It’s easy to dimiss Atari’s Jaguar, but it has a number of genuinely fantastic games available for it. Arguably its most popular is Jeff Minter’s superb tribute to Atari’s Tempest, which many gamers still consider to be the best game on the system. Here, Jeff tells us about its origins and how he was able to make one of the console’s greatest games.
Jeff Minter grins across the table at us, wiping Guiness froth from his top lip. “I can remember the moment when I first saw Tempest exactly. It was the early Eighties and I was in London with my mum and dad. They went off shopping and I was wandering around Piccadilly Circus. It started to rain so I nipped into an arcade and I saw this machine glowing in the corner. It looked like nothing I’d seen before, [with] these gorgeous colour vectors. I dropped a few coins in and that was that; it was just so addictive…”
Tempest 2000 is one of the most exhilerating shooters around.
It was the start of a very long love affair. Written by Dave Theurer and released by Atari in 1981, Tempest would become one of Jeff’s all-time favourite games and he even acquired a coin-op machine so he could bring the arcade experience home. However, despite releasing many 8-bit titles through his Llamasoft label that were inspired by arcade hits – Gridrunner and Andes Attack were clearly homages to Centipede and Defender respectively – he never attempted to interpret Tempest for the home micros of the day. “It’s so pure and distinctive looking, if you tried to do Tempest with pixels you ended up with something that looked like a spider’s web made of Lego bricks,” he explains. “If you’ve ever seen the VCS prototype, it looks like a pair of stripy tights with a prawn on them!”
So Jeff left his beloved blaster well alone until 1992, when he found himself in London again, sitting in a conference organised by Atari to get developers interested in making games for their forthcoming Jaguar console. “They literally read out a list of game IP they owned and asked who was interested in doing what,” he recalls with a chuckle. “When they got to Tempest, I just put my hand up. I’ll have that!”
It seems a rather haphazard way for Atari to decide who would develop which titles for its latest attempt to regain the console crown it once wore, but we like to think Atari saw Jeff’s outstretched arm, thrust upward with the enthusiasm of a seven year-old volunteering to be football captain, and knew he was the right man for the job. The company flew him over to the States to show him the hardware, assigned him a producer and sent him back home to Wales with a prototype Jaguar.
Get some competitive blasting going with the two-player mode.
“It didn’t take me too long to get the Jag doing unfilled vectors and a simple version of the original working,” recalls Jeff. “I was inclined to leave it like that as I liked the look but my producer John gently said, ‘we’d really like you to fill those vectors up’. So I did. And he was right.”
Jeff used a technique called ‘Gouraud shading’, a function built into the Jaguar’s hardware, which gave the game’s polygons a colourful, three-dimensional feel. It also allowed him to bring his own distinctive aesthetic to the project whilst remaining faithful to Theurer’s original vision. “I didn’t want to shit on Dave’s ideas by filling it full of llamas,” blurts out Jeff. “It was quite a daunting thing to take what I consider to be one of the best designed games I’d ever seen and bolt stuff onto it. I really didn’t want to upset Dave by chucking in a load of random stuff.”
Being true to your source material without slavishly aping it and extending a game concept whilst never forgetting what made it great in the first place is a demanding task, and one that has confounded many developers charged with updating a classic title. Jeff approached this difficult balancing act by keeping the spirit of Tempest alive – the frenetic blasting and web-like structure of levels – whilst introducing a whole host of new power-ups and enemies to the fray. The friendly firepower of AI droids could help fight off the relentless stream of foes and the ability to jump off the edge of a web was handy when overwhelmed by the onslaught, which now included the horn-hurling Demon Head and the fiendish Mirror, a nasty piece of work that reflected your shots right back at you. “They were designed to be right bastards,” cackles Jeff.
All this frenzied action was accompanied by a banging techno soundtrack, which complimented the melting visuals and particle fireworks on-screen beautifully. “The audio guys were f***ing fantastic,” beams Jeff. “I sent them a video of me playing the game with some music that had the feel I wanted. I’d just been introduced to techno and industrial stuff and I think the game needed that vibe. A few weeks later I got back an audio tape with tracks they were working on and I was blown away. I had to phone them up and say, ‘this is awesome but will it really sound like this on my Jaguar?’ They were true to their word – it was the best f***ing music for a game ever!”
Avoid these spikes or you’ll lose a precious life.
The excellent work of those audio guys at Imagitec would later be released as a standalone CD, and remains a fine testament to the contribution music can play to the gaming experience. The sensory overload Tempest 2000 offered was spread across 100 levels – one more than the original – and a number of different game options including a traditional version and an innovative if squint-inducing Duel mode. And then there were the mellow warp sections interspersed between the madness. “I liked the juxtaposition of going from really hard action to a floaty, trancey vibe,” smiles Jeff. “They were a little chill pill.”
Released in 1994, Tempest 2000 was to be the Jaguar’s finest title… “I’d put a word in for Alien Vs Predator and Iron Soldier,” interrupts Jeff, modestly. We laugh and acknowledge that fine pair but then wonder whether, in retrospect, Jeff would have traded the honour of producing one of the best titles on the short-lived Jaguar in exchange for reaching a far wider audience for his game if he’d developed it for the PlayStation? He thinks a while before answering.
“It’s satisfying to think Tempest 2000 is perhaps one of the best games on the entire console, but I just wish the console itself had been more successful, then I would’ve got more royalties! I don’t regret doing it on the Jag at all, though. I know on a few occasions I’ve backed the wrong hardware horse but I’ve always enjoyed myself because the thing that drives me is learning new things on new hardware, to have a prototype and be on the cutting edge of something. Even when it hasn’t worked out, like with the Nuon, the coding I did on that was fantastic!”