22 Jan 2010
Doug Burns worked as a games programmer during the 1980's for Imagine Software and developed the classic arcade game Hypaball and the also developed the excellent arcade conversion of Konami's Ping Pong.
We were lucky enough to catch up with Doug who was more than happy to take us through his days of game development on the ZX Spectrum...
1: What was the first computer you ever programmed on? And how old were you?
When I was about 14 or 15 one of my friends got a ZX80 and we spent a while on that, but just very rudimentary BASIC stuff (although I do remember my Dad talking to me about computers and flowcharts when I was maybe 10?).
Then when I was 16, I got a ZX81 and a Memotech 16K RAM Pack for Christmas and spent the next year or so faffing around with disassemblers/assemblers and playing games. 3D Monster Maze, Psion's Flight Simulator and Quicksilva's Defender stand out in my memories. The latter was what I spent most of my time disassembling.
2: How did you get into developing computer games?
While I was 17 and on the dole in Edinburgh (I'd used up my full allowance of two YOP scheme roles by then!), I was reading one of the magazines and saw an advert for Imagine. They were obviously taking on shed-loads of people to take care of the Marshall Cavendish contract so I applied even though I had no commercial experience and went down to Liverpool for an interview with a guy called Tim Best and probably one of the developers or artists (memory a bit hazy here).
I had absolutely no relevant experience beyond having disassembled commercial games and nothing to show them but they were desperate for bodies and I think my enthusiasm won them over so they wanted me to start the following Monday. At that point I became a sort of house mascot, I think. I was one of the youngest employees - a bit younger than Eugene Evans - and not doing an awful lot but helping people out with bits and pieces and entertaining people with my youthful naivety! Had the highest score on the Vanguard arcade machine in the office, though . God, there are some stories I could tell you about my time at Imagine, but it would go on for days.
3: Apart from developing Ping Pong and Hypaball, did you work on any other titles on the ZX Spectrum?
I helped out with bits and pieces during the Imagine/Marshall Cavendish period and eventually made a start on a games designer, in the mould of HURG and Games Designer (not sure if I've got those titles right) but was laid off by Imagine about a month before they went bust and everybody else went the same way.
After a short stint getting over being laid off and kicked out of the company-rented house, I started work on a C16 game for Quicksilva, but then they were bought out by Argos and so I started work on a Grog's Revenge conversion for the ZX Spectrum on a freelance basis for U.S. Gold/Ocean. Although I made a good enough start to get me a permanent job at Ocean, it really wasn't going anywhere fast so got canned.
Then, after Hypaball, I worked on something called P.L.O.D on a freelance basis for Odin/Firebird. Title courtesy of Jof, graphics by Dawn Jones. By now I was thoroughly disenchanted with games, software houses and life in general and I suspect PLOD reflected that although I fortunately don't have a copy to confirm that!
4: After you left the ZX Spectrum scene what did you do next?
I spent ages on the dole, to be honest. One of the things about getting a job in games so early was that you grew up really quickly because it was quite a dynamic environment but didn't grow up at all, because it was sheltered. So it took me a while to sort myself out in the midst of Thatcher's Britain.
I did some weird jobs, including being a Light Jockey (yes, I'm serious) in a big nightclub in Edinburgh but eventually I worked for a PC dealership who had some pretty big commercial clients and found that some extremely basic dBase III+ and Foxbase+ 'programming' was considered some sort of genius.
I thought people were having a laugh, but those fairly low standards continue to this day (the industry's I mean, not necessarily mine, but you do get lazy ....) From there, I eventually got my first proper job with a big grown-up business because I was lucky to be interviewed by someone that thought assembly language programming might be a *touch* trickier than CICS/Cobol and, from there, I got into Oracle and got landed with all the low-level stuff which ended up with me being a DBA. That was 20 years ago and I've been happy working in the same area since then (much to my surprise).
5: What did you like about developing on the Spectrum?
Well, it was so basic, with a CPU and a memory-mapped screen and not much else, that it was just about moving tons of data around quickly, which is still what I do in a way. The 6502 crowd always had chips and stuff to program, but I reckon that was a pile of b*ll*cks - just give me some CPU and memory. As for different machine ROMs - LOL - like we would ever call a ROM routine!
6: Conversely, what did you not like about programming the Spectrum?
The classic thing that I suspect everyone else didn't - attribute clash and lack of colours. Of course people learned to get around that very effectively, but it would have been nice to have the pallette to go with the processor.
7: Did you work on any of the other 8-bit machines during that era?
Well, I worked on the ZX81, but not commerically. I also had a stint on the C16, but 6502 wasn't for me really. Other developers swore by the 6809, but who could stand those two Dragon pallettes! LOL
8: Were you given 'free reign' to develop games, or did other people come up with gaming concepts too?
Oh, game designs were never my work. I'm the most uncreative person I know, it was all just coding to me really and I suppose that's one of the many reasons I wasn't destined to be a great games programmer. But, in general, there was definitely tons more freedom than today. Yeah, the bosses might say 'we're not sure about that' (when they bothered to take a look) but there was none of that nonsense where big console vendors mould it into something completely average.
9: How was life at Ocean / Imagine at that time?
We don't have time, really! So I'll limit myself to .... exciting ... brilliant people ... chaos ... not like a proper job.
10: Which other developers or software houses impressed you at the time?
Jof, obviously. Steve Weatherill. Ultimate
11: Do you have any favourite Spectrum games? Do you play any games today?
Ultimate games, first and foremost. The Manic Miner stuff. All the usual suspects, I'm afraid. When I first encountered ZX Spectrum emulators, I was pleased beyond belief, as was my Dad who was an absolute Spectrum games nut! So I went through a phase of digging out loads of things to play and thoroughly enjoyed it.
They all seem pretty playable to me to this day, but I'm not the greatest games fan at the best of times, so it was predominantly nostalgia.
12: How do you think todays games compare to those from the 8-bit era?
I think they're brilliant and have no time for bitter nostalgia although I suspect I haven't come across the really bad ones because I don't buy or play many and just follow the crowd. But, really ... Half-Life 2, Fallout, Gran Turismo stuff? I would have murdered my granny to have those possibilities at my disposal.
Although I think it's fair to say that the lack of limitations maybe means people don't have to be quite so creative with gameplay and addiction because the sound and pictures make up for it.
13: I take it you are working with Oracle at the moment. That's a lot different to 8-bit machine code and assembler! Any chance you could write another game at some point?
Absolutely no chance. When I first found emulators and an on-going Speccy scene, I was severely tempted for about 2 weeks, but once I started disassembling Ping Pong and realised I couldn't work out how the f*ck it worked, I realised that was it for me!
But I would definitely say my entire career grew out of those Spectrum experiences and those skills have been remarkably resilient to different systems, applications and new things I need to take on. I wish there were a few more games programmers around because the business apps world might be a lot better!
Once again many thanks to Doug for taking the time to do this for us.
Classic Games, Arcade Games and ZX Spectrum Games
15 Jan 2010
Pheenix ZX Spectrum
Classic, classic classic! A real golden oldie this one. Phoenix was an arcade game that was released way back in 1980 by Amstar Electronics.
By the time it was converted to the ZX Spectrum (as Pheenix) by the curiously named Megadodo software in 1983 it was already a bit of a classic game.
Anyway - Pheenix was a very faithful arcade conversion that really did the original game justice - and all within 16K of RAM too!
The game had five skill levels to pick from, and five screens to play through. Like many arcade games from that era - it was a top down viewed shoot em up set in outer space.
Once the various options had been chosen, such as skill levels, the game began with a nice little melody which was qutie like the arcade original (in Spectrum Beeper style). The scrolling stars were in there too.
In screen 1 (your craft appeared at the bottom of the playing area) very colourful 'birds' form up on the screen, one or two breaking formation to attack you. For defence your ship was equiped with a laser cannon and also a funky electro force field that could be activated in those tight spot moments.
Screen 2 was very much like the first but the birds were a different colour (with animated flapping wings now!) and they attacked you more frequently. Luckily you're rate of fire was increased to help you out.
On screen 3 you a not so nice surprise was sprung on you. Weaving eggs were there to be shot at (did the laser fry them?)
Anyway - shooting the weaving eggs caused them to split open with the points awarded inside, the two halves of the egg shooting off to either side of the screen, just as in the original arcade game.
After three passes of the eggs over the screen, the birds inside hatched out, and each flapping creature were more intent on killing you than previously.
I found using the force-field barrier quite useful on this stage as the birds swoop down to crash into you and also drop bombs. The force-field only lasts for a few seconds and then needs a few more seconds to recharge - so a little strategy is needed.
On the fourth screen the birds behave in a similar fashion to those on screen three, but in a nice touch sort of 'squawked' if you hit them with a non-fatal shot.
Finally we come to the most tricky part: The mother ship.
The object here is to destroy the area/barrier beneath the ship and kill the big bird inside.
Once you had popped a cap in big birds ass you were given a congratulatory message before being returned to level 1 - with the game speed increased.
Well Phoenix was already a bit of a classic game by 1983, but it had been very popular and a nice twist on the Space Invaders genre. Pheenix was quite popular on the ZX Spectrum and is probably one of the better shoot em ups from the early days of Spectrum games. For those folk that had a 16K Spectrum it represented a sound purhase.
The test of time:
Well if you like a quick blast on a simple shoot em up then you can't go far wrong with Pheenix. It is still playable and fun, and getting past the mothership is quite challenging. Pheenix is a true classic game on the Spectrum and is worth playing again to remind us of the very early days.
Play this again and let the Pheenix rise. You could stay up late and play it you fancy a bit of Pheenix nights.
We recommend getting hold of the real Sinclair hardware - but if not then download a ZX Spectrum emulator and download Pheenix for the ZX Spectrum. Alternatively you could try and play it online.
Please see our other ZX Spectrum games reviews and programmer interviews - all links are in alphabetical order. Cheers guys.
GENRE: Arcade game
RELEASE DATE: 1983
RELEASED BY: Megadodo
PRICE: £5.50 - UK
Die you viscious alien space birds! Pheenix still plays well...
Classic Games and Arcade Games
4 Jan 2010
This was an arcade game which took a slightly different stance to the ball game genre.
Mirrorsoft released Action Reflex for the ZX Spectrum in the summer of 1986 and it was pretty well received by those demanding gamers.
Your chequered ball had been trapped inside a linked bunch of mazes. To win your freedom you had to traverse through all three mazes (three times in total - with each pass becoming more difficult).
The game was a flick screen arcade adventure, with the game screens viewed side on. You could roll your ball to the left or right as well as bouncing it, bouncing higher and higher if you wanted or needed to.
This classic game was played against the clock and you had to reach the end of the current zone within the time alloted or it was game over.
There were plenty of weird and wonderful pitfalls to avoid such as spring loaded boxing gloves which propelled you into sharp spikes, downwards sucking drains, killer bullets and ball magnets. Being hit/trapped by any of them wasted away more precious time thus making it more difficult for you to reach the end of the level.
Sometimes you would even be blown into a series of pipeworks which could roll you back to a previous screen. Infuriating!
To help you along the game would give you useful objects as you scored more points - which were collected on various screens by rolling over them. For instance reaching a number of points would bestow you with a rubber ring which would allow you to travel over pools of water without perishing.
Each item could only be used once though, so sometimes it was wise to hang onto an item until you reached a particularly tricky area of the game.
One neat aspect of this arcade game was the acceleration and deceleration of your ball. As you held down the left or right key the ball would speed up and when you released the key it would slow down to a stop. There was no start or stop with this ball - you had to judge the distances and speed yourself. With a bit of practice this became second nature.
You sometimes had to use this to time a run past an obstacle dropping from the ceiling or shooting upwards from the floor.
Action Reflex was quite highly anticipated prior to release as it was going to be something a little different. When it came out it did not disappoint - it was a very good mix of puzzle and arcade action. Ball type games were popular and this game was a very good one to add to your collection.
The test of time:
Well I still like this. Yes it p*sses me off sometimes and makes me madder than Mad Mick from Madsville, but it is a pretty addictive game and the puzzle solving is great. As it doesn't rely on flash graphics or music it's still a pretty good play.
Give this a go. Action!
GENRE: Puzzle/Arcade Game
RELEASE DATE: Summer of 1986
RELEASED BY: Mirrorsoft
DEVELOPER(S): Christian Urquhart
PRICE: £7.95 - UK
My ball bounds and rebounds in Action Reflex - a slightly different arcade game...
Classic Games and Arcade Games
The Retro Brothers Favourite ZX Spectrum Games...
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