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Retro Software: Everything Old Is New Again

Although I own several compact discs by Journey and have been known to watch re-runs of Family Ties, I never thought I’d be nostalgic for the bad graphics and jerky animation of those Atari 2600 video games which appeared under the Christmas tree when I was a pre-teen. Nor could you have convinced me that in an era of 24-bit stereo sound, 3-D rendered graphics, and full-motion video, I’d want to play a coin-operated video game manufactured during the early years of the Reagan administration.

But as 1995 draws to a close, that’s exactly the position I’m in. These are the days of nostalgia software, when longings for programs written during the heyday of The Cosby Show can be fulfilled.

Nostalgia software developers use three basic methods to create products: rewrite software for a new platform, but recreate the original in every detail; design a software emulator that runs an original program on a new platform; or write an homage to the classic game that adds new features, graphics, or technologies.

Direct Rewrites — The worst nostalgia software are programs rewritten from scratch to look exactly like the original – namely Microsoft Arcade, a package containing classic Atari console games like Asteroids, Centipede, and Space Invaders. Sure, the games in Microsoft Arcade look like the genuine ’80s articles; unfortunately, the games also have the bulk and slothfulness found in ’90s-era Microsoft applications. Why play a poky version of Battlezone when you could play Velocity Development’s Spectre (which is essentially a more advanced version of the same game, only faster and with better graphics)?

Emulating an Era — One clever way of reducing development time while providing the ultimate nostalgic experience is developing software that emulates the game’s original hardware platform. That’s the tack taken by my favorite set of nostalgia games, Digital Eclipse’s versions of the Williams arcade classics Defender, Joust, and Robotron. These games use the same code written for the Williams arcade console, plus an emulator that runs them on a Mac. Not only do these games run fast, but all the strategies (and Easter eggs) that worked in your quarter-spending days still do the trick. A CD-ROM version of these games, including three other Williams titles, should be available early next year.

Though Digital Eclipse’s emulator might be the most impressive, it’s not the only one out there. Activision has released two compendiums of their old games for the Atari 2600, with two more on the way. Although it’s great to play Activision chestnuts like Kaboom! and Pitfall, the Activision emulator is neither as fast nor as stable as it should be. Activision’s also mining the classic text adventures of the past, offering themed bundles of such great games as Starcross, Deadline, and The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy.

All sorts of emulators for older personal computers are available, but my personal favorite is Stop The Madness, an Apple II+ emulator by Kevin Lund and Jim Nitchals. The good news is that Stop The Madness is a fully-functional Apple II+ emulator; the bad news is that almost no software exists for the emulator due to copyright concerns. If you have an Apple II, you can transfer Apple II disks to a Mac via a serial cable and some ingenious software, but if you’re like me and sold that Apple IIe years ago to make way for that shiny new Mac SE, software will be hard to come by. You can find Stop the Madness and related software at the following FTP site:

Given the speed and high level of compatibility of the Stop the Madness emulator, it’d be a shame for the program to go to waste. Wouldn’t it be nice if a nostalgia-minded company licensed Stop The Madness and made some of those long-lost Apple II programs available to Mac users? Maybe there’s hope in the example of Origin Systems’ classic Ultima III, now given new life in a Mac shareware rewrite by Leon McNeill. McNeill got the approval of Richard Garriott, the game’s original author, and licensed the game from Origin Systems in order to release it legally. ultima3-12.hqx

The Sincerest Form of Flattery — Of course, if developers don’t want to worry about licensing decades-old software titles from companies that may no longer exist, they can always create a game from scratch that’s an homage to the original. There are excellent shareware remakes of old games – featuring fast game play and snazzy graphics – including Maelstrom (Asteroids), Apeiron (Centipede), Glypha (Joust), and countless others. maelstrom-142.hqx apeiron-102.hqx glypha-III-101.hqx

In the past year, there have been plenty of complaints that business software has grown slow and monolithic – that we’re forced to buy word processors that ship on a dozen floppies when a program that can fit on just one would serve most of us just as well. Maybe the same can be said for games. Sure, it’s fun to play Marathon 2 on a Power Mac with stereo speakers, but is it that much more entertaining than a rousing game of Joust, Defender or Space Invaders?

Didn’t think so.

Activision — 310/479-5644 — <[email protected]>
Digital Eclipse — 510/450-1740 — <[email protected]>
Microsoft Corporation — 800/426-9400 — 206/882-8080
Velocity Development — 415/776-8000

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