The Dark Castle BBS
In the days before the Internet we had a simple device known as a BBS (Bulletin Board System) which served as a users only choice for on-line electronic entertainment back in the early days of telecommunications. These systems were unimaginative, extremely slow, terribly unstable, and completely text based. Despite the horror in this reality, at the age of sixteen I decided to setup and operate one of these systems in the year of 1984. For those of you who were around back then, this story should bring back many of your own memories and experiences of early modem life. For the rest of you, sit back and enjoy the history lesson.
I purchased my first modem in September of 1983. Before long, and with the aid of a few friends, it was installed and we were calling systems near and far. After hours of dialing and collecting BBS numbers, we came to a shocking conclusion. There was very little out there, and what was there, was often boring and rather stuffy. It was for these reasons that I decided to look into running a system of my own. Not to duplicate the stale efforts of others, but to give the area users something new and creative. I turned to my friend, The Vosian, to locate the software necessary for running a BBS and soon after he delivered. After a month of preparation, The Dark Castle finally went on-line in January of 1984.
I chose the title “The Dark Castle” not only as a name for the BBS, but as an environment to build the entire system around. I knew I could handle creating the “look” of the BBS, but since I was only new to computing, I again petitioned the help of my friend The Vosian to handle the necessary programming. The Vosian and his brother, Dex Bobbernickle, both owned an Apple ][+ and had previous programming experience in Applesoft. With their help, along with the creative efforts of another friend, Lemonade Drake, we added features and options unlike anything found on other systems.
The BBS opened to an almost immediate success. Running on an Apple //e 64k system with two disk drives, The Dark Castle made its entry into modem land running between the hours of 8pm to 7:30am. The reason behind running the board during such odd hours was due to the fact that I was using my parents phone line. By using their line at first, I was able to test the BBS to see how it would be received by the local users. After the first night of operation, I awoke that morning to a very hot system. Since the Apple didn’t have a fan, it quickly became apparent that one would be required. It wasn’t long after the purchase of a fan when I made the decision to get the BBS a dedicated phone line. With the system being well received and now running cool (thanks to the addition of a Kensington fan) and under its own phone line, there was no longer any reason to run on limited hours. Roughly two weeks after going on-line, The Dark Castle began 24 hour operation.
I don’t remember doing much advertising for the system, but somehow we attracted a fair amount of users from the neighboring communities. I believe a great deal of them found their way by word of mouth from the local area schools from which The Vosian, Dex Bobbernickle, Lemonade Drake, and I attended. How they arrived wasn’t important to us, giving them reasons to keep coming back was. With original content and unique features such as Ivan’s Torture Chamber, monthly software reviews, Brother Ardoe’s Humor Zone, Jake Cutter original stories & movies, and many more helped set The Dark Castle apart from the rest.
Now that I think about it, the Jake Cutter series of computer animated movies were probably our best and most creative advertisement. In the Apple community there was a very popular piece of software sold by Baudville, Inc. called, “Take-1.” The software was a utility that allowed the computerized “filming” of sequences. When these sequenced parts were played back in a linked order, you had a movie that ran on nearly any Apple // computer. The popularity of Take-1 was enormous. Hundreds of movies were being made by users all across the United States.The Take-1 program was very simple to operate, but there was a hitch. Although, nearly anyone could make these movies, very few actually did it well. Being that these were completely computer generated, the user had to create the actors, props, and settings all on their own! This is where others either stole graphics from existing programs or clip art, or tried their hand at creating the art themselves. The result was horrid either way. Another pitfall was that of the script. Very, very few of the movies created had any type of plot or storyline. The final lacking feature was that of skillful animation. A steady hand and a fair amount of patience were required by the animator to bring everything together. We were very aware of these three basic necessities: good graphics, good story, and good animation. Since Lemonade Drake was a talented writer, he was selected to write the script. Dex Bobbernickle had become skilled with the Take-1 software so he was chosen to handle the animation. That left graphics. I had been drawing since I was a little kid, everything from school art contests to published material. Armed with a simple drawing program by the name of Pixit, I was ready to handle all of the graphics. With the three of us working on the project, I had no doubt we could do better than all the others.
We did a series of three Jake Cutter movies. The first was a spinoff of one of the greatest Apple // games in history, Rescue Raiders. This movie was completed in very little time and distributed to various BBSs across the United States. A pirate friend of mine by the name of Dos Ranger handled the distribution, making sure that it was uploaded to most of the larger pirate Apple systems. From there, the users throughout the United States (and Canada!) took over. The movie was so well received that users themselves uploaded it to any and all systems that hadn’t yet seen it. By early 1985 you literally couldn’t find a BBS that didn’t already have the instant hit, “Jake Cutter – Beyond Rescue Raiders!”
How exactly did the Jake Cutter movies promote The Dark Castle? Simple. We included a small promotional intermission screen for the BBS (and a couple other well known Illinois boards such as RipCo) into the middle of the movie! The Dark Castle enjoyed a large increase in the number of new members shortly after the release of the movie. Many became long time users dedicated to the system, while others simply wanted to express their opinion of the movie or ask about the possibility of a sequel. To say the least, we wasted no time planning a second mission for Jake!
During the middle of production for the sequel, Jake Cutter II, we learned of a contest being sponsored by Baudville Software, the makers of the animation package Take-1. To make an already long story shorter, we won the contest. News of our success even reached the Apple magazine “A+”, from which an article listed Jake Cutter II as the winner. Meanwhile, since my friend Dos Ranger had done such an effective job distributing our first movie, we quickly turned over the sequel to him, and once again Jake Cutter found his way to practically every Apple BBS across the states. We were greatly pleased with the success of Jake Cutter ][ and after a short time off, a third movie was already being planned. When Jake Cutter III was completed it was twice as long as its predecessor. This time there was no contest to enter and Dos Ranger was not available (another story!) to handle the much needed task of mass-distribution. This time it was up to us to get the movie up and out to modem land. Out of the three of us, I was the only one who called out on a regular basis so Jake’s distribution was basically up to me. I didn’t have nearly as many contacts as Dos Ranger, so it wasn’t an easy job. I must have managed to get it out to the right places because Jake Cutter was once again in the limelight. By early 1986, Jake Cutter III could be found on most Apple systems from state to state.
Riding high from the success of all three of the Jake Cutter movies, The Dark Castle was enjoying an enormous amount of user activity. We had requested and received donations from users so that a 10MB hard drive could be purchased for the Apple //e. The addition of this drive greatly expanded the capacity of the system. With the additional space I was able to make a number of large scale changes. I upgraded the BBS software, installed on-line games, built the Midnight Express, added hundreds of G-Philez, expanded the message bases, and even established a monthly newsletter! The Dark Castle Newsletter was maintained by Dex Bobbernickle, who edited and managed user subscriptions. Lemonade Drake, Dex, and I each had columns in the newsletter along with articles concerning the BBS and other area systems. We all enjoyed doing the work. The newsletter was yet another creative notch in our belt that helped set us apart from the other systems. The Dark Castle was now growing larger than I had ever expected.
Beginning mid-1985 I began to take notice of all the other BBSs that had so quickly sprung up. I can remember being genuinely worried about the intrusion of so many new systems in such a short amount of time. A sudden rush to run a BBS had hit and nearly everyone with a computer wanted to become a SysOp. Though The Castle was growing larger every day, I feared that such a high amount of competition would put an end to the steady growth I had become accustomed to over the past year. To my surprise, most of these new systems came and went overnight. Some were literally opened and closed in a 24 hour period! This heavy activity wasn’t confined to our little part of Illinois, either. I saw a definite increase in BBS growth throughout the states between 1985-1986, with the great majority still being Apple based systems. By the time the dust settled from all of the construction and demolition during this period, The Dark Castle remained among a handful of other BBSs that actually survived and went on to become high quality systems.
By 1986, The Dark Castle had developed a solid reputation. The users could depend on the system, they knew it would be there the next day, the next week, and the next year. No matter how far a user would stray, that person knew that it would always be there when they returned. As each year passed I was amazed at the number of users who continued to return to The Castle. Some would drift away or head off to college, but somehow they always seemed to find their way back. When a user would return after a long absence they would often leave me mail, explaining where they had gone and the experiences they had. But the one thing that I heard more than any other was that as soon as they returned, the first order of business was to crank up the computer and call The Castle. To me, comments such as these were the greatest complement a SysOp could ever receive. Over the 11 years of on-line service, The Dark Castle had definitely become a place that many referred to as “home.”
As with any Castle, mine was not without a darker side. In the spring of 1986 I was paid a visit by a Federal Agent and our local Chief of Police. It turns out they were very interested in The Dark Castle BBS and certain activities involving stolen credit cards. At first, they were asking numerous questions and offering no explanation for their sudden interest in me or my system. All of the questions were centered around credit cards and various pieces of high priced computer hardware. After 30 minutes of their questioning, I started to worry. As I mentioned before, The Dark Castle had its share of shady areas. For instance, there were a couple hidden rooms where a select group of pirates and hackers gathered to exchange information on a regular basis. These rooms contained a large amount of information, all of which would have been of extreme interest to either of the law enforcement officials sitting just three feet away. There were also hundreds of “how to” files that dealt with illegal activities. As their questions continued, it became obvious as to who and what they were really after. They had their suspicions about my system, but neither of them knew the difference between a microchip and a potato chip, so I wasn’t worried about them poking around on the BBS. The guy they were after was a long time user on my BBS, a friend, and the SysOp of our northern system, The Dark Castle II. He and the users of his system had developed and managed a rather extensive stolen credit card ring. They used the system to collect, trade, and distribute stolen credit card numbers. They had also used the numbers to purchase numerous pieces of computer related hardware. It was roughly two weeks after my little visit with the FBI when I heard that they had shut down The Dark Castle II. I said nothing to them that would’ve led them there, but I still felt bad for its owner Jesse James. What ever became of him or the elite members of his system is unknown.
By 1990 the system had again changed software and enhanced its look. Though by this time the shady areas had been removed, activity only suffered mildly. With the absence of the phreaks and hackers, the system took on a new role. Message bases were again expanded and a whole new crowd had moved in. For the remaining years of operation, everything ran very smoothly. The software was solid and the days of battling programming bugs had long since disappeared. I found that I was logging in less and less. I would usually sign on in the morning, perform the daily user validations and occasionally scan a message base or two before logging off. Even the monitor, which usually was kept on, was now more often left dark and cold. I had finally become tired of the system and had even lost interest in its daily operations. I knew this, but since the system was practically self sufficient, I couldn’t bring myself to pull the plug.
In 1992 I took a job as a computer consultant/programmer with a large chemical company. This put me in an all IBM/DEC based environment for eight hours a day, leaving the BBS at home and very far from my mind. At night when I would return, I rarely even turned on the monitor, knowing that the system was running perfectly by the flickering red LED lights displayed on the face of the external modem. For the next two years the system and I shared very little time. It was in the middle of the summer in ’94 when I decided that I should try to renew my interest in the BBS. I felt guilty for neglecting the users and hoped that if I put forth just a little effort, I might again fall back into the swing. I decided to sign on and scan through all of the message bases. What I saw shocked me. I sat stunned in front of the monitor, unable to believe how poor the content had become. Nearly all of the quality users that I had come to respect had turned away in the face of a younger, childish crowd that had moved in. I had never before seen the system reach such an upsetting low. My immediate action was to scream and bitch at them for their actions, placing the blame upon them for the terrible direction the BBS had taken over the summer. I desperately wanted them to see what they had done, how each one of them had taken a once interesting and vibrant BBS and brought it to its knees. Of course, my announcement didn’t go over very well. As things progressed from bad to worse, I began to realize that they weren’t completely at fault. If I hadn’t neglected my duties on the system, these events would’ve never progressed to this level. On August 8th, 1994, I decided to pull the plug for good after allowing thousands through the gates over the past eleven years. When I notified my friend, The Vosian of my decision, he requested that I allow him the privilege of being the final caller to the system. So be it. On August 8th, 1994, The Vosian became caller number 69,303 – The last user to walk through the old digital halls of The Dark Castle BBS.
I feel bad about the condition the system was in when I shut it down. It would have been my choice to end the life of the BBS on a high note, but I knew that I had let it go longer than it should have. In a time when so many systems lacked stability, I owned and ran a high quality BBS that provided many with a place they could call home. I have no regrets, only good memories of those eleven years when The Dark Castle was the premiere system – and certainly the only one of its kind.
SysOp of The Dark Castle BBS 1983-1994