4am’s Crack of Spare Change

Spare Change is an odd little Apple II game from 1983, where the player tries to thwart mischievous creatures who escaped from an arcade game, who are trying to steal quarters from the machines. One of Broderbund’s earlier hits, although it never gained the recognition of Lode Runner.

Such a charming little game
Do you not only understand this, but enjoy reading it? Then this should be very interesting to you.

Spare Change, in addition to its various little features like animated intermissions and customizable difficulty, also had a pretty strong copy protection scheme. These schemes served to prevent casual copying at the time (although cracks of all the popular titles inevitably started making the rounds on BBSes), but also serve to work against software preservation. Spare Change is 40 years old now, and disks fail frequently. There is an available crack, but it’s said to be missing an important feature: it fails to save their high scores to disk.

4am is the famed preserver of classic Apple II software, performed by dint of figuring out their protection and removing it as unobtrusively as possible. His account on Twitter (I refuse to call it X, I don’t even like saying Xbox) made for great reading for people of a technical mind. He isn’t on Twitter any more for, I dunno, some reason, but he still posts his cracks, and his explanations for how they work, to the Internet Archive, under the 4am tag.

All this is to say his crack of Spare Change makes for entertaining reading to one of the right mindset. One of you may have it, so here it is.

Space Change: a 4am and san inc crack: description and the crack itself.

Quick Browser-Based Multiplayer Emulation

NES Party and SNES Party are sites that do a think that would have seemed like magic 10 years ago: they make it easy to pick out NES and SNES games, load them into the browser from the Internet Archive, and not only let you play them yourself but share a room link with another person and enable internet-based multiplayer. It’s all as simple as that.

Well, mostly. When I tried using it, emulation was much faster than normal. The game load screen suggests, if this happen, that you reduce the refresh rate of your display, which seems like kind of a kludgy solution. But on the plus side, snes.party has Rampart!

NES Party and SNES Party

The Bolo Home Page, Revived

Bolo is a multiplayer tank game, originally for the BBC Micro but remade for classic Macintosh computers. It was a very popular online kind of game for awhile.

It had a popular resource page on the internet, called the Bolo Home Page, made by Joseph Lo and and Chris Hwang, that began as a student project and migrated to the site lgm.com. But then that site went down, and its domain was bought by squatters. So it goes.

Well, vga256 on Mastodon has remade the Bolo Home Page out of the records kept by the Internet Archive. A site composed of hundreds of static HTML pages has risen from the ashes, all (well most) links fixed up to point internally, its content restored as much as is possible. The Internet Archive, for all its greatness, frequently misses images and even whole pages, so there are holes in its record.

Still, most of its content remains. For people who wish to learn about this classic piece of electronic entertainment, a collection of hundreds of pages awaits you!

I’ve never played Bolo myself, I don’t know much about it, but some people it seems were very enthusiastic about it. I don’t think gameplay goes obsolete, it just falls into and out of fashion. Maybe this is a sign. Maybe it’s time for the Second Age of Bolo to begin.

The Bolo Home Page (restored)

Jason Scott Reminds Us Of Software On Cassette Tapes

I had one of these, although it got pretty decrepit later on. Images here from the article on the Internet Archive.

Commodore users of a certain intersection of class and age will remember the Datasette, a custom tape player that early Vic-20 and C64 users could use to load and save their programs on standard “Compact Cassettes.” This was a very slow process, that was so timing intensive that the C64 had to blank its screen during it, because its graphics chip demanded exclusive access to memory while it got the needed data each frame to render graphics. Of course things were rather different in Europe, where cassette tapes were a much more viable medium, and tape loading could actually be faster than the 1541 disk drive (a notably flawed and slow design).

The Atari 8-bit counterpart to the Datasette

Scott walks through this unique period of home computing history. I still have tapes of old Commodore software lying around (because I rarely can bring myself to throw such things out). Maybe some day, if I can get my old Commodores working and displaying again, I’ll try them out and see if they work.

But fortunately, for commercial cassette software archived on the Internet Archive, you don’t have to go through such lengths! Although you can still wait for software to load if you want to! The IA offers emulated software for both the Sinclair ZX-81 and Commodore 64 that are supplied on virtual tapes, so you too can experience the exciting process of waiting for programs to load. In Scott’s words: “Incomprehensible! Mysterious! Uninformative! Welcome to home computing in the 1980s!

I notice that much of the Commodore 64 software mentioned in the article actually had tape loading graphics. I can’t explain this. It kind of makes me feel cheated, from the many times I sat watching a blank light-blue screen. Presumably the UK coders who made much tape-based 64 software had, in their tape-loading bag of tricks, a way to overcome the VIC-II’s timing issues. I wouldn’t doubt it.

The Easy Roll and Slow Burn of Cassette-Based Software (Internet Archive)

Total Replay 5.0

Apple II preservationist and awesome human 4am (Mastodon) has released the latest version of Total Replay, a collection of Apple II games that can be played both in emulators and on real systems (provided you have a way to read the hard drive image from your Apple). It can even be played directly over the web on its Internet Archive page.

An important note if you try to load its torrent from the page: that torrent contains a complete history of the project, weighing in at 22 gigabytes, even though Total Replay itself is just 32 megabytes big. If you choose to download that torrent for offline play and are just interested in playing, make sure to uncheck the history folder so you don’t end up downloading a huge amount of files you don’t need.

Total Replay 5.0 archive page (Apple II hard drive image, ProDOS mountable, 32MB), Mastodon post

CD-ROM Compilation Search Engine

Set Side B often verges into adjacent tech areas, especially for older software, especially when those areas happen to contain a lot of games. This is just a note that the always-great Jason Scott of the Internet Archive has a great post about Discmaster, which is hosted at the IA, and is a search engine into the contents of a bunch of old CD-ROM file compilations. Many of these were shareware collections put out by companies like Walnut Creek, intended in the age immediately before the internet to put out collections of shareware, but sometimes bundling freeware, or libre-free software.

The error, presented in class Web Gray and Times New-Roman.

Some of these files are very hard to find on the wider internet. When I visited Discmaster myself it was down for an upgrade (it’s a bad sign when your filesystem runs out of inodes) but I look forward to scouring its archives often in the future!

DiscMaster (Internet Archive)

Apple Kracker’s Guide

Back in the days of the Apple II, there was a thriving scene in trading copies of commercial software. Means to prevent this, through copy protection schemes, were just as rampant, as publishers sought to protect their work from those who would use it without paying. The process of figuring out a disk’s copy protection and making it so it could be copied and run by others was called cracking, or sometimes, kracking.

Cracking was, and still is, a black art. There are many ways to protect a disk from being copied, and just as many to deprotect that data. Some disks remain uncracked to this day. It is the work of Apple II cracker 4am (Mastodon) to try to unlock the data on these rapidly aging pieces of media so they can be preserved. (On 4am, jump to the bottom.)

The Apple II Kracker’s Guide seems to have been written by a anonymous user known as The Disk Jockey. It’s a good overview of basic forms of copy protection and ways to defeat them. A copy is at the Internet Archive, but I encountered it in the collection at bitsavers.org, here. It’s like candy to someone of the right frame of mind. Like me!

Aside: If the name 4am sounds familiar, and you find yourself thinking “Didn’t he used to be on Twitter?” He was. He’s not anymore. This happened several months before the Age of Musk. Twitter’s automated processes decided somehow that a video he tweeted of Apple II software Super Print booting was revenge porn and banned him, even rejecting an appeal. He moved to Mastodon. Now that Twitter is missing half of its employees, situations like this will probably become more common. 4am is not the subject of this post, but if you want to read more about Apple II protection and its breaking, you should follow him on Mastodon. He has about one tenth of the followers there that he had on Twitter, which is a shame.

News 10/13/2022: Flee Before The Sight of Black Box Zelda!

“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter

Benj Edwards, Ars Technica, on using AI to smooth out the features of Virtua Fighter’s characters. Not in real time, and the results are cherry-picked, and look generic as opposed to the distinctive look of the original game. Still, there you go, people tell me this means art is dead somehow.

Just imagine if this were the box that launched the Zelda ship.
(Image from MrTalida’s twitter feed.)

Noted on Twitter by Frank Cifaldi, then cropped and zoomed by MrTalida on Twitter, then called attention to by threads on ResetEra and Reddit (inhale!) then reported on by a plethora of gaming sites, Cifaldi found a picture of an early version of the box-art of The Legend of Zelda in Nintendo press materials form the time, using the original “black box” trade dress, and it is funky.

Rich Stanton at PC Gamer, on when the mods of Ultima Online (remember them? they’re still around!) destroyed the (in-game) possessions of item duplicators. Ultimately, as my link is a link to theirs, so too is PC Gamer’s link one to the original post, so have a link to that too. And if you want to check in with a bona-fide living piece of gaming history, and the last surviving real Ultima game, here is Ultima Online’s website. They just celebrated 25 years of operation!

A dragon-infested day in Brittania.
Screenshot from Mobygames.

Finally, it’s not directly related to games, but you should read this article from TechSpot about the Internet Archive’s efforts to preserve websites in this age of paywalls and walled gardens. While content creators deserve to be paid for their efforts, the fact that so much is locked up means a lot of things are just going to vanish when their hosting sites, sometimes when an account at a hosting site, closes up. Please consider that when you publish. Preservation matters.

Arcade Mermaid: More Madness of Marble

Arcade Mermaid is our classic arcade weirdness and obscurity column! Once a month we aim to bring you an interesting and odd arcade game to wonder at. Although this time, we’re expanding the purview to talk about an extremely rare game that has just become playable by the public through emulation for the very first time. Please note, this was written quickly and late at night. It may see minor corrections once I see it by the harsh light of day.

One of the best podcasts out there for classic arcade enthusiasts is The Ted Dabney Experience! Episode 15 of that was a talk with Bob Flanagan, who created Atari’s underrated Skull & Crossbones, and also headed the wonderful, prototype, obscure and unreleased, yet recently revealed on the internet Marble Madness II.

Bob Flanagan was mainly a programmer during his time at Atari Games, where he helped implement the original Marble Madness, Paperboy, and Gauntlet. Skull & Crossbones is the only Flanagan-helmed game that got produced, but MM2 could have been another.

Another reason to cheer for this game finally, finally seeing the light of day is the music, which kyuubethe3rd mentions was among the finest work of Atari composer Brad Fuller, who sadly left us in 2016. Marble Madness had very memorable music, and the 14 main levels of MM2 sound like they could easily have come from that game, including a remix of the original’s Beginner Maze track.

Astral

I haven’t seen anyone talking about the source of the roms. It’s been known that the MAME developers have had copies for safe keeping, but were forbidden by the person who let them dump them from releasing them to the public. A MAME driver, I hear, has been around for a while, but maybe only privately. I don’t know what that has to do with the efforts of David ‘mamehaze” Haywood, who has worked to get the game working over the past few days.

I’ve watched a lot of playthroughs of MM2 over the past couple of days, it has been quite a focus to speedrunners. Here’s a couple, that make the game look really easy: FlannelKat, and LeKukie. DumpleChan has a slower run that looks a lot more like a good player would have done in an arcade if the game had been made:

As mentioned before, no one seems to know how this game, long a holy grail for preservations and arcade enthusiasts alike, got released. Was it leaked? Did someone who happened to have the roms just decide one day to throw them online? There’s a thread at AtariAge that notes that the owner would release the roms in exchange for $42,000. Did someone raise that much money? They are now on the Internet Archive, and work on an official MAME driver is well underway, so in any event, stuffing this genie back into its lamp now is probably impossible.

How It’s The Same

The sound design is nearly identical to Marble Madness, using many of the same noises. The attention to detail on recreating the experience of the first game is admirable! And as mentioned, the music is terrific.

All of the original game’s enemies and most of its obstacles are seen somewhere in this game’s 14 levels. The only ones that come to mind that are absent are the Intermediate Race’s rolling wave and the infuriating cycling platforms at the end of the Ultimate Race.

North Pole

It’s still a race against time, with leftover seconds carrying over to later levels. It’s still a co-op/competition game, where players can interfere with each other, seek to scroll them off screen for a time penalty, or coordinate their movements to double-team the Evil Black Marbles* and help keep players in the game.

A few of the levels have names from the original game. Their layouts are different, though.

How It’s Different: Structure

Marble Madness’s greatest weakness was always its ultra-short length. It only had six levels! It could be excused around the time of its creation, since in 1984 those kinds of scrolling map games were still a new thing. Well here there are 14 mazes, and three bonus rounds too!

Instead of a straight sequence of levels from start to finish, they’re arranged into tiers, of roughly equal difficulty:

Pin Bonus 1

Practice

Tier 1: Aerial Sandbox Icebox Astral

Pin Bonus 1

Tier 2: Highrise Oasis North PoleSunburst

Pin Bonus 2

Tier 3: Wacky Wierd Walls (sic) – Deep SeaSilly

Pin Bonus 3

Final Maze: King Of The Mountain

Each tier can be completed in a variable order, with the player(s) deciding which maze to tackle first. Like in the original game, each maze in a tier carries time over from the previous one, with a small bonus. When the last maze is finished, players get 1,000 points for every second they had left, but also their time is zeroed out.

Oasis

After each tier, the players enter into a pinball-themed bonus stage! The acceleration is tuned way up for these, making them feel properly chaotic. The players use their marbles to hit targets to spell either MARBLE or MADNESS, and hit drop targets to earn as many points as they can. Players get five extra seconds for every 5,000 points they score, on top of a large time award granted for starting the next tier.

Throughout all of this, if a player runs out of time in solo play, they can opt to continue to try the maze again with a large amount of start time. In group play, they can continue with the same time as one of the other players.

This pattern lasts until the final level, King Of The Mountain. It’s like a tier to itself with only that one level. Only two attempts are granted here: The First Try, and then, after a continue, the Last Try.

A lot of the game is fairly easy, but King of the Mountain is long and tough! Unlike most of the other mazes, the player starts at the bottom and must ascend to the top. At the very end the players have to climb a series of icy slopes that’s very difficult to make it through! It’s a suitable successor to the end of the first game’s Ultimate Maze, with its disappearing pathways.

Control

This one’s big. Marble Madness, in the arcades, a trackball game. Marble Madness II uses standard eight-way joysticks. It makes for a huge difference, it makes the game easier, and also negates the point of the game a little.

In an earlier stage of development (as “Marble Man,” see below) the game went out on test in a trackball version, but it happened around the time the company began to move away from trackballs as a control method. Atari had been associated with trackballs for a long time, going back to the classic Atari Football, and they had recently released the trackball-based strategy/puzzle game Rampart. It’s possible, had Marble Madness II made it to production, that it would have been offered as an upgrade kit for Rampart. There is talk in the arcade modding community of some people wanting to turn their Rampart machines into Marble Madness II, despite the hardware being quite different. (I think this is a shame, as a long-time outspoken fan of Rampart, but it’s understandable for this game!)

With digital joystick control, long narrow passages lose much of their danger, turning a frantic perilous roll into the holding of a direction and the tap of a Turbo button. But also, joysticks can be less precise for this kind of game. I’ve seen forum posts speculating about what would be necessary to reimplement trackball control in the game, even though it’s not a simple change to the code. There’s the advantage that the programming of the original, trackball-based Marble Madness is out there. Time will inform us of the feasibility of this.

Powerups

Marble Madness II was developed seven years after Marble Madness, and in that time powerups went from intriguing new idea to de rigueur. Throughout most of the mazes (not the first or last) there are crown-like structures with a cycling powerup atop them. It’s possible to bash through these and collect the powerup that’s currently on display. Two of these, Cloak and Crusher, allow the player to either evade or destroy monsters. Knobby gives a marble super-sharp control, and Heli grants flight for a while, allowing for huge shortcuts.

Sandbox

As speedrun playthroughs have demonstrated, these powerups allow for gigantic time saves! Heli can bypass whole sections of the maze, and Knobby allows a marble to tear around corners with pinpoint precision. In a multiplayer game only one player can get a powerup from each location.

Points Earn Extra Time

This really is a major change. In Marble Madness, other than the time awards for starting mazes and the occasional random award of 10 seconds, there was no respite from the steady advancement of the clock. You do get five extra seconds for beating another player to the finish line, but that’s only awarded in two-player mode, and the difficulties of playing with another player overwhelm that meager allowance.

In Marble Madness II, each player is awarded five bonus seconds for every 5,000 points they collect. The plethora of bonus flags scattered around mean that players will be earning bonus time frequently, the time awards often greater than the loss from going out of your way to collect them.

Flags & Hidden Flags

Aerial

About those flags. They’re in every level but the first and last ones. They grant from 1,000 to 5,000 points, with the number printed on the flag. These are all over the place, and make it easy to amass a load of surplus time. Fortunately for the game’s design, this extra time is converted into more points at the end of a tier, and the players must begin stockpiling all over again Also throughout most of the mazes are bonus flags, worth 2,000 points each. These rarely flash into visibility for a couple of seconds, but often will appear as a reward for reaching out-of-the-way regions of the map.

The game promises players a “Super Bonus” for collecting all the flags in an area, but this requires a lot of patience to track them all down, and sometimes there are mutually-exclusive branches in the path of a maze that make it impossible for a single player to reliably get every flag if playing on their own. The Heli powerup, particularly, is great for collecting flags.

That last level King Of The Mountain doesn’t have any flags! Killing the enemies on that level is worth good points, but it means that very little bonus time is awarded there.

Tons of new obstacles

Every level has its own unique peril! Sand, crushers, falling icicles, killer satellites, meteor crashes, fists smashing out of walls, floating frying pans (in Wacky, of course) and many more. At the very end, huge rock-throwing trolls guard the passages up to the top of the Mountain.

Faces and voices

Oasis

It’s known that in an earlier stage of its development, Marble Madness II was subtitled “Marble Man,” and the winner of a race would transform into a super-heroic humanoid body for a moment at the end. A digitized voice would exclaim “Marble Man!” at the start of a game and the end of a race. There is footage of this version of the game, taken from off of one of the surviving machines, on YouTube, demonstrating the voice.

The released version of Marble Madness II doesn’t have the Marble Man theme, but it does have voices, and they’re pretty nice I think! When you start a game, your marble develops a face and shouts “Marble madness!” in a way that never fails to make me smile. When you hit a letter or spell a word in a bonus level it’s announced aloud, and to me that’s almost reward enough in itself. It’s probably for the best that the superhero theme was dropped, but the faces, both on the marbles in their death animations and on the enemies, add some needed character to what might otherwise have been a pretty dry game.

So, that’s what we have to report on Marble Madness II, a game developed 21 years ago and is just now seeing the light of day outside of an extremely small number of collectors. 21 years is a long time. A not-insignificant number of fans of the original Marble Madness have died in the intervening time, never having had a chance to enjoy it. And even now, because it’s only playable in emulators, a lot of people who could otherwise enjoy it, but cannot overcome the technical hurdle of getting MAME up and running and getting its roms into the right shape (a formidable obstacle to many), will still be denied playing it.

Marble Madness II is not yet up in official MAME, but its driver is well along, and I think it’ll probably appear in the next release. I urge you to at least give it a try, and think of all the people who would have enjoyed if it had appeared back at the time of its creation. It was a long time coming, but at least now it is here.

How To Play It

Aerial

Use the version of HBMAME currently here, version 0.244. Use the directions to set it up, but you’ll be helped if you already know how to use MAME. The romset can be gotten from the Internet Archive here. You’ll have to rename the ZIP archive to marblmd2.zip for HBMAME to recognize it.

* The “Evil Black Marble” was adapted as a character on turn-of-the-century website The Conversatron. So says me, apparently the sole surviving person who remembers The Conversatron. Memory hurts.