MAD Magazine's Spy vs. Spy

July 8th, 2019 8:46 AM
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I grew up reading MAD Magazine, having inherited a collection of back issues from my oldest brother. I was sometimes too young to get the humor, but I always enjoyed the comics, especially Spy vs. Spy.

Licensed computer games were rarer in the 1980s than they are now; the technology to produce an authentic adaptation from one medium to another just wasn't there. But Spy vs. Spy's simple angles and slapstick antics made for a wonderful two-player Apple II game, packaged in an impressive clamshell case.

My youngest brother and I would wake up early Saturday mornings to compete in this split-screen game. I would always be the white spy as we wandered the embassy, searching for secret documents and setting traps for each other. Like in Space Ship of Death, a BBS door game I later adapted to the Apple II, each trap had a defense: a bucket of acid propped on a door could be protected against with an umbrella. But since we shared a monitor, my brother and I could see where the traps were being set, ruining the element of surprise. If no defense was available, it wasn't uncommon for one of us to simply stop playing, stubbornly refusing to trigger a trap we knew was there. Still, it was a fun game and one of the few areas of my life where I felt I could sometimes best my sibling.

When the pages of MAD Magazine advertised that a sequel to the game was coming to Commodore 64, I wrote a letter to the editor asking why it wasn't being released for the Apple II. I actually got a letter back, explaining how it cost money to make a game and they had to be sure they'd make that money back by adapting it to another computer system. I was confused: didn't they know I would buy it? Wasn't that enough??

Today, my letter would've gotten me added to a marketing email list, with my specific interests indicated as Spy vs. Spy and the Apple II. But back then, this one-time exchange wasn't enough to warrant MAD following up with the official news, prompting me to organically discover when Spy vs. Spy II: The Island Caper was eventually released for the Apple II:

I didn't think it possible, but this game was even better than the original. The setting was more exotic, the traps were more ingenious, the gameplay was more intuitive, and the graphics were more distinct. Although my brother and I were getting to the ages where we were too old to play together, we still got in several rounds of this game.

It wasn't until 2012 that I found out there had been a third game in the series, Spy vs. Spy III: Arctic Antics. Replacing "health" with "body heat" is clever, but the bleak landscape makes me think the series peaked with its second iteration.

A version of the original game was later released for iOS, but it was never updated to be 64-bit; it stopped working with iOS 11 and is no longer available in the App Store. Even when it did work, the touch interface did not lend itself well to the intricate machinations of one spy, let alone two.

The brand was also licensed to a PlayStation 2 / Xbox game, but it has little if anything to do with the original trilogy.

A new game in the series, Spies, is tentatively under development. A lengthy description claims Spies will be inspired by "the original", though it's unclear if they're referring to the Apple II game or the later PS2 title.

Sadly, just as this franchise has struggled in the past decades, so too has its source material. MAD Magazine will cease publication of original content later this year, switching to reprints of classic material with a single annual issue of new content.

I regret the passing of an iconic institution of America's cultural landscape. But just like the Apple II game was better than the PS2, sometimes revisiting the past is better than trying to recapture it with reimagings. For all the fond memories of sibling rivalry it gave me, I hope MAD Magazine finds success in its new format.

Let's Play Prince of Persia Escape

January 7th, 2019 10:53 AM
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Karateka and its spiritual successor, Prince of Persia, have enjoyed diverse incarnations on mobile devices. Karateka saw a re-invention as a rhythmic fighting game, spurring interest in the later release of Karateka Classic. Likewise, the original Prince of Persia was released as Prince Retro but never updated for iOS 11; what took its place in iOS 12 was Prince of Persia Classic HD, which updated the graphics until they're unrecognizable from their Apple II origins.

Now there's a new Prince of Persia for iOS and Android, and it's in the sub-genre of platformers known as a runner. Here, the Prince runs to the right side of the screen while dodging obstacles, but never combating foes or solving puzzles. He moves left and right and jumps at the player's discretion, but beyond that, there's little variety.

That didn't sound like much fun to me, but it seemed an easy Let's Play video to record, so I took the free version of the game for a spin. Spoiler: it's not much fun. But at least I worked some Apple II graphics into the background and outro.

Judging from other Let's Play videos of this game, the level design doesn't get more diverse in the first fifty stages, either. And some reports indicate the game has 500+ levels. Who has time for that?

It's not unreasonable for classic licenses to be reincarnated in new genres. Sometimes it works well: I felt more positive about the similar adaptation of Super Mario to the running genre. Prince of Persia Escape doesn't inspire any strong feelings either way, but if it makes enough profit to keep the Prince alive, then I look forward to seeing his next reinvention.

Pokémon GO

August 15th, 2016 9:24 AM
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On July 6, 2016, Pokémon GO was released for iOS and Android.

This mobile game in the 20-year-old franchise throws good UX/UI design and traditional social engagement out the window — yet it's quickly garnered more users and engagement than Twitter, Tinder, Snapchat, and Instagram. Not only that, but it released fewer than two weeks before KansasFest.

While at Rockhurst University, roommate Andy Molloy and I took an evening stroll around campus, finding and capturing the infamous pocket monsters while I introduced him to the game's mechanics. Only a week earlier, Kevin Savetz and I had been learning the basics ourselves as we explored downtown Portland, Oregon.

It wasn't Pokémon that brought me, Kevin, and Andy together in the first place, of course — it was the Apple II. And just like with Kerbal Space Program, we're not above porting our favorite games back to our favorite machine.

What would Pokémon GO look like on the Apple II? Charles Mangin tried but failed to conceive of such a thing:

Pokémon GO

Meanwhile, Steve Weyhrich, a long-time gamer, "gets" Pokémon GO and how to adapt it to the Apple II — if not programmatically, then thematically:

OK, game programmers, here is a concept for you to work on:

"Retro Go", a game in which Professor Woz sends you out on a quest to "catch 'em all"! You start with an Apple II, a TRS 80, or Commodore PET and then set off on your journey.

Along the way, you will see various retro computers, peripherals, or software appear in your path. When you see them, frisbee-throw a floppy disk to capture it for your collection.

When you capture enough retro equipment, take it to the user group meeting to battle it out between the various platforms and level up. Apple II versus Macintosh! Atari versus C64! ZX spectrum against IBM PCjr!

Don't let retro arguments be battled out in terms of rational platform performance – see how a level 124 TRS 80 Model 100 with the power of "LCD dazzle" fares against a level 80 Atari 800 with with modem and its "ANTIC smash" attack!

Don't spend REAL money on eBay- use this game to collect every Apple II model "in the wild" and put it on display in your retro bag. Earns the respect of Professor Woz as the greatest retro trainer of them all!

I'd catch that!

For more on Pokémon GO, listen to my podcast interview with Serenity Caldwell on Polygamer #49:

Scoring Dangerous Dave

December 21st, 2015 11:39 AM
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On IndieSider, my biweekly podcast, I interview game developers about the creative process. The Apple II is one of the platforms that got me into gaming, so I enjoy the opportunities to feature it on my show, bringing everything full circle. For example, Episode #16 featured the voice talents of Brutal Deluxe's Antoine Vignau, whereas episode #26 highlighted the work of Wade Clarke in interactive fiction.

Some of my podcast subjects come to me through public relations specialists such as Emily Morganti, whom I've found to be a gamer with excellent taste in games. She recently pitched me a game she didn't realize I have a long history with: Dangerous Dave. This franchise of side-scrolling platform games was founded on the Apple II, where it had two famous names attached to it: publisher Softdisk and developer John Romero.

John has been a friend to the Apple II community before, during, and since his success with Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake: he was the KansasFest 2012 keynote speaker, and his writing is featured in this month's issue of Juiced.GS. He recently ported one of his Dangerous Dave games to iOS — but it was not Mr. Romero that Ms. Morganti was representing. Instead she was putting me in touch with Dren McDonald, the composer who created the score for Gathering Sky, a game I featured in IndieSider #28.

I took the opportunity to interview Dren about his long history of collaborations with the Romero family; creating an original soundtrack for an Apple II game; the programming tools that a digital musician employs; and what constitutes the "chipbilly" genre he invented for this game, seemingly inspired by chiptune. The resulting interview became IndieSider #34, which can be viewed on YouTube:

or listened to in your podcatcher of choice:

I appreciated featuring one of the many creative artists who contribute something to a game other than design or development. It takes a village to keep the Apple II alive!

The logo everyone carries

September 29th, 2014 11:49 AM
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Ever since I left Computerworld for a new job in Boston, my daily commute has included public transit. Although some people may prefer the agency and solitude of driving to work, I enjoy letting someone else drive while I kick back for a relaxing ride.

Not being a smartphone owner, I'm not much for passing the time with calls, texts, games, or apps. Since my eyes aren't glued to a pocket-sized screen, I've done plenty of people-watching in my two years on the bus and subway. It's hard to ignore how smartphones have proliferated into everyone's hands — most days, I see more digital diversions than the print publications I still enjoy. As someone whose career was founded in print, I feel a bit sad about its demise.

But on a completely different track, I also feel heartened when I see everyone holding not just smartphones, but iPhones. These devices are a far cry from the machine we celebrate on Open Apple and in Juiced.GS — yet from those humble beginnings sprang an empire that has worked its way into the lives of millions. I look around the sybway and see in everyone's hands and pockets the same logo that was on the computer on which I learned to program, to write, and to game.

Subway iPhone

Image courtesy Jens Schott Knudsen.

As a college instructor, I've had plenty of students who have never used an Apple II or don't even know what one is. And in a way, that's okay, because some part of the Apple II has survived to today. The scrappy company born in a garage was so successful in marketing a product to me and my contemporaries that they grew beyond our wildest dreams.

Every morning, I see more Apple users on the subway than I've ever seen at KansasFest. To the makers of that smartphone, I think, "Well done, guys" — and to the people using them, I think, "You're welcome."

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?