Llamasoft History - Part 8
The Dawn of Llamasoft
If we were to call ourselves Llamasoft, we actually needed some software to sell, and so during the summer of 1982 I busied myself with the creation of what were to be the first Llamasoft games for the Vic-20. I'd already got a couple of simple games that I'd done with a view to letting the Great Yarmouth chap sell, and so those were part of the initial lineup. One of them was a simple 3D maze game of the kind that everyone used to do back then, with redefined characters which put bricks on the maze walls along with occasional Pink Floyd hammers and the Llamasoft logo that I'd created with my character editor. Another was – well, probably one of the most shameful things in Llamasoft history, a joke which got out of hand...
One of the first games I'd written on the Vic was a reworking of one which we'd had on the PET in school, and indeed every machine of that era must have had a version available as a type-in listing; it was one of those canonical simple BASIC games that everybody and their dog did back then. It was a version of the old “City Bomber” game – the computer draws a “city” at the bottom of the screen and a plane that slowly crosses the screen at the top, descending one line each time it reaches a screen edge. The sole player control is a “Bomb” button which, when pressed, causes a single bomb to drop from the plane, fall down and destroy a chunk of the buildings below. The player needs to carefully time the dropping of the bombs in order to raze the entire city, allowing the plane to land on the ground, whereupon the next level begins with slightly higher buildings.
Now, at the time, unfortunately there was conflict between Argentina and Britain over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands and... just for a joke, you see... I... created a little graphic of a waving Argentinian flag and stuck that on top of the buildings in my city. And made the Vic play “Rule Britannia” when the plane landed successfully. And called the game “Bomb Buenos Aires”...
I swear, it was all done in what was intended as a tongue in cheek manner; in real life I was not particularly fond of the mess that Maggie seemed to be getting us into, and I certainly didn't believe that it was worth anybody actually getting killed over, on either side. But I guess I thought that it might get us noticed, in a tasteless kind of a way, and indeed it did – as my dad tells it:
Jeff produced his next VIC 20 game, BOMB BUENOS AIRES!. The title shamelessly capitalised on the fact that the country was in the midst of the Falklands War with Argentina. Distribution was by mail order after copies had been sent to magazines and to the press to generate publicity, and of course by sales at computer shows.
Hence, from the Daily Telegraph of 5th June 1982...
Do you fancy being at the controls of a Vulcan bomber and releasing thousands of tons of bombs on Buenos Aires? This experience, with accompanying thunderous explosions and the playing of Rule Britannia may be had on a jolly new computer programme unveiled in the Commodore computer show at the Cunard Hotel, Hammersmith, by author Jeff Minter and publishers, Lamma Software of Tadley, Basingstoke.
The controversial title and subject clearly had had an effect- complaints were made to, and an official admonishment was eventually received from, the Press Complaints Commission and some months later Llamasoft received its first accolade, the 1982 Bad Taste award!
We decided to respond to the complaints by re-issuing the game under the less contentious title, BOMBER and a letter of apology was sent to the Complaints Commission. Another version of this game, entitled BLITZKRIEG, was produced for the Sinclair Spectrum computer (successor to the ZX81).
To be honest having the Torygraph ranting on about releasing thousands of tons of bombs pushed the whole thing too far into the domain of tastelessness for me, and I was quick to remove the silly references to the Argentine conflict and revert the game to decent anonymity.
We had a couple of other simple Vic-20 games to sell too - “Rox”, which I have already mentioned, and a game called “Headbanger's Heaven”. This was a reworking of another popular game of the time, usually called “Moneybags”, in which you controlled a little guy at the bottom of the screen who had to walk to right hand edge of the screen, retrieve a bag of money (usually represented by a simple ASCII “$” character) and stash it at the left side of the screen. His journey was endangered by missiles that fell in a continuous rain from the sky. Shelters akin to the houses in Space Invaders afforded some protection from the rain of missiles, but these were continuously eroded, and eventually the guy would sustain a hit and lose a life. Simple stuff.
In “Headbanger's Heaven” I modified the way it worked a bit. The missiles were replaced by a rain of hammers (cue another excuse to use my Pink Floyd hammers as a logo) and the little guy was named Chico, after a heavy-metal-fan friend of mine from University (the same one who had achieved such awesome mastery of Space Invaders). Chico still had to collect the money bags, but the twist was that, as a heavy metal fan, he actually enjoyed being hit on the head by the hammers (“headbanging”, you see). However in order to score properly the hammers had to hit him directly on the head – a blow to the body caused a loss of life as normal.
Correctly nutted hammers would cause Chico's “pain meter” to rise, and the higher the meter, the more points he received for moneybags collected. If he sustained too much pain, however, he'd lose a life; the trick to scoring big points was to max out his pain meter and then look for an aspirin (the rain of hammers also helpfully contained the occasional aspirin pill). An aspirin to the head with a maxed-out pain meter granted the player a useful bonus, reset the pain meter and also rebuilt the protective barriers, allowing him to play on and build up the pain meter again for even more bonus points.
We placed a few cheap adverts in the back of computer magazines of the day (and we're not talking full-page ads at this point, it was just a small square in the reader ads section, printed out on a Vic-20 dot matrix printer) and in due course began to sell some of these simple games. Such games were pretty much small beer though – simple BASIC hacks such as anyone might do, with little to distinguish them (apart from in a bad way in the case of Bomb Buenos Aires). They sold mainly because there were very few people selling games at all at that point – certainly there wasn't much in them to truly distinguish Llamasoft as being significantly different or better than all the other people doing exactly the same kind of stuff.
We needed some kind of “magnum opus”, something that would hopefully let us claim some kind of significance in the emerging biz. And back then, in that dawn of time, the way to do that was to produce a version of a popular arcade game, and to do it in machine code.
A year or so previously, before I'd become ill, I experienced something of a videogaming epiphany on a trip to Southampton to visit my gran. I'd gone to a travelling fun fair that was set up that day on Southampton common and, as was my habit under such circumstances, I'd gravitated towards the arcade tent, thinking to enjoy a few rounds of Space Invaders or Galaxians. However I never got further than the tent entrance. There, out front and to the right of the entrance, stood a new arcade game which captivated me from the first glance at the graphics and the first hearing of the sound effects. This monster looked and sounded like no other. The controls consisted of a joystick and a bewildering array of buttons. The graphics were sharp and colourful, and when your ship moved the whole world moved with it too. The world was actually bigger than the screen, and there was even a tiny radar enabling you to track events that might be happening off-screen away from where you were that instant. You controlled a tiny fighter plane, and your mission was to rescue “Humanoids” from dastardly enemies who would kidnap them and mutate them into sick, shaking Mutant craft that would spew deadly accurate shots and think nothing of ramming into your ship at high velocity.
That game was Williams' “Defender”, the first coin-op game from a programmer whose name I didn't know at the time but who I would come to respect and revere as one of the best videogame designers ever – Eugene Jarvis. Defender was awesome in so many ways. The scrolling game world in which you could fly wherever you wanted to was a first in videogame design, as was the radar. Whereas most games depicted explosions as a simplistic, static sprite, things that blew up in Defender really blew up, into hundreds of brightly-coloured shreds which streaked across the screen. When the game got busy, it was like flying through the night sky on the 5th of November. The sound effects were deep, menacing, intimidating... and the gameplay was iron-hard. My first few goes in front of that bewildering button array saw my arse handed to me in short order, again and again – but I couldn't tear myself away, not until I had achieved at least a very basic level of competence, and also run out of money.
I remember walking back to my gran's place thinking about Defender and about how, one day, I would love to make a game even a tenth as awesome as that.
And so, that first summer of Llamasoft, Defender sprang naturally to mind when I was considering what I should code as Llamasoft's first, seminal, “proper” game.
Now, Defender was a tall order for the machines of the day, and especially for a Vic-20 in my inexperienced hands. For one thing, with that large game world I was going to forget doing it on the unexpanded Vic. My simplistic, brute-force approach to maintenance and display of the multiple-screen game world would require me to make the game for a Vic with 8K memory expansion.
I already had some scroll routines that I'd written in my experiments with “virtual screens” larger than the physical display of the Vic, and these were pressed into service to implement Defender's scrolling planet. They weren't elegant, fine scroll routines like the real Defender; they scrolled in chunks of 8 pixels at the time, the width of one Vic-20 character, and at low speeds the motion was decidedly clunky. The spaceship I made was horrid, at least six times too large, and no matter how much I faffed about I couldn't smoothly replicate the fluid way that a Defender ship turned and manoeuvered. My big clunky ship handled like a bus on a skidpan by comparison. My lasers didn't fade away pixel-by-pixel as real Defender lasers – they were big ugly lines that made a hideous noise when you fired them, like a robot gargling nuts and bolts. My Humanoids would occasionally glitch and leave chunks of mountain stuck in mid-air when you managed to rescue one that was falling.
In other words, “Defenda”, as I called it, was a bit shit.
However, back then, everything was a bit shit, and there was the possibility that Defenda might be marginally less shit than some of the other games out there. And games in machine code for the Vic were rare.
So that summer I toiled to finish my horrid version of Defender, in order to have the game finished before the nascent Llamasoft went to its first ever computer show as an exhibitor – a Commodore show at the Cunard Hotel in Hammersmith. We'd booked just about the cheapest space possible, really just room for a trestle table, a telly and a Vic to show the games on. I finished Defenda with a few days to spare, and those days were spent, I remember, manually duplicating copies of the cassette tape with the game on, my mum and family helping with the business of folding up the inserts we'd had printed at a local printers', applying sticky “Llamasoft” labels to the cassettes, and packing them away into plastic cassette boxes. I think we did a couple of hundred of them before it was time to go to the show, and we had no idea if we'd be bringing them all home again.
I was still recovering from my illness and remember feeling pretty unwell at the start of that show. We went up early in the morning with Smeghead, and got our trestle table set up, just around the corner from the main Commodore stand. During the show itself the stand was manned by me and Smeghead alone – there really wasn't room for anyone else. We had a telly and a single Vic into which “Defenda” was loaded, and a joystick placed so that prospective customers could sample the bus-on-a-skidpan, robot-bolt-gargling gameplay for themselves. I remember wondering what the hell would happen when the doors opened and actual gamers came in.
I remember it was busy. The home computer boom was just starting to hit its stride, and there were a lot of Commodore enthusiasts there that day, and on all the three days of the show. Much to my amazement (and delight), we ran out of tapes on the first day. There were frantic phone calls back home, where the duplication chain was cranked up again for an emergency run to produce more tapes for the remaining days. It seemed that although Defenda was palpably cack, it was actually marginally less cack than some of the other games there, and so we sold tapes pretty much hand over fist the whole time. This was rather good.
Another, entirely unforseen, rather good thing happened at that show. A smartly-dressed American gentleman in a suit approached me on the stand one day and started asking me questions about Defenda. It turned out that he was from a US software house who were themselves getting into the games market and were at the show looking for potential titles to distribute in the US, and his eye had been taken by my clunky Defenda. He started asking me if I was interested in doing a deal (yes, yes I was!) and if I could put the game on a ROM cartridge that would work in the unexpanded Vic (I had no idea how the hell to go about producing a ROM, but I said that yes, I could, and trusted I'd find out how later).
On the last day, after the show was over, we brought this charming gentleman, whose name was Jay Balakrishnan, home to meet my Mum, who was, I believe, quite surprised. He opened his smart briefcase and began to tell us about a contract to produce my Defenda game for his company in the US, an outfit called Human Engineered Software, or HES for short. Provided I could produce the game on ROM, and provided that he was true to his word (and he was), Llamasoft was set to earn a not insignificant amount of money from this deal, certainly far more than our domestic market would provide.
That first Commodore show then was a remarkable success for Llamasoft in many ways. But with regard to the relationship between me and Smeghead – the wheels were just about to fall off.
Trouble had been brewing there for a while anyway. The primary factor was that Smeghead and his dad wanted to take 70% of the profits from Llamasoft (and I don't know quite how they worked that out, since it was me writing all the software) and I was uncomfortable with that and my mum was definitely having none of it, insisting that if we were to become a partnership it would have to be 50:50, them and us, or not at all. There were other factors too – Smeghead wanted to find software from other people too, and sell that under the Llamasoft name; but when I looked at the kind of stuff he wanted to sell, it was obvious that he didn't really care if what we sold was absolute rubbish a hundred times worse than even my clunky Defenda, and I definitely didn't want to do that. Just because you could get away with selling any old rubbish back then doesn't mean that you should. So I put my hoof down and insisted that Llamasoft would sell only my games, and they didn't like that much at all.
And so, throughout the rest of that summer, things continued, with the partnership between me and the Smegheads getting more and more uncomfortable. However we had a couple more computer shows lined up to go to, and more software was needed, so I tried to put all that aside and get on with what I did best – writing more code.
I obtained a Sinclair Spectrum to go alongside my Vic-20, and although the Speccy was never really to become the platform of choice for Llamasoft, I set about producing a few simple games for it just to allow us to dip a toe in that market. I did a port of that silly City Bomber game (no question of any Argentinian flags in the Speccy version, I wasn't going near that particular stuff again) and implemented Headbanger's Heaven on there too (curiously enough these days Headbanger's Heaven is easily found for Spectrum emulators but the superior Vic version is nowhere to be found). I also did an updated version of my old PET favourite Deflex, which in the intervening years I'd also programmed versions of for the ZX81 and Vic. The Speccy version was probably the nicest of all of them, with more complex layouts for the various levels, and a large animated llama that would walk across the screen to clear a level if the player took too long to finish it himself.
I also set about creating a couple more 8K games for the Vic. One of these was a fairly crude version of the “Painter” style games that were popular back then, in which the player manipulates a character that moves around a grid, avoiding enemies and attempting to “paint” all the edges of the squares of the grid. This was inspired by a few nights' drinking at the Fighting Cocks pub in Tadley, where they had an Amidar tabletop machine at which I acquired a reasonable degree of competence (and which I was somewhat peeved about when it was removed and replaced with some weird thing with this odd little guy running about on girders and a big monkey). Consequently my painter game, called “Traxx”, featured my first ever interrupt-driven music routine, which continuously played the tune from Amidar while you played.
Traxx again was rather clunky – maze games are less than ideal to control with an 8-way joystick, but a lot of the awkwardness of controlling it was down to my own inexperience too, I still hadn't found the knack of making things handle well in a game. Still, it was again probably marginally less shit than some of the stuff out there, and so it didn't do too badly.
The other Vic game was one of my first attempts at something approaching an original game, and to be brutally honest it ended up being a bit of a dog's breakfast. You controlled a little man with a hammer, and walked upon a surface below which were little guys with pointy sticks. These little guys would occasionally poke their pointy sticks up through the surface and if you happened to be standing above them you'd lose a life. (This part of the game was more or less appropriated from a tabletop shoot-em-up which me and the Baughurst Piano Wizard used to play in the Hind's Head pub in Aldermaston Village). Meanwhile large rats would appear at the top of the screen and scurry downwards; you had to try and hit them with your hammer, killing them. If they got to the bottom of the screen they would chew through the floor and the pointy stick guys would get out and kill you.
The game didn't look too bad by the standards of the day, and featured a somewhat Monty Pythonesque death scene where a long arm would appear from the top of the screen to snatch away an unsuccessful player; but it just didn't play very well, no matter how much I tweaked it. In the end it was only on sale for a month or two before I decided to drop it from the Llamasoft lineup as simply not up to scratch.
I had a little more work to do with Defenda, too. In our discussions with the guy from HES, it became apparent to us that it really wasn't safe to just be barefacedly selling a version of Defender, and even calling it “Defender” with a slightly different spelling. The mighty Atari actually owned the rights to produce Defender for game consoles and home computers, and the word was that they were shortly going to get heavy with any cheeky people who thought they could get away with selling their own versions. To this end, for the US release I would have to change the name of the game and alter the graphics, and since Llamasoft was now starting to appear as a significant blip on the radar of the games biz in the UK, I figured I should do the same for our own version of the game for the home market.
To distance ourselves a bit from “true” Defender, I changed the graphics of the enemy ships so they didn't look like the Defender ones, and – since it was a Llamasoft game, after all – I replaced all the Humanoids with llamas. Since the game now featured flying through mountains in a skidpan-bus to rescue llamas that were being attacked by alien enemies, it seemed natural enough to rename the game as “Andes Attack”.
That was certainly a busy summer... and as it drew to a close, the strained relationship between ourselves and the Smegheads finally reached breaking point. My dad recalls the sequence of events:
It was at about this point, in July, that strains began to show in the short-lived partnership which had been established between ourselves, and Smeghead and Smeghead Sr. The Smegheads clearly wanted to run the show with the aim of making the maximum financial gain and to hell with the quality of the product, Jeff saw Llamasoft as the vehicle through which he could develop and publish his ideas and which, incidentally, would produce that useful byproduct, cash. These contrasting ambitions could not coexist, given the characters of the principal partners and relations became progressively more uncomfortable. In the meantime sales of the games were increasing steadily, as was Jeff's reputation, evidenced by the fact that in July he was interviewed by “Computer and Video Games” magazine.
In August I recall attending a ZX Microfair show in London, with Jeff and Smeghead, at one of the Horticultural halls near Victoria. We had two trestle tables, covered with army bedspreads supplied by Smeghead Sr., on which to display our wares, with our posters flyposted on adjacent walls and columns. This was my first experience of the Show atmosphere. We all seemed to enjoy it in spite of the interpersonal tensions.
On 16th August there was the first of a series of meetings between ourselves and the Smegheads to discuss the terms for the dissolution of the partnership (Somebody remarked that “A partnership is the only ship that doesn't sail anywhere.”). The Smegheads were obstructive, the main issues being the ownership of the copyright of the games and the division of Llamasoft equipment and financial assets There was also the question of the fate of the name “Llamasoft” which now had a certain prestige. The agreed outcomes were that the partnership would end, that we would retain the Llamasoft name and the copyright of all Jeff's existing games.
Profits arising from their future sales would be split equally between the two factions, as would the contents of the partnership bank account.
The Smegheads were very reluctant to sign cheques releasing our share of the money (probably less than a thousand pounds) from the existing joint account hoping I am sure, that this would put us in financial difficulty. They had the backing of Smeghead Sr.'s other business and were in a better cashflow position than we were. The money was finally released at the end of 1982.
The last joint action by the partners was attendance at the Personal Computer World Show at the Barbican in London. I remember it as a few days of uncomfortable tension. Smeghead was like the spectre at the feast and I felt that he spent much of the time wondering how he could make life uncomfortable for us when the Partnership was dissolved at the end of the show.
Separation from the Smegheads formally took place on September 19th 1982.
More programming work also went on in the last couple of months of that Summer. Llamasoft needed more games for the unexpanded Vic – the 8K games were fine, but not everybody had the 8K memory expansion, and we needed some games that everybody could buy. The first of these was a relatively simple “bottom-shooter” game that comprised elements from a number of common shooting games of the time. You had several waves of attackers who would stream across the screen on predetermined flightpaths, and then at a point spread apart and descend to attempt to abduct little guys from the bottom of the screen. You had to attempt to shoot down the ships before they got to your little guys, or if you were bold, you could actually allow the guys to be abducted and then shoot the abducting ship as it made its way up the screen, earning a bonus for rescue. You started out with a single, small ship that fired one bullet at a time, but if you survived long enough you'd be rewarded with a larger ship that could fire three missiles at once. The game itself was pretty simple, but it was actually quite fun and frantic to play, and the sound effects were pleasingly noisy and zappy. Given the abduction/rescue theme of the game we called this one “Abductor”.
I also got a switchable memory cartridge for my Vic, which allowed me to simulate a ROM cartridge by placing some RAM at the location where normally the ROM would go. This allowed me to start work in preparing the US version of Andes Attack, which was to have further modifications to distance itself even further from Atari's Defender, and was to be called “Aggressor”. It took me a while to get things properly sorted for execution out of ROM (I had a bad habit in those days of just allocating myself bits of storage any old where in RAM, sometimes right amongst the code itself, and since all that code was going into ROM, I needed to make sure that all my storage was really in RAM and all my code was really in ROM). Once I had a bootable game image that worked out of my simulated cartridge, I went to Reading and borrowed the facilities of a software house there called Audiogenic, who were themselves producing Vic-20 cartridge games, and who had an EPROM burner and cartridge PCBs that I could use to make an actual cartridge to test the game. Eventually I had code that worked out of ROM and which was non-Defenderised enough for HES to release in the US, and that was sent out to Jay Balakrishnan in California.
In September it was time for us to go to the biggest computer show we'd yet attended, the Personal Computer World show at the Barbican centre in London. As my dad mentioned above, this was to be the last show that we'd attend as Llamasoft-plus-Smegheads. The show itself I recall as being stupidly, monstrously busy. It was four or five days long, and every single day it was crammed to bursting. It was very hot, cramped and uncomfortable in there, and the endless din of game sound effects and tunes (our own and countless others) was quite wearing; my mum was in attendance too by now, dealing with the business of taking payment for the games and providing nice cups of tea for all at appropriate times. Every night we left the show exhausted. I assumed what was to be my major role at shows to come, which consisted largely of hanging out in front of the Llamasoft stand, talking to the players (by then we even had a few who could be called “fans” of Llamasoft), demonstrating and playing the games.
A couple more significant events occurred at that Barbican show. Jay Balakrishnan was there again, and on one of the days he extracted me from the show for an hour or so and took me to the hotel where he was staying, where he presented me with an American version of Commodore's latest machine, not yet out in the UK – the Commodore 64. The only other one I'd ever seen at that point was another American one that Rabbit Software had on their stand at the show, so I was quite chuffed to receive this much-anticipated new machine. I couldn't actually use it straight away, since it required an NTSC display and a step-down transformer to run, neither of which I had, but I could always acquire those in due course on a future trip to Tottenham Court Road.
After each day's show was over we'd sometimes head off into London to eat or to go to the arcades in the West End, and at that time the excellent movie “Blade Runner” was just out in cinemas and the walls of the Tube had many posters up advertising it. I hadn't yet seen the movie myself (I would get to enjoy that a couple of weeks later), but the posters were striking; the name of the film and the typeface of the font looked interesting... and for some reason I was thinking about the next game I wanted to do, which I wanted to be another unexpanded Vic game but wasn't sure what it would be like at that point. And while staring at one of the Blade Runner posters waiting for the Tube, the name “Grid Runner” popped into my head. That felt like it could be a cool name for a game. Now all I had to do was think of a game to fit the name.
Finally this exhausting show was over, and we headed off back home tired and a bit stressed by the whole Smeghead situation, which was coming to its inevitable and somewhat graceless conclusion. It all finished at my parents' place immediately upon arrival back from the show. The atmosphere wasn't exactly cordial, but agreements were agreed, the terms of separation defined, and that chapter of the Llamasoft era ended with Smeghead carrying the small colour TV that I'd used for coding on out of my bedroom, since it belonged to them.
That was not the last that we'd see of the Smegheads. However, it was an absolute relief to be shot of them and for Llamasoft to be fully ours at last. Show-weary and stressed, we drew a line under the whole period by ordering a particularly large curry from the Indian at the end of the road and devouring it.
In the days following I thought more about what our new unexpanded Vic game should be like. Another arcade game that was popular for being cloned on home computers was Centipede, and I quite fancied doing something Centipede-like, especially since I'd already done a moderately successful Centipede game on the ZX81. However, Atari also owned the rights to Centipede, and with their recent sabre-rattling about illicit clones it seemed ill-advised to do just another Centipede clone. Besides, I needed something that would fit the name I'd thought of, “Grid Runner”, so the whole garden theme would be out anyway. It needed to be a bit more spacy, a bit more hard-edged, a space shooter rather than a garden-based pest-em-up.
I began on a Sunday, I recall, just after “Battlestar Galactica” finished on telly. I was having to use the family telly again, since the small portable the Smegheads had loaned me had gone back with them. I sat on the floor in front of my Vic and used my character editor to design a font that gave me the Blade Runnery feel I wanted when you spelt out “GRID RUNNER”. I created characters that could be repeated to make up the Grid which would comprise the play area. I made a little green ship, and a white bullet.
Over the next couple of days I sat in front of the Vic, on the floor, in front of the family telly, gradually putting together small bits of code into the shape of a game. First a simple routine to generate the playfield, and put the game's name and score at the top of the screen. Then some code to place the player's ship on the grid, and to make it move when you moved the joystick. Then some more code to make bullets come out of the ship when you pressed the FIRE button, and travel up to the top screen edge.
On Wednesday nights there was a small club of enthusiasts who would meet in the local computer shop in Basingstoke, and I went to the meeting in midweek with a tape of my work in progress which I thought they might be interested to see. By that time there were some snakelike aliens which made their way back and forth across the grid, and you could move your ship and fire at them, but you couldn't yet actually shoot them. The people at the club seemed to quite like the way it was shaping up.
During that week me and my dad also made a trip up to London, to go to Tottenham Court Road to acquire the necessary bits of equipment that I needed in order to be able to use the American Commodore 64. We returned with a multistandard JVC monitor, quite a posh bit of kit in those days, and a stepdown transformer. This also solved the problem of my not having a telly to work with in my bedroom, and I was able to carry on with the development of Gridrunner at my desk in my bedroom instead of on the floor in front of the telly.
Gridrunner had to wait for a few hours the first night I got the Commodore 64 working – I wanted to at least have a look at some of the new functions of the new machine, so I spent that first evening in my room with the C64 manual and wrote a simple version of my old game “Rox”, all in BASIC but at least using a small part of the new sprite graphics and extended sound chip of the new machine.
However, the Vic-20 game was the first priority, since the Commodore 64 wasn't even on sale in the UK yet, so the following days I got back to the work of finishing Grid Runner.
Although we had the Centipede-style enemies, I didn't want to have mushrooms and spiders, since I was aiming for a different feel in Grid Runner. Without mushrooms, however, the trajectory of the snakes on the playfield was too uniform and boring. We needed some equivalent of the mushrooms to make their motions more interesting. I chose to make it so that when you shot a bit of the “centipede”, it'd leave an obstruction on the grid which would cause any centipede encountering it to turn and descend a level, like the mushrooms did in Centipede. This way the actions of the player would themselves generate obstacles on the playfield that would give the snake-enemies more interesting paths.
Like in Centipede, I made it so that the player could choose to shoot away these obstructions, with successive shots reducing them in size until eventually they shrank to nothing and disappeared. But unlike in Centipede, where apart from being obstructions the mushrooms themselves are harmless to the player, I built in an extra threat to mine. I turned them all into time-bombs. If you didn't shoot them away immediately, then every few seconds the “Pods” left behind by shooting snakes would evolve through one step, getting larger. Eventually, every unshot Pod that had been left on the playfield and allowed to “mature” would turn into a bomb, which would streak down the grid, destroying the player if he was caught unawares.
The final twist that I added was to add a couple of guns, one on the bottom edge of the grid and one at the left edge. These moved constantly and, at a regular interval, would fire lightning bolts which would instantaneously kill the player if he got caught in them. Where the two bolts met a new Pod would also be generated.
I added a deep, threatening “zap” sound effect that triggered whenever the guns fired and the Pods evolved, and this gave the game a satisfying, sinister “heartbeat”. The extra tension imparted to the game by these modifications seemed to work quite well, with the player constantly having to keep an eye on the position of the guns and the state of the Pods, and make sure he wasn't in the wrong place when the lighting bolts fired and the Pods matured.
As the weekend came around again I was finishing off the details of the game, separating the gameplay up into twenty successively difficult levels, making a transition screen between one level and the next, writing code that kept track of the score and the number of lives left and declaring Game Over at the appropriate time. In the end I was very tight indeed in the small memory space of the unexpanded Vic, and I couldn't even put my full name on the title screen, having instead to shorten my signature to my three initials “JCM”. Grid Runner became “Gridrunner”, too, because there wasn't much room on the top line of the Vic display to put the game name, player's score, and lives left indication.
It was all finished by the following Sunday night, just in time for me to relax and watch the next episode of Battlestar Galactica. I was pretty pleased with the game, since we were needing more stuff for the unexpanded Vic. Jay Balakrishnan had asked to be sent copies of any new games I did, just in case any more came out which he might want to publish through HES, so the following week I sent a tape of the new game out to California. To be honest I didn't think much about that side of things, because he hadn't been interested in Abductor or Traxx, and I didn't really think he was into any of the new games very much, particularly the smaller, less complex unexpanded Vic games.
As it turned out, I was wrong about that.
YAK, July 2006.