Feb 8, 2008

ten gnomish questions / Mersey Remakes' Obbbob

Oddbob, one of the few retro remakers, game designers and webmasters that is constantly rubbing himself in flour whilst looking at your webcam, has been kind enough to find some time and answer a few question for your reading pleasure. Now, before you fellow retro gaming addicts and wise ludology connoisseurs go on and read this extremely interesting interview, better learn that Mr., uhm, Bob is responsible -among other things- for G-Force, JSWO, helping humanity with Retro Remakes and getting all creative with MFOR.
1. So, it's Bob, Robert and oddbob. Care to explain who you are and state your age, obsessions and/or any bit of personal info you think the Gnome's Lair lot would be interested in? You know, for the record...

Hello! My name is Robert Fearon, otherwise known as Oddbob, Wrongbag or Genius depending on which forum you attend - although some people have slightly less polite names for me. Like "Dave" for example.

I'm old enough to remember the ZX81 but not old enough to have been party to Computer Space in its original incarnation, although this beard makes me look around twelve (or so I like to believe - that's my excuse and I'm sticking by it). For the past 5 years I've been involved in the Retro Remakes "scene" running Mersey Remakes and for 3 of those, running Retro Remakes itself. I have a sideline as a small part of the gestalt entity known as Cassette50Man on Somewhere Beyond Cassette 50 whereby along with the other parts of said personality (rumour has it that another part of Cassette50Mans personality was responsible for Veck and the still unreleased but very good Veck2 but I don't believe a word of it), we test out the worst games on the internet so you good folk don't have to. It's a dirty job but someone has to do it. Sometimes I wish it wasn't me though as they're really, really bad games and often we need a good few months recovery time inbetween.

I'm also part of the team behind Jet Set Willy Online, and responsible for 2 games for the UK Retro event and all round Llamasoft love-in Retrovision. Both games unsurprisingly based on the works of Jeff "Aw fluffy sheepy" Minter.

In a past life I've been a trained studio engineer, a store manager and a binman but these days I mainly idle my time away playing and swearing at games and on occasions, attempting to write my own. I am also, for a change, fully clothed.

2. Besides being responsible for some brilliant retro remakes you (well, Mersey Remakes and you) have a lovely blog. Love the name. What do you mean with it? Do you guys indeed make the cops look bad?

Luckily for me, my only brush with the law previous (aside from the occasional lift home late at night whilst wondering back from the 24 hour garage) involved attempting to avoid a single police car whilst carrying a conspicuously large bag of posters and a bucket of paste when I was much younger. To prove that I definitely don't make the cops look dumb, my escape route consisted of circling the town hall repeatedly in the hope that they'd get bored and leave me alone. They didn't. They just turned round the police car and drove round the other way stopping me in my tracks. Both my fly posting and criminal career came to a rather abrupt end that night. Mister Smila on the other hand, I hear, is wanted in 32 countries for crimes against Sinclair products.

The name itself comes from a song by the perennial musical grouch Mr Luke Haines entitled Baader Meinhof, from (curiously enough) the album Baader Meinhof. It's a slightly obtuse album about terrorism from the mid 90's and oddly, given the subject matter, filled with rather catchy songs. As we share the same beard, it seemed only fair that I should honour the man in some way from my blog and so I stole the first line wholesale.
3. On to Mersey Remakes. What's the story behind this very giving group?

In short, we remake games from the eighties with modern(ish) technology and in a lot of cases try and put a slight personal spin on them as well. It's all done in the name of freeware and love and hugs and thankfully, so far - we've had a higher proportion of happy original authors than we've had "unhappy" original authors with regards to what we do.

Mersey Remakes is, technically, myself and Mr Smila - although just to confuse the issue despite a *walks off whilsting* failed attempt at Dropzone and Mr Puniverse many years ago when I was even less reliable and slightly less able to code than I am now we don't actually work together. Although I still have the graphics Mr Smila made for both of these games, so maybe one day they might just see the light of day. The site itself came into existence not long after I finished the embarassingly bad take on an already embarassingly bad game that I somehow made worse (that'll be Kokotoni Wilf, originally from Elite) and realised that perhaps, I was going to need some webspace to dump the files to. Despite being convinced it'd never come to anything, I let the then owner of Retro Remakes (the sadly missed The Toker) talk me into picking up a domain and some proper hosting just on the off chance. Not long after I bought the domain the gentleman who was hosting Smila's early works decided he could no longer maintain his site. Given I had webspace to spare, we came to an arrangement that we'd both pay 50/50 on the site hosting fees and in turn I'd provide a permanent home for Smila's work and he'd never have to see the back end of a site in his life. Nowadays though, we just share the same webspace as it's as much his site as mine now.

Over the years the site grew as both myself and Smila churned out games, I took on a few homeless remakes and games, started a blog and despite the lack of care I gave the front page, the site took on a life of its own. I think. That was 5 years ago, but that's how I remember it all happening. In all likelihood, it was probably a space chipmunk or something that nibbled a neuron and the entire site just appeared overnight.

Best of all, after the best part of five years behind the wheel - it's still fun. I get to spend my time playing and remaking games, and getting first dibs on Smila's own work. It doesn't get much better than that.

4. Ok, that was slightly confusing yet quite reassuring. Then again you are not thinking to try creating some non-retro inspired games, are you?

Not for Mersey Remakes at least, no. But then, I'm not sure if I could ever shake the retro influence too much.

When you've spent years gorging yourself on games, it's hard not to take influence from the best bits of gamings past, more so I guess if you remake games for a hobby.
5. Any hopes for a commercial game? You would do quite an impressive indie group you know...

Aw, thanks. I don't know if we'd be quite that impressive when you consider some of the stuff that's emerged over the past 12 months from the scene and some of the stuff still to come on the horizon but yes, yes, there is actually. A couple even.

The big project that will likely see the light of day either towards the end of 2008 or early 2009 is Project MFOR - it still hasn't got a title outside of the "that'll do till we think of something better" name I'm afraid.

It's going to be a horizontal shooter set in a sort of kids picture book world with a library as the central hub. Your main character is left late at night in the library waiting for a relative to collect him and drifts into a few adventures via the books themselves. Each stage is going to be based around a different scenario of the character trying to find his own way home.

I guess more than anything I want to prove to myself that there doesn't have to be a divide between the alleged hardcore and the alleged casual crowd - I think Bit Blots Aquaria certainly goes a heck of a way to proving that Indies don't have to cater to one or the other and that a good game will float (no pun intended) regardless. I'd hate to be the kind of person who sits there as some commercial indie devs do and tailor their product to a demographic, clipboard in one hand ticking off features, calculator in the other totting up their monthly earnings from a swathe of lacklustre products.

Games creation should be about love and care and writing the game you want to write, and sure, you can argue that where we're heading with MFOR might not pay the bills so as to speak, but at least I'll be able to sit back and say "well, I bloody tried" regardless of how the cookie crumbles and I can't do any worse than some tat that's already gracing the market with a pricetag attached.

Plus, I like the contradiction of having a shooter set within a kids book. It amuses me.

Unfortunately, due to life circumstances a lot of the development of MFOR is going to rely on both myself and the artists (the uber talented Gary Pinkett) schedules aligning long enough to get some work done. At the moment he's not long started up a business of his own, new kid etc... and I'm my usual scatty self bounding from one thing to the next but the wheels are in motion, albeit slower than either of us would have wanted.

Aside from MFOR, there's a few vague plans in the pipeline for a budget game label/site plan with a few friends. A couple of which have been bitten on the arse before now by previous commercial ventures and wouldn't mind striking out into low key "fun but not enormous" sort of games and hopefully, I can help them make this happen. But at the moment, that's all rather sketchy and vague and we're still kicking stuff around. They're all incredibly talented folks and deserve a bit of a boost up so fingers crossed.

Might happen, might not - either way I've got a couple of ideas for games to throw into the ring myself to help kick things off should we go with it.

6. Oh, and -I know that's quite irrelevant- but are you interested in them modern games? Played anything interesting lately?

Oh yes, indeed I am. 2007 has been a corking year as far as I'm concerned - I've probably put more gaming hours in this year than I have in quite a long time.

360 wise, I tend to alternate between Crackdown and Space Giraffe for gaming pleasures. Cracking the leap from the agency tower into the water below was one of the most satisfying (and terrifying) game experiences ever. I near filled my pants and my stomach repeatedly sank like a stone with every leap. Truly wonderful and even after finishing the missions I'm still having a great time just kicking around the city collecting the odd orb here and there and playing with piles of cars and rocket launchers.

A fine testament to the designers I guess, that even when the game is done, I'm still having rucks of fun with it.

Bioshock was highly entertaining and one of the most consistent worlds I've got to wander around in, even with the needless boss battle at the end... other than that, I'm just hanging fire with a handful of points waiting for N+ and Rez to hit XBLA.

On the PC I've not long blasted through both the Half Life 2 episodes and Portal, didn't enjoy Episode 1 quite so much as a lot of it felt like the worst parts of Half Life 2 rolled into one - luckily Ep2 and Portal more than made up for things. The final battle with around 12 striders in Ep2 had me on the edge of my seat, even allowing for the wonky car controls. And of course, that song at the end of Portal is sublime. More games should end on a song.

I picked up Crysis as well but that depressed me with just how utterly and totally bland it was and disappointed me with how it didn't look *that* gorgeous all told - the vistas and landscapes were for the most part beautiful but as soon as you walked into a hut it may as well have been RTC Wolfenstein. I also struggled to find anything remotely enjoyable to do in the game. Shame really.

Oh, and of course, it'd be rude of me not to mention the enjoyable time I had with Sam & Max.

For Nintendo kicks, Excite Truck on the Wii has been a firm favourite since I got frustrated with the Ice Dungeon in Twilight Princess and I'm spending my toilet time alternating between Geometry Wars Galaxies and Contra 4 on the DS. Although the latter is perhaps a little too brutal even for me. Still, I live in hope that one day I might someday make it past level one on Normal difficulty.

So yeah, I may be firmly routed in the past with a lot of what I write - but there's still so many great things going on in gaming that you'd have to be a fool not to prick up your ears, pick up your sticks and get playing.
7. Couldn't agree more. Also, there are just too few memorable (and even less funny) songs in gaming. Then again, there aren't enough Python references either... Anyway. Aren't you immensely proud for Jet Set Willy Online?

You know something? I am. Immensely so.

I wasn't for a long while being far too close to it to appreciate it and being a misenthrope at the best of times. For a while it was like being in a whirlwind, builds of the game flying back and forth, bugtesting galore. Stu, Smila, Scott and myself bouncing edits and changes daily and then the playtesting till I was heartily sick of the sight of it. Looking back on the whole time, I can see why some of its magic was lost on me.

Now everytime I think of what we pulled together there I grin from ear to ear.

I still remember the moment Trev (Smila) dropped into #remakes, PM'd me to grab a file and test it - and it was just a test of a networked console. Nothing but a black box, some text and the four of us yaddering on at each other. That was the moment I thought "if anyone can do this, we can" and with Stu's prowess - we did.

I got into this remaking lark originally with the bizarre notion of making the best Jet Set Willy homage ever. It may have took 4 years, an insane joke kinda backfiring and a whole bunch of good people to get there. Stu, Smila, Scott and the Rodent chaps all made a crazy dream come true. Who wouldn't be proud of that?

8. Guess you should be proud about G-Force too, even though I've wasted an unhealthy amount of time on the beast. Still, top visuals, great humour, trippy music and frantic old-school shooting action are too good to ignore. How did you manage to pull this one off?

Thanks, I'm still surprised at how popular G-Force has been even in it's unfinished state. I had to laugh when Retrogamer gave it a mark of around 80% even when the build they reviewed wasn't even the latest at the time. Got to love magazines.

I started writing G-Force as a quick project (ha!) to get myself back into the swing of coding. For some unknown reason I'd managed to convince myself the original only had 10 stages and so would be a walk in the park to bang out. Then I started going through the original and found 30. Whoops! Not long after it started to evolve from a quick project to a labour of love. I'm happy to say that aside from a lot of real-life things that have caused a massive reduction in my development time, one of the reasons G-Force absorbs my hours is due to playing it so bloody much.

It may not compare with the likes of some of the commercial offerings or even some of the fabulous stuff the Indie scene throws out for free, but it's my baby and a game that I wanted to exist in this form outside of my own head for a long time. There's a purity to the game that just appeals to the early arcade gamer inside of me, and a dash of the original, a dash of Minter and a dollop of my own outlook I think has put it in good stead.

Now I've just got to find the time to finish the bugger!
9. So, uhm, not a particularly exciting question, but which is your favorite Mersey Remakes game?

Oh god, definitely not one of mine. Prior to G-Force, they're at best sketches, at worst plain incompetant and not something I'd recommend anyone dive into. I'd say Smila's R-Tronic - it's not quite Robotron, but still a fast paced and lovely looking blaster.

10. And finally, what do you think of innovation in game design? Can it co-exist with a retro feeling or was JSWO a work of demons?

Generally, innovating isn't something that even comes close to my thoughts when it comes to games. I leave that to folks like Jon Blow who are generally better at thinking on those terms than me.

It's weird because during my life to date, I've watched the gaming scene grow from a select few games to the giant that it is now - I've seen consoles, computers, companies and studio's rise and fall and yet there's still so much more to explore, so much more to do. That's why, even though I don't actively think about innovation when writing games myself - I'm glad that other people do. I don't want gaming stuck in a rut, it'd kill part of what makes gaming a beautiful past time.

In the same way that the industry needed the VidKidz, the Mel Crouchers, Denton Designs, Andrew Braybrook and the likes in the eighties, we need Jon Blow, Keita Takahashi et al today just as much.

And whilst I will attest that JSWO certainly must have had some sort of infernal influence in order to exist, I don't see any reason why we can't sit there and look at our heritage and history and meld it with modern innovations. Why not have an online mass multiplayer pixel perfect platformer? If Space Giraffe can create a one game microcosm of 30 years of gaming history and still throw in curveballs - I see no reason not to pull from the past and look to the future.

For me though, I'm more interested in pulling stuff apart, seeing what makes games tick, analysing the good and the bad from our gaming history. Heck, part the reason I'm so heavily involved in the remakes scene more so than any specific retro scene is the lack of rose tinted spectacles the scene provides. I dearly love a lot of games from the eighties and nineties but the industry has progressed generally for the better since those times when it comes to player experience (not always, I grant you) - and the fight for more accessible games is something that couldn't have existed in the Eighties when having a keyboard overlay and using every key on the keyboard was akin to having the biggest cock to wave around.

Ultimately, I'm greedy. I want the best of both worlds. I want the bits that made games drag me in by the scruff of the neck and force me to love them, but I want that without the things that frustrated.

Mind you, when all said and done - I just want good games and whilst they keep coming, I'll be gaming as long as I'm still able - innovative or nay.

Related @ Gnome's Lair: Regarding Llamasoft, 100 excellent free games, Monty's Christmas Special, the Alter Ego interview


  1. Are any of these games like Rez?

  2. Well, you could say G-Force might be a bit like Rez, if Rez was more a bit like Tempest and in 2D...

  3. What an absolutely fascinating and enthralling interview Gnome! And what a beguiling and all round good egg Mr. Oddbob seems!

    whilst I'd seen the link on the sidebar, I'd never dipped in! Thus I've been denied the joy of Jet Set Willy Online... Until now...

    Mr. Oddbob is very deserving of the most coveted "Father Krishna Seal Of Approval" and whilst I'm dishing them out, have one yourself!

  4. I'm with Father Krishna on this, what an excellent interview! Nice work getting hold of someone with so much of interest to share.

  5. Hear that Robert? You got an FK seal of approval. You lucky, lucky guy. Oh, and Father, always trust my sidebar ;)

    Thank you very much kde. Oddbob is indeed of a rare eloquent game creating breed...

  6. No, thank you, Gnome, for Digging my story. I really appreciate it. Let me know how I can repay the favor.

  7. You can't, for it wasn't a favor. Don't be silly ross. And besides Digg, might I suggest you give StumbleUpon a try too. It should help with the traffic... Cheers!