The Powder Diaries – 2 – a Summer of Coding

A summer of Powder

The summer of 1990 has been one of the most intense times since; me thomas filippo and nicola were busy in working with powder and also trying to go to the same college. Marco was more adamant in getting in the game industry straight away and was trying to focus deeply in the game. So its work was in a more advanced state.

At the time powder was being written using the Seka Assembler, but later developers found the Asm-One assembler to be more performant and switched.

Taking advantage of its parents busy schedule, me, Maltese and sometime Tomas were using Maltese living room and bedrooms as development studio. We planned powder to have ten levels, five of which with Maltese graphics and five with mine. My levels were supposed to be (according to our internal naming): city,factory,ruins,forest and space while Maltese levels would be: sea, starships graveyard,clouds, Maze and final. Maltese also took in its hands the player ships design – for coherency and also because was better able to design the tilt of the ships.

Maltese started to sketch ships for the game and, for test purposes, adapted one of the main ships he designed for M-type to the Powder palette; Tomas andNicola loved it and started to fantasize about power ups; we were looking for a way to avoid the Power Up syndrome too,and recently we had occasion to see a Toaplan coin-op called Hellfire, where the player ship was able to switch fire positions, and thought we could have different way of fire available at once. At the beginning we had only the normal shoot and the laser, then we expanded to include homing missiles, the orientable cannon and the armored bomber. Another coin-op we took inspiration and in exchange we had parallel ideas to was Air Buster, even though rhytm and play actionwere at the end different.


The game has started using a 16 full color palette; it was the convinction of Nicola and mine that the actual use of dual playfield (three bitplanes for foreground, three bitplanes for background) was too chastising for a nice arcade-like graphic style, so we decided to reduce the frame rate at 25 fps and keeping the palette full 16 color. This would have allowed big sprites moving at a decent rate. However the code review of Tomas and Filippo shown that lot of raster time was lost and that keeping all elements at 16 colors was going to waster raster time and memory,. so they came out with an idea; it was possible to enable or disable less bitplanes using some selected palettes; they called the system SBE/SPE (Single Bitplane Enabled / Single Palette Enabled); that gave us graphic artist a way to create sprites with less colors but with interesting schemas. Then the use of those palettes were enabled by flags in the enemy editor.


This work file from Space shows all 2/4 and 8 palettes available.

Looking for a title

Well it was hard to find an appropriate name for yet another shoot’em up: most of the names were pretentious and bold looking: Thunderforce, Herzog Zwei, Cardiaxx, Io, R-Type, Salamander, etc. I suggested Powder both for the assonance to the gunpowder and also for the skill of our ship to reduce enemies to dust (in italian the name “polvere” can be used for powder, dust and occasionally ashes).

I was trying to create something that was unseen on amiga – at least at the time – like a multiplexor(?) robot made with all pieces where you can destroy the shell first then you have to destroy the internal machinery; it was supposed to be placed as city boss but at the end it had to be scrapped due to memory constraints and for the bad look of the rotated pieces.

The game graphics also got reworked. The first level to be reworked was Forest, suppsedly set in a redwood forest; palette got adjusted to a milder shade and the background tiles reworked based on some encyclopedia and magazine photos. For the ruins level I remember took inspiration from my art school books and tried to reproduce several architectonic features and monuments; plus the sky was much more in the purple tone, since the idea was we were liberating an alien world.

Factory, instead, was inspired from my night outskirts around Ancona, especially by the oil refinery, its compicated towering and piping structure and the way was glowing at night, together with the glowing lightnings over the Adriatic sea on rainstorms; all reminded me strongly of Blade Runner (guess you realized am a strong aficionado of this movie,huh?) and inner piping of structures like the Atmospheric processor in Aliens. It was sharing the original city palette at beginning.

A very important thing that hoped could distunguish powder – at least aesthetically – was the idea that every level got a different light sourcing and every object – including the player ship -would be affected by it; that meant more work but also a more immersive feeling.

Fall 1990

It was september, time for university entry tests. It was our intention to work together and,if possible, to stay together. With the exception of Maltese, more determined to work straight out, me and the programmers underwent entry tests in Cesena and Bologna respectively.

Tests were pretty hard for my background and, beside Tomas attempt to decode the barcode close to quiz answers by hand, nothing else particular comes to my mind. however at the end, the team suffered a split. Nicola was admitted in Cesena , Filippo in Bologna and finally me and Tomas went to pursue Electronic Engineering in Ancona, or “Tyrell Corporation”, as i called it inside my mind.


So in the fall and winter of 1990 my course of study in Ancona College started. The Engineering faculty is located in a place called Monte d’Ago – on the top of one of the hills surrounding Ancona; to reach it i was,from the Ancona train station, required to cross the street, reach the bus stop, take the overcrowded bus to the cemetery below, then go uphill on the slope for another 400/500 feet with no sidewalk to the entrance of the main movie-theater-like classroom located in “quota 145” (no names for floors, just the elevation in meters). Do everything in reverse to go home, not mentioning train problems, bus problems,etc. so when possible i tried to go there with the car, but then finding a parking was sometimes next to impossible, since was not the only one.

However, was there listening to the teachers talking about disciplines that were at a WAY higher level that me, an art school student graduated from a side institute, were able to handle properly, but i was trying. I found myself trying to follow and copy almost painstakingly the most of the stuff that teachers were writing (badly) in the whiteboard; beside that, the work on Powder still continued, albeit slowly, on the evenings at home or in some of my notebooks, with sketches for enemies and maps and trying to create animations, that was a bit hard since the Dpaint version I was using was still at 3 – that means no onion skin, just a lot of back and forth on frames to make sure the animation was right.

Some reworking had been made to the factory level: after one discussion with thomas that said that the level and concept “looked like sh*t” i was so upset that modified the palette and reviewed all of the graphics already done working all night for it! Fctory was at the core of my idea of different light sources – together with space – and i really did not wanted that scrapped out!


A workfile of Factory – there are three screens full of blocks like this!
In the top left a couple blocks remaining from the old version above,
that was having a much more contrasted lighting

Even soundtracks were progressing, albeit slowly. Was around this time that i created the soundtrack for space, the one for factory and had to rework the boss track that I did for city, making it the main level track, due to the fact that programmers got fed of it and that they thought the boss track was more suitable for the level action.

Music – Powder City Level soundtrack v2 – 1990/91 (Unreleased) from simone bernacchia on Vimeo.

Had also my first event-driven soundtrack done: the one for the space level; our first idea was to have at least two point of interaction: one with the energy less than 50% and the other one with less than 10%.  It was also meant like this due to the fact that at beginning we expected the player to have only one life.

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



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