Friday 31 July 2020

Rogue (1980)

Introduced 1980

Before the microcomputer boom of the late 1970s most computers were large, expensive but powerful multiuser machines (“minicomputers”) such as the DEC PDP-11 and VAX. These expensive machines were meant for serious work, but even so a few games had been written such as Colossal Cave and Star Trek.

These were often complex games, but they were severely hampered by the rudimentary output capabilities of the computers involved. Although minicomputer terminals had evolved through the 1970s leading to designs such as the versatile VT100, it wasn’t always easy to leverage the new features into programs.

Cursor addressability was the key feature first seen in the era of the VT52 – the ability to move the cursor to anywhere on the screen and display text. It seems simple today, but the earliest terminals were basically printers-with-a-keyboard (teletypes) and it took a long while for glass teletypes to evolve into the video terminals that could support recognisably modern applications.

By 1980 the newly-developed curses library was making it much easier to use the advanced features of these terminals, and around 1980 a pair of students – Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman – were intrigued by the possibility of writing a game on the UCSC computers systems where they were studying.

Rogue emulated running on a VT220

Rogue broke out of the mould of earlier minicomputer games which either tended to be quite simple or weren’t worth playing once you had beaten them. Rogue was a satisfyingly complex Dungeon-and-Dragons style game, set on several levels of mostly randomly-generated maps. The player roamed these ASCII maps as a wandering “@” sign, with 26 different types of monster represented by letters of the alphabet - V = vampire, O = orc for example. The player could accumulate a variety of weapons, armour, scrolls, potions and rods (wands) to help them on their task.

26 levels down in the game you would find the ultimate prize – the Amulet of Yendor, which you could then take back to the surface? The turn-based gameplay did give the player plenty of time to consider their next move in tricky situations, but on the other hand death was permanent – if slain by a monster or your own stupidity you would have to start over.

Michael Toy then moved to Berkeley from UCSC and met with Ken Arnold who had developed the curses library, the game evolved further and by the mid-1980s commercial interests were involved, porting the game to a variety of 1980s micros including the Macintosh, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Amiga, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum and many more.

It was a hard game to master, and you could easily spend hours and hours trying to tackle deeper and deeper part of the dungeon. The fact that it was simply made up as ASCII characters didn’t really matter because of the rich gameplay – and most micro versions used some simple graphics to enhance the game further.

Nethack running on a modern laptop

Rogue was always a closed source game though, so many open source variants followed. Nethack is probably the most popular of these, with richer gameplay that Rogue but still mostly stubbornly sticking to ASCII.

Of course modern computer games can offer something of the rich gameplay of Rogue-like games along with impressive graphics and sound effects, but Rogue and its derivatives linger on and continue to be developed.

Image credits:
Artoftransformation via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0
Mad Ball via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0

Tuesday 21 July 2020

The Rise and Decline of Sharp Mobile (2002 to 2008)

Fifteen years ago this month, Sharp released the Sharp 903 – a high-end 3G phone that was the high watermark of Sharp’s efforts to break into the European market. Distinctly different from the Nokias and Motorolas that dominated the market, the 903 should established Sharp as a contender in the market. But it faded from sight instead.

In the early noughties Asian firms were having a hard time making an impact outside their home markets, with the notable exception of Sony… but even they had to join forces with Ericsson in 2001. But the result of this was that there were some weird and wonderful ecosystems developing – especially in Japan.

Sharp were dipping their toe in the market, initially with some fairly standard devices but then starting to leverage their expertise in other technologies. In 2000 they made the world’s first camera phone – the J-SH04 – but in particular devices started to appear that used some of Sharp’s world-leading display technology.

Sharp J-SH04
In Europe Sharp started cautiously with the O2-only GX1 which sold in limited quantities. Then came the almost identical Sharp GX10 and GX10i (the latter exclusive to Vodafone) in 2002 and 2003 which were attractive but pretty undistinguished clamshells.

The next handset to be launched (in late 2003) was a ground-breaker. Exclusive to Vodafone in most regions, the Sharp GX20 featured a high-resolution 240 x 320 pixel continuous grain silicon (CGS) display which easily beat everything else on the market at the time. Added to that was a competitive VGA resolution camera with a multi-coloured LED, along with a relatively large colour external screen – all in a package smaller and lighter than the more basic GX10. The GX20 created a real buzz around Sharp’s products and consumers were eager to see what would come next.

Sharp GX10i and GX20

The Sharp GX30 built on the superb display in the GX20 and added the world’s first megapixel camera. The GX30 also had a full-sized SD slot, added video recording, Bluetooth and an MP3 player. And in early 2004 all of those things together were a big deal. Even if the software wasn’t as easy to use as a Nokia, the hardware was class leading in almost every respect, again this was a Vodafone exclusive in many regions – although some other carriers had the functionally identical GX32.

Sharp GX30

You might guess that the next phone from Sharp would be the GX40… but you would be wrong. The Sharp TM100 was exclusive to T-Mobile rather than Vodafone, but was basically a slider version of the GX20 with minimalist looks at the same CGS display that Sharp were becoming famous for.

Sharp TM100

Vodafone again had the exclusive for the next handset – the very popular Sharp GX25. Still a 2004 product, this had a similar specification to the older GX20, but it had a sleeker design and notable it tucked the antenna inside the case. Bluetooth was added into the mix but the external screen shrank considerably. The result was a smaller, lighter, more capable and cheaper phone that was cheaper than the GX20 while retaining the excellent display. One highly sought-after version of the GX25 was the attractive Ferrari edition in bright red, but some markets had other eye-popping colours available too.

Sharp GX25
Sharp returned to their clamshell-with-antenna design for the Sharp TM200 in late 2004. This was exclusive to T-Mobile and was broadly similar to the GX30 except it had a smaller external display and crucially a two megapixel camera, making it the first such device in Europe. The oversized camera assembly on the TM200 was rather pointless, but it did draw attention to its class-leading camera capabilities.

Sharp TM200
Although most of these handset had been designed with European and Worldwide markets in mind, the next product releases had a more distinctive Japanese origin. One of the stars of Vodafone’s fledgling 3G network was the Sharp 902 which was essentially almost a straight import of the 902SH handset Vodafone Japan used.

Sharp 902

The 902 was like (almost) nothing else on the market. A large 3G-capable swivelling clamshell phone, it featured a 2.4” QVGA TFT display, a 2 megapixel camera with 2X optical zoom and a flash,  video calling, expandable memory on a full-size SD/MMC card, an MP3 player, web browser and email client. The 902 looked like a compact digital camera from one side, and you could swivel the display around to act as a huge viewfinder. The 902 had plenty of “wow factor” but flaws in the camera design meant that the pictures were disappointing, and Vodafone was having a hard job persuading customer that 3G was worth having. Launched alongside it was the cut-down Sharp 802 with a more conventional 1.3 megapixel camera, although this didn’t have the same market appeal. A special bright red Ferrari edition was the most desirable version, that that still commands a premium today for collectors.

Sharp 803
Most customers were sticking with their 2/2.5G devices and the GX range was still popular despite 3G competition. Rumours of a Japanese-style GX40 clamshell with a 2 megapixel camera were doing the rounds, Sharp having impressed potential consumers with the radical design of the 902. But this crucial market seemed to be overlooked.  It meant that customers with a GX30 who wanted an upgrade but didn’t want a bulky 3G phone would have to look elsewhere.

Sharp’s next launch was the Sharp 903 and Sharp 703 – another pair of G devices. The 903 was quite similar to the 902 in design, but sported a 3.2 megapixel camera with a 2X optical zoom that fixed the flaws of the 902. The full-sized SD card slot had gone to be replaced by a miniSD slot, but strangely the phone was actually bigger than the 902 despite that. Better looking than the 902, it came in a variety of colours as well. Launched at the same time was the more conventional 703 with a swivel-less design and a 1.3 megapixel camera.

Sharp 903 and 703

We didn’t know it at the time, but the Sharp 903 was as good as it was ever going to get for Sharp fans in Europe. When the Sharp GX40 finally came out later in 2005 it was a huge disappointment. It sported good multimedia features but a very disappointing 1.3 megapixel camera and even the screen was a slight downgrade on previous versions.

Sharp GX40
Three elegant but fairly low-end phones followed in 2006 – the Sharp GX29, 550SH and 770SH. The 770SH was the most elegant with a QVGA display and expandable memory, but it was still only a 2G phone with a 1.3 megapixel camera. The 550SH was essentially a candy-bar version of the 770SH. The GX29 was a simpler phone with only a VGA camera and limited features. This time the most desirable of the bunch was the 770SH McLaren Mercedes edition which certainly looked the part even if it didn’t deliver much.

Sharp GX29, 550SH and 770SH McLaren Mercedes Edition
After this Sharp pretty much faded out of markets outside of Japan, although years later they did return with some decent Aquos branded Android handsets which developed a following but have never really sold in large numbers.

Sharp certainly seemed to be poised on the verge of a breakthrough, but what went wrong? Sharp were certainly leading in display and camera technology. Very much at the leading edge Sharp and Vodafone also bet strongly on 3G, coming up with the class-leading 902… the problem was that consumers really didn’t want 3G and sales of that, the follow-up 903 and the 802 and 703 were weak. Sharp were also very much stuck with carrier exclusive deals, mostly with Vodafone but also to some extent T-Mobile. This was good news for the carriers, not such good news for Sharp. A failure to update their 2G line also left fans with nowhere to go - and when Vodafone left the Japanese market in 2006 the ties with Japanese manufacturers became much weaker. And of course the market was dominated by Nokia, and despite their handsets lagging behind in hardware terms they were usually the best-looking devices and very easy to use.

Sharp 902 and GX25 Ferrari Editions

Today the Ferrari editions are sought-after and a humble GX25 in Ferrari livery in very good condition can sell for hundreds of pounds. The 902 can cost around £150 in good condition, but most other Sharp phones are worth much less. However many of them - especially the GX30 and 902 - would make an ideal addition to a collection.

Image credits: Sharp, Vodafone, T-Mobile
Morio via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0

Monday 6 July 2020

Missile Command (1980)

Missile Command screenshot
Introduced July 1980

It’s the height of the Cold War, and the possibility of nuclear annihilation is always just around the corner. Everything you know and everyone you love could be swept away in an instant and there would be very little you could do about it.

So, for some escapism what about a game where everybody dies in a nuclear conflagration? Welcome to 1980 and Atari’s Missile Command.

The golden age of arcade machines featured many escapist games, usually of the shoot-‘em-up variety. As with microcomputers of the time, arcade machines were being propelled by improvements in microprocessors and other silicon chips leading to a rapid improvement of hardware. Missile Command used a 1.25 MHz 6502 CPU with an Atari POKEY chip handling sound. Graphics were 256 x 231 pixels in 8 colours, and unlike Lunar Lander and Asteroids, Missile Command used a raster scan monitor.
Missile Command arcade machine

The gameplay was this: the player had to defend six cities at the bottom of the screen from waves of nuclear weapons (represented with a line with a blob on the end). The player would launch their own missiles from three bases into the sky to destroy the nukes, and those bases themselves can be destroyed. As the game progresses the player is attacked by missiles with multiple warheads, bombers and satellites. The game ends when all six cities are destroyed, and invariably they ARE destroyed.

Unusually, the primary control for the game was a large trackball which emulated the sort of thing that real military bases would use for controlling systems. Combined with the (then) advanced graphics and sound, it made Missile Command a distinctive and popular gaming experience.

Although the game was distributed by Atari in North America, Atari chose to partner with Sega to distribute it in Europe. This gave Sega a useful foothold in the arcade game market. In Asia-Pacific markets a smaller number of Taito cabinets were made. But as a classic video game, it was ported to many platforms from the 1980s onwards and there are still licenced version and clones available today. Or if you still have Flash installed on your computer, you can play it for free here.

Image credits:
John Cooper via Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
James Brooks via Flickr - CC BY 2.0