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Interview with Chris Covell
from RetroManiac Magazine

First, please introduce yourself to our readers!

Well, I'm from Vancouver, Canada, but I've been living in Japan since 2002, as teaching English is my main job. I am, of course, crazy about retro games and love playing my old NES, Turbografx-16, Genesis, and SNES, etc games...

I was born in 1977, so I have memories from the Atari era, and a love of games from the NES and 16-bit era.

Around late high school, I got more interested in computer programming, and this gradually spilled over to wanting to learn assembly programming for the NES / C-64, and other consoles. So I've been doing retro programming since about 1998.

One of your latest projects is an amazing demo for PC-Engine, the so called Hu-Zero, a game inspired in the great Nintendo franchise F-Zero, of course! It runs smooth and colourful. We even saw some semi-transparency effects! Wait... how did you do that?

Most of these tricks come from experience with the capabilities and limitations of tile-based, sprite-handling game systems such as the NES and PC-Engine. I've learnt over time how sprites can act as a substitute for the background in some cases, or mask the background or other sprites in other cases. Also, the NES & PCE each have only one background layer, so it's important to get the most out of it by changing the scroll settings on each scanline -- this is the easiest way to get parallax and warping effects besides the "brute force" method of recalculating graphics and sending it to tile memory. Basically, on most of these tile-based consoles (as opposed to a computer with a framebuffer), you want to keep tile memory writing to a minimum, as the CPU does the most work and the PPU/VDP limits video memory access the most. So planning these effects (like transparency) in advance using palette, sprite, or background "magic" is the best way to get an improbable effect out of a limited system.

Any secret or curiosity you can share with us about the development of Hu-Zero?

Hmmm... nothing amazing, but my game contains a few secrets and Easter eggs that are waiting to be discovered.

Here's a curiosity: while I didn't compose or arrange the music in-game, I did make the opening/closing jingles. I wanted it to sound as close as possible to the SNES' sound, so I "ripped" (erhm... "approximated") a couple of samples from the SNES F-Zero (short ones, which were 32 or 64 bytes long) and could use them directly in the PCE's waveform memory. So some sounds like the trumpet in the intro, or bass in the ingame tune, are very accurate likenesses of the F-Zero samples, only missing the lowpass filter and reverb capability of the SNES. :-)

Do you think the designers and programmers pushed the Pc-Engine's limits at the time?

No, not enough over its full life. Early Japanese programmers on the PCE likely used the same development tools that they used on Famicom games, giving the graphics a blocky, flat appearance. They basically treated their PCE offerings as souped-up Famicom games. Many of Hudson's games, for example, used 8 colours per tile when the per-tile limit is 16 colours, simply because it would compress better.

Some US-developed games such as Battle Royale or Camp California had some really nice artwork, colour use, and programming skill applied to them... shame the play control and gameplay were not as refined as Japanese-produced games of the time.

NEC Avenue's games like After Burner II, Out Run, and Darius really were programming tour-de-forces, so I really respect their work.

PCE Game development got a lot more sophisticated around 1991-1992, with some really good use of programming tricks, graphics use, etc... but this was, sadly, nearing the end of the PCE's viability in the market.

Camp California

What are your favourite games on the system and why?

My favourite games include the Bonk series, Legendary Axe games, Neutopia, Super Star Soldier, Soldier Blade, Devil's Crush, Dracula X, Gate & Lords of Thunder, NEXZR... countless other shooting games on the system too.

And your favourites in other classic/retro systems?

The usual... Super Mario 1-4, Mega Man 2 & 3, Duck Tales, Journey to Silius, Batman, Ufouria, Pilotwings, F-Zero, Smartball/Jerry Boy, Picross, Gunstar Heroes, Steel Empire...

The list goes on and on for many systems!

You also have other homebrew projects listed in your web, for Pc-Engine, Master System or the NES. Tongueman's Logic seems your biggest game, indeed you worked in it around two years. How was the development of that game?

Development was fun, especially making background graphics and applying the usual scaling & colour trickery to them. Finding or making puzzles was slow and not as much fun. I wanted to find (or draw myself) recognizable graphics and icons culled from our favourite games, but the majority of them fit into the 16x16 size only. Thus, trying to find many puzzles of varying sizes took a while.

The weak point in PCE homebrew was then, and still is, the musical aspect. There are now a few musical tools for the PCE (which convert MML text data to code) but nothing as refined, user-friendly, or efficient as the trackers that you might find on other consoles, and especially home computers. I have no musical talent, so I can't simply use an existing MOD or something, and I certainly don't have the musical know-how to program up my own MOD converter or tracker. So I've had to resort to using ripped music, emulating the SID myself (!), or asking other musicians to provide songs for my projects.

Other interesting things are the Fractal Engine, the Supergrafx demo or the different colour/hi-res demos. We found them rather interesting! We like very much those things, looking at what can be achieved in old hardware, in a similar way as the demoscene back in the eighties-nineties.

Yes, especially on the NES and PCE there used to be a lot of misinformation about its technical specs. Often you used to see errors in magazines or on the Web like "The Japanese Famicom has no DPCM (sample) channel like the NES does" or "The PCE uses a 256x192 resolution for its games", ridiculous things like that... So quite a number of my demos were really just experiments with me asking "...is that really true?" The demos were easily-runnable evidence to refute such misinformation.

Seems that you can program, but that you also design your games, draw the sprites and tiles... What are the development and design programs you use for your projects?

I'm honestly not that great an artist: I can't draw the human form at all, and I have no painterly technique. However, I did start doodling on Deluxe Paint IV on the Amiga way back in 1993, and made lots of experiments with animation, gradients, shading, scaling, rotation, pixel art... I've always had a ton of fun creating things with Deluxe Paint (or Brilliance) and still use it to this day for all my NES, SMS, PCE, etc. demos.

For making useful data tables that my demos/games need, I often whip up mathematical functions in a spreadsheet (OpenOffice Calc) or use an old sine function tool (by Pan/Anthrox, wasn't it?)

Recently a guy named Touko released an image converter which allows you to remap an image to the PCE palette while optimizing its tile & map space. It's quite useful, but it still can't replace Deluxe Paint for precise palette editing & colour remapping.

What about trying to make a new 'complete' game for the system? Seems something doable or it's not something in your plans?

I haven't made any programming plans in the future, but I won't discount anything.


Ah! One section of your webpage covers old videogame magazine, books, rare things, hacking... mainly Japanese. We also like them very much. Somehow we think we have lost some of the innocence and thrill that we could find in old magazines. What has happened?

Well, the entire book & magazine industry took a large hit due to the rise of the World Wide Web; thus, this sinking tide made an advertising-dependent industry even more desperate. Also, in the past, magazines were almost the only source of (2-month-old) information on video games for us, so that exciting feeling of waiting and anticipation for the newest issue is naturally missing from our lives. But it's important to remember that this thrill we're missing is a psychological effect, not something measurable that's wrong with the modern world.

Then again, many old games had no choice but to use black outlines and primary colours for everything on-screen, so it's all brighter and cuter than anything brown- or grey-shaded that comes out these days.

Funny question: RGB or composite? ;) haha... Problem is with new TV and old systems, or that we hadn't either in the past good A/V connections and nowadays we have been aware of it?

No, I remember as a child wrestling with tuning knobs to eliminate RF interference, or having to run my games on a black & white TV sometimes. I knew it was bad even then. Naturally, the preferred order for anyone with self-respect is:
Anything on an LCD TV <<<<<<< Composite on a CRT <<< RGB on a CRT. ;-)

The comparison screenshots between different cables are really interesting, but seems that there were a lot of work doing them. How was the process? Are you also a 'tech hardware guy?'

I don't have a lot of electronics design knowledge, but I can do some circuit design and soldering, and repair, of course.

I'm also a cheapskate. While some people wouldn't mind paying more to buy an RGB capture card for their computers, I made do with a Composite/S-Vid capture box and did the R/G/B separation myself with some simple circuits. I also made those captures when I was living in northeast Japan and thus the nearest *good* computer store was an expensive (& 3-hour) bullet train ride away.

Well, we had a really nice time reading your blog and all those Japan crazy things. What about Akihabara? It deserves all that buzz around this location?

Akihabara is very cool, and it's great to get immersed in a dozen shops' worth of classic gaming culture. Some mainstream used DVD/CD shops all over Japan still sell Famicom, SFC and PCE games, which is something you'd never see in Canada / the USA anymore. This will probably also disappear in the next 5-10 years in Japan, judging by how I've seen things changing here; however, at least for now retro gaming has its niche catered to by the shops and culture in general.

Uh? That was something I was really not expecting in Japan! What's changing there?

Just as in used game shops in N. America, the generation of games that you see for sale tends now to be PS2 stuff and later. As I have lived in Japan, I've seen the "retro" shelf in various used media shops shrink from 1 whole rack... to one shelf... to a single slot in a shelf... sometimes even to the point where Famicom games are hidden in a staff drawer below the shelves. So yeah, my favourite retro generation is passing from the "mainstream" sellers' view.

What did you miss from Canada, if there is any of course?

I miss my family, friends, and the scenes of nature from around my hometown. There is natural beauty to behold in Japan, and I can get to it within 30 minutes if I want to, but still these are mere oases of greenery compared to what I could walk to within 15 minutes in North Vancouver. (Sorry for ranting!)

I also miss a lot of North American food, snacks, etc. I have to compensate by cooking my favourite dishes myself (tacos, hamburgers, perogies...) But I can certainly appreciate the healthier food culture that Japan has.

Nowadays we have a lot of retro and indie development and many studios makes 'neoretro' games. Are we missing something in the new big productions? Why are we looking so hard to our past?

Hmmm... maybe it's the industrialization of game making vs. the "auteurism" of older games? The technology in modern consoles itself requires large teams of people to keep to a high standard, yet large teams dilute the vision of a fun game.

About the indie movement. How did Japanese people consider it? Seems that doujin is moving to a more commercial point of view, with releases as La Mulana or Astebreed.

Yes, but character-based mobile phone cash-ins are swamping any foothold indie games once had. There are some really awesome indie (ignoring girl-heavy "doujin" productions for now) games on the PC but as the PC fades away for gaming, and tablets and phones assert dominance, indies will have to compete in an already crowded market.

I don't know how Japanese people view indie games as a whole, sorry. I do see a large cross-section of the Japanese public playing Bejeweled clones on their smartphones every day, though...

Wow! So mobile gaming is the way to go... Nothing compared to people playing portable consoles? Maybe only kids? Have we a distorted vision here in the West?

Diehard gamers of all ages will still play portable systems like the 3DS, etc., so we have kind of a distorted view of the market. In Japan, especially, the DS had a brief explosion of popularity with non-gamers and adults (Brain Age, English Test trainers, etc.) but then that simply went forgotten, and now adults here consider DS and 3DS games to be for kids once again, as if they have collective amnesia. Lots of kids play 3DS games, but the whole rest of the population is hooked on smartphone games.

Anyway, Japanese culture has always been extremely faddish this way...

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