The Apple II legacy of Naughty Dog

September 15th, 2014 9:59 AM
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This time last year, I blogged about Steve Chiang, an Apple II game developer who went on to head Zynga, one of the modern gaming industry's most powerful and prolific publishers. It's no surprise that someone of such humble beginnings would rise to such a position: John Romero, Richard Garriott, and Will Wright are among those who continue to build upon the brands they launched on our 8-bit machine.

But one Apple II game developer has never rested on his laurels, creating franchise after franchise that could not be more disparate. In 1984, when Jason Rubin and high school buddy Andy Gavin were 15 years old, they founded Jam Software, later renamed Naughty Dog — something Gavin's father declared would be "the dumbest thing you're ever going to do." Their first games were Math Jam, Ski Crazed, and Keef the Thief, all for the Apple II. Later, Naughty Dog created Crash Bandicoot, the unofficial mascot for the original Sony PlayStation; for the console's successor, they developed Jax and Daxter. After Rubin's departure from Naughty Dog in 2004, the company crafted such franchises as Uncharted and the Last of Us for PlayStation 3 and 4.

This month, Rubin's original studio turns thirty years old.

The above tribute video does not acknowledge the company's Apple II roots, but doubtless the lessons Rubin, Gavin, and Naughty Dog learned on that platform defined not just their careers, but their creativity. Many of today's franchises have ample access to RAM, storage, and processing power, yet they rarely show little innovation over the previous year's games. By comparison, the Apple II, though powerful for its time, was so much more finite.

"Working inside limitations forces you to hone the details down to the absolute essentials, leaving something incredibly clean and focused," said Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario, Zelda, and Donkey Kong. These are the limitations Rubin and Gavin worked within; as a result, Naughty Dog's games are never the same as last year's, except faster or prettier. Instead of beating a franchise into the ground, they have a dream, make it manifest — and then envision a new one.

To never stop dreaming: it's the Apple II legacy.

(Hat tips to Eurogamer's Jeffrey Matulef and CVG's Mike Jackson)

UPDATE (26-Dec-14): Naughty Dog has now released a 49-minute 30th anniversary documentary. Hat tip to Aira Quintana.

Karateka returns

February 16th, 2012 9:23 AM
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I recently asked why Jordan Mechner's Prince of Persia has enjoyed more diverse success and adaptation than other Apple II originals. That's now proven to be a prescient musing, as yesterday Mechner announced on his blog that his debut title, Karateka, will be re-imagined as a new game for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network later in 2012.

Like PoP, the original Karateka for the Apple II employed rotoscoping to create fluid graphics and animations. Its one-on-one martial arts bouts could be seen as a precursor to games such as Karate Champ and even Street Fighter. Yet despite being such an archetype, the game is being approached for a remake with a very different lineage than the many PoP sequels have been. As Mechner told Gamasutra:

In the 27 years since its release, it's never had a sequel or an adaptation. And yet it's stayed in people's minds all this time. It seems to hold a special place in many gamers' hearts, as it does in mine. It's the game that started my career — you can't get more indie than the Apple II — and its compact design, simple story and pick-up-and-play philosophy made it perfect for a downloadable game.

The new Karateka will not be a sequel but a fuller realization of Mechner's original characters and plot using modern technology:

The Apple II was a bit limited, in that a game could be acclaimed as a cinematic masterpiece of fluid animation while actually it was struggling to eke out eight frames per second — or even less, if the palace gate happened to be on screen at the same time. The music could only play one note at a time, no chords, and I couldn't animate the characters and play a note at the same time — given the 1KHz [sic] microprocessor it was one or the other.

So I'm especially excited about what we can do with the graphics and animation and sound in the new Karateka, given the power of today's consoles … I wanted to take advantage of XBLA and PSN technology to push this game to its production limits, and use graphics, sound and music to really put players into the world of feudal Japan in a way we couldn't on the Apple II … I've tried to make Karateka the way I would have made it in 1984 had the technology been available, and had the Apple II been able to display more than 280×192 pixels and four colors.

But the remake won't outperform the original in all ways. As Mechner told GameTrailers.com:

"If you turn both the video game console and your large flat-screen TV upside down, the entire game will play upside down," Mechner joked. "We would have liked to make it do that if you just insert the disk upside down, like the original, but with a downloadable game unfortunately that wasn't possible. See, 1980s technology was actually superior in some ways."

The past three years have provided Apple II users with a bounty of opportunities to revisit their favorite classics as never before seen, with affordable downloads and remakes of games such as Choplifter, Lode Runner, and Prince of Persia. My own history with Mechner's résumé includes more lends itself more to Karateka than PoP, and I'm eager to see how the creative force behind the original will remake such a relatively simple game as Karateka for modern platforms and audiences.

Choplifter HD first impressions

January 12th, 2012 4:45 PM
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Nearly a year ago, I was anticipating a modern re-creation of Choplifter. The game, developed by inXile and published by Konami, is the latest sequel in the franchise created by Dan Gorlin with his original Apple II action game.

Choplifter HD finally saw release this week and is available at a $15 price point for PC, Sony PlayStation 3, and Microsoft Xbox 360. I grabbed the demo of the Xbox version and played it last night on what I presume was an inbuilt timer, completing 6.5 missions in the time allotted to me.

So far, I like what I see. The missions start of familiar: rescue soldiers and bring them back to base. But there are some clever variables, such as wounded soldiers who require medical attention and must be attended to before all others. Later missions require defending a particular point or containing a zombie outbreak.

Choplifter remains 2D, distinguishing itself from the nonlinear Strike series of helicopter games. But there are times when enemies can be in the foreground, and the chopper must be oriented to face the screen in order to shoot them. This cumbersome act balances the newfound control over the minigun, allowing it to be aimed in any direction separate from that in which the helicopter is moving. No more moving forward and fast just to attain a downward trajectory! There's also a "boost" function for evasive maneuvers, but it burns fuel quickly. Landing back at HQ will restore both your health and fuel; depots scattered throughout the level recover only the latter. Completing objectives earns you better helicopters, but they replace the old ones; there doesn't appear to be a choice of copters between missions.

I've played other games in the Choplifter series but remember the original best, so it was a pleasant surprise to note the excellent graphics and soundtrack in this reboot. The terrain varies from cities to deserts, each bustling with its own kind of activity. When you land, soldiers and hostages don't just disappear into your vehicle but will actually run around to either side to find an open seat. They shout such corny lines as "It's good to see you!" whereas a film crew might ask, "Get me out of here quickly — but watch the hair!" This attention to detail is noticeable, as is the game's quirky humor, reminding you that you're here to have fun, not reenact a war.

My time for gaming these days is limited, so I don't know if I'll be plunking down the $15 for the full game and its 80+ missions. But all other reviews are positive. I encourage retrogamers to check out this cross of old and new and enjoy the best of both worlds.

Choplifter lifts off

March 31st, 2011 2:58 PM
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The Apple II is proving an endless font of inspiration for modern-day video game remakes. Not only is Wizardry coming to the PlayStation Network, but it will soon be joined on that service by Choplifter, that seminal side-scrolling action game, set on the landscape of a far-off purple desert.

I remember playing Choplifter on my Apple II, one of the few games for which I could use the joystick instead of the keyboard. I enjoyed the dichotomy of the player's charges: not only did I have to evade unfriendly fire and destroy enemy tanks, but I also had to rescue captured hostages and diplomats. Such realistic humanitarian directives were rare in an era where video games were about shooting down space invaders or rescuing damsels in dysfunction. Choplifter was even good for a lesson in vocabulary, having taught me the word "sortie".

Check out the experience that the remake hopes to recapture:

Dan Gorlin's Choplifter was the first second game to make the transition from computer to arcade, instead of the other way around. It enjoyed many console-exclusive sequels as well, most recently the 1994 release of Choplifter III for Super Nintendo, among others.

The latest sequel, Choplifter HD, comes from inXile Entertainment, the company headed by Interplay founder Brian Fargo. Originally announced two years ago, the game received received more details this week, including a tentative release date of Fall 2011. Here's the trailer:

It looks like the core gameplay hasn't changed much, with action still occurring primarily in two dimensions, keeping it from straying too far into the Desert Strike franchise that Choplifter itself inspired. Time will tell if it captures more than the look and feel but also the spirit of the original.

The affordability and accessibility of downloadable games certainly seems inviting for industry veterans to dust off old ideas. What other Apple II classics would you like to see remade for modern consoles?

UPDATE: This game will launch in Fall 2011. Dan Gorlin is onboard as a consultant, and players will get to save both POWs and survivors of the zombie apocalypse.

The history and future of Wizardry

March 24th, 2011 5:08 PM
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The Magic Candle is one of my all-time favorite role-playing games — though on the computer platform, it doesn't have much competition for that title: I honestly can't recall any other RPG I've played for the Apple II or Mac. All other games in that genre were either console exclusives, such as Final Fantasy, or ports from the computer, like Ultima.

One such port was Wizardry, which you wouldn't think would work on a two-button controller, but with no basis for comparison, I enjoyed the Nintendo version just fine. There was little the interface could do to strengthen or soften what was already a punishing experience. As Wizardry's adventurers explored the labyrinthine dungeon of despair from a first-person perspective, developer Sir-Tech made sure they encountered wave after wave of more powerful foes. It was only by playing it safe, not venturing far past the dungeon entrance, and fighting only minor foes before escaping to the safety of camp — a process eventually known as "grinding" that players could slowly prepare themselves to pursue more tempting treasures.

At the dawn of electronic entertainment, "challenge" and "gameplay" were practically interchangeable, so for the reasons above, I found myself drawn to Wizardry. Unlike with the more narrative Final Fantasy, I was not locked to a specific party but could design my own, encouraging endless experimentation. In fact, by some fluke, the very first character I ever rolled up was given enough discretionary building points that I could've created a ninja, right off the bat. But I'd never played the game before and didn't know what a high number I'd rolled; I must've hit "reset" to see if I could do better, as I never did get that ninja.

Bitmob recently published a history of Wizardry, detailing its origins, successes, and anime adaptations (the game was even bigger in Japan than in the USA). The article ends with the series' ultimate demise in North America — or ultimate, up until recently. Announced yesterday was the return of this franchise for a new generation of gamers, marking the first Wizardry title in a decade. But unlike with the series debut, where players could choose between the console or computer versions, this time, there is no choice: Labyrinth of Lost Souls will be exclusive to the PlayStation Network, an online "app store" for the Sony PlayStation 3 video game console. If that weren't change enough, the game will have a distinct Eastern flair, as seen in this screenshot of the character creation process.

Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls

Photo courtesy RPGFan

It's too soon to tell how this spring 2011 release will be received, and whether it'll be too modern for retrogamers or too hard for PS3 players. In the meantime, if you'd rather return to the age of classic Wizardry, I highly recommend Jeff Fink's Silvern Castle. This ridiculously comprehensive RPG offers everything Wizardry did on the Apple II and more, all while running from Applesoft BASIC on any 8- or 16-bit Apple II.