Dev History: Jon Ritman
As he’s responsible for some of the most fondly remembered Spectrum games, we thought
it was about time we caught up with Jon Ritman, author of Match Day, Match Day 2 and the
legendary isometric adventure, Head Over Heels, available on Antstream Arcade now!
Antstream Arcade: Hello Jon! How did you become a games programmer?
Jon Ritman: When I started coding, I had a full-time job as a TV repair man for Radio Rentals.
Just before I did a game called Bear Bovver, I realised I was making as much money out of
programming in the evenings as I was working in the day. So I left work and started doing
programming full time.
AA: Bear Bovver was a decent hit for Artic – but it was with Match Day, your first game for
Ocean, that you first rose to prominence. How did that come about?
JR: Everyone remembers International Soccer on the Commodore 64. I was at a show and I
asked distributors what type of game they were looking for. They wanted International
Soccer on the Spectrum, so I did that, although I deliberately avoided it when I was writing
the game. Then, two weeks after I’d started, I was at another show and David Ward [Ocean
boss] asked me what I was working on. By chance, Artic’s football game was on the stand
and I said ‘a football game, and it’s going to be much better than that!’ Two weeks into
writing, and I didn’t even have a scrolling pitch yet!
AA: What was it like growing up and then working as a freelance games programmer?
JR: I was almost totally freelance, living with my dad who was very strange. His interest was
politics – he was as far left as you could be, and my eldest brother was too, and proud of the
fact he was thrown out of the communist party – twice! So they never really took any notice
of me, I did whatever I liked from the age of eleven. I never did homework, except maths,
and then moved out when I was 26 and had just published Batman.
AA: Batman was your first isometric game and licence?
JR: Knight Lore was THE influence – when I was handing in Match Day to Ocean, they said I
needed to look at this as they were distributing the game for Ultimate. I didn’t understand
how they made the graphics overlay each other, cleanly and in diagonals. So basically I went
home and started to try and work out how it was done. Ocean didn’t know I was doing this,
and then I tried to come up with a hero, realising the advantages by now of having
something to tie it into – a known character. One day, Bernie [Drummond, Jon’s artist
partner] came round and I suggested Batman, thinking no-one would remember that. But
Bernie said the Sixties series was on Channel 4, and all the kids were talking about it.
AA: What did Ocean think of what you proposed?
JR: David Ward got very excited when I showed him the animation of Batman walking
backwards and forwards in the 3D screen I’d mocked up. They said they’d get on to getting
the rights which they didn’t see as a problem – the films weren’t even out then.
AA: Did you decide to do another isometric game on the back of Batman’s success?
JR: I’d enjoyed the challenge – it was like doing a Sudoku, and the creation of the puzzles
which is a set of challenges. The aim of Batman was to collect things and quite honestly I
thought of having two characters as just a development of that. And I took it one stage
further with the separate abilities and the characters finally joining together.
AA: This was to become Head Over Heels?
JR: Yes, although Foot And Mouth was our original name, but David Ward said we can’t call
it that! It took a lot of time to come up with the puzzles – I shuffled them around a lot, and
had an editor for the rooms so I could experiment. Some bits were laid out and drawn on
paper, and then I’d put them into the computer and try them. Like with Batman, I got my
girlfriend, who was not a gamer, to play it and it became apparent very quickly that
sometimes she just couldn’t see where things were. So I would turn whole rooms around to
try and make it more understandable. As for the plot…I just came up with that after we’d
AA: The graphics were so idiosyncratic in Head Over Heels – your partner Bernie responsible
for them, of course.
JR: Everyone remembers the King Charles Dalek. But Bernie always told me that it was based
on Plug out of the Bash Street Kids. We realised that realistic proportions would mean you
had a lot of things that looked crap because they were just too small. So I abandoned any
idea of proportion and just told Bernie to do the best he could, don’t worry about scale, and
just draw things that look good. And journalists wrote about the graphics being fantastic, so
AA: There were a lot of Knight Lore style games around – what do you think set Head Over
Heels apart from the competition?
JR: It was simply more playable and I always paid a great deal of attention to the playability
and how it felt on the joystick. Like lining things up – I didn’t want people to have trouble
walking through doorways, so when you push against a door post it nudges you into the
middle and through the gap. By today’s standards, the physics were primitive, but it did the
job and meant that the player didn’t have to fuss over things like that.
AA: How do you regard Head Over Heels today?
JR: I enjoyed making it, and devising all the puzzles. It was well rounded, is still playable and
looks good today.
AA: And most importantly: Head and Heels – male or female?
JR: Your guess is as good as mine! I remember checking the furry models that Crash
magazine had made – no genitalia to be found!
Our special thanks to Jon for his time. Look out for Jon’s updated version of Head Over
Heels, due out some time next year on the ZX Spectrum Next.