Virus was one of those games that you either loved or loathed. It either had the most intuitive mouse control method ever devised or the worst, most over sensitive mouse control ever encountered. Whilst you could play it on keyboard, the real experts used mouse control! I freely admit to personally finding mouse control to be exceptionally fiddly. I still really enjoyed testing Virus despite this handicap – even though I wasn’t that good at the game itself! Good job then that I wasn’t the main tester on the game!
It was never made clear to me why Zarch on the Archimedes became Virus on the ST, Amiga, PC and Spectrum, although I’m sure there would have been a legal reason for the name change. For the majority of its development the game was created under the temporary title of ‘Bird of Prey’, although that title was too long to fit on the status bar at the top of the screen and so a change was necessary. Not only was Virus very appropriate, but it also had the same number of letters as Zarch!
Virus had a remarkably smooth development on the ST and Amiga, with few bugs or issues to contend with. David Braben got to grips with coding for 68000-based 16-bit machines with relative ease.
The game started off as a demo written in basic for the new Acorn RISC-based computer, the Archimedes. The demo was called Lander which was the inspiration for the subsequent full commercial game called Zarch that was published by Superior Software in 1987.
Virus was initially released in September 1988 for the ST and Amiga and it received excellent coverage in the specialist press. Very high reviews were common place in magazines such as Ace, Computer and Video Games and The Games Machine. The PC version was released soon afterwards, but the Spectrum version didn’t appear until after the sale of TelecomSoft to Microprose had gone through.
The patchwork landscape look has inspired a number of games since then, but the delicate balance of thrusting over the landscape, spinning the ship around and shooting down the enemy with pin-point accuracy has never been bettered. The simple but elegant design and implementation puts Virus in a class of its own. However, the original Archimedes version (Zarch) did look a little prettier, with more subtle colours and better shadow effects.
Virus was project managed for TelecomSoft by Gary Sheinwald. David Braben wrote the Atari ST and Amiga versions (although Herman provided the Atari ST version with a different loading screen). Chris Sawyer converted the game to the PC, and Steven Dunn wrote the (unexpected) Spectrum version.
Steven Dunn was an untried programmer who had only been dabbling with Spectrum assembly programming for a few months when he saw a demo of Zarch on the Archimedes in 1987. He was impressed by the machine and the game, and decided to call TelecomSoft to enquire if a Spectrum version was planned. It wasn’t. Steven honestly believed that it was possible and he managed to get hold of a phone number which he believed was David Braben’s, but which turned out to be the number of his agent, Jacqui Lyons (from Marjaq – the first agency to recognise and represent computer game programmers in the industry). Jacqui recommended that Steven write a demo as a starting point. Three months later, Steven had created a Spectrum demo of the main spaceship and some rolling hills which he promptly sent to Firebird. He didn’t have to wait long for a response, and was invited into London to discuss things further.
The meeting not only resulted in Steven being commissioned to write a Spectrum version, but he also became a Marjaq client. Firebird also agreed to loan him their one-and-only Acorn Archimedes and the original ‘Zarch’ game (published by Superior Software) as the 16-bit versions of ‘Virus’ were still in development.
In classic bedroom programmer style, Steven coded night and day fleshing out the original demo into a fully blown game. He hard-coded the variables (e.g. the High Score) to a specific memory address, and then hand-wrote all of the variables and their memory locations onto paper for easy reference. He had to write a self-modifying line drawing routine, sprites for the trees and a basic particle engine. The game world was randomly generated with a few variations in sine waves to create the rolling hills, and the increasing difficulty level was based upon simple observation of the original Zarch game.
The Spectrum version was Steven’s first ever published computer game, and it reviewed and sold well despite appearing near the end of the Spectrum’s commercial viability. Steven did such a good job (considering the limitations of the hardware) that he was quickly commissioned to start work on another Spectrum version of a 16-bit title – Argonaut’s Starglider 2.
I was still a big ‘speccy’ fan back in the late 80s, so I was often given the Spectrum versions of games to playtest, and Virus was no exception. It was remarkable that it was even attempted, so the fact that it turned out even half-decent was impressive.
US name change
There was a real danger of Virus being released in the US under the alternative title of Red Alert, due in part to the negative perception of the title with computer viruses in the US. In the end, it remained as ‘Virus’.