Retro Interview: The Oliver Twins
The Oliver Twins tell games™ about the latest Dizzy discovery and reveal why they’re excited to be bringing the character back in a new adventure
With a new Dizzy game in development we catch up with the famous Oliver Twins to reflect on their roughly 35 years of making games and the exciting new chapter they’re now starting
We see you’ve found another unreleased Dizzy game. Can you tell us more about this? Philip Oliver: Sure. It’s a game called Panic! Dizzy, which we wrote in 1992 when we were looking for game ideas for the NES. It was based on a game called Dizzy Panic, which we’d released in 1990 for the Spectrum, Amstrad, C64, ST and Amiga but since we hadn’t been entirely happy with that game, we felt the best way forward was to design it from scratch and resolve the problems. Unfortunately the game wasn’t released at the time so it was backed up, put in the loft and forgotten about. When the retro revival emerged in recent years, however, we decided to see what we had. Panic! Dizzy was our latest find.
Given you’ve also rediscovered Wonderland Dizzy, Mystery World Dizzy and Dreamworld Pogie in the past, you’ve been sitting on some fantastic treasures, haven’t you? Andrew Oliver: Since we’d spent so much time on these games, we didn’t want to lose them and, because we’re pretty organised, we made sure that we backed stuff up.
Unlike many developers, we also archived all our work by putting all our designs, discs and other materials in our lofts, but working through all these boxes of old discs has taken a lot of time and work. We sorted out an enormous amount a few years ago whilst collecting everything for our Kickstarter book, Let’s Go Dizzy. The Story of the Oliver Twins and this forced us to go through all the boxes and try and work out what exactly we had. That’s when we began to find things. But why wasn’t Panic!
released in 1992? PO: At the time we’d set up our game development studios off the back of our very successful 8-bit computer games that included the Dizzy series and a lot of the Simulators. We rented offices and employed some game developers to create new games, primarily on the NES, which was very popular in the US but, unfortunately, Codemasters entered a legal battle with Nintendo over the Game Genie.
Codemasters assured us that everything would be fine and it said it hadn’t done anything wrong so we should carry on writing the games they’d agreed to. But although Codemasters eventually won the court case and were awarded a huge payout, the delay caused the Darlings, who owned Codemasters, to re-evaluate the games they’d publish. Disappointingly for us, they chose not to release many of the games that our new studio had written and we were not compensated for lost earnings. This left us virtually bankrupt since we’d invested everything we’d earned, from all our success, in producing these games exclusively for them. We spoke to an agent, Jacqui Lyons, who represented other game authors in the industry and she helped us secure contracts with other publishers and even advanced us money to prevent us actually going bankrupt. But it did mean many games didn’t see the light of day.
Are you finding the old game media has remained intact, though?
AO: Well, finding the good stuff is very difficult because we are discovering old floppy discs,
SADLY WE JUST CAN’T REMEMBER HOW TO WRITE 6502 ASSEMBLY CODE ANY MORE
Amstrad discs, tape drives, old writable CD and so on, that are not entirely readable, either because we don’t have the hardware or the media is slightly corrupted. Then we have back ups that aren’t quite the full working versions – it means the source code and assets require a development environment to recompile before any minor changes can be made so that has to be in place too. have you needed to carry out much work on Panic! Dizzy?
PO: Yes. The discs we found appeared to be ‘end of project’ discs but because they contained source code, they needed compiling with the old Programmer Development System, an old DOS compiler and some special PC hardware. Thankfully, the advent of emulators helped at this point, which meant once a compiled ROM had been rebuilt, it could be checked relatively easily. We needed to find someone who would locate and fix the bugs, though, because sadly we just can’t remember how to write 6502 assembly code any more and we just wouldn’t be able to find the time to re-learn. Luckily, as with the other unreleased NES games we found, we could call upon Lukasz Kur, to whom we are very grateful, to recompile them and clean up a few minor issues. so how is Panic! Dizzy on the nes different to Dizzy Panic?
AO: The original Dizzy Panic came about after playing Tetris on the Game Boy. We were so amazed by its addictive nature and simplicity that it led us to wanting to create our own puzzle game.
From that point, it was an interesting exercise in analysing what makes a puzzle game so addictive but the artists and I were very busy finishing up Fantastic Dizzy on the NES at this time so Philip designed a game and worked with a local developer, Big Red Software, to implement it on the home computers. We’d worked with Big Red before. These guys had been writing the Dizzy games on the 8-bit computers when we were turning our focus to the NES. So they took our idea of basing the game in a factory where Dizzy was working a production line with conveyor belts and got to work. The player had to control Dizzy, helping him sort objects as fast as he could with everything getting faster until Dizzy and the player couldn’t keep up. The problem was the design, which we felt was flawed. Big Red hadn’t done a great job of implementation but there were no risk and reward strategies.
So we picked on the format of falling blocks and removed the conveyor belt. We then thought about possible variations based around this format. We expected one to be a clear winner, but we found each had their merits and so we decided we could offer better value for money by polishing all of them and leaving them all accessible in the one game.
some of your previous finds have been made available on cartridge for the nes. is this going to be the case for Panic! Dizzy? PO: Now that we have the game fully working, we would certainly like to release it as a real Nintendo cartridge.
There are lots of fans out there of both the NES and Dizzy and Kickstarter is the perfect platform for making this a reality because we’re able to promote the prospect of owning a real cartridge and then manufacture the number of units that get ordered. It’s only going to get one production run and it will be financed with the backers’ funds. Our profit on these cartridges will be going to the charity, Special Effect, which enables disabled children to have access to video games. We’re restoring these games as a hobby. so are we to expect any more games from the past?
AO: It’s certainly possible, but that’s for another time.
We can only hope. so, which of those previously unreleased games have excited you the most? PO: To be honest, we’re really pleased that all of them have finally seen the light of day. We make games for people to play and enjoy, not for storing in a loft, and each game has its own charm. What’s incredible and still hard for us to comprehend though, is how we were able to squeeze such large games into just 128k of memory. In the case of Panic! Dizzy – it’s only 64k, which is less than half a second of uncompressed MP3 music or a JPEG photo of just 128 x 128 pixels, which is the size of a Windows Desktop icon. you’re also set to release Wonderful Dizzy, which is a new adventure that you’ve been developing from scratch for the new spectrum next computer, which is enhancement of the original zx spectrum range from back in the day. how is work progressing?
AO: Very well although a bit slower than we would have all liked. With everyone working on it as a hobby, it’s not getting anyone’s full attention and it’s worth bearing in mind that the original Dizzy games were written when we literally spent nearly all our waking hours working on them. But that said, within the first few months Piotr ‘PIT’ Gratkiewicz
WE FEEL CONFIDENT IT WILL BE THE BEST DIZZY GAME EVER MADE ON THE SPECTRUM
had created some wonderful new art for the characters and box art and we had worked out the main story elements, the areas, puzzles and general flow.
We then had to put in some serious work into designing the whole map, which were all hand-drawn screens, just like the old days. Unlike the old days, though, these were all scanned, put into Excel and the puzzles attached, so that it could be played out ‘virtually’. Alongside this, Philip worked out a large, but very funny, narrative script for all the characters.
is it a big game?
PO: Well the full walkthrough description of the game is 18 pages long and we have around 68 screens in the game, which Dmitri and Jarrod have mostly created now. Evgeniy, the main coder, has been implementing these as well as the puzzles and they’ve been incorporating some of the new features that are being added to the game.
have you been getting your hands dirty with code too?
AO: I’m afraid that along with 6502, which was used on the Commodore 64 and NES, and 68000 used on the Mega Drive, our
Z80 coding is too rusty to be helpful so we’d struggle to write games for the Spectrum or Amstrad come to that, today. It takes a huge amount of time to write these games and there’s no way we could have found the time to focus, get back into the mindset and produce all the code as well.
Are you closely following the formula of past Dizzy games?
PO: Even though it’s over 25 years since the last Dizzy game we made, we want it to be made to the same formula and the same restrictions as those originals. We want to make it the natural sequel with a whole new story, new characters, locations and new features, and generally improve the whole look and feel. That is what we are aiming to do, and we feel confident this is the correct approach and what the fans of the original would be looking for. It’s going very well, and we feel confident it will be the best Dizzy game ever made on the Spectrum.
have you been impressed by the spectrum next?
AO: The guys behind the Spectrum Next are doing a great job. I think it’s taking a little longer than they anticipated but they really care about getting it right and we can sympathise with that. Their ambitions have also taken over a bit as many fans wanted “true spectrum emulation” whilst others wanted extra features like hardware scrolling and hardware sprites, so in trying to please everyone they have created an impressive computer with multiple modes. For our part, we decided we’d design a new Dizzy game, but keep to the parameters of the original Spectrum.
GTM: so you’re not taking advantage of the spectrum next’s enhanced graphics and sound modes?
PO: Currently we’re designing and coding the game to work on original hardware, which will look great on the Spectrum Next. It’s under discussion what enhancements will be made for a Spectrum Next enhanced version but we’re sure it will have some new features. The important thing is to get the main game developed first.
GTM: Will you be releasing the game on other formats?
AO: We feel the game is very strong and it would be a shame not to get it released on other formats in the future. But let’s see the reaction of players, before we invest heavily on bringing this to modern platforms, which would be a lot of additional work.
WONDERFUL DIZZY [2018 (TBC)] Designers
PANIC DIZZY  Designers, programmers
DIZZY  Designers, programmers, artists
All of the games in Panic! Dizzy can be played by one or two people including the frantic Four Suits option. Panic! Dizzy players are able to choose from a range
of Dizzy characters with others popping up in games such as Picture Perfect.
the graphics forWonderful Dizzy will look familiar to anyone who played the original Spectrum titles.Wonderful Dizzy is being written for the new Spectrum next computer which has a Z80 processor but 1MB RAM, HDMI output, 256 colours and hardware sprites.
As if to underline the complexity of the game, this map by the Olivers shows the various locations and the links between them.