Category Archives: Gaming
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When Nintendo’s Star Fox arrived in 1993 it heralded in a new age for Nintendo’s 16-bit console, the age of 3D. Powered by the Super FX chip, it delivered cutting edge graphics that made it stand proudly apart from other console games of the time. Here Jez San reveals how it all happened.
In these days of ultra-realistic graphical plenty it’s all too easy to forget that for console gamers, 3D visuals didn’t really become par for the course until the advent of the 32-bit technology in the mid-Nineties. However, developers had been successfully dabbling with the third dimension for some years previously, mainly on the powerful Western 16-bit home computers like the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. One such company was UK-based Argonaut Software, brainchild of teenage programming genius Jez San. Founded in 1982, Argonaut impressed with early 3D hits such as the groundbreaking StarGlider titles and the ambitious air combat simulator Birds Of Prey, but it’s the company’s association with Nintendo’s popular StarFox brand that granted them worldwide fame.
You’ll get little snippets of text from your mates, making you
feel like part of a team.
As the Eighties came to a close Argonaut turned its attention to the rapidly emerging console market, and more specifically, what kind of 3D games could be successfully achieved on the current crop of Japanese systems. The most obvious options were the then-unstoppable Nintendo Entertainment System and the newly released portable Game Boy. After his team had familiarized themselves with the hardware (going as far as to reverse engineer a Game Boy, as you do), San approached Nintendo of Japan with the proposal of exploring the possibility of producing 3D titles for its machines. To say Nintendo was receptive to the idea would be something of an understatement, as San himself recalls: “They immediately flew me to Japan to meet with them. They hired us to do a few 3D games, starting with the Japan exclusive Eclipse on the Game Boy, which became Lunar Chase. Then we started doing StarGlider on the NES, which was codenamed NesGlider.” Argonaut’s craftsmanship in the third dimension immediately impressed Nintendo – it was rumoured that the Japanese giant had been trying to produce 3D visuals on the NES for a while (with largely unsatisfactory results) and was keen to ensure that it, and not emerging rivals Sega, was the first to fully exploit the possibilities of console-based 3D titles. Having distinguished themselves with flying colours, San and his team were then introduced to what would prove to be the next generation of Nintendo greatness: “During our work, Nintendo showed us its new console. We immediately started moving over to the Super NES and StarFox was born”.
The first challenge Argonaut faced was power, or rather the lack of it. Although it was the cutting edge of console technology, at its core the SNES (like its 16-bit rival the Sega Mega Drive) was primarily designed with 2D games in mind. Sensing this, San proposed a revolutionary concept: “I suggested the idea that while developing 3D games for Nintendo we might be able to design a 3D chip that would make its game console the first one capable of doing proper 3D graphics”. This would ultimately lead to the birth of the Super FX chip. Nintendo was enthused by the notion of granting the SNES a little 3D muscle and wasted no time in putting the wheels in motion, as San remembers: “It jumped at the chance and financed the creation of the MARIO chip (Mathematical Argonaut Rotation I/O chip), which was designed by Rob Macaulay and Ben Cheese (who sadly succumbed to cancer in 2001), and was later renamed Super FX”. With the assistance of this chip the SNES was able to produce and manipulate complex (for the time at least) real-time 3D visuals and effects. Super FX was to be integrated into the cartridge itself. This meant that SNES owners would not be required to purchase an additional peripheral (as was the case with the ill-fated Sega Mega CD and 32X devices) in order to experience the game, but it did result in a slightly higher price point than other SNES releases. It was a smart move that meant every SNES owner had the opportunity to experience this technical marvel, even if it did mean having to extort a few extra quid out of long-suffering parents to do so.
Starfox still holds up today. It remains an exceptionally polished blaster.
Developing StarFox was a learning experience for San and his team and they quickly had to acclimatize themselves to the rather unusual working practices of their new mentor – the legendary creator of the bestselling Mario and Zelda franchises, Shigeru Miyamoto. “Working with Miyamoto presents a large learning curve, but can also be a very different proposition compared to others,” remarks San. “He doesn’t like to design games in advance. He subscribes to the ‘try something, then keep tuning, then try something else’ approach to game design. It means that he’s completely in the loop at all stages, which can become a bottleneck. He doesn’t like to do planning. He’s very much a ‘seat of the pants’ kind of guy.” Despite the unorthodox methods of game design witnessed by the Argonaut team whilst coding alongside Nintendo’s golden boy, the encounter was, as San is swift to point out, an extremely positive one: “I have enormous respect for his talents. He’s an amazing guy, and very humble. But the way he likes to work is very different than most people and it takes a lot of getting used to”.
Links between the two companies were forged and Argonaut was forced to ‘go native’ to ensure work with their new partner progressed as smoothly as possible. “We had a small office inside Nintendo,” says San. “We put several of our London staff – Dylan Cuthbert, Krister Wombell, Giles Goddard and later Colin Reed – permanently into Nintendo’s offices in Kyoto, working directly for Miyamoto. I would regularly fly over to Japan to spend time with him. We did most of the technology back in England with a relatively large engineering/tech team, which comprised of Carl Graham and Pete Warnes on the software-based 3D technology and Ben Cheese, Rob Macaulay and James Hakewill working on the hardware side of things. All the direct gameplay work was done inside Miyamoto’s offices in Kyoto. Therefore we had two teams working closely with each other in two different countries”.
Hit the yellow blocks to destroy this enemy.
Whilst Argonaut primarily handled the technical duties, Miyamoto and his team, led by director Katsuya Eguchi, performed the artistic magic Nintendo was famed for. “We did most of the programming and all of the technology, and Nintendo did most of the design. They also did all of the characters,” reveals San. Nintendo was responsible for level concepts, but Argonaut was on hand to provide valuable support thanks to its considerable experience in the field of 3D – an area in which Nintendo was still finding its feet, as San recalls: “It was largely Nintendo’s staff that designed the stages and levels, but with help from our programmers, who created the scripting system and showed them lots of examples as to what could be done”. With Argonaut’s talented programmers at their beck and call, Miyamoto and Eguchi were able to break boundaries and create an underpants-soiling experience the likes of which had never been witnessed before on a home console.
StarFox repaid all of Nintendo and Argonaut’s hard work by shifting over four million copies worldwide (although initially the SNES-owning public, raised on a diet of cute 2D titles, were slow to warm to the unusual visuals). Reviews at the time were unanimously positive. The game was marketed as a true next-generation title and was eventually granted ‘pack-in’ status in the UK – a sure sign that Nintendo regarded it as a ‘killer app’ that would shift hardware on its own.
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Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: From Software
From Software had been trucking along for years before Demon’s Souls. A workhorse studio, it pumped out mediocre to average games across all genres, from the mecha Armored Core series to the first-person, rock-hard RPG King’s Field games. It was this series that inspired Demon’s Souls, a PlayStation 3 exclusive that was released to little fanfare in 2009 – indeed, Sony decided against publishing the game outside of Japan, leaving it up to third parties. It was a misguided decision in hindsight, as Demon’s Souls was a success with critics and gamers, a blend of the hardcore trappings of King’s Field with a new style of action-RPG gameplay spearheaded by director Hidetaka Miyazaki.
Work soon began on a sequel, although not one directly connected to the story and world of the first game. Miyazaki returned as director and producer, refining the basic gameplay and ideas of Demon’s Souls and introducing them to a new audience on Xbox 360. Many UK PlayStation 3 owners had also missed out on Demon’s Souls due to the European release taking many months longer than the American, so for many Dark Souls was their first step into this strange new challenge.
That’s the thing that everybody remembers about the Souls games, the first thing that gets brought up in conversation: the difficulty. Most readers of this magazine will agree that games today are too easy, holding your hand every step of the way and rarely testing the skills that you’ve built up over decades of sitting in front of a screen and pressing buttons. Dark Souls says to hell with that, and aside from an incredibly sparse few lines of tutorial text telling you what the buttons do, you are on your own. Dark Souls laughs at the concept of objective markers, and outside of some extremely vague and veiled hints from NPCs, you will have to explore and make your own way in this world. Add in the fact that there is no map, and you have to scour, learn and memorise every corner of Lordran like the good old days when we drew pen-and-paper maps of the original Metroid.
Lordran is a bleak, empty land, populated only by mindless undead and horrific demons all looking to kill you. Dark Souls is defined by its simple but wonderfully responsive combat, where each button press corresponds to a swing of your weapon and carefully observing your enemy and attacking when able is the only sure-fire route to success. Swinging wildly will quickly get you killed, even against the most basic of enemies. Every fight is a threat in Dark Souls, and you need to be attentive and focused at all times.
Of course, death is inevitable, and the game’s approach to it is another one of its elements of genius. Die and you’ll be sent back to the last bonfire you rested at, a checkpoint system of sorts. Resting at a fire refills your health and Estus Flasks (health potions, essentially) but also respawns every single enemy in the world, aside from defeated bosses. You can’t clear out an area and be done with it – every time you rest, the bad guys come back. Die and respawn, and your collected souls will be left at the spot you perished. Souls act as currency and experience, spent on items and to level up, and losing a huge batch is never fun. You have one chance to get back to your corpse and get your souls back, but die again before you do and they are gone forever. It’s a brilliant mixture of risk and reward that always leads to extremely tense moments.
But lots of games are hard, and a lot of games play well. Dark Souls is exceptional because of its artistic elements: the atmosphere, the lore and story hidden in the world, the stark beauty of a landscape housing a dead society. Few games have ever created a feeling of isolation and loneliness like Dark Souls (again, inviting comparisons to Metroid). The story of the world you venture through is left largely unexplained, but hinted at through various means, be it item descriptions or the mutterings of a deranged merchant. This minimalistic approach to storytelling adds to the mysterious nature of the game, and dedicated fans have managed to discern a huge amount of lore and backstory from the subtle hints given – just like the rest of the gameplay, if you want to know what’s going on, you have to work for it.
Why It’s A Future Classic
This is the real reason why Dark Souls will live on, sure to be remembered in decades to come. Most games feel like entertainment, Dark Souls feels like a piece of art, fully conceptualised by Miyazaki and his team as a whole, designed to function both as a great game and a means of conveying emotion, bringing a player down through isolation and failure before building them back up as they learn, grow and get better. Some won’t have the patience for a game like Dark Souls, and that’s fine – it’s not for everyone. But for those with the patience and fortitude to persevere, those that see games as challenges to be explored, mastered and conquered, Dark Souls is a true modern classic in every sense of the word.
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It may look simple by today’s standard, but Stern’s Berzerk was a big deal upon release. It featured fantastic gameplay, innovative ideas and some truly chilling speech. It also inspired Eugene Jarvis to make the amazing Robotron: 2084. Creator, Alan McNeil explains how it all began.
Until Pac-Man’s arrival on the scene, it was Stern Electronics’ Berzerk that held US arcade gamers in thrall. Shifting over 50,000 units – a massive achievement during the embryonic market of 1980 – Alan McNeil’s frenetic eight-way shooter tasked you with leading a seemingly suicidal nutcase around an endless maze full of psychotic robots, every one intent on your immediate and thorough destruction. The droids, determined to make their desires known, bark less-than-welcoming phrases such as “Destroy the intruder”, “The humanoid must not escape”, and, when you think better of your situation and flee through a room’s handy exit, the charming “Chicken! Fight like a robot!” Along with this breakthrough audio – one of the earliest examples of speech synthesis in arcade games – Berserk offered other ground-breaking elements, including rudimentary artificial intelligence, with your robot enemies often making errors (something players can use to their advantage, ‘encouraging’ the droids to destroy each other), and it also arguably heavily influenced Robotron: 2084, which in turn led to the likes of Smash TV and Geometry Wars – a strong lineage indeed.
Alan was seemingly fated to end up working on videogames in some form. He notes that he always liked games – playing lots of Mille Bornes and Stratego when younger – but when he was at college, he suddenly found himself surrounded by then cutting-edge equipment. “PLATO – a network of amazing graphical computer terminals for computer-aided education – came to campus,” he recalls. “Because of the size of the network – about 1,000 terminals across the USA – it was the perfect platform to develop the first network games.” Alan remembers chatrooms and forums being born well before the internet’s arrival, and crude but fun games being fashioned, enabling you to play online dogfights, “blasting someone out of the sky who was playing in a different state.”
Once in the field of employment, Alan soon found himself at Bally/Midway-owned Dave Nutting Associates, a group that had already created the arcade games Gunfight and Seawolf. He worked on sequels to both titles, along with Bally Arcade (“the console that should have beaten Atari, but Midway couldn’t build them without zapping the main chip with static, so most units were dead at the end of the assembly line…”), and when it became obvious to Alan that he’d “be working on arcade games forever,” he asked Dave Nutting if he could design his own game. Turned down, due to a lack of experience, and annoyed at being told he wasn’t good enough to do something, Alan began scouring the job ads.
“I already had some primitive games by other people running on my Sol20 [Terminal Computer], including a version of Robots (see ‘We Are The Robots’ boxout),” says Alan. “Robots was clunky, but I thought a smooth-running ‘dodge the robots that are trying to kill you’ game would be cool.” Before long, Alan found an opening – a subsidiary of Stern Electronics required a pinball programmer to work on hardware changes for a licensed Bally controller board. “I asked if I could do a videogame after I fixed the pinball problem, and they said yes,” says Alan, who then rapidly got a prototype hooked up to his Tektronix development system.
Perhaps due to too many late-night sessions with Robots, Alan says he had a dream of a black-and-white videogame with a stick man and numerous robots closing in on him, “It was just a second’s worth of action, but this was exactly what I made for the first pass of my game.” Graphically, the shifty-eyed robots owed something to Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons; and in terms of gameplay, the initial version was like an extremely intense real-time version of Robots. “It was too hard, even with just six robots,” says Alan. “The game favoured the robots too much – they would crash into each other occasionally, but the average game time on one life was about six seconds – not good.”
Although such rapid turnaround would perhaps please coin operators, Alan’s rule of thumb was to take the price of a movie ticket and divide it into pennies per minute, in order to figure out the game time you should expect for a quarter, “Back then, this was between three and five minutes, and so my goal was to enable beginners to last three minutes.” Help was required to beat the robots, and so the protagonist was armed with laser bolts, but still the robots changed paths too rapidly and came at the player from too many directions. Bouncing the player’s laser fire around the screen didn’t help either, since you then had to avoid your own shots and the psychotic robots.
The key to Berzerk, and something that set it apart from Robots, was the addition of barriers. Alan devised a simple scheme for generating mazes. Solid walls, each with a door, were placed on each edge of every room. The remaining space was divided into tiles, and a ‘support column’ placed at every tile intersection that wasn’t embedded in a wall. A wall was attached to each ‘column’, and spun in a random direction. “This mostly resulted in nice maze-like rooms, although sometimes you get a two-by-one box in the middle, and with a robot being placed on every tile, there are sometimes two robots stuck in that space,” says Alan.
To stop the maze from being entirely random, Alan used the x/y co-ordinates of a room as a 16-bit number to seed the generator. “Because of this, you can exit a room, return to it later and see the same room,” explains Alan. “It makes the universe more real if you leave somewhere and return to an identical layout. Totally random rooms aren’t immersive – your brain goes ‘huh?’ – and a robot would be able to shoot you from a place where it couldn’t be before, and you’d get angry at the game.”
Despite these improvements, Alan still considered Berzerk flawed, “It was smooth and fun, but the robots would all open fire at once, and were deadly accurate. Also, there were robots stuck in the centre sections that you couldn’t shoot, and there was no incentive for players to move on once a room’s robots were eliminated.” Due to using the Robots device of destroying enemies that collided with each other, Alan decided the real problem with stuck robots was if there was just one of them – with two, you could at least manipulate them into blowing each other up. Enter Evil Otto. This psychotic bouncing face (see the ‘Have A Nice Day!’ boxout for more on his origins) appears if you spend too long in a room, coming straight for you (thereby removing the ‘hanging around’ issue), but with the positive side effect of potentially stomping inaccessible robots in his quest to smash you.
By this point, the game was largely the Berzerk we know today – at least in terms of basic gameplay. Subsequent changes first involved adding bullet progression, over time gradually upping the number of robot bullets available. “I made the game keep track of the rooms you left after killing robots, and used that count to drive the number of robots’ bullets,” explains Alan. “It made it seem like the robots were going from peeved to angry to berserk with rage.” Various settings were tried and tested with players of varying ability, in order to get the balance right and to achieve Alan’s target of a (minimum) three-minute game for beginners.
The robots’ movement was also amended; with their speed being increased as the levels progressed, and said speed being matched with the animation of the robots. “I didn’t want to see any feet sliding along the ground – after all, I got my degree in design partially by doing seven minutes of animation,” jokes Alan. On a more serious note, he explains, “To get someone immersed in a game, there cannot be cognitive dissonance – no ‘that doesn’t seem right’ moments. Therefore, ‘glide walking’ was scrapped, and I ensured that although the robots on the early levels spin their eyes slowly, the ones on the later levels spin like the enraged enemies they are.”
To further assist players, the registration points of the art were amended. “Games track by x/y points – the registration point is where the ‘0,0’ point of an object is,” explains Alan. “I tweaked the robots so that their shooting was just barely good enough to hit you. This enabled you to dodge bolts if you were careful.” The exception to this rule was when a robot was coming right at you from the left or right. However, the design of the main sprite has a small gap between the head and body, which led to seasoned players inventing and taking advantage of the ‘bulletproof bow-tie’ trick. “When you run, the man’s body moves up and down, but during testing we had one amazing player that could stop for just long enough to let the bolt pass through his neck and then move on – while fighting at the highest level,” recalls Alan. “He practised kung fu and consistently got high scores!”
Despite all of the fine-tuning that went into Berzerk’s gameplay, it was another element added during development that proved one of the game’s most memorable components: speech. While frantically battling for your life, your metal-clad adversaries continually bark threats and warnings, and insult you should you decide to run rather than stand and fight. Alan notes that the game originally had pinball-type sounds – one or two counters connected to an amplifier. “If you put in a small number, it would make a high-pitch square wave. A big number would take longer to count down to zero, and so the resulting sound would be lower in tone,” he says. Apparently, this system was so basic that it was just about impossible to even craft a simple tune with it, but as Alan and the company had used the scheme in pinball for a year, he already had a number of ‘zappy’ and ‘tweepy’ sounds in his program library.
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Year Released: 1985
Original Price: £299 (with green-screen monitor), £399 (with colour monitor)
Buy It Now For: £25+
Associated magazines: Amtix, Computing With The Amstrad, Amstrad Computer User, CPC Attack, Amstrad Action
Why The Amstrad CPC 6128 Was Great: It may not have been as cool or as desirable as a Commodore 64, but the CPC 6128 was arguably the greatest 8-bit machine ever made. Adaptable (plug in a tape drive, fiddle endlessly with the volume control and you had a 464 with knobs on) and dependable, there was a mountain of games, a thriving community, and a real spirit of the underdog.
Sitting atop a chunky slab of plastic, the CPC 664’s white and blue keys and the clumsy-looking addition of a disk drive exuded such ugliness that you couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor sods who bought it. It was a step up from Amstrad’s iconic cassette-based 464 in the sense that it added a three-inch disk drive of the like seen in the Oric Atmos, some extra BASIC commands and both the AMSDOS and CP/M 2.2 operating systems. But while it sold around 10,000 units, within five months it was replaced by the 6128 – a machine which not only doubled the memory of its predecessor but looked far sleeker, too.
And so it was that the CPC 6128 came into being. It was launched in America in 1985 and it came to Europe shortly afterwards, making its UK debut at a glitzy press conference in London with BBC newsreader Richard Whitmore overseeing proceedings. Boasting the same three-inch drive, the only real features to distinguish the 6128 from the 664 were the 128K of RAM and a better, plain white, springier keyboard. The extra memory was an important addition, however, as it was used as a RAM disk or to store data such as gaming levels.
In some cases, the 128K versions of CPC games would carry sound not heard in their 64K counterparts and all of this allowed developers to give their titles a little boost from time to time. Before its unveiling, Mr Whitmore led the assembled journalists and dealers through a potted history of Amstrad. But it was Sir Alan Sugar himself who whipped the covers off the 6128 to show his new machine in all its glory. In doing so, he declared the 664 “well and truly dead” and he said the new arrival was due to “a leap in technology”. He later stated that the 6128 was aimed at a more serious buyer, although the decision to make the machine compatible with 464 and 664 software created an instant back catalogue of games for the new machine.
“There was a simple reason for launching the CPC 6128,” says Cliff Lawson, who worked on the product launch of both the 6128 and 664. “It could be produced for the same money as the 664 so Amstrad decided it would be wise to go for the better product. It offered the punter more and it was, dare I say, much prettier, too.”
The 6128 was one of two computers to be unveiled by Amstrad at the same time. The other was the PCW8256, pitched mainly at businesses. That machine came with a monochrome monitor, 256K of memory, a built-in disk drive, a printer and word-processing software, but it wasn’t compatible with the CPC and there was no intention of opening its appeal to gamers. The PCW retailed at £460 and, as the trumpets blared for the 6128, the 464 was cut in price, bringing its cost down to £199 for the green-screen version and £299 for colour. In some sense, it meant that the 6128 was a halfway house – part business, part pleasure – bridging the gap between the PCW and the 464.
One of the first games to take advantage of the added capacity that the extra 64K of the 6128 offered was Sorcery+. Released in 1985, players of this disk-based joystick-only game saw many enhancements over the original Sorcery, including an extra 35 screens. Amstrad loved the lush look so much that it used screens of the game in its promotional literature and yet such enhancements didn’t become the norm.
Although it was possible for both 464 and 664 owners to buy a 64K memory pack, which could be inserted into an expansion slot at the back of both computers (Datel Electronics would advertise Dk’tronics’ 64K memory on a monthly basis), sales were not sufficiently high enough for all developers to put in the extra effort of creating additional enhancements. The gaming benefits of purchasing extra memory were not heavily pushed either, so whether or not a game carried the extra power depended on the whim of the developer or, in some cases, the near impossibility of making a game as impressive in 64K as it would be using double that memory.
Indeed, as the 6128 launched, some developers decided they wouldn’t be sticking their neck out in support of the added extras of the new machine. Paula Byrne, of Melbourne House, said she would see how well the machine sold and Taskset’s Paul Hodgson felt Amstrad missed an opportunity to enhance the graphics and sound chips and said he had no immediate plans to make games for it. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Gremlin’s Ian Stewart said it paved the way for better games and his company certainly made use of the new facilities on offer as the years went on.
“Amstrad didn’t encourage 128K disk-based games to be produced,” admits Cliff. “It wasn’t particularly important since the extra memory was seen to have greater use with serious applications. The 64K games at the time worked well on the full range of Amstrad’s CPC machines and it was in everyone’s interest to ensure titles operated across the entire range and that the market wouldn’t be split.”
Around six months after launch, both the 6128 and the PCW were doing well. Amstrad announced £27.5 million half-yearly profits in April 1986 with sales in the six months to December 1985 increasing from £69 million to £128 million. The PCW8256 accounted for 20 per cent of the company’s turnover, but the 6128 was becoming a market leader in France, as well as making major inroads into Germany and Spain.
Yet, for the average gamer, such corporate guff mattered little. They were more interested in enjoying some of the gems which were launched over the course of the 6128’s life span. As time went on, more games arrived that could only be played with 128K of memory. They included Gremlin’s Nigel Mansell’s World Championship, one of the best Formula 1 games ever launched on the Amstrad and a title which deservedly won it much praise in the CPC gaming press.
Indeed, Gremlin, as we have discussed, liked to use the extra RAM to get the best out of its games. It produced 128K versions of Space Crusade and Super Cars. And titles such as HeroQuest and Switchblade contained music on the 6128, whereas, on an unexpanded 464, there were no tunes at all. Some differences were more subtle, however. “In Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge,” explains Nicholas Campbell, the CPC Games Review webmaster, “the only difference, as far as I am aware, is that the ‘handbook’ (the screens displaying the car’s specifications) is loaded separately on the 64K version, whereas it is included with the main game in the 128K version.”
There was more… Level 9’s games, including Gnome Ranger, Ingrid’s Back, Knight Orc, Lancelot and Scapeghost, did not contain graphics on a non-enhanced 464, but the 6128 proudly showed off a host of pictures. This was also the case with The Famous Five as well as all four of Magnetic Scrolls’ adventures for the CPC (The Pawn, The Guild Of Thieves, Jinxter and Corruption), which were only playable if 128K was available.
Add to that little list less prestigious titles such as European Superleague and Computer Scrabble De Luxe, throw in the likes of Final Fight (this game came on a dual-format disk with the Spectrum version on the other side), tag on Gauntlet III, G-LOC, Gunboat, and most of Microïds’ later releases – Killerball, Sliders and Swap – No Exit, Pirates!, then make space for all four of Silmarils’ releases (Windsurf Willy, Targhan, Xyphoes Fantasy and Bunny Bricks), SWIV and Times Of Lore and you had a pretty good reason to go for Amstrad’s best machine at the time. If nothing else, the extra vocal samples on Chase H.Q. were probably worth the price of an upgrade alone. Well, probably anyway…
Four Great Amstrad CPC 6128 Games
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Software Creations may be a relatively small company, but it contained some big talent and produced some fantastic games during its life time. Ste Ruffy and the Pickford brothers hail from the studio and it’s been involved in a variety of amazing games, from Bubble Bobble to Solstice and Plok. Founder Richard Kay reveals how it all started.
It might not be as well-known as Tim and Chris Stamper’s famous studio Rare, but besides producing some of the best arcade ports of the Eighties, Software Creations shares the honour of being one of the first European companies to produce games for a new breed of Japanese games consoles. It was a journey that took founder Richard Kay from shifting boxes at Ocean to employing over a hundred staff, making exclusive deals with Nintendo and Sony and meeting the creators of Space Invaders and Mario. And it is, to quote one of its most famous releases, a rather fantastic story.
“When I joined Ocean I wasn’t a programmer, I was packing in the warehouse,” recounts Richard. “But I was always interested in the old Atari stuff, it intrigued me how they wrote these things. Eventually I got myself a BBC Micro with the money that I earned at Ocean and taught myself to program assembly language. They were doing a game called Mr Wimpy on the Commodore 64, and at home I did all the graphics and sound. I walked in and showed it to [Ocean director] John Woods. And they took me on and continued paying me a box-packer salary but I was happy because I was writing games.” However, after completing a couple of titles on the Amstrad (Hunchback and Hyper Sports) Richard decided to move on to pastures new.
“I’d always had an interest in flying so I signed up to the Air Force,” he says. “I got accepted, but it turned out I had a slight eyesight problem that they hadn’t picked up initially. But I really enjoyed it, in fact when I was in there in November ‘85, people got to find out what I had done, and it was like being a pop star… I was signing autographs for Hyper Sports, which went on to go to number one at Christmas.” Richard continued to program, coding Mermaid Madness and an unreleased port of Repton for the C64, despite a call from the RAF asking him back if he could take an A-Level Physics course.
Richard Kay founded Software Creations in 1985. He currently lives in Jersey.
“The business really took off,” he confesses. “If you had worked at Ocean in those days it was like you’d been to Oxford University, it was a free pass. So many people were phoning… Firebird Software and loads of other companies contacted me, and being the businessman I didn’t want to turn this work down. I was working out of my bedroom at the time and I started on the Enterprise Allowance; it was about five pounds more than the dole but it gave you a bit more dignity. It was £40 a week but I didn’t need a lot in those days, and allowed me to run the company. And so I put an advert in the Manchester Evening News and Steve Ruddy responded.”
“Steve and I hit it off right away. He worked from home, and he did a boxing game called The Big KO. We worked very closely with each other for about 12 months. I hired Mike Ager and Andrew Threlfall, and we were the first four at Software Creations. I got an office on Oxford Road and it was above a computer shop directly opposite the BBC. We did a lot of games for Firebird – they were all for about three or four hundred pounds.”
Most of the early Firebird games were ports of budget releases like the Spectrum version of the questionably bonkers Mad Nurse and several Speccy to C64 conversions by Steve Ruddy. “The early projects for Firebird were enjoyable and they required me to use the C64 in innovative ways,” Steve recalls. “For example, Kinetik used colour bitmap mode, and Mystery Of The Nile used software sprites and a sprite multiplexer.”
Plok is one of Miyamoto’s favourite games according to the Pickfords.
He clearly has good taste.
“The company grew and we took on Mike Follin to do The Sentinel on the Spectrum,” continues Richard. “Everybody said it couldn’t be done, but he proved them wrong. Mike had heard about Steve because Steve was from Wigan and the Follins were from St Helens and knew each other. After we took on Mike, [his brothers] Tim and Geoff followed, and a chap called Mark Wilson who was a very talented artist. They already had their own company and we did some follow-ups to some of their games, like Agent X 2 on all the 8-bit formats.”
Tim Follin is rightly considered one of the finest musicians to work on the C64, as well as being remembered for his later work on games like Solstice and Equinox. As Steve remembers, Agent X 2 had a particularly funny jingle lifted from a current British TV ad. “I worked very closely with Tim as I wrote a few of music drivers he used on the C64, Amstrad, Speccy and NES,” he says. “Having written the drivers I was astonished by the sounds Tim got out of them, not to mention his composition and bonkers sense of humour – Shake N’ Vac was classic!”
While the budget-fare certainly helped pay the rent, it was with a brilliant arcade conversion that Software Creations finally hit the big time. “We were always interested in the arcades and then Firebird offered us Bubble Bobble,” says Richard. “That really did launch the company because they said you couldn’t do that on the 8-bit machines. I think the Commodore 64 version was the one that really did propel us forwards, and it won all sorts of awards [which] showed how good the team was.”
The Pickford brothers are still in the industry and currently work on iOS games.
We ask coder Steve Ruddy if he had any worries about converting such a massive arcade hit. “It wasn’t daunting originally, as it looked like a fairly straightforward platform and sprite game,” he replies. “However, once you start playing you noticed how the bubbles followed air flow patterns and how they all gathered in fixed places – lots of sprites on the same line meant a sprite multiplexer wasn’t suitable. Fortunately, having worked on the BBC Micro and Mystery Of The Nile, I wasn’t averse to using software sprites. We spent an awful long time playing the game; it’s a fantastic arcade game! We didn’t understand all of the secrets so we just implemented the game to mimic what we did notice. So how the pick-ups appear isn’t the same as the arcade on the C64, but it should be very similar to how the pickups appear after the machine is powered up.”
Conversions of more big arcade coin-op titles followed, including extremely well-received ports of Ghouls ‘N Ghosts and Bionic Commando, which also featured stunning Tim Follin soundtracks. “Attempting to get recognisable versions of the maps, sprites and gameplay on the Commodore 64 was very tricky for both,” admits Steve, who wrote both Commodore versions. “Bionic Commando was all about the bionic arm and how the player controlled it. I did spend a lot of time working on the mechanics of the bionic arm and it was worth it as I found even with just one fire-button I could use the arm when I needed without having to think about it. Also, with the cabinet available in the office we got really good at it, and used to have races to see how fast we could finish it! Ghouls ‘N Ghosts was more about the complexity of the maps and massive baddies with loads of frames of animation.”
But it was Bubble Bobble that really made a splash, even across the pond. “Once we had done that conversion we got a lot of calls from America,” says Richard. “Taito themselves asked us to do a lot of games for them like Sky Shark [aka Flying Shark] and Puzznic. Taito actually brought Tomohiro Nishikado, the creator of Space Invaders over, and for us it was like meeting the father of videogames. We literally all lined up and bowed. That was definitely a highlight of that period. And we became well-known for doing coin-op conversions and took a lot of stuff on that other people wouldn’t do. So we were starting to grow and the company ended up with about 105 staff, and we had an office in Seattle which was exciting, and that was really to service Nintendo.”
Ste Ruddy coded the amazing conversions of Bionic Commando and Bubble Bobble for the Commodore 64.
“I’d been chasing Nintendo for a long time,” Richard reveals. “It was Colin Fuidge, one of the producers at Firebird, that first introduced me to the NES. Colin opened this draw and out popped this original Famicom, and he said ‘this is what you want to get into.’ I remembered the old days of the Atari cartridge systems and wanted to get back to the console days, so I got in touch with the Chamber of Commerce in Manchester and found Nintendo’s number. And for about three months I continually phoned Howard Lincoln [the chairman of Nintendo of America at the time]. Eventually he picked up the phone and I said ‘My name is Richard Kay from Software Creations, we’ve got a small team in Manchester, and I’d be very interested in working on your machine.’ He said ‘If you can get the information on the machine and write a demo, we will give you the information…’ In other words ‘get stuffed!’”
“Then I discovered that Mike Webb was reverse engineering the NES which is where Mike came into the business. I’d worked with Mike at Ocean and he was a genius. Not only could he program, he was also an electronics engineer – he used to work for a company that designed high-voltage switchgear for power stations. So Mike had this unique combination of electronics skills and software skills, and he was brilliant at both. About three months after my first call to Nintendo I phoned Howard again. Mike had written the initial code for what ultimately ended up being Solstice. I spoke to Nintendo again and said ‘Look we’ve got a demo’ and there was this deadly silence on the end of the phone… And I said ‘I’ll be in Seattle next week can I show you the game?’ I didn’t even have a passport! Howard said ‘Sure if you’re here next week pop by on Thursday.’ So we booked a cheap flight and flew to Seattle. Things were about to get very exciting for Software Creations…
Notable Software Creations Games
This article is from Retro Gamer. Click the title to hop over there.
If you want to be a true hardcore collector then go for a complete Neo Geo collection. If you don’t want to take out a second mortgage on your home you could simply focus on the following ten amazing games. It will still cost a pretty penny if you go after the original versions mind. Thank goodness so many are now available on various consoles.
Samurai Shodown II
With its beautiful graphics, silky smooth animation and eclectic character roster, the second part of SNK’s Samurai Shodown series is easily its best. The 202-meg cart featured new fighters, glorious backdrops and even slicker controls than the impressive original. A massive arcade success, Samurai Shodown II was a fantastic two-fingered salute to Capcom and proved that SNK’s style and ambition knew no bounds. It certainly lacks the depth of later games in the series, but for sheer fun and accessibility Samurai Shodown II is without equal. A truly monumental fighter that still plays brilliantly today.
Nazca’s Metal Slug remains the definitive game in the series. Sure, we love X and 3, but the original just does everything right. The action is fast and furious and the pacing is superb, while the level design and variation remains impressive. Bosses are extremely satisfying to defeat, the tunes perfectly suit the action, and the tongue-in-cheek humour immediately makes it stand apart from other run-and-guns. It’s the glorious animation and the amazingly balanced gameplay, though, that proves to be Metal Slug’s trump card, not to mention that the titular tank is the cutest inanimate object we’ve ever seen.
The Last Blade
Now here’s a game that never seems to get enough love. Achingly beautiful – along with its sequel and Garou, it remains one of the Neo Geo’s best-looking games – The Last Blade’s deliberate pacing, outrageous depth and balanced characters have earned it an army of fans, and yet it’s nowhere near as well-known as Samurai Shodown. Its alarmingly deep gameplay, over-the-top moves, ability to parry, and glorious aesthetics helped usher in a new era of Neo Geo gaming and proved just how versatile the hardware was.
Sure, you can laugh at its fractured Engrish, but play Yumekobo’s stunning shooter and you’ll be gobsmacked. With its mesmerising pre-rendered sprites, insane bosses, and outrageous power-ups, the 346-meg Blazing Star always justifies its high price tag, and along with Pulstar, it remains the Neo Geo’s finest blaster. Blazing Star assaults the player with excited speech, intense alien waves, finely tuned gameplay mechanics and humongous mayors. The end result is an amazing rollercoaster of a ride that you’ll never want to end.
King Of Fighters 98: The Slugfest
It would have been all too easy to select several King Of Fighters for our top ten, but this is easily our favourite. Everything about King Of Fighters ’98 just screams, ‘Look at me! I’m so much better than everything else!’ The gameplay is instantly accessible but offers a satisfying layer of depth and its cartoony visuals still look sensational, while its many and varied backgrounds are some of the most detailed around. Add in its massive roster of excellent characters and it’s another essential AES purchase.
Windjammers proves that you don’t need superlative visuals or complex fighting mechanics to become an essential AES release. Essentially nothing more than a tarted-up version of Pong – you fling a frisbee and use angles to slip it past your opponent – Windjammers is one of the finest multiplayer games on the system and combines slick controls and fast gameplay to create one of the most enjoyable games around. Like the best arcade games, it’s easy to get into but includes enough nuances and techniques to ensure that you’ll constantly return to it.
Garou: Mark Of The Wolves
There can’t be many Retro Gamer readers who aren’t aware of this fantastic title, as we harp on about it every chance we get. Honestly, though, Mark Of The Wolves is basically the finest brawler on the AES and possibly the finest 2D fighter of all time. In addition to totally revitalising the Fatal Fury series, it boasts 11 new fighters, some of the best visuals to ever appear on the AES, and nigh-on perfect gameplay mechanics. It’s expensive, but you could argue that you’d never need to buy another fighter.
Neo Turf Masters
Extremely tough to get hold of – it currently has an ‘extra extra rare’ rating on Neo-Geo.com – this offering is still worth tracking down, providing you can afford it. While Neo Turf Masters (Big Tournament Golf in Japan) doesn’t really bring anything innovative to the table, Nazca’s superb offering plays an excellent version of the sport thanks to its slick presentation, tight controls and speedy pace. There are two modes to choose from, a variety of golfers, and some beautiful courses to play on. An excellent, surprisingly deep, game of golf.
Fatal Fury Special
Like Garou and The King Of Fighters ’98, Fatal Fury Special is available on Live Arcade for just 800 Points. Purists may want to go for the original, and with a nice low price point it’s definitely worth picking up. Essentially an updated version of Fatal Fury 2, improvements include a new combo system, speedier overall gameplay and a far larger roster of playable characters. Indeed, you now have access to all the bosses from FF2, as well as the return of several non-player characters from the original Fatal Fury, including Geese Howard and Duck King. It looks wonderful as well, with massive sprites and glorious backdrops.
One day we’ll confirm that Pulstar was created by former Irem employees, but for the time being you’ll just have to be content to play one of the Neo Geo’s toughest shooters. Unflinchingly difficult – our hats are doffed to anyone who has 1CCed it – it requires a hell of a lot of skill to make any sort of progress but is so fantastically designed that you’ll want to keep persevering regardless, especially once you’ve managed to get to grips with its excellent charge system. Despite its difficulty, Pulstar remains a sensational addition to any Neo Geo collection and is highly recommended to all hardcore shmup fans.