Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Day 66 - en route

One of my favourite game genres is the racing game.  I love flogging the life out of a car (or bike, truck, whatever) engine, roaring down highways or around tracks at the highest speeds possible, all the while fending off the attentions of evil opponents who will stop at nothing to leave me eating their dust, or worse, the asphalt.

Unfortunately, they were quite difficult games to pull off effectively on the 8-bits.  That didn't mean there wasn't a multitude of choice, and even when they weren't great, I would often play them for hours on end.  What can I say?  I needed my speed fix.

Time? You'd think they'd have had time to clean the track before we raced on it!
What our favourite computers lacked in power when attempting to convert arcade racing giants, though, they made up for through the programmers' imagination and creativity.  And so for every failed or disappointing 3D arcade racer, you could find enjoyable and playable original racers or stunning overhead-view 2D games.  And they weren't all "racers", either... not all games where you drive a vehicle take place against the clock.

Some arcade conversions were successful, though.  On the Commodore 64, Buggy Boy is renowned as one of the best games available.  For the Spectrum, Chase HQ is generally regarded as being among the cream of the racing crop.  It's hard to argue... I played Buggy Boy to death in the day, and I've heard many a similar testimony regarding Speccy Chase HQ.

Erm... can you get my driving gloves out of the glove compartment, please?
What of the original games, though?  Most were based on arcade games, as was the way back then.  It was hard to be truly original with a racing or driving game.  The Kikstart games managed it, though, and managed to be fun, challenging and maddeningly addictive.  The urge to shave milliseconds from your best times pulled you back time after time, even if you did tend to end up gnashing your teeth with frustration.  Those games were so good that they live on today in spirit, through the Trials series.

Then there was Turbo Esprit on the Spectrum.  I must emphasise "on the Spectrum" here... the difference between Spectrum and C64 versions seems to have been like night and day, with possibly the largest ratings disparity I've ever seen in reviews... the ZX version receiving an impressive 88% in Crash magazine, with ZZAP! 64 awarding the Commodore version just 9%. With its original viewpoint and plot-driven gameplay, it made for a highly-satisfying alternative to the usual on-wheels fare.

It's burning like a flame, now nothing seems the same, I've lost control of mind and body...
From successful arcade ports like Turbo Out Run and Power Drift, to amazing originals like Stunt Car Racer and Turbo Charge, to those inspired by the arcades like BMX Simulator and Speed King, to other types of driving game like Deathchase and The Fury, our need for speed was very well catered for.  And I'll be writing about them all, and hopefully talking to their authors.

And with that, I'm going to leave you with this: a Commodore 64 game called Stock Car.  A lot like Super Sprint, it was a game you could customise almost to no end, and my mate Graeme and I played it for ages.  Trying it again now, I'm not quite sure why... it's not as much fun as I remember.  It must have been for that remarkable end sequence...

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Day 64 - if a picture paints a thousand words, here's 64,000 for you

I'm full of cold, and I couldn't get my head into writing mode.  So I did something else.  I made a picture, out of title and loading screens from games that I intend to write about, and that (hopefully) I will have comments on from their authors.  I won't get comments from all of them, of course, but some I have already, and some are incoming.  It's going well so far.

In the meantime, have a look at this picture.  I think it's pretty exciting.

Or at least, it was exciting before Blogger auto-reduced it to half its size.  Damn.  Anyway, I can't wait to write every single one of these up, and more besides.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Day 63 - Olympic fever?

I was all set for a bit of multi-tasking last night (Day 62).  I had the opening ceremony of the Olympics on, and I was going to watch it but play some 8-bit multi-event games at the same time and write about them.  But as the evening, and the ceremony, went on (and on, and on...), I started to feel more tired, and my head felt cloudy, and eventually the realisation hit me that I'd caught the cold which has plagued my family for the last three weeks.


I thought I'd got away with it.  I've managed to avoid their colds and illnesses for the last three years, so I suppose it was inevitable that I'd get hammered eventually.  And this one is a real doozy.  Sore throat; cough; streaming nose and eyes... yep, it's a corker.

The timing is rubbish, too.  There are promotion opportunities at work for the first time in ages, and I need to be working on my CV so that I can apply.  This weekend would have been a good time for that, but now I'm not so sure.  I feel rubbish now, so it'll only get worse as the evening rolls on.  Hopefully I'll break its back tonight and be in better fettle tomorrow.

I expect you can guess what tomorrow's topic will be related to.  Hopefully I can do it justice, but for now I'm off for a cuppa... it's the most medicinal thing I've got in the house!

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Day 61 - when there's no answer.

I got a great e-mail this morning, with lots of cracking quotes and answers to questions.  I can write about a few more games now, and work in the words of a God to come up with some completed pages (well, completed in the sense that they'll be ready for the time when I make them "professional").

A thought has struck me, though.  I've sent out e-mails to a couple of people that I'd like to include, and haven't received replies.  What do I do in those cases?  Do I write about their games regardless, and include them without quotes?  Or do I exclude them from the book?

My gut instinct is to write about them regardless.  I'd love to have their blessings (and their quotes!), but I'm resigned to the fact that some people simply won't want to take part.  I suppose that unless they expressly forbid me from talking about their games then it will be OK to do so, but it's something to think about, I suppose.

But for now, I'll concentrate on the positives, of which there are many.  From the answers I've received so far, I can write flly about twenty-seven games, and also add pages about the individuals that wrote them (or were connected with them).  That's pretty good to be going on with.  And with more answers promised and other people definitely interested in taking part, I think it's fair to say that we're still moving forward at a decent pace here.

I'm not resting on my laurels, though.  I'm constantly evaluating what I've got, and who I want.  And I keep thinking of new ideas about presentation... something that's going to be very important in months to come.  I'm confident that this is going to be really good when it's finished.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Day 60 - round and round

I've just sent off another e-mail of questions to a willing participant.  How willing they will remain after they get the e-mail is another thing.  I try to keep them short as I don't like to take too much of anyone's time, but it's really difficult to cover a career with one or two questions, and even if I only ask one question per game, it soon mounts up.

So, my next tasks are; formulate follow-up e-mails to some of the replies I've received, and send out some new e-mails to potential participants.  I've had indications that people are more than willing to participate, which is great, so they're next on the list.

I know it seems like I'm going round in circles, which is probably because I am.  Such is the nature of a project like this.  You have a round of searching for people, and then a round of asking if they'd like to contribute.  Then, for the ones that accept, you have to formulate your e-mail full of questions.  I have a number of stock questions, and then I have to tailor the rest of the questions individually.

Once they've gone, there's the waiting.  That's when I tend to play that person's games, taking screenshots and writing notes.  And when the answers arrive, I piece everything together in a rough format, ready for the day when I can put them together more professionally.

Are you impressed with how organised I sound?  It's not quite as smooth as that, I must admit, but I'm a little bit surprised at myself.  If I was this organised at my day job, I'd probably be a lot better off!

It's all good fun, though, and I'm enjoying the whole process.  Once I've got about ten sets of replies I'm going to start patching things together a bit more, to see how it might look.  That's also when I'll start to think about naming names... no point in jumping the gun there!

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Day 59 - I want you to tell all your friends about me.

I had a bad stomach yesterday, so I missed a day.  It's bound to happen occasionally... I think I did pretty well to make 57 days in a row!  But rest assured, missing days will not be a regular occurrence, so keep following and promoting in places of interest if you like what I'm doing.

I've been on a bit of a Batman kick today.  It's nothing to do with The Dark Knight Rises, and instead is everything to do with the questions I've been preparing for someone.  And also because the games are really good!

I'm NOT passing door!  Let me in!
I've played a lot of the Batman games over time... the Spectrum's original isometric 3D game; Batman: The Caped Crusader; Batman: The Movie; and up to the more recent Arkham Asylum (haven't played Arkham City yet, though).  It seems as though it's impossible to make a bad game based on Batman!

He's a great character for games, though.  You want fighting?  You've got fighting.  You want vehicles?  You've got vehicles.  You want gadgets?  You've got gadgets!  You can even throw in a bit of detective work to pad it out or add to the storyline.  Really, if you were to design a games character from scratch, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with one that's better than Batman.

I must admit that my favourite Batman game back in the day was the Amiga version of Batman: The Movie, for one particular reason: its stunning Batmobile level.

Where does he get those wonderful toys?
It's still great fun today.  Like a sort of superhero version of Chase HQ, it sees you pelting along through the streets of Gotham City at breathtaking speed.  Of course, with Gotham being an American city, it's laid out in blocks, which means that there's no way of taking corners at any sort of speed.  This would make any kind of pursuit somewhat pointless.

Luckily, the Batmobile is equipped with a Batrope which you can fling at traffic light poles.  If your aim is true, it connects with a satisfying "ding" and propels the Batmobile around the corner and into the adjoining street!  It's a fantastic game mechanic which was thrilling back in 1989 and still brings a big smile to the face today.

The rest of the game is pretty great, too.  It's always good to be Bat... you should fire up Batman: The Movie at your earliest opportunity.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Day 57 - variety is the spice of life

I love having a trawl through the different GameBase directories, looking for something I might have forgotten about in my quest to document our Eighties gaming Gods.  Today, I was looking for something with a bit of variety, something that would tie in loosely with the number 57 (57 varieties - geddit?), when I came across possibly the ultimate 8-bit multi-mini-game extravaganza - Lazy Jones.

It's amazing what you find out when you're doing research.  All this time, from 1985 until now, I thought that David Whittaker was "merely" a musician/programmer of computer music.  Now I find out that he wrote some computer games, too... and that one of them was Lazy Jones.

If I want to get anywhere in this game, I'm going to need some elevator action...
Naturally, he wrote the music for the game, too... and there's a lot of it!  Twenty-one tunes in all, although they're more like jingles than tunes in a lot of cases (and some of them may sound a bit familiar...).  Still, they make for a good soundtrack, and in one case, a good hit single!  One of the tunes was remixed by an outfit called Kernkraft 400, and this tune, called Zombie Nation, is now globally renowned.  See, we always knew SID music was the best!

That Lazy Jones is such a H.E.R.O.
Lazy Jones was a novel little idea, which plonked you into the shoes of a lazy janitor who just couldn't be bothered to do his job.  Instead, he went into the different rooms of the hotel where he was caretaker, and frittered his day away playing video games.  Sounds like my kind of guy!

There were fourteen games to play, all based on other well-known games of the time.  Some of them were great fun, others... well, they went on a bit.  But as a package, it made for a pretty good time.  I wonder what I'd use for a screenshot if it ends up in the book?

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Day 56 - e-Bay-gum - that's a Shock

Remember my plans, earlier in the piece?  Where I said I was going to sell some stuff on eBay to raise the money to buy some Adobe software for this book?  It was a good plan... until I got hit with hundreds of pounds' worth of unexpected (non-book related) expenses this month.  Now I just have to sell that stuff to stay afloat!  Bah.

Oh well, if anyone's interested in any gaming-related tat, I'll have it up on eBay by tomorrow night, having spent most of my free time day taking pictures for that purpose.  There'll even be other assorted stuff too.  Bah, again.

All is not lost, though.  I said I wouldn't need a crowdfunding website until much nearer the end date.  That remains true... I need to pull together as much content as possible before I start to format it.  But that prospect became much easier earlier in the week, with the announcement that Kickstarter will open in the UK this autumn.

I'm selling this.  Yes, really.
I know it's maligned in some quarters, but for genuine projects it's a great way to help to get them off the ground.  And if the time should ever come where I need to raise money for printing, software or trips around the country for interviews (hopefully not, for that one!), then Kickstarter is the most high-profile and successful of these websites.  Having it available for UK residents can only be a good thing for anyone working independently on a creative project, I think.

I fancied playing something a bit obscure today, so I trawled the depths of my mind for something really weird.  And what I came up with was Shockway Rider.

I remember buying this from the second-hand bookshop on the market, for four pounds.  I knew it had been pretty well reviewed, and in those days it was commonplace that I'd pop in there on a weekend and see what new games had been traded in.  Yes folks, the pre-owned games market has been thriving for more than twenty-five years.

Bradley Wiggins was starting to rue that puncture.
It was pretty much impossible to know what to expect from the game, but it turned out to be as simple as it looked.  You had to ride along moving pathways to get to your destination, but this was made difficult by gangs of muggers who would leap at you at every opportunity.  To defend yourself, you could hop off the pathway and pick up piles of bricks, which you could throw at the muggers.  A fast-moving brick can stop anything in its tracks.

It's completely mad and a lot of fun, if a bit on the repetitive side.  There's a really nice Rob Hubbard tune, too, on the C64 version.  It was published by Faster Than Light, who also released the vertically-scrolling shooter Lightforce.  Unfortunately, I've got no idea who programmed those games!  I know who was responsible for the Speccy versions, and they're already on my list of "must-haves".  But sadly, the C64 versions may be forever shrouded in anonymity...

Friday, 20 July 2012

Day 55 - toddler trouble

I'd hoped to have more time to work on things today, but my two-year-old was playing up a bit, so it was child care for me.  I don't know what was wrong with him, he just wasn't very happy, and although he was screaming at times, it wasn't quite a terrible twos tantrum.  Still, it was a bit wearing, but it did provide the inspiration for the game I would play and gather screenshots for... the only acceptable choice for today was Jack the Nipper.

Published by Gremlin Graphics, the game was released first on the Spectrum courtesy of a team which included Greg and John Holmes and then converted to other formats by Greg, Pete Harrap, Jason Perkins and Mark Rogers.  Don't worry, they're all on my list of potential interview candidates.

Christ, no wonder the kid won't sleep, there's a ghost in his room!
The game sees you placed in the pants of an infant miscreant, and the object of the game iss, well, to cause trouble!  There are plenty of objects scattered around town to help you do this, and you can even combine some to even greater effect.  Beware, though... annoy the townsfolk too much, and Jack will find himself on the receiving end of an almighty botty-spanking...

It's a fun little game.  Some aspects of it remind me of the Magic Knight games, but it most definitely has its own character.  If you were never a fan of games where you have to pick up objects and use them in the right places, then Jack the Nipper would not have been for you.  But it's definitely a memorable title in 8-bit gaming history.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Day 54 - encouragement through enthusiasm

Another long, tough work day today, meaning I haven't really had much time for anything else.  I don't think I care much for this day job thing, it just gets in the way of what you really want to do!

Although I haven't had the chance to do much over the last couple of days, though, I have been keeping in touch with goings-on around this book, looking at reactions and so on.  And I've been encouraged by the opinions that have been shared.  The number of comments have been picking up on the blog, and you can't believe how encouraging that is... when you go days without a single comment, it does tend to put you into a bit of a funk, wondering whether you're doing all this for nothing.

I've had positive comments on a number of message boards, and seeing as they are a large part of the target audience, that is also a bit of a boost.  Some people have even been in touch offering advice and constructive criticism, which is much appreciated.  All of these things are taken on board, although it seems as though I'm more or less on the right track.

Finally, I've had positive comments from people that I would want to talk to for this book.  Some of them are probably people that have been or would be overlooked by typical projects of this type... they're not headline-grabbing enough, for whatever reason.  But their contributions are still valued and worthy of inclusion, and I think that's appreciated by them.

This coming weekend will see me sending out another batch of "invitations", in the hope of adding some more names to this thing.  I'll also be hoping to receive a few replies, although they will come when they come, and I refuse to get pushy about it.  It'll be nice to get up to double figures with my confirmed participants... somewhere around that point, I'll put names up on the front page and you can all see just where we're at...

Day 53 - this number doesn't go

I've had to put a lot of hours in at work this week, meaning that I haven't been able to do much here or even get any questions together (and I do need to get some questions together for someone!).  So, at times I've just been making stuff up based on which number today is.  Fifty shades of Gray worked well... it may have been cynical, but it's generating traffic so I don't care.

I tried to think of something to go with 53, and the only thing I came up with was... Herbie.  That's what number Herbie the car used.  But you know what?  There aren't any Herbie games!  Not on the C64 or Spectrum, anyway.  You'd think someone would have snapped up that licence and cobbled together some kind of BMX Trials game, but with a Herbie sprite.  The closest you can get is Herbert's Dummy Run, which isn't exactly the same.

Then I thought of an even more tenuous link... Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo... gambling games! But then I remembered, they're nearly all rubbish.  They were mostly dodgy fruit machine simulators or strip poker efforts.  I suppose that for some, the programmers of the strip poker games may have been Gods... but I'm not sure if they really qualify nowadays.

Anyway, I've used all that as an excuse to get a post out for the day, when I haven't done anything at all on the book.  Sorry about that.  I'll try and make Day 54 better.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Day 52 - words on a page

Well, I had two e-books from Gordon Houghton to give away, and I had two entries.  Everybody wins!  So, Steve Johansson and dai_bonehead... if you're reading, e-mail me at the address at the side of this page, and I'll e-mail you your ebook (Steve wins Another World and dai wins Game Boy).  Congratulations, and thanks for your support.  Enjoy the books, and let me know what you think!

It would have been more fun if there had been more interest... oh well, if you missed out, check out Gordon's books on Smashwords.  He's a good bloke and a fine wordsmith, as you will know if you read ZZAP! 64.  I recommend starting at the beginning with The Dinner Party or maybe The Apprentice.  Read!  It's good for you!

Bah.  At least I've got some awesome Rob Hubbard music to listen to.
Back in the day, there were games that involved a lot of reading, too... text adventures.  Now, I struggled with text adventures, I have to be honest.  They required a specific type of logic, one that my brain doesn't seem to reason with at all well.  That doesn't mean I didn't try a few... Mastertronic's Kentilla and Melbourne House's The Hobbit were two that I particularly remember.

Of course, the Grand Masters of the text adventure were Infocom.  I didn't have a disk drive for years, so I never tried any of their games at the time.  Which makes writing about them a bit difficult.  On the other hand, as they were based in America, I don't have to!  But we had our own giants of the adventure world here in the UK, and they were Level 9 Computing.

Level 9 released a decent amount of accessible adventure games, which originally featured reasonably simplistic graphics, but this meant that many of their games could be released on cassette.  I'm sure that several of you, much like me, received a Commodore 64 pack at Christmas which contained a cassette version of their Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 game.  I actually gave that one a fair crack; having read the book, I thought I might stand a chance of finishing it, or at least copping off with Pandora.  I did neither.

I would have had a picture of The Pawn here, but I couldn't get it to work.
Later, there came a company called Magnetic Scrolls, who released more ambitious titles which intended to take on Infocom at their own game and featured some stunning graphics.  Their games were generally regarded as superior to Level 9's but there were a lot fewer of them.  Both companies filled a niche in the UK market quite nicely.

I've been mulling over whether or not to include any of these games or their programmers... but why not?  Just because they weren't my Gods, doesn't mean they weren't Gods for many people out there.  And because of that, and the specialist nature of their work, they're deserving of a space, don't you agree?

Day 51 - Area 51

I'm playing a lot of games in the course of writing this book... for research purposes, naturally... and as a result of this gamesplaying, I have calculated that if you took all the aliens and UFOs from all the games on the Spectrum and Commodore 64, then Area 51 would need to be the size of the whole of North America, not just that *censored - classified* in Nevada.

Right from the days of Space Invaders in the arcades, we humans have been fascinated by the idea of aliens and have celebrated them in video games... by blowing them all to smithereens.  That's pretty much how it goes every time. How many games can you think of where we join forces with aliens for the good of the universe?

Hey, this has got UFOs in it, I could write about this!
There are games that foster interstellar relations, though.  Psi-5 Trading Company, for instance,  saw you pick from a multitude of races and species when making up the crew of your ship.  Or it was meant to... I'm sure many games ended up like this comic strip from the rather splendid Blow the Cartridge.  You really should check out that site in its entirety, by the way.

For no particular reason, then, I started looking for my favourite games with aliens in them, to see if I might pick up some more names of people to go bothering with questions.  A lot of them, though, seem to have been written by Americans and are therefore ineligible.  Zak McKraken and the Alien Mindbenders... Project Firestart... Moonwalker... all games featuring aliens that I can't really include.

But there are plenty that originated on these shores, and I'll be hunting out some of the finest of them for inclusion in this book.  What were your favourite alien-related games?

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Day 50 - shades of Gray

I must admit that today's title is somewhat calculated in an attempt to bring in more traffic.  I do wonder, though, just what frustrated housewives will think if they accidentally click through to here.  It could have its advantages... they might despondently turn their computers over to their other halves, knowing that this might appeal more to them.

These shades of Gray, though, are musical.  Yes, I'm back on a music kick, and in the world of computer music in the Eighties there were two Grays that mattered... Fred and Matt.

Fred Gray was the most prolific of the two, but quantity didn't mean a sacrifice in quality.  Indeed, he wrote some very memorable tunes for some very memorable games.  Nodes of Yesod, Mission AD and Hysteria are just three that stick in the memory.  But for me, the game and music that I remember most prominently is Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

Where does it say "Press Fire To Start", eh?  Where?
In all my thirty-plus years of playing games, very few have struck me the way that Frankie Goes To Hollywood did.  It was just so different from anything else I'd ever seen or played.  In fact, I almost didn't play it... I thought it was broken and wouldn't load when I sat staring at what I thought was a loading screen; eventually, and for no particular reason, I pressed the fire button and the game started!

Once you began, things were abstract and unique right from the off, with your character standing in a mundane-looking street.  Even when you started wandering into the houses to explore, it all looked very run-of-the-mill.  But these houses hid a lot of secrets and surprises, and as you started digging in, it became evident that this was a game like no other.

Nice wallpaper.  No, really.
Helping the atmosphere to no end was Fred Gray's music, which featured stunning renditions of FGTH songs.  I was never a Frankie fan... screaming guitars were more my bag, baby.  But I've always loved instrumental music, and these tunes in this form added so much atmosphere to the game.  I never did complete it (I managed 97%), but I always really enjoyed playing it.  I'd love to get hold of Denton Designs to ask them about this and their other games, but they only ever seem to be credited as Denton Designs and as such are quite elusive!

Matt Gray may have less tunes to his name, but they're no less memorable.  His work was a feature of a number of System 3's games, and although Tusker and Vendetta are very well-regarded, I'm sure it's Last Ninja 2 that most people still tend to remember.  But for me, Matt Gray's best work came on another game... Driller.

I distinctly remember reading the reviews of Driller and thinking it looked amazing, but being worried that it would move like a slideshow.  My poor C64 usually struggled with wireframe vector graphics, never mind filled 3D.  But it sounded like such an intriguing game, I just had to play it.

That's an impressive sight. Not just "Cleared", but 100% achieved, too.
I was so pleased that I did.  It gripped me in a way that few other games had, and that was helped considerably by the stunning music.  It was tremendously atmospheric, and as you stood on the surface of the faraway moon with the sound of the wind whistling around at the start of the tune, you really did feel as though you were part of the game.  The slow-moving graphics were amazing for the time, and I convinced myself that if I were on that moon in a drilling rig, then I'd actually move that slowly anyway.

Again, I didn't complete Driller, but it was a game that really sucked me in as I endeavoured to find all of Mistral's secrets.  And honestly, I feel compelled to give it another try now.  I don't think I'd regret it.

So, two shades of Commodore Gray have filled today's post.  They'd be worthy additions to any music section this book might have, and you can consider them targets if you're taking notes.

Day 49 - fire!

No, my house hasn't burned down.  No, I'm not talking about Nintendo's banned Game & Watch.  And no, I'm not blindfolded and tied to a stake, about to meet a bullet-filled demise.

Today has been one of those days where I've been at a bit of a loose end.  I'm concocting some questions for one of my participants, but other than that, there's not much to be getting on with while I wait for answers.  So what I've been doing is looking for e-mail addresses and "firing" out requests.

It's hard to write much about that and make it sound interesting.  But it's one of the major parts of the task, because if I don't get anybody interested in contributing, then you're stuck with words from me... and let's be honest, when it comes to games in the Eighties, I'm just a third party.

Look, it couldn't have been me.  E-mail hasn't even been invented yet!
I look for new contact details pretty often, and it's always good to find somebody that I hadn't got hold of.  There can be a let down if I send an e-mail and it's returned because of a dead address or it doesn't get a reply... hopefully in those cases that doesn't mean those people aren't interested; it might be that the e-mail address is just not checked very often.  That's what I keep telling myself, anyway!

So, I'm plugging away in the hopes of continuously increasing the number of names connected with the project.  One plus is that I'm playing a lot of great games as research, in case they do get back to me, so I can't grumble too much!

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Day 48 - an Ocean of gaming goodness

Not much to this post (sorry!), but I would like to draw your attention to a new Ocean website set up by one of their former employees, Mark R. Jones.

Ocean was a massive name in the games industry in the period I'm writing about, and naturally I'd like to speak to a fair number of their ex-employees (and indeed, have already done so!).  Mark was one of the graphic artists, creating loading screens, title screens and in-game graphics for a fair number of Spectrum games, and more besides.  As such, he's well qualified to run such a website.  Not only that, he has access to some amazing resources from the day, which he's now sharing with the world!

One of the latest features to go up on the site looks at the development of the Ocean classic, Platoon.  It features design notes and storyboards, and is a fascinating insight into the development of a game.  Having loved the Commodore 64 version of the game, I can say that I feel the end product surpassed the vision!

You can find the new site here: Ocean Software Ltd.  It's well worth saving in your favourites, as there are likely to be regular updates.  I can't wait to see them!  There's also a Facebook page you can "Like": Facebook/Ocean Software Ltd.  Check it out, and like my page while you're there!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Day 47 - paying tribute to the minor Gods

One thing that strikes me about what I'm doing is that I'll get the chance to do what few books, if any, have done in the past.  That is, to draw attention to those that maybe aren't deemed worthy or headline-grabbing enough.  I don't think that's fair, so I'll be doing my best to give them a share of credit where it's due.

For me, if someone wrote a game that I really loved, they're one of my Gods.  For instance, John D. Ferrari (now sadly deceased) wrote Mastertronic budget game The Human Race.  I can't even remember seeing a review of it in any magazines.  But I loved that game when I bought it, and I still love it now.  OK, the fact it contained five amazing Rob Hubbard tunes helped.  But it remains a fond memory of mine, which makes JD Ferrari one of my Gods.

Proof that apes are more intelligent than man?
I couldn't negotiate that moving pathway through molten lava!
Another example for some might be Julian G. Todd.  His isn't a name that springs to mind as one of the giants of the software industry... in fact, he only wrote one game on the Spectrum.  But that game was Fat Worm Blows A Sparky, which was long thought of as being one of the best games on the Spectrum by many.

So you see what I'm getting at here.  I've got a decent list of names of people that you might not expect to see in a publication such as this, and I'll be aiming to include them if it's at all possible.  But who are your minor Gods, the unsung heroes of the past that you would love to see in my book?

Day 46 - Follin two pieces

I've been on a bit of a 64 music kick lately (sorry, Speccy fans - I know the 128K had some great tunes too!), so in that vein I've been looking at another musician - Tim Follin.

Like Jeroen Tel, he wrote a number of highly-thought of tunes and, also like Jeroen Tel, he produced his work toward the back end of the C64's commercial life.  Their appearances were very timely, as by now the Commodore's big notes in the music field had pretty much moved on to other things.  We were thankful that such talents were available to fill the void!

One of Tim's most talked about pieces was the title music for Bionic Commando.  It was raved about in ZZAP! 64, but I remember when my mate bought the game... I went to his house, he loaded it up, and I sat there in anticipation, waiting for this amazing tune to strike up, only for it to sound like a small child was banging biscuit tins with a fork and a wooden spoon.  I didn't get it.

Hmmm.  Not sure if I wanna go up there with that fat lad running around.
Nonetheless, it was a more interesting sound than many attempted to achieve.  I don't think I really appreciated it until I heard the opening drums to Rush's One Little Victory when I was playing Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2.  They're totally different styles of tune, but both very reliant on the drumming sound.

Another favourite was another game I played for hours... LED Storm.  For some reason, people thought that was a strange title for the game, although I never questioned it; it seemed perfectly OK to me.  The title, though, was changed for the UK release... its original name was Mad Gear.  Given what was going on in Manchester at the time, I can certainly see why there was a need for a change!

In the future, cars will jump huge distances but be crippled by frogs.
Again, my friend had the game... but on the Amiga, this time.  I loved playing it, and eventually ended up with the C64 version, where the music was arguable better!  It certainly helped to push you along in what was really just a tarted-up Bumping Buggies clone (albeit a really enjoyable one).

So, Tim Follin is another name on my hit-list.  He has his own website, so I'll be calling on him shortly, no doubt.  His would be another name I'd love to have in the book.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Day 45 - Tel you what...

I know that, initially, I said that this project was to shine some light on the overlooked British programmers of the Eighties.  And, indeed, that's where the main focus will sit.  But as you will have noticed from my post about Melbourne House the other day, there are a lot of good people from outside the US that may not have had the recognition they deserve in games books.

I'd definitely like to include some of those guys too, and if there's one name that gets requested more than most, it's Jeroen Tel.

It's easy to see why.  Or rather, it's easy to hear why.  Jeroen Tel is responsible for a large number of high profile and much-loved Commodore 64 soundtracks.  I always enjoyed his Hawkeye and Cybernoid tunes, myself.

Anyway, I have a folder set up for Mr Tel (or Maniacs of Noise), and I plan to ask him a few questions about his tunes.  He has a web presence, so I'm hoping that when I reach out I'll receive a favourable response.  I'm probably going to have a separate section dedicated to musicians, and if so I'll want it stuffed full of our favourite tunesmiths.

I've actually got plans to ask a fair few musicians some questions, and indeed, one has already responded with a load of answers.  They were an important part of our games history... it's only fair they have their place in the sun, too.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Day 44 - the Gods of print

You know, finding all those old coders is quite difficult.  Many of them are no longer in the games "biz", and those that remain are now often much smaller fish in a pond that's bigger than the Atlantic Ocean.  It's a far cry from the days when a title screen gave the name of the game and the name of the programmer, and that was it.

There are some people that we looked up to then that are, for some reason or other, easier to locate... and those people are the writers.

If you owned a ZX Spectrum or a Commodore 64, you either bought a games mag or stood and read it in John Menzies for as long as you could escape without a clip round the ear from a store detective.  What was great about those magazines was that, in many cases, their reviewers also had distinct personalities.  It got to be that you would identify with certain reviewers, either because they were funny or because you trusted their judgement or had similar tastes in games.

Haunt of many a teenage gamer...
As the shelf lives of the computers expired, the magazines we loved died out.  There were others, for newer, shinier machines, and they did their best to fill the voids.  Some of them were really good... I particularly loved Mean Machines Sega, myself.  Now, there's not really that much beyond EDGE.  It's all gone online, where news is so hot off the presses it could burn your retinas out.

So, what happened to some of our favourite reviewers?  Like I said, many of them are a little easier to track down than the coders, and I hope to include some of them in this book.  If you ever read Your Sinclair, you probably either loved or hated Stuart Campbell.  Never shy to offer a controversial opinion, "Rev. Stu" continues to prod and poke at the games-playing public today, whether in magazines or on his website, World of Stuart.  Love him or hate him, it's hard to argue with him (primarily because he will hunt you down and give you a verbal battering).

From ZZAP! 64, Julian "Jaz" Rignall stayed mostly in the games industry.  He was at GamePro until they recently closed down; now he has a cool gaming blog called Playotron, and a very active, informative and entertaining Twitter account.

Gary Penn continued to work on games mags, but is now at Denki, producers of such great puzzle games as Denki Blocks! and Quarrel.  Gary Liddon is head of successful games studio Ruffian Games, who can name the Crackdown games among their successes.  Steve Jarratt has remained in games journalism this entire time.

Look, prizes! Things you can win! And they're good for you!
Gordon Houghton has taken his wordsmithing skills in a different direction, writing a number of novels (five, in fact) which are, in turn, interesting, entertaining and challenging.  Not only that, but they're all vastly different, which is quite refreshing in today's cut-and-paste world of novels, where even your favourite authors seem to merely change the names and locations. His website, The Burrow, has these available to buy in various formats, and also has a number of links to ZZAP! 64 and Commodore 64-related things.

His latest, Another World, is a sci-fi novel set toward the end of the twenty-second century.  If you want to know more, go here for links to buy them at very reasonable prices!  Alternatively, I have an e-copy of Another World to give away... just post a comment telling me what is your favourite Commodore 64 or Spectrum review of all time, and I'll put you in the draw.  And as a bonus, I have an e-copy of Gordon's book Game Boy, which is a novel filled with more video game references than you could shake a Konix Speedking at.  If you love video games and reading, this book is for you.  Winner gets their choice of novel, second place gets what's left.  You have until Sunday to post - go!

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Day 43 - come on, Tim!

It's the Wimbledon final today.  Normally I watch it, but when there's "home" involvement (and Andy Murray is always classed as British until he loses), I just can't bear to sit there and see another plucky failure.  As I write, the match is level, but every time I flick it over, Our Boy is either hitting the ball tamely into the net or seeing it fly past him.  So I'm a jinx, and I refuse to curse the lad further.  Instead, I've gone for a bit of computer tennis.

It's one of the oldest forms of video game, is tennis.  From its humble beginnings with Pong right up to the current motion-based efforts on modern consoles, we've always quite enjoyed whacking a ball over an electronic net.  It's much easier than actually going out and doing it for real, and risking getting wet or something.

Trouble is, it's a very difficult game to get right.  There's too much subtlety to the game that is hard to capture in video game form.  Some games get the hitting of the ball right, but not the running around the court.  Some games get the running around the court right, but not the hitting of the ball.  Some games are hateful bastards, like Mario Power Tennis.  Very few get everything right, but still they try.

Andy Murray never smiles, so he must be the one in black.
One of the games I bought on the Commodore 64 was Sensible Software's International 3D Tennis.  I always enjoyed Sensi's games, and when I read the review in ZZAP! 64 I was intrigued.  For one thing, it featured vector graphics, something that the C64 had struggled with in most cases.  The screenshots looked a bit odd, but the ZZAP! lads insisted it moved well and played better.  I trusted them, and I bought it.

I enjoyed it a fair bit at the time, but it never grabbed me as much as I'd hoped it would.  It was a very brave effort, and playing it again now I can appreciate it in a different light.  I probably wouldn't play it ahead of Virtua Tennis, but it certainly stands out from the crowd in many ways.  If I manage to get hold of any of the Sensible Software guys, and I'll certainly be making every effort to do so, then I'd love to ask a few questions about this game.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Day 42 - Paging They Were Our Gods...

I thought I'd do something a bit different today, and have a bit of a play with design.  So what I've done is this:  I've written a page about one of our Gods, using his words and mine, added a couple of screenshots and put together a rudimentary page.

Now, you have to bear in mind that this will not be how the finished book looks.  In fact, it probably won't even be how the finished book reads.  I'm sure I'll edit and re-write my bits before it gets published.  This is purely for a bit of fun, and to give people some small insight into my thinking.

One of my ideas is to have a small picture of each person and put it next to their quotes.  You can see how that might work on this page.  What I thought I might try and do is to get a picture from each person, and then try and make it look like a C64 or Spectrum image, depending on their platform of choice.  It would be a little bit like the classic computer magazine "box-out" comments, but with a little graphical twist.

If you haven't got a magnifying glass to hand, click here for a bigger view.
Trouble is, I'm rubbish at graphics.  There are programs available that kind of turn an image into a C64 or Spectrum graphic... that's what I used in this case.  But it's not really that authentic.  I also hasten to add that I used Jon's picture from his website in this example purely to see how it would work... I would ask for a picture and the owner's permission before actually including it in a printed work.

So anyway, that's been my Saturday.  It's made an interesting change to just putting words on a page, although I don't yet know how useful it will prove to be.  The finished product will look a lot more professional than that, and possibly a lot different.  But it's a starting point, and proof that I'm actually doing something.  Anyone got any comments?

Friday, 6 July 2012

Day 41 - Australia Day

I'm off work today.  Why?  Because it was absolutely pissing it down with rain this morning.  In fact, it was raining so hard as I was going to work, that it was actually dangerous.  So my lift made the decision to turn around and come home, and I wasn't arguing.

Much as I would like to spend the entire day and night writing, playing and screengrabbing, I can't.  I'm going out this evening, for one thing.  A mate of mine moved to Australia and I haven't seen him since the year 2000, and he's over here visiting, so we're off out.  Should be good!

That got me thinking, though.  I'm already planning on including some European Gods in this book, but I would probably like to extend that out to Australia.  After all, Melbourne House was a very popular games company in the UK in the Eighties, and I'm pretty sure that most of their programmers don't get much of a mention in your average games book.

Haw-oooo-awww!  Khaaa! Khooo! Khreee! If you played it, you know...
Some of Melbourne House's games were, shall we say, not received well by the critics.  But I enjoyed a lot of their output a great deal.  One classic example that comes to mind is Rock 'N' Wrestle.  It looked bad, it sounded bad, and it didn't even play that brilliantly.  But I had months of fun playing against my brother on that game.  And when you think about it, wrestling is a hard game to pull off, when you've only got an eight-way joystick with one fire button.

Of course, they had their share of classics, too.  Way of the Exploding Fist will live on forever.  The Horace games, similarly, are unlikely to be forgotten.  That nightmarish blue character is indelibly stained upon the minds of untold thousands.

There were others, maybe not as high profile but still good fun. There was Penetrator, without a doubt the rudest-named of all Scramble clones.  That game had its own level editor, something that was quite a novelty at the time.  How many of you made a completely flat level, filled its floor with rockets and then flew low over them and destroyed the lot with a gleeful hammering of the fire button?

Seems unduly harsh.  Where do you think we are?  Glasgow?
And who, of those that played it, could forget Street Hassle?  Now, there was a beat 'em up!  It was, and remains, without question, the only game where you strolled around in your underpants and were attacked by, and could beat up, blind men, grannies and bulldogs.  For teenagers of the time, it was hilarious fun.  It's still worth a go today, even if it's just to watch the attract mode with your jaw hanging open.

Melbourne House, then.  A name that many will remember, with differing degrees of fondness.  And one that, I think, probably deserves mention in this book.  But if I thought that getting hold of British programmers of the time was difficult, I can't begin to imagine how much of a challenge it would be to get even one of the Aussies...

Day 40 - can I have some chocolate please?

So, that's forty days I've been doing this thing for.  Sounds ages, doesn't it?  And yet, it's been like the blink of an eye.  I reckon you can at least add a nought to the end of that before you'll see this finished, too.  Everything comes to he who waits, they say...

It also feels like it's been raining for forty days and forty nights.  Christ, it's depressing.  I can't believe there's any water left in the sky.  I suppose that the rain means I'm spending more time indoors, which means that I've got a bit more time to work on this book.  Even these miserable rain clouds have a silver lining.

Not that I've done any work on it today.  I've actually been playing a game on my XBox 360... something that I first played for free on the PC quite some time ago.  It's an intriguing little effort called Spelunky.

Bring you to your knees, it's a Bomber!
One of the things I've always wondered is whether the game was inspired at all by a crusty American C64 platformer called Spelunker.  I'm pretty sure it must have been, although that would imply that the programmers are getting on a bit, and I don't know if that's the case.  On the other hand, after Cave Story, there's not much else you could call a game that involves cave exploration.

It's a fun game, anyway, if a bit on the brutal side.  Something that I feel helps in this regards is the fact that the levels are randomised every time you play.  Obviously, that means you never play exactly the same game twice.  For a game made up of short levels, that's a great way to keep you playing even after you've finished it.

It's good to see games modelled on the old-school getting such a high profile these days.  Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with the massive 3D efforts that dominate the charts, but there's room for all kinds of games, not just the ones that look like Hollywood movies, and I like the fact that the industry seems to be realising that and catering for all tastes again.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Day 39 - head over heels with today's progress

This morning saw an e-mail full of answers drop into my inbox, which made for good reading and a good start to the day.  I'll be looking at sending off a few responses, and then I can work on putting some rough pages together. I find that pretty exciting.  Now that a couple of people have replied, I can play around with ideas a bit more

Of course, the main focus for now has to be the writing (and finding contact details, naturally), but it doesn't hurt to play around with images and layouts and so on.  I like the idea of having a "CONTRIBUTIONS FROM" section on the front page of the blog.  I really want to do that, but I think I'd be getting carried away with myself if I put it there now with just two confirmed names.  If I wait until I've got replies from the others I've sent e-mails to, it'll be a bit more valid.

Awww.  So cute!  But how do I get to the bunny?
Basically, though, I can play games, get a ton of screenshots, write text and insert comments for those that have replied.  Effectively, I can finish sections of the book at this point.  That's great.  It's going to be a giant step forward, having real pages' worth of material prepared and ready for formatting.

Now I'm in the position where I need to be soliciting for more participants.  It's a dirty job, but I have to do it.  There are still people that can be contacted through the likes of Twitter, so that's my next avenue.  I do hate to be a bother, but it's the only way forward.

Oh, THAT'S how!  Hey, why am I playing this game, I wonder...?
You know, our guys wrote some stuff that was really amazing for the time.  I know, I'm stating the obvious... that's the reason for this book, after all.  But when you play some of these old games again, it's extraordinary just how creative they were.  Some of them may not seem as good in the cold light of day, but today's technology is light years ahead of what was available then.  It's still a thrill to load up some of the classics and get stuck in.  We really were lucky back then.