Carol Shaw Donates Collection to The Strong

July 19th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Carol Shaw with River Raid Box

Good News!

You may recall that I interviewed Carol Shaw for VC&G back in 2011. Shaw is best known for developing River Raid and for being Atari’s first female video game designer.

(At that time, I called Shaw “the world’s first female video game developer.” Since then, I have made a new discovery, so stay tuned.)

Through connections made between myself, Shaw, and my good friends at The National Museum of Play at The Strong in Rochester, NY, Shaw recently donated a cache of amazing historical materials, including printed source code for River Raid and an EPROM of her first game, Polo.

Carol Shaw's River Raid Atari 2600 Source Code Photo

When I first learned that Shaw still had large format printouts of the River Raid source code (back in 2011), I panicked, trying to figure out the best way to preserve it. I was thinking I might even have to fly over and photograph it myself — just to make sure it would not be lost.

But luckily, ICHEG at The Strong is a wonderful institution, and I have been doing my best to direct prototypes and other artifacts their way over the past few years. I am happy to do my own small part in preserving the history of video games, and it is wonderful that an important pioneer such as Shaw is getting the recognition she deserves.

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‘The History of Civilization’ Updates, 10 Years Later

July 18th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Sid Meier's Civilization I for MS-DOS Screenshot

Ten years ago today — on July 18, 2007 — Gamasutra published my in-depth history of the creation of Sid Meier’s Civilization called The History of Civilization. (Here’s my original VC&G post on the topic.)

My article was originally intended to be part of a series of articles — conceived by Simon Carless, if I recall correctly — that would cover the histories of the then-recently announced “Game Cannon.” (I wanted to do a piece on Tetris next, but I could not figure out how to get an interview with Alexey Pajitnov.)

Treating video games as legitimate cultural artifacts worthy of preservation and study was a very novel idea at the time. My work, and that of others, over this past decade has made this idea far more mainstream, although there’s still a lot of work to do.

My Civilization article still gets a lot of attention. Gamasutra re-promotes it every once and a while, and it has been cited in books, other articles, and more. So imagine my embarrassment as I tell you, right now, that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing back when I wrote it. I was never formally trained as a journalist; I learned my craft and absorbed lessons as I went along.

The lesson I learned from the Civilization piece was to never make assumptions. The History of Civilization was only the second big history narrative piece I’d written in my career, and I remember being nervous about making a few assumptions about things that I did not firmly know to fill in gaps in the narrative.

I did not have the time or budget to interview more one person fully the article (Sid Meier, though I asked Bruce Shelley questions via email), so I wondered: How on earth do I fill in those knowledge gaps? I just went with what made the most sense, and I was lucky that it did not lead to any problems. Today, many journalists still do this, and it’s a terrible practice.

Since that time, I typically go way way way over budget with interviews and research so that I never, ever have to make any assumptions in the storytelling process. As we speak, I’m about three months late on a big feature because of this obsession of mine. It’s not an economical way to do business as a freelancer, but at least my editors know I can deliver an accurate product.

Does that make The History of Civilization a bad article? No. It’s still a good piece overall, although I would do things differently if I wrote it today.

…But there is this nagging issue, always in the back of my conscience, of a very long email that Bruce Shelley sent me about it just after it was published.

And that, my friends, will be the first of several updates related to this article that I collected have for you today, in three acts:

I. Bruce Shelley’s Notes on the Article
II. Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley in the Flesh
III. History of Civilization Translated into Chinese

[ Continue reading ‘The History of Civilization’ Updates, 10 Years Later » ]

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[ Retro Scan ] Bentley Bear’s Spelling Bee

July 17th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Atari Scholastic Series Spelling Bee a Bentley Bear At-Home Tutor Crystal Castles Educational Software Atari ST Atari Mega and ST box packaging scan - 1988“Follow me, KIDS! Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

I recently visited fellow NC computer collector Tom Copper (hopefully the subject of a future post), and Tom gave me this neat and rare piece of educational software for the Atari ST series. It’s called Spelling Bee, and it features Bentley Bear of Crystal Castles fame.

Apparently, Atari made a series of educational games starring Bentley Bear. Sadly, this particular game is not that great. It’s just a simple version of Hangman that, in my opinion, does not aid spelling skills at all. I have two kids — ages 7 and 4, and my eldest gets to play all the older educational software I can find. She gave this product a thumbs down. So do I. But it sure is a neat piece of computing history.

(P.S. If you’re interested in an overview of great educational games of the past, check out this slideshow I did for PCWorld back in 2015).

[ From Scholastic Series Spelling Bee by Atari, 1988, cover/back ]

Discussion Topic: What’s your favorite educational PC game of all time?

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Nintendo is Playing Risky Games With Its Cultural Legacy

July 7th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Super NES Classic fits in your hand

By now, all of you have probably heard about Nintendo’s upcoming Super NES Classic Edition, which the firm announced on June 26. It’s a tiny HDMI-capable Super NES that plays 21 built-in games and will retail for $79.99 US. And it’s due for release on September 29, 2017.

It is also, quite possibly, intended to be a huge publicity stunt.

You guys may remember the absolute fiasco that was the NES Classic Edition — Nintendo’s miniature HDMI NES with built-in games. The NES Classic edition was announced on July 16, 2016 and launched on November 11th of that year for $59.99.

Of course, when November 11th, came around, shoppers snapped up the limited supply Nintendo produced within seconds on Amazon.com and at other retailers, leaving many thousands of NES fans frustrated and unable to ever buy the tiny wonder console for a reasonable price.

Yes, that included me. Scalpers on eBay turned around and immediately sold the NES Classic Edition for 200% the retail price, and today they go for around $200-$300 unopened on eBay. (I did eventually buy one on eBay for around $250.)

I’m tempted to ask: Will the Super NES Classic Edition suffer the same fate? But this isn’t the right question. The question should be: Is the launch and availability of this new product going to make a mockery of Nintendo’s cultural legacy?

[ Continue reading Nintendo is Playing Risky Games With Its Cultural Legacy » ]

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[ Retro Scan ] The Hayden Sargon Hamburger

July 6th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Hayden Book Company Computer Program Tapes Software Sargon Game Playing with BASIC How to Build a Computer-Controlled Robot The First Book of KIM General Math Complex and Matrix Math Introductory Engineering Math advertisement scan - 1979Starving for Software? Eat a tapeburger

For some reason, I find few things less appetizing than a black and white hamburger. (Maybe one with a computer tape on top of it.)

But we’re not here to eat this advertisement for Hayden Book Company’s 1979 computer tape offerings. We’re here to look at it.

I know very little about Hayden itself other than that it originated as a New Jersey-based book publisher and later transitioned into selling software on disk and tape as well (as “Hayden Software”). That stands in contrast to what I think was the firm’s first approach to publishing software — in paper books full of source code.

It’s worth noting that this might be the first-ever advertisement for what was originally called “Sargon: A Computer Chess Program“, a pioneering chess game and engine for personal computers that debuted at the 1978 West Coast Computer Faire. I recall my brother playing Sargon II for the Atari 800 and Sargon III on the IBM PC, and I had a copy of Sargon II for the Apple II. It was a stalwart, well-respected chess series for many years.

[ From BYTE Magazine, February 1979, p.143 ]

Discussion Topic: What’s the best computer chess game you’ve ever played?

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[ Retro Scan ] Milton-Bradley MBX for TI-99/4A

June 15th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Milton Bradley MBX Flyer TI-99 Voice activated games 1983 side 2Milton-Bradley MBX Flyer: Side 2

The Milton-Bradley MBX, launched around 1983 for the TI-99/4A home computer, is a strange product: it combines a pistol-grip joystick with a rotating knob and analog control, a 64-position touch pad with overlays, and voice-recognition headset into one package that is supposed to enhance gameplay on specially-designed TI-99/4A games.

This neat TI-99/4A site has a history page about it, so I think I’ll just snatch a portion that explains the MBX’s origins:

Now that you have an idea as to what the MBX System is, below is a little history provided by Mike Langieri (the creator of the device). According to Mike, the MBX actually started out as a stand-alone game console in 1982 and was to be Milton Bradley’s answer to the Atari 2600 and Intellivision. MB’s plan was to provide the game player with voice recognition, speech synthesis, and an action-input keypad which in turn would give them an advantage over the systems already on the market.

Now how come MB did not go ahead with their own system in 1982? Once the Colecovision came out, Jim Shea (then president of Milton Bradley) thought that the market was not big enough to support 4 game systems from Atari, Mattel, Coleco, and Milton Bradley and therefore killed the project. However, so much development went into creating MB’s own video game unit that Mike was then assigned to finding a use for all the technology they developed.

Eventually it was decided to transform Milton Bradley’s gaming system to an add-on for the TI-99/4A, most likely due to the fact that MB had earlier developed the Gamevision line of video games for the 99/4A and also created the graphics chip used inside of the TI system. Thus, “the MBX was the phoenix that rose from the ashes” as Mike wonderfully put it.

It’s amazing to think “What if” and wonder what a Milton-Bradley game console might have been like. I believe that Milton Bradley also originally tried to sell this idea to Atari, but they declined, and it ended up as a TI-99/4A peripheral. A non-rotating, non-analog variation on this joystick did end up as Atari’s Space Age joystick, though.

Milton Bradley MBX Flyer TI-99 Voice activated games 1983 side 1Milton-Bradley MBX Flyer: Side 1

I have a complete MBX system in the box (which may be where I got this flyer), but for some reason I have never used it. I think that’s because I don’t have any of the games that support it — or I didn’t 17 years ago when I first bought my MBX on eBay. Right now I don’t even know what box my MBX is stored in, so it would be hard to rectify that.

[ From Milton Bradley MBX Promotional Flyer, ca. 1983 ]

Discussion Topic: When was the first time you ever used voice commands with a computer?

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An Epic-Looking Commodore VIC-20 RPG, Realms of Quest V, is Under Development

June 9th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

VIC-20 Realms of Quest V Screenshot

Last month, veteran Commodore VIC-20 developer Ghislain de Blois emailed me about his latest project, a turn-based RPG called Realms of Quest V.

He asked me to spread the word, and since I recently upgraded the WordPress installation for this site, it’s actually easy for me to do so.

I have not tried it yet, but man — considering the limitations of the fairly anemic VIC-20, it looks pretty amazing. Here’s what Ghislain had to say about it:

It’s an RPG game that will span 4 disk sides.

Features:
-over 250 portrait graphics
-16 races and 16 classes
-music
-big world map four times greater than that featured in Realms III
-20 cities to explore with townspeople to talk to
-10 player characters allowed in party with an additional 10 spaces for non-player characters thus allowing a party size of 20 characters. This is an 8 bit RPG record.
-customizations: choose from 4 fonts and 2 graphical viewing modes.

I will hopefully be done in a few months. I’ve been working on this game every day since the beginning of February.

[ Continue reading An Epic-Looking Commodore VIC-20 RPG, Realms of Quest V, is Under Development » ]

Atari’s Forgotten Arcade Classics (1972-1975)

June 8th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Atari's Forgotten Arcade Games

Rolling Stone recently launched a dedicated gaming site called Glixel, and just recently, EGM alum and Glixel’s General Manager, John Davison (of whom I am a big fan), asked me to write something for the site.

So I did. Atari turns 45 this month, and I thought it would be fun to look back at some of Atari’s early coin-op titles that very few people have heard of. The result is called “Atari’s Forgotten Arcade Classics,” and you can read it now over at Glixel.

If I weren’t so busy with other projects, I’d dive more in-depth into the origins of Atari — I certainly have a lot to say about it. But that will have to wait until another time. Until then, I hope you enjoy this piece.

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The Origins of Chuck E. Cheese

June 8th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Nolan Bushnell and Chuck E. Cheese

I mentioned this in my most recent Retro Scan, but I figured this was worth repeating in its own post.

Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre launched 40 years ago last month — on May 16, 1977. To celebrate the anniversary, I wrote a long feature about the origins of the pizza chain for FastCompany that they published last week.

In the piece, you can learn about how Chuck E. Cheese was originally supposed to be a coyote, read about rat-related intrigue, and glean some of the visionary genius of Nolan Bushnell, who saw the chain as a way to bring arcade video games to the mainstream — as well as scratching a fundamental itch of human nature. It worked.

Hope you enjoy it.

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Prodigy Reverse-Engineering Tools Released

June 6th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Prodigy Online Service Logo

After promising this for years, it’s time to finally release the Prodigy Preservation Project’s reverse-engineering tools. They’re not much, and they’re written in Python, but this code is the means by which I’ve been extracting fossilized Prodigy pages from STAGE.DAT files for the past few years.

I have been delaying announcing their availability because I was hoping Jim Carpenter, the author of these tools (and my partner on the Prodigy Preservation Project) would have more time to add more functionality and documentation, but he has not made any changes to the code since late 2015.

Yeah, I know that was almost two years ago. I’m sorry — things move slowly in ProdigyLand.

So here it is, everybody. Have at it. I hope you can help us improve them.

https://github.com/jim02762/prodigy-classic-tools

Just let me know what you find, and I’ll add it to my Flickr galleries.

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