With the Easter holidays upon us, it’s an appropriate time to look back at one of Antstream Arcade’s oddest games. Created for an Easter competition almost 40 years ago and the first game in an impressive career for coder Jas Austin, this is the tale of Automata’s Bunny, Antstream Arcade’s very own Easter tale.
With the home computer videogame market still in its infancy, 1983 was a year of much innovation on the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. Quirky software houses such as Automata, free to develop games in their own particular and unique style, employed young programmers up and down the country, and the only limit was their imagination. “I was friends with [Automata founders] Mel Croucher and Christian Penfold,” Jas tells Antstream. “Automata was based down here in Portsmouth, right by the seafront. Some of their first titles were these little comedy games on the ZX81.”
When the ZX Spectrum arrived in 1982, interest in home computing burgeoned, and sensing this, Automata became more involved at a computer club where enthusiasts met up regularly to chat about and play games. “I was to this local computer club where people would bring along their computers and Mel and Christian attended - they were local heroes because they ran a games company,” explains Jas. “Then, one Easter, they decided to hold a competition to make an Easter-themed piece of software.” No doubt seeing it as a cunning way of discovering local talent, the Automata men announced the competition at the club, offering a prize for the best game or demo entered utilising the Easter theme in some way. “Sadly only two of us entered! I made Bunny, and a friend of mine, Colin Tuck, made a short animation.” Colin and Jas would go on to work together for Automata on games such as Pi-Balled and Pi-in-‘ere; but before that they were up against each other in an ovular face-off.
As impressive as Colin’s animation was, it was the rabbit-related gaming antics of Bunny that pleased Automata, despite the prize ultimately being split between Colin and Jas. The player controls the disembodied head of a small rabbit who has to negotiate several obstacles such as yellow chicks and the walls of the odd area it finds itself in, while collecting those delicious Easter eggs – but not the broken ones. “I recall it was very quick to put together,” says Jas. “In fact, I’m pretty sure it was just a few days in total, and that includes me doing the graphics and the small piece of machine code for the garish epilepsy-inducing screen flash when completing a level.” Automata were suitably impressed; or at least they were impressed enough to released Bunny as a standalone game. “I don’t remember [Mel’s] reaction… I can only imagine it was like one of those old cartoon characters were dollar signs appear in their eyes – except with a couple of pennies instead!”
Having collected as many eggs as your skills – or more likely patience – can stand, the player then has to deliver them to a selection of homes before a slightly more tortuous screen where the bunny collects its quaint Easter basket. Then it’s back to Easter egg collection. “Looking back, I think it would have improved the game to have a similar mechanism to Snake,” muses Jas. “So as the bunny moves it leaves a deadly trail that gets longer as you collect objects. It could be a trail of rabbit droppings!” Deadly rabbit droppings. Nice. And Bunny already has a two-tier skill level, with the harder difficulty setting presenting a more labyrinthine maze. “I missed a no-brainer though,” adds Jas. “I should have changed the difficulty ‘expert’ to ‘eggspert’ – I can’t believe I missed that pun at the time!” Indeed, and you’d never catch us using a pun like that at Antstream Arcade.
Released solo and then with another game, the E.T. riff E.T.A., Bunny has been rescued from obscurity by Antstream Arcade and already prompted a fierce high score leaderboard battle. “I’ve got to admit, it’s rather strange seeing Bunny among all those other cool games,” admits Jas. “Antstream is a really fun way to play all these retro games and I love all the features it provides like social, challenges, achievements and the high score tables.” It is on the latter that Jas has recently attempted to re-tune his gaming skills with his Easter-themed debut. “I managed a pitifully low score – but I’m sure I’ll do better next time.” If you fancy challenging the creator of Bunny, Jas currently sits in third place with an actually-quite-decent score of 9420 points. And what better game could there be to play at this time of year than the co-winner of the inaugural Automata Code-an-Easter-Game competition.
But wait – we’ve forgotten to ask Jas what riches were his for his remarkable effort. “Heh. I got £25! And actually I didn’t even get the money, because when I spoke to Mel, I told him I was going to spend it on memory for my 16k Speccy.” Spotting a swerve, the Automata co-founder duly supplied the memory instead for Jas. “I found out later he was able to get this stuff cheap,” he laughs. “But I got what I wanted so I was happy, and it got my foot in the door – and I was still only a kid!”
Today, Jas is a veteran coder with dozens of games under his belt; yet he still looks back on Bunny with fondness. “I’d be the first to admit it’s not the greatest game in the world, but I’m very proud of it. Bunny was my first published game and without it I may not still be developing games today. Plus, having not played it since the old days and after having a go on Antstream – it’s better than I remember! I’d completely forgotten the delivery phase which gives it a nice sense of progression, and there’s a decent risk/reward mechanic when choosing whether to exit the level or carry on collecting. These are all features that are important, even in modern AAA games.”
And it all started with the egg-collecting eggstravaganza (sorry), Bunny. See you on the high score leaderboard!