Apple II Celebrates 35 Years With Ultima, Prince Of Persia & Choplifter
As the Apple II hits 35, Craig Grannell looks back at the system’s gaming roots and then-unprecedented consumer focus, the machine’s importance within the history of videogaming, the developers who made the machine sing, and the all-important games themselves…
In recent years, Apple revolutionised computing through the Mac and iOS devices. Gaming is also rapidly evolving now, in part due to the iPhone and iPad.
For those who remember more than a decade of concerns about a doomed, beleaguered Apple – especially in gaming, where Apple users would consider themselves ‘lucky’ to pay full price for titles already consigned to bargain bins on the PC – this probably came as a bit of a shock.
But it shouldn’t have; Apple’s history is in some ways built on gaming foundations through its earliest consumer machine, the Apple II, which revolutionised home gaming in the USA.
For those who grew up battling teletype machines, the Apple II was almost magical.
“It was so far ahead of its time that photographers setting up an image of the future would include an Apple II in the shot, because it honestly looked like it came from the future, not the present,” remembers Trip Hawkins, entrepreneur and founder of Electronic Arts.
“It was a superior and elegant design. A patented power supply meant no fan was required, so there was no noise. It was the first machine with colour and bitmapped graphics, and it was easy to add peripherals.”
Do you have an Apple II tucked away in your attic? We bet you do.
Richard Garriott, who would later create Ultima on an Apple II, was similarly fascinated by the machine.
“My exposure to computers and trying to write games on them pre-dates the Apple II. I discovered in high school a teletype connected with an acoustic modem to a PDP-11 in a neighbouring university’s data centre.”
“It was the only terminal in the school, and I was fascinated,” he remembers.
“But when I saw my first Apple II, I was in wonder. Suddenly, here was a machine where instead of having to invoke a command and wait often minutes for it to process and the results to be printed out, it could instead in real-time visually display to me the fantasy worlds and other fantastical ideas I could think about to program.”
“I immediately saw it as the key to the future – or my own future at least.” It was a winning combination of factors that drew in enthusiasts and developers alike.
Steven Weyhrich, long-time Apple II user and webmaster of apple2history.org, remembers the computer as being particularly approachable:
“It did not require complex skills to pop in a floppy disk, start up the Apple II, and explore it. It was fascinating to see what it could do, with small utilities I discovered, or with tricks and tips learned from magazines.”
“It was a very capable computer, and yet simple enough that it was possible for an individual to understand everything about how it worked.”
Bill Budge, renowned programmer and the creator of Pinball Construction Set, was also a fan of the Apple II’s accessible nature: “It was architecturally very simple and open.”
“A program could essentially take over the entire machine. Clever people could make it do amazing things that probably weren’t foreseen by Wozniak.” Bill was also excited by the Apple II’s colour capabilities, which swayed him from buying a TRS-80; such thoughts are echoed by others.
Robert Woodhead – co-creator of Apple II classic Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord – says: “It was the first machine that had decent graphics capabilities.”
“At the same time, it was simple enough that you could hold a model of the entire machine in your head – Apple II programmers knew everything about the platform.”
Lode Runner creator Doug Smith is similarly enthusiastic: “From an assembly language standpoint, you had full control – from the start address, you could do anything and everything from that point on.”
Why hasn’t anyone remade this! It’s a perfect set-up for a modern action game.
Inevitably, ‘anything and everything’ often meant ‘make games’. “That was largely a function of the fact people desire entertainment, and that interactive entertainment is, at least potentially, much more fulfilling than something passive, like television.
The Apple II was the first, affordable way to realise that potential,” thinks Michael Cranford, creator of the Apple II hit The Bard’s Tale.
“For me, this was my first experience with any computer, so the idea there was a box that could function as an automated ‘gamemaster’ was exciting.”
“It was this idea that was magical – that a game could be created that would run automatically, that could be programmed to approximate a human moderator. This way, I could conceivably program a game and then play it myself.”
However, the quirky nature of Apple II hardware meant the ability to master the entire machine was almost a necessity. Choplifter creator Dan Gorlin remembers there was no way to make sound effects other than with the CPU, and so everything had to stop while a sound was being made.
“But you had absolute control over timing, and so you could polish such things perfectly – something that with later systems became a real challenge.”
Robert says figuring out clever ways to get the machine to do things was part of the fun: “The classic example was Wozniak’s hack of using software to do all the expensive stuff needed to run a floppy disk controller, so the hardware was very simple and cheap… and then his re-hack that increased disk capacity entirely via code changes!”
Richard remembers the challenge and reward of dealing with graphics, due to the Apple II having an illogical backwards bit order (which reportedly enabled Wozniak to save a chip):
“I’d draw a tile on graph paper, convert seven bits of it into binary, reverse the bit order, decide what colour bits I wanted to assign to it, and that would give me a 16-bit number for the top row of that tile.”
“I’d convert that into hexadecimal, and type that directly into the memory of the computer, and then do the same for all 16 rows of the tile. Next, I’d write code to copy those 32 bytes into the right 32 bytes of what I hoped was the screen area, and then I’d see what happened.”
If things didn’t turn out as expected, it could be tough to figure out what had gone wrong.
“It was as brute force as you could possibly imagine,” says Richard. “But here’s what’s so profoundly important that came out of that: you were so careful at each point to make sure you didn’t waste anything.”
It’s amazing how many classics from the time were playable on the Apple II.
He explains that he was forced to figure out designs for a solid tile of grass that could be repeated but not obviously show patterns, and to create interesting coastlines when there wasn’t space for variations.
These working methods might sound archaic, but Richard believes they’re still useful.
“With the latest Ultima games, I’ll find my team needing to make tiled graphics for the outline of an island, and suddenly my 35-year-old skills become pivotal to the art department, because no-one knows how to build a minimal tile-set that will work together and tile appropriately nearly as precisely as I do.”
“I find it very interesting that every cycle of games, my old Apple II skills bubble back up to the surface!”
Interestingly, even at the time, few Apple II developers were irked by what now appear to be severe limitations and quirks.
“I never found the Apple II restrictive, but then the first computer I had access to was a high-school Hewlett-Packard with 4 KB of RAM and a single LED display with 20 characters,” recalls Doug.
“So getting my hands on an Apple II just made me think ‘Wow’ about everything I could do with it. I liked the fine detail and enjoyed taking the time to optimise my code to be as efficient as possible.”
Michael, too, claims it never occurred to him that the Apple II might be restrictive: “This was simply what it was. As we proceeded with development, we’d come up with ways like swapping chunks of code into and out of memory, to make the game operate like it had more memory, or we’d develop our own high-speed disk OS.”
In Michael’s opinion, having no limits – much like modern computing platforms – is actually more restrictive. “Sometimes having a fixed, limited canvas is an inspiration to something greater. If you have no limits, it’s difficult to know how to push things and inspire people.”
Text adventures took on a who;e new life on Apple’s home computer.
In the case of The Bard’s Tale, limitations inspired adding music. “It was like, ‘What cool thing can I do to put some music into this game? Wait, I will connect it to a character class, and make that his spell!’”
Michael reminisces. “Music was infantile on the Apple II, but the ability to run it as a background process was the thing that inspired me to tie it directly into the game content.”
According to Brian Greenstone, Pangea Software CEO, resource limitations combined with a knack for resourcefulness had the knock-on effect of showcasing the talents of Apple II game developers.
“Back then, any computer had serious resource limitations, and so it wasn’t anything you worried about. But Apple II game programmers pushed hardware to its limits and learned new ways of optimising performance.
They were considered the best programmers in the business, because they were the ones who really knew how to get every cycle of performance out of a CPU and how to efficiently store data in small spaces.”
Another beneficial side to the Apple II’s restrictions was, according to id Software co-founder John Romero (whose first game was on the platform), forcing programmers to figure out their own ways to achieve desired effects.
“Later platforms had built-in hardware for graphics and sound, but many games looked similar, because they relied on that technology. The Apple II had no hardware for that, so programmers had to invent their own ways of getting graphics on the screen.”
John says you could look at a game and immediately tell who wrote it, due to the technique. “That’s one striking way the Apple II allowed you to really express your creativity with a very open canvas.” This suggestion finds favour with Doug.
“At the time, we didn’t have the internet, and so what John says is pretty true – everyone had to solve problems their own way,” he affirms.
“The biggest obstacle with the Apple II was not having any sprites, and you had to do a lot of fine bit manipulation. Things were not byte-aligned, so you had to come up with creative ways to get things on to the screen.”
The solo nature of most Apple II games creators also played a role in adding personality to its games. “In those days, it just didn’t make sense to make games a collaborative effort,” thinks Michael.
“The restrictions of the platform, plus the nature of the development environment, more or less dictated solo efforts.”
He says a third party was used for artwork on The Bard’s Tale 2, and a friend composed the music, but even then the design and storyline remained his creation.
Admit it, this is still the best version of Prince Of Persia.
“So there is a lot of me in there. It’s the same with, for example, Stephen King novels: there is a lot of personality, his signature, because it is his creation and inspiration. Novels by collective individuals couldn’t be as interesting.”
“But today’s videogames are collective enterprises that make it hard to differentiate the stamp of individuals. Creativity by consensus rarely results in anything great, in my opinion.”
Brian identifies with that, and thinks the Apple II marked a high point regarding creativity: “We weren’t trying to do ‘more realistic’ versions of an existing game.”
“We were trying to come up with something new, and that was easy to do, because nothing had been done – it was all new!” Such effort and innovation wasn’t lost on Apple II enthusiasts at the time.
Ken Gagne, editor of Apple II magazine Juiced.GS, recalls being gripped by Castle Wolfenstein.
“SS Stormtroopers would shout German commands as they barged into a room, and then chase the player through the castle! Although the game doesn’t fit the ‘survival horror’ genre, it was my first experience of a game that could scare me.”
Steven adds that many of the best games were memorable because they were valuable. “When that $25 to $50 was spent, by God I was going to play that game! Where possible, I’d try something out first at the computer store, and I’d know from trying it that it was great.”
Those who created the games also often found themselves immersed in nascent virtual worlds, often inspiring them to craft their own.
Michael remembers many long nights playing Wizardry, which became the inspiration for The Bard’s Tale: “The weaknesses in the game were rather blatant to me, but the things about it which were great made me want so much more.”
Once again, developers show just how versatile they can be with limited tech.
“I was determined to do my own version.” Trip remembers getting a perfect score in Choplifter as “very emotionally satisfying”, and he spent many hours finishing The Bard’s Tale.
Richard recalls being wowed by Bill Budge’s technical prowess and Nasir Gebelli’s ability to craft fun games. “I thought Budge’s work was so far ahead of anyone else that it appeared to me as magic.”
“I could not conceive how he was pulling it off. I thought I was an expert with the Apple II, but then I’d look at Budge’s 3D work and developer kit, and I was in awe.”
“I had no conception of how he managed with that computer to pull off those effects. So technically, he was my guy… but Gebelli was just making games that were much smaller than mine in scope and they were really playable and fun!”
Richard, of course, created perhaps the most famous Apple II game of them all: Ultima. So we ask if the Apple II was instrumental in that game’s creation, or if it was inevitable and would have arrived through other hardware.
“Without the Apple II, it would never have existed,” he claims. “As much as I enjoyed the teletype that came before, and the machines from around the same time as the Apple II, like the TRS-80 and C64, I found them all harder and less fulfilling to tear into.”
And the hobbyist culture that had sprung up due to the Apple II being both approachable and flexible had created the ideal conditions for people like Garriott to flourish.
“The owner of the store I worked in saw me working on Akalabeth, an Apple II translation of a teletype role-playing game I’d written, but with first-person dungeon corridors instead of a top-down view.”
“He remarked it was better than anything we were selling, and that I should publish it.”
On investing “all the money I’d earned in my life – about two hundred dollars” in printed cover sheets and instruction manuals, Akalabeth was initially sold in the store and then nationwide.
“This was for a game I hadn’t considered publishing – there was no story, no ‘winning’ and no end. It wasn’t written for the public – it was just my own technical demo.
Based on its success, I thought if a game I never intended anyone to see, play or pay for could put me through college, surely I can start over with a game for public consumption and do a better job… and thus Ultima was born.”
The Apple II was a bedroom coders dream. In fact, for many, it still is.
Ultima is a rare example of an Apple II series that survives to the present day, but success stories like Richard’s were fairly commonplace at the time.
Steven reckons in the early days this was down to a lack of competition: “In the US, the Apple II’s only real equivalent competition was the Commodore PET and TRS-80, and although most original Apple IIs only had four-to-16 KB of RAM, they were made to be expandable and had the benefit of colour.”
Even as the Apple II was surpassed by Atari and Commodore machines, it remained popular through a huge installed user-base and the machine’s business and educational abilities.
Now, 35 years on, one might argue the Apple II is only truly popular with those hankering for nostalgia. “That comes down to simplicity,” thinks Michael.
“People aren’t always looking for a complex gaming experience – it’s the reason many mobile games are so enjoyable. People tire of the gore, and many of today’s games rely heavily on violence.”
There appears to be a resurgence in Apple II use, especially in the USA, which goes beyond rose-tinted spectacles. Ken says Juiced.GS subscriptions and attendance at annual Apple II convention KansasFest have grown in recent years.
In part, he admits this is down to people who grew up with the Apple II now being able to indulge in nostalgia, but there are other reasons. “Music and fashion enjoy popularity cycles – kids discover their parents’ tastes.”
“Young people are discovering the Apple II for the first time, are enjoying it and are using it in ways we’d never have imagined.”
He refers to Melissa Barron (melissabarron.net), whose Apple II-inspired artwork has been shown worldwide, and yet Barron was only five years old when the last Apple II rolled off the production line.
Ken believes the Apple II’s relative simplicity compared to modern computers has resulted in a new generation challenging themselves to accomplish tasks on it that “require true genius”.
Ken himself continues to keep the Apple II alive through Juiced.GS, now the longest-running publication dedicated to the platform and the only one still in print.
Look at all those colours. Who knew the Apple II coould do that?
“A retro-computer deserves a retro publication, and keeping Juiced.GS in print instead of online makes it unique,” he says, proudly.
“And while social networks are fine for disseminating Apple II news, our quarterly, hardcopy format lends itself to in-depth features and interviews – depth you may not find in a free blog post.”
Elsewhere, others keep the Apple II alive in a rather more literal sense, as we discover when Richard Garriott reveals he has working Apple IIs in his office, playing his decades-old games.
This was the result of writer Bruce Sterling remarking at a developer conference on the differences between writers and developers. Writers, he said, find it tough to write the best book ever, due to the sheer number that came before; but on succeeding, such an achievement could last decades.
By comparison, developer skills and hardware evolve so rapidly that creating better games is potentially easier, but such a thing would never stand for long; worse, the machine to look at such a landmark game would soon disappear, and therefore the work could be forgotten.
“As soon as I heard that, it was a crushing blow to my ego. I was lucky enough to be there at the very beginning, and I wanted to think the things I’d created were worthy of being the best at the time,” recalls Richard.
“But this was before emulation, and at the time I already had no way to even look at Ultima 1, 2, 3 or Akalabeth. My first four games were lost to me, and so on returning home, I inventoried what worked with my Apple IIs and went on a buying binge for spare parts to keep my machines operational!”
Like Ken Gagne, Richard isn’t being purely nostalgic in his actions – he too believes there is value in keeping the Apple II flame burning.
“Not only was it effectively the first, but it was capable enough to enable all the foundational principles of games to be explored – data compression techniques, tiled graphics, sound.
It had a single speaker with a single bit you could turn on or off to put the speaker up or down, and that was it. But people discovered by modulating that back and forth very quickly, you could make sawtooth and sine-wave sounds.
In these ways and others, the Apple II was just capable enough. But the language of game creation all happened on the Apple II, and so as you look back at those old games, you can see the imprints of that language being developed.
Once an industry develops, the techniques are well understood; the artistry’s still strong. But there’s something about studying the original masters who developed those early techniques, and the hardware on which they worked.”
Special thanks to Ken Gagne, Sheila Boughten, David Swofford, and reader Ansgar Kueckes for his photography help.