Interview with Nick Speakman:
The year was 1988. Double Dragon for the home computer was right around the corner. Binary Design was the programming team. Things looked promising. Things went drastically wrong. The Spectrum version was a dull and sloppy piece of programming, the Amstrad version was even worse and the original C64 version is infamous in being one of the worst conversions on any machine ever. The 16-bit ports were just as bad, though at least the Amiga and Atari ST games had some nice backgrounds. This was hardly compensation however. Casual gamers could complete them all first time. Only Richard Aplin’s Amstrad CPC 128 version was close to capturing the magic of the original game and offering any kind of challenge. The rest were rushed. Nick Speakman reveals why.
Nick: “I was one of the project managers at Binary Design when this was all going on and what happened wasn't uncommon.”
Nick e mailed me in July of 2003 after stumbling across the Double Dragon Dojo and reading my Amstrad CPC Mystery feature. I asked him how he became a part of the group that would port everybody’s favorite beat ‘em up...
Nick: “I started at Binary in 87 as an 18-year-old straight from college and it was supposed to be a "year off" before going to Manchester University to study computing... but I never went... having too much fun in my dream job! Double Dragon was licensed by Virgin and they sent us a machine (which they did for any arcade conversion) and told us to get on with it... we only perfected the screen grabbing when the first versions were nearly finished.” Screen grabbing?
Nick: “When we started DD we were drawing the graphics by hand and before the first versions were cancelled we'd perfected a technique of screen grabbing from any "JAMMA" video game and downloading to an Amiga... so the graphics suddenly looked identical (well as close as they could!) to the arcade. We did quite a few cutting edge stuff like this for some games we had a black and white CCTV camera and color filters to grab 3D objects in 4096 colors... so we were doing "Mortal Kombat" stuff in the late 80's...”
So what happened to these “first versions” and what was the problem?
Nick: “A team of programmers was set the task of converting the game and they made a mess of it... we were told by Virgin/Mastertronic to "do it again" and even change the graphics... I was in charge of "The Picture Element" which was the graphics and music division of Binary and we went away and did it again as quick as we could for Xmas.”
“The first versions were just not up to scratch...”
Woh, woh, woh! You’re saying that ALL of the first versions were scrapped and the whole thing had to be rewritten? For EVERY machine?
“As I said my memory is hazy but it wasn't uncommon for stuff to be re-written... it still happens now... we write systems now that either require a complete rewrite or get paid for stuff that never even gets used...”
Nevertheless, I still find it amazing that Virgin would want a complete re-write with so little time left yet this explains why the computer games feel so rushed. It’s because they were! How long did Nick and the boys usually have to code a game like DD? I was always lead to believe it was around three months…
Nick: “Yeah it was usually about 3 months... I think DD was the same but I've a vague recollection the rewrite was only a couple of weeks!!”
That explains everything. It sounds like utter chaos. Didn’t Technos have any say in what was going on?
Nick: “I've a vague recollection that Technos might have had a say in the re-write… but normally the original arcade companies didn't give a toss about UK 8-bit conversions. We did games for Namco, Atari, Sega and none of them checked the games as far as I was aware.”
That doesn’t surprise me. One thing that did surprise back in 1988 though was the lack of music in Binary’s versions of DD. What with the awesome soundtrack of the original, this was a major blow in my book. I asked him the reason why…
Nick: “Sound always suffered first in those days... musicians were given no memory at all. It's worth remembering that even though you had 512K in an Amiga or ST a lot of that was occupied by the OS and the hi-res graphics took up vast amounts of memory. Compare that to a C64 which had nearly all the memory available to the programmer and used next to nothing for graphics. Plus the SID chip in a C64 could do amazing things in 2-3K... so you often got crap soundtracks on everything 8-bit apart from the C64 and some really good sampled sound at the start of an Amiga or ST game before if was "kicked out" of the memory space by the game.”
DD was rushed to meet the Christmas of 1988 deadline, but this wasn’t uncommon either; hence, the amount of awful coin op conversions that were released over in the UK. But they sold well because they really were viewed as the only inexpensive way to play arcade games at home. You have to understand that whilst arcades became popular in the UK, the NES never really took off because of a number of different reasons. It was two years too late, cartridges were too expensive, nobody liked consoles because of the “crash” in the early eighties, etc, etc. But hey, I digress…
I just had to know if the Binary team were DD fans before the project began…
Nick: “A few of us had played the game before but most of us were shoot 'em up fans rather than beat 'em up... R-Type was the big favorite around that time.“ I'd never played DD before we were sent the machine but it was a great game... we all loved it.”
Glad to hear that. So what was the deal with the two Amstrad ports?
Nick: “In version 1 (the poor CPC 464 game) Ben (Jackson) did the original Spectrum graphics and Jez (Nelson) colored them up a bit. The second set of graphics (in the good CPC 6128 game) were "ported" from the excellent Amiga version… which is why they look better but have strange color combinations.”
With the better version being so much, er, better, why did Melbourne/Virgin even bother releasing Jez and Ben’s inferior version of DD?
“Firstly when I said Jez and Ben... they were just the artists I think Gary Vine was the programmer (could be wrong!). Again I'm afraid I don't know I would suspect it was a duplication problem... if they'd already done copies of the crap version they would have to sell them somewhere! I mean only Atari have ever buried games (with ET in the desert). Virgin were probably trying to make a few quid out of what were (almost) useless tapes.” I’d have buried them with ET myself. But finally, Nick gives a proper reason for the two Amstrad CPC ports. Richard Aplin, who (almost) saved the Amiga and ST ports showed the new guys who had ruined DD with their Amstrad port, how it was done with his excellent version. I told Nick that I had received an e mail from Richard last year but his memory was fuzzy at best...
Nick: “To be honest my memory is a bit fuzzy as well... not aided by the fact that during 1989 I was either in work or in the Hacienda club... all I can remember is it all going horribly wrong, Virgin/Mastertronic going apesh*t and having to start again. Plus all the new graduate programmers not knowing all the "tricks" of the "back bedroom" guys who'd recently left. There were some good programmers but many were given DD as their first project. For guys like Dave Leitch this was one of their first games and for Richard (Aplin) it was like falling off a log... he was a sh*t-hot programmer who'd written games for years.”
As you may or may not know, Melbourne House, the home computer distributor of DD in the UK (Arcadia distributed a few of the home PC versions in the States) once published an ancient but nifty little one on one Karate Champ style game called Way Of The Exploding Fist as well as its sequel, imaginatively titled Fist 2. Double Dragon should have been the natural progression. The initial problem was that Virgin bought out Melbourne House and placed the fate of Double Dragon the computer game into the hands of Mastertronic. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the same Mastertronic who would have once been regarded as more than capable to deal with this project.
Nick: “In the mid-80's Binary Design did original games like Zub and Amaurote for Mastertronic’s £1.99 market and we regularly had 4-5 games in the (UK) top 10. Then when Virgin bought Mastertronic we started to be asked to do more arcade conversions like Double Dragon, Shinobi and Hard Drivin' since this was less artistically challenging, (copying someone else's game) many of the original programmers left. We recruited new computer graduates, instead of kids off the street who could program and they weren't as good. Hence the crap first version. Binary finally went bust in January 1990 because of the shift in programmers, Virgin's takeover of Mastertronic and the death of the £1.99 budget game.”
Shame really. The 8-bit computer games industry was massive in the UK during the mid 1980s simply because of kids in their back bedrooms, messing with their micros and sending in their games to software houses. Games on cassette were really cheap. When arcade machines suddenly became the only games to play, originality went out the window. Prices went up as the likes of the Spectrum choked whilst a group of programmers fought to cram what were then technologically amazing titles into such basic hardware. Still, these 8-bit dinosaurs could pull them off, as long as the spirit and that all important game play factor was there. Sadly, in the case of DD it wasn’t meant to be.
I wondered if there was anybody else who might remember more about converting DD back in ‘88 other than Nick himself of course…
Nick: “As I said I was in charge of the external programmers, artists and musicians so the three people who would remember better than me would be Andy Hieke the MD who went to the US to work for MicroProse (who I haven't seen for 10 years) and the two "in-house programmer" managers Nick Vincent... who I drove past in Stockport (England) the other day but hadn't seen for 14 years and Paul Ranson who went off to form Big Red Software and I haven't seen him for 14 years...
“I loved my time at Binary and I don't think I've ever seen so many talented people in one place at one time... and it was all down to the recruitment skills of Andy the MD who was a great bloke but a bit mad and not a great business man.”
I asked Nick what he and his former workmates were doing now…
Nick: “Most of the ex-Binary guys are still in the games industry, my best mate from Binary, Andy Routledge works in Vancouver for EA and the rest work around Manchester. Paul Ranson is supposed to be loaded (i.e. super rich) after selling his software company to Eidos. And I've been the Managing Director of a software company writing Apple Mac software for the print and publishing industry since 1992.”
DD may have been a bit of a mess and it all happened such a long time ago but it’s obvious that Nick still has some great memories from those days.
Nick: “Yeah working at Binary was a great job, playing arcade games all day, getting paid well, out clubbing every night, 30 lads with an average age of 22 and all mad on games, some really talented people around you... it was a great time of my life.”
In closing I’d just like to thank Nick very much for his kind e mails and answering all my questions to the best of his recollection. Cheers Nick, and I wish you all the best for the future!