Anyone who has ever played Andrew Braybrook’s Uridium will know what it has classic status. It’s an incredibly fast-paced shooter that effortlessly captured the thrills-and-spills of many of the popular arcade games of the time. Initially created for the Commodore 64, its success meant it soon appeared on other systems, including the ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC. Here Andrew reveals how it all began.
Mention the name Uridium to anyone who owned a Commodore 64 in the Eighties and they’ll likely go all misty-eyed and start waxing lyrical about the programming genius of a certain Andrew Braybrook. One of a small number of elite designer-programmers on the machine, his first original C64 game, the charmingly offbeat Gribbly’s Day Out, gained a cult following, while his second release, the award-winning Paradroid, had massive critical and commercial success.
You can’t see it here, but the scrolling it amazingly smooth.
Even before the high-profile press adulation for Paradroid had begun to wane, the anticipation among the Commodore community was reaching fever pitch for whatever Braybrook and developer Graftgold might come up with next. Especially after Andrew had told Zzap!64: “I don’t want it to look like a cut-down arcade machine; I’m trying to write a game that looks like it should be in an arcade.” The new project would take the approach of scaling back the meticulous design ethic of Paradroid to create one of the most polished and playable shoot-’em-ups of the 8-bit era.
“I can remember that Andrew was under a lot of pressure after the success of Paradroid,” recalls Steve Turner, Andrew’s programming partner at Graftgold, who also wrote Uridium’s memorable music. “The game that inspired Andrew was an arcade isometric diagonal scroller called Zaxxon. He wanted to re-create that arcade smooth-scroll feel on the C64 as it had never been done. The whole game design evolved from that aim.”
“I’d just finished Paradroid and was keen to write a game that ran at 50 frames per second,” remembers Andrew. “All arcade games ran at that speed and I could easily see that scrolling quality was being lost. I wanted a game that scrolled quickly, and that only looks good if the screen is being updated at the same speed as the TV monitor. So if you have to run the game at high speed then you have to think more simply. I had to abandon some of the more processor-intensive routines [seen in games like Paradroid].”
Hit certain parts of the ships and you’ll instantly die, so watch out for
turrets and other objects.
“Andrew’s first goal was to increase the frame rate to the fastest possible refresh rate,” elaborates Steve. “That meant drawing a screen event every 50th of a second for European C64s and every 60th of a second for US machines. Every game routine was measured by changing the border colour. There was limited processing time, so Andrew had to design the sprites and characters to build at the leading screen edge. The key was simplicity.”
This new cut-back approach, with Andrew pushing to harness every ounce of processing power, led to one of the most impressively fast, arcade-style smooth-scrolling routines yet devised for the C64. “I had played a lot of Jeff Minter’s Sheep In Space, which was scrolling at 50 frames per second,” says Andrew. “I’m sure I’d seen other games doing it too. Once you know something is possible, it’s just a case of figuring out how best to do it. It’s quite easy to define what you need to do to scroll a character-based screen, and it’s then down to how efficiently you can write the assembler to do it. The only question was how to make a game out of the remaining time left of each 50th of a second. I cut down the screen size to 21 rows to buy more run-time. That gave me enough run-time for everything else: bullets, enemy ships and Uridi-mines.”
With the scrolling routine in place, Andrew concentrated on developing the look of the 15 enormous enemy Dreadnoughts of the game, and the control system for the player’s famously nimble Manta-class space fighter. “I decided that I wanted to stick with a top-down view and had the Manta space ship flying over a background pretty early on,” he says. “Some arcade games were starting to use bas-relief graphics, which gave the game a more realistic look.”
Complete a stage and a fruit machine-styled mini-game awaits you.
The bas-relief graphic style, which Andrew had so skilfully employed in Paradroid, became Uridium’s visual trademark, perfectly capturing the game’s metallic theme, with each ship in the Dreadnought fleet named after an element ranging through Iron, Gold and Platinum, up to the final level, the fictional Uridium of the title. It also helped to emphasise the many walls and structures across the backgrounds that could quickly cause players to become ex-Manta pilots.
Coupling the super-fast scrolling of the Dreadnought backgrounds with the highly flexible control system for the Manta gave Uridium a unique feel among C64 shooters. One of Andrew’s clever innovations was allowing players to loop their ship out of trouble by reversing direction, a manoeuvre allowing them to deftly evade incoming enemy bullets or the devilish homing Uridi-mines. Another nifty feature was the ability to turn the Manta onto its side by holding down the joystick button, which allowed players to negotiate some of the nasty tight wall gaps prevalent on some of the later, tougher Dreadnoughts.
“One of Andrew’s influences was Attack Of The Mutant Camels,” Steve tells us. “I remember discussing how to change direction and change the camera to look ahead so you could see where you were going. He spent a few weeks on the main control. He liked to extend the use of the joystick to get extra functions in. One of the main ideas was to give the player enough rope to hang themselves with by making the ship really fast.”
Enemy waves are fast and unforgiving, so shoot them down quickly.
As Uridi-fans will know, surviving long enough on each stage brings up a message to land the Manta on a strip of tarmac hidden somewhere on each Dreadnought. This brings about a mini-game where players gamble for extra points, then prime the Dreadnought’s self-destruct sequence to dissolve it into the ether. “The little sub-game came from playing fruit machines,” reveals Steve. “We wanted something short and sharp to build the tension.”
This interlude is a welcome respite from the mayhem, as Andrew agrees. “Breaking up the game to give the player a breather was the idea,” he says. “The Uridium game is just an end-of-level bonus earner, compared to the Paradroid transfer game, which is a fight for promotion.”
“The game quickly became very playable,” remembers Steve. “Andrew used to let his friends playtest every stage in the game’s development. He was very good at games so he liked to see how lesser mortals coped. When Zzap!64’s Julian Rignall started to beat the game, he wrote some ‘anti-Rignall’ routines to ensure there were no easy ways to get through the levels! It was a fun time at Graftgold. We worked in my dining room and were firing on all cylinders, not having any restrictions from publishers.”
“Uridium took about five to six months to design and write,” reveals Andrew. “Not all the design is done before writing, but this game mostly came together up front and just worked. That meant the latter part of the development was designing the levels. Each game had more code in it than the previous, so coding the games took longer each time. For Uridium, the program took up about 16K and there would have been about another 28K of graphics, data, sounds and music. We got cleverer each game at cramming more in. The last C64 game I did [Intensity] had a 29K program and about the same again in graphics.”
Given its reliance on the unique attributes of the C64’s hardware, converting the game to other formats proved somewhat tricky, as Andrew explains. “Dominic Robinson wrote the ZX Spectrum version, and his lateral way of thinking always got us out of trouble,” he says. “Getting the Spectrum to scroll was quite an achievement. He also designed our original Rainbow Islands Atari ST scrolling routine, later re-used in Paradroid ’90.
“I went to Chicago to kick off the Atari ST version but it didn’t turn out too well, allegedly. I never saw it. There was a console version [released for the NES by Mindscape] that got renamed The Last Starfighter to tie in with the movie. I never got to see that either. I think that when we let conversions go out-of-house there wasn’t enough work done to figure out how to solve the technical issues on the new platform. If a straight code port failed then they just left it. Whilst Uridium would not have been easy on the Atari ST, we did get it going on the Amiga.”