Way back in 1982, at 11 years old, I was given my first computer, a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, for Christmas. As well as the computer, I also got 3 games - Spectral Invaders by Bug-Byte, Space Intruders by Quicksilva, and Gobbler by Saturnsoft. And it was thanks to this last game that I became totally hooked on computers - let me explain:
Both of the other titles were commercial software, recorded onto mastered cassettes and packaged in nicy shiny inlays. Not Gobbler though - it was recorded on a WHSmith C15 and had the inlay printed on a Sinclair ZX Printer (with the silver thermal paper). Despite the fact that recording games onto C15's and printing your own inlays did become very popular in the school playground, this actually wasn't a pirated version - this was how the author was distributing them.
He had obviously sat down at home, written a pacman clone, and decided to sell it - a small advert in a Spectrum magazine, and suddenly he was making money - this was back in the days when back bedroom programmers could be a success. Even back then I was a stubborn little sod, and reasoned "Well, if he can do it, so can I!" And so, armed with a 16K Spectrum and the accompanying programming manual, I sat down and started reading - when I got to the last page, I turned the book over and read the whole thing again - cover to cover. And by the time I got to the last page, everything had fallen into place - shortly after I created my first game - a simple affair where you pressed a key to release a parachutist from a plane - but you had to press the key at the right time so the skydiver would land on the X on the ground. It was very simple, very easy, and laughable by todays standards, but I was only 12 then, and it was a start.
By the time I hit 13 I had also programmed an overhead driving game (in the same mould as Micro Machines) and had taught myself Z80A assembler. After buying memory chips, I upgraded the computer to 48K, since the game I was working on at the time, a fruit machine game, could not hold all the graphics I wanted - and so my interest in computer hardware was also born way back in the days of home computers.
I wrote many games and utilities between school, including converting the famous Tasword word processor into Tasword +D for my disk interface. Then on leaving school I got a job as a computer programmer, which was a grave error - turning my hobby into my job suddenly meant my enjoyment of computers dwindled overnight. Eighteen months later when I left the company to join the Royal Air Force as a histologist, I stopped programming completely, and instead turned my interest towards PC hardware.
Before long I had built my first computer - a 486DX33 with 8Mb RAM, a 210Mb hard drive and a massive 2Mb video card - this machine really was a powerhouse for the time. I also started building computers for my friends in the RAF - they would buy the bits, I would build the machine, and in return they would take me for a night out, all expenses paid. They got a cheap computer, and I got a very cheap night out!
After 6 years in the RAF I got made redundant, and then found suddenly I was unable to get a job - unfortunately my qualifications meant local employers didn't want to give me unskilled jobs, and in this area the skilled jobs tend to go to family members of the employers. So, I then set up my own business, PJs PCs, and from just word-of-mouth advertising, I was reasonably successful. However, due to the cost of components falling at a staggering rate, I found I could no longer compete with the big retailers, and just 2 years after starting the business, PJs PCs ceased trading.
Again I struggled to find employment, until I finally got accepted by a local company after blatantly lying on the application form and omitting any qualifications I owned higher than A levels! It was a mind numbing job; spin drying baskets of vegetables for 8 hours a day, but it did give me the chance to move on to a better job, after just 5 months with that company. That is where I met my ex-partner, Yvonne.
Early 2000 I joined another employer - no lying on the application form this time - although I did have to convince the manager I just wanted a job, and I didn't care what it was! So, I found myself working in the quality control department of one of the biggest canneries in Europe, working 12 hours a day so that Yvonne and myself could set up a home and start a family. The house came first, then in January 2001 we decided to try for a baby - by February Yvonne was carrying our first child, Amy Louise, who was born on 17th October. Meanwhle I found my job less and less challenging, even though I showed as much enthusiasm for learning new things as I could, and so I started taking cryptic crosswords to work to try and keep my brain active during breaktimes. Some 640 crosswords later, I decided it was time for a new challenge.
Having previously played with Klik n Play - a menu driven game creator, I was already involved in the Retro Remakes community, even though none of these previous attempts at game creation ever got released - they were pitiful (mostly due to the limitations of the design software.) So, when people started discussing DarkBasic and BlitzBasic, it was then I realised that even an old time programmer like myself could produce something reasonable even by todays standards. I downloaded the demo version of DarkBasic and started writing - over 10 years from stopping programming - and found that even though I struggled with the new commands (and with not using line numbers!) the basic principles were still in my memory. I started off working on a simple maze game with a view that I could utilise the code to remake Zig-Zag - but this never happened. Although DarkBasic was hugely powerful, I was uninspired by the DOS based editor, and found that collision detection when working in 2D was less than perfect. So, from there I tried Blitz - and although I had to learn all over again, I found the collisions more accurate, the interface nicer, and although now limited to just 2D gaming, I rediscovered my love of programming.
I wasn't going to abandon my maze routines completely, but now not having 3D commands, I decided to program one of my mother's favourite speccy games - Maziacs. In less than 3 months I released a game that received high praise from fellow programmers, games players, the author of the original game (Don Priestley), ZXF (a spectrum fanzine) and even the national magazine The Edge (in a Retro special edition.) I was hooked again, and then started on HexxaPuzzla - a remake of a spectrum game I wrote way back in the midsts of time. Puzzle fans worldwide seem to love this game, even if most of the emails I get about it do keep asking for level codes because it is too hard for them! From then more games were to follow, as was another baby, Shane Andrew, born 2nd May 2003.
My ambitions at work also paid dividends when I got offered a promotion of Team Leader on nightshift - as the QC lab had no night manager, it basically meant from 1800hrs to 0600hrs I was "the boss!" I got paid an obscene amount of money for shuffling paperwork most of the night. Unfortunately, when the company changed the shift patterns, and was unable to guarantee me alternate weekends off to take custody of my children, I was forced to leave. Currently I am training as a driving instuctor - at least then I can pick and choose the hours I want to work!
I have invested in both Blitz Basic and Blitz 3D, so at some point Zig-Zag may see the light of day, but bashing my head against a wall to get the mazes generated for Maziacs and Fred, I am trying to avoid maze games at all costs now! I do have lots of ideas, but unfortunately not a lot of time; I still have a huge love of puzzles, so these are a favourite for me to remake.
I have one simple philosophy on the games I write - I do them for me, and if other people like them, then good luck to them - if they don't, then I really don't care! Of course, I always look for ways to improve games and solve any bugs, but the basic game itself is one I enjoy and I'm not changing it for anyone! These are games that have stood the test of time, which is more than can be said for most of the games today - behind all the fancy graphics, movie clips and studio recorded sound effects, most of the games can be found back on the humble Spectrum.
The ark was built by an amateur, the Titanic by professionals, and although my games probably won't be being played in 20 years time, I like to think that speccy games will, and, in my own small way, I am paying a tribute to both the first computer I owned, and arguably the most successful home computer ever made.