Struck by a 'Smooth Criminal'
It has to be said and to be honest it's been spoken elsewhere on the website but to surprise one of the RGG editors (Megatron's_Fury) is a rare thing, Count this as one such time. He's very happy about it by the way in case you are wondering...
Out of nowhere one cloudy & rainy Autumn morning came an E-mail that contained two interviews for a very famous game about an even more famous film by a legendary artist who sadly left us all too early.
Welcome to the tale of how 'MOONWALKER' was made on the home computers. It's time to dance!
When being 'Bad' meant being so very... very good!
We all know about the Arcade game of course, if you went anywhere near a holiday camp or seaside in the 1990's you saw it somewhere in a corner pumping out the classic hits and taking all your money.
The Sega Megadrive/Genesis game was also home to a simply brilliant version that although totally different to the Coin-op was still loved by fans then as well as now, after all it is simply astounding. But what about the often forgotten home computer versions published by a certain US GOLD. Everyone seems to have forgotten that version.
With this in mind RGG Team Member 'DJ SLOPES' has taken it upon himself to go and have a detailed look at this cult classic from the Speccy, Amstrad. C64, Amiga and Atari ST day's in his new video. On top of that however he went in search of the creators and found two of them who nicely spilled the beans on it's development.
Time to grab your crotch, stand on your toes and scream... Michael!
Starting with 'The Man in the Mirror'...
RGG: Hi there sexy. Many thanks for taking the time to be interviewed, Please introduce yourself?
DAMIAN: Hi my name is Damian Scattergood, I worked for Emerald software Ltd and I was the Lead Z80 Programmer on the game Moonwalker.
RGG: How long did you have to make the game & how many people worked on Moonwalker?
DAMIAN: I was the only programmer on the spectrum and Amstrad versions. I was responsible was programming the Spectrum and Amstrad versions of the game. Both computers used Z80 chips. Emerald had a single programmer on each version 1 for Amiga, 1 for PC and me for Z80 machines. We had a team of graphic artists working on the various formats (about 4 as far as I can remember). Everything was designed on the Amiga first.
RGG: What was the budget and was that a lot for the time?
DAMIAN: No idea what the financial budget was. We just coded night and day. Sometimes we stayed in the office for days on end. 12+ hour days where common. We had about 4 months as far as I can remember to code the game.
RGG: Using such limited hardware, were there any challenges that you or your team faced?
DAMIAN: Absolutely loads. If you think the Amiga had almost 10 times more memory than the spectrum – whatever graphics sound and animations we did had to be reduced10 fold. They had 512mb RAM, we had 48! I’d developed some really smart ways to compressing graphics so I could store an amazing amount of data. For example we only stored sprites facing in one direction and they had a flag to flip the images around as needed. That’s a 50% reduction already.
Quality was paramount for this game.
Micheal Jackson’s people had instructed us that graphics had to be brilliant, so we had to be really smart in storing masses of graphics in such out 48k Speccy Ram!. They also wanted “All the music” – not just a few nice snippets. So we had to store lots of music. I had already developed my own macro system for programming and handling sprites – so this really helped. I could have 64 moving objects on the screen at any one time without the system slowing down noticeably.
RGG: The game was ported to several different home systems at the time of release; what version did you make the game for originally & was it easy to port to other systems?
DAMIAN: The company designed the game plan on Amiga first and all the other systems worked off this. Each version released was an original in their own rights. We had a very smart coding system on the PC from a company called PCS.
This allowed you to write all your code on a PC (which was fast and easy to use). You would then compile the code to Z80 native code for the Spectrum or Amstrad and then squirt the code into the Spectrum across an RS232 connection. Then the game would be tested on the speccy.
One of the smart things I did for a previous game was to right a complete macro language that actually read like English – but would write Z80 out for either Amstrad or Spectrum. The Spectrum and Amstrad machines are almost identical – but the screen drivers are completely different. So I just had to switch in a different set of libraries I had coded to make any Spectrum game run on the Amstrad. This would take less than a week for me to do.
RGG: Did you or your company have any dealings/meetings with Michael Jackson and did he have any input into the game you made?
DAMIAN: We didn’t get to deal with his people directly unfortunately. Most of the communication was done via Mike and his team in US Gold. At the start of the project we did have to sign Non-disclosure agreements with their lawyers.
This gave us access to the original script for the film which was amazing to see. Imagine having an original script in your hands and you could see some of their notes and rough drawings! We had a design party one weekend – where we all came to the office to work – drink coke, eat pizza and come up with a game design. Most of what we came up with that weekend finished up in the final game. We sent the design to Jacksons team to approve it.
We felt their influence though. We were under pressure to deliver a very high quality product.
For the music after we coded everything up the said the different versions of (Amiga/Amstrad/Speccy) where playing the music at different speeds and this wasn’t acceptable. So I had one of the team from US Gold fly over and sit beside us through every piece of music with a stopwatch to make sure all our music was retimed correctly!.
On the chase level of the game where you pick up pieces of the rabbit costume the original large graphic of Michael on the right hand side had Michael on the balls of his feet. There was a meltdown when the US guys saw this. Michael standing on the tips of his toes was his trademark move – so every single graphic had to be redrawn to ensure this was clearly visible. Look at the images and you’ll see the work we did!
Why 'I just can't stop loving you'...
RGG: Were you and your team happy with the finished final product?
DAMIAN: Yes we were. Firstly we had just delivered a product for the greatest living pop star, if not of all time (between him and Elvis). I was a huge fan and had all his albums at the time – so it was a dream come true for me.
The game was the very best we could have produced. We put our hearts and souls into it.
There are a few areas we would have liked to improve, in the case scenes having more character movement and more music and animation - however we packed an amazing amount of code into the spectrum for the time. Looking back at the game now, I could have made some of the scrolling smoother and speeded up the gameplay- but at the time we pushed the spectrum to the limits of its ability (and ours I suppose)
RGG: There are 4 main stages to the Moonwalker game, were there any stages that did not make the cut and if so did they ever get as far being made or partially made? (If you have any proof or screenshots etc on anything that did not make the game, that would be very much appreciated)
DAMIAN: The only thing that got dropped on the Z80 versions was some of the animation sequences between levels. The graphic animations the guys did on the Amiga where just amazing but too big even to consider coding on a Spectrum. We managed to get nearly everything else in.
RGG: Music is obviously a big part of the game, was it nerve-racking to try to copy such a legendary musician's work on such limited hardware?
DAMIAN: Yes, and just to be clear Yes!.
The challenge was easy – just take the best music in the world produced in a multimillion dollar studio by the best artist in the world and break it down into beeps and tweets for the spectrum. We put the same level of care of attention to the music as we did to the graphics in the game. I’d say that would probably have been a first in the industry at that time. We knew every Jackson fan would be expecting to hear brilliant Jackson music. I had to write new code to play all the music in time and to a higher level than we had ever done.
RGG: After playing the final product was there anything different you wish you or your team could have changed about the game?
DAMIAN: Maybe to make it bigger. Michael was such a flamboyant character we wanted to add it lots of amazing graphics, animations, sound, glitter etc. It you think of the graphics and flash animation of the games today – that’s the dream we had for this. If you think of what ‘Thriller’ did for video – that’s what we wanted to do for Moonwalker – but we had limited RAM.
RGG: Your version of the game came out less than a year before the Sega games came out, surely both games were being worked on at the same time; was this a worry for Emerald, did you guys even know this was happening?
DAMIAN: We actually didn’t know it was going on. It would have been fun to know though as it would have created some great competition between the teams.
RGG: What other games are you known for and are you still making them?
DAMIAN: I had a number of hits around this time. With Emerald I developed Vigilante (Spectrum/Amstrad) – which was a top 5 game in UK. I loved playing this game as it was a great arcade game.
I also developed “The Deep” another arcade conversion which did really well. I have to also say a big shout to Mark Cushen as well. Mark was the graphics designer for most of my Spectrum games with Emerald. We made a great team. As Z80 head I also made contributions to other games like “The Running Man” from the Arnold Swarzenegger file. Jonathan Broggy did the code, and I created the music and sound system for him.
After leaving Emerald I was a freelance programmer for a few years and also worked with Alternative Games in the UK, My most famous and still brilliant game was “SuperTed” –“The Search for Spot”. Aimed at the younger market it was brilliant fun to work on. I also wrote for a number of the magazines at the time. Your Sinclair, Sinclair User, Amstrad Action. I wrote how-to articles for new z80 game programmers. I also produced a couple of cover tape games - Your Sinclair – called YS Capers and Surface Tension for Crash.
Nowadays I’m a director of a couple of companies. My primary role is I’m the managing director of STAR Translation Services (http://www.star-ts.com). We’re one of the largest translation companies in the world and we translate manuals, website and videos into over 50 languages. So whilst I’m in the corporate world – I still get to use my video and animation skills from time to time. I’m also a director of ‘MemberGRIP’ that develops membership management software and serve on the board of Genesis Psychotherapy, a local community counselling service. I’ve always been interested in Psychology and helping my community where I can.
I’m considering getting back into the games business – so watch this space.
'The way you make me feel' when I see your sprites...
RGG: Hi buddy, Firstly could you introduce yourself and what your job title was on the game.
JERR: My name is Jerr OCarroll, long in the tooth game maker, and I was simply an artist animator back when we made this game. This is a long time ago, and roles in studios aren't as defined as they are nowadays.
RGG: Looking at your current work I think its safe to say that you worked on the cut scenes that show up between the 4 stages, Is this true? What else did you work on?
JERR: Honestly, it's a blur now, I know I was responsible for the animations, in game and cut scenes, and I might've helped out on the backgrounds here and there. We all mucked in on the design, throwing ideas around until we found something we liked.
RGG: What was your deadline? How long did you have to work on this?
JERR: It was quite short, certainly by today's standards. I remember seeing the film before launch, and we all sat back wondering what the hell we were going to do with that! But we just did it. This was back in the infancy if games really, we were all learning as we went along, not just art wise, but production as well.
RGG: What was the approval process? In other words did any of your work need to be OK'd by the king of pop himself?
JERR: Art work and designs were sent off for approval, but I'm guessing it was agents and producers etc on their side if the pond that saw stuff, if he had a look, I honestly couldn't tell you. We never got a phone call from him, so...!
RGG: Moonwalker is such a crazy film with so many different things going on, was there any ideas you guys had that didn't make the final game?
JERR: I'm sure there were. But for most of us it was our first jobs, and to be honest we were winging it. I'd come from a large animation studio called Don Bluth’s and started there not really knowing much about games, what made them really playable, I just wanted to draw! I know I'm leaving myself wide open for the obvious, 'yeah, see what you mean there mate!' comments, but it's true.
Nowadays there's a huge wealth of experience in game dev that just wasn't there at that stage. It was just too early.
RGG: You was obviously working on some very limited hardware at the time, was there any big changes that had to be made in order to complete the work?
JERR: Spectrum was fun, Mr Scattergood will tell you all about that! We mostly worked on Amiga’s and Atari ST’s, I can remember getting a 1mg expansion box that plugged in the side if the Amiga, it was the size of a brick! And the first pc’s when they came out only had 4 colours. "These will never catch on," I used to mutter wisely to myself!
RGG: I personally loved the game, was you and your team happy with the result?
JERR: I guess, looking back it's dated and not one of the best known of games from that period, but there was a buzz that we were working on a huge licence at the time. We did The Running Man game around the same time, which had a similar set up. I guess overall we were, but as soon as it was done, the next one started, so your concentration goes to that.
RGG: What about Michael? Do you know if he was happy with the game you guys made?
JERR: I've no idea. If he popped into the offices to say he liked it, I wasn't there at the time!
RGG: Is there anything you wish you could have changed about the game after seeing the final product?
JERR: The top down chase sequence could have been so much better. But looking back with rose tinted spectacles, it's easy to see now how it could have looked.
RGG: And finally, what else have you worked on and what should people be looking out for?
JERR: I stayed in games, moved to the UK 20 odd years ago, and been lucky to work on some cool and interesting games. Did lots of Amiga games before 3D arrived and was involved with Tomb Raider at Core Design, some of the Worms games at Team 17.
I Recently worked on the mobile version of Call of Duty: Strike Team, before setting up with a couple of other guys a small dev team called Mars On A Stick. We're just about to release our first games on iOS / android and we'll see what happens next.
RetroGameGeeks Final Thoughts...
So there we have it folks! A game that is in fact 3 completely different titles over a whole multitude of different formats, confusing maybe, interesting? Most definitely!
As we mentioned earlier the bulk of the releases were made under the template we see here in this Portal interview which is why it's even more surprising that still to this day the home computer versions are so often ignored in favour of the Arcade and insanely popular Megadrive/Genesis title.
When you look into this even more you find that of the three different games it's this one that stands out the most because unlike the other two it simply has more variety and depth to it. It's a top down, side scrolling action adventure in one moment then the next you are on a motorike, in a speedboat. How awesome! Later it's just as strange as the film it's based on but always the home computer version is the one that whilst not first in most retrogamers minds is the one that absolutely causes the most discussion.
Maybe some of you reading this have heard of the term 'marmite game' this means it splits opinion right down the middle and for this I count it as another reason to stand up and applaud the final product, this game does indeed generate passion and memories and at the same time conversation.
For me this is a class game through and through, it was both ambitious and cool when it first came out and now I look back on it post interview it still manages to ooze class, some of the tricks Damian got out of the Spectrum especially means it's about time someone gave that guy a medal! The fact he Jerr and another person i'm about to talk about were so friendly and giving of their time for the interview is also something that highlights the love and passion that went into making this videogame.
When you check out the Amiga intro on the video to the left you will see the famous moonwalk Michael was most known for in superb animation form, this was the work of one Clare Scott who I was also extremely fortunate to speak too regarding her input into the product. She told me how as an artist she constantly fought (in nice ways of course) with the programmers for memory to make her work truly shine. If she needed 16 colours they would say 4 and then meet in the middle but i'm sure you will all agree that the compromise was a perfect one because her art is simply breathtaking. The loud guitar/keyboard sound at the end also makes this writers pants get happy so it's high 5's all round.
As I sit here wondering how to finish this passage off the fingers connect once more to the heart and a knock at the door from my brain fill me with a two pronged tidalwave of pure retro nostalgia. Those warm and fuzzy memories of a childhood made better because games like this existed, because people like Damian, Jerr and Clare took a dream, worked hard and made it a reality and they did it all for me, for you... For all of us.
How do you give something back to these folk, how do you show them that what they did had real and lasting impact not just on a scene but on people themselves. so much so in fact that decades after a few of them would get together and form a group of their own simply to talk about the things that made them the gamers and adults they would eventually become. You see you didn't just make a game, you made memories and these are the things that live forever. When we all pass on it's the work that remains, it's that which makes us all immortal and whilst that may sound like a huge and almost impossible statement to quantify if you just take a look back and see how we got here today logic dictates that right now a whole new generation is ready to learn and experience things for themselves. The batton is always changing hands but it's always moving forward and will always be looked after.
Michael himself knew the power of immagination, dreams and the hard work to see them realised, his legacy that will go on is helped in part by those who worked to make his brand, his image, his work reach millions. That's what the 3 people spoken about here today have done. To the outsider they made a videogame, for us true believers we see the truth, they helped make HIStory.
- DJ Slope