By Peter Ward
What was your first gaming experience?
My first gaming experience? If we’re talking video games, it would have definitely been (like many people) Space Invaders – which was the first time I had ever seen an arcade machine. It was at the front door of a department store in Takapuna (on the North shore of Auckland, here in New Zealand).
In terms of computer games, the one I probably remember the most from then would have been Apple Panic on the Apple II that we had at school. After getting my ZX Spectrum Next, that nostalgic flash-back inspired me to write my own version – which ended up being Space Splat
What got you into programming games?
When my parents bought me a ZX81 in 1981, it didn’t take long to get hooked on that crazy life-long fascination with home computers and programming. I was only 11 years old but the fact I could learn how to do stuff and make ‘video games’ was a big attraction.
However, where I think I really got hooked on the idea of really making ‘real games’ (the ones where you moved things on screen like an arcade game) would have been after I got the book ’34 Amazing Games for the 1K ZX81′. That’s where the whole ‘learn through example’ I think started for me, because after that I was a type-in junkie.
In 1983 I got a ZX Spectrum, and now with UDG’s, colour and sound (and a ‘real keyboard’). The rest, as they say, is history.
What development tools or coding did you use?
Like I still do even these days – a Paper and a pen! Usually cheap newsprint jotter pads were the in thing back in the early 80’s, but that later changed to higher quality exercise books and a load of graph paper for drawing graphics on.
Of course in terms of other tools, the trusty BASIC programming manual that came with the machines was essential. I did eventually go from BASIC to Machine Code around 1984 based on a series printed in Sinclair User magazine by Andrew Hewson.
At the start, it was all hand-coded ‘pokes’ to enter machine code from paper into the Speccy, but later on I switched to ZEUS assembler on the ZX Speccy.
What is your pet coding peeve?
If we’re talking ZX Spectrum Next, it would be Integer variables – because of their nature of simply being a pointer to a location in memory, they always exist, so if you use the wrong one there’s no error message like ‘Variable not found’. Quite a few times I will accidentally use one that I thought I had been using, and when a game doesn’t work – I’ll scratch my head for ages trying to work out where the issue is because ‘the code looks OK’ – but in the end, I just had been using the wrong letter the whole time.
What do you think is the greatest coding achievement on the zx spectrum?
I think many things have wowed me in terms of what people have managed to pull off on the Speccy. The quality of some of the Arcade ports to the speccy, but if I had to choose one I was impressed with (and had no idea at the time just how they did it) it would have been Star Strike 2 with its ‘shaded’ 3D graphics (taking things one step further than the plain wireframe 3D most games had)
Who are your hero coders of the past?
There were so many amazing game developers back in those days, it’s hard to choose one! I could just sit and list every programmer name for every Speccy title I played, but we’d probably just end up with a wikipedia article-sized answer to this question.
If I was to say which ones impressed me the most with the quality of their work:
- Raffaele Cecco for his polished colourful work on games like Exolon, Cybernoid and Stormlord.
- Matthew Smith because, well, I think any self-respecting ZX Speccy fan will know the reason…
- I’m gonna give a shout-out to Keith Burkhill, because of his arcade ports for Commando and Ghosts n Goblins. Amazing job!
- and to finish off on the “awesome scrolling games and game ports” front would be Jonathan ‘Joffa’ Smith of course.
What music do you code to?
When I was a Kid, when coding I literally just listened to The Sweet’s “Desolation Boulevard” over and over (and over) until I wore out the cassette tape.
However, a majority of the time when I get on the computer, I’ll just put on something purely for ‘background’ noise – one of the local Rock music radio stations here in New Zealand (“The Rock”) or I pick a random playlist from Spotify. Being the old fart that I am, I tend to listen to a lot of “classic” 80’s metal and rock (Iron Maiden, White Snake, Van Halen, Slayer, Metallica, Anthrax, Sepultura, Pantera, Dio, etc)
What hurdles did you have making your current game?
I find the biggest hurdle (and this is the same with every game so far) is just getting code optimised and running as fast as possible. While the ZX Spectrum Next can run at a whopping 28Mhz (from the Speccy’s original 3.5Mhz), BASIC is still an interpreted language and the more you can cut back on the need for complex or time-consuming code the better.
Interestingly, I found a majority of the time in most of my games (and the current one) is mostly through handling in-game data. In my current game (Galactus) I have managed to improve the pace through pre-processing data first. This is data that normally was handled through repetitive testing and calculating in code. Now it’s just a case of extracting the right information from the ‘already calculated’ data.
I have occasionally considered just going to Assembler for parts of my BASIC games (in fact, I did do that for an older version of Blok Boy), however my goal I set myself when I got the Next was to see what I could push it to do just in BASIC without resorting to Machine code. Afterall the machine is loaded with hardware features for graphics and sound that take a large amount of the processing time off the machine itself.
What game do you wish you had written?
Ooh, good question. Thinking about it, I did draw up a map and design a game (on paper) called ‘Sword of the Barbarians’ that I thought could be an awesome adventure/arcade game… Then a few months later, I saw this arcade game called ‘Rastan Saga’ and it was like… “Argh! That’s what I wanted to do”.
Of course, I doubt with my skills at the time that I could probably have never done something that complex (was going to be a flip-screen game), but man, I wished I could have developed that.
BTW, I have to say that the port of Rastan to the ZX Speccy was a pretty impressive effort.
What is your favourite Spectrum loading Screen?
These questions are really hard, because there’s just so many great pieces of work it’s always hard to pick just one! I know whatever I write here I’ll probably look back on and say “Oooh! No, I actually liked this one… Can I change this interview?” lol!
The ones that always pop into my head when I think in most cases will be one of the Ultimate games. Like their games, the artwork was always polished and well drawn with good use of attributes for colour. If I was to pick one of any of them, I might pick ‘PSSST’.
It’s a fun little game, and the loading screen is clean, professional and matches the cassettes cover artwork. Of course – I’ll probably change my mind in 5 minutes… lol!
After the completion of the game what game will you make?
At the moment my current project is Galactus – it’s a classic shoot-em up style space game I had started a year or so ago but needed to complete. I’ve designed the data structure for it so I can get pretty flexible with the game levels, so it’s pretty close to being at a state of just ‘making the data’ and finalising the game.
What’s next, though? Tricky question as I have a backlog of games. In total, I think I have like another 5+ games in my collection of planned material – and they all look like they’ll be fun challenges to write.
That said, I did a quick “proof of concept” to test out some ideas for a game I called ‘Star Blaster’. It’s an attempt to see if I can pull off a simplistic Defender-style clone in BASIC – which initially worked out way better than I expected. It does have a variety of things I do need to re-write to make it an actual game. As it’s already partially started, it would make sense to take that through to completion next.
What other games have you made?
Since the ZX Spectrum Next arrived I have bashed out a collection of ‘messing about with BASIC’ games.
The games I spent a bit of time polishing up and documenting (code breakdown, etc) I’ve provided up on my itch.io page (https://kevman3d.itch.io/). This is where I’ll be putting all my future projects as well.
SPACE SPLAT – A classic ‘Space Panic’ style game
TIMMDI (‘The Internet Made Me Do It’) – download and purchase as many retro goods online before the wife stops you. It’s a very ‘could have been a type-in listing’ style of game.
RANBLE – A Scramble-inspired scroller game, except the terrain is randomly generated (hence the name ‘RAN(dom Scram)BLE’)
BLOK BOY – A maze-munching classic arcade style game
ROAD KILL – Every 8-bit needs its dose of Frogger-inspired games… Here’s one for the Next.
Earlier games I did were mostly just while I was messing about. They aren’t quite as polished as the itch games, but they are still online.
‘Frogbert’ (https://www.specnext.com/software/?title=33) is a q-bert style of game – it does need a good dose of ‘optimisation and clean up’
‘Next Trek’ (https://www.specnext.com/software/?title=55) is a strategy style game where you try to save the galaxy
‘Egg on ya face’ (https://www.specnext.com/software/?title=27) was something I wrote one easter afternoon because I thought it could be fun to make something ‘easter-ish’
I did also create a Lunar Lander style game (https://drive.google.com/file/d/13Is4lXsE_pUAi-2oGySifhdIpRXv4dbQ/view)
This was created as a series of ‘tutorials’ on my YouTube channel (which is in need of some new content at some stage) https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLZi6QHQmvfcKXyVGhJ12VasGdhWRN0d_q
What’s the best 8 bit computer and why?
The ZX Speccy was my baby back in the day, however I have completely fallen in love with the ZX Spectrum Next – it may be modern, but it’s still very much an 8-bit machine.
For me, I believe that this is the best 8-bit machine because it screams “I’m built for people like you who just want to mess about writing video games”. It really is as much fun as using a classic Speccy but the addition of the hardware enhanced graphics and sound, as well as nice keyboard and supporting modern tech (such as HDMI, SD cards and mice) make it exciting to explore as the original machines were for me back in the 80’s
What is your favourite retro game?
I love loads of games, however the arcade game Gauntlet is definitely a fave! Not just the arcade game, but the Speccy port was awesome. It’s a great game to play with friends.
What’s the worst game you have ever played?
Worst game – I would say out of all the retro games I played, by far the worst game I can recall is the Atari 2600 version of Pacman. Flickering, invisible ghosts, terrible graphics. It’s literally unplayable, and while I had wished my parents would buy us an Atari when I was a kid, after seeing that I was strangely happy they didn’t.
Which Spectrum Developer past or present would you like us to interview?
I think it would be great to hear from Steve Turner. From what I’ve seen on Twitter, he’s still actively developing games and it would be great to hear a little about what he’s up to these days.
What feature would you like to see on zxspectrumnow?
I am a fan of sites having ‘recommended web links’ so I can find more resources without resorting to google searching, etc for Speccy materials – pages that have tutorials, blogs, download archives (Mags, games, emulators, etc) etc. It doesn’t tend to be as common in the modern era of the web (with most people going to google) but there’s something to be said about a nice compilation of sites that people have been to and recommend vs. results from a search engine.