Jonathan Smith (aka Joffa Smiff) was one of the most talented and respected programmers of the Spectrum era,
responsible for titles such as Cobra, Hypersports, Green Beret and Mikie, and making significant contributions to countless other titles. In this interview from January 2001, he talks about his Spectrum days. Sadly, we lost Joffa to this world in June 2010.
How did you get involved with computers?
I used to mess around on a friend's BBC model B. That got me hooked. I sold my Atari VCS and bought a 16k Spectrum. This was around 1982 and I was 15. I started typing in game listings from magazines and realised I could probably do better. I upgraded to 48k and started playing around with machine code. My first complete game was a version of Donkey Kong called The Thing.
What was your first published game?
This was Pud Pud in Weird World. I wrote it in the evening whilst at sixth form college and took it to Ocean Software during the summer holidays. They wanted it and offered me a job. I remember my first week working in Manchester, Daley Thompson had won the Decathlon and Imagine Software had just gone bust. The BBC where running around the offices filming a documentary on the software industry called Commercial Breaks. I'm on it playing Pud Pud. The phrase "collect ten puddings" has haunted me ever since!
What was it like working for Ocean?
Early on it was okay, but they ended up with too many in-house people. I remember working uncredited on loads of projects at the time. Many of the early in-house games have something of mine in them, usually graphics of some sort or another. As time went on, though, it ended up being too much like a production line. You did get a bonus for finishing on time, but the amount would decrease each day you were late. Not many people were late but the product suffered because of it.
What other 'names' did you work with?
Christian Urquhart was sacked a few weeks after I started. He wrote Hunchback and Decathlon with Paul 'Mr Wimpy' Owens. I worked with Nigel Alderton of Chuckie Egg fame. He went on to write Commando for Elite. Then there's Doug 'Ping Pong' Burns, whom I haven't seen for years. A guy called Mike Lamb picked up where I left off when I moved to Special FX Software in Liverpool. He wrote Robocop, which would have been my next game had I stayed.
How do you feel about your own work?
I can't believe I got away with it for so long! Everything seems half finished. I wish I could go back and alter little bits here and there. The 'auto-stabbing' action in Green Beret was a bug introduced at the last minute, as was the strange absence of baddies in the later stages of Terra Cresta. I'm proud of my 'Cobra-Scroll' routine. That was quite clever. The Spectrum's 'stack' was pointed at the screen and graphic data was 'pushed' onto it, drawing sixteen pixels with one instruction. Some of the in-game sound routines where also good.
Was it a challenge working on all those spin-offs and conversions or would you have preferred to work with more original ideas?
The only real challenge was finishing within the deadline. Three or four months allotted for each project didn't leave much time for development. That's why all those Ocean games look and play the same. I think Terra Cresta took about a month to write, and it shows!
What was the Spectrum like to work with? What were its strengths / weaknesses?
The Spectrum didn't have any redeeming features at all, really, but it was fast. It was fun trying to invent new ways of doing things. Of course everyone hated the awful sound and the dreaded attribute clash!
Do you have a favourite Spectrum game?
I like most of the Ultimate ones. I was addicted to Artic's Galaxians at one point. Imagine's Jumping Jack is good.
How did you leave the Spectrum?
I moved over to Atari ST development after Batman The Caped Crusader, although I did write Hyper Active, a Spectrum cover game for Sinclair User, some time later. This was the late 80's and there wasn't much of an 8 bit market left. It was about this time that I did the background computer displays for the Red Dwarf II television series.
Do you miss the old days at all? How do you think they compare to today's games industry?
It didn't seem like a job in the old days. I liked getting paid for doing my hobby. Now the machines are much more advanced so it's easier to get a good end product without that much effort. I don't think programmers are as inventive any more. Everything is done for them. Sure, the games are generally bigger and flashier, but so is the price. I can't believe anyone would pay fifty quid for a game.
Did you leave any Spectrum projects unfinished?
No. The only unfinished games where Mr Do! on the Gameboy, which actually had a limited release in its incomplete form, and something called Cluster Buster on the Super Nintendo.
Any anecdotes from your time at Ocean?
People used to glue things to the ceiling in unreachable places.
Someone claiming to have written Knight Lore came for a job, but he clearly hadn't and didn't.
I remember John Ritman (Match Day, Head Over Heels) having a go at me for wasting memory by storing graphics in pre-shifted positions (this was done for speed).
We turned Martin Galway's (the musician) room completely upside down one night.
The first version of Street Hawk, done in a Defender style, was deemed rubbish so it had to be rewritten. However, Ocean were committed to releasing this version through various catalogues because they were printed months in advance. I remember that they removed all identification marks, return address, etc, off the packaging. If anyone has a copy it's probably a collectors item.
What have you been up to since leaving the 8-bit scene?
After working on the ST (Red Heat, Midnight Resistance, Recoil, Hudson Hawk) I moved onto the Gameboy (Mr Do!), then the Super Nintendo (Cluster Buster), and finally the Megadrive (Power Drive). During the summer of '95 I decided I'd had enough and left the games industry to have a well earned rest. No, I haven't been in jail! In March 2000 I was approached by Rage Software to develop mobile phone software. I've just completed a WAP adventure game for Orange called Airlock.
Many thanks to Joffa for his interview.