Obscure consoles: Apple-Bandai Pippin

By Mike on 8:00 pm

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Apple is a gaming juggernaut today. Millions use their iOS devices to play countless games available on demand. This came at the end of a long road for company. Their Mac OS operating system was never designed with gaming in mind. It long stood in the shadow of the Windows PC. The pre-Jobsian era were dark days. Despite that, they decide to build a standalone console, on the same horrible platform. Like many things Apple did at the time, the Pippin never made sense.

It was the mid-1990s and Steve Jobs had yet to return. The video game market was flooded with consoles already. Naturally, Apple jumped in screaming "me too." The company never intended to release a system on its own. They instead chose to partner with Japanese game publisher Bandai. The result was a beautiful mess.

Looks like PowerBook, plays like one too

Like all Apple computers of the era, the Pippin was expensive and under-powered. The console used a PowerPC 603 processor at 66mhz and had a scant 5mb of RAM. Apple intended to make the Pippin into a low cost computer as opposed to just a game system. Perhaps they were channelling the Commodore 64. Unfortunately, the Pippin excelled at neither. All this came at a hefty $599 price tag.

The "Apple Jack" controller proves
why we don't use trackballs anymore

There was nothing particularly wrong with the Pippin. It worked, and it's games actually did look ok, if not somewhat dated. It was also one of the first consoles to feature a built in modem for online gaming. The controller was unique, featuring a trackball instead of an analogue stick. It also featured Marathon 2, which in many ways was Bungie's prequel to the hit Halo series.

Marathon 2 was the Pippin's most notable game.
Bungie would go on to develop Halo for Microsoft.

Despite it's unique features, the Pippin couldn't shake the high price, or lack of games. Only 18 games were released in the United States. Most gamers found that any capable Macintosh running Mac OS 7 could play them.

PC World put it best when they named the Pippin the 22nd worst tech product of all time.
"Underpowered, overpriced, and underutilized--that pretty much describes everything that came out of Apple in the mid-90s."

Image courtesy of TNW

They have the internet on computers now

By Mike on 7:32 pm

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The internet is such a big part of our lives today. Most people forget how painful it was when it first came out. Watching the picture scan line by line, waiting for those tantalizing bosoms... Well, I suppose it had other uses too.

Younger readers won't remember the early days. I've had it since 1994. My parents ran a home business at the time and wanted to use it for email. By the time 1998 rolled around, I had AOL and a shiny new 56k modem. It was cutting edge at the time, though painfully slow by today's standards.

One fellow decided to videotape his experiences with the infantile web. He finally uploaded it to YouTube 13 years later. Behold the glory of ICQ chats and slow loading, cluttered personal web pages. The days before blogs and Facebook "liberated" us from such garbage.

Obscure consoles: Sega Nomad

By Mike on 4:23 pm

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Portable gaming isn't what it used to be. The DS and the PSP are downright primitive. Who makes a system that's two generations back? At least that's what Sega thought in the 90s. Why use aging technology for a portable when you could make one on par with the home version. That concept gave us two portables. One amazing and memorable, the other being the Sega Nomad.

In 1991, Sega released the Game Gear. It was essentially a portable Master System. It used the same hardware inside and had a full colour display. It was also the first portable to have media functionality, via an optional TV tuner. Compared to the monochrome Game Boy, the Game Gear was a technological juggernaut. However, it sold poorly due to its high cost compared to Nintendo's system. Battery life was also an issue.

A fat, battery devouring beast of a portable. It was as thick as two Genesis cartridges.

In 1995, Sega took another stab at the concept. The Nomad was even more ambitious. It was a portable Genesis. It had identical hardware, had a high resolution screen, and even took standard Genesis cartridges. It had the entire library of its big brother at its disposal. Furthermore, it had a second controller port and TV-out. Sega originally planned a touch screen, but ruled it out due to cost. At the time, it was the most impressive hand held ever seen. Yet, it sold poorly. Only one million units; one tenth that of the Game Gear.

A lot of things killed the Nomad. It was expensive for starters. Nobody wanted to pay $180 for a portable at the time. It's biggest flaw though, yet again, was battery life. Since it used hardware identical to the Genesis, it had the same power requirements. Gamers had to stuff six AA batteries into the thing just to get it running. That only gave you about two hours of gameplay. It couldn't accept rechargeable batteries either, since they have a slightly lower voltage than standard. The Nomad needed 9v of juice or bust.

The Nomad quickly faded into history. It would be ten years before someone else would successfully challenge the Game Boy dynasty.

New York Times pay wall will fail, hopefully

By Mike on 7:08 pm

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The New York Times is setting itself up for a battle with readers. The newspaper giant has unveiled a new, and convoluted plan to force people to pay for web content. Newspapers have always provided their articles for free online. With people used to getting that content for nothing, I question whether people will actually fork over the dough.

The pricing plan is as complex as you can get. Readers get a scant 20 articles for free each month. For $15 per month, you get full access to the NYT website, plus a smartphone app. $25 gets you an iPad app, and $35 grants full access.

The pricing is entirely complex and borders on gouging. Most digital copies are available for a scant $15 a month no matter where you view them. I'm a big fan of PressDisplay's app. They give me all-you-can-eat access to thousands digital papers for $30/mo. NYT's $35/mo is entirely unreasonable.

The New York Times wants us to return to this, online, at twice the price.

Now, I am a journalist. At least that's what my fancy diploma says. I know the news media is struggling. Newspapers in particular are facing funding shortfalls and staff downsizing. That's why I write this site instead of getting paid to work on someone else's.

The problem is ad revenue. Online papers never did develop it beyond a few banners. It certainly falls far short of print editions. The sites were originally meant to be supplements to print editions, but that has changed.

I can't see more than a handful of people paying such an outrageous fee for online news. There are no delivery or production costs. You're only paying the journalists and web developers. Logically the papers should be cheaper. People are not going to jump into paying for something that was free for the better part of two decades. If this plan fails, it could spell disaster for the NYT. Hopefully it does. The news media needs to start innovating and this isn't the way to do it.

Obscure consoles: Nintendo Color TV Game

By Mike on 12:46 pm

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Some say they single-handedly saved gaming. When Nintendo's NES came out in 1985, it was a smash hit. The lone console brought the market back from the brink. It was the daddy of modern game systems. However, it wasn't the first for Nintendo. The company's history goes back over a century. Prior to the NES, they made arcade cabinets. Before that, they had the Color TV Game.

The original Color TV Game came in glorious orange
Thankfully Nintendo went with grey for the NES

Let me take you back to a time when gaming was in its infancy. The year was 1977. The only game available was Pong, a simple table tennis simulator. There were countless different companies making their own copies of this game. Then Atari released the 2600. It had high quality colour graphics and a huge bevy of games. People jumped on it and it quickly dominated the home gaming market. Of course Nintendo, an arcade developer, wanted a piece of the action. Their response to the 2600? The Color TV Game; another Pong clone.

Tennis must have been huge in the 1970s.

The original featured six variations of "Light Tennis". Unlike other Pong clones, it had colour graphics. Colour in the sense that it had white paddles on a green background, as opposed to a black background. The games were controlled with two dials, attached to the console itself. A revised version featured wired controllers and 15 variations of Light Tennis. A third Color TV Game, released in 1979. It dropped tennis in favour of "Block Breaker", a Breakout clone. The systems were only released in Japan.

Miyamoto's handywork, Block Breaker. His first project with Nintendo

Like the Halcyon, the Color TV Game did have something notable going for it. It may not have been the most advanced, or even the most innovate system. Block Breaker would have the biggest influence on gaming. The console's external design was one of Shigeru Miyamoto's first projects. The legendary game designer would go on to create Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, and countless other Nintendo classics.

Japan earthquake

By Mike on 10:51 pm

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Japan contributes so much of the technology and culture behind what I cover here. The recent earthquake, one of the most powerful in history, moved a lot of people. The level of devastation is almost unthinkable. There's really no way anyone could prepare for something like this. A once in a lifetime event that happens entirely without warning.

I think the spectacular photos and video have really motivated people to help. Kudos to the Japanese people for maintaining their trademark composure and politeness in times of crisis. Things like this can bring out both the best and worst of people.

I may not make a lot of money, but I decided to donate. If it buys someone a meal and a coffee, I've done my part. If you would like to help too, you can donate through the Canadian Red Cross. Donations are tax deductible. A word of caution though. Beware of scammers trying to take advantage of your generosity. Only donate directly to legitimate and well known charities.

Image courtesy of Jlist

Obscure consoles: RDI Halcyon

By Mike on 12:08 pm

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Most of us think the Sega CD was the first disc based console. Sure, it was the first moderately successful one, but optical discs were around long before that. One of the earliest formats was LaserDisc. These 12 inch discs were the precursor to DVDs. They stored analogue video like a VHS but also contained digital soundtracks. Blending the two for gaming was a brilliant idea, which eventually gave us the not so brilliant RDI Halcyon.

When Dragon's Lair hit arcades in 1983, gamers were blown away. It was one of the first games to use LaserDisc as a storage medium. The high resolution, hand drawn graphics were years ahead of their time. Understandably, the game quickly became a legend of weekend arcades. I shutter to think of the millions of quarters dumped into this notoriously difficult game.

In the 1980s, the big goal for console manufacturers was to bring the arcade home. Like Dragon's Lair, the RDI Halcyon was ahead of its time. Perhaps too far ahead.

It too tapped into LaserDisc to bring the Dragon's Lair experience home. The Halcyon had numerous firsts for a home console. First to use optical discs, first to support voice recognition, and the first to render full motion video. Like today's systems, it could also playback video LaserDiscs. The system was entirely voice controlled and could even speak to you. RDI claimed it had an AI on par with HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Halcyon was ambitious, but the computer technology hadn't caught up with it. Tech specs were the same as the Sega Master System. It has a Zilog Z80 processor and 64k of RAM. Despite that, the system worked as advertised. It brought the Dragon's Lair experience home. However, the speech recognition was seriously flawed, as the above video demonstrates. The system would fail to understand commands, especially if you spoke too slow. The games were also simplistic. Most of them were movie driven and limited to quick-time action. The format wasn't well suited to NES style gaming.

Part of a Flyer for the Halcyon tout's its advanced features.
Click for larger image.

As with any first generation technology, price is what ultimately killed it. The Halcyon sold for $2,500 when it first launched. To put that into perspective, that's roughly $4,800 today. For the same price, you could buy the brand new Apple Macintosh 128k. Coming fresh out of the video game crash of 1983, the Halcyon never stood a chance at that price.

Only two games were released for the system: Thayer's Quest, which was similar to Dragon's Lair, and Raiders vs. Chargers, a football game. RDI went bankrupt shortly after its release and the Halcyon was doomed to obscurity.

I have played Desert Bus

By Mike on 7:36 pm

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People complain about realism in games. I often find myself screaming at the TV because the game did something I didn't think was realistic. What if there was a game exactly like reality? Such a game does exist. It's called Desert Bus, and it's a piece of sheer mind-numbing brilliance.

The title itself is a legend in the gaming community. Penn & Teller planned to include it with their 1995 Sega CD game Smoke and Mirrors. It was never released to the public and was largely forgotten. A bootleg version ended up on the internet some time later.

Won't you ride my magic bus?

Desert Bus was a brilliant piece of political satire. It was the brain child of Eddie Gorodetsky, later producer of the "winning" sitcom Two and a Half Men. The game was a response to the violent video game controversy of the mid-90s. The attacks on the gaming industry were largely being driven by then US Attorney General Janet Reno. Gorodetsky wanted to make a game so dull and bland that even Reno would be pleased. As the intro video points out, why waste money on fantasy when you can learn skills valuable to your pathetic life.

Penn & Teller explain the game, with "gameplay" footage at the end

You drive a bus non-stop between Tucson, Arizona and Las Vegas. You travel along an empty desert highway with no other traffic on the road. There are bus stops, but nobody gets on or off. The bus is also governed to 45mph. At this speed, the trip takes a mind-numbing 8 hours to complete. To top it off, the bus pulls to the right, making impossible to set and forget. Should you veer off the road, a tow trucks comes and drags you back to Tucson, in real time. You can't pause the game either. Hitting "Start" only honks the horn.

Desert Bus forces you to play it from start to finish. Should you actually get to Vegas, you get a single point and the option of driving back to Tucson.

"Gameplay" shot with a lone bug hitting the windshield. Supposedly only happens once.
This is about as exciting as Desert Bus gets.

Desert Bus would have been a foot note in video game history. Then in 2007, Canadian comedy group LoadingReadingRun decided to play it, non-stop for charity.

The money went to Child's Play, a charity that buys video games and toys for childrens' hospitals around the world. In the first year, they raised $22,805 and played the game for 4 days and 12hr strait. Penn & Teller have been avid supports of the event, now known as Desert Bus for Hope. The event has raised almost $210,000 over the past four years.