Thursday, January 28, 2021

Jon Garry

Jon Garry is the man behind one of the best and most liked alternatives of Pacman, H-Mec. The maze is still there but gone are those dozy ghosts in favour of a sinister AI that gave it a Lode Runner feel.

And it worked so well H-Mec appeared on an ST Action cover disk!

I think H-Mec was a hit because it was instantly playable and addictive. In fact, it is a simply great game and one that sported superb visuals & audio. Oh, and was exclusively available for the Atari STe!!

Yes, his first game and already he was making good use of the enhanced hardware - extra colours, Blitter, smooth scrolling and DMA audio. Later on, a sequel was released along with a new game called Oh No! Not More Radioactive Mineshafts. H-Mec II was basically more of that winning formula but his Mineshaft game was something new and much underrated with simple gameplay mechanics yet, immensely addictive. And I loved it.

I was eager to contact Jon for an interview and he agreed. Heck, he actually seemed giddy about the idea and was a pleasure to chat with, a great bloke. I was impressed to discover the part his Dad played in this - come on, he sold the family car! However, what was he thinking about games like Ghouls 'n Ghosts! Whaaaaat??

I'd like to thank Jon for being a great sport over the last few months and I hope y'all enjoy this interview!


- The Jon Garry Interview -


Hello Jon, tell us all about your hiSTory

My coding life began on the ZX Spectrum when I was about 8. Funnily enough, around 1982, my Dad sold the family car to buy us the computer and that's where I first got the coding bug. How he got that past Mum, I've no idea! He thought that computers were the future and bought it for us to play on. I cut my teeth learning to program and the first game we played was Manic Miner which had a huge impact on me. From the moment I saw it, heard it and played it I loved it. The colours, the sound, the humour, the obstacles, the names of the levels!

I think of Manic Miner as the "Sgt Pepper" of computer games so, 1982 was where my coding journey started. Whilst I loved this, I wanted to know how to make it myself. Fairly soon, I went from "Guess the number" to understanding screen coordinates, variables, algebra, sprites, etc. In short, I taught myself a lot of maths and, by the age of 10, I was able to make a platform game more like "Lode Runner" than Manic Miner, which never happened.

Christmas Day around 1989 I guess when we got our Atari STe, our brand new "16-bit" computer and we couldn't wait to plug it in! We were lucky that my Dad had a bonus from work and used that to buy us the STe. I think it's the most important present that I ever had, just because of the impact it had on my life. I can't thank them enough for that. They weren't flush with cash and used that bonus to treat us to an extra present.

By the time the Atari came, I understood BASIC and the maths behind games. This helped me move back into programming — wanting to make my own version of games I was seeing on the STFM and Amiga. I was used to only having BASIC on the Spectrum so it was strange to find you could choose your language on the ST.

I found STOS too slow so that was out of the window. By the same token, the effort needed to learn Assembly seemed huge. I didn't know C at the time and it seemed difficult to use the tools. However, when I came upon GFA Basic, I started coding. GFA was surprisingly fast on the Atari STe, probably not much slower than C.

In the meantime, I'd started to see what the STe could do on demo disks and more people were getting them. So, I was getting introduced to the idea that the Atari STe could — easily - have full-screen smooth scrolling, lots of action on the screen, digi-music, no borders and a 256 colour palette.


Hey Jon, you're in luck! Manic Miner has been released for the Atari ST (by Peter Jørgensen)


What games did you play?

I just didn't code all the time and still did lots of other non-computer things. I was — still am — a huge football fan and spent hours with friends playing Kick Off 2 and Player Manager. To this day I still think those games were almost perfect — simple, fun and once you'd got around the ridiculous speed of the games they were utterly addictive. I think our Mum and Dad must have bought tens of joysticks after we wrecked them lobbing the keeper!

I also loved playing Castle Master, Terry's Big Adventure, Xenon 2, Stunt Car Racer, Continental Circus, Toki, Millennium 2.2, Speedball 2, Mega Lo Mania, Wonderboy, Vroom, Giana Sisters to name a few!

I loved Ghouls N Ghosts and Ghost N Goblins on the arcade, but the ST ports were poor. Well, any game on the STFM just wasn't as smooth as the arcades, or in truth even compared to the Amiga. I thought they were the 'past' and basically were no good for arcade games and that the STe was the future. So, the combination of the coding, watching demos and seeing the STe as the future paved the way for what would become H-Mec!


Tell us about H-Mec

From memory, the first 'application' I wrote was ProbeST which allowed you to 'rip' music and graphics from games. ProbeST was actually a great help in ripping music to use in the two H-Mec games! In terms of H-Mec, I think that technically it was quite impressive for its time. It couldn't run on the STFM, certainly not smoothly.

All the coding for H-Mec was in GFA Basic - a superb language at the time. It supported the Blitter chip which meant that I could use this chip to do full-screen smooth scrolling using about 20% (from memory) of the CPU. This meant that I could 'afford' 20% for digi-chip music and the rest for the rest of the game. To see that full-screen smooth scrolling with the music and the gameplay was quite something at the time.

So, you have a game that is smooth, great graphics, great music and quite playable. I sent it off to a few PD libraries to share. I thought it was a good game, but didn't expect much more than a few decent reviews. Just after I posted the disks, we all went on a family holiday for a couple of weeks.


What happened next?

When I came back, I had about 30 letters waiting for me telling me how they'd loved the game on the ST Action cover disk... but I never sent it to ST Action! I was puzzled! So I went to our local newsagents and sat on the shelves was ST Action. As you'll know, ST Action was 'the' ST gaming magazine which always had commercial game demos on the cover disk but for that month it was H-Mec.

For anyone to remember this game after all these years is touching. It's hard to explain but something I created as a 17-year-old is still available on the internet and someone is asking about it.

My game competed with commercial games! The review said something like 'this game was too good to review so we put it on the cover disk!'. This was an STe-only, PD game on their cover disk and I was blown away. I got loads of letters from all over Europe and the UK for weeks afterwards which was brilliant!


Forget Pac Man, the ghosts here are brutal and never give up until you are dead meat!


Where did the name H-Mec come from?

From memory, it came from the noise of a dog barking in the local park I used to walk past to get the bus!
I remember hearing a dog bark, and it sounded like "H-Mec" and it stuck with me for some reason. It didn't mean anything as such but I guess to me at the time it also sounded slightly modern too! :)


So what about your other games?

H-Mec 2 was just adding some other ideas on really — the pointed traps and graphics. I'd gone to University to study Computer Science and I just didn't have time anymore. I think it was just added a few things like the spikes, updating the graphics and (rather primitive) AI. I had too many other things to do then!

Radioactive Mineshafts was a quick idea — it certainly didn't take long to write. I didn't think it was good enough to release as a full game (see the falling block graphics). The penguin character and the jumping action was the start of a platform game — remember, I was hugely influenced by Manic Miner - which didn't happen.

Funnily enough, I always thought it was a better game than H-Mec and in recent years when I've played, I still feel the same. I just think it was on the same disk as H-Mec 2 and was pretty much overlooked. A few years ago, I did think about porting it to phones as I think it would work where you could tilt the phone to control the penguin!


Which game are you most proud of?

Without doubt, H-Mec. After I did my degree, I applied to do a Masters degree in Multimedia. I went for an interview with the Doctor who was running the course and his first question was "What is multimedia?". I spoke about graphics, music, animation, co-ordinating them as well as computer science aspects. Of course, it led on to H-Mec and the magazine reviews. He was impressed by the reviews and we spent a lot of time talking about it. H-Mec got me a place on the course to my Master's degree, and basically kick-started my professional career. 

A few years later, I remember thinking it was quite an achievement to have written the game. Especially when I think about how much I'd taught myself. Remember, there was nothing in schools to teach kids anything about programming. I taught myself from magazines and library books — there was no internet! To go from ZX Spectrum basic to understanding blitter chips, CPU cycles, ripping music and spending months working on a game was really hard work. The reviews it received were astonishing and I am really proud of that work I did.

My Dad was right about computers being the future and both myself and my brother work in IT. If my Dad hadn't sold the Beetle or used his backpay differently, my life would have been different. So, H-Mec definitely is the one I'm most proud of — technically impressive, decent gameplay, great reviews and helped me enormously!


I see this screen a lot but it always makes me smile thinking about H Mec's "grilling" lol


Inspirations?

Demos were definitely a huge inspiration. Whilst H-Mec isn't a demo it shares some of their traits — the big palette, smooth scrolling, the intro screen looks like a demo disk. H-Mec was a platform game to start with, but it was just easier to do mazes rather than something like Rainbow Islands!

I'd say, on the whole, I am still proud of the work I did and it definitely surpassed any expectations I had!

Also, quite a few people did donate which was very kind and generous. I had enough to pay for a few nights out which was great! I also had quite a few football pennants from around Europe sent to me as 'thank yous' as well which was lovely. I had all them up on my bedroom wall for many years after!


What was it like being a part of the ST scene?

I loved it! Whilst a lot of the Atari ST scene was done through posting disks, I was also a member of a very social ST Club in Oldham. This club was based at the Bowling Green in Hollinwood, eventually moving to the Lancaster Club in Failsworth and, every week, about 50+ people would turn up armed with STs, TVs and 4-way plug sockets! You'd have rooms, where each plug socket had a 4-way in and each socket on the 4-way had a 4-way in which had 4 ways in with all these ST's and TVs plugged in!

The club was very friendly and had a real mixed bag of members. People from 8 to 80, some were there just to play Kick Off 2 every week, others to swap games, others came to chat and others had connections to the Pompey Pirates and download games on a primitive internet. It was very, very social and was enormous fun. Just lots of people, of all ages and backgrounds, with an interest in the Atari ST coming together to chat and have a good time. Nowadays, it would all be on the internet and nowhere near as social. I do miss those days.

Through ProbeST and H-Mec, I got in touch with other people around Europe too - Germany and Finland in particular. The PD Libraries were great and I'd regularly swap disks with people who ran them. All this would be done on the internet today, but I think that it was more personal back then as you had to -write- to someone. Whether it was the club in Oldham or the letters to Europe I do feel privileged to have experienced it.


Jon and Sally?

In terms of the handles I had, I can't quite remember them, to be honest. I was obviously Jon, and Sally was our dog haha! I think the names were probably to make it look like lots of people had worked on the games but in reality, it was me coding and others did the music and graphics. Sadly, Sally the dog died although she did extremely well for an Irish Red Setter and lived till she was about 17.


Imagine yourself back in the day knowing people who had contact with the Pompey Pirates!


Did you make music with your STe?

Whilst I can play a bit on the keyboards and I can play the guitar, I never wrote music on the Atari. At University, I did do some sampled music for fun, but nothing decent. I was a big fan of "Count Zero" who I thought made the best Atari music. I loved his version of the end of Tubular Bells and it's no surprise it's used in everything I did!


Very creative!

At the time, I didn't consider making games to be particularly creative, but as I've got older I have a different perspective. In my teens, I thought being creative was about painting, films, playing music or drama, etc. Not programming. But when you write a game from scratch it's one of the most creative things you can do!

You start with a white screen and nothing happens. You then create a world — the visuals, the sound, what it looks like and the rules. And how each screen flows from one part of the game to another. It's a VERY creative process and when you play a good game, you can tell that someone has really thought about the whole experience.

I'd also written some other tools that kind of grew out of H-Mec as well. ProbeST, was well-received when it was pushed out to PD libraries. It was written by me and my friend Clover at the time. We had lots of ideas, but most didn't come to fruition. It's probably just like someone in a band — you start 500 songs and finish one!


Any unfinished games lurking in the attic?

No, but I started a football manager game and I thought if I could combine Championship Manager with the in-game graphics of "Football Manager" I used to play on the Spectrum, it would be a winner. Sadly, it never went anywhere but it did give me an appreciation of what's involved.

I honestly used to start a new game every week, but most of them didn't go far. Writing a game from end-to-end takes effort and determination and I fully respect anyone who's actually done it. It probably took the best part of a year from start to finish to do H-Mec. Obviously, I wasn't working on it all the time, but it's a real effort to make games.

As I've said, the Spectrum was an influence on me and a game that we loved was "Lords of Midnight" and the sequel "Doomdark's Revenge". I must have started 100 versions of these on the Atari but again, nothing came of it. As soon as you try to make a copy of a game, you really get to see what absolute geniuses people are.


This didn't make it to the top of Jon's list, but I thought this was a darn excellent 'hopper'


What happened after your STe days?

I went to University in 1993 and I didn't have the time anymore to write games. I moved away from home, I stopped going to the club and the letters became harder to keep up with. Still, I used my Atari to write code and essays for a couple of years until I had to get a PC - which again, my parents got for me. It had an astonishing 8MB DX processor (a good one at the time) and a hard drive.

However, compared to the Atari it was such a big, clunky, noisy, ugly machine that couldn't do a lot and the graphics and sound were TERRIBLE. Windows wasn't a patch on the GEM Desktop, but it felt like I had to move. I was learning languages like Pascal, Smalltalk, Assembly and Ada which weren't available on the ST. I was genuinely amazed that Windows was seen as the future at the time, as it was truly awful not to mention - unreliable and slow. The languages just didn't have the power of GFA Basic either!

However, in recent years as Windows improved and emulators appeared I started looking back at the games on Hatari. It really is great to go back and play the games I remember as a kid! Some haven't aged too well but I still get the buzz seeing the old classic games. However, I could never quite get H-Mec to work and maybe, part of me didn't want to be embarrassed by what a 17 year 'me' made!

But part of me wanted to see it and I saw your YouTube video. It's a peculiar feeling though. Remember, this is me in my mid-forties looking back at a game I wrote as a 17-year-old so you will be looking at yourself back in time. When I look at it, I am quite proud although I can see that 16/17/18-year-old boy in there. I can still see 'me' in the game and what I was thinking. I do think 'he/me' was a very good programmer - I'd hire him today!


What are you doing today?

Nowadays, I'm a professional programmer who pays the bills writing web applications and business software. I haven't written games for many years now, but I feel incredibly lucky to work as a programmer.

If you'd had asked me what I wanted to be as a 10-year-old, other than a footballer, I would have loved to have been a computer programmer. I think if you asked my parents, I bet they'd agree that selling that old VW Beetle was one of the best decisions they made!


This is a photo from around 1991 of Jon and his mate "Booze" playing Kick Off 2.


And Finally...

It's funny really, but when you got in touch it brought back a LOT of memories. I could have written a book! As I said, I was touched that you got in contact and it's quite something to think that something I did nearly 30 years ago is still available on the internet. I can absolutely guarantee that most people won't be able to say that! The fact you and others are preserving that slice of late 80s, early 90s culture should be applauded.

I've been very lucky in my life that my parents supported me and my brother, selling the family car, getting us the Spectrum and later the ST and the life it's given us. I feel very lucky to have been part of a wonderful scene in the late 80s/early 90s and met some fantastic people. I genuinely feel very honoured that you asked to do this interview and I send a very heartfelt "thank you" for bring back to many wonderful memories!


This interview was a pleasure and Jon is a great bloke. Fancy reading more Atari ST interviews?

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Ballerburg

There's nothing better than blasting cannonballs at enemy kingdoms after a soul-crushing day in work. Well, today was that day, and I needed a few games of artillery mayhem in Ballerburg!! This is one of my favourite Atari ST games and I first played it long before I could afford a monitor! In fact, this isn't the first time I've featured it so click here for more junk. Any players out there? Let me know in the comments below...

* The download is available on Eckhard Kruse's website. Along with a rather potty horror-demo!!
* Try MonoPack if you don't have a mono monitor, it's great and can even use the Blitter.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Intro by The Conceptors

Sometimes I need a break from the norm... So, over the last few days, I've been having a 'fumble' through my entire collection of Menu Disks. Whilst I've got the usual run of the mill stuff like Automation, Pompey Pirates, etc... I also found a few disks which I'd never seen before. Or possibly my old-man-memory had just forgotten?

Anyhow, here's the menu from one such disk - Menu #01 by The Conceptors. I genuinely haven't heard of this group but I must admit, this is one sexy intro using overscan and the music is outstanding. Oddly, I never hit a key to play any of the games. Which is peculiar for a guy running an Atari ST gaming website lol

YouTube is nice but nothing beats seeing this on a real Atari ST... [Demozoo download]

Credits:
7an - Music
Demon - Code, Graphics (logo)
Slime - Graphics (Font)

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Tecnoball


Brick Buster?

Tecnoball Z was published in 1991 by TLK Game and is a Breakout conversion developed by Pierre Denis. Weirdly, I'd never heard of this game until a good friend happened to mention it a few weeks ago (thanks Paul). Sadly, I have no idea whether it was ever officially released over here in the UK. Does anyone know?

Okay, we all love a quick blast of Breakout/Arkanoid now and then; olde classics which have stood the test of time and have many fans. I would say Arkanoid is the most well-known unless you're an ST guy, then it's Bolo. But, I'm always open to any alternative, especially when it's an Atari ST game I have never played before!!


Here, I held onto the ball whilst blasting the bricks with a weird laser weapon. Sweet!!


It's 1976 all over again?

The first thing that struck me was the use of overscan for a larger display but the brick-busting gameplay remains much the same. Each screen has a different collection of blocks that must be cleared using your bat and ball and, with each hit, points are earned with a chance of spawning cash, power-ups and sometimes enemies.

The mouse controls are great; precise and accurate just as you would hope. However, it isn't long until you realise that the physics are 'different' when the ball doesn't react as expected. Manipulating strikes using the different parts of the bat doesn't work the same and might force the ball to bounce in a different direction! That means it's tough trying to finish a level when only a few blocks remain! But, there's a power-up in the shop to help with that...

Yep, a shop pops-up after each level and offers goodies like extra lives, a bigger bat, weaponry and more. Heck, it's even possible to install extra bats on the remaining three sides of your screen! I like surprises like this plus, that silly gameplay reminded me of the chaos I suffered in Wacko Software's Video Games I. Innovation like this keeps the player interested which is how I managed to clear several levels and defeated a couple of bosses!


Check out my power-up pads on all 4-sides of the play area. It's mental!

Over-what?

Graphically, I like Tecnoball as it's quite futuristic in style and different from the original our Dads used to play! Overscan has been used to great effect and provides a better experience, more arcade-like perhaps? The use of colour is good and everything feels smooth but I thought the blocks themselves lacked a bit of pizzazz?

I won't mention that familar guy in the status panel who freaks me out. Darn it, I just did...

Sampled sound effects are pretty good for the 'dinks' but there is no in-game chipmusic so it's almost as quiet as the original. Even worse, there's no theme tune for the title screen which I found very disappointing.


This is the first boss screen and oddly, it features no blocks!


The CryptO'pinion?

This is a fun take on the original but the physics are quite peculiar. Some might hate it but, whatever your opinion, this could still create a silly "bug"? At one stage, the ball hit an enemy near the top of the screen that ricochets it sideways. So it began bouncing from left-to-right, in a perfectly straight line, which continued for about 30 seconds!! Luckily, it hit a wandering enemy which changed its trajectory!! Not very good, I'm sure you'll agree?

Having said that, this is still a good game and I enjoyed ploughing through the levels. The addition of a shop works well and that provides a great variety of extra features that help to improve the game massively. Give it and try and see how it compares to your favourite version of Breakout? Let me know in the comments below.

Download the floppy from Stonish on Cobra #27 menu disc.


Gotta love the artwork and even this Game Over screen is in overscan.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Athanor II The Legend Of The Birdmen


What? Another brand new game?

Somebody once told me that the Atari ST died back in the 90s yet here we are (again) with another new game! Okay, raising the cash to buy this may have taken me a little longer than I originally planned but I have finally received what is the latest Atari ST adventure - Athanor II The Legend Of The Birdmen by Safar Games.

Credits
Design and Programing - Eric Safar
Graphics - Vincent Jambut, François Gutherz, Angel Bautista
Musician - Mathieu Stempell [DMA-SC]


The hands of Eric and his gleamingly clean Atari ST. I should dust mine more...


What is it?

Athanor II is a point & click adventure sequel to the original 8-Bit game. Our adventure continues on through four different worlds with new interactive characters and an abundance of puzzles. All Atari computers are supported with 1MB+ Ram and the Atari STe will use its extra colours, Blitter Chip and the DMA for clean audio sounds. Excitingly, this is the second title of what will eventually be a trilogy - something else to look forward to!!

I believe the elusive TT and Falcon are also supported but, that's something I'm unable to test unless someone fancies donating their hardware to AtariCrypt? Yeah, I thought so... O_o

Design and programming were done using GFA Basic and Devpac by Eric Safar (yes, he of Ranx!!) who was also interviewed a couple of years ago by Atari Legend. I must say, this is a quality product and I feel Eric has gone the extra mile with a product that looks and feels great. The box is strong and well designed plus comes with a bunch of goodies too. One of the best purchases I've ever made and something I'm very eager to play.


Look at all the goodies that come inside the box. I absolutely love this!


The CryptO'pinion?

Okay, I'll say it again just to get this point across, this is one of the best purchases I have ever made. Athanor 2 is a quality product. The box art is fantastic and there are many trinkets inside along with the disks and manual. It's fun to open up a box to see such goodies, something kids today miss out on with their online downloads...

I genuinely cannot wait to begin this adventure and I'm excited to see what wonders lay ahead. I only hope the family gives me enough quiet time to play it properly (I can but hope). Let me know, in the comments below, if any of you have bought and are playing Athanor II. I'd love to hear about your progress and thoughts on the game.

Athanor II - The Legend Of The Birdmen can be purchased using Eric's website.