Wednesday, January 30, 2013


Micro Adventure #5: Mindbenders

Something's fishy at the tropical island resort of Corona.  Celebrities and politicians have been returning from their trips making odd and uncharacteristic decisions, almost as if they've been brainwashed.  The bad news is, an international energy summit is being held there in just a few days.  If the world leaders return from it with their brains scrambled, it could lead to World War III.

I didn't originally read the Micro Adventure books in sequence.  The three that I found at the used book store were numbers 1, 4, and 5.  Of those three, I read this one first.  This is partly because I didn't expect there to be a proper sequence of events -- and indeed, most books in the series stand alone pretty well -- but mostly because I didn't quite understand the premise at first.  I read "Includes 7 Exciting Programs For Your Computer!" on the front, and I thought I could just pull them straight out, as one scrapes the cream filling off an Oreo.

But of those first three, this one was my favorite, and years later, I still have fond memories of it.  I fell in love at once with the setting of Corona, with its automated services and beautiful scenery.  It's kind of interesting to see some of the ideas that have come true since this book was written -- automated check-in, key cards that tie to your room account, and so on.  In fact, the resort seems kind of ordinary nowadays, but back in the 80s, a lot of this stuff seemed like sci-fi magic.

This book was written by Ruth Glick and Eileen Buckholtz, the pair who wrote fully four of the series's ten books, including #1, so their ideas have made quite the largest mark on the series.  And just like in #1, gosh are there some goofy bits in this story.  The story opens with Orion taking some well-deserved R&R, on a plane flight to a tropical resort, all paid for by ACT.  But... where are his parents?  Orion's still a kid.  How did he explain all of this to them?  ACT is supposed to be a secret organization.  On top of that, instead of the usual "decode a secret message, get a lift from Hot Wheels" opening, ACT decides that simplest, most effective, and cleanest way to get the attention of Senator Macklin, the man organizing the international energy summit, is to stage a hijacking.  And that's just the first two chapters!

But if it's goofy, it's lovably goofy.  Glick and Buckholtz stress the "citizen heroes" motif more than perhaps some other authors in the series, and they pull some rather eccentric choices for ACT agents.  For one, the leader of the team for this mission is Marlow, and he's a magician.  That's right, he thwarts the villains with stage illusions.  That is awesome.  And making a return appearance is the Chameleon, and his shape-shifting abilities are more fantastic than ever -- at one point, he takes on the role of a scientist, which actually gives him scientific knowledge that allows them to move forward with the mission.  Actually, it's unclear if he just happens to be a PhD who's gone into acting with a side of international espionage, but I like my explanation better.

While we're on the subject of the Chameleon, there seems to have been a shift in him since Million Dollar Gamble.  In that book, he was afraid to hold a gun because he was worried he'd shoot his foot off.  Here, he's shooting up guards (with tranq darts, to be fair) and lamenting the ACT code that prohibits unnecessary violence.  Not that this stops you from committing murder later in the book, although the "no body no death" rule may apply here.

There's a lot of the usual hacking elements in this one -- find a password here, reprogram something there.  But the one that really sticks out is the endgame, Shark Attack.  It's an honest-to-goodness ASCII graphics shooting game.  It's so long and complicated that, rather than give a main program listing and refer to modifications for other systems, they actually have a separate listing for every single supported system at the back of the book.  The problem is, of course, that it runs much too quickly to be playable on modern hardware, but I'll fix it one of these days.

One of these days.

This is still one of my favorites.  I still really love the setting, and if it's campy, at least it's in a fun way.

Next time: Robot Race.


Sunday, January 27, 2013


Micro Adventure #4: Time Trap

A BRUTE scientist has gone rogue and stolen their time machine, and now ACT and BRUTE have to join forces to stop him from changing the outcome of the American Revolution with a small atomic bomb.

We're back to the light-hearted adventure tone with this installment.  There are a lot more good laughs than in the last two books, and the premise as a whole is a lot of fun.  Not only is it a time travel story, not only is it a "good guys and bad guys team up to face a common threat" story, but we finally see Hot Wheels, Orion's transportation contact, in a front and center role in the mission.  For as little as we see of H.W. in each book, he's kind of grown on me, being one of the few common elements in all stories, and it's nice to see him coming up in the world in a more active role.

The story is well-told, and the author, Jean M. Favors, was clearly studious enough to do a little research on the American Revolution, sprinkling a few choice details through the narrative to give it some authentic flavor.  The time travel model is, perhaps, a bit simple; the story clearly wasn't intended to dig very deeply into the interfolded ramifications of causality and all that.  The way the atomic bomb is ultimately dealt with is... shocking, to say the least, to anyone who's heard the story of the time traveler who stepped on the wrong bug.  But, you know, who cares.

The guy who really steals the show is Nathaniel Peckinpaw, the director of BRUTE, who comes along on the mission as part of an uneasy and temporary alliance between ACT and BRUTE to save the timeline.  In a series with monolithic Good and Evil, little time is usually given to the villains' point of view.  Peckinpaw is the sort of dry, cool villain who acts selfishly, treats our do-gooder heroes with snide contempt, takes a practical view of ethical matters, and yet lives by a sort of code of honor.  He's the villain in the Saturday morning cartoon who strives week after week to vanquish the heroes, and yet, he gives them the hand up when they're dangling over the pit.  He's snarky and mean, but his heart is in it, even if he's trying all the time to turn things to his advantage.  I can't remember if he ever returns to the series, and that's a shame.

We also get a suggestion of the origins of BRUTE in The Society of Brutus, a secret society still loyal to King George.  It's a clever bit of wordplay and it fits perfectly; a band of colonials plotting to betray the rebellion may well name themselves after one of history's most infamous traitors, and BRUTE may simply be a derivation of the original name.  (And the director of ACT?  Code name Caesar, of course.)

Besides Peckinpaw, we get a standout performance from Bartholemew Bacle, the BRUTE scientist who's stolen the time machine.  He only gets one or two scenes, but those were enough to leave an impression on me that lasted all these years as he mutters and giggles to himself with a Gollum-like split personality.

As you might expect, there are few computers in Colonial America, but the computer activities aren't quite as forced as in Jungle Quest.  The centerpiece, as you might expect, is the time machine itself.  Even if it's just a flashy special effect, they really couldn't have gotten away without it.  Instead of focussing on hacking, this time the programs are mostly there to present a small problem, like a little mini-game.  Most of these are fairly simple, but the one where you figure out which key will reset the bomb is a decent logic puzzle.  It's not replayable once you figure out the trick to it, but I'd still call it the first decent game in the series.

All in all, another solid entry in the series.  It's got suspense, laughs, intrigue, and dinosaurs.  Everything you'd want.

Next time: Mindbender


Saturday, January 26, 2013


Micro Adventure #3: Million Dollar Gamble

Why is BRUTE snooping around your local grocery store?  Where did the winning lottery ticket come from?  Who is Robin?  And what does it all have to do with the European micronation of Solonia?

The really great thing about this book is that it throws you off-balance almost immediately.  The first two books (and indeed most of the series) begin in a formulaic fashion -- Orion receives a coded message that briefly describes the mission, an ACT transportation specialist -- codename Hot Wheels -- arrives to pick him up, and after a brief chase, he arrives in some secret location for a full mission briefing.  Everything's all sorted out by the end of the second chapter, and everyone's ready to go.

This time, things are a bit stickier.  Orion has been called in to pull some reconnaissance at his local grocery store, but when the lottery ticket he received in the mail turns out to be the winner of the $25,000 jackpot, he nearly finds himself kidnapped by the BRUTE agents he was sent to keep an eye on.  Escapes, chases, and spying ensue, and it isn't until about halfway through the book that everyone starts to piece things together and the official mission begins.  The best thing about having conventions is seeing them subverted, and it was fun to have Hot Wheels around for more than just the opening chase sequence.

I don't remember much about this story from when I read it as a kid.  Possibly it's because it was a library book and I only got to read it through once, but I'm guessing it's also to do with the lack of fantasy elements.  Compared to adventures in space or deep in the jungles, this is a pretty down-to-earth computer hacker story with a hint or two of War Games to it.  But as an adult, I love it!  The little hints of the plot that fall into place one by one really kept me wondering what would happen next, and especially what Orion's BBS pen-pal Robin had to do with all of it.

But the better story made some of the goofier bits stand out.  The micronation of Solonia is depicted in broad strokes of European stereotypes.  All the men wear lederhosen, everyone gets around by horse-drawn carriage, the power grid is constantly failing, their economy is starving for tourism, the entire country only owns one computer... Oh Europe!  You're so poor and weird!  Also, at one point the story goes to a zoo, and they really play up how ferocious and nasty the wolves are.  I dunno; I've been to a zoo or two, and I've never seen the wolves do much more than sort of wander around and maybe lie down in the shade.  It just made me wonder what the hell the zookeepers were doing to them to get them so pissed off.

There were some strong characters, but the one I remember best was The Chameleon.  He's an ACT agent who specializes in disguise and acting -- when he takes on a role, he gives in completely to his new persona, both physically and mentally.  As a kid, I had no trouble taking this at face value, but looking back, it sort of stretches believability.  The way it's described in the books, The Chameleon's ability to get into character seems to border on metamorphosis.  But I think the rule of cool applies here, and a guy who can turn into someone else at the drop of a hat is a cool ability; if I had to name my favorite ACT agents, he's top of the list.

The programs are fair enough this time around.  Considering the plot revolves around computer hacking, a lot of the programs are simple special effects, although you'll have to do a bit of debugging and password-hunting.  Encrypted messages are a plot point this time around, and in fact, at one point you'll be challenged to write your own decryption program.  You're given a template to base it off of, and instructions about how the thing is meant to work, but it's still a decent challenge; even with the instructions, it took me a couple tries to get it right.

All things considered, this is a solid entry in the series.  Just enough twists to keep you guessing all the way to the end.

Next time: Time Trap


Monday, January 14, 2013


Micro Adventure #2: Jungle Quest

High levels of energy emissions have been detected from deep in the jungles of Africa.  A deadly weapon left behind by an ancient, highly advanced civilization has been awakened, and it has the potential to destroy the world.  It's a race between ACT and BRUTE to see who will gain control of it first, and who will decide the fate of humanity.

Like many of these sorts of "novelty" series, Micro Adventure was a collaborative effort by various authors, but unlike many of them, they have a continuity, with returning characters and situations.  Although they fit together pretty well, you can tell that some authors had different ideas about where they wanted to take the concept.

I have to say that this book shocked me as a child because of the jarring tonal shift in comparison to the first book.  Sure, the first book had action and espionage and danger.  Lives were in the balance and people got hurt, as sometimes happens in adventure stories, even the ones written for children.  But it's not like anyone died or anything.

Spoilers!  People die in this one.

Compared to the whiz-bang futuristic fun of Space Attack, Jungle Quest gives us a much darker atmosphere.  The jungle itself is characterized as a genuinely menacing place, and the ACT agents find themselves subjected to all of your typical jungle terrors -- snakes, quicksand, and so on -- before they even find a BRUTE agent.  On top of that, Orion is dying.  It seems that the space radiation he encountered in his last adventure made him sensitive to the Devorim Force, a special kind of radiation that's being generated by the power source that he's seeking.  So the closer he gets, the more he suffers. This really made me uncomfortable as a kid; I really got into second-person fiction at the time, even though "bad endings" literally terrified me.  The book seemed to have a really oppressive atmosphere, and I was glad to be done with it and get out of it.

Which isn't to say that it's a bad story!  The Big Reveal is something that I never saw coming, and yet, they drop little bits of foreshadowing all the way through the book.  Looking back, it makes complete sense.  Even as a kid, I appreciated the fact that the darker atmosphere made for a more mature, realistic story.  The first actual fatality was sort of a "shit just got real" moment for me.  This wasn't just a goofy Saturday morning cartoon anymore, and BRUTE weren't just the big-mouthed villains making empty threats about world domination.  I felt more for the characters and the situation because there was actually something at stake.

Unfortunately, there is one moment that kiiiinda makes me wince.  At one point, Orion is kidnapped by a native tribe, and their characterization is... unflattering.  When the chief discovers his computer, his first impulse is to try to eat it.  Things go badly until Orion introduces him to the uncanny magic of ASCII art, at which point he is instantly befriended and given a roadmap that will take him directly to the power source he's looking for.  I wouldn't say it comes across as necessarily hateful or anything, just... kind of facile and maybe a little insensitive.  I guess the book gets points for not making the tribe out to be the single-minded irrational murderers that they are in some adventure fiction, but... eh.

Memorable characters?  There's Erda, the wisecracking ex-hippy who specializes in environmental studies.  He provides a welcome bit of comic relief for this more intense story.  And there's Olano, your guide.  He's not an ACT agent -- he was born in Africa to a native tribe, but he left them to pursue an education in America.  Although he fits a lot of the typical Native Guide clich├ęs, he also struck me as being a likable character in his own right.

Pretty early on, they hang a lampshade on the fact that a computer expert is kind of an odd choice for a jungle expedition.  There aren't any BRUTE mainframes to hack into or malfunctioning devices to fix; most of the computer activities in this one are basically just flashy special effects where the only interactive element is to key in the numbers that the book gives you.  There's a sort of game at the end, but without whipping out your calculator and doing a little trig, it basically amounts to a guessing game -- but with infinite guesses, there's really nothing at stake.  Still, when you're a kid, sometimes just making something show up on the screen is cool enough, and the manual at the back explains how it all works so that you can adapt some of the ideas.  And at least they didn't go the stupid route and try to shoehorn in a scene where Orion plugs his computer into the perfectly compatible serial port of the ancient civilization's death machine and reprograms it in BASIC.

A good story, but not one of my favorites.  It gave the series a kick of verisimilitude that would inform the tone of later books, but the harsher setting and the dull computer activities take a lot of the fun out of it.

Next time: Million Dollar Gamble.


Sunday, January 13, 2013


Micro Adventure #1: Space Attack

Your first mission with ACT takes you to a top secret U.S. space station, where the weapon systems have gone offline, the communications are jammed, and the self-destruct has been set to go off in just 36 hours.  It's up to you to figure out what's going wrong with the ship's software and get to the bottom of a sabotage plot.

This is probably the goofiest book in the series, which is fair enough for the first book.  You have to wonder why the government's first reaction to their software problems is to blame it on alien interference.  Who's running this thing, Arnold Rimmer?  Still, you have to cut them some slack -- it is the first book in the series, so no doubt they were still trying to feel out the tone.

This was one of my favorites when I was a kid.  The descriptions of the space station and the technology are just plain cool, even if there was nothing like sleep accelerators with computer-generated dreams back in the 80s.

In a book this short, characters often don't get a lot of time to leave a lasting impression, but nevertheless, there are some memorable folks in this book.  Tinker has stuck out in my mind all these years.  He's head of a toy company and a mechanical genius, and he brings a slightly puckish, childish attitude to the mission.  Colonel Grace, who seems to be ACT's NASA contact, is loud and amiable, but tough.  And I quite like Dr. Macron, a sort of dottering, absent-minded old man who happens to be a linguistics expert.

The series's concept is well served by the setting, with lots of things for Orion to hack and interact with.  You get the impression that they were really trying to make this series about learning to program and challenging yourself to think like a computer, because nearly every program has some sort of "hacking" element to it.  You're always trying to debug sabotaged software, or you're trying to reprogram something, or you're digging through the code to find a password or something.  In fact, one of the activities doesn't give you a program at all -- it simply challenges you to write a program to decode a numerical ASCII message.  It's really a unique idea, and sometimes I almost wish it was more common in the series, but sometimes it does lead to some kind of forced situations.  For example, the countdown timer on your space shuttle is running in the wrong direction!  If you can't fix it, the shuttle will burn out on the launch pad!  Even as a kid, I didn't really buy that.

But overall, this was a strong start for the series.  It established the important ideas very quickly and neatly, and it gave us the basic formula -- Orion receives a message, decodes it with his computer, and then some ridiculous form of transportation comes along to spirit him away from his ordinary life and into some far-flung adventure.  But it was also kind of typical children's fiction, so there's really not a lot more to say about it.

Next time, Jungle Quest.


Saturday, January 12, 2013


Micro Adventure Series

I discovered the Micro Adventure series while prowling a local used book store for old Choose Your Own Adventure books.  They caught my eye because they had the same sort of size and shape, the word "Adventure" was written on the binding, and they were numbered -- all hallmarks of a series that was trying to horn in on the incredibly popular (at the time) CYOA series.

Sure enough, the Micro Adventure books turned out to be interactive fiction for young adults, written in the second person.  The reader steps into the role of Orion, the crack computer ace for an organization called the Adventure Connection Team (ACT), and finds himself involved in the usual sort of espionage plots, making the world safe from the forces of BRUTE -- the Bureau of Random Unlawful Terror and Evil.  (At least they're honest, eh?)  The tone is fairly light, and some allowances for silliness must be made due to the target audience.  It's a fun, comic booky sort of monolithic Good vs. Evil story with some James Bond trappings.

Unlike most interactive books of the age, the story was completely linear, with no branches.  Even the character of Orion is written with his own distinctive voice and personality, so it's not so much that you're driving his story as reading from his script.  The way you interact with the story is by using your BASIC-enabled computer to run the programs that are listed at various points in the story.  Sometimes these programs are simply nifty special effects -- Orion receives a coded message at the beginning of each book, and you're given a program that decodes it.  Other times, you'll be challenged to actually "hack" the programs to fix bugs, change the way they behave, or otherwise glean important information.  And once in a while, they'll actually throw a simple game or two in that you can play.

Like I said, the stories are linear, so the computer programs are somewhat optional.  It's not like you can't read on if you lose a game or something, and most of the information you get by running the programs can be gleaned from context clues in the story.  Still, this was a really cool idea for the time.  It's basically one of those "Programming for Kids" books that were made back when computers booted up into BASIC, except it gives kids a chance to playact being the computer expert who hacks into the system in a spy movie.

These books sucked me right in when I was a kid.  The linear nature of the books allowed for much longer and more involved stories than the CYOA series and its imitators could allow for, which gave you more time to enjoy the characters and settings.  It's fair to say that the Adventure Connection Team was as much a part of my childhood mythology as Voltron and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I didn't really think about it at the time, but what strikes me now about them is that it's sort of a superhero story without super powers.  ACT is made up of largely ordinary people who just happen to be experts in their fields, whether it's astronomy, disguise, or biotech.  They all have day jobs.  It's just that every now and then, they get a coded message in an envelope, and then they're abruptly whisked away to try and save the world.  Orion is just this high school student who's good at computers.  When you're a kid, it's really exciting to think that knowing how to program in BASIC is a sufficient qualification to be yanked out of school and go on globetrotting adventures.

Of course, the problem is that I never really got the true experience -- although we had a computer at home, it hooked up to The Family TV, so monopolizing it just so I could sit down and play along with a little book I was reading was a tricky proposition.  Moreover, books are portable devices, and at the time, computers weren't -- there was simply no way I was going to leave my favorite books at home just because I couldn't get near a computer.  But now that Petit Computer allows us to write BASIC programs wherever we want, I'm starting to take a nostalgic interest in the series again.

For the longest time, I only owned the three books I found at the book store that one day.  There were a couple more in the school library, but all I have left is a vague recollection about them.  Of course, now there's an Internet, and sites like Amazon to connect people who are trying to unload obsolete used books with grateful nerds.  I was kind of sad to discover that only ten books were ever made in the series and that I'd read most of the ones I didn't own when I found them in the school library -- no series ever caught on or became as prolific as CYOA did.  Still, that just means it's easier for me to get the complete set.

I'm hoping to spend some time going through each book individually here on the blog, but we'll see how that goes.  (I've yet to write part two of my Phoenix Wright review series.)  It should be fun.


Thursday, January 03, 2013


You Don't Know Jack

I never played You Don't Know Jack back when it first became popular, mostly because I was still clinging to the idea that Nintendo was the beginning and end of video games.  But it's making a comeback, apparently, and now you can play it on your iOS-enabled device.

If you need the bare description, here it is.  You Don't Know Jack is a trivia game.  Actually, it's more like a quiz show.  The host, Cookie Masterson, reads you the questions, you buzz in with your answer, and then he banters a bit.  And just like any good quiz show, there are special rounds where the rules are a little different, and it ends with a Lightning Round -- the Jack Attack -- where you can turn the whole game around if your wits are quick enough.  It's really funny and fun, and you should totally try it, because it's free.

Like I said, I never played the game back in the day, but I did attend a convention once where they were playing, so I can compare this version to that one.  A game is only five rounds instead of ten, there's no Wrong Answer of the Day, all players participate equally in a Dis or Dat round (which isn't guaranteed to show up in every episode), and there's no Screw.  If that kind of stuff matters to you, then you'll probably get pretty angry!

The thing that really strikes me about the game is just how perfectly it fits the whole social/pay to play paradigm that's become so popular lately.  Making this an asynchronous social game is just genius.  Your friends play, the computer remembers how they played, and you play against a recording of their performance.  Even if you play as a guest without signing in to Facebook, they're nice enough to pit you against some other random players who've already played that episode.  There isn't much real interaction between players as the game goes -- like I said, there's no Screw button -- but it really helps to bring some competitive atmosphere to what is actually a single-player game, just seeing how some other real human beings fared against the same questions you're facing.

As for the pay to play idea -- hell yes.  This is one of the few games that justifies the model.  After all, most of the appeal of the game is in facing a new episode each time.  In ancient times, buying a video quiz game gave you a finite amount of content to play with.  Once you burned through the two hundred questions in your Jeopardy! cartridge's ROM, you were stuck with what was essentially a filled-in crossword book.  I'm perfectly fine with buying game currency indefinitely if they're willing to match that with posting new content indefinitely.  And I mean gosh, they'll also give you a free game every day, and you can earn game currency by playing, what more do you want?

So there you go.  Highly recommended, go give it a try.


Tuesday, January 01, 2013


Petit Computer Revisited

I don't think my review of Petit Computer really communicated just how amazing it is.

When I was really little, before our household could even afford an NES, we had this hand-me-down Atari 5200.  I'm kind of fuzzy about the exact model -- like I said, I was young at the time -- but in addition to playing cartridges, it was also a keyboard that plugged into your television, and you could program it in BASIC.  And since our school library had some books on the subject, I started to learn the language a bit, at least to the extent that I could copy the programs out of them and sort of more or less grasp the concepts they were demonstrating.  But when I got tired of that and slotted in Pac-Man, I always wondered how you could ever go from '10 PRINT "HELLO, WORLD"' to a little yellow ball running around a maze eating dots.  There was some kind of magic at work there that was completely beyond me.

We finally did get that NES, and what a difference.  The games were huge, amazing, endlessly varied.  You could still tell that it was a cut below the arcade games at the time, but it was close enough.  Still, part of me wanted that keyboard.  I wanted the key that would unlock the back door and let me into the room where the games were made.  I wanted to be a part of that.

As the years passed, a sort of wall has grown up in my mind between computers and game consoles.  A computer, my mind decided, was a workspace, a toolbox, a Lego set.  It was something that you would use to make things.  It's where you write stories, make drawings, and write programs.  A game console, in contrast, was just a machine for using what other people made.  It was like a VCR -- you just stick someone else's work into it.

I remained fond of programming, and even went to college for it.  And yet, I never really saw myself making "real" video games.  This is mostly because a real, professional programming suite costs actual money.  Seeing myself as a mere hobbyist, I couldn't really justify the expense of a pro suite, and I satisfied myself with free programming environments.  And, of course, free environments have their limitations.

But with every environment I could get my hands on, I would try to make games.  The TI-82 I bought for my advanced math classes became a breeding ground for simple dungeon-crawlers.  I wrote menu-based text games in QBasic.  I dabbled in Inform.  I published an Atari 2600 homebrew with batari BASIC.  I learned, and I invented.  I pushed limitations, found the strengths of each odd platform, collected some ideas of what I was good at and what I liked to make and play.

When the DS became the DSi, it took me some time to really be sold on the change.  It was Nintendo's first major step toward making a game machine with more of a devicey sensibility to it, which was kind of an odd shift after the years of insisting that they were a game company and refusing to add the web browsers and movie players that other companies were going for.  But eventually it proved itself.  Being cell phone resistant, it was the first device I owned with a built-in camera, and I ended up using it a lot more than I expected.  And utilities started coming out for it -- Art Academy lets you paint real pictures on the touchscreen and export them to SD card, Flipnote Studio lets you make little animations and share them on the web.  It really challenged this idea I had fixed in my head that a game console is only for viewing things, not for making them.

So when I first found out about Petit Computer and I heard "BASIC on the DS", frankly I wasn't expecting much.  I've seen some really poor implementations of BASIC on devices where it just plain never belonged, such as the BASIC cartridge on the Atari 2600.  Even when it's done really well, I don't have much experience with a BASIC that's designed to make it easy to do much more than put some pretty text on the screen.  This could have been a bare minimum effort.  They could have implemented just enough of the language that you could write a few lines and have them work and show it to people like a card trick or something.

But instead, they've delivered the best version of BASIC I have ever used.

For one thing, they've tuned this implementation toward game creation.  There are so many functions for making it easy to do all the usual business of games -- moving, animating, resizing, and rotating sprites; scrolling backgrounds; reading controller input; reading touchscreen input; playing music.  Yes, you can still pull out your old BASIC books and play around with text and keyboard stuff, but they've gone out of their way to make this a tool for making video games.  They've included drawing tools for creating your sprites and backgrounds.  They've included all sorts of gamey sound effects.

And for another thing, there are so few limitations.  I'm so used to limitations when I'm working with BASIC.  But here... your programs can be huge.  Even if you bump up against the 520k file size limit, you're allowed to load a different program and continue.  The Atari 2600 got me used to working with a limited number of moving objects -- Petit Computer can keep track of fully 100 sprites.  Were you worried that having a touchscreen keyboard meant that you couldn't use the touchscreen as a display or for more general touchscreen controls?  Your worries are unnecessary -- set a parameter, and you've got all that real estate to do whatever you want with.  Every time I thought I was approaching the edge of what this system was capable of, I found that it went much further, or there was a work-around to fix it.

It's a programmable NES that fits in your pocket.  Okay, so maybe I now have the advantage of knowing a thing or two about bitwise operators and other small details that make this kind of thing easier, but I'm sure the young me still would have freaked out about this.

Petit Computer completes the DSi in a very fundamental way.  With it, the DSi has finally crossed the boundary into my mental image of what a computer does.  It really and truly is a handheld studio, a portable toolkit.  Just like my old Atari machine, it lets me stick in a cartridge and play those big, loud, colorful, wonderful games that other people made, but it also gives me access to that back room where I can make games myself.


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