The Spectrum is a thing of wonder for us here at Arcade Attack. We haven’t played it much in the “office” and what games we have played have been hair-tearing-out-ingly experiences… Goodness knows what it was like to work on. Step up Mark R Jones – Ocean legend and developer of one of the few Speccy games we can play without hurling our mugs of tea at the wall in disgust (Mag Max). Adrian was able to catch up with him for a quick chat about the golden days. Cassette players ready…
How exactly did you get involved in the video game industry and what was the first game you ever worked on?
I left school in September 1986 after a failed attempt to carry on at my upper school in the sixth form. I remember being in a lesson one day just before lunch and I was thinking “What AM I doing here?” and went home when the dinner bell went and never went back. For the past 18 months or so I’d been experimenting with graphics on my ZX Spectrum and would take them to the computer shop I worked in on Saturdays and show them off. Just as I left school a full time employee there, Chris Herbert, was leaving so it all tied in nicely and I ended up as full time staff during the lead up to Christmas. People who saw my stuff said I should send it off to software companies, so, not thinking anything would come of it, I did and got some replies. The two main ones were from Elite and Ocean. I had interviews at both and chose Ocean. It all happened rather quickly and by the beginning of February 1987 I’d moved to Manchester and was working at 6 Central Street.
The very first title I worked on was ‘Mag Max’ on the Spectrum and Amstrad (not a bad first one to start with! – Ed). It had been produced out of house and was already late, having been heavily advertised for the past three or four months. It was nearing completion but needed tarting up a bit. So I was asked to redo the main character sprite and make a loading screen for the two machines. It was my first piece of work that was going to be commercially released so I wanted it to be really good. The Spectrum one turned out really well, in fact, it was easily the best piece of work I had produced up to that point. The Amstrad one was ok but I’d never worked on the Amstrad before, so not only did I have to get used to not having attribute restrictions like you have on the Spectrum I had to learn how to use the art package itself. So that one took a bit a longer and wasn’t as impressive.
You were involved in making the graphics for Back to the Future Part 3. What was it like working on this particular title?
I don’t really remember much. I didn’t do much on it. I’d left Ocean at this point and was trying to get freelance work. I wasn’t getting whole games though, just bits and bobs. All I remember, and I only remember it because the work still exists, it having to draw the De Lorean car as a bitmap on the Amiga. It was only a few years back that I watched a play through of the Mega Drive version on YouTube and saw that it was put in and comes up when you finish the game. Anything else about that game I have forgotten. I may have done some other bits but what they were I don’t know.
If you could travel back in time and work on any video game, which game would you have loved to be involved in?
I had a long think about this. I wouldn’t have wanted to have been involved in anything that I thought was great as a kid, like ’Tir Na Nog’ or ‘Avalon’ because it would have ruined the mystery and magic that I got from them.
Starting to work at Ocean and seeing how games were made ruined that a bit for me. I never saw games in the same way after I’d started making them. You look at them from a different point of view. Anyway, I’d have to say ‘Addams Family’ on the 16 bits. Everyone who worked on it said they had a great time doing it. It also would have meant that I would have stuck it out at Ocean a bit longer, which is my big regret, and it was one of those games where the team involved seemingly put all sorts of jolly things in it and came out with a great platformer.
Contra was a huge hit, which later spawned many successful sequels – did you know from the start you had a big hit on your hands?
No, no idea. Plus we only knew it as Gryzor downstairs at Ocean. That was what the arcade machine was titled that we referenced from. I’d never heard of it before. I was told that I was doing it, Steve Lavache (Ocean’s tech guy) is setting it up in Arcade Alley, get to work! I don’t even know if the Spectrum version was a huge hit. Was it? (erm, we think it was a tad more successful on the consoles… – Ed). We were never told anything about sales figures or who were playing our games at the time.
You helped turn both Arnie’s and Sly’s worlds into glorious 16-bit video games in both Total Recall and Rambo III. If you had full licence to make any other video game from these two Hollywood heavyweights’ back catalogue of films, which would you choose and why?
Erm, I couldn’t tell you. While I do like some of Arnie’s old 80s films I was never a fan of the sort of films Sylvester Stallone was in. I was into things like ‘Hellraiser’ and ‘Evil Dead 2’, and you couldn’t really make a game out of those sort of films. All the Arnie films, that were any good, that I can think of, have been made in to games already.
Which video game did you have the most fun working on?
Well that must be converting (the legendary – Ed) ‘Wizball’ to the Spectrum. It was my very first full game, almost all the reviews were brilliant, it got much higher marks than i expected considering it was a mere shadow of the C64 version.
What projects are you currently working on?
I currently have no projects on the go. A few months back I finished making a second and last run of ‘Dingo’ physical cassettes for the Spectrum, a game I worked on a few years back. ‘Dingo’ was an arcade game made by the Ultimate Play The Game fellows when they were known as just ACG. I was given some old games that had never been used, about 50 of them. They were useless really except the cases were in great nick. So I salvaged those and made some real Spectrum games. The programmer took the opportunity to iron out a few niggles from the initial version so that these copies had a unique version of the game on it. I forgot how long it takes to hand copy Spectrum game data on to real tapes in real time, on both sides. Then of course I had to check them to make sure they loaded. I won’t be doing that again in a hurry…
The ZX Spectrum is obviously close to your heart but what console or computer do you loathe the most?
Well, loathe? Ha! That’s a bit harsh. I would say the Atari Lynx. Only because I worked in a computer shop when it came out and I wasn’t that impressed. I remember that screen being hard to see properly, you had to hold it at an angle. I seem to remember it being too big. It wasn’t comfortable to hold. Was it too heavy? (yup! – Ed). Anyway, at the shop it was one of these things that we sold a few of, then the others sat on the shelves for ages, getting battered and faded. I’ve not actually seen a real one for years so all of my comments above might be complete rubbish!
If you could share a few pints with a video game character who would you choose?
It would have to be Maroc the Shapeshifter from ‘Avalon’. We would huddle around a log fire in some ancient public house in a wispy wood somewhere and he would regale me of tales about the Lord Of Chaos , journeying through the Great Halls Of The Deep and the Goblin Warren while I tried to look like I was enjoying the rancid mugs of mead!
Lovely stuff! Thank you very much for your time Mark and we wish you all the best for the future!