Some of our readers may know about Zork (and 1, 2, 3), the 1977 text adventure originally written for the PDP-10. The game has been public domain for a while now, but recently, the interpreters for several classic 1980s machines have also appeared on the internet.
What’s the difference? Zork is not a PDP-10 executable, it’s actually a virtual machine executable, which is in turn run by an interpreter written for the PDP-10. For example, Java compiles to Java bytecode, which runs on the Java virtual machine (but not directly on any CPU). In the same way, Zork was compiled to “Z-machine” program files, called ZIP (which was of course used in 1990 by the much more well known PKZIP). To date, the compiler, “Zilch” has not been released, but the language specification and ZIP specifications have, which has led some people to write custom ZIP compilers, though with a different input language.
For more on the VM, check out Maya’s Zork retrospective. (And dig the featured art. Subtle!)
Of course, that’s not the only type of interpreter. Some programming languages are interpreted directly from source, like this BASIC hidden in the ESP32’s ROM.