Saturday, July 26, 2008

Three Viddys

- An interesting stop-motion animated cartoon featuring some of the classic games. The sounds are the same, but various objects are representing the on-screen objects. What strikes me about this was how great the sound was on those ancient games. Not just cold beeps, but sounds with real character.

- An Asian kid plays a "hit the buttons at exactly the right time to play a song" game from a few years ago. Sort of Dance Dance Revolution, but with (a whole lot of!) manual dexterity instead of foot dexterity.

- Soviet video game artifacts from the Cold War era.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Shall we play a game?

In 1983, aged fourteen, I'd owned a computer for less than a year but was already completely smitten with using it to dial into whatever free online systems I could find. A neighbor's father had a couple of Bulletin Board numbers and that was where it started - the first system my friend David and I connected to was called "PBC", or Play by Computer. This was a nascent game BBS system put together by a computer enthusiast in the DC area named Porter Venn. PBC never took off, but watching those white-on-black text characters crawl across the monitor - at 300 baud speed they appeared in about the time it took to read them - was a unique sort of thrill, especially since one kind of information you could get on a bulletin board, was phone numbers of other bulletin boards. Our online life had begun.

The 1983 film Wargames - celebrating its 25th anniversary this year - is the subject of a well-done retrospective in Wired, and was a perfect fit for David and me as we watched it with our big buckets of popcorn back then. But then, wouldn't anyone identify with the idea of seeking out interesting connections - finding out little known or exclusive information, maybe a new or unreleased game? Not to mention logging in remotely to the school computer to change a grade or two. One of the film's most accurate observations: security was lax then as now... the protagonist (also named David) simply noted the password written down for reference, as he sat near a secretary's desk waiting to be disciplined.

The retrospective is worth a read if you're interested in one of the first, and perhaps still the best, cinematic interpretations of the early online experience (with, of course, a healthy dose of Cold War paranoia and speculation on artificial intelligence. If a computer's whole world is a wargame, don't be surprised if it doesn't know the difference between a game and reality...)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Online Images Old and New

In December 1984, a small and innovative company called Thunderware released a product called Thunderscan for the Macintosh. Thunderscan was a clever way of making a dot matrix printer work in reverse - rather than outputting dots on paper, the printer would scan an existing document left to right, slowly but surely. The user would install the sensor in place of the print ribbon cartridge, put the sheet to be scanned in the printer, and wait a long time - and after the printer had scanned the whole page line by line, the image was in the computer. In order to imagine how this worked you need to remember dot matrix printers, those slow and noisy beasts we all used to use before inkjet printers were dirt cheap (to the point they started to be given away free with the purchase of a computer in the mid-90s).

I thought some might find it interesting to compare one of the old Mac Thunderscans to a random image from the web today. Above, you see a picture of Christie Brinkley, probably from a magazine, that was "Thunderscanned" (fed thru a printer and scanned into a Mac) in September 1985. These were common trades on the online dial-up bulletin boards. Below is a picture of cute Zooey Deschanel taken from a Web page discussing M. Night Shamalan's latest disaster (of a) movie, The Happening. Look closely at these two image files and compare and contrast - we've gone from one color (black pixels on white, mathematically arranged using a kind of "visual noise" called dithering, to create the illusion of shades of grey) to 70,308 in the Deschanel image, according to my image software (Modern image formats actually can display millions of colors - more than the human eye can perceive). The detail on the more recent picture is amazing as well - zoom in and you can even see the peach fuzz on her chin!

I wonder what online media will look like in another 20 years or so?

Monday, July 14, 2008

New for 89 (hundred bucks)

This one's made the rounds before, but I am including it here as an example of how the old days aren't always the good old days. Note that this includes the CPU and keyboard only. This looks pricey even for the time.. I got complete cutting-edge systems in '83 and '88 that were less than half of this. What makes this system so good, allegedly? The VGA graphics? (Which were a big leap up from 16-color EGA, but still.)

For comparison, here's a complete 2008 system, WITH mouse, for $179. Of course, all the specs are hundreds to thousands of times more advanced, even in this basic setup.

The lower cost aspect is the up side to the appliance-ization of personal computers. Because everyone essentially "needs" to have one, they have lost their mystique... yet the demand has made them affordable as well as ubiquitous.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Sanctum-onious Adventure

"Encounter the forces of black magic as you roam around an old 18th century monastery. See all the evil locations in this spooky adventure in full hi-res detail. If you like suspense, you'll love searching out and destroying the evil in this classic tale."
In mid-1980s, a small company called Mark Data Products release 6 parser-based graphic adventure games similar to early Polarware and Scott Adams titles. "The Black Sanctum" in particular is written as a text-only adventure in 1983, released with graphics for the TRS-80 Color Computer the next year, then ported to the IBM PC where it did not sell nearly as well. While the graphics are good for the time, the parser is quite primitive - only simple verb+noun constructs such as GET HAT are understood, and some verbs that are common in IF games such as SEARCH are not always recognized. Fortunately, the games make up for primitive parser with well-written plot, fun characters, and some clever puzzles.

I first encountered The Black Sanctum via a local Bulletin Board system, and as sometimes happened in those days, I downloaded it and played it never knowing it was a commercial release. Though I never bothered to finish the game, it occupies a place in my memory to this day. The authors have since given permission to use the game and source code freely, so now you can download it without guilt.

Many thanks are due The Home of the Underdogs.

See also, an interview with one of the game designers.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Huge Euge

"The only legitimate use of a computer is to play games."
- Eugene Jarvis (creator of Defender)

In videogame companies in the early 1980s, a single programmer would often create an entire game - the graphic design, the sound, the game concept and of course the program code to make it all work together. Not only that, but companies often rose or fell on the strength (or weakness) of a single game. In spite of all this, programmers almost always got a raw deal from the companies. There were only a few star programmers, but even they got small salaries and little to no royalties from their games - simply because it was a new industry and nothing had been negotiated yet.

One such star programmer is Eugene Jarvis, known to arcade geeks as the genius behind a holy trinity of arcade games, Defender, Stargate, and Robotron: 2084. Jarvis' three-day (!) career at boring, gameless Hewlett Packard was probably the impetus for the quote above. A chess expert from a young age and an avid mainframe "Space War" player in college, he saw games as the logical killer app for computers, and when Atari finally called him back after three months of waiting, he jumped at the chance.

Starting out in the industry, Jarvis designed pinball games, but when Atari's pinball section went under, he moved to Chicago to work on pinballs at Williams Electronics. Williams had released a video arcade game years before (Paddle Ball, a clone of "Pong") but pinball was their bread and butter. All that changed when Jarvis came up with Defender, the first smash hit sideways-scrolling video game. Defender used a unique thrust/reverse propulsion mechanic, impressive visuals for the time, and truly groundbreaking sound effects. Not to mention the smart bomb, a new addition that allowed the player to maximize points (or get out of a tough spot) by eliminating all the enemies on the screen at once. Another innovation was the scanner, a sort of radar display at the top of the screen that allowed the player to track what was going on in the area of the "Game world" that was currently off-screen. Many of these concepts are still commonly used today. After Williams' offer of a bonus is rejected, Jarvis leaves the company and starts his own game development concern, which quickly concocts an updated, even more complex sequel to Defender, "Stargate", and licenses it to Williams.

In 1995, someone at the sitcom "NewsRadio" was clearly a Jarvis fan, because he was featured on the show. He played "Delivery Guy #3," dropping off a Stargate machine (which, sadly, has its side art and marquee obscured, apparently for legal reasons having to do with the name), and humor ensues as the main character of the show faces the game to which he gave so much of his young adulthood.

You can watch the NewsRadio episode "Arcade" here for free, with limited commercial interruption.

You can also read about the epsode or download a WAV file with an audio clip.

And, here's a story from about the Macintosh development team and Defender (I recall a magazine article from the early 80s about Wozniak - with a picture of him playing Stargate at home.)

At left is a screen shot of Mr. Jarvis on the show, and below is a 1980 promo shot of Defender and "demo dolly." Hand on the joystick, of course.