Unleash the Basilisk

Thoughts about old computers, emulators, and the difference between idealized memory and practical reality

A photograph of a vintage Macintosh Plus on a plaid bedspread

Every couple of years, with relentless regularity since the late 1990s, I become overwhelmed with the need to bring my beloved college computers back to life.

Throughout my freshman year, I had a Mac Plus that was given to me as a graduation present. I loved this computer about as much as it’s possible to love an inanimate object. I still vividly remember the story of when my parents gave it to me, and it’s easily one of my top 10 memories. It was everything I wanted after years of reading Mac User magazine, getting excited at screenshots of simple utilities that looked like pure magic, running GEOS on my Commodore 128 and dreaming of the day I’d finally get “the real thing.” It was the focal point of my friendship with my best friend that year, as we’d spend a lot of time on the Mac running Dark Castle, Beyond Dark Castle, and Uninvited, and it was likely the thing that really made me want to work in video games.

After that year, I “upgraded” to an Amiga 500, which was clearly better in every possible way. So many colors! Such better sound! So many more options for expansion! So much room for activities! I ended up using it for all my school work, and spent a lot of time running Deluxe Paint, but somehow it never captured the same magic as that compact Mac.1It was, however, my introduction to The Secret of Monkey Island, so I’m grateful for that. Every time I get overcome with the desire to bring these computers back to life2Or more likely, find functional ones on Ebay, I’m reminded of that feeling of barely-definable, irrational disappointment.

Because I’ve been watching so many videos about vintage machines and restoration, I stumbled on this video from The 8-Bit Guy, explaining why he thought it was a mistake for Apple to focus on the Macintosh instead of continuing to develop and improve on the superior (and more affordable) Apple IIgs:

I don’t agree at all, but I can see where he’s coming from. To somebody who’s always disassembling, restoring, and re-assembling classic computers, it’s easier to see through the marketing and nostalgia, and recognize these as machines that need to be functional.3I don’t think I’ve ever used a IIgs, but they always seemed neat. Back when these computers were out, I dreamed of getting a Mac, but since that was unlikely because of the cost, I aspired to somehow getting a IIgs.

But the appeal of the vintage Macintosh goes beyond its functionality. Part of it is something that they made more explicit with the release of the first iMac: the whole idea of a computer as a home appliance. Sure, you could get a separate monitor and tons of expansion cards for a PC or even an Apple II, but with the early Macs, you didn’t need to. Plug it in, turn it on, there is no step 3.

Just making an all-in-one isn’t enough; the Commodore PET didn’t have a control panel with a rabbit and a turtle on it, after all. It wasn’t just the hardware that was all-inclusive. There was a strong design philosophy and aesthetic behind everything that made it all feel as if it were meant to work together.

Computer nerds and engineers tend to get an eye twitch whenever you say something like “the appeal of the Mac goes beyond just technical specs,” but it’s not simply branding and marketing, or some “reality distortion field” like people claim. It’s an understanding of people and what they want, which should be inextricably linked to hardware and engineering, but rarely is. There’s a reason that “look and feel” dominated so many discussions around personal computing and lawsuits for so long. It’s nearly impossible to put into a list of features, but it’s still extremely valuable.

Looking at screenshots and video of the Amiga Workbench really drove home the comparison. My Amiga 500 was at least as functional as the Mac Plus, and was superior in a lot of ways. I could do more with it, and I could definitely play a lot more games on it. But man, jumping into those chunky, blue-white-and-orange screens made it feel like downgrading from an actual computer to a toy. (Later revisions helped a lot, but they didn’t seem to have any overriding philosophy behind them apart from “less garish.”) It felt like all the improvements were on the technical side, but the actual day-to-day user experience was left as an afterthought.

Anyway, all of that has become less and less relevant over the years. MacOS and Windows have spent decades borrowing each other’s best features (and occasionally their worst ones), becoming less differentiated with each OS release, with the seeming goal of becoming as general-purpose as possible. Even the iPhone and iPad seem to be headed in that direction: gradually losing the sense of a strong (and rigidly-enforced) design language, in favor of being platforms that can run whatever apps are in the most demand. Obviously, it’s still noticeable when an app tries to ignore or override iOS’s design language, for whatever reason, but I’d say that these days, well-behaving apps that adhere to iOS’s guidelines feel more familiar than delightful.

Which all leads me back to one realization: I don’t actually want to get my old Mac Plus (or even my Amiga 500) working again. I understand why I think I want to: it goes past nostalgia, because these machines were designed to make them immediately enticing, instead of just functional. But there’s been thirty years worth of improvements to computers since then. Not just in processing capability, but in overall usability.

Both of these machines predate USB — it’s easy to forget how revolutionary USB was until you try to go back to using a device that doesn’t have it. My Mac’s lack of a hard drive was intolerable even back when I used it and loved it; I got it right as System 6 was becoming almost too big to fit on a floppy with anything else, so it was constantly ejecting disks and asking me to re-insert them4My college roommate’s girlfriend said that she’d started to hear that disk-eject noise throughout the day, everywhere she went, and would remain forever haunted by it.. Not only did the mouse lack a right button, there was no concept yet in the entire operating system for what a second button might actually do.

There are various add-ons and expander boards and adapters and such that get around most of these issues to some degree, and it’d most likely be possible to get the Mac Plus running with a SCSI hard drive, a modern mouse and keyboard, a compact flash card, and some kind of network access. But at a certain point, you have to wonder why you’re spending so much time and money trying to make a Ship of Theseus out of an old computer, instead of just running an emulator on a much more modern and capable machine.

It seems clear that the only reason you’d want to take on restoration of a “vintage” computer is if you think the whole restoration itself is appealing and sounds like fun. If you’d consider it drudgery with the end goal of having a fun, nostalgic computer at the end of it, then it’s all but doomed to be a disappointment. As somebody who only vaguely understands what a capacitor does, and wouldn’t be able to explain it to someone else in a way that doesn’t make them suspect I have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m firmly in the latter camp. Even as someone who’s much more comfortable in software than hardware, I get dyspeptic at the thought of working with make files, so I’m pretty sure I’m not the type of person who’d have fun with the restoration.

Some time ago, I read this extremely helpful blog post from Matt Sephton to install the Basilisk II emulator onto my iPad. It all worked pretty painlessly; the most time-consuming part was finding the software to run on it. But the thing that became clear pretty quickly was that I had a lot more patience in the late 80s and early 90s. My memory of using the pre-OS X Macs was a lot more generous than I’d thought.

Now, there are even easier ways to do it: the amazing Infinite Mac by Mihai Parparita lets you run System 7 in a browser. You, reader, are just a few clicks away from being able to play Dark Castle right now!5Presumably, at least. I haven’t gotten it to work yet. What a time to be alive! Show me whatever HyperCard stacks you end up making.

A couple years ago — the last time the moon was full and my beast-mode I have to get my old Mac working! took over — I had the clever plan to take an old, obsolete Mac mini I’ve got sitting in a closet, downgrade it to whatever version of OS X that runs comfortably on it, install Basilisk, and have it be my surrogate Mac Plus. But I didn’t even hit step 1 before I was reminded that it has a DVI port for video, and there’s not a single display in an entire house of two middle-aged computer nerds that still supports DVI. It was a pretty clear sign that time has moved on. I should probably stop being so sentimental about old machines, and instead apply the “philosophy” of some of the old machines to the new ones.

Computers are just better now. That’s obvious, but I feel like the full weight of it is only hitting me now: I’ve been spent so many years thinking that the philosophy and feel of the early Macs were more important than a list of technical specs, that I forgot that the technical specs are still pretty important. After all, the whole idea is that everything works together, hardware and software. Not that pinstripes in title bars and sad faces on error messages are somehow magical enough to make up for decades of usability improvements. I’ve gotten so attached to the idea of constraints breeding creativity that I’d forgotten that tools that do what you want them to are pretty good for creativity as well.

The computer I’m writing this on6A 14-inch M1 Mac Pro is the best computer I’ve ever used. Not incidentally is also the first Mac I’ve owned in years that’s felt like it has no compromises in terms of software compatibility, heat, battery life, speed, connectivity, or ability to run any of the stuff I want to run on it. Seems like I’d be a lot better off living comfortably in the 21st century, and maybe having a separate window into the “good old days” that I could open occasionally, to remind myself that those days weren’t as good as I like to think.

  • 1
    It was, however, my introduction to The Secret of Monkey Island, so I’m grateful for that.
  • 2
    Or more likely, find functional ones on Ebay
  • 3
    I don’t think I’ve ever used a IIgs, but they always seemed neat. Back when these computers were out, I dreamed of getting a Mac, but since that was unlikely because of the cost, I aspired to somehow getting a IIgs.
  • 4
    My college roommate’s girlfriend said that she’d started to hear that disk-eject noise throughout the day, everywhere she went, and would remain forever haunted by it.
  • 5
    Presumably, at least. I haven’t gotten it to work yet.
  • 6
    A 14-inch M1 Mac Pro