Firebird’s conversions of Flying Shark were originally handed to Southsea-based Catalyst Coders Ltd, who then used a smaller off-shoot company called Designmaker Ltd based in Neath, near Swansea to code the 8-bit versions.
However, after a while it became apparent that little progress had been made and they weren’t up to the job on the Spectrum version, so these were taken away from Catalyst and Graftgold were asked to step in and save the day in six short weeks.
Graftgold had just moved into their first office, having recently expanded and taken on new staff. Flying Shark was Graftgold’s first ever non-original conversion, and they did a superb job of squeezing the coin-op into the Spectrum and the Amstrad CPC. They borrowed the coin-op, played it all the way through, videod everything and then set to work. Dominic Robinson was given the job of coding the Spectrum version and John Cumming handled the graphics. Between them they managed to finish the game at a blistering pace!
John Cumming created a set of tiles for the level maps as well as the sprites. Dominic then wrote a cell-based screen display. The Spectrum had no hardware scrolling, so the screen had to be rebuilt every frame. Dominic developed a new technique that allowed sprites to be pre-plotted on spare background tiles, then the background was plotted to the display as fast as possible.
Graftgold co-founder Steve Turner then converted the Spectrum code over to the Amstrad CPC in just a further 2 weeks, writing the music driver and basing the tunes on sheet music that came from Taito. Both Spectrum and Amstrad versions turned out very well, and it lead to further conversion work.
Catalyst Coders were a small but established development team who specialised in C64 work. Although the C64 was probably the best suited out of the 8-bit micros for a scrolling shoot ’em up, it turned out to be the worst of the Firebird conversions. In the US, Taito were unhappy with the C64 conversion that Firebird published in Europe, so they commissioned a second version to be written for the US market. This time, Taito chose Software Creations after their successful Bubble Bobble conversions for Firebird and Taito in 1986. The new version was released in 1988 in the US under the title “Sky Shark”.
Catalyst were also given the job of writing the ST and Amiga versions. This was presumably a decision made for similar reasons to the 16-bit conversions of Elite being written by the developers of the 8-bit MSX conversion. It gave the developer experience of moving up to 16-bit work on a title that they were already familiar with.
It’s always difficult to produce a completely accurate home micro conversion from a coin-op. Developers can sometimes use the actual sprite graphics from the coin-op, but they still have to recreate the attack patterns and all of the other subtle elements that make the game what it is.
There were plenty of differences between the coin-op and the Firebird conversions. Ignoring the 8-bit games (as they were never going to be capable of being 100% accurate anyway), the 16-bit versions still deviated in subtle and not so subtle ways from the original game.
A comparison between the coin-op and the ST version shows some example differences more clearly. The coin-op is played in portrait display, whilst the ST and Amiga were landscape. The coin-op scrolled the screen left and right when the player flew close to either side. Scenery layout was also subtley different, partially because the graphics weren’t always based on the original coin-op files and due to the fact that the entire width of the game area fitted vertically into the 16-bit display without the need to scroll left or right at all.
The 16-bit versions were also delivered very late; so late in fact that Firebird were on the verge of cancelling them after months of extremely slow progress throughout most of 1988. The assumption at the time was that Catalyst were having problems behind-the-scenes, but they did eventually deliver both ST and Amiga versions.
Flying Shark wasn’t spectacular to look at or to play, but it was a good solid blast that had that elusive ‘just one more go’ factor.
Many thanks to Steve Turner for Graftgold’s memories of coding Flying Shark for Firebird. Thanks also to Bob Pape for enhancing the story about Catalyst Coders, and Frank Gasking for allowing the inclusion of the only surviving screenshot from the aborted Spectrum version coded by Catalyst!
A demo of the first level of the ST version was produced for the magazine ST/Amiga Action and was published in December 88 (January 1989, Issue 7).
The 16-bit versions were released around the same time as BT announced that TelecomSoft was being put up for sale, well over a year after the 8-bit versions had been released.