13th May 2019

It’s one of the great lost games of the ’90s…but Parasol Stars is finally coming to the Commodore 64. Here, we recount the game’s bizarre history on the Bread Bin, and talk to Simon Jameson – the guy who’s making this new  version happen. We’ve even shown the video to Colin Porch, the game’s original coder…

Parasol Stars has been pined for on the Commodore 64 since 1992, when  Ocean Software sheepishly announced that the game had been cancelled for our fave computer  following a burglary at the coder’s house. They stole everything, said the Manc publishers, and  there  simply wasn’t time to start it again from scratch. The C64 was dying, and the momentum from the advertising campaigns  would be lost.

The burglary story, though, wasn’t true. Let’s just rewind for a sec before we unpick things, mind.

SOME BACKGROUND

Stars is the third in the Bubble Bobble platformer series, following on from Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands. It first appeared on the PC Engine back in 1991 (unusually, and contrary to urban myth, it didn’t appear in the arcades). Bubby and Bobby are both present, and it’s more akin to the first game than Rainbow Islands. This time around, you have a parasol which can block as a shield, stun enemies, capture droplets or hurl enemies. At many points, it can be used as a parachute.

The C64 version  was to be the only 8-bit micro computer Parasol Stars, and with software drying up anticipation was high. Both Rainbow Islands and Bubble Bobble were huge hits on the machine, so news of the game’s demise was devastating.

parasol stars zzap story
ZZAP! 64 announces the news – no Parasol Stars for C64.

Not as devastating as the actual truth, though.

HERE’S WHAT REALLY HAPPENED

The C64 version had been farmed out to veteran coder Colin Porch – responsible for a string of greats like Head Over Heels and Operation Wolf. He was working on Parasol Stars freelance, from home, and things had been looking good. Three months in, Colin remembers taking his work to Ocean. They were pleased. “Most of the elements of the gameplay had been included”, he recalls. And then, disaster:

“My wife and I had not been getting on very well, (usually rowing about her drinking habits) and she decided to go back to her first husband of twenty years earlier. Before leaving, she broke or corrupted all the disks she could find, including all the Parasol Stars developments and back-ups. She expressed extreme remorse afterwards, (she was two different people depending on whether she had been drinking) but the damage was done. I only had a disk previously shown to Ocean, about three months old, which had remained in my briefcase since showing it to them. They, unfortunately, could not spare the time for me to repeat the work.”

And that’s where the story stopped…until this weekend.

PARASOL STARS IS COMING TO C64 NOW: HERE’S WHAT’S HAPPENING

Over the weekend, Simon Jameson posted a video of what appeared to be a work in progress version of the game on Twitter. It’s the video you see at the top of this report. Could it be real? We asked him, and it is. Parasol Stars is a thing.

“I’m a Technical Lead for a large software company in London writing tools and libraries for our internal teams, working mostly in NodeJS”, he told us. He’s got C64 previous, though (check out Doc Cosmos from this Spring), teaching himself to code but “I was born in 1977, so by the time I was old enough to work the 64 was beginning to disappear.”

Parasol Stars started as an experiment with VSP scrolling and sprite multiplexing. I wanted to learn stuff I’d missed in the time I’d been away from the scene (like 25 years!) and so knocked up a simple tech demo using Rainbow Islands art. It was a short step from that to realising I could have a go at filling the huge whole left by the missing C64 version.”

So how did Simon approach the conversion?

“I tried to be as close to the PC Engine original as possible and played that version a lot to get the gameplay to feel as close as possible, the art is heavily based on that version too. The NES version was a good source of ideas for optimisation such as reducing the size of the water element drops, and also some lower resolution art inspirations. Overall the approach was always an iterative one starting with the original tech demo and slowly adding stuff. Generally I’ll think of the next big missing feature, write some code, optimise and refactor and then add art as required”.

And the big one, then  – when’s it coming out?

“Publisher wise, it’s not something I had even considered when I wrote the code last year. Since releasing the video however, there’s been a lot of interest and I’m currently in discussions regarding the next steps.”

BLIMEY!

There’s loads to think about, for sure – including whoever publishes the game getting the appropriate rights – but Parasol Stars is on the verge of becoming real after 27 years. We’ll keep you updated with this one at Commodore Format, of  course…and before we go, just one more thing. We wondered what Colin Porch might think about this. Astounded, is the answer, but very happy:

“I wish Simon the very best of luck! Back in the day,  they said it was impossible. But I was convinced it wasn’t, after a couple of month’s work…What took so long, I wonder? (joke!)” CF

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