The evolution of gaming

July 30th, 2012 3:14 PM
Filed under Game trail, Software showcase;
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At this month's KansasFest, John Romero spoke at length about the role the Apple II has played in the evolution of computer gaming and the development of specific programmers, such as Will Wright and Jordan Mechner. The research Romero conducted for this speech, and the awareness of his audience he demonstrated by focusing on his pre-Wolfenstein 3D experiences, made for one of the most engaging and memorable keynotes KansasFest has had the pleasure of hosting.

As further exemplified later in the week by Wayne Arthurton's presentation, franchises and influences that had their start on the Apple II have echoed throughout several generations of game design. This truism is succinctly demonstrated in this montage on the evolution of computer games. How many Apple II games can you spot — and how many descendants can you identify?

(Hat tip to John Walker)

The evolution of Evolution

September 1st, 2011 2:17 PM
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Head over to sites like Apple II Scans or Nibble and you'll find a wealth of historical computer magazines. Within their pages are numerous reviews of hardware, software, and accessories. Witnessing how the pioneers of the personal computer industry experienced these products upon their release is fascinating — but it's also fun to take off the rose-colored glasses and see them for what they really are.

The site Weird Video Games is dedicated to reviewing the games of that era. Their philosophy:

At some point in history, games stopped being made by a handful of people in a basement and started being made by big companies … I theorize that there was a point in which two friends could get stoned in their basement, fire up their computer, and program whatever messed up thoughts passed into the remaining portion of their mind. They could make it into a video game and it would end up on store shelves, a feat which just isn't as possible today.

Most of the games pictured and depicted here came out before 1996 and are often the results of strange cultural differences (particularly from Japan), and/or what I think may have been some extremely potent illegal substances.

Recently, the site's attention was turned to an Apple II game with which I was previously unfamiliar. A game that seems a cross between Spore (PC) and E.V.O. (Super NES), Evolution appears to be a game worthy of fascination and ridicule.

As Martin Haye commented to me: "It was interesting and made me grimace at how badly the graphics were done. Apparently they never heard of using two hi-res buffers. Ah well."

The last few seconds of the video are gratuitous and offensive, and I offer no endorsement or support of that portion of the video. I hope it doesn't prevent viewers from appreciating the majority of the review of this strange and unknown title.

Read the rest of this entry »

Keyboard navigation in a GUI world

August 4th, 2011 3:38 PM
Filed under Hacks & mods;

Computers have come a long way since the Apple II, with important improvements to both hardware and software. But along the way, a few valuable computing aspects were lost.

A recent story looks at features that lost the evolutionary war: "… there are some things they don't do that the old, slow, often command-line-intead-of-GUI-oriented applications did." The first page of the story focuses on the losses associated with the transition from a command-line interface (CLI) to a graphical user interface (GUI). One consultant laments the loss of programmable function keys and other shortcuts that extended keyboards once offered. These features were never available to the Apple II user, but I can commiserate with the need for shortcuts that don't require a pointing device.

My first six years as a Macintosh predominantly took the form of a laptop (a PowerBook 1400cs) with an external trackball (an ADB Kensington TurboMouse). That trackball had four buttons that could be programmed for a variety of custom functions, such as right-clicking or switching applications. My right hand rarely strayed from that device, as it was impossible to use Mac OS Classic without it.

After switching to Mac OS X on December 7, 2003, I began to rely less and less. I found this reinvention of the Macintosh operating system featured keyboard-based shortcuts that I'd previously used the TurboMouse for. Now, I could switch windows, applications, and more while keeping my hands on the keyboard. In this way, OS X is actually a bit more similar to the Apple II with which I grew up. Navigating Microsoft Word will never be as intuitive or efficient as using AppleWorks, but it's a bit closer.

With all my Macs having always been portable, it's important for such power to be inbuilt, though I imagine those with desktop computers might enjoy the options such a stable position brings. For example, Andrew Plotkin, in an interview with The Setup (the same site that previously interviewed Bert Kersey), recommended the Matias Tactile Pro 3 keyboard, saying, "If your typing doesn’t sound like a hailstorm on a tin roof, you’re not typing." (This is despite the keyboard being connected to a MacBook Pro; says Plotkin, "I essentially never move it — I’m not a laptop person at heart.")

As a former or current Apple II user, by what input device or method do you prefer to navigate your modern computer? Is there particular hardware you favor or recommend?

VisiCalc demoed today in 1979

May 12th, 2011 11:42 AM
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I love VisiCalc. The world's first electronic spreadsheet was also one of my first computer games. Although an Apple II booted without a floppy still had access to Applesoft BASIC, that environment expected precise input, rewarding creativity with SYNTAX ERROR. Cursor movement was also limited, with text appearing on consecutive lines only. VisiCalc, by contrast, not only let me type words and numbers, but I could put them anywhere on the screen! It was a great introduction to the power of personal computing.

The world was introduced to that potential 32 years ago today, when VisiCalc received its first public demonstration at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco. It set the accounting world on fire and is often considered one of the first "killer apps", warranting the Apple II a place in business. Reports I Programmer: "People bought personal computer simply to run VisiCalc. At its peak, it sold 2 million copies at $150 per copy in 12 months."


Image courtesy Apple II History

Although not viable as a modern business tool, VisiCalc continues to be used and discussed. A Windows-compatible version, available as a free download from Dan Bricklin's Web site, allowed me to introduce this revolutionary program to a new generation when I, as a high school teacher, spent an hour teaching a class of 16-year-olds how to use it. There were many utterances of frustration as they struggled to understand why the mouse — which didn't exist for the Apple II when VisiCalc debuted — wouldn't work.

Aside from the program, the man behind the machine, Dan Bricklin, also remains a visible entity. His history is as fascinating as the modern insights he offers on the evolution and changes in personal computing. In this recent ITworld follow-up to Susan Lammers' 1986 book Programmers at Work, he offers several reflections, such as on the evolution of programming:

People are writing their own programs. Anybody who uses a spreadsheet is writing their own programs; it's just that the language is different now…. We're just making the users do more and more of the programming themselves, but they don't know it. Using different style sheets with Microsoft Word is doing programming; using spreadsheets is doing programming.

Those interested in seeing where Dan Bricklin has taken software development in the last 32 years can check out his iPad application, Note Taker HD, courtesy his company, the Software Garden, or watch him on Triangulation tonight at 7 PM EDT.

(Hat tip to Mitch Wagner)

Baby Boomer inventions that changed the world

December 23rd, 2010 10:26 AM
Filed under Mainstream coverage;

Many amazing technologies have been invented over the past hundred years, allowing humanity to travel and communicate in ways and at speeds unprecedented. Yet the people behind these developments have not yet made it into our history books. While today's students learn about Eli Whitney and the cotton gin, they're more likely to know pop culture stars like Steve Jobs than they are modern inventors like Steve Wozniak.

The Web site recently compiled a list that offers long-overdue acknowledgement to 25 such geniuses and their inventions. The list includes not only geek icons such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web, and Dean Kamen and his Segway transportation device and his portable dialysis machine, but also lesser-known heroes such as Gail Naughton and her synthetic skin products, and Sally Fox's Foxfibre naturally colored cotton.

It should be no surprise that the Apple II, considered by some to be our last technological revolution, made the list, as did its responsible parties:

Steve Wozniak, who was born in 1950, and his future partner Steve Jobs, born in 1955, both grew up in the San Francisco area and got to know each other as summer interns at electronics manufacturer Hewlett-Packard. Though neither finished college, they helped launch a technological revolution that transformed our culture. In 1977, they created and marketed the Apple II personal computer, which included color graphics, a sound card, expansion slots, and other features that made it the earliest machine to resemble today's PCs. It arguably did more than any other product to usher in an age in which computers would become as ubiquitous as TVs and telephones.

It's an honor just to be nominated — though had presented these inventors and inventions in order of importance instead of seemingly randomly, the inclusion of the Apple II would be questionable, or at least laughable: it's sandwiched between bacterial cement and Sildenafil (not named here by its more common moniker so as to not trigger spam filters). I suppose all three keep people indoors, and a few may've even prompted some late nights.

Most of these inventions had humble beginnings; many have since become household names. Few of its creators have enjoyed similar fame. Thanks to for its steps to rectify that situation.

Garry Kasparov: Apple II was last technological revolution

November 4th, 2010 10:31 AM
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In fewer than 70 years, the twentieth century went from debuting the horseless carriage to putting a man on the moon. Such rapid development was made possible by many new technologies that were not so much refinements on previous inventions but were wholly new creations.

In the decades since then, we have continued to refine those technologies, making them smaller, faster, and cheaper. In doing so, have we lost the ability to create and innovate?

One chess grandmaster thinks so. Garry Kasparov, who held the title of World Chess Champion from 1985 to 1993, recently pointed to the Apple II as the last technological revolution, marking our country's technological developments since then as indicative of a "culture of optimization." Wrote Oliver Chiang of Forbes:

… humans are still using many of the same fundamental technologies invented in the past couple of centuries, like the internal combustion engine or the airplane. "Call it lack of courage or complacency, but to a certain degree we lost this passion for the sweeping changes," Kasparov said.


I agree with Mr. Kasparov. In 1977, the Apple II was a machine heretofore inaccessible to the average consumer. It was not only a new medium in which to perform existing tasks, such as painting and accounting; the personal computer represented a new way of working and playing. Since then, the function of the personal computer has greatly expanded in scope, thanks in no small part to both the Internet and multimedia capabilities, which have revolutionized such concepts as communications and filmmaking. But the computer itself has not changed much in the last thirty years. Computers have gotten smaller, from mainframes to desktops to laptops to netbooks to smartphones — but they're still counting in ones and zeroes, just more of them than before. When are we going to stop working within the limitation of bits and start tapping the potential of quantum computers and qubits?

Maybe these developments aren't just in the future; perhaps we already had the right idea but got sidetracked. Is it a coincidence that Mr. Kasparov's reign ended the same year the last Apple II rolled off the production line?