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

- texftiles.com 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.)