36 years on, you can play Bill Gates’ crappy Donkey game on Apple Watch

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Bill Gates just won the internets.
Of all Bill Gates' accomplishments, how did DONKEY hang around?
Photo: Bill Gates

Before Bill Gates was, well, Bill Gates, he was the 20-something software developer behind DONKEY.BAS, a simple yet frustratingly difficult PC game in which players drive a car along a stretch of road while avoiding donkeys.

Created in 1981 to show off the BASIC programming language on the then-new IBM PC, an updated version of the game has now been ported to Apple Watch.

Donkey
Not the world’s most complex game, certainly — but a piece of history nonetheless.
Photo: Johnny Ixe

Developed by Johnny Ixe, the official description of the game describes it like this:

“Reinvention of the 1981 classic DOS game for Apple Watch and iPhone. It’s super simple but frustratingly hard. It features easy one-turn game control, just turn the Digital Crown of your Apple Watch to drive your car. And it fully supports the CGA, showing off all its 4-color glory on watchOS :) Plus, PC speaker support. Nerdy retro coolness!”

Sure, the game’s technical limitations mean this isn’t going to give modern iOS or watchOS developers too many sleepless nights. But it’s undeniably cool to have a bit of genuine PC history on your wrist — even if the game isn’t exactly a masterpiece.

As it turns out, there are a couple of Apple tie-ins as well. Gates’ original co-developer on the game was a teenage hacker named Neil Konzen, who later became Microsoft’s technical lead on the Mac project.

And on his Folklore website, original Mac engineer Andy Hertzfeld recalls being asked to look into the DONKEY.BAS source code by Steve Jobs to get a sense of how BASIC worked.

Hertzfeld wasn’t impressed.

“The most clunky part of the system was the software,” he wrote. “MS-DOS seemed like a clone of an earlier system, CP/M, and even the demo programs lacked flair. It came with some games written in BASIC that were especially embarrassing.”

The worst one? Donkey.

“The player was supposed to be driving a car down a slowly scrolling, poorly rendered ‘road,’ and could hit the space bar to toggle the jerky motion,” Hertzfeld recalls. “Every once in a while, a brown blob would fill the screen, which was supposed to be a donkey manifesting in the middle of the road. If you didn’t hit the space bar in time, you would crash into the donkey and lose the game.”

You can read the rest of Hertzfeld’s reminiscences here.

DONKEY.BAS previously showed up on iOS, but this is the game’s first outing on Apple Watch. If you want to get hold of it, you can download the so-called DONKEY.APP for 99 cents at the link below.

Source: iTunes