Reviving the 8-Bit Generation

January 4th, 2016 3:04 PM
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In February 2012, I heard of an upcoming computer documentary called 8-Bit Generation. As it was scheduled to ship imminently, I paid to preordered a copy to review in Juiced.GS. But the ship date came and went, no DVDs shipped, and emails to the director went unanswered. I learned that October that some customers had received refunds, but I was not one of the lucky ones.

Jason Scott saw the bigger picture: what we'd lost was not just a few preorders, but an impressive collection of documentary footage with industry founders and luminaries that may now never see the light of day. As a director himself of such invaluable productions as GET LAMP and BBS: The Documentary, Scott understood the trials of creating such a product and the value of seeing it through to the end.

Thanks in no small part to Scott's empathy and support, the film's producers came out of hiding and sought to finally finish what they'd begun. A successful Kickstarter this past fall produced the necessary funds to see the film through to completion. An email from the project manager assured me that those who have not yet received refunds from the original preorder will eventually receive the documentary. So instead of backing the project at a level that would get me the DVD, I backed the Kickstarter for $1 to get access to any backer-only updates.

The film still isn't done, and the last Kickstarter update is from two months ago, but I've seen enough to now believe that this film exists and will become a finished product. Bil Herd, a former Commodore engineer, will be the narrator, and interviews with the elusive (and now deceased) Jack Tramiel will be donated to the Internet Archive and the Computer History Museum.

Here's an example of a familiar story told in stunning HD quality:

I've never had the ambition or talent to create a documentary and don't envy those who would tackle such a challenge. I believe this time, they'll prove worthy of the faith that's been shown in them.

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

September 7th, 2015 1:24 PM
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Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine debuted last Friday. While lacking the marketing and star power of next month's Aaron Sorkin dramatization featuring Michael Fassbender, this documentary offers a more authentic look at the life Apple's co-founder.

That's not to say that documentaries are inherently accurate and unbiased; King of Kong proved otherwise. But I appreciated this film's take on Steve Jobs, even if it took me two viewings. The first time around, I saw it merely as a presentation of facts, none of which were new to me: having been a life-long Apple user, read Walter Isaacson's biography, and seen the Ashton Kutcher film, there's little about Jobs' life that would surprise me. But some additional perspectives granted me new insight into the film. Those views came from Dave Ross, whom I previously quoted for my Halt and Catch Fire review; and Steve Weyhrich, whom I quoted in my 2008 story about an Apple IIc unboxing. Each are bonafide retrocomputing experts, without whom I likely would've produced a much more critical — and boring — review.

The resulting article, "New Jobs movie: A quieter, more authentic portrait", was my first for Computerworld in 2015. I applied my usual editing process of printing out my draft, reviewing the hardcopy, then soliciting feedback of the edited version from a few friends (in this case, Steve and Dave) before submitting the final copy.

Draft of Steve Jobs documentary review

The more red I see on my drafts, the happier I am with the final copy.

With Juiced.GS's launch of Opus ][ just the day before my Computerworld deadline, and the beginning of the academic semester the day after, it was a stressful week — but everything turned out excellently.

It's a good film, too — perhaps a bit long at two hours, but there's plenty of good material in there. Here's my favorite scene:

And here are some additional stills that were submitted to, but not used by, Computerworld:

Lest I overdose on Jobs, I'm inclined to skip Fassbender's interpretation of the character… but I doubt I'll be able to keep myself away. Stay tuned.

Kickstarting the history of Sierra On-Line

July 8th, 2013 2:00 PM
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We retrocomputing enthusiasts have seen Kickstarter used for books (The First Apple, <a href="http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/845678003/electronic-version-of-classic-whats-where-in-the-a" title="Electronic version of classic 'What's Where in the Apple" by Robert M Tripp — Kickstarter">What's Where), games (Shadowgate, Ultima), and documentaries (GET LAMP, 6502). Now it's time to open your wallets again, as the latest project to warrant an Apple II user's investment is a documentary of Sierra On-Line.

Sierra On-Line was the developer and publisher of such classic point-and-click adventure games as the noble King's Quest, comedic Space Quest, avaricious Gold Rush!, and lascivious Leisure Suit Larry (a modern remake of which was published just last month, courtesy Kickstarter). Many of these franchises got their start on the Apple II, so naturally we should be keen to back this project, right?

I bid caution: Kickstarter is an investment platform, and you'd do well to research this project. In this case, this project already toured the Kickstarter circuit in 2012, when the creators asked for $40,000; they received $1,312. Their pitch video at the time consisted entirely of gameplay footage and title cards — no interviews, no introductions, no voiceovers. To their credit, that initial fundraising failure didn't deter the film crew, as their new pitch video demonstrates they've spent the past year conducting interviews with Sierra On-Line luminaries. Having that in their pocket may justify their new request for $125,000. (Makes you wonder what they were hoping to accomplish with just a third that sum!) They have thus far received $10,367, or nine times more than their last effort — but it's a slow start, an still a long ways from their goal.

One thing missing from their new video is the talent behind the camera. I'd like to know that the documentarians dedicating themselves to this project are as passionate about adventure gaming as they need their backers to be. The enthusiasm that Dave Kellett and Fred Schroeder brought to their comic strip documentary, Stripped, was contagious and, I suspect, a large part of why it raised double its goal on its first Kickstarter and its second Kickstarter. Between the lack of personality in the video and the relatively terse text write-up, the drive behind the Sierra On-Line film is not as explicit.

The Sierra On-Line documentary is entitled Heroes, an improvement over the original name, So You Want To Be A Hero? One backer suggested, why not call it Quests? I like the ring of that, since it abstracts and plays upon the King's/Space/Police Quest series. The project creators acknowledged and thoughtfully responded to that suggestion:

We chose the title Heroes for the film for a variety of reasons. Chief among them, the term "Hero" was a theme rooted in the adventure games. From the perspective of all of us who played the games, we had the opportunity to be a hero. We also felt that this was an appropriate term that serves as an homage to all of those at Sierra who worked tirelessly to create the games we all know and love a success.

Will this Kickstarter meet or even exceed its fundraising? Will the final film, scheduled for a March 2014 release, reveal anything new about this storied game company, or will it cater more to nostalgic fans? We'll begin to have the answers when the Kickstarter campaign closes on the evening of August 5.

In the meantime, digital antiquarian Jimmy Maher, whom we interviewed this year on Open Apple, has written extensively about the history of Sierra. Although he's not collected his works on this particular subject into a book, I encourage you to scroll through his posts and read them in the order in which they were published; the detail and accuracy of his narratives are remarkable.

UPDATE: This project has failed, having raised only $28,872, or 23% of its goal.

More Tetris and Not Tetris

October 29th, 2012 6:33 AM
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Filed under Game trail, Software showcase;
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Two years ago, I discovered Not Tetris, a physics-based puzzle game inspired by the classic that so addicted the Woz. It was a cute variation on the original, but since the trademark line-clearing mechanic of Tetris was absent, it offered little replay value.

The creatively named sequel, Not Tetris 2, resolves that issue:

Not Tetris 2 is the spiritual successor of the classic Tetris mixed with physics. The result is a fun spinoff in which blocks are no longer bound to the usual grid. Blocks can be rotated and placed at any angle, resulting in a complete mess if not careful. And with the newest cutting edge technology, Not Tetris 2 allows line clears when the lines are sufficiently filled. The old mode is still available for play and is now called Stack.

Stack mode simulates the original Not Tetris, making it obsolete in the face of the sequel. The implementation of the line-clearing function is strange, though. It seems to clear individual lines of pixels, not blocks, and can occur well below where the current piece has been placed, as if the pile were being jostled into completion.

A typical Not Tetris 2 playing field,
after some lines have been cleared.
The results of my first round of
Not Tetris 2.

But it's still a fun game with all the familiar graphics and tunes, including one I recognized from a Tetris-themed video on the history of the USSR — a popular Russian folk song, perhaps?

Not Tetris 2 is available for Windows, Linux, and OS X, with the separate Löve extension no longer needed for the Windows and Mac versions. The game is courtesy of Maurice Guegan of Stabyourself.net (which describes itself as "Commodore 64 compatible"), creator of the Mario / Portal mashup Mari0.

If you prefer your Tetris a bit more hardcore and unadulterated, check out Ecstasy of Order, a documentary about Tetris champions that I caught at last month's BostonFIG:

Or, if you want to kick it old school, watch hard floppy drives play the Tetris theme song. (Hey, if they can do Star Wars, why not Tetris?)

It's good to see a game that's survived long enough to have had an official Apple II incarnation continue to be enjoyed and innovated!

Bill Budge & John Romero on the 6502

March 19th, 2012 9:10 AM
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Bill Budge has been a programmer extraordinaire, from the early days of his Pinball Construction Set to his more recent work with Sony and Google. Now he gets to pontificate upon those experiences to Jason Scott as part of 6502: The Documentary.

This preview joins the previous footage of Joe Grand, as well as this video of KansasFest 2012 keynote speaker John Romero:

Jason the documentarian explains:

These are untouched clips … right out of the camera and rendered out for you. I will probably tweak, push and pull for the final works, but I wanted you to see, clearly, the quality of image and sound you helped me achieve, and maybe even start to see how these subjects might play out. I have a very long way to go, but it's happening, for real, and you're seeing it. Thanks so much.

Did you not preorder your copy of 6502? Jason will be at KansasFest 2012; maybe he'll take your money then… or just put you in front of the camera for his next film!

6502 documentary preview

January 26th, 2012 3:05 PM
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Filed under History;
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KansasFest 2009 keynote speaker Jason Scott recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign that earned him $118,801 (minus fees) with which to fund three documentaries on tape, arcades, and the 6502 processor. His first investment with that money was some new A/V equipment: a Canon 5D Mark II Camera, multiple Canon L lenses (24mm–70mm, 50mm, 70mm–200mm), Lowell Tota lights, a H4N recorder connected to a Seinnheiser microphone, and a Cinevate Atlas 30 slider dolly. Using these purchases, he shot some test footage about a typewriter.

More recently, Scott interviewed Joe Grand of the Discovery Channel series Prototype This! about SCSIcide, a cartridge-based game he released in 2001 for the Atari 2600, which uses the same 6502 processor as the Apple II. Whether this 23-second clip will appear in Scott's final documentary remains to be seen — Grand isn't listed on the current cast list — but it's the first preview we've had of a documentary that's not due for release until December 2015.