CPC Legend - Jas Austin Interview:
If the thought of attribute clash or MODE 0 warms your cockles, you'll love this interview with CPC and all-round ZX Speccy legend Jas Austin. To help jog the memory, Jas coded the wonderful Amstrad and Speccy versions of a lot of classic games, including Altered Beast on the Speccy, Nemesis the Warlock, War, Slaine and the futuristic bullet hell shooter, REX (CRASH awarded 82%)! He also programmed Alien 3 and the excellent R-Type on the GameBoy.
So Mr Anderson, how on gods green earth was Rex even possible on the humble Speccy?
HaHa! Mr Anderson indeed... Damn rumbled. Our previous game for Martech hadn't done particularly well commercially. So for Rex, we decided to re-invent ourselves with fake names and a new company 'The Light' We even invented a back story... That we were all ex IBM employees and wrote the game in a matter of weeks. Of course, all a complete pack of lies.
Yes, Rex did have a lot going on... I've always been a fan of arcade shooters like Defender, so wanted to try and capture that crazy-ness but in a platform game. It was quite tricky to achieve on the humble Spectrum. And was mostly down to some clever level design. A common trick of the time was to limit the area that was updated on screen. This is why some games would have smaller play areas than the screen size. With Rex, I wrote a 'clever' update that would only update the non background areas, which always remained static and did not need updating. So most of the game screens have a roughly 50/50 split between background and sprite area to keep the speed up. This also meant that the non moving background areas could be as colourful as we wanted. Which helped detract from the fact the sprite area was mostly monochrome.
What about the CPC version? (Scored 85% in 100 POUR CENT, N°13)
Yep, there was also a CPC version. Although as it was so long ago It's difficult to remember too much about it. Pretty sure it was written by Neil Dodwell, one third of Creative Reality along with myself and Dave Dew, who did the graphics on both versions. While it wasn't quite as hi-res as the Speccy version. I remember it using screen mode 0. So it was able to use 16 colours, and was way more colourful than my version.
You fought in the 8bit wars, why did you choose an alliance with the Speccy?
Ah, the old Spectrum vs C64 vs CPC debate... A battle that still rages on today. There were a couple of main reasons I sided with the Speccy. Firstly my previous computer was the ZX81, and it seemed a natural progression to move to Sir Clive's new machine. There was also the simple fact that it was much cheaper than the C64, and being a teenager, I didn't have a huge amount of cash to throw around. Later on, when I'd been programming it for a while, I came to appreciate it's underdog nature compared to the C64. And while it was trickier to program, because of it's lack of hardware support. It definitely made it more fun to work on.
Most of your games were well received back in the day, how did this make you feel?
Luckily for me most of my games were well received. If anything, some of them have gained more interest all these years later. With the licensed titles I did have some fantastic material to work from, especially the 2000AD games. I was a massive fan of the comic at the time. So it was an honour to make those games. It's fantastic to know that people had fun playing them, because I also had such fun making them.
What sparked your interest with computers?
As a young kid, I always had an interest in the tech stuff around in the 70's and 80's. I had an early LED style digital watch. And many of the electronic games of the time, like Merlin and Simon. But my interest really kicked in when I got hold of the early Sinclair programmable calculator. Being able to actually enter your own programmes into it was a real 'lightbulb' moment for me. Realising I could try and make it do what I wanted, rather than just what was built into the device.
I take it you're still active in the gaming business?
I am, yes. I'm currently making games with the independent games company Origin8. Recently I worked on the iOS / Android remake of Chris Sawyer's Transport Tycoon, and am currently developing an original game that we are hoping to announce very soon. I've never actually left the games industry... Since the early eighties I've worked on around thirty titles, for many platforms, including Gameboy, PC, XBOX and Playstation 2.
How connected are you to other programmers from the 80's?
I try and keep in touch as much as possible. I'm still in direct contact with some friends and colleagues from the past including Mel Croucher, Mark Jones, Bob Pape and Martin Wheeler. Plus recently, through social media sites like twitter and some great facebook groups. I've managed to connect with many other game developers from the 80's.
Which of your games would have benefited with today's hardware?
I guess the simple answer would be... All of them. But seriously, on the spectrum any game with smooth scrolling was hard to pull off. So my game W.A.R. Which was inspired by classic scrolling arcade shooters like 1942 would be a good example. I had to keep the game screen very small, but with modern hardware I would be able to have full screen scrolling and still have the large number sprites needed for an action game. I've also read on the internet, that my game Sláine has been modified to work with a mouse. So this is a simple modern piece of hardware that I can see improving that game.
What is the worst game you've ever played?
Humm, that's a difficult question to answer. I've played many games that had bad individual parts... Controls, gameplay, graphics, story etc. But it's hard to think of a game that was totally terrible. So I will have to diplomatic, and pick the first game I ever released 'Bunny' It's pretty bad. Particularly as I did the graphics myself, and I'm definitely no artist.
What are your thoughts on the new Spectrum Console?
I think anything that can help bring the classic games of the 80's to a whole new audience can only be a good thing. And from what I've seen so far it looks like a very neat device. I am a little concerned that with it's limited controls there will be a whole bunch of games that won't be playable on it... Text adventures for example. Perhaps they are planning on releasing a full keyboard add-on for it in the future.
Can you still program like you used to?
HaHa! I like to think so. Although coding has changed quite a lot since the 80's. Not only has the hardware moved on, but since around the year 2000, I've been programming in high level languages like C++ rather than the machine code used on the Spectrum. While modern methods of programming have undoubtedly made some aspects easier. There was a level of satisfaction coding in the 80's, as it felt we were forging a path through new uncharted territory.
Is there anything that still surprises you about gaming?
What surprises me, even to this day is just how the whole industry has changed and grown throughout the years. And while a few years ago the larger companies were dominating with AAA titles. The recent rise of the smaller indie developers are creating some really unique content. The fact that a single person can make and release games, feels somewhat like the 'bedroom' scene of the 80's.
Can you step out of your game and enjoy it as a gaming enthusiast?
Absolutely. As my interest in making games originally came from playing games I was, and still am, an avid gamer. Over the many years I've owned most of the major gaming computers and consoles. And currently have an Xbox One, PS4 and Wii-U, which possibly take up far too much of my spare time... I also feel it's important to play current titles to keep up with trends in gaming and ever changing tech.
Who is the biggest geek you've ever worked with?
That's a very tricky question... I've worked with many hugely talented and geeky people throughout my time. But if I were to pick one person it would be Mark Jones. I worked with him on some Spectrum and Gameboy games. Mark was always a fan of retro gaming, but even before sites like World of Spectrum. He was already digitally archiving the Spectrum game we all owned... For personal use only of course wink emoticon He would play these games on one of the many Mame arcade game cabinets he was constantly tinkering with.
And finally, what did you think of the Amstrad CPC and C64?
While the Spectrum was always my first love, I did have an Amstrad and a C64 back in the day. Because of the added hardware support for scrolling, sprites and audio. The C64 had some very different games to the Spectrum and CPC. So I remember playing the many great games it had to offer. Particularly it's arcade style games like, Paradroid, Armalite and Uridium. And not forgetting the C64 had the best versions of the classic Jeff Minter games.
Follow Jas on twitter @IamXERO