ZX Spectrum Programmer Nick Bruty
Nick Bruty worked as a graphic artist on many classic games on our beloved ZX Spectrum.
A lot of you will remember titles such as the classic arcade games Slap Fight and Out Run, as well as the likes of Dan Dare III: The Escape and Trantor: The Last Stormtrooper.
We were lucky enough to catch up with Nick recently who was more than happy to discuss his days creating wonderful graphics on the ZX Spectrum.
1:What was the first computer you ever programmed on, and how old were you at the time?
I started with very limited access to a ZX81 at my high school in Livingston, Scotland. I was around 13 and had little idea what I was doing but I was instantly hooked.
However computers were new and my school didn't really trust us with them. Things didn't take off until I received my own 48K spectrum for Christmas a year later. You couldn't tear me away from that thing. I would sneak up in the middle of the night to keep playing.
2:How did you get into the games development scene?
My high school friend David Quinn wanted to apply for a programming position at a company called Softstone.
We were only 15 and really had no idea what we were doing. He was learning some sprite routines from a book and as I liked to play around with art, I made him some sprites for his demo. To my utter amazement and jealousy he got the job.
The good news for me was they liked my art and wanted me to come down to Brighton and try out.After a few weeks they hired me on as a full time artist which although awesome wasn't something I had planned on. I thought I would be a programmer but it all seemed to work out well.
3: How did you Probe Software come about?
While we did quite a few titles at Softstone it eventually went bust. David and I were looking for work and found a local company in Probe Software. They were very small back then, in fact David and I were the only developers in the tiny 2 room office.
Our first game for Probe was a horse racing game called Sport of Kings. I can't remember exactly how many different titles I did at Probe, around 20 I think.
4: What was the first game you worked on that was published?
That would be V on the spectrum based off the original TV show back in the 80's. I remember drawing the animations of the main character Donavon (you know, the Beast Master!) on graph paper and manually converting it to hex to get it into the game. Things were very primitive back then.
5: What did you like about programming on the Spectrum and what was your impression of the machine the first time you used it?
It felt pretty slick coming from the ZX81. At the time I was so desperate for a computer, anything would have been great. I loved how open it was. I knew nothing about code or programming techniques but the machine was so simple you couldn't really break it. I felt like an explorer.
Every day I would learn some new revelation. I felt like Mathew Broderick in Wargames. On my mission to learn the secrets of machine code while my parents had no idea what I was doing. Except I was never going to break into the department of defense with Spectrum basic.
6: And what did you not like about programming on the Spectrum?
The lack of hardware graphical support and having to listen to C64 owners go on about their fancy hardware sprites. It did make us speccy's work harder though.
I certainly had my share of micro drive and tape failures. Saving always felt like a treacherous affair. I would hold my breath while the little drive whirled endlessly away, wondering if it would ever return. Thank god for the Opus Disc drive, although even that could be ropey with the edge connection.
7: How did you create graphics on the ZX Spectrum? What was the difference in creating game scenery and game sprites?
My main art package was The Artist. With no mice or tablets available I used a old Atari VCS joystick to draw with. To get from one side of the screen to the other I had to press left and wait 10 seconds for the cursor to get there.
Creating loading screens was rather painful.Scenery was generally done in 8x8 tiles. Typically you would only have 256 tiles to play with so you had to be careful how you spent them. This would also have to include the font if you wanted something other than the system one.
Over time I used a few different customized tile editors. You would draw your tiles and arrange them in a sequence of blocks. Then lay those blocks out in a level map. Thrilling stuff!
Early sprites were done on paper but eventually some kind soul made some primitive sprite editors. The frustrating thing about sprites was being confined to a set rectangular shapes. The size of that rectangle would be the same for every frame.
If you were animating a figure running you had to make it quite small so the arms and legs didn't penetrate out of the set shape and size. Years later this was one of the advancements Dave Perry made when we did Aladdin on the genesis. We could finally have sprites any shape or size on any frame which allowed us to use actual Disney animation.
8: The opening huge spaceship sprite in Trantor was mighty impressive. How did you get it to look so good?
I've always been a fan of Sci-fi and all the tech that goes with it. Trantor was designed as a very simple game just so I could blow all the memory on giant sprites and try to make something a little more cinematic.
Technically there was nothing very advanced going on, just a big old sprite dumped to the screen. The only concession was to have the movement vertical so we could have smooth scrolling.
9: How did you splash so much colour around in 'Extreme'. It's some achievement on the Speccy given it's attribute problem.
It was my last Spectrum game and I wanted to do something special so I pulled out every trick I knew. It was an original game which meant I could create the visual's to play to the Spectrums strengths.
Dave Perry's game engine was based off 8x8 pixel movement so that helped minimized clash but also meant we were going to have a fast paced game like Savage and Dan Dare 3.
10: Out of all of the Speccy titles you worked on - which is your favourite?
I would probably go with Extreme as DP and I made that without any contract. We were just having some fun although it would have been nice if we could have made more levels for it. I have a fond spot for the game play of Goonies. There weren't many co-op games like that and it was overlooked at the time.
11: Which other artits or programmers on the Spectrum impressed you at the time?
Anything by Ultimate although I don't know the individuals who worked on their titles. Technically they always seemed to be a year ahead of everyone.
Their 2D work was great but my personal favorite was Knightlore.
I'm going to give a shout out to my good friend Bob Stevenson who was doing some excellent art but unfortunately it was on the C64. Never too late Bob!
12: Did you move onto the 16-bit machines once the Spectrum (and 8-bit) scene began to fade?
A few titles before I stopped on 8-bit. Dave and I made a space strategy game call Supremacy (or Overlord in the States) for the Amiga and ST. It was a big departure for us and we had a lot of fun.
After 8 bit I moved onto the Genesis and Snes.This brought its own challenges for me as while I had a good reputation for 8-bit art I didn't really have any clue about colour theory and other basic art techniques.
Moving to 16-bit meant I was now competing with "real" artists and it was the start of a new journey for myself that I'm still enjoying.
13: Were you a games player back then? Did you have any favourite games be it your own or games by other software houses?
Oh yeah, I tend to veer towards action games. In no particular order:-
Way of the Exploding Fist
Daly Thompsons Decathlon
I could go on...
In the arcades it was Star Wars, Defender (which I'm lousy at even though I own one), any race game.
Currently I'm having a lot of fun with Just Cause 2.
14: Can you tell us what you have been doing since those days?
After 8-bit was over for us we then moved onto the Genesis with Terminator. I followed that up with my first SNES game Alien 3.
l then moved over to Virgin Games in the states and worked on Terminator for the megadrive CD and the Disney titles Aladdin and Jungle Book.
At that point myself and the rest of the core Aladdin team left Virgin to start Shiny Entertainment. Our first titles were Earthworm Jim 1&2 for Genesis, Snes and Megadrive CD.
After EWJ I got back to my sci-fi roots and moved into 3D gaming with MDK on the PC. Then I formed a new company, Planet Moon Studios with the MDK team to make Giants Citizen Kabuto and Armed and Dangerous.
Planet Moon is still an independent game developer based in San Francisco.
15: Finally, the retro scene is booming. Would you consider putting something together on the Speccy again?
Only if I can hardwire my Wacom tablet to it... and a mouse... and maybe a hard drive.
Classic Games and ZX Spectrum Games.
13 Sep 2010
ZX Spectrum Programmer Nick Bruty