I just got back from the first of two days at Revival Solstice 2016, an amazing retrogaming event. This isn’t the first Revival I’ve been to; they tend to do an event at least once each year. I’d heartily recommend attending to any retro fans out there, or indeed anyone who enjoys games in general; visit the Revival website if you’re interested, although details of the next event haven’t yet been announced (let’s give them chance to finish this year’s event first).
Today, for me, was mostly about the talks. It’s been an amazing and informative day, with a fantastic atmosphere that reminded me once again why I love the old games so much (I do need reminding every now and again - with so many demands on my attention, it’s hard to justify pulling my old systems out more than a couple of times a year - I usually make do with emulators).
We started out with Steve Turner, one of the founders of Graftgold and an extremely prolific and talented programmer in his own right. Steve worked with Andrew Braybrook, a name virtually anyone who played games in the 80s should recognise, and delivered hit after hit after hit. He talked so passionately about his experiences and his games, and the people he’s been fortunate to meet and work with over the years. I came away from his talk already wanting to get back into coding games (I never really need much of a push in that direction anyway, to be perfectly honest).
After Steve, we had Jim Bagley; Jim was another legendary character of my youth, and I’m very pleased to say that he more than lives up to the legend (and is a thoroughly nice guy too, which never hurts). Jim was responsible for some of the best ZX Spectrum game conversions ever published, including Midnight Resistance, which he is justifiably very proud of. More recently, he’s been taking on some extremely crazy challenges - such as converting Dragon’s Lair (yes, that Dragon’s Lair) to run on the Sinclair ZX81. Yes, that means converting an arcade game to run in 1KB of RAM. Yes, he did it. Like I say, a legend. He is now officially recognised for this amazing feat by the Guinness Book of Records, which is a hell of an achievement in itself.
Following up from Jim, we had Archer MacLean. Archer was responsible for some amazing games also; he’s well known for Dropzone, but for me his best game of all time is still IK+. I was only playing it the other day; almost 30 years after it was first released, it’s still legitimately awesome. Archer hinted that there are still many secrets about IK+ that people don’t know - there were apparently some 50 or so easter eggs he added, of which only about a third have so far been found. He did promise to reveal some of them… hopefully that will happen soon! Another favourite Archer MacLean game of my youth is the amazing Jimmy White’s Whirlwind Snooker, for which Archer developed his own 3D engine. He had some very, very interesting stories to tell about Jimmy White, who he apparently still goes for a curry with every now and again, and also about his keen interest in restoring and playing arcade games.
The main take away from the first three speakers was passion. These are people who have been involved with games for a long time, almost as long as I’ve been alive in some cases (guys, if you’re reading this - sorry to remind you that you’re getting on a bit). There was a certain amount of disappointment that, although indie games have become a thing again in the past few years, bedroom coders don’t really exist in the way they used to. For my generation, as soon as we powered on our systems (whether that was a Spectrum, an Amstrad, a C64, or even a BBC Micro), we had access to a full-on programming environment. More importantly, perhaps, we had comprehensive documentation on how to make the machines do whatever we wanted; we only had to be willing to try.
That’s how I got started; I credit (or blame) those early computing experiences for making me the person I am today. Yet the kids of today don’t really have that. Windows certainly doesn’t come with those tools, and the developer kits for any of the modern consoles are punitively expensive. Yes, you can download fully featured game engines like Unity and Unreal Engine for free, as well as many others, but you’ve got to go looking for them, whereas for us it was all there waiting for us. Even the Raspberry Pi, which is awesome, doesn’t come with the keys in the ignition, so to speak.
I’m going to skip over the next speaker, and come back to him at the end of this post. You’ll understand why in a moment.
The final speaker of the day was Walter Day, best known for Twin Galaxies, the official record keepers for video game high scores. Walter couldn’t be with us in person, and instead spoke to us over a Skype call from the US. Walter was extremely passionate also, and I found his tales fascinating. He was even wearing his official striped referee shirt, which was just awesome. He regaled us with his vision for the future of games, taking virtual reality to the obvious ultimate conclusion - something which sounded roughly akin to the holodecks from Star Trek. Part of me hopes he’s right, the other part of me is horrified by the psychological damage that being unable to distinguish between simulation and reality could produce (if you think video games get blamed for violent actions now, wait until something like this comes along). Walter hopes to bring his team to the UK at some point soon for a proper tournament and awards ceremony; I’d love to see that.
Now we’ll loop back to the fourth speaker, Henrique Olifiers. Henrique is one of the team involved with the ZX Spectrum Next project, which if you don’t know already is an attempt to fully recreate the original ZX Spectrum with modern technologies, and then to add extra capabilities to it, such as more memory, more colours, crucially whilst still maintaining the original Spectrum feel. It’s crucial to note that this is not done through emulation; it’s all done through the magic of FPGA technology. Henrique was able to demonstrate one of their prototype boards (the cases aren’t ready yet), and I can honestly say that it’s absolutely awesome. One of the new tricks is the ability to run the Z80 CPU at double the original speed - 7MHz instead of 3.5MHz; and actually, most of the games still work, but at a better frame rate.
Henrique was also extremely passionate about encouraging the revival of the bedroom coder, and better programming education for the next generation. This really struck a chord with me; as I mentioned, that’s how I got started on my journey. I discussed this with Henrique after the talk (as well as making a few suggestions for other things they could add to the Spectrum Next - hopefully they’ll happen!), and the upshot is that I’m now on the list to receive a developer kit when they become available.
What I want to focus on is producing quality documentation and tutorials to help new developers get a feel for the power at their disposal. Too many of today’s tutorials obfuscate this, and patronise people, to their detriment. Let’s be clear; even with the advanced technology in modern devices like the iPhone, none of this stuff is magic; you could understand it given time (assuming of course that you had access to the sort of internal documentation that Apple don’t share with just anyone, y’know).
I also want to write a game. I’ve had ideas bubbling around in my head almost since my first experiences of programming, but for various reasons I’ve never actually gotten round to finishing anything. I can’t fully share what I’ve got in mind yet - mostly because I’m not yet sure myself - but I plan to write about it on here as I go.
Now, I’ve just got to learn Z80 assembly language. Even with a machine that can run twice as fast as the original Speccy, writing a game in BASIC probably won’t be hugely impressive :)