Special FX is another in a long line of successful software houses that hailed from Liverpool. Responsible for a glut of graphically impressive Spectrum games, including Midnight Resistance and Batman: The Caped Crusader, it quickly entered a lucrative deal with Ocean Software and become one of its key developers. Here, key members of staff look back at how it all began.
Liverpool is a city with a world-renowned connection to the arts, culture and of course, music. But it is also a place of great importance to the British games software industry, as the startup location of a string of well-known companies including Imagine, original Manic Miner publisher Bug Byte, and Psygnosis. Alongside these influential Mersey-based software houses was Special FX, formed by legendary Spectrum coder Jonathan ‘Joffa’ Smith and Ocean co-founder Paul Finnegan, who sold his Ocean shares to start the company in 1987.
Artist Andy Rixon, a former employee at Tasket and Odin Computer Graphics, joined Special FX early in its formation. “As I remember, Paul and Joffa resigned from Ocean to go it alone,” he says. “Special FX was a partnership of the two.” The company’s offices were originally very close to the birthplace of Liverpool’s most famous cultural export. “When I started, Tony Pomfret was there and we worked at Cavern Walks in the centre of Liverpool,” remembers artist Karen Davies, formerly of Ocean and Denton Designs. “The four of us were in one room and I remember we would work all morning on a game and then for lunch we would go the pub where Joffa and Tony would play computer games for fun, then we would go back to the office and work on games in the afternoon. Later on Andy and Robbie [Tinman] joined and we moved to the Albert Dock.”
The Special FX family of programmers and artists soon began to feel like a ‘who’s who’ of Brit game design talent, with ex-Ocean and ex-Imagine programmers Jim Bagley and Keith Robinson joining the team. “I was a Spectrum programmer, and when I started at Special FX there was another Spectrum programmer, none other than the famous Joffa Smith, so no pressure there,” laughs Jim. “I joined the company as a programmer after leaving Odin Computer Graphics, and found it a great place to work,” says Keith. “Paul Finnegan was a lovely guy to work for, and the whole team got on really well. I worked on multiple platforms, but majored on the Atari ST, and also developed the interface hardware and wrote the cross assemblers we used for writing the games.”
You never knew what was going to happen when you got into work…
“Paul was really the glue that kept everything together,” remembers Keith. “He was calm, personable, one of the team, a smashing bloke, great to work for, and a real friend to all of us. He worked hard to make sure we succeeded as a team, and as a company.” Jim recalls an example of the quick-thinking, can-do attitude of his former boss.
“I remember when I was doing Hudson Hawk for the Game Boy,” he says. “We needed to check the Japanese translations, but none of us knew any Japanese, so Paul, being the gem he is, went outside the office, found some Japanese tourists, and got them to check over the in-game text on the Game Boy, to make sure there were no silly mistakes. I put their names into the high score table!”
“Joffa was an incredibly talented individual,” Jim continues, praising his former colleague’s skill with the Spectrum keyboard. “There are not many top notch programmers that are also top notch artists, yet he was, and it showed, and he was a fun-loving person too, there was always some of Joffa’s humour in his games. When I joined Special FX, I was given G.U.T.Z. to write, and Joffa showed me his legendary push screen scroller technique, like the one in Cobra, which I used for the maze sections of G.U.T.Z. Although he was a very shy person he would always share any of his knowledge, and instigate a lot of the fun that went on in the office.”
Jonathan ‘Joffa’ Smith was a highly regarded member of the team who sadly passed away in 2010.
Although Special FX would become known for its close relationship with Ocean, who published titles such as The Untouchables and Batman: The Caped Crusader, its first game was released through a deal with another Liverpool-based software house, Software Projects, a company formed by Manic Miner creator Matt Smith after leaving Bug Byte. Originally christened Time Warrior, the game came to be known as Hysteria, the original C64 version being written by Tony Pomfret, with some excellent graphic design by Karen Davies. Joffa set to work converting the game to the Spectrum in two weeks, with the help of a parallax scrolling routine similar to ones he had put together for Green Beret and Cobra. For a first release it was an admirable and very playable effort, though the C64 version was better received than the slightly rushed Spectrum port. It would be the last Special FX game to be published by anyone other than Ocean in Europe.
Prior to Hysteria, Joffa had been working on an unusual Spectrum 128K game called Angel, which morphed into the acclaimed space shooter Firefly. “This game epitomised Joffa, and his approach to games,” Keith comments. “It was fun, fast, simple in concept, and felt great to play. It was one of Joffa’s favourites, and I think he hoped one day to put it onto other platforms.” Tony Pomfret coded a C64 conversion, again with Karen on graphic duties; however, as Hysteria on the Commodore machine trumped the Speccy offering, Joffa’s original version of Firefly was superior to the C64 port hands down.
Jim Bagley’s first Spectrum offering, G.U.T.Z., also took a fairly unique approach. “I think the story behind it was that a huge alien was coming to eat/destroy our planet,” he says, “so you had to go into the ‘gutz’ of the alien, and destroy it from within, to save yourself, and our planet. I think there was some hint of Fantastic Voyage in there, although I’m not sure who made the storyline up.”
The Untouchables was a big success for the team, and helped reinvent Ocean’s popular movie licences.
While Firefly received rave reviews, G.U.T.Z. was criticized for being a wee bit too sprawling, receiving 62% overall in Crash, although Jim notes that nowadays, because of the unusual setting and eye-catching Bob Wakelin artwork it has become a well sought-after game for collectors. Jim’s second Spectrum offering came courtesy of the deal with Ocean, whose financial clout meant that it could pass bigger arcade and movie licences on to the Special FX crew.“I enjoyed writing Cabal,” he says. “It was a hard task to squeeze a big colourful arcade game onto the Spectrum, especially with the huge on-screen baddy count that it had. Chas [Davies] did a fantastic job with the art, as he always did. Cabal is still a popular Spectrum game today, which I’m quite proud of.”
“This was the first time I used underlay sprites,” says Ivan Davies of his graphics work on the C64 version, coded by Robbie Tinman. “I loved the game and enjoyed doing the graphics for it. The two-player arcade mode was great but we couldn’t do it on the home systems at the time.” Both the C64 and Spectrum versions of Cabal were hits for Ocean and Special FX, and Jim can be rightly happy with the 91% rating it received in Crash following the reception of G.U.T.Z.
It was coming to the end of the Eighties and home computers were changing. 16-bit systems like the Amiga and Atari ST were replacing 8-bit stalwarts like the Spectrum and C64, and Joffa began work on what would be his final commercial Spectrum title, Batman: The Caped Crusader. The game is notable for its innovative display method, which integrates comic book style panels for successive in-game scenes in a manner later made famous by Sega’s Comix Zone. “This was my favourite C64 game,” declares Karen. “As I remember it was Joffa and Chas who came up with that idea, it made sense visually and could speed up processing time.” Batman was another well received title, Crash awarding it a 93% overall score, and Special FX was on its way to becoming a highly-regarded software developer with gamers and press reviewers alike.
The Special FX team, proudly showing off some new games.
With the move from Cavern Walks to Liverpool’s Albert Dock, new staff were being hired to help convert titles to the new 16-bit platforms. Ian Moran joined in 1989 and was immediately put to work on the movie licence of Brian De Palma’s Oscar winner The Untouchables on the Amiga. “The office was quite dark as you walked in and then it opened up into a large room where we all sat,” Ian recalls. “Paul and Jof had their own offices but a lot of people use to hang out of Jof’s window watching the world go by and discussing the game we were currently working on. We all had a large desk and the place was dotted with old arcade cases with games such as Midnight Resistance, Cabal and Mr Do!”
One of Special FX’s most celebrated games, The Untouchables took the form of a selection of action mini-games, loosely following the film’s plot, from 2D platform sections to Cabal-style shooting stages, and even a version of the notorious Chicago Union Station ‘steps’ sequence. “I seem to remember there being controversy over the baby in the pram going down the stairs,” states Jim. “The Atari ST version was another collaboration between myself and Andy Rixon,” says Keith. “The baby in a pram sequence was in the film, and we just had to get it in there.”
“The Amiga hardware helped give us co-op play and smooth scrolling on Midnight Resistance,” says Ian of his next project, a conversion of the Data East arcade game. “As with most Special FX titles I remember playing in a normally lit living room and thinking ‘This is dark!’ – I suspect a side effect of working in dark offices was that the titles were tuned for that environment.”
“Most games back then were done to tight three-month schedules,” explains Jim, who programmed the Spectrum version of Midnight Resistance, and the movie licence Hudson Hawk. “This didn’t leave much time as some of that time was playing through the original arcade cabinet, to see what was in the game to then work out how to copy it, in the best way possible to home computers. Or watching a movie, and then trying to figure out what scenes to make into games…”
“On both Cabal and Midnight Resistance, Ocean sent over a briefcase with the arcade boards in it so we could play it, which we needed to play all the way through, so we could put as much as we could into our ports – thankfully it was free-play… We played them quite a bit to make sure we had it playing right and looking correct level-wise. Spectrum Midnight Resistance is one of the games I’ve written over the years that I’m most proud of, as the arcade was a huge game with lots of graphics, baddies, bullets and big maps, big baddies, and lots of colour. Chas and I managed to get it all in, even the cutscenes.”
Notable Special FX Games
To read the whole feature you can download issue 112 from GreatDigitalMags.com
Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from ImagineShop