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The Secret History of Zool

Antstream chats to one of the key developers behind this manic and colourful platformer from the UK software house Gremlin. If you enjoy the article, please check out our Facebook page or join our mailing list to get more great content!

It’s 1992, and platform games are all the rage. There’s no such thing as the first-person shooter, at least not in the form we know and love today, as the world waits for its Doom. Although the Sega Mega Drive and Super Nintendo are the must-have consoles, the Commodore Amiga is still proving popular in the UK. Having cut his teeth on the Commodore 64, programmer and designer George Allan was already a member of the Gremlin development team. “Gremlin Graphics was my first job,” he recalls, “and I was 18 when I joined. I programmed a game called Venus The Flytrap, based on the demo that had got me the job, before doing Switchblade II.” The latter game drew criticism for its slower pace and lack of enemies. “Zool started as a scroll routine, which I had written prior to Switchblade II,” explains Allan. “That game didn’t really push the routine at all, so after it was released I came up with a demo of this red square dashing about a large level.” Gremlin’s boss, Ian Stewart, impressed by the speed of the demo, quickly saw its potential. Within a few days, Allan was paired up with fellow designer Adrian Carless as the game began development proper. “Gremlin was a great place to work back then and I was kind of in the middle phase of the company. It was still small enough so that you’d know everyone, and pretty much everybody was bonkers in one way or another!”

It is often cited that Zool is heavily influenced by Sonic The Hedgehog, and upon playing the Gremlin game, it’s easy to see why. However, Allan dispels this, recalling only seeing the Sega game halfway through Zool’s development. “Half of the things Sonic was up to I couldn’t have possibly achieved anyway due to limitations of both the machine and the coder,” he admits modestly. Excited by the idea, but unsure of its potential success, Gremlin decided to initially release the game solely on the Commodore Amiga. Continues Allan, “It was very much an Amiga game from the start, and just me and Ade for the first few months, we didn’t have full-time designers back then.” After Allan and Carless designed the early levels on the fly while coding, Tony Dawson joined the team from Gremlin’s testing department, and he became Zool’s level designer. “He did an amazing job, packing loads of stuff into each level. Later, Pat Phelan created the sound and music, he had his own office and was working on a bunch of games at the same time.”

Zool is the story of the eponymous alien character, crash-landed on Earth and seeking to conquer six worlds in order to achieve the rank of ninja, and become Zool, Ninja Of The Nth Dimension. “He’s an interstellar cosmos dweller, who most definitely isn’t an ant,” grins Allan, “and Ade came up with his name and character design. We created his moves together, based on games we both liked to play.” One of Allan’s favourite arcade games was Capcom’s Strider, and this led to Zool’s dextrous climbing ability. “The only change to the original character I remember is that in the early days he had three eyes, which looked cool,” remembers Allan. “I guess with the use of his eyes on the logo, he could have ended up being called Zoool!” As you might expect with Zool’s somewhat haphazard levels, much of the design was done in short meetings as the team bounced ideas off of each other. “Then we’d figure out what was technically do-able and sort out each world’s gameplay elements, like arcade machines, trumpets, spinning records and so on.” In addition to the platforming action, Zool also contains several mini-games that break up the gameplay, and were included when the game shifted to a summertime release, giving the team more time to expand the levels. A scrolling shoot-‘em-up section, inspired by Allan’s love of arcade games such as Gradius and Salamander, is a particular highlight.

Moreover, the first world that Zool encounters, Sweet World, resulted in a bizarre candy-based tie-in with Chupa Chups, those small spherical lollipops that appear as popular today they were back in the early Nineties. “Someone in marketing came up with that,” recalls Allan. “And it meant we needed to swap out some graphics and tweak a level or two. It wasn’t a big deal, but we also had to modify one of the early levels to include a special area for the GamesMaster show.” At the peak of its popularity, the Channel 4 videogame programme played an important role in promoting the Gremlin game. Allan’s exclusive level was used for a competition, and included background graphics laden with the GamesMaster logo. “Gremlin had this amazing marketing department, and it had just two people at that point I think,” he grins. “They always had a knack for getting 80-90% reviews as well…”

The result was an unprecedented level of hype for Zool with magazines championing the interstellar dweller as a rival to the mighty Sonic The Hedgehog. Every element seems to gel perfectly: thrilling gameplay, colourful, sharp graphics and a soundtrack that has buckets of personality. “My one regret is an occasional scrolling bug that was included with the first batch of disks,” says Allan. “It was picked up a few hours before release, but I couldn’t track it down in time. It turned out to be a timing issue with some co-processor code, and with no internet, you couldn’t patch things back then of course.” The only mild criticisms noted the game’s difficulty, much of it due to its momentum-based movement. “I’ve always liked momentum in games, as I find instant changes in direction jarring and realistic,” explains Allan. “I did add an option to switch the momentum off – I think someone in QA requested it.”

Considering its small team, development on Zool proceeded so well that Allan and the team had time to build a make-shift tent within Gremlin’s offices, and release a tin-foil UFO laden with helium balloons in a failed attempt to make the ten o’clock news. “But it was the best time to be creating games, with just two or three people making something in five to six months,” he recalls. “Zool was the last game for me like that – the game after had 30 plus people working on it, even though I was still the only programmer!”

Today, George Allan has moved closer to his roots with indie developer Clockwork Pixels. His latest game, Grim Earth, evokes the spirit of Zool and the 16-bit era in general, and can be checked out here. Antstream Arcade thanks him for his time.

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