Traveling with Agent USA

August 12th, 2019 1:41 PM
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My grade school had an Apple II computer lab filled with educational software from Scholastic. As one of the few students with an Apple II at home, I was allowed to borrow from this collection over the weekends. While issues of Microzine attracted most of my attention, I fondly remember another title: Agent USA, from Tom Snyder Productions.

This game takes the horror of a pandemic (think a cross between Dustin Hoffman's Outbreak and the Borg) and makes it fun! Players control a government agent (represented as a hat with feet) in a United States whose population is being slowly converted to mindless drones. The only thing that can save them is a self-replicating crystal in the agent's possession. A single crystal can turn a drone back into a citizen, but a hundred of them can defeat the brains of the operation, the Fuzzbomb. If Agent USA can cultivate the crystals, read the train schedules, buy train tickets, and adjust to time zones, he just might save the day.

Wikipedia says this game teaches "spelling, US geography, time zones, and state capitals", though I'm unsure how much of that I absorbed. For example, with many cities to be explored, capital cities were distinguished by an info booth where players could see projections of the Fuzzbomb's spread — but I don't recall memorizing which cities had these maps. Learning how cities connect to each other has transferred to understanding which airlines fly to which cities and where their hubs are, but reading train schedules might've proved more useful had I lived in a city that had good public transit.

What I remember most fondly about the game was not the moral lesson my Catholic school wanted me to learn! Trains left the station every thirty seconds, and if you tried to board without a ticket, you'd be summarily ejected. There was little reason to encounter this scenario, since tickets were free (provided you could spell the destination's name). But if you were strapped not for cash, but for time, you could bypass the ticket booth entirely. Trains would call all-aboard moments before departing, and in that brief window, boarding the train would not leave enough time for the player to be returned to the platform; the train would leave with player in tow.

Having only ever borrowed this game as a kid and wanting it for myself as an adult, I bought a copy of this game five years ago on eBay from Ian Baronofsky, whom I would later meet at KansasFest. I didn't get around to opening it until just last month. It's not the clamshell-edition packaging I remember, but inside is the same train-jumping adventure I grew up with.

Tour de Microzine

May 27th, 2019 9:53 AM
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Filed under Software showcase;
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I've been collecting Scholastic Microzines for years — not only the ones I played in elementary school but all the ones I never got to try as a kid. It's been so hard to assemble a complete collection (I'm still missing issue #32) that it seemed all the more important to preserve and archive these disks, to ensure that somewhere, a collection did exist.

So, four years ago, I took my Microzines for a ride.

My mode of transit supported this use of their vehicles.

The disks' destination: Paul Hagstrom of the Retro Computing Roundtable. Although we most frequently see each other 1,419 miles away at KansasFest, Paul and I are both residents of the suburbs of Boston. So, four years ago, when he offered to archive my disks using his Applesauce floppy disk controller, I was happy to make the loan.

Those of you following this timeline may be objecting: the Applesauce didn't exist four years ago. True! When I gave the disks to Paul, other means of archiving were in play. But I was in no rush to get the disks back, and the delay allowed better archival methods to appear.

This past Monday, a WordPress meetup I was speaking at happened to be in Paul's neighborhood. Rather than haul my disks to Kansas City to make the handoff, he hoofed it to the event venue. Afterward, as we walked back to Coolidge Corner, he humored me with a selfie of our clandestine exchange.

Paul handing Ken a bag of disks

It was worth every penny.

Thank you, Paul, for serving as custodian to my edutainment for nearly half a decade. The fruits of your efforts will be appreciated for generations to come!