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The Making Of Scooby Doo

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Released: 1986

Genre: Platformer

Format reviewed: ZX Spectrum

Publisher: Elite Systems

Developer: Gargoyle Games

By the mid-Eighties, Elite Systems’ co-founders, Richard and Steve Wilcox, were no strangers to licence-based videogames. In fact, their West Midlands operation had thrived on working with licences from their first release onwards. But Richard remembers Scooby-Doo representing far more to him than just a licensing opportunity. “God, I loved the Scooby cartoons. I still do, they’re probably my favourite of all time. Not quite sure who had the idea of licensing Scooby. It’s highly likely that I would have suggested it, but Steve would have done the deal. He was very good at tracking down who owned the rights and getting the licences even though the TV and film companies weren’t attuned to merchandising and rights exploitation like they are today.”

Once Steve had secured the Scooby licence, however, brother Richard took the lead on designing a game that would do justice to his favourite cartoon. “When it came to what the Scooby game would be the design really fell to me. I was never a great programmer and only a very mediocre designer of graphics, but I wasn’t a bad games designer. I was methodical and structured even back in those days when the idea of creating a game design document before starting coding was alien. The ambitions for Scooby were enormous. Even though it would sell because of the licence, I wanted it to be a great game in its own right. The prototype was Don Bluth’s Dragon’s Lair, something that looked as good as any cartoon but was interactive. To me, it seemed that if we could at least distil some of the elements of that then we might have a chance of telling a real Scooby story, and make something that felt at least a little bit like an episode of the show.”

Scooby-Doo has eight levels, which loop providing Scooby doesn’t fall down on the job!
Scooby-Doo has eight levels, which loop providing Scooby doesn’t fall down on the job!

Of course, Don Bluth’s interactive cartoon was stored on spacious LaserDiscs while Richard and his team had to fit their project into the Spectrum’s comparatively meagre RAM chip. “The big difference between that game and ours would be the hardware. Theirs was pulling the animation off LaserDisc. We just had 48K of RAM in which to cram all of our animations. In our defence, we gave it a pretty good shot. I came up with what these days you might call a ‘game engine’ that allowed us to define and run interactive scenes. It was pretty darn powerful and allowed you to create mini-games that were extremely varied. The really clever thing was that you didn’t need to code each mini-game separately; we had developed a scene designer tool, which allowed you to do the layout and define the interactivity. This tool then encoded the levels in such a way that they could be played back in real time. Andy Williams did the coding. He was Elite’s number one programmer and, of course, he nailed it. But what killed us was the graphics. I hadn’t accounted for just how much animation we would need and how long it would take and ultimately how much memory it would need… memory that, of course, the Spectrum didn’t have.”

Elite’s Jon Harrison has memories of the Scooby-Doo art team making great progress on the game’s visuals before a press visit gave them cause for concern. “We pretty much designed 80 per cent of the game. I’d even thought as far ahead as the loading screen. I know I’d filled over 40 Microdrives with graphics. I had a stack over a foot and half sellotaped together – I think they are still in my loft along with a lot of other game memorabilia. I remember the Crash team coming to do an article, taking a photo and us discussing it after. We’d played a couple of demo sequences and I think the penny was dropping that we’d filled 48K with just those. But both Gary and I kept on drawing. Every pixel was plotted with a Kempston joystick.”

As concerns over Scooby-Doo’s graphics increased, Jon recalls compression and a Microdrive release being discussed, multi-loads not being considered and, finally, Elite’s Scooby gang splitting up. “Multiple loads on cassettes? I think people would have killed us! We were so ambitious it was crazy; each scene was a mini-film. It needed so much in terms of graphics, and although we could make the backgrounds minimal we just kept going overboard on the characters – okay, I did. We had an opening scene in a castle room. Scooby was asleep on a windowsill, Shaggy in the bed. Full screen – both snoring – bang, there’s 48K gone. Next load. Trap door opens, Scooby falls down. Next load. And so on… We thought the code could compress things, but it just couldn’t handle it. We thought Microdrives would be popular, but it never happened. Then we started to get pulled on to other projects. I started work on Paperboy C64, Gary left to join Gremlin Graphics, Andy left, Rich left to pursue other options so Scooby just fizzled out.”

Skulls aren’t deadly, but they do require Scooby to jump over them to make progress.
Skulls aren’t deadly, but they do require Scooby to jump over them to make progress.

After moving on, Richard Wilcox realised that his ambitious project had simply been conceived too early, but he reveals that its time may now have come. “It was ahead of its time. A few years down the line when art teams were much bigger and machines had more memory we would have got there. I still don’t think there’s been a game that has combined the best elements of cartoons and games.” Back in early-1986, however, Elite held the rights to publish a much-publicised Scooby-Doo title but lacked a completed game. Steve Wilcox’s solution was to use the licence to close a deal he had been chasing. “Elite always had a very simple way of doing things. Acquire the rights to a great arcade game, TV show, film etc and then find the best developer – usually one working on original games rather than well-known names. Gargoyle Games already had a reputation as a fine developer and had the additional benefit of being local. Elite had courted Gargoyle for some time. When the opportunity to work on Scooby-Doo came along it was one we just couldn’t miss.”

Elite artist Jon Harrison’s recollections of Gargoyle’s Scooby-Doo takeover are that the original Scooby team were too busy for regrets. Jon even jokes about it all now. “We’d all moved on and Scooby was a dead project by the time we found out Gargoyle had been asked to take it over. I still show people what we wanted to achieve back then. Now it would be 100 people doing a groundbreaking game. Back then it was four teenagers with two Spectrums, a partially working joystick and half an A4 pad. Classic.”

Unlike Scooby-Doo episodes, the early development of Gargoyle’s take on the animated mutt remains a mystery, but Gargoyle artist Stuart Cox describes the mid-point of its creation as being fast-paced without being overly stressful. “It was my first game there at what turned out to be a really great place to work. There were only five of us developing, so we were a very close-knit team. I was 17 and working in the games industry. What wasn’t to love? I joined the company right in the middle of Scooby-Doo, but even before Gargoyle, I’d obviously seen the PR, adverts from Elite. I wasn’t at the company when the deal was struck for us to take over the creation of Scooby, so can’t really comment on that part, but certainly I didn’t feel any pressure from the ‘gravity’ of the licence. Obviously it was a famous name, but licensing in the industry was new in those days. We did have to turn it around quickly though.”

In order to speedily satisfy the demand created by Elite’s project, coder Mark Haden worked with Gargoyle co-founder Roy Carter to adapt designs drafted by Roy’s partner Greg Follis into on-screen gameplay. “We were told to develop something quickly for Elite. I was helping Roy to code the Spectrum version and in charge of the Amstrad conversion. Greg did all the game design, [it] remained unchanged from his original conception. Elite didn’t have much input, its only concern was getting something that partly filled the brief of the original game to the market as quickly as possible. Roy and Greg had a good understanding of each other, so translation into gameplay was done verbally between them. I would describe it as an iterative cycle; it would be developed, refined and redeveloped.”

As well as ghoulish opponents on each side, some levels see Scooby attacked from above.
As well as ghoulish opponents on each side, some levels see Scooby attacked from above.

The experience of Gargoyle’s co-founders ensured smooth progress on their Scooby-Doo project, which Stuart describes as a product of evolution rather than planning. “Greg and Roy were exceptional at what they did. Even in those mid-development stages of the game it was already shaping up to be highly playable. A lot of the design had already taken place. However, we never worked to a tightly annotated form, preferring a more free-form type of development – we used to play it constantly and adapt many times.” As well as experience, Roy Carter had accumulated a library of adaptable routines during his years of coding games. Mark explains how these sped up Scooby-Doo’s development. “We used Amstrad PCW’s to do most of the development, using a CP/M compiler and serial interface to download directly to the Speccy. Very little was developed from scratch. All the source code from the previous games was hanging around so it was just a case of copying and pasting a lot of the time; we used quite sophisticated text editors.”

The processes used to create the art for Scooby-Doo were equally well established with Stuart Cox favouring digital over analogue tools. “We had an in-house package we called ‘Bin Image’ that I used and a Spectrum Melbourne House art program for [the] loading screen. Graph paper was used sometimes; Greg favoured that method while I usually just pushed and pulled at pixels until they looked right. It’s hard to imagine nowadays that you could only have two colours in any one area – on the Spectrum, at least – and the resolutions were very low in those days. Greg had fleshed out a large number of the basic Scooby-Doo visuals already, and I was tasked with continuing that work and converting the graphics to the Amstrad, creating stuff like loading screens, title screens, side bar images, fonts, and so on.”

In order to make best use of available memory, Greg and Stuart cleverly recycled some of Scooby-Doo’s graphics. Stuart was also tasked with translating Greg’s graph paper level designs into hexadecimal code. “We did a lot of tricks to minimise the memory usage. I remember working on the suit of armour on the background walls – it is only one half, with the other half ‘mirror-generated’ by the code. We had to be clever with graphics and would often design them in such a way that we could use them in other areas. All level design was done by hand, in the traditional way. I think they were loosely mapped out on paper beforehand; this would have been Greg so it is likely. I also remember working out hex values [for] the map creation – line by line.”

On the format and genre chosen for Scooby-Doo, Stuart cites familiarity and expediency as guiding factors. He puts the game’s multi-directional foes and static combat down to an early decision to implement arcade-hard gameplay. “There were other games around at the time that had that side-on look; I’d guess that Greg and Roy would have gone for that design for good reason. We had little time to develop it so making an adventure game would have been out of the question. The game was meant to be frantic, so danger from all directions was intended. It was meant to be an all-out arcade game. The ‘standing still’ aspect was there from day one; I certainly don’t remember ever being able to fight while on the move.”

One of Scooby-Doo’s more interesting mechanics was created by employing split-screen stages, which signposted dangers in upper levels. By contrast, Scooby’s opponents would attack from both sides at close-quarters without warning, which, as Stuart reveals, was entirely intentional. “The sneak-peak aspect was a really nice feature; it added an extra dimension, it allowed for forward planning and strategy. The frantic gameplay was all about putting the player right on the edge of collapse. The seemingly impossible situation the player was in and then surviving it gave great satisfaction…. or a smashed TV screen in some cases I am sure!”
The difficulty of Gargoyle’s Scooby-Doo was gauged by Mark, who playtested the game before it was shown to Elite for approval. “The feedback did come from either myself or Roy. We didn’t think it was difficult. I was the major game tester, so maybe I just played too much! Developing on the Speccy was quite quick with a good library of routines on hand; the whole start to finish took around 12 weeks. Gargoyle was paid a fixed sum to get something to market that Elite was happy with, so commercially just delivering was considered a success.”

A moment’s indecision allows two ghosts to spawn above and below a mid-level Scooby.
A moment’s indecision allows two ghosts to spawn above and below a mid-level Scooby.

The reception of Gargoyle’s Scooby-Doo was uniformly good despite comments that the game didn’t play like Dragon’s Lair as had been advertised. “I think the criticism was fair; it was never going to fulfil the hype generated by Elite,” Mark acknowledges. Stuart agrees and explains why the game was successful anyway: “There was always going to be a bit of a story around Scooby-Doo because of Elite’s failed start, but it really was a fun arcade game. It also looked like the cartoon, so I was pretty sure that anyone playing it would enjoy it.” Elite artist Jon Harrison offers a balanced assessment of the game, “I wont deny it hurt a little as the game that came out was so simple – but it came out, so fair play to the guys at Gargoyle.”

As well as the Spectrum original, Gargoyle also developed the Amstrad version of Scooby-Doo, which as Mark points out was a process of taking the rough with the smooth. “The worst case with porting Speccy games to the Amstrad was the screen code, 32vs40 columns, and the fact updating was slower because of the increased size of the screen RAM. [But] you could do some quite nice masking on the Amstrad that you couldn’t do on the Speccy.” A C64 conversion and a dual-system port for the C16 and Plus/4 followed, but Stuart credits these versions to other developers. “We didn’t create the C16 or Plus/4 conversion; I think Elite contracted that out to someone else. I would guess we’d have given them access to all the graphics, though. I’m pretty sure we didn’t do the C64 version either.”

Reflecting on Scooby-Doo now, Mark Haden offers an honest appraisal of the platformer that he worked on nearly 30 years ago. “It’s a good game; it’s a bit ‘samey’ but all development was done for the Speccy and there’s only so much possible in 48K!” A quick trip online to revisit his game helps inform Stuart Cox’s final thoughts on his first game for Gargoyle and the title that ended the long-wait for Elite’s Scooby-Doo. “I’ve just had a look at a ‘playthrough’ on YouTube – it does seems to hold up quite well. Scooby looks like Scooby, and it’s paced just about right. It was turned around in double-quick time, so on the whole I think it worked well. It could be brutal sometimes, though, so maybe a few extra Scooby Snacks scattered around for extra lives might have balanced out some of the unforgiving sudden appearances of ghosts! But if people still look back on it fondly then that’s very nice indeed.”

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