A chat with Bear Essentials author and Commodore Format fan, Graham Axten.
Graham Axten is part of a wave of guys who have returned to the Commodore 64 in middle age and are making some of the best games ever. You’ll probably best know him for the gorgeous The Bear Essentials, which has its roots in Graham pouring over the screenshots for Creatures 2 in Commodore Format back in 1991.
Graham! Mate, it’s a pleasure to talk to you. First of all, tell us about your first experiences with computers. Didn’t you have a Speccy to start with? Hi, and thanks for inviting me to talk about CF!
Yes, that’s right. My Dad bought a Speccy in the early ’80s and I remember as a family we used to crowd around the TV completely fascinated by it. We took turns and chipped in trying to solve games together. Fairlight, Pyjamarama, Rapscallion and The Hobbit all stand out in my memory, but the one that got the most play was Manic Miner. When my Dad got home from work, my first words to him were usually a request to play Manic Miner that evening!
And so what’s the story behind levelling up to a C64? My brother saved up to get a Sam Coupe, my Dad bought an Amiga 500 and the Speccy was handed over to me to use, but by this time I was a bit fed up with it and never really clicked with the programming side of the Spectrum. My brother suggested I take a look at the C64, which by this point had dropped in price to around £100, and with Xmas approaching seemed to be within my reach.
So you’d have got the C64 around the same time Commodore Format first came out, right? I think my first CF was issue 14 (November ’91, here’s the feature – Ed) which had Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade on the front, and I remember studying every screenshot and reading it many times over, especially The Clyde Guide about the making of Creatures 2 and the Toki review (which I had recently played in an arcade in Skegness and still remains one of my favourite ever games). My mind was made up that a C64 was definitely the computer I wanted, and leading up to Xmas I got the next two issues. I was previously a Your Sinclair reader, so it made sense to go for the magazine by the same publisher, and I was really impressed by it. Lots of enthusiasm and great writing, and a really nice design that would appeal to all ages.
What games stand out for you from around that time? I got the Playful Intelligence pack and my Dad had visited a trade show in London with my brother just before Xmas. They managed to find me a datasette and a few tape games, so that first lot of games I had to play over the Xmas holiday really stand out for me. Flimbo’s Quest, Turrican, Hammerfist and of course the CF Power Packs! That Turtles demo, the Creatures 2 demo, Aliens… That Xmas was magical!
Were you fiddling about with code or making games back in the ‘90s, or is that a new thing? Was CF a good teacher? Yeah, I remember typing in basic listings from CF that generated machine code, and that made me want to delve deeper and find out how it all worked. I sent for an Action Replay cart from one of the Datel adverts in CF, and started poking around in memory and re-reading all of the Techie Tips pages to gather as much info as I could, and that’s what got me hooked on trying to create my own game. I remember using a routine from CF in my first game in 1996 (a Snake clone) which opened the top and bottom borders, and I think some of this code I still use today – it probably made it into The Bear Essentials!
Did you have a break from C64 after the ‘90s, or were you one of those guys that never stopped? I think I gave up computing and gaming altogether for a good few years once I was old enough to go to the pub! I did come back to gaming in the N64 / PS era, but the only thing I did with computers was Microsoft Office type stuff at work.
What was it that made you dip your toe back in? I found my C64 in the loft and set it up one weekend for a laugh, and I enjoyed it that much that I left it set up. I had a look on eBay to see what was still available and bought a 1541-II plus an SD2IEC, and also discovered Psytronik’s website. It just reminded me how much fun computers can be and how you form more of a bond with them than you do with consoles because you can do so much more than play games.
Tell us about where the inspiration and ideas for The Bear Essentials came from – it looks to us like there are a few nods to those great games of the ‘90s! Yes, the Apex games (mainly Creatures 2) and Thalamus games had always appealed to me and I think that really shows! In fact, to get the basics of a platform game started I actually had Clyde Radcliffe walking and jumping around on screen, and then I just drew over his animations with Bear. If you place Clyde and Bear’s front facing sprite side by side, there is only a few pixels difference really! The other main influence was Manic Miner / Jet Set Willy. My goal was to make a game like that with the lovely sprite style of Creatures.
The reaction to the game must have absolutely delighted you. It still does! It was a real worry that the game wouldn’t appeal to anyone other than me, because I focused so much on making the game the way I wanted it to be. And maybe it was going to be too easy, too short or bad quality… To be honest, I’m just glad that I finished it before Sam’s Journey was released because at one time it was looking like they would be released around the same time, and I think maybe my game would have been overlooked in that case!
The C64 community is probably the strongest, friendliest and most active of them all in retro land. Any thoughts on why? It’s insane to think it’s a more active world than it was in 1995…Yeah, crazy! And I think with the release of the C64 Mini, that community will keep growing. It’s a combination of the ton of great games available, the fact that it’s a really nice machine to learn how to program (hardware sprites certainly help) and that SID chip just keep people coming back for more.
And finally – what’s next for you on the Commodore? I’m working on an entry for the Reset mag 4k game competition at the moment, which is fun because it’s nice to work a project that is small and not so serious. After that, I think I’ll go back to A Snail’s Tale (loosely based on Jeff Minter’s GoatUp) which I abandoned last year due to lack of motivation and moving house. I’m still fiddling with the graphics, trying to find that balance between decent looking visuals and a fast scrolling routine. I’m thinking up new ideas for a sequel to The Bear Essentials every so often and jotting them down, so hopefully that will take shape over time. CF
- The Bear Essentials is available from Pond Software. And Graham’s kindly let us have a sneaky look at the upcoming A Snail’s Tail, mentioned above. Here are some screens. Cheers, Graham: