Villordsutch chats with Bob Smith of Bob’s Stuff about creating a new wave of ZX81 and ZX Spectrum games…
The Sinclair ZX81 – currently 35 years old – is a great British machine that proudly boasts 1K of RAM or 16K if you buy yourself an additional RAM pack. It’s fair to say on its original release few stayed with this machine as beefier, more colourful, beeping 8-bit machines appeared shortly after its launch. Games were nothing more than shaded blocks, and Alphanumeric characters, expertly manipulated to fuel the imagination, with people like Malcolm Evans, Don Priestley and Julian Chappell (from Software Farms) working wonders on the tiny machine.The award winning ZX81
With the unit gathering dust in many corners for numerous decades, there then appeared people with skills to show the world that this computer that was left in the loft for the shiny ZX Spectrums, or ever worse the Commodore 64s, and was rather brilliant at actually delivering games. People were making excellent games! These included names like Paul Farrow, Johan “Dr Beep” Koelman, Jim Bagley (he of Cabal and Midnight Resistance) and Bob Smith. It’s the latter that Villordsutch has managed to corner and question him on his classic programming skills, brought into a much more modern age.
Villordsutch: Back in the early 1980’s I was typing BASIC listings from INPUT and Sinclair Programs into my ZX81. Where did your love of programming begin, was it in between the Sprogs (cartoon strip) in Sinclair Programs or did you start much later?
Bob Smith: I’ve never heard of the Sprogs! My parents brought me a ZX81 early on, after seeing my enthusiasm for my godfather’s hand-built one. They also got me a book – Not only 30 programs for the Sinclair ZX81 – and I mostly learnt from that, firstly by just typing the programs, and later by altering them – as you easily can with BASIC.
V: What gave you the spark to start creating some outstanding games for a 1K/16K machine, which barely made real waves in the software market on its release?
BS: I was getting bored with writing for the ZX Spectrum and so looking for a new challenge, and noticed that gaming on the ZX81 didn’t appear to have progressed very far from those developed in the early 80’s – in that they were still largely written in BASIC, using character graphics, and were very slow and unresponsive – and I felt I could (hopefully) improve on that. As it is a very similar machine to the ZX Spectrum, it was easy to move across to it without any major (re)learning.
V: When you create games like ZXAGON and 3D Ant Attack on the ZX81 are you creating it solely on the ZX81 or are you using a separate piece of software on a PC, then porting it over upon completion? What’s the process in generating a game from beginning to end (you can give us a short version here)?
BS: I think that, with all the modern PC/Mac software available to use now, it would be silly not to take advantage of it, and so all development is done on an ageing laptop with a variety of tools. Most of my games begin life as mock-ups of the game screens, to see if they would look okay at the required resolution. Then I work on the code to get that displayed on the actual machine, move onto adding the player and controls, and so on. Usually I run out of memory on the machine a few times during development, and have to re-visit aspects of the code to try and optimise them to use less memory, but still be fast – it’s a juggling act. Ant Attack 81 was particularly bad for that – especially as the map data alone took 16K on the Spectrum version, and that was more memory than I had for the entire game on the ZX81!
V: Other than the Dark Arts is there a special piece of trickery going on within the ZX81 for you to produce such games? Have you managed to unlock a sealed piece of the inner workings within the ZX81 – using a string of code – unknown to past programmers?
BS: I don’t think anything I have written couldn’t have been done back in the day, but as most people moved quickly onto the superior ZX Spectrum when it was released few games really pushed what was possible. I have been known to use modern software to produce the best code possible for drawing graphics (in CroZXy Road), and to compress level data (Ant Attack 81), which would have been difficult at the time, but other more cumbersome methods could have been used instead.
V: We know Sandy White (original creator of Ant Attack) was rather excited to see 3D Ant Attack on the ZX81, but what was the feedback like from Hipster Whale for Crozxy (Crossy) Road and did you ever hear anything from the Flappy Bird creator with Quack!?
BS: Hipster Whale were great to work with – and knowing they were looking on made me want to produce the best version of their game that I could. Matt Hall – the programmer of Crossy Road – remembers the ZX81 (he started with a Vic-20) and was really impressed with what I had managed to create. Doug Nguyen had gone into hiding by the time Quack! was written, but I’d like to think he’d find it amusing. Terry Cavanagh enjoyed seeing ZXagon, but Philip Oliver (Of the Oliver Twins) thought I was mad taking Ant Attack to the ZX81 – he said I was going the wrong way!!
SEE ALSO: Ten ZX81 games you really need to play!
V: Looking at the ZX Spectrum games – on your website – your catalogue stretches all the way back to 1989 and is still expanding up to 2014. Is this your computer of choice when it comes to creating homebrew games, or is there something else you favour that we’re not seeing?
BS: It really all began because I found my game ‘Stranded’, which I originally wrote on a Spectrum in the 80’s, on a cassette in a box from my parent’s attic, and sent it to Cronosoft. I was always a little upset with that game though as I had much grander plans for it at the time, but didn’t have the knowledge or experience to make them happen, so thought it would be good to re-learn how to code for the Spectrum, and finally write the kinds of games I always wished I could 20 years earlier – with ‘Stranded 2.5’ being much closer to my original concept.Stranded Cassette Cover Artwork
V: You also produce mobile games for iOS and Android which are freely available on your website, the latest being Yurami for the iOS this year (2016). Do you see your software creations appearing more on the mobile platforms in the future, and do you think we’d see any of your past games getting a mobile remaster?
BS: Mobile games have the potential to reach a much larger audience, and it would be great to think of lots of people playing my games, rather than the niche retro-gaming audience. When I have an idea for a game I usually have a particular graphical style, or maybe control method, in mind which tends to dictate the platform I’ll write it for, so I don’t usually produce the same game on multiple machines. Each machine has to be handled differently as well – the ZX81 games don’t require sound or high-resolution graphics, and so are much faster to produce, although writing in Z80 machine code can be difficult at times – but necessary to get any kind of speed from the machine. The mobile games I can write in a high-level language (C#) and so the turnaround of new ideas is much faster. The ZX Spectrum games are always the hardest to write! Some people ask me to convert my ZX81 games to the Spectrum, and think it should be easy as they are basically similar machines, but the ZX81 has a few tricks up it’s sleeve which the Spectrum doesn’t have, which make such conversions very difficult.
V: Before we go will we see any more Sinclair games – either ZX81 or Spectrum games – in the close future? The ZX81 releases are hugely popular in the retrogaming community and receive high praise, so it would be fantastic to see another one appear soon.
BS: I’m currently writing ‘SokoBAArn’ for the ZX Spectrum – a version of Sokoban in isometric 3D featuring a sheep as the main character, as I’ve never written a game in that style for the Spectrum. I’m also working on a mobile game which is inspired by my ‘Dominetris’ game from the ZX81/Spectrum, but won’t be the same ‘Tetris’-style gameplay. It’s very difficult to find the time to devote to development these days though, and so progress tends to be slow unfortunately – so neither game will likely see the light-of-day until the middle of next year (2017)Upcoming gaming SokoBAArn
Villordsutch and Flickering Myth would like to thank Bob for taking time out for this interview. Bob has numerous games that you can download for free over at his website here (donations are much appreciated). Also for all the latest news Like Bob’s Facebook page and also Follow him on Twitter. If you want to give the above games a go but have neither a ZX81 or ZX Spectrum at hand, a couple of easy to use PC Emulators are Spectaculator for you ZX Spectrum wants and EightyOne for the ZX81 games.