The powder Diaries -1 – The seeds are sown

I tried at least three times to write memories about this game; it was our mother lode project and writing about it in a satisfying way is a good deal of text and so is not easy. This is the first part, talking about the beginnings and how the idea came out.

the Beginning: QUAZAR, Nike and M-Type

In 1988 had occasion to met with Max,another amiga user. We were exchanging games and tools; one day he showed me a demo made by some schoolmates. Was a simple demo with a starfield and a scroller plus a ripped module but was kinda exciting for me. Since I got my amiga 500 I was intrigued by the crackers intros and, having finally the opportunity to know one of those groups – albeit tiny- was a good chance. so i started to cooperate with them.

Around the same time, i got in touch with Nicola Valentini – nicknamed Nike – that liked to swap software and was trying to learn assembly for coding; i later found out he was in the same classroom with Filippo and Max: how small world, isn’t’it? However, he was coding small intros for which i helped do the graphic and the music; it went with the nickname “Nike” but haven’t found its stuff anywhere

Filippo and Thomas lived in a suburb of Fano, called Centinarola; Especially Thomas used to live in top of a hill in the middle of marche landscape, and we were used on Fridays to reach the place and sit upstairs in the old kitchen – where he had its own lab – to do code experiments and decide what to do next.

and after a couple of simple demo, one came out that was a bit unconventional: using balls we made an animation of a figure; using the joystick we were able to move balls around and to create animation frames. So in the spring of 1990, the internally called “Pupo” Demo came out, and was a mild success.

Quazar Anniversary Demo a.k.a Pupo (1990) from simone bernacchia on Vimeo.

I knew Marco Maltese since the eighties; we were both spectrum users and both were  building our games in Basic on the ZX spectrum and compiling it; actually he taught me some trick like using IN ports to read keys or joystick, or to use the IS compiler rather than the FP to have dramatical increase in speed – with the sacrifice of tihngs like DIM and other advanced instructions, though.

When Amiga started to be sold in the 500 model he was working in a local computer store in Senigallia, actually he was also dating the daughter of the store owner, but this is secondary: in its position he was exposed to a good deal of hardware and software and had occasion to test the 500 beforehand. I started to get some software such as Deluxe Paint or other utilities even BEFORE to buy my own 500, because once i saw it i falled in love with it; was able to buy my Amiga 500 in summer of 1988 and started to meddle with dpaint.

Both me and mMaltese were r-type fans and estimators, snd that was obvious: r-type came out in 1987 and set a new standard for horizontal shoot’em ups both in the graphics and in the gameplay, providing,with its beam cannon, an elegant solution to the power-up syndrome.

We begun to plan to build a worthy evolution of the game, hoping to squeeze the amiga machine with 32 color graphics – if not 64 with Half Brite – and HUGE enemy sprites. However,our knowledge of the new hardware and a proper workflow for the capabilities of the machine was unknown to us: surely the Amiga Basic would not be able to handle the mass of graphics we had in mind, and at the time AMOS was still just an hypothesis,not even vaporware. At the end our designs were mostly brainstorming and a way to improve our skills in a more powerful environment than the Spectrum and C-64 one. I was composing music on the sonix program first, then SoundFX and at the end Noisetracker – a Soundtracker clone; and he was designing ships on dpaint, but everything was kinda hanging waiting to have the way to develop. Our knowledge of BASIC was not going to cut it this time for our expectations – that included as said big bobs, maybe even lot of parallax scroll.

The project was called M-Type (a pun between R-type and the initials of Maltese), and i remember its idea was to have multiple ships with multiple way of firing; in some way this predated the idea of powder but also of the future evolutions of the R-type franchising, especially R-Type Final – that came out in 2003.

That is the problem when you live in the future: everybody else that follow your tracks – consciously or less – ends up looking like a copycat.

February 1990

At the time I was an art student; well not exactly: being sent to repeat my fourth year in Art school twice, despite my efforts and overnight work  this in italy means you are done with high school, and not in a good way. so went to study in a private institute to get my five year degree (called “maturity degree” in italy) and in the meanwhile was continuing to work on some graphics for the M-type project; my ideas were mostly on paper about semi-organic ships (imagine metal ships with blood vessels protruding from it.

Tomas and Filippo were trying to make some games to increase their skills in assembly coding; Tomas was working on a side volleyball game a la “Power spikes“, and we had the idea to use non-human characters for it; i recovered a funny hairy character i designed for an old BASIC spectrum game and made it the main player;  the provvisional name was “alien volley”.

Then one day me and nicola were talking about the recent r-type conversion – made by Factor 5 – and how we were thinking we can do it better. Was intention of nicola to learn to program in assembly, and a video game seemed to be the right project. Keep in mind that at the time there was a shortage of good horizontal shooters on the Amiga: the best so far was R-type, and then Blood Money – despite being technically good – was very difficult; plus Menace was too easy.

That spring Nicola went to a trip in Budapest with the school for five days; however, i think he got struck by a lighting or something like that, because when he came back home started to write a tool to compose maps, that we called MED – acronym for Map Editor; was a pretty simple tool that allowed to choose a group of tiles from a page and to copy it in the scrollable area, ten blocks at the time. Blocks were 16×16 pixel and 16 color depth. He also started the base code for Powder, at the time with only the ship shooting in the scrolling landscape.

And so I started to design the first map of the game: city. At the beginning the inspiration for city came to me from blade runner and the several cyberpunk stuff trending in that moment, so that the round building and the grey stones one survived all the way to the final game,albeit modified and improved. Same for the monorail tracks around; the only thing that did not survived was an olive color in the palette (thought because one of my first enemies was a flying version of my first car), replaced by the light brown.

NIKE'EM-UP ELEMS1Some early sprites that I made for the player ship when i started to work with Nicola – also see the test for the factory ship at night on the top

At the time was nicola itself to convert the IFF graphics in raw format (RAW format under Amiga mean that the bitplanes are saved one after the other uncompressed), then in the future we found some external tool for that, maybe prepared from demoscene coders.

One day Nicola shown up at Thomas since was asking help on how to fix the code for the game, that was kinda behaving poorly;  Filippo and Tomas decided to help Nicola and at the end all of them decided to join together in building the game. There have been some moments I wish was able to capture, like when Tomas found a weird routine in Nicola Code and commented aside “How the f***k is possible to wait for the blitter this way?”.

I also prepared the first music for the game; i found the guitar chords in a demo that was using wireframe graphics for text and meters (forgot the name) [EDIT: was Vicious circle from The Vector Analizer intro of Prophets] and loved it; at least for one year this music was on our ears while trying to test stuff. We were thinking at a way to make the music react with the game so there are at least two or three situations sketched up.

Music – Powder city soundtrack v1 – 1990 (Unreleased) from simone bernacchia on Vimeo.

Since we were still planning stuff, Nicola wanted more variety on the graphics and thought my ship was not too fancy; so i thought Maltese was the right guy and so did let him know about our project. The other liked its graphics and so at the end he was in too.

So far was able to work on the game just sporadically since was also busy with my final exams, but after the half of June, finally relieved of the taks, was able to get more involved on it.

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