Rage and Tynesoft lead artist Phil Nixon’s back catalogue includes Power Drive Rally, Oscar and the amazing Rocky Legends. Currently plying his trade at Sumo Digital, he kindly gave our Adrian time for a bit of a chat about the glory days for a true retro gaming treat..
Welcome to AA Phil! An easy one to start, can you remember your earliest memory of gaming and what was your favourite computer / console while growing up?
My mate got an Atari 2600 for Christmas, around 1982/3. I used to call over after school and we’d play Pitfall, Pong, Defender & Missile Command.
The first game I owned was a little plastic arcade handheld from 1980 called Caveman, made by Tomy. Great little game.
Christmas 1983 I got my 48k ZX Spectrum. Changed everything. Lunar Jet Man was my first bought cassette. Still my fave computer of all time, apart from the SNES (which also changed my life (Zelda – A Link To The Past).
How did you get the opportunity to enter the video game industry?
Funny one really, whilst doing a stint of retail working in a sports shop, I called into my local job centre, saw an advert for a junior artist position at Tynesoft. I applied and bingo!
I took my art portfolio (drawings & watercolour paintings) and also a cassette tape containing a loading screen I’d created on my Speccy (it was Ripley from the Aliens movie, looking all moody in her power loader).
I remember watching the thing load up at my interview.
Can you remember the first ever video game you worked on?
First game I worked on was Circus Games by Tynesoft:
I was assigned to convert 16 colour character sprites down to 3 colours to use in the PC VGA/CGA versions.
I am big fan of Power Drive Rally on the Jag. What was your exact role on this game and how do you reflect back on this particular title?
Myself and Peter Johnson (the project coder) called down to Bootle (Liverpool) based Rage Software and we were offered the opportunity to convert the SNES version over to The Jag.
At the beginning we worked at home for Rage (my first time using a PC!) and then later on the banks of the Tyne in the Rage Newcastle studio .
Art-wise, I created all of the the pixel art environments, cars and UI from scratch. Post art creation, I placed all of the foreground/background tile maps that you drive around.
The cars were rendered out in 3D & I re-used/upgraded some of the original SNES source art files – mainly the vehicle training tileset assets and the odd sprite I liked the look of.
The SNES original, was super tough due to very little screen space in front of the car to see what was coming up ahead. We utilised the Jag’s superior resolution capabilities and I made the conscious call to scale stuff down so that we had an increased gameplay area (great call! – Ed).
Still one of my favourite games to work on. Very therapeutic, if I could go back in time, I’d probably improve a few of the environment tile assets that look rubbish looking back now.
Alongside your quality artwork, you have also created audio and music for various games. Was it commonplace to have two separate roles in the video game industry and which games allowed you to show off both your art and music skills best?
Back then it was very much the indie scene. Grab whomever had creative skills with computers to help out. I used to write music on my ST back at home, so naturally, I wanted to help out on the audio side.
I was (and still am) a big fan of 8/16 bit composers at the time: Tim Follin; Rob Hubbard; David Whittaker.
So, essentially my career has been split in half. My day job as a video game artist and my spare time (not that I’d call it a job) as a musician. Each discipline balances the other out in terms of creative process and personal satisfaction. It’s a nice balance to have, but bloody hard work at times.
My most recent soundtrack was for a good friend of mine from Ruffian Games, coder & game maker Gareth Noyce, who has his own outfit called Triple Eh? It’s a lovely pseudo isometric game called Lumo.
Check out the soundtrack here.
On the art front, I (try) & update as often as possible:
You have helped create excellent art for a few platformers including Trolls and Oscar. What was your roles on these games and do you think there is room for either of these gaming franchises to be rebooted?
Lead art creation, tile sets, & character animation. Music and some SFX. Art was created on an Atari ST as we were running 16 colour scrolling (two banks of 16 colours on PC/Amiga) I used to use Cyberpaint. Later it was Deluxe Paint on the Amiga.
Music and soundtracks, I used to create at home in the evenings and weekends on my Amiga, using Soundtracker (great program! Ed). Some of the tunes would take up to 6 months to create. I must have been nuts.
Any game reboots? Not really, they should be left in the past. I think there’s plenty of scope for new stuff.
I love the Rocky games almost as much as the classic movies! How did you get the opportunity to work on this classic franchise and what was your exact role in both Rocky and Rocky Legends?
We were working on a boxing prototype for a few months, alongside a cop driving game set in New York. Too small a team to do justice to both projects, so Rage essentially put all of its eggs into one basket: Rocky. We acquired the rights. For both Rockys I created the HUD & UI flow & 3D arena art.
The follow up, I once again built the HUD/UI and we drafted in a 3D artist (Joe Money) to help out on the 3D side. We split the fighting/arena building process between us.
Are you a fan of Rocky and if so which is your favourite film and character?
Rocky IV is my fave out of the lot. Aside from Rocky himself, It has to be Apollo Creed for obvious reasons.
You have worked for so many developers. Where did you most like to work and why?
Every studio has its special moments, and I have tons of fond memories and experiences from a load of great companies and teams under my belt.
I think my current team however, formerly CCP Newcastle, now Sumo Digital deserves special praise. An absolutely brilliant bunch of uber talented friends & old dev colleagues that I work with. Superbly diverse projects too and a great future ahead I’m sure!
How has the role of a graphic artist evolved throughout your career and what advice would you give to anyone looking to enter this profession today?
I’ve had to grasp changes in technology and more importantly trends as time has passed. Starting at 320×240 pixel resolution with a limited color palette, I now work at 4K with limitless colour. Over the years I learned 3D, Flash & Unreal Engine as part of my ongoing toolset
Best advice: stay on top of tech; be versatile; be consistent. Be patient.
Out of all the games you have worked on, which is many, which one are you most proud of and why?
Rocky, simply because we pulled this off as an uber small team at Rage Newcastle. There were only around nine of us pulling this thing together.
Have you ever worked on any games that were never released, and if so, which unreleased games do you feel would have been the most successful?
After Power Drive Rally, I designed and helped create ‘Under Pressure’ running on PC for Rage Newcastle, an underwater submersible/action adventure game in 3D. EA were funding the game development at the time, but unfortunately they pulled the plug mere months away from release.
The next game we made was the co-op space shooter Expendable, also known as Millennium Soldier on the Dreamcast/PC.
What are your top 3 video games of all time and why?
Zelda – A Breath Of The Wild – Switch
Everything about it really.
Half Life 2 – PC
We play HL2 DM every day at work. This game still can’t be beaten in terms of ‘scream out loud’ hilarity.
Chuckie Egg – ZX Spectrum
Finding the optimal route in the fastest time. Great little game.
I’m adding another :p (that’s cool! – Ed)
Ecco The Dolphin on both Dreamcast and Mega Drive
Spent a subordinate amount of time playing these
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a new and highly ambitious MMORPG that’s pretty hush hush right now.
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
The glass collector from Tapper! I think that’s quite apt. I bet he’s got some stories to tell!