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Slightly Magic Interview With Colin Jones

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ColinSharperCroppedSeveral months ago, Colin Jones had a Kickstarter attempt to reboot his popular budget game Slightly Magic. While the Kickstarter itself wasn’t funded, Colin forged ahead and released the game anyway. It’s reviewed in our next issue, but in the meantime here’s an interview with Colin about resurrecting his classic character.

Why did you decide to revisit Slightly Magic?
I took a look at it last year after a gap of over 20 years and I was shocked. In a good way, I should add. My son had been asking about my past, he’s really into games, and he wanted to see Slightly Magic. So we loaded it up. I hadn’t seen the game on a modern monitor, and I was totally captivated by Chris Graham’s graphics, now that I could finally see them clearly. I looked at the gameplay too; how the first screen led you onto the next, etc, and I knew what I needed to do.

It’s odd, but I suddenly felt responsible for Slightly again. No-one else was going to do it, I’m not going to be around forever, so I thought I’d better get a move on, before something mildly bad happens. I knew that the thing to do was start a Kickstarter, but for reasons that I’d better not get into here I asked for too much money. The problem with Kickstarter is that when a project fails, as you know, you get nothing. I think my campaign was a bit confused, too, if I’m honest. Certainly confused me.

How were you able to continue after the original Kickstarter didn’t make its funding?
I’ve got enough sense to know that sometimes you have to totally ignore common sense. Because common sense is what everyone else thinks is sensible. People who make stuff tend to have another sense. I guess it’s uncommon sense, but you’d never get things done without it. You have to go out on a limb. Otherwise get a job. Ooh, the thought of it sends shivers down my spine. Took me a long time to realise that, though.

So after the Kickstarter failed, I had no money at all to see the game through. Probably not what people would consider ideal. I decided that the only thing I could do was to carry on alone until something stopped me. Luckily enough nothing did. You don’t get that many opportunities in life, sometimes it pays to be a little stupid. Financially of course it’s been mildly suicidal. So I hope it succeeds, if only moderately. But here I am talking to you, so you never know.

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Some of the reworked sprites from the new game.

Did you have to secure the rights from Codemasters?
What I’d forgotten was that it was always possible, the chance was always there. I think what you’ve got to remember about Codemasters, both then with Richard and David Darling, and now with Rod Cousens, is that these are people who love to foster creativity. They’ll go out of their way to help, if they can. The best way to put it is that through decency, foresight, honesty and openness from leading industry figures, both then and now, I got to guide Slightly back into this timeslot. Which is the best fun I’ve had for ages.

What improvements have you made over the original Spectrum game?
Yes, that’s what I thought. What do you do with a game that you’ve suddenly got the rights back to?

I had to explain this to people at a developers conference recently. The best analogy I could come up with was this: what if you woke up one morning with the rights to a classic rock album? What would you do? Say the album had never even made it onto CD. Hard to believe, but isn’t that exactly what’s happened to most of the games we used to love?

So, would you re-record the album, with new instruments and performers? I wouldn’t. You’d remaster it, I’d say. Clean it up using the best technology. But you wouldn’t mess about with it, would you? Just make sure that it’s out there again, easy to find and available on demand. But treat it with respect, don’t screw it up. Because you’re probably only going to get one chance. So essentially, it’s the same Slightly Magic that people loved, but without the annoying flickering and attribute clash. 60fps too, probably.

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Anyone who has played the Spectrum original will recognise this screen.

Were you tempted to add new sections?
I thought about most things, yes. New graphics, new spells, 3d. Everything is possible now of course, which is crazy. But the first step for me was preserving the original game, and giving it a bit of a clean up. A bit of spit and polish.

Although, and thank you for mentioning this, because I know you’ve found them, there are a few new hidden rooms, with extra lives hidden in the game.

Where did the idea for the commentary originate?
When I was ‘revisiting’ the game for Kickstarter I started to wonder what I’d like to add to the original game. With hindsight, 20+ years later it just suggested itself as a nice addition for those who are interested.

I often enjoy the director’s commentary on DVDs. And let’s be honest, I’m probably never going to be able to do that again. I thought that was the best place to add it, in my own words as it were. I enjoyed it, too. That’s what I’d want from a remake, or remaster. I’d love to hear what the original developer thought when he was making the game. Actually, why wait? Just put the commentary in on any new games. Way to go.

When I did finish Slightly I have to say I did feel a certain warm glow inside. I hope people think I did a good job.

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Slightly can turn into different animals as the game progresses.

What can you tell us about Slightly Spooky?
Slightly Spooky was the last game I ever wrote. The doomed follow-up to Slightly Magic. The game that broke my heart. The game that never was. The game that finished me, forever. Until last week.

It was heartbreaking. Is that being too dramatic? 20 years is a long time, but as I remember it the game was finished, paid for, done and dusted. It was the follow-up to Slightly Magic. Finished on at least the Amiga, as I recall. Nice game, too. But it never got released. The UK games industry collapsed overnight. There was no malice, that’s just the way it was. My creation was worthless. So what was I good for now?

I limped away, head down into the sunset. That was it as far as I was concerned, game over.

Now I thought that Slightly Spooky would be the next thing I’d do after Slightly Magic. But there’s another game, one of the side projects I mentioned earlier, which is soon to see the light of day.

You know Cheshire the cat in Slightly Magic? Well he was always due for a game of his own. ‘Cheshire’s Cheese Nightmares’ is an idea I had for what people now call a casual game. Really simple, but very positive and relaxing gameplay.

I think I must have built up a certain momentum, redoing Slightly. I just somehow whizzed through Cheshire’s Cheese Nightmares. It’s partly based on one of the mechanisms I used in one of my MSX games ‘Bop!’ where clouds are portals which pop you out of another cloud of the same colour.

I decided to have a ‘Manic Monday’, a game jam, just to spend a day at the screen and see if anything happened. And as if by magic, and it is some kind of magic, a game started to form before my very eyes. I found it a great new way of working. Also, the strangest thing happened just as I was getting ready to launch Slightly. Chis Graham, who did the original Spectrum graphics for both Slightly Magic and Rock Star Ate My Hamster, suddenly turned up out of the blue. I’d been looking for him for ages, but he was totally off my radar.

So Chris, and this is the first time anyone’s heard about this, has agreed to do the graphics. It’s going to be his first game for ages. I think we’re going for an 8 bit look, but 8 bit without limitations, if that makes any sense. The programming’s just about finished, I only need to slot the graphics in. Digital downloads on all formats; Retro Indie Fun.

Slightly Spooky is on my to-do list, of course. I’m going to have a long think about how I should tackle it. It’s a run-jump-cast spells and generally open up your world game, but I want to take it further than Slightly Magic. Should I do retro graphics, should I treat it as though I had the perfect 8-bit or 16-bit machine? I could effectively do that, it makes a fair bit of sense to me. I suppose I’ll keep an eye on how Slightly Magic does, and on people’s reactions.

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Slightly, in all his animated glory.

Why do you think games like Slightly Magic still strike a chord with gamers?
It’s nice of you to say that, but it is true, isn’t it? I was lucky enough to be at the Wales Games Developers Show a week ago, and to get to talk to a lot of new developers and artists.

There’s a genuine fondness for the look and feel of Slightly and similar games. I don’t think it’s necessarily nostalgia, either. People like choices, and the games industry seems to be hellbent on decreasing those choices every day.

It’s similar to the way that animation has almost totally gone over to 3d rendered work. Which can look great, don’t get me wrong, but do we really want to put thousands of artists on the scrap heap just because everyone’s got on the same train? So, do we really want every game we play to look practically the same, from a choice of say 5 variations? I dunno.

Would you consider updating Rockstar Ate My Hamster in a similar way?
I’ve got to say no to that one, unfortunately.  I know some people love Rock Star, me included, but there are a few reasons I wouldn’t. Firstly, legal. I could never deal with a lawsuit from an angry fallen rock god. Financially or mentally.

And why would I want to? I really wouldn’t want to add to today’s culture of nit-picking mediocrity. Let’s not knock genuinely talented people. Remember them? They came before we had celebrities, before the X Factor. I genuinely wouldn’t feel comfortable about doing it again.

I guess I just feel that there are better, more just targets these days. I’d love to do another game like Rock Star, though. So watch this space.

And I’m having so much fun at the moment. Cheshire’s Cheese Nightmares came as a complete surprise to me, I’ll be interested to see the reaction. And I am genuinely pleased with the way Slightly Magic turned out. I hope I can move on to Slightly Spooky now.

Then the final, epic game in the Slightly Trilogy. Which I’ve been waiting to do for 20 years. It’d be nice to get that one done, that’s a fact.

Slightly Magic is out now and will be reviewed in issue 133. You can pick it up directly from Colin’s online store, or via Google Play or the AppStore.

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