Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Mummy's Curse

Nearly a quarter of a century ago I wrote Scarab of Ra. Scarab was my first Macintosh game program. It was written for the Macintosh Plus, a machine with a very small black and white screen. In it, you become a "lowly undergraduate student in archaeology", and you are exploring the unknown and hazardous interior of the newly-discovered Great Pyramid of Ra.

Scarab of Ra was fairly advanced for its time. It offered a 3D adventurer's-eye view of the pyramid's interior, complete with some cheesy graphics tricks to make it harder to see details of items in the dim distance. It wasn't animated or realtime, but it kind of felt like it: every time you pressed a key to take a step, a little time would pass and certain hazards including cobras, monkeys, lions, and the horrible Mummy would change position to sneak up on you. The Great Pyramid was laid out as a series of mazes, each one larger as you got deeper in the Pyramid. In every game the mazes and the arrangement of traps and treasures was different.

I released it as shareware, which made it the very first product of Semicolon Software. This was all back before even the World Wide Web (man, that makes me feel old), so Scarab's distribution relied upon the kindness of strangers. People would upload it to their phone-in bulletin boards for others to find and download; they would give copies to their friends (Scarab's copyright notice explicitly allowed this), and Macintosh User Groups would put it on floppy disks along with other sharable programs to hand out to members at their monthly meetings.

This made for slow distribution and a fairly small audience, especially since there were not many Mac users at all back then. I charged $10 for it and left it to people's honesty to pay me if they liked it. I probably sold a total of a few hundred copies. That was nice, back then: it was just a hobby for me, and the proceeds from Scarab helped pay for new development software and Mac peripherals.

About three years after introducing Scarab I launched the first release of Solitaire Till Dawn. At first that too sold only slowly. But at about that time the Web appeared I coincidentally gave STD a major facelift, and its sales really took off. As a result, I continued to concentrate my efforts on Solitaire Till Dawn and never got around to updating Scarab. As chronicled elsewhere, changes in Apple's choice of CPUs and operating systems, coupled with the abandonment of the development software I'd used, left Scarab unable to run on modern Macs. It became "abandonware".

So you may imagine my surprise when, a few years ago, I began to run into evidence that Scarab of Ra is regarded in some circles as a "classic of Macintosh shareware" and that many people are nostalgically longing for its return. I do get the occasional email asking about it, but that's a trickle compared to the flood I regularly get about STD. But Scarab is featured prominently on web sites about classic Mac OS software, and a few months ago I discovered that it has a Facebook page of its own with several hundred "likes". Today I dropped in there (a vanity visit, I admit it) and discovered a link to another Facebook page which was an even bigger surprise.

The Revive Scarab of RA page documents a project to recreate Scarab of Ra. They are writing all-new code in Javascript so that you will someday be able to play Scarab of Ra in your Web browser. This also means that you will be able to play Scarab on any platform: Mac, Windows, Linux. That's pretty cool!

You might wonder how I feel about this: somebody else "ripping off" my product without so much as a how-d'you-do. I'll admit it makes me feel just a little bit itchy; but I'm going to rise above that and wish this guy and his collaborators all success. For one thing, it's not illegal to clone somebody else's product, so long as you don't violate copyright by stealing or copying the original product's code, graphics, or text. The code is no problem since they're writing theirs from scratch. They have not gotten as far as adding test or images yet, but the page's author has made it plain that he understands the copyright law and intends to provide new images and text, and produce something with an updated look and feel.

And I have to admit: in the past, a few people have asked me for permission to create new versions of Scarab. I've told all of them that I have no objection so long as they honor my copyright. This fellow (I don't know his name, it's not on the Facebook page) may well have been one of them. And even if he wasn't, I have no reason not to give him the same answer.

So more power to him! If he brings it off, it will be quite a tour de force—and I will be very stoked.

I even clicked "Like" on the Facebook page!


tillotta said...

I love that game

Unknown said...

man. does that make me feel old!! I loved scarab, and learned to save versions that had me far far along in the endless tangle of surviving the tomb!!!

If it has your blessing, would love a new version. (to say: playable) but.

I'm a writer. there's this double edge.

oh what to do

Seth Jaffee said...

I wouldn't have remembered it until you mentioned it, but I am 99% certain that I played and loved that game. My jaw literally dropped reading your post to learn that you were responsible for it!

A young Seth Jaffee wanted me to tell you: Thanks Rick! :)

Emily Larkin said...

Thank you so much for creating Scarab! My parents had a family business and I spent many hours after school playing the game on the office computer. This game was such a great part of my childhood and to date is still my favorite computer game of all time.

Krista said...

Thank you for making something I loved so much

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all your work! Love S'TD :-) What can we do to help??? Would love to start playing again my favorite game!

ee.morana said...

I remember watching Chris play it in Beta mode at your house. This game brings back a LOT of old memories! I would love to play it again.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for creating "Scarab of RA".

I missed the game for many years then recently as my MacBook began to have overheating problems with games I began to look for "Scarab of RA" as I thought it might use less processor thus generating less heat for my MacBook. I loaded a sourceforge emulator and have been happily playing "Scarab of RA" again.

I have been watching the progress of "Revive Scarab of RA" with much anticipation.

BTW: I see from your post above you might be looking for the name of the author of "Revive Scarab of RA". It seems it is David Pettifor per the url at


Jane McDonald said...

Hi Rick.
Something to bring a little smile to your face - they have Scarab of Ra up and running again!

Unknown said...

Scarab of Ra is one of a handful of games I still wish I were able to own. My sister and I played it constantly. I think it revealed it's genius precisely because it was so simple, so graphically straightforward, and yet still so completely addictive and something you never got tired of. Wishing you much continued success, and I really hope I'll be able to play Scarab on my Android tablet someday.

Resigned Idealist said...

Love love love Scarab of Ra. I played it on all the macs until I couldn't play it anymore. Thanks Jane for the link. I think I was one of the ones who paid for shareware on Scarab... it was just too good of a game not to pay.

kuni_bob said...

Count me among those who consider it a classic. My sister and I attribute our amazing senses of direction & map-reading skills to the hours upon hours we spent playing Scarab of Ra! It's also the first game where I learned to use strategy (even just simple strategies such as peeking around corners first to save energy, etc.) It also kicked off a lifelong obsession with games. I keep an old Mac around specifically as my Scarab of Ra-playing machine, and I spend some time playing it every once in awhile.

Now that I'm all grown up and a game developer myself, I had considered contacting you about permission to make an updated version, but always had too many other projects that need immediate attention. I'm glad someone is doing it, though I wish it had certainly been with your blessing.

At any rate, I have brought up the game around the office many, many times as an example of a game that has streamlined mechanics that are compelling. In the game industry today, we often try to make everything overly complex and lose site of the fun. Scarab of Ra is fun, and the pacing and pressure are fantastic.

Sorry for rambling on. Thank you for creating something that has influenced me in so many ways. :)

NAUAuntie said...

Very first game I ever played on a computer! I was late getting into computers, but that game got me hooked on machines! Wish we could get it for iPad or iPhone!

NAUAuntie said...
Just played three levels!
It's online!Yay!

Anonymous said...

Is there any way to get a copy of this game on a old 3.5" disk? My husband has a old Powerbook 165, and if I had a way to get Scarab of Ra on that machine, I could play it. The online Java version isn't the same...aby

Rick Holzgrafe said...

abyaday: I don't have a way to do that for you, sorry! It's been forever since I had a Mac that could read or write a floppy disk. You are certainly welcome to download the game from our Web site at but you'll have to figure out how to get it on a floppy yourself.

(I wouldn't even know where to *buy* a floppy disk these days! I suppose they're available on Amazon; everything else is.)

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