For Retro Gamer magazine issue 112 I interviewed Jas Austin, creator of Rex, one of the finest (and toughest) ZX Spectrum games. Here is the full feature. Check out Retro Gamer at www.retrogamer.net.
By late 1988, The ZX Spectrum phenomenon was indisputably on the wane. Yet there were still some excellent games being released including this tale of a simple Rino-Sapien out to protect the universe from those horrible humans and their nasty polluting factories. Your fellow bad guy, Graeme Mason, tells more…
While researching this article, we struggled to find very little information regarding thedevelopers of Rex, the mysteriously-named The Light. We discovered their names were John Anderson, Neil Harris and Richard Allan and some scant information on a nebulous previous employment at IBM, but that appeared to be it. The reason was simple: they don’t exist.
“Our previous game, The Fury, got mixed reviews and sold poorly; we had a meeting with [publishers] Martech and I’m pretty sure they were about to drop us. So we thought it would be a good time to show them our new demo.” says John Anderson, real name Jas Austin and one-third of developer Creative Reality. Along with Neil Dodwell and Dave Dew, they had decided to try out a new tactic for their latest game in an attempt to erase any memories of their previous effort. Thus The Light was born. “I don’t think there was any deep meaning in the names. I can’t even remember why the other guys picked theirs. I simply chose mine because it had the same initials.” mentions Jas nonchalantly. So that’s the puzzle of the developers themselves out of the way – what of this demo we ask Jas? “It was just a single screen with an unnamed character jumping and shooting the hell out of some stick men. We had nicknamed it The Peeps Game and it seemed to go down very well. I think it saved us.” he admits.
So with the basis of the game behind them, and their skins duly saved, Jas, Dave and Neil began developing the design for The Peeps Game. “I was always coming up with crazy ideas,” laughs Jas, “and at the time there were a lot of pollution issues around. Plus, deep down I’m a bit of a hippy, so the idea was probably a combination of a few things.” The plot to Rex would be an interesting twist on the common mankind versus the aliens story. Having ruined their own planet, homo sapiens are busy polluting the rest of the universe, specifically, the previously-beautiful world of Zenith. Situated on this planet, belching out toxic fumes sits The Great Tower, a colossal testament to mankind’s ability to destroy nature in the name of progress. The tower is well-fortified, but fortunately the locals have clubbed together and hired Rino-Sapien uber-mercenary Rex to head on in and teach those ignorant humans a lesson or two. Armed with a formidable selection of guns, smart bombs and a shield, it’s Rex’s job to make his way through the human-infested underground cavern before taking on The Great Tower itself. Even for a tough nut like him, this is going to be a demanding gig.
Like many Spectrum fans, Jas was a huge fan of fellow programmer Raffaele Cecco. “Exolon and Cybernoid, in particular, were huge influences,” he confirms, “and the Dan Dare games by Martin Wheeler were also a big inspiration for the graphic style, especially the tower section.” Jas ponders on this for a moment before admitting they were pretty much a blatant copy of Dan Dare. “Ironically, I’d never met Martin Wheeler at the time, but years later ended up working with him on quite a few games,” he notes.
With regards to the game’s style, it was decided early on that Rex would be a full screen adventure; this meant, for the Spectrum version at least, that it would be flick screen rather than scrolling. “One of my earlier games, W.A.R., was a downward scroller,” says Jas, and I had to have a tiny play area just to keep the frame rate playable. That was the major drawback of the Spectrum: no hardware support for scrolling or sprites.” Even with single non-scrolling screens, the team still had a job keeping the frame rate up thanks to the huge number of sprites they planned to include – especially as the game progressed and the player added more and more destructive weaponry to Rex’s arsenal.
Name changing - again
Another famous Spectrum foible Jas and Dave were keen to avoid was the dreaded colour clash. “It wasn’t really acceptable by this stage for games to have blatant colour clash,” recalls Jas, “so you either went monochrome or worked around it. Again, our solution was similar to Dan Dare and quite elegant; if you notice, all the sprites except for the odd explosion are kept to one colour, white. That enabled us to go to town on the backgrounds and make them as colourful as possible. We also did some clever block colours behind the player in the Tower level to give the impression of shadows. All very simple, but also very effective.” Interestingly, at this relatively early stage, working title The Peeps Game had been jettisoned in favour of another name that would also soon be abandoned. “The first proper name we came up with for Rex was Zenith after the planet the game takes place on,” reveals Jas, “until we decided that thanks to the rather famous window company around at the time, it would probably be a very bad idea calling it that.”
With Jas busy designing the levels, Dave Dew creating the sharp graphics and Neil Dodwell working on the Amstrad version, the newly-named Rex was starting to come together nicely. It was time for a touch of 80’s action cinema. “When it came to the gameplay, I wanted to create a deeper scoring system than normal and this came about through the multiplier.” remembers Jas. This multi-recoil system, as influenced by over-the-top action movies such as Commando and Predator, meant you could carry on shooting enemies, suspending their jerking bodies in mid-air and hugely increasing your score. “It got you loads of points, and the bottom line was it was fun!” grins Jas maniacally.
Shields and Beam Pads
Another idea, perhaps stemming from an early admission on how tough Rex was going to be to play, was a bubble shield that protected the horny devil from attacks. “I’m pretty sure the shield was there from the start, so I’m not sure if we actually had realised by then how difficult the game was going to be,” states Jas, neatly contradicting our theory. “I remember it could be used as a kind of last ditch strategy where you could pile into a bunch of enemies. But if the shield ran out before they died, you were in big trouble.” Nevertheless, Rex’s shield, along with the frequent and conveniently placed beam pads that created re-spawn points within the framework of the plot, gave players some limited respite and added a strategic element to the game that was much appreciated upon release.
Rex took Creative Reality four months to complete. “I seem to recall most of the time was spent inputting all the level data which must have been all done by hand. We certainly didn’t have any kind of level editor,” grimaces Jas. Generally, the team were very pleased with their efforts although there was a common issue towards the end of its development. “While we were happy with the boss at the end of the caves level, I would have liked to have had a much more impressive end to the game as the final boss at the top of the tower was pretty weak,” admits Jas. “All you had to do was get in the right place and shoot it and that was it, as it didn’t move or have any attacks. It was implemented right at the end of the development cycle so we simply ran out of time.” The lack of time was also the reason for the rather odd end game message. Having inserted the droll words “With the big squidgy thing destroyed, Rex can go home and have a nice cup of tea and put his feet up” as a place holder early in development, the team didn’t bother to change it. “We figured that it was quite amusing, plus we doubted many people would actually finish the game to see it!” quips Jas.
Harsh and fair
Upon release, Rex received unanimous praise. Crash magazine called it “a great mix of arcade/adventure and shoot-‘em-up” and scored the game 82% while rival Your Sinclair reserved particular adulation for the multi-hit recoil system and weapon power-ups. The team were obviously delighted. “I think the look of the game really helped,” notes Jas, “as although it may not have been a totally unique design, Dave did a fantastic job on the graphics, especially creating the colourful levels with very little colour clash. I also tried to keep the controls simple while including a decent amount of depth.”
Despite the good reviews, there were minor criticisms of Rex, most notably the level of difficulty and its small graphics. “I guess looking back it was quite a difficult game, but I’d like to think it was tough but fair,” responds Jas. “because as long as you took your time and planned your route carefully, it was quite straightforward. And of course, once fully tooled up, Rex was quite a hard bastard…” Another reason for the difficulty was the nature of play testing back in the Eighties; there were no outside play testers, or focus testing – it was all done by the team themselves, who of course became quite adept at the game as development went on. Jas acknowledges the graphics criticism but admits they had little choice; if they wanted multiple sprites on screen at once, each one with many frames of animation (including the various player weapons), the only way to do it was to keep the sprites small.
Creative Reality produced many impressive games during their time in the mid-late Eighties. We asked Jas how he thinks Rex stands in comparison. “I would say it was our best game by far as it certainly received the best reviews and seems to have stood the test of time better than our other games. I would also add that I really enjoyed working on it, as I did with all our games from that time. We always had a free reign over game design, often including the graphical style. These days you just don’t get that freedom when working within a big team.”
Rex proved to be Creative Reality’s final 8-bit game. Jas Austin moved to Activision in 1989 where, during a brief stay, he produced the Spectrum arcade conversion of Altered Beast. Today he is a senior programmer and game designer at Origin8, the developer created by Jez San and Foo Katan in 2008. For regular updates on Origin8 and their games you can follow Jas on twitter: @IamXERO.
The original release of Rex contained an unusual demonstration mode on side b, as Jas explains. “The idea was to create a non-playable intro of how Rex arrived at the tower and we went one further by also including a demonstration of how to use the weapons in the game.” This intro was essentially Jas playing a short section of the game over and over again until he got it right. “I had to complete that bit perfectly, so every time I messed it up I had to start again from the beginning. It took me ages, but I got pretty good at the game.” Interestingly, the submarine that Rex arrives in at the beginning of the intro was loosely based on the Blitzspear ship from one of Creative Reality’s previous games, Nemesis the Warlock.
Also by Creative Reality:-
W.A.R. (Martech, 1986)
Tarzan (Martech, 1986)
Slaine (Martech, 1987)
Nemesis the Warlock (Martech, 1987)
The Fury (Martech, 1988)
Dreamweb (Empire Interactive, 1994)
Martian Gothic: Unification (Take Two, 2000)