A History of Gaming Platforms: The Apple II

By Matt Barton,Bill Loguidice

[Gamasutra's A History of Gaming Platforms series continues with a look at the Apple II system. Perhaps best-remembered for its ubiquity in U.S. classrooms in the 1980s, the computer was also a popular gaming system. Need to catch up? Check out the first two articles in the series, covering the Commodore 64 and the Vectrex.]

The Apple II is one of the most successful, influential and long-lived home computers of all time. Perhaps more than any other machine, it moved the home computer from the worktable of the hobbyist to the living room of the typical American family. The Apple series debuted in 1977 and became a definitive home computer after the introduction of the Disk II drive in 1978. The "Platinum" IIe, the last of the Apple II line, was in production until November 1993. For countless enthusiasts and professionals thriving in the industry today, the adventure began with their first bite of Apple.


The tale of the Apple II begins with two Steves from Sunnyvale, California: Steve "Woz" Wozniak, a talented engineer specializing in calculators at Hewlett-Packard (HP), and Steve Jobs, who was an energetic and eccentric summer employee there. Woz had been friends with Jobs in high school, where the two hackers had made money selling "blue boxes," illegal devices used by "phreakers" -- phone system hackers -- to steal free long distance calls and eavesdrop on private conversations.

Jobs became Atari's 40th employee in 1974, serving the innovative young company as an hourly technician. He left Atari for a yearlong hiatus to India, returning to work with a shaved head and traditional Indian garb. Atari had scored big with its arcade version of Pong, and was about to repeat its success with its famous play-at-home version. Jobs, now a night-shift engineer, was asked to create a prototype for a single-player, vertical Pong variant called Breakout.

The goal of Breakout is to clear rows of blocks at the top of the screen by bouncing a ball off a small, movable paddle at the bottom. Unfortunately, the technology required to create a Breakout machine would tear into its profits, so Atari wanted a design that used as few chips as possible. Faced with such a daunting engineering challenge, Jobs sought the help of his old friend, Woz.

Atari had witnessed Woz's impressive self-built home Pong clone, but had failed to woo him away from HP. Nevertheless, Woz, a fan of both Atari arcade games and engineering challenges, came to his friend's rescue. He completed the bulk of the work in about four days, with an efficient design that used far fewer chips than any other Atari arcade game at the time. Atari's engineers were impressed and Jobs received a nice payout and bonus --most of which he kept for himself. Breakout would become another arcade hit for Atari.

After years of hardware hacking and his two dalliances in video games, Woz began work on a television computer terminal. Woz realized that one major stumbling block for the nascent home computer industry was the lack of a cheap and effective means of displaying output. Computer hobbyists could either content themselves with a row of flashing LEDs or ante up for a video or text terminal; neither solution was within reach of most.

Woz had been attending regular meetings at the legendary Homebrew Computer Club, where many eventual industry pioneers shared their ideas and passions. Inspired by this creative and highly motivated group, Woz was soon demonstrating a prototype that would ultimately become the Apple I. Really nothing more than an elegantly-designed circuit board with a low-cost MOS 6502 microprocessor, 4KB RAM, and expansion connectors, the Apple I nevertheless laid the foundation for what was to come. Atari and HP were not interested in the prototype, so the two Steves formed their own company, Apple Computer, on April 1, 1976.

Working out of Woz's bedroom and Jobs' garage, the two soon began production on the Apple I. The ever-persuasive Jobs negotiated with a local hobbyist computer store, the Byte Shop, for an order worth $50,000. Credit, time and supply constraints were tight, but the Byte Shop order was met, with the computer store providing full-stroke keyboards and wooden cases to complement the circuit board. Through the Byte Shop and magazine coverage and advertisements, the company had slow, but steady growth from Apple I sales.

Even before the Apple I had been officially released, Jobs and Woz were already thinking up new features; they frequently updated the design and shared their progress with the Homebrew Computer Club. The result was the Apple II. Even though little time had passed since their first release, the new unit improved on the Apple I in nearly every way. It sported a complete molded plastic enclosure with full-stroke keyboard, external peripheral ports, and eight easily accessible internal expansion slots.

Apple specialized in compelling advertisements early on, as this page from a multi-page Apple II computer ad in the February 1978 edition of Byte magazine atests.

Woz, who enjoyed dazzling his friends at the Club, wanted to play a version of Breakout written entirely in BASIC. Such a feat would have been unthinkable on the Apple I, so Woz's design for the Apple II came to incorporate color graphics commands, circuitry for paddle controllers, and a speaker for sound. With these standard features in place, the Apple II offered technology that its rivals in 1977, the Commodore PET and Tandy TRS-80 Model I, could not match. The home computer industry was a mouse about to roar -- thanks, at least in part, to a slick-talking mystic and an engineer fascinated with videogames.

"So a lot of these features that really made the Apple II stand out in its day came from a game, and the fun features that were built in were only to do one pet project, which was to program a BASIC version of Breakout and show it off at the club." - Steve Wozniak, Call-A.P.P.L.E. magazine, October 1986

One of the most noticeable limitations of the Apple II was its medium for storing data: the widely available, but hardly efficient, cassette tape. The Apple II features a built-in cassette port that can read and write data using any decent off-the-shelf cassette recorder, matching most other computers' storage abilities at the time.

The inside of the Apple IIe. All Apple II models, save for the compact Apple IIc series, had easily accessible internal expansion card slots.

However, cassettes are cumbersome and unreliable media for storing computer data, as anyone who has ever waited twenty minutes to play a game only to be told there's been a tape loading error knows.

Woz's trump card was his design for an efficient, speedy, and relatively inexpensive 5.25" floppy disk drive called the Disk II, which was released in 1978 to instant and near-universal acclaim. Disks soon ejected cassettes as the storage medium of choice on Apple systems, and it would take competitors years to catch up to Apple's decisive lead in this critical area.

The early disk standardization complemented the platform's color graphics and sound, making the Apple II series the preferred target of both application and game developers into the late 1980s. As a result, other platforms often had settle for ports of games and programs that had originated on the Apple.

Although initially supporting only game paddles, a whole range of controllers would come to be created for the Apple II, including tablets, mice and two-button analog joysticks, such as the three examples shown here behind the Wico Command Control, a device that allows use of Atari-style digital joysticks.

The two Steves, who got by early on with the help of friends and a select group of talented associates, continued to grow the business into a "real" company with a steady influx of business professionals and other new employees.

By 1980, the company boasted nearly 1000 employees and had outgrown several office spaces. In December of 1980, Apple Computer, Inc., successfully went public, with a valuation close to $2 billion. Several millionaires were created in the process, Jobs and Woz among them.

In 1981, after an injury received in a plane crash, Woz took a leave of absence and returned only briefly before departing for good to explore educational, charitable and other business ventures. In the same year, Jobs became chairman of Apple.

"Just about anything the acquisitive computerist might want for his or her system is available to the Apple II owner." - Electronic Games magazine, December 1983

In 1983, Jobs appointed John Sculley, then president of Pepsi-Cola, to become president and CEO of Apple. By 1985, significant differences between Sculley and Jobs caused Jobs to resign. He didn't return until 1997, when he managed to turn around what had become an ailing and financially weakened company in his absence.

Following are some highlights of the major Apple II systems released in the United States:

1977: The Apple II initially included 4KB RAM, a four color (later six color) display, built-in Integer BASIC, two game paddles, and one demo cassette. It was also available pre-assembled or in kit form. The following year, the Disk II 5.25" floppy disk drive was introduced, giving the platform a considerable lead against its rivals.

1979: The Apple II+ included 48KB RAM, six-color display, and a new BASIC from Microsoft, which established critical base specifications for the computer line. It was also at this time that Apple allowed media equipment specialist Bell & Howell to make the only authorized clone, a black Apple II+ that had special audio/video ports and a case accessible only with a screwdriver. This special Apple II+ was targeted at schools, where Apple hoped to firmly establish their platform.

1980: The mostly incompatible and expensive Apple III business system was released, but failed to catch on.

1983: The Apple IIe, Apple's most successful II-series system, included 64KB RAM and the vital ability to display both upper and lowercase characters. It eventually shipped with both DOS 3.3 and the newer ProDOS. The last IIe variation, known as the Platinum because of the color of its case, included a numeric keypad and several minor enhancements, and was manufactured into the early 1990s. This same year, the $10,000 next-generation Apple Lisa business system was introduced, but was unsuccessful.

1984: The compact Apple IIc was introduced with 128KB RAM and a built-in 5.25" floppy drive. The IIc+ was introduced in 1988 with a 4 MHz (versus 1.4 MHz) processor, high-capacity RAM expansion option, and an 800KB 3.5" internal disk drive, with the same capacity as the Apple IIgs. The first Apple Macintosh was released the same year.

1986: Apple released the 16-bit Apple IIgs, the true backwards compatible successor to the original 8-bit II-series of computers. Although Apple was built on the back of the II-series, within a few years the Macintosh began to receive most of the company's attention and resources.

Despite the famous proclamation of "Apple II Forever" during a 1984 event to unveil the Apple IIc, "forever" ended about 10 years later when Apple committed themselves exclusively to the Macintosh. Nevertheless, for technology with roots as far back as 1976, the Apple II series of computers had an amazing run.


One of the reasons the Apple II was so successful was that the inner workings of the hardware was made public, whereas other manufacturers treated such things as trade secrets. Another key factor was being one of the first systems for which a disk drive was an expected end-user accessory -- despite a built-in cassette port. Developers took advantage of the Disk II standard, and within a few years there was a veritable explosion of disk software.

The Apple II had two major disk operating systems, DOS 3.x and ProDOS, each of which might be needed to run specific software that didn't automatically boot. DOS 3.1 (not 1.0 due to internal versioning) was released along with the original Disk II. In 1980, DOS 3.3 was the last new version of the original DOS released. It supported increased disk capacities and a new sector format. The new format required a conversion before old disks could be used on the newer disk drive, which had an updated ROM.

Mystery House, one of the very first text and graphics adventures, was created in 1980 by On-Line Systems (Sierra) founders Ken and Roberta Williams and released into the public domain in 1987 to celebrate the company's seventh anniversary. While its simple line graphics were visually primitive in comparison to games released just a few years later on the platform, Mystery House established an important precedent.

Since the original Apple DOS was designed exclusively for Disk II, ProDOS was released in 1984 to make mixed disk formats and hard drives more accessible, as well as faster and more flexible.

Based on the Apple III's versatile Sophisticated Operating System (SOS), ProDOS was able to support the II-series for the entire original run of the systems and through to the present day. In 1986, with the release of ProDOS 16 1.0 on the 16-bit Apple IIgs, the original 8-bit ProDOS software's name was changed to ProDOS 8 with the release of version 1.2. The last version of ProDOS 8, version 1.9, was released in 1990.

SSI was a big Apple supporter, with plenty of strategy and role-playing games (such as 1985's Phantasie, shown here) created for the II-series first and then ported to other platforms.

Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston created the first "killer app" for the business world with their category-defining VisiCalc spreadsheet software in 1979, and the II-series would dominate the educational market into the 1990s. However, Apple's versatile computers were as good for gaming as productivity and educational programs.

Since the Apple II was a prime platform for over a decade, it's hardly surprising that thousands of games were produced for it. Although a haven for strategy, role-playing, and adventure software, the Apple II's massive game library was hardly limited to these categories. Genre-defining releases came from a full range of famous developers and publishers, including Broderbund, Electronic Arts, Infocom, Interplay, Origin, and SSI.

Many considered Ultima IV (1985) the height of the nine-part series, and it is one of the few games ever made that tackles tough issues such as morality and virtue in a mature manner. The impressive animated title screen is shown.

Mystery House (1980) by On-line Systems (later, Sierra) was the first commercial text adventure with graphics. The company's later Time Zone (1982) was one of the first true epic games, spanning six double-sided disks and featuring 1500 screens to explore. Although Richard Garriott released his Akalabeth: World of Doom (1980) first, his second role-playing game, Ultima (1981), set the stage for one of the most storied franchises in gaming.

Sir-Tech's Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1981) set the standard for the role-playing dungeon crawl and still spawns sequels. Castle Wolfenstein (Muse, 1981) was an exciting strategy arcade adventure that featured crude, but effective speech. Broderbund's Choplifter (1982) arcade game featured a unique two-axis control scheme for independent control of the helicopter's direction and vertical movement.

Pinball Construction Set (1983) from Electronic Arts, shown here, not only gave players a blank canvas to build the digital pinball machine of their dreams, but, along with Music Construction Set (1983), helped to launch a whole new type of interactive software.

Penguin Software's The Graphics Magician (1982), although not technically a game, was a popular graphics and animation-creation package that was ideal for helping to making them, improving the Apple II's cachet as a development platform. Broderbund's Lode Runner, the popular puzzle-based arcade platformer, was released in 1983, along with Electronic Arts's Music Construction Set and Pinball Construction Set.

The latter let the user create unique virtual pinball machines with drag-and-drop simplicity, and the former did the same for music composition. Also in 1983, The Learning Company produced Rocky's Boots, an award-winning example of "edutainment" software, which combined educational and instructional content with gaming.

This pattern of firsts and trendsetters continued through to the end of the 1980s, and included the first ever appearances of John Madden Football (1989) from Electronic Arts and Broderbund's action adventure, Prince of Persia (1990).

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Karateka (1984), from future Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner, was noted for its realistic animation, thoughtful martial arts combat, pointed cut scenes and overall cinematic flair.

Apple may have boasted one of the largest and most vibrant software libraries, but its seas were teaming with pirates. Although illegal software distribution was an issue for earlier platforms and Apple's rivals, the latter's ubiquitous floppy drives made software copying easier and more efficient.

A dual cassette deck could be used to duplicate cassettes, but there were few guarantees that the process wouldn't introduce errors, especially when copying from a copy. A disk copy, by contrast, was typically an exact match of the original. Various virtual and physical copy-protection schemes were introduced, but most were circumvented fairly quickly by dedicated hackers.

Later releases, like Broderbund's Airheart (1986), shown here, demonstrated how far visuals on the system had come, including smoother onscreen motion.

"It would be impossible to mention more than a small fraction of the hundreds of interesting games available for the Apple II computer system." - Electronic Games magazine, 1983 Buyer's Guide

How big of a problem was piracy? Although several software authors claim that they stopped developing games because of rampant piracy and the subsequent loss of revenue, piracy did expose more computer owners to more games than they otherwise would have been -- this was at a time before ubiquitous demos made it easier to "try before you buy." Another benefit of this piracy is that much of the software archived today at online repositories are the cracked versions.

Since software with copy protection is difficult to move from its source medium, its shelf-life is often finite. Of course, at the time, having a working copy of a game often left little reason to purchase the real thing, though many publishers such as Infocom, Origin, and SSI offered amazing packaging and in-box extras, such as cloth maps and unique trinkets. In short, the precise impact of piracy is difficult to determine, though it likely had advantages and disadvantages for the longevity of the platform.


Not only is Marc Goodman's The Bilestoad (1982) a unique overhead hack-and-slash, one-on-one fighting game that shows off the typical early Apple II color palette, it was also the author's last game for the system due to heavy piracy.

Modern Activity

One of the major problems facing a modern would-be Apple enthusiast is the compatibility (or lack thereof) among all the various models. Many of these models have different ROM variations and other differences ranging from keyboard layout and configuration to standard RAM and expansion options.

Furthermore, despite aggressive legal action by Apple against unauthorized manufacturers, dozens of clone systems were produced, with varying degrees of compatibility with the original Apple II. The Apple IIgs, which is a separate topic, offers some intriguing pluses, but might not be as much fun for those that like older system styling or have no interest in IIgs-specific software. An Apple IIe Card was even released for the Macintosh LC in 1990, but that hardware configuration is a difficult mix to pull together and has its own set of disadvantages.

Luckily, the popularity of Apple II systems in both homes and schools makes it easy to find genuine Apple hardware at reasonable prices today. It's possible to find complete, working systems for less than $100.

Nostalgic users may prefer standard Apple II systems for their highly collectible status, but the most popular choice for casual users is the Apple IIe. The popular IIe offers the best mix of compatibility and expandability, regardless of variation. Likewise, the "Enhanced" and "Platinum" were the last models based on the Apple IIe and make excellent choices. The former is closer in design to the original IIe, whereas the latter features a keyboard and styling more consistent with early Macintosh systems and the Apple IIgs.

Apple II clones came in all sizes and configurations, including VTech's sophisticated Laser 128 EX/2 with expanded memory and 3.5" disk drive, shown here on top of Franklin's dual 5.25" disk drive Ace 1200, which was compatible with both Apple II and CP/M software.

Today, because of their unique designs and small size, Apple IIc's are also popular choices for collectors, but also require more knowledge. Configuring an optimal system can be difficult, particularly if the user wants to explore expansions.

As far as clones are concerned, VTech made the best with their Laser models. These systems are the general size of an Apple IIc, but have many of the Apple IIe's standard expansion options and are overall highly compatible.

Anyone purchasing an Apple computer should take a moment to consider memory. A minimum of 48KB of RAM will run a great deal of software, but 64KB minimum is better. 128KB is optimal, since certain later games require it. Disk II and compatible disk drives are easy to come by, and unlike competing systems, a relatively high percentage of software supports the concurrent use of two.

Although some software can be found on 3.5" disk, 5.25" remained the standard for the life of the system. It is best to have a copy of the latest versions possible of both DOS 3.x and ProDOS, since not all software booted on its own. Another useful program, DOS.MASTER, was created in the late 1980s by Glen Bredon. DOS.MASTER enables the large base of previously ProDOS-incompatible programs written for DOS 3.3 to run under the more versatile format.

Originally, many users owned monochrome monitors, usually with green tubes. Monochrome displays are not necessarily a bad thing, since the color palette was fairly limited and could be a bit garish if the hardware or software didn't support a favorable resolution and color depth. Many games used the Apple II's original color scheme of purple, green, black, and white, though later games came to also support blue and orange.

An even smaller percentage of games supported the higher resolutions and 16 color options available on expanded and late model systems. Despite the limited color range of most software, the II-series outputs a standard composite video signal, which allows direct connection to just about any modern TV.

Sound is generated internally from a small speaker, and there's no way to physically control the volume level on many models. Despite the relatively primitive one-channel sound, good programming produced everything from music to speech, though nothing that could match the quality of later competitive systems in either performance or range.

On II-series systems with the standard expansion slots, countless programming language and feature upgrade cards were developed, including sound boards. The most popular and best supported of these sound boards was the six-channel Mockingboard series by Sweet Micro Systems, which are coveted by today's collectors.

Apple's original IIc, shown here with the companion monochrome (green display) Apple monitor.

Finding boxed software is easy. Prices vary from a few dollars for arcade-style games to triple digits for the rarest and oldest role-playing games.

The analog, two-button joysticks are easy to locate, with paddles less so, but both are still generally available. Except under specific circumstances, most games support only one player with a controller, so a second player must use the keyboard. In any case, most games do not assume a player has access to anything other than a keyboard, so external controls are not required.

Emulation is well implemented and supported on a variety of modern platforms. Standouts include AppleWin and Virtual II. There are even Web browser–based emulators, such as the one at Virtual Apple, with a ready selection of games to try on demand for both the Apple II and IIgs.

A typical Apple IIe with two Disk II disk drives and game paddles. A small television or monitor could be placed on top of the system or disk drives.

Although not quite as active as today's 8-bit Atari and Commodore fan base, the Apple II community is still among the strongest for classic computer systems. Vast amounts of information are available online, and exciting new hardware add-ons from hobbyists are produced regularly, including adapters for using flash memory cards instead of disks. Furthermore, the historical relevance of the Apple II makes it an excellent place to start for anyone interested in the roots of the industry.

Typical System Specifications

Release Year: 1977
Resolution: 140 x 192
On-Screen Colors: 6
Sound: 1 Channel, Mono
Media Formats: Cassette, 5.25" Floppy Disk, 3.5" Floppy Disk
Main Memory: 48KB

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