All the old people in the house say yeah!
The Apple II is the most underrated gaming platform of the 1980’s. People — me included — talk a lot about the greatness of the Atari 2600, but I owe just as much of my gaming DNA to our Apple IIe, with its 64KB RAM — that comes standard, folks — and its revolutionary four-way cursor control.
We had a IIe that sat in the corner of our kitchen, right next to a nice heating vent that you could warm your feet on, and tricked out with a dee-luxe green-on-black monitor. I fed it 5 1/4-inch floppies. It fed me joy. Except when PFS Write ate my social studies paper.
Below are my top 10 Apple II games. This is not a particularly comprehensive survey, as it’s based on the subset of all Apple II games that I could get my hands on when I was in junior high, which was large but not definitive. (Also n.b., I skipped some games, like Zork, which were on every platform and hence not particularly representative of the Apple II gaming experience in particular.)
1. Lode Runner. You could dig left, and you could dig right, and you could run, and you could climb. This was a game mechanic refined into a state of narcotic purity. Well do I remember the agony of the Runner who started digging his hole too late, and wound up getting rushed by the bad guys, who stepped contemptuously over his half-dug hole.
I also remember the triumph of the one kid in our class who figured out that you could jump on the head of a falling bad guy, in mid-air, to cross otherwise uncrossable gaps. Reader, I was that kid.
2. Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. The graphics were one step up from ASCII. The action was one step up from epic. I got deeply, deeply lost in the Ultima IV world, in a way I rarely have in any world in any medium since. I should probably have put it first on this list, except that all that ethical stuff about the avatar kinda grated on me. But the game’s ambitions were huge, and its achievement towering. All hail Lord British. (Incredibly, my brother would go on to work on Ultima Underworld II. Had we but known.)
3. Bolo. I don’t meet a lot of people who know Bolo, which was a tank game for the Apple II. I can’t even find a decent link for it. This was a game written by somebody who really knew the machine they were writing for: seriously fast action, smooth scrolling, elegant graphics and surprisingly nice AI enemies. The real mind-boggling fact about this game, to me, was that it randomly generated a new maze for every game, which at the time seemed like black magic. I reached a pinnacle of skill at Bolo that I’ve never achieved in any other field of endeavor. Even blogging.
4. Robotron. This was probably the best arcade port there was for the Apple II. Even though you didn’t have the double-joystick action of the arcade version, Robotron had a distinctive, unique savor on the Apple II it didn’t have on other platforms. There was something authentically alien about the weird way those bastards swarmed you. My sister was great at this one — I remember watching her enter a mystical trance state of ultimate Robotronic consciousness as she powered through levels I never even knew existed.
5. Choplifter. Somehow they really got a fluid, lifelike feel to the way the helicopter banked and turned in this game. You could almost feel the air under your rotor blades. The object, of course, was to fly your helicopter low and at an angle, so your rotor blades cut off the heads of the little guys you were supposed to be rescuing, while you sang “Ride of the Valkyries.”
6. Castle Wolfenstein. This game was not cartoony. It felt like serious, grown-up entertainment. The day our Apple IIe came to life and barked “halt!” at me, in a credible German accent? That day I knew fear.
7. Star Blazer. I loved Scramble in the arcade, and this was a totally playable take on the side-scrolling, shoot’n’bomb genre. Oh, the cat-and-mouse games I played with that damn tank. It’s been a long time, old friend.
8. Wizardry. Actually, Wizardry kinda sucked. I mean, it was a good idea. Combine D&D-style gameplay with computer graphics, and what do you get? How bad could it be? Well, it was actually pretty boring. But still sort of awesome. I mean, D&D plus a computer! Come on!
9. Battlezone. I spent the summer of 1981 in a pub in Oxford pumping their weird foreign coins into a Battlezone machine and yanking the bejeezus out of its double-joystick controls. How stunned was I when a couple of years later, it turned out I could get back into that weird wireframe world through the portal of our Apple IIe.
It was a strangely serene world. Everything was smooth and perfect and platonic. You wanted to hang out there even if there was no one to shoot. Later we moved onto Stellar 7, which was a souped-up clone. That was even better.
10. Archon. The idea behind Archon, as far as I can tell, was to take the holographic chess game they played on the Millennium Falcon, where the pieces fought each other for real, and duplicate it on the Apple II. It work. If I actually liked chess, and didn’t suck at it, I would have enjoyed Archon a lot more than I did. But it was still great.
Honorable mentions to Escape from Rungistan and also Bilestoad, which was a bizarre medieval combat game in which you viewed the combatants from directly over their heads. It looked unbelievably cool. For the 4 seconds before it hung on our machine. I put a lot of thought into imagining the lifelike virtual axe combat I would engage in, if I only had a little more RAM.