A Long Maze Journey

Published on Sunday, January 06, 2013 in , , , ,

Dan Rollin's Polmaze! Solver articleBack when I first got into computers, I ran across a maze program in a magazine called Creative Computing. The clarity with which the maze algorithm was explained astounded me, especially considering the complexity.

This program actually had a surprising effect on much of my life, and appropriately enough, the story is filled with as many twists and turns as the mazes the program generates.

The first computer I ever owned was a Commodore 64, which I received for Christmas in 1982. I ran across the maze program that captivated (yes, I'm trying to avoid using the word amazing) me about a year later.

However, I didn't understand enough of the math or the Commodore 64's high resolution mode to translate the program. Writing the program would have to wait for another 5 years, until I got into a college whose computer lab had an Amiga.

After just being a pipe dream for 5 years, actually writing and solving the mazes was thrilling! I remember thinking that this program had been well worth the wait. In 1989, just a month before I finished saving for my own Amiga, I accidentally left the floppy disk and the magazine in the computer lab and never saw them again. I even checked with the computer lab's and school's lost-and-found dept. every day for the next week, but I then accepted it was gone.

It had been in the back of my mind for so long, though, that it managed to stay in my head for a long time after that. In 1993, when I found a book titled The Best of Creative Computing, Vol. 1, I immediately flashed back to the maze program, and bought it hoping it would be in there. Unfortunately, it wasn't.

A short time later, I ran across The Best of Creative Computing, Vol. 2 and had the same hopes, but the program wasn't included there, either. By the time I went back for The Best of Creative Computing, Vol. 3, the store no longer offered it, and I couldn't help but think that, with my luck, that the maze program would be in there.

At this point, the only details I remembered was that it was in Creative Computing and that it was a maze program. I didn't think of it again until 2006, when someone on a forum asked about computer algorithms for mazes. That got me searching for it online. I managed to find all 3 Best of Creative Computing books online for free and immediately plowed through Vol. 3, only to discover the program wasn't there, either. It did get me thinking about it again, and I'd search for the program online whenever it popped into my head.

In 2008, I came amazingly close when I discovered the full text of the article online at atarimagazines.com. It didn't include the helpful illustrations or the program listing I wanted, but it was a thrill just to read the explanation again. As an added bonus, I finally knew that the article had come from the December 1983 issue of Creative Computing, had started on page 294, and that it was written by Dan Rollins, who titled it Polymaze! Solver.

With the name, I tried more exact searches, but nothing showed up. Last year, when I first discovered archive.org's computer magazine archives, Creative Computing was the first thing I looked for, but it wasn't there.

Finally, late last month, I noted Creative Computing had finally been added. At that point, the December 1983 issue wasn't available, but at least they were actively adding issues. On New Year's Eve, October 1983 showed up, and on New Year's Day, November 1983 showed up. The suspense was killing me. Sure enough, on January 2nd, after 24 years of searching, I had finally found December 1983 issue of Creative Computing, including Polymaze! Solver complete with illustrations and program listings (found on pages 294-311)!

You're probably wondering what it was about this program that captivated me for 3 decades. As you can see from this blog, I love having fun with math, and this article did just that, and seemed to keep going and going! It started by showing how to randomly generate a rectangular maze so as to guarantee only one possible solution, then showed how to “stretch” the right side of the maze around to meet the left side, and it even taught an algorithm that allowed the computer to find the solution. I had never seen so much math put to such amazing and creative use!

Being able to access the magazine online has proved to provide an added bonus. Dan Rollins mentions some of his other articles at the start of the article, and now I can finally read those, as well. His other articles include Kwikmaze (80 Micro, November 1982), Bee Amazed (Creative Computing, June 1981) and Pocket Computer Fun (Creative Computing, December 1982).

With access to the original BASIC program, I'm now thinking it wouldn't be too hard to translate this into Javascript, especially for HTML5 browsers. Not only would it be a fun challenge to get it working on the web, but also playing it on the web, as well.

Once the various original features are working, there's still room for creativity. For example, if you remember games such as Doom and Duke Nukem, those used a technique called ray casting to create a quick-and-dirty realtime 3D experience. With a few lessons in ray casting math and some some ray casting lessons specifically in Javascript, this maze could have a whole new life.

Take the time to look around the resources and explore, especially if you're into computer programming. Magicians have a saying that applies here: “If you want to create something new, start by examining something old.”

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1 Response to A Long Maze Journey

6:48 PM

What a great article, and thanks for showing the source of the old computer magazine archives. It brings back lots of memories and I took a look at a British Popular Computing Weekly magazine that I read around the same time. It was interesting contrasting what was going on both sides of the Atlantic in the early 1980s. I had a quick look at the polymaze article and I couldn't believe just how big that magazine was. I think the US had the prize on page count back then. I think I will be revisiting the polymaze article later.