Starglider (Rainbird)

Starglider (Rainbird)

Memories

In 1982, teenagers Jez San and his friend Fouad (aka Foo) Katan worked through their Summer holiday for Silversoft – a small computer games publisher based in Westminster, London. However, both Jez and Foo had bigger aspirations. Through his fascination with computers, Jez knew Century Communications’ Senior Book Editor Simon Dally, and was invited to a dinner which was also attended by Jacqui Lyons (who ran an agency called Marjaq). As a result, Jez ended up becoming Marjaq’s first client from the fledgling software industry.

Jez setup Argonaut Software from his bedroom in September 1982 when he was still 16 years old. He hacked into BT’s pioneering Telecom Gold electronic mail system and exposed some security holes, wrote up a report on how they could be fixed and then sold the report to BT. Argonaut Software was therefore created by Jez and his father to give Jez and his report more credence when he approached BT. The plan worked, and so Jez then turned his attention to hacking Acorn’s tape and floppy disk protection routines on the BBC Micro. He wrote some innovative code to allow 40 and 80 track drives to load software from the same disk, and to top it off he then wrote some disk protection which used some illegal 6502 instructions to make the disks much harder to hack than before, and sold this back to Acorn.

Jez’s first two deals through Marjaq were for books. Collaborating with his friend Foo and Simon Rockman, they wrote a book called Quantum Theory (ISBN 0-7126-0643-2) which was published by Century Communications. Jez’s second book was about the Sinclair QL computer and was again published by Century Communications.

Argonaut Software’s first ever game was Skyline Attack, written for the C64 and published by Century Software (the software division of Century Communications). The game was a joint effort by Jez and Foo (although the packaging stated that their friend, Andrew Glaister also co-wrote it, he didn’t actually contribute any code).

During this period, Jez and Foo wrote their own cross-development tool called PDS (Programmer’s Development System), which ran on a BBC Micro and allowed remote control development of a Commodore 64. It was initially created to help them code Skyline Attack, but subsequently became a viable business in its own right, with Foo and Andrew selling PDS to other developers. Jez wrote the input and output code for the system, which set up the C64 to use the right graphics modes, scanned the keyboard and joystick, created the sound effects, and so on.

It was around this time that Firebird won the auction to publish conversions of Elite, which was at that stage only available for Acorn’s BBC Model B Micro and the Acorn Electron. The original authors of Elite (David Braben and Ian Bell – both Marjaq clients by then) were hired to write their own C64 conversion, and Jez helped them get up to speed on the C64 by using both PDS and the technical knowledge he had acquired along the way.

As a result of this help, Jacqui Lyons took the opportunity to use the goodwill Jez had generated to successfully negotiate his own deal with TelecomSoft for a 16-bit 3D arcade game Jez had been working on called Starglider.

Jez had already bought an Apple Macintosh and had written some 3D vector graphics routines on it, using simple lines and dots. He was a huge fan of the Atari Star Wars coin-op, and had been in negotiations with Atari to write conversions of the game for the home market. Unfortunately the deal fell through, leaving Jez determined to write a better 3D vector shoot ’em up, with a ‘real 3D’ landscape to fly around and explore.

One of Jez’s early game ideas involved a glider in space that flew through stargates to propel itself along, and part of the game strategy involved gliding from gate to gate. This idea was quickly dropped when Jez realised that it wouldn’t be fun for the player if they weren’t under their own power and so couldn’t ‘fly anywhere’ (the original inspiration for writing the game in the first place!). So, the gliding element was dropped from the design but the game retained the Starglider title.

Jez designed and coded Starglider with help from a few other people – namely Danny Emmett for art, Paul Hibbard for 3D object design, Richard Clucas for some ancillary routines (mouse/keyboard/joystick input), David Lowe for the music, James Follett for the Novella and Gary Sheinwald for testing, critical feedback and documentation.

No sooner was the ink dry on the contract, than Jez went out and bought an Atari ST and ordered a Commodore Amiga direct from the US. Both machines had only just been released, so very little technical information was available. To get the best out of each computer, Jez had to reverse-engineer both machines to understand how they worked. For example, the sound chip in the Atari ST wasn’t designed to handle sampled sounds, but armed with a voltmeter Jez worked out how to make it possible.

Jez rented an Ensoniq Mirage synthesiser which could sample sounds and he initially recorded his own voice as a placeholder. However, it was decided after consultation with Gary Sheinwald that a female voice would sound better. They recorded Paula Byrne first, but her voice didn’t sound quite right for the on-board computer. In contrast, Clare Edgeley had recently joined TelecomSoft’s marketing department from magazine publisher EMAP, and they decided that her voice was perfect for the job. Although quite self-conscious and suffering from a cold at the time, Clare recorded the immortal phrases that became the very first sampled speech in an Atari ST game – “Docking Complete”, “Missile Launched”, “Damage Alert” and “Energy Low”. Afterwards, Clare received fan-mail addressed to ‘the girl who says missile launched in Starglider’!

All of this hard work paid off though, as not only did Starglider become a huge hit (giving Jez the funds to expand Argonaut), but he ended up being credited in the Amiga Hardware Reference manual for helping them better understand the Blitter (a rudimentary hardware graphics accelerator chip).

When it came to the Amiga conversion of Starglider, Jez was keen to make the game solid 3D rather than wireframe. However, this would have delayed the Amiga version quite considerably and it was successfully argued by Gary Sheinwald and others at TelecomSoft that solid 3D would be better left for the inevitable sequel.

Starglider might have been originally designed and coded for the 16-bit ST and Amiga, but Rainbird were particularly keen to see conversions across a wide number of other platforms, including the old 8-bit systems. To this end, they wasted no time in contracting Realtime Games to write versions for the IBM PC, Sinclair Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, and Amstrad PCW. The C64 and Apple IIgs versions were handled by Solid Images (creators of Firebird’s Cholo game).

Realtime began their versions about three months before the ST and Amiga originals were completed. They worked mainly from the specification document, which originally included a Mission Completed sequence (showing a circle of walkers from the game kneeling down in surrender) which was coded and then removed after it transpired that Argonaut didn’t include it in the finished 16-bit versions.

Graeme Baird and Ian Oliver wrote all of the Z80 versions, and Andy Onions was left to concentrate on the CGA IBM PC version. Realtime consulted with Jez San on some of the finer points of the game design (damage levels, enemy reactions, and so on) but otherwise the conversions were fairly straight-forward as Realtime already had a mature 3D system which could easily handle what Starglider required.

The Amstrad PCW version was coded in a week, including some nifty code to get CPM to do the disk loader, some nicely depth-cued monochrome graphics and hand-building some development interface hardware.

Starglider was one of Rainbird’s earliest titles, and it went on to win a string of awards for the publisher and developers alike. The 128k Spectrum version was particularly impressive, taking advantage of the extra ram and giving Sinclair users the sampled speech from the 16-bit versions.

Huge thanks to Jez San, Ian Oliver and Gary Sheinwald for the memories!

Get Fresh

TelecomSoft were approached by TV executives in 1986 looking for an interactive computer game to feature every week on the Saturday morning kids TV show Get Fresh, presented by Gaz Top.

Gary Sheinwald suggested Starglider, and so Jez wrote a special version which included a 3 minute timer. Two players played the special version simultaneously, and the player with the highest score at the end won. The following year, the TV executives went for the very first Bitmap Brothers game, Xenon (published by Melbourne House) as Starglider’s replacement.

Starglider on ITV's Get Fresh

This wasn’t TelecomSoft’s only foray into TV land. Two years later, Weird Dreams appeared on Motor Mouth.

Coin-op

Starglider was also signed up by Bally-Sente as a coin-op, but unfortunately the development board (based on the Amiga) never went into production and so the Starglider coin-op never officially appeared in the arcades.

Jez the Wizard

Along with his friends Andrew Glaister and Foud Katan (who together would later collaborate on Firebird’s Empire! game), Jez used to remotely log into Essex University to play the online text game, Multi-User Dungeon (MUD). Subsequently, Jez became the first ‘external Wizard’ in the game, quickly followed by Andrew.

If you flick through the Starglider manual, you will also see reference to someone called draziw yrag which gives you a clue that Gary Sheinwald was also a MUD Wizard!

 

4 thoughts on “Starglider (Rainbird)

  1. San

    On the Amstrad PCW8256, I never mastered the trick of shoting walkers – although the manual suggested there was a weak spot. Was there?

    Reply
    1. Richard Post author

      Well, it’s been a while since I last played Starglider but I seem to remember using missiles (replenished after docking with the silos) to take them down…

      Reply
      1. San

        Yeah, that’s what I had to do too. But I remember in the story that came with the book, they learnt a trick (that wasn’t described) where the characters were able to destroy them using normal lasers. I played that game a lot, and I fear that the devs forgot to put that weakness in, because I could never find it.

        Reply
        1. Richard Post author

          There were a few game features that were omitted from the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga versions (due to various reasons) that managed to get into the conversions written by Realtime Games (including the PCW version which was based upon the Z80 code from the Spectrum version). I’ll see if Realtime can recall anything, but it’s now 30 years since those conversions were published so they might not remember either!

          Reply

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