Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I've been Booked!

I could be way off base here, but I was browsing through the books at and I chanced upon one called "The Rough Guide to Video Games" which, it seems to me, may well have cribbed off some research I did around 2005 or so. As a part of my "always in the works!" Teleblivion Web site, I put together a list of groundbreaking "Firsts" in the arcade world. This book had a small graphic that looked a little familiar to me.
Now, admittedly, it could very well be that they just used the same sources as I did. But this looks to me like a listing inspired by mine, at the very least. A few words have been changed here and there, but the spirit of the thing is the same. In any case, it's good to see all the interest in the classic games... more books like this seem to come out every year. Some capsule reviews are in the works for this blog. Happy reading!

My 2005 listing and chronology is available here.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What has keys but no lock?

Here's a little trip down melody lane: a web database entry for my old music keyboard, purchased circa 1987. What a high performer - not only was it a synthesizer (creating sounds synthetically was, even the salesman admitted, tedious) but a 16-bit sampler, which means you could grab real sounds using a microphone and manipulate them into instruments. You can see this new technology put to good use in Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986). The protagonist uses a "snoring" sound effect sample as part of a ruse to appear to be asleep in his bed (as he is obstensibly sick at home.)

There are also some interesting comments from site visitors about the device.

Anyone who knows me will not be overly surprised to learn that I still own this piece of 80's technology. Come to think of it I still have my PT-20 as well, a starter unit purchased circa 1981 (along with a tape recorder one of the first items I bought with my own funds, I believe.)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Then and Now

Inspired by this page showing an ancient Atari as compared to a modern notebook, and a general desire to brag a little about my latest PC build, here's a comparison of some of the computers I have known throughout the years.

Fall 1982 - the IBM PC
Technically known as Model 5150, this old boy celebrates a birthday this month; it was released in August 1981. The stats were modest - 4.77 mhz CPU chip, the floppy disks stored a mere 360 kilobytes (about 360 single-spaced pages of text), it could only display 4 colors in graphics mode (assuming you purchased the optional color graphics adapter at all) and it was expandable to only 640 kilobytes or RAM, which Bill Gates famously said "should be enough for anybody." In more recent years folks have chuckled mightily at this - RAM is measured in gigabytes now, of course - but I think he meant it was enough at the time. The PC came with PC-DOS (a version of MS-DOS), no mouse, no hard drive; and as far as sound goes, it pretty much could just beep. Really this was designed as a machine to run spreadsheets, display bar charts and process words, but some brilliant programmers did some really nifty things with it over time.

Summer 1988 - the Amiga 2000
I have a post from last year about the Amiga, and it includes a scan from a magazine article shortly before the Amiga (later named the Amiga 1000) came out in 1985. What a great leap forward in technology - this one stored 880K on a disk, had a 40 MB hard card hard drive, displayed an eye-boggling 4096 colors simultaneously, and could play polyphonic music in stereo using CD-quality digital sound samples. Ten years ahead of its time, it sadly faded into obscurity in fewer than ten years on the market (Commodore went bankrupt on my birthday in 1994.)

November 1996 - the mail order PC
I used and loved my Amiga long past its expiration date, and finally entered the world of Windows in 1996. My "Comtrade"machine had a gigantic (for the time!) 4 gigabyte hard drive (I actually ordered the "Fireball" hard drive by Quantum, but received the Quantum "Bigfoot" drive instead), the first CD-ROM drive I'd owned, and the much-touted Windows 95 (second edition.) It was alright - in fact I still have it and it works fine!

Summer 2002 - the Obscene Machine
The OM ("Obscene" meaning excessively powered/customized) was my first "build" - and a rewarding experience it was, despite some issues with the graphics card. Speaking of which, the graphics card had a built in TV tuner and remote and 64 megs of RAM (one thousand times as much as was in the whole IBM PC.) The OM itself sported 512 MB of RAM, a CD burner (later a dual layer DVD burner), 120 GB Western Digital hard drive (R.I.P.) and Windows XP, which I've found to be a truly decent and serviceable product out of Redmond. The OM got a motherboard, RAM and hard drive upgrade last year (SATA2 internal drive and external 1 Terabyte drive for offloading stuff when I inevitably fill up my machines.)

Summer 2009 - the Home Theater PC
This year's model boasts the following components:

Cooler Master "Centurion 5" case (courtesy of Craigslist "Free," this one made some lists of the best and quietest cases - not the tops of the lists, but still)

LG GGW-H20L Blu-ray CD/DVD drive plays and writes all formats including the defunct HD-DVD as well as the winner of the format war, Sony Blu-Ray (six times the fidelity of DVD, and stores up to 50 gigabytes on one disc.)

Silent but deadly ASUS video card with 512MB of RAM (as much as my whole computer a few years ago) and HDCP and HDMI ready.

Top-of-the-line Gigabyte brand motherboard

Solid-state OCZ Hard Drive (unlike traditional hard disk drives, SSDs have no moving parts to fail, so they are (in theory) more rugged, and definitely much faster than waiting for hard disk platters since they are all RAM.)

6 GB Mushkin DDR3 RAM (12 times as much as in the 2002 pc)

Intel i7 Quad-core Processor (got a great deal on this chip - and it has 4 cores and eight threads, so it trumps anything that came before it, not to mention all its other new features...)

The HTPC will run Windows 7, so I will be dodging the whole Vista debacle. Even though this gear will look archaic very soon, I'm having a ball with it, and can't wait to watch my first Blu-Ray movie on my new monitor!

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Realm of Hidden Things

Adventure games have a long and storied history interwoven with the history of computer entertainment. Starting in 1974 - the same year as pencil and dice game "Dungeons and Dragons" was first published - dungeon-crawl type games began to appear on college mainframes. System resources were limited in those days, and administrators would often delete games out of hand. The game pedit5 was an excellent example of this. You can tell by the filename that it masqueraded as a text editor program.

Following on the heels of pedit5, was dnd, also released in 1974, but in a programming space that allowed it to exist as a game. It continued to be supported and developed on the PLATO educational system until 1985. It continues to be played to this day.

In the summer of 1979, high school student Richard Garriott (known to his friends as "Lord British" due to his accent) programmed in BASIC his 28th dungeon computer game, dnd28b, released as Akalabeth. At first, he created it solely for his own enjoyment, then sold it himself in ziploc bags at the computer store he worked at. Later, in 1980, the game was published by a software company. Akalabeth (named for an Atlantis-like land in Tolkien's The Silmarillion) was very much a template for all of Garriott's later Ultima games, and the rival series Wizardry.

Rogue has probably spawned more descendants than any game to originate on a computer, (other than perhaps the hugely influencial mainframe arcade game Spacewar). So many in fact, that a new adjective was created to describe games in the genre: "Roguelike" games. The game was originated by two students at the University of California Santa Cruz in 1980. A third collaborator soon joined them, and eventually development of the game moved to another school along with two of the programmers (who then joined forces with another.) The game has been ported to almost every computing platform in existence, including the PalmPilot. The basic characteristics of a Roguelike are simple - Make your way to the bottom of a randomly generated dungeon, battling randomly placed creatures along the way, getting randomly placed better equipment and magic items, and leveling up (increasing your abilities and hit points). It's a simple formula, but the turn-based games of the early 80s directly inspired later blockbusters such as Diablo. What was great about Rogue was it was a different game every time - the creators wanted to make a game that would be fun for them to play, too, and could surprise them. And I'm sure it has!

Gamasutra article on Rogue (with some comments from the programmers at bottom)

Temple of the Roguelike

DiabloRL, a Roguelike based on Diablo (which itself was inspired by roguelikes)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Two from the 'Tube

Some thoughtful friends forwarded me some links to some retro game themed videos recently. Thanks, friends!

First, apparently in March last year, Pontiac released a TV ad based on the 1983 game Spy Hunter. Like everything else, it's available on YouTube, along with the Making-Of (which to me is even more interesting.) Few, if any, of the collaborators appear to be old enough to remember the game when it came out, but there you have it.

There is also this music video by "The Go! Team," the song is "Junior Kickstart" and the star is Ms. Pac-Man running around the streets of New York - whose denizens either don't notice a real life Pac-person, or seemingly don't think anything of it. Date of the video is unknown; the album the song was released on came out in 2004, but if you look closely you'll see the World Trade Center in the video, so it must have been filmed before that.

Finally, in unrelated news, I liked the following excerpt from an article entitled Do Men Really Want to Get Married?

For me, the light bulb popped on at a penny arcade, playing classic '80s arcade games with my girlfriend. Kris destroyed asteroids and hopped barrels with impressive dexterity.

But it was the grace with which she obliterated insects that sealed the deal. Spinning that roller ball, wiping out that quickly descending centipede with master firepower -- I had to marry this girl.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Can't Stop the Blocks

Tetris, an incredibly simple and compelling game, turns 25 today. People still play it. It's one of the most widely recognized tropes in gamedom. Even Google honored it in its Google Doodle:

There is a long and fascinating history behind the game, but I won't repeat it here. I will offer this small tidbit, however - if you've ever wondered where the name Tetris comes from, it's from the Greek prefix tetra, meaning four. Each of the shapes ("tetronimoes") that drop contains four squares in various configurations. As for the "-is," apparently that's a nod to creator Alexey Pajitnov's favorite sport, Tennis.

Till next time, happy gaming.... and remember, it's hip to be square!

Tetris in the Chicago Tribune

Tetris in Wikipedia

Friday, March 27, 2009

Windows 7 (and Windows 1 through 3)

Today's slideshow shows some of the design considerations undertaken in the forthcoming Windows 7, which we're all hopeful will help us forget Vista... heh. And it includes some images from Windowses past (see slide 3, 4, etc.)

CNET news

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Mean Hamster takes up Crossbow

I learned of plans for this in their press release in 2006, but I've just discovered an undocumented link on the Mean Hamster web site. As promised, they've re-done the classic 1983 Exidy shooting game Crossbow, with somewhat better graphics. And they kept it so much the same, they didn't mess it up! Go ahead and have a go at playing it with your hamster, er, I mean mouse.

Mean Hamster Crossbow

Note: no hamsters were harmed in the making of this remake.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Save the "Shell" Users

Seen on Craigslist, a decidedly different kind of personal ad. Users of the Unix operating system are kind of the Amish of the computer world. They pride themselves on using a shell (text only) interface with lots of arcane commands - the more arcane, the better. Here's a fellow who is looking to keep his species around:

There is a sad truth to the world today. I am part of a dying breed of people known as "shell users." We are an old-fashioned bunch, preferring the warm glow of a green screen full of text over the cold blockiness of a graphical interface. We use ssh, scp, and even occassionally ftp. Back in the days before high-speed connections ("broadband"), we would dial up during off-hours to avoid being slammed with huge phone bills. The whole "Microsoft Windows" fad will fade away sooner or later, but in the interim, our kind is facing extinction.

Best of Craigslist

Friday, February 27, 2009

Artwork of the Primitives

Time now for a look back at artwork analogous to cave paintings, in terms of the digital world. Of course we all see high-def graphics on our computer screens every day. But it was not always so! Used to be you only got letters and numbers, and a blocky graphic on a screen by itself IF you were lucky. People spent ungodly amounts of time collecting these - you had to dial into separate systems all over the place, select them one by one, and then wait for them to download before you could even think about looking at them. A far cry from the web, eh?

For your perusal - BBS ads!

Character based

Low-bit raster based (Warning! Contains some girlie pictures. Nothing incredibly NSFW on the first page.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

You kids get off my lawn!

Big thanks to my pal Lapsed Cannibal for this podcast discussing Atari 2600 games. I wonder if the chaps in the show are a couple years older than me... they seem to have been old enough at the time to realize Superman and Night Driver were not good games. (In fairness, the latter was a faithful console port of a mid-1970s first person racer, so what should we expect?) Certainly these worthy gents have a certain fogey-ness about them. What do you think? Were the things of your youth better than what exists today - or just more elegant in their simplicity? Vive la difference, I suppose! Now, we have both old and new - and imagine what we'd have thought of today's games if we'd been able to see a preview of them 30 years ago. It would have blown our little kid minds!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Remembering Randamn

Lending truth to the idea that you can find anything on the internet, I've just turned up a page dedicated to a game I read about but never saw over 25 years ago. That game is Randamn.

Electronic Games Magazine was one of the first and only publications I've subscribed to in my life, and certainly the most eagerly anticipated each month. I read it avidly from cover to cover as soon as it arrived. I recall one issue had a blurb about an Apple II game that sounded interesting, put out by a very small company I'd not heard of, ironically called "Magnum." I remember one of the featured game stages was "The Land of the Damned," which seemed pretty cutting edge (and possibly controversial) at the time. But looking at what I assume is a screen shot of the level, it doesn't seem that diabolical.

One interesting note about the game - the copy protection was fiendishly hard to crack. Apparently it was only just broken in 2004, by someone looking to play the disk image on an Apple II emulator. I can only imagine this game was overlooked by the software pirates of the day, who were legion.

- a brief mention of Randamn in EG

- an ad for the game

According to the page, some of the Magnum team are now heading a project called MCF III, experimenting in artificial intelligence (for instance, a chat program for kids to talk to instead of chatting on the internet. I'm a little puzzled by that one. I like computers as much as the next guy, but it couldn't hurt to play outside once in a while...)

Monday, January 5, 2009

Naughty Games: Female and Male Perspectives

If we accept the idea of video games as an art form, the introduction of sex and nudity into the medium seems inevitable when we consider the historical precedent. All artworks and artistic expression throughout human civilization have featured these at one time or another. For one thing, the human form is perceived as beautiful and the sex drive is biologically intrinsic; for another, it's natural to want what one can't have, and these things are generally taboo or restricted; and finally, there's something fun and even funny about the sexual act. Add interactivity into the mix, and you've got yourself a natural match-up.

Presented for your consideration: two articles on the phenomenon, by professional web pundits - one of each gender.

Sarah Crisman: Sex and Nudity in Console & Arcade Video Games. A well done, if sprawling and workmanlike treatise; Crisman packs a lot of good details in and keeps her focus on the consoles, eschewing the computer software field for the nonce.

Sean Reiley: The Top 10 Naughtiest Games of All Time. Graphically rich and creative presentation, using imagery clipped from the games themselves. "Seanbaby" apparently has a reputation for being excessive... er, expressive, and that is evident in his diction.

What to make of the differences in the approaches used here? It would be easy to interpret these pieces in particular ways... for instance, the latter's lurid title seems to play to the idea of male competitiveness and desire for the "extreme," while the former reads more like a thesis. The Crisman article does not shy away from controversial material, but the Reiley piece outright delights in it, indeed, the warning on the first page about what is about to be seen is more cautionary than necessary (and includes an ironic nod to the idea that violence is more acceptable than sex in US culture.)

Since it's impossible to know the mind of these authors, I recommend simply reading and enjoying their windows into gaming history.

Meet Mike Focke

Mike Focke (pronounced foe-key) was the driving force behind "Focke's List," the de facto authority on Washington DC area online Bulletin Board Systems from 1987 through 1999. Browsing through old copies of the list will be a stroll down memory lane for anyone who was online back then.

- Darkside Research has a page dedicated to Focke's List, with nice looking color renditions of one month's version of the MD, VA and DC listings

- has lots of BBS lists for download, including some Focke lists (the file names star with "Dcbb..."

Mentions of Focke's List from around the web:

- The blog Occam's Razor, has a shout out for the list along with a lot of other nostalgic musings re BBSs - worth a read

- The Washington Post gave the list a mention in a piece in 1997 (about free email)

- As did the Washington City Paper (about an "underground" BBS)

- There is a tidbit on a forum on Something Awful ("what was your most significant 'BAD INFLUENCE' growing up?) (Answer: Focke's List, which apparently enabled many hours of fun and copyright violations)

and finally, a post on Slashdot from Mike Focke himself. An excerpt:

The unique aspect of my list was that it contained only phone numbers and data that were verified every month. Now remember many of these boards had one phone line so you had to wait in line to verify that the board was still operating. I could get 90% the first week of the month, 97% by the end of the second week, and then it was a struggle to get the last 3%. Sysops liked the list because it contained a short summary of what the focus of the board was so they weren't spending time verifying one time callers.

Just to focus on the DC area IBM boards, at the beginning there were perhaps 50 which over time grew to 750 that I could dial locally (and boy did I hear from the SysOp who was just outside my range, how I was discriminating by not listing him. Some even got one local-to-me number so they could be listed.). There was about a 5% drop out rate per month, even at the height. Mostly kiddie boards when mom and pop found out they couldn't use their phones. As the Internet became the new thing, boards started dying so that the drop over a year must have been 70%. It was quite sudden, you could hear the whoosh. At the end, there were perhaps 70 boards still up but no one was using them. I could verify them all in about 2 hours.

My kids got status in school for a while because their dad was the BBS list guy. All I got is a lot of lost sleep...

There is also a program that allows one to generate text or comma-delimited copies of the List using any criteria, that I found a couple months ago, but it is having issues... I will upload it when I get a working version.

Where is he now? Looks like Mr. Focke is now into Porsche sports cars.

Final note - One time I had my Amiga computer at my friend EMG's house (I believe for some reason I was loaning it to her father) and was scanning through the list, which had a big ASCII art "FOCKE'S LIST" across the top of the page, that was a little hard to read due to the blocky ASCII characters... EMG was bemusedly scandalized by what she thought was another short word beginning with "F"......)

Remembering Retrocade

Over a decade ago as of this writing, an arcade emulator hit the "scene" and caused a splash with both its technical excellence... and its "splash screen." There were many arcade emulators at the time (for the uninitiated, an emulator is a computer program that mimics the functions of a given set of hardware, in this case, arcade games... essentially fooling your computer into thinking it's another machine and able to run old arcade software near-perfectly) including the famous MAME which I discovered in early 1997. Unlike MAME, Retrocade (the brainchild of Neil Bradley and Mike Cuddy) was written in 100 percent assembly language to maximize speed and performance, and it also featured some nifty game backdrops and specialized in vector games (games that featured objects made up only of bright lines; Asteroids, for example). So I happily downloaded it when it was made available that night in late 1998.

These days, though, what people will likely remember about Retrocade if you ask them about it is that splash screen (the screen that displayed when you first ran it from DOS.) Before I show it to you, I should explain that the team behind this software, like the vast majority of their audience, and indeed like most hardcore computer users until about the mid-90s at least, were young males. And what interests young males, besides games? Of course - young females. The artist behind the splash screen was Jae Passons, aka "Toon Goon", who was a member of computer art group ICE Advertisements and had done a lot of ANSI art in the BBS days (which had only wrapped up a couple years before this point.) If you look at his artwork you will see he is interested in figure studies of a sort. Which is all well and good, except not everyone who used the program was interested in seeing a sexy cartoon when it was time to play some arcade games. One poster to a forum called "Dave's Arcade Classics" posted, "I am introducing my kid to the old games, but I have no desire to sexualize my child's retrogaming experience." In the end, (or perhaps from the start) the team offered a "- splash off" command line option to suppress the intro screen. Which looked like this (RetroBabe[tm] featured two outfits!)

A footnote of note: Jae actually drew RetroBabe[tm] a la naturale first, then drew clothes onto her. And not one but two users wrote "patches" for the software, to restore her to her glory. You can see the original pixels here (not safe for work, depending where you work.)