Chris Torrence reviews the AP40

January 23rd, 2017 11:28 AM
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In October, Hong Kong hardware developer 8bitdo launched a Kickstarter for a wireless Bluetooth controller for the Apple II. Although I originally backed the project, I eventually cancelled my pledge only out of personal dissatisfaction with the potential product and its management. That said, I was still glad to see the campaign succeed at 135% its crowdfunding goal.

One of the 313 backers is Assembly Lines editor and KansasFest alumnus Chris Torrence. He quickly produced an unboxing video, in which he rightly predicted my critical reception:

This video was followed by a more extensive testing session:

Between the two videos, Chris tested the AP40 controller with a variety of Apple II games, including Lode Runner, Choplifter, and Castle Wolfenstein. The verdict seems to be that it's a great device for games that require digital input — i.e., games that read only the direction, not the degree, to which you are pushing the controller. But since the Apple II can read 0–255 values on both the X and Y axes, games that rely on that analog input will not work as well.

Had I not cancelled my Kickstarter pledge, I would've reviewed the AP40 for Juiced.GS. But I don't think even I could've done as good a job as Chris, which is why I'm excited he'll be making his Juiced.GS debut when we publish his more comprehensive written review in the March 2017 issue!

(Full disclosure: I back Chris on Patreon.)

Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak in Steve Jobs

October 26th, 2015 9:01 AM
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The third Steve Jobs film in two years opened nationwide this past Friday. Having just seen the Steve Jobs documentary last month, I wasn't inclined to consume more history of Apple's co-founder — not to boycott his deification or the potential misrepresentation of Steve Wozniak, but due to an oversaturation of the topic.

In fact, this past August, I emailed my freelance employer, Computerworld, to ask which they wanted me to review: the documentary, or the drama? They responded with the former. I assumed this was because every media outlet was going to review the Michael Fassbender movie, whereas the documentary was more likely to fly under the radar; Computerworld could stand out by being one of the few sites to cover it.

Then they emailed me this month to ask that I review the Fassbender film anyway, with the thinking being that, if everyone else is reviewing it, Computerworld would be remiss to not also do so. I guess it works both ways: if no one is doing it, you should; and if everyone is doing it, you should!

My review was published last week, but here's a summary: of the three films, Steve Jobs is the least historically accurate — and the most enjoyable. I was surprised how much I liked it, though I think it helped that I knew not to expect it to be true to life. For example, the character Seth Rogen plays is not Steve Wozniak — but he is a good character who serves a narrative purpose and drives the plot forward. It's a good story, and a good movie.

Seth Rogen admitted that, despite meeting and studying the real Woz, the script made any adherence to Woz's personality almost impossible:

… the character wasn’t really written that much in the voice of the actual Steve Wozniak, in my opinion. I think the themes are real to Steve Wozniak, the things he cared about, but the way he presents those ideas and the way he literally just interacts with people, from what I see, it’s not an incredibly realistic interpretation.

The cinematic and actual Wozes recently appeared together on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where they played the game "True Confessions". Woz, Rogen, and Fallon each wrote a truth and a lie about themselves: one was then chosen at random and shared with the other players, and they had to guess if it was the truth or the lie. Woz went last, with his turn starting at 6:11 in this video:

They obviously had fun playing this game — just as I enjoyed Rogen's spin on Woz.

Look for Eric Shepherd's review of Steve Jobs in the December 2015 issue of Juiced.GS.

(Hat tip to Seth Sternberger)

Apple II cameo at Computerworld

September 8th, 2014 7:49 AM
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When I quit my job at Computerworld almost two years ago, I left the company on good terms. Though that's true of every job I've ever had, Computerworld is unique in allowing me to continue my professional relationship as a freelancer, contributing reviews, interviews, and feature stories. As a result, I've been more prolific since leaving than I was during my tenure there. As a salaried employee, writing was not in my job description, so my byline never affected by bottom line. Now, each successful pitch results in another paycheck, which is a powerful motivator.

The downside to that arrangement is that stories that would've been published when they were "free" (minus the time and effort of the professional editors I worked with) may get passed over when there's a fee associated with them. That's why you saw KansasFest coverage at Computerworld 2007–2013 but not in 2014 — the enterprise IT and Apple II crowds overlap only so much.

Nonetheless, I inadvertently worked the Apple II into my latest story for Computerworld. Apple II Bits is powered by the content management system WordPress, which I've been enthusiastically using and supporting for eight years. When WordPress 3.0 came out four years ago, I reviewed it for Computerworld — so it seemed a natural fit to revisit the topic in my new capacity as a freelancer for last week's release of WordPress 4.0.

My WordPress 4.0 review was submitted with screenshots of the WordPress backend taken while I composed the Apple II Bits blog post "Maniac Mansion design notes". I hadn't been thinking that, with Computerworld's own recent rollout of an entirely new design and more visual CMS, they'd need to use one of these images on the homepage. And so it was that a screenshot of LucasArts' 1987 classic point-and-click adventure game Maniac Mansion graced the homepage of Computerworld.com in 2014.

Maniac Mansion at Computerworld

IT LIVES

The image appears in the article itself but remained on the homepage for less than 24 hours, as screenshots are generally too busy to effectively advertise homepage content. The art director quickly crafted a more representative banner for WordPress and substituted that. But for a brief moment, the Apple II again had its place in the Computerworld sun.

Playing Lode Runner on iOS

January 21st, 2013 1:22 PM
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Last summer, I wrote a convoluted blog post about how Lode Runner Classic, featuring all the levels and original graphics of the Apple II game from 1983, were coming to iOS and Android. I'm happy to report that last Thursday, nearly a half-year after its announcement and three decades since the franchise's debut, Lode Runner Classic has finally landed on these mobile platforms.

Title screen

Welcome to Lode Runner Classic.

I picked up the Apple version for $2.99, played the first dozen levels in both expedition and time attack modes, and was pleased by how little the gameplay has changed. Developer Tozai Games has not added power-ups, extra enemies, boss battles, or other unnecessary flair: the game looks, sounds, and plays in a fashion befitting of its titular adjective. Any additional features are entirely optional, such as a soundtrack that can be disabled separately from the sound effects, a customizable color palette, and speed settings. That last one is especially attractive to me, for as I once wrote for Computerworld:

Over the years, [my family] tricked it [our Apple IIGS] with the usual upgrades: SCSI card, sound card, handheld scanner, modem, joystick, 4MB of RAM. An accelerator boosted the CPU to 10 MHz, which may not sound like much, but it was quadruple the stock speed — making Lode Runner quite a challenge to play. (The enemies moved four times faster; my brain and reactions didn't.)

Options screen

More options than you can shake a stick at!

However, I'm finding Lode Runner Classic challenging even without that increase in speed, due primarily to the interface. There are three ways to control your digger: a tilt mechanism that employs the iOS device's accelerometer and gyroscope; a swipe interface that makes no sense to me (I continuously die while figuring out how to get my guy to move, even after reading the instructions); and an on-screen joypad. The last one is the most intuitive, but it shrinks the gameplay screen to create margins in which to display the controls. Even with this option, I find the "dig" buttons are too large, requiring me to reach too far into the center of the iPad to reach them.

The on-screen controls mode is also the only one in which the "magnification" option is unavailable. This setting keeps the entire gamefield visible while focusing on the action, squishing the parts of the screen where the player isn't and expanding them as the digger moves left and right, up and down. Oddly, since the interfaces that support this feature are the ones where the game already fills the entire screen, they are the ones that are least in need of magnification!

On-screen controls

Here's what the virtual D-pad controls look like.

Despite the limitations (or at least learning curve) inherent to the platform, this is the Lode Runner you grew up with. I didn't hesitate to drop $3 on this game, and neither should you.

If you prefer a desktop version, you can get ZX Games' unauthorized Windows clone, subtitled Classicwards, which offers 75 levels for $9.95. Want an actual sequel with update graphics and gameplay? Check out Lode Runner X, available for Xbox 360 and Android.

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.

CFFA3000 video review

December 15th, 2011 1:42 PM
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As mentioned on the latest episode of the Open Apple podcast, Brian Picchi has lately been putting out some remarkable YouTube videos. He started this time a year ago with a review of the IIGS itself. Lately he's cast a wider net, highlighting a variety of Apple II products from games to NDAs. One of his latest is a review of the CFFA3000, the CompactFlash and USB card from Rich Dreher. It's a card I had the opportunity to purchase in-person at KansasFest 2011. I passed at the time, as I was still months and thousands of miles away from my Apple II. Now I'm kicking myself, as not only does the card have scads more features than I realized, but the first batch sold out like hotcakes, with no more expected until 2012.

Brian's video is a good overview of what will have you too lining up for the second batch:

If you're looking for other ways to expand the hardware capabilities of your Apple IIGS, Brian's overview of several peripherals is also worth a watch. And be sure to read the comments on this and his other videos — unlike most YouTube comments, these are quite knowledgeable and constructive, suggesting yet more ways to improve your retrocomputing experience.

Keep up the great work, sir!