Interview with Stuart James Fotheringham
December 1997

 

How did you get started in computers?

I was twelve when my Uncle, a bio-chemist, took me to work with him one summer-holiday day at his research facility. In his office he had a 2m^3 brown computer with a type-writer input/printer affair for input/output (there was no monitor), 8 inch floppy disks and a whopping 48k RAM. You had to write Pascal programs to get this computer to do anything, so my uncle taught me how to program a few commands. Although what was really cool was that this computer was linked to thousands of fruit trees; and you could query the hardware attached to each individual tree to gather all sorts of data.

Later, my school-friends either had ZX81s, Atari 400/800s, or Commodore VIC 20s. I was saving up for a computer too, and thinking of an Atari 400; but then I heard about this new machine from Commodore. My brother and I paid GBP399.99 for a C64 and GBP69.99 for a tape drive (equivalent to GBP959.68 in 1997 pounds); we waited months for delivery, but got it before it was in the shops (serial no:1004). However, in the meantime the Spectrum was announced and eventually delivered, one of my friends bought one.

I was fourteen when I persuaded the local computer shop to give me a Saturday job. Originally the shop sold business systems, and I demonstrated spreadsheets to potential customers (the owner had no idea). As home computers were becoming popular we started stocking Spectrums, and GAMES! I spent hours, and hours, and hours of Saturday afternoons "showing customers new games" especially Manic Miner, Jetpac and later Lunar Jetman, Jet-Set Willy and Atic Atac.

Being a fifteen year-old entrepreneur, I went to my bosses' competitors and offered to write demo display programs for them. They were very simple affairs, their logos (that I reproduced in pixels) scrolling on/off the screen in various directions. I was a busy boy. :)

Around my sixteenth birthday, I wrote to all the top games companies and told them I was the best C64 programmer they'd ever see -- I lied. I had several interviews, Quicksilva in Southampton tested me on-site (and I failed), I wrote a copier program as my demo for Software Projects, and the others didn't even test me. I was offered a couple of jobs immediately, and decided that Software Projects in Liverpool was the best option -- I was hoping to meet the legendary Matthew Smith! The day I finished my O-levels I was kicked out of my Grammar school by the head-master, I left home and moved to the other end of the country to take a job with Software Projects.

I was not the only person from my school to go and work in the games industry, one other chap from my year (who's name escapes me) went to work for Anco (of Kick-Off fame) after he had finished his A-levels.

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

My school friends and I were obsessed with computers, we read all the magazines (especially PCW), sent off to all the manufactures for brochures, and went to every computer trade/hobbyist-fair in London (my Uncle took us) -- I first saw a Sinclair Spectrum at one of these fairs.

My chums and I had discussed the specifications of all the sub-GBP1000 computers available (and there were quite a few). I used to ridicule the Spectrum's "attribute clash" and farting speaker when the C64 had hardware sprites and excellent sounds; but I was secretly very jealous of the extensive catalogue of excellent games (it actually took several years for the C64 to get some decent product).

What was your first game?

Played: Atari's Pong in the arcade My brother and I spent two weeks each summer staying with my grand-parents in Folkestone. I spent all my money in the video arcades.

Loved: Nintendo's Donkey Kong in the arcade. A classic, so good that Mario and Donkey Kong are still with us today!

Banned from playing: Williams' Defender in the arcade (ten button, not joystick, version). Too much pocket money went into that machine.

Hardware: The first every colour home games console (can't remember the make); four analogue controllers, sixteen variations of Pong, Tennis and Breakout. Big thanks to Mum and Dad for surprise family present.

Software: Combat and Space Invaders on the Atari VCS (later Atari 2600). Big thanks to Mum and Dad for my best ever Christmas present.

Bought: Atari game with two cars racing the opposite way round a simple maze for the Atari VCS. In the late 70's I could only get VCS cartridges from specialist hi-fi shops, and they charged a lot of money. Star Raiders was the most impressive game for the VCS -- Adventure was the most time consuming.

Programmed: Cruise Missile for the ZX81 A Sinclair Basic game, where the object of the game was to steer a Cruise missile over scrolling hills (with wind blowing you randomly up and down) to nuke and enemy city with an enormous mushroom cloud animation.

Paid to work on: Jet-Set Willy for the Commodore 64. Taken off programming after a few weeks though (because a contractor was doing it too), and moved to graphics for Manic Miner 3 with Matthew Smith and Marc Dawson.

Published: Nodes of Yesod for the Sinclair Spectrum. Having one's work published is a tremendous feeling, especially with the consistently excellent reviews Nodes received -- Crash magazine interviewed us -- it was cool.

What have you done on the Speccy?

My Speccy exclusive work is a bit thin on the ground, as I did mainly worked on C64, Atari and Amigas, however...

I drew too many loading screens to mention, for: Software Projects, Odin Computer Graphics, Thor Computer Software and Denton Designs (for Ocean).

I drew two out of five backgrounds and most of the 'baddy' sprites in Nodes of Yesod; same in Arc of Yesod; all graphics in ICCUPS; the plants in Heartland; and all the graphics in a couple of complete, but unreleased, Denton Design action/strategy games.

Colin Grunes and I designed Nodes Of Yesod together. Steve Wetherill, and the other coders, had created an excellent tool where we could edit the game in real-time. Colin and I took turns, where one of us controlled Astro-Charlie with a joystick, while the other one selected platforms, etc and moved them around the screen with the keyboard (even while Astro-Charlie was standing on them) -- it was hilarious and great fun.

After spending weeks (and a final "all-nighter") putting 256 screens together for Nodes of Yesod, we lost the lot. Unfortunately we were storing our data on Sinclair Microdrives -- and I'm sure you can guess what happened. We switched to Disciple drives after that, but in the meantime Colin and I had to start again from scratch, in a fraction of the time -- so the final version wasn't as good as our original.

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

They should have been a lot easier to complete! Take Nodes for example:

1. Collect mole so you can eat walls -- lots of people didn't even work that out.
2. Find the flickering indictor -- in the middle of a tough maze.
3. Collect eight matching crystals (to match the flickering indicator) -- avoiding the crystal stealing cosmonaut ghost.
4. Return back to the flickering indicator -- where you fall through the floor and see the animated end sequence.

I don't think anyone ever finished Nodes, we certainly didn't -- even my C64 games, like Mutants, were too hard.

The SuperFast Mega-Mix of Nodes of Yesod (on the b-side of the C64 cassette tape) is my personal favourite.

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

Odin Computer Graphics bought the first batch of Amiga 1000s in Europe just as I was leaving, and at Denton Designs we just quickly switched to 16-bit product (and developed games like Eco for Ocean).

Soon after leaving Denton Designs I left the games industry all together -- and discovered management consulting. I was not sad to leave the games industry -- I had achieved everything that I had set out to do.

What are you doing now?

While working for a large international management consulting company, I met Christian McGuinness who told me that years ago he used to play Speccy games and that his favourite game was Nodes Of Yesod -- it was quite amusing when I told him about my games industry past.

After spending seven years working all over the world, I left management consulting and set up an IT consulting business with Christian -- our company develops enterprise software solutions for global corporations and financial institutions.

What were the best/worse things about the Speccy?

Software was one of the best and ironically, the worst things about the Speccy. There were some outstanding games created, but there were many more appalling conversions/licences/unfinished products published by greedy software houses -- but then, that can still be said of today!

Even though the Speccy's hardware was rudimentary, it had a faster processor than its competitors -- which meant that good programmers could deliver better results (in some areas) than machines with custom graphics hardware.

The rubber key versions were the best, and black plastic versions of the Speccy were the worst. If perhaps, you needed a quick afternoon nap, the rubber version did not leave impressions on your face (that lasted for hours) if you had happened to use it as a pillow (and it still worked afterwards) -- much better than C64s for the same reason.

The sound was never anything to write home about -- even with a cheap generic sound chip.

Microdrives -- what an unbelievably crap piece of technology.

What were your favourite Speccy games and why?

Jetpac and Lunar Jetman -- the laser effects are still better that most games today.

Atic Atac and Sabre Wulf -- excellent graphics, excellent fun.

Knight Lore and Alien 8 -- innovative and challenging gameplay.

Manic Miner and Jet-Set Willy -- gameplay, gameplay, gameplay.

I admired some of the conversions (Virus, Sentinel and Uridium were outstanding), but they were never as good as the originals.

Favourite Speccy coders/artists/musicians?

I was lucky enough to work with the best in the business...

Matthew Smith -- what more can you say.

Steve Wetherill -- an excellent Speccy coder. Steve managed to get pixel smooth, 50 frames a second, horizontal scrolling out of a Speccy -- see Sidewize and Crosswize -- that many others claimed was impossible.

John Heap -- Alien, Escape From Colditz and Where Time Stood Still were robust games.

Colin Grunes -- the very best Speccy artist ever. The crystal level in Nodes was inspired, his characters (Astro-Charlie in Nodes and Eldritch in Heartland) were beautifully animated and his attention to detail second to none.

Paul Salmon -- had a very individual style and some interesting ideas with graphics, the Speccy version of Robin Of The Wood shows his approach off at its best -- find the druid character.

Steve Wetherill (again) -- multi-channel music (and drum effects) out of the Speccy (Heartland, Sidewize, Crosswize), way cool.

You were working on Manic Miner 3 with Matthew Smith - what was he and the game like?

I worked, and partied, with Matthew a lot in 1984 during my time at Software Projects Ltd in Liverpool. Matthew, Marc Dawson [now of Software Creations] and myself were developing "The Mega Tree" (commonly known as "Willy Meets The Taxman" -- thanks to Marc for memory jog). Matthew had 'worked' on a third Miner Willy for months, but had really done nothing (his recreational activities prevented him from concentrating for periods longer than a few seconds).

Alan Maton was the producer, Matthew was the designer/director, Marc was the programmer and I was the graphics artist -- you may be shocked to know that we were developing for the Commodore 64, with a Spectrum third-party conversion to follow. We were based at my house in Holt Road in Birkenhead, provided rent-free by Software Projects, that I shared with Steve Wetherill [developer of JSW2, and now of Westwood Studios]. Holt Road actually inspired a screen in JSW2 -- the one with the beer barrels.

Marc and I were brought in to help Matthew deliver something, anything, to meet the demand for a third Miner Willy game. Our project was cancelled after three months -- all we had delivered was a single screen. "The Mega Tree" was a psuedo-3D raised view, rather than a sideways view game, with scrolling as well as fixed screen levels. Miner Willy started at the bottom of the main access screen, he had been redesigned to look like more like Mario (we all loved Donkey Kong), and ran to the top of the screen where there was excessive foliage and trees (inspired by Sabre Wulf). On his way up the screen Willy had to avoid 'running and Cossack dancing' oak trees -- they were great. In the centre of the foliage was the BanYan tree extending off the top of the screen, and either side were three paths into the forest. The idea was that Willy had to complete the six areas (in any order) by going down these paths, via this screen, collect enough flashing pound notes and then climb the BanYan tree -- where the next access screen, with another set of paths off, would be.

Thinking back, "The Mega Tree" was quite a similar concept to the later Super Mario Bros games on the NES, although you could also run 'in to' (up) and 'out of' (down) the screen.

Marc and I left to help form Odin Computer Graphics, where we were later joined by Steve Wetherill -- Nodes Of Yesod was our first published title. We still used to go clubbing and hang out with Matthew, although nothing lived up to the toga incident [see below], but thing went rapidly downhill for him from there -- especially when Matthew Met The Taxman. Chris Cannon [author of The Castle] kept in touch with Matthew for years; but doesn't know where he is now.

The person identified on the "Where is Matthew Smith? Eh? EH?" web-page http://www.jonlan.demon.co.uk/spectrum/matsmith/ sounds very much like the Matthew Smith, especially the motor bike stuff. He really got into bikes after JSW -- I crashed his shiny, new, first motorbike the day he bought it, oops!

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

I have, in the past, played with Speccy emulators -- funny, but I have never run any C64, Atari or other emulators; and those computers do not seem to have anywhere near the same level of fan following as the Speccy.

I would play with a Speccy emulator immediately, if I could find one that worked properly under Windows NT4. I would play Lunar Jetman for fun and I.C.C.U.P.S. to see how poor it really was.

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

I love the whole modern games experience (at least on consoles). I can plug my US N64 and PlayStation's video output into my Sony widescreen television, the Dolby Surround sound into my specialist British hi-fi system and sit on my comfortable sofa and play great games with my friends -- which is why I don't really play PC games (except Dungeon Keeper).

Some of my favourite "modern" games that beat any "classics":

Although I don't like all "modern" games -- I think Final Fantasy VII is over-hyped Japanese specific nonsense, that is definitely all presentation and no gameplay.

Looking back, Odin games had high presentation values for their day but performed poorly with gameplay, whereas Ultimate Play The Game had high presentation values and excellent gameplay. Rare Ltd (formerly UPTG) are with us today, and still creating excellent products that are crammed with both excellent presentation and challenging gameplay.

There were plenty of Speccy games that were all licence and no gameplay.

Is there anything you miss about the old days?

The time and energy to go clubbing every single night of the week, week after week, month after month, year after year.

Any amusing anecdotes/stories etc about the old days?

I attended the Imagine Software wake, where a large groups of newly-redundant employees (as seen on TV) went on a pub-crawl around Liverpool carrying a coffin with RIP Imagine Software written on the top.

Matthew Smith was always outrageously out of his tree, especially when we went clubbing, and turned up in a rough Birkenhead biker club called Stairways (Marc and Steve were leather jacketed rocker sorts and Colin and I were Goths) wearing only a white bed-sheet that he described as a toga. This incident inspired Marc to write a C64 game called Stairways (that was published by Thor Computer Software), where the object of the game was to get through the club without knocking over drinks and shooting at hallucinations with bubbles flying out of your head.

Matthew Smith loved Atari 800s, especially the LucasArts and EA games, and wished that he could develop for them. He had an Atari hard disc drive (which was staggeringly expensive in 1984), that he kept his work on. Anyway, he strapped his hard disc to the back of his motorbike, but accelerated so rapidly through the Mersey tunnel that it fell off and bounced down the road, trashing all his post-JSW work -- he had no backups.

The games software industry was in its infancy, our companies were immature, we were teenagers, paid very generously (over ?24,000pa in 1997 pounds) and had other benefits (such as rent-free accommodation and free food at work) and no fixed work hours. There was bound to be plenty of bad behaviour and naughty antics that are probably libellous to repeat.

What's the story behind the false tooth - Marc Dawson told me a few interesting anecdotes...

Marc is three years older, ten centimetres taller, and several kilogrammes heavier than me; and when I was sixteen he used to think it was really funny to throw me over walls into people's gardens, or into bushes, on the way back from the pub/clubs.

One night after we got back to Holt Road, I was laying on the floor and talking to Steve while Marc was reclined on the sofa. Marc decided that he wanted to go to sleep, so he grabbed my head and slammed my face into the wooden edge of the sofa, to "keep me quiet".

This assault smashed my front left incisor and left a raw nerve exposed -- which hurt a great deal. As it was 2:30am (and a Dentist appointment was a long way off), I believed I could disassociate the incredible pain by inflicting some elsewhere so I made a small cut in my left hand with a sharp sterilised knife -- it did not work. I still have problems with the capped tooth to this day as the root was so badly damaged.

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

Keep the faith -- I'm sure Speccys and Sinclair peripherals will be traded as antiques before too long.

 


Thanks to Stuart for doing the interview.

Interview conducted by Philip Bee.
Text Copyright (c) Philip Bee and Stuart James Fotheringham.