Hewson published a number of great games on the 8-bit computers, but Raffaele Cecco’s superb run-and-gun, Exolon, remains one of the best. Filled with bright, vibrant visuals and intense action, it’s held up exceptionally well over the years and is still amazing fun to play. We caught up with Raffaele to discuss the origins of his popular blaster.
When asked about his transition from in-house Mikro-Gen coder to freelance developer, Raffaele Cecco isn’t sentimental. “Things weren’t going well at Mikro-Gen after the failure of their Micro-Plus game Shadow Of The Unicorn. All the programmers had worked in a separate office away from the rest of the company, but we’d been merged into the new offices along with all the other staff. I think all the coders had itchy feet by then and it was just a matter of time before we all left, so [there was] no emotional wrench at all really.”
Mikro-Gen felt differently, however, and so, as consolation, Raffaele developed his first freelance project for the firm – while also designing a second more ambitious title. “I don’t think they were very pleased I was leaving, so I agreed to do the Cop-Out game on a freelance basis as a peace offering. Inspired by a ‘cops and robbers’ shooter I’d seen in an arcade, it didn’t really need much work, so I did that while designing Exolon. My ‘office’ was already set up, as most programmers would have their own computer at home to experiment on in those days.”
Exolon would share Cop-Out’s arcade sensibilities and linear gameplay but also the puzzles and expansive nature of Raffaele’s earlier map-based shooter Equinox. “Flick-screen games obviously had all the action and puzzles designed to work on individual screens – all that happened with Exolon was that there was only one exit point on each screen as opposed to up to four in Equinox. The design was a little easier, as I didn’t have to worry about lock-and-key puzzles across multiple screens, so I could focus on the arcade elements a bit more. Equinox was a bit light on arcade elements, so I definitely wanted to add more into Exolon.”
Gloriously over-the-top explosions and near-constant firefights would prove to be Exolon’s most memorable arcade elements, with Hollywood inspiring these as much as earlier games. “I vaguely remember being influenced by games like Commando and Jet Pac, and, of course, the 1980s was the decade of Rambo, Terminator etc, so [there was] no shortage of influence there either.”
Having found Exolon’s direction, Raffaele chose on-screen design over detailed storyboarding as his starting point and asked animator Nigel Brownjohn to design his game’s main character. “Knowing how I work, I doubt there were many notated sketches! [There] would have been on-screen visuals, as I really can’t draw at all. I preferred to dive straight in and get something up and running as soon as possible. I remember using squared paper to layout the basic positioning of things on each screen, though. All the tweaking was done by playing and adjusting. At Mikro-Gen we used a custom package to draw graphics on that actually ran on the Spectrum! I believe Chris Hinsley had developed that before I joined, and it was hooked up via a cable to the development machine where you would upload the graphics. When I left Mikro-Gen, I continued using that package for a while. You would draw by moving the cursor around with keys and [using] the space bar to add or remove pixels. It was designed for speed. Nigel Brownjohn was a brilliant animator and I asked him early on to design the character. I believe I added the exoskeleton armour and double-gun myself, which was easy to do over the base animated character.”
In addition to the ZX Spectrum, Exolon was also released on systems like the Atari ST, Commodore 64 and Amstrad. This is the Amstrad version.
However, long before powering-up Exolon’s player character Vitorc and soon after designing the game’s first bitmaps, Raffaele had started work on coding. “Definitely as soon as I had some basic initial graphics – I’m far too impatient to wait for loads of graphics to be drawn before starting coding. I may have used a few concepts from earlier games, but most of the code would have been written from scratch. Techniques were still evolving on the Spectrum and you always wanted to do something new and push things further. I used a ‘portable’ CP/M machine – a very old OS, even older than MS-DOS. The computer had twin floppy drives and a small green screen. The lid had the keyboard built-in and the whole thing was about the size of a small suitcase. You connected the Spectrum to this machine via the Spectrum’s joystick port, which had been hacked to act like a serial port. You would write the program in Word Star – an old word processor – compile it with a Z80 compiler and then send it down to the Spectrum to test. That was state-of-the-art back then, albeit rather slow.”
Developing Exolon’s code and graphics concurrently and outsourcing Vitorc’s animation soon allowed Raffaele to produce a demo to show around. Happily, Hewson shared Raffaele’s appetite for destruction and respected his freelance status. “I had the first few screens created and Andrew Hewson particularly liked the backpack rocket that shot out and blew up obstacles. There was no desire to develop in-house, especially as I’d already made good progress on my own.”
Holding down the fire button fires your missiles, which are handy
for moving bigger obstacles.
With a publisher in place, Raffaele was free to expand on the set-piece visual elements that would help define Exolon. “The rocket launcher was added for a twist to the shooting gameplay, instead of just solely relying on the handheld blaster to shoot aliens. It was a simple gameplay rule: moving aliens were shot with the blaster; large static obstacles required rockets. I suppose the rocket launcher’s use was rather like a grenade in other games. The exoskeleton and double-gun was just a classic ‘power-up’ mode, loosely analogous to Mario picking up a mushroom and getting bigger and faster. I had initially thought that a pick-up should activate it, but instead I opted for the changing-room device, which made it altogether more interesting. The alien double-barrel gun was evolved from wanting the player to encounter a situation where he had to walk, duck and fire very quickly.
I used a similar idea in Cybernoid where you had to quickly hop over obstacles and hide in little ditches while a gun fired at you. The guided missile was added for a sense of immediate panic when you entered a scene. As soon as you saw it, you knew you had to reach cover or destroy the control beacon within a few seconds. I vaguely remember the teleporters being influenced by the movie The Fly starring Jeff Goldblum – although I may be mistaken. They certainly worked in a similar way. The birth-pods were actually influenced by the swarmers in the coin-op Defender.”
Of course, Raffaele still had to assemble these component parts into various combinations to create Exolon’s many challenging levels. “Once I had my ‘palette’ of gameplay elements, it was actually rather easy to design each screen – to mock up the positions and distances of things on squared paper and get them working in the game. Raffaele’s game was beginning to take shape…