For the latest Antstream Arcade Dev History, we proudly present Carleton Handley, a former games programmer at developers Walking Circles and Tiertex. Carleton has recently rediscovered his roots with the homebrew game Millie & Molly, available to play now on Antstream Arcade, so we thought it was about time we chatted to him about his favourite games, career and more!
Antstream Arcade: Hello Carleton! Like many coders of the Eighties and Nineties, was your first console was a Pong variant?
Carleton Handley: Hi! Yes, my brother and I got one one Christmas in the late Seventies. We loved it, and begged for an Atari VCS the following year. The games were really expensive, so they were exclusively for Christmas and birthdays, then a few years later a few friends were getting ZX Spectrums and I loved going round to play on those computers.
AA: So you got a Spectrum?
CH: Oh no! I persuaded my parents to get me a Commodore 64 – but it came at a cost. It was both a Christmas and birthday present, and I also had to sacrifice a school trip to France. I loved it and in between games I started tinkering with C64 BASIC, which is awful and underpowered – so I borrowed a machine code tool off a friend and never looked back.
AA: What was it about the Commodore computer that hooked you?
CH: I’d played the Spectrum and really liked some of the games, but the C64 looked so much better in the Argos catalogue! The screenshots looked more colourful and it had a proper keyboard. When I eventually got it, it blew me away and the keyboard, hardware support and extra memory were all really nice when I did start programming.
AA: What were the first games you got?
CH: I bought Daley Thompson and Chiller first and they both had great music. It really felt like I was playing an arcade game at home.
AA: What was your first role in the industry?
CH: I left school at 16 with no idea what to do. I certainly wasn’t a good enough coder to code a full game and get it published. Then one day I went with a friend who was visiting a careers officer and he mentioned a youth training scheme that was starting up for games programming. It was the most amazing stroke of luck. I went for an interview at Loriciels – who were running the scheme – and got a place. I did one day a week at college and the other four days on placement at Walking Circles. After a few months they needed a full time developer for a C64 project, so I left the scheme to go full time. I think I’d completed my first commercial game before my 17th birthday.
AA: What was that first game?
CH: Wanderer for Elite Systems although I wasn’t even aware it got published until a couple of years ago because they sat on the final build. Otherwise, when I was on the YTS course, I helped out designing levels for an Amstrad game Graham [Stafford, Walking Circles founder] had written a prototype of. And we also used to hand master and package a little compilation disc which we sold via mail order for the Amstrad word processor the Z80 programmers used for development.
AA: What was it like working at Walking Circles?
CH: The whole team was amazing. We were a very small company, hovering around six employees in all my time there. Graham was a great mentor and David Beresford, who did Z80 stuff, helped me out a lot. The office environment was always laid back. We often had arcade cabs we were converting to play, went to the pub to play pool on Fridays and socialised together – although I wasn’t old enough to drink for the first 18 months or so!
AA: How did you get on with the difficult ask of arcade conversions?
CH: I actually only did two arcade conversions – APB and Skull and Crossbones. It was tricky work but fun to have the cabinets in the office. Graham and David did a lot of the heavy lifting for things like map compression or how levels were laid out, and a lot of my work was just converting their ideas to 6502. I think we did a good job with both of those games although there are things I would change now in hindsight. One example is that I’d have preferred to do bespoke map graphics for APB, but we didn’t have the art resource so ended up using the Spectrum graphics with some colour attributes added.
AA: Why did you leave Walking Circles and what are you best memories of working there?
CH: Consoles were on the way and we didn’t have the team size to compete. Psygnosis came in to absorb the studio but didn’t take me along for the ride. The best thing about it was the people. It’s a shame as we’ve all drifted apart in later life, but it’s one of the best places I ever worked for friendship and learning. I was so young and it felt like I’d got a job for life. At the end of a project, we’d go in to Manchester for a meal at the Dutch Pancake House and it felt really glamorous as I’d rarely eaten out as a child. I think my memories of that job are what brought me back to the C64 all these years later.
AA: Millie & Molly is available on Antstream Arcade – could you tell us about how that game came about, its genesis and influences?
CH: Millie and Molly is based on an old Gameboy game called Catrap, AKA Pitman. It was a game I loved but thought was overlooked. As I’d spent so long coding utility apps, I really wanted to code a game again, and the easiest place to do it would be the C64 as I had so much experience. I knocked up a prototype using the level data from the GB version and the game suited the C64 perfectly. I then appealed for artists, designers and musicians on Twitter and forums and was lucky enough to get some of the best people from each discipline to come on board.
AA: What has been your favourite project to work on over the years?
CH: I think the one I’m proudest of is my Game Gear Winter Olympics game. I was nervous when starting at Tiertex, but we were given quite a lot of freedom with design and the small team created a multi-event sports games I’m very pleased with. I think it captures the essence of the Epyx games I used to play as a kid on the C64.
AA: Finally, after the success of Millie & Molly, are you working on anything else?
CH: I’m currently quite involved in the C64 scene which is really burgeoning at the minute. As I’m between contracts I’m working on a new C64 game called Runn ‘n Gunn which is a massive departure from Millie & Molly. And if you enjoy Millie & Molly on Antstream you can also play it on Android or iOS devices – it’s the only game I’ve ever written which my wife has completed!