The Secret History of Smash TV with Eugene Jarvis
It’s Showtime! If you’re of a certain age then the mid-late Eighties period of cinema will bring back some fond memories of action blockbusters and oversized muscular heroes. With Stallone and Schwarzenegger both at the most bankable point of their careers, video games were inevitably keen to take advantage of this, often licensing the movies for official adaptations. However, many just adopted the themes, riffing on several different films at a strictly unofficial level, hanging onto the coat tails of popular cinematic hits. Smash TV, clearly influenced by Eighties classics like The Running Man and Robocop, hung on tighter than most.
While today Eugene Jarvis remains most famous for the ultra-tough space shoot-‘em-up Defender, it’s his twin stick shooter Robotron 2084 that many of his fans hold in the highest regard. In Robotron, the player uses two joysticks, one to move and one to shoot, an ingenious idea that resulted in a whole new genre. But there was a drawback. “I had done Robotron six or seven years before Smash TV,” begins Jarvis, “and while I loved the game, I knew the difficulty level and challenging skills needed to handle the twin stick interface would limit the sales potential in the increasingly casual arcade space.” As the veteran developer alludes to, the arcades had become a competitive arena; if gamers found a machine straying too far from the standard set-up of a sole joystick plus one, or two, buttons, they simply moved on to the next game, of which there were plenty. “I had been super-disappointed that the twin stick interface hadn’t caught on at the time,” laments Jarvis. It was 1989; in the seven years since the release of Robotron 2084, not one more twin stick game had seen action inside an arcade. “Everything in the arcade was orientated towards porting to the NES with a single joystick control. Was the world ready for this again?!”
But Robotron had its dedicated fans, and one of them was Mark Turmell. Turmell himself had already developed a handful of games on the Apple II and Atari 2600 before attending the University Of Southern California in 1986. Upon graduation, he jumped at the chance to work at Midway as a games designer and programmer, partnering up with Jarvis. “We jelled really quickly. Mark is a brilliant designer with a great nose for the right stuff to put in the game and always open to ideas from anywhere. He was a huge Robotron fan and obsessed with doing a twin stick shooter and Robotron sequel.” The two designers naturally had one idea only in mind: to create a follow-up to the classic Midway game, if not in name, then at least in spirit. Joining the pair on the project were artists and coders Tim Coman, Lynn Young, Robbie Ashworth, Kurt Mahon and John Tobias. “Tobias was a comic book artist,” recalls Jarvis, “And this was his first big video project.” Tobias’ work as a lead artist/designer on Smash TV would rightly prove a key element of the game, and establish his reputation in the industry. Continues Jarvis, “With the primitive art tools of the day, he visualized the characters, and realized the animations painting one pixel at a time. He also had to generate all the character rotations in a 2.5D world, again pixel by pixel, using only his brainpower to create the eight different perspectives for every animation sequence.”
Smash TV’s viewpoint came from the realisation from the team that they needed to up their game graphically in order to complete with its peers in the arcades. “We went with the 2.5D look, three-quarters overhead, and it was brilliantly realistic,” remembers Jarvis. “We did some digitizing in the studio, up on ladders, shooting down on human walk/baseball bat swinging movements to get an animation base for the game.” Jarvis’ previous game, the ultra-violent NARC, had employed a custom 64-colour palette per character, and this was eagerly re-used for Smash TV. “It gave us great colour fidelity,” he notes, “as well as massive pixel throughput with a Harvard graphics processor architecture.”But fantastic graphics and frantic gameplay aside, it’s Smash TV’s theme that most gamers remember. Set within the futuristic maze of a bloodthirsty game show, the game’s premise is clearly inspired by a certain Schwarzenegger movie from 1987. “Oh yes,” chuckles Jarvis, “The theme was definitely The Running Man combined with a little Robocop, Indiana Jones and futuristic robo-horror thrown in!”
Early enemies such as baseball bat-wielding grunts resemble Bond henchman, disposable, yet plentiful fodder for the hero to despatch, and the super spy influence didn’t stop there, with bosses such as the Mutoid Man. “That was kind of a cross between Frankenstein and a Bond villain – but very much in the vein of the phantasmagorical boss monster on steroids, a multi-layered Russian doll that unstacks seemingly forever. There is always another mini-me boss within the boss monster.” Most players would have fed the arcade machine a mine of ten pence pieces or quarters just to get to this first end-of-level boss. Smash TV is an incredible challenge to even the most seasoned of gamers, throwing legions of enemies against the player, enough to ensure even the weakest adversary is never anything but a deadly threat.
Jarvis laughs when Antstream asks the him about Smash TV’s precipitous learning curve. “In that era there were no playtesters! You actually played your own game! The whole team played the game, and that gave you a true first person feeling on what needed to be fixed. It was a tough game, but we made it very forgiving with collision detection, so it’s a good time – it just takes your money a lot!”
After 1989’s NARC had pushed the boundaries of video game violence in the arcades, Midway and Jarvis ditched any concerns they had and pumped the dial up again with Smash TV. Deadly mines pepper many screens, and wandering over these saw the contestant explode upwards in an eruption of brains and gore. Minions fragmented with equally messy glee, spreading viscera across the screen. “After NARC, we didn’t really worry about violence,” concurs Jarvis. “And video games were very much below the radar at this point. The effect that is totally classic is Tobias’ animation of the player stepping on the mine – and a separated eyeball growing massively as it soars towards the player in a bloody rotating mass of nerves, eyeball and severed arteries!” Level one’s boss, the Mutoid Man, was another high point, its blood boiling as the player rained shot upon shot upon its corpulent mass. “We pumped up the effect times ten, with hundreds of blood spurts simultaneously,” enthuses Jarvis. “That was pure magic!” Robocop-style carnage aside, today, twin stick games finally have the appreciation that Eugene Jarvis thinks they should have. “After Robotron, I thought twin sticks would take over the world,” he says. “Then, in the early 2000s, Geometry Wars kicked off the 2D twin stick revival for the new millennium.”
We close by asking Jarvis about that game in particular, and what place it holds in terms of his own career. “I learned massively collaborating with talents like Turmell and Tobias, and how the once-basic videogame world was evolving toward the full-blown cinematic experiences we see today,” he concludes. “Smash TV was an early step in that evolution, but one that really holds up today as a fantastic classic. I really learned the importance of building a great team – we had an amazing time doing the game.”
Released: 1990 (Arcade)
Key Staff: Eugene Jarvis, Mark Turmell, John Tobias, Tim Coman, Lynn Young, Robbie Ashworth, Kurt Mahon
Genre: Twin Stick Shoot-‘em-up
Home Releases: Commodore Amiga, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, Atari ST, Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, Sega Master System, NES, SNES and Sega Game Gear
Impress Your Friends Fact: Picking up keys scattered throughout the game was supposed to unlock ‘The Pleasuredome’, a special achievement designed to entice players back after completing the game. In the rush to ship Smash TV, this was not implemented despite the presence of several keys. While the game’s developers found the concept amusing, going so far as to give out cryptic hints to inquisitive players wanting to know how to access the room, Midway management didn’t take so kindly to the omission, and forced through a board update for the arcade machine.