game itself will nonetheless be a success — whether it seeks additional funding via a more flexible platform, such as Indiegogo, or simply proceeds as an exclusively homebrew effort. The Apple II needs games like Nox Archaist.

Installing optional SSL

October 9th, 2017 11:48 AM
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A year ago this month, I added SSL certificates to all my websites. Be it the ease and affordability of doing via Let's Encrypt, the paranoia of avoiding unencrypted communications inspired by Snowden, or the improvement to search-engine ranking provided by Google, it was an effortless and valuable addition all my sites.

Except this one. I spoke on the Retro Computing Roundtable and wrote on this blog about how evolving Web standards sometimes mean older technology is no longer grandfathered. In this case, no Apple II computer or browser currently supports (or may even be capable of accessing) SSL-encrypted websites. Even though my Google Analytics showed no such machines were accessing Apple II Bits, I was hesitant to disconnect this blog from the computer that inspired it.

Since then, Google stepped up its incentive to offer HTTPS encryption: starting later this month, any page or site with a text field — be it a contact form or a search box — that isn't encrypted will display a warning in Google Chrome. Whether this decision is reasonable or proper can be debated, but I can't ignore its consequences. Among visitors to this site, Chrome is the most popular, constituting 45% of sessions. For thousands of users to have a negative experience so I can accommodate a potential or even nonexistent audience is foolhardy.

Fortunately, as reader mmphosis commented, it's not an either/or proposition: a website can be configured to support both HTTP and HTTPS. This weekend, that's exactly the change I made to Apple II Bits' configuration. The canonical default for this website is still HTTP, but if you type HTTPS into your browser window (or have the EFF's excellent HTTPS Everywhere browser plugin enabled), you can now access the site via HTTPS as well.

In the future, I may investigate reversing those roles and making HTTPS the default but HTTP an option. In the meantime, I hope this compromise between old and new technologies is successful at serving a modern audience of retrocomputing enthusiasts.

Debbie Reynolds' Apple II for auction

October 2nd, 2017 10:21 AM
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Like the rest of the world, I was shocked when Carrie Fisher — Princess Leia, General Organa — died suddenly this past December. As much as the world loved her, no one loved her more than her mother, Debbie Reynolds, who died of a broken heart the next day. This double loss of celebrities, feminists, and icons who inspired generations was a terrible end to a terrible year.

We've not fully closed the chapter on their passing, as only now, nine months later, will their estates be auctioned off. The items that were not specifically outlined in their wills or which were not wanted by their beneficiaries will be sold by Profiles in Auction this weekend, October 7–9, 2017. On the first day of the auction is an item of interest to readers of this blog: Debbie Reynolds' Apple II.

481. One of the first Apple II computers – serial # A2S1-0082. First generation Apple II A2S1-0082, one of the first 100 case-designed computers built by the newly formed Apple Computer, Inc. and the model widely credited with launching the home computer market, with millions sold well into the 1980s (not to be confused with the Apple II Plus, the next generation Apple). [Reynolds' son] Todd Fisher took delivery of this computer directly from Steve Jobs in Los Altos. This computer faithfully served as an inventory database with Debbie Reynolds digitally archived her collection. It's been souped-up from the standard 8K all they [sic] way to 24K ram, many of the ROM chips have Apple logo stickers copyright 1978, a built-in speaker, cassette interface audio jacks, and video out on the rear panel. The power supply was replaced due to a faulty first run under warranty. The case exhibits soiling and slight discoloration (to be expected from so many years of use). Electronics untested. This very early Apple II represents a milestone in computing history that launched uninterrupted Apple brand loyalty from Debbie and her organization. $1,000 – $2,000

Debbie Reynolds is not a celebrity whom I would expect to have used an Apple II or to have kept it all these years. It's unknown how recently it was used, or what about it may be unique to its previous owner. Unlike Apple-1 auctions that seem to occur twice annually, this estate sale is perhaps the most unusual and unexpected Apple II auction since the TV show Lost's Apple II Plus.

Interested parties who wish to bid online may do so immediately at Invaluable.com.

Debbie Reynolds' Apple II

You were meant for me.

If I had more disposable income, I would certainly count myself among the bidders.

(Hat tip to Charles Mangin)

Minecraft Oregon Trail

September 25th, 2017 12:26 PM
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Steve Weyhrich has gone whole-hog on Minecraft, having used the construction game to develop multiple Apple II models. Now Microsoft, the owners of Minecraft, are getting in on the retro action by infusing their virtual world with the most emblematic of Apple II software: Oregon Trail.

Now available is an Oregon Trail world. Just download the free package, install it in Minecraft Education Edition, and you'll find yourself in the town of Independence, Missouri, deciding whether to be a farmer, banker, or carpenter — just like on the Apple II.

Said Caroline Fraser, senior vice president of Oregon Trail publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: "We are delighted to partner with Minecraft Education, giving students a new way to experience one of the most popular educational games of all time, The Oregon Trail. Through the unique magic of Minecraft, students will be drawn to discover the wonders and challenges that pioneers encountered on this famous journey."

However, this version of the Apple II classic comes saddled with limitations. First, the downloaded world does not change Minecraft's rules of game mechanics; it does not introduce new features. While there are signposts along the journey asking players how they want to ford the river, for example, this is more an opportunity for classroom discussion than it is part of an interactive branching narrative; the game doesn't require any action in response to these billboards.

Also, the world works exclusively in the educational version of Minecraft, which was released in 2016 to schools and educators. The average consumer will not have access to this version of the game, nor will the Oregon Trail world work in any other version of Minecraft.

What happens if you try installing the world in a non-educational edition of Minecraft? In an email, the Apple II community's resident Minecraft expert, Steve Weyhrich, suggests there are further differences under the hood:

The original Minecraft, written in Java, is what runs on Mac and Windows, and has it's own data structure and format. Microsoft is now calling this "Minecraft: Java Edition". The newer Minecraft, now just called "Minecraft", is written in some version of C, and they are trying to make all of the various platforms (pocket edition, Windows 10 edition, etc) use the same world structure… That Oregon Trail world in that download you linked does not work on the Java edition.

It's a rare case of the Apple II version actually seeming more accessible and educational by comparison!

(Hat tip to Stephen Noonoo)