Still Life with Apple

I finally read Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s great memoir this week — prompted by the tsunami of media commentary on the resignation of Steve Jobs (you know, the other guy). It got me thinking about what an incredible impact stuff made or sold by those two Steves has had on my life over the past three decades.

1978


I was a sophomore in high school when I bought my first Apple II. It cost $1200 at the Computerland of Fairfield, Connecticut — my life savings, including all my loot from years of drawing caricatures at community fairs, plus a loan from my kid sister.

I remember opening the box, lifting the computer out of those custom-molded foam packing pieces. The tactile thrill of owning an Apple began before I’d even plugged the thing in. I knew it was going to change my life.

I hooked it up to an old TV and a cassette recorder, and I was up and running.

1979

Weekends and after school (and sometimes instead of school), I progressed from typing in BASIC game program listings from the red book that had come with the Apple (Breakout was the best), to inventing my own games — first in BASIC, then in 6502 machine code, using the built-in mini-assembler. I pored through the red book, trying to understand its secrets.

As soon as I could afford it, I increased the Apple’s 16K of RAM by adding another row of chips, and then another. Each enhancement unlocked new capabilities: hi-res graphics, then two-page hi-res. Newer, more sophisticated games like Apple Invader (a pixel-perfect copy of the coin-op Space Invaders, programmed by the mysterious M. Hata) pushed the machine’s limits beyond what I’d imagined possible. I realized the games I’d programmed so far hadn’t scratched the surface of what it could do.

1981

I brought my Apple to college. Tricked out with a dot-matrix printer, 5 1/4″ floppy disk drive, lower-case adapter chip, and new word-processing software that could hold up to four pages in memory, it replaced a portable Smith-Corona typewriter as my go-to device for writing papers. I was the only kid in my dorm who had such an awesome system. I used it to earn extra cash typing other people’s papers for a buck a page.

Between classes (and instead of them), I used it to make a game called Karateka.

1985

The Karateka royalties bought me a brand-new 512K Macintosh computer, through a special student-discount arrangement Apple had with Yale.

Macs started popping up all around campus that year. It was still unusual for a student to actually own one — the only other guy I knew who had one was David Pogue, down the hall — but anyone could use the ones in the computer rooms, and a lot of people did.

The Mac had a tiny, but amazingly high-resolution screen, with a mouse-driven graphical interface that gave it a totally different vibe from other computers. It was a device that even non-techies felt comfortable using. And it could hold 100 pages of text in memory. The Mac changed playing games and typing papers on computers from a fringe activity into part of mainstream college life.

1985

I loved my Mac. It was a shiny new toy — good to write papers on, fun to show off to friends — but I didn’t consider it a machine for serious programming. I wasn’t enough of an engineer to pop the hood and figure out how it worked and what all the chips did, the way I’d done with the Apple II. It was too sophisticated.

Besides, the installed user base of Macs in 1985 was miniscule compared to the Apple II. As a game programmer, it didn’t make business sense for me to switch.

So my new Mac took its place alongside my main working system — which I’d by then upgraded to a newer Apple IIe with 64K of RAM, two disk drives, color monitor and joystick. That was the computer I used to program Prince of Persia.

1989

I hadn’t anticipated that, due to my combination of obsessive perfectionism and occasionally dilatory work habits, Prince of Persia would take me four years to finish. By the time I was done, the Apple II was obsolete.

Ironically, it was the Mac version that saved my new game from oblivion. While the Apple market was dying, the rise of desktop publishing had created a new market of Mac owners hungry for games to play on their high-resolution color screens. They embraced Prince of Persia and made it a hit.

Thanks, Woz. Thanks, Steve. If I’d gone for the Commodore PET or Compucolor II in 1978, my programming career wouldn’t have been nearly so charmed.

2011

Today, like almost everyone I know, my daily life is inextricably bound up with Apple products. I’m typing this in a cafĂ© on a MacBook Air, with an iPad and iPhone in my shoulder bag, and more Macs and iProducts on view at the tables around me than I can count.

Devices that in ten years will seem as quaint as my 1978 Apple II does now.

But oh, man, it was a thing of beauty.

Posted on Aug 27, 2011 in Blog, Games, Karateka, Making Games, Old School, Prince of Persia, Sketchbook | 9 comments

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  1. 8-30-2011

    Jordan my Dad bought an Apple II and it was the most mesmerising thing in the house, even when it was running a line plotting program that drew spirograph like patterns on the screen. Watched it for hours….

    Of course, this meant I got to play Karateka. What a game, the detailed character animation were unlike anything I’d ever seen up to that point. My son has been told when he plays the latest Prince of Persia on his PS3 that it’s lineage (the superb animation models on the characters) can be traced back to this wee but great game I played on my Dad’s first computer.

    Naturally I have Prince of Persia on my ipod touch for easy retro goodness, and a nice copy from Gog.com of The Last Express. Thanks for the many hours of gaming fun!

  2. 8-30-2011

    Loved reading this, Jordan. I’m with you in thanks to Woz & Jobs…. Can hardly believe you got your Apple II before me! We got ours in 1979! Isn’t it strange how some of us knew as soon as home computers were available that we had to have one, that soon everyone would have one; and that other folks STILL haven’t caught on.

    What a great life you’ve built for yourself, so many, many talents! xo

  3. 8-30-2011

    Loved reading this Jordan. Prince was my first game on our dos5 PC in 91. Very happy memories and spurred my interest in software dev. Now 32 and have a successful IT career. Only played Prince last year in dosbox. Great times. :) thanks.

  4. 8-30-2011

    So d’ja ever pay your sister back?

    • 8-31-2011

      Had to. The Hacker Ethic is strict.

  5. 8-31-2011

    I wonder if the Apple vision will continue without Jobs. I know it’s a lot to say that one man = a company, but it sure seemed so in the case of Apple. They dumped him back in the day and their performance promptly dropped. They bring him back in and before too long they are back at the top and creating the most innovative and interesting products EVAR! To me, we’re living in the future in large part due to Jobs. Maybe that’s too dramatic, but he qualifies as a ForceTM for sure.

    Now, I wonder what my life would be like if my parents had gone with an Apple II instead of a TRS-80 …

  6. 10-17-2011

    I hear you, Jordan. I’m 9 years younger, and so I got in right at the end of the Apple II. I’d wanted an Apple for years and finally got a IIgs and color monitor at launch, which still runs. But like you, that machine put me in the right places at the right times to have a great career programming games.

  7. 10-25-2011

    What an incredible journey Jordan! I got my first mac last year, at present I’m looking at what the future has in store, hope to achieve at least 50% of what you have in life..

  8. 3-30-2012

    I loved this post, Jordan! Very touching.

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