How Galaxians changed my life

Something I always wanted to write up but never really worked out the right approach for was how and why I became interested in making these simple / crude / amateurish JavaScript based games.

To get the full picture we have to go back to some time around 1980 / 81. As a young boy I used to beg, steal and borrow any coins I could get and race to the cricket club at the end of the road.
On a Saturday afternoon during the summer the club was open for business and a bunch of largely stuffy old men sat and watched the delights of leather on willow. I slipped in to the clubhouse un-noticed.
In one corner there sat a cocktail cabinet of Galaxians. (See something similar here)

If I was lucky I had 20p. Two coins. Therefore two “goes”. But generally I just had the one.

The walk to the cricket club was about 5 minutes. With every step I would be processing my previous go on the game and trying to figure out my tactics for the next one. So much so that when I sat down to play I was a combination of excited and nervous beyond belief.

I got pretty good at Galaxians but soon grew tired of the ritual of begging and walking to play the game. This was the time of the emerging home computer scene.

Zoom forward a couple of years to Christmas day and I unwrapped my new home computer – a Dragon 32.

The graphics weren’t great, the sound was pretty poor and the entire contraption felt like a big biscuit tin. But I loved it. I picked up a few books on how to program BASIC and saved up coppers to grab the occasional Dragon User magazine.
I devoured the long badly printed listings from the magazines (submitted by other amateur BASIC programmers) and frantically sought to achieve the same effects that they had produced.
I admired the professional coders but knew that I was a million miles away from them in terms of capability.
Every once in a while I would catch some machine code in Dragon User and just stare at it. How on earth could anybody understand that nonsense ?

For me it was all about the BASIC programs. It seemed so devilishly easy to accept keyboard input and produce a few audio/visual effects. Such little effort.
Before long I had some very simple games knocked up. Most were text adventures but some were little blocky Space Invaders style arcade games. (I can still remember writing code to check for collision based on pixel colour !)

A year later and I’d grown tired of the Dragon. I needed to play better games.
I was lucky. My Dad was interested in the stuff I wanted to create. I whined enough for him to cave in and get me an Atari 800XL for Christmas 1984. This time I had struck gold. Awesome graphics, awesome sound and a wealth of games, books and magazines to go at. Atari was (and is, for me at least) the definition of gaming.

I adored those days of my early teens. In the years before girls and the high jinx of college took hold I could be found beavering away in my bedroom on any number of game projects. All in Atari BASIC and all very crude. But they were mine. My ideas and my creativity at work.
I would sketch out all kinds of games in class at school. Weird detailed sketches of Manic Miner style levels and bizarre characters. (So much so that a school friend quickly nicknamed me Wilf after Wilf Lunn who at that time was well known for his mad inventions on UK television).
My friends would share their ideas. Such wild and creative ideas that were, I suppose, just rip-offs of the big home computer games of the day; Jet Set Willy, Manic Miner, Suicide Express, Ant Attack, Jet Pac (still an awesome game).

I so much wanted to create my own Galaxians. I desperately wanted to create my own Spy Hunter (my favourite arcade game of the day). What could be better than a James Bond romp through all environments in cars and boats that shot at things in their way ?

Magical times where as children we were unimpressed by fancy coding routines or other such low level excellence. It was all about what our games were going to do and of course look like. It was all about the characters, the guns, the story. Ever since those days I’ve had a love, indeed passion, for arcade games in which the sole requirement is to shoot stuff.
I think you get the gist :-)

I’ve always wanted to re-capture that passion from nearly 30 years ago. I’m not a coder. I can’t do the low level stuff. C++ or *shudder* machine code turns me to ice. I code C# in work but I’m no expert. I don’t follow technical forums. It’s generally an exercise in knocking those that don’t do it the same way that you do.

I’m a dreamer. I love nothing more than dreaming up a game scenario and putting enough code in place to go and get stuck in to crafting sprites. I love Photoshop. Just watching it load and anticipating the opening up of a new document (32 x 32) fills me with delight. I have my own palettes stored and pick one for the game based on its style. Just sitting pixelling my little characters and then dropping them in to the game to me is pure pleasure. It’s personal. In many respects I’d rather not ever show them to anyone. In many respects I also feel a bit like the Ed Wood of computer games. I have all the passion but not necessarily the technical expertise. Frankly I couldn’t care less. I’m having too much fun.

So I guess to the point of this post.
For me, even as a rapidly regressing 40 year old who should know better, it’s still all about the fun. The ideas. The “what if I make him jump and shoot as well as just jump” style ideas.
When I have to be concerned with the technicalities of making this stuff happen I get bored.

That’s why I love open web technologies. I love the fact that I can open a text editor and Photoshop and see the results with the push of a button in a web browser. I’ve waited a long time for this when I think about it.

HTML5 being adopted across the board is going to allow me to not only recapture the passion from my youth but actually push it further. A lot further. There are things that I can write now with JavaScript that I simply couldn’t do back then with BASIC. Of course there are. And that’s what is so much fun. I can create almost as quick as I can dream these ideas up. I don’t use libraries or frameworks. There’s no need. The blank canvas of a new project is too exciting. I like getting my hands dirty. (Notable exception: the SoundManager2 API)

I like to keep development times short. If a game is taking more than a month to become playable (bugs and niggles aside) then I’m getting something very wrong. I’ve most likely lost sight of the initial vision. If I can’t decide on visual styles or content then I’m definitely getting something wrong.
What excites me is when ideas just fall in to place organically.
You’d be amazed how often I create a simple sprite and just walk him around the screen with no regard for collision or other such game specific things. I walk him around, watch him move and just dream a game up around it. What would be fun ? What action would be cool to do ? – Hoth Strike was initially a helicopter game in which you fly low over a desert blasting gun turrets. The more I played with it the more I was amazed at how fast it all moved. The game needed to be a bit more frenetic.

Hopefully my point is made :-)
I love making games. I love drawing the graphics. But most of all I love dreaming up the ideas and seeing how far I can push them. You don’t have to be an expert coder to make this stuff happen. You just have to have the desire.

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Comments

  • Cody  On December 1, 2010 at 6:01 am

    “You don’t have to be an expert coder to make this stuff happen. You just have to have the desire.”

    Words to live by.

    • markw1970  On December 1, 2010 at 4:40 pm

      I’d like to think so :-)
      I just wished I could find more people doing this stuff. My Googling skills are so poor. I should spend like a day trying to find other JS gamers.

  • Cody  On December 3, 2010 at 12:17 am

    I think JavaScript gamers are rare breed. How many people with web development/programming experience, artistic ability, an undying desire to make videogames, and absolutely refuse to work with more suitable architectures do you honestly know?

    Long live the stubborn JavaScript gamer! ;-)

    With iPhones, iPads, HTML5 and Apple’s stance on not supporting Flash’s proprietary architecture… I think it will get a whole lot more popular.

  • markw1970  On December 3, 2010 at 10:01 am

    Well I really do hope that you’re right my friend.
    If it does boil down to issues of performance then I see only one winner in the longer term ;-)

    I should add here that I have huge respect for Flash developers. I have seen and played some incredible Flash games. I hope that some (or all) of that talent migrates to native open-web technologies over time.

  • HTML5 Gamer  On May 1, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    Awesome post dude. I think that I too have that strong desire/drive/passion to create my own games but I never really asked my self why I feel that way. I am sure it has something to do with how much they meant so much to me when I was younger. I also latched onto HTML5 technologies for similar reason and now spend much of my free hobby time trying to figure out how to make some sort of passive income by creating games (or at least promoting them). FYI I included your game in my most recent project (http://html5gamer.net/game/galactiansii)

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