17 articles Articles posted in Writing

The Unbuilt Room at the Science Museum

unbuiltroomHere’s a blog post I wrote about The Unbuilt Room for the Science Museum’s blog: a kind of real-life text adventure created by Seth Kriebel. It’s a surprisingly captivating and unnerving experience, and it made me want to run off and play Fantasia Diamond all over again.

The making of the Nintendo DS (NGC magazine)

Nintendo DSImage by FHKE

Here’s an odd little magazine feature of mine I’d forgotten about. It was part of the Making Of… retrospective series I wrote regularly for NGC magazine – but, unusually, it’s about a hardware system rather than a game. It was published in January 2005, about a year after the Nintendo DS was announced and a few months after it hit the shops.

1.2 million sales by December means gamers love the Nintendo DS. But what do the people who make the games think? NGC peeks behind the scenes to find out.

It was January 20th last year when Nintendo finally stopped teasing us about an “unconventional new hardware project”, and formally announced the Nintendo DS. It was quite the big announcement – but not half as eye-opening as watching Americans skipping out of stores with a carrier bag full of finished console, just ten months later.

That’s fast. Almost too fast, in fact, for the people meant to be bringing you twin-screened, stylused-up games. It’s easy to imagine that, long before that January press release, Nintendo were whispering secrets into the trembling ears of developers and freely handing out the kit needed to get started on DS games. But the special shield of secrecy was working overtime on DS – as Ruud van de Moosdijk of DS developers Engine Software recalls.

“We knew something was going on,” he says. “Nintendo of America send everyone a regular mail that keeps us informed when they’re working on something. But concrete information on Nintendo DS? Somehow, the press got it earlier than we did.” Another coder moans that, before January, “we didn’t even know it was a handheld console”.

Of course, not everyone outside Nintendo HQ was kept in the dark. Two or three of Nintendo’s “favoured” friends were probably working on DS back in 2003. It’s easy to guess who from the video of impressed coders – EA, Sega, Square, Konami – that Nintendo showed at May 2004’s E3 expo. But whoever the privileged few were, they must have been let in on the secret early – or those American shoppers would have been staring at empty game shelves. “Based on when we received the kit, there’s no way we would have been able to develop a DS game in time for launch,” says Ruud. “Impossible.”

Ruud was actually one of the lucky ones, bagging a DS dev kit – the raw guts of a DS, used to actually make the games – just after E3 in May. “I understand from my fellow developers that it was quite tough at the time to get one,” he says. It still is: most of the developers we rang in early December were still waiting for theirs. One was jumping up and down because the customs people had locked up his DS for a week-and-a-half; another had no dev kit, but a meaty deduction from his credit card account by Nintendo all the same.

Those that have kicked off work on DS, though, are impressed. They might not like the look of the console (“It’s like that old GBA,” one coder spat), but they’re impressed. “We were quite surprised as we expected it to be less powerful than we originally thought,” says Mark Crane at Pocketeers, an official DS developer from the UK. Playing around with DS, he’s found that 3D games will be much faster and more detailed than he expected. “It’s easier developing for DS than Game Boy Advance,” he says.

Nintendo has a special website for DS developers – and by May last year, hidden behind the site’s password-heavy security obsessiveness, its forums were filling up with comments from happy developers. “Everyone was very active exploring DS,” says Ruud at Engine. “We were all experimenting and having fun with the touch screen – some in ways that are too rude for me to describe. And a lot of people were starting to think again. For the last couple of years, we’ve had too many copycat games. With DS, Nintendo is clearly saying: you have to really think about how to make a good game with this system. The chain of effects it’s having on developers is very positive, I think.”

In fact, when big Reggie told us in May that DS stands for “Developer’s System”, his big roaring mouth wasn’t lying. Not just because the twin screens, fancy stylus and wi-fi magic are setting coders’ brains alight with sparks of idea-electric. But also because Nintendo are being much nicer than usual to the world’s games people.

“I’ve worked with Nintendo for a while now,” says Damir Slogar at Big Blue Bubble, a Canadian developer working on a DS game for release in 2006. “And this time, they’re doing a lot of the stuff they missed with GBA. Take the development kit itself: the Game Boy Advance kit was very limited and problematic, but the DS one is much better. Not to mention the price. The initial price for a GBA dev kit was really, really high. The DS kits are very reasonably priced.”

The reason for Nintendo’s new nice-as-pie attitude is simple: without friendly developers, this risky new handheld would be finished before you’d even put in your order at Argos. But the smiles and beckoning waves from The Big N still surprised people like Ed Magnin, a veteran Texas coder who had a surprise drop through his letterbox last summer.

“I was invited to a DS developer conference in Santa Monica in September,” he says. “I’ve been an authorised developer for previous consoles and, usually, they invite the publishers. They don’t invite you. With this one, I hadn’t even been asked about developing for DS – and yet I still got the invitation. And there were a *lot* of people there. People flew in from all over the world. Reginald Fils-Aime got up and gave a talk to us about how Nintendo ‘gets it’ this time – and they had dev kits there complete with a price list and everything.”

You can’t please all the developers all of the time, though – see the bit on programming problems elsewhere on these pages. And certain areas of DS’s insides are “not very well designed,” says an anonymous coder. “But then we’re working with very low-priced materials,” he concedes. “If something doesn’t work quite as well as I’d like in order to make DS cheaper – well, I can live with that.”

And the publishers? Given their excitement, Nintendo might as well have called it the ‘PS’.

“Publishers are very, very excited,” says Damir at Big Blue Bubble. “A couple of years ago, they were very cautious about new consoles like Gamecube – they didn’t know if they should dive into development or not. It was very hard to get a contract to make a game back them. Now, with DS, it’s a lot easier. The publishers really believe that DS will be as big a success as Game Boy Advance.”

It helps that Nintendo have cut down the slice of money that they demand from every cartridge sold – one of the biggest complaints about developing for Game Boy Advance. You still need a bigish team to take advantage of DS’s 3D frippery – a band of six people working for nine months on a top GBA game becomes ten people and a full year on DS. But with publishers throwing their moneybags around, all the big names are hopping on board the DS train. One coder even mentioned they’d seen evidence that *Grand Theft Auto* goliath Rockstar is beavering away on Nintendo DS right now.

But wait – what about Game Boy Advance? Lorie Clay, producer at Digital Eclipse – the people who brought you GTA on GBA – thinks there’s plenty of life left in it. “Nintendo has got an awful lot of Game Boy Advance systems out there,” she says. “By allowing DS to play Game Boy Advance carts, they’ve made it very easy for developers – if you develop a GBA game, you can still reach DS owners. I don’t think DS means the end of GBA.”

Maybe. But we repeatedly heard the words “switching development” from coding teams we spoke to. Over the last half year or so, developers have clearly been shifting people away from GBA as their DS dev kits arrive. Nintendo stresses that it doesn’t want its new double-screened baby to compete with its superstar handheld – but DS’s success with developers may be the very thing that eventually drains the life out of Game Boy.

Still, we’d rather have new ideas than another round of indentikit GBA platformers. “Of course, that’s the biggest problem with DS,” admits Ruud. “How the hell do I use those two screens and not make it look like I’ve just used them because they’re there? But that’s a good thing, too. We used to come up with a game idea first, then think about how to make it fit with a particular console’s technology – which joypad buttons to use, that sort of thing. But now, with DS, you have a touch screen, you have two screens… you actually start with the technology, and you have game ideas based around that.”

And according to him, it’s not the developers who are the biggest key to DS’s success – it’s you. “If people like your readers are enthusiastic about DS,” he says, “we developers go with them. Because we read everything. Remember that when you’re writing to a magazine or posting to an online forum about DS. Don’t think we don’t read it. We read *everything*.”


The new ideas that coders are cooking up in their big programming pots.

Ruud van de Moosdijk: “I think this will happen. DS will connect with your PC in the same way that Gamecube connects with GBA. Imagine a free PC program that, say, uploads your times from a racing game and sends it to the developer so they can create a live, constantly updated high-score table.”

Ruud van de Moosdijk again: “The wireless function is fine for multiplayer, so I hope coders avoid using the online capabilities only for battling and racing. They’ve got the potential to create a huge community, by offering the ability to simply go their website and download new stuff straight to your DS.”

Damir at Big Blue Bubble: “I don’t think any of the developers have had a DS or a development kit long enough to develop something that is really specifically developed for DS and its potential. The games out now are quite good, but far away from what you can expect a year from now.”

Mr Anonymous Developer: “I’ve seen demos that demonstrate some very nice uses for the drag and drop’ feature of the touch screen – sliding objects around the screen with the stylus. The potential comes from the screen being made for kids, so you can really scratch it with the stylus.”


Developers want to get up close and personal with DS’s insides.

In July, news broke that some coders were unhappy that Nintendo had made one the chips inside DS ‘off-limits’ to coders. Basically, the ‘ARM7’ chip – responsible for controlling Nintendo DS’s sound, touch screen and wireless functions – is impossible to use as intricately as developers would like. Coders like Ruud van de Moosdijk at Engine would rather it were different.

“It’s still very much possible to create a great game on DS – that’s not the problem,” he says. “But if you want to do really, really amazing stuff, or write your own music player, it’s impossible. I hope they change their approach. If they’re doing it from a commercial point of view – they intend to make money by selling us tools that can access the chip – they won’t change it. If they’re doing it from a security point of view – they wanted to stop us knowing too much before the DS was launched – maybe it’ll change. A lot of people have actually been moaning about this on the Nintendo developer forums, so I’m hoping the pressure will help them change their minds.”

The Making Of Super Mario 64 – full Giles Goddard interview (NGC)

Seeing as it’s Mario’s 25th birthday and all that, seems like a good time for this!

This is the unpublished, unedited version of a 2001 interview with Nintendo coder Giles Goddard about the making of the N64’s Super Mario 64. Parts of this appeared in NGC magazine (that article is referenced on the Super Mario 64 Wikipedia page), but this much bigger version has lots of juicy behind-the-scenes ’90s-era Nintendo stuff that didn’t make it into the article.

The notes are a bit rough. And the ‘questions’ are all guesses as to what I originally asked – for some reason I didn’t keep a record of what I actually asked at the time. Fool!

What was your official job title?
I can’t remember what my official title was, but I think I was front-end programmer or something like that. I basically just did the Mario face. It was supposed to be something like it was loading – even though it wasn’t on CD there was still lots of stuff going on in the background, sorting itself out.

How many people were on the Super Mario 64 team?
Probably about 15 people in the end. Probably not as many as people think. But then again there was some other people doing stuff behind the scenes. Compared with Zelda [Ocarina Of Time], it was a very small team.

What was the Nintendo office like?
It was an open-plan office, but everybody had their own little cubicle. Depending on what projects they’re working on, they shift around. It is all open plan, in as much as you have rows of people sitting there working. But then where’s there a project going on, the core team would basically grab hold of these programmers and artists around them, and you’d get the Super Mario group expanding outwards from the centre.

I think at that time the artists and the programmers were actually separated out, so you had an artist group and a programmer group. I was actually right behind the Mario programmers team who were working with SGI on the N64 APIs and stuff. That part was quite small, so you could stand up and shout at someone who was working on Wave Race just away from someone working on Mario 64. Quite a good little set-up.

Was it a bustling office?
No talking! Particularly in Japanese companies, it’s very very quiet. Occasionally you’d get little groups of programmers or artists getting together for a chat, and somebody higher up would walk over and give them the eye, and they’d sit down and shut up. It’s nothing like English or US companies.

What kickstarted the Super Mario 64 project?
Well, obviously it was the first game, another Mario game was the most obvious game to do. It started way before there was any hardware, it started on these Onyx emulators, the old SGI Onyx. They had an N64 emulator, the first thing we got from SGI. It was an emulation of the API, not the hardware. At that time, Nishida-san – main programmer who started the entire project off – he was working on a GL and this emulator.

The emulator was quite close to the GL, so he had these little Mario characters running around on the Onyx, or API Indys later.

What role did Miyamoto play?
There was only 3 or 4 projects going on at EAD by that time, he was in charge of all of them. Three of those weren’t high priority, so he was 100% Mario 64, he was always there. Sitting down with a machine and playing with the various demos. One of the things he loved doing was just playing down with experiments.

That’s the way the Mario face came about. At the time, I was thinking of things to make that would show off what N64 could do. One of the things was real-time vertex calculations. In games, you usually have a fixed set of vertices that you simply move around in a matrix – you just move a shape around. We wanted to move around individual points, morph it. No games used it at the time, we didn’t know what to call it, so I named it meshes or something like that. I was playing around with this thing with a GL program on the Indy, playing around with this Mario face with an Indy cam, a cam you get with Indy – two ping-pong balls for a face. Miyamoto said: can you make a Mario face out of that for the N64?

It was one of the first games that let you play around before you’d even started – and I don’t think it was written anywhere in the manual that you could actually play around with Mario’s face. Another Nintendo secret!

So did Miyamoto start with Mario running around on his screen?
Usually that’s the first thing to go in, some kind of map system where the characters can figure out what height they are, the camera can figure out what it can see and how much it can see, figure out how to split up the scenery so it only draws as much as it needs to draw. That was the first thing, we were just playing around with Mario. He was wandering around a simple grid to start with, just picking stuff up, dropping stuff.

The animation was quite central to what he was doing. A lot of the animation was actually in there before any of the game. The Mario that Miyamoto had running around basically looked as he did in the final version.

The camera system was revolutionary for the time.
One of the reasons for that was the Miyamoto didn’t know how to extend the Super Mario Bros from the SNES. Wasn’t really sure how to give that same sort of Mario Bros feeling in 3D. Quite a few months were spent around just playing around with different camera views, animations, ways of looking at the map. At some point, the game had a fixed path, almost like an isometric type of look. That didn’t represent that much of a jump from the original 2D Mario.

There was a lot of criticism of the camera originally. At the time, Miyamoto thought the camera was really good – the way it tried to avoid the scenery. It was very well done – it was done by [Takumi] Kawagoe, who worked on Starfox 2 for the SNES, which got canned. He was a very very good programmer. I think his only job was the camera, so quite a major thing to do. He was there on the entire project – the whole time.

Your name is on some Nintendo patents.
There was a lot of stuff being patented. I think I had my name on one of them – something like 1080 or something like that, where you draw the background with a cube, rather than have a simple flat background. That was fair enough. SGI had a demo for GL a few years before that, I came up with a way of drawing bitmap information and colour information – so rather than just having a static view, you could rotate the camera around, you could also move objects into the background and they’d put themselves behind the other objects. I think they used it on Zelda [Ocarina Of Time]. So they patented it!

Half the patents that come out have been techniques that people have been using for years. The software patents just don’t work.

This was about the time that Sega patented using different 3D camera views in games. So, suddenly, halfway through the Super Mario 64 project, one of the people from downstairs came up and said you realise Sega has the patent on being able to switch cameras. Jaws dropped. We investigated whether we could use them and whether anything would happen. But there was also a patent on putting a 3D object on a bitmapped plane from a coin-op about 15-20 years ago.

[Asked something about Bowser levels]
The 2D Bowser levels weren’t really a result of that. I would imagine it mainly came about because you had a boss there, there’s a lot of Mario maps you can take various routes to get to the end, whereas this one you’ve gotta have a fixed route going on. You know where you stand – you know you can’t run off into a corner and find another exit. It might be nice to do that, but you’ve gotta meet that boss!

How quickly did the maps come together?
The 3D worlds formed quite quickly. Bob-Omb’s Battlefield was the first map developed. It can’t have been more than 6-7 months before it was ready and working, with enemies running around the map.

At that time, NCL hadn’t done a 3D game before, so no-one really knew what they were doing, to be honest. The artists didn’t really know how they should turn their Softimage objects into objects into the game. There was a lot of experimenting, a lot of improvisation going on. It was quite difficult to pinpoint when, where and how much Mario came into being.

Were you able to play with the N64 controller from the start?
The original Mario was running around with the keyboard, on the Onyx server. We had no controllers for six months, we had a simple serial port on the back of the emulator boards. The entire game was done with these Indy emulator boards, hardware boards basically emulating the N64. These serial ports – we plugged modified Sega controllers in – most of us were using these modified Sega joypads. We had various prototypes – there were lots of them, probably at least 100 prototypes, mostly based around the central stick, how that moved, how well it moved, what shape the thing around it should be – it ended up seven-sided, but we tried many, circles etc.

Was Mario 64 designed around the controller?
The first time Miyamoto played with the controller, because he’s working most of the time on Mario 64, he would have seen Mario 64 with it. It wasn’t so much that controller dictated Mario 64, it was just that was the game he was working on. Mario was the way of testing it out. Probably more the other way around.

The actual movement of Mario came from the N64 controller, the way you move the central stick. There was a lot of thought about how the camera moved with the yellow buttons – I don’t think Miyamoto even liked them. I remember talking to him a couple of years ago, he said it’d have been better to have two D-pads, it would’ve been a better balance to have the same on the left and the right.

How much thought went into Mario’s movement?
99% of the game is concerned with that. most of Miyamoto’s time is spent on that, and the movement of the camera. The majority of the other characters and animation are done with Yamada-san and [inaudible], these design the movement of the bosses and the levels and so on, whereas Miyamoto just stands in the background, obviously making suggestions. But his main job is to sit down with the programmers and play with controls and camera and shape the way that the way the game *feels*. That is fundamental to the entire game.

Was the camera system a lot of work?
I think this probably went through 1000s of different systems – having it locked, having it moving, having it locked again, player could control it 100%, etc. That was one of the problems – Miyamoto wasn’t sure how to control the camera in 3D as he hadn’t worked with them before, so it went through with various stages, being controlled by the different stages.

How does the Super Mario Club testing team work?
The way that Super Mario Club is set up its like a hobbyist club, it’s gamers, so its a snapshot of your target audience in-house. So you did get a bit of feedback towards the end – is this too hard, etc. That might have changed now, but back then you didn’t get any ongoing feedback.

Do you think Mario 64 was too easy in retrospect?
Gamecube games are really tough – that’s mainly because Nintendo have realised that people are more accustomed to 3D now, either that or Nintendo is more used to 3D. Because they’ve been doing 3D for five years now.

Was much changed during development?
Apart from the number of polygons use, the characters were first-off – once they were designed, they went straight into the game. There wasn’t really a lot of changing, artists just kept supplying stuff that just got put in the game, conveyor-belt style. That was more or less because of a very, very tight deadline – it had to be out right when the N64 came out.

Was the N64 delayed to give time for Super Mario 64 to be finished?
N64 wasn’t delayed because of software. Whatever rumours you believe – some games had problems with the final lock check, which might have caused slight delays, but not the big delays that the N64 went through.

They have a very good project management system – the director spends most of his time thinking what needs to be done when, and by who. He’ll go and talk to people and go off and do it, and they’ll supply feedback and say whether schedules need changing. There was a definite someone supposed to be doing something at a certain time. Because NCL have these directors whose main job is to organise stuff, you’re allowed a certain amount of leeway, so you can go to them and request 2 or 3 weeks for what you’re working on. That was one good thing about EAD work – they appreciated that projects were dynamic like that, not saying here’s your schedule stick to it. So, fairly relaxed – but as you’re Nintendo, you’re setting an example to all the other developers, that was quite a bit of pressure.

Do you remember the reaction to Mario 64 first being shown at Shoshinkai [1995 Nintendo consumer show]?
I can’t remember. There was a lot of attention to the way the camera moved, and Mario walking around wherever he looked. That was what public drew most attention, too – a whole new outlook on games. That was the main buzz. It was something so much graphic-wise, just the moving around.

Did the positive reaction at Shoshinkai bolster the team?
Being a Japanese company, you get very shielded from any external feedback or anything. I don’t think anyone from the Mario team actually went to Shoshinkai. That’s mainly because Nintendo are very secretive, they don’t like giving out too much info, they don’t like doing it the other way, they don’t like giving inside people access to the outside. Even now, you can’t get internet access inside the building.

They have their own set ways that work. There’s no point changing them.

[Asked something about graphics]
The thing about the N64 was that it wasn’t particularly fast. SGI said that the ‘quality of our pixels are much better than anyone else’s’. Not a lot of people got that – for every pixel it drew, it put a lot of time and effort into it. They were nice pixels. Nicely-textured, nicely-coloured, nicely-lit, nicely anti-aliased. The PlayStation, speed-wise it was much faster, but the pixels were dreadful, there was no texturing, anti-aliasing. Blindingly fast, but the pixels just looked crap. That was SGI aimed for from the outset – the ‘Reality System’ graphics pipeline for Onyx and the Indy stuff – they were trying to compress that all down into the N64, and did a really good job. Quality of pixels over speed.

What’s the secret behind that Mario ‘feel’?
I think that is fine-tuning. Many, many, many hours and days spent actually sitting down and playing the game. If you don’t play the game, you don’t pick up on the little nuances, and the effects that you think should be there or shouldn’t be there. EAD spend a lot of time playing the games they make, half the team are playing while the other half are developing. That’s why they end up so good.

What was the atmosphere like during the final days of coding?
I think there was a lot of panicking going on. But it was still very organised, there was lots of people working very hard. I think it was quite laid back at the very end, not many bugs, gameplay was sorted out on time. One of the programmers had quite a hard time of it – two of them decided not to make games anymore because of Mario 64. Not because they didn’t enjoy it, but because they’d burnt themselves out.

I asked Giles to comment about some specific ‘best bits’ in Super Mario 64.

I think the idea of having a 3D version of the world map, avoiding a menu system, is a novel way of doing that. I think a lot of time went into designing it, but not much time actually implementing it – just three or four shapes plonked together at the end, really.

EAD always do this in their games. There’s a connection between every single game that EAD do. The characters from one game are always in another. I think there was a plan to ride Yoshi around – the suggestion came up. With more time, it would have been taken more seriously.

The guy who did the sound was very meticulous, very interesting in having – rather than just having a soundtrack, having it change depending on where you are. With more time, he would have spent more time on that. To make it as much like a film as possible, sounds follow what you’re doing. That was a big thing – they spent a lot of time working on it. They spent a lot of time on the swimming – I think it’s a lot harder than just running, to get the feeling right, there are actually a few tricks you can do while swimming. They wanted to make it not frustrating, so you don’t want to avoid the water, they wanted to make an advantage to going into the water, fun going into the water.

There’s no actual water texture below – it’s empty. You can actually use a water texture – it looks nice, moves around, but then you think it gets in the way, you can’t see. They tried that. They tried various overlays, but realised it would detract from the fun of the game. That’s the trademark of Nintendo games – they’re not afraid to take huge artistic liberties on stuff they shouldn’t do with the laws of physics. If it plays right and looks ok then Ninty go with it.

The physics in Mario 64 are quite realistic in some ways, but there’s a lot of stuff that went in to give a twist so you could defy the laws of physics for gameplay’s sake. Wave Race and 1080 did the same thing – based on very fundamnetally good physics, but you have bits on top that you plug in so you can do things you can’t actually do. That’s where the excitement comes from.

The ‘Mario sleeping’ easter egg
Voices in games were new. That was good about N64 – 16-bit digital sound you could play with. That did add a lot to the game. It took a lot of room on the cart, though, very much a balancing act at the time.

Wobbly level gates
These show the N64 could play with verteses – like the Mario face. We wanted to do something different from 3D on PC. Wave Race did the same, about the same sort of time. Ways of playing with vertices and reflection mapping, this whole buzz going round EAD at the time. I was amazed by the reflection-mapping on the Onyx, only the Onyx can do that, £1,000,000 machine, but when I looked at maths of it at the time, realised that when we got N64 emulators, we can actually do it on that. Very exciting.

The never-ending staircase
This was simply putting you back at an exact point when you reached a certain spot – it just happens so fast.

The size of the levels
You’ll notice that many of the objects that far away in the distance disappear to make this possible. The reason that Mario could do such expansive levels without fogging was partly by being quite compact, despite the impression they were big. Turok were very wide, Mario was quite narrow and convoluted. On some of the maps, there were places where you could swap between map shapes – give an impression of a huge map when in fact it was split up into small sub-sections. There are very few places where you can see the entire map.

The Making Of Star Wars Rogue Squadron – Factor 5

This one’s from 2001 or 2002. Factor 5 had just unleashed the GameCube’s astonishing-looking Rogue Leader, so it was the ideal time to talk to them about the making of their first Nintendo 64 Star Wars game, Rogue Squadron. This isn’t the edited feature – it’s the previously unpublished full original transcript with president Julian Eggebrecht.

Julian was always very kind to N64/NGC magazine with interviews. And he helped make Turrican too! What a dude.

How did you get started programming for Nintendo 64?
Julian Eggebrecht: We were working on PlayStation while the Shadows Of The Empire team were working on the N64. There was this whole mystery around the N64, that it was the wonderconsole and it could do everything. We were back in Germany at the time, and we had one discussion with the Shadows team where they filled us in on the machine. They were coming from the SGI world, approaching us from a different view than we would have – we were coming from SNES – and what they told us just didn’t make sense!

We began pushing Lucasarts the whole time that we wanted to do something on N64. We liked carts, for one thing. And we’d had a terrible time switching over to 3D, as did many people. And the thing about the PlayStation that was nasty early on was that you clearly saw Japanese developers got more information about the machine than the Western ones. That was frustrating for European developers like us.

So we pushed heavily for N64. We loved the first level of Shadows, and the next logical step – now we’d mastered 3D finally – was to extend that arcadey level and avoid the rest as were a bit scared of character-based stuff. So we thought let’s do a flight game. We were huge fans of the old vector Star Wars Atari game.

What else helped Rogue Squadron take shape?
In fact, Rogue Squadron came from an old idea to do a sequel to the old Lucasarts classic Rescue on Fractalus on the N64. The problem with fractal technology is you need a strong CPU. The PlayStation had a weak CPU, the N64 at least on paper had this 90Mhz MIPS CPU which seemed to be very powerful. In truth the whole unified memory artchitecture destroyed that, but we weren’t to know that! We liked the idea of doing a fractal-based game, and were working on landscape technology for a long time.

So the Shadows Of The Empire guys went off to work on Episode 1 Racer, and Lucasarts needed another team to do an Star Wars N64 game for Christmas – they said why don’t you turn your fractalus game into a Star Wars game.

The funny thing is, the original idea was to do a ‘best of’ the movies, a ‘greatest hits of IV, V and VI’ – basically exactly what Star Wars: Rogue Leader on Gamecube is. We pitched it to Lucasarts exactly like that at the time, but back then Lucasfilm licensing said no games should be set in the Star Wars movie timeline, you had to concentrate on backstories and sidestories. So our pitch got shot down. That turned out lucky, because we’d never have managed to do those scenes justice on the N64 – Gamecube turned out much better!

What were the early days of the project like?
We sat down to pick apart the Star Wars timeline, and find an area where we could use landscapes and craft. The initial idea to use the Rogue Squadron comic book timeline came from Jon Knoles, the project leader on Shadows Of The Empire. There were lots of original ideas we could use. Funnily enough, we chose to stay completely away from the movies at first – no Luke or Wedge, for example, But Lucasfilm said at one stage, why don’t you use Luke Skywalker? They’d changed their mind completely about using movie stuff. And it fit perfectly – before that we’d had to go to great lengths to write around the movies.

On the Lucasarts side we had the person who’d done most of the first level of Shadows Of The Empire, he helped our programmers. We focused on the landscape early on to get the game up and running quickly, while Mark Haigh-Hutchinson designed the X-Wing and our coders did the rest of the craft. A couple of other Lucasarts guys helped out too, helping get the Star Wars feel right.

How did you find coding on the N64?
Rogue had a sketchy history. It took us a long time to get to grips with the N64 – the version we showed at E3 one year into development was really terrible. The game really came together in the last four months – because we got access to microcode. We’d heard about this from the Shadows Of The Empire guys, who knew what it was (direct access to a coprocessor) but hadn’t touched it. So we knew it’d be perfect for making the landscapes much faster than using the CPU alone. We justified this to Nintendo with a wiritten presentation – saying we’d use microcode to do this and this and this. That convinced them – they gave us access to it, but that was a year in, when we’d already spent 12 months working on the game engine.

We were very ambitious with the sound – we had these grandiose plans for a complete sound system, which became MusyX, which took forever.

What was the first level to be complete?
We had the first Snowspeeder flying around landcape in Feb ’98 – it was getting a bit late. It was really ridiculous. We had no level editor til later, and the March E3 version barely made it. Between E3 and October the whole game together.

We did get good feedback from E3, though, because we showed the X-Wing – the controls were our main focus. Back at the time console games never had accessible space controls, you were controlling in the same way as PC games, which never worked. We needed a flight control that felt halfway like a flight control, but also felt like a car. The X-Wing controls took eight or nine months to work out. The player doesn’t realise what’s going on there – the controls help you quite a bit in terms of flying. It flies easily, as opposed to flight simulation.

What was the feedback like?
The feedback on the landscape was good. We just hadn’t built a game around it yet! That was our big scare – we wanted to do a mission-based flight game which is free-flight, unlike Star Fox. That sounds a nice concept – but to get a structure in there is very tough. All the credit goes to the level designers who pulled it together.

The radar cone was the big thing – you take it for granted that it leads you to the next crucial bit, but that wasn’t in there until July ’98. Until then, everyone was always getting lost. Even on Tatooine, people didn’t get what you had to do, and we were really panicking. We knew we needed a visual clue, but didn’t want pointers or arrows that cluttered up the screen, or take away control from the player. I had the idea for the radar cone after seeing watching a bit of Star Wars where they’re gathered around a table at a hologram display and you see an orange cake-like wedge approaching the Death Star. We decided to take that and use it as the guidance thing.

How was your working relationship with Lucasarts?
We’d been working with Lucasarts for so long, we always had producers, and one of their main jobs is to check in the back of his head whether our stuff will contradict or clash with the movies. But we’d done so much Star Wars stuff, we pretty much knew what we could and couldn’t do. We had to go back and forth to the Lucas ranch, checking everything, not only against what already exists but also what George was planning with the new movies.

Our main idea with Rogue Squadron visuals was to top Shadows Of The Empire bigtime. We knew we could do way more. We wanted to try out to get a PlayStation look on the N64 – we wanted subdued colours, get rid of muddy look. The Star Wars universe lent itself to some tricks on the N64 – everything is grey, so you could circumvert some texture problems by using grey textures, they can be larger than colour textures. We wanted to do the best-looking Star Wars game ever. Shadows Of The Empire was a step in the right direction – but we wanted to get as close to the movies as possible. In terms of visual design, we watched the movies to get stuff looking right

What were your other influences?
We were heavily influenced by some bits of Star Fox, especially the free-roaming bit with the mothership and all the ships swarming around. The cart helped to do free-roaming, as we could drag new bits of landscape off the cart quickly – Rogue Squadron wouldn’t have been possible on PlayStation.

Were there any sticky problems?
Scale is a big problem, we couldn’t keep landscapes the same scale as the movies. Gameplay-wise it’s a problem, as it’s like when you’re flying from point A to point B in a jetplane, it’s terribly boring. You have to muck around with scale. You start out with the best intentions. For example, if you’ve got the A-Wing to scale, it’s so tiny you’re laughing at it. The A-Wing in Rogue Squadron is completely out of scale. But even in the ILM mech paintings, they’re screwing around with scale.

The landscape texturing was a nightmare – now we can do multi-texturing on GameCube, but on N64 it was just one layer, so it was really hard to do convincing landscape textures, really few polygons. We had an R&D phases of three months on this, and there were ten different versions of Tatooine – sand is a nightmare, it’s so boring. The skies were raved about, too, but they were a nightmare. I think there were about ten different approaches to that, because the N64 was very problemantic about doing subtle gradients in sky. That took forever.

How did you achieve the impressive music and sound?
For us, the sound was just the logical technological progression from the Amiga days – we had a sample-based machine, just 4 channels, but we squeezed 20 voices onto the N64. Chris Huelsbeck had been around since the C64 days, doing little orchestral pieces on the Amiga, so when you tell him he had 16 voices to play around with, he’s pleased.

We surprised Nintendo with that – they were very sceptical and didn’t want to use streaming music like in Shadows Of The Empire. Nintendo was getting sceptical about their own sound hardware, we said trust us, and they were convinced.

Why no space battles?
In Rogue Squadron, we didn’t do space battles – everyone was sick of space battles, and there was the whole problem of a point of reference, as  it would add to design time of level. Nobody has yet done a landscape-based SW game, so we focused on that.

How come there was no multiplayer?
The lack of multiplayer was a time thing. We had plans to do multiplayer. First of all it was performance – on framerates below 20 and 15, especially in tiny windows in a split-screen, you can’t control it anymore.

There have been criticisms of the basic AI.
There was practcally was no AI in Rogue Squadron – we started out with high hopes, but it’s a huge hassle to write good AI, it bogged down the CPU. A good example would be how slow Perfect Dark became, largely due to AI. What we ended up with was two or three battles with TIE Interceptors who had specific AI, everything else was pre-scripted.

AI slows things down because ships have to avoid obstacles – every single craft has to calculate a ton of stuff and look ahead. So we ended up with one scene with two free-flight AIs that was barely okay, so we said let’s kick it out. Let’s do some nice pre-scripted stuffthat would draw in player much more.

How did you manage to keep the Naboo Starfighter cheat quiet so long?
None of the cheats were ever submitted to Lucas licensing – it’s so last-minute, they’re not advertised features. The 1968 Buick that you can fly with one cheat was the car belonging to Rudi Stember, our artistic director. We put it in every game now, it’s a cult thing.

The Naboo Starfighter – that was a nightmare to convince Lucasfilm licensing to put it in, they didn’t believe we could hide it properly. In the end, only two people, me and Lucasarts, knew the code. Even the programmers didn’t know. We decided to put it in after seeing it as the first picture of Episode I that Lucas ever released, in the summer of ’98. We were confident no-one would find it – there wasn’t a Gameshark out there at the time. It wasn’t in the PC version either, just to be safe. We did a patch later.

Why did the Stormtroopers explode?
Pure laziness, or more like a lack of time. We were worried that the little stick figures wouldn’t work out, but it turned out you were zooming so quickly over them, it didn’t matter. Lots of stuff came about by luck – the hi-res Expansion Pak option only came in last 6 weeks, we heard that Turok team was doing it, tried it, and it worked fine.

What would you change in retrospect?
The biggest weakness with Rogue Squadron was it had a terrrible terrible learning curve. Because it came together so last-minute, there was not time to get the curve right, there were huge spikes anywhere and everywhere. The medals went from there – originally they were to work out nicely, but they carried over that initial difficulty on some levels and made them ever harder. Take Raid On Sullust – even I cannot play that, I barely get through, let alone get a gold medal.

Did anything get left out?
In the very early design for Rogue Squadron, you could switch craft – that eventually made it into Naboo. The Chickenwalker code is a remnant of that, as you could originally switch to control of an AT-ST in-game.

The bonus levels came together at the last minute. The Death Star Trench Run was the worst – we really thought this would be our last chance to do a trench run level, so we went for it. But the engine couldn’t support it, we couldn’t make the trench long enough, lots of problem. Of course, in the end, we got to do it again in Rogue Leader anyway.

Screenshots from PC version

Cassette 50: the interview

I’m pretty proud of this one. The authors of Cassette 50 – a notorious collection of primitive, mostly BASIC games advertised in seemingly every single ’80s game magazine, every single month – were mostly anonymous, uncredited kids, paid just £10 for their efforts. In 2005, thanks to a name left on a title screen and a few hopeful phone calls, I tracked down one of the games’ creators, now all grown up – and able to tell the story of how he (and his dad) put his little heart into that little game. Amazingly, he’d never even heard of Cassette 50: he’d sold his game, got his £10 and thought nothing more of it. My call prompted him to fire up Galaxy Defence for the first time in years, and show it to his son. Aw.

Everyone remembers Cascade’s Cassette 50 – for all the wrong reasons. Copiously advertised in every early-’80s Sinclair ZX Spectrum magazine, it promised 50 all-action games with spine-tingling names like ‘Galaxy Defence’ and ‘The Skull’. Many a kid was hoodwinked into ordering it – the lure of that Free Calculator Watch was just too strong. And what did they get? Game upon truly awful game of basic, BASIC, bug-ridden horror.

Despite the unrivalled notoriety of Cassette 50 – it’s spawned the C64 Crap Game Competition and the CSS Crap Games Compilation – not one of the original authors has ever come forward to give their side of the story. Until now, that is. We’ve tracked down Matthew Lewis – the man responsible for game number 45, Galaxy Defence.

Here, for the very first time, is the story behind 1/50th of Cassette 50.

How did you get into Spectrum programming?
Matt: My first experience with computing was the ZX81, which was totally fascinating. My mate had one. He was an incredibly posh guy: his dad was a physics teacher. Then I had a Vic 20. I was lulled into thinking that was a good machine, but I didn’t find it up to much. Then the Spectrum… we thought it was amazing. Games like Scramble and Manic Miner. Buying magazines and typing in a game listing for hours and hours, only to find it wouldn’t work. That was a group activity, to work through a game listing and get it working.

“It taught a generation how to code,” as the song goes.
Right. The thinking, the logic behind it – it’s a wonderful thing. It’s a shame I didn’t bother keeping it up. There’s a really good learning curve when you’re learning how to program. With modern PCs, I have a rough understanding – but really they’re beyond me now. I take the PC to the shop to get it fixed. The Spectrum’s very simple: you turn it on, you’ve got the operating system in front of you. That’s it. The concept of Windows, sitting on top of DOS, sitting on top of a BIOS… I just don’t understand it.

So, the big question – how did you end up on Cassette 50?
I was 14 at the time, I guess. There was an ad in our local newspaper, The Argus. It was probably the smallest ad in the paper – a tiny little box, black-and-white, asking for Spectrum games to be sent to some address. I don’t think it even had a company name on, just an address somewhere not too far outside South Wales. It was just an approachable ad – it didn’t scare me. If it had been a bigger software house, someone I knew, then I wouldn’t have sent anything off. But I’d written this thing, so off it went. I didn’t hear anything for a couple of months, and then a cheque arrived for £10. I thought, this is it! I’ve made it! £10! That’s fantastic! But the letter did say that by cashing the cheque, I’d give up all rights to the game.

What happened next?
Nothing. I had no idea what happened to Galaxy Defence. No letter back telling me what Cascade were going to do, no offer of a free copy of the game… nothing. But quite a while later, I had a letter from some guy in Devon or Cornwall, asking how I programmed the game, and how he could get characters moving around on-screen like I had. That was how I found out my game was on sale somewhere. He did say he’d really enjoyed playing it. If Galaxy Defence was one of the better ones, then… well.

Matthew and Ernest Lewis: Then (top) and Now.

So this is the first you’ve heard about Cassette 50?
I had no idea. I probably got into girls shortly after. I’ve never thought twice about it since. I’ve told a few friends since that I once sold one of my games for a tenner. Now I can prove it!

So you’re not offended that Galaxy Defence and the rest of Cassette 50 has come in for more than a little stick among the Speccy community?
No, not at all. I came across the Crap Game Competition the other day and just howled with laughter.

So tell us – how long does a game like Galaxy Defence take to code?
It would have been done over several evenings. A project like that would have been about 12 hours, starting from scratch.

Were you pleased with it?
I was really chuffed that I managed to get the rockets to hit something. I didn’t want much more than that, really – just to find out how to get a missile to blow up an alien on a screen, to work out the steps needed to make it happen. I only played it once or twice. It was more of a project than a game to actually play – I just put it to one side after it was done.

There’s an ‘E. Lewis’ co-credited on the title screen…
Yep, that’s my dad, Ernest. He helped me draw the aliens. I drew the boxes out for him – each box being a pixel – and he coloured them in and came up with some cool-looking aliens.

What are you up to now?
I’m 38 now. I spent some time in Nottingham and Cardiff, but now I’m back in Newport living with my wife Sally and son Oscar – and another one on the way! In fact, Oscar thinks I’m fantastic now. He hasn’t played the game yet. I’m trying to keep him away from it as long as possible. [More on this later]

So do you wish you’d never cashed that cheque?
Doesn’t make much difference to me – I don’t think anyone else would have bought the game! I wish Cascade had been fairer, though – told me what was going on or given me a free copy of the tape. I’ve had a look at the Cassette 50 ads now, and I can see how so many kids bought into it: all those fantastic sci-fi names for the games, it’s no wonder kids thought, “I’ve got to have it.” And a free digital watch! It would be interesting to know how much money it grossed. They must have made a fair whack of dosh out of that thing – yet creating it was basically free for them.

Do you remember what you spent the 10 quid on?
Probably computer games, to be honest.

Update: Matt’s PC was in for repair when we spoke to him. A few days later, he got his computer back, downloaded Cassette 50, and played his game for the first time in 20 years. Here’s what he said:
“I’ve managed to download and run the game now. It’s worse than I remembered. In the words of my nine-year-old son: ‘It’s a bit rubbish, dad. Why won’t it move and fire when you want?’ Although I have to say that compared to a couple of the others I tried – Orbiter, for example – its pure sophistication. No doubt if I’d tasted fame when the tape was released and if Cascade had ploughed back some of their profits into the game authors, I could have been a contender!”

Oscar: not impressed.