The Legacy of Ben Daglish

by Paul Morrison

I’ve already written about the sad passing of Ben Daglish, so I won’t repeat any of that here. What I will say is that Ben was one of the first people I interviewed for They Were Our Gods, and I was really happy about that. It wasn’t the best interview… in my newness and naivety, I didn’t really get as much out of it as I might. Still, it set me on the right path, I learned from it and I’ve interviewed countless people now, for this and other projects.

I decided that I didn’t want to hide this interview behind any kind of paywall (which is, effectively, what a book is). I’ll probably still include it in the book, because Ben deserves to be in there as much as anyone. But, I saw a link this morning to a fundraiser that has been set up in Ben’s memory and this has made me decide that putting the interview on the website, for free, is the right thing to do.

The aim of the fundraiser is, initially, to help Ben’s family with some immediate costs but after that, it will go towards setting up the Ben Daglish Young Performers’ Legacy at his beloved Stainsby Festival. I love that idea; it seems very fitting that Ben’s love of music should inspire people to play for many years to come.

If you read and enjoy this, and/or if Ben’s music had any impact on you in your younger years, then please consider donating to this fundraiser, which will ensure that Ben has an impact on present and future generations, as well as having meant so much to ours. Without further ado, here is my interview with Ben Daglish from 2012. You can donate to the fundraiser here:

TWOG: I know you got into the Commodore 64 music scene at an early age... when or how old were you exactly when you started?

BEN: 14 or 15 - I forget exactly. I was at school with Tony Crowther, and when he started writing games, knowing I was interested in music, asked me to write out some notes for him to transcribe - the Chopin's "Funeral March" for Potty Pigeon was first, I believe. Later on, I started composing my own stuff.

TWOG: Did you start making computer game music with the Commodore 64?

BEN: Yes. I'd played around with audio on the BBC before that, creating bird calls for an educational program we did at school, but the C64 was the first time I'd written for games.

TWOG: Did you consider yourself a musician first and a programmer second? I was always of the opinion that you guys were musicians first. It doesn't matter how good a programmer you are, if you don't have the ear for a tune then no amount of programming skills will change that.

BEN: In those days, definitely a musician first and foremost. Even now, making my living mainly from programming, I still regard the 10% of my time spent as a musician as important.

TWOG: As a lad, one of my favourite ZZAP! 64 articles was The Musician's Ball. You guys seemed to get on really well. Was there any kind of friendly rivalry, with you all competing for work, or was there more than enough to go round? For instance, you did a lot for Gremlin, Martin Galway had Ocean, David Whittaker had Codemasters, Rob Hubbard had... well, all sorts.

BEN: There was indeed friendly rivalry, but not for work - there was loads of it, and between the four of us, we handled a good 75% of the UK's output at that time. I was mainly freelance for the first few years, until getting a full-time job at Gremlin.

TWOG: Speaking of Rob Hubbard, you took on a couple of projects that were sequels to two of his most renowned tunes (Thing on a Spring and Monty on the Run, albeit in conjunction with Rob on the second of those). You came up with great efforts of your own... did you feel any pressure to come up with something special, or were you more than confident in your own ability?

BEN: Massive pressure - he was ROB HUBBARD for God's sake, and I had (and still have) enormous respect for him as a muso. Working with him on Monty was great fun.

TWOG: I always found it interesting that, much like the best musicians on any instrument, you guys all had your own distinct styles. You could pretty much tell who had written a tune within a minute of hearing it. Who did you listen to as a teenager, and did any of that have any bearing on your own music?

BEN: All sorts - I grew up listening to folk, classical and Jazz, then got into "rock" when I was about 15. That fed my style, I'm sure, but sheerly because of the sounds that were created, I started listening to a lot of Jarre and YMO etc., to get an idea of what you could do with electronic sounds.

TWOG: Not being remotely techy myself, I have to ask how you went about composing your tunes. Did you play them on an instrument first then use a program to replicate them?

BEN: No. I typed them from my head straight into a text editor, note by note.

TWOG: Did you guys swap programming tips, or did you keep to yourselves (I was thinking that as you had your own styles, you might not have needed to share information)?

BEN: The programming stuff was more to do with interesting creative things you could do with the sounds - glissandi, filters, "toggle chords" etc., but as soon as you'd heard somebody else do it, it was reasonably trivial to re-create, once you knew it was possible. Everybody had their own player routines, and kept them pretty close to their chest, but there was a lot of reverse engineering going on in the demo world.

TWOG: What sort of reference material were you given when you were composing music for a game? Did you get pre-production copies of the game, concept notes and stuff like that, or did you sometimes just have to go off the title?

BEN: Both. Sometimes, a full copy of the game. At other times, I had just a title and a brief phone-call describing the gameplay.

TWOG: You composed a number of tunes for TV and movie tie-ins. How did you approach these, knowing you'd have to try and replicate a well-loved theme tune?

BEN: I just listened to them and transcribed as best I could. It wasn't as fun as writing my own stuff, but it was interesting from a technical and educational point of view - honed my transcription skills - especially having to re-arrange the tune for just 3 voices.

TWOG: You were notably half of W.E.M.U.S.I.C. with Tony Crowther. How exactly did that work? Did you split duties on game music (thereby rubbishing my "you all had your own sound" thing), or did one compose and one program?

BEN: Tony wrote the player - I wrote the music. (Later on, Tony did a few tunes himself, but he'd be the first to admit that he's primarily a programmer :) )

TWOG: How did it feel to be part of that scene? Did you feel rock-star-ish at all? Was there a sense that something genuinely exciting was happening?

BEN: Reasonably, but I think we were all aware that it was a very limited *scene* . Even today, I enjoy feeling a bit famous when I turn up to conventions etc., but am glad that it's only a couple of days a year :)

TWOG: Do you have any particular favourite tunes that you wrote? Anything that you feel fitted a project particularly well, or that you can still listen to and think it's a damn good tune?

BEN: Trap. Big theme, big game, big demo. A few others as well, like Last Ninja spring to mind, but Trap was always the thing I was most proud of.

TWOG: What did you move on to after the Commodore 64? What have you done since, and what are you doing now?

BEN: I moved into "proper" music for a while, composing for theatre etc. for many years, until kids / mortgage / real life forced me to settle down and get a proper programming job :)

TWOG: I’m going to throw the names of some of your more well-known works at you now - I’d like you to respond with your immediate thoughts on each game’s music.

Bobby Bearing

BEN: Bouncy, but a bit random, I always thought :)

TWOG: Bombo

BEN: I enjoyed writing that - "it was in Baghdad, where my mother met my dad..." Obviously just a matter of arrangement, but yes, I think I managed to get the feel that was needed.

TWOG: Death Wish III: it's a good job this game had good music, because my mate was obsessed with the game and would play it every time I went to his house, specifically to see how far he could propel grannies using a machine gun (he’s OK now, after years of appropriate therapy). I heard this music a hell of a lot, so it stuck with me.

BEN: Yes - again, I think this fitted the "brief" pretty well - "gamey" , but with the slight air of menace and movement.

TWOG: Firelord: I loved this kind of game, and the medieval-style tune was lovely and really went well with the game.

BEN: Thanks. Yes - that was definitely the result of 'O' level music :)

TWOG: Gauntlet: you must have been on a hiding to nothing with this - the sound was one of the most memorable features of the arcade game, so as soon as everyone knew the speech wouldn't be included in the C64 version they were already a bit deflated.

BEN: I just wrote down the notes, squire :)

TWOG: Hades Nebula

BEN: I always loved doing the Space stuff - big open tunes and floaty arpeggios.

TWOG: The Last Ninja:

BEN: Still the one I get the most mails about to this day.

TWOG: Trap: what was the thinking behind that "movie"?

BEN: “Let's do a film with animation synced to the music, because nobody else has!" I'm pretty sure it was the first proper "demo".

TWOG: Finally, how do you feel about the enduring scene and the continued reverie of work that is now 25 years old?*

BEN: Amazed. Really, truly amazed. I suppose that's to do with being part of somebody's childhood, but it never ceases to surprise me when another email pops in the box from an old-time fan.

I’m sure Ben had a lot of those emails. One thing is clear: his enthusiasm for music was clear, and his talent evident. It was great to see how much he embraced his musical past, playing his most famous pieces on stage with various bands, but the fact that his legacy can be extended beyond his past works in a real, tangible form is something that would be hugely fitting. So, again, here is the link to the Ben Daglish Legacy Fundraiser. I could have saved this for my book, so you could consider a donation to be payment if you wanted. Let’s all help to make Ben’s name live on in more than just our memories.

Farewell, Ben Daglish

by Paul Morrison

It’s enormously sad and quite a shock to us all to learn of the passing of one of 8-bit computer music’s biggest legends… Ben Daglish.

I don’t want to be maudlin about this, terrible though it undoubtedly is; rather, I want to focus on and celebrate what he brought to the world of computer games with his talent, which was considerable. An accomplished musician in his own right, he was probably equally beloved by fans of all three major 8-bit computers (Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC, for any BBC owners racking their brains as to what he might have written music for).

Ben was a huge character, certainly one of the more individual personalities out there. I never actually met him, but I did talk to him for the purposes of this book. He was always happy to talk to anyone about his games music, and that endeared him to the entire community. His generosity of spirit seemed to be simply a part of who he was and as a result you can find interviews with him all over the internet. Do take the time to look them up and read a few.

I feel that the best way to remember Ben is through his work, so I’m going to pilfer YouTube and post some videos below of some of my favourite Daglish tracks. They will be heavily C64-dominated, and your favourites might not be the same as mine, but do comment below with your recommendations.

Hades Nebula (C64, NEXUS)

Ben loved writing for games set in space, and for me, his Hades Nebula was one of his most enjoyable pieces. Just as well, because even though I loved games like this, it was soul-crushingly difficult. I ploughed on though, because I really liked the music. I actually got to be quite good at the game, but the game itself never became that good. The music most certainly is, though… stay with it for a surprising and excellent solo at 2:30.

Cobra (C64, Ocean Software)

Zach Townsend’s first game on the Commodore 64 was. shall we say, not received all that well. However, Ben’s moody theme tune fit very well and was a real highlight, inspiring many people to continue playing when they might otherwise have turned their attention elsewhere.

Embed Block
Add an embed URL or code. Learn more

Dark Fusion (ZX Spectrum, Gremlin Graphics)

The Spectrum was renowned for having a weaker sound chip and indeed, many of its early soundtracks were extremely limited. Once composers began to figure the machine out, though, they produced some work that could scarcely be believed by stunned Speccy fans. Probably Ben’s finest Spectrum hour, to my ears, was his title music for this Gremlin Graphics release. If you’ve never heard it before, give it a whirl and prepare to be surprised and amazed.

Firelord (C64, Hewson Consultants)

This is simply a lovely, beautiful piece of music. It’s quite simple, but wonderfully melodic and memorable. I could quite easily imagine Ben playing this on his flute.

The Last Ninja (C64, System 3)

The Last Ninja is one of the Commodore 64’s most famous games and it has one of its best-loved soundtracks. Ben split the music-writing duties with Anthony Lees and it therefore became arguably the most renowned work either or both of them produced. The game features twelve excellent pieces, but my favourite has always been the in-game track for the Wastelands level. It’s atmospheric, upbeat and very catchy and it just makes me feel happy to listen to it. So I will.

Trap (C64, Alligata)

When I talked to Ben, I asked him which of his pieces he was most proud of. He told me that although several sprang to mind, Trap was always the one of which he was proudest. It seems fitting, then, that I end this write-up with the epic and amazing piece from that game. Well, actually, it’s from the hidden demo within the game… so you have something to watch while you listen. A remarkable achievement for its time.

Ben’s body of computer games work is vast. I’m sure you have many memories to draw on, whether it’s of his themes for Krakout, Potty Pigeon, Thing Bounces Back or his collaboration with Rob Hubbard on Auf Widersehen Monty. Or perhaps it’s something else altogether. Feel free to share your memories below. I think the best way to end is with a video of Ben on stage with the Fastloaders, performing some of his Last Ninja music with real energy and personality. He may have been taken far too soon, but Ben Daglish has left an enormous legacy and an infinite and indelible mark on all of us, and for that, we are truly thankful.

Announcements and updates

by Paul Morrison

Who wants to know some stuff?  What, all of you?  Oh, OK then, seeing as you asked nicely.

I'm busy.  Very busy, in fact, with my writing being spread across a number of projects right now.  As a result of this, my solo projects, if you will, are being put to the side for now.  Well, Why I'm 64 is almost finished so that will get done soon.  They Were Our Gods has a lot left to do, though, and I have to give priority to two other projects in the meantime.  They are:

Project Hubbard.  I've mentioned this before, but I'm co-authoring the Official Rob Hubbard Reference Book.  This is an enormously prestigious project to be working on, and I'm very privileged to be doing so.  It's also part of a Kickstarter project, which means that backers are waiting for it and there is a hard and fast deadline.  So you can appreciate my need to concentrate my efforts there.

ZZAP! 64.  This might be news to you, but Chris Wilkins, the brains behind a number of retro books including last Christmas' Crash annual, is planning a ZZAP! 64 annual.  The Kickstarter for this campaign goes live on April 27th, and I'm thrilled to announce that I'm one of the reviewers.  This is a short-term project for me, but given that I applied for a Staff Writer's job on ZZAP! 64 back when I was a teenager, you can imagine my excitement at being a part of this.  Keep an eye out for it!

They Were Our Gods.  I feel that you're all a bit more in the dark about this than you would like to be.  I'm sorry about that, but I felt a need to protect my exclusives so that others wouldn't jump all over them before I got this book finished.  Now, though, many of the people I've interviewed for my book have been interviewed elsewhere so I see no harm in sharing with you the complete list of interviewees for They Were Our Gods.  It is subject to change, but as of now, please scroll down to see my announcement.  I hope it's an exciting list for you!



Goodbye, Bob Wakelin

by Paul Morrison

I was very sad to learn this morning that Bob Wakelin has passed away.  Bob was not a games programmer; he was not a musician.  In fact, he did not work on any of the games we loved at all.  Nonetheless, he made an enormous impact on our gaming lives with his work.  Bob was the cover artist for Ocean Software.

Cover art was an extremely important part of our game-buying experience.  For gamers, it was our first glimpse into the new world we were about to inhabit.  It offered the promise of intense sci-fi shoot 'em up action, the chance of sporting greatness or a trip to a fantastical world.  For software houses, it was the first opportunity to attempt to seduce the money from the pockets of impressionable youngsters.

Bob Wakelin was one of the best seducers of all.

 Bob's legendary Wizball cover art.

Bob's legendary Wizball cover art.

There's not a person who owned a computer in the Eighties who doesn't have a favourite piece of Bob Wakelin artwork.  His covers for both Ocean and Imagine were... ARE both iconic and legendary.  Not only that, many of them served as inspiration for the loading screens for the games whose boxes they adorned, further drawing us into our newly-purchased games.  That artwork was an incredibly important starting point for a game, for everyone concerned.

Bob's art was so good that we wanted it as posters.  In a way, we got that.  How many of us cut or pulled adverts for games out of magazines and stuck them on our bedroom walls?  Of those that did, I'm willing to bet that some of them were for Ocean Software's games.  I know that the Parallax advert, in particular, was on my wall for ages, and there were many others over time.

 One day, I'll have a mancave and this will be on one of its walls.

One day, I'll have a mancave and this will be on one of its walls.

Of course, an artist of Bob's talent was not restricted purely to computer games but it's for those that he will be chiefly remembered, and with almost unlimited fondness.  I'm sure it would have been so easy to bang out generic, uninteresting covers, especially if it was about a subject in which he had no interest, but take a look at Bob's efforts and they're all real pieces of art.

In recent years, Bob has been a presence on social media and at gaming events around the country, providing many of his fans with the opportunity to meet one of their idols from their youth, buy pieces of his work, have it signed and get to know and befriend him.  As a result of this, his loss will be felt even more greatly this morning by many people than it might otherwise have been.  We may have lost the man, but his art is indelible and I like to think it will be enjoyed by gamers for centuries to come.

 Just some of the many Bob Wakelin classics.

Just some of the many Bob Wakelin classics.

2017, and the future

by Paul Morrison

Hi all,

Well, it's been very quiet on here this year, hasn't it?  Sorry about that.  I'm not really making the best use of my 140 quid a year on the domain, am I?

I have been making reasonable use of my spare time, though.  OK, I acknowledge that I have not, to date, released any books.  But here's what I have been doing in 2017:

They Were Our Gods - some good progress was made.  The writing was completed on several of the interviews I have, and every single one of them was progressed towards completion.

Why I'm 64 - this book started as a spin-off from They Were Our Gods; a way to keep my writing juices flowing when I had writer's block on my main project.  However, work went quickly, to the point where I completed the first draft of a 220-page book!  Feedback on it has been very positive and I'm now going through it to complete my second draft, which will hopefully be the final draft.  Commodore 64 fans should look out for it, I think you'll enjoy it!

Project Hubbard - I'm not sure how many of you know about this, but in 2017 there was a successful Kickstarter campaign which sees me working on Project Hubbard.  More specifically, I am co-authoring the Official Reference Book of Rob Hubbard!  His is a name that needs no explanation to Commodore 64 owners, and probably the owners of a number of other computers and games consoles.  For years, he was THE name in games music, and it's a real honour and privilege for me to be asked to take on this role.  I'm knee-deep in research for the book right now, but as you can imagine, it's very enjoyable research!  I'll provide updates as often as I can, both here and on my Twitter account (probably more often on Twitter).

Reset 64 - A small plug, if you'll allow, for the splendid Commodore 64 magazine, Reset 64.  I retain writing duties for the mag, which has undergone a huge design overhaul this year and now stands proudly alongside the classic mags of the past.  Check out the latest issue, which features a seven=-page interview I conducted with the legendary author of a legendary game... Dennis Caswell, the programmer of Impossible Mission!  The interview is in the style of They Were Our Gods, so if you like what you see there then I promise you, you'll love the book!

That'll do for now.  There's lots to look forward to from me in the next couple of years, so do keep in touch with me one way or another.  I'm always happy to have a chat on Twitter or anywhere else if you feel like it, including via email if you complete the contact form here, but just the support of fellow computer game fans is more than enough.  See you out there!

Happy New Year!

Charity 8-bit gaming marathon - schedule

by Paul Morrison

Hi all,

I hope you're all aware of my upcoming charity 8-bit gaming marathon.  If you're not, then I'll tell you that I'm going to be playing Commodore 64 and Spectrum games for 12 hours on March 26th, with all donations going to the Young Epilepsy charity.  I'll be streaming it live... see my previous post for more details.

I've been considering how best to approach it and my current thinking is to split each hour into themes.  That way, I'll retain my focus and not be wondering what the hell to play next, and prospective viewers can tune in to segments that look most interesting to them (with the best will in the world, I don't really expect anyone to see out the whole 12 hours with me!).

Soooo... that being the case, I've drawn up a programme for the day.  This is subject to change, but as of this moment, here's the running order.  Of course, you have no idea what games I'm going to play within each segment, which should keep it interesting!

12-1pm Random

1-2pm US Gold

2-3pm Elite Systems

3-4pm Random

4-5pm Gremlin Graphics

5-6pm Spectrum

6-7pm Hewson Consultants

7-8pm Budget Games

8-9pm Commodore 64

9-10pm Graftgold

10-11pm Ocean/Imagine

11pm-12am Random

I hope that looks intriguing enough to you, it's got me excited, anyway!  If you have any suggestions, please give me a shout.  I'll be giving more updates as time goes by so keep checking back.

Also, if you want to have a look at my JustGiving page, here it is.  It goes without saying that all donations are and will be appreciated hugely.

Gaming on Purple Day - all help appreciated

by Paul Morrison

March 26th is Purple Day.  That probably doesn't mean anything to you, which is where I come in.  Purple Day is a World Epilepsy Awareness event.

Epilepsy is a condition that affects many people... in fact, the stats suggest that over 600,000 people in the UK have epilepsy.  For young people, it can be particularly embarrassing... having a seizure in front of friends or classmates can be mortifying as nobody really understands what's going on.

My family was affected by epilepsy in the year 2005 when my brother Jamie, at the age of 26, died as a result of a seizure.  I'd witnessed his seizures and they were terrifying but I was, and we were, in no way prepared for the possibility that this thing could take his life.

For some time now, I've wanted to do something to try and raise awareness (and funds) for a young person's epilepsy charity.  With modern technology and the advent of streaming coming to the fore, I thought I could combine my passion for computer games and this book with a fundraising effort.  I am therefore going to play Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum games all day (not for 24 hours!) on Sunday March 26th and stream my efforts for anyone who might be interested.

I can't promise the most thrilling commentary... I'll be on cam (I think) and will be talking as I play, but hopefully people will dip in and out at the prospect of seeing someone playing one of their old favourites or maybe something they'd never had a chance to play back in the day, and will have a warm pang of nostalgia which might lead to them chucking a couple of quid into the pot.  All proceeds from the event will go to Young Epilepsy, there's a link to the charity's homepage at the bottom of this piece.

I'm not terribly au fait with Twitch, but that's where I'll be.  It has a chat room facility, so I'll be taking suggestions as to what games to play... after all, I'll be on there for at least nine or ten hours so I'll be playing a lot of games!  I'll be drawing up my own list and I might publish a list of highlights with set times when I might be playing some games, but that's over a month away yet so we'll see.  There will be some games which will feature in the book, for sure, but whether I give away any spoilers... we'll see.

Here's my Just Giving page, if you feel like contributing financially: They Were Our Gods - 8-bit gaming marathon

Here's my Twitch page so you can watch me enjoying or torturing myself: Twitch: They Were Our Gods

Here's the Young Epilepsy homepage... go and have a read: Young Epilepsy

The power of visual

by Paul Morrison

I haven't blogged much about this book lately.  Mainly, that's because I'm doing more important writing: namely, the book.  I have almost all my interviews in (there are a couple more I would like, but I could run it quite easily with the ones I have), so I can concentrate primarily on adding to the interviewees' excellent content.

I do post on Twitter a lot, less so on Facebook, but my posts on Twitter are more as part of conversations, rather than specifics about the book.  My posts here have become more sporadic because it gets difficult to add anything fresh.  Do you really want to read "well, I added another 500 words today"?  I don't know, actually.  Do you?

Anyway, it's easy to be overcome with negative thoughts and feelings.  Nobody seems interested... am I wasting my time?... is it any good?  Then there are feelings such as, will I ever finish this thing?  I've never felt that that was in doubt, but sometimes it was hard to see any progress.

However, one conversation gave me a good idea.  I decided to make a spreadsheet.  It sounds like something that would have nothing to do with the writing of a book, but it's serving a valuable purpose.  What I've done is to make a list of everyone I've interviewed, then a range of cells from 0% to 100%, in 10% increments.  Then at the end, columns for the number of words in the interview, and the number of words in the piece once I've replaced the questions with narrative.

I've found that it's a great incentive to me, to have that.  Every time I make a substantial amount of progress, I shade cells against the interviewee in question.  I'm also colour-coding it, so I can see at a glance where I've made most progress and where I have most work left.  Those who are completed, at least for a first pass, are coloured green.  Then it's kind of traffic-lighted down to red for those with most work left.

I don't know if you think that's weird, but it's really working well.  I find that it's hard to concentrate on one person's interview from start to finish, which is why they're all at least partly finished.  I work on them as and where inspiration strikes, which means that I'm always pushing the thing forwards.  Well, almost always... but if I can't be inspired about this project at all on any given day, then I have something else I'm working on which rekindles the mojo...

More about that another time.  For now, you can be assured that progress is being made.  It's there in black and white... or red, orange, yellow and green.

Arcade antics

by Paul Morrison

I've got a little treat for you diehards, a little something to whet your whistles.

When we think back to arcade conversions, we often imagine programmers sitting in the company office, playing an arcade machine for hours at a time, taking notes or recording it so that they could make as accurate a representation as possible.

But what about those who were programming a clone of an arcade game or an unofficial version?  How did they go about the task?  Did they write it from memory, borne out of ploughing coin after coin into the machine, or were there other ways of getting the information they needed?

In this They Were Our Gods exclusive, taken from a much larger interview which will appear in the book, one programmer explains how, without an official licence behind him, the task of getting the information needed to replicate a game was somewhat more difficult...

"We had a big company outing where we identified an outlet that had the game and went out on a mission to take pictures of it. It was true comedy. I had no idea at the time [if] it was even illegal, but as the news sunk in at what we were doing the whole thing started to become a very serious matter. What was even more of a surprise for me (and I think all of us) was the reaction of the coin-op staff who were a very equal rival in the antics. They didn't want anyone taking pictures in their parlour, and so ensued a game of attack and counter-attack of various strategies at taking pictures, some more successful than others, with the police eventually making an appearance as we raced down the street back to our getaway cars and back to the office, booty intact, and mission accomplished."

I can't help but laugh as I picture the scene and wonder if it was commonplace up and down the country at the time!  Feel free to speculate what the game was and who was behind these clandestine photo sessions.  All this and much, much more will be revealed when the book is released...

Polybius - Feed your head to Jeff Minter

by Paul Morrison

I’m writing this in a stream-of-consciousness style on the train on my way home from PlayExpo in Manchester, because, well, what else do you do on train journeys?  I could play a bit of TxK as I have my Vita with me, but that would mean subjecting myself to more Jeff Minter and I’m not really sure I’m up for that again, just yet.

“What’s the problem?”, I hear you ask.  Well, let me tell you what the problem is.  I’ve just played the demo of Llamasoft’s latest creation, Polybius.

If you’ve read Jeff’s latest blog post, you’ll have read the story of how this game came about.  It’s loosely based on the now-mythical brain-melting unreleased arcade game of the same name.  Jeff has seemingly pieced together what fragments of memories remain from his brief experience with the game, and built on top of it with his own unquestionable know-how.

You might also have seen a couple of gameplay videos by now.  If you have, you’ve probably thought, “Oh, there’s Minter at it again with his tube shooters.  Yeah, looks nice.  Probably quite good fun”.  You probably think you have a fair idea of where it’s going.

Let me tell you something.  You have no idea.

The reason I say this is because the game is built to run on VR units.  That means you have to strap on a pair of those funky new goggles and allow yourself to be completely at the mercy of the man who knows how to inflict visual and aural mania upon you better than anyone else.  Once those goggles are on, you belong to him.

Pressing ‘X’ hurls you headlong into the first level, which is a tutorial of sorts, in that it’s fairly inoffensive, at least as far as enemy attacks go.  As soon as you begin, you realise that everything you have seen of the game so far means nothing.

It’s impossible to overstate the effect the VR headset has on this game.  I’d never used one before, and it was simply staggering.  The first level was all well and good, with stunning true 3D bringing Minter’s mindwarps thoroughly to life.  Once I hit the second level, though, things took on an even greater dimension (see what I did there?).

The second level has you inside a tunnel.  You’ve seen and heard that before, but never like this.  You have to traverse all 360 degrees of the tunnel, and that’s when the VR effect really slams home.  I definitely felt a sense of disorientation as I swooped up and down the sides of the tunnel… at first.  Once I figured out how to play the game a bit better, I managed my movements better, became more effective and felt less out of whack with the world.

The feeling you get as things fly from behind you within touching distance, or explosions rush towards you almost making you flinch, is immense.  It’s new.  You haven’t had an experience like this before.  You just haven’t.  As I played it I felt that my jaw was hanging open the whole time, but I was too busy swooping and blasting to even care about closing it.

Later levels throw more and different things at you.  Oh, and each level has a series of bull-horn gates to pass through.  When you do, you increase a bonus multiplier... I think.  I also think that's what triggers an increase in speed.  It might be something else, it was hard to really tell from one short demo.  But when you do start speeding up and tunnels are strobing and things are shooting and exploding, you will truly feel like you're in another dimension.  It is awesome.

The object of the game, by the way, is to shoot things.  Basically, shoot everything and don’t crash into anything.  It’s a tried-and-tested Llamasoft formula, and it works. Here, it just feels natural.  You don’t have to be told what to do.  You just glide into it and go by your instincts.  They’ll serve you well.  Just go with it and enjoy.

If I absolutely have to try and describe it for you, I’d say it’s like playing a shoot ‘em up inside the tunnel at the start of an 80s episode of Doctor Who, whilst simultaneously looking through a kaleidoscope.  It’s like S.T.U.N. Runner meets Cosmic Causeway meets Blaster meets Star Wars meets Race the Sun meets God knows what else.  And yet, it's none of those things.  It’s its own entity, and it’s stunning.  Is it stunning enough to make me spend hundreds on a new piece of kit so I can play it more?  Yes, if I can figure out how to rake the cash together.  Until then, I suppose I’ll have to settle for TxK.

PlayExpo Manchester - Saturday

by Paul Morrison

Hi all!

Are you going to PlayExpo at Manchester tomorrow?  I am!  Not in an official capacity, I hasten to add, but I will be wearing a They Were Our Gods t-shirt.  I guarantee you I'll be the only onw, so if you're there and you see me, come up and say hi!  I'd be happy to chat about pretty much anything, and maybe beat your score on the Gyruss arcade machine.

See ya there!

Book review - A Gremlin in the Works by Mark Hardisty

by Paul Morrison

In the time since I announced that I was writing this book, it seems like the whole world read about it, thought "that's a good idea" and started writing similar books of their own.  There have been dozens of them released in that time, all offering different perspectives on our favourite hobby from our favourite era.  I don't really mind that, because the people in question deserve the exposure and their stories need to be heard.  My only worry has been that some of these books would make mine irrelevant and make it pointless to continue.

That's silly, of course, as mine will be different from all the others out there.  Even if some of the content is similar or even repeated, there will be hundreds of unique pages for your reading pleasure.  So no, nothing is going to stop me from completing my book.  Now my main concern is how good these books are, because I'm buying almost all of them!

The latest such publication is A Gremlin in the Works, and it's one I've been anticipating eagerly for a long time.  Author Mark Hardisty has maintained high visibility on social media, which has served to ramp up the expectations of his book over a long period of time.  That could have been dangerous, had the book not lived up to these expectations.  Hang on... am I giving anything away about its quality with that sentence?  Read on and find out...

As you might have guessed, A Gremlin in the Works is a look at Sheffield's finest computer games publisher, Gremlin Graphics.  It's a name that needs no introduction to any of you reading this, as you're certain to have played many of their games.  With such classic series as Monty Mole, Jack the Nipper and, ummm, MASK, along with countless standalone titles of varying quality, the company made its mark on the industry and our hearts.  Their story is one that's been begging to be told, with books on Ocean Software and US Gold already out there.  This has a different author to those publications though, which makes for a very different reading experience.

The first thing that strikes you about the book is its size.  It's MASSIVE!  It's also heavy!  In fact, it's two books, coming as it does in two hardback volumes held in a very fetching (and sturdy) slipcase.  It oozes quality on first appearance, which is usually a good sign.  Never judge a book by its cover (or slipcase), though... the proof, of course, comes with the reading.

I mentioned earlier that the book is split into two volumes.  This is done across the company's timeline, so volume one covers 1983 - 1989 and volume two covers... well, the rest.  Mark tackles his subject chronologically, paying extra attention to any event or game of particular note.  It's a good way of approaching it... if every game, even the duffers, were covered as comprehensively, then the book would probably run to eight or ten volumes.  By singling out the really important games and giving them the coverage they really deserve, the book holds your interest through every page... there's little or no temptation to skip ahead.

The first volume is the one you will probably be most interested in, covering as it does the "classic" 8-bit years.  Here, you'll find all the Monty Mole games, Thing on a Spring, Bounder and Gauntlet, with masses of quotes from all involved.  There's also a lot of behind-the-scenes information, way more than just the technicalities of each game.  The story of the way the Gauntlet licence was obtained is one such gold nugget that you more than likely haven't heard before... and must read to believe.

Volume two leans more towards the 16-bit era, which for many was their entry point into gaming so if you're a little younger than I am then this might be the more interesting read for you, of the two.  Again, it features many familiar names and games, with the likes of Switchblade, Zool and Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge figuring heavily.  The book even carries through into the Playstation era where Gremlin retained a presence, with Loaded and the Actua sports games being especially notable to those of us who were still gaming at that point.  Things reach a conclusion with Gremlin's eventual demise and Mark wraps things up by catching up with what everyone is up to today... a nice way to let readers follow their favourites in the present day.

It's hard to find the superlatives for this book, but it's my job to try, so here goes.  A Gremlin in the Works is, quite simply, the finest book about any aspect of the British computer games industry written to date.  It's unbelievably comprehensive and includes contributions from anyone who was anyone either at or with Gremlin Graphics, as long as they were alive and contactable at the time of writing.  It has screenshots, magazine adverts, design documents, photos galore and any other relevant trivia you could imagine.  There's so much more I could write, but I think I've given you a general idea.  It's better if you go and read it all for yourself.  It is truly a treasure trove of information about one of Britain's best-loved software houses, and it's no exaggeration to say that if you have even the slightest interest in the subject, you MUST own this book.

You can buy A Gremlin in the Works here: A Gremlin in the Works. Rumour has it that there will soon be extra content available...


by Paul Morrison

Hi all,

Wow, I've just realised how long it's been since I posted anything here.  Sorry about that, especially if that led you to believe that this project might be dead.  It definitely isn't, and work is continuing in the same slow, steady vein that it always has.  There was a little spell there where I didn't do much writing, but I took the opportunity to develop an action plan of sorts, to keep track of my progress and help me be more focused (thanks, Andy!).

It is actually quite difficult to write a stream of updates without giving away any of the book's content or secrets.  I'm not at the point where I want to give too much away yet, though.  Maybe once I have every word down and it's all about the layout, then I can start spilling some more interesting beans.  Until then, stick with me as I continue to add my narrative and compete the stories of 38 (and possibly still rising) unbelievable 8-bit talents.  Their accounts are all well worth the wait...

Diary of a Game - John Darnell

by Paul Morrison

Hi gang.

So I haven't posted here as much as I should have lately, but that's purely down to the fact that I'm really writing furiously.  So much for the daily updates, I know... but I've added a LOT of words to this thing over the past month or so (this despite a succession of colds... will they ever end?).

If you do fancy having something to read on a more regular basis, may I point you in the direction of a new game blog by John Darnell?  John, as you may know, wrote a number of games on the Commodore 64 in the Eighties and was kind enough to comment on my look back at Star Paws on this very site (and let's say that has been expanded substantially since, wink!).

John's been re-bitten by the programming bug and has delved into his back catalogue to revisit the first game he ever wrote, which was called Sleepwalker.  This game was completed but never released, and has now been lost in the mists of time.  John thought he still had his original source code but sadly, most of it was lost.

Fear not, though!  John has decided to pick out the best of his original ideas, add some new features and rewrite the game from scratch!  It will be, in effect, a new game entirely, with a reverent passing nod to the original.  Trevor "Smila" Storey is doing the graphics and we could well be on to a winner here.  Either way, we're getting a new Commodore 64 game out of it, which is always a good thing.

You can follow John's progress here:


Pop over, check it out and give one of our Gods a bit of encouragement with this new project!

Budget Day 2016 - Alcatrazz Harry (ZX Spectrum)

by Paul Morrison

Someone told me I should go out on a low and suggested this game.  Well, I won't be going out on a low because this is not the last game I'm playing and that game is definitely not a low.  This one is, though.

Harry is banged up in Alcatrazz, but not for long!  He plans on getting out and, not only that, he's taking some secret files with him!  Trouble is, he needs 30 items from around the confines of the camp in order to escape and the secret files are hidden.  Looks like Harry's got some searching to do before he can get away!

  Harry meets an untimely end!

Harry meets an untimely end!

Unfortunately for Harry, there are guards everywhere and, if he gets caught, he'll find himself up against the wall in front of the firing squad.  That's no good, so you'd better be good at sneaking around.

It's a good idea, and one that was executed (see what I did there?) much better years later in Ocean's The Great Escape.  Sadly, this game is far too slow and ugly to be worth a go.  It's not the worst game I've ever played, not by a long shot.  But I won't be loading it again.

Budget Day 2016 - Revenge II - Return of the Mutant Camels (Commodore 64)

by Paul Morrison

Here's another recommendation, but this one is not unfamiliar to me.  I'm sure that most of you have guessed, from the title, that Revenge II is a Jeff Minter game.  That means you have a fair idea of what's to follow.

Revenge II - Return of the Mutant Camels is the third in the Mutant Camels series, following Attack of the Mutant Camels and Revenge of the Mutant Camels.  It's a series renowned for its intense blasting action and this game ramps everything up to the max.

The game gives you a grid to conquer, featuring 100 levels.  You always start in the top left corner of the grid, but once you've got through that level you can begin to choose your path.  It's a great system, very Minter-esque, which means it's very difficult to get bored or frustrated.  Struggling with a particular level?  Just go around it.

The best thing about Revenge II, as with many Minter games, is the sense of discovery you get from playing through the levels.  You never know quite what you're going to find each time.  You know it's probably going to be unconventional at the very least, and that's half the fun.  Whether you're being assaulted by giant telephones, marauding Pac-Men or massive returning Rorys, the crazy fun is never ending.

It reminds me of Jeff's classic Ancipital in that respect, and that's not a bad thing at all.  The blasting never lets up and it's loud and obnoxious and very entertaining.  And this time you get to buy extra weapons, too.  Lovely.  It all adds up to a top-notch budget title. even if you're not the biggest fan of ungulates.

Budget Day 2016 - Star Pilot (ZX Spectrum)

by Paul Morrison

Here's one I'm playing on a recommendation, and it seems appropriate to follow one vertically scrolling space shooter with another.  Star Pilot sees you navigating a number of levels, blasting nasties and dodging obstacles.  Get to the end of the level and you receive a large score bonus.

That's about it, really.  Worst write-up ever!  There's a bit more to it than that, as it happens, although not loads.  The game's most notable feature is that it has a split-screen two player mode.  Obviously if you play with your mate, you get to kind of race each other up the screen as you blast through each level.  I imagine that this could be quite a bit of fun because you can speed up and slow down, so you could have challenges as you played, seeing who could clear each level the quickest.

  Ha! Wally's getting knocked off the high score table. Dudge is up next...

Ha! Wally's getting knocked off the high score table. Dudge is up next...

I didn't get to do that, though, so in all honesty I found the game a little dull and unremarkable.  The graphics are nice... they're well defined and the scrolling is good.  I'm not a big fan of the tiny play area, though.  It does work for the game, but I think it would be better if the whole of the screen was used.  I suppose it might have been difficult to do that and then switch to the split screens for the two player mode, though.

Star Pilot is not a write-off or anything bad like Dark Star.  It's pretty nondescript, though.  I definitely think I would have enjoyed it more at the time of release.  If I'd played it with a mate sitting next to me, the element of competitiveness from the split-screen mode would have been a good laugh.  As it is, it'll probably fade into obscurity for me.

Budget Day 2016 - Dark Star (Commodore 64)

by Paul Morrison

What do you do when you're 14 years old, dying for a new game and with two quid burning a hole in your pocket, and you go out and buy something on a whim, come home excitedly, load it up, play it, and... it's cack?  You suck it up and play the heck out of it, determined to maximise your pocket money regardless.

That's how it was in the Eighties, and that's how it was when I bought Dark Star.  It was actually one of the first games I bought and one of my first regrets.  It was programmed by the legendary Darling Brothers, although many of their early games were missteps.  In fact, the first game I ever bought for the C64 and regretted spending money on was BMX Trials, which was also programmed by the Darlings.  If I'd have known, I'd have left Dark Star on the shelf.

  I'd have put a poster of that on my wall, for sure.

I'd have put a poster of that on my wall, for sure.

In fact, the only reason I picked it up in the first place was because of the awesome Mark J. Brady artwork on the front cover.  It was a fantastic sci-fi piece and its magnificence seduced me into purchasing the game.  Oh, well... that wouldn't be the last time I would make such a mistake...

The game itself was obviously influenced by the iconic trench sequence at the end of Star Wars.  In it, you have to fly up "transport channels" to destroy the Dark Star.  Sounds great, but the switch to an overhead view destroys all the atmosphere of the movie or the Star Wars arcade game.  The juddery scrolling doesn't help matters and the gameplay is not exactly thrilling.

  Look at that. Pure evil.

Look at that. Pure evil.

The main problem, for me, is that every so often the channel splits and you have to make a choice as to which fork to take.  All well and good, until you realise that if you take the wrong one, you're dead.  One of the forks is always a dead end and there's no way to escape it.  It's very annoying and basically means you play the game, remember which is the wrong tunnel when you die, play it again and do the same until you can remember every correct tunnel until the end.

That's not a lot of fun, and the all-round lack of quality in every other aspect of the game means that it's not something you'll ever spend a lot of time playing.  Not now, anyway... but back in 1985, when you've just spent two precious pounds on it...

Budget Day 2016 - Slayer (Commodore 64)

by Paul Morrison

Hewson Consultants was a software house of great repute.  They were always known for their quality games, so it stood to reason that when they opened a budget software label, that label would also be a home for top-notch releases.  On the Commodore 64, in particular, they put out a string of excellent original games for pocket money prices and the label stood proudly alongside its parent company.

I bought quite a few Rack-It games but somehow never picked up Slayer... at least, I don't think I did.  I can't remember having owned it and I'm sure I would have, because it's very good.

Forget the plot... all you need to know is that you fly from left to right, avoiding obstacles and landscape and obliterating anything that moves.  It's classic shoot 'em up material, so what matters is how well it's done.

  Does this look like your type of game? Hey, don't tell me to shut up!

Does this look like your type of game? Hey, don't tell me to shut up!

Thankfully, Slayer is done very well.  It has a bit of an IO-type feel to it, but without having quite the level of soul-crushing difficulty of that game.  Graphically it's really nice, with large, well-defined and colourful sprites moving around very smoothly indeed.  Your ship handles pretty nicely, and the game gives you a few extra weapons or add-ons to play with.  Not too much... again, it's a lot like IO in terms of what you can pick up.

Slayer was written by Gari Biasillo, who is more renowned for his music than his games... indeed, his title tune here is excellent.  That's a shame, because if he'd written more games and they were all of this standard, we'd all have been very happy gamers indeed.  Still, he does write very nice music so perhaps he made the right choice.  Slayer is an excellent budget game and a brilliant way to banish my post-lunch slump.  Now I'm just wondering what to play next...

Budget Day 2016 - The Wild Bunch (ZX Spectrum)

by Paul Morrison

Here's a game I've always wanted to try and never got around to.  I even own the original but as my Spectrum isn't working then I was snookered.  OK, you might be asking why I haven't played it in an emulator before now.  Good question.  But what better time than today?

The Wild Bunch is a difficult game to categorise, if you're into categorising your games.  It looks like a text adventure but it's not, not really.  It's actually a murder mystery game which throws you, the unwitting player, in at the deep end and makes you become an impromptu detective as you seek to clear your name.

The game opens with you stumbling upon a murder and being mistaken for the killer.  Whoops!  You hotfoot it outta there and from that point on you have to make your way around the five towns in the area in a bid to uncover the killer and escape capture... or death.  Well, this is the Wild West, after all.

  So running didn't work, can't see how a bribe would either... OK, put 'em up!

So running didn't work, can't see how a bribe would either... OK, put 'em up!

There are a number of things you can do in each town, depending on the buildings within.  You can visit a saloon and have a drink while checking out the clientele.  Or, if you'd rather, you can clean out the local gambler of his (probably) ill-gotten gains (I was thrilled to pick up a straight in my first hand of poker!).  You can look for leads in the local sheriff's office, or stock up on supplies at the store.  You'll need them on your travels, that's for sure!

I have to say, I found The Wild Bunch really interesting and absorbing.  I liked its sense of humour too (see the screenshot for a good example of that).  I had to force myself to stop playing to write this, otherwise you might have only been reading about two or three games today!  It's a really nice little game and I'd have been extremely happy to have spent my £2.50 on it.