Sunday, October 18, 2020

GEM Desktop Music

Over the decades, I've seen many neat programs that would play a piece of chipmusic, in GEM, as a background task. I always thought this was so cool and wondered why there wasn't more. Well, it turns out that there are a lot on several Budgie UK disks. I don't think I ever saw this type of program on any other floppy?

Anyhow, I've spent some time going through my floppies to gather a quick, no-frills compilation. Some of these tracks were made by Goth but I'm not sure who else to credit for the rest - possibly Budgie UK? There's also an intro included which is a scroller text by me using a utility coded by Dogue de Mauve of Overlanders.

I hope this floppy disk is of some interest to your guys? Let me know in the comments below :)

Friday, October 16, 2020

Evasion II

Evasion 2 was developed by Chris Skellern for Budgie UK and is a maze game where we run around collecting pills whilst being chased. Yes, I know this sounds all too familiar but the structure of the gameplay mechanics is different and quite the rush. Each level offers a chance to collect power-ups to freeze the baddies, drop a smart bomb and gain extra lives. Heck, you can even drop mines in their path which is a brilliant touch.

There might only be 8 levels but completing them grants the chance to do it again but with insanely zippy baddies. This is olde retro gaming at it's finest and I really enjoyed the frantic challenge. Highly recommended!!

Grab the download off AtariMania and why not try out Starburst, another corker by Chris Skellern.


Ignore how it looks. Yes, it isn't 1982 but since when did aesthetics matter? #GameplayMatters


Beware, these humble-looking tiny blighters are actually infuriatingly intelligent and fast!


Arghhh!!! I came so close to finally completing the game - and without cheating! :o)

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Dave Semmens

It's now over three years ago since I featured a platformer called Spellfire The Sorceror, something that I hadn't previously heard about so was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed it. It's tons of fun and very easy to pick up & play. Plus another glaring example that the Atari ST can scroll - when in the hands of talent.

It was programmed by Dave Semmens, the same guy how gave us Kid Gloves II, but he also made a couple of older ST games which, ahem, left a lot to be desired. I began to wonder what could have changed for such an immense leap in quality compared to those earlier efforts? The difference is quite staggering!

So I tracked him down to find out, and then asked a few more questions too! :-) Dave was more than willing and I thank him for being such a great guy taking the time to chat with me. I hope you enjoy this little interview and don't forget to check out his incredible photography (and FaceBook group) which are both linked below.



- The Dave Semmens Interview -



Hello Dave, tell us all how you began...

I got interested in computers when I bought a C64 as a teenager. I soon started programming in basic and then looked at assembler. Within a short period, I realised that I wanted to try Z80 so sold the C64 (which was 6502) and bought a ZX Spectrum with microdrive. I bought an assembler and started coding simple games like TRON. One of my mates spotted an advert for programmers in Otley. I decided to give that a try and got the job.

The company was Source The Software House and they did many conversions from arcade/other home computer formats. I worked on a number of Spectrum titles and then added Amstrad (which is also Z80) to the list and then moved up to 16 bit with the Amiga and Atari ST. After a couple of years at Source, I went freelance and spent around 4 years working for Mirrorsoft, Probe and US Gold on various 8 and 16-bit projects.


What were you using back then?

We used a system called Programmers Development System (PDS) - it allowed a PC to be connected to the target machine and for all the assembly of code to be done on the PC then downloaded to the target. This meant that if the machine crashed (which it did often) then the code was still safe. Originally, I started with a basic Amstrad PC that didn't even have a hard drive - just huge floppy disks. We slowly moved over to faster and better-equipped PCs as time progressed and the codebases/graphics for each game got larger.

I still have my Atari ST in the loft along with copies of all the games I worked on and quite a lot of magazines with reviews of my games. But it's much easier these days to just boot up an emulator to play them :)


Dave hard at work in 1986 in an office made in heaven!


What was it like working in the games industry?

This industry is not like any other I have worked in. The people (most of them) would put themselves through hell to get a game out. I have worked with teams that spent days in the office, with very little sleep, and that was on floors or couches in the meeting rooms. I remember rushing disks down to a waiting motorbike courier, who would speed off at high speed to deliver the latest build to our QA people. I always said that crunch time to get a game out (normally the last 2 months) was the best of times and the worst of times.

To see a team come together and work together in this period was fantastic - the late-night antics and comradery were brilliant. But the impact it had on people was huge 20-hour shifts; nothing but take-away food for days on end was a killer and I had one lead engineer end up in the hospital with heart problems after one game.


How did you find this development?

I was always pushing to speed up the code as I wanted it to be better than anything out there - I wanted to have a proper dual playfield parallax not just a wrapping background etc. So I was always looking to improve. I discovered that, on the Atari ST, if I had the sprites at a 0-pixel shift when they hit the scroll point, then I had more processor time to scroll the screen which compensated for the lack of hardware for screen/sprite manipulation.


Any inspirations?

The games by Ultimate always blew me away - such great games and so playable.




Rainbow Warrior, eh?

This was late in my time at Source and the project had been given to an engineer. He was new to the company (if I remember correctly) and, in the end, he didn't get it completed. I found that the programmers coming in, who had not worked on the 8 bit systems, did not have the same concerns for memory. They had 512k to play with and didn't have to worry about finding ways to compress the graphics and save as much memory as possible.

As this was based on several mini sub-games, it was decided to split them up across a few programmers. I picked up a couple of levels and (maybe) the front end. I think Rainbow Warrior was my first Atari ST/Amiga game.



And then SAS Combat Simulator?

SAS was a straight conversion from one of the 8-bit versions (C64 I think) so I was just asked to create a like for like version for the Atari ST. The problem with budget conversions was that you were limited to what was possible on the 8-bits. There wasn't much time to do the conversion if you wanted to make good money, so it was a case of doing the best you could in a short time. The game played ok as it followed the playable C64 version.

By the time you had finished any game, it was hard to judge how playable it really was as you had to spend so much time playing and replaying sections yourself to test it. That got very repetitive!



But then two fantastic games!

I think one main reason for both Spellfire and Kid Gloves 2 being better and more polished is because they were my games. They were not conversions - I designed and put in more time/effort as they would not have had the same time limitations as the other conversions. As I designed the games, I could also make the mechanics fit well with the limitations of the system I was working with. Time and polish = quality :)

I was also on a royalty deal for both so made sure everything was as perfect as possible. As a programmer, I had a set of routines that I would use for all games - the basics like sprite and scroll routines. I would improve these over time and the main time to put extra effort into improving these was for my own creations.



Looking back, would you do anything differently?

No - I loved my time in the industry and would do it all again. I wish I had been 3/4 years earlier as that is when the big money was flying around. I will always remember the teams and people I worked within the Games Industry. I have yet to find a more dedicated bunch of people and, as I am getting on a little, so I doubt I ever will.


So what are you up to these days?

I now work as a project manager/agile data specialist for the largest online betting companies in the world. I still code in VBA and Tableau. I have a wife (the same one who suffered the games industry :) ), three kids (all grown up), a grandson and a small yappy Yorkshire terrier. My passion is now photography - not writing code. You can find some of my images on Flickr and I have a Facebook Group :) His photography is outstanding!! -Steve

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Into The Vertical Blank

If you love retro gaming on the world's best 16-bit computer then check this out! Jeff, from Into The Vertical Blank, has recently released two video compilations featuring a ton of Atari ST games - Photon Storm, Rainbow Islands, Stunt Car Racer, Sideways, Scooby-Doo, Fire And Ice, Oids, James Pond, Bubble Bobble and more.

But hold your horses, there's also a hefty wedge for the often-overlooked Atari STe!! Stuff like Rock 'n' Roll Clams, Asteroidia, Uridium, Prince of Persia, No Buddies Land and other upgraded titles.

I really enjoyed watching both videos because the presentation is fast and fluent; they didn't drag on with overly long clips so you get to watch many different games within a short period of time. I also enjoyed the varied range of games and the fact the Atari STe was used whenever possible. Yep, I hope there are more in the pipeline!

Both videos are on YouTube but don't forget to check out their website with Podcasts and much more.

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Ooze


Get ready to be scared stiff!!

I'm always a little sceptical of so-called horror games because they're never really gonna be all that scary. In fact, the only game that has ever made me jump was the Jaguar's Alien vs Predator - it was a late night and I jumped out my skin when an alien shrieked just as I was turning around! Anyhow, enough of my scooby doo adventures.

I first featured Ooze in our Box Art section and figured it was about time I dusted it off and booted up this adventure developed by H. J. Braendle and Guido Henkel of Dragonware Games back in 1988. My box is quite battered with floppy disks that no longer work! But at least I have the manual, which is most helpful.

Helpful because I'm not a massive fan of text adventures if I'm brutally honest. Though I have enjoyed a few over the years on my ZX Spectrum and Atari ST. And, more recently, I bought a couple of crackers - Hibernated 1 and The Curse of Rabenstein so I felt confident with Ooze to see what kind of journey was on offer.



We begin looking up at our inheritance. Oh, how I wish this was real life!!


I love cheeseburgers!

We play as a character called Ham Burger, which is fantastic, and have just inherited Carfax Abbey from our late uncle, Cheez Burger (oh, these names are killing me). However, it appears he died under mysterious circumstance so, rather than enjoying our wealthy new lifestyle, we instead investigate what's happened. Yep...

From the start, the game sets a creepy atmosphere on arriving to check out our new home. Thunder is rumbling and an old signpost details the address, 666 Rue Morgue. Nervously walking up, we see the porch and an old rocking chair but this ain't no ordinary chair because it's haunted. That's right! In fact, almost every room is haunted by something which means it's a good idea to take it slow and ponder your environment carefully.

Ooze has a fantastic sense of humour. Wait too long and a panicky message appears asking if you're still there. Don't leave me here alone lol. Just try sitting on the porch chair for an eye-opening experience I didn't expect. Also, the characters are excellent - I laughed when rescuing Marie: "Marie EnToilet"!! However, Murx is an oddity which made me chuckle and scratch my head! And when you die, the game pranks by banning you from the RAM!!




I'm rich and also haunted!

The world of Carfax Abbey is small but will feel much bigger because of the time spent in each location. It's tempting to rush off and explore but that means you'll miss everything and probably die so be warned! Getting around is done using the expected compass directions (N/S/E/W) plus U/D for up/down. So it's possible to 'sit down' or 'run south' to hastily exit. A handy command called 'exits' informs you of all possible routes from your location.

Each area has a vivid description which is extremely longwinded so it's possible to overlook something obvious, like the lance which infuriated me. Thankfully, that can be changed with the 'brief' command which I used from the moment I entered the Abbey. All adventures require that you read the room's description but it's apparent that Ooze takes this to the extreme thanks to the amount of detail mixed with extremely subtle hints.

The parser is good but I fear something was lost in translation from its German roots. Simple commands are often confused by a pedantic requirement for correct input. Try unlocking a door, searching a trunk or switching on the lights. Well, light... Quite irritating, so Infocom or Level 9 quality this is not. Whatever you read in the description, examine that said object fully because nothing is obvious. Find the chalk if you can, or suss out what you're supposed to do with the Parlor rope. Ooze can be so vague considering the immense amount of descriptive text.




An adventure with an atmosphere?

Visuall, I loved how Ooze combined the two resolutions for great effect. Low is obviously used to display a range of gorgeous images and the clarity of Medium is put to great use in order to read the text. This is superb and works really well. Sadly, not every area appears to have its own image which I found a little confusing at first.
Those with a crisp monochrome monitor will be happy to know Ooze works in high resolution. The text looks wonderful but the images not so much. It's as if the low-res images have simply been converted on the fly rather than drawn specifically for this display. Which is a shame.
Audio is superb with lots of samples for eerie creaks, footsteps, ghoulish screams and so on. However, the atmosphere is spoilt a by the ST's keyboard clicks which I didn't see any way to disable. It's no big deal but I'd have prefered to disable these which are a lot louder than the sampled sound effects. (xcontrol didn't work)




The CryptO'pinion?

Ooze is a great adventure and will certainly appeal to those looking for something of horror rather than fantasy. Sadly, I found the room descriptions overly longwinded and, at times, poorly translated into English. Exploring is finicky from the moment you have entered the Abbey - walking upstairs is quite an event. If ever there was an adventure that demanded you made a map, this is it. I found it impossible exploring upstairs without one.

This isn't something you can easily pick-up and play, not without spending a lot of time. But, if you fancy a break from those fancy Magnetic Scrolls, then I'm sure you'll enjoy this. Ooze offers a sarcastic twist on the horror genre with neat puzzles and a fantastic sense of humour - give Marie a kiss! Oh, don't forget the pen and paper!



A preview image from another game that was never released. I wonder what happened?

Monday, September 28, 2020

Recovery

Remember, the Atari ST cannot scroll

Well, don't be so quick because here is Recovery, a shoot 'em up by New Deal Productions. Oddly, it's something I've not heard of until the other day and it takes us on a *Fantastic Voyage* through the lower bits of some poor soul. I assume we're trying to help him recover from something nasty and we begin in the bottom and work our way up through the liver (I think), and onto the heart before finally smashing through the old grey matter.

Recovery is much in the vein of something like Menace or R-Type but at a far quicker pace with many body parts whizzing around the screen. Recovery is tough!! Almost nigh on impossible when trying to dodge these things, but our ship is spritely and we're armed with a laser. So shoot first and never ask dumb questions.

Each part of the body is a separate stage and also incredibly long, almost to a point where you think it will never end! They feel much the same with a vast array of different "aliens" to avoid or kill. These use a variety of attack patterns but touching any reduces energy levels, so bad pilots ultimately end up losing yet another life. Strangely, there is no end-of-level boss. A beastly tumour would have been nice - a sentence I thought I'd never say!

The joystick controls are excellent - very fast and responsive without any sluggishness. Our main weapon is a laserbeam and quite effective too - pressing and holding fire shoots this laser and kills anything in front of you. Sadly, there are no upgrades or special weapons so all we have is one laser and nothing more.

Thankfully, our sleeping patient appears to have popped many pills, which you'll see floating through his body just waiting to be collected. These can boost your weapon's rate of fire, energy and shields which are all displayed in the status bar. I never figured out what "LIGH" is for - I hit every key but nothing, nada, zip... Anyone know?

Visually, this is a mixed body bag that isn't quite as healthy as you would hope. Don't get me wrong, a scroller needs to scroll and each parallax layer moves beautifully smooth. The backgrounds are quite bare-bones but there are tons of funky sprites which only goes to prove how weirdly wonderful we are on the inside. Maybe!

Hitting F4 flips between 50/60Hz which speeds things up even more - if you can handle it?

Sonically, this is going to appeal to lovers of chip music. To be blunt, it's quite simply fantastic and foot-tappingly awesome so makes you realise just how cool your ST is. However, those insane people amongst us might wish to turn it off and hear sound effects. No problem, just hit F2/F3 but why would you ever wanna do that?

Recovery is a good shoot 'em up and technically impressive so slaps the faces of all those lazy programmers that told us the ST cannot scroll. However, it's ruined by the overly long stages and their zillions of frantic 'aliens' constantly buzzing about. This static style doesn't seem to go anywhere so gets samey after a while. Also, our weapons cannot be upgraded which is a massive disappointment but not as much as having no bosses to fight.

Okay, I'm sure you can tell that this isn't the best shoot 'em up but it's not the worst. I've enjoyed blasting through some guy's intimate body parts in the name of science fiction and Recovery is definitely worth booting up for a quick game or two. If only to see who can survive the longest, good luck with that because you'll need it.

Check out all these screenshots before deciding whether to download for hard disk or floppy...

Friday, September 25, 2020

Ambermoon Music Demo

I've had this on my hard drive for ages and finally got around to making a recording of what is nothing less than a jaw-dropping collection of chiptunes converted by Gunnar Gaubatz aka Big Alec. This was (eventually) released for Sommarhack 2019 by Grazey of Psycho Hacking Force and features several lovely tunes. I've recorded snippets from each track but it's advisable to get it downloaded onto your own Atari ST to enjoy it properly.


But what about Amberstar?

Well, Thalion may not have finished the ST version but, this got me thinking of the prequel, Amberstar. A game I've never actually played, not ever! I remember seeing it featured in the magazines and the graphics looked very nice. Anyhow, I downloaded the pre-configured HDD version by 8BitChip and had myself a little playtest...

Stonish has the floppies but there's three of 'em. Good luck with that disk swapping!

We begin with an overhead view of a graveyard which is a dead interesting place (sorry). This leads onto the City Of Twinlake which flips our view from 2D to 3D, ala Dungeon Master. It's now the adventure appears to really begin as there is plenty of places to explore and different folk who are only too willing to stop for a good natter. The first thing that grabbed me where the aesthetics which look and sound brilliant. However, I was quite unsure by the clunky user interface which feels a little cumbersome and messy. Meh, perhaps it's just because I'm new to it?

Amberstar is quite difficult to get into from the start, and I'm a little perplexed that I wasn't able to create my own characters - but that's something to do with a dodgy installation program the Thalion boys made? Tut Tut Tut... Anyhow, the world of Amberstar appears huge so I'm wondering if I should add it to my ever-growing list of Atari ST games to play over a quiet weekend. Yeah, I think we all know how that plan will go. Hmm.

Considering I only played for half an hour, I'm quite taken back by what appears in-depth RPG. Are there any fans out there? Have you played it? What can you share about this Thalion RPG? I'm looking forward to any response because it looks excellent. Although I'm wondering if I need another life-sucking RPG especially as I still play Temple of Apshai, Rogue, Ultima V and the mighty Shadowlands. Not too mention the obvious ST classic!!

Well, something to ponder? Until then, take a gander at these screenshots and try not to drool ;-)

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Kid Gloves II


So, Kid has hung up his gloves?

Kid Gloves II was developed by Dave Semmens and is nothing like its prequel. In fact, it's completely different and more like a Wonderboy or Giana, Mario and the ilk. I believe it was originally called Little Beau but Digital Magic went bust and Millenium stepped in. Anyhow, this is great news for me because I was never a fan of the first.

The background story, you say? Okay, brace yourself... the love of our life has been kidnapped by an evil wizard who now has trapped her in his castle. We want her back! So that means travelling through five islands before reaching his castle lair to rescue our beloved. Hardly original, I'm sure you'll agree, but I'll buy into it.

Kid gets to travel through a number of islands on his way to the castle. Each is split into smaller sections with their own environments of ice, water, fire, sand, and wind. Of course, that means they're all slightly different with their own brand of hazards, monsters and the usual types of platforms to leap across. Let's take a look...


Ice Island is excellent and nicely introduces you to the gameplay styles.
Water Island has been flooded so bring your swimming costume!
Things are hotting up for the third level with... hmm... warmer visuals!
The fourth level has you walking like an Egyptian...
It's getting windy on the fifth level but things are looking rather samey!

We made it to the castle but only with extra lives and a timer freeze. Oh yeah!!

Nice, but how's it play?

As you can see, the levels look great with the first stage being of ice and is a superb start with snow, melting platforms and so on. Each island follows the same mechanics so is pretty much what you'd expect albeit with the obvious aesthetic differences. However, I found the fifth island tiresome with irritating platforms that were hard and integrated with very long jumps - which meant losing lots of time backtracking!

Getting around most areas is exceptionally easy thanks to responsive controls and helpful arrows guiding you on your merry way. Kid actually walks using a two-fold method: shorter bursts, from a still, are of a slower pace for jumping across the ledges. Whereas a continuous run is faster and great for leaping over those wider gaps.

The monsters may look cute but they need killing with your trusty dagger (upgradable!). When slain, they drop items like coins, energy fruits and others which can empower with special abilities - super-high jumps, monster-squashing boots, balloons, critters and fireballs. Ultimately, we're searching each level for the baddie carrying the exit key. Once you are through the stages, the end-of-level guardian is waiting for you - for an easy battle!

Kid Gloves II features a couple of "hidden" features which you might find when exploring the levels. Stumbling upon something that looks like it should be in Vegas provides a chance to earn yourself lots of rewards be it a fruit machine or arcade game. Use your selection of coins in a slot machine or a horizontally-scrolling shoot 'em up.


Hey, what's that I see? Perhaps I should stop and take a break from the girlfriend's rescue?
Woohoo, I'm back in Vegas baby!! Well, there's a chance this machine might yield big rewards.
Ignore his freaky eyeballs because this shoot 'em up is a lot harder than you might first think.

I want juicy aesthetics!

Well, you've got 'em because graphically, Kid Gloves II is a cutey pie thanks to the talents of Doug Townsley. I love its 8-bit personality with each stage looking different and always gorgeous. However, it's the sprites which stand out the most for me with awesome attention to detail. The backgrounds are also fantastic but I was a little puzzled on Wind Island as everything as a samey feel and some platforms are difficult to see, which is a tad annoying.

Not many know this, but Kid Gloves 2 was the first platformer I booted up when returning to the Atari ST a number of years ago. I instantly fell in love with its cartoon visuals and how smoothly it scrolled - happy days had returned!! Oh, the floppy still works and remains one of my most cherished possessions.

Musically, this is great with a fantastic selection of chirpy chiptunes by Andy Severn and Justin Scharvona and I think they all suit the gameplay style perfectly. However, I didn't find a way to switch off the tunes in favour of sound effects which is odd. But, if I'm honest, I wouldn't have wanted to anyway. Chipmusic will last forever!


Critters are ace because they're as deadly as they are cute!

The CryptO'pinion?

I've absolutely loved playing Kid Gloves 2 but nothing is perfect so what didn't I like? Well, each level kinda feels the same albeit with different visuals and the bosses are far too easy to kill. However, my biggest beef is with the timer which is unnecessary and spoilt my chances of ever beating the third island. Yes, I admit to cheating on those later levels and I normally never cheat. Honest. Ahem, anyhow no game should rush the player!

Wow, I sound like a right old moaner? Okay, I apologise because Kid Gloves 2 is a genuinely a fantastic platformer packed with fun levels, lots of baddies to kill, great power-ups and the control mechanics are fast and fluent. I also think this is something your kids will enjoy as much as us Dads so it comes highly recommended!!

Download available by D-Bug
Floppies can be found using Stonish.

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Gary Antcliffe

Tracking down the geeky kids from the 80s/90s is often tough but always rewarding. I'm grateful that I was able to get in touch with Gary Antcliffe, of PAL Developments (my thanks to his wife Jen who helped me with my stalking)

You may remember that this is the talented fella behind seven Atari ST games for HiTec and Virgin Mastertronic? His final two games were absolute knockouts: Alien World is a shoot 'em up with frenzied action. Whereas Scooby-Doo & Scrappy-Doo is...well... a new personal favourite of mine. Terrific games!

So, I thought it might be an idea to track down this fella and have a chat about his history? I found him interesting, especially with regards to his upbringing - like the need to get two paper rounds to afford a Commodore 64. A humble start, for what was about to be the beginning of a very special career. My sincere gratitude to Gary for taking the time out of his schedule to answer all my questions and I hope you all enjoy the interview?

However, I must admit that I almost censored his photograph... Hmm, I can't think why! ;-)



Gary Antcliffe - The Interview


Hello Gary, please tell us about yourself

I got interested in games at an early age. I was probably around 8 or 9 when I first saw and played Space Invaders. This would have been when we were on holiday and in later years my parents took us to Butlins and I remember visiting the arcades lots to try out all sorts of other games. This was only once a year though and as I grew older I became aware of home computers starting to become popular. I remember looking through the Argos catalogue and flipping between the Spectrum and Commodore 64 and dreaming about owning one of those machines.

I think initially I was drawn to the Spectrum as it was cheaper and had all sorts of peripherals in the picture. One day though my friends and I visited an electrical/appliances store called Comet. They had some computers on display and we could play some games that were already running on them. I'm not sure if it was Tony Crowther's Loco or Suicide Express but as soon as I played that game I was hooked, I had to have a C64!

We were a working-class family though, my dad worked in a steel mill and my mum was a cleaner at the local college. The C64 was just too expensive. However, my mum made me a deal: if I could save enough pocket money to pay for half of the C64 then they'd get me one for Christmas. I was already doing 2 paper rounds and had saved some money so after about a year of saving that I had enough and my folks bought me a C64 for Christmas. I think I was about 13 at that time and this was the start of a life long passion.

I spent loads of time playing games, swapping tapes with friends at school as kids did. I was always curious as a child and would take things to bits to see how they worked. I also loved building things in Lego and Mechano, so I think this curiosity and creativity lead me down the path of wanting to create my own games. It was hard to get started though, I tried Basic but it was too slow. I used to type in pages of listings from magazines but often these were just data statements and told you nothing of how to program a game.



The programming bug was about to be born...

I was aware that real games were written in machine code but had no idea how to do that until one day I came across a basic listing for an assembler. This gave me a route to trying out and learning to program in assembly. The only problem was you had a limited number of lines before it ran out of memory. I then saw an Action Replay cartridge advertised in a magazine. This had a machine code monitor and disassembler, so I saved up more paper round money and bought one. I would then type directly into memory in hex and disassemble the code to make sure I had done it correctly. This was the start of my proper programming days and I was able to experiment with writing scroll routines and moving sprites around the screen...

It was hard though and I had a love/hate relationship with coding initially, getting frustrated and going back to just playing games, then really wanting to make my own creations and coming back to programming and trying again. I wanted to do so much but just didn't know how to. All I had was a C64 reference manual, an Action Replay cartridge and my own creativity. Looking back on it now, writing directly in machine code is pretty cool given my age at the time. To this day I still remember some of those hex opcodes!

The next few years were spent on and off between playing games and trying to write them on the C64. I'd often get partway through a game then have ideas for another game and start working on that instead. Actually finishing a game can be the hardest part of it.

I left school and went to college to study programming. Unfortunately, they dropped that just before it started and put me on a business course instead, boring!!! Fortunately, they had a great careers advisor and after a few months, she secured me a work placement at Alligata Software. After 2 weeks they offered me a full-time job!


What was it like working for Alligata?

At Alligata it was pretty standard. I started as a junior programmer helping out on a C64 game doing things like the intro, high score table, music and sound code. I had access to an assembler rather than doing everything in hex. We assembled from a tape which took about 20 mins and sent the game over the parallel port to another C64.

I later moved to programming the Amiga and we used GenAm to assemble the code and ran it on the same machine. This was a bit time consuming as you'd take over the operating system so you had full control of the machine and all of the memory. So you had to reboot and reload everything after each run.



Onto PAL Developments...

Where things got more interesting and unusual was later in my career when working for PAL developments which published games though Hi-Tec Software. We built our own development system from the ground up. I wrote almost all of the software so I created assemblers for different chipsets (6502, Z80, 68000) and we connected to different machines using parallel cables. I wrote a text editor, disassembler, machine code monitor and communication software on both the Amiga and ST. We could then send over and run the code on the C64, Spectrum, Amstrad, Amiga, ST, MSX and then I later altered the Z80 assembler so we could write Gameboy games as well. It was a similar chipset to a Z80 but with some registers and instructions missing, so we called it the Z40 internally.

We had to build some specialised hardware as some machines such as the Spectrum, Amstrad, MSX and Gameboy didn't have a parallel port, but an electronics wiz (Ian) from Alligata built those for us and wrote the comms software on those machines. This was a huge time saving for us, no more rebooting after each run, just sending it over the parallel port and running it on the target machine.

If the game crashed then you could inspect the registers, disassemble the code, save off memory etc. Best of all was that the assemblers were lightning-fast, your whole game was built in about a minute. You'll be pleased to know that I mostly developed on the Atari ST as the CPU ran quicker than the Amiga so it would build the code faster.

That was just one part of what was needed. I also wrote map editors, tools for cutting out sprites, placing objects, creating collision data, full-screen animation codecs... I think the only commercial software we used was DPaint. It's not like today, there were no engines, few commercial software tools, you built everything yourself.


A do-it-yourself world?

As I mentioned we built our own development system and I wrote most of my own tools such as the map editors. These would also get refined with extra features added each time we made a new game, so there was a gradual improvement over time.

I think I used the ST as my editor/assembler. We used a standard 520 ST and an Amiga 500. For the graphics then Richard Morton would draw the blocks and sprites in DPaint and then import these files into our editors. The editors would then cut the blocks up, pull out the sprites and palettes and then he could go about creating the map files for the levels and then save these in a binary format that I'd use in the game.

For audio, I wrote a tracker player and we'd outsource the music. It's so long ago that I can't remember how we did sound effects, I think for the ST, maybe I did those myself with a little editor I created to define the sounds we played? It’s so long ago I really can’t remember!



A very different world?

I guess when I started at PAL it was a step backwards. Alligata was a bigger company with more people located in the same office working together. PAL was just me and another programmer Richard Stevenson in a back room of a small office building. It really didn't matter though as I was doing what I loved which was writing games.

Over time the team grew and when Hi-Tec was set up then there were more opportunities to do slightly larger and more challenging games. The atmosphere improved as well as you could discuss ideas with other coders and artists, chat with the team who created the box art, did the publishing and the advertising.

The early games for Mastertronic were written in a matter of weeks, maybe a couple of months. As my programming skills developed and PAL / Hi-Tec became larger then the games became a bit more ambitious and took a bit longer. The longest title in development was Scooby & Scrappy Do, which took about 6 months for the Amiga and ST.


You appeared to master the Atari ST so quickly?

I think there are a number of reasons the games got better. I certainly got better at programming. Going from the 6510 in the C64 to 68000 CPUs was a big step up and the 68K was just fantastic to code for. 15 32bit registers and a feature-rich instruction set, it was just a dream to use.

In the early days, we'd outsource the graphics as well as the music and the games were much simpler. As the company grew though, Richard Morton joined us and we worked together on pretty much every game I did from that point onwards. That teamwork made a big difference to the quality of the games and ideas we had, it was very collaborative and a really enjoyable time in my career.

As the standard ST didn't have much in the way of hardware then horizontal scrolling was one of the big challenges. The CPU just isn't fast enough to software scroll the full screen and render sprites at a reasonable framerate. We worked out a technique though which I called pairs scrolling. I'd look at adjacent blocks that were scrolling on to the screen and pre-shift (software scroll) these into a cache. I'd do this for the whole scroll area and when I came across 2 blocks that were already in the cache then I could directly copy them to the screen rather than having to incur the slow cost of shifting and combining them again.

I think this is probably what you're seeing with Alien World and Scrappy that makes a big difference, along with improved sprite drawing routines that I optimised over the years. It's all about counting the number of CPU cycles taken and looking for ways to optimise the code to get better performance.



Who inspired you?

Initially, my inspirations came from C64 games as that was the machine I was using. Tony Crowther was a definite inspiration, he produced many games I played as a kid and I met him a few times when I started in the industry. I used to read Zzap64 every month and you'd learn the names of the more prolific programmers. I loved reading the programmer diaries and Andrew Braybrook made a big impact as well. Paradroid and Uridium were favourite games of mine and reading about how these were developed drove that internal craving to make my own games.

Archer Maclean created some amazing games as well, Dropzone and IK+ on the C64 are fond memories. I was actually playing Dropzone at the Cambridge Computing History Museum last year showing the game to my son and who popped up behind me to watch, only Archer! I’m not sure how I knew it was him having never met him before, but I did. Anyhow, we had a long chat and it was great to be able to thank him for the influence he and his games had on my life, which ultimately helped shape me into the person I am today.

We were always trying to make better games and we'd often look at arcade games for inspiration too. You can see it in a number of the games we produced, Ikari Warriors gave us ideas for Blazing Thunder, R-type for Alien World, Space Harrier for T-Bird / Futurebike and there were a whole host of platform games that gave us ideas for Scooby. I was a big shoot-em-up fan and we still visited the arcades occasionally. I remember on one trip out Dave Thompson completed Space Harrier on a single credit, pretty good value for just 10 pence!


Any inspirations from the demoscene?

I remember looking at demos early on with the C64 and later on the Amiga and ST. It certainly had an influence on me when trying to program. How could they get more than 8 sprites on the screen when that was all the hardware supported? I then started to experiment myself and wrote little C64 demos with bouncing raster bars, opening the borders and some basic sprite multiplexing, although it wasn’t very sophisticated. Hey, I was still a kid!

Writing the title and high score screens for a game can be a bit of a bind as they tend to come late in development and you’re pretty tired by this time. As I mentioned earlier, finishing a game is really hard. I think some of the things I did was just to make the title screens look a bit different, and to give myself something enjoyable to do!

There are some great demo coders out there and I’ve worked with a number of them over the years, especially at Core Design. Coders from that era were always looking at ways to push the machine, whether that was doing things the hardware wasn’t designed for or meticulously counting CPU cycles to optimise your code as well as you could. I believe this attitude has helped me over the years. If you look at Killzone Mercenary on the PS Vita that game really pushes the boundaries of what is possible on a handheld device at that time. I was the engine lead and the brief was to produce a game that looked like a PS3 title. That was a lot of hard work and performance analysis as the PS3 is a beast when you fully leverage the SPUs, so it’s massively more powerful than the Vita! It was a struggle getting so much out of that machine, but I think we did a really good job in the end.



Any spare time left to play a few games?

Unfortunately, I don’t get that much time to play games these days as family life doesn’t leave me with lots of spare time. I can’t say I’ve booted up any of my old games over the last few years. I don’t have the time to invest in large games but I do have a Switch and I do like to look at some of the indie titles that are out there.

I have recently bought a PC-Engine mini and I’ve been enjoying playing some retro games. I was aware of the PC-Engine when it was out but it wasn’t easily accessible so I bought a MegaDrive instead at the time. I must say though I’m really impressed with it. Some of the arcade conversions are almost perfect and the fact that it’s running an 8bit 6502 derivative CPU is astounding.

I also take my kids to the Cambridge Computing History Museum quite often so I get to play some of the older games and it’s a great day out. My wife isn’t a gamer though so she thinks it the most boring place on the planet!


Looking back, any regrets?

I’m not sure really. I’ve had a long and varied career, worked in many different studios, cities and sometimes other countries. Everywhere that I’ve worked I’ve met interesting people and have gained some life long friends. Even when things have been tough, if you look back you can usually find something positive from the situation. Programming and especially writing games is a life choice; you’re choosing to have a life where you continually learn. You have to otherwise you just can’t compete and the games industry is a very competitive place.

I remember one of the times when I went to see Tony Crowther and he showed me a scrapbook with reviews of all of his games, cut out of every magazine he found a review in. At the time I thought ‘damn it, wish I had done that!’. It would have been good to have a record of all the games I’ve worked on, a copy of each title and the original source code. Unfortunately, a lot of this has been lost over time and if I was to go back then that’d be something I’d do differently. It’d be nice to be able to show my kids and pique their interest in following their own creative endeavours as they grow up, whatever they decide to choose.


Would you say that times have changed for the better?

That would be quite a long answer but you could put a link to my The Centre for Computing History video here if you like? Which is a superb idea because this is a very interesting video and an eye-opener - Steve.



What are you doing these days?

I guess a lot has happened since the early 90s. I’ve worked on most platforms since the 16bit era, all of the Playstation platforms, N64 and PC. I’ve worked on some well-known titles - Tomb Raider, 24, Medievil, Little Big Planet and Killzone to name a few. We pushed the boundaries of what was thought possible in VR with RIGS on PlayStation VR. I’m no longer in the Games industry these days though. When Sony decided to close the Cambridge Studio I decided to try something else. I’ve been made redundant 5 times in the games industry due to companies going into liquidation. Most of those times finding a new job had meant moving to another city as well. This isn’t something I’m prepared to do anymore now that I have a family.

I do miss writing games but what I miss most is the creative side and teamwork. I don’t miss the stress, pressure and unrealistic expectations from publishers, massive teams where you’re a tiny cog in a huge machine. I miss the small team vibe, pushing the boundaries of what you believe can be done. I occasionally tinker around on an emulator and have been writing a Uridium style shooter on the C64 but I’ve had to put that on hold since the pandemic started. I’ll look at this again during some of my holiday time when I don’t need to focus quite so much on my work life.

I now work for Arm in Cambridge who designs chips and you probably have several of these in your phone, tablets, smartTV and other devices. I lead a team that looks at GPU performance when running general-purpose compute on those devices, so languages such as OpenCL and Vulkan compute rather drawing graphics using vertex and pixel shaders. With advances in technologies such as Machine Learning and digital assistants, more of this processing is moving on to mobile devices rather than being run in big data centres in the cloud. This is where being able to run general computing workloads on a GPU, rather than just rendering graphics, becomes ever more important.

It’s very different to working in the games industry, but challenging in a good way and my skills with pushing the boundaries of performance come in handy. I’ve worked at many places before but I’ve never known any company to care about its employees as much as Arm does. They’re very open with their staff, promoting a sharing community with learning and development as a pivotal part of the job, so this suits me well.

Thanks for getting in touch Steve, it’s been quite a trip down memory lane!