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Daily Archives: April 21, 2011

On the Trail of the Oregon Trail, Part 4

It’s been a while since I’ve written on this subject. That hasn’t been because I’ve lost interest; rather the contrary actually. I’ve been doing some digital archeology with my new friends Michael Gemeny and Bob Brown of the HP 2000 Yahoo Group, and we’ve been able to turn up something very cool indeed.

On an old tape image from school district of York County, Pennsylvania, Michael found a program with the very promising name of “Oregon.” Sure enough, when we loaded it onto the system we found a version of The Oregon Trail dated March 27, 1975, more than three years older than the earliest previously known version. I’ve uploaded the program listing to this site, if you’d like to have a look. Looking at said listing has already proven to be very interesting for us.

First of all, it appears that the little history lesson I gave in part 3 of this series was not entirely correct. When Rawitsch came to MECC in 1974, he evidently did not port the game — or at least not immediately — to run on MECC’s centralized UNIVAC mainframe. He rather typed it out once again on another HP-2100 system. That makes a great deal of sense when one considers that these little systems were quite common in Minnesota schools and, indeed, in schools all over the country. By early 1975 MECC was obviously already giving the program away to school districts in other states.

It’s also evident that Rawitsch, or MECC, or at any rate someone, continued to improve and refine the game for years before it made its way to the Apple II. The 1978 version found in Creative Computing has some features not present in the 1975 version. In both versions, the player must enter a word quickly into the terminal and certain points: when hunting, when attacked by bandits, etc. The 1978 version, however, has a difficulty setting; when the program starts, the player is asked how good a shot she is, from “ace marksman” through to “shaky knees.” This determines how much time the player is given to type the word. And unlike in the 1975 version, in 1978 that word is chosen randomly from four possibilities — “BANG,” “BLAM,” “POW,” and “WHAM” to be specific. In 1975 it’s just good old “BANG” all the time. For those interested in looking at the differences, you can also download the 1978 version. This one isn’t quite as authentic as the 1975 one. I spent quite a lot of time fixing problems in the code that resulted from the OCR, and in the process also ported it back to HP-BASIC from CDC Cyber BASIC. I believe the problems have all been sorted out, however, and it should look and play just as it would have on an HP system back in 1978.

So, if we take the liberty of call these major version numbers 2 and 3, it sure would be nice to have version 1, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, that doesn’t look likely to happen. Since this version apparently never made it beyond the system on which Rawitsch, Heinemann, and Dillenberger wrote it, and since Rawitsch deleted it off of that system in 1972, the only hope seemed to lie with that famous yellowing printout Rawitsch carried over to MECC. This picture from an Oregon Trail anniversary event at the Mall of America gave us hope, as Rawitsch is holding something that looks suspiciously like exactly what we were seeking.

I was able to contact Rawitsch about that, but the news was disappointing: he no longer has the printout. Barring a miraculous find, it appears that the 1975 version is the best we’re likely to do. Still, that’s a heck of a lot better than 1978. I feel lucky indeed to have found it.

Looking at the code of the 1975 version does tell some very interesting stories in itself. Michael knows much more about HP BASIC than I do, so I’m going to quote him here:

“The line numbers of this code tell an important part of the story which matches the historical accounts. From the looks of it, I would have said that it was being maintained by an accomplished programmer with a sense of pride and dedication. Then it seems to have been maintained by a less experienced programmer, or a programmer lacking the sense of pride, or the time, or perhaps the skill to maintain the appearance of the code.”

This latter programmer would of course be Rawitsch, who re-keyed and modified the program at MECC, initially at least on his own, and who, unlike Heinemann and Dillenberger, was not a trained programmer.

While most of the program is numbered in steps of 5, this pattern is occasionally broken. This is somewhat odd, as Michael informs me that HP-BASIC has a very powerful renumbering facility that Rawitsch perhaps didn’t know to take advantage of. Michael has assembled a list of lines which break the numbering pattern, and which therefore probably indicate places where Rawitsch made changes or additions at MECC. At the risk of belaboring the point, I’ll just paste that in here for the passionately interested.

Line 8- 11 Added MECC name, maintainer, and version
Line 262-263 Caution user against using a dollar sign
Line xx99 added section names in remarks
Line 1332 require user answer to be an integer
Line 1537 added caution about spending
Line 1752 discovered that ‘7 was a bell, added note to that
effect
Line 1902 made question two lines
Line 2392 fixed bug when riders don’t attack
Line 2672 added ammunition losses to heavy rains losses
Line 2792 added ammunition losses to fire losses
Line 2891 may have changed Indians to wolves and cause death
Line 3147 added ammunition losses to wagon damage
Line 3317 added ammunition losses to blizzard damage
Line 3650-3658 added next of kin and aunt Nellie
Line 4012 added another note about ‘7 bells
Line 4279 changed congratulatory message

Working from these clues and the historical record, it might be possible to reconstruct an “original” Oregon Trail. I’ve thought about it quite a lot, but I’m not really certain if it’s a good idea. The end result would inevitably be the product of a lot of conjecture. And, while we can learn much from the line numbers, we can’t know what modifications Rawitsch might have made within certain lines.

But perhaps you’d like to play this thing? If so, here’s how you can experience it in all its 1975 glory in HP Time-Shared BASIC.

1. Telnet to mickey.ath.cx. (Telnet, mind you. None of that newfangled SSH!)
2. Slowly alternate CTL-J and CTL-M until you see a “PLEASE LOG IN” message.
3. Enter “HEL-T001,HP2000,1″. Without the quotes, of course — and note that those are zeroes. Oh, and the system isn’t case-sensitive, but for the authentic experience you might want to have your caps lock on.
4. Enter “GET-OREGON” to load the 1975 version, “GET-ORE2″ to load the 1978 version.
5. “LIST” the program if you like, or just “RUN” it.

Bob Brown has graciously made this system available for all of us interested in this corner of computer history. Poke around as you like — there’s a lot of other interesting programs on there in addition to The Oregon Trail. But do please be polite and respectful if you decide to rummage.

As for our subject today… damned if the thing isn’t kind of fun. More on that when I wrap all of this up very soon now.

 
 

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