I’m always talking about time machines, touchstones that launch you into nostalgia for some forgotten era of the past. There’s one that I mess with that’s infinitely more detailed than any other, and it’s system emulation, which was once just a vague dream and is now huge and all-encompassing.
I guess it all really started in the 80s, when you could get the box for your Intellivision or Colecovision that played Atari 2600 games. And that was a kludge, because it was nothing more than an actual 2600 that hung off the side of your existing system, so you basically used your Mattel power supply, joysticks, and connection to the TV to play Atari games. Then the Commodore 128 had a Zilog Z80 CPU in addition to its 8502, so you could boot into CPM mode, which was great except none of us cared about CPM or running ancient crusty old office productivity software. Later there was a lot of talk about the Amiga being able to emulate the Mac or run as a PC with external hardware, but I never knew anybody that really did this.
Fast-forward maybe ten or fifteen years, and I’m in the period when I’m firmly planted behind a desk in cubeland and want to relive the days of 1985, so I’m scouring eBay for a good Commodore 64 and 1541 and maybe an Amiga 500 or decent Atari 2600 setup. And I’m spending my spare time browsing all of the web sites out there for 8-bit computers, now that there’s a whole world of freaky Finland hackers posting all of this crazy stuff on the interwebs that’s knocking loose the rust in my brain and making me remember to SYS 49152 after I load some ML at #C000. And around then, some people started writing software that ran in a modern Pentium computer that would emulate the C-64 or the 2600 or any other old machine. Because by then, you add all of the overhead involved, but you run it on a fast PC, you’ve pretty much got a 6510 running at 1.023 MHz. The other major factor is that nobody can even keep track of who the hell owns Commodore these days, so there aren’t a bunch of cease-and-desist lawsuits over the ROM images, and a ton of the games are floating around. That’s the other great thing: in 1985, you spent all day waiting for your 1541 drive to slowly load in that Zork game. But now, a complete ISO of a 170K SS/SD floppy is smaller than the image of a rounded corner on a web page. You could go download a thousand games at a clip and barely spike your bandwidth.
And this is truly amazing to me. Because you can look back at some old era and look at a posed photo that’s two-dimensional and unmovable, or listen to a tape of some audio of an old song or an old conversation, and that partially captures a moment. But this is trapping an exact bit-by-bit representation, a living and working version of the same environment you basically lived in decades before. It’s like being able to download some magic thing that would recreate your college dorm room down to the last millimeter, every single detail and quirk and bug and problem, and you could step inside it and relive it. I could sit at that BASIC prompt and look at every single one of the 65,535 bytes in that system, and run every old game that me and Matt Wanke would stay up all night playing back in the 8th grade. I could load up Blue Max, the very first game I ever played on the C-64, and fly that little biplane through the weird 45-degree angled world, dropping bombs on the 320×200 terrain that scrolled past.
I spent a lot of time back at the blue and cyan screen, trying to type in some BASIC, playing some old games, and that was decent. But what really pushed me back into the past was when MAME games started coming out. MAME was an emulator that could simulate many of the common arcade cabinets that lived in the 80s and 90s. Game cabinets weren’t all one-off creations; each vendor typically had some common chassis or series, so they could just pop out the ROMs from a dud game and pop in something new. It wasn’t always that straightforward, and you had systems that mutated over time to add new features or new hardware or whatever, plus you had some games with weird joysticks or buttons. But if you got bored of your X-Men game and wanted the Simpsons game, it was a straight switch. And that made it easier to write a common emulator for a bunch of different ROMs. And once I got MAME running on my laptop and started tracking down ROMs, I was absolutely hooked. There were two games that were total time machines for me, because I spent so much time pouring quarters into both of them.
The first one was Smash TV. Me and Ray used to play this constantly, back in like 1991. When I went to IUSB, we never went to class, and would always drive around South Bend and Mishawaka, listening to death metal, looking for something to eat, something to do, and of course there was nothing. So we always ended up at the arcade at University Park Mall, and we’d dump unending amounts of money into that game. It’s basically a rehash of the movie The Running Man; a future where prisoners (in the game, the prisoner part was not mentioned) have to run through mazes killing mass numbers of robots and mutants and warriors with futuristic laser weapons in front of a televised studio audience in order to win money and prizes. It’s a typical quarter-eater, where two guys can play, and you just shoot every damn thing that runs at you, and if you die, you just need to shell out another token to keep rolling. The game has a lot of synthesized speech from the Richard Dawson game show host, saying “BIG MONEY! BIG PRIZES! I LOVE IT!” And it’s one of those weird memory things, where I can’t remember my office phone number, but every single millisecond of this game is burned into my head so much that I can instantly repeat any of the lines or hum any of the music within it. So when I pop it up in a window on my Mac, even though I don’t have the joysticks and have to use a/w/s/z or whatever, it instantly takes me back to those days of playing hooky and feeding quarters in a mall arcade that’s now probably a cell phone store or a place selling uggs or something.
The other game that I have memorized like this is Golden Axe. This is a Sega ripoff of the Conan franchise (barbarian, not talk show host, although that would be a cool game too, with Andy Richter at your side dressed up as a wench, and broadswording Jay Leno in the head.) It’s very similar to Altered Beast (also done by the same design team), a side-scroller with two (or was it three?) sets of joysticks and buttons, and you dumped in the quarters to continue. You could be a barbarian, a dwarf, or an amazon woman (a tall Hilary Swank-type warrior, not a woman that buys a lot of books online on a Kindle.) They had one of these in the tiny arcade in the Indiana student union, and they only had maybe five games, and all of them sucked, but this one sucked the least, so I was sort of forced to play it when I was killing time in there. I’d rather go to Spaceport and play some Tetris or find a Smash TV console, but it was one of those captive environment things, and within a matter of time, I got hooked on Golden Axe. I think it’s a funny game, because all of the various screaming sounds in it are too accurate and over the top. I was playing this once when Sarah was in the next room and she came in and said “what the hell is that? It sounds like some kind of Lil’ Jon krunk video game.” But once again, all of those little sounds and sayings are etched into my brain, and when I fire up that ROM in a Sega 16-B cabinet emulator, I’m back to the student union in 1989, between classes and wasting time and quarters.
I thought of all of this because I was cruising around and wondered if anyone had ever installed NeXTstep in a VMware emulator, and I guess a few people have tried. I wanted to just find someone who did the whole thing and had a VMware image I could download and fire up, but it’s considerably more difficult than that, setting up all of the drivers and crap. Here’s a post on how to do it, though. I think sitting at an OmniWeb browser in a NeXTstep login would be a pretty severe time warp for me. I spent a lot of time lusting after that hardware when it first came out, and spent a good chunk of 1991-1992 trying to get some time on it. It’s funny how fast the fall from grace was, though. Those machines were total demons in like 1991, and by the time I got to the support center in 1993, we had a slab that was practically a doorstop, it was so slow. But maybe if you took that awesome (in 1991) OS and dropped it in an emulator on a quad-core x64 i7 chip, it would be 5% faster than it was back on the 68040. Something to mess with, but probably not during the same week when I have to move.