The Story Of Saboteur
This week Antstream Arcade goes behind the scenes of another 8-bit classic, the ground-breaking
retro stealth-‘em-up Saboteur. Published by Durell, Saboteur was a huge hit back in the Eighties and remains an atmospheric and exciting game today. Join us as we don a natty black ninja suit and chat about the game’s development, and more, with its creator Clive Townsend.
Published in 1985, Saboteur became an instant smash for its publisher, Durell Software. At many of the larger software houses, team-based videogame development was flourishing; Saboteur was the work of principally just one person, programmer Clive Townsend. “My introduction to computers was when a friend of mine bought a ZX81,” he tells Antstream Arcade. “Between us, we took turns to read and type in listings from magazines.” As was common, these programs often failed, either due to printing or typing errors. Clive and his friend were forced to examine their code and locate the bugs. “Perhaps without the bugs I would never have become intrigued by the behind-the-scenes of how games actually worked!” he ponders.
Having begun saving up for his own ZX81, Clive was tempted by an even better computer, which he still quaintly calls the ZX82. “It looked SO much better and with the help of family I was able to afford one when it was finally released.” Clive’s first effort on what would become the ZX Spectrum was a tarot card program. “It was very simple but it taught me the logic of game loops and how to draw graphics on a Speccy screen. My graphics were mostly monochrome – but that turned out to be helpful for ninja games!”
Having made contact with local games publisher Durell, there was just one small barrier between
Clive and his potential games programming career – he had to finish school! “But [Durell] promised me a job when I left and it was my first real job.” In charge of the Somerset based company was Robert White. “Robert was a great boss, and Durell was a great place to work,” remembers Clive.
Clive’s first task at Durell was to convert the ill-fated Commodore 64 game Death Pit to the
Spectrum. But the young man had already begun developing an idea of his own, working on it
outside office hours, and his inspiration had come from the martial arts. “I did judo and karate as a
kid, but each seemed very limited, at least to a beginner. Then I discovered ninjutsu, which seemed
to combine other martial arts and also weapons training.” This being the Eighties, ninjas were
everywhere in popular culture and as he was also a fan of James Bond, Clive’s plan was to combine
the two elements, a ninja in a Bond-style environment. When Robert White saw an early version of what would become Saboteur, he ordered his employee to abandon Death Pit and focus on his ninja game.
In Saboteur, the player assumes the role of a deadly mercenary, trained in the martial arts and
employed to infiltrate an enemy building. Somewhere inside this cavernous warehouse is a disk
containing the names of all the rebel leaders – your job is to purloin the disk before escaping via the helicopter situated on the roof of the building. Guards and attack dogs patrol the huge warehouse, and with the mercenary up against the clock, this is no easy mission.
Creating a massive, open world and scrolling game wasn’t easy either, as Clive was quickly
discovering. “I was generally trusted to get on with the project without much input [from Durell],”
he explains. “But there was one major problem: I was scrolling most of the screen, and it wasn’t fast enough.” It was Durell’s boss who suggested that Clive turn Saboteur into a flip-screen game, thus solving all of his speed issues. Yet despite this change, it remained an ambitious project for the 48K Spectrum. “I had such plans!” bemoans Clive. “But it turns out everything costs memory, and there’s a limited budget. I knew roughly what I wanted to do, but couldn’t really judge how much space everything would take. I came up with a code to create rooms – draw a rectangle here, add a barrel there – and this compressed the maps into a small amount of bytes, yet kept just enough detail.” Fortunately, with the game’s star dressed in black, colour clash was largely avoided, and Clive aimed for as much realism as possible. “Maybe a bit of sci-fi or fantasy at times, but mostly realistic,” he says. “I chose a scale of eight pixels equals one foot, so my ninja was about six foot tall.”
Crafting such a large and complex game was painstaking, as Clive explains. “To create the original
code I would load an assembler and some source code into the Spectrum, then save the assembled code to tape. Then I would load in all my bits of code and graphics to test the game before noting down any bugs and loading the assembler and source code again. It was such a slow process.” Additional gameplay elements, such as the regenerating health counter, added to Saboteur’s innovative design. It was another aspect of Clive’s drive towards realism. “It just seemed realistic to get your breath back if you stopped for a moment and I discovered that there was a nice trade-off with energy and time.” Saboteur’s continually ticking clock gave the player a stark choice: do you waste time replenishing your health or take the risk of venturing out with low energy?
Saboteur is a tough game; but for those persistent and skilled gamers who actually managed to grab the disk and make it to the roof, there was a nice graphical reward at the end of Saboteur.
“Fortunately I didn’t leave that until the end!” reveals Clive. “Both the dinghy intro and the end
sequence were added when the game was half-finished, so I wasn’t thinking about memory at that
point.” As capacity became tight, Clive simplified some of the rooms, recognising the importance of
being able to retain his two impressive set pieces.
Clive has been quoted as saying that Saboteur took him five months, although today he feels it was probably closer to twelve once you factor in the work he did at home. His hard work was rewarded when the game received universal praise in the magazines of the time, including a coveted Crash Smash. “This was the pre-internet days, so the majority of feedback was from magazines,” he says. “And on top of that, Durell were sent fan letters saying how much they loved the game. I was very chuffed!”
Saboteur was a palpable hit, even though eventually, Clive’s grandiose designs had outgrown the
Spectrum. “The plan had been to send the same ninja out on a different mission, but I decided to cut it short and save the extra ideas for a sequel. And I never did get round to adding the walk through metal detectors.” As it transpired, Clive made Saboteur 2 with a new character – the ninja’s sister – and scenario, so most of these ideas were abandoned, at least until recently. “The retro remake of Saboteur for modern platforms has given me a chance to complete the original plot, with new maps, enemies and puzzles,” he says.
With his remake of Saboteur available on Nintendo Switch, Steam, PlayStation and GOG, and a
‘Director’s Cut’ in the works, it’s clear there’s still plenty of love for Clive’s treasured franchise. For
more information on Saboteur and all of his games, go to www.clivetownsend.com.
You can play both the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 versions of Saboteur for free right now on Antstream Arcade. Watch out though – there are some expert ninjas around!
That’s it! Get to the choppa, 8-bit fans! Thanks for reading, thanks to Clive for his time and watch out for another Antstream Arcade story soon.