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Nigel Alderton

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Although he no longer makes games, Nigel will forever be remembered thanks to the sterling work he did on platformer Chuckie Egg. Released for the Spectrum, and other 8-bit computers, it celebrated the arcade games Nigel enjoyed playing as a kid and remains insanely fun to play. We caught up with the legendary coder to find out what he’s been doing.

mainbody_nigelalderton3So Nigel, when did your desire to program videogames arise?
I was around 13 when one lunchtime at school I saw some kids going into this room. It was almost dark save for the glow of the green screens and all very secretive. So I managed to sneak in and watch the kids use the computers; eventually somebody let me on one and it was fantastic, like a whole new world. I was just absorbed by it for some reason.

So was this where your coding days began?
I had been programming in BASIC on the ZX81. Then I got a book on machine code and this opened up a whole new world as just the speed difference was so exhilarating to watch. I started programming on the Spectrum and had soon written a game called Blaster.

Was this Rocket Raider?
I called it Blaster and when the advert came out they’d changed the name. I didn’t care because I’d got a game published and been paid for it, which was fantastic. It was a combination of my favourite arcade games at the time: Defender and Scramble.

What was it that made you decide to get C-Tech to publish Blaster?
A friend told me about this guy that might want to buy the game. They ran a shop, so I took it up to show them; I walked in and this guy was lying asleep on the counter! I announced myself, showed him Blaster and to my astonishment he raved about it and wanted to buy it immediately. He offered me £500 and I was just gob-smacked… I was 15 years old and getting £3.50 for my paper round, so I was just stunned silent. He took that to mean that the offer wasn’t high enough, so he said ‘alright, £600 then’, and I just laughed. Again, he took that to mean the offer still wasn’t high enough, so he upped his offer to £700! Then I stupidly spoke up and the guy wrote a cheque straight away. I took it home and when I showed it to my dad, it was the first time I recall him use the f-word. He couldn’t believe it.

mainbody_rocketraider_screenshot_spectrumRocket Raider was one of Nigel’s earliest games,
showing his love for arcade ports.

Would you say that was one of the early driving forces behind Chuckie Egg?
Yes, and I’d already developed routines to do that and it just looked so much better, so much more fun and responsive to play as it would just move in little increments.

How did the idea of turning it into a platform game come about?
The two arcade games where all my ten pences were going were Space Panic and Donkey Kong. So I wrote a hybrid of those two games [and it] added to my dislike of games where there’s a set path for each level. I like a game where it is all about dexterity and you can find your own way through.

Had you started working at A&F?
Yep, a friend of mine had a job in a computer shop and knew I was after a Saturday job, so he suggested I get in touch with A&F. They sold computers and games and in the back of their shop had two or three programmers writing games. To start with, I was getting the bacon butties and cups of tea, serving customers and generally helping out.

So we imagine that, having demonstrated this soon-to-be-legendary game, A&F told you to forget about the tea and the bacon butties?
[laughs] They set up a little workstation for me and encouraged me to code during weekends and the school holidays. But it was too noisy and they kept trying to tell me what the structure of the game should be. I was determined that I was gonna do it how I wanted to do it and, in any case, their ideas were pretty daft.

Such as?
They had ideas like every fourth screen should have a Frogger-style level where Harry had to jump across logs to get to the next level. I was firm in my belief this would not work.

And presumably there wasn’t a huge amount of space for such varied levels anyway?
Indeed. Because you’ve got such limited memory, I had mapped out what it was going to be used for. And the guys would chip in with ideas, basically because it wasn’t finished and they thought I was asking them what should be in the game. But I wasn’t, I was just saying ‘what do you think of it so far?’.

After having showed A&F the game, did it create any extra time pressure for you?
It got to the point where they wanted it finished and they said ‘its finished, you don’t need to put any more into it’. And there were just a few more little things that I wanted to do that would have extended the playing time of the game, but I never got the chance. It would have only taken a few more days…

fourtoplay_ghostsngoblins_screenshot_amstrad

Nigel Alderton worked on the Amstrad conversion of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Ste Pickford did this awesome loading screen.

So what was missing or different from the end game that you wish you’d changed or included?
Just a few little tweaks that I’d like to have done, like when you get more than five or six lives it still keeps count but you can’t see them. It would have been nice to have a bigger hat that represented ten lives. I really should have put a pause key in, that was a stupid thing not to do. Other than that, I thought there was easily enough scope to get another eight screens. The platforms would remain the same due to memory, but place a few bricks differently so if people were used to a particular route, all of a sudden that route wouldn’t work.

Retro Gamer fondly remembers the first time the giant bird comes out of its cage. You’re playing all through the first few levels thinking, ‘oh that big bird up in the cage it’s just a bit of decoration…’
That was the idea!

Then the other birds disappear and the big one’s come out of the cage after us! That was quite cool, was it tricky to implement?
It was easy to make it home in on the player but I wanted it so that the bird had momentum, meaning you could lead it astray. But I do wish I’d written it so that when you went back to screen one the first time, the game plays normally for a few seconds before the bird comes out. So it looks like ‘oh this is easy, no enemies’ and then suddenly you’re being hounded across the screen. Slightly more dramatic.

Somewhat unusually for the time, Chuckie Egg had four players.
I did that because I like the atmosphere in an arcade where one person is playing and you get two or three people watching. It’s what I was doing and it was lots of fun. I knew lots of people would buy the game and would have their mates round to play it and if you got three friends it was cool if you could all play it on one computer.

Was A&F paying you anything at this point?
They told me they wanted to publish it and they put me on a retainer of £50 a month with the idea that they’d get first dibs on the game.

What was with Harry’s big hat?
I’m rubbish at drawing! But actually the algorithms for the collision detection had to be simple, or rather the game was faster and better if they were simple. The wide hat meant the now ‘square character’ didn’t make it so frustrating when you thought you’d actually evaded a bird.

The lifts in Chuckie Egg were presumably influenced by Donkey Kong. They could be a bit tricky – were you happy with them?
Not entirely… I struggled to get the algorithm right to get on and off and in the end I had to make the tolerances so big that if you got anywhere near a lift it kind of grabs you and places you on it. But also, if you walk off the lift your momentum doesn’t carry you on to the platform so I probably should’ve done a bit of horizontal momentum to take you off the lift and to safety.

mainbody_nigelalderton4

Nigel today, the coding is still in him. Maybe we’ll get
another sequel to Chuckie Egg!

Chuckie Egg was ported to other computers. Were you involved in any of the other conversions?
No. I believe Mike Webb wrote most of them and Doug Anderson wrote the BBC and Electron versions. They did proper maths for the arc of the man which I kicked myself for not doing.

After the game was released, were you still working in the A&F shop?
For a short time. But on the back of Chuckie Egg I got the day job at Ocean which was partly to appease my parents because I was determined not to go to university. The compromise was to get a proper job.

But you were already working on a new game based on another arcade game?
A&F were keen to do a sequel quickly and they had lots of ideas which I didn’t like. So I just said ‘you do what you want but I want nothing to do with it’. But Chuckie Apple, which was inspired by Mr Do, was definitely going to be more about pushing things about and dexterity. I abandoned it when I joined Ocean.

Who did you work with while you were at Ocean?
I was in a room with Jonathan Smith and we wrote Kong Strikes Back together. Then we got split up and I got moved into a different cubicle with Mike Webb and we wrote Street Hawk between us. ‘Joffa’ was nice but I think I was a bit mean to him really. He was incredibly talented as a programmer and as a graphic artist whereas I could only program. As a result he concentrated mostly on the graphics, probably because I pushed him into it. I’m not sure if that’s totally true, but I always felt I sort of bullied him into doing that. I didn’t let him code, and once we’d split up he went on to write these fantastic games.

With your next Ocean game, Street Hawk, there was a bit of a fuss over the game being promised as a gift when you subscribed to Crash magazine. Do you recall there being any particular pressure surrounding its development?
I think the problem with the game was it was a bit sparse… we wanted it to be a bit slick and it was. That’s from memory, as since coding it I don’t think I’ve ever seen the thing. But there didn’t seem to be a lot to do in the game. I vaguely remember it being a hell of a rush before we even started; we were told to write a game, not quite in three weeks but not far off it.

You then left Ocean?
I had decided to go freelance and was in contact with Steve Wilcox from Elite Systems. Christmas was approaching and the story went that he had virtually bet the company on their next release, which was an arcade conversion called Commando. So Steve hired myself and Keith Burkhill to write the Spectrum version which was on deadline for Christmas. I was offered a contract and resigned from Ocean in a rush to get started. I remember feeling bad because when I went to hand my notice in, two other people that day had already handed in theirs. So this guy got a knock on the door from me and his first words were ‘oh God not you as well’.

Notable Nigel Alderton Games

fourtoplay_chuckieegg_screenshot_spectrumChuckie Egg

fourtoplay_kongstrikesback_screenshot_spectrumKong Strikes Back

mainbody_ghostsngoblins_screenshot_amstradGhosts ‘N Goblins

fourtoplay_commando_screenshot_spectrumCommando

You can read the rest of our interview with Nigel Alderton in issue 121. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com

Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from ImagineShop

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