Cronosoft: A Retrospective.
With the rise and popularity of next generation consoles, it seems they are taking over the world. New games are released every week and you can’t get away from the ads where you think you’re watching a film trailer and it turns out to be the latest PS4 game. How did that happen? It seems us retro game fans are being left behind when it comes to new releases. Of course, this is inevitable as technology develops and games become more complex so this is something everyone has become accustomed to. But, if like me, you think ‘I would really love some new games for my 30 year old computer! Why can’t people keep on making games? Is that too much to ask?’ - there are some people keeping this dream alive.
What do you mean, too many peripherals?! I don't see a Light Pen.
I'm sure I'm not alone when it comes to enjoying gaming old school style. Starting your tape off in the tape recorder then going off to make a cuppa, coming back to find the game still loading (bonus!). Then, whilst you sit and drink your cuppa, you marvel at the loading screen, in awe of the pictures created by genius artists for your humble Speccy/C64/Atari/CPC/MSX/BBC (delete as applicable). These were indeed the glory days of gaming and we must not let this go.
I want my, I want my, I want my CRT..TV?
Cronosoft was founded by Simon Ullyat back in the early 2000’s and with the help of Graz Richards, has become one of the leading publishers of new games for 8-bit computers. With titles such as ‘Egghead in Space’, ‘Splattr’ and the ground breaking ‘Arcade Game Designer’, they have certainly set the bar high for others to follow. What keeps the man behind the label going? What inspired him to set up the company? And just where did the name Cronosoft come from? (you may be surprised!) Stay tuned to find out.
By ‘stay tuned’ I of course mean, read below.
Paul Davies: Can I just say firstly, thank you for taking the time out to speak to us. We're very excited to have you to ourselves for a while (oo-er!) My first question to you is, when was Cronosoft established and what gave you the idea or inspired you to set up the label? I guess that was two questions...
Simon Ullyat: Back around the year 2000, I used to edit one of the last remaining fanzines dedicated to the Oric-1/Atmos magazine, but unfortunately that came to an end in 2002. I wanted to do something new with my spare time. I was aware of the D.I.Y. punk thing, where small (and sometimes large) punk/alternative bands create their own record labels and distribute their releases themselves. I figured that maybe I could do something similar by releasing new games for systems like the Spectrum and C64. After all, in the early 2000s, there wasn’t much commercial value in retro gaming, so any big business wasn't going to be interested in doing anything with some of the new games that people were writing, so I thought, just maybe I could give it a go. So, around 2002/2003, I put some feelers out on the World of Spectrum website. Luckily, Jonathan Cauldwell contacted me with a game he'd written.
PD: And what was the first game published by Cronosoft?
SU: The first title was "Egghead in Space" (sometimes known as Egghead 3), by Jonathan Cauldwell. He had two previous Egghead games featured on CRASH magazine cover mounted tapes in the late days of the Spectrum's first life, and it was a real privilege to get such a great game to start off with.
A few of the many releases by Cronosoft.
PD: How did it feel to produce the first ever game for the label? I guess it must have been really exciting.
SU: It was a great feeling to get just a single title out there, and that a few people were buying it too. Jonathan then subsequently came out with 2 more titles that he'd written back around 1994, "Dead or Alive" and "Gloop” which kept a bit of momentum going. Although the games were excellent, the look of the tapes were very amateurish in their appearance, as I knocked up the inserts quickly using an Amiga with Deluxe Paint IV, and printed them out on an inkjet printer. I'm certainly no artist, and they DID look a bit crap (see pic).
Early Cronosoft Artwork - made by the fair hands of Mr Ullyat!
PD: I need to ask you, where did the name Cronosoft come from?
SU: I think you might be the first person to ask that. A lot of people assume it's related to time, hence why many accidentally spell it as "Chronosoft", but it's a bit of a silly reason why I called it Cronosoft.
Hey! He's metal! He's allowed dress like that, ok?
You may remember a very dodgy early 1980s black metal band called Venom. Their members were called Mantas (on guitar), Abaddon (on drums) and Cronos was the singer/bass player. I just nicked the name "Cronos", as I thought it sounded cool, and probably better than Mantasoft or Abaddonsoft.
PD: Hmm yes, you’re probably right, there. Do you have a favourite release by the label?
SU: That's a difficult one, as I have certain favourites for different reasons. For technical excellence, Jonathan Cauldwell's “GAMEX” astounded me as it has many games all crammed into 48K of memory, arranged around a central overlying theme. Bob Smith's “Farmer Jack & The Hedge Monkeys” is one I hold dear too. He'd created an earlier game, “Farmer Jack in Harvest Havoc”, which is inspired by the arcade game "Mr. Do!" by Universal, and I happened to mention that I loved the Universal arcade game "Lady Bug", without any knowledge of him working on it. “Hedge Monkey” arrived in my inbox and it was an awesome version of “Lady Bug”. Other games that have really wowed me in a big way are “Splattr” (Spectrum 128K), “Glove” (Dragon 32), “Fun Park” (Spectrum 16K), “Quantum Gardening” (Spectrum 48K), “Weenies” (BBC Micro) and “Super Starship” Space Attack (Vic 20).
Those hedge monkeys look suspiciously like Hippies to me.
PD: Around how many titles would you say are released by the label each year?
SU: I’d say probably something around 4 to 6 titles. I had a few dormant years, but when I release a couple of titles, I seem to get offered a lot more for release shortly afterwards.
PD: Do you know how many games have been sold so far?
SU: I really don't know... I haven't counted. I think that we've released around 60 to 70 different titles in total. Some games might only sell 30 to 40 odd copies, but others may sell 100 to 200 copies over a long time. Not talking massive numbers here! Titles tend to sell in trickles over a very long space of time. For example, “Egghead 3” which is probably the best seller, has been on sale now for 13 years and refuses to go away.
PD: That egg certainly has a lot of staying power – he’s certainly egg-shelled himself, as Sean Connery may say…..sorry. Moving on, is there anyone else involved in the running of the label?
SU: I do most of the day to day running myself, though it's only really a few hours a week. However, I've had a massive amount of support from Graham (Graz) Richards, who produced the vast majority of the artwork for the inserts and made the games looks infinitely more presentable and professional. He's also supported in many other ways, and gave me the enthusiasm back when I had got a bit disillusioned with it. Graz has his own software house too at www.monumentmicrogames.com
PD: How would someone go about approaching you or the label in order to get their work published?
SU: Just contact me by email or Facebook - my email address is on there for all to see - once I've sifted through the adverts for Viagra and the emails from friendly Nigerians that have $1,000,000 that they want to share with me, I'll hopefully find any games they've submitted.
That does sound cool!
PD: I'm glad to hear it's not just you who's the lucky person to be chosen for a random windfall! Though I have to say those blue pills are a god send.... Did I say that out loud? Time for a change of subject - Do you have a lot of potential games sent to you?
SU: Not really, but as I hinted at, once there are a few new releases out, it prompts others to submit stuff, which is great.
PD: Have there been any games published by Cronosoft that you have written yourself?
SU: No. Definitely not! My programming skills are not the best. I'm reasonable at writing stuff in BASIC, and have messed around with compilers, but I've never been clever enough to master Z80 machine code and certainly couldn't write anything marketable.
PD: That is a shame. Do you see Cronosoft as something that will carry on for the foreseeable future? The demand still seems to be there, which is great.
SU: It goes on and off over the years. I do get disillusioned with it at times, especially when I've having problems with duplication, or getting stuff transferred across. Most games are written using emulators these days, and getting emulator images across all formats onto a working CD master, that I can produce tapes from, is sometimes a nightmare. I have, in the past, got so annoyed that I've wanted to put an end to it but then a new release, or some other encouragement makes me realise that it's worth the hassles. I'll keep going for as long as people want it.
PD: Here’s hoping the people want to keep it going for many years to come. Who are your main contributors when it comes to providing software for publication?
SU: Jonathan Cauldwell has created by far the most titles for us – indeed he is one of the most prolific authors of Spectrum games of all time. Bob Smith has also created many games too. Paul Jenkinson is our latest contributor who is the creator of “Toofy In Fan Land” and “Deepcore Raider”. I hope to release a lot more of his games in the near future, as I know there are quite a lot more to come.
It's 2005?! I'm seventeen again! *cough*
PD: Finally, who is your main inspiration when it comes to gaming?
SU: Primarily Jeff Minter, although I'm not such a big Commodore 64 fan as I am the Speccy, Jeff Minters’ whole approach is one I wholeheartedly admire. He creates great, playable games first and foremost. He has the guts to release games that are not mainstream - he released his own stuff on his own label in the early days, and was a real pioneer of the shareware concept in the days of the Atari ST and Amiga, risking his excellent "Llamatron" game as a £5 shareware project. He does what he wants to do, regardless of commercial or monetary success. And he has beasties.
PD: I do see he has a lot of sheep - this can only be a good thing! Thank you very much for your time Simon!
A detailed insight to the inner workings of Cronosoft there, and many thanks to Simon for taking the time to chat.
You want more?
Well, let me give it to you!
As Simon mentioned, a main contributor to the Cronosoft brand, and general Speccy legend, is Jonathan Cauldwell. Jonathan has been developing Speccy games since the late eighties, making his breakthrough when his game ‘Egghead’ was featured on a Crash cover tape back in the early nineties. He has gone on since to develop games for the Spectrum ever since and is still writing games for the machine today. Anyone who has picked up a Sinclair Vega will have noticed the writers’ prominence on that machine, also. I managed to catch up with Mr Cauldwell recently (and he runs quite fast, so I’m knackered now!) where we had a chat about Spectrums, games and well, all things cool.
Paul Davies: Hi Jonathan, and thank you for your giving us some of your time. Firstly, what got you interested in making and developing computer games?
Jonathan Cauldwell: I saw the sheer variety of commercial games that were being published for the Spectrum and thought that it would be fun to try and write a few games of my own. BASIC wasn't really capable of producing the results I wanted but I'd heard that commercial games were written in a mysterious language called machine code. Unfortunately, this was all hidden from the user as machine code games couldn't be listed. Unfortunately, information on how to write games in machine code was very thin on the ground. It all added to the mystique. PD: Ah, good old machine code. I have to admit, when I picked up a book on machine code when growing up, I ran away in fear! So, what was the first game you had published? JC:That was Egghead, a 40-level platformer in the Manic Miner tradition. It was written in a period of four weeks in November 1989 and published on the Crash cover tape two months later. For a first attempt at a platform game I was quite pleased with it at the time.
Byte Me. No, I'm not being rude - that's the name of the game. Honest!
PD: Do you have a favourite game out of all that you have made?
JC: Playability-wise, I usually end up hating them after I've spent so long writing them. There's no point in playing them when I know exactly how they work, where to go, what to do and how to do it. The exception is probably for the simpler games, funnily enough. So I'd have to say 'Homebrew' or 'Byte Me' as knowing the code inside out doesn't help one little bit; playing those games is purely about the player's skill and so the frustration of not being able to complete a level keeps me coming back for more. It's the one-more-go factor, I suppose. As to which game I'm most proud of, I'd probably say 'Encyclopaedia Galactica'.
PD: How did your relationship with Cronosoft start?
JC: It started in early 2003 when Simon Ullyatt posted on the World of Spectrum forums. He wanted to set up a non-profit software house to publish cassette versions of Spectrum games and was looking for developers. I had just written 'Egghead in Space' and had a couple of unpublished titles from a few years earlier so sent him those. Simon was delighted with them and they became Cronosoft's first releases.
Egghead in Space - one of Cronosoft's first releases...and it was a cracker!
PD: How much of a help have they been in getting your software out into the public domain?
JC: Cronosoft and Simon Ullyatt have been amazing, they've been providing cassette versions of new Spectrum software on a not-for-profit basis for over a decade. Anyone can download and play Spectrum games on an emulator, but Cronosoft give players the option of owning a physical tape version to play on the hardware itself. Let's face it, emulation is convenient but you just can't beat playing games on the original machines. They've also helped publicise the fact that new games are being developed for old machines. Not just the Spectrum but other machines such as the CPC, the Vic 20, the Dragon 32 and others.
PD: How did you feel when you were approached by the people behind the Vega when they asked about using your games for the original Vega? Will they also feature on the Vega+?
JC: I didn't wait for the Vega guys to contact me, as soon as I heard about the new console I got in touch with them. I submitted nineteen titles for the Vega although three didn't make it due to the PEGI rating. Apparently you can't have games which feature home brewing or gambling in a product aimed at seven-year-olds! The ones that appeared on the original Vega will be staying for the Vega+. In addition, I've submitted another tranche of games for the Vega+ so there could be over thirty of mine on the new console, along with many other new titles. I've actually had a sneak preview of the new device and the line-up of games is a good deal stronger than on the original console.
When it came to getting games on the Vega - Jonathan got in there first!
PD: That's very exciting! I know a lot of people are looking forward to receiving theirs soon so it's good to hear positive news about it. I'm certainly looking forward to it. Is there someone you'd say would be a gaming hero to you?
JC: You mean developers?
JC: I like to experiment and try unusual designs with my own games so my heroes are the developers who have innovated and done their own thing. The Stampers were great at inventing new arcade-style games in the early days but there were so many others. Nigel Alderton is best known for 'Chuckie Egg' but he also did a novel and fun little game called 'Rocket Raider'. There are many others besides - Pete Cooke, Jeff Minter. Basically anyone who did or does their own thing, doesn't follow formulae and tries out new ideas.
The Classic 'Attack of the Mutant Camels' by Jeff Winter.
PD: 'Attack of the Mutant Camels' was certainly original! And rock solid too! Jeff Minter seems to have a left an impression on many developers - he really is a gaming hero. Finally, when are we likely to see any more releases from yourself via Cronosoft? Are there any titles in the pipeline?
JC: There's a sequel to 'Gamex the Games Exchange' in the pipeline. Entitled 'Gamex - Playing Dividends', it's an improvement on the original with more games and extra features with a few surprises thrown in. I'm also working on games and tools for the forthcoming ZX Spectrum Next, hopefully including a new version of 'Arcade Game Designer'. That will take some time to complete, however. These will be free to download. I'll have to talk to Simon to see if he's interested in producing cassette or SD card releases of Next games!
PD: Many thanks again for your time Jonathan, and I look forward to seeing your future work for the Vega+ and of course on the old C15!
Well, there you are. Two gaming heroes/legends all in one place and what an interesting couple of conversations they were. It's so good to see people out there keeping the 8 bit dream alive. Jonathan is right, emulators have their place but you really can't beat the original hardware and the original game media. Having the tape in your hand is soo much better than selecting a game from a list, surely? And the fact that you can pick up new games in this format is something very special and people like this have to be applauded for their efforts. Have you had a game published by Cronosoft? Are you looking to? Please feel free to leave a comment if so or if you have anything you want to say on this subject, it will mean a lot. Also, be sure to checkout www.cronosoft.orgfree.com for all your new 8-bit game needs and to check out any new, and indeed, all releases by Cronosoft. You won't be disappointed. Now, if you need me, I'll be in the corner (cup of tea in hand) reading my cassette inlay with a nostalgic tear in my eye.