Thursday, June 23, 2016

More things lost on today's youth

I'm a collector.  My wife doesn't help me with my problem.  It's something I've done since I was young, and growing up as an only child, it brought me joy to share these things with others.  On the other hand, she comes from a big family but has also come to appreciate stuff.  There are things we collect together, such as retro video games, which led us to the Let's Play Gaming Expo which was in Plano, TX on 6/18 and 6/19.  We brought eight of our home console systems with at least one game per system from our personal stash, and two pinball machines.  (Not to mention the gigantic 100x NES controller.)

We have seen a staggering evolution in technology and aesthetics in our just shy of 30 years in existence, and what's more interesting to me about this evolution is the things we don't do anymore rather than the new things that have evolved.  For instance, print media has declined drastically over the past 15 years, pay-phone booths are virtually non-existent, and hardly anyone keeps a Mapsco in their car to get themselves around town anymore.  Some of us hardly remember how to hold a pencil, and are much faster and neater with Swype or even speech-to-text technology.

And time marches on.  The youngest kids old enough to truly enjoy Bob Barker's hosting style on The Price Is Right are now in college.  Soon, going out shopping or going to the post office (yes, some of us have businesses that ship goods, and some of you might still have landlords who are stuck in the '70s) will be a thing of the past.  In the far future, gas stations will be a thing of the past, and hopefully we will no longer be driving cars, thus buying us all sorts of time to enjoy the scenery or absorb ourselves in the latest gossip or games.

There are people in this world, young and old alike, who have missed out on these cultural phenomena.  And there are others who cherish them and to whom it all brings back fond memories.  At the expo, we shared our toys with kids of all ages whose experiences with these things varied greatly.  It was gratifying to watch a pinball wizard set a high score on one of my machines, which I will spend months trying to beat back at home.  It also felt good to teach a youngster how to use an Atari 7800 controller.  But when I wasn't around to guide people on the best ways to enjoy these things, I observed some awfully odd behavior.

You're One Person, But You Started Four Games

Pinball machines tend to have modes where a maximum of four people can take turns playing one ball at a time in a 3- or 5-ball game.  In the arcade, people would pay money for a "credit" which allowed one player to play.  Thus, four credits meant one player could play four games, four players could compete in a single game, or anything in between.  I've somewhat questioned the utility of this mode, since it doesn't really speed things up; if you're waiting in line to play a game, though, it can facilitate bonding with other pinheads and at least get more people in the queue playing rather than waiting.

Nevertheless, I wished I had made my games require people to pay for a credit in order to avert a really bizarre behavior enabled by free play.  Many people (including practically everyone I walked by on Sunday) thought that the "Start" button would actually launch the ball and begin the game.  Pinball players with any experience know that the Start button only puts a ball in the shooter lane for you, and you then need to pull back the plunger in order to try to make the skill shot.  So often, I saw a single person who had started four games all for themselves before figuring out how they messed up.  I don't even usually play four games in a row on any of my machines, so as you can imagine, most people got bored and walked away, leaving other players in the midst of a game in progress and no good path to getting a high score.  No one bothers resetting the machines for obvious reasons, but hopefully at least a couple more people in this world know what to do if they decide to play pinball.

I even found four quarters in my World Cup Soccer '94 game at the end of the expo!  Were these people tipping me, or did they think they really needed to put in money to start a game?  Imagine if I didn't check that before putting the game up on a dolly, which would cause the quarters to fall back and possibly short something.  Nevertheless, proof that it still pays to own old games. ;)

Long Times To Boot

Among the consoles, I brought systems that were generally modded to boot faster than normal.  Raymond Jett sold me a special BIOS chip for the ColecoVision that eliminates the ungodly long time you have to wait for it to start up normally.  Same deal with our Sega Master System.  However, the poor old Amiga 500 had no such love; we still had to put in our Workbench 1.3 floppy disk and wait about 5 minutes for it to boot up each time it needed to be rebooted (and so many people messed with it that reboots were frequently necessitated).  When doing this, people would often try to bang on the keyboard during the lengthy boot cycle to see if the system did something.  Then, they were surprised to see that such an old system actually had a desktop-style GUI.  Evidently, no one remembers waiting around!  My Nexus 6P seems to take an ungodly long time to cold boot, so I guess most folks are either never letting their batteries die or never installing critical system updates.

Someday, I will see about getting a ROM with various versions of Workbench programmed onto it.  This'll save me the hassle of floppy disks and buy me the convenience of loading whatever Workbench version works nicest with whatever I want to do.  Similarly, I put a 1GB SCSI hard drive onto my Mac Plus from 1986 in order to help with loading System 6 and large programs such as Photoshop.  While everyone should go through at least once what people back in the day had to suffer through, even those before us had limits and would eventually spend $1,000 on a device (usually a 40MB hard drive) that saved them from having to swap the Photoshop floppy with the System floppy several times just to draw a gradient, not to mention how many times required to load the program!


There seems to be an age where one actually understands what's going on rather than just mashing the controller or watching the game basically play itself.  I was trying to teach one poor youngster how to play Joust on the Atari 7800, but he was notably bad at pressing the Fire button on the side in order to get his character to fly.  Another kid was getting a lesson in Food Fight from me, but he had a hard time aiming to sling deadly food at the attacking chefs.  Others would hold the joystick sideways or upside-down, causing their character to move in unexpected ways.  How much user research was done on these things back in the day to find out how intuitive they were?  Did kids fumble with controllers as much back then?  It would make me sad to see my own kids fumble with everything in my own collection, and would hope I could coach them enough so that eventually they're adept at even the things I fumble with (basically anything like a SNES controller or newer).

I was probably the only person working on systems live in-person in the free play room.  I still hadn't reassembled my ColecoVision from attempting the composite mod (so it would have composite video out rather than only RF out, which looks terrible), so I had to spend time taking care of that.  I was frequently removing the top cover of the Amiga to point out the Indivision ECS scan doubler / flicker fixer I installed into it so it could output VGA rather than to some weird unobtainium 23-pin RGB connector or to the black-and-white composite port.  It was extremely lucky that I got that card in from FedEx just hours before the show started, and I had lots of fun showing it off.

The other thing is my Amiga case is actually broken -- it doesn't really snap shut anymore, and one of the standoffs that you're supposed to screw the disk drive into is cracked.  Thus, it was hard for people to eject disks from it, and some folks even assumed that since they couldn't press the Eject button, the disk drive was empty.  I walked upon it once where there were two disks in the disk drive!  Argh.  Sad, but I will definitely have to rethink taking the Amiga with me to any public shows unattended.  That, and it developed a habit of screaming "Guru Meditation: Software Failure" at me, which is usually more a sign of hardware failure than software failure.  Hopefully I can whack that gremlin out of the system before long...

Not sure what other truly home-brew hardware people whipped up for the Expo (probably none), but besides building my 100-times-scale NES controller (which will be described in more detail here soon), I used the rest of the off-brand controller I harvested to make a Vectrex controller.  Controllers for the Vectrex are getting outrageously expensive, and I didn't feel like modifying one of our name-brand Sega controllers, so I decided to spend roughly double that value worth of my own time building one myself. Here's the guts:

The "component side" of this piece of prototyping board used in the Vectrex controller.  It's nothing more than hand-cut wires and several resistors, and on the other side, there are some short wires exposed that get shorted together each time you press down one of the buttons.

A few astute people noticed I was walking around with a Nintendo controller that had a Sega plug on the end of it!  It was nice that people were paying such close attention, but soon I solved that problem (and the other problem of "Why's this knock-off NES controller hooked up to this Vectrex?") by commissioning this decal from the folks at Muffin Bros. Graphics, basically taking the Vectrex controller graphics and massaging it onto their NES template:

Ooh, shiny!  And nothing like reproduction multi-carts for the Vectrex.