Sunday, September 07, 2008

Some Apple II Nostalgia

I've just come across a site called Virtual Apple ][ and that got me feeling nostalgic about playing some of the classic videogames from that era and how I got into computing in general. Back when I was working as a lab technician in Glasgow University in the 1970s, the department had its own DEC PDP-8 and PDP-11 mini-computers and I, keen to get on in the world and seeing this new technology as a possible means of rising above my current level, I jumped in head first.

WizardryAlmost all of our programs back then were written in BASIC or FORTRAN back then with the real gurus producing machine code for the seriously low-level programming tasks so I taught myself both BASIC and FORTRAN as well as FOCAL-8 and got into the world of paper tape and keyboards. However, getting time on the machines was very difficult as everyone in the department and their dog wanted computer time since that was the "in thing" for research scientist types to do.

When we then bought another computer to analyse the data from our nice, new Japanese scanning electron microscope, I got lucky and got myself involved with that team. The microscope had an attachment that could give us a chemical breakdown of the target being scanned and I got roped into helping with the data analysis system a bit and my career in computing got a bit closer.

Ultima IIMy next break came when microcomputers like the Commodore PET and the Apple II came along in the late 1970s. They were cheap enough that almost every research project needing a bit of data analysis wanted its own, dedicated computer to do the job; no more queuing for or fighting over session time on the bigger department machines. It also meant that I got more keyboard time as well and I ended up developing some pretty complex programs for research projects and even learned that esoteric art of machine code programming along the way.

We had a few PETs, and I'll never forgot the hours I spent at those wee calculator keyboards, but our first Apple computer was an Apple II with a huge 16K of memory and I was hooked. An Apple II Europlus soon followed and, with their own floppy disk systems, our department really started to use them in earnest.

Lode RunnerThat's when I discovered the world of Apple II games. Sure, I'd played Space Invaders on the PET but this was a brand new world; the Apple had a hi-res colour display and it came with game paddles. It was a huge leap forward from the text-based games like Collosal Cave that our scientist types played on the PDP-11. Computer-based video games had definitely landed and were on a roll; they just hadn't hit the home market yet or at least not many folk could afford their own home computer back then.

Anyway, back to Virtual Apple ][, which is a site with a collection of more than 1250 Apple II and IIgs games and you can play them all through your web browser. Games like Lode Runner, Tetris, Ultima, Wizardry and Zaxxon take me right back to that time and I remember playing some of these for hours and hours. It's a pity and even a bit ironic that they can't be played using a Macintosh but a Mac OS X-compatible version of the emulator is expected "soon".