Final Fantasy V by Chris Kohler

October 23rd, 2017 9:50 AM
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The Apple II and its software and community had a tremendous influence on my evolution as a gamer. But as much as I enjoyed its games, many of them would today be described as "casual" games — something I could play for a few minutes before moving on. My Apple II collection didn't include the deep, engrossing titles of Ultima or Wizardry; for those role-playing experiences, I turned to my Nintendo. It was on that gaming platform that I lost myself in the worlds of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. These two Japanese RPGs offered worlds, characters, inventories, and more complexity than any of the action games I was otherwise accustomed to.

So when Boss Fight Books launched a few years ago with the promise to delve behind the scenes of such console games, I was quick to back all four of its Kickstarters — for seasons 1, 2, 3, and 4. Each "season" featured several books by different authors who would offer their own personal experiences with a game, woven with the original interviews with the game's designers.

Boss Fight Books hasn't always lived up to my expectations: of the four I've received, two of them were pretty good, and two were horribly unreadable. Despite that uneven experience, I had no hesitation in backing the latest season, as I knew what I'd be getting when I saw Chris Kohler was assigned to cover Final Fantasy V. Kohler is the founder of the games section of WIRED and is now a features editor at Kotaku, two websites that have done exemplary work covering the video game space. While I don't know Kohler personally, I've read his work and have attended his conference talks, and we were scheduled to be on a panel together at PAX East 2017 before circumstances conspired against us. (I'm still hopeful we'll have a future opportunity to collaborate.)

Sure enough, Kohler's book is a tight, enjoyable, informative tale of this JRPG that never saw an English-language release during its day. It's a game that inspired Kohler to import the Super Famicom version to try playing on his Super Nintendo, and ultimately to study abroad in Japan during his college years.

Having never played FFV, I had much to learn about this missing title in the popular franchise. I thought I knew everything else about the series, though, including the original Final Fantasy, which I'd spent the summer of 1990 playing. Kohler surprised me with an origin story I'd somehow never learned or had forgotten:

Eventually, [Final Fantasy creator Hironobu] Sakaguchi got his act together, graduated school, and entered Yokohama National University to study electronic communications. Unfortunately for his renewed interest in scholastic achievement, he quickly discovered video games. A classmate named Hiromuchi Tanaka owned an Apple II, and their group of friends would stay up all night playing Western RPGs like Wizardry and Ultima. Sakaguchi didn't go in for arcade games, but these RPGs were something else: They had fantastic stories like the ones he devoured in the volumed of Guin Saga, and you could play them for hours on end. Which he did. Sakaguchi and his friends would pull all-nighters on Tanaka's Apple II. He battled monsters in Ultima II until he maxed out the amount of gold his character could carry, and the counter rolled over from 9999 back to 0.

Though the Apple II was not as popular in Japan as it was in the USA, I had no idea it had landed in just the right hands to inspire an entire RPG franchise that continues to this day. While I didn't play Wizardry and Ultima, I'm immensely relieved that Sakaguchi did; the games they inspired him to create became my Wizardry and Ultima.

The official launch date for Kohler's book is tomorrow, but as a Kickstarter backer, I received my copy several weeks ago. I recommend it without reservation to anyone interested in the story of Final Fantasy and the early evolution of JRPGs. A further excerpt is available at Kotaku.

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:

Maniac Mansion design notes

August 11th, 2014 11:34 AM
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Despite growing up an avid gamer, I didn't play many commercial games for the Apple II. (No, I didn't pirate them, either.) We had the Atari 2600 before we had an Apple, and from there, our console collection grew to include every Nintendo system. It was there, on the 8-bit NES, that I encountered many classics that had been ported from the Apple II: Ultima, Archon — and Maniac Mansion.

That last title was a point-and-click adventure developed at LucasFilm Games. Players chose two of six characters to accompany primary protagonist Dave on his exploration of a mad scientist's home to rescue Dave's girlfriend, Sandy. Along the way, gamers encounter a sentient meteor, a disembodied tentacle, an explodable hamster, and one of the first instances of video game cutscenes. Maniac Mansion garnered a cult following, spawning both a sequel and a television series.

The writer, director, artist and programmer responsible for Maniac Mansion was Ron Gilbert, who later wrote several of the Monkey Island games on the Mac, all of which used the SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) game engine. Although Gilbert has moved past these titles and tools, he hasn't forgotten his roots, as evidenced by recent posts to his blog, Grumpy Gamer:

While cleaning out my storage unit in Seattle, I came across a treasure trove of original documents and backup disks from the early days of Lucasfilm Games and Humongous Entertainment. I hadn't been to the unit in over 10 years and had no idea what was waiting for me.

Here is the original pitch document Gary and I used for Maniac Mansion. Gary had done some quick concepts, but we didn't have a real design, screen shots or any code. This was before I realized coding the whole game in 6502 was nuts and began working on the SCUMM system.

If this document… say[s] anything, it's how much ideas change from initial concept to finished game. And that's a good thing. Never be afraid to change your ideas. Refine and edit. If your finished game looks just like your initial idea, then you haven't pushed and challenged yourself hard enough.

His first batch of scanned Maniac Mansion design notes showcases UI mockups, a map of a mansion that never would've fit into 320K, and puzzle ideas that didn't make the cut until 25 years later. A second batch of notes demonstrates the logic and code behind SCUMM.

It's fascinating and wonderful that Gilbert saved these documents and is now making them available. He likely didn't know the place Maniac Mansion would earn in gaming history — surely there are countless other point-and-click adventures of the era that have been forgotten. But this one was not, and now the context and process by which it was created can be examined in a new light. I hope these documents (or their scans) eventually make their way to an institution such as the Strong Museum's International Center for the History of Electronic Games.

Maniac Mansion

It was a dark and clear night…

Want more Maniac Mansion history? In 2012, Gilbert gave a one-hour Maniac Mansion post-mortem at the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC). Due to wonky embed code, the video is better viewed in the GDC Vault, but it's included below for convenience.

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The ultimate game: Archon

May 12th, 2014 4:41 PM
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In the Austin Grossman novel You, our hero is asked, "So what's your ultimate game?

"You know, the game you'd make if you could make any game at all," the long-haired designed explained.

"Forget about budget," the short guy added. "You're in charge. Just do anything! Greatest game ever!"

"The Ultimate Game," I said, "I can do just… anything?"

They nodded. I felt ridiculous. Was the Ultimate Game the one in which I ride a hundred-foot-tall pink rhino through the streets, driving my enemies before me? The one where the chess pieces come alive and talk in a strange poetry? Is it just a game where I always win?

"So… okay, okay. You're playing chess, right, but all the pieces are actual monsters, and when you take one you have to… actually fight… it?" Why were they looking at me that way?

"You mean like in Archon? For the C64?"

"Um. Right."

Archon, a Greek word that means "ruler" or "lord"1 — also a monster in Dungeons & Dragons2 — was a multiplatform action-strategy game distributed by Electronic Arts in 1983. I played it on the NES, but it was also available for the Apple II. Players took turns moving pieces across a board that fluctuated through a spectrum of light and dark, with each extreme favoring a different team. The game pieces had different strengths and capabilities, from shapeshifting to spellcasting, that they brought into combat. I loved playing Archon with my older brothers, as its mix of fast-paced battle with more thoughtful tactics played to my jack-of-all-trades nature. Some of my brothers were faster than me, and others were smarter, but needing having to be both leveled the playing field more than other games did. (The Super NES game Actraiser would later take a similar approach, to great — and inimitable — success.)

A 1984 sequel, Archon II: Adept, was also published for home computers but never got ported to game consoles, thus escaping my notice.

But I did get to revisit the concept almost two decades later. At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) 2003, my last year attending the still-ongoing event, I visited the LucasArts booth, which had more than just Star Wars games:

I briefly left a galaxy far, far away to observe Wrath Unleashed, an action-strategy game. It struck me as bearing a slight resemblance to another game, but the more I saw of Wrath Unleashed, the less slight the resemblance became, until I had to ask the LucasArts rep, "Have you ever played an old game called 'Archon'?" Rather than profess ignorance or extort the differences, he simply nodded and said, "Exactly."

But somehow, the core mechanics hadn't aged well. Perhaps it was because my brothers had grown up, leaving video games (and their gaming sibling) behind. But I didn't find the same engagement and tension in Wrath Unleashed that I did in Archon. (Sibling rivalry was likely a factor in Austin Grossman's affair with Archon, too: his brother Lev included it in his list of the ten greatest games for the Apple II.)

Is Archon the ultimate game? No. That title would likely belong to Zork, or The Legend of Zelda, or something equally revolutionary and genre-defining. But what Archon has in common with those games is timelessness: even today, playing the ruler of a shifting battlefield is still fun.

For a more thorough review of Archon, including a "Where are they now?" of the game's programmers, read The 8-Bit Game: Digesting Archon | 8bitrocket, by Jeff Fulton. (Hat tip to Blake Patterson)

Digital Den launch party

October 28th, 2013 10:59 AM
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Mary Hopper began making waves this August when she announced her intention to found a computer history museum in Boston. News of the Digital Den was picked up by Open Apple, the Retro Computing Roundtable, the Boston Globe, and Apple II Bits.

The museum continues to evolve into a extant institution, as evidenced by the launch party held on October 20. As a backer of the museum's Indiegogo campaign, I received an invitation to the event, where I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Dr. Hopper, Adam Rosen of the Vintage Mac Museum, and Ian S. King of the Living Computer Museum, as well as catch up with fellow retrocomputing enthusiast Dave Ross. On-hand were classic computers such as the Apple II, TI-99, and Nintendo Entertainment System, as well as newer tech like the Oculus Rift. It was an encouraging occasion for a museum that continues to seek a permanent home.

My photos from the event are posted below and are available under a CC-BY-NC license. The book featured below, Gordon Bell's Out of a Closet: The Early Years of The Computer [x]* Museum, is available online as a PDF. For more photos from the event, including a silly one of me by Rus Gant, see the Digital Den's first exhibit photos.

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Watch Steve Wozniak dominate at Tetris

April 15th, 2013 11:05 AM
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Steve Wozniak is said to have created the Apple because he wanted to play arcade games at home. But the Apple wasn't Woz's only game machine; he was highly addicted to the Game Boy, Nintendo's handheld that came packaged with the puzzle game Tetris. For as long as the official Nintendo Power magazine printed gamers' high scores, Woz reigned supreme as Tetris champion.

Now you can watch him tell the story himself as he revisits his favorite game. The digital edition of latest issue of Game Informer magazine features a video of Steve Wozniak getting his Tetris on while he recounts his encounters with the game and his evangelization of the Game Boy to world leaders of two decades ago.

From Woz's repeated exclamations of "Uh, oh — I'm in trouble here!" and the lack of direct screen capture, it's hard to tell if Woz is still the Tetris master he was in his youth. But it's nonetheless fun to watch his boyish amusement with the world continue to shine.