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An interview with Richard Aplin

Shinobi

Here is an interview with game programmer Richard Aplin by one of our retromaniacs; Pablo Luis Del Rincón Ramos

Pablo
Rich, you were mainly hired to port arcade machines to home computers as far as im aware. Squeezing an arcade game into an 8-bit machine must have been a hard job?!

Richard
Well kinda; doing an arcade conversion is harder than an original game in many ways (obviously big differences in hardware); although, at least you knew what you were aiming to achieve, not just some arbitrary piece of art (e.g. original title).

The biggest reason of course was because the publishers figured that a well-known arcade conversion was more likely to sell – regardless of how good the conversion actually was – and of course we were a business working for money so… 😉

Pablo
Ive heard that some programmers were lucky to even get to play the original arcade machine. Is this true??

Mike
Yes I never had any help from the arcade PCB companies (Sega etc) at all. We either got a whole cabinet or in some cases just a bare PCB. It would have been great to have had some source code, gfx, etc, but.. no :-)

The only case of arcade companies helping that I ever even heard of was Graftgold’s conversion of Rainbow Islands, where apparantly they had source code, gfx etc

Pablo
Let’s talk about games you were involved in their development, for example, the 8-bit conversions: Shinobi and Double Dragon 2 for the Amstrad CPC. They were brilliant conversions. How did you get so much from those old machines?

Richard
CPC Shinobi is one of my more popular games – it was probably the most fun to play. I did a lot of beat-em-ups and honestly I never thought much of the arcade games (Double Dragon 1/Double Dragon 2/Final Fight) – the arcade gameplay was (I thought) quite boring. We all enjoyed playing Shinobi in the office when we worked on that; it was a great game.

In terms of getting so much out of the machines (I guess I did a nice job on the CPC stuff I worked on; I was pleased with Amiga Final Fight in technical terms but everyone hated it) – well that was the fun! I always enjoyed coming up with clever ways to make things faster and take less RAM (those being the most difficult things at the time).

I had several nice tricks in the sprite routines in my later CPC games (Double Dragon 1/Double Dragon 2, and that graphics code was reused I think by someone else for CPC Final Fight and possibly E-SWAT, I forget) – they did real-time decompression of the graphics as they were drawn, as well as real-time X-flipping etc. This made big-sprite games run faster as well as take less RAM for the graphics, so it was a double-win :-)

Programming is much much easier nowadays (we wrote in assembler back then), but on the other hand people expect so much more (e.g. iOS games)

Pablo
In the Double Dragon 2 case, you used the same sprites the arcade version had but obviously adapted to the CPC resolution. Was this an “Aplin method”? It seems you did the same in E-SWAT for the Speccy and Final Fight for the Amiga.

Richard
Final Fight was the only game where I used original arcade graphics (having spent quite a lot of time hacking them out of the arcade board’s roms with a home-made rom reader) – even then it was just the sprites (I did rip all the background maps and tiles but they were not usable because they relied too much on parallax layers, many color palettes, etc, so some artists redid them by hand, not terribly well)

Pablo
Shinobi was another great port, congrats!! But maybe E-SWAT (spectrum version) as you quoted in the Amiga Final Fight Secret code, wasn’t a product you were proud of, were you?

Richard
Hmmm I don’t recall writing E-SWAT on the Spectrum… although it’s possible! The company I worked for (Binary Design / Creative Materials) did all the home versions of E-SWAT so it was likely one of my co-workers (Dave Leitch or maybe Nick Vincent, don’t remember)

It seems people nowadays have some misconceptions regarding the way the industry worked back in those days – budgets were small, typically one programmer would do e.g. CPC and Spectrum versions of something – coding from scratch – in just a few months. Everyone was very busy and the focus was on delivering the product on time (whcih was extremely important for arcade conversions, they were usually targeted at the christmas market; “Granny Money” as we used to call it).

Having the result be acceptable quality and done on time was MUCH more important than making it as good as it possibly could be.
Remember the publisher had typically spent a lot of money on licensing fees and usually they expected the game to sell almost regardless of how good it was because kids would recognise the name and want it.

Quality of the end result was not the #1 focus for anyone involved except perhaps the actual programmer taking pride in their work – and schedules were tight.

If the game didn’t get delivered to the duplicators on time, we’d get sued / go bust; so that’s how it was.

Pablo
One of the most well remembered was Double Dragon 1 (Amiga version) Why was the game so far from the arcade? Wasn’t an Amiga powerful enough to code a more faithful conversion?

Richard
Yeah Amiga Double Dragon 1 was a big rush job – there was an ST guy and an Amiga guy working on it – at the time I worked for Mastertronic who had just bought Melbourne House and we were the publisher, so I went up to Manchester where Binary Design were, and stayed there for about a month while it got rush-finished. Toward the end the Amiga guy actually quit, so I took over finishing that version. Most of the gameplay code (such as it was) was ported from the ST, and the graphics were pretty poor also.

Double Dragon was a classic example of “This Must Be Done On Time Or You’re ALL FIRED!” and we had some problems also (people freaking out/quitting).

Double Dragon 2 Amiga/ST I did all of (as I recall) so I used much more of the Amiga hardware in that version.

It would have been great to have had data/source code from the arcade machine because for example we could probably have directly ported the gameplay (which we’d have loved to do – would’ve saved us time and work as well as being more faithful)

Pablo
Richard, some “experts” at Amiga hardware claim that the A500 machine with 512k (minimum requirements to run your Final Fight) deserved a much better version. What do you think about it and if they are right, why you didn’t you try a more faithful conversion in terms of playability above all?

Richard
I see endless rants on Youtube about this, about how the Amiga hardware blah blah etc. Strangely, I haven’t seen anyone actually do such a conversion.

I think some guy recently started redoing just the first level of Final Fight on the Amiga and used Dual-playfield mode (to keep the parallax) and hardware sprites for the players and… I can tell you right now that’s not going to work for doing the whole game. :-)

The gameplay on Final Fight certainly could’ve been better but it’s not like the original machine was a super fun game (IMHO), personally I thought it was a pretty dull, repetitive beat-em up.

With Final Fight I spent quite a bit of time hacking out the graphics as I mentioned, but ripping out the arcade gameplay code was obviously going to be practically impossible so I didn’t look at it for long (deadlines!).

With hindsight I think what people _most_ hate about amiga FF is simply the lack of in-game music, and ironically that was simply because the head office people at my company didn’t commission any! I asked them to but… The excellent title music was of course borrowed from a Jolyon Myers demo (..and I tried to get him paid, but don’t think it ever happened – sorry ’bout that Jolyon – but I don’t think there’s any hard feelings).

Anyway the haters / “Amiga experts” are more than welcome to do a better conversion if they think I did such a bad job ; I genuinely look forward to seeing it.

Pablo
Let’s focus now in Double Dragon 2, a hit in arcade rooms and a sales hit on home computers. Why didn’t you implement one of the most famous Billy and Jimmy tactics from the arcade game: grab an enemy by the hair and  knee them! In Double Dragon 1 we saw it but it was totally ruled out in Double Dragon 2, even in the Amiga one, why?

Richard
Errrrrrrr…. errrrr.. no idea. I do remember that move you’re talking about. I did several versions of Double Dragon 1/Double Dragon 2, I’m surprised I didn’t put it in any of them. Shrug!

Pablo
Rich, please, tell us whatever you want to about Creative Materials. Good memories about that company?

Richard
Err yeah I worked for Binary Design (later relaunched as Creative Materials after some financial troubles) for several years and do fondly remember those times. The company was owned by Andy Heike and a nice lady called Pat (forget her surname) and they worked hard, employed a bunch of kids many of whom went on (are still in!) long careers in the industry.

What’s a little funny to me now is the nostalgia people have for those days – I think it’s because gamers from that period are now nearing middle age with kids etc and people tend to get misty-eyed about the past.

I remember it being fun, but it’s not like it was the best job ever – I’ve had a really fun time doing stuff since then.

Nowadays of course practically everyone writes software, so I don’t really stand out so much, but I’m still here, typing away, doing little clever bits of code etc. I don’t write games any more tho (it’s not a fun industry any more in my opinion – in the Console arena budgets, team sizes, timelines and expectations are all too big, and iOS/Android is incredibly competitive marketplace of course.

Pablo
We had to wait almost ten minutes loading E-SWAT stages to play less than 2 in most cases? Was it really necessary to do it that way?

Richard
Haha, I didn’t write CPC E-SWAT. At least… I don’t think I did..? I think Nick Vincent did it using my code and I’m pretty sure he was under a harsh deadline also.

I’m guessing they didn’t use a fast loader, maybe he didn’t optimize things well.

If I recall CPC Shinobi was a multiload as well, but it didn’t suck. 😉

Pablo
Are you still in the game’s industry?

Richard
mmm sort of… I live in San Francisco now and do freelance tech work; I mostly write server code nowadays – I wrote the server back-end used by my friends at Munkyfun (as used on “My Horse” , “Bounty Bots” and “Knight Storm”).

Right now I’m writing the server for a mobile app called “Car Fiend”. I also do embedded system programming to keep life interesting (e.g. I wrote the firmware for some wireless gaming headphones last year)

Pablo
Richard, it’s been a real pleasure to talk to you. Thanks for your time 😉

One thought on “An interview with Richard Aplin

  1. scopie says:

    Excellent interview. To be fair I don’t think final fight was THAT bad, at least the large arcade sprites were there. And don’t forget the conversion retained the 2 player option and the intro sequence. The main things that let it down was the dodgy color palette, especially the backgrounds and the lack of music and very basic sound effects. And there was a fair bit of slowdown from memory. Maybe team 17 should have had a go at the genre, as the scrolling brawler wasn’t to hot on the Amiga and st. Shadow warriors and golden axe were good ports but not much else….

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