Retro gaming is full of amazing brothers and the Fothergills are no exception! Having come up with some of our favourite Amiga and Atari games including the incredibly fun AiRburst games, Aaron Fothergill also converted the amazing Zoop to the Atari Jaguar! He kindly stopped by to have a chat with our Adrian about the good ol’ days and a much needed take on the Amiga CD32…
A new AiRBurst game I hear you cry? Available to download on iOS here, don’t say we don’t spoil you!
Can you remember your earliest memory of gaming and what was your favourite computer/console while growing up?
My parents borrowed one of the early home Pong/Football consoles from a friend for a few days when I was probably around 11 or 12. I didn’t have a console or computer as a kid, so learned on the school’s PET and a terminal link to Farnborough Tech as well as my friends’ computers. So I got to play around and learn different dialects of BASIC on pretty much everything, Vic-20, CBM-64, Speccy, ZX-81, Dragon-32, TI-99 etc. as well as playing on the Atari VCS console. When I was 16 my father (who was in the RAF) was posted to Hong Kong and I got a cheap Apple ][ clone which became my main machine (and my favourite) as well as programming on one of the first Macs there at a radio station I was working for.
How did you get the opportunity to enter the video game industry?
Originally I set up my own company. I’d been writing and selling bespoke synthesiser editor software as well as developing games. I’d got one of my Atari ST games on an ST/Amiga Format cover disk (Jitterbugs, a 1-32 player MIDI linked game written in GFA BASIC) and was writing games in STOS, which led to my working with Mandarin Software to set up the STOS club (and later AMOS club) and starting my own business.
Can you remember the first ever video game you worked on?
The first one I worked on was at school for my O Levels. It was a stock exchange simulator. Although that was one I tweaked on and off over a year or so, I also remember writing a lot of “Shoot the TIE Fighter” type games based on the scene from Star Wars 😉
A lot of your earlier games were developed for the amazing Amiga. How do you reflect back on your Amiga days and how easy was it to programme on?
It was interesting. I did most of my Amiga work using AMOS (usually combined with a bit of assembler) so it was fairly quick to prototype. I used to like writing 10-line games (harder than it sounds in AMOS because after about 220 characters on a line it would randomly delete the line 😉 )
You have worked on a number of games with your brother Adam. What was it like working with your brother and was there ever any sibling clashes or friendly rivalry?
I think we’re lucky in that our skill sets complement one another. I can’t draw for toffee and my musical skills are vaguely competent, so I code and do the bulk of the design work and Adam handles the art and sound. We clash sometimes on some decisions, but that’s something that we’ve just about worked out how to deal with over the years.
You helped program Zoop for the Atari Jaguar. How easy was it to create games for Jag compared to other platforms?
I actually enjoyed it. The Jaguar was the first console I worked on as part of a team (having shut my own company by then and gone to work for Electric Spectacle in Newcastle). So I got to focus on specific parts rather than the whole game in one go. I did rather like getting down and dirty with the DSP chips and we even found a hardware bug on the version of the 68020 chip they were using that made one of the instructions fail.
Was there any difference in creating a game for the Amiga and the Amiga CD32?
Yes. CD burning was in its infancy then and to get your data onto a CD to be able to test with the devkit, you had to put it all on floppies (along with any music on DAT tape) and send it to Commodore to be burned to a disk. So you’d then use the “Old” CD data with your latest code booting off floppy to work on, send them the new data to burn for the next CD etc. and repeat.
The music was a bit flawed as it turned out you couldn’t fade CD based music in or out. So to transition it you either had to put up with a hard cross (which sounds bad) or slap a sound effect over the transition (which is why you have the jet whoosh between songs on Jetstrike). For Base Jumpers CD32 we decided we might as well emphasise the join and put a big record scratch between tracks 😉 (nice bit of trivia there! – Ed)
Why do you think the Amiga CD32 was not successful?
Commodore were making it. By the time they did the CD-32 they really didn’t have a clue. It only had 1k of flash storage to save *ALL* your games, the devkits were a pain and they didn’t have any money to promote or develop anything. Towards the end they were actually asking us for any spare CDs of the games we had published so they could use them to promote them but they were actually selling them off to try and pay wages.
The rest of the actual functionality of the CD-32 wasn’t bad. The controller wasn’t the worst ever developed and the CD worked, plus it was at heart an Amiga. But Commodore was a dead company walking by that point.
If you could bring back either the Amiga or Atari to their heyday, which company would you choose and why?
Atari, mostly because it was a great musician’s machine with the MIDI interface.
Have you ever created an Easter egg in a game you worked on, and if so, can you now share your favourite Easter egg to our readers?
In Jetstrike, if you’re flying straight and level at high altitude, there’s a 1 in a million chance at any given time that a spaceship will drop out of the sky, accidentally crash into you and cause your aircraft to dive into the ground as you auto-eject. While you’re parachuting down, the alien will apologise and lend you his Alien Superfighter UFO for a few missions.
In all our earlier iOS games, until recently. We always put a hidden musical instrument into the game that could be accessed by a fairly arcane sequence of events. The Quackophone in Flick Fishing (A pond with musical ducks), the Campaphone (A hippy camper van that plays music as it drives around in SlotZ Racer) and so on. We stopped doing them because while they were fun, they were only there for a tiny number of players to find and the cost of development time meant we needed to focus purely on the games themselves.
How has the role of a programmer evolved throughout your career and what advice would you give to anyone looking to enter this profession today?
The actual general concept of programming hasn’t really changed. You still need similar skills. However the tools available have changed a lot and as a coder you’re less likely to be just typing code in and more likely to be working with a visual editor or debugger. As to anyone looking to enter the profession. Run away. Run away now. It’s a horrible job that demands long hours for low pay and even if you write a hit game you can end up with ‘fans’ sending you death threats (not had any myself fortunately, but certainly had lots of idiot level comments from people who want me to work for free).
Out of all the games you have worked on, which one are you most proud of and why?
The AiRburst series, especially the XBLA one we never released. We’ll definitely be coming back to AiRburst when we can afford it.
Have you ever worked on any games that were never released? If so, which unreleased games do you feel would have been the most successful?
A few. Airburst 360 (the XBLA version) was the best of them. Our publishers got us to put it on hold to switch to writing iOS games as the way things had changed meant we’d probably have lost more money on it. Other than that, there’s a reason the unreleased games were unreleased. Usually they got to a point where we just didn’t think they were good enough.
What are your top 3 video games of all time and why?
Hmm, tricky. In no particular order..
I’ll cheat and count all the Fallout games as one of them. Really enjoy playing those still.
Adventure was a major inspiration for me on the Atari and finally, there’s an Apple ][ game that was my absolute favourite called Aztec. (sort of a side on Indiana Jones platformer).
What projects are you currently working on?
Currently we’re working on another big update to Fish! (the sequel/rewrite of our hit iOS game Flick Fishing). Things are a bit delayed thanks to a family crisis over the new year that involved me flying to Tunisia and back via a hospital in France on a rescue mission, but we’re slowly getting it together.
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
I think a pub night with the bard from Bards Tale would be fun. That was a player character that was entertaining as you played. Even better if all the other adventurer characters I’ve played in games were there too. Might need to rob a temple or two to pay for it though 🙂
Thanks for stopping by Aaron! Readers, don’t forget to download new AiRburst iOS here