A Jedi Builds His Own Weapon

December 6th, 2016 by Benj Edwards

Benj

I've been playing around with making my own custom joysticks recently. Just yesterday, I built this Atari VCS-compatible unit you see above using a Sanwa arcade joystick assembly and two Sanwa arcade buttons, both of which are available on Amazon.

I also used an old Bud project box from my late father's things for the housing, some screw-in rubber feet on the base, a cord from a non-working Atari CX40 joystick, and some scrap steel inside to give the stick more weight and heft.

I built it mostly so I could have a 4-way only joystick for maze games on the Atari 800. (The Sanwa joystick is switchable between 4-way and 8-way upon installation.) The result is absolutely incredible either handheld or set on a table, and my high score in Nibbler has gone through the roof.

On this joystick, both buttons do the same thing, although my next Atari model will probably have three buttons — one for fire, one for up, and one for down so I can play Asteroids on the 800 like a pro.

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[ Retro Scan ] TRS-80 on Christmas Morning

December 5th, 2016 by Benj Edwards

Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1 Computer Christmas Family Christmas Morning Christmas Tree advertisement scan - 1978"Santa left us Trash for Christmas, and we like it!"

Radio Shack always knew how to market at Christmas (see links below). In the 1970s and '80s, the firm produced more Christmas-themed computer ads than any other company in the US.

Here's one of the earliest ones from 1978. It features the company's first personal computer, the TRS-80, which first launched in 1977. After other models of TRS-80 computer came out, Radio Shack began referring to it as the "Model I."

But that wasn't the only name this pioneering computer earned. The original TRS-80 was the first personal computer my dad ever bought, not long after it launched. He found it frustrating, sold it, and later bought an Atari 800 for my brother — then hand-built an Apple II clone for himself.

Thereafter, my dad always referred to that first TRS-80 as his "Trash-80," which was a common nickname for the computer. It could double as a derogatory play on words or a beloved pet name, depending on whom you asked. For my dad, I suspect it was more of the former than the latter.

[ From Popular Electronics, November 1978 ]

Discussion Topic: What's the worst present you've ever received for Christmas?


See Also:

A Very TRS-80 Christmas (RSOTW, 2006)
Hot CoCo (2) for Christmas (RSOTW, 2007)
Give The Gift of TRS (RSOTW, 2009)
Santa's TRS-80 CoCo (RSOTW, 2014)

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The Lost Civilization of Dial-Up Bulletin Board Systems

November 7th, 2016 by Benj Edwards

The Cave BBS Logoff ANSI by Nukemaster

Last Friday, The Atlantic published an article I wrote in which I explore modern-day dial-up BBSes.

Some of you may remember that I've visited this topic before — on this very blog — way back in 2006. In my recent virtual travels, I found it very interesting to see how things in the dial-up BBS space had changed over ten years, and I allude to that in my Atlantic article.

I've mentioned this many times before, but for those of you who are unfamiliar, I ran a dial-up BBS called "The Cave BBS" between 1992 and 1998. Since 2005, I have also run a telnet version of The Cave.

To read more about my BBS adventures, check out the "BBS History" category on VC&G.

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[ Retro Scan ] Game Boy, All Grown Up

November 2nd, 2016 by Benj Edwards

Nintendo Game Boy Political Campaign Speeches GQ 1992 Presidential Election advertisement scan - 1992"Have you had your fun today?"

So we've got this election coming right around the corner in the US. It hasn't been fun. In fact, it's been pretty nasty and stressful for everyone involved. But there's a solution: video games.

In this October 1992 ad from GQ magazine, Nintendo offers its Game Boy handheld console as an antidote to our grownup troubles during a long, grueling campaign season. Among displays of men's fashion, cologne ads, and strutting female models, you can find a rather remarkable sales pitch for this groundbreaking gadget aimed at adults.

In 1992, portable electronic entertainment pretty much meant one thing: Game Boy. There were no smartphones in everyone's pockets to twiddle away the time with. And the alternative handhelds like the Sega Game Gear, NEC TurboExpress, and Atari Lynx had such horrible battery life that very few people actually took them on the go. Of course, one could tote along a Walkman or a portable TV, but they weren't interactive.

The Game Boy was different. It was compact, light, durable, ran over ten hours on four AA batteries, and it had that killer app: Tetris.

I remember reading news reports, not long after the Game Boy's launch, about how adults were playing Tetris ("the jigsaw puzzle that fights back," the ad says) on long commutes. In retrospect, Tetris seems like the first video game for adults — especially since it had no cartoon protagonist, and its single-screen drama unfolded in four serious shades of gray (or green, technically). It was a thinking man's game, and it was addictive.

Or thinking woman's game, I should say, since we have this amazing 1993 photo of Hillary Clinton playing the Game Boy. While commuting, no less. So maybe the ad worked. Or maybe Tetris was just an essential, can't-miss game that finally legitimized video games for an older audience.

[ From GQ, October 1992, p.150 ]

Discussion Topic: Did your parents ever play console video games when you were younger? What games did they like the most?

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[ Retro Scan ] A TurboGrafx Halloween

October 31st, 2016 by Benj Edwards

TTI TurboGrafx-16 Turbografx TurboExpress TurboDuo Dead Moon Ghost Manor advertisement scan - 1992Ghost Manor and Dead Moon on a Zombie Console

[ From VG&CE, November 1992, p.47 ]

Discussion Topic: What's the scariest 16-bit era game you've ever played?

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David H. Bunnell (1947-2016)

October 19th, 2016 by Benj Edwards

David H. BunnellIn Memoriam: David H. Bunnell (1947-2016),
tech media pioneer, founder of PC World, PC Magazine, and Macworld

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[ Retro Scan ] Voice It VT-40 Digital Recorder

October 19th, 2016 by Benj Edwards

Voice It VT-40 Flash Memory Digital Voice Recorder Discover Magazine advertisement scan - 1995A 40-second safe deposit box, mind you

In 1994 and 1995, several manufacturers released the first batch of solid state digital voice recorders. All of them used newly available flash memory chips to record audio notes digitally without the need for magnetic tape.

This VT-40 recorder from Voice It was among the first, launching around May 1995 in the US. It could record 40 seconds of audio in 10 audio clips — all that for a mere $69.99 MSRP. Unlike some competing units, the audio clips recorded by the VT-40 were stuck on the recording device and could not be digitally transferred to another medium or a computer. Around the same time, Voice It also launched a higher-capacity unit, the VT-75, which could record 75 seconds of audio.

Despite the convenience of having a small, thin audio recorder with no moving parts, the low capacity of these first generation flash recorders made them more of a novelty than anything else. I remember around 1996 when my dad brought home a keychain digital audio recorder that could record about 30 seconds of audio. It was fun to play with — and a marvel of technology at the time — but it didn't have enough capacity for useful note taking.

Of course, today we have endless solid state audio recording capacity through removable flash cards, etc., and digital note recorders are the mainstream (and have been for at least a decade). But it's neat to look back on how it all started.

[ From Discover Magazine, May 1995, p.91 ]

Discussion Topic: When was the first time you used a solid-state or digital audio recorder? Tell us about it.

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[ Retro Scan ] Pitfall in LIFE

October 10th, 2016 by Benj Edwards

Activision Pitfall! for Atari 2600 LIFE Magazine scan - 1982Watch out for that jungle crude oil pit

As a kid, we had an Atari 2600, and before the NES era, Pitfall! was very popular in our household. Unlike most Atari VCS games, it felt like a real adventure, and it was thrilling to directly control a tiny jumping human on the screen while avoiding crazy jungle hazards like alligators and, well, huge pits that led to nowhere.

By the way, this is the largest single-page Retro Scan I've ever scanned — it comes from a large format LIFE magazine ad. I found the magazine in my grandparents' washhouse in Texas back in the 1990s and saved it because of this ad.

If you're curious, here is the full scan jumbo size at 600 dpi (it's a 5919 x 7761 pixel 38 MB JPEG, so watch out).

[ From LIFE magazine, November 1982, p.113 ]

Discussion Topic: Which is better: Pitfall! or Pitfall II: Lost Caverns?

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Ed Smith and the Imagination Machine

September 2nd, 2016 by Benj Edwards

Ed Smith and the Imagination Machine

Just today, FastCompany published my in-depth history of Ed Smith and APF Electronics.

APF was responsible for several video game consoles in the 1970s (like the MP1000) and a personal computer called The Imagination Machine. Ed Smith was the primary electronics designer for the MP1000, and he has quite a story to tell.

I think you guys will really enjoy the piece.

Thirty-seven years ago, New York-based APF Electronics, Inc. released The Imagination Machine, a hybrid video game console and personal computer designed to make a consumer's first experience with computing as painless and inexpensive as possible.

APF's playful computer (and its game console, the MP1000) never rivaled the impact of products from Apple or Atari, but they remain historically important because of the man who cocreated them: Ed Smith, one of the first African-American electronics engineers in the video game industry. During a time when black Americans struggled for social justice, Manhattan-based APF hired Smith to design the core element of its future electronics business.

What it took to get there, for both APF and Smith, is a story worth recounting—and one that, until now, has never been told in full.

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[ Retro Scan ] HP 95LX

August 30th, 2016 by Benj Edwards

Hewlett-Packard HP 95LX HP-95LX Handheld Computer Pocket Computer Palmtop PC User's Guide Cover scan - 1991HP-95LX: Like a computer-shaped cookie that you can't eat

In case you didn't know, the HP 95LX is a small, portable IBM PC compatible machine running a full version of MS-DOS that ran off of two AA batteries. It marked the beginning of HP's palmtop computer line, which I wrote about recently in a slideshow for PCMag.com.

The HP 95LX is special to me in particular because I've had one for over 20 years now. My dad bought the machine slightly-used from a friend not long after it came out. After fiddling around with it for a while, he gave it to me, and by 1993, I had it in my collection.

Using an RS-232 serial cable my dad built for me, I managed to transfer some MS-DOS programs to it (a few text-mode games mostly, and a few HP 95LX apps I downloaded from CompuServe), that I remember taking to school and using once or twice just for kicks. I also used that serial cable to hook the 95LX to a modem so I could call BBSes with it.

The worst thing about the 95LX — aside from its 1/4 CGA screen that doesn't let you run many MS-DOS apps — is that if you don't have a plug-in memory card, you lose all your saved data on the RAM disk if it runs out of batteries. Sure, it has a backup coin cell battery (or maybe two), but if that runs out, you're out of luck. The PC Card-like memory cards cost a lot of money back in the 1990s, so I never had one until recently.

Still, it's an amazing little machine. Very capable — if you have the patience to use it. A few years later, HP got everything right with the 200LX, which is still a popular portable MS-DOS machine among certain diehards today.

[ From HP 95LX Users's Guide, 1991, cover ]

Discussion Topic: Did you own a palmtop PC in the 1990s? Tell us about it.

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