Everyone has to start somewhere. Even the most dedicated and renowned game developers began with a straightforward idea, polishing and honing it until their first game duly appeared. Sometimes these would be released virtually unnoticed; on other occasions, they’d hit the ground running with a smash hit of epic proportions. For our fourth entry in this series, we present Jon Williams, an industry veteran of over 30 years, telling us about his first fully-published game, the rocket-powered, Walkman-wearing Jet-Boot Jack…
Title: Jet-Boot Jack
Format: Atari 8-bit
Year released: 1983
Publisher: English Software
Plot: Space-age jogger and all-round cool dude Jet Boot Jack has found his way into his local record pressing plant, and the tunes are breaking out, man! With his Walkman on, Jack is on a mission to collect all the errant notes and create the most excellent musical playlist of all time. Unfortunately, the bugs and gremlins are out to get him, but with his mighty jet boots thrusting him across each level, there’s no stopping this funky fellow!
Reviews: Home Computer Weekly praised Jet-Boot Jack, calling it ‘difficult to play at first, but after practice, quite addictive.’ Your Commodore magazine wasn’t quite as effusive, but admired the graphics, especially ‘the way [Jack] shrugs his shoulders to duck under the rock formations.’ Yet, while reviewing the Atari 8-bit original, Personal Computer News cited the English Software game as ‘one of the best, most playable and carefully-thought out games for the Atari… excellent throughout. English Software has produced a likely chart-topper.’
After tasting success on the Atari with Jet-Boot Jack, Jon moved on to Commodore 64 development before graduating to the Nintendo Entertainment System and SNES in the early nineties. After involvement in games such as Brutal: Paws Of Fury and Maui Mallard: Cold Shadow, Jon worked for Eurocom in Derby and moved to PlayStation games, including Crash Bash and Disney’s Hercules. Having retired in 2012, today he works on updated versions of his 8-bit games.
Antstream Arcade: Hello, Jon! How did you get into computers?
Jon: Hello! My first experience with programming was with programmable calculators in the seventies, culminating in the Texas TI-59, which could save small programs to magnetic cards. My first computer was a Commodore PET – I tried to write a Space Invaders-style game in BASIC but found it too slow – so I learned how to include assembly code routines, all hand assembled using the built-in monitor.
AA: Had you coded any games before Jet-Boot Jack?
Jon: Not games, but the first program I actually wrote was a utility called Atari Cassette Enhancer, or ACE, which improved the cassette handling system of the Atari computer. I also wrote Multiboot for personal use, but it did become widespread after a while. That allowed you to load multiple games onto a single disk so they could all be run from a menu.
AA: How did you get the idea for Jet-Boot Jack? Are you a music fan?
Jon: Actually, the game didn’t start off with a musical theme at all – it was originally a straightforward platform game using the lifts to move around the screen. The notes started off as small dots and came when I was asked to add them and a Walkman to Jack – English Software were hoping they could get a tie-in deal with Sony, but it never happened.
AA: Did you create everything for Jet-Boot Jack?
Jon: Yes, I created the graphics by colouring in grids on printed A4 paper and then working out the correct data values – the same for the screen layouts. It was all very ‘manual’ – for my later games, I wrote editors and utility programs to help. The same for the sound effects and music; they were mainly just trial and error. It was all very much designed to work on Atari’s hardware and display list. By then, I had a good knowledge of the computer and had even disassembled ROMs to find out how things were done.
AA: How did the game end up at English Software?
Jon: I’d sent ACE to English, and they asked if I had anything else. I’d been working on Jet-Boot Jack for a while, so I sent them a demo, and they agreed to publish it.
AA: What happened after Jet-Boot Jack?
Jon: After it was released, I quit my stable job and became a freelance programmer. It was the start of the Atari vs Commodore vs Spectrum battle, and unfortunately Atari was slowly becoming the poor relation in terms of sales. So I decided to move to the C64 as it used the same processor, writing a few more games for English before working for other companies as well.
AA: Finally, as your first commercial videogame, what does Jet-Boot Jack mean to you today?
Jon: I still remember it very fondly. It allowed me to break into writing games for a living, and it’s really rewarding to know that it’s still being played today after so many years.
If our chat with Jon has whetted your appetite for some Jet Boot action, you can play his very first game, for free, on Antstream Arcade! Our thanks to Jon for his time – stay tuned for another developer talking about their first game soon.