ZX Spectrum Games

ZX Spectrum Games

8 Jun 2011

Spectrum Games - Programmer Interview - Mark R Jones

Mark R Jones
Mark R Jones worked as a graphics artist on the ZX Spectrum for Ocean Software during the 1980's.

He worked on many prominent titles on our favourite 8-bit machine providing various graphics and loading screens to the likes of the classic arcade conversions of Arkanoid and Arkanoid: Revenge Of Doh, the shoot em up game Mag Max, the Your Sinclair covertape game Road Race and the excellent trade em up game, Tai Pan.

He also provided graphics and the loading screen to the classic game Wizball which holds fond memories for many gamers.

Mark R Jones 1990
I was lucky enough to catch up with Mark who was more than happy to take me through his days of graphics design during his years at Ocean...

1: Hello Mark. What was the first computer you used and how old where you at the time?

The VERY first computer I ever used would have to be those old beige coloured PC things they had in schools in the early 80s. This would have been about 1983.

We didn’t have computers in middle school, so it would have been that year when I started at my upper school, I would have been 13. You’d type in some basic program that would tell you something enthralling, like the percentage of people living in 3 bedroom houses under 35 years of age which you’d then print out on that old printer paper with blue lines and perforated edges.

The first games I ever played though would have to be “Mazogs” or “3D Monster Maze” on my cousin’s ZX-81. I remember him turning off the TV half way through a game of “Mazogs” and I thought then that the game was gone and that we’d have to reload it, didn’t realise that you only had to turn the TV back on again and it was still there.

Classic ZX81 game Mazogs

I used to go round his house every other Saturday for a good few years and we’d wander round shopping centres, watch “The Tripods”, buy Beatles 7 inch singles & and get mucky playing in forests in the rain and, eventually, progressed to going in arcades at Billing Aquadrome (I remember them just being sheds!).

 I’d watch him and his brother playing “Space Invaders”, “Boothill”, “Mr Do” & “PacMan”, the first generation of arcade games.

Wow! I had no idea what I was witnessing. Just before all this happened we’d just end up in WHSmiths looking at pencil cases  and pens in our free time!

2: Which game (on any machine) was the first ever published title that you worked on?
The VERY first thing that was ever published was “MagMax”. I had just started at Ocean days before and I don’t think Gary Bracey, our boss downstairs in the cellars where the games were made, had paired me up with a programmer yet so I was at a bit of lose end for a few days.
“MagMax” was being converted to the Spectrum & Amstrad out of house and was nearing completion. He gave me a tape of the latest version which I then loaded up and was horrified at how crap it all looked.
Gary asked me to redesign the main character sprite (which was tiny, so I didn’t have many pixels to play with) and the 2 other parts you picked up as you went along which made up the complete robot. I think Gary was just trying to tart up what there was so it could be finished and put to bed.
I remember seeing adverts for it a good few months before this so it was probably well overdue. It was also missing a loading screen which I duly got to work on. I did a pretty good job of that if I may say so.
After all, I had to impress everyone and it was my first loading screen! That was all I had to do with that game though and I was chuffed when the mediocre review Crash gave the game mentioned the “brilliant loading screen”!

Crash magazine rave about the loading screen

The not quite finished loading screen to Mag Max
The finalised loading screen that was rightly raved about by Crash

The first full game I worked on where I produced all the graphics and got a credit for was the half assed conversion of “Wizball” on the Spectrum. Not that I was half assed about it, it was the damn programmer! Ugh!

An incomplete version of the Wizball loading screen

3: What did you like best about graphic design on the ZX Spectrum?
The best thing was that I could actually do it!! Before I started at Ocean I hadn’t created an animated sprite ever! I had just sent them a load of loading screens, all static, as examples of my work.
So I was sat down and asked to come up with this stuff for a game and, after a rusty start, found I could do it. I got some help from games legend Simon Butler & “Renegade” artist Ronnie Fowles.
Also, I loved doing loading screens, that was my favourite part of the job, because the only restrictions laid on you were those of the machine itself and not those of a programmer telling you that the main character’s face was only 3 pixels wide!
I turned out a few nice ones too, they still look good today, they stand up compared to the other stuff made at the time. And I have some of them on some great looking retro mugs with Bob Wakelin’s art on the other side courtesy of  “The Attic Bug”. They have pride of place in my retro games room that I set up in my house in January 2011.

4: And conversely what did you not like about creating graphics on the ZX Spectrum?
I’ve been asked this before a few times and I always give the same answer. Having produced a graphic, it’s taken you a GOOD few hours, most of the morning in fact and it’s animating well, doing what it should, a few people have commented how smashing it is then, 2 days later, the programmer goes “Oh, that graphic you did, there’s not going to be enough room”.
I know it’s NOTHING compared to some people I know who’ve worked for YEARS on one game with a cast of 40 others only for it to be canned, I just can’t imagine what that feels like. One animated sprite being given the heave ho was bad enough for me.
5: Which applications and packages did you use to design sprites, graphics and loading screens?

For the sprites we used an amended version of Melbourne Draw, renamed Ocean Draw, that had animation features added by Paul Owens, if memory serves me correctly. It was real easy to use.

I'm not sure if this version has actually been archived yet. I do still have my microdrive cartridge with it on. Maybe I should lend it someone to see if it can be salvaged before it disapears forever.

For loading screens I used 3 different packages, the one I just mentioned, and Artist 2 and Art Studio.

They ALL had things that worked better on each version so it would just be a question of using all 3 priograms still you got something jolly! I had bought Art Studio and The Artist 2 with money from my school job at Co-Op. Money well spent I think!
6: What game are you most proud of on the Spectrum and why?
I’m not REALLY proud of any of them. I was proud of “Wizball” getting a Crash Smash and a Sinclair User Classic but it could have been so much better had the programmer known what he was doing and hadn’t left Ocean with no notice with the game half finished only for it to be tidied up by another programmer, Paul Owens, and released as it was.
With my other games, all I see are the bugs and the bits that had been put together half assed.  See, once I’d handed my graphics over to the programmer it was out of my hands. The main character in “Gryzor” had a proper animated run but due to “memory constraints” his top half was animated less than his bottom half, which missed half the frames out, so it looked OK but could have looked better!
At least if I did a shit loading screen I only had myself to blame. I don’t think I did a real shit one but a couple were ropey because the artwork I had to copy off was bloody awful in the first place.

7: What was it like working for Ocean and Imagine during the 80's?
Fantastic. I can say that now looking back. Most of us just didn’t realise just how fantastic it was at the time but it was.
It was my first proper job away from home, I was living in my own place for the first time and I was doing something I had been doing as a hobby for the past 2 years and now I was being paid to do it and it was going to get published all over the world.

Plus I was working with people who had written some of the games I had been playing myself at school, I KNEW them, I went to arcades with them at dinner time to nick ideas!
The Ocean Software crew
Some of the greats worked at Ocean while I was there, Simon Butler, Mike Lamb, John Brandwood, John Meegan, Andy & Ivan, Paul Hughes, Dawn Drake, Martin Galway, Jon Dunn, Matthew Cannon, Allan Short, Steve Wahid, Steve Thompson, Colin Porsche, Paul Owens and a host of others.
They all were great to work and/or hang out with after work.

8: Which other programmers/graphic designers and/or companies impressed you the most during the Spectrum era?
Steve Turner, I LOVED “Avalon” and “Dragontorc”. I immersed myself in the world he had created on my humble Spectrum, so rich with atmosphere I could wander around these lands for hours, without actually getting anywhere armed with just some Cheesey Knick Knacks. I never did finish either of them.

Bo Jangeborg, for “Fairlight” which I spent many hours on, again, not really getting anywhere. Wasn’t too keen on the follow up though, that annoying slow down when you had too many things on the screen had got a bit too much for me on that one.
I loved Gargoyle Games, “Tir Na Nog” was my fav but I loved “Heavy On The Magick” too, they lost it though when they started to do those Faster Than Light games. Shame that, we never did get to see “Fornax” or “Gath”, which were supposed to be the follow ups to “Marsport”. Would be great to hear from them now, I've never seen a recent interview with either of the 2 fellas who ran Gargoyle.
I loved “Trashman” by Malcolm Evans and released by New Generation Software. It was the first original I bought with my 14th birthday money and it’s still a jolly good game.
Ultimate, of course.  I’m not going to bleat on about how great they were because it’s been done a zillion times already but seeing “Knight Lore” for the first time on a cold school evening  left a huge impression on me.
I still remember that evening in a totally useless amount of detail and I have 2 copies of each real Ultimate game on display in my games room, as a sort of homage/shrine/mental type geekness. Those games STILL smell new, when you open up those glossy cryptic instructions sheets, they still smell the same as they did back in 1984! Just holding one in my hand transports back to being 14 years old!
And still after they turned into Rare they carried on being amazing with the stuff they did on the Nintendo 64 which, in my opinion, are up there with some of the best games ever written, "Donkey Kong 64", "Banjo-Kazooie", its follow up and "Conker's Bad Fur Day". I love 'em!
When I dug out my old Nintendo 64 I made it my first priority to get myself a complete collection of Rare games for that machine (my 2nd fav machine after the Spectrum!)

9: Do you have any favourite games on the ZX Spectrum? Which are they and why?
Most of them are mentioned above but other ones I loved then and still love now just because they were great, playable games include “Pogo", “Jumping Jack”, “Antics”, “Jet Set Willy”, “Chuckie Egg”, “Karnov”, “Rex”, “Ant Attack”, “Thanatos”, “Bugaboo”, “Way Of The Tiger”, “Boulderdash”, “Dynamite Dan 1 & 2”, “Zub”, “Maziacs” and “Sabre Wulf”. I could go on and on, but I won’t, so I’ll leave it THERE!

10: The title screen in Total Recall is very impressive and still looks good today. How was it accomplished on the humble Speccy?

An unused montage screen created for Total Recall

Another unused screen for the Arnie game Total Recall

The excellent title screen for Total Recall
Oh! I cheated! Arnie’s face was scanned in. I didn't even scan it in, someone at Ocean scanned it, Bobby Earl I think. All I had to do was position it and draw the planet surface, some triangle thing, a tiny planet and some stars. Easy peesey!

11: TaiPan was a very extravagant and feature rich game. The sprites and backgrounds capture medeival japan very well - how did you think about designing the graphics for it?
That game was produced out of house, by Sentient Software I think. All I did was make the loading screen, which is my least favourite Spectrum screen that I made. The advert art was boring, I hated doing it. It was a drag!

The Tai-Pan screen in development

The final loading screen for Tai-Pan
I don't know why after having MADE the game they couldn't be bothered doing a loading screen themselves. I never played it either, trading games bore the pants off me and I didn't like the look of it. Ugh! Yet it got a Crash Smash! Hey ho!

12: Wizball (which was a superb game I might add) was such an iconic C64 game - how much pressure was there when making the Spectrum version considering the attribute colour problems on the machine?
Mmmm. In my opinion "Wizball" on the 64 is one of THE best games ever! Kudos to Mr Gary Bracey for seeing the potential in it (no licence! A completely original game!) and seeing it through. Also to the boys at Sensible for coming up with it in the first place.
The Spectrum version was never really finished properly. There was no pressure whatsoever. “Wizball” starts off as a black and white game, the land had lost its colour. That's totally suited to the Spectrum! You fill in each colour and, on the Spectrum, parts of the landscape get coloured in.
A selection of sprites from Wizball

More sprites and graphics from the classic game Wizball

Those famous Wizball Yin-Yangs!

I know on the C64 it was a more subtle shading in of different parts of the background, which you couldn't do on a Speccy. The only problems with attributes was from when different baddies passed over each other. Wasn't down to me anyway, that was up to the programmer.

I gave him white graphics, I didn't get any say in what colour they were, Wizball had to be green obviously but everything else was up to Mr Maths.
The final excellent loading screen for Wizball
13: How do you find modern games compared to those of the 8-bit era?
I have a Wii and an Xbox 360 in my house. The Wii, well, it started off promising but go look at a shelf full of Wii games in HMV or Game, it's 95% games for kiddies, or families. Silly quiz games, or compilations of shitty subgames, or singing games.
There's barely ANYTHING that people are going to look back on and remember, it's a load of old tosh! I was reading an old N64 magazine recently from 1999, and in it they talk about Nintendo getting rid of their 'kiddy image'. Well it's even worse now, lordy mary queen!
I can't get over how realistic some of the Xbox games look nowadays but you have to put so much TIME into them all. There's not that many games you can switch on, have a blast then turn off.
For that I have to go back in time and switch on the N64, Megadrive or Spectrum! There's too much involvement, and if you can't commit to the time needed to get on with the game, then it's pointless starting. And I always get stuck at one bit, have to do the bits before it OVER and OVER again, want to throw the damn thing out the window and never touch it again.
So I don't usually bother. I'd much rather watch someone else playing it! I don't end up screaming at the screen if I do that.

14: As the Spectrum scene began to fade what did you move on to?
I did some 16 bit games at Ocean for a little while. Went freelance when I moved back home from Manchester to Northampton, worked on some even less well know titles, nearly worked for Bullfrog on "Flood 2", which would have been great fun to do had it not all fallen through then went to Israel for a while.
Came back and got a normal job. I should have stuck it out. My biggest regret now looking back was leaving Ocean. I was an idiot! Boo hiss boo!

15: Can you tell us what you are up to nowadays?
For a job I work with young adults with learning disabilities which I love to bits. I'm a known expert on Syd Barrett & the early Pink Floyd and have had my name credited on a documentary and in 3 major published books on him.
I helped Pink Floyd's management company with Syd's official, posthumous website too which was fun. I play guitar and can sing and when the mood takes me make home recordings of songs I think are hot, thought I can't write a song for toffee. I also design inlays for various unofficial Syd/early Floyd/Beatles DVD and CD covers, that are then distributed via the internet. Keeps me busy.

16: With the retro gaming scene booming would you consider being the graphics artist on another Spectrum game? Go on, you know you want to....   ;)
I'd love to do another Spectrum game. I did put the feelers out a while back (and nearly ended up making an iPhone/Android game but that fell through) but no one came forward. I need a good programmer who is willing to bash some ideas together.

I'm currently making the inlays for a massive 8 DVD Beatles set, called 'The Cathode Ray Tube Collection'. I'm 2 in and 6 to go at the moment.

When that's all done I'm project-less and will be looking for my next little time consumer thingymahoop so if anyone is up for it, let me know. I'm on the look out.

Mark with his old boss Gary and top Ocean programmer Jim Bagley in 2010

Many thanks go to Mark for taking the time to discuss his days at Ocean and for supplying so much information. Brilliant.

Classic Games, Arcade Games and ZX Spectrum Games


Chris said...

Great interview. I'd love to have the chance to meet some Speccy legends. How do you keep pulling them off?

Great to see the photos with 20 years between them and the cool photo from the Ocean days. Everybody looked so young.

Keep up the good work. Love this.

Michael Evers said...

A nice interview. The Syd Barrett side bit was a bit of a surprise. I love Syd.

Seizure Child said...

That is great to hear, thank you for reading!

Dr. Narayanan N K said...

Thanks for sharing that. It was fun reading it. :-)

The Retro Brothers Favourite ZX Spectrum Games...

Jetpac Remake