Jonathan (Jof) Smith Interview - ZX Spectrum Programmer
Jonathan (Jof) Smith (sometimes known as Joffa Smiff and Joffa Smith) is regarded as one of the top developers of games on the ZX Spectrum.
With an impressive list of titles to his name such as arcade conversions Green Beret (one of my favourite arcade games) and Hypersports, slick platformers such as Cobra, and shoot em up Firefly, he created many top notch titles for the Sinclair machine.
|Batman was another fantastic game from Jonathan Smith|
We were lucky enough to catch up with Jof to reminisce a little about his days working on the Spectrum.
It is with deep regret that I must add that sadly Jonathan Smith passed away on the morning of 26/06/2010. I have to say that not only was Joffa a programming genious he was a very friendly and helpful man. After this interview we kept in contact and he was always more than happy to share with me insights into his coding days on the ZX Spectrum and how things were in the gaming industry at that time.
Many thanks Joffa for all of your help. I hope that this interview with Joffa conducted in September 2009, will give as much pleasure to any of you readers as it did to me.
1: What was the first computer you ever programmed on? And how old were you?
The ZX Spectrum, I was about 15 or 16. I was doing loads of stuff at school / sixth form - like wacky paintings, film making, animation and model making and things that people can do quite easy now, but was hard back then! This would have been in the late 70s, early 80s - though the Speccy stuff started a bit later.
About 1983. I think! I did a few simple games, then things got bigger and I had to make a choice - films or gaming!
I had an application for the National Film Board, where I would have been working along side Nick Park of 'Wallace And Gromit' fame but chose to leave sixth form because I got a job offer at Ocean software in Manchester. A big mistake!
2: Which game was your first ever commercially published title?
That would be 'Pud Pud', which was first seen on the "Commercial Breaks" BBC documentary about the early software industry. The BBC crew were there filming me at my first week in work. Not good. And if you search the internets you will see me die!
I popped into Ocean with "Pud Pud" and a Donkey Kong style game called "The Thing!" and was working full time for them a few days later.
3: What did you like about developing on the ZX Spectrum?
Well, over the years I have worked on a number of formats, but there is nothing better than stripping everything away and starting from scratch! There is nothing to work with so you are FREE! And even though people slag the Speccy off - it sorted the men out from the boys, programming wise.
And there is still some stuff being produced that is still just WOW! Fantastic!
You just have to put the effort in, I guess! This just doesn't happen today. You can say to someone that they have a completely blank canvas - and they say yeah! And then they find out what a completely clear sheet of nothing is, and they run!
Nothing! No maths subroutines, no auto screen manipulation, no help. You are now on your own! Now GO! Arrggghhhhh!
It's better that they don't know! Not knowing hurts like hell! 'Calling' a development kit routine to find the square root of a number isn't programming.
Take control. Work out how to do it yourself and do it fast! That's programming! This rocks...
; FIND SQUARE ROOT OF 16BIT NUMBER
; In: hl = value
; Out: a = result (rounded down)
I would like to produce a super fast console that has nothing but a big screen and loads of memory. And that's it! That'll 'learn' 'em! (I reckon that would be a great console for classic gaming!)
I remember being shown around 'Warthog', before signing up, and, apart from being amazed, wondering what all these people were doing!
"You lot have lost it!". And they did lose it.
And I get put on the weakest project that the company isn't bothered too much about. Story of my life! "You are good on the sh*t stuff!"
4: Conversely, what did you not like about programming the Spectrum?
Nothing really. Not that I can think of. No regrets.
5: How on earth did you make the Spectrum single beeper perform 'drum beats' whilst simultaneously playing a tune? It was like 2-channel sound!
When I did the "PING PONG" music code I was amazed at the reaction, the press coverage.
I'm just glad that people then went out and started playing with stuff that was or wasn't possible with the 'beeper'. And they did incredible things with it! Much better than my stuff! LOL!
From a technical point of view it was nothing special - the interrupt driven drum sounds banging over the pulse width modulation to make it 2 channels.
The 'Ping Pong' thing was meant to be for 'Green Beret', but I ran out of memory. I think. (Do you see what I did there?)
But that's okay. It 'sparked' people into action. Made them look / listen in a different way. And there is some stunning stuff out there! Clicking a tiny speaker on an off! Ace!
But after I left Ocean my beeper stuff was used on loads of Ocean games - but they missed the point. It was all about trying to make the musicians point clear and not just a drum beat over a silly tune. It takes time to work out, using pitch bends and arpeggio (sp) and strange phase sounds and special fx. I was just there to try and work it all out for Martin Galway, and not to be ripped off! They couldn't do it anyway.
It took a couple of hours for us both to do the "Ping" music and I remember asking Martin at the end if he liked it. He said "Yes, but I wouldn't play it in my car!"
And don't anyone ask about the explosion at the end of the tune - attack, sustain, decay - I can't remember!
6: Out of all of the titles you developed for the rubber keyed monolith, which one are you most proud of?
Firefly. This was the only one of my games that I played and enjoyed. There is a skill to it. You have to know how to play it.
I played it last in around 2001, and quite enjoyed it! Not perfect, but if you know how to 'not gamble' it is okay. I got to the end of the course, of course.
Fighting against my younger self! Who is going to win? Get back to school mate, you is crap! Innit! SLAP!
7: Were you given 'free reign' to develop the games, or did other people come up with gaming concepts too?
Early on 'free reign'. Though most of the early stuff was / were conversions from arcade games so you have to just make things already there work on a restricted format in a given amount of time. The time was based on when the adverts appeared in the magazines and was set well in advance.
Which was fun in that you had an excuse for things being slighty crap. You could blame it on the deadline. I didn't do much design work myself, it was usually done by other people better than me - but I did do Firefly, that was totally mine! I worked on all the FX projects, good and bad, that weren't arcade conversions. And then some!
Like the graphics for 'Midnight Resistance' - which were pulled from the arcade board roms and I had to work out how the colours worked and reformat them for the ST and the Amiga. The artists loved you for doing this - but it's not my job! And then I have to write an art / mapping utility to enable it all to work. And then write the game conversion! Never give a sucker half a chance! LOL!
Actually my map editor was stunning! Much better than the game!
There was a load of other stuff I did but people bottled out and now that stuff is lost in time!
8: Another tech question (boring I know) but the parallax scrolling on Cobra was superb. How did you managed to achieve it and keep everything so smooth?
The parallax FX was just a 'bit' 'rolled' at half speed and written to the 'blank block' to produce a vertical line - other FX could have been done - but this was okay and I was running out of time to finish the game. Given more time I could have done more. I wanted to have a bitmap picture in the background! But it looks okay.
Another week and it would have been AWESOME! But you have to let go, or rather it gets taken from you. That's it! Gone! No game testing. Just gone! But this is other people's money and if they say stop - you stop. And there is a back catalogue of stuff to be done before Christmas.
The scrolling looks smooth because it is quick! But with many restrictions! Hopefully no-one notices these imperfections - part of the design! HA!
The graphic routines in "Mikie" are probably the most complicated things I have done. A simple game that looks so simple. Headache! And no-one sees any of it! Brilliant! Disassemble that b*st*rd for a laugh! I don't think I could do it again!
Jon Woods (one of the Ocean directors) told me that this was my next game and came into my room a day later and looked at what I had done (2 screens up and running) and he told me to "Just f*ck off!", and walked away laughing!
For legal reasons I will say that I am paraphrasing his comments here.
Terra Cresta haunts me. It was my last in-house project at Ocrean and I lost control of it. I didn't know it was to be released with the ZX Spectrum +2, or that there was to be technical problems with what I hated doing. The released thing is a 'bodge'. But I hated it anyway. I wished / wish it would go away. (I reckon it's still a decent arcade game)
Bloody internet! Oh well! It was done quick! That's my excuse! And then you find out that someone has claimed to have done your graphics! SOD OFF!
9: If you could go back would you still choose games development over film and animation?
Oh! The game industry has turned its back on me - so I have no choice but to go back and make up for lost time and move forward. I love making games, but enough is enough now. Never say "never", but, erm, "never". (I'm not dead yet - so there is still hope!)
Nobody is willing to take a chance - and I can't do this stuff alone anymore, as much as I want to. Well, I can, but it would just take too long, and I'm getting old!
I have loads of ideas that people might like - but, unfortunately, it all has to go through a big-wig arsehole filter that can only output profit.
I remember, at school, looking in the job centre window and seeing an application for a games programmer. I went in and got on the phone to the company and the first thing they said, after I had told them I had two games on the go, was "can you do us a Manic Miner?". Not interested in my work at all.
One of the main reasons for me starting work at Ocean (summer 1984) was because they reviewed my stuff, and gave me a new ZX Spectrum because my keyboard was busted! And they were all nice - and they didn't ask me to write them a Manic Miner!
Back on topic - I have, more or less (less), set up a small production company called "Shorten Suite" (short and sweet, get it?) to produce my own stuff.
Videos, films, games, music, scripts, novels, artwork, designs, everything etc. This is taking up all of my time and there is little money coming through as yet.
I want to sit back at the end of the day and watch what other brilliant people do and boost them forwards. I want people to use me as a stepping stone, but I don't want to be walked all over. And whatever they come up with triggers me into action!
10: Which developers at the time inspired and impressed you - and did you get to collaborate with them on any titles?
Just the obvious ones - Ultimate (they offered us a deal at Special FX, but it was just rubbish) and Nintendo. I have worked with lots of people and companies over the years, but that is beyond this little interview! And this is all about me! So sod them! LOL!
11: What avenue have you taken since? (You implied that the games industry had turned it's back on you more recently - the fools!)
I'm writing scripts for TV and making my own films (again) and its taking ages because there isn't any budget - but I'll get there in the end!
I've been doing other stuff here and there - mini YouTube p*ss-taking (miss-leading low quality stuff that if you look close - shine). I am writing two novels too!
Here's a clip from one of them novels...
'The Bobbing Of The Bodies.' - Seven days and severe daze.
There is a bad smell here.
"There is a really bad smell in here."
"You're lucky. I taste it. I smell of it. My wife hates me, but that's another story!"
The neon strip-lights flicker on and off. They have a strange alternating 'buzzing' sound emanating from them that seem to rattle the air in many different directions all at once. But the twin, steel-table-over-the-head-spot-light-super-glare bulbs wash everything in a relentless unrealness, shining near perfect patterns twinkling in tiny eye-like circles reflected in some of the things laid out before them both.
But, sadly and dimly - unblasting light in the splattering of the blood spots that are spat all around them. Bits of their light, like tiny weak little 'glow-flies' reflecting from an underpowered miniature posh child's toy-house fibre-optic display, look upwards at everything and cause a blink or blinks or wipe of tears. But thankfully, they diminish the power and intensity of 'the bad bits' - making the blobs appear blackish and fake, and somewhat less frightening. Ish.
But that smell.
"Well? What am I looking at?"
"This consists of over 100 different body parts. At least. All cut up and stitched back together or glued back together again. Rather well done, in fact."
"So, you're saying we are looking at over a 100 different murders here?"
"No. I've not finished examining 'the body' yet, and there's samples that need testing - which may take a few weeks to get back to me.
But I CAN tell you that the eyes come from a sheep and the teeth are from a cow, or maybe a young horse."
"There isn't a butterfly or moth hidden in the mouth, is there?"
"No. But the genitals are very interesting."
"I'm scared to ask!"
"I'm scared to tell you!"
"Well, you'll have to..."
"I'll file the report. Don't worry."
"Is there anything you can me give now? Time of death or something?"
"Don't be funny."
"The hands are mostly new. A few days I'd say. Unless they have been frozen."
"Any finger prints?"
"Yes, ten different ones. Nice stitch work around the knuckles. The prints are over there in the file."
"Anything else you can give me to be quickly getting on with?"
"Try the grave yards. The freshly buried. Most people get cremated, so it shouldn't be too hard to find 'missing' whole bodies or disturbed graves."
"And if nothing turns up?"
"Then you have one bastard out there! With one hell of a fetish."
"I thought we have one bastard out there anyway, with one hell of a fetish!"
"Yeah, but it's one thing to dig up dead bodies, another to mess about with live ones! And I think there's more than one person involved here. And I'm not just talking about 'this bodies'. Check the local cemeteries. Check the local homeless. Check the local schools. Check the local farms."
"What, looking for evidence? Don't tell me my job."
"You are looking for the things that are missing. The things that are NOT there. The things we have here."
Another 'bodies' rises from the waters. A little girl sees all, and screams. She is seven. Some of 'the parts' dissipate and disappear again, and have to be collected too much later. Others are fresher and float. All can't talk, yet. But they all have a silent story to yell. They try to sink again,
but their screams are out of sync and are just too loud! They silently drown out the screams of the child.
12: Do you play any current games? If so - what are you favourites (from now and from the Speccy days)?
No. I don't play any current games. I have seen some of them. I do like the latest "Rachet And Clank" on ps3!
The games I do play are stuff that I know off 'by heart', and can think of other things whilst playing them. I have paper pads around me all the time to jot things down as I think things up (things down / things up - ha!)
I have just been looking through some of my notes now, and its like the raving of a mad man!
"My love was getting so deep that my heart sank."
"Hard bike frames." (?)
"Fly with the doves and batter the butterflies because they are rubbish." (?)
"Swim with the doves because the butterflies can't cut it." (?)
"How would you get to speak to God? Reverse the charges."
"Don't accept the impossible - do it anyway."
"I'm a perfectionist, I'm just not very good at it."
"Don't be with someone you can't live with - be with someone you can't be without." (?)
"Life's too short, especially when you get older."
"I'm not asleep - I'm just dreaming out loud." (I like this one)
"Failure is an excuse to start again."
"I'm only here because my wife wants a new kitchen."
"I am blind. And everyday I wake up and I am blind again." (?)
"2 flies in a saucer. Why? Because they are in the cup next week."
"Life begins at 40? No! It just takes 40 years for you to realise it has just started."
"3 is a crowd - but when you want to be alone its two too many."
Once again thanks for taking the time to do this - it's very much appreciated.
No, thank you! My pleasure! Keep your eyes open - you will see my new stuff - even if you like it or not! Keep short and sweet! LOL!
Joffa Smiff - 01/02/1967 26/06/2010
Classic Games and Arcade Games