Chris Jones was one half of Perfection Software who released a number of games for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Chris and Tim Williams had success with titles such as Turtle TimeWarp, the arcade classic Fahrenheit 3000, Force Fighter and Odyssey 1. After this they went on to develop the official game of the TV programme Blockbusters for Macsen Software.
We were lucky enough to catch up with Chris who was more than happy to reminisce about his ZX Spectrum coding days with us.
Interview with Chris Jones - retro programming Sinclair ZX Spectrum
1: To start with, you were still at school at the time. How did you get into the games industry at such a young age?
I was a big fan of the early arcade games especially Space Invaders when I was barely a teenager. They had one in our local fish and chip shop called Cosmic Invaders which I quickly became addicted to, so much so that Cosmic became my nickname at school. After a while I was banned from said fish shop after the owner realised the reason he wasn’t making any money was because one 10 pence game would last me several hours.
We had an excellent computer department at our comprehensive school and I became interested from the word go. It was through the computer department that I met Tim Williams and we became good friends. It became obvious that he had an excellent programming brain and was far superior to anyone else at the school, including the teachers. When 1981 came around I can remember having a ZX 81 for Christmas and I no doubt received my first Spectrum the following year. We were both big fans of the early ZX Spectrum games and I particularly liked Manic Miner. If I recall correctly there was a prize for the first person to complete the game and I can remember being very excited when I finally completed it and found out someone won the prize the previous week.
With Tim’s computer skills it seemed the obvious way forward was for him to try programming some games. I recall a very crude fruit machine being his first effort and although it wasn’t a particularly good game, it did showcase his programming skills if not his game creativity. Next was a Word Seeker game which again was rather crude but seemed to be a natural progression to showcase Tim’s skills. I had very little involvement in either of these games as they were quite basic and simple with no graphic or music skill required.
Odyssey 1 was the next game and I’m sure I had some input with this. Looking back I don’t think Tim was much of a games player and probably wasn’t that familiar with many arcade games so when I suggested a “Berserk” style game he probably didn’t have a clue what I was talking about! So I guess I came up with the concept for Odyssey 1 and assisted with the simple screen layouts and graphic. When we finished the game we thought that it might be good enough to be professionally produced so we looked into the possibilities of how to sell it and become millionaires. Tim’s father was a pretty astute businessman so we decided to form a company and sell Spectrum games. I came up with name Perfection Software and Tim and his father both thought it was a winner so Perfection Software was born. Perhaps what really happened was that no one could think of a better name so it became Perfection Software by default. I like the first reason better!
Tim won a young programmer award for Odyssey 1 at the Cardiff Computech 83 Competition. (Check out http://www.crashonline.org.uk/01/news.htm for more information)
2: You co-developed Fahrenheit 3000 and Turtle Timewarp with Tim Williams. Did the two of you collaborate on any other titles?
As mentioned previous there was Word Seeker which was also a PS release.
The next one we did was Force Fighter which was like a Space Invaders / Galaxians style game. I designed the graphics for this one. Not the best game ever made but a decent shoot-em-up game for the time. (http://www.worldofspectrum.org/infoseekid.cgi?id=0001839)
Turtle Timewarp was one of my favourite games that we made. Many people thought that it was an original game but it was very much based on the 1981 arcade game called, believe it or not, “Turtles”.
It was the first game that I was able to program a tune for, and I chose Beethoven’s Fur Elise. Programming music came easy for me as I had a background in playing the electronic organ from the age of about 8 or 9. I also designed the graphics and all of the mazes, although I’ve no idea how many there are.
Fahrenheit 3000 was Perfection Software’s biggest and most successful game. It’s no secret that it was influenced by Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy which were personal favourites of mine at the time. I think I designed most of the graphics and screen layouts. Looking back at it now it was far too difficult and I imagine many people probably gave up on it and I doubt if many people ever completed it. I think I probably managed to complete it as I would have spent a lot of time testing it to make sure it all worked correctly. It’s nice to see that many people fondly remember it and hold it in high regard.
The last game that I worked on was Blockbusters, but all I did was program the music and type in all the questions. It was the official version that given away on the TV programme.
(We agree that Fahrenheit 3000 is a pretty tough game!)
3: The title music for Fahrenheit 3000 was pretty impressive. How did you manage to make the humble Spectrum beeper sound almost like '2 channel' music?
I was always a big fan of Toccata and I think the first time I heard it would have been from the opening scene from the film Rollerball. When the band Sky released it in 1980 I went out and purchased the sheet music and learned to play it (probably badly). When we made Fahrenheit 3000 we decided we needed a big song to make an impact as soon as the game loaded. I suggested Toccata and we both agreed that was the ideal choice and that the Sky version had a more contemporary arrangement.
The thing with Toccata is that because it is quite fast and there’s a few sections which have every other note the same, it gives the impression that it has two channels.
One of my proudest moments was when Tim and I walked into a computer fair at London’s Alexandra Palace and Toccata was blasting through the speakers.
4: Did you only write games on the ZX Spectrum or did you devlop on other machines during that era?
No I worked on the ZX Spectrum only.
5: Are you still active in the computer games industry today?
6: Where you a ZX Spectrum (or any other machine) games player back in the day? If so do you have any favourite titles?
I was a big fan of the Spectrum games back in 83-85. I fondly remember games like Manic Miner, Jet Set Willy, Jetpac, Lunar Jetman, Atic Atac, Pssst, Chuckie Egg, Ant Attack and many others.
7: Do you still keep in touch with Tim Williams and/or any other games developers from that era?
I doubt I’ve seen Tim for at least twenty years.
8: What were the best and worst things about working on the ZX Spectrum?
The keyboard was the best and worst thing. It was great using the Spectrum keyboard after struggling with the Sinclair ZX81 but compared with modern day keyboards, it’s pretty poor now.
9: What sort of development kit did you use? Did you just code directly (machine code or assembler?) into the Spectrum or did you also have other kit?
Well Tim was able to program direct with machine code into the Spectrum. Actually when Tim won the programming award he was the only entry to use machine code programming.
I honestly can't remember how I programmed the music but I'm guessing I used the Beep command and programmed it in Basic. I expect that Tim must have transferred the information into machine code.
Most of the graphics and screen layouts I designed were done with graph paper!
It was quite difficult to produce the mazes in Turtle Timewarp (I designed all of them) as all the pathways had to be 2 characters square (16 X 16 pixels) to accommodate the Turtle and the enemies, and because of the small screen size of the Spectrum I had to be creative with the designs.
10: Sticking with the Speccy, when did you first see one and what did you think of it?
I honestly don’t recall.
We must thank Chris for taking the time to answer these questions and give us an insight into the early days of Spectrum games development. For Spectrum and Sinclair nuts such as us it’s a real privilege.
Chris now works as a sound engineer for a band called Magenta. Check them out at:
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