"The epitaph inscribed on poor Jason's tomb,
Does not speak of his eventful life,
But of his careless doom,
On embarking on his mission he was given chances four,
but the gem was undisturbed, (For he needed somewhat more!)'
How sad a tale of failure for one so close to glory,
But you could yet rewrite the history of this story..."
So begins the tale of Jason's Gem, another budget, erm, gem from the masters of the £1.99 price tag, Mastertronic. Released in 1985, the game was for the ZX Spectrum and programmed solely by Simon White.
"I first started to program at an after-school computer club where we had shared access to a single Commodore PET machine," begins Simon, with a description of familiar territory for many amateur coders in the early Eighties. "A year or so later I became aware of the ZX81, bought one and then sold it to upgrade to a second-hand Spectrum." The budding coder naturally used his Spectrum to play games - but also typing in listings from magazines such as ZX Computing. "I gradually found it more rewarding to write programs of my own rather than playing games others had written," admits Simon, "and I was encouraged when ZX Computing published a game I had written. I then taught myself Z80 assembly language from a book called Spectrum Machine Language for the Absolute Beginner."
Armed with this new-found knowledge, Simon was keen to tackle a more ambitious project and attempt to create a saleable game. "But by this time the games market had begun to mature and most major releases were written by teams of programmers rather than individuals working on their own and in their spare time." Like many, Simon realised Mastertronic had a different approach to many of its peers and he wrote to them, offering various code samples. "I was delighted when they responded positively and soon afterwards my sliding block puzzle game, Hotch Potch was released. It was amazing to see my own creation being sold on the shelves, so I started to think about my next project."
Simon drew on his own game-playing experiences when it came to this project. "I had enjoyed platform games such as Manic Miner and Monty Mole," he explains, "so I started to think that the core idea could be a platformer that presented the player with new challenges and things to discover as you progressed from level to level."
Another major factor that influenced the early design was Simon's determination that his new game be a peace-loving one. "Even in the early Eighties, computer games were being criticized for being violent and aggressive. I wanted to write a game that, while fun to play, didn't involve killing other creatures to score points." The platform template was a shoe-horn for Simon's ethic; the first few screens (where the player descends in their spaceship) also, with a few adjustments: "The shooting part of the challenge was to simply blast away rocks rather than killing aliens." he smiles.
Jason's Gem involved three different styles of game: docking Jason's craft, landing it, and then directly controlling the titular hero. This was partly due to Simon's wish for a coherent storyline and also to encourage people to play the game more. "I like the idea that a player's progress is rewarded by the discovery of new features and in Jason's Gem I think most probably didn't want to give up before they'd reached the platform part of the game. I felt I was delivering better value for money." Talking of giving up, I mention the notorious inescapable death syndrome which is present most notably in the spacecraft's descent section. As it's mentioned in the inlay, does this mean it was no accident I ask Simon? "I'm afraid it was deliberate," he confirms sheepishly, "although I would have preferred it if the warning on the inlay had been omitted. I felt it would add to the overall interest in the game if there were some places where you could lose all your lives. It might be frustrating when you first encounter it, but it's the kind of feature that can become a talking point among players."
While I don't entirely sympathise with Simon's point, I accept his explanation and ask him if he encountered any significant issues coding what was, after all, his first major game. "The biggest problem was the code-save-test cycle because I was coding in assembly language which was extremely unforgiving if you made a mistake." admits Simon. Additionally, he was using unreliable microdrives for saving code, and would often forget to save before an ominous crash occurred. "Saving the code to a microdrive took 30 seconds to a minute," he says, "and sometimes I might simply feel confident in the code and try to save time by not saving the code first, only to discover when I ran it, it crashed the system." These system crashes, while generally unrecoverable ("you could bash the keyboard all you liked, it had not effect other than to sometimes treat you to an interesting display of colour") were an accepted part of development in the Eighties. "It was a fragile environment," confirms Simon, "and a balance between using the time to save your work and taking the risk it would cost you more if the system crashed."
Jason's Gem took Simon White around six weeks to write - or rather, one school summer holiday. With a little polishing, such as designing a loading screen and adding joystick support, it was ready to present to Mastertronic's head of software acquisition, John Maxwell. "I was paid royalties and as it was a budget game got just a few pence per copy sold," says Simon. "But I was always welcomed at Mastertronic's offices. On my first visit there, John asked me about my development environment. When I said I was using a black and white television, he arranged for an advance of royalties [something of a rarity for the budget software house] so I could buy a colour monitor." While Jason's Gem wasn't perfect in its author's eyes ("Some background music would have been nice, and I think the first screen could have been more compelling and had explosions and other more visually appealing elements"), Mastertronic readily accepted the game and a cover was commissioned to John Smythe, the talented artist behind the company's jovial cassette inlays.
Sadly, and despite good sales of Jason's Gem, Simon decided against persuing a career in games. He explains his reasons: "I was disappointed at the time that, although the possibilites of computers were limitless, the games industry seemed to be settling into a pattern. As a consequence I thought most people would lose interest in computer gaming as a past time and that it would become another short-lived fad." As the intervening 30 years has shown, Simon could not have been more wrong. "I grossly underestimated the public's appetite for games and would not have imagined the industry would continue to grow in the way it has done." he admits.
Simon followed a more academic path after Jason's Gem, eventually gaining a PhD in Artificial Intelligence from the university of Aberdeen. After spells at the German Aerospace Research Establishment in Bavaria and working on collaborative projects with NASA and the ESA, today he is an independent software developer, working on scientific software for companies within Cambridge's Science Park and its surrounding area. But how, I ask, does Jason's Gem fit into all of this?
"For me, it was a positive experience in software development and also an early exposure to the process of turning an idea into a saleable project," says Simon, "and more specifically, I think my interest in games development helped me develop skills in user interface design that I have been able to apply to business and scientific software."
Like many Mastertronic releases, Jason's Gem was a fun and derivative game (despite the three stages) that represented perfectly good value for money. Frustrating infinite death loops aside, there can be few customers who complained that they weren't getting their £1.99's worth!
My thanks to Simon White for his time.