It may not be the most well-known of games, but Custerds Quest was an amusing adventure game parody that secured a Crash Smash in 1987 for The Power House, the budget arm of publishers CRL. Written by Craig Davies, I spoke to the man himself about Custerds Quest as well as his other attempts at getting published back in the 80s and his memories of this turbulent period for videogames…
In the beginning…
Craig Davies's love of computing began in 1981 when his older brother brought home a Sinclair ZX81. “Until then,” he begins, “computers were just things that you only saw on TV.” Craig shortly acquired a Spectrum 48k, yet his brother remained the programmer of the family. “He had bought a book on Z80 code and taught himself how to program,” says Craig proudly, “and then helped with most of the special effects that I used in my adventures – such as the scrolling messages on the title screens and the screen fades that I used here and there.” So what did Craig himself learn? “I did try and gain a bit of know-how; enough to enable me to hack games to look for cheat POKES for example. I bought a Multiface 1 from Romantic Robot - which was a fantastic piece of kit – and used it with a dissembler called Genie to break into games and scroll through the code.” These dabblings came in useful when his adventure writing began. “I dissembled Gilsoft’s “Patch” and then “The Press” and worked out where in memory the special effects were stored. I then found the look-up table from where the routines were called and was able to move things around to accommodate my own routines.” Craig would go on to use these techniques to alter his games so they were subtly different to the usual “quilled” adventures.
Influences and favourites
Moving onto the games themselves, I ask Craig what his influences and favourites were from the time. “My best friend at the time got his Spectrum a year before me and one of the games he had was The Hobbit which must have left some impression on me. I remember we spent ages playing it, trying to work out how to stop those blasted bulbous eyes from dropping down and killing us!” Craig also enjoyed some of the Spectrum’s famous platform games such as Technician Ted, Manic Miner, Monty Mole and Jet Set Willy, yet it was the slower pace and use of imagination of adventure games that appealed to him most. “Or maybe I was just rubbish at the other games!” he jokes.
In addition to The Hobbit, Craig played plenty of other adventures, including those from a certain publisher that was to have a big influence on his own games. “I always loved the Delta 4 adventures, particularly The Boggit,” he says enthusiastically before also mentioning the St. Brides spoof Very Big Cave Adventure and the lesser-known Spoof the Magic Dragon from Runesoft. “I think the comedic spoof approach just suited my sense of humour,” says Craig, “and undoubtedly at the time I wanted to emulate the kind of game that Delta 4 were renowned for producing.” In fact, the young adventure fan took his love of all things Delta 4 a step further that landed him in hot water with his parents. “I used to ring them up from time to time and I’d have lengthy amusing conversations with Fergus McNeill. I’m not so sure my parents were so amused when the phone bill came in, but as this was before itemised bills I denied all knowledge of it!” Unfortunately for Craig, this didn’t prevent his Mum having phone locks fitted shortly afterwards…
The Road to Custerd
“It all started in 1985 when my best mate from school got hold of a copy of The Quill. We started playing around with it and wrote a handful of locations, created some objects. Almost before we knew it, we were writing our first very own adventure game.” This game turned into Murder Hunt and after adopting the moniker Bodkin Software, Craig and his friend began selling the adventure by mail order. Helped by some generally favourable reviews, the game went on to sell around 130 copies according to Craig. “Almost immediately we wrote a fairly functional sequel imaginatively entitled Murder Hunt 2,” continues Craig, “but we didn’t release it. Then, after working a couple of months on an abandoned project called Robert the Bogart, I bashed out Custerds Quest on my own in a little over a fortnight in July 1986, immediately after sitting my O-levels.”
The original title of Custerds Quest was The Terror of Tower Doom. “It was my tongue-in-cheek dig at those games that took themselves far too seriously,” explains Craig. However it was suggested later that the name be changed to the more snappier Custerds Quest although with hindsight Craig regrets not insisting that “Tower…” be left in as a subtitle.
Craig began work on Custerd with another big influence at work in the background. “I loved Black Adder, and the second series was airing around that time. That wonderfully dry wit was very close to my own default humour, and along with the film Airplane, from which many of the puns and sight gags came from, influenced these adventures a lot.” So with the plot and jokes sorted, only the graphics remained and this was where Craig struggled a little. “The graphics were done separately as The Quill did not incorporate them. So I bought the Illustrator in late 1985 and began tinkering with it.” How did he get on with the graphics package? “To be honest, my early efforts were woeful,” he says with a grimace, “but the ones I did for CQ, whilst basic, were at least functional. By the time I created the graphics on my next game, I’d become almost proficient in the art.”
"CRL were the first people I approached," says Craig when I ask him how Custerds Quest ended up on the publisher's budget arm. "I can't recall exactly, but assume I sent it to them as they'd released Delta 4's Bored of the Rings the previous year so I probably thought they would be receptive to my game." CRL accepted the game but passed it over to their pocket-money label, at the time entitled Alpha Omega and run by Ashley Hildebrandt. "Custerd got released by them at the end of 1986. It only picked up one or two reviews at the time and I certainly don't remember much publicity."
A few months later, with Alpha Omega flagging, CRL took the decision to rebrand the label into The Power House. In the meantime, Gilsoft had released The Press, so Craig took the opportunity to use the text compression utility on the Alpha Omega version of Custerds Quest. "I added a heap more text, jokes and responses to silly things you might type in and this is regarded as the definitive version of the game. In fact, the Alpha Omega version seems to have been totally forgotten." adds Craig.
A Princely Sum
Another part of The Power House revamp was the introduction of programmer profiles on the cassette inlays. "I was asked by CRL for a passport photo," recalls Craig, "so I used a photo booth in my local Boots." Looking at the picture, I ask Craig why he posed in dark sunglasses. "I was keen to appear anonymous at the time - for some reason this seemed important to me back then - so I wore the glasses, despite the fact it was a bitter January day!" Craig agrees it was a novel touch to include the mini-profiles, but was less enamoured with the rest of the cassette sleeve. "It neglected to tell the purchaser anything about the plot or aim of the game beyond a handful of basic commands," he says regretfully, "which was something the original version had managed at least. I also preferred the original artwork which depicted a rather shabby-looking knight perched atop a carthorse as I thought this was much more in keeping with the tone of the game."
So I ask Craig the million dollar question - how much money did he make from Custerds Quest? "Not a lot!" he replies conclusively, "I only ever received one royalty cheque from the Power House and that was for the princely sum of £3.04. I'm not sure how they arrived at that figure, but the letter that accompanied the cheque said it was for the first two quarters of 1987!" Craig continued to pester the publisher for more royalties, but in return received nothing more than broken promises and vague assurances. Eventually, The Power House label was sold off by CRL when the parent company began to encounter distribution problems early in 1988 and that was the end for Sir Custerd.
The Quest for Further Adventures
According to the inlay of Custerds Quest, the next game from author Craig Davies was to be another spoof adventure entitled The Quest for the Holy Something. "Actually technically that wasn't my next game," says Craig, "as for a couple of months after Custerd I worked on an abandoned adventure called Eric and the Magic Torch [Incidentally, Craig returned to this project in 1992 and produced a playable version, so it may yet see the light of day]. Craig continues: "I started work on "QFTHS" in November 1986 on The Quill but then halted work a couple of months later in anticipation of Gilsoft's next adventure creation utility: The Professional Adventure Writer." [or PAW, as it became widely known].
Unfortunately, it wasn't worth the wait, or at least not to Craig. "When I finally got my hands on it, I was very disappointed. The amount of free memory it gave you to create your game on the 48k Spectrum wasn't nearly enough and this issue was compounded by the extremely basic built-in text compression." What Craig hadn't realised was that the new utility would be released with very much the new 128k 8-bit machines in mind. "If I had written The Quest for the Holy Something on the 48k PAW it would have needed to have been in four parts rather than the two I was able to squeeze it into using The Quill. So I went back to that and worked on the game again over the summer and autumn of 1987."
Lost and Found
By October 1987, Quest for the Holy Something was finished and ready to go. “I sent it off to Argus Press for evaluation,” says Craig, “although I can’t remember for the life of me why I chose them!” When he heard nothing, Craig contacted them only for the publisher to deny all knowledge of receiving the submission. “Then, several months later, I got a phone call from a guy who said he’d recently taken over the job of evaluating and he said he’d found my game in amongst a batch of loose cassettes down the back of a cupboard!” Unfortunately the tape lacked any documentation. “He asked me to resubmit a map, tips and solution but by that time I’d lost access to a printer, so this avenue wasn’t pursued. Why I didn’t just write it all out by hand I’ll never know…”
So, reluctantly, Craig sent the game to The Power House in January 1988 who took six months to reply to him with a cursory “Thanks, but no thanks.” Over the subsequent winter of 1988/89, Craig revised Quest, spending much time in particular improving the graphics before finally getting in touch with John Wilson of Zenobi Software in the summer of 1989. The reason for the delay was real life (or rather education) getting in the way: Craig began University in October 1989 and for reasons he now can’t quite fathom, didn’t take his ZX Spectrum with him. With the author finding it difficult to pick up the pace when returning home for holidays and Royal Mail offering an appalling service with several letters and packages disappearing en route between Rochdale and the West Midlands, it wasn’t until Craig finished his studies in the summer of 1992 that he could finally get down to tweaking the game properly in order to have commercial standard programs for Zenobi.
The End of the Quest
So having started work on Quest for the Holy Something way back in November 1986, amazingly it would not be released until 1993, when unfortunately for Craig the commercial life of the ZX Spectrum was almost at an end. “I often think it’s a huge shame that Quest didn’t get released in 1988, or even 1990 when Zenobi first gave it the thumbs up,” opines Craig. “I consider it to be my funniest games and am grateful for John Wilson for finally allowing me to get out to a wider audience – and for paying a decent royalty rate too!” he concludes.
Given his persistence as outlined above, it’s perhaps surprising Craig didn’t have any other adventures published in the 80's and it wasn’t for want of trying. “I wrote several more adventures post-Custerds Quest,” he says, “but due to a combination of bad luck, academic distractions and other circumstance, they never saw the light of day, until a few of them were released by Zenobi in 1993.” One of these releases was Murder Hunt.
In the autumn of 1986, Craig went back to the Bodkin game and began revising several parts that he had not been happy with. “I tidied up the text a bit, added graphics and replaced the appalling font that we had bizarrely decided to use,” he confirms. The re-jigged adventure, which would eventually become known as Murder Hunt 86 was offered to the budget label Firebird but was sadly rejected outright by the BT company (“I’m certain their reason was that they were no longer accepting Quill’d games”) before Craig compressed the game further and added a huge amount of extra jokes and text. Still thinking of budget labels, he sent the game off to Interceptor Software in the belief it would make a fine release for their own budget label, Players.
“They’d hosted a handful of adventure games,” begins Craig, “and were interested in Murder Hunt, but the process dragged on for months. They eventually accepted the game and contracts were duly exchanged before I took the opportunity to completely re-write the game from scratch in the summer of 1987 with added extended locations and descriptions.” Craig imaginatively dubbed this new version Murder Hunt 87 and contacted Interceptor once more regarding their plans for the adventure. “I seem to recall they told me that they were planning on launching a brand new label and that my game was due to be published in the second tranche of releases,” says Craig. What happened next had an air of inevitability to it.
1987 rolled into 1988 and with Craig studying for his A-levels, his computer hobby was understandably put to one side. Therefore, it wasn’t until late in 1988 that he finally got round to ringing Interceptor to see what had become of the marvellous new line. “The chap I spoke to said the whole project had been pulled,” says Craig sadly, “and that I should have been informed at the time that all the rights to the game had reverted back to me.” The final version of Murder Hunt, Murder Hunt 89 was submitted by Craig to Zenobi Software in April of 1990 and, along with The Quest for the Holy Something, saw release in 1993.
"I think I must be Jinxed"
Murder Hunt 2 underwent a similar process to its predecessor with Craig revising the game in September of 1986. With the help of The Patch, he added further text and split-screen graphics for some locations, but remained dissatisfied with the end result. "I may have just intended it as a flip-side release for Murder Hunt 86," he ponders, "but it never got that far. So in the summer of 1989 I wrote a brand new version of Murder Hunt 2, and this was much better in my opinion as it had a creepy atmosphere and a genuine feeling of suspense." Craig sent the sequel off to Zenobi and again this adventure saw publication by them in 1993 yet he still had time in the interim to be disappointed once more. In 1992 Craig exchanged contracts with a publisher in Carlisle for the rights to release both of the original Murder Hunt games. Again, nothing came of it. "I think I must be jinxed," he mutters.
Aside from the earlier abandoned projects (Robert the Bogart and Eric & the Magic Torch), there was another game finished by Craig that sadly never saw release - even by the erstwhile Zenobi. "I was contacted by a guy called Richard Robinson who was the playtester for submissions at Interceptor Software," explains Craig, "and he'd just written his report for Murder Hunt. A friend of his had asked him to "produce" a game which essentially meant proof-read the text, add a new font, graphics and generally polish the adventure up." The game was called Slack Bladder and was unsurprisingly (loosely) based around the popular BBC comedy Black Adder. "Richard asked me if I was interested in the project, and as this was the point where I had put Quest for the Holy Something on hold and was waiting for the release of Gilsoft's the PAW, I had time on my hands, so accepted."
So what was Slack Bladder like? "To be honest it was pretty awful, but I like a challenge so got stuck in," says Craig, "and I ended up junking all but about 20% of the game." Craig wrote the remainder of the game himself from scratch and by June 1987 Slack Bladder was complete once more. As far as Craig is aware, the game never secured a release, despite his efforts, although interestingly a version is available on World of Spectrum. "I was never completely happy with Slack Bladder, so perhaps its status is not surprising, although I remain proud of an amusing "Alice in Wonderland" skit that I included." Craig concludes. "I tried working on another spoof (Black Viper) using some of the material from Slack," says Craig, "but I ran out of steam and took it no further." It's not all bad news however: in the process of this interview Craig has been alerted to the current interest in Spectrum games. "Going through my archives recently I came across some pages of notes and ideas that I'd made in 1989 on Black Viper," he says, "so you never know, these could form the basis of a new work."
The last Spectrum adventuring work undertaken by Craig was in the autumn of 1992 when he polished up the three adventures for Zenobi. The next year he took the dip and bought a second-hand Atari ST, but used the machine almost exclusively for word-processing. "The Spectrum got packed away in a box in the wardrobe and it's not been seen since." says Craig. Did he never even consider converting his existing games I ask? "I did look into the possibility, or maybe even writing a new adventure, but nothing came of it," states Craig, although I don't sense a great deal of remorse over this. There's a simple explanation.
"At the same time that I was putting to bed the Zenobi games I was also getting involved with music and had started learning bass guitar, ostensibly so I could join a mate's band who needed a bassist." This proved to be a more long-term avenue with Craig as he has stayed in music ever since with his latest band, The Container Drivers. "Without wanting to sound too pretentious, I always regarded the writing of adventure games as an outlet for my creativity," says Craig, with just a hint of pretension, "and I could have tried my hand at writing short stories or poetry but settled instead for The Quill - and nowadays, music."
So what happened to videogames, Craig? "I think I just grew out of them. As I said earlier I played loads of Spectrum games back in the mid 80's, but once the new decade dawned and I eventually got the next generation of computer, the desire just faded. Apart from a spell playing Tetris on a friend's Gameboy in the early nineties, I've never even played on a console bar a few turns on Wii Sports."
Craig's story is a poignant one. Despite the huge range of publishers around at the time, it shows how difficult it could be to get a game published, even when the process of getting it accepted had been bridged. Admittedly Craig was creating games in a genre that had become saturated over the years thanks to the various adventure game creator utilities around, yet the Crash Smash garnered by Custerds Quest demonstrates a sense of humour and penchant for dry wit that could have rivalled the great Delta 4 comedy adventures had it been given the chance to shine in 1987 and 1988.
If you want to play any of Craig's games (even Slack Bladder) they are all available for download at World of Spectrum
You can find out more about his band at www.myspace.com/containerdrivers.
Craig also runs an unofficial website on the band cult punk band Television Personalities (www.televisionpersonalities.co.uk) and has also asked me to mention his nostalgia site for early 90's indie bands: www.birdpoo.co.uk
Many thanks to Craig Davies for his generous time in making this feature possible and John Wilson of Zenobi for helping me get in contact with him.
Wait a sec...before you go, an excerpt from Custerd...
You can also see here:-
*An inconsequential stone panel*
It's inconsequential! Can't you read? It's a floor panel and I suggest that you kick it!
(having done this before and trying to be clever) Tap panel.
Rule 6b. The player must first kick the panel before tapping it.
You kick the stone panel and break a few toes. You dance around the room with your foot held high saying things that would shock your granny. You really are too gullible! Alright, try tapping it.