A History Of ... Gridrunner

A History Of ... Gridrunner

Gridrunner was one of Llamasoft’s earliest games, appearing in 1982 for the Vic-20 and Commodore 64. The title has been revisited and reimagined at various points over the years, and the release of Gridrunner Revolution marks the endpoint of a development arc that has spanned no less than 27 years.

In fact the history goes back a little further than that. It’s plain that in its earliest forms Gridrunner was at least partly inspired by the Centipede coin-op arcade game, and back in 1981, before Llamasoft was founded, I created a Centipede game for the Sinclair ZX81.

“version of the new arcade game” my hairy arse. You’ve never even played the damn thing.


I say that I created a Centipede game rather than that I did a version of Centipede, because as a copy of the arcade game the ZX81 version would be pretty poor. At the time although I’d heard of Centipede and even seen pictures of the screen I’d never actually played it, so my version was rather inaccurate. It had “centipedes” and blocks that caused them to split and turn like the mushrooms of the coin-op, but the player ship was a Space Invaders-style laser base that only moved left and right along the bottom of the screen, and the Centipedes dropped bombs.

Actually I think they dropped full stops on you. And you fired quotes at them. CUTTING EDGE GRAPHICS BABY.

haha, “EARTHLING..YOU DARE TO SURVIVE..” I only regret that I used a stunted ellipsis at the end instead of the far more stylish multiple exclamation marks.

This deviation from the original inspiration continued with the design of the original Gridrunner. I was working on the Vic-20 at the time, and Centipede seemed to be the game of which everyone and his dog decided to do a version on that platform. It was also the time when Atari were waking up to the fact that many small developers were making free with their IP all over the various home computing platforms. Not unsurprisingly, Atari started to make noises to the effect that they would deal litigously with anyone producing “clones” of games to which they had copyright.

Although I still fancied making a game in the style of Centipede, these two factors led me to come up with a design that was significantly different from Atari’s bug-themed coin-op. Sufficiently different, I hoped, to avoid Atari’s legal wrath, and also to mark it out from the many Centipede versions that were already appearing for the Vic-20.

The name and basic theme came to me whilst travelling on the London Underground one evening after attending a computer show in the city. Llamasoft used to exhibit at many such shows during the course of a year, and we’d stay in a hotel near the venue for the duration. Most evenings we’d take the Tube to the West End and spend time hanging out and playing games in the many arcades that were to be found in the Soho area.

At the time the excellent film “Blade Runner” had just come out and, as I was standing on the platform waiting for the Tube, I glanced at a large poster advertising the film. My eye came to rest on the title BLADE RUNNER in that distinctive red font, and for some reason the name GRID RUNNER came into my head. No idea why, I wasn’t actively thinking of grids or games or anything at that point; maybe it just sounded good to me.

This proved fortuitous for my plan to produce a less Centipede-like game, since it did start me actively thinking about grids and games. Instead of bugs in a garden the action would take place on a grid (maybe the “Game Grid” from Tron was in the back of my mind). Instead of centipedes there would be snake-like “droids”, and instead of harmless mushrooms there would be “pods” which, if not dealt with, would turn into bombs which would fall down the grid towards the player.

Gridrunner on the Vic 20. Fat CAN be sexy.

To further distinguish the game’s design from Centipede, and in keeping with the new game’s more hard-edged, sci-fi-themed design, I added lasers. Any game is better with lasers, I figured. Two laser guns traversed the grid’s edges and every few seconds they would fire — one creating a large vertical beam from top to bottom of the grid, and the other firing a small pulse horizontally across. Where the two beams intersected a new pod was formed, and if the player was caught in the beam or hit by the pulse he would lose a life.

Gridrunner on the Commodore 64. WAY too skinny, I like a bit of meat on my pixels.

The rhythmic pulsing of the lasers and the deep electronic throb that sounded with their firing added a nice element of tension to the game, and provided it with a distinctive “heartbeat” during play. These lasers were to be one of the defining constants, albeit in a variety of different forms, that defined the various Gridrunner games as the design evolved over the years.

The Vic-20 game proved to be quite popular, and in very short order the game was ported to the Atari 8-bit and the new Commodore 64. Of those early versions I think the Vic-20 version is my favourite. The game’s graphics look a bit small and weedy on the higher-resolution Commodore 64, and the Atari version was a rather rushed port with graphics that are too chunky and rather ugly. The game was designed primarily for the Vic and although the graphics are large and low-rez, to my mind it is the Vic version that looks and plays the best.

(You can play and judge for yourself — recreations of both the Vic-20 and Commodore 64 games are available as unlockable extras inside Gridrunner Revolution. Just play ten levels in Easy difficulty to get the Vic version).

The next game in the series wasn’t long in coming — just a few months, in fact. The original Gridrunner was created for the unexpanded Vic-20, which had only 3.5K of available memory. This made for a rather sparse and somewhat repetitive game, with successive levels being identical to the previous ones, just a bit faster or with more enemies and faster lasers. The basic design worked well, so I decided to make an extended version for Vic users who had a memory expansion unit.

In this extended version I was able to add a lot more variety as the player progressed through the levels. In addition to the regular boustrophedon progression of the enemies as in the original Gridrunner (and Centipede), they now could attack and race across the grid in diagonal formations. The whole grid was animated through simple character redefinition, and various different grid shapes appeared on different levels. Some levels had no grid at all.

OH NOES! Player demise on the deliciously portly Vic-20 version of Matrix (AMC in the US)

Another Llamasoft obsession — camels — made their first appearance as enemies in the game, and on some levels deflectors (taken from an earlier Llamasoft game, “Deflex”) could divert the player’s shots. It was possible to earn special bonuses for killing an enemy with a trick shot off the deflectors, for sparing the life of a camel, and for a variety of other moves that the player had to discover — almost like an early version of Achievements.

The regular pulsing lasers were retained, and on some levels a new (and annoyingly unshootable) enemy called the Snitch would appear. The Snitch walked along the top edge of the grid, and if the player remained in one place for too long the Snitch would “tell” the lasers to fire out of sequence and shoot immediately if they were passing the player, killing him instantly. Players regularly cursed me for putting the Snitch in the game.

All these additions made for a much more enjoyable and engaging play experience, with much more to shoot and do, and less repetitiveness between levels. Once again the game was ported to the Commodore 64, and once again it was a bit of a rushed port, and just as with the original Gridrunner I think the Vic-20 version looks and plays the best.

Still too skinny. Nor were the sound effects as good. I love my chubby little Vic screen.

This game was sold under the name “Matrix” in the UK and Europe (and I am still waiting for my royalties from the films). And, somewhat confusingly, as “Attack of the Mutant Camels” in the US. Confusingly, because Llamasoft released another, completely different game on the Commodore 64 and 8-bit Atari called “Attack of the Mutant Camels” – the story about the reason for that is told in the History of Llamasoft.

There was one last variant of Gridrunner — by now quite well distanced from its Centipede origins and an entity in its own right — before the end of the 8-bit era. I was approached by Mastertronic to create a budget title for them, originally for the Commodore 16 (a somewhat strange machine introduced for people who for some mad reason might want to buy something that wasn’t a Commodore 64, and which wasn’t in any way nearly as good).

I made a game that was similar in parts to Matrix, with greater variation in how the chains of enemies could move and where they could appear from. Pods and camels were there, and the travelling laser, in this case a bar that moved steadily down the screen, occasionally pulsing. The most significant change was that the player now controlled four rapid-firing ships at once, moving them as a squadron in a variety of formations. Attacks came from all directions, befitting the fact that the player ships now had a lot more firepower in many different directions.

This game was released as “Voidrunner” by Mastertronic. I made the customary port to the Commodore 64, and Mastertronic made ports for the Spectrum and MSX. Whereas the game was certainly a nice enough budget release I don’t feel that it was quite as good as Matrix on the Vic-20.

The next visit to the Grid came in 1988. I’d spent the start of the 16-bit era concentrating on developing my light synthesizer ideas on the Atari ST, and having made “Colourspace” and “Trip-a-Tron” I wanted to make a game on the ST. I spent a while getting together some sprite, tile and text routines and then decided that, as Gridrunner had been fairly well known during 8-bit times, it’d make sense to do a new version for the new era.

With the luxury of 512K to spread out in, and much higher resolution graphics to draw my sprites with, I could create a much more extensive game than the original Gridrunner and Matrix. In truth, higher resolution graphics were at that time a mixed blessing for a lone coder/designer like me. On systems capable of only low-resolution, chunky graphics there’s only so much you can do, so it’s possible to get away with fairly primitive shapes and, due to the fact that nobody else’s primitive shapes look much better, nobody notices that you’re actually pretty rubbish at drawing artwork. On the 16-bit machines the graphics had improved to the extent that good artists could indeed produce excellent work and much “coder art” such as my own looked a bit shabby by comparison. Not that it was game-spoilingly terrible; just that it looked rubbish compared to “proper” art and it was obvious that I was a coder bashing pixels together in Neochrome rather than someone who could, you know, actually draw.

Make things look metallic to try to cover up how crap your sprites are.

Nonetheless I had a good time making the game, which turned out to be like some kind of mashup between Gridrunner and Revenge of the Mutant Camels, with the player beset not only by squadrons of arrow-shaped droid ships, but also various other “wacky” enemies (I distinctly remember that one level featured a rain of skis). Shot snakes would sometimes spontaneously explode, with each segment changing into a collectible bonus item — in some cases fruit, and in some cases tiny llamas that one had to be careful not to shoot. (Collectible beasties would soon be making an appearance in another Llamasoft ST game – “Llamatron” – a couple of years later).

Those sprites look like Pac Man! I’m telling NAMCO on you!

The scoring method borrowed from pinball in that it featured a “Bonus Multiplier” which started out at x1 and which would steadily increase through good play up to x5. Losing a life caused it to reset to x1. I liked that method in pinball, where it made hanging on to your ball for as long as possible an even more urgent imperative, and I liked how it transferred to video game play, reinforcing the basic underlying videogame imperative to “stay alive, no matter what”.

The single biggest design change was to the player ship. For one, it was now mouse-controlled, allowing the player to nip with alacrity to all areas of the playfield, far more swiftly and precisely than was possible with a joystick. The ship was in two parts — it had a detachable nose cone which you could leave somewhere on the screen, firing independently, while you busied yourself elsewhere, and then recall it to you by holding down a mouse button when you needed more local firepower. You could even place it ahead of you up the screen and then fire into it from below, causing augmented shots to emerge.

The lasers at the sides were there, many of them this time, travelling on little tracks at the screen edges and firing pulses rather than beams. The game design overall had been expanded and extended to a scale commensurate with the more capable platform the ST provided, but it still contained elements to tie it to the original Vic-20 game and define it as Gridrunner. I also ported the game somewhat roughly to the Amiga — it worked fine on that machine but didn’t really use any of the Amiga’s special features, it was really just a case of making the ST code work on the Amiga and having done with it.

There was one more version of Gridrunner on the Atari ST which I shall mention for completeness — in truth I haven’t seen it for years and I’m not sure if it’s in the archive anywhere. I can’t remember why I was asked – for a coverdisk or for a demo I guess — but I was asked to do a game in 4K. Since the dear old unexpanded Vic had been 3.5K I thought it would be natural to choose Gridrunner as the subject of the demo and so I made a little version that fit in 4K on the ST. It was super primitive but it was just about fully functional.

There was almost another version hidden in “Defender 2000” for the Jaguar. I was living in the US at the time, and one 4th of July I decided that as I was a Brit I couldn’t possibly take a day off with the colonials as they celebrated kicking our Great British arses, so I’d work all day instead and do a “4th of July” mix of Gridrunner to hide away in D2K. I got it about half done but then it wasn’t really turning out the way I wanted it, and I didn’t have time to work on it more, so I never finished it.

Gridrunner arrived in the 21st century in 2002. At that time I was developing a few small games for the Pocket PC platform — it was actually pretty enjoyable to be doing some short, simple, fun games that could be coded in two or three months as opposed to major development work which can take years these days. I’d revisited a couple of old Llamasoft titles already, updating “Hover Bovver” and “Deflex” for the handheld device. I was using a wrapper library at the time which effectively enabled you to produce not only code for the target device but also a version that would run on a kind of simulation of the PocketPC environment, in a window on the PC. This was a bit rough and ready and intended more as a development aid to allow you to test things locally on your PC without having to keep downloading your code to the PocketPC rather than as something to develop proper PC titles on. These PC versions were quite playable though, and since they came almost for free it seemed silly not to use them and offer them for sale alongside the intended PocketPC versions.

I started developing a version of Gridrunner in the same framework, intending to produce two versions, one each for PocketPC and PC as before. However as the design took shape it became clear that I’d made it too hard for the PocketPC to manage well, so I finished it off for the PC only, albeit within the context of this rather strange PPC-simulating wrapper.

The Yakyak forums were just opened at that time and I shared the early development of the game with the users, offering up early stage works in progress so that people could see what I was doing. At first I almost wished I hadn’t because the early versions actually weren’t that great to play with. Some ideas were there but nothing was balanced, nothing felt right, nothing looked how I wanted — there’s an awful lot of tweaking and tuning that has to happen sometimes before you know for sure that something’s on the right track. It’s not a good idea to show stuff or offer it up for people to see until after that point is reached, and at first people were disappointed that it didn’t seem to be turning out that great.

There is often a tipping point where you make a few adjustments over a few days and suddenly the parts begin to mesh and you get a glimpse and a feel of what it was you were looking for in the first place. For me that moment is when a game gets its soul and comes to life. As a developer it’s also a great relief to reach that point, for it is then and only then that you know that everything is going to fit together and work well, and from that point on you know much more clearly which direction you’re working in.

There was a particular three day period where that transition happened back then, and I created a demo with just a few levels and hardly any graphics data yet defined and offered it up for people to play with. Everyone else could feel the change too and people could feel that the game was going to turn out to be nice.

The forum also helped me circumvent the problem of “programmer art”, since there were people in the community far better at drawing sprites than me, and I encouraged people to contribute sprites for the game. (Curiously enough this was actually the second time I’ve had sprites contributed to a game by an online community. It originally happened in the mid-80s, on Compunet, an old Commodore 64-based online community. A bunch of us became regulars in the chat space of an evening, chatting and swapping screens of chunky Commodore graphics and even little quickly hacked up games and demos. I asked for sprites from the regulars there, and they ended up in my Commodore 64 game “Batalyx”).

Gridrunner++. In which the player rescues sheep whilst beset by lasers and gangs of Underground signs. WACKY.

It was fun working with the community in that way, and as well as contributing sprites there were many willing hands to help with testing and debugging the game prior to release. The game was released as “Gridrunner++” and was surprisingly well received in the press for such a little game.

The game itself — although once again expanded from its previous incarnations — still retains some elements of the ur-Gridrunner — the snakelike enemies, the pods that turn dangerous if not dealt with straight away, the regularly pulsing lasers (now adrift from the sides of the grid, on a free-floating cube that periodically unleashes crossed bolts across the playfield). A rescue mission is added to the gameplay in the form of fluffy sheepies that periodically float down the screen and which must be saved.

As each sheep is saved the power of the ship’s weaponry increases until finally “the Pill” emerges, a giant sheep’s head that smashes into enemies and which can itself be powered up to emit lasers and rush frantically around the screen killing large amounts of baddies.

Much though I like that version — and to this day it stands up as a challenging and satisfying little shooter — I always felt that, running inside that weird little wrapper framework and not really using any of the power of modern graphics hardware, it wasn’t really posh enough to be considered as the true, native PC update that I felt Gridrunner deserved. I felt that one day it would be nice to develop Gridrunner into a proper, full-scale PC game and bring it thoroughly up to date.

And thus we arrive, after a long journey, at Gridrunner Revolution.

Why that name?

Well, for ages while it was being developed it was referred to as “Gridrunner+++”, which was a handy way of referring to it but a bit silly with all the pluses. It’s also a significantly different and new game, so it deserved its own nomenclature rather than just a one char concatenation onto the name of an existing game.

The name is also a bit of a smirk about the time when the Wii was still referred to as the Revolution and there was talk of games called [something] Revolution all the time — but mostly the name refers to how it’s played. Like the Atari ST and earlier PC version of the game, the mouse controls the player’s ship; the mouse feels fluid and natural to use to move the ship in this kind of game. However now the player can also rotate his ship to face danger or to engender rewarding bullet trajectories — hence “Revolution”.

And yes, some of the threads that tie all the versions together across the years, and which lead back to that dear old Vic-20, are still there — there are snake-enemies and boustrophedon motion. There are Flowers instead of Pods, and they can still get dangerous if you’re not careful. There’s a free-floating Sun that regularly fires and emits lasers, giving a cadence and heartbeat to the game just as the traversing laser guns did on the Vic in 1982. And sometimes you can see that underneath all the fireworks and glory — the grid is still there.

So what’s new in the design? Well — that I’ll let you find out for yourselves.

Gridrunner Revolution is both ancient and modern, bringing gameplay in the style of the old school, and with 27 years of development along the way, into futuristic focus on today’s graphics hardware. Procedural generation of enemies and backgrounds in the latest and most advanced incarnation of the outstanding Neon graphics synthesizer means that there’s no more worries about “programmer art” – Revolution looks astounding and sounds awesome too with plenty of excellent tunes to accompany the exhinarating and immersive action.

I will write more about the design of Revolution itself in due course.


Beam me up Scotty!