Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

December 4th, 2017 9:46 AM
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I subscribe to only two monthly magazines, one of which is Game Informer. While it's not my only source for video game news, I enjoy its in-depth features on game development, previews of upcoming titles, and reviews of games I might never play.

One of those games is Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, a first-person shooter and the eighth in the Wolfenstein series, released just this past October. The game follows protagonist William "B.J." Blazkowicz, introduced in 1992 in the series' original first-person shooter, Wolfenstein 3D, as he sets about to free an alternate-history modern America of its Nazi rule.

I haven't played any Wolfenstein games since that 1992 title, but I was struck by this passage in Game Informer's review of the latest game:

The New Colossus does not shy away from tough themes but, on the contrary, aggressively pursues them. The 14-hour campaign tackles racism, being complicit in cruelty, executions, child abuse, despair, patricide, the holocaust, white supremacy, and terrorism. While these themes are dark, the game handles them well, giving a proper amount of drama and emotional depth to each while also refusing to offer easy answers to the questions that plague the characters’ hearts. However, this parade of tragedy is never too much to bear, because the game takes the time to throw in wacky humor, like when machines are zapping Nazis into a fine red goop while Set Roth explains to B.J. just how broken his body is. You also see heartfelt moments of romance and friendship among the crew; amongst all the murder and sorrow, The New Colossus makes room for love and hope. Where these brands of tragedy and comedy might mix as well as water and oil in other games, here they are necessary parts to making this experience work as a cohesive whole.

My first reaction was to be impressed that the game had such a strong narrative. I'm a big fan of narrative-driven games, from Life Is Strange to Gone Home, and while first-person shooters often have story, they're hardly the reason gamers play them. But it seems developer MachineGames and publisher Bethesda Softworks have nonetheless taken Wolfenstein's plot seriously. For the first time in 25 years, I find myself wanting to play a Wolfenstein game.

My second reaction was to laugh at the absurdity of the juxtaposition of such a strong narrative with incredibly violent gameplay. The New Colossus is rated 'M' by the Entertainment Software Rating Board for reasons that include plot and narrative but which focus primarily on the action: "Combat is frenetic, with realistic gunfire, explosions, screams of pain, and large blood-splatter effects. Some weapons allow players to blow off enemies' heads or cut off their limbs; cutscenes sometimes show decapitations and/or acts of disembowelment." It is no doubt this gratuitous violence, not the "heartfelt moments of romance and friendship", that will attract most gamers.

My third reaction was disbelief at how far the Wolfenstein franchise has come. Although it may have achieved mainstream popularity with its 3D incarnation in 1992, the series was founded in 1981 by Silas Warner's Castle Wolfenstein, a 2D, top-down stealth game. Did Warner ever expect that his humble program would evolve to "make room for love and hope"? Would he see any of his genetic code embedded in this descendant? What would he think of The New Colossus?

It's impossible to say: the first and latest Wolfenstein games are so far removed from each other at this point as to share only a name and general anti-Nazi theme, such that Warner may see only a passing resemblance. But as a gamer, I'm heartened that the Apple II has made possible such a prominent, highly anticipated, and well-received entry in the modern gaming landscape. Whether or not most gamers realize it, our lineage persists.

The music of Silas Warner, part deux

October 27th, 2014 1:57 PM
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Three years ago, I published music by the late Silas Warner, creator of MUSE Software's Castle Wolfenstein. By taking obscure NoteWorthy files and converting them to the more accessible MP3 format, I hoped to not only preserve Warner's legacy, but expose a side of him that hadn't gained him fame, but of which he was doubtless proud.

Since then, blog reader Andrew Monti generously volunteered to contribute to that effort. He emailed me to say:

Wonderful site! I didn't realize that [Silas Warner] was a musician as well. I knew you did what you could to extract the audio from NoteWorthy, but the built-in sound on the NoteWorthy player is painful! I managed to convert the original NoteWorthy file to Logic, where I used the Steinway Grand Hall piano sample kit. I also cleaned-up the tempo and applied a few other changes, and voila – a new, better-sounding stereo mix of this lovely piece.

Monti's modifications raise some philosophical issues: how did Warner intend for his music to be heard? If NoteWorthy's inbuilt sound is awful, is that how he heard it when he wrote it? If so, does adapting it to other formats or sample kits distort the artist's intention? This is the same question at the root of how emulators play sound. Few emulators manifest the original software's audio as it was intended to be heard, instead settling for a best approximation. Do Monti's improvements similarly reinterpret the past — or is using today's tools to enable Warner to overcome the limitations of his era? Are these edits any different from my previous release of the songs in MP3, a format that didn't exist in Warner's time?

Such questions are not for me to answer, and in this case where the original files are still available, any answer isn't likely to be particularly weighty. Monti's MP3s do not replace the ones I previously published, so I offer the updated ones at the bottom of this post, which Monti produced via these steps:

  1. Find someone with a 'real' copy of NoteWorthy. In this case, my PC-based producer friend Keith fit the bill.
  2. From within NoteWorthy, export the file as MIDI.
  3. In Logic, import the MIDI file.
  4. Unfortunately, not all MIDI parameters made the trip; I had to manually set the tempo and time signatures at the appropriate parts in the score based on the original NoteWorthy file. There were also a few obvious 'spurious' notes that had to be reigned in after the conversion. These were mostly between the tempo transitions.
  5. I applied a stereo mix to the track based on Logic's Steinway Grand software keyboard based on what the performer would hear (high frequencies in the right ear, etc.).
  6. Lastly, I exported the track as a WAV file and compressed it though a high-quality Steinberg MP3 encoder.

The result is a new rendition of "Variations on Sonata in A by Mozart (K.331)", by Silas Warner:

and "The Heavens are Telling, from The Creation":

For that latter piece, Monti acknowledges that "string sections are tough without either special software or inordinate amounts of time in Logic to map the instruments to legato, pizzicato, bowing direction and speed, etc. when required… Personally, I don't think it's much better than the built-in MIDI sounds in NoteWorthy, but I may just be picky."

I'll let listeners decide how these songs should be heard.

Triumph of the mod

March 31st, 2014 2:52 PM
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Although improved access to tools and funding are allowing more people to become developers of full-fledged games like Dead Man's Trail, in the days of the Apple II — when almost everyone perforce had some programming ability — the best most of us could do was work within the games others had already created. Usually, this hacking took the form of copy deprotection (and their accompanying crack screens). But sometimes, it was more creative.

In "Triumph of the Mod" a 2002 article by Wagner James Au for Salon.com, Tom Hall, a co-founder of id Software, says he recalls the first mod — "a fan-made modification to a pre-existing game" — as being Castle Smurfenstein, Andrew Johnson and Preston Nevins' hack of Silas Warner's Castle Wolfenstein for the Apple II. Writes Johnson:

The nazi guards became Smurfs, the mostly uninteligible German voices became mostly unintelligible Smurf voices. We created a new title screen, new ending screen, new opening narration, and an opening theme, and changed the setting from Germany to Canada. (I'm still not too sure why we had this Canadian fixation, but then growing up near Detroit does expose one to a fair degree of Canadian culture.)

The conversion was pretty straightforward, needing only a paint program, a sector editor, and Muse Software's very own 'the Voice' to add in the new audio. I think we did this during the summer of 1983 but I'm not completely sure.

As indicated, the hack involved the game's audio, visuals, and text. A deafening WAV demonstrates the Smurf's trademark chant as digitized for an 8-bit computer, and screenshots show the hack's new splash screen. (Oddly, I could find no YouTube videos of Castle Smurfenstein, but Johnson does offer a disk image that works with most any emulator.)

Castle Smurfenstein

Despite the fame of this hack, it was likely not the first-ever mod, since Johnson and Nevins both document an earlier Smurf-inspired hack: Dino Eggs became Dino Smurf. A proposed third hack would've turned Sky Fox into Sky Smurf, completing the trilogy. "Unfortunately the third game only got as far as the new plot and a partial title screen before college beckoned," laments Johnson.

Still, modding has become a lucrative industry and backdoor into the gaming industry. Would it be a stretch to say the Apple II led the way?

Retro games as iPod wallpaper

October 14th, 2013 10:47 AM
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This summer, I bought an iPod. It was the first iPod I'd bought in eight years, during which time the product had evolved quite a bit. No longer just an MP3 player, this iOS device allows for unparalleled customization in terms of software functionality and layout, both of which can be used to manifest its owner's love for classic Apple.

Juiced.GS has reviewed plenty of games that appeal to Apple II enthusiasts, but I rarely play games on mobile devices. However, I do see the lock screen on my iPod every time I pull it out of my pocket. That seemed the best place to remind myself of my iPod's roots. I had iPhoto automatically set to sync any assets used in the Juiced.GS 2013 wall calendar, but calendars are formatted for landscape images, and the iPod's lock screen is portrait only. A quick Google search for Apple II games produced some additional art.

Here then is my gallery of what vintage Apple II games look like as iPod lock screens:

Although I prefer the aesthetic of the Karateka screen, I like the juxtaposition of the Wolfenstein screenshot. Slide to unlock? Better hope your phone doesn't explode!

What's on your iPod?

The music of Silas Warner

October 24th, 2011 1:05 PM
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Apple II users are, almost by definition, a talented lot. We take rudimentary materials and turn them into tools of wonderful self-expression, producing works of art that are beautiful technically, visually, and aurally. This artistic value often carries over into other media as well, though we rarely have the opportunity to share that side of our lives with other Apple II users — save the rare scenario where Stan Marks pulls out his guitar at KansasFest to sing about growing up on the Mississippi delta, or the Shepherds happen to be in Boston the same weekend I'm performing in Kiss Me, Kate.

It was with some surprise that I recently stumbled across historical evidence of a renowned Apple II user's musical talent. The late Silas Warner, best known as the creator of the classic Apple II game Castle Wolfenstein, was also "a published author and talented musician and composer in the classical European style", says Wikipedia. No links to his published writings are provided, but a pair of his musical works is available for download: the original composition "Variations on Sonata in A by Mozart (K.331)"; and Warner's arrangement of "The Heavens are Telling, from The Creation".

Although I was eager to experience this side of the programmer, I was stymied by the files being available only in NWC format, used by the musical composition software NoteWorthy. I had neither the commercial product nor a Windows environment in which to try its free player, and my quest for alternatives or converters proved fruitless.

Finally, classifying this as an Apple II project, I turned to my fellow techies for help. Kelvin Sherlock was the first to respond: "I found this python script which can convert [NoteWorthy files] to lilypond format (lilypond is used for generating music scores but it can also generate MIDI files). Sadly, lilypond complains about a handful of errors in the converted file."

Andy Molloy then spoke up with a less technical but more effective workflow which he has generously outlined here:

  1. Download and install the free Noteworthy Composer Viewer for Windows.
  2. Run the Viewer, click File > Open and select the NWC file. Don't press play until you have Audacity ready to go.
  3. Download and install the free Audacity 1.3.13 beta for Windows.
  4. Download the LAME MP3 encoder plugin for Audacity and follow the instructions for installation. This will let you export an Audacity recording as an MP3.
  5. Run Audacity and follow the instructions to configure it to capture streaming audio. Since I was running Windows 7, I also had to first follow the Control Panel instructions.
  6. On the Audacity Device ToolBar, I set the Output Device drop down box to 'Digital Output' and the Input Device box to 'Stereo Mix'.
  7. Push the record button in Audacity, and switch back to Noteworthy Composer Viewer and push the play button.
  8. As the piece plays, you should see Audacity start to record the track.
  9. When Noteworthy finishes playing, press the stop button in Audacity.
  10. Save the MP3 in Audacity by clicking File > Export and change the 'Save As Type' to MP3.

Andy has provided the output of his efforts for embedding here. Published in a widely accessible format for perhaps the first time ever, it is an honor to present Silas Warner's "Variations on Sonata in A by Mozart (K.331)":

and "The Heavens are Telling, from The Creation":

Rest in peace, Silas Warner. It's a pleasure to hear your notes again.

UPDATE (27-Oct-14): Alternative versions of these songs are now available, courtesy Andrew Monti.

Best computer games from the '80s

May 30th, 2011 2:45 PM
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Awhile back, TIME.com produced a list of the best computer games from the 1980s. Lists may be quick and easy ways to generate pageviews, but they're also enjoyable opportunities to reminisce and debate.

Time's list, which did not limit itself to the Apple II (see Retro Gamer for that list), consisted of the following apparently unranked one dozen games:

  • • California Games
  • • Ghostbusters
  • • Quest for Glory
  • • SimCity
  • • Prince of Persia
  • • Police Quest

I haven't actually played many of those games, or at least on their native platforms. But it does inspire me to jog my memory by consulting Wikipedia's list of Apple II games and list of Apple IIGS games to see which would make my must-play list. Here are my candidates:

And that's not even counting non-commercial games, such as GShisen or Silvern Castle.

What games top your memories of the Apple II?