Academic Ultima

October 7th, 2010 12:20 PM
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Filed under Game trail, Musings, Software showcase;
7 comments.

Before my current job at Computerworld, I taught 11th grade tech writing at a math and science charter school. My fellow teachers had an open door policy that allowed me to observe their classes, and I developed a rapport with the computer science teacher. When an emergency called her away from class one day, she asked me to fill in but left me no lesson plan. Fortunately, I'd already installed both Adventure and VisiCalc for just such an emergency. The resulting lesson in computer history was reported in Juiced.GS, though I never did get the opportunity to explore Adventure with my students.

But other educators have had the opportunity to use electronic entertainment as a learning tool. Besides the use of interactive fiction in a classroom setting, as detailed in Get Lamp, Michael Abbott has taken a more ambitious approach to virtual adventuring by introducing his students to Richard Garriott's seminal role-playing game, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.

In his blog, the teacher doesn't outline his learning objectives, other than puzzle-solving and note-taking. I hope his goals were not much loftier than that, because it seems these students disappointed him:

It mostly came down to issues of user-interface, navigation, combat, and a general lack of clarity about what to do and how to do it. … it [wa]sn't much fun for them. They want a radar in the corner of the screen. They want mission logs. They want fun combat. They want an in-game tutorial. They want a game that doesn't feel like so much work.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar

That looks like a lot of reading!
Photo courtesy Blake Patterson.

I'm unsure how many of these obstacles were inherent to the game, and how many were symbolic of a generational gap. Today, I often want a game that immerses me within the first five minutes, and which I can put down after ten. That means either simple gameplay (in the case of classics like Pac-Man or Qix) or familiar gameplay (like Dragon Quest VIII, an RPG I played hours on end for a total of 80, but whose mechanics had remained largely unchanged since the franchise's origin in 1986).

I was not always predisposed against learning curves. I grew up playing and enjoying Ultima, but not on the Apple II. I was and am primarily a console gamer, and I played these games' Nintendo adaptations, which vexed me with none of the issues that these students encountered. I wondered how dramatically different the NES version had been that maybe it had eased my entry into Britannia. Sure enough, one blog commenter wrote:

… have you considered giving people the NES port of Ultima IV? It faithfully retains the ethical systems design of Garriott's original while reimagining the visual aesthetics and interface design according to the conventions of JRPGs. It was how I played Ultima IV back in the day, and it's still probably a lot more in line with modern RPG convention than the original PC Ultima IV.

But I'd wager that most alumni of Ultima IV experienced it on the computer, which apparently did not preclude its success, so surely its original interface was not insurmountable. More likely is the change in gaming mores over the decades. In the book Dungeons & Dreamers, authors Brad King and John Borland relate the detail and intricacy with which the developers of Ultima Online imbued their world. Ecology, economy, and more were devised to create a world that lived and breathed along with the players. When it finally launched — the world was shot to hell. Gamers traveled into the countryside, burning trees and killing animals. No plane could long host such chaos, so the developers had to go back to the drawing board. I suspect Mr. Abbott's students would likely have contributed to that headache.

Nonetheless, I hope the blog's conclusion does not spell the end of this exercise: "I love great old games like Ultima IV, but I can no longer assume the game will make its case for greatness all by itself." Just as we have courses in art and music appreciation, it's important to understand and appreciate the origin of Ultima and other video game hallmarks. Today's gaming industry was not born in a vacuum, and just as the bold experiments of yesteryear determined the future of the genre, they still have much to teach today's gamers and programmers about what works, what doesn't, and why things are the way they are. Finding a context in which to teach that lesson is, much like the games themselves, worth the effort.

(Hat tip to Richard Garriott)

Classic gaming inspirations, part deux

August 12th, 2010 9:38 AM
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Filed under Game trail, Software showcase;
4 comments.

Last month I blogged about classic gaming inspirations, a session I presented at KansasFest 2009. It's a pretty simple setup: I present to the audience a self-running YouTube video of an Apple II game, after which they watch me play a few minutes of a Mac game that's similar, with my narration consisting of comparisons and contrasts. Each year, I prepare to draw far more parallels than the time allows, which is great, because it gives me fodder to revisit the topic next year.

This year gave me the opportunity to address many of the games I'd planned for 2009 as well as add several new ones that have been released since then. I still focused on Macintosh gaming, but this year also listed at least one PC-exclusive game and presented no online Flash equivalents. Click the checkmark to visit the Web site that offers that game for download.

Apple IIEquivalentMacPCiOS
Lemonade StandLemonade Stand
ArkanoidPhoenix Ball
ArkanoidRicochet Infinity
AsteroidsMaelstrom
AsteroidsArgonaut 2149
RampartCastle Combat
Ultima IIIUltima III
Ultima IVxu4
Ultima VUltima V: Lazarus
AkalabethAkalabethApp
AdventureAdventure
Bubble BobbleBub & Bob
Dark CastleReturn to Dark Castle
King's QuestThe Silver Lining

As before, I ran the session without Internet connectivity or emulation; all Apple II games were represented using previously downloaded YouTube .FLV video files. Those files are compiled into this playlist:

I also captured a video of the session itself. It's available on Vimeo, but the sound isn't great — especially when the audience's enthusiasm for my topic requires me to ask if I can have my session back!


I still have more games to present next year, if anyone is interested. If you enjoy these sessions or have titles you'd like to see demonstrated, please comment here!

Apple II gaming in Retro Gamer

June 17th, 2010 12:07 PM
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As recently mentioned on the Juiced.GS blog, and as first told to me by Andy Molloy, Retro Gamer magazine issue #76 features an eight-page profile of the Apple II as a gaming machine. As not just an Apple II user but a long-time gamer, I enjoyed this retrospective, which featured many of the games I grew up playing. The text focuses on the Apple II and its history and fate, while high-quality pictures of dozens of games capture the unique look of the era and genre.

I especially enjoyed reading quotes from Jordan Mechner (Prince of Persia), Bill Budge (Pinball Construction Set), and John Romero (Wolfenstein 3D) reminiscing about developing for the Apple II. As luminaries who acknowledge their origin, they're in good company. In my role as KansasFest marketing director, I'm often the first contact with potential keynote speakers. Everyone we've approached has always been kind enough to respond to our invitation, and of those who did not accept, each has cited scheduling or personal conflicts. Never have I heard anything akin to "Sorry, but the Apple II doesn't interest me anymore." The gentlemen interviewed in Retro Gamer are proof of the magnanimous spirit of those whom the Apple II made famous.

The article includes a Top Ten list of the best Apple II games, all of which I believe are 8-bit:

Retro Gamer #76

  1. The Bard's Tale
  2. Pinball Construction Set
  3. The Oregon Trail
  4. Karateka
  5. Choplifter
  6. Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness
  7. Lode Runner
  8. Prince of Persia
  9. Beyond Castle Wolfenstein
  10. Taipan!

Seven of the games spawned sequels and franchises, some of which exist to this day. That's a powerful legacy. The article's last two pages consist of a collage of 56 different Apple II games, many of which I've never played but am now desperate to. Apparently, I'm not the only one, given how popular the trend is to port Apple II games to the iPhone.

What are your memories of growing up gaming on the Apple II? How did it compare with other computers of the era?