Once upon a time, many moons ago, I was a designer of commercial 16-bit games for the Commodore Amiga, CD32 console, MS-DOS, Windows and more systems. A retrospective...
One of my earliest computer-related memories is being mesmerized as a kid by a Space Invaders arcade cabinet during a late-1970s vacation in Paris. Around the same time I also remember an Atari Breakout arcade cabinet in a local movie theatre. Those early arcade games oozed the magic of an exciting new, emerging medium that would change the world.
My first gaming experience at home arrived in 1980, in the shape of a Soundic TV Sports game console, hooked up to a television set with an analog coaxial RF connector, and featuring a simple low-resolution Pong game and some related variations.
In 1981 I became the proud owner of a simple hand-held LCD game called Ottosei Land by Bandai, in which you controlled a seal balancing beach balls on his snout. One year after that, Nintendo's dual-screen Donkey Kong hand-held rocked my daily life. In 1983 I got a Donkey Kong II hand-held just before going on vacation, so that formed my main occupation during that trip. 🙂 My last hand-held LCD game was VTech's Diamond Hunt, featuring a triple screen.
Also in the early 1980s, an Atari 2600 console superseded my Soundic TV Sports console. My favorite Atari 2600 game was Pitfall II. I remember sending a developed analog photograph of my TV screen to Activision in the United States, to prove that I had completed the game with a perfect score. Activision rewarded me with a printed certificate, sent to me by snail mail, and making me a proud kid. 🙂
Following the Atari 2600, a CBS ColecoVision console formed the last part of the road to my first real 'home computer' as they were called at the time. The ColecoVision featured more advanced audiovisuals than the Atari 2600. My favorite games were Donkey Kong Jr., Miner 2049er and Mouse Trap.
In 1985 I became the excited owner of a Commodore 128, which allowed me to play Commodore 64 games, do some elementary BASIC programming, make my first simple pixel art using an 8-directional digital game joystick, and much more. It was a magical time, during which my room was mostly dimly lit by a small Sony television set, displaying the Commodore's low-resolution, 16-color graphics with distinctive TV scanlines.
One of the most distinctive features of the Commodore 64 was the output of its SID audio chip. Mediocre games were sometimes sold a lot just because the game featured a chiptune soundtrack by one of the SID maestros, such as Rob Hubbard, Martin Galway and Ben Daglish. My C64 was hooked up to an old tape recorder, and I remember sitting back in my small youngster room, much enjoying chiptunes such as Rob Hubbard's brilliant Monty on the Run game title tune. Its synth guitar solo just had to be accompanied by expressive air guitar gestures. 😁
In retrospect, I think 1985 was the most exciting year of the home computer revolution. Computer game magazines really started to thrive, 8-bit systems were still hot and games were rapidly improving, and in July of 1985 the introduction of the 16-bit Commodore Amiga 1000 caused a revolution in audiovisual possibilities and gaming potential.
Once the impressive Amiga was introduced, all I could think about was how to achieve ownership of such a dream machine. Around early 1986 I sold my Commodore 128 to my older brother, and made a deal with my mother to clean the toilets of her boarding-house for a couple of years, in return for the acquisition of an Amiga 1000 with a Commodore 1081 monitor and a Star NL-10 printer.
It felt as if the future had landed in my youngster bedroom. The Amiga was years ahead of its time in the mid-1980s. It featured a resolution of 640 x 512 pixels, a palette of 4096 colors, 4-channel digitized audio in stereo (in stead of simple mono synth sound), custom chips to relieve the Motorola 68000 CPU of taxing tasks, a dual-button mouse, and a state-of-the-art 'WIMP' operating system (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointer). In those days, a PC was still a glorified typewriter running MS-DOS, and Apple's Macintosh only featured monochrome graphics.
I clearly remember the ecstasy of being able to play an arcade-quality game like Larry Reed's great Amiga conversion of Marble Madness for Electronic Arts in my youngster bedroom.
When the Amiga system family expanded with the A500 and A2000 models in 1987, the A500's lower price made it accessible to a larger audience, making the Amiga gain popularity, and I would soon meet my game development partners-to-be.
For about ten years I had the pleasure of working together with the talented Assembly / C++ coder Reinier van Vliet, and the virtuosic music composer Ramon Braumuller. We started as a team called EAR (Electronic Audio Recordings), aiming to produce music for computer games using a selfmade chiptune music editor called SIDmon, referring to the legendary SID audio chip of the Commodore 64 computer.
Reinier and I traveled to the Personal Computer World (PCW) Show in London in the late 1980s to offer our services to publishers like Ocean, Elite and Hewson, but we soon realized that publishers were looking for developers of complete games, not just music. So we started creating complete games by the name of Soft Eyes (a.k.a. 'Softeyes'), which later changed into Team Hoi, after our game Hoi became widely known among Amiga users around the world.
Visitor name cards of the British computer game shows we attended. Our first visit to the Personal Computer World (PCW) Show in London felt like a trip to heaven. All the major game publishers were present with stands and representatives, such as Elite, Ocean, U.S. Gold, Hewson, Thalamus and Gremlin Graphics.
We were among the very first game developers in the Netherlands. When we formed our team in the late 1980s, we were still high school students. There were no game production companies in Holland yet, there was no game development education, and no internet or search engines yet. We had to learn our skills from books and by analyzing existing games. In order to make a game run smoothly, computers like the Commodore range required developers to take over the system in order to fully utilize the limited hardware capacity. When you did that, you could not make use of existing libraries or other digital resources, but had to create everything from scratch yourself. This included a disk loader, protection against illegal copying, the game engine, sinus tables for smooth object motion, sprite collision detection, double-buffering for smooth scrolling, a custom level editor, a complete custom font in order to display text and scores. In short: all of the Assembly code, all graphics, typography and animation, all music and sounds, everything. We used our self-made editors to create our game levels, and used our own music editors (SIDmon and Digital Mugician) for chiptunes featuring generated synth sounds, to make the soundtrack fit in the small amount of available RAM.
Our small game development team in the late 1980s, snapped with an analog Polaroid camera. 🙂 From left to right: Metin (graphics and game design), Ramon (music and sound effects) and Reinier (coding and game design).
The quest to find a publisher for our games commenced. At the time there were no game publishers in the Netherlands yet, and I remember sending lots of letters and game demo disks to potential foreign publishers by snail mail, waiting weeks, sometimes months for their response.
In those pre-internet and pre-mobile phone years, games were internationally distributed on tangible media such as diskettes, packaged in boxes, and sold in physical stores. Among our publishers was the legendary Thalamus, British publisher of the classic Commodore 64 games Armalyte, Creatures, Delta, Quedex and Sanxion. Thalamus published three of our productions: the shoot 'em up game Venom Wing, the platform game Borobodur, and our second music editor Digital Mugician. Our boyhood dream came true.
We had nice contact with Thalamus. Their Software Development Manager Paul Cooper once stayed a weekend in my mother's boarding-house with his girlfriend, where we signed the contract for Venom Wing. From 1990 to 1992 Thalamus published our games Venom Wing, Borobodur and our music editor Digital Mugician, and paid the royalties.
Printed advertisement for Venom Wing in the celebrated Zzap 64 / Amiga magazine, featuring artwork by the renowned British artist Oliver Frey.
As the gaming world was still relatively rough, uncharted territory, it was like the Wild West when it came to finding a reliable publisher. Because of this, we unfortunately never received royalties for two of our internationally published games (Hoi and Clockwiser). Reading positive reviews of our games in major UK and US magazines like The One, Amiga World, Amiga Format, CU Amiga, Amiga Mania, The Games Machine and Zzap 64 / Amiga was a consolation though.
The early years
In the Soft Eyes period, our team included a fourth partner: the coder Pieter Opdam. After the first Soft Eyes games were published, Pieter emigrated to the UK and started working for the publisher Team 17.
During the Soft Eyes period Reinier, Ramon and I were also active in the Amiga demo scene as members of the Digital Force International (DFI), and created a range of music demos featuring whimsical a cappella raps that became widely known among Amiga users around the world.
Celebrating the birthday of our music composer Ramon, who received a T-shirt from our demo scene friends The Jungle Command (TJC). Team Hoi is on the left side of the photo: our temporary fourth member Pieter Opdam (far left), Ramon (with the T-shirt in his hands), Reinier (next to Pieter, above Ramon) and Metin (next to Ramon, with the whitish blouse). Also in the photo are Ron Klaren ─ (a.k.a. Master Blaster) who later made the soundtrack of the Battle Squadron game ─ John 'Boil' van Dijk, Tonnie Meijdam and Mark Langerak, who would create an Amiga game called The Plague. Mark subsequently moved to the US to start working for the game publisher Microprose.
Next to our game and demo creation activities, in 1989 I started writing for the only printed Dutch Amiga magazine that was available across stores in the Netherlands and Belgium, imaginatively named 'Amiga Magazine'. 🙂
Other activities around the early 1990s included creating various graphics for another Dutch game development pioneer, called Radarsoft. Projects I worked on for Radarsoft include a Philips video wall for the Firato Audio & Video fair in the Dutch RAI complex, and Sleutelpositie (Key position), a custom-made MS-DOS game for a company.
The Radarsoft jobs were managed by Cees Kramer and mediated by an Amsterdam-based illustration and animation agency / studio called Comic House, where I also co-created the first animated Dutch children's series that was entirely produced using a computer: the Amiga. The series was called 'Mannetje & Mannetje' and was broadcast on national television in the Netherlands (in the 'Villa Achterwerk' children's matinee, VPRO).
Memories of our early games
In 1990, around the start of Hoi's creation, I wrote and roughly sketched a lot of Hoi game situation concepts on large paper notepad pages using a ballpen. Below is a collage from those notepad pages, including never-realized ideas, such as a split-screen two-player mode.
Our game Hoi would first be published by the US-based publisher Innerprise Software, formerly known as Discovery Software International, famous for the classic Amiga games Hybris, Battle Squadron and Sword of Sodan. When Hoi was about 60 percent finished, Innerprise Software asked us to send them the latest version of the game, for internal evaluation and testing purposes. About three weeks later the Hoi version we sent to Innerprise turned out to have been leaked to the Amiga hacker Fairlight, and was rapidly being copied by Amiga users around the world. We cancelled our agreement with Innerprise and found a new publisher, also in the US: Hollyware Entertainment, formerly known as MicroIllusions, publisher of The Faery Tale Adventure and Music-X.
As Hoi features a psychedelic final level with lots of bright, flashy effects, Hoi became the world's first ever game that came with an epilepsy warning on the box.
The Hoi box backside, featuring the world's first epilepsy warning that came with a game.
On Sunday October 4th 1992, a friend called me to inform me of a review of our Hoi game in the August issue of the popular British game magazine The One, featuring an overall score of 90 percent. Excited as I was about that, I took the train to Amsterdam Central Station, the only nearby location where I could buy the magazine on a Sunday back then. During the trip I saw an incredible amount of distant flashing lights from the train window. That evening I saw on the television news that an Israeli airplane had crashed into an apartment building in a suburb of Amsterdam called the Bijlmer, killing 43 people in an explosion and large fire not far from my train route.
Following the release of Hoi, Hollyware never paid us any royalties apart from a $ 200 cheque "for the release celebration party". As we were three young chaps in a different part of the world, we did not have the resources to legally fight the lack of proceeds from our hard work. It was a deception that would occur again after the release of our puzzle game Clockwiser by the UK publisher Rasputin Software.
A photo published in the Dutch 'Amiga Magazine', accompanying an interview with our game development team, around the release of Hoi in July / August 1992. At the moment the picture was taken, a sudden gust of wind blew through my hair, causing my whimsical expression. 😁
A photo from 1992, some time after the Hoi development period, showing me in a bored pose. 😁 At the left you can see the keyboard of my Amiga 2000 and a box with 3.5 inch diskettes. At the right you can see my old fridge with a Psygnosis and a Rainbow Arts sticker, which were souvenirs from out visits to their headquarters in Great Britain respectively Germany. Also at the right is my game over picture for the Borobodur game (published by Thalamus), and at the top right there's a part of a Hoi game map that was published in Amiga Action magazine. Fun fact: the Calvé Peanut-butter jars on my fridge served as reference for a game we were developing at the time...
Life after Hoi
In 1992 Team Hoi created a custom game to be used in a Calvé peanut-butter television commercial, introducing two novelties in the Netherlands: it was the first commercial with a duration of 75 seconds (instead of the usual 20 seconds) and the first commercial featuring a custom-made computer game.
Following the commercial the game was played by kids in the most popular Dutch children's matinee of that time: Telekids. Those who managed to complete the game won their height in stacked jars of Calvé peanut-butter. A little girl who starred in the commercial would later become a well-known Dutch actress and presenter: Lieke van Lexmond. The Calvé commercial was her debut.
Scene from the Peanutbutter Power Game commercial, featuring the debut of the Dutch actress and presenter Lieke van Lexmond.
In early 1993, Team Hoi released the first two demonstrations in the world for the new AGA Amiga computers (Advanced Graphics Architecture), titled Planet Groove and Mindwarp, as parts of a demo trilogy called the Hoi sAGA. The demos were created after exploring new chip registers, before Commodore had released the AGA Amiga hardware specifications, and were widely copied around the world, and much-used in computer stores to showcase the new Amigas.
In the very early days of internet (June 1993), I wrote this heartfelt, youthfully rebellious message on Usenet, expressing my frustration about Commodore's delayed publication of the AGA Amiga hardware specifications. Commodore wanted to push developers towards using the Amiga's OS and its libraries in stead of taking over the system. Not taking over the system limited the possibilities of game and demo developers.
In 1993, when it had become clear that Hollyware would not pay royalties for our game Hoi, we decided to release a Hoi remix as freeware for the new AGA Amiga computers, featuring some minor cosmetic improvements and a GUI for the Amiga's OS. That was the only occasion we did not take over the system. 🙂
Team Hoi photographed during an Amiga game developers event in Eeklo, Belgium, 1993. The photo was recovered from a scan of the printed Dutch Amiga Magazine (issue 24, November / December 1993), hence some artifacts. Among the fellow game developers that were present at the event were Archer Maclean, Euphoria (Laurens van der Donk, Mario van Zeist and Jacco van 't Riet), François 'AMOS' Lionet, Geert 'Take Two' Vergauwe, Sensible Software (Jon Hare, Jools Jameson and Stoo Cambridge), The Bitmap Brothers / Renegade (Eric Matthews, Steve Kelly and Mike Montgomery)
In 1993 two major publishers were interested in our puzzle game Clockwiser: Psygnosis (publisher of the Shadow of the Beast games) and Rainbow Arts (publisher of the Turrican games). Reinier and I were invited to travel to both companies: Psygnosis in Liverpool, UK, and Rainbow Arts in Gütersloh, Germany. But both publishers demanded an MS-DOS conversion, while Reinier only knew how to code in the Amiga Assembly language. Rainbow Arts even supplied a temporary development PC, but it didn't work out. Ironically, in the end, a friend of ours — Peter Schaap — realized an MS-DOS and Windows 3.1 version for the final Clockwiser publisher Rasputin Software, who turned out not to pay our royalties.
The temporary development PC that was supplied by Rainbow Arts was moved to my place when Reinier decided not to continue MS-DOS development of Clockwiser, so I could try the enhanced MS-DOS version of Deluxe Paint II before we would return the PC. But while working with the PC, a loud bang suddenly occurred. The PC's power supply turned out to have exploded. We joked that my Amiga didn't allow a PC to be connected to the same power strip, and we had to carefully explain to Rainbow Arts that their PC had exploded. 😅
After Clockwiser Team Hoi started working on an unofficial sequel to Hoi, called Moon Child. It would be targeted at the AGA Amiga range, making use of its Advanced Graphics Architecture. A demo version featuring a first level preview of Moon Child for the AGA Amigas was released in 1994, but in that same year Commodore went bankrupt, forming dark clouds above the future of the Amiga. Due our last two publishers not paying royalties, we also couldn't afford to continue working on the game without finding a source of income.
In 1995 Reinier and Metin agreed with the Dutch Valkieser media company to start a semi-independent game development division there (hiring Ramon as a freelancer for music and sound). There we decided to restart Moon Child development for Windows 95/98, increasing the game's resolution from 320 x 256 pixels to 640 x 480 pixels.
The final Moon Child Windows game was published in 1997, but was only officially released in the Netherlands, because the publishing department of Valkieser had to quit due to a radical corporate reorganization. The game was copied among worldwide PC gamers though, as I still receive emails from people all around the world expressing the childhood joy Moon Child gave them. 🙂
Screenshots from the never-finished AGA Amiga version of Moon Child, featuring the Hoi character as an automated sidekick
Screenshots from the final version of Moon Child for Windows 95 / 98. It had an unusually high resolution for that time: 640 x 480 pixels, while other games still had a resolution of 320 x 240 pixels. And it featured silky smooth scrolling on a PC, which was also very uncommon.
Despite the repeated bad luck we had with publishers, we still receive emails every now and then from people telling us how much childhood fun they had with one or more of our games, decades after we created them. And we've become friends for life. That alone makes it all worthwhile.
A selection of Team Hoi productions in the original distributed boxes.
Below you can find more info about our games, including free download links...
Game title ● Year ● Publisher
Ragnov (demo) ● 1988 ● n/a
Venom Wing ● 1990 ● Thalamus Ltd (UK)
Borobodur ● 1992 ● Thalamus Ltd (UK)
Hoi ● 1992 ● Hollyware Entertainment (US)
Calvé Peanutbutter Power Game ● 1992 ● Unilever (NL)
Cognition ● 1993 ● Divo (NL)
Clockwiser ● 1994 ● Rasputin Software (UK)
Moon Child ● 1997 ● Valkieser (NL)