The Making Of: Miner 2049er
He recalls working at a Radio Shack in Reseda, California, which received one of the first TRS-80 computers. “Between serving customers, I learned how to program in BASIC and machine code,” he begins.
“One night, the store’s alarm system went off, due to a loose wire, and they called me in to wait for the alarm company to repair it. The police were also called, and they had guns drawn on me while I was playing on the computer, waiting for the alarm company.”
From Bill’s initial dabbling in programming while working at Radio Shack, Big Five Software was born, initially releasing acclaimed games for the TRS-80. When Bill had tired of the restrictions of the Tandy machine, it was the Atari 400/800 that beckoned, predominantly because of its graphics and sound capabilities.
Bill’s first creation on Atari’s then cutting-edge hardware became a classic of its era, and, in hindsight, something of a genre-defining game. Although David Crane’s Pitfall! is typically cited as the first home-console platform game, Miner 2049er is one of the earliest examples akin to subsequent platform games in any meaningful sense (such as Chuckie Egg and Manic Miner, through to the likes of Impossible Mission and beyond).
Unlike many of its contemporaries though, Miner 2049er doesn’t solely task the player with collecting items and avoiding nasties on each of its ten levels – Bounty Bob has to walk over every piece of ground to complete a level.
The conceit – added after much of the gameplay was completed – is that Bob is on a mission to inspect every inch of each of the mines, in search of the malevolent Yukon Yohan. However, rather than adding this element to increase the game’s challenge, Bill reckons it was “more to do with Pac-Man than anything else”, although he adds, “I was never very good at Pac-Man, so I’m not sure why I borrowed any elements from the game.”
Elsewhere, it’s clear that gameplay elements from other arcade games seeped into the mix, although, as Bill explains, at the time this was nothing new for him: “All of my early TRS-80 games were very similar to the arcade games that Jeff Konyu [Big Five Software’s TRS-80 graphic artist] and I used to pump quarters into at our various hangouts. Miner 2049er was the result of wanting to blend together fun elements from many different arcade games we loved to play.”
Bill notes that there are ideas in the game somewhat based on Donkey Kong – “especially the climbing aspect” – and that Pac-Man’s influence extended past exploring every piece of each level: in Pac-Man, ghosts become vulnerable after a power pill is consumed. Similarly, Miner 2049er enables Bob to dispose of the otherwise deadly radioactive mutants roaming around each level, after grabbing one of the various items found in the mine (presumably left behind by careless or very dead past miners).
Like many games at the time, Miner 2049er was put together quickly. “I believe we had the gameplay sorted first, and then worked later to figure out what it was we had invented”, laughs Bill. “We decided that perhaps our hero was stuck in a mine and – for reasons I cannot remember – he was a member of the Mounties in Canada. Actually, I wonder if that had something to do with a bar at the Disneyland Hotel that Jeff and I used to frequent – it had a definite Canadian wilderness feel to it…”
Keen to create something unique for home consoles, Bill also took another cue from Donkey Kong, adding exclusive features to each level. In contrast to many other platform games of that era, where you pretty much see everything the game has to offer features-wise in the first couple of screens, Miner 2049er introduces slides, transporters, lifts, deadly ‘pulverisers’ and, in Level 10, a chunky cannon, which, via the use of TNT, fires Bob into the air, so he can reach higher platforms.
“I did try to space out the ‘special equipment’, so that each level would be a new and different challenge”, explains Bill. “If you just look at the first level, you have no idea that there are slides, transporters, lifts, and even a cannon that you will have to contend with later.
Each item was programmed separately, too, so that each screen has its own special look and feel.” Of course, many of these elements make an already tough game even tougher, but Bill is unrepentant about Miner 2049er’s sometimes-extreme difficulty.
“At least you don’t have to keep a stack of coins on the monitor, to assure your place in line for the next game, like Jeff and I used to do in the arcade,” he jokes, noting that for particularly frustrated parties there is a built-in ‘cheat code’ phone number that lets you start at any level. “We actually included that as a printed instruction sheet in later releases”, he adds.
Perhaps surprisingly, Bill notes that he doesn’t find the game any easier himself, claiming that he’s “always been terrible” at the games he’s created.
Luckily, Miner 2049er’s challenge from a technical perspective didn’t stump him, despite it being his first colour game, and nor did he feel limited by the hardware. “I don’t think the Atari limited me in any way,” he confirms. “Remember that I was a ‘black-and-white game without sound’ kind of guy, coming from the TRS-80 world, and so the Atari opened up a lot of possibilities.”
Bill ran with both graphics and sound, turning Miner 2049er into an extremely colourful experience, infusing Bob with plenty of character. “Well, Miner was my first colour game and so I think I wanted to make use of every last coloured pixel I could find,” recalls Bill.
“The high-score screen, where the multicoloured ‘fives’ are doing a chaser-border dance around the screen, is probably the best example of my overuse of colour. It took a lot of effort to use display-list interrupts to dynamically change the colour between scan lines to achieve so many different colours on the screen at the same time.”
As for Bob, he’s made up from three Atari players – a blue one for the clothing, an orange one for the flesh tones, and a white one for arms and legs.
Various tricks are then used for other graphical effects, as Bill explains: “When Bob explodes, the size registers are being rapidly changed from ‘X1’ to ‘X2’ to ‘X4’; and the glow effect of the radioactive creatures is created by cycling the colour registers from dark to light and back again.” From a musical standpoint, Bill is less happy with his work: “I really hate the music – not the sound choice, but the implementation. Music wasn’t my thing, and I really struggled to get the music to be even halfway decent. For the sequel, Bounty Bob Strikes Back, I made the smart choice and had another programmer do the music.”
Despite the niggle factor of Miner 2049er’s audio, Bill clearly loves the game, and in something of a two-finger salute (well, one finger – Bill is American, after all) to the draconian policy followed by much of the gaming industry regarding downloading old games, he made Miner 2049er freely available via the internet.
However, rather than just releasing the original game’s ROM, he created a standalone Miner 2049er/Bounty Bob Strikes Back emulator for Windows. “I made the emulator because some of the general-purpose emulators I’d seen required you to spend time looking for Atari ROMs,” explains Bill.
“There were also issues that annoyed me, such as flickering colours – I’d spent so much time back in the Eighties tweaking those colour registers to achieve perfection and I wanted to see the game that way again.” To ensure the output was faithful, Bill had to emulate each of the Atari’s features he’d used in the game.
Handily, none of the Atari’s ROM functions were used originally, and so the emulator doesn’t need an Atari ROM. However, the code had to include the amount of time things would have taken on a real Atari, so all of the original game’s timing tricks would work. “The hardest part was probably finding all of the old Atari technical manuals and re-learning all the nuances of the Atari custom chips,” says Bill. “Even some of the copy protection stumped me for a while – in the Eighties, I coded things ‘cryptically’, in an attempt to confuse anyone disassembling the program. Ironically, I turned out to be one of those people.”
Bill also got the chance to revisit his classic game when Magmic came calling, wanting to update the game for the mobile market (see ‘Mobile Miner’). Believing the game to be a worthy prospect – due to its simple, addictive gameplay – Magmic wanted the ‘classic’ version of Miner 2049er to be as close to Bill’s original as possible on a mobile phone. “They did a fantastic job – it’s beyond cool to see the classic Miner 2049er game on a cell phone,” enthuses Bill. “Magmic has also discussed taking Miner 2049er on to ‘future platforms’, and I’d love to see that happen – I think it would be fun to see Miner 2049er’s various pieces of special equipment reimagined in a 3D universe.”
For the moment though, Bill has his sights set on other things. Now working at Technicolor, writing real-time code that controls film printers, he regularly travels around the world to the company’s various labs. “I’ve been to Rome so many times now, I feel comfortable driving without maps,” he reveals.
Neither does he have anything to do with the games industry any more, although he does note that he’s still sort of in the entertainment business. That said, although gaming is firmly in Bill’s past, he still thinks fondly about his games, and especially Miner 2049er.
“I have received so many wonderful letters from people who have told me that my games were a major influence on how they got into the computing business – and that really is an honour. I’ve also had people write to me to say that their kids are now playing Miner 2049er, which is similarly remarkable,” says Bill. “Equally amazing are the prices that some of my cartridges fetch on eBay – Bounty Bob Strikes Back for the 5200 seems to be the most rare of all. I should have made and kept a lot more of those.”
Bill’s best Miner 2049er memory of all though, involves the time when graphic artist Curtis Mikolyski and he were invited to go to New York to receive an award. “I remember how we both had tuxedos on and went to some fancy party afterwards – it was the kind of evening you imagine the winners at the Oscars having,” he recalls. “Later that night, we showed up at the airport for the trip home, only to find out the flight was cancelled and that we had to spend five hours in an airport – still wearing our tuxedos.”