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
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 (inthepockets.com) 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?
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.
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.