Makes Microcomputer Software Lives Again, in Your Browser
February 13, 2014 8:39 PM   Subscribe is known for archiving a great number of things, broadly classified in terms of the web, written and printed text, studio audio and live music, and video. The most recent addition comes in various realms of software, as outlined by Jason Scott (MeFi's own jscott). But the newest addition is notable because it brings old software back through online emulation - behold, the Historical Software collection, from productivity software like VisiCalc (1979), WordStar (1981 Osborne 1 version), and The Print Shop (1984, NYT review) to vintage games including Eastern Front 1941 (1981), The Hobbit (1982), and Karateka (1984). If you're interested in the way this all works, you can read more on the blog.
posted by filthy light thief (45 comments total) 89 users marked this as a favorite
The Historical Software Archive/Collection was mentioned previously in a comment about the in-browser emulation efforts, but it looks a lot more robust now.

I recently found this thanks to a An AskMe request for an online Print Shop clone by bowbeacon.

Lastly, VisiCalc was covered previously.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:42 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're not sure where to start, you can browse by newest uploads back to oldest, or browse recently reviewed items.

If you need a bit of memory jogging, here's a list of "favorite software for children," circa 1993. If you can't find those titles on yet, there's a good chance you can find them elsewhere. For example, here's Qaop/JS, an online, fullscreen HTML5 ZX Spectrum emulator, with a bunch of games to play. I'm having issues with it now, but it was working earlier. But in that way, it's really emulating that old system look and feel of unreliable playback, right?
posted by filthy light thief at 8:48 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Visicalc emulation, previously.
posted by zamboni at 8:56 PM on February 13, 2014

Those folks have been doing some seriously cool shit recently.
posted by PMdixon at 9:05 PM on February 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hopeful that the JSMESS team will get printer emulation so I can again terrorize family and friends with horrible greeting cards using the RSVP font and cake icons.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:05 PM on February 13, 2014 [12 favorites]

Goodness! The Print Shop? *loads tractor feed printer with a fresh ream of paper and prints out a banner the length of a football field*
posted by hippybear at 9:12 PM on February 13, 2014 [27 favorites]

I first started using Bank Street Writer in about 1983 for my Atari 800XL, and I used that as my main word processor for school work until halfway into my freshman year of college in 1994, when I finally upgraded to a Powerbook 150. I fired it up last year and it still works, too!
posted by chambers at 9:15 PM on February 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Ooh! Hey they should take over the Processor Technology Sol-20 Emulator and put it on the web.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:20 PM on February 13, 2014

Wow, Print Shop is jogging a memory but I don't think it can be of Print Shop exactly. I know my elementary school in the 90's had Apple IIs that I messed around with, it's probably that. Weird.

Also, Flappo Bird.
posted by BungaDunga at 9:25 PM on February 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Got past the first guy in Karateka but then I couldn't press any keys. :(
posted by sieve a bull at 9:27 PM on February 13, 2014

Karatekaaaaaaaaaaaa!! *chop*
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:58 PM on February 13, 2014

I just spent way longer than I want to admit being really bad at Flappo Bird.

I've been watching this develop for a bit. There's a lot of really cool stuff going on here. I just played an authentic version of Taipan (a game I once spent months and months trying, badly, to clone in QBasic) for the first time in probably 20 years.

You can boot a Dreamcast in your browser. That's kind of insane.
posted by brennen at 9:59 PM on February 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

Rock on, jscott!
posted by JHarris at 10:05 PM on February 13, 2014

Oh wow. I remember the Print Shop! This is awesome!
posted by lollusc at 10:49 PM on February 13, 2014

Lemonade Stand is a basic economics game created in 1973 by Bob Jamison of the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium. Charlie Kellner ported the game to the Apple II platform in February 1979. Throughout the 1980s Apple Computer included Lemonade Stand (along with other software) with the purchase of their systems.
This was the first, and maybe the only, computer game I played with my Mother when she was learning to be an "Apple Mom" when I was in elementary school. She had a knack for working with computers and became a business analyst and system manager.
posted by ob1quixote at 11:25 PM on February 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

Always glad to make people happy. Here's the special JSMESS/Historical Software cheat sheet for my friends at Metafilter.

First, it's good to realize there's two main branches of JSMESS - the one at and the one at The one at Internet Archive is meant to be a much more sanitized, properly set up, careful subset of JSMESS-powered "players" against a curated collection of software. It lags behind the main JSMESS site, but in general every single item is verified working, or gets repaired so that it will work, or gets quietly shuffled away into the bin. On the main JSMESS site, anything goes - I've got pretty much every one of 300+ machines that the JSMESS emulator runs best (out of over 1,600!) and you can see some real obscure ones there.

That said, the main JSMESS site also will not work now and then. For example, the Colecovision was busted overnight last night while we were testing an upgrade in the MESS and Emscripten codebases. The goal is for there to be very little time between the release of a new version of MAME/MESS and a JSMESS equivalence being generated by scripts. We're pretty close on that.

Here's an early link to an additional collection we're announcing shortly: The Business Case. It's a whole range of business software we'll be making available for people to play around with, including word processors, spreadsheets, and financial planning - mostly for Apple II and Atari 800 but more coming down the line.

Just skip it all and play with The Bank Street Writer.

Now, right now, the team is dealing with a very specific issue - sound. Sound turns out to be the great weakness in Javascript - it works very well except when it doesn't, and then it works really terribly. So, between the really smart minds working on it from every angle, we hope to have sound be dependable enough to go live on But until then, it's live on the JSMESS site! It really makes a difference.

Once the team is done with sound, we've got a wonderful set of wishes and hopes on our plate. They include:

* Way better keyboard control, via onscreen keyboard as an option
* The ability to use a printer, with the resulting prints going out as image files
* The ability to save out and load disk images in the browser. Will change EVERYTHING.
* Bits in the code to allow all sorts of "breakout boxes" so you can input/output stuff
* Faster, faster, faster

I will ask you, if you have any skills, to consider coming to the #jsmess channel on EFNet where these volunteers are working very hard to make this 100% open source software player as robust and intensely fast/accurate as possible. They're all doing it for the love of it, and a whole range of skills could be used (including testing and verifying theories) that would be very welcomed. This whole thing is meant to make the world a better place online.

Oh, and one last thing, if you didn't catch that before: We put up 1000 console games on the day after Christmas.
posted by jscott at 11:38 PM on February 13, 2014 [41 favorites]

This is one of the best things happening on the Internet!
posted by bystander at 11:45 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

One other bit: Charlie don't surf, JSMESS supports the Processor Technology Sol-20 already. Making it interface well with the webpage is not something I've spent time on, focusing on the easier stuff, but it's all there.
posted by jscott at 11:47 PM on February 13, 2014

JSMESS is indeed the website (web application? web thingy?) of the year. Simply astounding. I do have one suggestion - some kind of progress bar, rather than just the spinning disk icon, when you load a system. Often it fails for me (usually when I'm firing up an Amstrad), and it's hard to figure out if it's just still loading over my slow connection, or if the whole thing has somehow gone belly-up.

Brilliant job, overall.
posted by Jimbob at 11:48 PM on February 13, 2014

The loader's definitely a thing. It was done by a team member named Sherlock, who did a good job coming up with a whole range of options that could be fed into the URL (screen scale, auto-start, etc.) and which dependably does the job no matter what crazy stuff we feed into it. That said, he knows it's at best a sketch, and a more informative loader would be welcome. He switched jobs/locations and has been busy, but if you want to check it out and maybe contribute, here's the github:

Obviously, the JSMESS github itself is also available for contributions:
posted by jscott at 11:55 PM on February 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

This is fantastic. I have been awaiting Print Shop printer emulation so I can cause flashbacks with pixelated LOST CAT posters.
posted by benzenedream at 12:06 AM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is there a way to simulate joystick inputs with the keyboard? I fired up a game of Lode Runner (that iris effect really took me back) but my guy just stood there no matter what keys I pressed.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:01 AM on February 14, 2014

Depends on which lode runner you're running, and on which machine. For this and similar technical questions, hit me up at and I'll work with you. In some cases, I've added additional keybindings to make it work on keyboards and setups not otherwise anticipated.
posted by jscott at 3:19 AM on February 14, 2014

Experience with WordStar (albeit on DOS) back in the day -- using bracketed tags to denote styles -- is why I took to HTML so quickly. I may finally get my chance to thank it!
posted by wenestvedt at 3:24 AM on February 14, 2014

This whole thing is meant to make the world a better place online. is literally one of the best computer-related projects in my book. Maybe I should scan and upload said book.
posted by ersatz at 4:03 AM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

What's the copyright status on this project? Has the authors given a license for their software, or is this just done under the abandonware "nobody probably cares and if they do, we'll take it down" philosophy?
posted by ymgve at 5:44 AM on February 14, 2014

Oh, man ... Bank Street Writer. That brings me back. I'm not sure that people who weren't in school at the time probably realize how much of a Big Deal that program was, or was supposed to be. (And maybe it would have lived up to that more fully if there had been more than one computer per 20-kid classroom; as it was, you got to use BSW about one day a month.)

Looking at it now, the controls are really bizarre. I'm not sure why they thought that the carat (^) was a better way of writing capital letters than just using shift. It's not like that wasn't established practice at the time from typewriters and word processors. But that particular choice makes Emacs seem reasonable.

It's really begging for an oral history project, provided one hasn't been done already. There are some interesting parallels behind some of the hype behind BSW and the Apple II's, when they were being pushed hard in education, and some of the arguments for laptop-per-student or iPad-per-student projects.

There seems to be an interesting scholarly paper written about the design process of BSW (PDF), although I haven't had a chance to read it yet.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:57 AM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Now all we need to complete my nostalgia trip is some early Stickybear software emulators.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:59 AM on February 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think the copyright status would need to be litigated before anyone could say for sure, and there's almost no upside in doing so. A lawsuit risks creating case law that explicitly legitimizes the Archive's work, at which point a million Archives will bloom across the web. OTOH, if you win and crush the Archives into a fine powder, you have an epic PR disaster on your hands.

If you're a copyright holder, especially a large one, the smart move is to flag the post DMCA the violation and move on.
posted by Lazlo Nibble at 8:14 AM on February 14, 2014

I have yet to beat Karateka. And I'm talking going back to the mid-'80s on my pirate Apple II+. Damn you, shogun!
posted by the sobsister at 9:30 AM on February 14, 2014

I'm not sure why they thought that the carat (^) was a better way of writing capital letters than just using shift.

Kadin2048: The Apple ][ and ][+ didn't have lowercase letters (in text mode) nor the ability to read the Shift key directly -- unless you hacked in the Shift Key mod, which routed the Shift key to an unused game port. The //e later added lowercase, 80 columns, Shift key support, etc.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:06 AM on February 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just remember kids, lowercase was once a feature.
posted by benzenedream at 10:45 AM on February 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

horrible greeting cards using the RSVP font and cake icons


When I was probably 10 years old, my little sister's best friend's family got a computer that we (me, sis, & friend) used to make cards & banners. I had since forgotten what the program was called, but as soon as I clicked through to The Print Shop page and saw that load screen, I knew. Instant intense nostalgia, could see the room the computer was in, the desk, the Lite Brite & spirographs on the other table, etc. :)

Like madelines, but more...pixellated.
posted by epersonae at 12:53 PM on February 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

That's an insane selection of Amstrad CPC software. It may even be close to complete. I keep meaning to curate a selection of jawdropping Amstrad software; there are a few games and utilities that are unrivalled.
posted by scruss at 6:38 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Interesting scruss. Care to list off a few examples?
posted by JHarris at 7:09 PM on February 14, 2014

I'd love to, JHarris, but time is not there to do this properly. Instead, I'll quote a list I posted elsewhere:
… [The Amstrad CPC] seemed to hit a very good hardware team and get put out for a good price. It did have its downsides; slower BASIC than the BBC B (though I found out that the way Acorn managed its speed was to dispense with garbage collection altogether — no fair!), too much of its memory locked up in the screen display, weaker sound than the C64. But some things it did well: great display on the included colour monitor, the quirky and expensive 3" disks were surprisingly good (and fast), great keyboard, CPM compatibility, banked RAM which survived a reboot (much to the annoyance of copy protection writers), and a refreshing lack of cable clutter.

I'm trying to remember my favourite games for it. They would certainly include:
  • Harvey Headbanger - a simple little painter game so well done that all the ports were a disaster
  • Chuckie Egg - this was closer to the BBC and Tandy CoCo version than the Spectrum one
  • Trailblazer - all it did was palette shifting to simulate animation, but it was fast and fun
  • Mission Genocide - a bullet-hell shmup. One of the few games to use the Amstrad's fast but limited hardware scroll properly.
  • Room Ten - a sort-of 3D Shufflepuck Café. Did clever things with graphics that looked very classy
  • 3D Star Strike - a blatant rip-off of Star Wars with very blocky vector graphics, but immersive and fun
  • Dark Star - another Star Wars rip-off, but this one had beautiful fast graphics and a deep air of confusion behind it
  • Defend or Die - yeah, Defender; but well programmed and slick
  • Paperboy - this one might be hard to find. There were two versions: the first one was in four colours, and played well with minimal sound. The later one was colourful and loud, but was basically awful. I think this might be one of the few games that is still embargoed; I don't think Elite were too happy letting their ports out
  • Elite - fighting words, but I think the Amstrad version was the best of the 8-bit versions. Lose weeks on this; it's still great.
Some of those games were ports, but done with care and attention to the Amstrad's hardware. Outside games, Protext was a remarkable word processor, and with the ROM version, you could be up and typing five seconds after a reboot.

The Amstrad CPC was my life for about four years. I still remember the system ROM call addresses, still know the two-movement gesture that would auto-run games with RUN"DISC↲, and the CPC's canary-yellow text on a blue background is how computers should look.
posted by scruss at 9:17 AM on February 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

Looking at it now, the controls are really bizarre. I'm not sure why they thought that the carat (^) was a better way of writing capital letters than just using shift.

That situation seems to be more about the Apple II than on other platforms at the time. IIRC, BSW on the Atari and C64 computers behaved 'normally' (more typewriter-like) in regards to some of the odd ways that the Apple II did. Some of that is due to the way the Apple II's hardware and software was built. It's weird to think of how programs were made back then when you don't have an operating system (in the modern sense) acting as a middle man to universalize the manner in which different programs interact with the computer. Each finished program was built on layers of unique flow patterns, bug fixes and work arounds that would be handled completely different manner by a different set of programmers and company. Add to that some of the weird ways the Apple II hardware handled things (some innovative, some awkward, some just bizarre) in comparison to how other companies designed their boards, and the end result sometimes left the end-user with some esoteric finger dance to get things done.
posted by chambers at 5:17 PM on February 15, 2014

I know that on the Commie 64, the hardware in normal character mode was capable of displaying 256 different characters. The main ROM character set contained a plethora of graphical widgets and symbols, so that it didn't have room for lowercase. They handled this by including a complete alternate character set in ROM, which replaced uppercase characters with lowercase and some of the symbols with uppercase, and from immediate mode you could switch between them, I think it was, by pressing Commodore-Shift.

If that sounds bad, the machine's VIC-II chip also had a little-used mode called "Extended Background Color," which used the high bits of each character cell to signify one of four different colors for the background for that cell, at the cost of losing three-quarters of the character set. Being limited to 64 characters is a harsh restriction, but it is a way to get more color choices without trading half your horizontal resolution, like you had to do with the system's multicolor modes.

So I mention all this to convey some idea of the problems developers on these systems had to deal with. And the C64 had a hardware team responsible for it -- the Apple II sprang, for the most part, from the mind of the Great And Powerful Woz. I can concede it some quirks.
posted by JHarris at 5:52 PM on February 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Excellent. Thank you both, jscott and filthy light thief.
posted by homunculus at 7:22 PM on February 15, 2014

The Apple ][ and ][+ didn't have lowercase letters (in text mode) nor the ability to read the Shift key directly -- unless you hacked in the Shift Key mod

That's really interesting; I had no idea. In retrospect, most of the Apple II-series machines I used were IIe's, and the odd II+ must have had the hack installed -- which is believeable, since it seems like a fairly easy mod.

But it seems like such an odd hardware decision, that basically for the shift key to be functional you have to route it through a game port ... what was the shift key connected to in the stock configuration? It basically didn't do anything? Why even include it at all as part of the layout then.

All this makes me want to drag my old IIc out of the closet and see if any of the program disks are still good.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:56 PM on February 15, 2014

I was wondering that myself. A quick search around the internet reveals a number of references to the "shift key mod" on the Apple II and II+, but I didn't find anything about what the shift key does on those machines without the mod. The mod was made standard, it seems, from the IIe on.
posted by JHarris at 10:28 PM on February 15, 2014

The shift key worked like a normal shift key in the default configuration; pressing shift-3 gave you the hash mark, etc. It just wasn't possible to detect the state of the shift key itself. So if you wanted to distinguish a press of the "A" key from pressing shift-A you needed the mod.
posted by Lazlo Nibble at 10:29 PM on February 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Aaah. So basically, the keyboard circuits read the state of the Shift key and used it to generate keypresses for the special symbols, but didn't do the same for letters, and didn't make the state of the Shift key available to the CPU so it could figure it out itself. Interesting.
posted by JHarris at 10:57 PM on February 15, 2014

I was an Amstrad CPC kid as well - I looked with jealousy at the quality of graphics (Full-colour sprites! Smooth scrolling!) on my friends' C64s, but Amstrad CPCs really had some advantages of their own.

1) Locomotive BASIC was actually quite advanced and a joy to program in, compared to the BASIC on other systems at the time. You could Plot, Draw, Fill with simple commands, rather than having to peek and poke. Same with sound - BASIC came with commands to access the full capabilities of the sound chip, including volume and tone envelopes. You could set up multiple individual text display windows and direct text / read input from them separately. You could write machine code functions and design new commands in BASIC (called bar-commands because they started with the | symbol) to call them, meaning you could essentially add new libraries to the BASIC interpreter. You could access processor interrupts, including the timer, triggering a GOSUB statement automatically at 1/50th second intervals.
2) High-res 80-column text mode (mode 2) made wordprocessing, desktop publishing etc. much easier.
3) The Z80 processor actually had some neat features compared to the 6502 - notably, a movable stack pointer, and shadow registers, which together made true multitasking possible.

The funny thing is, apart from some big name games, I can't remember the names of a lot of my favourite software on the Amstrad. There was a cool full-page desktop publishing program (that I paid $80 for in 1989). A pile of games - one I recall had a wicked version of Blue Rondau A La Turk as the background music. I'm going to have to go through those files and see what I can find!
posted by Jimbob at 12:30 AM on February 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh wow I've found it - AMX Pagemaker, later called AMX Stop Press, for obvious reasons.

I remember churning out my school astronomy club newsletters in this thing. Font characters were 16x16 pixels (twice as large as standard CPC characters), but displaying those fonts at large sizes (for a headline, for example) resulted in them looking hugely blocky. I went around smoothing out the headline text pixel-by-pixel.
posted by Jimbob at 2:40 AM on February 16, 2014

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