We love the Atari Jaguar and Atari Lynx here at Arcade Attack (understatement of the year! – Ed) so when developers focus primarily on these consoles it excites us. Songbird Productions is one of the best indie companies doing this, completing lost games as well as formulating their own games, they are growing a strong following. We sent our resident Jag enthusiast Adrian to quiz the company’s founder Carl Forhan.
What are your earliest memories of gaming and what was your first impressions of both the Atari Lynx and Jaguar?
I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, so my first gaming memories were on a variety of devices that sprang up around the very first digital gaming era: handheld electro-mechanical devices such as Digital Derby, electronic football, a Sears Pong multi-game unit with four wired controllers, my neighbor’s Odyssey 2 with Quest for the Rings, and eventually the Atari 2600.
I can still remember playing Pitfall II in a store back in the early 80’s and I was blown away by the colors and music and gameplay. My dad purchased a 2600 probably around 1980, and my older brother and I played the few games we had for many, many hours: Space Invaders; Asteroids; Pac-man; even E.T.! Subterranea and Pitfall II will always be a couple of my favorites, though.
Back then, I knew Atari made a 5200, which I didn’t really like due to the funky controllers, but after that I kind of lost touch with video games. We could only afford to rent a NES once every few months for a weekend from the local video store, and by the time I got out of college in the 90’s, I had no idea Atari still made consoles. Once I discovered the internet, I was blown away to learn that not only had the Atari made a color Lynx handheld, but they had also just released the Jaguar system. I knew I had to get one of each.
The Lynx was (and is) amazing, if you can get past the big clunky unit and short battery life. Games like Slime World, Blue Lightning, Checkered Flag, Joust, and so many more are just very entertaining with excellent graphics and use of the Lynx hardware.
I don’t remember my first Jaguar game — it was probably Cybermorph or Tempest 2000. But I do know AvP is the very first video game I ever played that actually made me jump off the couch when I got attacked out of nowhere by an alien. Raiden and Tempest and AvP were enough to keep me hooked.
Can you explain to our readers your initial inspiration for starting Songbird Productions and what was the first games you helped work on?
I was already an embedded C++ firmware engineer in my day job by the time I discovered the Jaguar and Lynx, and back in high school I had done some simple game programming on a TI-99/4A. Once I discovered a few avid hobby developers on Usenet, they helped me figure out how to load games onto the Atari systems and off I went!
The first program I coded on the Lynx was SFX. It’s a very simple sound tool, but it directly helped me create sounds I would use in future games so I really needed it at the time. I decided to offer it for sale, and was really surprised when over 100 people signed up 6-12 months in advance to get one.
The first Jaguar game where I had the source code and contributed substantially to the game was Protector. That was a pretty cool situation in itself where I was able to track down first the programmer, then the rights holder and get everything worked out to finish this game and make it available for Jaguar fans.
Why is your company Songbird Productions so passionate about both the Lynx and Jaguar, especially as they were both relatively big commercial failures for Atari?
I guess I’m a sucker for an underdog. 😉 Both systems had a lot of potential, and I really love 2D games and pseudo-3D games because that’s what I grew up with.
What has been your best selling and most popular Jag and Lynx games?
Protector SE is definitely my best-selling Jaguar game, with over 500 copies sold. Skyhammer has sold pretty well, too. But I was really surprised how well Robinson’s Requiem sold as a CD game — I think over 400 copies in the first 2-3 years, but now it’s down to a trickle.
For the Lynx, probably either CyberVirus or Championship Rally. I would estimate at least 300 copies of each.
Can you run us through the typical process of launching a new game or rescuing a lost game?
Rescuing a lost game is typically a long, slow process that usually starts with me acquiring at least a playable binary of the game. After that, it’s a lot of hunting and negotiation, especially over the years as properties and even entire companies change hands.
Once I have a game ready to publish, then it’s lot of dull logistics to make it all work — getting the manual layout, box layout, screen captures, manual text, proofreading, PCBs, OTPROMs, game testing, menu testing, and so on. Fortunately I have had some talented people assist me through the years, both in the layout process and in the fabrication process.
How proud are you that you have helped release so many lost titles (such as Total Carnage, Skyhammer (pic below) and Robinson’s Requiem)?
I am very thrilled to have been able to bring so many lost treasures to Atari fans. Songbird as a hobby business can go from 50 orders in a month down to one order every few months, but it’s very satisfying making games people enjoy collecting and playing.
Your great company has helped keep the interest in Atari alive. Which games are you most proud of helping bring to gamers?
Really all of them, but Protector is probably my favorite since I have the source code and know how most of it ticks. That allowed me to put some cool hooks in the game which enabled the Protector RESURGENCE expansion 12+ years later.
Are there any dream “lost” Jaguar and Lynx titles you would love to help complete and release to the public?
Phear. It’s the game every Jaguar fan has heard about, and had the appearance of being a “console maker” game, but no one has ever come up with a prototype after all these years.
The homebrew scene for the Atari Jaguar is growing all the time. Are you often approached by indie Jag developers to help launch their games?
Not very often. But I keep my eyes open and look for opportunities to license even small games, like Frog Feast.
What do you think were the main reasons why the Jaguar never succeeded?
Sub-par 3D polygon games running at low FPS, and not enough focus on the kinds of 2D games the Jaguar could do really well.
What is your personal favourite Jaguar and Lynx game of all time?
That’s tough. I’ll pick two for each, and not my own games to avoid self-interest. Tempest 2000 and Raiden for the Jaguar, and Checkered Flag and California Games on the Lynx. Combat surfing rules!!
If you could share a few drinks with an Atari Jaguar character who would you choose and why?
I think some of the Tramiels’ faces made it into a few games, right? So probably one of them. It would be really cool just to hear their perspective on that era with no strings attached.
Have you ever worked on a new Jaguar or Lynx game from scratch, and if not, do you have any ideas for a new game you would love to make?
SFX, Ponx, and Remnant were all Lynx games I made from scratch. I also contributed some code to Champ Rally and MegaPak, but not very much.
To my dismay, I’ve never done a full Jaguar game from scratch yet. I’ve written some programs, like boot loaders and intro menus and even the CGE 5th Anniversary slide show, but not a full game. Protector SE is where I wrote the most code, with about one-third of the game code written by me.
I have lots of ideas but never enough time to get them done, and not enough art skills to make them look as nice as I would like. I really need to pair up with a few good 8-bit and 16-bit artists as that would probably nudge me forward on new games.
Would you ever be tempted to help launch games on other platforms?
I wrote a Nokia cell phone game back around 2000 for another publisher. I made about $200 on it, so it didn’t take me very far. I also thought about coding GBA games back in the day, but never seriously went after it. At this point, it’s hard to imagine learning yet another game system.
Can you reveal any new games you are currently working on?
I also reprinted most of my Songbird Lynx games recently in authentic Atari-style plastic shells for the very first time.