Simon Nicol started making games 30 years ago, creating an unreleased version of the obscure arcade game, Mad planets. He eventually found success with his C64 hit Crazy Comets, but then faced various highs and lows as key projects he was working on got cancelled. Here he looks back at the early days of his career, a career with no regrets.
To begin, what are your earliest memories of playing games?
My earliest memory was when a friend of mine had an Atari 800. I’d go round to his and we’d play Shamus – a brilliant game. I didn’t have a computer myself until about 1983. But as far as proper arcade games go, shortly after that it was games like Space Invaders and Asteroids.
Any other arcade games you loved?
The first that I really got hooked on was TRON. I’d play it just as often as I could, taking trips down to the arcade and spending what money I had on it. The game was released about the same time as the film so that would be around 1982/1983. I’d watch other players to see how they would do and after a while it came down to three of us who were the hardcore and could reach ‘user level’ (a level where the game was effectively mastered). When any of us were playing we would draw a crowd!
When did you start learning to program?
Back in those days there was basically no one to learn from. The only book on machine code I had was Rodney Zaks’ Programming The Z80. To be honest I really didn’t understand it. I could see pages of processor instructions with things like LD A, 20. Which I understood would put 20 in the A register, but what I didn’t understand was how did you actually get that instruction into the computer? It was one night at about 2am when I was fast asleep and suddenly BOOM! I woke up and realised that the instruction was simply a number sitting somewhere in memory that represented the instruction LD A, 20. This was it! I sat up for the rest of the night writing really simple machine code programs. I was far too excited to sleep.
Mad Planets really inspired you. How long did it take you to create your C64 conversion?
I was still at school at the time I started programming Mad Planets and managed to do the bulk of the programming during my summer holidays, I suppose all-in-all it took me about three to four months.
What happened when you showed Mad Planets to software houses?
After having finished writing a very simple version of Mad Planets I took it to Quicksilva in Southampton, who – though they thought I was good – told me, no, they didn’t want it because it had no storyline. I then took it to Virgin Games, who again liked it but said no. One of the problems I had was I was only 16 years old at the time and too young to even sign a contract.
How did Martech end up publishing your next game, Crazy Comets?
I haven’t a clue! [Laughs] I’m not sure if I was looking for a publisher and came up with their number or if they’d heard of me and gave me a call.
What was it like working with Rob Hubbard, and what did you think of his music for your games?
Rob Hubbard is awesome. The first I had heard of him was at a computer show in Earls Court. I was at the Gremlin stand and heard the Monty On The Run music – it was absolutely brilliant. Nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody, had even come close to the standard of programming the SID chip that Rob was at. It was really exciting. Rob heard that I wanted to chat to him about doing the music for one of my games, he called me back, we chatted and the rest as they say is history.
Did you have any input into what kind of music Rob composed?
Rob has this gift of grasping the sort of thing I was after and then delivering something that was absolutely mind-blowing! I wouldn’t work with anyone else!
Then you created the sequel, Mega Apocalypse…
Every game I’d written was from scratch, as I still continue to do so. Mega Apocalypse was less about learning to program 6502 and more about how do I squeeze every last clock cycle out of this processor. I had the programming skills by this time, it was now about applying them.
How did Bob Stevenson become involved?
I remember chatting on the phone with my boss David Martin about wanting lots of publicity and Martech really getting behind Mega Apocalypse, he said (paraphrasing) ‘don’t worry Simon, the next game we’ll really get behind,’ and I said ‘no David, this game. This is the game to get behind!’ And bless him, he did. I had seen Bob’s work, he had a reputation for being the best and so I insisted to Dave that Bob be brought in to do the graphics.
Having said that I’ve always been involved in designing graphics for every game I’ve ever written. I would say my work was of a good quality, but there are times when ‘good’ simply isn’t good enough – excellent and stunning, they’re acceptable. And so there are times when people who are the best need to be called in.
Trivia – The Ultimate Quest is the least known of your games, written under the name of Duck Soft UK. Did it actually get a commercial release?
This was I believe published through Grandslam Entertainment. I never saw a copy in the stores so whether it was published or not, I do not know.
What did you like about the C64?
The C64 was the most ‘programmable’ computer I have ever worked on. Other programmers and managed to push that machine way beyond anything Commodore had planned, from getting so many more sprites on the screen, vertical scrolling and speech just to name a few!
Were there any other C64 games by you that went unreleased?
There was a game I wrote with Stavros Fasoulas on the C64 called CARGO. Stavros is a brilliant programmer, much respect to the guy. As to what happened to it, I haven’t a clue but considering the short time we spent on it, it was pretty good.
And the racing game you were working on?
The ‘road racing’ game raised a few eyebrows and garnered a lot of interest. It was tragic that financially this was a terrible time for me. It was the late Eighties and interest rates were spiraling out of control and so many people were losing their homes. I wish everything had been in control, I would have loved to finish that game – it would have been a belter!
How did you end up working for Probe?
I needed the work and when the opportunity to write Back To The Future III came along I accepted.
What was it like working on a film tie-in rather than an original game?
Working on Back To The Future III was a great experience. I always love working with and being around creative people, and BTTF was a tour de force with Hugh Riley who was responsible for the graphics on The Last Ninja – a terrifically talented guy and a really lovely person. I was also working with Jeroen Tel and we became close friends. He’s a lovely person, good-humoured and extremely talented.
Was it easy to make the transition from C64 to NES? What did you love and hate about the hardware?
When changing hardware format there’s always that period of head scratching. It’s essential that one has time to play, to do a bit of ‘register jamming’ to see what the system can do. The NES had 64 sprites instead of the C64’s eight, but they were only 8 x 8 pixels in size so there are good and bad things. The NES’s sound chip wasn’t a patch on the C64’s but when you have guys like Jeroen working with you – that man can make a microwave sound like the London Philharmonic.
You apparently worked on two NES film tie-ins for Probe – RoboCop 3 and Alien3 – according to online sources…
I had nothing to do with Alien3. As for RoboCop 3, I only wrote the front end. It was Grant Harrison who wrote the actual game for the NES.
Do you feel unlucky to have had all of these games cancelled?
Do I feel unlucky? Yes I suppose so, though I think ‘hoodwinked’ would be closer to the mark. It’s certainly taught me a lesson. There’s so much cloak and dagger in the games industry. I’ve learned a valuable lesson – to do a lot more background research into the companies wanting to publish my games. This can only be achieved by talking to bosses of these companies – which rarely happens these days because a programmer is just a number, just an employee…
There are no credits online for you beyond 1994 – did you leave the industry?
You’re right, 1994 is the last time I’d actually completed a game. I did a bit of consulting here and there after that for a bit, but that was all.
Notable Simon Nicol Games
You can read the rest of our interview with Simon Nicol in issue 133. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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