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Category: Mainframe

Early Bytes of Creativity, Part II

MidJourney’s interpretation of “People playing with a mainframe terminal”

Back to the very early wargame and wargame-adjacent programs that are part of Ralph Hopkins’s stash. Last time, I gave some information about the MECC and covered the submarine games. For this article, I initially planned to cover all “air & land” games, leaving space games for a later article. It turns out there is only a limited number of playable games after all, so I merged what should have been two articles in what should be the last article on mainframe games for the time being.

RADAR (1977)

In RADAR, I must destroy enemy ships either with guns or with planes before they reach my radar.

The first thing to do is scan around to check what kind of opposition I face.

One carrier, one destroyer. Carriers are dangerous, not because they send planes but because they “kill” you if they are closer than 400 meters. For now, the carrier is almost 2 km away so I am safe from her, and she is safe from my guns :

Planes it is then ! I send 10 of my planes, and badly damage the carrier, though she is still floating.

I can’t follow up with more bombers, because my pilots are “fatigued”. Instead, I wait for the ship to be in range and shoot. I miss the carrier, but she still sinks for some reason ^^.

The angle never changes for a given target since the enemy is beelining for you

After that, I easily sink the destroyer. New ships immediately appear on my radar !

The battleship is another dangerous enemy, sturdy and able to kill me at a range of maybe 300 meters. My pilots are still fatigued, so I engage with guns…

… but she survives. After that, my radar malfunctions, and when it is back online the battleship is almost on me. I immediately deploy my planes, and sink her !

The destroyer is close enough to be killed easily by my gun. When I sink her, a final destroyer appears. She is also an easy target for my gun, and I win the game. Unfortunately, the game has a bug and the end text does not appear.

Here is what it should have read :

RADAR is attributed in the code to Walt Kailey with the note “MECC” and the February 1978 date, though one line below the code states “Revised 78/02/07. RHS 77/11/10“. I choose to believe that the first version comes from November 1977 from this mysterious RHS. The game comes from Ralph Hopkins’ stash, and there is no other version that I know of, so that’s a game that would have been entirely forgotten otherwise.

RADAR is not really a wargame (the only decision is whether to use planes or guns) and unfortunately, it is also full of bugs or questionable behaviours, like insulting the player and sometimes also ending the game in case of incorrect input.

I was mechanically typing the degrees

Worse, when the player loses, the game asks him whether “he is a pinko or a coward“. Answering “pinko” launches a “PRINT” loop, which must have been oh-so-very popular in the teletype era :

Gamers : Toxic since 1977 !

Most of the coders of those games were students or even high-schoolers, so jokes are common in mainframe projects. Still, RADAR takes the crown for obnoxiousness.

ZorphWar (1977)

ZorphWar is the brainchild of William Seurer from Benilde-St. Margaret High School in Minnesota and is based on a short story published earlier in 1977. It belongs to the tactical Star Trek (Trek73) family, except now you are a space station, and you are surrounded :

There are so many Star Trek variants that I don’t play those that don’t bring something radically new to the table. I am not sure whether this one qualifies – the instructions are lost and all my attempts to defend myself ended in catastrophic failure before the enemy even activated its laser.

The game features 8 different weapons (nuclear missiles, chemical missiles, anti-matter missiles, neutron missiles, laser, blaster, disruptor and disintegrator), each of them with several tubes facing different directions, forcing the player to rotate their space station – not really playable without instructions, even if I wanted.

WWIII (1978?)

WWIII is about fighting several rounds against Soviet Union with each side having a random number of men engaged each time.

Alas, it is also incomplete. Using the unlimited stock of nukes or sending everyone in a flanking attack works every time, and actually kills more Soviet soldiers than started the battle.

Using nukes to literally overkill the Soviets
Charging with 200 000 men also works – it is just more costly in blood.

The author of WWIII is unknown. Ralph Hopkins is our only source for this game. He states he copied it in 1978 and then revised it in 1981, but it still feels like a work-in-progress. A reminder that not all those mainframe games were any fun.

That’s all. I have discarded several games, either because they don’t fit the purpose of the blog (and would make horrible AARs anyway) or because Ralph Hopkins was in a frenzy of copying everything he found, including incomplete and buggy games that turned out unplayable. Those games include :

  • MSSLE (1981?), a weird 1D game where you need to shoot another plane with a missile. It plays more like a board game. Uniquely, it is commented as being “property of the University of Houston”.
Each “line” is a turn with my command at the end. Missiles and planes can go “backward”
The planes are “>” and “<“, “.” is a missile and stars are explosions
  • WAR (1972), by Peyton Carlson and Damian Bonicatto of Hibbing State Junion College in Minnesota. It simulates a nuclear war between USSR and USA. It would qualify, but the game is incomplete. Ralph Hopkins notes that he did not manage to make it work. I can confirm that using B-52 crashes the game, but on the other hand, using MIRV works perfectly : I had infinite warheads, making the game quite easy.
I learned what SPRINT was testing in this game : a short-lived nuclear anti-ballistic missile. Fight atoms with more atoms !
  • More than 10 Star Trek clones, including a tactical Trek by Colonel W. F. Luebbert from West Point. It is tagged as “revised in May 1973”. It is presumably even older than Trek73, and totally different in terms of “structure” to both Trek73 and the Daglow/Peterson Star Trek. This one deserves a full article I believe, but I am a bit burned out on Star Trek at the moment, so maybe later.
From Luebbert’s Star Trek. “Intelligence prediction of next Klingon move “is unique to this Star Trek
  • Finally, STRWAR (1977) is absolutely not a wargame, but prompted me to ask myself “What was the first Star Wars game, official or not ?” One thing leading to another, I created a forum post to discuss this question, and the thread includes a short AAR of STRWAR.

That’s it for the mainframe games for the moment. I feel I can move to the SOL-20 precursors, which is actually just a list of programs all done by Ralph Hopkins. Fortunately, he was a competent designer, as I will show in an upcoming article.