Retro Wand Waggling
It's once again time for one of the RGG team to bravely jump into the Portal to head on out and bring you all some info on something or in this case someone awesome!
As Retro Gaming fans it's very clear that most of us live in the past. Even if it looks to the outside world that we really are paying attention in that meeting at work in truth we just want to go home and play classic games on classic systems.
For this particular jump through time and space a certain starstruck codemasters fan speaks to another of his childhood idols... And drools!
Say hello to Colin Jones. A man massively admired by us 8 and 16-Bit home computer fans. For us his games are very well known, timeless and as the back of the box might just say... Utterly Brilliant! (that's a codemasters pun people)
Megatron has been chasing this guy down for quite some time as he applied the finishing touches to the first part of his Remastered 'Slightly' Trilogy which appeared many moons ago on the humble Spectrum computer.
A proud defender of the old ways and the classic look and feel of sprites he is also the man who unleashed the controversial game of it's era, the one and only Rockstar Ate My Hamster! A title banned from several major UK retail chains due to it's perceived promotion of sex, drugs and of course Rock 'n' Roll.
One of the true original pioneers of the home computer era RGG is thrilled to sit down with the man who killed off Rock and Pop icons by nuclear war!
A Rockstar came to cast his magic retro gaming spell...
Izzy Whizzy, let's get Busy... On this interview!
RGG: Welcome oh great one, please for the record state your name and what you do…?
Colin: Colin Jones, author of Rock Star Ate My Hamster and Slightly Magic. Now reborn as trippy Indie developer Potassium Frog, attempting to bring back some of the spirit of strangeness and wonder into modern gaming.
What do I do? The only thing I could really say is that I make stuff, some of which is ignored, some of which finds an audience. I do it because I have to.
RGG: Before we get into the meat of the interview can you cast your mind back to the very first game you ever played and what machine it was on? Please tell us how it made you feel then and how the memory of that makes you feel today..?
Colin: Everything changed, everywhere, all at once. I remember seeing a Texas Instruments game console in my friend’s house. I played a space invaders clone on the machine and had a mystical experience. I saw an entirely new medium. I saw cartoons on screen that a player could control. At that very point I knew exactly what I had to do.
RGG: Allowing us to blow your trumpet for a bit here you are a Spectrum legend are you not (you can say it here, we already know) tell me about your spectrum experiences, what is it about that machine that you remember so fondly?
Colin: Well for one thing the spectrum was just about affordable. It was very open, anyone could buy a cassette with an assembler on it, buy a book on machine code and within a month could write a game which was accepted by a major software house. And yes, it really was that simple.
RGG: Talk to us about Rockstar Ate My Hamster, how on earth did this come about?
Colin: Rockstar Ate My Hamster was a game that needed to be done as far as I was concerned. Football Manager was terrifically popular at that point and I was as I was interested in music I thought it was obvious to combine rock management with a computer game. I was actually surprised that no-one else had thought of it.
I'd already worked with Codemasters at that point so I put the idea to David and Richard Darling. I wasn’t sure if they’d go for it, particularly the title and the erm, ‘humour’. But they were very positive, and eventually put it out under their prestige Codemasters Gold label.
They found the perfect artist for the job in Chris Graham, and of course put me in touch with Allister Brimble for the music. Together we cooked up a system where different parts of the music tracks changed with the individual rockstars. They got better as they practised too.
RGG: At the time the game actually caused a lot of controversy and was banned from certain things, what was your reaction to that and how do you think controversy in games from the 1980’s compares to the stuff going on now.
Colin: I was completely and utterly furious, upset and confused. Still am. One large chain of shops in particular was quite happy making money from selling firearms magazines and pornography but took it upon themselves to ban the game. The thing is that it wasn’t like a record being banned from the radio; you actually couldn’t buy the game in a number of shops! I still say it cost Rockstar the number one slot. We peaked at number two, from what I remember. Bah.
RGG: Rolling stone magazine added your game to it’s top 50 of all time, what other accolades did this title receive and how do you look back at it now?
Colin: People still remember it, which is surprising. It was quite a thing at the time, to a game which played well and which had a sense of humour. I’m very proud of it.
Alakazam! He's the 'Slightly Magic' Man!
RGG: Codemasters are for most retro lovers a name that stands for quality during the 8-bit home computer era, how did you first become connected with them?
Colin: From what I remember, I probably sent them a CV and my latest game. They got back to me pretty sharpish and offered me the choice of a couple of projects. I decided I would quite like to program the Commodore 64 version of the Oliver Twins’ Race Against Time, I thought that was quite an important project.
I must have done reasonably well with it, because from that point on Codemasters gave me pretty much free reign on my games. From what I remember we jumped into Rock Star after the Race Against Time.
RGG: The success of RockStar lead to you making more games for this publisher, this brings us to what Your Sinclair rated as one of the best games of all time Slightly Magic. Who came up with this concept, was it you, the Darling brothers (founders of Codemasters) or an equal concept idea..?
Colin: Codemasters were great, very supportive. They made sure that I was looked after. And I felt that I could pretty much do what I wanted at that point, so I had a good think and a long lie down. I took three ideas for games to Codemasters. They were all character-based games, I think all three would have done well. Slightly Magic came out on top. There were just so many possibilities with Slightly. Magic, spells, shape-shifting. That was definitely the way to go. We all agreed, which we usually did, and I came back to Wales to design and program the game.
RGG: Roughly how long did it take you to create this game and how smooth / rough was the development project as a whole?
Colin: Games always took too long. I’d guess about six months, but I’m really not sure. I don’t remember too many problems, although there’s always that one bug that can’t be found for weeks. Then you think it’s never going to be found, but you always get there. You just have to keep going. Plus it was a pain having to design screen layouts for two versions - I actually think that the 16bit version looks a bit sparse compared to the 8bit version.
RGG: Codemasters are known for holding the copyright to all of the games they published for future re-releases, Slightly Magic is something you control, what’s the story there captain?
Colin: Oh yes. I just asked for things, then and now. And due to kindness, foresight and a general sense of decency, both then and now, I find myself in the not-too-shabby position of being reunited with my long-lost wizard-elf, Slightly.
RGG: For those living under a rock for all these years tell us the story of Slightly Magic, what’s the game about and how does it play?
Colin: Slightly Magic is a fun game, but also quite difficult. It’s an arcade-adventure with run-dodge-pickup-drop-cast spells and shape shifting elements. Very simple to pick up and rewarding. A bit of a challenge to finish, though.
Slightly is the Wizard’s nephew, who due an unlikely combination of events has been left alone in the Wizard’s laboratory with the spell book and magic wand just out of reach. It’s just got some really fun and interesting elements. Still looks good now. I was playing it all day at the Wales Developers Show last Friday, and I was very heartened to see the reaction of some of the younger developers. I think it just has a certain charm.
RGG: Fast forward to the present day and you are preparing the world for a new release from this I.P. What made you decide now was the time to re-visit this iconic game?
Colin: When I was reunited with Slightly I took a deep breath and a look at all the versions of the original game. What I realised was that I was extremely fond of the 8bit version. I thought in particular that the graphics and layouts were pretty much spot on. But there were also a couple of things in the original version which I wanted to correct. So why not do a definitive ‘Legacy Edition’ of Slightly Magic, I thought, before moving on to finally complete my original plan of a trilogy?
Cue a Kickstarter project, two months of nervous exhaustion, and in the end an inconclusive verdict and no money...
Remakes are great, here's some proof!
RGG: How was your Kickstarter experience, what would your advice be to people going down this route for funding? Also do you have any of those I saved Slightly T-Shirts left and can we beg for one????
Colin: I found it exhilarating, but tiring and more than a little confusing. I’d recommend it to anyone with a decent idea. You get a shed load of feedback, too.
I found out that Slightly Magic was still very fondly remembered, but that everyone thought I should do different things with the game. I also had a good number of backers, but ultimately fell short of the target. So the t-shirts are still on ice, unfortunately. Being the idealistic fool that I am, I of course ignored the failure and went ahead with the archival-quality re-programming anyway.
RGG: When can the fans expect to be playing your new game and what should we expect, promote away my good fellow.
Colin: He’s back! Whoohoo! Put the cat out mother and shoot the cow!
Ahem, sorry about that, but Slightly Magic is now back on most formats and locations. Which is flipping amazing, as far as I’m concerned. Now I just have to hope that enough people buy it, although there are free versions on all platforms too, so that no-one gets hurt.
RGG: Potassium Frog is the name of you Dev studio, great name by the way. What else will you be focussing on moving forward, can we ever expect to see a Rockstar 2????? Think of all those boy bands you could rip to shreds.
Colin: All boy bands eventually disappear into the quicksand of mediocrity, only to attempt a comeback decades later in a celebrity deathmatch desperation contest. It’s one of nature’s unwritten laws. They do themselves far more damage than I ever could. So targets change. But I do think that there’s a space somewhere for a vitriolic attack on… ah, we’ll see.
RGG: Do you feel that more attention needs to be focused on the UK 80’s gaming scene in the world of retro, do you feel that the consoles get all the glory?
Colin: Yes, I do. It’s quite difficult for me to look back with any sense of perspective. What I do see, though, is that we had something quite unique in the UK, both in terms of machines and styles. We should make the effort to try and preserve as much of the look and feel of the UK games of the time as possible, while still moving on with new stuff too, I have to add.
RGG: What are some of your fondest memories from that era, what was it like to be a part of it all and what stories can you tell us about working with Codemasters?
Colin: Fond memories, oh crikey. Loads of stuff. My first visit to Automata, the trade shows. Seeing the magnificent way that Codemasters was run, almost organically. The press launch for Grange Hill, the royalty cheques. Me, getting royalty cheques. It was honestly a blast, but a lot of work. I think I lost most of Christmas one year, maybe two actually.
What does a Wizard really keep under that hat?
RGG: Who are your heroes? Who’s work do you admire and why?
Colin: If I’m talking about games there are a few people whose work I think was staggering. Sandy White’s 3D Ant Attack, Matthew Smith’s Manic Miner. Mel Croucher and Christian Penfold’s Pimania. And then Mel goes and completely shifts reality with Deus Ex Machina. It just couldn’t be done, until these people did it.
I think that was one of the strengths of the UK games scene, we just didn’t know that we couldn’t do what we were doing.
RGG: Phil Collins, Kylie Minogue and the rest of the Rockstar crew rock up at your house and code-nap you (admit it you love the pun) they whisk you away to a secret location possibly even back in time and tell you the only way you can return home is by choosing your top 5 games of all time. How would you respond to this, what games would you choose and why?
Space Invaders - because it was my first time
Manic Miner - because it was too much fun
Any Dizzy game - just because they’re so professional and playable
Deus Ex Machina (even though I worked on 2 versions) - because it was the game which blew my mind
3D Ant Attack - because I couldn’t stop playing it
RGG: People should play retro games because…
Colin: Erm… Well there’s not much on TV, it’s part of our heritage, they were as creative as punk rock but now largely ignored and forgotten. But don’t get me started.
RGG: Megatron is a collector of Codemasters games and loves yours to bit’s, he even awarded Rockstar a 8/10 on RGG’s website, Have you read this review and do you have any memorabilia you could show him of your work to blow his mind?
Colin: ‘Games like this don’t exist much now’. How true. Memorabilia? Oh, does anyone remember Rock Star Goes Bizarre? Codemasters produced a special edition where we replaced all references to the Stun newspaper with the actual Sun. The Sun ran a competition.
RGG: It’s the standard question we have to ask, Mario or Sonic and why?
Colin: DIY - Mario. Wardrobe advice - Sonic.
RGG: We always like to give a moment to our interviewees to say something that’s on their mind or to cover something we missed, this is your special moment, what do you wish we would have asked you or what would you like to highlight/talk about.
Colin: Yes, it’s been interesting coming back into the industry. There seems to be a genuine yearning for creativity. People are spending the GDP of a small country on development and they’re coming up with, well mediocrity, with a few notable exceptions.
RGG: Could you list us 5 things better about retro gaming than modern console gaming?
Colin: Probably not. Nothing’s inherently better than anything else. I’d love to see some modern indie games entering the consciousness of a generation, but I fear that particular bus might have broken down.
I suppose you’re closer to the source with Retro games. A certain innocence, maybe. More of a chance for a single individual to vent their creativity. Because everything was new.
RGG: We hope you enjoyed speaking to us, hopefully at least like 3 or 4 of the questions were ok and didn’t utterly suck, would you speak to us again down the road, maybe even allow us to review the new game due this month? Spoiler: Megatron will probably give it 52 out of 10.
Colin: Certainly. I think there’ll be a few interesting bits to come. Another retro remake is planned, and I do have the Slightly Trilogy to finish. Plus a host of new stuff. Retro and Indie, but not always at the same time.
RetroGameGeeks Final Thoughts...
It's hard to put a lifetime into 20 or so questions, it's even harder to speak to one of your childhood heroes and narrow all those things you wanted to ask down to such a number, I think I did ok. I think we can all agree though that Colin did brilliant. Like everything else he does.
I'm not talking about the interview here although he nailed it, I'm talking about sitting in front of a computer screen and turning letters and numbers into lifetime memories and experiences, how does a person do that? Where does it come from? Can you learn this or is it something that is just inside you waiting to get out?
As I write to people asking for interviews some of the responses I get are really nice, I quite often have people like Colin say things like 'Thank You' for liking the games they made and It just blows me away. The down to earth humility and humble attitude is a sign of a different era and gaming scene, it's just the best thing about doing this website.
For Mr Jones much like I say to all people who make the games we play and love please realise that the people we are today, the standards we set for what makes a good videogame were bars put in place by your work. As a teenager playing RockStar and Slightly gave me moments of laughter and joy that as a adult I know I have pinpoint clarity and defined memories of. I used to have conversations about the song names I picked for Rockstar and to this day can't work out how to get that 4th disc to complete it.
If Blackadder, The Young Ones and Not the Nine O Clock News defined a generation of TV watchers then you sir helped to establish people like me into the proud geek I am today, your work had real impact on me then that still draws a cheeky smile in 2014, that's impossible to be anything less than mind blowing. So please let me break from usual protocol on these interviews to take the time to publicly say on my behalf and for all those classroom nerds who's voices for this particular second I shall champion to say the important words... No sir, Thank YOU!
For the younger crowd reading this and for the people around the world who never knew the joys of the Spectrum, Amiga etc do yourself a favour and go and check out the games talked about here today. Whilst I'm on the subject go and give Slightly Magic Legacy edition a play as well. This is how I was raised, these games were my generations eye opening, jaw dropping moments of disbelief and wonder.
It could easily take a lifetime of conversations to pick this man's brain and see what makes him tick, what gives him that special something to tap keys and produce art. Unfortunately RGG doesn't have that much time to keep pestering him plus at some point he must get on with new projects but with luck this will give some people the opportunity to discover new retro games to explore and that's what this is all about after all.
Find, play, love then share. There's nothing 'slightly' here at all people, it's all total magic. Colin Jones my man, please take a bow Sir!