Interview with Martin Wheeler
December 1997


How did you get started in computers?

Got the 1K ZX81 when I was twelve or thirteen - the RAM pack came a couple of months later (along with Sellotape to stop it wobbling.) Later, I bought the ZX printer/asbestos toilet-roll dispenser.

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

I remember the Sinclair advert in magazines, showing a family sitting around the little rubber keypad watching space invaders marching across a bright yellow TV screen. I knew with a sad longing that the old ZX81 and its ranks of blocky monochrome monsters had to go. I sold it to a friend whose dad worked in a Sellotape factory.

My first impressions?.. I impersonated the robot 'Hughie' from the film 'Silent Running' by wearing a cardboard box and walking around on my hands. It made my mum cry, and turned me into a young sadist until I was set on the path of righteousness by Sir Clive and his baby.

(Heh heh...)

What was the first game you did the graphics for?

'Dr Franky and the Monster' by Virgin. It was crap really - compiled BASIC, flickery graphics, blocky movement, platforms, and the ghosts out of Pacman.

What have you done on the Speccy?

Dan Dare - pilot of the future (with programmer Dave Chapman)
Dan Dare 2 (with programmer Andy Green)
Action Force 2 (with Andy Green)
Rebel (with programmer Link Tomlin.)

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

Looking back, It's hard to believe they seemed so Important at the time. I remember staying overnight with Andy Green at the Virgin games office in Portobello Rd to work on Dan Dare 2 (purely out of devotion - there wasn't even overtime pay.)

The building was haunted by the ghost of an accountant who had gone broke and hanged himself a few years before, and we were so scared we had to go down the staircase to kitchen together, in anoraks, brandishing screwdrivers.

Despite the fear, we worked with genuine devotion to create what we hoped would be a better sequel to the first Dan Dare game. Demo copies were rushed out without full instructions and when Crash magazine gave it a mediocre review I was totally dejected... It still got 'Sinclair User Classic' though.

I think Action Force 2 was the game I was happiest with. We wrote it with instant arcade appeal in mind, deliberately playing on the tastes of the games reviewers who slated DD2. They gave it the 'Smash' we thought Dan Dare 2 had deserved.

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

I left Virgin because I was fed up with commuting to London for five and a half grand a year. The Speccy was fading into the shadow of newer machines like the ST and it seemed to have been pushed technically as far as it could go - we managed to get eight colours per character square on the Action Force 2 title screen, and Andy Green was sure he could maintain that display and scroll it, but by then the ST was wowing everybody with its 256 colour palette and we wanted to move on.

What are you doing now?

I'm a freelance game and graphics designer - last published game I worked on was Nihilist on PC-CDROM by Bits Studios, released by Philips Media. I designed the 3D models, and did some of the sound effects and music tracks on the CD.

What were the best/worse things about the Speccy?

Best thing was the rubber keys and the little 'click' the cursor made.

Worst thing was the pathetic sound.

What were your favourite Speccy games and why?

Knight Lore, because it was the first of its kind, smooth-moving isometric 3D with great graphics and objects you could push around.

Skool Daze and Back to Skool - funny, and original.

Lords of Midnight - multiple characters and wandering icy wastelands in search of recruits to die for your Tolkienesque quest....that reminds me, anyone remember Valhalla?

Favourite Speccy coders/artists/musicians?

Dave Chapman, and Andy Green.

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

I'd like a copy of the Speccy emulator - just so I could re-live the old days and laugh at my games.

(Consider it done...)

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

Technology has broadened the scope of games today, though underneath it's just the same - a game needs to achieve that special indefinable balance of graphics, gameplay and originality.

Many of the old games were utterly crap - I remember saving up my pocket money and being really disappointed lots of times.. Which proves I am either a persistent optimist or just plain stupid. It's the same now, except forty quid goes into the till instead of a fiver.

Is there anything you miss about the old days?

The enthusiast's dedication. One person, working in their bedroom for a few weeks could turn out an absolute classic like Manic Miner, or Ant Attack..

Any amusing anecdotes/stories etc about the old days?

I don't think there's anything amusing about spending your early teenage years staring at a screen and typing in program listings for 'lunar lander'. I should've been groping girls, smoking fags, drinking booze and experimenting with drugs...Then again, saving all that 'till later has helped prevent premature liver failure and late twenties jaundice.

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

Hey, nice doorstop.


Thanks to Martin for doing the interview.

Interview conducted by Philip Bee.
Text Copyright (c) Philip Bee and Martin Wheeler.