Updated: Mar 27, 2020
Join Antstream as we take a trip to the planet Quartech, the metallic home to a legion of nasty and hostile droids. Devised by coder Steve Turner – with more than a little inspiration from colleague Andrew Braybrook – this is the story of Quazatron, and its cute little mechanical hero, KLP-2.
In 1984, the release of Knight Lore transformed the landscape of the 8-bit gaming scene. Despite the work laid down by Ant Attack a year earlier, it was Ultimate’s stunning masterpiece that inspired a genre, and set new standards of what could be achieved on the ZX Spectrum in particular. Rival coders, as you’d expect, took note. “I liked all of the Ultimate games actually,” begins Graftgold’s Steve Turner, in a glowing tone often reserved for the famous software house. “Atic Atac influenced Avalon [the first of Steve’s famous fantasy adventures] and in some ways was a precursor. It was a bit more arcade-y, but I thought, yeah I can do that, but in a different direction for Avalon. I was always looking at Ultimate’s games, and then they produced this whole series of beautiful isometric games, and I was thinking, how do they manage to do that?”
Having already decided to move away from fantasy-themed games, Steve began devising a game engine, and he dubbed the result Ziggurat. “I was experimenting with this engine, trying to work out how [Ultimate] got it working so you could walk behind things, like other sprites. But I chickened out of having a background that you could walk behind. I figured game-wise you can’t see where you are anyway so you didn’t actually need that.” The result was a background that didn’t overlap itself and was a particular shape, low at the front, expanding out at the top of the screen. “But with the animation, graphics and code, I somehow needed to do it with hardly any graphics. So I thought of doing it so they’re made up of these little parallelograms that kind of stack up, so you got this great big graphic built with repeating tiles.” It looked good, but there was a downside that forced Steve into a technical compromise. “I couldn’t build the new picture very far, as initially I wanted it to scroll in real-time. But the Spectrum CPU just couldn’t handle that, and there wasn’t enough memory to pre-build the graphics. When you get to the edge of the screen, it builds another column at that edge, but at the expense of stopping the game running.” Upon release, this jerky push scroll became the one flaw that the gaming press, somewhat unfairly, levelled against Quazatron.
But a game engine is nothing without a game, and with Andrew Braybrook’s Paradroid suddenly proving a smash hit, Steve had an idea. “Actually I’d already thought about having a go at converting Paradroid to the Spectrum, but I didn’t, as the Commodore 64 had these lovely colours and could scroll them around. I just couldn’t see at the time how I could do it.” Combining Ziggurat with the essence and core of Paradroid’s gameplay seemed a logical step. “We sort of married the two up,” concurs Steve, “and because of that I could take a lot of Andrew’s routines, code and collisions for the robots and just convert them. I did that just by over-typing them in an editor, or using macros to swap it and then capturing the output. It always amazed Andrew how I converted games, I didn’t work on a little bit, I used to do a huge great big chunk and then just get it compiled.” Already aware that the sales for 8-bit games were beginning to fade in the face of improved competition, Steve knew the combination of this existing code and his engine would provide a nice ratio of time involved to quality of end product.
The result was a game that not only captured the spirit and gameplay of Paradroid, but gave it a new, isometric sheen, and all in the matter of three months, with Steve coding and Andrew helping out with the game’s graphics, among other things. “Paradroid is one of those games that I always hold up that shows just how a game should be designed,” ponders Steve on his friend’s classic Commodore 64 title. “The penalties and rewards in the game are just so nicely balanced, it never lets you run away with it by getting too powerful as there’s always a flip side to having too much power. I really respected that part of the game design, and took it apart to find out why it worked.” KLP-2’s constant need for energy ensured that Quazatron always needed antagonists the droid could scrap against, from the first level to the very last.
That battle of robot vs. robot is a vital facet of Paradroid, and therefore, Quazatron. Having already designed the endearing star of the game, its grappling mini-game is the doorway to obtaining superior parts to KLP-2. Is there a complex set of routines controlling the enemy robots? “Well, it was a bit more random,” smiles Steve, “although we made the harder robots tougher to beat by giving less shots to the player. We did try and time the computer’s shots so that it didn’t run out – that had been a criticism of Paradroid, that you could just wait and let the computer fire all its shots first and then act accordingly. So I played about with that, with the number of splitters and dividers just down to luck.” Then Quazatron, as with many games of the Eighties, had its plot and names discussed over a pint in the local pub. “I used to like making titles by joining two words together,” remembers Steve. “Quazar sounded quite nice and science fiction-like, and Tron the film was out around the time; so I joined the two words together to get a little bit of familiarity and the right kind of sound. And we just started making this crazy story up down the pub on a Friday night about a droid that kept taking things apart. It seemed quite a nice little character to have.” The change of graphical style enabled Steve to put a mass of personality into Quazatron’s metallic hero, from its constant beaming smile to a pained wiggly grimace when low on power. “Paradroid had a thing over his head that kinda pulsed, and I knew that was a really good idea, so I thought let’s put that into his hat, which kinda spun round with the energy and gave in-game feedback of how alive you were. But its smile and eyes came from Gribbly’s Day Out, using the methods Andrew used on there. It’s surprising with the different combinations the amount of expressions you can get, and if you can make that react to what’s happening in the game, you’ve the instant feedback on how that character is.”
Upon release, Quazatron was a huge commercial and critical hit for Steve and Andrew’s development company Graftgold and its publisher Hewson. How does Steve feel the game sits among his string of famous games? “I felt at the time that I was drifting away from arcade games, and I wanted to get back to that, the thing that brought me in, the excitement of the arcades,” he explains. “And it was very much an exercise about what makes a game entice you in, what keeps you coming back. That was the whole reason I used the Paradroid framework, and I kinda used those principles in some shape or form in nearly all of the games I did afterwards.” And crucially, at least as far as their relationship within Graftgold went, Andrew Braybrook approved. “He liked Quazatron,” notes Steve, “and I think he felt it was badge of honour, me taking his ideas,” Having begun his career at the developer converting Steve’s games, it was a neat reversal for the Commodore 64 supremo. “It was a turnaround for sure, but I’ve always acknowledged and respected if someone knows something that’s good. To this day, I hold Paradroid up as a game that shows just how a game should be designed and put together.”
Antstream Arcade thanks Steve for his time.
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