HBL Interviews: Jason Kelk.

Here we have our latest interview with Jason Kelk, Jason has developing games and demos for 8-bit home computers since his early teens. His is an active member of programming group Cosine – a loose team of developers working on platforms ranging from the 8-bit era through to current generation systems which has been around since the mid 1980s so sit back and enjoy.

HBL

Thank you for agreeing to our interview, please take a moment to tell us a little about you and the team?

Jason

We’re a group of “seasoned” developers – notice how I deftly avoid the word “old” there – who come together to do daft things with old computers and consoles. Cosine’s active roster tends to change depending on who currently has free time and a couple of members have long-term projects on the go.

HBL

Can you tell us what prompted you to get involved in Retro Game Development?

Jason

I’m not sure that I really did to be honest; I started programming in the 1980s before the hardware in question was considered retro, learning BASIC on the VIC 20 and then writing assembly language games and demos for the C64. During the 8-bit “fallow period” during the 1990s I ended up being one of the editors for Commodore Zone – one of
the fan-driven publications that took over where commercial magazines like Commodore Format left off for the C64 – which involved writing articles, reviewing games and mastering the cover disk which occasionally included my own work.

HBL

What was the first game you created?

Jason

The very first… that was written in BASIC on a unexpanded VIC 20 during the early 1980s and I can’t remember any details apart from it possibly being a text adventure and definitely crap! My first proper game – as in written in assembly language, doing more than just whizzing a few hardware sprites around and actually completed – was
Co-Axis, a horizontal scrolling shoot ’em up for the C64. I showed that around a couple of budget publishers including Alternative and Mastertronic without joy because it was around the time in the late 1980s when the publishers were becoming a little shy of single platform titles and looking to get more into re-releases.

Well, that and the game was a little “meh” as well, which probably explains one of the review copies coming back with a large shoe print on the disk!

HBL

How did you first become involved with the dev group Cosine?

Jason

I met the two founding members at a Commodore show in London; Cosine was mostly releasing demos at the time but Sonix Systems, the sub-label for music which would later produce the soundtracks for C64 games like Ninja Rabbits and Turbo Charge, was started soon after I joined and one of the other members had a game on the go around that time as well.

HBL

Can you tell us a little bit about this group and what you guys do and why the name Cosine?

Jason

Well, generally speaking we mess around with systems, find something interesting to prod at and occasionally get the resulting code finished! There’s absolutely no structure to that process and, whilst I’m usually listed as the group’s “manager”, not much actual management tends to happen; the title more refers to me looking after the website and the group’s social media presence than getting people to code stuff.

I’m not sure why the name was chosen because that happened before I joined, nobody in the group was heavily into mathematics or anything so I suspect it was picked because it sounded cool. There’s a chance that it being less than eight characters long was a factor too, some C64 groups went down that road so they could use one hardware sprite per letter in their intros and demos.

HBL

Whats the difference between Cosine and C64CD?

Jason

Cosine is the demo/game crew I’ve been a member of since the 1980s and, for want of a better word, managing since the 1990s. Anything I’m coding that’s (relatively) serious goes out under that label. C64CD is sort of like a fake label in demo scene terms and I’m the only member. It started as a response to a bash blog called Commodore 64 Crap and evolved into doing small programs for demonstration purposes. If I have a sillier project that’s usually where it ends up.

HBL

What games at the time (and now) would you say are your biggest inspirations?

Jason

I lean towards shoot ’em ups as a developer and indeed as a gamer, so there’s a huge list of titles that have inspired me over the years; Sanxion, Delta, Warhawk, Io, Armalyte, Zybex, Katakis/Denaris, Enforcer, Subterranea or Slayer on the C64 are all games I seriously got into at one point or another and wanted to create something
similar to. And there’s a far longer list including coin-ops like Gradius, Darius, Raiden, R-Type or Star Force as well, in fact that list goes on for miles!

I’m not sure there’s many recent games which area direct inspiration because the bullet-heavy mechanics behind the ones I tend to play – things like Crimson Clover World Ignition, DoDonPachi Resurrection or DariusBurst Chronicle Saviours – wouldn’t be viable on the hardware I work with.

HBL

What is the biggest challenge you face with the limitations of the hardware, particularly as you continue to expand features title-to-title? (Memory? Graphical capability? Speed?)

Jason

A bit of everything really, for example, the C64 has one of the slowest CPUs of the 8-bit era but excellent hardware sprites and character-based screen modes which are quick to update which are nice trade-offs, at least to my mind. None of these systems are perfect and they’re all a struggle to deal with in one way or another, but that’s the charm of them as well.

HBL

Do you have timelines built into the management of these games?

Jason

There are quite a few people who’d question the use of the word “management” in that sentence well before hurting themselves laughing over the idea that we have timelines. We basically just release things when they’re ready, with family, day jobs, other projects and random squirrels in the garden taking attention away from them along the way.

HBL

Are you doing all the development independantly?

Jason

I do my own graphics most of the time but drag one of the musicians in kicking and screaming when there’s enough there to give them an idea of what I want. Everyone else works in pretty much the same way really, doing whatever they’re able to and pairing up with other members or talking to someone outside the group who knows the target
system to cover the remaining bases.

HBL

Which is the most downloaded game you have created?

Jason

We don’t actually run any logging for the website and most of the games are available from multiple sources as well like the CSDb, Plus/4 World, Fandal or Gamebase 64 so there’s absolutely no way to tell.

HBL

Where can people get physical copies of your games?

Jason

Cronosoft still have a couple of Cosine titles in the catalogue – of mine I think it’s just Cyberwing for the C64 – but that’s it right now. It’s never been a major thing for me though, I tend to release all the games as a free download and nothing I’ve ever put out has remained exclusive to physical media for more than a couple of months.

That’s partly because I’m really not keen on the idea of a game only being on cartridge, tape or disk because there’s always a risk that it might become “lost” over time; I can think of a couple of games where this looks to have happened because the people behind them walked away and nobody else had their work backed up to an image – that gets even more concerning if the programs are stored on what is essentially new old stock magnetic media.

HBL

Any thoughts about doing games on other systems? (Atari ST and so on)

Jason

I’m not particularly interested in 16-bit systems myself, the closest I’ve got so far is writing code for the SuperCPU – essentially a C64 with a 65816 and up to 16Mb of RAM strapped to it – but that was more for processing speed than taking advantage of the processor’s extra features. Cosine as a group have released code for the Amiga
previously though, and Sean Connolly’s EMS music driver was ported for that and to the Atari ST.

HBL

Do you have any games that are just sitting on your drives unfinished that you may release one day?

Jason

Oh dear Rassilon yes, there’s quite a few projects spread out amongst the various Cosine coders that are currently on the back burner or didn’t really get rolling to begin with and I’m one of the worst offenders on that front! There’s never been a proper tally but I suspect that for every project that gets finished we’ve probably got two or three more that are on hold in some form.

HBL

Which one of your early years games are you the proudest of and why?

Jason

Well, it’s incredibly messy internally, but I’d have to say Co-Axis; the aim was to write a scrolling shoot ’em up and, with a few concessions to allow for my novice programming and graphics skills at the time, that goal was achieved. Sure, it could’ve been met far better but getting a reasonably substantial project finished was an important milestone.

HBL

Which game caused you the most headaches?

Jason

That has to be Hammer Down because it’s almost painfully tight on memory – nearly 63K is in use for a debug build – and has a few tricks up its sleeve to occasionally use more than 100% of the available processing time by basically letting code for the current frame steal cycles from the next then playing catch up over subsequent frames. That made it an utter nightmare to debug though, because some of the issues we found tended to be cumulative; on their own there wasn’t a problem, but in bulk it would push the entire system until it “tilted” and dropped a frame as it recovered.

At one point near the end of development I put in a tiny cosmetic feature that added a sparkling effect to the water. The new code was tiny but took just enough time away from the game’s main loop to screw that overload mitigation completely, so once it started hiccupping it couldn’t stop. It wasn’t frequent but there was no way it was going
out with a known issue like that, so the sparkle routine didn’t make it to the final build…

HBL

Are you surprised with the resurgence in retro gaming?

Jason

Yes and no, it’s always been on the cards because everything “retro” comes back around sooner or later – look at vinyl for example – but I was quite surprised at the mainstream popularity of the various “mini” systems released recently. A lot of that is going to be the names behind the hardware and the quality of the games they can include of course, but that uptake still impressed me.

HBL

Who in the industry from the early days and now do you most admire and why?

Jason

I admire anyone who can perform minor miracles on their system of choice, so from the olde days that includes folks like Manfred Trenz, Bob Stevenson or Andrew Braybrook on the C64, Bob Pape for the Spectrum, Adam Billyard on the Atari 8-bit, folks like that really.

From more recent times, people like Chris Hutt (Atari 8-bit), Chester Kollschen (C64), Paul Kooistra (Amstrad CPC), Lasse Öörni (C64) Georg Rottensteiner or Trevor Storey (C64)… and I know there are loads more on top of that who I’ve forgotten.

There’s also a special category for people who produce the kind of surreal games I just can’t get my head around as a designer but enjoy playing like Jeff Minter, Mel Croucher or Jonathan Cauldwell.

HBL

Edge Grinder is a great looking game, how did you come up with the idea?

Jason

Originally it was written in a machine code monitor as a rather protracted and slightly masochistic swipe and someone on the internet! The final game was forced kicking and screaming into an assembler and, thanks to James at RGCD who wanted it on cartridge, Trevor Storey came on board to handle the graphics. The intention was always to keep it
short as a score-based, time attack shooter so it could go out on a 16K cartridge, but there are loads of RAM free after it decompresses and my source code has always been available to download if anyone fancied building something larger around what’s already there.

HBL

How did your connection with RGCD come about?

Jason

RGCD originally started out reviewing new homebrew games and one of James’ inspirations was apparently my website Oldschool Gaming which was one of the first into that field covering a range of platforms rather than focusing on one machine. He approached me about writing some reviews and that seemed like a fun thing to do, so things have just continued from there really.

When RGCD branched out into publishing, the first cartridges they were working with could only handle 8K or 16K of ROM so he asked to use some of my smaller games like Block Frenzy, Kikstart C16 and Invasive Action which could be persuaded to fit into that space.

HBL

You write for Retro Gamer Magazine, how did you get started doing this?

Jason

I was already running Oldschool Gaming at the time and rather cheekily sent Darran a private message on the RG forum offering my services after he mentioned there was going to be a change of writer. I didn’t expect him to accept but apparently had picked just the right moment and I’ve been a regular fixture in every issue since 51 bar one. Suddenly I feel old…?

HBL

Over the years you have reviewed many homebrew titles, what would you say are the best 10 games you have ever played that would be classed as homebrew?

Jason

Oh wow, that’s an incredibly difficult question… ten off the top of my head in alphabetical rather than any other order would be…

Chibi Akumas (Amstrad CPC)
Mayhem In Monsterland (C64)
Mission: Liftoff (Thomson TO8)
More Tea, Vicar? (Spectrum)
Omega Blast (Mega Drive)
R-Type 128 (Amstrad CPC)
Ridiculous Reality (Atari 8-bit)
Sam’s Journey (C64)
Space Harrier (Atari 8-bit)
Steel Ranger (C64)

…but ask me next week and at least some of those will have changed.

HBL

Recently you have focused on the Demo scene, why is this?

Jason

I’ve always been involved with the demo scene since I joined Cosine during the 1980s and tend to cycle back and forth between the two quite regularly. They’re very different disciplines and offer unique challenges; demos are all about trying to find ways to either do the impossible or at least fool people into believing that’s what’s happening – if that takes most of the memory to do a seemingly simple scrolling message then so be it – whilst games are more about writing robust code that’s not going to break or get in the way of the gameplay.

At the moment I’m focusing on the CSDb Intro Creation Competition which limits entries to 16K, getting something interesting going in that memory footprint is challenging especially if you start coming up with ways to make things harder on yourself! One of the intros I’ve just released is essentially “invisible”, running entirely from the cassette buffer and screen RAM to leave the memory where program code, graphics or music would usually be stored completely free and getting that working was challenging in a fun way.

HBL

Any new games in the works you could tell us about?

Jason

Well, I’ve just released a little C64 shoot ’em up called Super Hyperzap that’s been sitting around in my work folders since last May. I have a couple of other less serious titles almost ready to go out as well, although they need further work and I’ve got a few other commitments including at least one more entry for the Intro Creation Competition that could get in the way right now.

Finally

A huge thanks to Jason for taking the time to chat to us, I really appreciate you taking the time for this and I hope you all enjoyed this edition of HBL Interviews. You can continue to support us in what we do by following us on Social media or joining our forums on RVG.

You can follow Jason on Twitter or on his Blog

You can see all Cosine games and demo’s HERE

All C64CD related stuff HERE

 

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