The Average Gamer

The Making Of ZX Spectrum R-Type

Making Of RType - HeaderBack in the late 1980s and early 1990s the videogame industry was a very different beast. Development teams were infinity smaller than those for modern games like GTA V or Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, the latter including most (if not all) of Ubisoft’s worldwide studios. The idea that a videogame could make $1 billion within a few days of release, as GTA V has just done, was pure science fiction. Instead this was a industry full of bedroom coders like Mr Bob Pape.

Bob Pape is a computer operator turned programmer who was responsible for some of the ZX Spectrum’s best coin-op conversions, namely Rampage and R-Type.

Back in 1988 both these games weren’t very well known as they hadn’t been in the arcades for very long, which is how Pape, a guy with virtually no game programming experience got the job converting them to the ZX Spectrum. And he’s written a book about it.

Today, R-Type is well known as the classic side scrolling shoot-em-up and a game that I love to bits.

The book’s called It’s Behind You: The making of a computer game and it’s free to download from his website. In it Pape chronicles the development of both Rampage and then R-Type in a refreshingly frank way. This isn’t game development through rose-tinted glasses. For example, just before the Rampage development deadline he was amazed to find the monsters were happily moving without human input. He writes “I must have written the AI code sometime Thursday, but was so stressed and tired that I’d just blanked the whole thing out of my mind and forgotten I’d done it.”

R-Type - Spectrum Level 3 Ship

You’d also expect to at least have access to play the actual arcade game you’re converting, wouldn’t you? Well, the official R-Type reference manual from IREM was still being translated from Japanese to English during development, leaving Pape with only a video tape of someone playing the game to refer to. When replicating enemies attack patterns:

“Originally I had planned to tape a sheet of clear acetate over the TV, play back the video of the game I had received and use a felt pen to trace the patterns of the aliens onto the acetate as they moved across the screen.”

R-Type - Level 4 Boss
By hook and by crook Pape finished R-Type in time for Christmas 1988 where it generated loads of gushing reviews from the then-influential games magazines. I used to have subscriptions to Computer & Video Games, various Amiga magazines and The One. Before the internet it was the only place to get games news, review and previews. In one of the funniest sections of the whole book Pape speaks his mind on the quality of the various Spectrum R-Type reviews and for his colleague’s Atari ST conversion:

“…one ‘review’ of Karl’s ST version of R-Type that gave it six out of ten for Sound. The only problem was that as I was reading this in the office Karl was still working on the totally sound-free and music-less game code and didn’t expect to have a beep out of the machine for at least a couple of weeks!”

It’s Behind You: The making of a computer game is a real blast from the past that took me straight back to my childhood playing R-Type with my friend Dugan (aka TikiPod) on his ZX Spectrum. If you’ve ever had the slightest interest in what it was like when the industry was still finding its feet, you should read it. It even contains raw code from the actual game itself.