Interview with Mike Follin
December 1997


How did you get started in computers?

I used to spend my dinner money in the arcade on the way home from school. I was fascinated at how you could interact with images moving about on a TV screen.

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

I was considering getting a ZX-81 because I'd seen an advert somewhere; then I got a full colour publicity leaflet which had pictures of 3D graphs in orange. I thought, that looks interesting; maybe I could make that do space invaders, only in colour.

What was your first game?

The first day I got a Speccy, I stayed up past midnight writing a sort of Moon Cresta shoot 'em up in BASIC. I was a bit disappointed when I realised every line of code seemed to slow the thing down. I then wasted a couple of years doing the arcade Star Wars game using more and more machine code. But, since you probably mean commercial game - it was called Subterranean Stryker.

What have you done on the Speccy?

It's easier to refer you to my page;

Here's a quick list of what I can remember:

Subterranean Stryker
Star Firebirds
Future Games
The Sentinel
Bubble Bobble
Black Lamp
Bionic Commando
LED Storm
Ghouls 'n' Ghosts

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

Some were good, some not so good. The vast majority of my speccy games were really conversions - mostly from arcade machines. I'm thankful that I got several brilliantly playable arcade games to convert. I'm still quite fond of my 'original', "Vectron" - because it's so hard and fast, and did several programming tricks.

Of the others; Sentinel was amazing, because of Geoff Crammond's maths behind it. Bubble was so playable it made me realise that you didn't need 3D graphics to have a great gaming experience. Bionic Commando was a fun experience, not least because of Tim's soundtrack. From a technical point of view, Ghouls 'n' Ghosts had some self-generating scrolling routines that frighten me even now.

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

I didn't get much choice really - It was obvious (to my boss at Software Creations) that Nintendo games outsold Spectrum games about 10:1; so when the GameBoy appeared with a Z80 based processor, it was time for me to move. I think I'd pushed the Spectrum 99% of the way to its limits by then, so I was ready to try something else. I still get nostalgic about the Speccy days.

What are you doing now?

Thinking I should probably stop typing away and go downstairs to my wife. Professionally, I'm just finishing off a game called "ShadowMaster" for the PC. It's a 3D shoot 'em up, published by Psygnosis early 1998.

What were the best/worse things about the Speccy?

The best thing was probably the absence of hardware restrictions in the architecture - just 48K of memory with a reasonably powerful processor. That allowed a lot of freedom and therefore let creativity shine through. We just haven't had anything like it since. The worst thing was probably the absence of hardware assistance when it came to doing things like sprites or scrolling. Swings and roundabouts.

What were your favourite Speccy games and why?

Excluding my own attempts; I remember getting a 16K to 48K upgrade just to play "Timegate", although the gameplay soon became a little dull. I played Manic Miner for ages. The coding was beautifully simple, but the game was just so playable. I also did a lot of Knightlore - still one of the biggest quantum leaps ever seen on any computer. The coding was obviously far more complex; the "isometric" viewpoint facilitated some rather more complex puzzles than you find in a side-on platformer.

Favourite Speccy coders/artists/musicians?

The Stampers at Ultimate were probably the best coders/artists in the business. I also thought Ghosts 'n' Goblins was brilliantly coded by Keith Burkhill. Musically, I'm a little biased, but I do think Tim outshone everyone.

Do you use an emulator to play your old games (or any others)?

Yes, I have an emulator or two for the PC. I've also got a Psion 5 which also has a speccy emulator. It's great that I can now carry around all my old games, in my pocket.

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

Last one was Ghouls 'n' Ghosts. I did once start to do a 3D Robin Hood game - don't suppose I'll ever get back to it.

Don't you ever feel like writing another Speccy game nowadays just for old times sake? ;-)

I suppose it might be fun.. I just don't have the time, really.

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

I think most people are bored by watching endless FMV sequences and playing games which seldom offer anything new. But, there are some really great games around today. When I first got a spectrum I was hooked on Star Wars. What I wanted to do was a game that did two things, from a first person perspective. Firstly; fly around in space and shoot TIE fighters. Secondly; run around corridors and shoot Stormtroopers. I would have liked to have done that on the Spectrum, but the hardware wasn't too keen on the idea. It wasn't until the likes of X-Wing and Dark Forces (OK, Wolfenstein) that this was possible.

I think Doom is as playable as any of the Spectrum classics. Tomb Raider is simply the extension of platform gameplay into 3D. I wouldn't say it's *more* playable than Bionic Commando, but it takes a lot longer to complete, and has rather more depth. (sic.) I think overall since 1982, I've probably logged more hours on Command and Conquer than any other game.

Is there anything you miss about the old days?

There was a lot more freedom back then - I could code how I liked, so long as I got the desired effect on screen. These days it's all learning Microsoft APIs and fitting in with other people's code. And the time it takes to develop a game has increased, as has the number of people working on the same project. Neither of those things is particularly good.

Any amusing anecdotes/stories etc about the old days?

I never can remember jokes. The only things I can remember are geeky things about programmers who did foolish things.

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

It's better to use an emulator on a PC or a Series 5 - you get a useful blend of past and present.


Thanks to Mike for doing the interview.

Interview conducted by Philip Bee.
Text Copyright (c) Philip Bee and Mike Follin.