Gremlin in the Works
CRASH, July 1985
ROGER KEAN hurtles
up the A68 to visit GREMLIN GRAPHICS in Sheffield
sitting at home one evening last summer, watching the evening
news and with computer games far from my mind, the peace was
shattered when this platform game suddenly appeared on the
screen. Startled with injured surprise that some upstart new
company should dare to feature a new game on telly before
letting CRASH know, all I caught of the item was that it had
something to do with Arthur Scargill, flying pickets and a
mole. It seemed trendily topical - another cheap bunch jumping
on the games bandwagon with a rip-off idea timed to catch
the miners' strike? The company's name was Gremlin Graphics.
In the event CRASH wasn't missed out. We got an early Spectrum
version doctored so we would could visit an room in case none
of us were able to withstand the flying pickets or the infamous
crushers, and thus we were introduced to the delights of Wanted:
Monty Mole, and became acquainted with Gremlin Graphics,
the company that won the 1984 CRASH Readers Award for the
best platform game - far from a rip-off. That was in July.
Gremlin Graphics has now been going for a year and it seemed
time to visit Sheffield and find out how things were going.
HOW TO GET A GREMLIN GOING
Alpha House, Carver Street is a gaunt Victorian office block
that might once have been fashionable but now lies virtually,
though tidily, empty. The Gremlins refer to it as 'the prison',
an impression reinforced by the long, narrow corridors painted
in institution maroon and cream. Gremlin Graphics has two
rooms which for some obscure reason are situated high up in
the building and quite some way from the ancient lift which
no-one seems to use. When I spoke to Ian Stewart, Sales and
Marketing Director, about the visit he told me to stop outside
a shop called Just Micro. This turned out to be a thriving
and very busy computer shop which is owned by Ian and his
partner Kevin Norburn, the Financial Director of Gremlin Graphics.
A phone link between the shop and the office, soon brought
Ian down to greet me and drag me away from the beeping, squawking
screens that lined three walls of the shop's interior.
The corridors of Alpha House may have been prison-like, But
once through the door and into Gremlinland, a different atmosphere
pervaded. Of the two rooms, one is a general office, and the
other, larger, room is equipped with desks, computers and
screens for the in-house programming team. The programmers
had gathered specially for my visit (more to give a third-degree
on CRASH reviews than in my honour I suspected - the usual
reason programmers want to talk to magazine people), and were
busy falling over the ubiquitous C5, which seems to have taken
over from the Porsche as a software house vehicle. I never
did ask what it was doing up there on the third floor.
Before founding Gremlin Graphics Ian Stewart had already
accumulated 12 years retailing experience culminating in a
group managership for Laskys, but the itch to work for himself
proved too strong and he joined forces with Kevin Norburn
to open a computer shop. 'When Kevin and myself had opened
Just Micro, we always said as soon as the shop got rolling
and we found the time and the necessary programmers, that
we would like to have our own software house.'
The shop did get rolling and the first necessary programmers
transpired in the form of Peter Harrap and Tony Crowther.
Ian and Kevin were well aware from the start that they would
have to put together a professional team to get safely off
the ground. Tony Crowther, already well known for his Commodore
programs, Son of Blagger and Killerwatt, was
made a company director and went on to write Potty Pigeon
and Suicide Express for Gremlin before differences
on the board led to his leaving the company.
Looking around to ensure good distribution, Ian reckoned
Geoff Brown of US Gold, who had just started Centresoft distributors
was going to be a power and invited him to become managing
director. But it was with young Pete Harrap that Gremlin really
GOLD COAL DIGGERS
'Peter Harrap first came to us with a complaint,' Ian recalls,
'which was that his Currah Microspeech had blown his Spectrum
up.' At the time Pete was at university. He was into hacking
and programming to some degree and had written a program that
allowed you to redesign and rebuild the city in Quicksilva's
Ant Attack. He sent it to them, but Quicksilva declined
to use it. Over the protracted matter of Currah getting the
damaged Spectrum repaired, Pete visited Just Micro a lot.
As Ian says, 'We got to know him quite well, and although
I think he got aggravated on a number of times, we made a
friend more than anything else. We said to him, 'well you're
into programming, why don't you spend a bit more time on it
and develop a game? So we got talking and I came up with the
idea of a mole, and we decided it would be a platform game.
Pete's father is a mine training officer, so we decided to
use that and put the game underground - a mole can go above
or below ground, which adds variety. As he was writing it
the miners' strike developed, so we introduced different criteria
into the program to tie in with the strike like the flying
pickets and the effigy of Arthur Scargill.'
It was the caricature of Scargill that gave Ian a hook upon
which to hang his launch. Eight radio stations, national newspapers
and national television news gave the game coverage. 'It was
a useful boost, but it was a lot of hard work, it didn't just
happen - wheels within wheels to see the program got the exposure
it did. Really, from that point we've grown to the stage we're
With so many software houses finding themselves in a dodgy
condition lately, I asked Ian what he felt about Gremlin's
position in the market after one year.
'I see it as being very healthy. As far as other software
houses are concerned, their approach must be to be very careful
about who they deal with and make sure their advertising expenditure
is reasonable but not too low-key. They will also have to
be careful about the quantity of games released through the
year, with the fear of damaging the sales of one product up
against another. I don't mind marketing my product against
someone else's, but not against my own. It's a waste of advertising
for one, and obviously the programmers don't get the rewards
they should do from the sales their programs achieve.'
Ian reckons the business has got much tougher over the past
twelve months and that it is no longer easy for people to
set up a software house and make a success of it. 'If we were
starting this July instead of last July, it would be a totally
different story. We came in at the right time with the right
product and the right marketing and it worked for us. Now
you have to have a track record, and the way you go about
presenting games to a distributor has got to be professional.
The way you market the product has got to be sensible and
you must have your programs ready well in advance. I think
we're hitting a happy situation at the moment where we're
able to backlog software so we can release it when we want,
but we propose to keep releasing right through the summer
to keep the name in the forefront. I would like to think that
Gremlin will be one of the top five software houses by the
end of the year.'
On the Spectrum there are several planned releases kicking
off with Beaver Bob (In Dam Trouble), followed by Grumpy
Gumphrey - Supersleuth and Metabolis, and then
onto October and the pre-Christmas release of Monty on
the Run. In addition there are releases planned for the
Commodore 64, some conversions and some originals, as well
as games for the C16 and Amstrad. All of which must be keeping
Gremlin Graphics very busy, and it seems that Ian is thumbing
his nose at the traditional summer slump.
'Obviously the sales figures that you achieve over Christmas
are double those you achieve for the other times of the year,
but I think keeping the market buoyant for the rest of the
year is very important. I don't mind getting lower sales through
the summer - it keeps the Gremlin name prominent; and it keeps
the programmers busy - it's important for them to be able
to work twelve months of the year rather than six and it's
important for us to have revenue coming in for twelve months
of the year rather than six! I would hate to think I was holding
product back just for Christmas.'
Looking at 'the prison' there is obviously plenty of room
to expand, should they wish to. At present Gremlin employs
four full-time in-house Z80 programmers all writing for the
Spectrum, Pete Harrap,
and Christian Urquhart.
A company called Micro Projects consisting of three programmers
write Gremlin's Commodore games and conversions, and Ian is
investigating other talent. 'I would like to see our in-house
personnel double this year, to a maximum of ten, so that we
have at least one programmer who is competent on one of the
major machines, by which I mean Spectrum, Commodore, Amstrad
and Atari. That means we are on the look out for more programmers
and more product.'
Although the in-house team are employed full time, few of
them work consistently at the offices, preferring to spend
some time there but more at home working. 'Programmers tend
to work rather unsocial hours and as the time required might
mean them working all day and then into the small hours they
find it easier to work in the comfort of their own homes.
But they do come into the office at least once a week.'
With this sort of working flexibility, I wondered whether
there was any sense of 'team spirit'.
'Oh yes,' Ian replied instantly, 'each programmer will discuss
each other's work and they'll discuss various routines that
they're using. the gameplay elements within the game and various
graphics - Peter Harrap does a number of the graphics for
other people. He has a bent towards designing graphics and
he's very quick. The bulk of the ideas for games come from
the Gremlin office', Ian continued, 'we have brain bashing
sessions, sit down and discuss the types of program we would
like to put out - I'm the culprit as far as the characters
go. What tends to happen is that general ideas are thrown
about and then the programmer goes away and draws up a plan
of the way the program could work. Then we discuss that again
before the programming starts, so we end up with a sort of
storyboard. It works very well. because you can identify the
areas that you could make within the program or the improvements
you can make before it actually gets started. There's nothing
worse. and it has happened to us, to be halfway through a
program and find that it's not going to work. If you had sat
down and spent a little more time at the outset you would
have identified all the problems and saved a lot more time.
I refuse to continue with something that I may not be happy
with at the end.'
Before moving into the programming room to have a look at
the new games coming along, I asked Ian, thinking of Monty
on the Run, whether he thought platform games were a played
out genre. 'Oh no. definitely not. Hopefully with Monty
on the Run you'll see a different element enter platform
gameplay. We have introduced some further exciting elements
which I think the public will like. We see it as a great improvement
on Wanted: Monty Mole and I think it will get a bigger
Is he irritated when other companies try to jump on the success
bandwagon of Monty Mole, or, as Software Projects has
suggested, that platform games like Monty Mole are
jumping on the success bandwagon of Jet Set Willy and
'Artic's Mutant Monty was a direct hype of a number
of games. We didn't feel inclined to do anything about the
fact that they had used 'Monty' and were obviously hyping
off the success of Monty Mole. As to Manic Miner
and Jet Set Willy, Miner 2049er was the first,
and as to whether the people that originated that program
feel the same as Software Projects, I don't know. I see no
reason to diminish our own glory when they've had such a nice
success with both programs, and they are both very good programs.
Perhaps it's a case of being a little bit jealous, I don't
know, maybe Monty Mole's better.'
One thing for certain is that Monty on the Run is
very much better than Wanted: Monty Mole. The mean
elements of the first game have been made even meaner in the
second. As Ian comments, 'That is Pete Harrap's sheer bloody-mindedness.
If people thought the first Monty was bloody-minded,
they'd better look at the next one! He's done some very funny
things on it.'
Chris is the baby of the team at 18 (19 in December),
but of the team he has the longest list of credits to
his name. He wrote his first game at 16. It was called
Gremlins and no one wanted it. Computers first
cropped up on the second year computer course at school,
but failed to catch his interest. Then in the third
year he joined a computer group. 'We just used to mess
about, but I became interested in how they actually
worked. Then the ZX81 came on the market and I got me
sister to buy me one, and I learned to program machine
code on that. When the Spectrum came out I got one and
spent a year trying to figure out how to do the screen
because it's got a right weird way of storing things.
In the end, I really learnt to program by listening
to other people and by reading magazines.'
After writing a Galaxian type game, Chris turned
out Jack and the Beanstalk which Thor accepted
and released. 'It wasn't very good. but you learn from
your mistakes. The screen pictures were good, but the
graphic movement was terrible!'
Chris wrote two more followups to JATBS, Giant's
Revenge and The House that Jack Built. All
these games featured heavily and brightly coloured backgrounds
which distinguished them from almost every other program
on the market. It was a trademark he kept when he moved
over to Gremlin Graphics and produced the second Monty
game, Monty is Innocent.
Chris is now finishing off Metabolis, which
is a departure graphically for him. The way the character
is used in the game is quite comical, and there are
what Ian Stewart calls 'some nice, silly little touches
to it.' You play one of the last human beings free of
the evil influence of aliens that have taken over the
planet and are turning people into monsters. You haven't
entirely escape the effects of their plans, however,
being a bird with a still-human brain. It is a giant,
colourful maze, full of hazards of course, through which
you just guide your birdman until discovering the potion
that returns you to a human form. Having once again
become human, you still possess the abilities of a bird,
so you can fly as well as walk. One of the nice little
touches is the reference to infamous Gremlin crushers,
but these do not kill you outright - they just flatten
you for a while. Metabolis looks like being the
most unusual program Chris Kerry has written.
At 28, Shaun is the oldest of the bunch. His introduction
to computers came through his previous job as a chief
video technician for a certain TV rental company. 'I
had to know a lot about digital logic circuitry,' says
this softly spoken native of Sheffield, 'so we were
taught about microprocessors long before computers took
off. I knew all about ANDing and ORing, so it didn't
come terribly difficult.'
Shaun came to Gremlin Graphics through Just Micro as
well, buying games for his Spectrum, but a friend who
works in the shop had also worked with Ian Stewart at
Laskys, so they got to know each other. The first job
was Potty Pigeon on the Spectrum. 'It wasn't
really a conversion, everyone says it was a conversion,
but it wasn't. We thought we couldn't really do the
scrolling screen on the Spectrum like we did on the
Commodore, so we thought we would extend the story a
little bit. It was the first full length games program
I'd ever done, and of course, I had a lot of things
to learn, and I think if I'd done it now I could have
made a far better job of it.'
Shaun's technical background stands him in good stead
when it comes to some of the team's programming problems,
and he is responsible for the disc system they use with
the Spectrums. 'We had to convert all the programs which
meant breaking down the code used by the assemblers
to get the disc system to run - we had that much trouble
with microdrives it were unbelievable.'
Since he is more inclined to the technical side of
programming, I asked whether he considered the programming
or the games design more important. 'The game definitely.
I wake up in the morning thinking, how am I going to
do this next bit, but not from a program point of view
- from the final effect, to get the game to a standard
whereby people will really enjoy it when they play it.'
For his project, Grumpy Gumphrey - Supersleuth,
Shaun has developed a masking technique for the moving
characters so that they appear to pass behind objects.
This type of thing takes a lot of testing to get it
right. 'When you write a routine for a certain part
of a program you must test it to the full before going
on to the next one, because otherwise if a bug crops
up you can be in right trouble. What's more, one part
of a program can interact with another part and you
can end up with such a mess you don't know where you
Some programmers use the technique of writing all the
algorithms for a program and then slot in the graphics
right at the end, but Shaun prefers to design and fit
in graphics as he goes along. 'The sprites aren't as
important but on the screens you've got to know where
things are. Like the lift buttons in Supersleuth
- if we wanted them, say, in a square instead of a line,
we'd have to rewrite part of the program to make that
happen because the program has to know where the buttons
are for it to work.'
Shaun's next project is a 3D version of a platform
game, 'like Monty Mole in 3D, but probably not
Monty Mole.' Meanwhile he is busy finishing Supersleuth,
not the first ever program to be set in a Department
Store (Herbert's Dummy Run), but certainly one
of the most frenetic. Grumpy Gumphrey is a store detective
at (not surprisingly) Mole Brothers, an establishment
with many departments on four floors. A central feature
is the lift which may be directed to the desired floor
by pressing the appropriate button.
The lift is actually a 'room' which stands still while
the floors whizz past. Shop lifters are abroad and it
is Gumphrey's principal task to apprehend them. If he
makes a wrong decision about who it is, then a warning
letter is issued and after three it's the curtains dept.
The frenzy sets in, however, not because of thieves
but because of all the other jobs Gumphrey has to do.
These include taking the manager his 10.30 cup of tea,
recapturing gorillas escaped from the pet department,
clearing ducks and bugs out of the food hall, finding
lost babies (Herbert perhaps?), fixing the lift when
it breaks down, emptying the flooded boiler room, putting
out fires in waste paper baskets and so on. All these
jobs need specific tools which may be in obvious places
or not at all - or they may have been stolen by shop
lifters! No wonder Gumphrey is grumpy at times.
When asked his age, Peter replied somewhat uncertainly,
'Ooh, er, 20'. The son of a mining training officer,
Peter studied at Sheffield University and was doing
quite well until a Currah Microspeech unit decided to
destroy his Spectrum and thus plunged him into a life
of games designing. Like so many other young programmers,
Pete started with 'a little ZX81' and then skipped a
big ZX81 by selling some camera equipment to buy a Spectrum.
He taught himself machine code programming on the 81
and 'basically transferred that to the Spectrum'.
Until meeting Ian Stewart and Kevin Norburn in Just
Micro, Pete used to do some hacking and design programs
to alter existing games. His city redesigner for Ant
Attack was sent back because Quicksilva told him
they were already developing something themselves; although
this never appeared, Zombie Zombie did allow
the player to rebuild and change the city.
Peter Harrap hit the headlines (literally) with his
first game, the CRASH Readers Award winner, Wanted:
Monty Mole. A wicked sense of humour was apparent
in the game, and it is this angle that is most noticeable
in the follow up. Apart from programming entire games,
Pete is responsible for many of the Spectrum graphics
in other Gremlin games, he has designed the main character
in Beaver Bob, for instance. This led to some
ribald comments on Bob's suggestive style of walking
- the irrepressible Harrap humour sometimes verges on
the - well, naughty.
Monty on the Run is the true successor to Wanted:
Monty Mole. Like it's forerunner, it is a platform
game with many and varied elements. Perhaps the most
significant is the fact that Monty can now somersault
rather than just jump. When asked whether the Commodore
game Impossible Mission might have been a (forgive
the pun) springboard, Pete just smiled.
The story, as we know, so far: Monty Mole, suffering
from a shortage of coal owing to the miners' strike,
enters a mine to steal some. After many misadventures
he meets Arthur Scargill and is sent to prison for theft.
His friend, Sam Stoat has a go at rescuing him, but
fails in the attempt, so Monty is left to complete his
sentence. With time on his hands he takes to the prison
gymnasium and becomes super fit, learning to somersault
in the process. He gets out of gaol and tries to flee
to Brazil. This is where the action of Monty on the
Run takes place, as he boards a ship and tries to
escape to France. Money is of the essence, and fortunately
there are gold sovereigns to be collected, but in order
for the ship to sail, Monty has to perform several tasks,
all of which require the right tool for the job. On
top of that there are hosts of malcontents trying to
The 'orrible 'arrap has programmed in numerous devious
traps, some of which are so mind-bogglingly cruel it's
mind-boggling. There are lifts with nasty habits, teleport
beams which are only safe if they are a certain colour
and some of which can deposit you in a lethal situation.
Objects to be collected are placed in almost impossible
positions, and often, after hours of trying to reach
them, they turn out to be useless or, worse still, positively
dangerous. This is not a game for the squeamish! Peter,
who is quietly spoken, tends to a calmness that is belied
by the mischievous delight he takes in setting the hapless
player up for a pratfall. But I've no doubt that thousands
will be queuing up for a custard pie in the face by
October when Monty on the Run is released.
Christian, now 19, moved to Manchester to join Ocean,
and then onto Sheffield with Gremlin Graphics. His first
program, Transversion, was a fast grid game which
Ocean marketed. Afterwards he became an Ocean in-house
programmer and worked on Hunchback, Cavelon
and Daley Thompson's Decathlon. Since joining
Gremlin, Christian has been working on Beaver Bob
in Dam Trouble, which was the subject of a loading
screen competition run in CRASH.
CRASH readers who visited two of ZX Microfairs last
year, will probably remember seeing Christian on the
CRASH stand, holding court with gamesters wanting to
know how to win at Hunchback, and having a programmers'
battle with David Shea (Quicksilva - Frenzy and
Snowman, who now works at Mikro-Gen).
Beaver Bob in Dam Trouble is described by Ian
as a game for the slightly younger player, which isn't
to say that it's easy. Above the surface of the river,
stands a wooden hut with several floors. This platform
section of the game sees Beaver Bob collecting dynamite.
Below the surface of the river are the beaver's two
dams, and a secret hideaway where he keeps food and
is able to take a breath. The river is infested with
crocodiles which not only eat beavers but also steal
dam logs. The object is to replace the stolen logs to
keep the level of the reservoir up, whilst avoiding
crocodiles, schools of piranha and hunting scuba divers.