The Making Of… Bounder
Chris Shrigley, Andrew Green and Robert Toone were hanging out in a local park, playing tennis. The trio of friends had already experienced minor success in the games industry working separately, and were plotting to team up on a title. “By this point, Rob had moved into the games design side of things, and Andy and I were all over the programming,” recalls Chris.
Sprawled out under a tree, the friends started chatting about their latest favourite game, Capcom’s Exed Exes – a top-down shooter with parallax scrolling. “I’d been playing around with scrolling techniques on the C64, trying to emulate the arcade game’s parallax scroll, and I’d pretty much figured it out,” says Chris. “We started throwing around ideas about how to use it, and I suggested a tennis ball rolling around an Exed Exes environment, but with gameplay similar to Marble Madness. After much discussion, we ended up with a bouncing tennis ball, and a top-down view with platforms to bounce around on – pretty much how the final game ended up.”
As anyone who’s played Bounder will know, the arcade influence is clear: the game is slick and polished high-concept gaming – and hard as nails. “We were all avid arcade game players, and the nature of the games we were playing constantly prodded us and reminded us of our desire to emulate them,” considers Chris.
However, unlike many of its contemporaries, Bounder became a very different game to the arcade titles that influenced it. Although the forced vertical scrolling and parallax graphical effect of Exed Exes remained, all that Marble Madness brought to the table was a spherical protagonist and a penchant for devious level design. Rather than rolling around levels, Bounder’s ball continually bounces, tasking you with getting to the next safe platform while avoiding monsters and traps, and trying to locate boost pads to cross huge canyons. Think of a platform game flipped 90 degrees, with a hint of hopscotch – or a vertically scrolling Trailblazer, but with more complex level design and myriad psychotic enemies out for your blood – and you’re halfway there. “Ultimately, the game ended up being completely original,” argues Chris. “I can’t think of any other game that it’s like.”
Although the idea for Bounder formed rapidly, its creation was prolonged. The team spent the entire summer and most of the following year fashioning the game, although this was partly down to the programming methods the team used. “Every last bit of code was written in machine code, using a program called Zoom Monitor. Everything was mnemonics and hex. There was no symbolic or portable code whatsoever, and no compiling – we just typed it in, saved the memory to floppy disc, and ran it,” says Chris, referring to that period as ‘the good times’. “We’d leave a number of NOPs around each section of code or function, so we could extend or add to it using a JMP to the extra code. The code got a bit unmanageable towards the end, which made it difficult to find some of the more obscure crash bugs we had. It was a crazy, primitive way to write a big game like Bounder, but those were the tools we had.”
Despite these tricky, early programming sessions making Bounder’s gestation a difficult process, Chris has fond memories of programming the Commodore 64. “It was a lovely machine to programme, and at the time, everything I did on it was a breakthrough – or at least it was to me,” he says. “I remember the first time I switched out the ROMs and got access to all the extra, lovely RAM hiding underneath, or put sprites in the borders, or wrote my first sprite multiplexor.” Of all the machines he’s worked on, Chris reckons the C64 was the one he became most intimate with, and he misses those days: “With the sheer size and scope of what today’s hardware can do, and rapid turnarounds, it’s increasingly difficult to get that level of comfort. I think that’s why older machines are so cool – very raw and base, with lots of registers to poke stuff into, and lots of tricks needed to get the most out of them.”
With Bounder, it’s the scroller that Chris remains proudest of: “The technique I came up with eventually involved scrolling the parallax character data (in memory) the opposite way to the direction of the scroll. If you scrolled the data at the same speed as the scroll, the parallax characters essentially stood still, while the unaffected characters seemed to slide across them. Changing the relative speeds produced different parallax effects.” Chris recalls that when he first achieved his desired effect, he thought it was stunning, and when Rob and Andy first saw it, they were blown away. “We called it ‘scrollyvision’, which was wonderfully quaint,” laughs Chris, noting that his game might well have been the first on the platform to offer parallax scrolling.
With the game’s foundations dealt with and the main graphical effect working, the team set about creating and populating Bounder’s many levels. Chris unashamedly notes that the trio mostly made things up as they went along. “We had that basic premise of the tennis ball bouncing up and down and the scroller, and then Rob, who was a big cartoon fan, wanted to get a cartoony feel into the game,” remembers Chris, hence the ball falling into the distance and exploding in a smoke ring upon hitting the ground – a homage to the Road Runner cartoons.
Levels were designed on squared paper, with Rob marking each square with a number that corresponded to a block of two-by-two characters. “We typed everything in by hand, in hex,” laughs Chris at the primitive development environment he once endured, although he notes that he did eventually write a nifty character and sprite editor that “saved our sanity, especially with animations”.
Once the basics were done, enemies were added “à la carte”, in Chris’s words. “We’d come up with a bright idea and just code it up, and the game’s other elements – like the traps – were designed in the same way. It was a very organic thing.” One aspect of Bounder Chris isn’t willing to take the credit (or blame) for, though, is the game’s toughness, which caused even hardened gamers to smash the odd joystick to pieces. “Rob’s the guilty one when it comes to the levels, so blame him for any pain and suffering you experienced playing Bounder,” suggests Chris, although he admits he created a couple of the levels, which can be spotted from his initials being embedded within them. “Some of Bounder’s levels are ridiculously difficult, particularly the last one which I think Rob designed to be impossible,” he admits. “The game is very unforgiving, and it’s just luck picking the good bonus tiles.”
Bounder is also mean with restart points after your ball has plummeted to its untimely doom – you’re often dumped on a tile where the only exits are ‘death’, ‘death’ and ‘more death’. “The restart points are pretty dumb,” concedes Chris. “The code just scans the visible map and finds a random ‘safe’ tile to drop you on, but sometimes that isn’t necessarily the safest of places!” Chris notes, though, that although the game is way too hard, many games back then were really tough, and game design theory was primitive. And with the team’s interest in arcade games designed to relieve you of as much money as possible, difficult gameplay inevitably sneaked through.
In order to avoid gamers cracking entirely, the team threw a last-minute lifeline their way by way of Bounder’s bonus game. It tasks you with bouncing on a number of scattered question-mark tiles using the least number of jumps possible, in order to amass huge bonus points and extra lives. “There wasn’t much thought behind it, to be honest,” admits Chris. “I coded it in a couple of days, because we thought something was needed at the end of each level to break the gameplay up a bit.” Originally, the team wanted end-of-level bosses, like in vertical shooters of the day, but the jumping game won out, due to it utilising elements already written. “I think we all would have liked it to have been a little more compelling,” laughs Chris.
With the game complete, the trio’s lives rapidly took a turn for the surreal. The game was sent to just one company – Gremlin Graphics – who within a fortnight asked the lads to visit Sheffield. Thrilled, they met Gremlin founder Ian Stewart just before Christmas 1985, during a bitterly cold, snowy winter – but got a present they’d always dreamed of. “He said Gremlin wanted to publish Bounder and, to our surprise, offered us all in-house jobs,” remembers Chris. “We were blown away – this was way beyond anything we ever expected.” And so in January, the three started commuting to Sheffield by train, mingling with the likes of Tony Crowther, Ben Daglish, Pete Harrap and Jason Perkins.
But the good fortune didn’t end there. Zzap!64 gleefully pinned a Gold Medal on the daredevil tennis ball in its tenth issue, calling Bounder “an absorbing, demanding and totally innovative approach to the ageing platform formula,” a review that undoubtedly spurred on the game’s strong sales. “We were living a dream,” says Chris. “We’d have been happy had the game done nothing, because we were working for Gremlin and earning a wage making games. But the positive reception Bounder got was icing on a very delicious cake.”
For Chris, who now has a lengthy track record in the industry, Bounder remains a highlight. “Writing the game was a fantastic experience, and is all mixed up with some of the best times in my youth,” he says. “The summer we worked on Bounder was a blast, full of videogames and breakdancing. The Eighties were in full swing, and the world was in the grasp of the Cold War, but all we cared about was having a good time and writing games.” Chris remembers how he and his friends talked constantly about Bounder, fantasised about getting it published, and naively dreamed about becoming industry ‘stars’. “The game took many, many hours of hard work and lots and lots of beer to complete, but when we finally put the disk in the jiffy bag and mailed it to Gremlin, it was an amazing feeling – one I’ve never had since, I might add,” says Chris, drawing the interview to a close. “Working as part of a small, enthusiastic team, on your own stuff, and being able to make design and implementation decisions at the drop of a hat, is the best thing in the world… Well, apart from cake.”