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)