Thursday, May 29, 2008

Crete - Gournia

Gournia is the site of a Late Minoan town/palace complex on Crete dating back to about 1550 B.C., although there are remains going back as far as 2000 B.C. here as well. Called the "Pompeii of Minoan Crete" due to the good state of preservation, it occupies a low hill close to the sea on the Isthmus of Ierapetra, overlooking the Bay of Mirabella. It's actual name is unknown and it was named after the hollow vessels called gourni found all over the site, many of which can still be seen at the entrances to the rooms. Unfortunately it was destroyed in 1450 B.C. like most of the rest of the Minoan civilization.


Gournia is another large and fairly well excavated archaeological site. Unfortunately we arrived to see it on the first of May, which is a holiday on Crete, and it was closed for the day. It's fairly visible on the hillside through the fence so, undaunted and having driven a fair distance, we wandered round the edge of the site and found a way in. I'm surprised they didn't just leave the site open as there's nothing of monetary value and we noticed a fair number of cars pulling into the little road outside the gate and then giving up and going away again.

The remains of the place are in fairly good condition and it's easy to see the layout of certain parts of the town and palace. It was very peaceful and quiet with no-one else around so we had a good nose around and enjoyed the views out over the sea and the Gulf of Mirabella before retracing our steps back out and onward to Mochlos.


When True Night Falls - by Celia Friedman

When True Night FallsWhen True Night Falls is the second volume in Celia Friedman's Coldfire series and the sequel to Black Sun Rising. After reading Black Sun Rising I couldn't wait to dive into this one so here's a brief outline of the plot…
With the evil in the rakhlands defeated reverand Damien Kilcannon Vryce and the immortal sorceror Gerald Tarrant along with Hesseth the Khrast guide are heading East in search of the source of the land's malaise. Something malevolent lies there, possibly Fae-born but maybe not, warping the very nature of Erna's native creatures and determined to bring down humanity.

Their answers may lie on the Eastern Continent, long-separated from the Western settlers and with which little contact has been made for a very long time. What they find there seems to be a land in harmony with itself; a prosperous and stable place without the need for sorcerors or magic to protect them for the Fae do not enter their cities or villages. The truth however is a very different picture and our three adventurers soon find themselves fleeing from their long-lost cousins and lost in a land full of deception and treachery.

I'd imagine that it's difficult to design a storyline that encompasses three books with all three being equally entertaining in their own right. That may be the burden of anyone writing a trilogy of any kind but Ms. Friedman has successfully, so far at least, managed to do that. Black Sun Rising was a cracking read and When True Night Falls has picked up the storyline and moved it to the next level pretty well.

This time we get both the hero character of Vryce and the anti-hero character of Tarrant teaming up again, along with their Khrast guide Hessesth from the rakhlands and heading overseas in search of whatever evil is infecting their world. It's all good stuff and you know that while Vryce is incorruptable, Tarrant always has his own agenda and you never know if he's going to side with the team or turn on them. The whole idea of having a man like Gerald Tarrant, an undead vampire and sorceror, as part of the good guy's team works really well and gives it a different edge.

As you'd expect, there are new characters introduced into the mix and all in a new land where magic is forbidden and anyone possessing the power runs the risk of being arrested and used as demon bait, a career that has a very short lifespan. Behind all of this is a web of deceipt, controlling the population, hating every one of them and with the ultimate aim of cleansing their world of humanity.

When True Night Falls is another excellent story from Celia Friedman and well recommended. The next and final installment in the trilogy is Crown Of Shadows, which is lying on my bookshelf and in the reading queue.

Genre:Adventure, Fantasy, Science-Fiction
ISBN: 1-84149-542-5
My Rating: 8/10

Storm Front - by Jim Butcher

Storm FrontStorm Front is the first novel in The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. It's a detective novel with a supernatural twist and here's a brief taster of the plot…
The place is Chicago and Harry Dresden is a professional wizard. No really, Harry is listed in the phone book as a wizard for hire. If you want to find something or someone you've lost, need a potion brewed or a bit of a protection spell, then Harry is your man … or wizard.

He's also the guy the Chicago P.D. Special Investigations department call in when they have a case that transcends the normal physical limitations of your average perp. Trouble is, the wizarding business isn't what you'd call lucrative so when he gets called in to consult on a grisly double murder committed with what appears to be black magic, Harry jumps at the chance to earn some much needed cash. But where there's black magic, there's usually someone really nasty behind it and now that guy knows Harry's name. And that's when things start to get … interesting. Magic. It can get a guy killed!

This is the first in a series that has, to date, spawned 11 novels along with audiobooks so there's no mistaking that Butcher has hit on a very successful formula with both the reading public and his publisher. It even made it into a TV series for a season in 2007 and then fell foul of the big studio clampdown that killed off loads of sci-fi series at the time, simply because of the high production costs. However, with all of that behind it, I reckoned it was worth taking a chance that The Dresden Files were worth a read and where better to start but at the beginning.

Butcher tells the story from the point of view of Harry Dresden in much the same narrative style as a Mickey Spillane detective novel. It's a good formula, it sold Spillane over 225 million copies worldwide, and it works well here too. Adding magic to a basic gumshoe type story is what this is all about and that makes it that much more interesting. It's not only the bad guys our hero has to contend with, it's bad guys with magical powers and demons too.

Storm Front isn't what you'd call a big book and most people will get through it in a few sittings but it's a good introduction to the series and the characters and, if the rest of the books follow the same easy reading style along with some gritty crime drama, then they'll make ideal travelling companions for filling out those long holiday journeys or even just to pass a rainy day.

Genre: Crime, Fantasy
ISBN: 978-1-84149-398-5
My Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Crete - Matala

Matala lies about 75km South-West of Heraklion on Crete and, in its past, was the seaport for both the ancient cities of Gortys and Phaestos. It has a lovely sandy beach and since we've visited here before and found it was such a nice place to spend some time in, we went back again.

MatalaPanoramic View of Matala

It's famous for the man-made caves carved into the rock face on the North side of the surrounding bay. They were carved out during Neolithic times and have been mainly used as tombs over the centuries, although they were used by a hippie community during the 1960s and 70s. Why anyone would ever want to spend one night far less the entire Summer in one of these caves is beyond me. You only have to look inside them and see the little shelves the bodies were obviously placed in to rule out any idea of them being homey.

It's other claim to fame is as the landing point on Crete of Zeus and Europa. The story goes that when Zeus spotted Europa he hatched a plan to have his way with her. Taking the form of a white bull, he mingled in with her father's herds and when she and her friends were out gathering flowers, Europa saw the bull and, so taken with its beauty, she climbed onto its back. Needless to say, Zeus took that opportunity to leg it and run into the sea with her. He then swam to the island of Crete with Europa on his back, landing on the beach at Matala where he transformed into an Eagle and carried off to Gortys for a bit of fun.

Caves of MatalaThe Caves of Matala

Anyway back to present day Matala. What was once a pleasant little fishing village has gradually been turned into a tourist resort, full of restaurants and tavernas. That's not to say that it's not a nice place but it's certainly busier even than when we were first here some years ago. If you like beaches and the casual life of lazy tavernas, then it's definitely worth a visit. The caves are interesting too and, if you're adventurous enough, then you can climb up to the higher ones.

Next time we go to Crete though, we'll probably give Gortys and Matala a miss and visit Phaestos and then neighbouring Kalamaki beach instead as it's supposedly less commercialized than Matala.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Crete - Gortys

Since we had the car we thought we'd take a run over to Matala again but this time we'd stop off at the ruined city of Gortys, which is on the way there. Last time we were on Crete, we passed it by in our rush to get to the seaside and it was dark on the way back so we missed it.

Aghios TitosAghios Titos, The Church of St. Titus

Gortys, also known as Gortyn or Gortyna, was one of the most important cities on Crete. After the Roman conquest of Crete in 67 B.C., Gortys was declared the capital of the Roman province of Crete and Cyrenaica, replacing Knossos, a position it held until the Arab conquest of Crete in 828 A.D. It's probably most famous now for the discovery of the 12 inscriptions of law, which form the oldest Greek law code and are considered as the greatest contribution of Classical Crete to world culture.

The place lies in ruins now, mostly due to an earthquake in 796 A.D., but the site of this once huge city is massive. The main archaeological site, where you'll have to pay the usual entry fee, only covers a very small portion of the city - the Odeon, the Church of St. Titus and a Plane tree linked to the myth of Zeus and Europe. Frankly, there's not a lot on show here - the great inscription of the Law Code of Gortys and almost all of the recovered statues are all locked behind bars so you only get a glimpse of them. If you really want to experience the size of the place, then just wander around the outskirts or go across the road and dive in among the olive trees.

Gortys LawThe Law Code of Gortys

We wandered out and went along the road to the right. Once across the stream, there's a path leading back along the side of the main site but which also leads you along the side of the hill above. There are several ruins on the hillside and, if you're adventurous enough, access is open so you can wander in and up. The ground here is covered with flowers so I spent a few moments or three chasing butterflys among them as well.

We also crossed the road and wandered down the road opposite to Mitropolis for a bit and then plunged off left into the olive trees. The whole area in there is full of the ruins of the city. Some are obviously important as they've been fenced off but there's still lots to see and we spent a fair bit of time just wandering among the trees and flowers, enjoying the sun, before heading on to Matala.

GortysThe Ruins Of Gortys

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Stroll Down To Loch Drunkie

Since it looked like being a half-reasonable day and it was a Sunday, we headed up to The Trossachs for a bit of a stroll around the countryside. Taking the road through Aberfoyle and heading North leading to Brig O'Turk via the Duke's Pass, it leads into the Achray Forest, part of the larger Queen Elizabeth Forest Park.

Lochan ReoidhteLochan Reoidhte

About three miles North of Aberfoyle, there's a forest drive trail on the right-hand side of the road that leads down to Loch Drunkie, wanders around a lot and eventually emerges near Loch Achray. We parked there and headed down to the road on foot (we needed the exercise after lazing around on Crete for two weeks). Luckily, the road was closed to cars on the day, which made the walking a bit safer and quieter.

The first feature you come across on the way is the pretty little Lochan Reoidhte. Don't ask me to pronounce the name but it translates from the Gaelic as "Cold Little Loch". From there, we headed on down the windy road until we came into view of the Western end of Loch Drunkie and then we had lunch looking out over the loch.

Loch DrunkieLoch Drunkie

Once the hunger pangs had gone we followed the road around the loch and had a wee detourr up to an old ruined cottage. From there we carried back along the lochside to where it juts out into the centre and you can get a good view of the dams on the far side of the loch from there. It's a spot that I remember fishing from when I was much younger. Didn't catch anything that time but the loch is supposedly very good for brown trout fishing these days. We sat among the Bluebells and watched an angler for a while and he did catch a trout; not huge but not bad at all.

Loch DrunkieLoch Drunkie

We headed along the road again along another spur of the loch and once we reached the end of that, the road headed inland slightly towards an outdoor centre. Not much to see there and it was closed but there were a few butterflies fluttering around and plenty of birdlife so it was a nice place for a wee rest. Wit the time getting on, we decided to climb the rise beside the road to get a better view of the lcoh and then head back. We did that and then cut insand from the end of the loch along a little valley that eventually led us up to a higher pint on the road back up.

Loch DrunkieLoch Drunkie

The rest of these photos and a few others from around the Aberfoyle area can be seen here.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Crete - The Lasithi Plateau

The last time we were on Crete we hired a car and drove up to the Lasithi Plateau, a large, scenic plain located in the Eastern part of the island. You'll also see it spelled as Lassithi is some texts and it's about 70km from Heraklion, lying at an altitude of roughly 840m. What makes it unusual is the fact that it's one of the few permanently inhabited areas at such an altitude around the Mediterranean and the Winters can be very harsh with snow often persisting until mid Spring. Anyway, we didn't have a camera last time so we went back again…

Lasithi PlateauPanoramic View Of The Lasithi Plateau

The surrounding mountains make the place a natural bowl and alluvial run-off from melting snow has made it an extremely fertile place, continuously inhabited from 6,000 B.C. aside from a couple of hundred years when the Venetian rulers prohibited cultivation and kicked the natives out. Those same Venetians, once they'd relented and let the farmers back in, ordered the construction of a large system of drainage ditches, still in use today, that transfer the water to a sinkhole on the Western edge of the plateau. The Lasithi plateau is most famous for the thousands of white-sailed windmills that were used to irrigate the land for centuries. However, most of them have been abandoned and fallen into disrepair having been superceded by modern diesel and electrical pumps. That doesn't stop the tour offices promoting visits to see the windmills of Lasithi though but be aware that you won't see very many of these now at all now. Still there is some interest in renovating and restoring some of them so maybe in time, the plateau will again be home to a horde of white sails.

WindmillsOnce you get up onto the plateau, the road winds round the edge of it as that's where almost all of the little villages are and even these are perched on the edge of the rocky slopes so as to give every last bit of good land to farming. There's the odd little farmhouse dotted around here and there but it's mostly all fields and fields of vegetables. However, it's also famous for one other thing and that's being the birthplace of Zeus, mythical king of the gods.

If you follow the road around to the South-Western end of the plateau, then you'll reach the little village of Psychro and it's from there that you can trek up the path to the Diktaean Cave, which is where the legends say that Zeus was born. It's a fairly steep path but you can hire a very expensive donkey ride up if you're feeling unable to manage it, although I thought it was just too pricey.

Well, we're still fit enough for a plod up a mountain path so off we went and it was worth the trek up as the views out over the plateau are amazing. Add to that an abundance of wildflowers beside the path and enough butterflies to keep me chasing around with the camera to little avail made it an excellent walk. After about twenty or thirty minutes climbing, we eventually reached the cave entrance with its obligatory archaeological representatives. One to sell you a ticket to the cave and one to take it from you again as you enter or should I say descend…

Dikteon CaveWhat you get is a fairly big hole in the ground with steps going down and down and down into the darkness. These days the cave is lit up a bit so there's no need to take a torch and a guide as was once advised. The drawback of all that modernization is that it's now a major attraction and you almost have to queue behind the trail of like-minded tourists as you wander down those steps.

According to the legend, Zeus' father Kronos had sworn to devour all of his children at birth to avoid falling foul of a prophecy that one of them would overthrow him as leader of the Titans. However, Zeus' mother Rhea tricked Kronos at the birth by giving him a stone wrapped in swaddling to swallow instead and left the baby Zeus in the Dikteon Cave. Here the goat nymph Amalthia nurtured him and the Kuretes protected him by dancing and clashing their spears against their shields to drown out the baby's crying.

NB: The cave is called by many names, probably due to translation differences from the Greek so you'll see it called any of Dikteon Cave, Diktaean Cave, Diktean Cave, Dikteon Andron, Diktaion Antron or any variation of these.

As I've already said, the cave is reasonably well lit these days so there's really no need to worry that you'll fall over your own feet. What's more likely is that you'll slip on the steps as they can be a bit wet in places so some care is still needed while wandering around down there. That's really about it and after wandering down to the bottom of the cave with its little pond, it's time to wander all the way back up again. Of course, the cave itself is full of the stalactites and stalagmites normally associated with such places and some of them have been been very nicely illuminated with coloured lights to add to the mystical atmosphere of the place.

Dikteon CaveDikteon Cave

Once you get out of the cave, it's an easy stroll back down the path to Psychro, or Psichro as it's often referred to, enjoying again the views out over the plateau. There are several cafés at the bottom of the path and we had a reasonably tasty lunch in one of these. We fancied eating out on the balcony as the views were lovely but it was bit on the windy and chill side so we ended up inside close to an open and roaring fire of all things.

We then had a slow drive, following the road round the plateau, until we eventually found the way off down to Agios Nikolaos with a thought of visiting there for a while but it was getting late by then so we headed back to Hersonissos for the night.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Crete - Koutouloufari

Having been based in Hersonissos for a few weeks, we got to wandering around a bit and one day we took a stroll up to the little village of Koutouloufari, which lies on the hillside above the town. It's not that far, about one and a half kilometres, so it's a fairly easy stroll as long as it's not too hot. Beware of the Swallows though! They use the relatively straight roads for attack runs on the insect population so don't be surprised when they zip past you at shoulder height, they're only looking for lunch.

Rustic BlissRustic Bliss On The Road Up To Koutouloufari

Koutouloufari is a much quieter place and offers some excellent views out over the Bay of Malia and the town of Hersonissos so it's ideal to spend an afternoon just chillin' if you need a break from the more hectic lifestyle of Hersonissos.

It's a traditional Cretan village with lots of little white houses and narrow streets leading off the main road, which leads along the other little villages of Piskopiano and Hersonissos. Everywhere you look there are flowers, flowers beside doors and windows or climbing up walls and over roofs. You can walk between Koutouloufari and Piskopiano without hardly noticing the gap but you'd probably notice that Piskopiano is a little less tourist oriented but only a little as it did seem to have a fair number of restaurants as well.

GeraniumA Geranium Spotted While Having Lunch In Koutouloufari

Koutouloufari on the other hand simply abounds with tavernas and restaurants so you'd be hard pressed not to find somewhere to just sit down, relax and have a drink and something to eat while you're there. We stopped and had lunch in a small café run by a Dutch couple and had planned on coming back one evening for dinner but we never made it.

For anyone interested in the culture and history of the villages, then there's an very old but nice looking Orthodox church on one of the roads up to the village and there's also a Byzantine church in Piskopiano worth checking out.

On returning to Hersonissos we found a road that led us directly down on a more gentle slope to where we were staying at Star Beach Village. It was a very pleasant walk down between flower-strewn borders and olive groves so the visit to Koutouloufari passed the afternoon very nicely.

Hersonissos HarbourHersonissos Harbour From Koutouloufari

Monday, May 19, 2008

Crete - Hersonissos

We're not long back from a couple of week holidaying on the Greek island of Crete. We've been there a couple of times previously but have never stayed in Hersonissos before so here's my slant on the place…

First a bit of clarification. I'm talking about Limin Hersonissos and not the little village of Hersonissos, which lies inland a few kilometers. Limin Hersonissos, the port of Hersonissos, is commonly just called Hersonissos for the sake of the tourist population. It's a small town about 26 km East of Heraklion, the capital of Crete, and it's the most developed tourism area on the island with loads of hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs. There's also a fair smattering of beaches and sandy coves for those wanting to sunbathe by the sea.

Hersonissos HarbourHersonissos Harbour

As to when to go, we were there for the last week in April and first week in May but the place wasn't really fully open and only really started to get going a bit in the second week. Some restaurants and bars, etc. were still being fitted out and loads of the hotels around still hadn't filled their pools. The first of May this year was the island's Easter celebration and I'm sure that's when things start kicking off so I don't think we'd go earlier than that again.


There are loads of hotels and apartments to choose from in Hersonissos but we stayed in the Star Beach Village, which is located a little to the East of town, because we got a very decent deal from the travel agent on a late booking. That said, the place is actually quite nice and the staff were all pretty friendly. The location isn't perfect for anyone wanting to hit the town every night as it's either a twenty-five minute walk or a taxi ride there.

Star Beach Village bill themselves as four-star plus but I think they're being a bit on the generous side. The public facilities are all very good in they have a nice big lounge with a bar, a restaurant, decednt sized pool and pool bar and an internet suite, gymnasium and shop. The rooms are also okay but the facilities don't really hit the mark for anyone wanting to do a bit of real self-catering.

Beach hutsBeach Huts

The "village" is layed out in separate, three-story blocks and we got a standard, one-bedroom suite, which was actually quite roomy. However, what's billed as a kitchenette is a fitted module that looks like it came from MFI. It's got a sink with no drainer, a fridge, a kettle and some basic utensils. If you want cooking rings or pots and pans, then you have to ask for them and they give you a little portable duel ring unit that takes up even more space beside the sink. Not ideal if you're taking a family.

The Star Beach Water Park is between you and the sea so there may be a noise problem in high season. It didn't bother us at all when we were there but I noticed a few mentions of this online and you could hear a bit of beat from the music occasionally. If anything the place is a bit of a bonus if you have kids and entry is free.

Eating Out

There are loads of restaurants and tavernas to choose from in Hersonissos. There are a few along the main street but most are down on the harbourside street and you can choose from Chinese, Indian, Italian and Mediterranean as well as the more traditional Greek cuisines. There are even a couple of burger/gyros bars if all you want is some fast food.

We tried the Lee Garden Chinese restaurant a couple of times as the food was reasonably good and the staff were friendly. It was also about halfway along the walk into town so it was an easier option one night after a bit of a trek in the hills.

SunshadeStormy Seas

Closer to Star Beach were the Taverna Tarantella and Theodora's Garden. The Tarantella is a family run Greek restaurant and, while the staff are friendly and food reasonable, it's a bit on the basic side as far as the ambiance goes. Theodora's Garden is another good Greek restaurant but is much more popular so usually a lot busier.

The local Indian restaurant is Passage To India just across from the church on the main street. The food was okay but nothing impressive by Scottish curry standards and the service wasn't all that great either. I overheard the manager saying that they had a place in Malia as well and if it's the same one we tried when we were there, then it explains why the food here was so mediocre. There's another Chinese restaurant, who's menu looked good enough, beside it but we didn't try it.

As for the rest, there are a few Italian restaurants down near the harbour but neither are that great. They're okay but nothing to queue up for. As for the steak houses, both the Manos and Gourmet are pretty good and we ate in these a few times. We didn't try this but, if you're looking for something just a bit more refined, then Kymata down by the harbour might suit. The menu just looked a bit too nouvelle cuisine (poncy) for the likes of us so we gave it a miss.


Hersonissos is an extremely busy town, well it is once May gets under way and the holidaymakers start arriving on masse, so there are a large number of tavernas, bars, Irish bars and clubs for those looking for some entertainment. However, since it was early in the season, we found a lot of them were a bit on the quiet side.

The Irish bars were mostly empty and the New York bar wasn't much busier, mostly because of the dreadful music it was playing. Music bars Tiger and Status were still a bit quiet but got busier as the night went one and I imagine they'd be pretty lively later in the season. We ended up spending more than a few nights in the U2 Rock Bar as it played some decent heavy rock and metal music, which is more to my taste if not Lorna's.

All in all, there are loads of pubs, bars, clubs and discos to choose from so there's bound to be something for everyone here. Luckily, Hersonissos has a wide variety of visitors so you'll get lots of French, German and Dutch tourists as well as us Brits there so it's not quite as much of an English Hell as Malia has turned into (more on this later).

Monday, May 12, 2008

My Year As A Video Games Programmer

I got a blog comment on my other blog last week asking for information about a video game I worked on back in 1987 and that whole episode in my life came rushing back to me so I thought I'd better get it down before it fades from memory.

The Tube posterEarly in 1987, I was made redundant from a company called MacSerious Software when they decided to drop their Apple hardware sales force. That's another part of my life that I won't go into here but on a speculative visit to the local Dumbarton job centre, I noticed a card advertising for an experienced 6502 programmer. I wasn't expecting to see anything like that in there so I reckoned it was some sort of karmic intervention as I had indeed done some extensive work with the 6502 processor, which was what was in the Apple, Commodore and BBC computers of the time. Since I needed a job to support my wife, three-year old daughter, new mortgage and a car it was worth checking out.

The job was with Gannon Designs in Alexandria so I called, got an interview with the M.D. Martin Gannon and basically got the job on the strength of my previous work. I had absolutely no experience of games coding and was completely self-taught in 6502 assembly programming but I had done a lot of work on it, writing stuff like experiment process control and analysis on the Apple II and an image analysis suite for the BBC Micro, had several articles published in an Apple II focused magazine and had a bit of a hobby in removing the protection from Apple II games. Anyway, getting into video games was probably every programmer's dream at the time so I jumped at the chance.

Martin Gannon had been a fireman who, rather than spend his dead time on duty sleeping or playing cards like the rest of the watch, began programming games on the C64 and Vic-20 computers. He turned out to be a bit of a computing prodigy and even had a game out for the Vic-20 before the technical manuals had been released by figuring out how the video chip worked himself. He left the fire service when Argus Press M.D. Stephen Hall recognized his talent and pushed him to set up his own games development team and do work for the Quicksilva and Grandslam labels. Martin's first words to me were " Hi, I'm Martin! Bye the way, I've got a medical condition that makes me break wind a lot from both ends but it's not smelly so please don't be put off by it. So, you've done some 6502 coding…" and I knew were going to get on well.

Pac-Land posterGannon Designs was based in a small industrial estate behind the ex-torpedo factory in Alexandria and, unlike the bigger developers, was just a little office and a single programming room. The building we were in was pretty anonymous looking, which was pretty sensible if you know the Vale of Leven area. If the local wildlife had got a sniff that the place was full of home computer kit, then we'd have been turned over quickly and regularly. With five of us and all the computer kit jammed into that one wee room along with a Pac-Land arcade machine and a fancy coffee machine, so began my introduction to the world of games programming.

Things were definitely looking good. We had deals to do the Pac-Land and The Hunt For Red October conversions for the Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC and Sony MSX systems. Martin was working on a game of his own design called The Tube, a sort of mixed-mode space shoot em up and also doing a fair bit of sub-contracting work for other development teams by writing customized, protected, fast tape-loaders for them. Our graphics designer Mick also got to design loads of game loading screens for these so if you ever see a wee lozenge with MD in it in the corner of a game loading screen from that era, then it was probably done by Mick and the loader would have been Martin's. I've never since seen anyone capable of hand-coding and patching raw machine code as fast as Martin could do it - the man was a genius with computers.

I got put onto working on The Hunt For Red October even though we had no design yet. I dutifully read the book and got down to working out some of the physics involved in moving a sub through a 3-D environment while the rest of the team got on with trying to figure out Pac-Land. We had no support from Namco other than a photocopied manual in Japanese so the guys just played the arcade machine over and over and over to get the graphics and levels mapped out.

The Tube loading screen
We never really got much further on The Hunt For Red October. Argus wanted The Tube completed and work on coding Pac-Land started so they gave The Hunt to another team to let us get on with the other games and I moved over to helping Martin on The Tube. The C64 didn't have any decent development or storage systems so we did our assembler coding on a BBC Master, which was linked up to a C64 via the parallel ports. We just squirted the assembled code over to the C64 for testing whenever we needed to and stored all the source and object files on BBC floppy disks. It was a very efficient way to do it.

The Tube - Transfer ZoneThe C64 was an amazing bit of hardware for the time, coming as it did with dedicated graphics and sound processors. Having a 6502-based processor meant it could only address 64K of memory, yes only 64k so think about in terms of what we're used to now. I mean, I walk around with a 4Gb pen drive in my pocket. Anyway, we had to fit all of the game code into a measly 64k as well as the levels, sound, graphics and sprite data in a single tape load. There were a few games, like Gauntlet, that loaded their levels from tape each time but the wait involved in doing that just wasn't acceptable for most people so we didn't consider it. The C64 mapped its 32K ROM-based OS and BASIC into memory at startup so that took up half the space right away but Commodore in their wisdom used a 6510 processor in the C64, which allowed us to switch that out, leaving the whole 64K of memory to play with. The only problem with that was that, with the OS off, there was no handy library of routines available and we had to do absolutely everything ourselves. Without the VIC-II graphics and SID sound chips, we'd have been in serious trouble.

The Tube - Defence Mechanism TunnelAs for The Tube, as I said earlier it was something that Martin had designed himself. The idea was that there was this big tube out in space that sucked in ships and stripped them of cargo, etc. and your ship was next in line. It basically consisted of three levels - a first-person shooter, a sideways scroller and a top-down vertical scroller/puzzle. By this time Martin had also recruited Steve Kellett, another guy with a great track record on games development, and he did the sound effects and designed the logic puzzle in the game. Music for The Tube was done by a guy called David Whittaker and he did a wonderful job of it. If you want more info on the game or listen to the music, then you'll find a wealth of it here. I ended up coding the first-person shooter level, which involved simulating flying into the mouth of the tube while being bombarded by alien drones. The user got to man the sliding gun port and stop the aliens striking the ship so things could get a bit manic trying to move the gun target using the keyboard. I also helped out a bit with the sideways scroller level but I have to admit now that I wasn't a great fan of the game as the graphics were a bit on the basic side and the game-play tended to be on the easy side. The soundtrack was a cracker though!

The hours were long at Gannon Designs as deadlines have to be met and I imagine that's still the case in the games development world today but we all enjoyed what we did. However, when some twonk in marketing published the promo material well before the game was ready, we ended up doing lots of all-night coding and testing sessions to get the game completed. In fact I remember distinctly working all night on it to get my bit finished just before jetting off on holiday to Spain the next morning. I was still working at eight in the morning and the flight was at ten so I really wasn't popular at home that day.

Pac-Land loading screen
With The Tube out of the way and most of the graphics and level design having been done by the others, we all got into coding Pac-Land at last. Pac-land was a reasonably straight-forward but seriously addictive platform game that involved racing sideways through various landscapes (town, forest, mountains, desert, ponds, bridge and castle) avoiding Pac-Man's familiar adversaries, the ghosts, to return a lost fairy to her home in Fairyland.

I got the job of controlling and animating Pac-Man as he ran and jumped around the levels and his handling his interaction with the ghosts and scenery. I also controlled Sue, the lead ghost, and handled all the title, start, middle and end-level animations as well as animating the timers, score and credits, etc. We did the game in the standard, 40-column text mode in order to save memory, which meant that Mick had to design all of the level backgrounds using custom character sets and I think he did a excellent job of it. All the other graphic elements like Pac-Man, the ghosts and interactive scenery objects were done using the VIC-II chip's brilliant sprite capabilities. Memory was so tight though that I came up with the idea of compressing the sprite data and only expanding the ones required for each level. In the end, we simply didn't have room for all the levels so had to make do with a cut-down version.

Pac-land title screen
As with most C64 video games of the time, all of the code handling was triggered off of the screen refresh interrupt. To put it simply, most of the processing was done when the video scan beam had finished displaying the screen and was moving back to the top to start again and all of it synced off of a 25 frames-per-second trigger. In that gap, we had to act on any user input, update all sprite positions, scroll the screen if necessary, keep the music and sound effects going and update all the goings on around the screen border. It had to be done that way to avoid visible glitches on screen so all we did in the foreground program was a looped check for user input.

We had several months to get the job done and everyone was upbeat at the start but the long hours and the realization that we were never going to be able to fit all the levels and extras into the C64 eventually took its toll. In its time, the Pac-land conversion was definitely at the leading edge of C64 programming and no-one else had produced a full screen, smooth sideways scrolling game with as much animation going on before. In fact, it was so complex that we ran out of background processing time on each screen refresh and to avoid a screen glitch, I had to break the scrolling routines into two so that we scrolled the bottom half of the screen while the video scan beam was still drawing the top half. It was a huge game and took us much longer than anticipated, even with Steve Kellett co-opted onto the team to help as well. The delays also meant we had the publishers breathing down our necks about Christmas deadlines, which realistically meant that the game had to be ready for the October, pre-Christmas sales orders.

Pac-land town level
Towards the end, we were working seven extremely long days a week and we knew it was going badly. Martin was under severe pressure from Argus while also having to do coding work on the game and run the business and have a life with his wife and young son and things eventually broke under the strain of it all. Len, our MSX programmer went AWOL for a couple of weeks and then it was Christmas. Family life was suffering to and I only rarely got to spend time with my wife and daughter. I remember diving out of the office to the nearest jeweller on Christmas Eve to get a present for my wife; I just hadn't had the time to shop for anything.

Pac-Land mountains
The coding quality started to suffer too and with two of us working on different parts of the C64 version with no source code control system things eventually got out of sync with the master source, which threw a bug into the system that took me days to find. In January of 1988, Argus pulled Gannon Designs funding and that's when it all started to go really bad. Martin fired Mick for refusing to remove his customary MD logo from the loading screen as it was a condition of the license that no one got any credits on the game and Mick retaliated by dropping a huge magnet on what he thought were the graphics master disks (we had backups). By that time Tommy (the Spectrum and CPC programmer), Steve and myself started looking for new jobs before the inevitable happened, which it did in early February when Martin called in the receivers. I'm not sure what happened to Len, he just vanished and I've never heard from him since. We were all made redundant in late February, having had no wages since Christmas.

Also laterally, Martin had been prone to inexplicably falling over and after some tests we found out that he'd contracted Motor Neurone Disease, which is a terminal condition. After the break up of Gannon Designs, his condition deteriorated quite quickly and he sadly passed away about a year or so after. We did keep in touch from time to time and the last time I spoke to him, he was lying on the floor (he couldn't walk by then) programming the bejesus out of an Amiga 500.

Well, that was it - the year of my life spent in computer games development. It was a great experience and a terrible experience all at the same time but also a very memorable one.

Pac-Land break time