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My First Game: John Gibson and Molar Maul

Everyone has to start somewhere. Even the most dedicated and renowned game developers began with a straightforward idea, polishing and honing it until their first game duly appeared. Sometimes these would be released virtually unnoticed; on other occasions, they’d hit the ground running with a smash hit of epic proportions. For our third entry in this series, we present John Gibson, an industry veteran of some 40-odd years (sorry, John!), telling us about his first fully-published game, the tooth-cleaning simulator Molar Maul.

The Game

(Thanks to Gary Arnott for the image)

Format: ZX Spectrum

Year released: 1983

Publisher: Imagine Software

Genre: Arcade

Plot: THE DK MENACE! That’s the hot topic at the 25th Bi-annual Symposium On Dental Hygiene. DK (decay – geddit?!) stands for Dentorium Kamikazium, an oral bacteria that is spreading havoc throughout the world. DK’s name derives from the assumed realisation that the bacteria destroys itself by attacking teeth, essentially committing suicide. However, it was subsequently discovered that not only does DK not die, but it also rejuvenates itself, assaulting even more teeth! So, DK is indestructible – but it’s not all bad news because the molar boffins have discovered a chemical called DK11. Now, armed with a limitless supply of DK11-infused Imagico toothpaste, it’s a neverending battle against the DK menace. Get scrubbing!

Reviews: Molar Maul’s unusual gameplay gained plenty of plaudits in the press upon release. “An excellent game with wonderful graphics,” proclaimed Crash in its Living Guide review. ZX Computing went even further in its review of September 1983: “Altogether, I think Molar Maul is the most original, addictive game for the ZX Spectrum I have played in a very long while.”

The Author

Having learned to machine code on a Sinclair ZX81, John moved from Liskeard, Cornwall, to Liverpool in the early Eighties. Soon, he became one of the earliest employees at Imagine Software, the developer/publisher making great waves in the ZX Spectrum computer games scene in particular. After Molar Maul, John developed several of Imagine’s significant early games, such as Zzoom and the real-time strategy title, Stonkers. When things worsened at Imagine, John co-formed his own company, Denton Designs, along with several other ex-Imagine staff before working at Psygnosis throughout the Nineties and, later, Evolution Studios.

Antstream Arcade: Hello, John! To start, can you tell us a little about working at Imagine?

John: Hello! Imagine were looking for programmers, and they were a rare breed in those days. They asked me if I could write 16K of machine code in a month. I said, I dunno, but I’ll give it a whirl. They gave me the job!

AA: At 36, you were older than the other programmers at Imagine. How did that feel?

John: I was quite a lot older – Eugene Evans was still a teenager! We were good friends though, even though he did call me grandad!

AA: Had you coded any games before Molar Maul?

John: Strictly speaking, my first game was something called Fly In A Bottle for the Sinclair ZX81. The object was to chase the fly – an asterisk – around the screen and trap it in a bottle made from ZX81 characters. But my first actually published game was Molar Mail.

AA: How did you get the idea for Molar Maul?

John: At the job interview, they said ‘you’ve got the job – now go away and don’t come back until it’s finished.’ The problem then was thinking of a game. I had my eureka moment when David Lawson [Imagine owner] said he had a dental appointment. So I thought I’d write a game where the player has to prevent teeth from decaying by constantly brushing them.

AA: Although there had been teeth-brushing games before, it was a very novel concept.

John: It sounds bizarre now, but novelty games were popular then, probably because games had to be good – they couldn’t hide behind graphical extravaganzas. The game’s graphics were awful, which is hardly surprising, given that I drew them!

AA: Well, we think they’re pretty good! How did the game work?

John: The game begins with a closed mouth which opens to reveal a mouthful of pristine white teeth. The player has a toothbrush and a tube of Imagico toothpaste, and it’s not long before the DKs emerge from the throat and start attacking the teeth. They change colour as they decay until they eventually disappear completely.

AA: Did you do everything for Molar Maul?

John: It was my first and final solo game – I did the programming, graphics, sound and design. Also remember, when I joined Imagine, I’d never even seen a Spectrum, let alone programmed on one!

AA: Was there an end to the game?

John: Nope – you couldn’t win the game as such; you just played until all the teeth were gone. After the game was published, I got a letter from a dentist complaining that it trivialised tooth decay. “Au contraire,” I replied, “It shows children what happens if they don’t brush their teeth regularly.”

See, dad – the Speccy IS educational! Written in just four weeks, Molar Maul remains the ZX Spectrum’s best teeth-cleaning simulator today – and you can play it, for free, on Antstream Arcade, along with hundreds more brilliant Speccy games!

Our thanks to John for his time – stay tuned for another dev talking about their first game soon.

To keep up to date with all the retro gaming chat surrounding Antstream Arcade, please visit our Discord channel.

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