Notes about 1980s
Jordan Mechner’s game development diaries from when he made the original Prince of Persia are a good read, and now available in what looks like a nicely illustrated hardback edition — he was a teenager when he released his first commercial game and roughly 20 when developing the even bigger hit Prince of Persia, and his diaries illuminate both the remarkable technical accomplishments he was able to pull off on the limited 1980s hardware but also the mind and outlook of a teenager diving into an increasingly commercial world.
In 1985, computer graphics were exotic enough that using them for a TV commercial was the kind of thing you might save for a Super Bowl ad slot, as seen in this short documentary. I would not have guessed that the first significant use of CGI on TV was for an ad illustrating the sexy (?) futuristic appear of _aluminum cans_.
(They fail to mention this in this mini-doc, but the ad studio was clearly lifting the chrome-plated sexy robots imagery of Japanese illustrator Hajime Sorayama)
A love letter from the IEEE Spectrum about the 1980s BBS phenomenon with an emphasis on how BBSes and the FidoNet message system spurred the creation of local social networks between users, the local part mostly being lost on our current global social media platforms.
An add-on for FidoNet called Echomail written by a developer in Dallas, Texas took simple conversational forums like this across the nation — for a fictionalized account of this history, see the 2nd season of Halt and Catch Fire (OK, that show is riffing more on the Lucasfilm Games-develoed Quantum Link Club Caribe, but it’s of the right era and zeitgeist)
This would be a fun thing to dink around with: a level editor for the Apple II version of Prince of Persia, one of the most innovative platforming games of all time.
If you have any interest in game design and development, be sure to also read Jordan Mechner’s journals / diaries from his time making Karateka and Prince of Persia — a time capsule into the mind of a successful ~18-year-old game dev auteur.
The Making of Rock & Rule
Hey, it’s Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, and Maurice White talking about their roles in the odd, uneven 1983 toon film Rock & Rule. The movie itself is kind of lousy, except that it somehow was starring these folks (and their music), and despite Nelvana turning it into a very off Disney / Goofy-esque rotoscoped nightmare.
Possibly of interest for the above-mentioned musician interviews alone, the documentary also has scenes of how feature animation was made in the early 1980s (traditional hand-drawn cels with multiplane camera photography), and some talk about the synthesizer work of Patricia Cullen (who IMBD tells me recorded synth scores for a number of other 1980s cartoons and TV shows).
(via The Making of Rock and Rule : Nelvana : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive)
A nice 30-minute radio documentary on famous phone phreaker Josef Carl Engressia, aka Joybubbles, with audio from his “Stories & Stuff” call-in recordings and interviews featuring John “Captain Crunch” Draper and “Jack the Ripper.”
If you read one medium-length essay about Jim Varney and the origins and triumphs of ‘Ernest P. Worrell’, make it this one.
The tactic of creating a nationwide “regional” advertising mascot working for disparate brands still seems pretty strange — I first saw Ernest when I was a kid in goofy early 1980s TV ads for the north Texas chain of Braum’s ice cream / dairy stores and assumed that he was from around there — but they struck on a character that was lasting enough to spin off multiple movies, a TV show, a lifetime of guest appearances, future voice work…
This also reminded me that I’d also seen his name on early Lucasfilm Game products — he was the one who had to bowdlerize the NES port of Maniac Mansion for the NES! Go read his Expurgation of Maniac Mansion post, it’s worth it if you’re a fan of that era of adventure game.
Anyhow, I kind of envy his career path.
From JWZ, co-creator of Mosaic and Netscape, the history of an iconic early logo design on the WWW, which was way more directly connected with Shepard Fairey than I had thought.
So that was the time that I somehow convinced a multi-billion dollar corporation to give away the source code to their flagship product and re-brand it using propaganda art by the world’s most notorious graffiti artist.
Side note: it’s a good time to rewatch They Live.
[Video no longer available]
In 1983, immediately after screening his new film Out of the Blue at Rice University, Dennis Hopper invited the attendees out to a racetrack outside city limits by way of school bus where they could watch the actor sit in a chair ringed by dynamite and witness him explode — or hopefully not, if the trick he called the “Russian Dynamite Death Chair Act” is pulled off successfully…
In attendance for the explosive, not-entirely-sober stunt: Wim Wenders (presumably in the vicinity while filming Paris, Texas?), Terry Southern (screenwriter: Dr. Strangelove, Casino Royale, Easy Rider), and a 22-year-old Sam Houston State student named Richard Linklater (!).
Dangerous Minds has the full story.
(hat tip to Caitlin Moore and John-Mike who heard the episode firsthand from Mr. Linklater at a recent Austin Film Society event)
My mind was somewhat blown when I discovered that the Clash filmed the video for Rock the Casbah here in Austin, TX back in 1981 (go watch it, it’s on YouTube). It became a trivia game amongst my office of long-time Austinites to try to identify all of the various shots in the video, most of which are at businesses and hangouts long gone (you’ll see the original Posse at 24th & Guadalupe, the Alamo Hotel, the Burger King on the Drag, the gas station across from Oat Willie’s on 29th, the old City Coliseum music venue, etc.).
Before I go into the long Austin-nerd story below, I learned a couple of other amazing things about this video via this great read:
- The director of photography was Barry Sonnenfeld, who would later go on to film Raising Arizona, When Harry Met Sally, and direct the Men in Black trilogy and The Addams Family.
- The “Sheik” and the “Orthodox Jew” characters were played by amateur actors. The two of them hung out with Barry Sonnenfeld that night at the Liberty Lunch, and met a couple of young dudes in town scouting for a location for their first feature film: Ethan and Joel Coen!
Now onto the deeper trivia investigation…
One long-standing mystery was the quick shot of the armadillo traipsing in front of a Winchell’s Donuts (a chain that hasn’t been seen here in decades). I came back to this recently and asked for help from Twitter and Facebook friends, and the best clue came from this excellent post from Troy Dillinger about the early days of MTV-era punk rock, Joe Ely, and the Clash. That post cites the location as S. Congress & Oltorf, so I jumped over to Google Street View to confirm, and lo and behold I think I’ve found the shot, documented with the photo below.
But then controversy: multiple people wrote to me to say “no no, it was South Lamar and Barton Skyway!” or “I remember going to that place, it was on Duval near UT, close to the Posse East”. This kind of gnawing uncertainty has a way of festering in my trivia-addled mind, so I needed to confirm for sure. Also, my officemates were now even more perplexed.
I work across the street from the Briscoe Center for American History, which conveniently has phone books for many Texas cities dating back to the early 1900s. Disguised as a researcher, I had them pull the Austin phone books for 1979–1983, and I looked up Winchell’s Donuts. Only three locations were listed, none on South Congress or Lamar or even the implausible Duval. What the heck, yo.
Thankfully, my boss earlier pointed out the red DRUGS sign on the building in the background (early subliminal messaging in a music video?? ;). We couldn’t read the blurry hexagonal sign just behind the Winchell’s, but this drugstore sign was a great clue. The 1980s phone books listed a Revco Drugs at 2301 S. Congress, exactly the address where I took this Street View shot. The logo looks right, if you can imagine what the 1980s stylized version would be, with the outsized script R. Also, Revco was purchased in the late 1990s by CVS, which exists at that location today, and to my eyes it looks like they just swapped logos on the hexagonal sign.
Further evidence: another shot in the Clash video was filmed outside a Victorian-style house, which is now a Wells Fargo bank right across the street from this Congress & Oltorf location.
Hat tip to one Daniel Lugo for pointing out the identical 3 poles and fire hydrant, and to everyone else who wrote to share links or other anecdotes about 1980s Austin!
UPDATE October, 2015:
I’ve heard from a number of nice people with personal connections to this location and even with this video shoot, but a reader just now pointed out that I got so caught up on the Revco detail that I neglected to mention where the stupid Winchell’s Donuts was exactly!
That reader speculates that the location is where the Subway currently is (2315 S Congress Ave), and I believe that’s true. The double-poled Subway sign is likely yet another clue / confirmation. Unless you know otherwise!
Box office success is wonderful, and that’s what everyone wants,” says Landis. “But as we all know, lots of shitty movies are huge hits, and lots of great movies fail. You know, Peter Bogdanovich famously said, ‘The only true test of a movie is time.’ That’s the best thing about movies — they still exist.
Create and edit ANSI and ASCII art in your browser!
If ansi.drastic.net isn’t doing it for you, here’s another in-browser ANSI art generator, with source available on Github. Go make some BBS graffiti!
Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable, let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.
The first computer at my house when I was a toddler was a Wang (presumably the 8088-based PC clone?) on loan from my dad’s job at AT&T, later replaced by the equally sexy Olivetti M24. All I remember about the Wang was that it had a letter guessing game called Wangman, and some kind of text-based dungeon / Adventure clone. And years later memories of it provided a good chuckle during an episode of the Simpsons (“Thank goodness he’s drawing attention away from my shirt!”). Unpopular computers FTW.
(Via John Nack)
[Video no longer available]
A fun Boston nightly news clip from 1988 on the outbreak of the Morris worm, one of the first Internet-spreading infections that caught mainstream attention. There’s much to love about this clip: the “part-time virus hunter”, the scenes of MIT’s computer labs, the bizarre (but maybe slyly satirical?) footage of the infamous Atari 2600 ET game inserted, um, I guess to, uh, illustrate something computer-y?
(Via Dangerous Minds)
[Alas, video has been removed from YouTube]
DJ Jazzy Jay and Afrika Bambaataa on a 1984 episode of Nickelodeon’s Live Wire, showing kids how to scratch. Awesome enough as it is, but WAIT A MINUTE — is that a 17-year-old Ad-Rock in the audience sneaking in a plug for Cookie Puss at 4:18??!
(Via Dangerous Minds and They Might Be Giants)
I’ve never read this, can’t say I’ve seen the TV miniseries, and I know you shouldn’t judge a book by the cover, but this seems like a total non sequitur coming from the celebrated author of the iconoclastic His Dark Materials… What happened here?
(via Julian Hector)
Archeology Magazine has a feature story about the “digital archeologists” behind Visual6502, the group “excavating” and fully remapping the inner workings of the classic 8-bit MOS Technology 6502 microprocessor. That might not sound interesting, but if you’ve been alive for more than 20 years you know the chip: it was the heart of early home computers ranging from the Apple I and Apple ][ to the Atari game consoles all the way up to the Nintendo NES.
Very cool and all, but in case you’re still not interested, here’s some excellent trivia slipped into the article:
In the 1984 film The Terminator, scenes shown from the perspective of the title character, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, include 6502 programming code on the left side of the screen.
Whaaat!? The SFX team working on The Terminator went so far as to copy actual assembly code into their shots? That’s pretty awesome! So where’d they get it? It was copied from Apple II code published in Nibble Magazine (even the T-800 enjoys emulators when its not busy hunting down humanity, I guess).
(Via Discover, photo from the Visual6502 site)
One of a handful of cartoons that Matt Groening created back in the late 80’s for a Macintosh ad brochure targeting new college students. Apart from Life in Hell’s Bongo, I think the other drawings are original characters? Just noticed this in the fine print on the back cover:
The characters in this brochure are fictional, and any similarities to actual persons, friends, or significant others is purely coincidental.
Whew, glad they cleared that up!
The Mansion – Technical Aspects
If you love the old Lucasfilm games and want a peek into how their venerable game engine worked from a very technical perspective, you should read this article that walks through a disassembled Maniac Mansion. Extra bonus: Ron Gilbert, the creator of the SCUMM scripting language, drops a lengthy note in the comments section with insider info:
One of the goals I had for the SCUMM system was that non-programers could use it. I wanted SCUMM scripts to look more like movies scripts, so the language got a little too wordy. This goal was never really reached, you always needed to be a programmer. 🙁
actor sandy walk-to 67,8
This is the command that walked an actor to a spot.
actor sandy face-right
actor sandy do-animation reach
walk-actor razor to-object microwave-oven
say-line dave “Don’t be a tuna head.”
say-line selected-kid “I don’t want to use that right now.”
I think it’s amazing that they managed to build a script interpreter with preemptive multitasking (game events could happen simultaneously, allowing for multiple ‘actors’ to occupy the same room, the clock in the hallway to function correctly, etc.), clever sprite and scrolling screen management, and fairly non-linear set of puzzles into software originally written for the 8-bit C64 and Apple II era of computers.
(Via the International House of Mojo)
Screenshot from an interesting project, olduse.net ― Usenet posts reappearing in realtime as they did exactly 30 years ago, a new way of experiencing the history of the early Net. See how things were mere months before the launch of B-News, long before the Great Renaming and the creation of the alt.* hierarchy, and best of all, the introduction of spam is more than a decade away still!
You can use either the browser-based client to poke through the messages, or point your favorite NNTP client to the site and experience it as you would the real Usenet. Nice!
Also, I like this answer from the FAQ:
Can I post to olduse.net?
Your posts will be accepted, but will not show up for at least 30 years. 🙂
(Via Waxy Links)
Three printouts on Flickr from Penn & Teller’s 1980’s BBS, the login screen of which helped you set up one of their many “Three of Clubs” card force tricks. Here’s how they described it in the back of their Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends book from 1987:
Got a modem? Call MOFO EX MACHINA, the bitchin’est BBS in the jungle. Just call 212-764-3834, hit ENTER twice, and type the password MOFO (300 or 1200 baud, 8 bits, 1 stop, no parity).
From Endless loop: A brief history of chiptunes:
Pressure Cooker was an ambitious exception among its contemporaries. In 1980, most home computer music remained limited to single-voice melodies and lacked dynamic range. Robert “Bob” Yannes, a self-described “electronic music hobbyist,” saw the sound hardware in first-generation microcomputers as “primitive” and suggested that they had been “designed by people who knew nothing about music” (Yannes 1996). In 1981, he began to design a new audio chip for MOS Technology called the SID (Sound Interface Device). In contrast to the kludgy Atari TIA, Yannes intended the SID to be as useful in professional synthesizers as it would be in microcomputers. Later that year, Commodore decided to include MOS Technology’s new SID alongside a dedicated graphics chip in its next microcomputer, the Commodore 64. Unlike the Atari architecture, in which a single piece of hardware controlled both audio and video output, the Commodore machine afforded programmers greater flexibility in their implementation of graphics and sound […]
When I saw this headline linked by Waxy I took it to be an overview of the recent (late 90’s to now) chiptune music craze, but it’s actually a nice little overview of the nearly 30 years old history of writing music on game hardware. Even includes sections on cracktros, the demoscene, and the early advent of trackers, along with some good videos of the relevant technology.
(Photo of the SID chip via Chris Hand)
The Complete History of Lemmings.
We did manage to fox Psygnosis now and then, and I can lay claim that it took John White an hour to figure out “Its hero time”. When ever psygnosis did some testing, we’d get back a fax with the level name, time taken to complete, and some comments and a difficulty rating. These were usually aound 3-6 minutes, and some general coments on how they found it.
Every now and again though, the fax would be covered in scribbles with the time and comment’s crossed out again and again; this is what we were striving for while we were designing the levels, and it gave us all a warm fuzzy feeling inside.
(Yet another good link via O’Reilly Radar)
From The Women of Leisure Suit Larry. I don’t think I could sum it up any better than the post’s author: “there is a seriously ugly and amazing coffee table art book dying to be made out of this”. Hopefully such a coffee table book would include a portion dedicated to the even-more-awkward non-Sierra attempts at smut like Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender.
Darn kids ripping off the operators with their slugs and string tricks, playing Ms Pac-Man and Zaxxon for free! Check out a handful of vintage 1981 mechanical coinslot devices available to prevent scamming at the arcades.