Raffaele Cecco first came to everyone’s attention thanks to the release of Cop-Out for the ZX Spectrum. He soon become widely regarded on the system thanks to a number of stunning looking arcade influenced games, including Exolon, Cybernoid and Stormlord. Here he talks to us about those early days in the industry.
Let’s start with your days at school in the 1970s. What were your aspirations back then?
I was always interested in science as a youngster but it was only when I saw a videogame for the first time that I thought, ‘Right, that’s absolutely what I want to do.’ I think it was a Binatone games system, which came with a TV my parents had rented. It was a black-and-white thing, and it had a game of soccer from what I recall. It was very, very basic but that was my first experience with videogames really.
So is that what got you into computing and gaming?
When I found out that to make your own videogames you had to learn how to programme, that’s when I started toying with code. Then the Sinclair ZX81 came out, and I think it cost about £70, which was a fair amount of money in those days. But it suddenly wasn’t an inconceivable dream to have a computer. All we had prior to that were things like Apple and these really expensive American machines, which cost hundreds and hundreds. When the ZX81 came out it was kind of a way in for youngsters to learn programming quite cheaply.
Did you just dabble with BASIC at first?
Yes, I dabbled with BASIC first on the ZX81. I knew that I had to learn machine code to write really good games, or as good as they could be on the ZX81, but unfortunately I could never get the tape loading and saving working. It kind of held me back a bit until I got the Spectrum, which had the reliable saving, and then I could really save my work and really get into it. I mean there were a few more books available then when the Spectrum came out as well.
So you learnt much of your trade using books?
In those days, the magazines used to have quite big sections on programming and they would kind of dissect commercial games and have an expert telling you how they made this, that and the other in this game, so you used to pick up quite a few tips. But there were a few books starting to come on to the market as well, which was really good, and I just learnt through trial and error.
Did you spend ages tapping in the huge type-in programmes magazines would carry?
I did, yes. I remember once spending all night typing in some machine code programme and it just crashed. I would get all kinds of error messages, so I learnt my lesson the hard way there.
What if games didn’t exist? What do you think you’d have done with your life?
It would still have been something involved in technology and computing or engineering in general, I think – something along those lines.
Did writing games interest you more than actually playing them did?
Yes, but I did enjoy playing them too. I think the two went hand-in-hand because I found some games quite addictive and I wanted to replicate that in my own games. I thrashed my Atari 2600 to bits playing things like Combat and Space Invaders with the hundred variations as it was on that game, so yes, I found the games very, very addictive. It was only later on in life when I’d been programming for 20 years or so that I kind of got fed up with games, and I don’t even play them anymore. But, yes, they were very addictive to play. I loved games on the SNES – Mario, and Zelda and all those types of things.
So how did you go about creating your first game?
The very first game that I actually wrote was in BASIC. It was just a few things like characters dropping from the top of the screen down to the bottom and you had to move left to right to avoid them. It was only when I got to Mikro-Gen that I really started understanding how to put a game together, and began to get to grips with gameplay and levels and all that type of thing. Before that it was just generally hacking demos together that weren’t really complete games as such, but they gave me enough of a grounding to actually develop a full game after that.
You went to Mikro Gen while you were still at school, didn’t you?
I was doing my A-levels at school and I basically got completely fed up with doing them so I started sending a few game demos out to about three or four companies. Mikro-Gen asked me in for an interview. I got offered the job and I thought, ‘Right, I’ll quit school and I’ll start working.’
How did that go down with your parents?
They didn’t mind. They were pleased that I’d got a job that I was going to enjoy. At the time, it was still touch-and-go as to whether I was going to finish my A-levels anyway, and I didn’t really know if I wanted to go to university or anything like that. When the opportunity came up I thought, right, okay I’ll go for that.
Was there any real stigma in working within the games industry at that time then?
I’d say there was, because a lot of people had no idea what games were really. I remember one chap asking me what I did for a living. I said I developed videogames and he asked me if that was legal. I don’t know what he thought I was actually doing but there was real ignorance in those days as to what games were and what was involved in developing them. People had no idea really. I knew what was going on, so that was enough for me.
Do you think that attitude has changed over time?
Yes. I think there’s still a bit of a stigma attached and, you know, if your kid turns round and says, ‘Right, I want to design games for a living,’ initially people may think, ‘Well, you know, that’s not a real job.’ They don’t know what’s involved, especially in a modern game. It’s a huge undertaking both technically and creatively these days. There’s huge financial risk so it’s a very serious business. But I think there still is a bit of a stigma attached to games. I think it’s just like now when I look at people wasting all their time on Facebook, I have that attitude towards them. Do you know what I’m saying? If you’re involved in something, people are just ignorant of it and you just assume it’s not something that is a really valid way of making a living.
Let’s talk about your first commercial game, Equinox. You had a lot of freedom creating that game, didn’t you?
Yes. Basically, the guys who worked there, the programmers, had pretty much complete freedom to do what they wanted. It’s public commercial suicide to do that now, but in those days it was just accepted that you joined the company, you came up with ideas, you drew some graphics and you got on with programming the games, designing the games. It was simple as that really. There weren’t huge committees and massive meetings about everything. You just kind of got on with it, basically.
What was it like day-to-day?
I wasn’t hugely experienced in actually programming games when I first started so it was a learning process for me. I’d done little bits of demos and all that sort of thing, but putting together an entire game wasn’t something I had done when I joined Mikro-Gen. That’s where I learnt a lot from Chris Hinsley. In fact, everybody at Mikro-Gen learnt a lot from Chris because he was the most experienced programmer there. He was a really, really good programmer and a great guy to work with.
Were you upset that Equinox just missed being a Crash Smash (it got 87%)?
I remember it got pretty good reviews. But, you know, having your first game released in the shops is quite thrilling when you’re 17 or 18 years old. I had something tangible in my hand that I could wave at people and say, ‘Look, this is what I’ve done’, and so then for a lot of people it clicked. They would then understand what I was doing. A Crash Smash didn’t bother me. I was just pleased I had my first game out.
What do you think was so special about Equinox and why do you think it got those good reviews?
I think it was a well thought-out game. I mean, technically it was nothing special, but it was reasonably addictive to play. To be quite honest, a lot of that was down to Chris because he helped me a lot with the design initially. It was just a nice simple game to play and it was a neat, nicely put together game. I suppose my graphics were pretty good. I was pretty good at drawing graphics. I’m not an artist by any means, but Spectrum-type graphics I was pretty good at. As soon as there were a lot more colours and more memory available then that’s when we had to use proper artists.
How comfortable did you feel working with machines other than the Spectrum?
The only machine I really programmed in the early days was the Spectrum, although I did the Amstrad conversions as well because they used the same micro processor, so it wasn’t a huge amount of work to get the Spectrum games working on the Amstrad. Nick Jones used to do all my conversions on the Commodore 64. He used to really push that machine and get the best out of them.
After finishing Equinox, Hewson Consultants published your next batch of games including Cybernoid, Stormlord and Deliverance…
That’s right. You know, Exolon was just a man running around in a shoot-’em-up, basically. There wasn’t a huge amount of design that went into that really. It was just a guy with a rocket that came out of his back and the teleporter. It had nice touches and all. But I think Cybernoid was the one where I’d been taught about how everything worked together in terms of collisions, the textures and expecting to be pixel-perfect with things when people were playing the game, and so on.
There was something of a space theme running through these early games…
The fact that Cybernoid was a space game was pretty irrelevant. Really, it was a way of putting together some game constructs in terms of how you interacted with the objects. I remember putting a lot of thought into Cybernoid, into the design of the levels and all that sort of thing. I think it was quite an addictive game to play – probably a bit hard. I know it was very hard, in fact. I suppose there were no game testers in those days. The programmer would develop it over nine months or so, and by the end of the nine months you’d be absolutely brilliant at the game, but anyone else picking it up for the first time would think, ‘Jesus, I can’t play this. It’s too hard.’ But that was the way it was in those days.
Cybernoid was very well received, and was praised for its graphics and animation. How important were graphics?
When people see a nice big explosion or something like the volcano in Cybernoid or the trail that came out of his rocket when he launched it from his backpack in Exolon, it really catches their attention. But I don’t think it was the be-all and end-all of the games I made. It was just kind of like now, you know. You can disguise things so much with decent graphics, but if the game’s not fun to play people soon spot that. But graphics were important. Remember in those days, during the days of Cybernoid, people were coming up with new techniques all the time and pushing the Spectrum as far as possible. So whenever there was a new effect or something, people were quite impressed by it.
Cybernoid was called the best shoot-‘em-up on the Spectrum. Are you proud of that?
Oh yes. I mean, whenever one of our games got well received it was certainly a proud moment. Certainly towards the end of development you lost all sense of what the game was like really, because you’d become so desensitised to what the game was like. So it was quite nice at the end when people start writing good reviews. It made you think it was worth all the hard work.
The music within your games was awesome. Did you have a hand in any of it?
No, but the guys who produced it did incredibly well. The Cybernoid music on the Commodore 64 was really quite famous. I know there have been classical versions of it and all sorts. Nick Jones was an accomplished pianist and appreciated how good the music was on the Commodore. Dave Rogers did some really catchy tunes on the Spectrum.
You once said you admired Ultimate co-founder Tim Stamper, didn’t you?
Yes, I mean Ultimate did some incredible stuff. They always seemed to be a couple of years ahead of everyone else. They were involved in Japanese software so I think they probably had access to better ideas and technology, and things like that. But, yeah, they were certainly way ahead of their time.