Dizzy was a huge deal in the Eighties, introducing gamers to a lovable character and helping to cement Codemasters’ reputation as one of the best budget publishers around. Thanks to the success of the original game, a sequel, Treasure Island Dizzy, appeared just over a year later. The Oliver Twins tells us how this popular game came to be.
As sure as eggs are eggs, and England will lose on penalties, a successful game will throw up a sequel. And in 1987, following a summer in which Philip and Andrew Oliver had endured two months of self-imposed house arrest, virtually handcuffed to their computers, Treasure Island Dizzy was almost done. That, however, was when they realised something was wrong.
It wasn’t the fact that days had turned into nights with them barely noticing, nor was it the fact that they had rarely left their parents’ house in all of that time (“I think our parents were quite worried about us,” smiles Philip). No, something wasn’t working quite as it should have been. And for those who played Treasure Island Dizzy at the tail end of the Eighties it was a problem that would, at that particular time, haunt their gaming life. It also had the potential to damage the Dizzy series before it had really got going.
“Right up until the last few days of development, Treasure Island Dizzy had the same number of lives as the original Dizzy game,” says Philip. “But then we discovered a problem.” The original Dizzy game had five lives, however, Treasure Island Dizzy had just one. It made the game, by far, the most difficult of the whole series, although, in some sense, it also meant forward planning was key if you were to ever get to the end. That, however, wasn’t the intention when the Olivers started to program the game.
“The one life was due to a logic bug,” explains Philip. “We found that if the player put down an object underwater or on the far beach it was extremely easy to drown poor old Dizzy. He’d be reset to the beach but be unable to get the snorkel or the items left on the far beach – making the game impossible to complete. We were under a huge amount of pressure to deliver the game so we ran out of time to solve that problem. It left us with only one option – we had to remove the other lives.”
It was a massive decision and it changed the whole game, from one of casually bouncing around solving puzzles to one which had you carefully working through the game, heart in mouth, not quite knowing whether you’d soon make a move that could send you to your death and force you to restart everything from the beginning.
Having spent two months solidly working on the game, it wasn’t the outcome The Oliver Twins had wanted, but they just had to go with the flow. It was the first game they had created since graduating from Clarendon School in Trowbridge and so it was important for them to ensure their intended year out, before going to university, would be productive. They’d already teamed up with Richard and David Darling at Codemasters, and had achieved success with games such as Super Robin Hood so they wanted to try to explore their talents further and they decided to put together a business plan.
“We were proud of Dizzy but it was a ‘slow burner’ in terms of its success,” recalls Philip. “We had to rely on word of mouth to make the sales and it took at least six months before we could say it had been a really successful game. Once it had, we knew we had to follow it up. It made sense.”
The first thing they did was study the magazine reviews of the original game. “We always bought the magazines which contained reviews of our games and we made a big file of them,” says Philip. “We still have them all today in our office. We always took on board critical comment, although, on the whole, the reviews of Dizzy were very positive. Our challenge was how to better it.”
With that in mind, they decided to keep the familiar elements of the original Dizzy game – the cartoon-style graphics, simple controls and engaging gameplay – but they wanted to give the character a larger world to explore and so it was decided that a treasure island would be perfect. They created a backstory about Dizzy being on a round-the-world cruise and, in a lapse of judgement, using Long John Silver’s collection of wooden legs as makeshift cricket stumps, an act which led to him walking the plank and finding himself stranded on a desert island. The aim of the game was to solve puzzles, collect a load of gold coins, reunite Dizzy with the Yolkfolk and lodge a complaint with the travel agent…
“The title needed to conjure up an interesting, exciting yet mysterious place – one that people would want to explore,” says Philip. “We wanted to contrast the sequel with the original game and since that title had not featured a beach it made a great environment to use. ‘Treasure Island’ is also a name that is ‘free to use’ and it conjures up all sorts of possibilities.”
With the story sorted, it was then time to crack on with the coding. As with the first game, the sequel was produced on the CPC 6128. This was because of its disk drive, which meant saving the progress made with the production was much easier. They also used Maxam, the best assembler/machine code compiler for the CPC. To write the Spectrum version, they created a piece of software called the SPLINK (Spectrum and LINK) and, using a cable made by a friend, hooked the CPC and Spectrum together. They were then able to port the Spectrum code from the CPC to Sinclair’s machine.
“We used the core engine of Dizzy and enhanced the base graphics,” says Philip. “We had also developed a good world editor for the Amstrad which we used to build up the sprites for the backgrounds.”
To keep up their motivation, the pair grabbed a bowl and threw a pile of Bourneville plain chocolate into it. They then placed it in between the two Amstrad CPC 6128s on which they worked side by side.
“Remember, it was just the two of us – Andrew and myself,” says Philip. “We’d just finished sixth form and our friends had all gone to university but there we were, spending two months in my bedroom, working ridiculous hours to get Treasure Island Dizzy done in such a short amount of time.”
Philip adds, “We’d draw up lists of code sections, or graphics. We’d then break up the tasks into approximately one-hour work chunks and, when we completed a chunk, we got a piece of chocolate. Having each other was definitely a bonus – we bounced ideas off each other, worked on solving problems together and managed to have a good laugh in the process.”
Whereas games before Dizzy concentrated on ‘arcade skills’, which were essentially about speed and timing, the Oliver twins wanted to continue the new trend that had begun with their original egg-cellent adventure. “With the first Dizzy game we’d already reduced the level of arcade skills needed so that the gameplay was largely in favour of the puzzles. We thought this was one of the driving factors towards its success and felt we could take the puzzles further and reduce the reliance on arcade skills.”
One of the biggest differences between Dizzy and Treasure Island Dizzy, however, was the introduction of the Yolkfolk, an idea that Philip had had – or at least thinks he had. “The Yolkfolk came out of various brainstorming sessions and discussions between Andrew and I,” he says. “We’ve always worked so closely together, and bear in mind that we’re twins! We so often think alike that sometimes it’s hard to attribute exactly who did what. We were trying to create a cartoon world with a story, so meeting only enemies did not lead to a well-rounded story, so that’s why we decided to add the Yolkfolk.”
Those brainstorming sessions led to other innovations for the Dizzy series. Not content with merely tinkering with the success of the original game, they wanted to expand the world in which Dizzy bounced around and also wanted to give the players a constant challenge that would have them going constantly back for more.
“We were trying to squeeze as much gameplay into every screen as possible,” says Philip. “So we’d design each screen with lots of hard to reach places, then we’d distribute all of the objects across them. But we found we had lots of really good places left with no reason for the player to visit. So we decided to add coins to give people a reason to go to those locations. Clearly this would have only meant 15 or so coins added, so, once we had placed these, we increased the number and spread them around everywhere so there was a more even distribution and more to play for.”
As well as the presence of just one life, players also had to contend with the restrictive inventory system that didn’t allow players to choose which object they wanted (which took a surprising amount of time to actually get used to). Whatever was at the top of the inventory list would be used. It once again meant the game required strategy and gamers had to decide what was needed and when. It ramped up the difficulty factor by another notch, and that was the Olivers’ intention.
“The idea was to reduce the number of buttons and keep it easy to use. True, it meant that the player had to think carefully about the inventory and how it was used, but we felt this added a little to the strategy,” explains Philip. “The player had to be more selective and think about which items to pick up – rather than picking everything up that he or she came across which was the norm in most games then.”