ZX SPECTICLE INTERVIEWS (1)
 

Jonathan Smith | Dougie Burns | Mike Follin | Dean Belfield | Simon Butler

  During the life-span of the ZX Spectrum the computer media ran interviews with a number of the leading programmers of the time. A lot of these interviews gave a somewhat false impression that all programmers were incredibly well paid and were all driving about in expensive sports cars. The reality in most cases was somewhat different. Although not always the case, stories of programmers being exploited and underpaid are only now becoming evident. ZX Specticle is committed to finding the best of these programmers and hopefully learning some of the truths about the early years of the software industry in this country.  
   
  Jonathan Smith - Interview Conducted January 2001
   
  Jonathan 'Joffa' Smith was considered by many to be one of the finest Spectrum programmers of his time. Working for Ocean Software for most of his Spectrum career a majority of his work revolved around arcade conversions or movie tie-ins. In this interview, conducted in January 2001, Jonathan speaks of his early years as well as what he has been up to since he stopped programming on the ZX Spectrum.
   
  How did you get started in computers?

Strangely, I wasn't allowed to do computer studies at school. A friend had a BBC model B and I used to play around on that.

When did you first see a Spectrum and what were your first impressions?

I saw an advertisement for the Spectrum in 'Your Computer' magazine. It was life-size (but had strange cream coloured keys) and I remember thinking "I'm gonna have you, baby!". I had to sell some of my possessions in order to purchase the 16k version.

What was your first game?

I messed around with Basic programming at first, but this didn't give me the results I was after. I sold two games to a magazine at some point, though I can't remember which. Then I upgraded to 48k and taught myself machine code. The first commercially released game was Pud Pud In Weird World, though I'd also written Donkey Kong, Pacman and Invaders style games.

What Games have you had published on the Spectrum?

Pud Pud - Ocean
Kong Strikes Back (with Nigel Alderton) - Ocean
Hypersports - Imagine
Daley Thompson's Super Test (with Paul Owens) - Ocean
Mikie - Imagine
Green Beret - Imagine
Cobra - Ocean
Terra Cresta - Imagine
Hysteria - Special FX/Software Projects
FireFly - Special FX/Ocean
Hyper Active - Sinclair User cover game
Batman The Caped Crusader - Special FX/Ocean


What is the story about your trade mark of miss spelling your name and writing your name backwards on your credits. And what is Plip Plop Programming?

I've always spelt 'Smifff' with three f's since school, and from where I come from (Widnes, Cheshire) everyone called Jonathan gets nicknamed 'Joffa'. As for the reversal bit, who knows? I probably thought it was funny at the time. I used the name J.M.Sweed during Super Test because I was unhappy with the product, but relented in the end. Incidentally, I'm credited as 'Eric Richgit' on Firefly, though why this should be is anyone's guess. It certainly wasn't because of my financial situation at the time. Plip Plop programming refers to the sound routines, in particular the 'phasing' music with overlaid drum beats.

What do you think of your games? Which is your personal favorite?

I'm not keen on my early games at all. My only excuse is that I had very little time in which to write them, usually only three months. My favorite has to be FireFly. Everything just seemed to come together on that one. I think the loading screen is quite cool.


The computer media of the 80's gave a somewhat false impression that all games programmers were earning an absolute fortune and living a great life. Recent interviews with past programmers have painted a rather different story. How did you feel you were personally treated within the industry and do you think you got the credit (and rewards) you deserved.

Well, I started on a very low wage but quickly moved up. I was treated well at Ocean, probably better than any other programmer there. The bonuses also increased in size, and because I could churn the games out fast, I did pretty well. I tried to keep out of the limelight as much as possible and turned down loads of promotional opportunities. If anyone mentions 'Commercial Breaks' I'll be very angry.

How did you leave the Spectrum scene? Were you sad to leave?

Special FX were given a two week contract to produce the animated computer displays for the Red Dwarf II television series. This seemed like an ideal opportunity for me to branch out onto another format. The Atari ST. Actually the budget was so small that the 'beeb' had to borrow our machines when recording the show! At the time I think I was glad to see the back of the Spectrum. I really wanted to work on the Amiga.


What did you do after the spectrum years and what are you doing now?

Special FX Software (Liverpool)

On the ST front I did Midnight Resistance, Red Heat (It only took a few weeks - and it shows!) followed by Hudson Hawk. Or was Red Heat before Midnight Resistance? Can't remember. At some point I also did a cover game for Zero magazine called Recoil. This was a defender clone.

I started work on Mr.Do! on the Gameboy next, this was around Christmas 1991. Unfortunately Special FX closed down and it was never finished. Strangely though, Ocean still gave it a limited release in Europe - still in its incomplete form!


Software Creations (Manchester)

I worked here for a few months, doing graphics for the SNES version of The Xmen - Arcades Revenge. I didn't like the atmosphere so I moved back to Liverpool to rejoin the old Special FX crew who had started up a company called Elephant Software. I suggested a new name and Rage was born!

Rage Part 1

With new offices in Bootle, I started work on an original game called Cluster Buster on the SNES. This was an eight-way scrolling defender style shoot'em up, with huge exploding planets and moons. Unfortunately no-one was interested in publishing it (Sonic the Hedgehog was all the rage) so it was abandoned.

This was closely followed by a rough demo of a game based around the Tintin character on the Megadrive. This was commissioned by Sega UK in order for them to get and exclusive contract for the character. Unfortunately, because they would only do the game on Sega formats they lost the deal.

Next up was the Megadrive version of Power Drive. This was a 'top down' scrolling rally game. Pretty rubbish really, but at least this was released!

By now (summer '95) I was pretty fed up with computer games, and with the prospect of writing Striker (the football game) on the Sega Saturn I decided to call it a day.

The following years are all a blur, but involved DJing in Blackpool.


Rage Part 2

Around March 2000 I was approached by Rage to do WAP phone software. I agreed (needed the money!) and here I am now. If you have a WAP enabled handset you can play my latest game by entering this URL...

www.btinternet.com/~joffa.smifff/airlock/main.wml


What were the best/worse things about working with the Spectrum?

I remember we used Sinclair Microdrives at Ocean to store data on. They were dreadful! I lost so much work on them things! One of the walls in my room was covered with half destroyed cartridges with a 'care of your microdrive' instruction leaflet as the centre piece.

What were your favorite Spectrum games and why?

I liked most of Ultimate's games, they were very polished. I played Lunar Jetman loads because I was nuts on Defender in the arcades. Did anyone ever find the mysterious trailer?


Favorite Spectrum coders/artists/musicians?

A Guy called Mike Webb was a terrific programmer at Ocean. He was a real natural, nothing stood in his way. He's the M.D. at Software Creations now. And rich too! Colin (Nodes of Yesod) Grunes was an amazing artist/animator. I liked the Ultimate style of graphics. Martin Galway's music was always brilliant, he did the Ocean in-house tunes. I recently met up with him, he's been living over in the States for about ten years. Fred Gray's stuff was also good, he was a freelance musician who did work for Denton Designs.


Do you use an emulator to play any of your old games?

Yes. I thought it a good idea to store all my work before it gets lost forever. I don't play any of them though!

What was the last Spectrum game you wrote? Did you leave anything unfinished? (and if so is there any chance we'll ever get to see it!)

The last Spectrum title was Batman The Caped Crusader. I was supposed to be writing it on the ST but the Speccy programmer cocked it up! Fortunately I managed to finish everything I did Spectrum wise. I do have a copy of my first complete game, a Donkey Kong clone called The Thing. It was written before Pud Pud but was never published.


Don't you ever feel like throwing together another Spectrum game nowadays just for old times sake? The reception on the net would be unbelievable.

Yes. I'd love to. The director's cut of Cobra! That might be worth looking into. Anyone got a development kit?

What do you think about modern games? Can they compete with the classics? Aren't they all presentation and no game play?

All this presentation stuff is a waste of time. What's the point? You only ever watch them once or twice, then skip them. Today's games should wipe the floor with the old stuff but, invariably, don't. I'm completely hooked on Unreal Deathmatch Tournament on the PC. A group of us at work play at lunch times over the network. It's crazy!


Is there anything or anybody that you miss about the old days?

I suppose I miss most of it. I don't remember ever having a bad time. Some of the secretaries at Ocean were gorgeous, so I really miss them!


Any amusing anecdotes/stories etc about the old days?

I remember someone threw the power switch off by accident. Martin Galway was doing the Cobra music on my set-up at the time, and lost all the work he'd done! This probably explains why that particular tune isn't up to his usual standard.


Have you anything to say to people who still use the Spectrum today?

A lot of time and effort went into developing Spectrum titles, so I'm glad people are still getting something out of them.

 

 

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Content, Coding And Design 2001 ZX SPECTICLE - D.J.MCCOWAN