Review by Bloomer

"Rock and Roll!"

Like many great artistic, cultural or technological revolutions, or maybe even your favourite rock band, Apple Computer started off in a garage.

In the 1970s, the concept of a 'personal computer' was the dream of computing employees and engineers. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs created and made available to the general consumer the first truly useful, accessible and cheap personal computer: the Apple II. The 'II' was launched in 1977, which in merciless computing years might seem to be a century ago. Yet consider what you expect to get when you buy a personal computer today: A keyboard, a handy storage system of some kind, a graphics interface, and expandability. The taken-for-granted concept of what a personal computer is was actually defined by the Apple II, which pioneered all of these traits as a package.

With that awesome historical information out of the way, let's move onto the purpose of this essay: To talk about APPLE GAMING!

As the most successful and long-lived computer platform in history (the Apple II line was in continuous production for sixteen years) the Apple amassed an enormous and diverse library of popular games. The surprise for me, looking back as an adult two decades on, is how vital the computer turned out to be for the entire project of videogaming. Genres were developed on the Apple II which we now take for granted across any platform, or which directly led to the establishment of gaming giants.

--- PART I: THE COMPUTER ---

(to be followed by Part II: The Games)

APPLE II ROLL CALL

For this essay, I'm addressing Apple's eight-bit computers only, and their games. The final Apple II model was the Apple IIGS which boasted its own sixteen-bit processor and unique games library to match. IIGS gaming is a universe unto itself which I hope to address separately in the future.

Apple II Models based on the 1MHz 6502 processor

Apple II
Apple II+
Apple IIe (Original)

Ultimately the 6502 Apples liked to sit at around 64K of RAM.

Apple II Models based on the 1MHz 65C02 processor: 128K RAM

Apple IIe (Enhanced and Platinum versions)
Apple IIc (The Portable One)

The processor used in later Apples had a wider instruction set and supported a new graphics mode or two. Some later games won't run on 6502 Apples, but 6502 games are entirely compatible with the 65C02.

GRAPHICS

The core graphics display mode common across all eight-bit Apple II models and used by ninety-five percent of their games is known as Hi-Res. Hi-Res gives 280 pixels across by 192 pixels down, with an official cast of four garish colours (blue, orange, magenta, green) plus black and white. But because the information for seven pixels is crammed into each byte of screen memory inside the computer, Apple pixels are downright rebellious. Put a blue dot near a magenta one and the whole area might flip you off before turning green.

The bizarre paint-like behaviour of the Apple display proved to be a blessing in disguise. Over the years, programmers came up with dozens of strategies to deceive the display into working for them, and produced better results than should have been possible. For instance, by carefully teasing adjacent bytes in the right order, it's possible to bring out colours like yellow or aqua which aren't even officially available to Hi-Res.

On the 128K Apple IIe models and the Apple IIc, a new graphics mode known as Double Hi-Res was introduced, though it's not as 'double' as it sounds. Only by limiting yourself to black and white could you achieve a true (and admittedly impressive for the early 1980s) 512 pixels of horizontal resolution. The real use of Double Hi-Res was to access a rainbow of fifteen colours across the old 292 horizontal range. Ironically, the processor stretch of Double Hi-Res meant it was rarely used in games, or sometimes limited to title screens, like in Test Drive.

SOUND

The Apple speaker mechanism had a whopping two positions: On and off. By toggling the speaker at different speeds (beyond the range of human perception, of course) you produced sounds. This scheme must sound ludicrous to children born in an age of dedicated sound chips, but via amazing deceptions of acoustics, timbre and octave-bouncing, fiercely determined programmers managed to exploit the Apple's analogue system to produce absolutely everything they needed, from lasers and explosions all the way to reasonable speech synthesis. Check out the funky vocal introduction to the deadly underwater shoot-em-up Sea Dragon:

''Attention Captain. Your ship's computer is now ready. Please wait while I initialise the systems.''

The game also liked to holler 'Air level critical!' and 'Approaching maximum damage!' at appropriate moments to increase your stress levels, which once prompted my friend to raise his middle finger at the screen and say 'Approach THIS maximum damage!' after which we both rolled around laughing.

Programmer Paul Lutus achieved a break-through in Apple sound with The Electric Duet, a compositional tool whose engine allowed the production of two-voice music in a controllable range of timbres. To give you some idea of the momentousness of this feat, consider that it is the equivalent of tricking the human larynx into being able to sing two notes at once. The analogue growl of the Apple's 'duet', which bears some similarities to the darker end of the range of the Commodore 64's SID chip, is surprisingly expressive. Because the duet relies heavily on physical properties of the computer's speaker to do what it does, it emulates very badly, which is a real shame as it leaves this aspect of the Apple II largely dead to the world in the twenty-first century.

You can hear the duet in the opening of games like Lucifer's Realm or Bruce Lee, or pushed hard for the original (and best) score for Prince of Persia.

--- PART II: THE GAMES ---

PREFACE: OMISSIONS

With space in short supply, I am committing crimes of preference. Sports and educational titles are omitted for more detail on my favourites in core genres. (Sorry Epyx - someone else will have to sing your praises.) I list games in approximate order of preference, so the best of the best come first in any section.

- The Best Of APPLE RPGs

Physically, Apple IIs were juggernauts. Wozniak's 5.25 inch disk drive design was the speediest, most reliable and most accurate you could find in its generation, and this had a direct influence on the kind of games that the system would inspire. RPGs required intensive and random disk access to constantly deal with huge map and character files, thus this is the genre in which the Apple played the strongest developmental role, one whose legacy for gaming in general is strongly felt to the present day.

The Ultima Series - Moving on from his amazing prototype Akalabeth, Richard Garriott refined its concepts into the first Ultima, introducing to the world the tile-based design which became the genre staple for decades. It's hard to think of a more seminal RPG in this respect.

The Bard's Tale I-III - 'Twas Wizardry got the ball rolling with the '3D graphics window with party of characters' genre, and Might and Magic which went mad with it, but the Bard's Tale games are my favourites because they reined everything in and gave back the most distinctive and aesthetically absorbing universe for the genre.

Adventure Construction Set - Renaissance man Stuart Smith created for Electronic Arts what I still think is the most amazing piece of software ever. It offered you an Ultima-style engine (though with far greater flexibility) and allowed you to make your own multi-world games with it, playable by up to four people at a time. And this was in 1984!

2400 A.D. - My favourite take on an Ultima-style engine, this amazingly immersive sci-fi tale of human rebellion against robots in an oppressive future society was tense and affecting, whenever it wasn't being cute.

Moebius - The Orb of Celestial Harmony - Not a 'pure' RPG, with its side-on action martial arts interludes, but the dark world of Moebius consumed me for years. As the Windwalker's disciple, you must journey through four elemental realms to recover the stolen orb. A combination of dismal atmosphere, slaughterous difficulty, intense combat and one of the strangest mythologies ever assembled for any adventure leaves the player stunned. Or at least frustrated.

Phantasie I-III - The most doggedly different of Apple fantasy RPGs exploited all kinds of weird displays and tiny maps, but is best remembered by myself for its terrifying/ hilarious/ ludicrous violence. Reel as heads and limbs are hacked and shot off, then enjoy a banal text message informing you that Helena's torso has been removed. Super!

Eamon - Created by Donald Brown, Eamon was a cult text adventure experience with RPG elements, a fun combat-heavy engine and scenarios designed by its fans. Anyone who has played a MUD (Multi User Dimension) in the internet age would instantly recognise a 1980s Eamon as a single-player MUD; Eamon was a direct antecedent to the birth of MUDs in the 1990s.

- The Best Of ACTION

I. PLATFORMERS

Conan - It's amazing that anyone was able to tease so much depth and variety out of just seven screens of platforming combat and puzzles. Easily the best game to date about the adventures of the muscle-bound Cimmerian.

Prince of Persia - Jordan Mechner made great headway with realistic human animation and cinematic presentation on the Apple II in 1983, with Karateka. He returned in 1989 and more than trumped his own efforts with this landmark adventure of Arabian swashbuckling, which went on to become the most ported game ever.

Bruce Lee - Kung-fu platforming nirvana, missing only the Commodore 64's two players at once mode. Rick Mirsky also programmed The Goonies (too mean) and Zorro (bigger, cleverer, but the fighting feels random) in a similar style.

Black Magic - Taking its major cues from Capcom fantasy coin-ops like Black Tiger, this is the most majestically scaled and ambitious omni-directional scrolling platformer for the computer.

Lode Runner - 1983: The presence of 150 distinct levels in a platform game was unprecedented, as was the ability to create your own levels and save them to disk. With its combination of gold-digging, pit-drilling action and sometimes quite complex puzzles, the game spawned hundreds of clones over the years.

Captain Goodnight and the Islands of Fear - An extravaganza of platforming and vehicular action with a freaky sense of humour. Fly jets and bombers, drive jeeps and tanks, and groan as you are mown down on foot by grenade-lobbing robots, or maniacs known as the 'Tremho Berserkers'.

Drol - Beautifully animated platformer in which you play an egg of a robot rescuing children and their mother from cute/weird monsters. A real head-turner, ported to many other platforms.

Aztec - Descend in the style of Indiana Jones through floors of ravenous beasts and insane traps to recover a precious idol. The detailed graphics, groggily animated as they are, and the weird bugs somehow only enhance the awful effect of being mauled by vipers, crushed between moving walls or molested by a disgusting tentacle monster.

Kid Niki - We didn't get many cute 'bubble-head' style platformers on the Apple II, but we did get this great port of Kid Niki. It doesn't scroll like in the arcade, instead flashing up one scene at a time, but it is attractive, charming, fun, and quite unusual in style for the Apple.

II. 'JETTERS'

The Apple had a particular affinity for rapid, usually side-scrolling games where you got to fly a jet or spaceship, or pilot a submarine. Maybe it's because this was the only kind of scrolling the computer could satisfactorily handle at full speed, but here are some of the aces.

Airheart - The greatest triumph of complete in-game Double Hi-Res, and one of the very best Apple II games ever, Airheart is a fantasy adventure featuring jet-sled combat with robots in a bizarre aquatic world. The fluid pseudo-3D animation, cracking pace and humourous death animations make this hard to top.

Wings of Fury - Brilliant and exacting period jetter puts you in the cockpit of an F6F Hellcat in 1944. Technically awesome, incorporates the real physics of old fighters into an arcade style, and has the most spectacular scenes of destruction of any Apple II game. Watch as your flaming plane ploughs through an entire jungle!

Sea Dragon - A steady but relentless festival of enemy and bomb-pattern memorisation (before R-Type existed) as your submarine descends into a rigorous aquatic hell. Cruel, but probably the most addictively grueling Apple II action game.

Aquatron - It's just you and your jet, which can also 'fly' underwater, against massive spawning armadas of aliens. Scrolls at lightspeed and makes you sweat heavily.

Star Blazer - Five levels of flying a wonky inertia-heavy bomber to destroy enemy installations. Each level came with a wicked gimmick (Remember the pain of 'Attack the Tank'?) or some incredible action, like weaving through clouds of heat-seeking missiles. Great flourishes such as a bird which steals your fuel packages, or the joy of careening headfirst into telegraph poles, will never be forgotten.

III. MAZE GAMES

The Apple II might boast more takes on Pacman than any other system, with the official Ms. Pacman being the stellar standout, but for the most part its finest maze games aren't about eating dots.

Lady Tut - Take all the moves of Stern's coin-op Tutankham, add moving walls, name it after a foxy Egyptian lady, and HEY PRESTO! Labyrinthine greatness.

Gemstone Warrior and Gemstone Healer - Like Gauntlet with less enemies but more depth... cavernous fortresses, scary monsters and scores of cool magic items to use.

Short Circuit - Polished, cerebral game of reflexes and logic set inside raging microchips. From David Crane, creator of the similarly impressive Crisis Mountain and Dino Eggs.

Microwave - Massively energetic maze game in which you must grab hi-tech goodies from under the nose of monsters whilst killing them with microwave dishes(!). Most famous for its relentless and catchy musical repertoire, which even includes the canteena theme from Star Wars.

- The Best Of ADVENTURE GAMES

Text adventure games were born on mainframes, but found their first popular home on the Apple II. And before 1980, adventure games with graphics did not exist at all. At which point a married couple with hacking and dreaming genes shared between them, Ken and Roberta Williams, created Mystery House. Now you could type commands and see where you were - a first. Initially calling themselves On-Line Systems, the Williamses later became Sierra On-Line, and the rest is history.

(N.B. They also foisted King's Quest upon us, and the 'I can see myself walking around as I type' genre, for which I expressly Do Not thank them. Others may disagree.)

The Infocom text adventure legacy - 'Interactive Fiction' - started off on the Apple II with the original Zork. Dozens of incredibly sophisticated games followed across all genres. Suspended remains my favourite, with its chilling delivery and the innovation of controlling multiple robots across whom your senses are split, but consider also such classics as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the Enchanter games.

Adventure International produced a sparse but very neat series of memorable text adventures. My picks are the cruel and daunting sci-fi mini-epic Strange Odyssey, and jokey Dracula tale The Count.

My selection of the best graphic adventures for the Apple II is far more idiosyncratic:

Lucifer's Realm - AKA 'Ken and Roberta Williams Send You To Hell.' Hell turns out to be filled with Nazis, famous killers from history and grapefruit sized spiders. The puzzles are quite strange, but the morbid atmosphere really seeps into your bones. Evil graphics!

Transylvania - Praised for its atmospheric visuals, its puzzles were good too. Besides, I like any game that asks me to type my name then has a ghost call it out to me later.

The Wizard And The Princess - Those wacky Williamses. This might be a fairy tale, but it's savagely hard!

- The Best Of ARCADE PORTS

I only realised when I was all growed up that piles of early Apple II games were clones of what was popular at the arcade at the time.

Astro Blaster became Apple II's Gamma Goblins.

Phoenix became Falcons.

Berzerk became Thief.

Centipede begat Bug Attack, and so on.

In primary school, kids are told not to 'copy', but later on you realise that conscious mimicry in art is the process by which we all learn how to do it ourselves, and Apple II programmers went all out trying to make the computer do what was going on at the arcades.

The Apple had all the official ports as well: Donkey Kong, Zaxxon, Tapper, Jungle Hunt, Mr. Do et al. Data East tried hard with a lot of games that were really too much for the computer, though Kung-Fu Master just sucked outright - and what fun is Commando without the music anyway?

More importantly, check these out:

Xevious - Incredibly faithful, good-looking and technically well-handled port of the shoot-em-up classic. All that's missing is the wafting musical backdrop.

Robotron: 2084 - Absolutely terrifying! Arguably the noisiest, most raucous and chaotic Apple II action game.

- The Best Of TWO-PLAYER ACTION

Star Thief - Start with the Asteroids concept, place a bunch of precious jewels in the centre of the galaxy (I.E. the screen) then send one or two players out in inertia-ridden space ships to shoot and suicide-ram endless waves of thieving aliens. With unlimited ships at your disposal, the carnage and hilarity for you and your friend are maximised. Old and simple, but unbelievably tense!

Mario Bros - The Apple translation of Mario and Luigi's sewer wars was sublime, and started many fights between ten year-olds.

Diamond Mine - Precise two-player maze game of gem hoarding made us all tear our hair out, but I guess that's why we always came back for more.

- THE PITS

In the scramble for Apple II gold, a few turkeys inevitably escaped. Check out my 'unholy triangle' to make yourself laugh, or weep.

U.F.O. - Ludicrously low-rent shoot-em-up. You know you're in trouble when you realise the game forces you to watch its long, cornball introductory sequence of abduction by flying saucer every time you lose a life.

Canyon Climber - Stupid, arbitrary and insulting platformer sends you to Goat Hell.

Handy Dandy - He looks a lot like Mario, but he can't jump, and is killed constantly by low flying rats and randomly ejaculating steam vents. Awful.

THE FINALE

The incredible variety of Apple games is testament to the immense creativity and hacking spirit of the early years of personal computing. There were no graphics cards and no sound chips. Gaming wasn't even necessarily a major purpose of the computer; the Apple II was a system which arrived open to its users' interpretations. There was a raw, largely uncharted internal ROM, and users who liked the games they saw on mainframes and in the arcades at the time went in there and hacked their own gaming engines from scratch, so that they could play those kinds of games at home. In turn, their efforts inspired others, and the ultimate result that nobody would have foreseen was the most successful and long-lived eight-bit computer gaming platform, which defined many gaming concepts as we know them today.

I grew up with the Apple II from the age of five. It moulded me as a cute and too-serious little gamer, as a computer freak, and maybe even as an imaginative person. And that makes me proud!


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 04/01/02, Updated 08/01/02


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