Mastertronic. We all loved them and hated them in equal measure. But you paid your money, you took your chances. They were capable of delivering such turgid examples of gaming that even the most forgiving gamer would toss aside the (admittedly well-designed) cassette case, or consign it to a shelf, never to be loaded again.
Yet as time passed, the budget label began to turn the tide. Whereas its earlier efforts had been largely inadequate, with the price alone enough to shift large quantities, by 1986 they were churning out games of such quality that you often wondered how they did it and made a profit. The Agent X series, Molecule Man, Universal Hero, Chronos, the list goes on. Admittedly none were classics - but for £1.99 you couldn't argue you were not getting a good deal.
We move our story across from London to Italy, which despite the reputation of Spain as a hotbed of Spectrum penetration, actually rivalled its European cousin for interest in the Sinclair machine. Living in Milan was Giovanni Zanetti; Giovanni's interest in computing began in 1982 when he moved to England to study English. The home computer market was spreading fast, with Sinclair at the forefront in the UK and the young Italian fostered a natural interest borne from a curious nature. Giovanni says: "There were plenty of Italian coders, but no-one wanted to develop the market in Italy. I don't think the English software houses considered countries outside England as a potential resource; more a target market." Having studied in England and seen the potential, Giovanni decided to create a game with one aim: to make it simple, yet as addictive as possible.
This tenet came from Giovanni's love of arcade games, and in particular, Gottlieb's legendary potty-mouth, Q-Bert. "The game had to be very immediate and accessible," he says, "almost like: forget the manual, just play." Giovanni wrote the game in 1985 in colloboration with his friends Paolo and Raffaele. Interestingly, while he could not recall Raffaele's surname, Giovanni confirmed it was definitely not Raffaele Cecco as incorrectly reported in Crash Magazine for the team's second game, Draughts Genius.
Realising their simple game was unlikely to be welcomed as a full-priced release, Giovanni contacted Mastertronic in order to gauge interest in Pippo. "I presented it to the guy at Mastertronic who said it was a perfect game for its target audience," states Giovanni, "and we signed for a sum as royalties fees anticipation followed by the calculated extra payment. As usual, this was difficult to determine, but we trusted them."
Despite a lack of promotion from Mastertronic (they generally disliked wasting money on advertising, and Pippo was not reviewed in most of the magazines), Pippo became a best-seller, helped by its effervescent and, well, mental, cover by Mastertronic stalwart John Smythe. In fact it sold precisely 25882 copies, not a bad figure considering how competitive the budget market had become by 1986.
Sadly, and despite a follow-up game for Rack-it called Draughts Genius, Pippo did not inspire Giovanni to pursue a career in video games. "The amount I earned from the games was very poor and too low to have a career in that area. And there were no developers in Italy." he laments. Today, Giovanni enjoys a very successful career in IT; but he remains very proud of his first Spectrum game. "It was good fun to write and it's great that so many people love it today still. But really we wrote these games to demonstrate that there was good programming talent outside the UK."
Oh - I almost forgot - the speech! Pippo's inlay boasted of sampled "speech" (actually a scream whenever the rotund, err, thing, fell off the game area), which was very rare in 1986, especially for a budget Spectrum game. "I recorded that myself," chuckles Giovanni, "by shouting into my old-style cassette player. One day my mother had some friends downstairs and they could all hear me shouting 'arrrgggh arrgggh'. She said to her friends: 'Giovanni, he is a good boy, but from time to time he needs to let off steam!'"
Here is a link to a video of Gianfranco D'Angelo in action in his 'Pippo' character. Warning: this video is likely to frighten small animals and children! http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x134ou6_tenerone-gianfranco-d-angelo-drive-in_shortfilms
Many thanks to Giovanni for his time.