Virtual Boy Turns 20

August 21st, 2015 by Benj Edwards

Virtual Boy on a Swing

Nintendo released the Virtual Boy 20 years ago today in North America (on August 21, 1995). I wrote an article about the creation of the Virtual Boy for FastCompany, which was just published today.

I hope you enjoy it.

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[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Vector Graphic Vector 1

July 27th, 2015 by Benj Edwards

Vector Graphic Inc. Vector 1 computer system advertisement - 1977NOW AVAILABLE IN RUST

The Vector 1 (1977) was the first complete computer system sold by Vector Graphic, Inc., a California-based firm founded by Lore Harp (now McGovern), Carole Ely, and Bob Harp in August 1976.

The Vector 1 included an Intel 8080A or Zilog Z80 CPU, and it utilized the S-100 bus introduced by the Altair 8800. In an unusual nod to aesthetics, the Vector 1 shipped in two case color options: green or "rust," which was Vector's name for orange. It retailed for for $849 fully assembled (about $3,288 today when adjusted for inflation) or $619 as a kit.

It just so happens that I wrote an article about the history of Vector Graphic for FastCompany recently. You may enjoy it.

[ From Byte Magazine, February 1977, p.61]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Have you ever owned an S-100 based computer? Tell us about it.

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The Invention of the Video Game Cartridge

January 22nd, 2015 by Benj Edwards

The Untold Story of the Invention of the Game Cartridge

Three and a half years ago, I started writing a history of the Fairchild Channel F, the world's first commercial game console to use software cartridges. As part of the research, I first interviewed two Fairchild veterans to follow up on my 2009 interview of Jerry Lawson.

As I kept digging, the rabbit hole of history went deeper and deeper, and the story turned out too complex and nuanced to properly research for whatever venue I was planning at the time. Budgets were tight, and the economics didn't work out, so I had to shelve it.

Just last year, I picked up where I left off and did the rest of the legwork, summoning primary source documents from around the world (special thanks to ICHEG) and interviewing over 15 people who worked for Alpex, National Semiconductor, Fairchild, Atari, and RCA to piece together the most accurate portrait of the birth of the game cartridge that I could possibly manage.

The result was finally published last night — in a somewhat abridged format — on with my friend and longtime collaborator Harry McCracken editing the piece.

What I have created sheds light on a heretofore completely unknown segment of video game history (especially regarding Alpex), and it is my hope that I have done so in a way that does justice to the achievement of those involved some forty years ago.

I am grateful to everyone who helped with my research — especially Ron Smith, the mechanical designer of the Channel F, who provided me with countless documents and a patient ear for all of my questions, and Wallace Kirschner and Lawrence Haskel, who decided to talk to the press for the first time ever for my piece.

There is more to the story than could fit in the article, but don't despair — it will probably end up as part of a book.

I hope you enjoy the piece.

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Benj's Oddities Series Returns with "PlayStation Oddities"

December 9th, 2014 by Benj Edwards

PlayStation Oddities

Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the Sony PlayStation's release in Japan. To celebrate, my old friend Harry McCracken (who now works at FastCompany) asked me if I wanted to bring my long-running Oddities series out of retirement. In short, I said "heck yes," and the result can be seen over on the FastCompany website.

This latest entry marks a change in format for the series: it is the first that is not a page-by-page slideshow. I made a bajillion slideshows between 2007 and 2012, and while they were fun to make, I am thankful that I have moved on.

So if you're a fan of the PlayStation, click through and check out some weird variations, accessories, and tributes to one of the most successful game consoles of all time.

All Entries in Benj's Oddities Series:

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The VC&G Christmas Collection (2014 Edition)

December 9th, 2014 by Benj Edwards

Vintage Computing and Gaming Christmas Xmas Megapost

It's that time of year again: the Yuletide. Over the past few years, I've been posting an annual collection of all the Christmas-related material I've written (both for this site and for others) into one place for easy reading. Below, you'll find list of off-site Christmas slideshows, other features, and of course, plenty of Retro Scans of the Week.

I have a soft spot for Christmas, having been raised with the tradition, so this list is for me as much as it is for everyone else. After going through these things again, it's amazing to see how much Christmas stuff I've posted over the years. I hope you enjoy it.

[ Continue reading The VC&G Christmas Collection (2014 Edition) » ]

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Macworld Magazine (1984-2014)

September 10th, 2014 by Benj Edwards

In Memoriam: Macworld Magazine, print edition (1984-2014)

Today I found out that Macworld will cease to be a print magazine and that many of my friends and colleagues have been laid off. will continue to exist, albeit with a relative skeleton crew.

It's very sad to see a day like this come (especially when I still look forward to a new issue of Macworld coming in the mail every month — one of the last print publications I read), but all things must come to an end. It is amazing, in retrospect, that Macworld magazine remained a constant, intelligent voice amid the chaos of a rapidly churning computer industry for thirty years.

Thirty years. Think of all the change that has happened in that time — the tech uphevals, the revolutions, the fall and rise of Apple, the Jobs-as-Phoenix, and rapid spread of the Internet — and through it all, Macworld has been there.

So thank you, Macworld, for serving the Mac community so well. And thanks to its staff in particular. I'd especially like to express my gratitude to Roman Loyola, Jason Snell, Dan Moren, Dan Frakes, Dan Miller, and Philip Michaels (among many others) for their wonderful work on the publication, and their genuine humanity, decency, patience, and fairness (sometimes rare qualities in an editor) through the years.

Roman Loyola, in particular, has been my go-to guy to get my — nay, our — particular brand of Apple history work pushed out to the world, and I am immensely grateful to have worked with him.

The talent pool of editorial labor laid off from Macworld today is immense, and other publications would be fools not to snatch them up as quickly as they can.

As for me, I've been contributing to the publication since 2008. As long as is still around, I might still write things for it. (Completely gutting a publication of its beloved veteran staff doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the future, however.) Time will tell. Until then, it's been a great ride.

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Bringing Prodigy Back From The Dead

July 14th, 2014 by Benj Edwards

Prodigy Online Service Logo

Since last year, I have been working with Jim Carpenter, a freelance programmer by trade, on hunting down old Prodigy data so that we may preserve it, display it again, and perhaps even one day use it to recreate Prodigy itself.

We're calling it the Prodigy Restoration Project.

By now you may have seen my latest piece for The Atlantic entitled Where Online Services Go When They Die: Rebuilding Prodigy, One Page at a Time. That article describes the genesis of the project while also diving into the technical back story of the Prodigy service.

The reason we have any hope of doing something like this is because Carpenter discovered that Prodigy screen data can still be found in the STAGE.DAT and CACHE.DAT files located in used Prodigy client directories.

Those two files were used as cache files to speed up load times when using the service. When connecting to Prodigy, the client would download page data into the files. Whenever the client last connected to Prodigy, that data got frozen in time. If a vintage Prodigy client install still exists, we can get at the "frozen" data today.

Here are some screens that Carpenter pulled from a STAGE.DAT I had in my personal archives (these are from a STAGE.DAT file dated October 6, 1996):

Prodigy Login Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT Prodigy Rebel Space Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT Prodigy Encyclopedia Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT Prodigy Golf Tour Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT

Prodigy Greeting Cards Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT Prodigy Email Template Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT Prodigy Phone Directory Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT Prodigy Problem Error Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT

We can extract these screens using a series of Python programs written by Carpenter. They read through a previously used STAGE.DAT file, generate a list of pointers to the pages or object data contained within, then direct the Prodigy Reception System client to display them one at a time so we can take screenshots.

Jim's code is not ready for release yet, but he hopes to polish it up enough to put up on GitHub soon. It has a long way to go before becoming a turnkey solution to extracting and displaying the data found in STAGE.DAT files. We're working on it.

With that in mind, I've written the rest of this post in the form of a Frequently Asked Questions.

[ Continue reading Bringing Prodigy Back From The Dead » ]

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Top 1000 Video Games of All Time

April 1st, 2014 by Benj Edwards

The Top 1000 Video Games of All Time

Today, PC World published my latest slideshow, The Top 1000 Video Games of All Time.

The in-depth piece — split into 1000 separate slides, each with its own paragraph of text — took over two years to create.

You may be asking yourself how one person could create such an epic work. Well, I got a little help from custom algorithms I programmed partially in Haskell — and partially in Minecraft's redstone circuitry using Boolean algebra.

But I didn't just rely on computer wizardry. Much self-deliberation went into choosing the order of the items on the list. I argued with myself for hours while sitting on the bench at a local park, on the bus, and in the North Regional Branch of the Wake County Public Library. After being arrested 13 times (twice in the nude), I decided to perform future deliberations in the privacy of my own bathroom. I feel that it made the results more pure.

Here's a sneak peek at the bottom 11:

1000. Halo (Xbox)
999. Silpheed (IBM PC)
998. Sewermania (TI-99/4A)
997. Quadrapong (Arcade)
996. Section Z (NES)
995. Pooyan (Arcade)
994. New Super Mario Bros. (DS)
993. Popeye: Beach Volleyball (Game Gear)
992. Lloyd the Squirrel (???)
991. Snafu (Aquarius)
990. Descent (PC)

And here's a selection from somewhere near the middle:

555. Superman (2600)
554. Bioshock Infinite (PC)
553. Slipnosis (iOS)
552. Star Trek: Phaser Strike (Microvision)
551. Farmville (Flash)
550. Deadly Towers (NES)

As for the top 10, you may be in for a surprise. My Haskell program determined with scientific precision that the 10 greatest video games of all time are, in fact, different versions of Ms. Pac-Man:

10. Ms. Pac-Man (Apple iPod)
9. Ms. Pac-Man (Atari 2600)
8. Ms. Pac-Man (TI-99/4A)
7. Ms. Pac-Man (ColecoVision)
6. Ms. Pac-Man (Atari 5200)
5. Ms. Pac-Man (Atari 800)
4. Ms. Pac-Man (IBM PC)
3. Ms. Pac-Man (Intellivision)
2. Ms. Pac-Man (Arcade)
1. Ms. Pac-Man (Atari 7800)

Oddly, my redstone program placed Super Mario Bros. 3 in the top 10 seven times — that's how good it is. But I can't do the same game on the same platform in multiple spots, so I compromised. To see the full, final list, you'll have to check out the slideshow yourself. I hope you enjoy it.

And remember: unlike most of my previous ranked lists, I used computer algorithms to ensure its accuracy, so don't get mad if you disagree with the list. You're completely wrong.


Discussion Topic: What are your top 1000 video games of all time?

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The VC&G Christmas Collection (2013 Edition)

December 13th, 2013 by Benj Edwards

Vintage Computing and Gaming Christmas Xmas Megapost

It's that time of year again: the Yuletide. In celebration, I thought I'd search through the VC&G archives for Christmas material and collect it all in one place. (I also did this the last few years, but I have updated the list of links with new material for 2013.)

Below you will find a list of everything Yule-flavored from this site and my offsite freelance work. There are a couple slideshow gems in there that you don't want to miss, so check those out if you haven't already.

I have a soft spot for Christmas, having been raised with the tradition, so this list is for me as much as it is for everyone else. After going through these things again, it's amazing to see how much Christmas stuff I've posted over the years. I hope you enjoy it.

[ Continue reading The VC&G Christmas Collection (2013 Edition) » ]

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Revisiting Hotline, the 1990s Internet BBS Platform

April 2nd, 2013 by Benj Edwards

Hotline Revisited

Back in the mid-late 1990s, an Internet-based BBS platform called Hotline sprung up and quickly spread throughout the Macintosh community. It was basically a client/server BBS software suite that allowed for multi-user chat, file transfers, and message boards.

By the early 2000s, though, Hotline had mostly died out. Today, only a handful of servers remain. But guess what? You can still connect to them — on Windows or a Mac. A new article I wrote for Macworld, "Hotline Revisted," tells you how.

Have fun. Remember to be kind to the Hotline veterans when you visit.

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