August 31st is the deadline for entries for the annual retro contest Atari Bit Byter User Club — ABBUC 2014. The first game registered for this year’s competition is Dimo’s Quest, a demake of the original Commodore Amiga’s program released 30 years ago. Its creator, the German programmer Thomas «8Bitjunkie» Schulz, kindly accepted an extensive interview for Atariteca—where, among many things, announced that in 2015 will develop more games for Atari XL/XE computer series.
ATARITECA: Tell us a little about yourself and how you got involved in the informatic world.
THOMAS SCHULZ: I am 44 years old and live in a town called “Bad Oeynhausen”, which is some 80 kilometers south of EXPO 2000 City, Hanover. As a teenager, I decided to turn my hobby into my profession so I went to the University of Hildesheim to become an IT-professional. To have enough money for completing the university, I started to write several games for the then-up-to-date Amiga computer: Masterblazer, a sequel to Lucasfilm’s Ballblazer; Renegades, a Galaga-inspired game; and finally Dimo’s Quest, a tribute to Chip’s Challenge.
And how did your relationship with Atari computers start?
Well, I think it is quite common. In 1983, as a 13-year old I often hang around in the computer department of the local shopping center (called “Horten”) of my hometown Hildesheim and played whatever there was offered to play. So I told my parents that I would love to get a computer for Christmas. The cheapest one, the Sinclair ZX81, was about 150 deutsche mark—which was far too much money for a 13 year old kid. Nevertheless, I got this money and went to buy the computer but it was out of stock at that time. The next cheaper model, an Atari 400, was about 300 deutsche mark so I went home with empty hands. I do not know why it happened, but my father gave me another 150 mark (something that was far beyond my expectations). So I ran to the store and brought my first love home. When I turned 16, I bought my first Amiga computer but I had to sell my complete Atari Computer set to have enough money for the Commodore. A few years ago, I re-owned an Atari 400 and a 800XL which I had in the eighties. Now, I also own an Atari 130XE, consoles 2600, 5200, 7800, Atari Lynx and Jaguar.
Why did you choose to participate in ABBUC 2014 with Dimo’s Quest?
Dimo’s Quest was shelved in 1993, when the Amiga computer star was sinking already. It was a good game to us, which did not get the attention we would loved it to have. Furthermore, it only got shelved in Germany, so the audience was quite small. As I re-owned an Atari 800 XL a few years ago and get in touch with the Atari community of today, the plan was quickly formed: to make a remake of the 20 year old Amiga Game for the 30 year old Atari computer.
Where did you get the inspiration from to get into this project?
I am a member of the German ABBUC Atari Club, which hosts a software development competition every year. I wanted to join the contest, but first, I had to learn 6502 assembly language and discover the possibilities of the little Atari computer. As a matter of fact the ABBUC was relaunching an excellent Atari-book, remastered, enriched, debugged, near-to-perfect “Das Atari Profi-Buch”, which I read twice. That was the only source of information I needed for the Atari 8-bit computer.
How hard was it for you to learn 6502 assembly language?
First I thought it could not be very hard as I knew the Motorola 68000 assembly language very well until I realized that 8-bit means that you cannot count to numbers greater than 255. You can’t even count all 320 pixels in one screen line with an 8 bit register so nearly all methods I knew could not be used on the MOS 6502. Finally, I read a book about 6502 processor language, but I would not say that I am now an expert on that. It is not difficult to learn the few dozen commands. It’s tricky to combine these simple commands to achieve what you want.
Tell us about the game. We have seen some videos and it looks like you have done a superb job in graphics and sounds. What is Dimo’s Quest main plot?
Dimo is a little frog and wants to marry Dori, the princess of Greenfoot Kingdom. Dori’s father, the king, demands all sweet spread in his kingdom before Dimo is allowed to marry his daughter, so Dimo has to pick up every sweet lying around. There are cute monsters, keys, doors, teleportals, water, ice, fire, switches, moving platforms and so on to prevent him from doing so. If you know Chips’s Challenge, you have a good idea what Dimo’s Quest is like.
Do you plan to have the game translated to other languages?
The game will be available in English, German, Spanish and Polish language I think, but maybe not yet in the contest version.
Since many users, like us, no longer have the original hardware, will it be possible to play the game on emulators? Will it be available for free?
The game will be released in disks during the ABBUC Contest. Every ABBUC member gets a disk for free. (Yes, you may become a member of ABBUC, please visit www.abbuc.de). There will be a free digital download of the contest version one day after the contest (26th October). A few weeks later, there will likely be an enhanced physical boxed version (with disk, maybe module, too) with printed manual and most likely a CD with the prerecorded soundtrack played on real instruments. This is done by the professional musician Hilton Theissen («Arkanoid Band») in his Electrofish Studio.
We know you have developed a level builder, do you plan to release it for free as well?
Yes, the Level Editor “Purzel” will be available for the public for free. It runs under Windows (maybe there will be a MAC version too) and has the function to design several levels and finally create an ATR-level-disk for Dimo’s Quest.
How is the development of Dimo’s going? When will it be completed?
Now there were only three weeks left for the ABBUC Software contest. It will be a very heartbeat finish to get ready for it. On the other hand, the release date is two month later, October 26th and this should be very possible.
What are your next plans after completing Dimo’s Quest for Atari?
Well, the graphic artist, Tobias Prinz, and I will start a Windows, Mac, Android and IOS port of Dimo’s Quest. Hopefully, we still get sound support from Hilton Theissen as well. There will be a port to the Commodore C64 done by Ernst Neubeck. And, last but not least, we plan to “license” the Dimo’s Quest game to be ported to other retro platforms as well. But wait for details later this year.
Tobias and I will definitely do other games for the Atari 8-bit next year. I think we will start with a multi-player space game.
Which are your all-time favorite Atari 8-bit games? Why?
That is not as simple as it might sound. There are so many brilliant games for the Atari: Ballblazer, Rescue on Fractalus, M.U.L.E., Alternate Reality, Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, Encounter, Archon, Assembloids XE, Crownland, and so many, many more.
What are your thoughts on the current Atari 8-bit scene in Germany?
Just one word: awesome! Twenty-five years after the end-of-life, there is a hell of an active community. We have an Atari Club for 30 years now in Germany, which has 400 members. The Club is called “Atari Bit Byter User Club” (Or in short: ABBUC). We meet several times a year in different subsets in different towns, we have software and hardware development contest every year, and finally, we meet in autumn every year for a four-days event (“The Fujiama”). We have 2 magazines which are dedicated to Atari only (“ABBUC-Magazin”, “ProcAtari-Magazin”, both appearing 4 times a year) and 3 other retro computing magazines which cover Atari-related dtuff (“RETURN Magazin”, “Retro Magazin”, “Retro Gamer Magazin”). I am very proud to be a small part of it now.
What is the main lesson from your experience in developing software for old systems like XL/XE series?
As a professional, up to date Windows Database & Client-Server programmer, I was very shocked, how less power I had to cope with on the 8bit system (0,00179 GHz). Nevertheless I was very astound, how much can be achieved with so less calculating power just by choosing the “right” approach to the problem. So I am very sure that this knowledge will help me with my current Windows projects.
Any recommendations for those who, like you, want to embark themselves on the task of resurrecting/creating games for Atari 8-bit computers?
Yes! Just do it! There is a fantastic cross-development tool available to program (not only) the 8-bit Atari computer using a modern Windows- or Mac-based Integrated Development Environment (IDE). It is the Eclipse IDE with the WUSDN Plugin. See www.wudsn.com for more information! It was never easier to program for the Atari 8-bit computer!
Thomas, thank you a lot for taking your time to give us this interview. Is there anything else you want to share with Atariteca’s users?
I would like to say thank you to all the wonderful people I met developing this game. I never thought that programming an old Atari game would bring me in touch with so many brilliant people! So, thank you Peter Dell, Christian Krüger, Tobias Prinz, Sabine Eckardt, Sascha Kriegel, Gunnar Kanold, Marc Brings, Berthold Fritz, Stefan Höltgen, Hilton Theissen, Andreas Stitz and all the others which I shamefully now forgot.
Try it yourself! Go and create a little game for the little Atari!
Special thanks to our friend Czar «Mekun» Castillo who kindly helped us with the english translation and editing of this interview.