Jim Bagley has been making videogames for nearly 30 years. He’s worked on the Spectrum, Game Boy, and more recently iOS, and has been responsible for a number of great arcade conversions such as Cabal and Midnight Resistance. Here he speaks to us about his early days in the industry.
Hi Jim. We know you’re a lover of games and retro games in particular – when did this begin?
When I was a kid I used to play in the arcades at New Brighton where they had all the classics of the time such as Pac-Man and Space Invaders. That was my first experience of games, and I loved it.
Is this where your desire to code began?
Actually, at the time I was a bit naive and I had no idea where you would go to make arcade games or any kind of games. But when I went to secondary school they had six Sharp MZ80k’s and one BBC Micro – and everyone was playing games like Chuckie Egg and Frak on the BBC. The Sharps were sitting around not doing anything so I got the programming book that came with it and began to write. I’d analyse a program and see what lines were doing what and start changing them and was soon teaching myself quicker than they could teach me! Then, by the time I was 14 I’d begun writing in machine code on the BBC, and realising I was really enjoying computers at school my mum had bought me a ZX81. Then she got me a VIC-20 and I might have complained a bit [grins]. Eventually she saw sense and I was bought a Spectrum 48k. I’d already mastered 6502 on the Beeb so I thought it should be relatively simple to learn the Z80. I dabbled with BASIC but soon realised how much faster machine code was, so was soon making games after school every chance I could.
So this was 1983 and you’d already mastered machine code, but your first commercial game was some time away.
I was still at school and then sixth form. But I used to go to a local computer shop called Micro Byte in Liscard after school. I’d be talking to everyone in the shop and one day asked if anyone knew of any local computer companies, thinking they’d all be down south or in America. I didn’t have a clue!
There were one or two in the north west…
Yes [laughs], and I got a phone number for one from them, phoned them up, had an interview and got a job! Just like that!
Jim did some cracking conversions, including Midnight Resistance
on the ZX Spectrum.
Where was that?
At Consult Computer Systems, a developer from Wirral. I’d left sixth form – it was doing my head in – as I’d stayed on to do computers but the only course that involved computers was business studies. It wasn’t for me, I wanted to write games.
And the first game you worked on was Throne Of Fire…
Yes, with Mike Singleton! I was like ‘oh my god’ and felt the pressure straight away. Mike gave us the design and I was essentially the sole programmer on the game.
What did you think about writing this elaborate graphical arcade-adventure as your first game?
I wondered what I’d got myself into! One of the specs was that it was 129 rooms, and I thought ‘why can’t it be 128? That’s a nice round computer-friendly number!’ But at the time I didn’t know why Mike Singleton was who he was – it was because he pushed boundaries. And it wasn’t just that; the amount of sprites we had to do and cut their heads off so we could have different heads on them and then generate the masking for them in real time to save memory. It was a lot of hard work, but it taught me the value of stretching the technology to the limit. Mike was a great storyteller as well.
What did you think of Throne Of Fire?
It was okay, but lacking. I’d probably make it much better now, but I had to start somewhere. I wanted to make it faster, smoother and more fluid. But I couldn’t because of the size of the sprites and the masks for the characters, all in real time. And all the characters were active constantly; even when they were off-screen they were being processed around the map. I was pleased with the achievement of it.
And then you left Consult?
Basically, I’d fallen out with one of the owners. It sounds silly, but he broke my bike. I didn’t drive so had to go to work on a push bike. One day the weather was really bad so I got a taxi home and left the bike at work. He used it and broke it and then didn’t repair it or buy a new one. But I wasn’t happy anyway. I was working around the clock and not getting any overtime. I had the satisfaction of the game I was working on, but I felt they were taking the piss a bit.
So where next?
I was in Micro Byte again and was introduced to a guy named John Gibson. I started doing a utility for him and he was very impressed, so he took me into his office where he was one of the bosses: Canvas. I worked on my first arcade conversion there, which was Road Runner, converting it to the Speccy. I didn’t know the first thing about converting an arcade game and here I was the sole programmer for a big conversion.
Jim remains a big part of the retro community and is always working on new projects. One of his best is Pac-Manic Miner.
It received a muted reception…
I messed up the collision detection a bit which I was a bit gutted about. But the game was as close as I could get at the time to the arcade version.
Despite the reception of these two games, they sold well. How did you feel seeing your games on the shelves?
It was great and it’s one of the things I miss at the moment with the iOS stuff. It was one of the big buzzes of making the games back then.
The big name on your CV for Canvas is World Class Leaderboard from 1987.
It was a game that John had been working on before he left to go and join Microprose. I was dropped with finishing the game quickly and had to remove as many bugs as I could in the time. And as it was written in 6502, tracking the bugs was a real pain in the [the song Rio by Duran Duran conveniently drowns out Jim at this point].
Did things change for you personally at Canvas when John left?
Lots of people were leaving to go elsewhere and I wasn’t particularly happy with the dynamic there. Dawn [Drake] had already gone to Ocean, and she got me an interview with Special FX in Liverpool as I didn’t particularly want to move to Manchester.
How were things different at Special FX, if at all?
It was more professional. Finny (Paul Finnegan, co-founder along with Jonathan ‘Joffa’ Smith) was an excellent salesman and a good boss. The office was at the Albert Dock in Liverpool and it was nice and open-plan. I was with Joffa and Chas Davies who did the graphics for my games. I remember we were next to the Granada TV News studios and Fred Talbot’s weather island was just around the corner.
And the first game you did for them was an original title called…
Gutz. It had already been designed and basically the story is an alien has come to eat the planet and you had to go inside it and blow it to bits. And for Gutz, Joffa showed me his push-scroll to get fast scrolling on the Speccy.
Was working on Gutz refreshing after doing all the conversions?
It was nice to have the freedom to put in little touches even though you’re basically running around a maze, shooting baddies and getting to the exit. Usually people ask me about doing a sequel…
Cabal is another fantastic arcade conversion by Jim and again
for the ZX Spectrum.
Oh, sorry Jim, how about a sequel, Gutz 2?
I’m too busy at the moment… but never say never!
Having done this original game, it was back to the arcade conversions right?
Yep, and the Amstrad CPC version of Batman: The Caped Crusader.
Amstrad conversions didn’t tend to have the best of reputations…
I wasn’t happy with the way previous conversions had been through history, usually through lack of time. I intend one day to do a proper full-colour Amstrad version of Midnight Resistance or Cabal…
Before those two you finally got to work on one of Ocean’s movie licences, Red Heat, the Spectrum version of which strangely only incorporated the top half of the characters.
We wanted big sprites for that game, and if we had done the legs as well they’d have had to have been thin and obviously the character Arnold Schwarzenegger played was not thin. As usual, we just had the script to go on, but we knew what Arnie looked like!
Next up was a brace of perhaps your most famous and technically impressive 8-bit games.
The difference back then between arcade machines and home computers, especially the Spectrum, was immense. Cabal and Midnight Resistance were my pinnacle of arcade conversions.
Taking Cabal first, the thing that strikes you about the Spectrum version was the colours and relative lack of attribute clash. How did you achieve that?
It was using clever boundaries. Anything that had colour, the enemies went behind. So they’d go behind the buildings, you’d shoot the buildings and they’d crumble away, leaving the sprites. Therefore the sprites would hardly ever go through two changes of colour. Also, the arcade game had shedloads of baddies on-screen and I felt it was important to replicate that as much as possible and get the same feel of mass destruction – and keep it moving as quickly as possible, which took a lot of code optimisation.
It always seemed to be an impossible task…
With the likes of Midnight Resistance it seemed like that to me too. It was an absolutely massive game; lots of levels, colourful graphics and varied maps. It was a great challenge figuring the best way of getting as much of the original into 48k, and I guess it was my competitive side as well, wanting to achieve as best as possible.
But by now you must have realised the Spectrum’s time was coming to an end?
It was actually during the development of Cabal and Red Heat that I got an Atari ST and started learning to program on that. I knew you needed to keep up with the flow of the industry. The map editor for Midnight Resistance I did on an ST, and I think Cabal as well.
Your final game for Special FX was Hudson Hawk, which you coded on Z80, including the Game Boy. Had you seen the film?
Nope. At the time everyone said it was rubbish and it was a big flop. I bought it in HMV a couple of years ago and knew it was going to be cheesy from the script, but I actually enjoyed it. I thought the timings of the tunes was quite clever!
Didn’t you look at the script and think it didn’t really lend itself to a videogame?
It was basically ‘here’s the script, go make the game and do it in three months!’ So we all read it and worked out what locations we were going to set the levels in and go from there. We thought about what kind of baddies, such as a guard dog on the roof in the first level and the shitting birds above…
Don’t remember that in the movie…
They were dropping eggs, honestly! But as we didn’t have any visuals, we could improvise a few things such as the baby on the bike and nuns pushing wheelbarrows. Maybe a bit of Joffa’s influence there! But I actually enjoyed working on Hudson Hawk because I liked working on the Game Boy, which was a port of the Speccy version. The Game Boy’s processor was sort of a cut-down version of the Z80, so much of the code was similar and it was just a case of changing bits and pieces. And there were a couple of handy instructions, like you could store a byte in a pointer and increment the pointer as well, which you couldn’t do on the Spectrum. Plus hardware sprites – that was nice!
Notable Jim Bagley Games
You can read the rest of our interview with Jim Bagley in issue 124. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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