Traveling with Agent USA

August 12th, 2019 1:41 PM
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My grade school had an Apple II computer lab filled with educational software from Scholastic. As one of the few students with an Apple II at home, I was allowed to borrow from this collection over the weekends. While issues of Microzine attracted most of my attention, I fondly remember another title: Agent USA, from Tom Snyder Productions.

This game takes the horror of a pandemic (think a cross between Dustin Hoffman's Outbreak and the Borg) and makes it fun! Players control a government agent (represented as a hat with feet) in a United States whose population is being slowly converted to mindless drones. The only thing that can save them is a self-replicating crystal in the agent's possession. A single crystal can turn a drone back into a citizen, but a hundred of them can defeat the brains of the operation, the Fuzzbomb. If Agent USA can cultivate the crystals, read the train schedules, buy train tickets, and adjust to time zones, he just might save the day.

Wikipedia says this game teaches "spelling, US geography, time zones, and state capitals", though I'm unsure how much of that I absorbed. For example, with many cities to be explored, capital cities were distinguished by an info booth where players could see projections of the Fuzzbomb's spread — but I don't recall memorizing which cities had these maps. Learning how cities connect to each other has transferred to understanding which airlines fly to which cities and where their hubs are, but reading train schedules might've proved more useful had I lived in a city that had good public transit.

What I remember most fondly about the game was not the moral lesson my Catholic school wanted me to learn! Trains left the station every thirty seconds, and if you tried to board without a ticket, you'd be summarily ejected. There was little reason to encounter this scenario, since tickets were free (provided you could spell the destination's name). But if you were strapped not for cash, but for time, you could bypass the ticket booth entirely. Trains would call all-aboard moments before departing, and in that brief window, boarding the train would not leave enough time for the player to be returned to the platform; the train would leave with player in tow.

Having only ever borrowed this game as a kid and wanting it for myself as an adult, I bought a copy of this game five years ago on eBay from Ian Baronofsky, whom I would later meet at KansasFest. I didn't get around to opening it until just last month. It's not the clamshell-edition packaging I remember, but inside is the same train-jumping adventure I grew up with.

Apple II-inspired photos from PAX East

July 22nd, 2019 12:14 PM
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Every year I attend PAX East, a Boston convention of video games and board games that attracts 70,000 people. I always snap plenty of fun cosplay photos and selfies, but except for whatever I tweet in the moment, I rarely take the time to sort the photos and get them published.

So last weekend I caught up on four years of pictures, sorting through 621 photos and publishing most of them to Gamebits.net. And as I sifted through nearly a half-decade of memories, I came across a few photos that were inspired by the Apple II.

Apple II Forever!

This 2016 photo depicts the Nintendo 3DS handheld of Juiced.GS associate editor Andy Molloy. This game console has a feature called StreetPass, which allows 3DS systems in proximity to each other to exchange avatars. Here's what Andy's avatar says to greet other users.

These two photos are from the 2018 panel "You Have Died of Dysentery: Meaningful Gaming in Education" (which originated in 2016 at PAX West was reprised again in 2019 at PAX South). Its description:

Teachers and parents are continually looking for innovative ways to keep students and kids motivated and engaged. As gamers, we know first hand how elements of video games can keep a person riveted and motivated for hours. How do we take motivating elements of gaming and add them to various education environments? Join a teacher and seven-time PAX presenter as we investigate some simple yet effective ways to take tips from video games and turn them into best teaching practices, without gimmicks.

Though I attended this panel, a downside to waiting so long to share the photos is that I no longer have meaningful context or memories.

But what I remember most aren't the panels or even the photos, but the joy of attending this event with other people who know, love, the Apple II and the games it inspired. ❤️

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)

A mathematical problem

October 11th, 2010 11:11 AM
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One problem with using a computer as old as the Apple II is that most of its software was released more than two decades ago. Finding and preserving that data is a never-ending quest, but we are sometimes stymied at the very first step: remembering what the programs were! A chance encounter with a random program when we were half the age we are now is a difficult one to pin down, as the software's function and interface often stick with us longer than its title screen, which is its most historically identifying feature.

Faced with this exact problem, gaming cartoonist Philip Armstrong recently explored this issue in the most descriptive manner he knows: comic strips. He drew three illustrated stories in which the main character, Oat the Retronaut, reminisces about "a series of forgotten edutainment titles that are the Apple II [equivalent] to Professor Layton[, Nintendo's series of handheld puzzle games]." Here's an excerpt:

Retronauts comic strip

Despite attending a grade school with a lab of Apple II computers, I grew up with little edutainment software. With the exceptions of Scholastic Microzine and Oregon Trail, I missed out on many classics like Number Munchers. I therefore have no recollection with which to help Mr. Armstrong find the games in question. The same goes for Asi Lang, who wrote to Juiced.GS with a similar request.

Can the Apple II community help either of these gentlemen reunite with their youth?

The real-life Oregon Trail

August 9th, 2010 1:21 PM
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The worlds of the Apple II and Hollywood recently collided when Jordan Mechner's Prince of Persia platforming game was adapted to the silver screen. Despite mixed critical reviews, it was a commercial success, earning more money than any other video game adaptation to date. It can't be long before avaricious directors attempt to reproduce this film's profits by following the same formula. Similar success demands a similar source, so where else to look but to other Apple II games for inspiration?

Just because a movie is based on an existing property doesn't mean it need be unoriginal. With so many rich possibilities for interpretation, the potential for creativity is boundless. Instead of an action-packed film based on, say, Choplifter or Lode Runner, why not a character-driven drama that shows a journey both physical and emotional? American audiences have often enjoyed the intersection of personality and peril found in the Old West from Gunsmoke to Dr. Quinn to Deadwood. Given that undying demand, it's a natural fit for the next Apple II movie — Oregon Trail:



This trailer is the work of Half Day Today!, a Los Angeles-based new media production group. Although the trailer says the full movie is "coming soon", I suspect the trailer is the final product, and an excellent one at that.

Another group called Mega64 brings video games to life by acting them out amidst an unsuspecting citizenry. Their efforts are often embarrassing, though their Oregon Trail adaptation would be one of the better ones, were it not for the reliance on toilet humor.

By comparison, Half Day Today!'s work is not only a professional production, but one that has earned the accolades of alumni of MECC, the company responsible for the original educational software. Within two days of the Oregon Trailer's premiere, it became one of their most-watched videos. I hope their library capitalizes on that popularity by growing to include other ingenious Apple II adaptations.

(Hat tips to Bob's House of Video Games and Boing Boing)