Game Developer Interview: Jim Bagley
Updated: Mar 27, 2020
Today, Jim is busy working with us at Antstream Arcade. So what better time to have a chat with the industry veteran about some of the many games he has worked on over the last 25 years?
Antstream Arcade: Hey Jim. So how did you first discover video games?
Jim Bagley: In the arcades at New Brighton, Wirral where they had classics such as PacMan and Space Invaders. It was fantastic, and I was hooked.
A: How did you get into coding and games creation?
JB: At my school they had a bunch of Sharp MZ80ks and one BBC Micro, and everyone was playing Chuckie Egg or Frak on the BBC. With the other computers vacant, I began to write code on those, and by the time I was 14 I was writing in machine code on the BBC.
A: What was the first computer you owned yourself?
JB: Realising that I was really enjoying computing, my mum bought me a ZX81, then a VIC-20 followed by a ZX Spectrum. Having already mastered 6502 on the BBC, it was relatively easy to learn Z80 on the Spectrum.
A: How did your first job in the industry come about?
JB: I used to go to a computer shop called Micro Byte after school and one day I asked if anyone knew any local computer companies. I got a phone number for one of them, phoned them up, had an interview and got the job! It was at Consult Computer Systems, a developer from the Wirral. I left sixth form – I’d only stayed to do computers and the only course that involved them was business studies – and joined Consult. I just wanted to write games.
A: Your first game was a baptism of fire…
JB: Ha, yes Throne Of Fire with Mike Singleton! I felt the pressure right away. Mike gave us the design and I was the main coder. I wondered what I’d got myself into to be honest, and it was hard work. But it taught me a lot about using the technology you had to the best of its capabilities.
A: After Consult you got a job at another Liverpool firm, Canvas?
JB: I got introduced to John Gibson who was one of the bosses. There I worked on Road Runner, converting the arcade game to the Spectrum. It was as close to the arcade game as I could do, but unfortunately I messed up the collision detection a bit. Still gutted about that.
A: After working briefly on World Class Leaderboard, you moved to Special FX?
JB: There was a lot of change and a lot of people were leaving to go elsewhere. John had gone to join Microprose, and Dawn Drake had already gone to Ocean. I didn’t want to move to Manchester so Dawn got me an interview with Special FX who were based in Liverpool. It
was more professional there, Paul Finnegan was a good boss along with Jonathan Smith, whom I worked with along with Chas Davies. Joffa showed me his push-scroll for Gutz to get its fast scrolling.
A: Licences were becoming big business in the late Eighties and you began working on more of them.
JB: Yep, such as Red Heat, we wanted big sprites for that, but couldn’t for the legs as well as they’d have been very thin and un-Arnie like! And as usual we just had the script to go on. As to the arcade conversions…the difference back then between arcade machines and home computers was immense. With Cabal, I used boundaries to mask the colour clash – anything that had colour the enemies went behind, meaning the sprites would hardly ever go through two changes of colour. The original had loads of baddies on screen, so I tried to emulate that as much as possible. It took a lot of code optimisation!
A: Possibly our favourite is Midnight Resistance, which was an incredible achievement on the Spectrum in particular.
JB: It was a MASSIVE game with lots of levels, graphics and items and a huge challenge to figure out how to get it into 48k. But being quite competitive, I wanted it to be the best it could be.
A: When Ocean Software began working less with external studios in the Nineties, you moved from Special FX to Rage.
JB: I was only unemployed for about two weeks, but wanted just to code. Whenever I got hold of new hardware, my aim was to get something on the screen and work from there. My first game at Rage was Ultimate Soccer. I just did some menu work on the Mega Drive version, but coded the entire Master System and Game Gear Z80 ports. They had a different viewpoint as they couldn’t handle the 3D.
A: After working on another Football game called Striker, it was onto the Saturn and a port of a somewhat famous FPS?
JB: We were always playing multiplayer Doom at lunchtime or after work. Rage somehow acquired the rights to the Saturn version. The thing about the Saturn, it was a 3D machine in theory, but if you used a transparent or semi-transparent pixel it took a lot longer to draw. I liked the challenge, trying to get it working quickly and in full screen.
A: By the early Noughties you were working freelance. What were you busy on?
JB: I was doing some Gameboy games, such as conversions of some old Archer Maclean games, Super Dropzone and International Karate+. I remember looking at the code knowing I could do a visual port quicker, so played the game, watched how it worked and then repeated it in code.
A: After a spell at Ignition Entertainment, you moved into mobile development.
JB: Myself and Paul Vera-Broadbent teamed up and did a puzzle game before I had the idea of revisiting an old Mega Drive game I’d worked on. This eventually morphed into Apple Bob for iOS.
A: Which of your games do you remain proudest of today?
JB: Because of the feat involved in getting complex arcade games onto the Speccy, Midnight Resistance and Cabal, followed by Apple Bob as it’s my own idea from 1995 and because it’s great!
A: You’re a big fan of the homebrew and retro scene, and have recently developed games for the upcoming Spectrum Next. What do you think makes retro gaming so appealing?
JB: It’s the nostalgia and the memories we associate games from our past with. With retro games it’s our childhood memories involved as well and that adds to the whole experience. It’s not just a game, it’s a part of your life.
A: Finally, can you tell readers what you are up to at Antstream Arcade HQ?
JB: I met Steve [Cottam, Antstream Arcade CEO] at a retro show and he told me about his vision. I knew then it was a great idea with lots of potential, especially with the challenges which add a whole new spin on the classic games. My role here is reverse engineering the old arcade games to add these challenges.