Tuesday 24 December 2013

EXCLUSIVE Bluetooth ZX SPECTRUM KICKSTARTER Interview with Elite Systems Managing Director, Steve Wilcox

So Steve - thanks for taking time out at the beginning of this exciting time with the launch of your new Kickstarter. But this isn't something new for you creating new technologies and games for the industry.

Firstly lets talk about Elite and its History....

Q. Tell us about your role at Elite - Steve from the beginning and to now?

Steve Wilcox
Well, I’m a de facto co-founder of the company, having been a Director since it’s formation on 14th August, 1984. Consequently, I’ve been involved – in some way - with every glorious (and every inglorious) moment of Elite’s 29 year history.

Q. How and why was elite founded?

Steve Wilcox.
Although I’m a co-founder, that’s really less than half of the story. The real source of Elite’s foundation was my much younger and somewhat smarter brother – Richard. In 1982/3, at the age of 14/15 he wrote – first for the Atari 400 and subsequently for the ZX Spectrum – a TV-series inspired game, featuring a helicopter. It was called ‘Blue Thunder’ and was marketed using the label ‘Richard Wilcox Software’. Our father, Brian, backed Richard’s work with full-colour, full, page advertisments in Computer & Video Games magazine, amongst others. At that time, I’d just left my one and only post-University employment to set up and independent retail outlet specialising in the sale of ZX Spectrum software and hardware. It traded as “Bowies: The ZX Spectrum Specialists”. Richard’s game needed selling into the retail channel, in those days that meant Boots, WH Smith et al. So, between serving customers in our “mom and pop” store, I doubled as Richard’s telesales team, eventually selling around 40,000 copies ohf his game. A little later, four young guys set up camp in the store room of our shop and began working on a ZX Spectrum game to follow Richard’s (and the first to be published using the label ‘Elite’). That game was called ‘Kokotoni Wilf’.

Q. What were the highlights of the 80s and gaming for you personally?

Steve Wilcox.
Those very early days, ‘83 to ’87, were a blizzard. 7 days a week. 12 hours a days. Phones. Planes. People. Products … and several million games sold. Looking back it’s hard to recall how we crammed so much in to such a short period. Half a dozen UK and European #1-selling games, Game of the Year, Software House of the Year, zero to one hundred staff.

Q. What was the process of developing and publishing games like in the 1980s?

Steve Wilcox.
A lot like developing and publishing apps today (… and absolutely nothing like publishing console games today). ‘Have an idea in the morning, be working on it in the afternoon, start marketing it the following day, have it in players’ hands the following month, (sometimes). A fantastically liberating, exciting and enjoyable way to earn a very good living, (if you were very lucky).

The Now...2013

Q. What has inspired you with this new Kickstarter?

Steve Wilcox.
The inspiration for the development of the Bluetooth ZX Spectrum device was a series of conversations with a national journalist in the Spring of 2011. At the time, the journalist was the Consumer Technology Editor for a British National Newspaper and called to talk to us about the range of original 1980s ZX Spectrum games which we’d relatively recently launched as apps for iOS devices. During the conversations he enquired whether we thought there was any possibility that the ZX Spectrum home computer might be recreated. At the time we spoke about how another 1980s home computer, the Commodore C64, had had a re-launch of sort in the form of a dedicated joystick (you can read about that device here) and that got us thinking. After talking about it in the office for a few minutes, our vision for how the ZX Spectrum could be recreated began to take shape. We called the journalist 30 minutes later and two days after, his account of our vision appeared in the article which he wrote. You can read that article, which created quite a stir at the time, here.

Q. How important was the keyboard to the ZX Spectrum - both in design and functionality?

Steve Wilcox.
I think Rick Dickinson, Industrial Designer at Sinclair Research in the 1980s and the man credited with the external look of the ZX Spectrum, best explained the importance of the keyboard to the design and functionality of the ZX Spectrum in the video which he recorded for our Kickstarter appeal. It lasts 5 or 6 minutes but is incredibly insightful. I’d recommend anyone interested in the device to watch the video.

Q Tell us about the existing games that can be played in unison with hardware?

Steve Wilcox.
Well, in the first instance and as we’ve recently confirmed, we’ll be updating the ZX Spectrum: Elite Collection / HD apps so that they’re compatible with the Bluetooth ZX Spectrum. For iOS device owners who’ve already invested in these app, that means that they’ll be able to play the 200 or so ZX Spectrum games which they may already own using the Bluetooth ZX Spectrum. Optionally, the Bluetooth ZX Spectrum can be used as a Bluetooth keyboard not only for iOS but also for Android and Windows phones and tablets (as well as for PCs and Macs). That throws up a whole host of additional possibilities.

Q Will there be any new games coming out in 2014 to working in unison with the hardware?

Steve Wilcox.That’s a great question. As you may know, we announced earlier this year that we’re working with Matthew Smith (‘Manic Miner’, ‘Jet Set Willy’ for the ZX Spectrum) on a new project. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the launch of the Bluetooth ZX Spectrum coincided with such a project? Also, since the announcement of the Bluetooth ZX Spectrum a few days ago, we’ve been approached by developers with proposals that we work with them on the development and publication of new games for the device. It’s still very early days but there are clearly many opportunities for developers to launch new games to coincide with the launch of the Bluetooth ZX Spectrum.

Q. Have you been in contact with any 80s developers and creative pioneers from the 80s in this new project or as part of developing mobile games?

Steve Wilcox.
It’s remarkable but the answer to your question is yes. In addition to Matthew Smith, Keith Burkhill (‘Commando’, ‘Ghosts n Goblins’, ‘Space Harrier’ for the ZX Spectrum has worked with us on the ZX Spectrum: Elite Collection / HD apps for iOS devices. He’s still very local to us, in the suburbs of Birmingham. Nigel Alderton, (‘Chuckie Egg’ for the ZX Spectrum) is still in contact too. We’ve been publishing ‘Chuckie Egg’ for mobile phone for almost 10 years and will do so again for the Bluetooth ZX Spectrum.
Q How has the games industry changed since 1984 - the good and the bad?

Steve Wilcox.
For the good - scale an certainty. When we first became involved in the games industry in the first half of the 80s there was still much comparison with “the Skateboard business”. At that time “the Skateboard business” was seen to have risen and fallen (it hadn’t yet risen again) and in some circles there was a fear/ expectation that a games industry “built on kids who had no disposable income” was just a flash in the pan. Thankfully, that’s no longer so. I’m struggling to think of ways in which the games industry has changed for the bad. If I was forced to pick on one then I’d say that the somewhat predatory way in which some developers / publishers elicit (sometimes large chunks of) cash from the young and the vulnerable, though in-app purchases, is a step in the wrong direction. Elite has not nor will it ever be involved in such activities.

Q. What are your favourite Spectrum games with keyboard play?
Steve Wilcox. 
‘Manic Miner’.

Monday 23 December 2013

Christmas with the SEGA Game Gear

A Guest Blog by Steven Parky Yates (aka Fats McClane)

I had a GameGear.  Odd place to start, but stay with me, you'll see why I started here. I loved it. I remember having a knee high pile of Fleetway Sonic The Comics in an open stackable box cupboard in the corner of my room, piles of drawings I had copied from it strewn across the floor and posters of Sonic I had asked to be kept for me from stores and even a bank (think it was TSB infact I know because I literally found it online - pictured right ) hanging from my wall above my Sonic the Hedgehog covered bed.

As we see, I was a Sonic fanboy without even knowing what a fanboy was. I was eight years old and was a countryboy. Living in a place with maybe eighty people tops but only sixty in the actual village I tended to go on very long walks, feed ducks and game.

Problem was most games I had were for the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum.   was given a Game Gear later, but was not up to date with the technology that was around at that time, so home consoles was a lost concept on me.

I saw kids play at school with their Gameboys, well I said play...we couldn't see the screen if we stood next to them, and we were soon shooed away by the irate gamer. 

I wanted one so bad, I once borrowed one and played Mario 6 Golden Coins and loved it so much, but at the same time wished a certain hedgehog was on it.  

Thanks to me miss-spelling 'Gameboy', due to being a rush and writing my Christmas list on a car journey, I was given a Game Gear, I had never even heard of this and was disappointed when I opened the paper hiding it. I hid my sadness and went to my room with it. 

I was told it needed to stay plugged in to play, which a gameboy did not so was angry my friends wouldn't be able to see me being cool at school, and the size of it was huge.  But soon as I plugged it in and inserted Sonic the Hedgehog 1 into it...I was blown away.

Graphics were clearer, true, BUT there was COLOUR!  I was so impressed I turned it off and on again just to see Sonic jump the SEGA logo....it was blue! Not black with a green background. It actually said SEGA through my speakers!  After this I was always on it, playing Shinobi, Sonic and Streets of Rage. I had been bitten with the gamer virus and was not wanting a cure, just another fix.

It was at this time I competed with my then best friend to see who had the best gadgets, and who was the better gamer (in the long run I am winning -  as he has become a boring old man builder and I still melee the hell out of nubstepz on Halo!)
He had same things as me, so we would head to head alot, Micro Machines on the GameGear being the favourite with laptimes. One day I came to visit him...he had it up on his television. I was in awe. He handed me a black controller with three buttons on it and told me to carry on while he went to the toilet. Three buttons?  I instantly knew which button made me go, and I was soon playing the game, not thinking anything of it except that maybe he had bought a cable of some sort that allowed him to play the game on the television.

When he returned he asked me 'So?  What dya think?' I said love it man, he nodded and pointed to the black box under the television. 'My Megadrive...So....when you gettin' one?' I gasped.  He explained it was a GameGear that was better...but could be played on the tv and with better and longer games.  I didn't believe him until he slotted Sonic 2 into the console and switched it on.  I was pretty much close to killing him and stealing the machine he had.  The graphics so clear, so colourful, so....AMAZING!  I wanted it so bad!  

Hiding my contempt by not flushing the toilet when I went to the toilet and returning home, I nagged constantly about the console my friend had. My mother must have heard the constant whining because at Christmas she didn't get it me.  Instead I was given more GameGear games and a chair that was made by a neighbour who loved to carve.  I was screaming internally and said I loved them.  My mother said to go and get the mail, there was unopened Christmas cards in them so I went into the next room, trying not to cry.  When I returned there was a MASSIVE box before me.

'Oh, we forgot this one' she said'must have been behind the couch'.  I fell to my knees, heart was racing and all eyes on me.  I didn't dare raise my hopes again, but it was not far away.  I ripped it open in the corner on the bottom....and saw in blue the Logo,....SEGA!

I ripped the rest open and there it was!  My 16bit dream console.  With Sonic waving his finger in the corner.  I cried.  I was a tough kid but seeing something I had desired for over four months infront of me made me well up.  My fingertips brushed its top and I whispered 'thankyou' through a wall of tears.  My mum laughed and said 'do you want me to set it up?' I laughed, 'stupid question!  Of course!!!!' In less than five minutes I had slotted the first game in, Sonic the Hedgehog 2.  I wept slightly as I ran through the 1st level, the music so much better, the colours streaming across my screen in clear blocks, and the fact it was more of a game than I had ever played.  

I look back at that Christmas as one of the best (until I got my N64 but that's another story) and why? It resembled to me at the time why I liked Christmas. It was a gift, granted. But it was a day I remember, even now, twenty one years later.  It was a gift that made me realise I had been listened to, it was a corner stone in my gaming hobby and it made me appreciate everything that went into it being made and the people who got it for me.  

So I hope this Christmas if any of you get a 3DS, WiiU, Vita, Xbox One or PlayStation 4, that some of you, will feel not just happy, but complete with a sense of accomplishment.  And I hope it inspires you and doesn't burden you.

A Guest Blog by Steven Parky Yates (aka Fats McClane) for his great gaming memories and this special Christmas Guest BLOG

Thursday 19 December 2013

A gaming Christmas - Part two of two - 1990s and beyond

A Gaming Christmas - continued - By David Campbell

Christmas 1991
I was on the sofa, opening my pile of gifts, scrutinising each one (I was older now, and appreciated how much things cost). I had received a few videos, and there was another video shaped box hiding under a soft parcel (which was a jumper, if I remember correctly). I opened it, and it was a game called “Sonic the Hedgehog”. I felt terrible. My folks had obviously spent time looking for something I’d like (they aren’t gamers), and this was just out, so had probably been recommended. My mum could see my face, and knew that something was amiss.
“What’s wrong – have you got that one?”, she asked
“No.. its.. er.. well.. it’s great.. it’s just..”
I didn’t want to upset her and my dad, as I knew they had spent a lot of money on it.
“It’s just – I’ve got an Amstrad, and this is for a Sega Mega Drive”, I sheepishly replied.
I felt awful.
“You’d best have this, then”, my mum said, a huge smile on her face.
It was a Sega Mega Drive. I had been duped!

Even though I was 15, I was jumping around like I was 5 again. My eyes hungrily scanned the box, trying to take in all the things this could do. I hadn’t even hinted at a Mega Drive as I knew how expensive they were.
“Oh – Santa’s obviously missed these too..” my mum said.
She handed me two more parcels- by now, I was thinking this was some kind of magic chair – which turned out to be Streets of Rage, and Mega Games. Not only did I have a brand new console, I had 5 brand new games to play on it too!
I think I came out of my room twice in the two weeks we had off school that year!
Back to the Future
I’m now 38 years of age, and last year my folks bought me a Sega Saturn with 15 games! I’ve spoken to my mum about these memories many times, and in later years found out that she got excited at the prospect of me being excited by these consoles that she had no idea about.
My parents bought me all my favourite consoles over the years, and created some fantastic memories. Memories that I can share with other gamers, who have had similar experiences and can relate.
I guess the whole point of this article is that getting excited about games and consoles, especially at Christmas, never leaves you. Once bitten by the bug, it’s ever present. You can’t help yourself.
What’s Santa bringing you this year?
Merry Christmas!

A great Christmas BLOG by David Campbell

Read Part 1 to this part 2 here:

Monday 16 December 2013

A gaming Christmas - Part one of two - 1980s

I’m Dreaming of a Gaming Christmas - By David Campbell
“T'was the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”.
Except the mice of parents frantically trying to find an Xbox One or PS4 for their children!
Christmas has traditionally been the time that us gamers were gifted with the latest delights; pocket money and early jobs didn’t afford us the luxury of saving for such things – they were way beyond our price range. Most parents, if they could afford it, would buy the console their child lusted after, guaranteeing a smile on their loved ones faces. Their kindness was generally rewarded by said loved one promptly locking themselves in their bedroom, only venturing out for snack based sustenance and occasional loo breaks.
Christmas is always a magical time, but when you’re a kid with the potential of opening a new console, Christmas Eve is the longest night in history. Lying in bed, willing yourself to get to sleep so the hours would pass until “Santa had been”. The memories of Christmas, especially when receiving a new console as a kid, seem to remain more vivid. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share some of my favourite Christmas memories.
Christmas 1981
A little background to this one first. I was 5 years old in 1980, and my dad and I used to go to the local video store (Hollywood Video in Roseburn Edinburgh if you’re interested!). He would pick a movie for my mum and him, and I would be allowed to pick a cartoon or kids film. One day, whilst perusing the Tom n Jerry collections, I happened upon a different movie. This was called “Pac Man”, and the video was in a different box. I asked my dad what it was, and he didn’t know, so the owner explained it was a game, for this new thing called an Atari 2600. 

For £2 per night, you could rent the system and a game. I was sold. I don’t think I ever rented a cartoon again – I saved all my pocket money and used to get the Atari once every week or two. We got to know the owner pretty well, and he used to show me all the carts through the back of the shop – I was in heaven!
Fast forward a year, and Christmas day. I ran from my room to the living room, where my presents were laid out for me on the sofa. An array of colourful parcels, all shapes and sizes. I opened them all in what seemed like 10 minutes, to be surrounded by a mountain of shredded paper and a neatly stacked pile of gifts, ready to be played with.
At this point, my mum mentioned that she produced a present that “Santa must have forgotten” from the side of her chair. It was huge. I opened it hungrily, near passing out with excitement.
It was an Atari 2600 console. My very own. And it came with Pac-Man!
It didn’t end there, though – after carefully explaining to my hyper 5 year old brain that these were only on loan, she produced another large box. It contained literally every game that Hollywood video owned. The shop closed over Christmas (as they did back then!), and the owner had given the whole stock to my mum and dad for me to play. I almost expired on the spot! Even though I was only 5, I still remember that like it was yesterday, and it was 33 years ago!

Part two - into the 1990s continues here:

Guest Blog by David Campbell

Friday 6 December 2013

Analogue vs Digital by David Campbell

Games and how they have changed!
by David Campbell

The way we buy games has changed. You may have noticed this yourself. It seems that in today's faced paced lifestyle, we need everything instantly. Steam, iTunes and a plethora of other online options means your game store is open 24-7.. but this isn't necessarily a good thing, in my opinion.

You see, back in the day, buying a new game was an event. Perhaps it was because as a kid your funds were limited, so buying a game was a big decision. You didn't want to waste your hard earned pocket money or paper round wages on something that would be rubbish. For the sake of nostalgia, let's compare how we'd buy a game when we were kids versus how we buy games now.
Imagine, if you will, that it's your birthday. Generous friends, aunts and other relatives have kindly put some money in your card, and you have a princely £15 to spend. £15 is a large amount to invest in a new game, so we need to do our research. If you don't have the most recent issue of your favourite computer magazine to hand, we need to pause here, jump on our bikes and cycle to the newsagent.

Now, this in itself poses a problem. Cast your mind back to the shelves as they were.. groaning with magazines trying to separate you from your pocket money. ZZAP, Amtix, Your Sinclair, Amstrad Action, Crash, C&VG, ACE.. what to choose? Choice made, and 95p well spent, we need to head home to swat up on the latest releases.

Back home, grab a glass of orange squash and a biscuit, then we'll speed to our room to conduct our research. After a couple of hours poring over all the screenshots, then going back to read the reviews of the games we like the look of, we have a short list.

Now, if it's a Saturday, we can head straight into town to grab our new game. However, if it's a weekday, we need to wait the painful wait until we can get into town either after school the next day, or worse, the next Saturday.

Once in the shop, you head to the games section, turning up your nose as the shelves of games for the rival computers. At your section, you scan the new releases. You pick up several of the boxes, scrutinising the artwork, the screenshots.. is THIS the game that you need to buy?
Here's where things get really complicated though. You've spent £1 on the research magazine, meaning you've £14 left to spend. 

This presents several options.Buy a full price, £9.95 release and two £1.99 budget games
- Buy SEVEN(!) budget games
- Buy a compilation at £12.99
- Buy a full price game and one £2.99 budget game

There are many other variants, but you get the idea. You probably didn't realise as a kid, but you were combining accountancy with cost benefits analysis whilst standing in a shop!

After many hours of deliberating, perhaps interrupted only marginally to type "10 print 'big bums!'" on the nearest computer, you finalise your purchase.

With your latest addition wrapped safely in the bag, maybe even stuffed into your coat pocket, you wait patiently on the bus home, willing yourself to wait, and not take the game out until you are sitting comfortably.

At last, you are seated on the ride home. Oblivious to the chatter and ambiance on the bus, it's just you and your purchase. You take it (one at a time if you're lucky enough to have multiples), and you look at the front cover. Although you scrutinised it earlier, you give it a thorough going over. This game is yours now, not a potential sitting on a shelf. You flip the box over, the satisfying muted rattle of cassette coming from within, and you read every word on the back. You stare at the screenshots, imagining what it will be like to play.

Finally, you carefully prise the box open, ensuring you don't break the hinge on the side. You take the inlay and cassettes out in one go, checking the labels on the tapes before placing them safely back in the box. You fold out the instructions. Although you've played hundreds of games on your computer before, you read the loading instructions. You read the backstory, the controls, the credits. By now you can't wait to get home to play the game!

Now, sometimes, a full price release came in a 'big box'. These cardboard gems were usually a treasure chest of oddments. There could be anything inside.. maps, soundtracks, novels, patches, stickers, comics.. a game that came with lots of "stuff" seemed awesome, no matter how bad the actual game.

This long trip down memory lane does serve a purpose - it's not just an excuse to pop on the rose-tinted shades. Back then, the games were simple. The graphics were simple. The game concepts inspired - a guy stealing chicken feed and eggs whilst chased by ostriches? Can you imagine that on the Xbox 360?! The packaging was as much the game as the code was. It had to get you excited. The extras helped maintain that excitement. You felt a game was going to be good because it came on 6 floppy disks.

Now, compare that to how you buy games now. A lot of us still go to specialist shops to buy our physical games. Some people buy online and have them posted. A lot of people now download directly from Xbox Live or the Playstation Store, and have their game within minutes (unless your broadband is terrible, like mine!).

I just don't get the same excitement any more. Even if you buy a physical game, it comes in a DVD case, and all you get for your money is a disc. Sometimes there's no manual. That doesn't make me want to go and play the game.

The extras that would have been normal before are now 'collectors editions' that are double the price. Compilations don't exist anymore. Modern games really don't excite me. Getting a compilation tape from eBay is more thrilling to me than Medal of Duty 12 on the PS5.

But maybe it is nostalgia. Maybe it's bad broadband that blocks me from all the digital goodness. Maybe I will yearn for Xbox 360 games when I'm older. Who knows?

How do you prefer your games?

Guest blog by David Campbell

Thursday 5 December 2013

Exclusive SEGA Kickstarter Interview - Darren Wall - Read only Memory

SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis: 

Collected Works

Hi Darren...great for you to spare a moment during your amazingly successful Kickstarter with just 4 days to go now, how are you feeling?

I feel a bit like I've had a baby! I'm up all hours, aware of the many months of hard work ahead of me - but at the same time I'm terrifically excited and satisfied. Running a Kickstarter campaign is a really consuming task, but I don't think I've ever done something as rewarding. I've been able to speak to so many Sega fans and legendary developers in the past few weeks... it's been great fun.

Tell us why you choose to work on a Sega Mega Drive book of all things?

We were asked by Sega to pitch on a documentary book after they saw our first title - Sensible Software 1986–1999. I picked the Mega Drive as it was the defining console for me and I felt like I was pretty well positioned to tackle it confidently. I tried to draw up a proposal for the Mega Drive book I wanted to own myself and not try to get too bogged down in what would be commercial or second guess what they might want to see. We were staggered to hear that they liked the proposal and we were offered a license.

Who is the book designed for?

The book is for anybody with a connection to the console. We cover so many aspects of the era - from production artwork to the hardware itself, right through to developer interviews - I'm hopeful every fan will flick through the book and immediately be confronted with brand new material related to games they have already have an intimate connection with.

What was is about the Mega Drive that makes it so special?

I was 10 when I first played the Mega Drive. Everything about it seemed incredibly stylish... almost cocky in fact. The design of the hardware, the packaging, the advertisements... it had a kind of 'swagger' that was completely absent in other machines. Going over it again now, it is apparent just how important Sega's marketing was to its success in the West.

How has Keith been working on the project - is playing the games part of it for him and you?!

Keith has been interviewing and writing for several months now - when he's not appearing in prime time TV shows - and yes! we've both been reminding ourselves of the games as we worked through the book. I was particularly struck by how well Comix Zone plays after all these years.

Have you / Keith had any interesting adventures tracking people and information down for researching the book?

There have been plenty of adventures, particularly in the last few weeks since the Kickstarter launched. Several backers have introduced us to legendary Sega figures we were previously unable to get hold of. Within a few days of the project going live I was being introduced to huge figures such as Hayao Nakayama and Tom Kalinske!

We've also had some great moments with some of the Japanese developers - in conducting the interviews it became apparent that some of them still had pencil and paper development artwork at home after all this time! Makoto Uchida  in particular still had line drawings of monster ideas for Alien Storm which we just recieved this morning.

How have SEGA contributed to the development of the book?

They have been incredibly helpful. They have rooted through their archive for us and found some great material. Possibly the most important find they made was a collection of hand drawn plans for the case of the Mega Drive itself, along with a selection of unused controller designs. The also helped us to get in touch with many of the original game developers.

Tell us a bit about the artwork to feature in the book?

There is a great mixture of slick, highly finished production artwork and really rough 'n' ready, sketchy stuff from the early stages of the design process. To give a flavour of what's in store, there are character paintings for The Revenge of Shinobi, boss sketches for Wonder Boy III, detailed battle scenes for Golden Axe and really early, sketchy ideas for ToeJam & Earl. We'll also be featuring in-game artwork in a similar way to the Sensible Software book - showing off the detailed level maps and sprite sheets of iconic characters.

Tell us about the quality of finish of the book - we know as a designer and the quality of the Sensible Software book the print and finishing is very important to you as a Designer?

Yes, it is really important to me that the book looks - and feels - great. The biggest difference to the Sensible book is that this will be a large format hardback rather than a mid-size softcover. The paper will be a heavyweight matt art stock so the images will look their best and given the success of the project, we're looking at adding more pages and additional cover finishes too.

Did you learn a lot about SEGA and its games / hardware whilst being involved developing this book?

I'm still learning as we go! The insight into the development of some of the early Japanese games is extremely interesting and I think that will be a real highlight for fans. For instance, in our long-form interviews we learn of discarded boss fights from Shinobi, alternative level plans for Sonic and some surprising cinematic influences on classic Mega Drive games. I'm obviously being a bit coy here... I don't want to ruin the surprise!

What is your favourite 5 mega drive games of all time?

I won't be so bold as to place them in order, but I would select: Bonanza Bros., Micro Machines, Comix Zone, The Revenge of Shinobi and Streets of Rage 2.

Do you have plans to write a book on Nintendo after this one - balance the whole thing out then?!

That would be amazing! I would love for Read-Only Memory to produce more console documentary books. There's a lot of consoles to get through! I'd love to do more with Sega too, perhaps looking at other consoles like the Saturn and Dreamcast

There's still time to back the Kickstarter here: 

For more information:
Read-Only Memory

Friday 29 November 2013

Unusual Railway Pubs - Retro Memories by Bob Barton

Writer Bob Barton, author of ‘Unusual Railway Pubs’ (Halsgrove Publishing), explains how an interest in model trains led to him travelling full-size tracks and playing pub games. Read his memories and then enter our prize draw to win the book and a Hornby train...

I've loved model trains for as long as I can remember. Grandad nurtured my interest, getting the eight year-old me a Hornby Dublo electric train-set one Christmas. He  then got the bug and built me a room-size Tri-ang Hornby layout, which he enjoyed as much as I did. I liked the realistic scenes and couldn't understand why school pals wanted to deliberately crash the trains. The Pullman express would be set up to go steaming into the back of a goods train, sending wagons flying in all directions and plastic people dying at frightening rate. As an accompaniment, a vinyl sound effects record would be interspersed with Beatles singles on my parents’ Dansette record player.

This was around 1964, long before electronic games hit the shops. Instead we had to combine three-dimensional objects with lots of imagination. Shortly after, Rovex (the company behind Tri-ang Hornby) did cotton-on to the demand for drama by bringing out some items of fictional military rolling stock. Called ‘Battle Space’, the range included spring-loaded missile launch wagons, a box car which exploded while on the move; another had a pop-up sniper in the roof. There were working searchlight wagons and low-loaders from which a helicopter or satellite would take off. Mates and I set up scenarios such as our train patrolling the West German border and being hi-jacked by the Soviet enemy (the Berlin Wall had yet to fall). Grandad’s enthusiasm grew with mine, his police pension regularly being stretched to the limit in Seymour’s model shop at Harrow-on-the-Hill (no bargain eBay purchases then). I was devastated when he died suddenly aged 70.
In the 1968 catalogue, Tri-ang Hornby advertised its trains jointly with Minic Motorways. Moving trains and cars could be combined on townscapes of tracks and highways. Minic was similar to Scalextric except it used the same 00 scale as the trains. It had level crossings where we engineered heart-stopping near-misses between steam locomotives and Porsches (please don’t try it on the real railways). Of course this was before the age of the microchip. The height of technology at that time was the R406 Automatic Train Control set. One train could be used to start and stop another and control signals and points, using a solenoid relay that the train tripped using trackside contacts.
There were board games as well and my favourite was ‘Go’, the International Travel Game by Waddington’s. You could travel the world by train and ‘plane, exchanging currency and buying tickets as you went. But real journeys beckoned. Grandad had done with travelling and dad was wedded to his car, so I had to wait until I was about 13, old enough to take long distance trains by myself or with schoolfriends. It engendered a wonderful sense of freedom to travel the country, checking timetables as I went. Mum’s Marmite sandwiches accompanied me to the wilds of Cornwall, North Wales and the Scottish Highlands. If you knew which rover ticket to buy (at half fare) you could travel hundreds of miles for little cost. There were more trains at night in those days, so there was no need for expensive hotel rooms.
Starting work at the age of 16, I was introduced to the world of pubs and, for a while, was a keen darts player. Pub games are a world of their own, with toad-in- the-hole, devil-among-the-tailors and several varieties of skittles also played widely then.
In later years. whenever I was travelling on business I went by train if possible: it was interesting checking out the pubs and refreshment rooms on the stations. Many hailed from the early days and were very ornate, though run-down. It was the era before today’s real ale and craft beer revolution. Today historic stations have been smartened up but even a decent coffee was hard to find back then.
When I was made redundant from my job as a press officer in 2007 I was looking for a project and decided to combine my twin interests of trains and pubs. I researched a guide to the best railway pubs, which no one had done before. Published by Halsgrove in 2013, ‘Unusual Railway Pubs’ (www.halsgrove.com) also provided an excuse to travel on some of the preserved heritage railways, which often have great pubs with steam trains passing outside.
Models and pub games are a feature in some railway pubs. Among those in my book is one, on the line from King’s Cross, with an 0 scale model railway running below the ceiling and tunnelling through a wall. Another, in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, is a cross between a railway museum, model shop and games room. Yet another is a brewery in a quirky Lincolnshire windmill. As well as relaxing with a drink in the circular bar, customers can try their hand at traditional pub games now rarely seen, such as shove shive, target bowls and cheese skittles.  
Win a copy of Bob’s book and a retro Hornby train in the free-to-enter draw on www.facebook.com/railwaypubs

Thursday 28 November 2013

Atari Flashback 3 in the home – Reviewer Rob Armstrong

Atari Flashback 3 - instructions, controllers and main unit

We gave the Atari Flashback 3 to one of our Team who is getting back into playing retrogames unlike many of us! Here is how he faired playing the Atari Flashback console

"When I was a kid all my friends had the latest Amiga 64 or the Nintendo NES. My parents didn’t want to buy just a games machine and so bought an Acorn Electron, a budget version of the BBC schools computer. Thanks Dad!

So now I have children I was keen to bring joy into our house this Christmas and leave education for the classroom. Which is why I have an Atari Flashback 3 console sitting at the back of the wardrobe but there’s no way I can wait until Christmas to give it go. Once you’ve set up the plug and play system you’re presented with a menu of 60 games to play. I have to be honest some of the games I’ve never played before, however lots of the titles bring back nostalgic feelings. Asteroids, Tic-tac-toe, Centipede, Dodgems and Video Pinball were all games that I spent hours playing at my mates’ houses. 

Many of the games are two player, however they will have to wait until Christmas Day before I can play them properly. There’s a game called ‘Surround’ which is like a 2 player predecessor to Snakes on the old Nokia mobile phones. Its simplicity is infectious but I’ve had to turn the TV volume down because the basic 80’s sound effects become slightly drilling after 20 minutes. I can already see that of the 60 games there are going to be some that see more action in our household than others, plus with so many to choose from, the constant temptation is to constantly try a new one.

If you only played each game for an average of 10 minutes that’s already 10 hours of retro gaming. If you’re interested in getting an Atari Flashback 3, just bear in mind that these are the original games which means the resolution of the image quality isn’t going to be excellent or widescreen, no matter what type of HD TV you play it on. That said if you’re looking for classic retro gaming, with simple yet addictive game play, then this is probably right up your street. There’s not much you could fault about the Atari Flashback 3 however if I could make one recommendation to the manufacturers, I’d point out that the 2 metre controller cable doesn’t quite stretch to the sofa. But theres a new version  the Flashback 4 with wireless controllers to solve this issue!  I’m quite aware that by the evening of Christmas Day my son will probably be better than me at most games. I’d put it down to the amount of time he spends playing on the iPad, which is on a slightly different playing field to my old Acorn Electron. Although for the time being I’ve got a few more weeks of practice."

Thanks to Rob Armstrong for his review of the Atari Flashback 3
To get your hands on a copy click here: http://www.funstock.co.uk/atari-flashback-3-console

To order the wireless Atari Flashback 4 click here http://www.funstock.co.uk/atari-flashback-4-console

With code GYL10 Get 10% off too!

Thursday 7 November 2013

HEWSON GAMES - Covertapes Can Yield Forgotten Classics

By Ewan Robinson

Covertapes Can Yield Forgotten Classics - a Hewson tale...

If you are a gamer of a certain age (or have a healthy interest in gaming on home micros from the 80’s and 90’s), you will almost certainly have encountered games published by Hewson Consultants and their later iteration 21st Century Entertainment.  Many of their classic games have appeared on a wide variety of platforms varying from the original Sinclair and Commodore home micros, the 16-bit successors to that market the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga and even appeared on Nintendo’s Virtual Console service as well as Commodore 64 Plug-n-Play TV Game systems in recent years.

As a collector of older hardware and software, I have a large amount of software for various systems gleaned from a wide variety of sources;  some has survived numerous house moves, others rescued from friends lofts or purchased in bulk lots from Ebay.  While emulators are the easiest choice for most people (and perfectly acceptable for playing on), I prefer to play my games in their original format and on original hardware.  For this article I decided to go back through my collection and see exactly how much Hewson and 21st Century software had accumulated and, providing my hardware was up to the task after 20-odd years, revisit these games again.

Going through my cassettes and disks I discovered that though I had few Hewson games in their original packaging many more were to be found on the fair number of Covertapes that were given away with Sinclair and Commodore games magazines.  These Covertapes included both full games and demo versions of then-newly released software.  For a retrogamer these sources should never be overlooked as there are many hidden gems hidden there.  

Crash magazine (for the Sinclair Spectrum) and Commodore Format (for the C64) seemed to host the most of these games, from around 1988-1991, though I found a few for the Atari ST & Amiga, both as Coverdisks and as software bundled with the machines themselves.  I seem to recall a budget range for 16 bit machines that also included a few titles too, I think by Prism Leisure.

(Note: Unfortunately upon setting up my machines in preparation, I discovered my Sinclair Spectrum+ has developed a malfunction and as such I have not looked over the Crash tapes in this article.  Hopefully I can repair it and bring you a Hewson Spectrum Special article in the future)

Below are the Commodore 64, Atari ST and Amiga games that by pure random chance had been lurking in my collection.  Those of you with large collections of tapes and disks may well have these and others, as it is by no means a complete list.  Dates mentioned are the date the game was copyrighted and not the date of the magazine in the case of Covertapes and Disks.

Shockway Rider (by FTL, 1988)
(C64) Commodore Format CF5
Perhaps not the most auspicious start on my journey of (re)discovery was this game.  As a futuristic trouble-maker on a set of three moving walkways, throw bricks at by-standers, avoid the other gangers and reach the objective.

Ok, the game itself isn’t particularly one of Hewsons greats, but it does use some rather nifty graphics tricks to give the impressions of parallax scrolling (technically impossible on a C64 but clever programmers could get around that) and sprite scaling and even some primitive digitisation features in the presentation.  An interesting look at some ways to bend the C64 graphically, though the game is a bit shallow, even by the standards of the day.

Anarchy (by Michael Sentinella, Music by Nigel Grove, 1987)
(C64) Commodore Format CF10
A brilliant little game that I very much still enjoy. Guide a little tank (actually, its a tank destroyer, but lets not get into semantics) around a maze, shoot out the blocks and battle enemies.  Think Atari’s Combat mixed with Boulderdash or Repton and you get the idea.

The thing I really like about Anarchy is that when you shoot out the blocks it plays musical notes. These are very nicely done as to never grate on the player’s hearing and also randomly generate the sound in a pleasing manner.  More games should have quirks like this and a good soundscape is also a feature of many Hewson titles, either in effects or musically.

(Note:  Not to be confused with Psygnosis’ Anarchy which is a Defender clone)

Mission Impossibubble (By Mat, Music by Demon, 1989)
(C64) Commodore Format CF16
Isometric puzzle-shooter with very nice music and some up to the minute effects for its time. Like many later 8-bit Hewson games, Mission Impossibubble uses many graphical techniques to make the game look a lot more advanced than the aging hardware would otherwise allow. The game is quite entertaining with a steep difficulty, but retains an all important one-more-go quality, and the charming characters and pleasant sound effects still work nicely.

Head The Ball (By Jason Page, Spectrum version by Cybadyne, 1989)
(C64) Commodore Format CF16
Combining the best elements of Wizball and Cauldron II, Head the Ball is a perfectly functional and enjoyable platform game. Guide the titular Head along screens of enemies to reach the goal.

The game is well designed, and allows various different ways of traversing most screens.  Again, the sound really stands out, specifically the music, and the controls are much more friendly (though less realistic in terms of physics) than Cauldron II’s ridiculously uncontrollable pumpkin.  I guess Heads are more maneuverable than decorative squashes!

Cyberdyne Warrior (By John & Steve Rowlands, 1989) (C64) Commodore Format CF17
A fun multi-screen platform shooter, Cyberdyne Warrior’s space marine lives in a world not unlike that of Turrican or Metroid.  However, he eschews fancy gadgets and being able to turn into a gyro-ball in favour of firepower and lots of it!

Blast, leap and collect your way through enemies of all kinds in this sci-fi action blaster. Again, Cyberdyne Warrior displays some of the graphical flourishes that would come to be much more familiar on later 16 bit machines.  A very enjoyable game all in all and one I will definately play more of.

Battle Valley (By Simon Wellard & Mark Washbrook, 1988)
(C64) Commodore Format CF17
Silkworm?  Nah.  S.W.I.V.?  Pff who needs it. Not when you have the awesome Battle Valley from Hewson!  Choose between helicopter or scorpion tank in this scrolling shooter. You choose whether to go left or right, ground or air attack.  Bases reload your ammo and enemies will try to shoot you down or destroy you no matter what method you choose.

Aim your cannon up or down in tank mode, take cover, retreat to a better position or fly high or nape-of-the-earth in the chopper in this nice well-rounded Moon Patrol-meets-Choplifter style game.

Firelord (By Stephan Crow, C64 version by John Cumming, 1986)
(C64) Commodore Format CF18
Classic flick-screen adventuring.  Firelord however does nothing to hide its roots on the ZX Spectrum, and in my opinion fails to take any advantage of the C64’s abilities.

Except in one place;  its theme-tune is one of the jolliest medieval ditties this side of Fairlight’s score and is very very good.

Paradroid (By Andrew Baybrook, 1985)
(C64) ZZap! Megatape 24
If you are a fan of the Commodore 64 and you have never heard of or played Paradroid I’m afraid you’ve missed out. Very simple graphically, though still effective, Paradroid is one of the best realised games of its time.  Explore a vast starship as the aforemention droid, evade destroy and “hack” to take over the other robots who have gone berzerk and make your way to the bridge to free the cowering captain and his cowardly crew.

With tons of replay value, for me its the slick controls and ease of play that make the game, though it is far from an easy jaunt walk in the park.

Gribbly’s Day Out (By Andrew Baybrook, 1985) (C64) ZZap! Megatape 25
Can Gribbley Grobbley save the strange things from the other, stranger things? Probably not.  But sure, go on, you might as well try. Even by early C64 standards the graphics are…. a little basic.  The game is odd, yet think Thrust with gravity and a frog with one leg instead of a spaceship and you are sort of slightly close.Hard to describe and nearly as hard to play, Gribbley’s Day Out is a game that will leave you saying…. “What"?!.

Ammotrack (By John M. Phillips, 1988) (ST) ST Action Games Disk (Unknown Issue)
This game claims at the start to be “an incomplete or demo version”. I'm not aware of a more complete version appearing, but perhaps it did. Think Roadblasters meets S.T.U.N. Runner and I think that’s what was being aimed for here.  Unfortunately, the framerate doesn’t quite cut the mustard on the speed side of things and the sound is virtually non-existant.

However, it would be unfair to totally slate Ammotrack.  The 3D effect works very well and once you get into the swing of it, pickup power-ups and dodging obstacles on the course, there’s a fair amount to be said for this little game.  I’d love to know if it was ever finally completed though.

Nebulus (By John M. Phillips, 1988)
(ST) Atari Power Pack Disk G
Another deserving classic.  Nebulus is a platformer concentrating on a rotational tower that you must ascend, avoiding or battling enemies as you do so.  Graphically impressive in all its formats, Nebulus is a brilliant game, even if its crushingly unfair at times. The ST version has unfortunately weak sound effects, but that’s more to the limitations of the platform/hardware itself rather than the game.  Graphically, its still very impressive and the game is a lot of fun, with a real “one-more-go” quality.

Steel (By Gary Biasillo & Mike Williams, 1989) (ST) Zero Cover Disk 22
This was the first “full game” I got on a cover disk for my Atari ST.  I really liked it.  You play a robot, not dissimilar in appearance from V.I.N.Cent from The Black Hole, and attempt to navigate your way around a starship filled with rogue robots, hacking computers to attempt to reach the bridge and...save… the ...crew…  hmmmm I’ve heard this plot and style somewhere before….

Yes, its pretty much Paradroid for 16-bit machines. However, it gives and takes in equal measure. Graphically, it is very very very pretty, the metal of the robots is well coloured, the ship’s corridors look great, and the sound isnt too bad.  Unfortunately, you now play horizontally rather than top down, meaning that where you could drive around enemies in a room, you are often trapped in a corridor with them. They are much tougher to destroy than before and they damage you badly when they hit you. Get the pens out, because to complete this game you’ll need mapping skills. Odd, as in Paradroid the game had a map you could access by the ship’s computer.

Pinball Fantasies (Andreas Axelsson & Marcus Nystrom, 1992)
(Amiga) 21st Century Entertainment Original Version

Follow up to the successful Pinball Dreams, it does what it says on the tin providing four more beautifully designed pinball tables.  This game was expandable through data disks and featured brilliant sound, crisp clean graphics and a good sense of physics.

In my opinion the 21st Century Entertainment Pinball games on the Amiga blew away their competition on consoles and other home micros substantially, with only (and in my humble opinion)  Advanced Pinball Simulator on the Amstrad giving as fun (but much less graphically and audibly enriched) pinball experience.

Given that the above was a random selection of games gleaned from my collection, you can see how varied Hewson’s catalogue is.  Many games had very original features, and often some of the best sound work of their time, especially on the C64.  And I hope that this has inspired you to take another look at that heap of Covertapes gathering dust on the shelf.

Now, where did I put that screwdriver?  I have a dozen Hewson titles for the ZX Spectrum I want to play next…..

This GUEST BLOG review is by Ewan Robinson


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