Retrocomputing: Remembering the Amstrad CPC 464 and a Q&A with Roger Kean of Zzap64! and Crash!

In case all of my attention to gaming on this site has been missed, I  really love video and computer gaming. I distinctly remember the first time I was properly introduced to the world of gaming. I must have been about three or four years old and a lady from the local council was coming around to talk to my mother, so to keep me out of the way I was told  I was allowed to go into the spare bedroom and play on the Amstrad computer with my auntie whilst she was busy. The only problem was my auntie didn’t know how to turn the computer on and set a game up, so I had to wait until the lady had gone before Mum could come and put on a game for me.
I don’t remember what game I first played but I do know that I was completely blown away by it, and the fact I could choose from a large selection of games without having to go to an arcade really amazed me. It made such an impression on me that years later I can still distinctly remember the cool and slightly damp smell of the spare bedroom and whenever I encounter a similar scent these days (like in an old charity shop or something) I instantly associate it with playing Harrier Attack or Dizzy. Weird the way that brains work isn’t it?

Anyway, after watching some old gameplay videos and buying a ZX Spectrum Vega last year and playing a few games that were ported to the Amstrad on it, I felt like I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t buy an Amstrad, perhaps to even have a go at creating a few basic games or programmes of my own.

 

1024px-Amstrad_CPC464.jpg

 

It arrived and the process of connecting it up and plugging it in was an awesome yet slightly surreal experience. Of all the things I remember really well (like the seizure inducing loading screens) there were a few things that seemed really different. I remember it taking about an hour to load up a game back  but in reality it only took just over ten minutes to load up Barbarian. Which is far, far less time than it takes to install a game on my Xbox One. I also had completely forgotten on how to even to start the tape deck to load the game, so Youtube had to come to my rescue again. Even when trying to immerse myself in the retro experience, I found myself reliant on modern technology to solve my problems.

 

 

Loading screen on the Amstrad CPC 464. Please put on your protective goggles and ear plugs before viewing.

 

The funny thing as a kid was that a few of my friends teased me for not having an NES or a Sega Megadrive. I just had a weird computer that seemingly took an hour to load a game, but graphically the Amstrad was pretty impressive for the time.
Here is a screenshot from Gryzor, the PAL CPC home computer version of Contra:

 

gryzor 2.png

 

Okay, so the screen has a weird blue border which is a bit crap, and the characters all look like they have severe sunburn, and the game didn’t scroll like the original arcade game, probably down to memory capability. But it was still a bloody good game, graphically very faithful to the original arcade game and packed with rapid action that tested the reflexes (and in my case, patience).

Here is the console version for the NES:

 

Contra (USA)_002.png

 

The graphics do look smoother and the game actually scrolls like the arcade version. But there is something about the CPC version that I prefer. Perhaps it’s just the familiarity and nostalgia, or maybe I just subconsciously appreciate playing as a sunburned Arnold Schwarzenegger-like character. Regardless, the Amstrad was a pretty kick-ass machine to play games on. I wasn’t really missing out a great deal by having that to play games on as opposed to the NES, but it did feel like it at the time. The best part of it was being able to go to charity shops and find cassette tape games for 20p. I remember the excitement of finding a stack of games including Ghost N Goblins in a shop in Bridgenorth for £1.00, and the journey home seemed to take forever when I just wanted to get home to play them.  It would be extremely unlikely that you would ever come across NES games in a charity shop, or maybe I just wasn’t looking for them back then.

 

Amstrad_CPC_cassette_deck.jpg

 

One of the things that took some getting my head round as a kid was that all of the Amstrad games I had were either audio cassettes or floppy discs. Floppy discs were pretty much the norm I think for a lot of people until CD-ROM replaced them, so they didn’t seem terribly strange to me. But audio cassettes? Like the same thing as what contained my parent’s AC/DC, Def Leppard and Nirvana music? It seemed weird at the time but thinking about the technical side of it now (which is probably quite basic by today’s standards) it seems amazing that games could be loaded from the screeching audio that made my ears bleed every time a game loaded.

I think that’s enough of me blathering on about the Amstrad for one day anyway. I will do a bit more blathering about it another day, perhaps looking at some of my favourite and least favourite games.

And now for something a little different; the first ever Q&A on The Forgotten Starship!


 

 

A few years ago I worked in a convenience store. It was a fairly mundane job but I did enjoy it, and I met a lot of very interesting people whilst working there. I must have been about 18 when I served a customer who ended up leaving his card in the reader. I didn’t didn’t really think anything of it and just put it aside behind the counter with the hope they would come back for it. Sure enough they did, and I asked the name of the person as we had a few credit cards that people had left and he replied, “Oliver Frey”.

Immediately I asked “THE Oliver Frey? I have your book at home!”

To anyone who isn’t really into gaming or computing, the name Oliver Frey might pass you by, but as a kid I had seen his artwork on various computing magazine covers and had once owned a Street Fighter II sticker book that he had done the artwork for. Being an overly excited 18 year old,  I think I came across as a bit of an idiot but he was very polite and agreed to come back in a few days later so he could sign “The Fantasy Art of Oliver Frey” for me. Sure enough, he kindly came back and signed my book, accompanied by Roger Kean.

Roger, along with Oliver and his brother Franco founded Crash Micro Games Action, a mail order company selling ZX Spectrum games in 1983. They then formed Newsfield Publications Ltd and in 1984 began publishing CRASH magazine dedicated to the ZX Spectrum home computer.  Following that they published Zzap!64 (a Commodore 64 magazine) and Amtix (CPC Amstrad magazine).

From 1984–1991 Roger worked as the managing director and senior publishing executive at Newsfield Publications Ltd. By the late ’80s, the 8-bit home computer market had sadly started to wane and in Newsfield Publications Ltd closed in 1991.

Newsfield Publications had a huge impact on the ’80s home computer game market. Their magazine reviews encouraged game developers to strive for a level of quality in their games, as CRASH and Zzap!64 were very popular magazines among computer enthusiasts, and a game with a low review score would obviously mean readers would be less inclined to go out and buy that game. To any unlikely readers who are under twenty or who are reading this from outside the UK,  just think of it as an ’80s, British version of gamespot.

I’ve known Roger and Oli for a decade now, and they are both two of the nicest people you could meet. Despite being very busy, Roger recently agreed to do a brief Q&A with me about gaming which was really cool. I had never done a Q&A before and have never had any desire for a journalistic career (aside from a brief spell where I decided I was going to work for Kerrang! magazine when I was fifteen) so this was a new experience!

I grew up in the ’90s when computers were really getting to be common place in peoples homes, and as such some of my earliest memories are playing Dizzy on my parents Amstrad, so computing for me has always been synonymous with gaming. Do you remember the very first time you heard the term ‘computer’ and when did you associate it with being able to play games?

I had computers in mind from an early age, thanks to reading encyclopedias like Newnes Pictorial Knowledge; my parents bought the 10-volume set on the ‘never-never’ when I was five or six. I had no clear idea what a computer was for or how one worked. My first encounter with the real thing in my early teens was at Highgate School, which had been endowed with a giant IBM 7080 or a 7010 Punch. Never great at maths, I wasn’t allowed to do much more than marvel at schoolboys ‘programming’ the punch cards painstakingly in order to work out an equation even I could have done with a slide rule and an algorithmic table in half the time. In 1981, working in London, I became enamoured of the Rare black box. I thought it could handle mail order and accounting for a small company, but the cost seemed prohibitive. Which brings me to 1982–early 83 when Oliver Frey’s younger brother Franco turned up with a Sinclair ZX-81 in hand, and shortly after a colour (!) ZX Spectrum. It ran games like clones of Defender and something original – Ultimate’s Jetpac. The rest, as they say, is history. By the end of 1983 the three of us had started Crash Micro games Action mail order and were well on the way to founding Newsfield Publishing and producing the first issue of Crash magazine, which – devoted to Spectrum gaming – became the biggest-selling computer games magazine of the 1980s; followed a year later by Zzap!64 for the Commodore 64.

 

Video gaming and computing is a very popular thing now. In my lifetime I have never heard anyone being labeled as a ‘nerd’ or a ‘geek’ for having a passion for computers, but movies and popular culture have always suggested to me that once upon a time, this was not always the case. The stereotype is that computing was once mainly something done by hobbyists that lacked social skills. Is there  really any credence to this?

 

In my experience, from the beginning of motion pictures scientists have been treated as ‘nerds’, ‘geeks’ or at best the fluffy-haired-sounding ‘boffin’. I have a theory that the James Bond films heightened this perception in the 1960s with the character of Q, and Hollywood always loved the ‘mad professor’ character embodied by comedian Jerry Lewis. I suppose there was an inevitable carry over to computing science and to anyone who played around with computers…until video games took off first with arcade machines, then semi-serious business machines like Commodore’s PET and the games-dedicated first-generation console, the Atari 2600. By the mid-1980s computer gamers had become seriously cool characters, and yet the nerd image persisted, helped along by the fact that the typical computer games player was a teenaged boy (with glasses?); helped still further (in Britain anyway) by the intense competition that existed between Spectrum owners and C64 owners. That kind of intense rivalry is inherently ‘nerdy’ behavior to outsiders.

At the beginning of the home computer revolution, games playing was held by those who didn’t appreciate or understand it to be anything from a passing fad to a waste of youthful energy, from a noisy nuisance to a positive evil (blasting things and being violent, even though they were merely 8-bit sprites). However the practice in hand-and-eye coordination was often overlooked, as was the training involved in problem solving, both physical and mental as with adventure games. This was the birth of the IT revolution that followed in the wake of increased computer literacy, so much of which was a natural extension of playing computer games.

Of course, there will always be those players who become addicted to the screen – or soon VR goggles – and such are likely to conform perfectly to the idea of someone lacking in social skills…though one might well consider that the smart phone has done that far more effectively to a far vaster slice of the population than video games ever managed.

 

From what I gather, all of the guys at Crash magazine were pretty young. In fact the British gaming industry of the ’80s seemed to be spearheaded by young people coding and developing games in their bedrooms. Do you think that after the arrival of punk in the late ’70s, there was a very prevalent  ‘DIY’ can-do attitude, or do you think that young people have always been creative, and advancing technology meant that that there was a new platform for that creativity?

 

In its first years, Crash magazine was largely supported editorially by boys from Ludlow School, several of whom went on to become full-time employees. It seemed natural to employ the opinions of the software publishers’ principal target market. Of course, they were hardly trained journalists and it was the task – initially mine – of editors and sub-editors to polish the results without altering the intent. I found that there was a talent pool there and a surprising number of the pupils not only wanted to write something that they could see published a month later, but that many were very good at it.

In addition, playing games and creating ‘cheats’ for the essential playing tips sections promoted a desire to turn things around and knock up code. Both the Spectrum and the C64 were great for introducing the lads to programming, first through learning BASIC and then the secrets of machine (or assembler) code, and so on. It seemed to me to be an extension of the 1960s-onwards idea of the schoolboy pop group – grab a guitar, bash some drums and yell into a second-rate microphone and you were bound to be a hit. After the Beatles, when rock got deep and complex, that fun side of being in a band faded: who could afford the London Symphony Orchestra for backing? We weren’t all Led Zeppelin. The advent of Punk in the later 1970s switched the emphasis back to DIY music: raw, raucous, available.

I like to think that just as the electric guitar heralded a creative outburst of music, so video games brought the complexities of computer programming into the bedroom, from where it blossomed into the gaming boom of the 1980s and 90s…but that growth also stifled originality as development and marketing became increasingly streamlined and professional. Crash and Zzap!64 were bringing our people close to aspiring coders who were already finding an ‘in’ with the big, established software houses increasingly difficult. And that was one reason why we founded Thalamus Games. It was another way of releasing the native talent that was evident everywhere and providing opportunities.

Sadly, like all movements, it didn’t last for very long – giant global corporations finally swamped DIY game development. Video games’ equivalent of pop music’s ‘pomp-rock’ era was the emergence of Nintendo and Sega. Suddenly, it cost millions of pounds to get a cartridge ROM game developed and on sale. Suddenly, the be-jeaned, youthful and enthusiastic back bedroom programmer was history. The suits had taken over; accountants ruled.

 

In this day and age, we are getting very close to photo-realistic graphics in video games.  Did you ever think back in the day of the ZX Spectrum that one day graphics would perhaps be almost indistinguishable from real life video footage?

 

I always dreamed of a day when games would look more realistic, more like the Crash covers painted by Oliver Frey, which were wishful realisations of what the game ought to be like! Graphic quality made real improvements with the move from 8-bit to 16/32-bit machines, but it really took the 64-bit generations of consoles like the Sony Playstation to really move into the cinematic era.

Looking ahead from the 1980s, I felt It inevitable that advances in computer-generated animation would continue to be made, but back in the ZX Spectrum days it seemed inconceivable that a small home computer could reproduce the effect of being in the cinema, particularly considering the huge number of hours it took on a Cray Supercomputer to generate a few Tron polygons, or even the much more CGI-ambitious The Last Starfighter (1984).

The question, self-evidently, was raw processing power. In fact, looking back, it’s astonishing how much Spectrum programmers managed to pack into the tiny amount of available memory, but nonetheless the idea that anything like a Spectrum, a C64 or an Amstrad CPC could produce realistic looking graphics only aroused laughter. But then, the first Apple Macintosh II I used as a graphic workstation for publishing came with a ‘massive’ 100Mb hard drive and was packed with the maximum addressable 8Mb of RAM, and cost almost £4,000 in 1987. A learned journo of the time claimed that no one would ever need more processing power than that! Back then the idea that one day (and soon!) we’d be manipulating 24-bit colour images weighing in at well over 100Mb would have roused as much laughter as the notion of a Spectrum controlling Battersea Power Station did in 1984.

 

 Retro gaming is very ‘trendy’ right now, and a lot of companies are cashing in on peoples nostalgia or curiosity for retro gaming. What is it that you think makes people go back and play games from a simpler era?

 

Retro gaming has been an interesting development, and perhaps a surprising one. I can’t complain. It’s brought me back into the limelight! I recall in 2006 being chased by a former 14-year-old (in 1986 or so) Crash reader wanting me to help with a retro magazine. It was about the time a bunch of British-Dutch C64 fans were doing a 25-year tribute to Zzap!64 and wanted some input from me. This was also the moment when a Macclesfield publisher launched the still popular Retro Gamer magazine, which was sold shortly after to Bournemouth-based Imagine Publishing (interestingly a company co-founded by former Newsfield art director Mark Kendrick and employing a few old Newsfield staffers). It’s now a part of the Future Publishing stable of magazines.

At that time, now a decade past, I really thought retro gaming was a passing fad, but there you go – still going strong. I think there are three distinct strands as to its continuing popularity. First, it’s surely obvious that for older players we’re talking extreme nostalgia. The old 8-bit games, even the ‘new’ 8-bit games being published now, come with a waft of the past, of carefree youth, perhaps of a ‘better time’ than today. But that is only a part of the answer to the question of why it’s become so trendy that new retro machines are appearing. The NES Mini and the ZX Spectrum Vega are creating such a stir that people who weren’t even twinkles in future parents’ eyes are playing and enjoying the supplied games.

Second, were Lunar Jetman, Atic Atac, Jet Set Willy, Ant Attack and their like actually tougher to play than today’s mega-cinematic epics of racing track and warfare? I must confess that I was never actually much of a games player and I haven’t done more than marvel from a distance at what the modern graphics can achieve, but I do hear often that once the player has gasped at the realism, the bloodshed and splattered alien gore, there really isn’t as much to the big games as might be expected. Perhaps that is what players today crave, something more intricately involved, more you-the player versus the game that you got with the 1980s computer games.

Third, there is the smart phone. On iOS, Android and small handheld screens, 8-bit lookalike graphics are ideal where giant cinema effects are lost… or simply unrealistic in terms of memory and graphic delivery.

All in all, it seems that retro gaming is here to stay – at least for as long as the memory of past days lingers.

 

Many thanks to Roger for taking the time to answer my questions and for giving me the opportunity to pretend to be grown up doing something other than toy reviews for once!

Ludlow Museum currently has a Newsfield Publications Exhibit running from March until May 2017. Oli and Roger will be doing a signing of The Fantasy Art of Oliver Frey at Castle Bookshop, Ludlow on the 22nd April 2017 at 11.30am.

For more details and some awesome CRASH and Zzap!64 products check out http://oliverfreyart.com


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One thought on “Retrocomputing: Remembering the Amstrad CPC 464 and a Q&A with Roger Kean of Zzap64! and Crash!

  1. Pingback: The CRASH Annual 2018! The revival of one of the iconic names in British gaming, and my very tiny contributions to it! – The Forgotten Starship

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