ZX Spectrum Games

ZX Spectrum Games

30 Apr 2010

Spectrum Games - Programmer Interview - David M Webb

David M Webb was a programmer and author of many books for the ZX Spectrum

His books included 'Advanced Spectrum Machine Language' and 'Supercharge your Spectrum' - which were both big sellers.

Many gamers will remember his 3D classic arcade game Starion, and anyone who was into arcade gaming on the ZX Spectrum from the early days may well remember the Pac-Man style game Spookyman.

We were lucky enough to catch up with David who was more than happy to talk about his Spectrum coding days.

Starion ZX Spectrum
1: What was the first computer you ever programmed on, and how old were you at the time?

In 1978, at 13, the parent-teachers association at my school (Fulford Comprehensive, York) used some of their school fete money to buy a teletype terminal and a 300-baud acoustic modem, and we were given an account on the DEC-10 mainframe at York University. So with that, we could write and run basic programs.

The machine had no display, but printed results on rolls of white paper – it was like the machine that used to print the football scores on TV, and very noisy. Games like Lunar Lander were feasible, but in slow motion – you would send a command, and it would move the lander one space and print the results. One of the first programs I wrote was an unbeatable noughts and crosses.

The terminal had a punch-tape reader/writer, so we could store our programs (written in BASIC) on rolls of pink paper punch tape, which fit ideally in a school blazer pocket. Lunchtimes at Fulford were fun.

2: How did you get into the games development scene? Did you start with BASIC before moving into other languages?

Later, in 1981, I bought a ZX81, and taught myself machine language from a book. I wrote a toolkit for the 1K ZX81, which was the first program I sold to Melbourne House, and later a toolkit for the ZX81 with the 16K RAM pack hanging off the pack. The 16K RAM pack cost GBP50, and was notorious for being wobbly, so you had to keep the machine on a solid table to avoid losing memory.

BASIC was, well, basic – you couldn’t do much with an interpreted language on a machine running at 4MHz. Machine language allowed much more. There was a Zilog book called “Programming the Z80” which had details of exactly how many clock cycles each instruction took to execute. Every cycle counted for a top-notch game.

3: How did you end up at Melbourne House? And what was the company like to work for?

I never worked for Melbourne House as such. They were one of my publishers, and paid me royalties based on a percentage of sales of my works, but there was no employment contract. I was still at Woking Sixth Form College and then Oxford University while writing the books and games. A company called Abbex also published two of my games.

4: What was the first game you had published?

After the ZX 81 Toolkit, my first game for the Spectrum was Spookyman, which was not unlike Pac Man.

5: What did you like about programming on the Spectrum and what was your impression of the machine the first time you used it?

Well, the big breakthrough was that it had colour, and a decent screen resolution (256x192 was big news compared to the ZX81), and a separate graphics chip, so the CPU didn’t spend half its time painting the screen, as the ZX80 and ZX81 did. The bad news was that you could only have 2 colours per 8x8 pixel block, so games had to work around that. So there was one memory block of 6KB for the monochrome data (256x192/8), and then a different block for the colour, which was much smaller (32x24=768 bytes). Still, for the 16KB spectrum, that took up quite a bit of RAM. It was certainly built down to a price – hence the membrane keyboard.

For my later games, I used a Memotech machine to write in assembler, and port the code across the RS232 link in the Expansion Pack for testing.

6: And what did you not like about programming on the Spectrum?

See above

7: How did you get into writing books about programming?

Melbourne House asked me to write the books. The first was “Supercharge Your Spectrum” and the second was “Advanced Spectrum Machine Language”. The first one had more mass-market appeal, because BASIC programmers could use it. The second one was, as its title suggests, aimed at more sophisticated users.

8: Did you prefer writing games or books?

I enjoyed both. The books were a bit more tedious because of all the proof-reading, but it was cool to see my name in print at 18. The games were intellectually challenging, because I had to stretch the capabilities of the machine to new boundaries by writing really neat and efficient code.

9: How did you manage to animate smooth vectors and a machine as humble as the ZX Spectrum?

This was a bit of a breakthrough at the time. The key to it was some very efficient code for copying the 4K of active screen area (256x128) during the screen refresh. I had to draw each frame in a separate block of RAM (4K) and then copy it across to the graphics area when the machine had finished drawing that part of the screen to the CRT. So I wrote a routine treated the screen memory like a stack, using every register of the CPU (including the alternates), pushing and popping 16 bytes at a time.

10: Did you move onto the 16-bit machines once the Spectrum scene began to fade?

No. My last game was the Amstrad version of Starion, written in the summer of 1985. The C64 version was programmed (badly) by someone else, but I got a royalty for the game design. Then I had 1 year left to focus on my maths degree.

11: Can you tell us what path you took once you had moved on from the ZX Spectrum? Are you still active in the games industry today?

No, I could see in 1986 that it would soon be impossible for a single programmer to turn out a top-class game, because of the increasing power of computers. So with polyphonic sound and much better displays, it would take teams of people to produce a good game, including composers and graphics designers, and a lot of business knowledge to run that as a company. I didn’t have the business knowledge, and I didn’t just want to be a programmer.

By then I had been investing my royalties in the stock market, and this interest took me into investment banking in the City of London at the age of 21. I moved to Hong Kong in 1991, and this is now my home. I was an investment banker until 1994, then worked for a local conglomerate as in-house adviser for 4 years, then retired in 1998 (aged 32) to focus on my investments in HK small-caps, and set up a non-profit site, http://www.webb-site.com/, to push for corporate and economic governance reforms.

My programming skills still come in handy – I wrote a lot of VBscript and Visual Basic to automate the site, which uses a MySQL database back-end.

12: Were you a games player back then? Did you have any favourite games be it your own or games by other software houses?

Not really. Writing them was more fun. I do recall a couple of good games: Manic Miner and Chequered Flag.

13: Which other developers on the Spectrum impressed you during that time?

I can’t remember any, but it was always cool to see people pushing the envelope with what the machine could do.

14: And finally - with the whole retro game scene booming do you ever fancy writing another game for the Spectrum?

Yes, but I will never find the time to do it!

Here is an example of David's vectror graphics from the demo Show 3D:

Once again many thanks to David for taking the time to do this.

Classic Games, Arcade Games and ZX Spectrum Games

29 Apr 2010

Spectrum Games - Spookyman - ZX Spectrum Classic Game

ZX Spectrum Spookyman
This is a rare and very early arcade game on the good old ZX Spectrum, released waaaay back in the early days (1982!) by Abbex Electronics.

The games author David Webb would go on to write some popular programming books for the Speccy as well as creating the vector graphics arcade classic Starion.

As you may have guessed, Spookyman was basically a pacman game (clone), and was a pretty good rendition of the Pacman on the Speccy.

Spookyman - ZX Spectrum
Spookyman managed to cram in plenty of the arcade game features such as pac dots, power pills, hearts, clubs and diamonds to eat and of course the spectral looking ghosts who roamed around the maze.

Also there was the 'wrap around' part of the maze where you exit from one side of the screen and re-appear on the other, which was always useful for getting yourself out of a sticky situation.

Spookyman was a Pac Man game on the ZX Spectrum
It must also be said that this game moves at a fair old pace. Your Pac Man style character zips around the maze rapidly and it can take a few plays to get used to it. Once you get the hang of the speed though you can nip around that maze and avoid the nasties pretty well.

A good feature of this classic game is that when you eat the power pill the ghosts stay 'eatable' for a decent amount of time, giving you plenty of opportunity to chew through them and rack up that high score. Incidentally the high score can be re-set any time you wish- another nice little feature.

All in all, if you like Pac Man then give this one a go, it really is testament to early ZX Spectrum Games.

GENRE: Arcade Game (Pacman Game)
RELEASED BY: Abbex Electronics
DEVELOPER(S): David Webb
PRICE: £5.95 - UK

Spookyman was doing well until he was distracted by someone... classic arcade action:

Arcade Games, Classic Games and ZX Spectrum Games

20 Apr 2010

Spectrum Games - Kong Strikes Back - Classic ZX Spectrum Game

Kong Strikes Back ZX Spectrum
An earlier game from Ocean Software which was obviously inspired by the arcade games Kong and Mr Do's Wild Ride.

This game was released on the ZX Spectrum early in 1985 - and was a pretty good twist on the platform genre. As usual, the mighty Kong had kidnapped yet another damsel in distress and it was up to you to rescue the fair maiden. All done against the clock of course.

Kong Strikes Back ZX SpectrumThis time though the setting was a fairground, with Kong and the damsel perched atop a rollercoaster type structure.

Why were damsels always in distress in 80's computer games?

Anyway, just like the classic arcade game the beast would roll things towards you, in this case he would hurtle rollercoaster cars along the tracks which took one of your four lives if they hit you.

You had a limited number of bombs which could destroy a coaster-car, but could only be used when you were standing on a 'flat' section of the track. Luckily there were ladders dotted around the track which you could use to evade the oncoming cars and conserve your ammo. Timing your movements around the track was the key to success.

Kong Strikes Back - ZX Spectrum first screen
You had to follow the 'track' from the bottom to the top, your little character moving smoothly and following the track lines well.

If you avoided the roller-cars and made it to the top the maiden was rescued, and you were awarded bonus points for the amount of time you had left to spare. There were also bonus items to collect which boosted your score, and you could gain extra lives by racking up a lot of points.

There were four screens to play through and once you had completed the fourth you were sent back to the beginning with the difficulty increased and more nasties to contend with.

On Release:
This game was a moderate hit for Ocean and was generally well recieved. Spectrum gaming magazine Crash awared it an overall score of 73% - pretty good. Fans of Kong and Mr Do enjoyed it as it was playable and the keyboard response was good - which is essential in this type of game.

The test of time:
Well this was a pretty good arcade type game on the ZX Spectrum and still plays quite well today. Your character moves very well over the rollercoaster tracks and once you get the hang of it running up and down the ladders is quite fun. If you like Kong or Mr Do then you can't go far wrong.

It also reminds me a little of Gilligan's Gold - another earlier game from Ocean I quite like.

We recommend getting hold of the real Sinclair hardware but if not then download this one for a ZX Spectrum emulator. Alternatively you could try and play it online.

Please see our other ZX Spectrum retro game reviews and programmer interviews - all links are listed in alphabetical order. Cheers guys.

GENRE: Arcade Game
RELEASE DATE: February 1985
RELEASED BY: Ocean Software
DEVELOPER(S): Jonathan Smith, Nigel Alderton, F David Thorpe PRICE: £6.90

The Spectrum Gamer strikes back - the first two screens of arcade action:

Classic Games, Arcade Games and ZX Spectrum Games

14 Apr 2010

Spectrum Games - Dragon Ninja - ZX Spectrum Classic Game

ZX Spectrum Dragon Ninja
Well what can I say about this conversion of the famous arcade game by Data East?

Imagine developed a lot of good arcade conversions for the ZX Spectrum (with the likes of Green Beret and Hypersports) - but this was about as far from a good conversion as you could get.

Anyway - let's have a look at a 'classic game' that actually turned out to be pretty crap.

"I'm bad" is just about right.

Dragon Ninja - ZX Spectrum
Just like in the arcade game president 'Ronnie' had been kidnapped by a bunch of ninja's (yes really!) and in stepped the bad dudes (you) to save him, and the day I suppose. So - here we were with another 'right-to-left scrolling, fight the bad guys and recue someone type deal'.

The game took inspiration from another classic arcade game, Shinobi. This inspiration was the fact that you could fight on the upper or lower area of the screen, jumping up and down between the upper and lower portion of the screen at will.

This feature worked pretty well in the arcade game but on the Speccy the controls are sticky and your 'bad dude' doesn't really react well to your keypresses.

The graphics are pretty poor; the game characters are pretty small and not well animated, the backgrounds bland and the scrolling is average at best.

Throwing kicks and punches in the relative direction of the bad guys seems to take them out - and jumping over a gap is a lottery in itself.

By 1988 games of this quality (and especially arcade conversions) were not acceptable - we all knew the Spectrum was capable of so much more.

If you want to complete this game take the following steps: Crouch, leg sweep, walk. Crouch, leg sweep, walk. Crouch, leg sweep, walk. Repeat until you either complete the game or you're brain freezes with boredom.

Dragon Ninja on the ZX Spectrum - It's bad!Give this one a miss - worth it for the comedy value only. Like the bad dudes say - 'It's bad'.

On Release:
On release this game was generally regarded as crap.

The Test Of Time:
After more than 20 years this game is still crap.

GENRE: Arcade Game (Beat em up)
RELEASED BY: Imagine Software
DEVELOPER(S): Bill Harbison, Paul Owens, Mark R Jones
PRICE: £8.95 (About £8.85 too expensive)

I beat the first boss then die of boredom...

Classic Games, Arcade Games and ZX Spectrum Games

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Jetpac Remake