RVG Interviews: Carleton Handley

Here we interview another industry veteran, Carleton Handley. Carleton has created games for the C64, Amiga and Atari ST game right up to modern-day mobile titles and has even started to venture in the growing world of homebrew game dev, stop what your doing and read on.

Enjoy!

RVG

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

Carleton

Hi, it’s not a problem as I like talking about the old days. I’m 48 years old and live in Ramsbottom in northern England with my wife. I’ve been programming for a job even since I left school at 16 but these days it’s mostly none game iOS apps.

RVG

What was the first game you ever created?

Carleton

This depends what you mean by first. I started off with C64 Basic which is a bad beginner language and wrote a Pong game. My first game in 6502 would have also been a Pong game named Blip Blop which is actually available on CSDB. My first published game was Wanderer however I think Elite delayed the release of that and my second game (Spitting Image) came out first.

RVG

You worked for Walking Circles, tell us about those days, were they as rock n roll as we all imagined it to be?

Carleton

Certainly not at Walking Circles. I was only 16 when I started there so not even old enough to drink. I did have my first ever curry when working there and we used to go to the pub to play pool every Friday lunchtime which was as Rock and Roll as it got. I worked at Software Creations later which was a lot livelier! We used to organize something called Payday Palaver where we’d all go to Rusholme for a curry and then end up drinking in Manchester to the small hours. Often we’d end up in a club called 5th Avenue and they were fairly Halcyon days for Manchester as it was the whole Madchester thing happening around then. And I guess like everybody else Christmas parties were pretty notorious. One year we were thrown out of a swanky bar and none of us even realised it was happening until we found ourselves in a back alley facing some fire doors.

RVG

Do you have any anecdotes you can share from those days?

Carleton

We were promoting Spitting Image and got to visit “Zzap! Towers”. It was something I’d always wanted to do since reading issue one but it was just a cluttered office above an estate agents’ shop in Ludlow and I was slightly underwhelmed. Also somebody had left Parallax running in the background so that tune was blurting out for about 2 hours whilst we sat around which got old quite quickly. I still can’t listen to that music. Eventually one of the Crash reviewers got a chance to play the Spectrum version of Spitting Image. He completed the whole game in about 10 minutes just by button mashing. It was pretty embarrassing. We weren’t expecting great reviews after that and indeed didn’t get them despite treating them to a pizza!

There was a time at Walking Circles where we hired a guy called Andy to come in as a trainee C64 coder. Sadly it didn’t really work out for him but he now owns and runs Arcade Club which is a huge success. I think that worked out well for him. He’s a really nice guy as well.

RVG

Which software company did you enjoy working for the most and why?

Carleton

I think probably Zed Two. It was run by the Pickford Brothers who I still count amongst my friends and we had a small but talented group of people there. We were all a bit older by then so there wasn’t the chaos of Software Creations with a better balance of work and levity when required. Also I got to go on a 4 day business trip to New York on my very first day of the job as a replacement for Ste who couldn’t make it.

RVG

Who in the industry from those days and now most admire and why?

Carleton

Stephen Ruddy at Software Creations. I worked with him on the FIFA games we did there. I was already a fan from playing his C64 games as a kid (Bubble Bobble, Bionic Commando etc.). Not only was he an exceptional programmer he was a really nice guy and generous with his knowledge.

Dave Thomas of C64 Buggy Boy fame is another programmer I looked up to as a fledgling programmer and we both now work for the same company. I was speaking to him at a company function once and he let slip he’d also written the Arthur Pendragon games for Ultimate. That’s quite a back catalogue he has!

RVG

Are you surprised with the resurgence in retro gaming?

Carleton

I’m pleasantly surprised so many people still enjoy playing on the old hardware. I’m not surprised that Indie games are full of retro inspired stuff though. The foundations of great games were laid down a long time ago and have been refined to be even better now. There’s something I really like about the purity of a platformer or a shooter which I don’t often feel playing modern AAA games. And online gaming holds no interest for me at all.

RVG

Which one the games you was involved in are you the proudest of and why?

Carleton

If we’re talking C64 it’d have to be APB, it was the only really quality game I had published on the C64. It’s not without its flaws though and I still have the old source code. I’ve toyed with the idea of fixing it up a little.

I did an iOS game called Say What You See and we worked as a really small team and had great success and a good community around it. The success felt personal as so few people were involved. We recently tried to Kickstart the game to get some money to develop it again but sadly failed. I still meet people who played and loved that game.

RVG

And which game caused you the most headaches?

Carleton

When Software Creations was doing really well they tried to invest in an original game named Moon Jelly, based around some brilliant artwork somebody there had done. Sadly the game itself wasn’t really fleshed out and it was the start of the N64/PSX era so we were all struggling to adapt to the demands of the new machines. It became a graveyard for programmers and artists who got moved on and off it between projects to try and make something out of it. It must have ended up costing the company a lot of money and there was never anything playable even at the end.

Also at Software Creations was Waterworld based on the notorious flop movie. This was the game I was hired to write the PS1 version of but we had issue after issue with it. It was eventually canned. Nothing I worked on in my first three years at Software Creations saw ever released.

RVG

Tell us about how APB came about?

Carleton

Walking Circles did a lot of contracting for Domark which I think started when they did Kat-Trap (I’ve just realised this is almost the same name as the game which influenced Millie and Molly) as the competition winner from Crash Magazine’s design a game competition. I’d done Spitting Image for them and then they got the Tengen/Atari licence. We were either going to develop APB or Toobin’ and I’d have actually have preferred to do the latter at the time. I don’t know why we ended up with APB but it was an interesting and challenging game to work on.

RVG

Bloodline was sadly never officially released, can you tell us about the reasons for that and how the game was first originally designed?

Carleton

Although some of the best C64 games were made at this time C64 development was dead for a work for hire team like us. Publishers wanted 16-bit games so I moved over to developing for the PC and Amiga. Team 17 had huge success with Alien Breed so we wanted to do something along those lines. What we also did (and something which was rare at the time) was create procedurally generate levels around a simple template of rooms. This was based on an old Design Design success (the company from which Walking Circles was born) called Halls of the Things. So we wrote up a prototype which can be seen on the Games That Weren’t website but no publisher took enough of an interest for it to ever get completed. I’ve probably worked on as many unpublished or cancelled projects as I have ones which have seen the light of day.

RVG

How did you find developing games on the Game Gear, what were the challenges and so on?

Carleton

The Game Gear was a relatively simple machine to code for. It had similar hardware features to the C64 which just worked in a slightly different way. And there were plenty of experienced coders at Tiertex to help out. I had to learn Z80 but you were always changing language back then. I’d already worked in 6502, 68000 and 8086 at Walking Circles.

RVG

Was it hard adapting to the changing hardware over the years?

Carleton

The biggest shift was moving to the bigger consoles like the PSX. We didn’t realise at the time that teams would have to be much bigger and we were still working on prototype dev kits with very little documentation and community knowledge base. This was the days before the internet and all the help you can find on there.

RVG

What made you want to get involved in Retro Game Development?

Carleton

I’ve been developing for iOS for the last ten years. Mainly doing utility apps rather than games. I dabbled in writing a couple of quick games for iOS and published them but the time investment was too much and phones don’t really support the type of games I like to code. And I made almost zero money. So I really missed coding games, and where better to return to than where it all started with the C64? Not that I’m going to make any money out of this either but I really enjoy it and it doesn’t feel like work!

RVG

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

Carleton

I like to write versions of games I enjoy playing. Picross on the 3DS and Switch has taken a lot of my gaming time. So that’s why I wrote Grid Pix for the C64. Millie and Molly is also based on a game I loved (see later).

My next project is much more arcade like and is influenced by the very best stuff I played back in the day. On the C64 I particularly liked Andrew Braybrook’s games and Dropzone. Also me and my friends would spend a lot of our time playing arcade games which I still enjoy today on my MAME cabinet. Wonderboy and Bubble Bobble get the most play there. We often visit Arcade Club for a trip down memory lane. Also most of Nintendo’s output, they still make the kind of videogame I like to play.

RVG

Were you ever involved with the creation of games on systems like the Gizmondo, Konix Multisystem or any of the other lesser known systems or unreleased systems?

Carleton

At Zed Two I worked on two games for the Pocket PC, a short lived gadget which was actually quite nice. One was even an official Tetris conversion, the other was Zed Two’s original game Sticky Balls. Both were complete and very playable on the device but were never released. Sticky Balls was then being converted to the newly announced PSP when Zed Two was taken over by Warthog. It never came out there either but did become one of the few releases on the Gizmondo.

I had a few years developing mobile phone games before the days of smart phones. We had to work on all sorts of esoteric handsets there. Including the N-Gage which was Nokia’s huge flop. I did a conversion of California Games at that time and had to make a version for a handset with 40kb of memory and a screen resolution of around 120×70 or something ridiculous, they were certainly a challenge.

RVG

Can you tell us about how you came up with the Millie and Molly Meet Malicious Monsters game idea?

Carleton

Millie and Molly is based on a GameBoy game I used to play called Catrap. I think it’s still available on the 3DS Virtual Console, I certainly still play it on there. The project started because I wondered whether I could extract the level data from the GameBoy game and knock up the relatively simple logic needed for the game in 6502. It’s spiralled somewhat since then but you can see the early prototype on my YouTube channel.

RVG

What was your biggest challenge in creating this game?

Carleton

Coding wise it’s relatively simple, I guess the biggest thing there is that I don’t really use the C64’s hardware sprites because there are too many elements on screen at any one time for that. And the rewind feature which could be a first for a C64 game. If you make a mistake on a level you can rewind the whole level one step at a time to before the time you feel you made the error. That could just falling down a hole you didn’t want to go down to rewinding 100 steps when you shouldn’t have moved a certain boulder.

What I really struggle with is level design. It’s more of a skill than people probably realise, we didn’t even really have designers (or QA) when I was first coding. I was going to release the game with the original GameBoy levels in there but that felt cheeky. This is why I added a level editor; the hope was that players would create levels and I’d curate the best ones. Fortunately my old friend and colleague Chun stepped in and has given a lot of his free time and skills to create 100 brand new amazing levels.

RVG

You are making a new run and gun game for the C64, can you expand on your plans for this game?

Carleton

I started on this because Saul (the artist on M&M) sent me some work in progress graphics he’d created. They piqued my interested because my other two projects have been puzzle games which are technically less demanding. So I wrote a scroller and it’s carried on from there. Saul has some ideas for the game he’s getting together so we’ll have to discuss between us where we want the game to go. I want a kind of Metroidvania where you do missions and gain new abilities which are essential for the next. Because it’s a C64 game it won’t be one big sprawling map where you backtrack a lot though. Each mission will work like an old school Zelda dungeon with a good sized map you can wander about in getting keys for clearing a room or some light puzzling. These keys will then give you access to new parts of the map which will be completable in any order. Eventually you’ll get to a showdown and the new item. This may or may not be a boss fight as I tend to hate those in game.

I’m very excited about it but again the level design is going to be a big challenge and the game I’m seeing in my head is a couple of leagues above my two previous C64 games and may not be doable as a hobby project.

Finally

A huge thanks to Carleton for taking some time to chat to us. Hope you enjoyed our latest interview. You can follow Carleton on Twitter.

zapiy

Retro head and key holder of RVG.