May 16, 2008

a few gnomish questions / The Balrog of Zenobi

Zenobi Software, the Rochdale Balrog, the Cat and the Cockroach were responsible for over two hundred excellent -nay, classic- ZX Spectrum text-adventures. Oh, yes, and quite a few Atari ST ones too. What's more, John Wilson -a.k.a. the Balrog- the man behind it all is here to enlighten you and me on how things happened and what the future holds. Read on, hop over to the lovely official Zenobi website, grab a DVD with its rich retro offerings, ask for a freebie and come back here to discuss retro 8-bit interactive fiction. After all Zenobi will feature heavily on this blog for quite some time.
Zenobi Software Loading Screens ZX Spectrum1. Tell us a bit about yourself, oh Balrog. Some info on the cat might be nice too.

Fast approaching my 62nd birthday, I was born in Edinburgh (Scotland) in 1947 and moved to South Wales (Cwmbran) at the age of 12. Lived there for a few years and then moved to North Wales (Flint) before enlisting in the Royal Air Force in 1964. Served in various places... as far apart as Valley (Anglesey) and Seletar (Singapore) before settling down in Rochdale in 1970 where I still live to this day. As for the 'cat' that is simply one of my many 'alter-egos'... now, that is a 'first' for you and your readers, as I have never admitted to that before. 'Cat' is a good one, unlike 'Cockroach' who is an evil, mischievous little sod.

2. Why -and more importantly, how- did you start Zenobi? Were you all alone in this, erm, adventure of sorts?

Had been unemployed for a number of years and during a 'careers interview' I blurted out 'To run a software house' in answer to one of their questions. Being me, I decided to stick with that choice and Zenobi Software was formed in 1984/85. Like everything in my life, since I met her, my Ann was with me in this enterprise. Without her help I would never have made the success of Zenobi Software that it was ... if it ever was a 'success'.

3. And the focus on text-adventures on the ZX Spectrum? How did you decide on that?

Because they were what I was 'into' at the time. I had been given a ZX81 by a mate and then 'upgraded' to a ZX Spectrum ... the only things that seemed reasonable to play on these machines were 'text adventures' (the arcade games did not appeal) so those became my passion.

4. Weren't you afraid of actually competing against bigger software houses?

I am never afraid of a challenge and to be quite honest I never envisaged myself as being in 'competition' with anybody. The whole idea of the project was simply to get MY games out to the general public. Things just got out of hand a touch and grew far bigger than I ever imagined.

5. You've created a fair amount of admittedly brilliant, tough, inspired and generally hilarious adventures. Which ones are you favorites? Was there a certain way your games were designed? I mean, really, where did all this inspiration come from?

Of them all, the original 'Behind Closed Doors' has to be my favourite, if only for the fact that it was written, tested and finalised in less than 24 hours. However ALL of them are my 'children' and just as in real-life I never choose favourites.

6. How did you come up with those intricate puzzles?

Pinched all the ideas from 'real-life' incidents. All it takes is a little imagination and you can convert anything into an 'adventure-situation'. Alas, I am very lucky to have the kind of mind that can come up with 'ideas' without too much thinking... I used to dream them up as I typed them sometimes.

7. What about them weird names, settings, loading screens and stories?

They are all part of the twisted mind that I have been blessed with... that and the ability to 'bend' things to suit. Give me a 'topic' and I can generally sit down and just type out a story (complete with characters, plot, descriptions etc) and do all this as I go along. Much in the same way that I am typing out this interview. No preparation, just 'flying by the seat of my pants' as my old Dad would say.

8. Now, as Zenobi published quite a few games from a variety of authors/designers, could you give us some insight as to how this bit actually worked?

Simple... I was unable to produce enough games (personally) to meet the demand, so decided to use the services of other authors to meet the quota. I spread the word I was on the lookout for new games and they just came flooding in.

9. In retrospect, which would you say were the finest moments in/of Zenobi?

Getting the first game-review published ('The Boggit' in PCW), being awarded 'Mega-game' status in Your Sinclair and being voted 'Best Software House' (the FIRST time).

10. Why stop after the Atari ST games?

It was no longer a viable proposition to produce NEW games for either the ZX Spectrum or the Atari ST . 'Sales' were no longer high enough to warrant the financial outlay and I felt that it was stupid to keep squandering my OWN cash on a losing cause.

11. Any other platforms you developed for?

Not really, though we did produce 'emulations' of ALL the original ZX Spectrum titles to suit the Commodore Amiga, Mac, PC, Sam Coupe and QL. Not to mention every form there was of the ZX Spectrum... i.e. Plus D, +3, Tape etc.

12. Oh, and do you still play games? Any thoughts on their current state?

Nope... my real passion has always been music and these days my spare time is spent listening to that. My CD collection numbers in the 'tens' of thousands... you can believe that or not!!

13. Considering there is a strong Spectrum retro scene, a very lively interactive fiction scene and an obvious revival of the adventure genre, well, what does the future hold? More games? A book per-chance?

None of the above. I still write the odd short-tale, but they are either just for my own amusement (and end up in the desk-drawer) or else they get put on the web-site where they bore everybody to death. Though I have promised myself that one day I will bring the 'Korat' tale to its eventual conclusion... if only for my own peace of mind

14. Finally, you do still feel the Zenobi love, don't you? Mind you, feel free to add anything else you think would be vaguely appropriate and/or titillating.

The 'Zenobi Love' .. just what the f*ck is that? Zenobi Software was a part of my life, is still a part of my life and always will be a part of my life - it has nothing to do with 'love' it was (and still is) the 'driving-force' behind my existence.

It was a dark rainy night and Balrog was slumped over a plate of mince & tatties when there was a gentle 'tap' on the kitchen door. "Bloody visitors .. and at this time of night as well!" growled Balrog as he flicked the errant pea(s) back on to his plate and shuffled off in the direction of the knock. "John Wilson ?" enquired the chubby-faced gent stood in the pouring rain. "Come in Tam .." grinned the Balrog and ushered the gent, and his companion, into the warmth of the kitchen. "How do you know me?" asked the gent. "Saw your picture in PCW when you were awarded the prize for completing 'The Ket Trilogy' smiled Balrog, flicking on the switch for the kettle and reaching under the worktop for some cups. "Tea or coffee and how many sugars ??"

So it was that 'Tartan Tam' encountered the Balrog for the first time ... a true story!!"

Related @ Gnome's Lair: Peter Favaro / Alter Ego interview, Gun Mute, Text is King, Rex on the ZX Spectrum


  1. These interviews are easily some of the best digitalized text available on the web. My congratulations to you, Mr. gnome!

  2. My thank yous to you Mr. Nebachadneazzer. Glad you enjoyed what Mr. Balrog had to say...

  3. Very intriguing. I remember a Zenobi retrospective in Retro Gamer. Food for thought.

  4. What? The issue of RG?

    (canned laughter)

    Anyway. I would definitely suggest you try at least one of the Zenobi games. You'll definitely like 'em I believe...

  5. Fantastic. What a treat to get back to.

    Hats off to John as well, the Zenobi stuff was and still is inspiring.

  6. I loved this interview Mr.Gnome! It was truly inspiring and very enlightening! Mr. Balrog seems to be a lovely chap and his pioneering programming reaps rewards to all of us gamers to this day!

    I would have commented earlier but my computer was being silly.

    Top work as usual my friend!

  7. Ahh, glad you enjoyed the interview dear Robert... Can't help but agree that them Zenobi games are inspiring in a lot of ways.

    Thank you so very much oh Father. Now, if I were you'd start by spanking the computer. That should teach it.