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.

Life & Death in the Trauma Center

June 28th, 2010 12:08 PM
Filed under Software showcase;
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I was searching on YouTube for videos of Apple II games and came across a ten-minute demo of Life & Death. I'd never heard of this game, despite its proliferation in 1988 to Mac OS, DOS, Amiga, Atari ST, and, of course, the Apple IIGS. It appears to be a medical simulation game in which you interact with patients, make diagnoses, then perform surgery. Here's the video:

On the Apple II, this game is reminiscent of Operation Frog, a game by Tom Snyder (who later went on to create the animated television series Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist). Naturally, there is far less dialogue and diagnosis in Operation Frog, as the game recreates the experience of a high school biology lab and lessons in basic anatomy.

But more striking to me was Life & Death's resemblance to Trauma Center, a series of video games that launched on the Nintendo DS in 2005 and now enjoys popularity on the Nintendo Wii. In these games, interaction with patients is drawn out into a cohesive storyline. Diagnosis occurs automatically, but you still need to choose the proper tools for surgery; failure to act wisely or swiftly will result in the patient's death, or game over, returning you to the beginning of the level. Check out the similarities for yourself:

Given the popularity of edutainment software in the 1980s, I'm not surprised that a real-life profession would be simulated in a video game as far back as 22 years ago. What is impressive is that technology has not dramatically changed the nature of electronic entertainment. The interface and complexity of Life & Death and Trauma Center are noticeably different, but the theme and gameplay of the two are almost identical. No one acknowledges the Apple IIGS for pioneering this particular genre, even though it continues to be an unconscious inspiration. For example, it wasn't until the fifth game in the Trauma Center series, Trauma Team, that players were given the opportunity to diagnose patients themselves.

There's nothing unusual about Apple II classics inspiring modern hits; I presented on the topic myself at KansasFest 2009 and will be pursuing the issue further at next month's event. But I never expected Trauma Center, which I previously considered unique to the Nintendo, to have its genesis on the Apple II. It truly was a computer ahead of its time, even recreationally.