Is this the Matthew Smith that made Manic Miner? No. Is this the journalist Matthew Smith who’s an Amiga superfan and assembler of the upcoming Amiga Power music album? Absolutely! And we had to find out more about him and the project so Adrian went along and asked him a few questions for us.
***The Kickstarter is now live! And the rewards are simply glorious!***
Can you give our readers a bit of your background and your earliest and fondest gaming memories growing up?
I’m a journalist by trade; I studied at Bournemouth University and went into local papers when I left, eventually going to work at the Bath Chronicle offices – at that point based just around the corner from Future Publishing – before moving into magazines. At the moment I’m the editor of a subscription-only business finance journal.
As a very small child I never owned a computer or console, but lots of my friends did, and my earliest memories of gaming are being introduced to the likes of Dizzy, Target Renegade and Jet Set Willy on the Speccy, and Bruce Lee, Ghostbusters and Thing On A Spring for the C64.
I did eventually acquire a console in the late ’80s – an Atari 2600, which at the time I had no idea was practically obsolete already. I had fun playing Crystal Castles, Kung Fu Master, Jr Pac Man and Crossbow, but it wasn’t until I got my Amiga 500+ for Christmas in 1991 that I really got into video games in a major way. It was my first ever computer and I loved it to bits, and I have heaps of happy memories connected with it.
You are arguably a bigger Amiga fan than both Dyl and I! Can you recall your first time playing this amazing computer and what were your first impressions?
I first learned of the Amiga’s existence when I purchased a copy of Amiga Action magazine just before Christmas in 1989. I was 10 years old, and I bought it purely because it had a screenshot of Weird Dreams on the cover, which back then was being used as the visual element for a phone-in quiz on a Saturday morning kids’ show called Motor Mouth, and I was fascinated by its surreal and spooky graphics.
My first encounter with an actual Amiga came a couple of years later, at secondary school. A few of the classrooms had Amigas in them, and kids were allowed to bring their own games from home to play on them at lunchtimes. There was one game that everyone was hooked on – Lemmings – and thus, that was the first Amiga game I ever played. And I thought it was joyous, with its boppy music and its funny sound effects and its gloriously-animated little characters and its extraordinarily simple-yet-ingenious mechanics. You could grasp exactly what you had to do in seconds, and then you could happily spend hours trying to solve its devious puzzles. A true masterpiece of design.
The fact that the Cartoon Classics pack included Lemmings was a major factor in my asking for that particular bundle!
What are your top three Amiga games of all time, and can you explain why?
Harlequin is probably my favourite platform game ever, on any format. It not only looks and sounds wonderful, but it’s absolutely bursting with creativity. Each level is a completely unique experience, with its own individual setting, enemies and obstacles to overcome, and its own distinct mood; the use of colour as an atmosphere-enhancer is fantastic throughout, and there’s a huge amount of imagination in the level designs too. By the time you get to the end you’ll have scaled clock towers, romped across rooftops, swum through underwater labyrinths (having transformed into an angel fish), descended into haunted lift shafts, explored heaven and hell, invaded a console platformer called Cutesy Bros and jumped between the notes in a giant enchanted book of sheet music.
The controls are instinctive and precise, even with the dreaded up-to-jump, and the puzzle system is brilliant as well. You constantly have to remain on the lookout for switches, since flipping them always benefits you in some way, removing obstacles or creating pathways so you can access new areas. The trick is to figure out what each switch actually does, since their effects often take place in a part of the level you can’t see, or even in a completely different level altogether, so you have to stay alert for visual clues in the background and lightbulbs above Harlequin’s head, which mean he’s got an idea to share with you. It’s so much fun.
Apidya is in my top three for many of the same reasons; it’s fantastically imaginative (there’s no other horizontally-scrolling blaster where you control a magic bee flying through perilous fields, ponds and sewers), it’s beautifully presented and it’s user-friendly to an exceptional degree. It’s the first Amiga game I ever encountered where you could listen to all the music from the menu screen, and blimey, what a collection of tunes! This was my introduction to the work of Chris Huelsbeck, and the Apidya soundtrack remains one of my all-time favourites.
My third choice would have to be Lemmings 2. The original was brilliant, and yet somehow the sequel managed to improve upon it in every respect. Unusually inventive, massively characterful and with a level structure that was a work of genius, meaning you had to get stuck 12 times before you were really stuck. A total gem.
Part of being an Amiga owner growing up was the vibrant magazine and demo scene. What are your personal reflections of the amazing magazines growing up?
As a youngster without much money I always looked forward to the new Amiga mags arriving in the shops every month, because it usually meant there’d be some great new demos and PD games available to play on their coverdisks. I quite often picked up copies of mags purely on the strength of the disks that came sellotaped to the front of them. Amiga Power, however, I purchased every month without fail.
You are a huge Amiga Power magazine fan! Do you remember the first time you got hooked on this particular magazine and why do you think it stood out from the crowd?
There were many things that made AP exceptional. Its reviews were unflinchingly honest, and always strikingly well-written, as was every other part of the mag; the news, the features, the tips and even the responses to readers’ letters were penned with real flair and character and wit. Amiga Power was also hugely funny, with an infectiously irreverent sense of humour woven throughout the mag, and there were numerous running gags that you’d only get if you read AP on a regular basis, which added to its specialness. Above all, it was evident that the folk behind AP really cared about the mag, and were firmly on the side of the readers; you could trust them not to guide you wrong just to keep advertisers and game publishers happy, unlike some other Amiga mags I could mention. (hard to disagree with that! – Ed)
Do you still own your Amiga Power magazines from your youth, and do you have a personal favourite edition?
I’m lucky enough to have a complete Amiga Power collection, and I think my personal fave would have to be issue 52, with its fantastic multi-page FPS (or “Doom games”) feature which includes “Doom: But Not On The Computer”, a step-by-step guide on how to play Doom in real life without getting shot by the police.
Amiga Power lasted between 1991 and 1996. Do you remember how you felt when the magazine was sadly discontinued?
Heck, I can even remember where I was when I found out Amiga Power had closed! By an odd coincidence, I was on a family shopping trip in Bath, a mere hop, skip and a jump away from AP’s offices, when I spotted the final ish (with its evocative black “THE END” cover) on the shelves of John Menzies. It just so happened that I hadn’t picked up my own copy of the mag from my local newsagent at that point, so this was the first I knew of AP’s demise. I was a wee bit glum at first, but that final ish was an absolute corker, and I found myself looking forward to heading home so I could collect my copy and read it properly.
You are now in contact with many Amiga Power contributors and ex-employees. How did you get talking to people and did you have an initial objective in mind when you made contact?
I’ve been in touch with Stuart Campbell for some years, first via the forum on his website, World Of Stuart, and latterly on Twitter. I connected with a few other members of the old AP team on Twitter, including Dave Green, Rich Pelley and Cam Winstanley, in the course of chatting about the magazine; and when I started working on the AP album, they were able to help point me towards other former contributors online.
Moving on to the awesome Amiga music scene, which are your top three Amiga soundtracks of all time and can you explain why?
Apidya I’ve already mentioned, and Barry Leitch’s music for Harlequin is another obvious choice for me; every tune from that game is emblazoned on my mind, from the gloriously celebratory Clock Tower theme to the splendidly sinister electro number that first pops up in TVee Wonderland.
For my third pick I have to go for Olof Gustafsson’s Pinball Dreams soundtrack. Every tune from that game is a masterpiece, from the epic intro number to the gloriously spooky main theme from the Nightmare table.
The common thread between these three soundtracks is that they’re replete with tunes that are extraordinarily atmospheric and remarkably catchy at the same time. Once heard, they’ll be inside your head forever!
Can you explain to our readers, your personal background in music and how this overlaps with the Amiga?
I’m not a musician myself, but there were masses of games on the Amiga with music I loved, so it was only natural that I’d be drawn to the Commodore remixing scene. I love hearing my favourite game tunes given a new lease of life on websites such as Remix64 and albums like the Immortal series, but a few years ago I found myself becoming a little frustrated with certain popular tunes being remixed over and over again, while other equally splendid but lesser-known tracks never got any attention. So, in 2014, I started commissioning some of my favourite musicians to create new arrangements of Amiga game themes that had never been remixed before, with the results being published on SoundCloud and AmigaRemix and elsewhere.
This led directly to a friend of mine inviting me to work as a co-producer on an Amiga remix project he had in development, and that was such a fun experience that I decided I wanted to embark on a similar project of my own.
How did you first come up with the Amiga Power album idea?
It was the first notion that popped into my head when I was looking for an Amiga remix project to pursue. AP just seemed like the perfect peg on which to hang everything; it occurred to me that I could get former members of the magazine team to nominate their favourite tunes, and there was further inspiration to be found on the mag’s coverdisks. AP gave away some amazing shareware and public domain games over the years, as well as some terrific commercial games like Blob and No Second Prize, and many of them had excellent music.
Can you give our readers an idea of what they can expect from the album and maybe give us a few clues on some of the tracks?
Amiga Power loved games of all varieties, with no distinction made between lavish full-price releases and simple PD titles – if a game was great fun, that was all that mattered. I’ve tried to carry this ethos over into the AP album, so not only is there a diverse selection of games represented on the tracklist, but there’s going to be lots of variety in the styles of music on offer too. We’ve got a tremendous line-up of musicians contributing to the project, including Andrew Barnabas, Allister Brimble, Mike Clarke, Olof Gustafsson, Jogeir Liljedahl, Jon Hare, Chris Huelsbeck, Barry Leitch, Jason Page, Instant Remedy, Matthias Steinwachs, Jeroen Tel and Tim Wright, and we’re planning everything from old-school house and contemporary EDM-style pieces through to orchestral, rock, swing, and industrial tracks. There’s even going to be a rather beautiful piano solo, and a new rendition of a certain track involving a bunch of talking skulls…
There are a couple of other special pieces lined up. Chris Huelsbeck is composing an original theme tune for Gravity Power, a brilliant game that was created especially to be given away with AP’s 50th issue, and which featured no music at all; and we’ve got an exclusive Chaos Engine remix from dance music pioneers Joi. It’s one of three studio tracks they created for the game back in 1993, and which almost nobody has ever heard, because they only got a white label release back in the day, limited to 500 copies.
Additionally, there’s going to be a special liner notes booklet accompanying the album. It’s set to run for more than 80 pages, and it’s going to feature all manner of facts about the included tracks, along with behind-the-scenes trivia, song lyrics and written interjections from the AP crew, plus some thoroughly groovy exclusive artwork.
How many tracks will be featured in the album, and how did you compile this list?
There are going to be more than 30 brand new Amiga game remixes spread across two CDs. The first disc features tunes personally selected by AP contributors, while the second includes an array of tracks inspired by games and demos that appeared on AP’s coverdisks.
How are you going to deal with manufacturing and licensing of the Amiga Power album?
Ronald van Dijk of 010101 Music, the independent record label whose previous releases include the Amiga remix albums Paula Agnus Denise and Insert Disk 2, is very kindly assisting on both these fronts. With the liner notes booklet being such an integral part of the whole package, we’ve opted to have the physical albums published in Booksleeve format; this takes the form of an incredibly smart (and delightfully cute) jewel case-sized hardback book, with the CDs contained in plastic trays in the cover.
The Kickstarter campaign for the album is now live! Can you give us details of the rewards on offer and how much money you are hoping to raise?
The campaign target is £16,000, and there are quite a few different rewards available. As well as the physical double-CD version of the album there are a couple of different digital options, and if you go for the deluxe package you get not only a physical copy and a high-quality digital download version, but also a name-check in the booklet and an exclusive bonus digital album, Amiga Remixed, with 10 tracks by artists including Chris Huelsbeck, Allister Brimble, Jason Page, Barry Leitch, Tim Wright and Instant Remedy.
If you opt for some of the higher pledges you can pick up a whole bunch of other bonus albums, and there are posters and prints available of the booklet artwork, including pieces by comics star Roger Langridge, CG wizard AJ Jefferies and Scarred For Life author Stephen Brotherstone. Plus, courtesy of AP-contributor-turned-novelist Mil Millington, one backer has the chance to obtain a signed copy of each of his books and a genuine original Amiga Power T-shirt that Mil found in his loft.
Where are the best places to keep up to date with the album and the Kickstarter campaign?
When do you hope to get this album released to the public?
All being well, the CDs will be manufactured and distributed (along with all the Kickstarter pledge bonuses) before December this year; I’m keen to avoid the inevitable postal delays that occur during the run-up to Christmas.
How excited are you about this project and do you feel there may be room for follow up albums?
I’m enormously excited about the whole project – there are going to be some really fun surprises for people to discover on the CDs and in the accompanying booklet, and I’m greatly looking forward to seeing people’s reactions. As for follow-up albums, I think I’ll wait until this project is all done and dusted before I get too involved in planning another one.
Do you have any other exciting projects in the pipeline?
Remember that other album I mentioned, which a friend invited me to work on as a co-producer? Well, it’s still in development, and when it’s finished it’s going to be entirely spiffing, even if I say so myself. I can’t reveal anything more about it at this stage, but trust me, it’s going to be well worth waiting for!