You’ve been asking for this one for ages, so here it is. The squidgy flick screen platformer The Bod Squad captured the hearts of thousands when a demo appeared on […]
You’ve been asking for this one for ages, so here it is. The squidgy flick screen platformer The Bod Squad captured the hearts of thousands when a demo appeared on Commodore Format Power Pack 20 in 1992, followed by a glowing review the next month. This is a game with an unusual story – and as we found out when we spoke to Bod’s creator, it’s also a game with a future. New to The Bod Squad? Start here.
When The Bod Squad creator Kent Murray finishes his day job developing online games, he’s well in to his Occulus Quest. “I’m a huge VR nut”, he enthuses to us from his home in Oldham. “One of my favourite things right now is throwing on the Quest and playing games on an emulator inside the headset. It essentially gives you a cinema sized screen full of 8-bit, pixelated heaven!”
Kent’s the real deal. He isn’t just humouring Commodore Format because we love his C64 game. He’s One Of Us. Over two days this winter, the youngest kid from a family of seven told us how he fell in love with games, how his Mum managed to scrape together the funds for his first computer and how that led to his first job at a software developer. That, in turn, resulted in one of the most beloved budget games of the ’90s.
“I remember my very first encounter with a computer vividly! It was the fantastic ZX81. A friend of mine who lived around the corner was given one for Christmas. A few of the lads from where I lived heard about it and we all popped around to have a look.”
“I remember very clearly that everyone else in the room just wanted to play the game, which I believe was 3D Monster Maze. I stood at the back of the room watching and I just recall thinking….How do they make these games?”
Not that Kent ever thought he’d get the chance to figure it out for himself as a youngster growing up in Widnes.
“I came from a pretty poor family. I was in fact the youngest of seven kids, so the idea that I might one day be able to own one of these computers was just unthinkable. But my fantastic Mother somehow saved and borrowed the money needed to buy me one and a few months later, I had my first computer….The ZX81! The first game that I owned was also 3D Monster Maze, it was an incredible game for the time and I just remember that it sent my imagination wild.”
CF: So the fabby ZX81 is where you started to mess about with code.
KENT: Yeah, so I remember playing about in basic on the ZX81 but I really had no idea what I was doing to be honest! I think the ZX81 lasted for a couple of years before the keyboard started to go on it and once again my amazing Mum came to the rescue and she upgraded the computer for me at Christmas. This is when I got my Acorn Electron.
I absolutely loved that machine and it’s where I first started to do my proper programming. It was still just in BASIC at this point but at least I started to work out how to draw backgrounds and move a character around. You know, just basic game building stuff.
I remember also making some mixed graphic and text adventures at this time too and although I didn’t make anything serious, it was the building blocks for what was to come on my next computer…..the glorious C64!
Impressively segued. So mucking about on a Commodore was what led you to think you might be able to do this stuff for a living.
Absolutely it was!
I had become fairly good at using basic on my Electron and that in turn helped me grasp some fundamental programming concepts. Of course, everything changed once I got the C64. You’ll know that BASIC on that was pretty awful and bare bones. But it was actually the best thing that could have happened to me because it meant that I had no option but to learn machine code.
During this same period I had also started to do my own graphics. A friend of mine, Ste Pattullo, was also learning to code and he’d done a couple of magazine games, one of which I helped him out on. Ste then started a job at a computer games company that had opened up in our town called Digital Magic. This is where everything changed for me. I became a little obsessed with the place and would spend as much time there as I could, just taking everything in and learning as much about game making as I could. I even cut my teeth helping out on one of the C64 titles (the unreleased Escape From Colditz – Ed) before unfortunately the company folded…..and I was left craving more!
But you’d also been working on The Bod Squad for C64 on the side, right? To try and get your first game together.
That’s right. It was an Amiga game they were working on. I had asked them if they would mind me doing a C64 version….unpaid, just so that I could get a game under my belt. They were more than happy to let me do that but only a couple of months in, the company went under, along with the Amiga version. I was quite a way into the development process at this stage and I didn’t have anything to fall back on. I decided that I would complete Bod. I still had my C64 and I now also had a Commodore 128 that the company graciously gave to me before going bust. It was a full working dev kit where I would code on the 128 and it was connected to the C64 via a cable. It was all I needed to finish the game, so that’s what me and a good mate – Kev Bruce, who happened to be a musician – did. We fevered away for the next year or so and finally had a demo to send out to companies.
It sounds like the game’s very much yours, even if it started as an Amiga title.
So, I can’t take credit for the original design of course. That was down to the artist Jon Law at Digital Magic Software. I took inspiration from the Amiga demo but I did everything else myself, including artwork, level design and game mechanics.
You know, how I made Bod was quite ahead of its time, especially for my first full game.
In what way?
The game started life as the level editor but this very quickly became so much more. I created a full art package from scratch where I could draw background tiles…both static and animated, level maps, sprites and even movement paths and object properties which allowed me to link switches to walls etc. Once I had all of this in place and started to draw the first background maps (Egypt), I then realised that it would be amazing if at the press of a key I could just drop Bod into the map at the cursor position and actually test out physics and gameplay. This is how Bod was born. I guess you could compare it to a very crude, 8-bit version of what something like Unity is today….an all-in-one editor and game maker! My thinking was that after releasing the first game, I could just do a whole load more levels and add some new gameplay functionality and maps to it and release a sequel fairly quickly.
What I hadn’t considered at all was that the C64 era was coming to a close. So as good as the Bod editor was, it proved to be pretty pointless at the end of the day. Still, it allowed me to get a nice demo together with the help of my musician friend Kev Bruce, and we designed and coded away until we had something we were happy to send out to companies.
In 2015 you told us that you wanted Bod to be a full price title. Who got the first demos?
The companies we wanted to release with were like Thalamus and System 3 etc, but they weren’t taking on any C64 titles by this point. Thalamus sent us a lovely letter saying that had we come along a little earlier with Bod then they would have snapped it up instantly. It was fantastic to hear but ultimately it left us with a game that had no major company to sell to. This is when we decided to try out budget game companies too…..not something we had planned or wanted because originally Bod was meant to be a much, much bigger game with a load more levels to it, but needs must at the end of the day. Anyway, we had a really positive response from Zeppelin Games and we decided to go with them.
Because it was now a budget title, timescales changed dramatically and these budget companies just didn’t get the same revenue back. They released fast and released many to try and keep the money coming in and, well, that’s why Bod only had three levels. I didn’t want the game to be over incredibly quickly….not after all of the time and effort that I had put into it….and so I decided to make the levels that we had much harder than they were intended to originally be.
Yeah, about that…
Ha! OK, I admit that I went too far for a lot of people but the game can be completed without cheat, but it will take a lot of dying to get there, haha!
So let’s talk about how much Commodore Format and its readers loved this game.
Well, one of my proudest moments during the whole development and release cycle for Bod was when we were told that Commodore Format wanted to have a demo of Bod on the cover cassette. It just felt like complete validation because I won’t lie, I bought the magazine religiously (money permitting) and so this was just mind blowing to me. So, myself and Kev Bruce set to work on getting a demo level together for the magazine and because we wanted to show off a lot of the game mechanics, we decided not to go with the actual Egypt level that would ship with the game but instead we created a smaller, more compact version that had most of the elements in there….just to let people see what the game was capable of. From the feedback we received, the demo level went down great and people seemed to love it.
Well, CF gave it a great score too. You must have been ecstatic!
Oh I mean, for my first game…getting 86% from one of my favourite magazines was just an incredible feeling! I was absolutely over the moon with the review, especially so because I had grown up reading these magazines and I often tried to imagine how it must feel to be a game developer opening up the review for the very first time and seeing a great score. I was very lucky because I got to experience that first hand with the CF review being so good.
And in turn, kids loved the game. They’ve grown up and they still do.
Yeah…having a following after almost 30 years….well that just blows my mind! I mean I get it, because there are certain games that will never leave me. They will always hold a place in my heart. I think maybe a lot of people only ever got to see a small section of the levels in Bod, so there is an air of mystery around it. I think they see the potential there…..and want to see more.
And how it looks…it’s so unique.
I spent a huge amount of time getting Bod‘s animation and movement exactly how I wanted it. I know a lot of people praise those areas of the game and that is incredibly satisfying. He’s a very cute little character too and I think the scale was pretty spot on…..he looked quite small, but not too small and so you were drawn to him right away I think.
So everyone loves it, and you’ve got a level editor…
Ha, I know where this is going!
Well, it’s easy to release a C64 game to a big audience again now. You must have thought about making and releasing the game as it was intended to be. Like a Bod 2021.
I would love to revisit Bod on the C64 again. If I am honest, that is a longer term, labour of love thing and I want to do it right. So it’s going to take a while for me to get back into 6502 etc. What I will say is that in the meantime, I have made a start on a modern version of the game which I will be developing for PC, Mac, iOS and Android….possibly even Switch depending on how well that all goes but it’s something that I have to do in my spare time as I also have a full time job these days. But all being well and if it goes to plan then the perfect end to the Bod saga would be for me to do the full C64 version, exactly as you say. Bod as we meant it to be.
What might it look like?
Well the Amiga version had a stunning Inca level which was partly done and so that was absolutely going to be in there. We also had ideas about a space level of some sort, either inside a ship or on another planet. Prehistoric and snow levels were talked about and I also remember having thoughts about some kind of water based level. By the way, each of these themes was meant to have multiple levels to it, so maybe three or more levels per theme.
Obviously the physics would change quite a bit depending on which level you were in and what sort of atmosphere and surface you were playing on. I’m planning on fleshing out these ideas over the coming months for the new version of the game. At the moment and just as a test bed I am using a very basic Egypt level……it feels right starting with Egypt as this is how the original began.
Back to the ’90s before we let you go then, Kent. After The Bod Squad, what did you do?
Well, I knew I wanted to work at a proper software house after having the taste of it at Digital Magic. Because we were able to finish Bod at home when they went bust, we had a game to show people. It gave us the foot in the door that we needed. And then, with the cheque that we earned from the sale of Bod (and no, it wasn’t very much at all), we both bought the newly released Super Nintendo!
I remember getting the SNES home that first day and loading up Super Mario World and just being blown away by it…so much so that I was determined to find a company that would let me work on the machine. Those were big dreams considering I had precisely one budget game under my belt – but you have to dream big.
So myself and Kev Bruce applied for interviews at some fairly local software houses in the North West of England and we had a couple of interviews, the second one being at newly formed Rage Software in Liverpool. We took Bod with us to show them what we were capable of and it got us the job!
Not only that, but on my very first day in the office, I was taken to my desk, not knowing what machine I would be working on…..and I was given a SNES development kit and told “just sit and learn it, no pressure to start”. It was literally a dream come true for me, the SNES was like a C64 on super steroids! I went on to do a few games with Rage software and a couple of other companies during the ’90s and it is all because of Bod (and the amazing CF review!). Without that game, none of this would have been possible.
So this game’s as important to you as it is to the fans.
Oh, I look back at those times with huge fondness now….everything that came along afterwards for me can all be traced back to Bod. I owe that game, that character….a hell of a lot. I think it’s only fitting that 30 years on I am now looking to rectify it and makes things right with a new version.
A few days after we chat, we’re talking to Kent on Twitter DM about the sort of stuff C64 friends do: the games we love, how we could never afford many back in the day, and the curious British fixation with the humble cassette. He tells us that the first time he ever saw and used a disk drive was at Digital Magic and how revelatory it was to him.
“A couple of years ago, my Mum had to give up her house which she had lived in for many years due to her partner having ill health. Not too long before they were due to move, I travelled back over to Widnes to see them and see how the packing was going and whilst I was there, she said to me, oh, I found a couple of things that you might want.”
“She then toddles off upstairs and only came back down with my C64 and disk drive that I made Bod on. To say I was floored was an understatement. For some reason I thought I had lost it years earlier when I was moving around quite a bit. I thought it had gone forever. I won’t lie, I was more than a little emotional.”
“I haven’t tried powering it back up yet, part of me worries that something might go bang after all these years but I am determined to see if it all still works one day. So now, here, safe in my loft I have my original C64 and disk drive on which I made The Bod Squad.”
It sounds like the universe is trying to tell Kent something. CF