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The Story Of Nebulus

Released in 1988 by publisher Hewson, Nebulus is a technically brilliant and wonderfully playable game demonstrating that even by the late Eighties, there was still plenty of life in the 8-bit computers – particularly the Commodore 64. Available to play on the ZX Spectrum and Amiga as well as C64 on Antstream Arcade, we proudly present the story of how this beautiful and original videogame came about.

Having already created the bouncing ball game Impossaball for Hewson the previous year, coder John Phillips began thinking about his next project. But first, we ask him about how he got into computing in general. “It was my dad who got me into electronics, and I built my first computer when I was 12 years old.” From here, John naturally became interested in programming, eventually studying cybernetics at university. “My final year group project was concerned with mapping out the university campus. My section was a movie viewer running on a BBC Model B computer using data collected by my colleagues.” Designed to produce an impressive 3D overhead fly over, John still holds this program on an ancient floppy disk.

Having cut his games coding teeth with the nut collecting platform game Nutcraka, John designed the striking Impossaball, his first game for Hewson. Following a decent reception for Impossaball, John started planning for his next effort. “The concept for Nebulus – as with most of my ideas – came from a technical idea,” he explains. John’s brainwave was a rotating cylinder around which the player could move. “It had an early incarnation as a demo for the ZX Spectrum, consisting of a horizontal cylinder that could be played like a level of Uridium.” When the programmer struggled to find an original gameplay to adapt his demo to, he ditched the idea, switching to the Commodore 64 and what would become the familiar vertical cylinder covered with platform ledges. “The rotational effect was easier to do on the C64 using a trick for the programmable character sets. It was still possible on the ZX Spectrum, but only by reducing the resolution and frame rate.”

Over at Hewson, boss Andrew Hewson visited John at his home in order to evaluate the concept. “He had the spinning vertical cylinder implemented with sprites running over the top of it,” remembers Andrew. “I think he had in mind some sort of medieval battle game with the cylinder forming part of the battlements. I wanted something simpler, and together we sketched out some ideas.” As a freelancer, John worked on every aspect of Nebulus himself: design, programming, graphics, animation, sound effects and even music was handled by him, initially on the Commodore 64. An early design choice was the unusual lead character, as John explains. “I was experimenting with some animations and I really liked this frog. I wanted a character that could be rotated realistically, could fit through doorways and could hop onto ledges. It seemed perfect.”

With the central premise set, John worked on linking the different towers into a story. Playing Pogo the Frog, it’s up to the player to destroy the mysterious towers that have been rising up from the seas of Nebulus. Once the top of each tower is reached, the destruction sequence is set off and Pogo moves on to the next tower. “I did have an idea to try and link the towers together via bridges. But it was discarded as a technical issue,” says John, who busily worked on four more versions of the game, including the 16-bit updates. Unimpressed with the work of a third-party development team, John worked on both the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga ports of Nebulus while also developing his next game, Eliminator. “So, the version of Nebulus for the ST and Amiga came out at the same time as Eliminator for the ST – I got two front covers on various magazines for two games simultaneously!” says John proudly.

Hewson were also impressed. Says Andrew, “I thought [Nebulus] was brilliantly original and loved it. I wasn’t surprised by the reviews – we knew we had an exceptional product.” With a name change, the game became a Stateside release as well (as Tower Toppler), and more versions were added, as John recalls. “I think the Americans couldn’t comprehend the word Nebulus, and similarly in Japan for the NES and Gameboy. It was called Castelian, which sounds more like a card game to me.”

Despite his relative inexperience coding games, John produced a fantastically playable and gorgeous game in Nebulus. “My philosophy is that technical issues are caused by bad design,” he grins. “As I was the designer, I had some harsh words with myself so everything was resolved amicably!” Internal arguments aside, Nebulus became a critical and commercial hit for John and Hewson. “I think we demonstrated over and over our interest in originality,” notes Andrew Hewson. “And Nebulus is another example of how we always wanted to do something a bit different.”

It began life as a tech demo and a shoot-‘em-up. Today, Nebulus remains a fanciful and tremendous videogame over every format it was released on. Play it now on Antstream Arcade!

Our thanks to John Phillips and Andrew Hewson for their time.

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