Monday, October 24, 2011

Luna City R.I.P.

Back in the mid-to-late 1990s I followed with great interest the rise of arcade game emulators - software applications that could fool "ROM dumps" - chunks of data copied from old videogame circuit boards - into running on personal computers. The biggest and baddest was MAME, a massive project with dozens of collaborators, but there was a specialized one I remember well that was made by just one guy: "Vector Dreams". There's little to link to out there now about it, but what was remarkable about Vector Dreams was how accurate it was at emulating the vector games (vector arcade games used monitors that drew straight lines between points - if you have ever seen the bright lines of Asteroids or Tempest, that's a vector game). The reason it did this so effectively was because the coder who wrote the emulator owned a beloved collection of vector arcade games.

He is Peter Hirschberg, and you will not find a man more dedicated to the atmosphere of the early 80s arcade. His Vector Dreams, he once said, would emulate the smell of heated particle board if it could. He's done a lot of fun things with programming and such, but probably what he's best known for is his home arcade, Luna City. You can browse his site to learn more, and see some fun videos on youtube.

But sadly, it seems as if the arcade is no more - only just recently I went looking at the site and learned that Peter and his wife divorced last year, and the collection was one of the casualties. One of the top google links for a search on "Luna City arcade" is this link at the discussion boards of the Killer List of Videogames, in which many fans of old arcade games - much as I did - realized they will never get to see Luna City. The discussion thread became heated at times and some strange emotions bled through. One person typed Luna City as "Lunacity," which seemed like a conflation of tenacity and lunacy - strangely appropriate. Along with the usual mutterings of online communities, what struck me looking through the conversation was how many people were inspired by what Peter put together. It truly was the whole package - when the collection outgrew his basement, he built a two-story building next to his house to hold the arcade - complete with vintage posters, change machines, a pay phone, and super-cool glowing space themed carpeting (which he also had at his workplace.). It was likely one of the largest such private collections in the country, probably the world. And now most of it is gone. But we will always have the images and video of how awesome it was. And I hear Peter is doing well, happy and at peace with himself - and that surely is more important than any place or possessions. I wish him well.

Would you like to know more?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Modem Memories

Benj Edwards of Vintage Computing and Gaming has written a good piece on modems for PC World. Today's cable modems are a largely overlooked piece of equipment, just another appliance that helps get things done every day; but in the 80s and 90s it was a huge kick to upgrade your modem. If you were using online systems then you surely remember the boost in speed from 300 baud to 1200, and even larger leaps in later years. My first was a Smartmodem 1200, by Hayes, a device that improved the speed of the revolutionary original Smartmodem. The Smartmodem 300 obviated the need for connecting to the phone line via an acoustic coupler and made a quantum leap for the industry by introducing the Hayes command set: a series of codes that could be embedded in the data stream itself - that is, you could send commands to your modem (or a remote modem) just by typing them in using your communication program on your computer.

Here's a review of the Smartmodem 1200 from a 1983 issue of Infoworld. The original Smartmodem came out in July 1981, a month before the IBM PC. The Smartmodem 1200 followed the next year. Pictured: the 9600 model, from 1988.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Ghosts of Christmas Pac

Via my friend Lapsed Cannibal, an interesting article on Ghost Behavior in Pac-Man.

If you've played Pac-Man a fair bit (I haven't) then you already know the ghosts each have a unique personality. This article explains exactly how they "think". The fact that they behave in predetermined ways is what makes it possible for a very few people to play the game well past the point where the "power pills" essentially stop working - because as the human player you can predict what they will do; even though they're faster than you, and can kill your Pac-Man with a touch, they are somewhat predictable.

Did you know...

...The game was called Puck-Man in Japan, but the title was changed to Pac-Man when the game came to the U.S.... due to fears that American children would vandalize the "P" in Puck, into an "F".

...Toru Iwatani was inspired to create the game when he took the first slice from a pizza, and saw the now-iconic "circle with a wedge shaped mouth" shape (Iwatani-san has since admitted this story is a bit of a fabrication.)

...The total number of Pac-Man cabinets installed worldwide since 1980: 293,822 (a Guiness World Record, awarded to Iwatani-san this year.)

... Iwatani-san never received any special compensation for creating Pac-Man, a game that has earned untold billions over the last 30 years. He merely received his normal salary.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good bite.

UPDATE: My friend Sam just sent me another interesting link about Mr. Pac, with two tidbits I did not know: There was originally to be a "shelter" that would move up and down, and would partially squash a ghost if it squeezed him; and the president of Namco originally ordered that all the ghosts should be red, to head off potential player confusion. Luckily, Mr. Iwatani stood his ground and the game is more colorful for it.

Here's to 30 more years....

More information at Wikipedia

Friday, August 6, 2010

Discovering Video Games

Today we have a special treat here on the blog - a guest post from my father. He's provided some memories of my first video arcade trip.

The time was 1977, an important year - the Apple II went on sale in June, the Atari home game system came out in October, and of course even before those, Star Wars was released in May and changed everything.

I had just turned eight a few months before, and had heard about computers and video games, but hadn't seen one. My dad and I walked the boardwalk that evening - a sunny, salty day fading to twilight - and strolled into PlayLand, a corner arcade in the small amusement park at the end of Rehoboth Beach. Now, my dad was later known to play a mean game of Space Invaders, but he's never been a big fan of noise or crowds, so he stepped out into the evening breeze before I exited. I don't recall how long I stayed inside. The machines would have been primitive in those days - black-and-white space and shooting games, some with plastic overlays on the screen to give the impression of color; electromechanical pinballs clicking and ringing - but the moment clearly made an impression on me - I will let Dad set the scene:

You were totally enthralled, as if you had just stumbled into Wonderland.
I remember how loud and clangy it was, and the blinking lights. I probably stepped out for a smoke, but really, the audio-visual stimulation was at blast level. The smells... sweaty, salty, sweet.
I watched you play a couple different games from the boardwalk, and smiled at how you approached each one somewhat gingerly before you engage with reckless abandon and total absoprbtion. When you emerged, you were hot and flushed, your face a splotchy red.
I think you were speechless; I don't remember that you said anything.
And that my friends, just about says it all - a lifetime love of games begun in a single memorable moment.

See at left a photo from about the same era (but not from the beach) with the principals of this story pictured (top left and bottom right).

Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Friend at 25

The Amiga celebrated its 25th birthday a few days ago.  Kind of mind-bottling to think this number is only going to get bigger.   The link has a nice video of Andy Warhol and Debbie Harry, though - check it out!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

How many obsolete things can you find in this photo?


Incandescent lamp
Glasses with plastic frames
Amiga computer (the guy on the right met his wife on Internet Relay Chat on this one)
Floppy discs
Music cassettes
Compact discs
Giant speakers
Cassette-based analog 4-track recorder
Using a door and file cabinets as a table
CRT monitor
Wood paneling

Still in use today:

Striped grunge shirts
Tattoos (especially trendy with teenage girls)
Guitars, drums, bass, MIDI interface I assume are all basically unchanged; music keyboards, digital effects processor, other rack components much more advanced
The guy on the left has a much more streamlined haircut now, the guy on the right looks the same.

This comes courtesy of a friend (pictured at right) who found and scanned this photo from my room circa 1994.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Tanks, for the memories

One of the earliest computer game genres is that of the "artillery game," in which players (generally two in number) take turns adjusting the angle and power of their respective projectile launching device, then letting fly while the other guy cringes. This type of game goes back so far (no one is quite sure when it started) that the early ones didn't use graphics or, in some cases, even a monitor screen - the program communicated the game's progress via dot matrix "hard copy" printout! Not very "green", but a good way to ensure your game was saved for posterity (though who would save such a thing?) You can get an excellent idea of the game play of one of these Ur-tillery games via this BASIC listing in the Atari archives.

Wendell Hicken breathed new life into the genre with Scorched Earth for the PC in 1991, and Michael Welch spread the fun to the Amiga a few years later with Scorched Tanks. Mike released Pocket Tanks for the PC in 2001; as fate would have it, shortly after the terrorist attacks that year. But so-called "Tank Games" have never been about violence - at their essence, they are mathematics and physics in a fun, lightly tactical turn-based challenge. Some versions have dialed down the potential carnage by introducing scenarios such as two gorillas throwing bananas at each other, or Worms throwing sheep at each other, etc. (Turning on "wind" makes it much more challenging, you'll need to adjust either your power or angle before every shot, if the wind speed or direction changes.)

Artillery games are still being actively developed. Some have expansive 3-D environments. But stick with the simple 2-D versions. Sometimes the old ways are the best ways.

Wikipedia has some pretty good info on this topic, and "Scorched Parabolas" by Matt Barton is probably the definitive piece.

If you want to play a single-player artillery game right now in your browser, you can do so thanks to the Discovery Channel.