4am's Anti-M now available

March 18th, 2019 8:55 AM
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Editing several Juiced.GS articles on copy protection and assembling them into a single PDF has given me a second-hand opportunity to learn all the ways that Apple II floppy disks could be made uncopiable. While defeating piracy is a publisher's right, copy protection can also create unnecessary and often unanticipated hurdles for legitimate software owners.

4am to the rescue. This anonymous hacker debuted on the Apple II scene five years ago last month and has since preserved hundreds of programs that might've otherwise been lost to history. Not only does 4am tackle individual disks and protection schemes; they also look for patterns that can be anticipated and automatically defeated, resulting in the cracking program Passport.

4am's latest challenge: a pre-boot program that enables floppy disks to boot on machines not yet invented when the software was published. Its prerelease name was BroderBooter.

Just a week later, the program was officially released under a different name, Anti-M.

Having never directly encountered the problem that Anti-M solves, I asked for more details. 4am patiently walked me through this program's purpose.

They wrote:

Certain early games by Broderbund and Gebelli Software failed to boot on a //e or later. They would boot partway then display an "M" error code because they were looking for a "genuine" Apple ROM and didn't recognize the //e. I wrote a program to control the boot process long enough (just patching in memory, never on disk) to disable the ROM check and allow these games to boot on any Apple II. [S]o you run my "pre-booter" program, insert your original disk (Choplifter or whatever, lots of different games supported), and press RETURN. That's it. Then the magic starts, boot tracing and patching memory. But all you'll see is your game boot and load instead of erroring out. It'll be open source and hosted on GitHub, but I won't link to it here until the big 1.0 announcement.

Twitter being what it is, even the creator of that ROM check popped into the conversation.

I'm glad we have someone like 4am watching out for those Apple II users trying to keep their machines and floppies alive!

(Hat tip to Andrew Roughan)

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)

Ode to the ImageWriter & The Print Shop

June 13th, 2016 12:09 PM
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Someone at Motherboard loves the Apple II. Last summer, writer Jason Koebler attended KansasFest, resulting in a fantastic article and podcast.

Now Ernie Smith has taken a deep dive into dot-matrix printers and The Print Shop:

… in its original form, [The Print Shop] was an '80s-tastic program that redefined the parameters of print design into something that could literally be called child's play. Wanna make a greeting card? Follow these instructions, then print on your dot-matrix printer. Need a sign for your lemonade stand? No problem—you can even add a picture of the Easter Bunny on that sign, if you want. It was a bold redefinition of something that once required a whole boatload of specialized equipment.

The article is more about the business and legal ramifications of the article without capturing the user experience — which I'm happy to provide, as the Print Shop was a staple of my household. My three brothers and I used for everything from school essay cover sheets to birthday cards to banners. I remember campaigning for the elected position of seventh grade class treasurer using signs made in The Print Shop; when I defeated the most popular kid in the class in the election, he said it was because I did a better job advertising myself.

The vehicle by which The Print Shop outputted these creations was my family's ImageWriter II printer, complete with ink ribbons and pin-feed paper. Tearing the edges off the paper into long strips was practically an arts-and-crafts exercise, as they inevitably became loops, braids, and other figures.

But the time spent printing would occupy the computer, leaving it unavailable for other tasks. I remember when I discovered Quality Computers sold a 32K print buffer hardware accessory, I thought it was a ridiculous expense just to get back a few minutes of computer time. But as I discovered more that my Apple II could do and wanted to make the most of that time, it wasn't long before I decided the buffer was a worthwhile investment. Its installation coincided with my father having some computer issues, and conflating correlation with causation, he demanded I remove the buffer. I never did, and his unrelated issues eventually resolved themselves.

Printing

And let us note the role that desktop publishing (DTP) played in the development of Juiced.GS. Although the magazine was designed not in The Print Shop but in GraphicWriter III, an Apple IIGS program, early issues featured DTP heavily. Across six years and eleven issues, the late Dave Bennett penned a series creatively entitled "Desktop Publishing". And the final issue of Juiced.GS's first volume included M.H. "Buzz" Bester's hardware tutorial on ImageWriter maintenance.

My thanks to Smith for taking a moment not only to investigate how The Print Shop evolved, but also for prompting me to revisit these moments. ImageWriter printouts may long be faded, but these memories never will.

(Hat tip to Javier Rivera)

Greetings from the PrintShop

February 11th, 2013 9:59 AM
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A month ago, I announced on this blog that I had quit my job. Since then, I've started two new ones. It's too soon to assess the full-time job, but I think it will be a decent fit. The part-time job, on the other hand, is unbelievably awesome. I'm teaching an undergraduate course in electronic publishing, which ties into almost everything I've ever learned and loved doing. There are times that its workload is overwhelming — on a per-hour basis, I'm almost certainly being underpaid. But the longer I do it, the better I'll get at it.

Although my experiences in the Apple II community are directly informing my career path, there's still something missing from my professional life: an actual Apple II. I've not been at my new job(s) long enough to feel comfortable inquiring about bringing such a behemoth into the office. But my workplace seems pretty supportive of BYOD, so I don't think it will be an issue.

In the meantime, I was pleased as punch that the Apple II was the source of my first official congratulation on this transition I've undergone. Shortly after my last blog post on the subject, I received an envelope in the mail with a return address from a Juiced.GS subscriber. Forgetting that he'd already renewed his subscription for 2013, I thought I'd find a check inside. But what I found instead was even better!

The card was printed on single side of a single 8.5" x 11" piece of paper and folded into quarters. A personal message, not seen here, was handwritten on the inside. The production is courtesy Broderbund's PrintShop GS. Although I didn't ask, I suspect no emulators were used in the creation of this card.

I appreciate the goodwill the Apple II community has extended to me and my endeavors through this thoughtful member and his gesture!

For the completionist, a PDF of the card is also available.

Playing Lode Runner on iOS

January 21st, 2013 1:22 PM
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Last summer, I wrote a convoluted blog post about how Lode Runner Classic, featuring all the levels and original graphics of the Apple II game from 1983, were coming to iOS and Android. I'm happy to report that last Thursday, nearly a half-year after its announcement and three decades since the franchise's debut, Lode Runner Classic has finally landed on these mobile platforms.

Title screen

Welcome to Lode Runner Classic.

I picked up the Apple version for $2.99, played the first dozen levels in both expedition and time attack modes, and was pleased by how little the gameplay has changed. Developer Tozai Games has not added power-ups, extra enemies, boss battles, or other unnecessary flair: the game looks, sounds, and plays in a fashion befitting of its titular adjective. Any additional features are entirely optional, such as a soundtrack that can be disabled separately from the sound effects, a customizable color palette, and speed settings. That last one is especially attractive to me, for as I once wrote for Computerworld:

Over the years, [my family] tricked it [our Apple IIGS] with the usual upgrades: SCSI card, sound card, handheld scanner, modem, joystick, 4MB of RAM. An accelerator boosted the CPU to 10 MHz, which may not sound like much, but it was quadruple the stock speed — making Lode Runner quite a challenge to play. (The enemies moved four times faster; my brain and reactions didn't.)

Options screen

More options than you can shake a stick at!

However, I'm finding Lode Runner Classic challenging even without that increase in speed, due primarily to the interface. There are three ways to control your digger: a tilt mechanism that employs the iOS device's accelerometer and gyroscope; a swipe interface that makes no sense to me (I continuously die while figuring out how to get my guy to move, even after reading the instructions); and an on-screen joypad. The last one is the most intuitive, but it shrinks the gameplay screen to create margins in which to display the controls. Even with this option, I find the "dig" buttons are too large, requiring me to reach too far into the center of the iPad to reach them.

The on-screen controls mode is also the only one in which the "magnification" option is unavailable. This setting keeps the entire gamefield visible while focusing on the action, squishing the parts of the screen where the player isn't and expanding them as the digger moves left and right, up and down. Oddly, since the interfaces that support this feature are the ones where the game already fills the entire screen, they are the ones that are least in need of magnification!

On-screen controls

Here's what the virtual D-pad controls look like.

Despite the limitations (or at least learning curve) inherent to the platform, this is the Lode Runner you grew up with. I didn't hesitate to drop $3 on this game, and neither should you.

If you prefer a desktop version, you can get ZX Games' unauthorized Windows clone, subtitled Classicwards, which offers 75 levels for $9.95. Want an actual sequel with update graphics and gameplay? Check out Lode Runner X, available for Xbox 360 and Android.

An underwhelming Karateka demo

November 12th, 2012 1:31 PM
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Filed under Game trail, People, Software showcase;
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I had marked November 17th as the date Jordan Mechner would return to the world of Karateka, his classic Apple II fighting game. Ten days early, Sean Fahey announced that my marked date was for the PC, iOS, and PlayStation 3 versions of the new Karateka, but that the Xbox Live Arcade version was now available.

As primarily an Xbox gamer, I was happy to hear this news and immediately downloaded the game, accepting of the fact that I'd be unable to load it upside-down. Up until then, I'd wondered as to the game's genre and nature: was it best described as a sequel? A reboot? A reimagining? Having played only the ten-minute free trial, I would describe the game as a remake — and one that doesn't capture modern gamers with its demo.

Karateka

How much has Karateka changed in the last 30 years?

With an art style and musical underpinning that harken back to the classic Apple II fighting game, Karateka is a visual and aural delight. The Japanese gardens and goofy goons that our hero encounters are evocative of another time and place. There is little freedom to explore these environments, though, as the protagonist (one of three) proceeds through it on two-dimensional rails, unable to move any direction but forward.

Once he engages with a foe, the opportunity for input becomes limited to three buttons: punch, kick, and block. It is impossible to strike an enemy without first blocking his own attack, at which point his guard is lowered and he is open to a chain of attacks. In an interview with Polygon's Samit Sarkar, Mechner describes the combat system as rhythm-based in which players "have to time your attacks to the score from Grammy-winning composer Christopher Tin". This was not my experience; my blocks were based solely on cues from the castle's keepers — tells that they were about to strike. A successful block then let me pound the punch and kick buttons, but there seemed to be neither functional difference between the two nor incentive to experiment with a variety of combos.

In an interview with Steve Peterson, Mechner indicates that the simplistic gameplay is intentional, allowing other aspects of Karateka to take center stage:

Mechner believes Karateka is an unusual design, one that will attract a broader audience. "It's not a fighting game in the sense of trying to rack up points, or fighting for fighting's sake. It's fighting in order to get to the happy ending in the story, and it's a love story. I think we're appealing to a slightly different audience than most fighting games," he says.

I can appreciate Jordan Mechner, as someone whose ambition has always been to write Hollywood scripts, wanting to focus on that aspect of Karateka. Storytelling has become an increasingly important part of both big-budget and indie games, with hits such as Braid, Portal, and even the BIT.TRIP series having set new milestones for their innovative and memorable plots.

But plot is also the hardest quality for a game to convey in a short demo. It is more effective to draw players in with engaging gameplay, then present them with an increasingly intricate and meaningful narrative. In that respect, the free demo I played falls flat. The only challenges I encountered in my time with Karateka was identifying a foe's pattern and timing my blocks accordingly. With digital distribution and mobile apps, there are much more involving experiences I could get for my $10, and demos that give me more confidence in that investment than Karateka has.

(Hat tips to Blake Patterson, John August, and Steve Melton)