Classic Controllers and Emulation

Oh, what a fool am I!

Literally the day after I finish this blog, the 2600-daptors that I ordered a few days prior arrived. These little beauties let you use original Atari sticks on modern hardware via USB (you will need a printer-style ("a-to-b") USB cable but those are like $4 on Amazon.)

Combined with good joysticks - like the pair of Epyx 500XJs I got off of Ebay for cheap - and you have a much improved gaming experience. In general I'm not a "has to be on original hardware" hipster, but these games were really designed for this kind of control, not the NES-like and old-school Gravis pads I used in making this blog. (You could probably write essays on the change from joystick to gamepad culture, and the implications in terms of popular styles of gameplay - not to mention how interesting it is that a predominantly right-handed culture has formed a preference for game control via the left thumb.)

I had looked into the original stelladaptor but it was no longer being made, and am kicking myself for not finding out about these earlier. (Also, I learned the hard way to avoid the Retrolink Atari-USB Cable - it seems like a cool idea, allowing 2 connectors at once, but I couldn't get it to play nicely with the various emulators I was trying to use.)

(Also, avoid the Atari-like PC joysticks - I got a set to run with my Atari 2600 game Loaded4Bear - one came broken, and the others lasted about ten minutes of gameplay. It's not very often that I say "this product is garbage" but it's pretty close to literal truth in this case.)

Again, a hearty endorsement for Tom Hafner's 2600-adaptor ii - and any decent Atari controller you can find on Ebay, either the classic CX-40s or something with microswitches, like the Epyx 500XJs.

January and February 1995

The final issues of Gazette. In some ways the programs and columns got stronger past the heyday of the mid to late '80s, but when your penultimate feature article's description is "Take a Look at Line Numbers. They Can Make BASIC Programming Easier" you know your magazine is not in a place of great strength. (Also, they offered old magazines and disks for sale in garage sale fashion; they're not really allowed to charge, just for labor and shipping.)

The final editorial mentions some of the long term contributors over the 15 year run: Fred D'Ignazio and Jim Butterfield were involved from the beginning to this very last issue. (I remember Jim Butterfield's name showing up on a lot of Commodore software scene stuff way back when... sometimes it seems weird to think of how much expertise he had, )

That editorial is really sad, there's a lot of confusion about how they'll be handling the unfinished subscriptions. And the way that most of the articles are written in an unsuspecting business-as-usual kind of way is rather melancholy as well.

No original games these final issues, just some PD stuff.

I'll be wrapping up this blog soon as well, then. I am making plans to do that "playtest all the 2 player only games" thing I keep talking about (to get rid of those "Tentative Ratings") and I might do a special edition about the 6 games I gave a full 5 stars to.

Like the Commodore scene itself, this blog started feeling like it was going on a bit long (318 games in all - that is a lot!) but I've really enjoyed the history of it, finding new game ideas, enjoying how the programmers worked with the limitations of the machine, and charting the rise and fall of Commodore as a force in geek culture. Overall, definitely some of the most fun I've had with video games this year.

December 1994 - Bounce

Headline of the month: "MOLDY MOPEDS ON THE INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY", from a D'Ignazio column about lo-fi multimedia with ancient computers and VCRs and tape recorders.

Bounce - Maurice Yanney

This - which will be the final original game pubished by Gazette - is a rather sad little game for a rather sad time. You control a little launcher, firing these balls and trying to get them into the holes on the other side of the screen. You have to get them through the walls with moving gaps between, but the balls will ricochet off those walls or the separators between the holes in a very artificial reverse-direction-and-move-one-row-down kind of way. You can throw lots of balls at once, and you have to dodge ones that come back at you, and there's a time limit. It feels more like an experiment than a game. Rating:2/5

November 1994 - Chute Shootout

The editorial "64/128 Overview" must've been kind of awful to write, the parent magazine COMPUTE had just been bought by Ziff-Davis who wanted it for its mailing list and shuttered it. Weirdly Gazette survives - probably having moved to disk-only gave it a respite, albeit a brief one.

Also, Q-Link (I think previously called Quantum Link) was closing down - the article calls AOL (my current employer!) Q-Link's "parent service" but I think AOL was Q-link rebranding itself for PCs and Macs, but keeping the original name for its Commodore stuff (which was ten years old at that point, and had run the really intriguing LucasFilm projects Habitat and Club Caribe, predecessors to today's MMORPGs in a chatroom kind of way.)

The feature is "Making the Most of SpeedScript", the word processor from the early 1980s. I haven't written too much about it- it's so hard to imagine using a word processor that didn't have built-in spellcheck (they had some later, but getting the data files was kind of a challenge.)

Chute Shootout - Ligia Latina

I've always been fascinated by the Intellivision's Biplanes game, included in their Atari-One-Upper "Triple Action". It's a 2D, physics-y dogfight... to quote the Blue Sky Rangers (the name of the Intellivision dev team):
More hours were spent in the programming cubicles playing Biplanes than any other Intellivision game. Although it's one of the simplest, many programmers felt it was the most challenging and fun of the two-person games. The first time you deliberately stall, go into a free fall, then pull out with a backward loop at the last second to blast your opponent at pointblank range is a joy!
So this game starts with that idea... 2 planes on opposing runways. Just getting airborne is weird challenging... you have to press up at the end of the runway (and make sure you let go of the fire button for some reason) and you're very prone to stall, even more so than the original, at least til you've gained some speed (though after that it's like your engine is in a higher gear? and you can do loops with ease). Anyway, this game ups the ante in that it's not primarily a shoot out - you win by landing three paratroopers on the enemy's base. Controls are kind of odd: left or right sends out a trooper, and then once the parachute has deployed you can still steer him with left or right, even as up and down and fire are still operating the plane... multitasking! You can only send out one trooper at a time, so if you mislaunch you have to wait til the other one hits the ground (and explodes, oddly enough). Another one I really want to playtest with another human; the controls seem odd and the physics not quite as good and maybe the whole thing is too complex, but high points for trying to expand on such a cool idea. Tentative Rating:4/5

Follwup: as I put this game into my archive, I realize that even though the name on disk is "Ligia Latina" there must be some connection to "Ligia Latino" who has made several previous games...

October 1994 - Spots, One-On-One Basketball

The reader survey results came in:
The 8-bit Commodore market has often been called "mature." Well, it seems that those of us you use [sic] those computers are also mature. The average Gazette subscriber is 48 years old. There's a 94 percent chance that he's male, and he's subscribed to Gazette for about 5 years.  
While these are the averages, it's interesting to note that more than 40 percent of you have subscribed to Gazette for more than 10 years and our largest number of users (31 percent) are more than 65 years old. 
The teenager blasting aliens with his 64 is no longer the average Commodore computer user! In fact, less than 1 percent of you want more games in Gazette. The number requesting more utilities is 40 percent, and the number who want a mix of both is 56 percent.
First off, I have to worry about selection bias... each of these numbers is "of people who bother to send in reader surveys for disk-based magazines." I'm bummed these fogies are signalling they don't want more games... but given how much hand-wringing there was about Commodore vs Nintendo, by this point the gaming world had moved on to SNES vs Genesis.

Spots - T.L. Flynn

A 2-player-only othello-like board game (with the choice of multiple board layouts). It's a rip off of Spot: The Video Game ("Spot" was an inventive attempt to give 7-Up a mascot, and it (he?) showed up in a platformer game as well) but without the charming animations or computer opponent... each player can elect to move any of their pieces one space (which clones it) or move it two spaces (which leaves the space it came from empty) and then any neighboring enemy pieces around the landing piece are changed to that piece's color. The presentation is pretty good overall, with a custom techno font. I guess I'll give it a higher rating because it's the kind of things the fogies reading this thing then might have liked. Rating:3/5

One-on-One Backyard Basketball - David Garner

So this game (possibly influenced by One-on-One: Dr. J vs Larry Bird) looks kinda cool but plays like clumsy crap. I think it's using character graphics? Or else sprites that are horribly controlled. The players kind of bump against eachother s-l-o-w-w-w-w-l-y, and it's effectively impossible to make even an uncontested shot - supposedly you release at the height of the jump, but I could never get it to work. Tentative Rating:2/5

September 1994 - Going to the Dogs, Ketchem

I accidentally switched over to the advertisers section, and was amused to see that regular contributor Maurice Yanney had apparently struck out on his own a bit:

I found a place to download a cracked copy...

Pogo Stick - Maurice Yanney (Commercial Release)

It was... eh, ok. A Jumpman-ish (well more specifically, like Mr. Robot in terms of collecting things embedded in the floor) platformer, you scoot and jump around going over the light pathes, riding elevators, and avoiding the things shooting at you. I liked the little pixel hourglass as level timer.

It's funny, I wonder if some of the poorer Yanney games in Gazette are like prototypes he decided weren't quite worth commercial release? Maybe that's a bit cynical of me to think.

Followup: the Lemon64 (great site!) forum post that pointed me to a copy of the game had a guy who talked to Yanney, and says he only sold about a dozen of the game, which is some of why he left the Commodore scene... kind of sad, but again, Yanney is no Steve Harter.

Anyway, onto this month's included games:

Going to the Dogs - J. J. Hromdik

There's a very similar looking version of this for the C64 and the C128, but the former bombs out with an out of memory error. It's a dog racing / betting simulator. I like the dog names. Other than that I don't see the point. Rating:2/5

Ketchem - William F. Snow

A 1 or 2 player adding and subtraction game... or maybe mostly counting. It's kind of a race to the end board game, and every turn two numbers are rolled and you have to decide if you want to add them or subtract them (or technically, subtract the smaller from the larger - the order doesn't seem to matter) for your move - I guess you'd subtract only to avoid the up arrow boosting you to the previous level or to try to hit the blank spot letting you fall on through. The thing is, if you hesitate the computer picks add or subtract for you. And like I said, the tricky part is quickly counting, since the little dashes are pretty fiddly. Not a terrible idea for a kids board game (I wonder if there's a ketchup/ketchem joke in the color scheme?) but those problems in the execution bug me. Rating:2/5

August 1994 - Wanaka

People keeping up with this blog have seen most of my thoughts already, but for my UI blog I did a complete overview of the UI of the COMPUTE's Gazette disk menu. (Along with the old thoughts about the text reader)

Wanaka - Shawn Menninga

A sliding tile puzzle... the accompanying text says it was popular in New Zealand, but I couldn't find Google links for a real world version. A very similar game has been marketed as Rush Hour where you have to maneuver a car out of a crowded parking lot; here you want to bring the big northern NZ block down to touch the souther NZ frame. Competently done, could have used some animations maybe. (And it's a tricky puzzle; the author says he can't get it in fewer than 124 or so moves.) Rating:3/5

July 1994 - Space Pirates, 15 Solitaire

I kind of gave up tracking the PD Picks, especially whe they're not games, but Globe by John Crider is pretty amazing, that thing is is rotating and you can use the joystick to swing it to various angles:

And also, it was not a great month for games:

Space Pirates - John LeDoux

This 128 game is made by the same folks who made Starship Battles and presumably also appeals to people who like menu-drive spaceship games. Rating:2/5

15 Solitaire - Arthur Moore

I hated this less than some solitaires. You want to find a pile of cards of the same suit that add up to 15, so they'll then be removed, but you can't use 10 or face cards, which have to be removed all at once. Good use of colors (two shades of red, two of grey) to reinforce which suit is which. Rating:3/5

June 1994 - Wizard's Demons

The editorial overview goes into the path of Gazette to this point, and how an increase in printing costs kicked them out of their nestled in COMPUTE role. They do mention "All the ads on Gazette Disk generate barely enough revenue to pay for one of the programs that I purchase each month"... so my guess that it was more advertiser funded than not was incorrect. And with the subscribers that switched "it looks like Gazette Disk will be around for some time." Good to know, cough cough. (The article also mentions Commodore's tailspin.)

I am a little weirded out that "Super-Alarm III" (a PD pick to turn your computer into "a device similar to a clock radio" -- meaning a clumsy alarm clock that can play .MUS files) is written by one Kirk Mook. I thought "Kirk Israel" was a weird enough name, but I am jealous that he has only 4 letters for both first and last.

Wizard's Demons - Troy Heck

Invaders/Galaxian type shooter with a magic theme. You operate a cannon and need to blast the flying demons who are trying to kidnap the wizard below, as well as reigning demonfire on you. Getting hit incapacitates your cannon long enough that the wizard will almost definitely get whisked away. If you do manage to shoot a demon-carrying wizard, you have to press up to cast a "featherfall" spell so the wizard doesn't plummet and die anyway. (Also pressing down beams you to the middle of the playfield.) Decent graphics I guess, so-so gameplay. Rating:3/5

May 1994 - Balloon Bash, Sunday Driver

There's a review of "C64S", a C64 emulator that runs under MS-DOS. They say it works pretty well, and being able to save and restore state was pretty cool. I had forgotten emulation was starting to happen back then. Kind of odd to be using an emulator on a Mac to read an article about an emulator on PC.

Balloon Bash - Joseph Sheppard

Ugh, another one of these... not very different than MauriceYanney's Balloon Pop a while back, though the balloons are moving down and not up, plus this one is a little more annoying because you don't just touch the balloons to pop, the pin is a bit more "realistic" in where it has to be positioned. There are also rules about bonuses for 3 in a row and "target colors" but really, for just another Kaboom!-like, who gives a damn? Rating:2/5

Sunday Driver - Maurice Yanney

Speaking of oh man, I do find myself wishing he could have found someone to collaborate with on graphics - his programmer art is terrible - just look at that car and deer... Anyway, this is an ambitious driving game, but not a very good one. It's loaded with features like deer on the road, road narrows, road splits, icy road, a police helicopter who will tag you if you're going over the posted speed limit, having to watch your gas, etc but trust me when I say that all probably sounds better here than it is in practice. (The score is represented as a dollar figure, and the instructions mention something about being able to get new cars when you save up enough cash, and hitting obstacles comes out of that budget). Besides the terrible art, there are just weird misfeatures-- like no matter how fast you might be going, the deer is more or less keeping up with you vertically, in your direction of travel. The general physics and control feel is so bad especially in contrast to May 1990's Race Ace, that had a delightful sense of having to speed up and pass cars. I will admit this is the only driving game I've tried that has a cruise control feature, so I'll bump up its rating to merely mediocre. Rating:3/5

April 1994 - Berries, Contact--Switch On!, Spell Maze

They tweaked the menu system, getting rid of that odd slightly-graphic-y initial loader page I wrote about before, and just adding more levels to their old reliable:

They're also back to having a "Table of Contents" text file.

I was thinking about what I found irksome about that previous menu.  For one thing it was function-key driven, which makes it slightly more annoying on a modern computer... the function keys are still there for backwards compatibility, but they've been repurposed so on a mac you have to hold "fn" to make them work. Overall "function" keys are falling into the dustbin of history - things are menu-driven and mouse or touch now and when there are keyboard shortcuts, people have figured out that mnemonics make more sense. (Man anyone here remember Word Perfect, and those little bits of paper you'd put over your functions to remember what key combos did what?
power users loved 'em, along with "reveal codes" (which is kind of akin to peeking at the HTML of your web document) but I'd have to say humanity is better for having moved on.)

Back to Gazette... I suspect the old pretty menu was a bit slower to load, as was that weirdo faux-GUI they had for a long time.

Berries - Gus Vakalis

At first blush this feels a lot like the snake games I was complaining about last time - except you're a bird, not a snake, so you can reverse on a dime without running into your tail. Unless of course you've passed too near one of the patrolling cat heads; then the cat will follow you and the effect is much the same. Anyway, berries are growing and are worth more points if you let them grow, but wait too long and they become brown and poisonous. And watch out for beehives, though I don't think there are any bees around. More cats (with wider vision ranges) get added on subsequent levels. Rating:3/5

Contact--Switch On! - Bob Markland

Odd strategy/luck game for two players, one of whom can be the computer (endearingly called "Chip") Each player gets a row of switches, 1-9. For each turn a player picks 1 or 2 dice to roll, and then can flip switches that add up to that number -- so if you rolled a 8, you could flip 8, or 1, 3, 4, or 2 and 6, etc. And the goal is flip all your switches. It does get you thinking about probability a bit, and the computer plays a very good game, so it kind of comes down to luck. Rating:3/5

Spell Maze - Michael Bolin

In theory this game is to teach kids spelling, but if anything it's about navigating a maze you can only see a little part of, or maybe just how not to make a good game. A word is on screen, then you're put in a dungeon with the letters for it scattered around. You might also stumble over a sword to fight a monster who will show up, and keys to unlock the doors (that are oddly rendered as stars) But you only see the 8 squares around you. Maybe an option to make the maze visible (with our without the contents) would have made this more playable. (Or even given it a point... I mean, I don't think any letters that aren't in the word are in the maze, so it's more a matter of getting letters in the right order.) Rating:2/5

March 1994 - Setz!, Trail Blazer

Here in the waning days of Gazette, I thought I'd make one comment on their loading program. Every time you go to run their text file reader, you get this screen:
I know it's weird to critique 20+ year old UI for a 30+ year old computer, but

A. It's goofy that they despite all these commands they don't have a simple convention for "next page", like maybe space bar- just scrolling one line at a time via the arrow keys. I think the "more" program had been available on Unix since like 1978?

It reminds me of this Dilbert cartoon, also from 1984:

B. It would have been more sophisticated to just have a simple, permanent bar on top of the screen with like "SPACE -NEXT PAGE : CRSR - MOVE UP/DOWN : M - MENU OPTIONS". Having to always go through the same page for every article is just clunky.

So I don't mind bad UI when it reflects limitations of tech of the time, but I don't think that this is one of those cases- it's just a lack of thoughtful imagination. (But it's nice that they tend to keep the main menu in memory, so there's not disk access to return to it.)

Setz! - Larry Cotton

This is a straightforward subset of the card Set, where you have to pick out three cards (in this case 'groups') where shape, color, and pattern all match or all different. Here a round is played against the clock, one set at a time. Rating:3/5

Trail Blazer - Gus Vakalis

There's been a few variants of "Snake"/Surround in the run of this magazine - this isn't the worst, nor is the best. Colorful, with player navigating through to grab a randomly placed treasure while avoid the tail and the (clich├ęd) happy-face enemies... Snake Pit was probably smarter in combining the "moving enemies" and "treasure to seek" into one play element. Rating:3/5, and that's being generous... maybe because the colorful blocks remind me of Crossroads (same issue as "Snake Pit", come to think of it.)

February 1994 - Ice Mountain, Starship Battles

The editorial overview says
By the time you read this, I wonder if Commodore itself will even be around. As I write this in the autumn of 1993, Commodore has just reported a $359 million loss for the financial year that ended June 30, 1993.
One, poor Commodore, and 2... what kind of lead times did this thing have? February done in Autumn? I guess it's a combination of how much a magazine's release date always predates the cover date, and then what it takes to pull something together, but still...

(They also mention this month's 128 game "Starship Battles" took up one whole disk side almost, but took an apologetic tone for having fewer programs with a "I know many of you say that you don't like games". Which always surprised me, because except for programming and some light word processing, I didn't know the C64 did much except games.)

I might be doing something wrong, but it seems like the 128 situation viz a viz the disks is kind of messed up: the C128 side no longer seems to know how to boot properly.

Ice Mountain - Maurice Yanney

Just when I thought Yanney might be getting kind of good, along comes this hot mess. So much is deadly to your little helicopter! Touch the "mountain", die. Bird heads right at you attracted by your bullets (especially in your the gap above the mountain) and hits you, die. Icicles from ceiling fall on you, die. If you manage to use your bullets to dig a hole down to where the goal mineral deposits are waiting, there's a missile waiting for you, and it will launch and you will probably die. Rating:1/5

Starship Battles - John LeDoux

This 128 game has a pretty badass title screen, between the music and the Klingon "Bird of Prey" descending, it was actually a little menacing! The game is a heavily geeky, type in a lot of parameters (juggle ship's power distribution and what not) then watch things unfold spaceship combat game, not unlike the Star Trek board game Star Fleet Battles. I couldn't get into it. Rating:3/5, I was feeling generous about this game's tremendous ambition.

January 1994 - Blox Trot, 64 Dimensions, Link 'Em

So, the brave new post-print world of Compute's Gazette...

UPDATE: after I had about finished this blog, I was amazed to find out that Martijn Schols' not only had (dot-matrix?) printouts of the text contents of the disks, but paper covers, in what looks to be Print Shop-generated art (kids of the 80s might remember that program...) As far as I can tell they didn't come with the disk, so maybe they're homemade, by the same person printing out all that text? But each is seasonally appropriate, and I dig 'em, so I'm putting them here.

There's a new pre-menu screen:
On the one hand, there's an air of pathos about leading with "Advertising". I believe that ad revenue is generally more important than subscription revenue for a publication, so this might be where the transition really hurts. (On the other hand, in an era where the Commodore was pretty much not at all in stores, advertising for this niche audience might have more value for the reader than in other circumstances.)

Most of the ads are boring text documents but a few use flashing colors and a few have some nice PETSCII art:
Heh, Used software.

(Side note, when I was young and bored I remember checking out some of the ads on the mid/late-80s disks I had access to. A few were kind of impressive, with animation or interactive elements. I haven't been paying as much attention through the course of this blog, however.)

The disk is now "two-sided", but only the front has the menu, and all the columns and features require flipping the disk - kind of a pain in the butt for your loyal blog-editor, but no price too great for all the fame this will bring me, eh? Fred D'Ignazio's column talks about the Newton MessagePad. Funny how that reference is kind of bridging the gap into the modern era of computing, with its frequent emphasis on mobile.

Blox Trot - Arthur Moore

A two player strategy game, a little bit too "thinky" for me... each player has a 4 x 6 grid that is not unlike a 2D Rubics Cube; as you slide a row or column, the farthest piece loops around to the nearest side. So, clever, but only really spatially smart people will love it. Tentative Rating:3/5

64 Dimensions - Eric J. Bryant

So this Tic-Tac-Toe variant, with four 4x4 boards has an extra parallel to June 1984's 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe with Three 3x3s; that one was included the second ever "accompanying disk", this one in the first ever "disk only" edition, and so that one was near the start of Gazette's run, and this one near the ending. And neither have an AI opponent. But, this one has a better sense of design (a bit more restrained - come to think of it 1984's display was likely influenced by the Atari 2600 version (though that was 4x4x4)) and UI (the cursor goes more where you'd expect it to) ALRIGHT - I've clearly given too much analysis of games few are likely to want to play that much, and programs that aren't all that much better than pieces of paper. Rating:2/5

Link 'Em - John Cameron

Yet another roughly-boardgame themed game- third for this issue, and third by John Cameron. It's for 2-4 players, who like in "64 Dimensions" are trying to get 4 in a row, taking turns putting down balls of their color. When you land on a square, though, it might give you bonus points, it might let you drop on through, or it might let you pick difficulty (with scaled point rewards) for a very confusing "Mastermind" like game where you swap 2 numbers at a time and the computer tells you how many are correct. So the presentation is very nice, but I'm very far removed from the people who I think would enjoy this: it's too much slow and too much conniving for the casual game player and too much luck for the strategy game player. Rating:2/5