Archive for the 'Computer Games' Category

Spacewar: Profile of a Cultural Earthquake

Monday, October 16th, 2017

The world’s first video game tournament took place at Stanford on October 19, 1972, 45 years ago this week. The Living Computer Museum in Seattle is hosting an event on Thursday to commemorate this anniversary, and in conjunction, they commissioned me to write this article about the history of Spacewar and its influences.

It has been fifty-five years now since the first release of Spacewar!, a seminal computer game that began as a low-key tech demo among a group of friends but soon grew to rock Western culture like a tidal wave. When a group of Harvard employees and MIT students named Steve Russell, Wayne Wiitanen, Alan Kotok, Martin Graetz, Dan Edwards, and Peter Samson created the game, they had little idea that it would evolve into one of the most important cultural developments of the 20th century.

In its most basic version, Spacewar pits two player-controlled rocket ships against each other in a game of orbital single combat. Each player uses a set of switches to guide their ship through a physics-based two-dimensional simulation of deep space. Momentum and inertia play their part just as they would with a real spaceship, and a large star in the middle of the screen acts as a huge gravity well that draws the ships into oblivion if they do not carefully thrust their way around its pull.

As the first interactive virtual world, in the sense of simulated physical space, Spacewar set conceptual precedents that are still reverberating in our society. The game also marked a new dawn for human storytelling, allowing interactive expressions of archetypal stories as old as civilization itself. Along the way, it also launched a massive industry.

All this starting in 1961 — the year men first went into space.

[ Continue reading Spacewar: Profile of a Cultural Earthquake » ]

Carol Shaw Donates Collection to The Strong

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

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.

‘The History of Civilization’ Updates, 10 Years Later

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

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 » ]

[ Retro Scan ] Bentley Bear’s Spelling Bee

Monday, July 17th, 2017

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?

[ Retro Scan ] The Hayden Sargon Hamburger

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

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?

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

Thursday, June 15th, 2017

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?

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

Friday, June 9th, 2017

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 » ]

Hear Benj on the Retronauts Podcast

Tuesday, May 16th, 2017

Retronauts Episode 98 Mac Games

Since February, I’ve been appearing on episodes of Retronauts, a long-running retro gaming podcast traditionally hosted by Jeremy Parish and Bob Mackey. Retronauts traces its origins to the now defunct 1UP.com, but it has moved along with Jeremy wherever he goes.

And that includes a move across the country: About five years ago, Jeremy relocated to sunny Raleigh, NC from San Francisco. After resigning from his editor-in-chief position at USGamer.net late last year, Jeremy decided to rely on Patreon to fund Retronauts as a full-time project.

Retronauts East Apple II Games ArtworkThere’s only one problem: Bob Mackey is still located on the west coast, and Jeremy can’t afford to fly out there every time he wants to record a show. So while Bob still creates episodes on the west coast, Jeremy started up a “Retronauts East” wing of the show featuring a local crew of regulars.

Fortunately, I am a Raleigh native, and I still live here. So the Retronauts East roster includes both myself and Ben Elgin, a Hillsborough, NC software engineer and a veteran of Jeremy’s Gamespite forums.

Since then I’ve been on five episodes (with another micro episode on the way), and it’s been a blast. Jeremy is a gin aficionado, and we typically drink a gin and tonic before or during the show, which is why you may hear high-resolution ice clinking in the background.

Here’s a run-down of the episodes I’ve appeared on so far:

Episode 87: Apple II Games
Episode 91: Early Sega Arcade Games
Episode 95: Early Batman Games
Micro 59: Atari Swordquest
Episode 98: Mac Gaming in the 1980s

There’s more to come. So stay tuned and enjoy.

Huge Gallery of Prodigy MadMaze Screenshots Now on Flickr

Friday, April 7th, 2017

MadMaze Screenshot

Just a few minutes ago, I released the first group of images from the Prodigy Preservation Project on Flickr. They’re screenshots from MadMaze, a vintage online game that ran on Prodigy Classic between 1989 and 1999.

Specifically, they’re all the graphics from the Place of Power instances in the game. I believe most, if not all, of the artwork was done by Al Sirois, a Prodigy staff artist. Al Sirois did some of the artwork, but Sirois says that most of it was created by other artists (see comments below). They originated as NAPLPS vector graphics (scalable to any size) and were captured into a raster format for display on the web.

MadMaze Screenshot

Of course, you can play a re-creation of MadMaze yourself on this very server right here. And you can read more about that re-creation (and report bugs you may encounter) here.

If you’d like to support the Prodigy Preservation Project and all of my history work, please consider submitting a pledge on Patreon. Any money I get from Patreon helps a ton toward giving me the extra time to work on history projects like the PPP.

VC&G Anthology Interview: Ed Smith, Black Video Game and Computer Pioneer

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

Ed Smith, Black Video Game Pioneer of APF ElectronicsIn 1978, APF Electronics introduced the MP1000, an early cartridge-based video game system. It wasn’t a smash hit like offerings from Atari, but it carried within its faux woodgrain housing a hidden kernel of cultural brilliance: The console would not have existed without the work of an African-American electronics engineer named Edward Lee Smith (b. Nov 4 1954).

I first learned about Ed Smith while researching Jerry Lawson, one of the first known African-Americans in the video game industry. Not long after Lawson did his pioneering design work on the Fairchild Channel F in Silicon Valley, Smith began a similar task on the opposite side of the country, crafting his own contributions to the industry while at APF in New York City.

VC&G Anthology BadgeAs part of a small engineering team, Smith helped design the MP1000 and its plug-in computer expansion module, the Imagination Machine. That work got him noticed by Black Enterprise magazine, and in 1982, Smith and Lawson were both interviewed for a feature written by S. Lee Hilliard about the roles African-Americans had played in the video game revolution, which was a hot business topic at the time.

[ Continue reading VC&G Anthology Interview: Ed Smith, Black Video Game and Computer Pioneer » ]