In The Chair: Alain Fer­nan­des

In a ca­reer span­ning 35 years Alain Fer­nan­des has pro­grammed games and apps on a huge range of con­soles and com­put­ers. From Oric to Nin­tendo DS, it is time to look back with Alain

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS - Words by An­drew Fisher

The clas­sic 8-bit coder looks back at his lengthy ca­reer in videogames

What were your ear­li­est ex­pe­ri­ences with com­put­ers back in the day?

Be­fore I started pro­gram­ming, I started to play videogames in 1977, and I was think­ing, ‘It’s in­cred­i­ble! Pro­gram­mers are paid to do this!’ And this idea helped me to be­come a game pro­gram­mer. My first pro­gram­ming ex­pe­ri­ence was in Septem­ber 1980, with the TI-57. [A Texas In­stru­ments cal­cu­la­tor that was pro­gram­mable, but switch it off and the pro­gram was lost.] But I was al­ready a com­puter fan, I read a lot of mag­a­zines like Mi­cro Sys­tem, and I had some elec­tron­ics knowl­edge. Three years be­fore I started pro­gram­ming, I spent my free time read­ing elec­tron­ics mag­a­zines and build­ing some elec­tronic cir­cuits.

But that meet­ing with the TI-57 changed every­thing for me. When you write the soft­ware you don’t spend money, if you have bugs, you fix it and your work is saleable… you just need time.

How did you send your pro­grams to the mag­a­zines to be­come type-in list­ings?

Be­fore 1983, I wrote many small games. I thought, ‘Maybe if I send my list­ings, maybe I can earn some money to buy a new com­puter?’ Dur­ing 1981 and 1982, I was send­ing a lot of list­ings of my games to many com­puter mag­a­zines.

How quickly did you learn ma­chine code? Quickly, but re­mem­ber, ev­ery com­puter was dif­fer­ent. You need to learn each pro­ces­sor: Z80, 6502, 8086, 68000. And you have to learn the hard­ware of each com­puter, but it’s not enough. In or­der to cre­ate a game you need to un­der­stand how the game works, and it’s dif­fer­ent for each style of game. A 2D plat­form game, it’s dif­fer­ent than 3D race cars. Each type of game needs dif­fer­ent pro­gram­ming knowl­edge. Al*berthe and Fringale were clones of ar­cade games – did you play in the ar­cades a lot?

I started play­ing in 1977 and I played a lot since 1979 and I still play now. But be­fore 1983, I played mainly at the ar­cade. I am still play­ing on my Xbox. I have a lot of games, but I am still a big fan of the Grand Theft Auto se­ries, the Gears Of War games and Bioshock. Funny fact, it’s easy now to fin­ish al­most any game. It’s ten times eas­ier now to fin­ish Gears Of War than Mario 64. Many gamers are to­tally im­pressed by the dif­fi­culty of those old games. Es­pe­cially a SNES game like Night­mare Buster. But at the time, it was not so hard.

You con­verted Coq’in (aka Chickin’ Chase) to Thom­son com­put­ers – do you re­mem­ber this crazy game and its de­vel­oper Jawx?

I re­mem­ber the Com­modore 64 ver­sion, but I never ac­tu­ally met Jawx’s peo­ple. I was hired by Ti­tus Soft­ware to port games from one com­puter to

“To cre­ate is my pas­sion,” says Alain, words that sit at the top of his com­pany web­site (inthe­p­ock­ that de­tails his long ca­reer. Alain is a well-known fig­ure in his na­tive France and worked for most of the ma­jor French com­pa­nies. Start­ing out with a pro­gram­mable cal­cu­la­tor, Alain shifted his fo­cus onto 8-bit ma­chines – get­ting his work pub­lished as type-in list­ings for French mag­a­zines Tilt and Sprites. The 16-bit years saw him move in to 3D with a tril­ogy of games for Ti­tus be­fore pro­gram­ming for Ja­panese con­soles, in­clud­ing the FM Towns and Pc-en­gine. Lo­cal­is­ing games for the French mar­ket was Alain’s task for a few years. He has also pro­grammed for the N-gage and more re­cently tack­led IOS de­vel­op­ment.

an­other com­puter. I never met the orig­i­nal de­signer of the game.

What were your favourite 8-bit com­put­ers? Be­fore 1980, the Com­modore PET 2001. I love the allin-one con­cept. Also, the Am­strad CPC 664 and the MSX. I love the Sanyo PHC 28 with [its] two car­tridge slots and its key­board. Fi­nally, the Com­modore 64. It was too ex­pen­sive for me in 1983, but the hard­ware was amaz­ing.

Why was the Oric so pop­u­lar in France?

I chose the Oric-1 in­stead of the ZX Spec­trum be­cause there was seven weeks wait­ing time for the Sin­clair. Maybe that was a rea­son for the Oric’s suc­cess in France. The Oric-1 dis­tri­bu­tion was bet­ter in France. I re­mem­ber when I stopped at the com­puter shop, I don’t find any ZX Spec­trums be­cause it was only sold by mail. Maybe for many new users, the key­board of the ZX Spec­trum was very strange.

What made the Thom­son ma­chines spe­cial?

The MO5 and TO7 are noth­ing spe­cial, but there were more than 100,000 in the schools in France, so peo­ple bought the Thom­son for their home. In 1983/84, the French govern­ment de­cided: ‘Ev­ery school must have a com­puter room. Each stu­dent must learn to use a com­puter and learn with ed­u­ca­tional soft­ware.’ Many soft­ware com­pa­nies like Cedic and Nathan made a lot of ed­u­ca­tional soft­ware for the Thom­son MO5 and TO7. But other man­u­fac­tur­ers, like Ma­tra and Phillips have asked, ‘Why only Thom­son MO5/TO7?’ So the French govern­ment also bought a lot of Ma­tra, Phillips and other com­put­ers. The prob­lem is, they were not com­pat­i­ble with the Thom­son. Cedic and Nathan needed to re­pro­gram all the ed­u­ca­tional soft­ware on the other sys­tems! That’s why Ti­tus Soft­ware at the be­gin­ning worked with Cedic and Nathan. There is a lot of ed­u­ca­tional soft­ware to re­pro­gram. I also did some ed­u­ca­tional soft­ware on the VG5000 and the Ex­celvi­sion in 1985 and 1986.

How did you get the job con­vert­ing Ac­tivi­sion’s early com­puter-themed ti­tle Hacker?

Hacker on the Thom­son MO5 and TO7 was pub­lished by Loriciel in France. In 1986, Loriciel asked Ti­tus to con­vert Hacker. I worked for Ti­tus from the be­gin­ning of 1985 to the end of 1990, and I made a lot of con­ver­sions dur­ing that pe­riod and Hacker was one of them. Re­mem­ber, be­fore the suc­cess of Crazy Cars, Ti­tus made a lot of games [un­der con­tract] for other game com­pa­nies.

Who was be­hind the idea for the puz­zle game Ti­tan?

The orig­i­nal ver­sion of Ti­tan was on the Am­strad CPC. The au­thor/pro­gram­mer was Phillipe Pa­mart – a very great pro­gram­mer! Ti­tan Am­strad CPC was the per­fect ex­am­ple of “you need to learn the hard­ware to cre­ate a game”. The per­fect knowl­edge of the Z80 was not enough to cre­ate a game.

You have pro­grammed mul­ti­ple ver­sions of

Ti­tan, which is your favourite?

Ti­tan was the big­gest suc­cess for Ti­tus. Ti­tan was made for a lot of sys­tems. Am­strad CPC, ZX Spec­trum, Com­modore 64, Amiga, Atari ST, PC DOS, NES,

NEC Pc-en­gine, FM Towns, Ap­ple Mac­in­tosh and Phillips CDI. I made the Fm-towns ver­sion and the ZX Spec­trum ver­sion in 1989, and 22 years later I made the IOS ver­sion. Anu­man bought the rights to that ver­sion and made a 3D re­make. My favourite is still the Fm-towns ver­sion. I flew to Los An­ge­les and I stayed there for six months in 1989. It was so amaz­ing. I also like the IOS ver­sion be­cause I re­pro­grammed it from scratch. It’s writ­ten in C/OPENGL and I made it in just 79 hours. That’s fast, be­lieve me. I also de­signed the 80 lev­els, 75 are dif­fer­ent from the orig­i­nal ver­sion.

What did you pre­fer, the Amiga or the Atari ST?

I pre­fer the Fm-towns. Re­mem­ber the ‘war’ be­tween the Atari ST and the Amiga was a war be­tween users. In the early Eight­ies, when you work for a videogames com­pany, you don’t choose your com­puter. If you say, ‘No, I work only on Atari ST,’ you don’t last, you will be fired and you will be re­placed by an­other pro­gram­mer with more skill. I’m more a con­sole lover, than com­puter lover. For me, a com­puter is for pro­gram­ming, it’s for my job. I don’t spend my free time on com­put­ers or with a smart­phone. I pre­fer us­ing my free time to play on my Xbox or watch­ing movies.

Did you de­velop a 3D en­gine for the Ti­tus Soft­ware ti­tles Crazy Cars, Galac­tic Con­queror and Fire & For­get?

There was no ‘en­gine’ be­cause the hard­ware was dif­fer­ent for each com­puter. Back in the Eight­ies, the knowl­edge of ma­chine code was a small part of de­vel­op­ing a game. The knowl­edge of the hard­ware was also very im­por­tant. Crazy Cars on the Thom­son MO5 has noth­ing to do with the Am­strad CPC ver­sion. Galac­tic Con­queror for Amiga has noth­ing to do with Crazy Cars on DOS, and so on.

Whose idea was the Clas­sique com­pi­la­tion of old ar­cade games for Atari ST?

Be­fore the Atari ST ver­sion, there were four other vol­umes (12 games) cre­ated on Thom­son MO5 and TO7. They sold very well. So Ti­tus did a test with Vol­ume 1 on Atari ST. But the sales were too low, so no other vol­umes were made for Atari ST.

Knight Force was all your own work, what in­spired the game?

I think, maybe El­ric the sor­cerer (from the Michael Moor­cock nov­els), Kur­gan from High­lander and all time travel movies.

How easy was it to port Knight Force back to the 8-bit Am­strad CPC, and did you have to change much when con­vert­ing it?

No so much, that is why the Am­strad ver­sion of the game was on two disks.

What was the de­vel­op­ment kit for the Fm-towns sys­tem like?

In June 1989, Fu­jitsu asked Ti­tus to send a pro­gram­mer (me) to Los An­ge­les, where Ti­tus also had of­fices, to work on Ti­tan for the Fm-towns. The kit was a 386

PC, with C/ASM cross com­piler for the Fm-towns.

You com­pile on the PC and you trans­fer the ex­e­cutable to the Fm-towns. It was my first pro­gram­mer pro­ject pub­lished on CD-ROM in Ja­pan.

How long did it take you to con­vert Jim Power to the Pc-en­gine?

I only had three months to re­write the game from scratch. It was a very short pro­ject. And I had no pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing on the Pc-en­gine.

I’m more of a con­sole lover. For me a com­puter is for pro­gram­ming, it’s for my job Alain Fer­nan­des

Re­mem­ber, [the con­ver­sion is] not based on the Amiga ver­sion code.

You worked with most of the ma­jor French com­pa­nies, which was the best?

Ei­ther Ti­tus: for six years, I worked on many dif­fer­ent ma­chines, dif­fer­ent hard­ware, and dif­fer­ent pro­ces­sors. I made so many games. I learnt a lot. Or Mind­scape: dur­ing al­most seven years, I used my knowl­edge to solve hun­dreds of bugs and tech­ni­cal prob­lems, and the salary was great.

Do you re­mem­ber the hype around Kevin Cost­ner’s Water­world film, and work­ing on the Game Boy tie-in?

Yes, it was the first film to reach $100 mil­lion of bud­get I think. At the time, I worked for Ocean France/ PAM (Power And Magic De­vel­op­ment) – a new game stu­dio. And the first pro­ject was Water­world for Nin­tendo’s Game Boy. For­tu­nately, the movie was de­layed and that gave us more time to fin­ish the Game Boy ver­sion.

You lo­calised sev­eral PC/MAC games for the French mar­ket, does this take dif­fer­ent skills?

It was not only for the French mar­ket, it was also for many Euro­pean coun­tries. Reader Rab­bit and Adi have been great suc­cesses around the world. You need to un­der­stand each Reader Rab­bit grade was made by dif­fer­ent stu­dios, with dif­fer­ent tools and com­puter lan­guages. Worse, at the end of the Nineties many game stu­dios cre­ated their own com­puter lan­guage, their own com­piler, and their own file for­mats. To be sure, when you need any mod­i­fi­ca­tion, you have no choice but to use your skills. For ex­am­ple, dur­ing the lo­cal­iza­tion of Reader Rab­bit in 2002, I re­ceived 64 CD-ROMS full of data and source code. But this is not

the fi­nal source code. So you need a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence to im­prove the code and re­build ev­ery pro­ject.

Have you got a favourite hand­held con­sole?

I still love the Game Boy Ad­vance SP!

Great bat­tery, good size, the back­light and com­pat­i­ble with the Game Boy and

Game Boy Color, and of course the GBA games. Man­u­fac­tur­ers should make bet­ter bat­ter­ies. Many hand­held sys­tems have too lim­ited bat­tery life, es­pe­cially when you play a 3D game. The Game Boy, the GBC, the GBA, the Nin­tendo DS all have a power off switch. When you turn off your old Nin­tendo for one or two weeks, no mat­ter, they don’t need to be recharged. Just turn on and that’s it. With mod­ern sys­tems, you need to recharge two or three times each week.

How easy was it to de­velop for the nokia n-gage mo­bile phone?

You have two pos­si­bil­i­ties for N-gage de­vel­op­ment. The first is the Sym­bian 6.0 SDK, C++ and Opengl ES – great if you need to de­velop a 3D game. The sec­ond is the J2ME MIDP 2.0 SDK, ‘Java Mi­cro Edi­tion’. The J2ME is eas­ier then the Sym­bian SDK. I made some com­mer­cial games on N-gage for In-fu­sio. I love Zaps. At the time the N-gage was the best mo­bile phone to have for gamers.

How did you come up with the puz­zle game Cub(hic!) and its se­quels?

In 1997, Flash, Java and Html/javascript gave me a new way to de­velop games. I de­cided to de­velop a small game, just for fun. Log(hic!), Cub(hic!) and Cub(hic!) Baby be­came my ‘Hello World’ pro­gram. Each time I had ac­cess to a new SDK, I wrote a new ver­sion. I made maybe a hun­dred ver­sions of these three games. In 2001, Log(hic!) was a great suc­cess on the Win­dows Smart­phone.

Do you like work­ing with touch­screens? De­pend­ing on the type of game. For ex­am­ple Ti­tan

IOS is very great with the touch­screen con­trol. I made an­other IOS Breakout game, and it is bet­ter with the touch con­trol. Just slide the racket, it’s sim­pler.

You need to re­think old games and change the con­cept to adapt to the touch­screen. But some­times, I need phys­i­cal but­tons.

How quickly did you learn IOS de­vel­op­ment? Very fast, of course my Xcode / OSX pro­gram­ming ex­pe­ri­ence since 2002 helped me a lot. But all my IOS com­mer­cial games made be­tween 2008 and 2013 were writ­ten in C and Opengl. Ti­tan IOS was writ­ten in C/OPENGL in 79 hours, and the source code was very portable. Af­ter that, it took me only two hours to do the Html5/javascript ver­sion. is mod­ern de­vel­op­ment and port­ing be­tween sys­tems much eas­ier than work­ing with older, clas­sic hard­ware?

Since 2008, Uni­ty3d is the main tool to cre­ate and de­velop games. Now 80-90 per cent of gam­ing com­pa­nies hire Uni­ty3d pro­gram­mers. When you make a game with Uni­ty3d, it is 100 times eas­ier than to make the same game in C/OPENGL, and is 100,000 times eas­ier than build­ing the same game in as­sem­bly lan­guage. But now, 99 per cent of the new games made with Uni­ty3d are just copy and paste.

Do you have any funny sto­ries from your years in the in­dus­try?

When I was work­ing on Ti­tan for the Fm-towns in Los An­ge­les, the graphic de­signer stayed in France. All the graph­ics were sent over to me us­ing a Com­modore 64 and a mo­dem.

What was your worst dead­line to meet? The Jim Power adap­ta­tion from the Amiga to Pc-en­gine was the worst, just three months

Did you have many can­celled or un­fin­ished games, and do you still have any­thing left over from them?

I have kept a lot of things from my un­fin­ished projects, I hope someday, when I have enough time, to re­build some of them.

So, with that in mind, would you like to re­vive more of your old games?

Yes, I think so. For ex­am­ple An­theus (made for DOS, in 16 colours), it is not fin­ished, but with DOSBOX it works great. But time is the key. Some­times a seem­inglysim­ple thing takes you a lot of work. You need to make a good, pro­fes­sional choice – do you de­velop your own game with your own money and time, or do you work for a com­pany?

You’re a de­vel­oper with a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence in the in­dus­try, what do you think will hap­pen in gam­ing’s fu­ture?

Every­thing is pos­si­ble. Every­thing has changed since Pong and it never stops. But you need to fol­low the tech­nol­ogy, and learn new stuff each year.

Every­thing is pos­si­ble. Every­thing has changed since Pong and it never stops Alain Fer­nan­des

[Marta Alice] An early Q*bert clone, this is Al*berthe on the Ma­tra Alice.

Alain is a big fan of the Oric-1 home com­puter.

[Atari ST] Can you res­cue the cap­tive Princess and de­feat the evil wiz­ard in Knight Force? Screen­shot by Alain Fer­nan­des [Atari 2600] The only known im­age of Crazy Cars on the Atari 2600.

Cre­at­ing the lev­els for the IOS ver­sion of Ti­tan. Screen­shot by Alain Fer­nan­des [PC En­gine] The PC En­gine port of Jim Power was his most gru­elling dead­line – he only had three months to pull it off. Screen­shot­byalain­fer­nan­des [FM Towns] Alain moved to Los An­ge­les for six months to work on the FM Towns ver­sion of Ti­tan.

[Game Boy] Alain pro­grammed the iso­met­ric sec­tions of Water­world, based on the in­fa­mous Kevin Cost­ner film.

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