Oldschool Gaming - reviewing new games on classic computers
Jonathan Cauldwell interview :: written by Jason Kelk :: added 23 Sep 2005

Of the various developers we've written about here at Oldschool Gaming, Jonathan Cauldwell is probably the most prolific - at least, the most prolific with a high quality threshold with delights such as the Egghead series, Fantastic Mister Fruity and Rough Justice amongst the many titles to his name. So we got him to sit down and have a nice cup of tea and a biccie with us, so we could sneak something into it and get some juicy gossip!

Oldschool Gaming  Hello Jonathan and welcome to Oldschool Gaming Towers - do you fancy telling the readers a little bit more about yourself to get things started?

Jonathan Cauldwell  There's little to tell. I'm a software engineer who writes games for a well-known fruit machine manufacturer by day, and games for a well-known 1980s computer by night. I live a few miles from Nottingham in a house with a very overgrown garden.

At the age of thirteen I bought my first computer, a 48K Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Initially purchased as a games machine, before long I was using it to write simple games for my own amusement. My techniques slowly improved and after writing a simple platform game in 1989 I felt confident enough to submit it to Crash magazine for consideration as a cover tape game. Egghead appeared on the cover tape a few weeks later, and the rest is history.

Loco Bingo on the Spectrum
Going Loco Bingo (Spectrum) down in Acapulco
OSG  Anyone keeping up with the goings on of the Spectrum community will know that you're an incredibly prolific coder, what was it drew you to Sir Clive's box of tricks to start with?

J.C.  As a child I remember seeing video games in arcades during the 1970s and wanting an arcade of my own. Obviously that was never going to happen, but when home computers took off in the early to mid 1980s I realised this was the next best thing, and started saving for one. By 1984 pretty much everyone I knew owned a Spectrum so it was the obvious choice.

OSG  Come to think of it... where do you find the time to produce so many quality pieces of code?!

J.C.  Time isn't a big problem as coding has almost become an automatic process requiring little thought; any tricky problems can always be worked out on the way home from work. The more games I write, the bigger my library of source files becomes, and some of the routines can be ripped straight out of one game and placed into another with only a few changes here and there. After all, Once you've written a reliable high-score table routine there's no point in writing another one from scratch for the next game.

OSG  What got you started with programming, is it the typical "learnt BASIC as a kid and went on from there" tale or did it sneak up behind you in a dark alley?

J.C.  The day after I bought my first Spectrum I loaded up a game called Zzoom, and just loved it. It was full of action with tanks, submarines and planes moving around, lots of refugees wandering across the screen, and then there was the title page. It had the Dambusters tune playing, and the words "By John Gibson" written on the screen. I thought John Gibson must have been very proud to have written it, and wanted to know how to write games of which I might be proud. Over the next couple of years I fiddled around with various machines and started learning how to write games. Twenty years on I'm still learning.

OSG  Aren't we all... another cup of tea...?

J.C.  Yes please. Do you have a funnel?

OSG  8-bit machines generally have some fairly rigid limitations due to their hardware, do you feel it's fair to say that this raises the bar as regards programmers and creativity?

J.C.  Without question, yes. As you pointed out, these machines have different quirks which make writing games for them a more creative process than one might think. It takes a lot of work to get the best from old hardware, and game designs have to be much stronger if they are to succeed. Retro gamers are also more demanding than modern gamers when it comes to gameplay.

Rough Justice on the Spectrum
Time for some Rough Justice (Spectrum)
OSG  Your games have some... umm, unusual storylines, where do they come from and is it as much fun as it seems coming up with them and what comes first when you're putting a game together, the story or some base code perhaps?

J.C.  A game usually begins with a concept, followed by some base code and the background story probably emerges from a drunken haze sometime during the development. That said, Higgledy Piggledy and Mister Fruity were developed on the fly which meant that the games themselves were a little unusual. As one might expect, the plot got lost somewhere along the way.

OSG  There's a huge body of Spectrum games out there, if we pressed you and waved a choccy digestive under your nose, could you point to a couple as your all time favourite and biggest pile of pants going?

J.C.  Leaving aside the well-known titles everyone already knows about, one of my favourites is Escape From Krakatoa. It was the first game I remember where the player could forget the game's objectives and just misbehave. The idea was to rescue men and ferry them to safety, but it was much funnier to dangle them over the erupting volcano until they fell in. Halls of the Things is quite addictive despite, or perhaps because of, a complete lack of sound and some truly dreadful graphics. For the worst game it's pretty difficult to beat Sheepwalk, a good idea very badly executed.

OSG  And continuing the best and worst theme, which of your own games do you think is your best and which the worst?

J.C.  Late 1980s efforts such as Krazy Kitchens and Vigilante Patrol weren't particularly well written, but they were part of a learning process. To be honest, I hate most of my own games and very much hope my best one hasn't yet been written. Familiarity breeds contempt I suppose.

OSG  With the sheer amount of talent out there, past and present, for the Spectrum this is probably a tough one, but do you have any coding heroes from the Olde Days or the current crop of programmers?

J.C.  There are many programmers whose work I admire, so to single out one or two is no easy task. However, Mike Lamb's games always seemed to play well and he did such a fantastic job on the Renegade games he's probably near the top of the list. As for modern coders I can respect many of the annual minigame contest entrants, 4K is not a lot of room with which to work and yet the competition is so very strong.

Egghead 4 on the Spectrum
Egghead 4 (Spectrum) - cracking stuff!
OSG  What's your opinion on reviews from sites like ourselves or the paper-based publications - are there any that spring to mind as major ego sessions or where you've been wondering what the writer was taking when they were written?

J.C.  I'm all for hearing what people have to say about my games as it's impossible to be objective about something I spent a lot of time writing. While in development more time is spent playing a game than writing code and I'm usually sick of the thing by the time work is completed. Opinions will differ from person to person, so it's important to get a number of different perspectives.

OSG  You've commented on message boards that you feel modern gaming for the PC and consoles aren't as good as the games on classic hardware; not that we're going to disagree here at Oldschool Gaming, but would you care to elaborate?

J.C.  Modern affairs have lost touch with their roots as these games are just one part of what are essentially interactive movies. Much effort is directed into making these games appear as realistic as possible, while less thought seems to go into developing new gameplay mechanics. Games shouldn't be about realism because we have boring old reality for that, and when a game costs a million or more to produce, few developers are prepared to take risks. On the other hand, games written for older hardware have to rely upon a purer form of gameplay, and the playability alone makes or breaks the experience.

OSG  We're waiting eagerly for More Tea, Vicar? but is there anything else that's ready enough to be talked about from yourself to look forward to?

J.C.  Nothing concrete at the moment, only a partially fermented soup of ideas swilling around in my head. There's one idea I may start work on this weekend which I'm pretty excited about, it involves a steam locomotive who spends his days playing bingo with exploding trucks.

OSG  Why is orange squash made almost purely of chemicals, but orange furniture polish has real oranges in it?

J.C.  This is one of life's little mysteries, of which there are many. Why is it, for example, that you never hear of psychics winning the lottery? Why does the word "lisp" contain the letter S? Why doesn't glue stick to the inside of the bottle? As for oranges in polish I make a lot of wine from orange juice and this has occasionally been likened to polish because of its potency. It's extremely pleasant to drink, but I wouldn't use it on the furniture.

OSG  Ta very much for sparing the time for a natter Jonathan, anything you want to say to the readers before we go?

J.C.  Even today, classic hardware programmers still have the potential to play a part in the history and development of games providing we continue to innovate and experiment. Think how much raw potential for new game concepts is floating around out there, and imagine the games people might be playing in alternate universes. If we can pluck some of these ideas out of the ether, and work them into new games, history may remember us more kindly than the current-generation console developers who have branched off into their formulaic first-person cul-de-sacs. We can take the moral high ground, even if mainstream recognition never comes.

The majority of Jonathan's games are available from Cronosoft and Retro-Soft and there are some previews and example source code on his website.

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