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Mikro-Gen

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Mikro-Gen was one of the success stories of the Eighties, creating the popular Wally series of games and producers developers such as Chris Hinsley and David Perry. It wouldn’t last however, with the company eventually imploding in 1984, four years after it had formed. Here Chris recalls those early, exciting times.

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Programmers, eh? A boring lot whose eyes are filled with the reflection of code from a badly lit screen, doing nothing more exciting than reaching out for cold, festering pizza washed down with cola. Or so the myth goes. It certainly wasn’t like that at Mikro-Gen. “Some days no coding would be done at all,” confesses programmer Chris Hinsley. “There were times when we decided the day was going to be spent trying to beat the bendy bar record based around some exercise equipment Raf had brought in. Occasionally someone might put in a line of code.”

Quite how the core Mikro-Gen programmers – Hinsley, Raffaele Cecco, David Perry and Nick Jones – managed to produce top-rated games such as the Wally series is anyone’s guess under such circumstances. But they did. “Raf used to rub his feet on the office static carpet and zap Nick’s ears all the time,” Hinsley adds.

And what was the management doing while this madness was taking place at the office in Middlesex? Nothing. The programmers were left to get on with whatever they wanted. “I don’t think I’d describe it as a university atmosphere, more a raving frat house like in Animal House,” laughs Hinsley, who was taken on at the company by its managing director, Mike Meek. “There was the time I placed a life-sized poster of Linda Lusardi on the back of the gents’ toilet door. That was there for weeks until Mike’s wife got to hear about it. Thing is, we actually got stuff done, really good stuff too, in that atmosphere. Sometimes we would all be there for 56 hours, no sleep, crunch coding to hit deadlines, slapping each other awake. You wouldn’t be allowed to treat employees like this, but we did it to ourselves.”

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The Mikro-Gen team pose with mascot Wally Week.

Mikro-Gen was formed in 1981 by Meek and Andy Laurie. One of the earliest developments was Chess, which was published by Sinclair Research. But very soon Mikro-Gen became a publisher itself. Most of the early releases were either based on well-known concepts or otherwise derived from coin-op games that were popular at the time. For example, Stephen Townsend’s Creepy Crawler was a version of Atari’s Centipede.

It also published text adventure games – Saturn Developments’ Mad Martha came out in 1983 and included a few arcade sections – and it created simulations. And yet while these sold well, they didn’t set the gaming world alight. At the time, the company was tiny and yet it was ambitious. The bosses identified a strong need for a major injection of talent and so it was always on the lookout for new blood.

One of the ways in which it tried to secure talent was by going to the many computer fairs that were dedicated to specific machines in the 1980s. In August 1983, Mikro-Gen appeared at the ZX Microfair in London’s Alexandra Palace and it had a stand very close to a small mail order company called Crash Micro Games Action. The two companies soon began to talk and the conversation ended with Mikro-Gen handing over a copy of Mad Martha and being delighted at being given a good review. Little did anyone know that six months later, Crash Micro Games Action would become Crash magazine and the two companies continued the relationship it had built up. This ultimately helped Mikro-Gen to become known to programmers and gamers, which helped as the bosses tried to secure a winning team.

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A small selection of Mikro-Gen’s many games.

But before we continue with that story, let’s rewind and look at how the four key programmers began to make a name for themselves. We start with Hinsley who, like so many at that time, had become fascinated by games at a very early age. He would spend his dinner money at a cafe across the road from school, but none of his mum’s cash was spent on food. He would pump his 10p pieces into the arcade games and then, when the ZX81 was launched, he used pester power to ensure his mum snapped one up. Rather than start playing others’ games, he set about trying to re-create those coin-ops using little more than BASIC and a kilobyte of RAM.

“I quickly realised that it was going to be impossible, so I managed to convince my mum to part with more cash to get a 16KB RAM pack,” he recalls. “That helped as far as memory space was concerned, but BASIC was proving way too slow to do anything like I wanted. Try doing a sideways scroll on a ZX81 in BASIC for a Scramble rip-off. Forget it. So I started to look into this ‘machine code’ stuff I’d heard about, with all its strange words listed in the back pages of the ZX81 manual. I had no clue what was going on. I was so dumb I thought that each instruction did quite high-level things, I remember thinking that the ‘djnz’ instruction did something like display the screen for a frame or something. The Sinclair manual for the ZX81 just had a few pages at the back that listed the opcodes but didn’t say anything about what they did.”

At around the same time, the other programmers that were set to make up Mikro-Gen were also furiously trying to learn how to code. Cecco was playing around with computers and creating demos and Jones dabbled with programming on a ZX81. He wrote his first machine code videogame, Galaliens, on an ORIC-1, doing everything including graphics, programming, sound effects and tape mastering. It was based on the arcade game MoonAlien that was itself a clone of Galaxians and it took 15 months to write. He sent it to a company called Tansoft, which offered him a choice of £250 cash or £400 worth of equipment. Jones didn’t receive anything in the end – the company went bankrupt before any kind of payment came through.

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Dave Perry recently sold his Gaikai streaming service to Sony for $380 million.

Irish-born Perry was also a schoolboy coder but he harboured ambitions to become a test pilot. That soon fell by the wayside after he sent some of his programs to Interface Publications, which printed them in magazines and books, one of which was called Astounding Arcade Games and sold 13,000 copies. “In those days, you had to actually type the entire game in from a book – without mistakes,” he said. “Hours later, you finally got to play, or start looking for your mistakes! This looking at program code and fixing mistakes was a great way to gently learn programming.” Perry then sent one of his games, Drakmaze, to Mikro-Gen and it was accepted.

With Hinsley having honed his programming skills on a Commodore Pet during school lunchtimes, he was starting to become more au fait with the 6502 codes that the Commodore CPU used. Those lunchtimes were crucial for him, and he recalls the penny dropping when he figured what registers and instructions were all about. His first ever machine code program on the Pet drew lines using the block graphics character, but he decided to go back to the Z80 on the ZX81 to write small subroutines.

Before long he had coded a clutch of commercial games for the Spectrum, which included Laserwarp, Paradroid, Scramble, Centipede and Missile Command. “This is when I first had contact with Mikro-Gen,” says Hinsley. “I bumped into a chap called Paul Denial who was a sales rep for the firm and he was desperate for content because all they had at the time was Mad Martha and some other fairly sucky titles like Chess. He offered me fame and fortune even though I had yet to finish my O-Levels and the company took all of my games.”

Very soon Hinsley began to drive around in fast cars and he bought his clothes from the very best tailors in the land… or so he wishes. “Guess what?” he asks. “I didn’t get rich out of this.” And so on to college he went, bagging himself a place at university, but after the first term he was offered a full time job at Mikro-Gen. He wasn’t sure what to do.

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Mikro-Plus was a big gamble that didn’t pay off for Mikro-Gen.

“Most of my mates on the computer course said I should take the job as it was a solid offer and there was no guarantee of a job at the end of the course,” he recalls. “So I quit to join Mikro-Gen and I was the first hire they had done. At that point Mikro-Gen was Mike Meek the MD, Andy Laurie the Technical Director and me, and I lived with Andy for the first few months while finding a place for myself.”

Hinsley was introduced to new tools such as an Editor and an Assembler and he felt his creativity being unleashed. He converted his Laserwarp code into assembler and it formed the code base for Automania. And, in doing so, Wally Week was born. It was the start of a really successful period for Mikro-Gen.

The character was visualised by Denial, and Meek would go on to say that Wally was “one of the few humanised computer characters out there.” Indeed, Week was an average worker who toiled on a car assembly line, and the idea with Automania was that you helped him build a series of cars. His work wasn’t easy, as bouncing tyres and robots that lurked around the factory killed the little fella. Couple these with falling ceiling fans and you had a situation that today would be outlawed under health and safety laws.

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Chris Hinsley currently works at Antix Labs where he helps create Middleware.

“We wanted to create a character that could be used in several games,” says Hinsley. “Having a mechanic building cars in Automania was pretty much my idea but I don’t claim it was anything great by later Wally game standards. It was a very basic collect and return game. It was quite nice to see the cars take shape as you placed pieces on the build ramp, but I don’t think anybody thought this was a major event in game design.”

It was Hinsley’s first time using professional development tools. All his previous efforts while at school and uni were put together with hand-coded pokes into memory and a listing of Z80 opcodes from the back of the Spectrum manual. “This was the first time I had an on-screen editor – I used Wordstar – and an assembler,” he adds. “It was quite a change from manually listing out and poking in opcodes.”

The new tools allowed Hinsley to put much more into the game designs because the grunt work of just getting the code into the machine was automated. The company continued to improve its tools, creating sprite editors and download programs where it could transmit the game down to the Spectrum via a parallel port build on the back of the machine. “Andy was very good with that type of hardware tinkering,” recalls Hinsley, “and he kept improving that side of the tools. The tools allowed us to start to build a library of game functions and so each game could build on the code base of the previous game and be extended.”

To read the whole feature you can download issue 86 from GreatDigitalMags.com or the ImagineShop.

Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from ImagineShop

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