jatonhead.jpg['Quiz Me Quik' is a weekly GameSetWatch column by journalist Alistair Wallis, in which he picks offbeat subjects in the game business and interviews them about their business, their perspective, and their unique view of life. This time, we get a little weird.]

This column seems to be turning into some kind of weirdly self-absorbed trip down memory lane for me, at least in the introductions, though it has on occasions made its way throughout the column proper like some kind of terrible beard-stroking, sky-gazing virus.

It’s like I’ve just discovered informal first-person journalism or something, except that I’ve been writing like this for other places for a while now. Anyways, given the lack of angry comments calling me out on my egotism, I assume it’s not getting up anyone’s nose, which is lovely.

And, on the odd chance that it is – and, by extension, I am - getting up your nose, hoo boy are you going to hate me this week.

Back in early 1992, while in Mr Harris’ grade four class, I was engaged in some kind of cartooning cold war with my best friend Sam. I had created – amongst other things – a family of anthropomorphic radishes. He had created a family of anthropomorphic echidnas. And though we were best friends, we did have more than a few blow-ups: he copied me, you know?

I like to think I was ahead of my time in regards to intellectual property protection rights.

Anyways, the one thing I had going that he didn’t was a video game design document. It was, admittedly, not a finished design document, but it was better than nothing. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the first thing about programming, and nor did any of my friends, so the Jaton the Radish game never really got underway – discounting a brief, unsatisfactory, jaunt into the world of Macromedia Director later that decade.

The documents, however, survive, and have been scanned for your enjoyment in an extraordinarily painful and time consuming manner: the scrapbook I used at the time is something like A3.75 or some inconvenient measurement. As such, the scanning was done in four sections for each page, before they were all stitched together. Goddamn it.

Back to the point at hand: since this column is called Quiz Me Qwik, and not - I don’t know; Show and Tell Hour or something, I’ve decided to interview myself about the project and its influences. Narcissism ahoy!

GSW: Let’s begin at the start, and talk a little about the genesis of the character – was it intended to be a video game from the beginning?

Alistair Wallis: Firstly, don’t use the word “genesis” in that context ever again. It makes us sound like a complete bastard. Secondly, no, it wasn’t intended to be a game in the beginning. Like we said in our intro, the character – Jaton, and eventually his family – grew from a fairly simple desire to have a regular cartoon character that I could work with. If I recall correctly, I was sitting in the shelter shed one lunchtime and drew a very simple looking radish.

I intended to use the name ‘Jupiter’, but realised soon after beginning to write it out that I, in fact, had absolutely no idea how to spell the word, and decided to settle for ‘Saturn’ instead. Unfortunately, I also had no idea how to spell that properly, and the ‘S’ still looked very much like a ‘J’. So I went with Jaton.

For the most part, I would just draw pictures, or write stories using Jaton and associated characters, which I developed around the same time, or – come to think of it – even earlier. I had a character dating from 1990 called Cool Dog, which I brought back and added to the Jaton-universe, which is a pretty interesting example of the kind of retrospective use of characters that seems popular in comics, I guess. Like an anthropomorphic Watchmen, but not really like that, now that I think about it. At all.

Jaton, eventually, had a son and a wife, and possibly even a daughter, but that isn’t entirely relevant as they make no appearance in the game design, unless you count the fact that they are – presumably – frozen along with the rest of Jaton’s home country/world, Vegetable Land. He did have a number of antagonists, however, who did play an expectedly large part in the game – mostly, they were rabbits, and that sort of thing. You know, vegetables….rabbits. Makes good sense.

I did attempt a book of short comic strips after seeing my friend Sam do that very thing, but I have a feeling that he might have appropriated his ideas from existing strips like Garfield, and so I found the task of actually making up 25-30 three panel strips a little hard. It’s probably for the best that they never made it out to the general public - that is to say, my year four classmates. What I did finish wasn’t very funny.

There was also, oddly, a series of basketball cards that I did – actual NBA cards were pretty huge at that time – and photocopied at the local video store. I recall handing them out to a few friends, but I don’t remember whether or not anyone was impressed or happy or even kept them.

The actual starting date of the game, I’m not so sure about. I believe it may have been around September or August of 1992. There was, I believe, a first draft of the first level, written out waiting while my mum was doing aerobics at the gym. None of it has survived, it seems.

GSW: How much do we remember of the first draft, though?

AW: Not a great deal, really. It was written on paper from the train that runs between Adelaide and Darwin: The Ghan. My uncle was doing the design for the paper, so we had an enormously large amount of it. It only really ran out around 1999, and I believe the last thing I drew was an attempted – and aborted – portrait of a girl I had a crush on at the time.

Anyway, it’s possible that the draft was the first time the project’s trademark pens were used.

GSW: Trademark pens?

AW: I don’t know what the brands were, but the whole thing was done in ballpoint pen – about 15 different colours. There was a 10 colour pen, and a four colour one, and then just a plain red pen. It gave the whole project a pretty distinct look, in a way – I mean, it wasn’t crayon, or coloured pencil, at least.

I don’t think you can buy the pens anymore, unfortunately. Not that I’d add to it or anything, but I’d like to at least find some, because I like to take a creepy sort of comfort from the things I cherished in childhood.

GSW: What about the actual content of the first draft?

AW: Again, it’s pretty vague, but I think it only showed the first level, without any kind of enemy design; the sort of thing that appears in the actual design document.

GSW: Did the first level change at all from our first draft to the actual document?

AW: It does appear so. I remember the first draft’s level being inspired quite heavily by another game. Possibly inspired to the point of being kind of a rip-off.

GSW: What game was that?

AW: Alex Kidd in Miracle World, the built in game for the Master System II. I never had one but Sam did, and I spent a lot of time playing that game in particular, so the first draft’s level was pretty much just the first level from Alex Kidd.

jaton1sm.jpgActually, I could have had a chance to win a Master System, at some point. I applied to be on Australian kids TV game show Guess What, hosted by terrible cartoonist Andrew Fyfe, but I guess I didn’t have that x-factor they were after from contestants. My friend Matt got on there, though, and managed to win a Master System II. Bastard already had a NES and a SNES, and by actually going to the audition I missed out on that episode of Captain Planet where they swapped their rings for gloves but the gloves were evil or something. I’m not sure, since I never saw it.

GSW: Leaving aside scarring childhood memories, let’s look at the actual document for a while. Have we outlined the story at any point on here?

AW: Well, sort of. I mean, that bit down the bottom on the first page, if you click on it to zoom in. That’s pretty much it. I think, honestly, there’s something really appealing about not only the brevity of the dialogue, but also the general sense of ennui that Jaton is managing to project:

“OK. So Vegetable Land is frozen. But what can I do? Well, if I don’t save it who will?”

That’s pretty awesome. It conveys a feeling of utter weariness and helplessness in an unintentionally comical enough fashion to impress me greatly even now. The reply of Jago, the main antagonist, lacks a little in characterisation, but it makes up for it in regards to its threat of “GREAT warriors”, I think. That’s some serious shit.

GSW: It’s also a kind of cover for the game, right?

AW: It would appear that way, I guess. It’s like a back cover and front cover all rolled into one, in a way: showing the character in action poses, and also giving a few gameplay teases. It works kind of well in that respect.

GSW: And then we’ve got pages of the regular enemies: the “GREAT warriors”?

AW: Clearly, yeah. I don’t actually know where the inspiration for most of those characters came from: they never appeared in any of the other drawings.

The nuts, I believe, were from a small ornamental walnut my grandparents had on their mantel piece, and the golf ball is probably the same sort of thing, but beyond that who knows?

There’s a lot of Super Mario Bros. in there though. Things like having the enemy used as both a ground and air opponent, not to mention the fact that I had plans for a castle level at some point.

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GSW: And then we’ve got the bosses.

AW: It should be pretty obvious to anyone who had the distinct displeasure of playing Wrath of the Black Manta that I’ve ripped off Tiny from the first level of that. Sorry – I played it a few times around then and thought he was a pretty cool boss. I guess the idea for the giant golf ball is probably stolen from the Technodrome too.

The descriptions make me laugh. Most of them seem to be, “Does anything to kill you”. It’s a little redundant, considering they are bosses, but nevermind.

Water is probably the lamest name for a boss ever, just for the record.

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GSW: Shall we talk about the somewhat disturbing race stereotypes that we’ve managed to throw in there?

AW: Oh, let’s. Honestly, that’s one thing that I do feel a little embarrassed by, and while I’m pretty sure that no one is going to find the work of a nine year old particularly offensive, it’s worth noting that I am very much aware of the fact that not all Italians will throw “pizzas at you”.

Also, Sihks, in my admittedly limited experience, don’t tend to throw “knives every five seconds” and jump around.

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GSW: The “Good Stuff” seems to suggest a fairly interesting range of influences in terms of power-ups.

AW: Thank you for noticing. Yeah, there seems to be elements taken from Alex Kidd, Sonic and Mario in there, from what I can see. Eight different vehicles might be pushing it a little for a game that only seems to have 18 levels, however.

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GSW: I think it’s best if we let the level designs speak for themselves for the most part, but do you have any overarching comments you’d like to make about them?

AW: Only that I seem to have included a number of things that I particularly hate in game design: the moving platform that forces you to jump over blocks, and the “line” in level three that reverses your controls. I can’t think of anything that irritates me more than having my controls reversed.

Level four is quite clearly an indication that I must have played Shinobi sometime around then, and I’ve got no idea why I never finished anything past level five. Or, indeed, ever finished level five.

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GSW: How long did all this take to do?

AW: Probably around a year, I think. It was pretty on-again off-again, mostly because of the fact that I had no way to make the game. I’m assuming you’re asking me questions about this in a second though, so I’ll not go into too much detail here.

Suffice it to say that if I had been able to make the game, the designs would have changed quite a bit. They look really annoying to play. Also, I think I would have been more motivated to complete the design.

GSW: Do we know what happened to Sam? He moved away after the end of that year, if memory serves.

AW: That’s correct, yeah. First to Melbourne, which made it relatively easy to keep in touch, then further up the east coast to Newcastle, which is about where we lost track of him, until the wonders of the Internet age allowed me to successfully stalk him. Unfortunately, not his sister, which is a pity, because I always had a bit of a crush on her.

Turns out he’s a writer now, though not a games-related one, which is good, because otherwise the vicious rivalry would have to be rekindled. That’s also why I haven’t used his surname at all; even though that’s something I normally wouldn’t have an issue with.

If I know writers (and I like to think I do, seeing as how Simon’s introduction says I’m a journalist and all) he’d find this article pretty quickly with the constant Googling of his name that all writers indulge in, then be confused, and then probably outraged by my rampant egotism. Or our rampant egotism: I forget how this plural/singular pronoun thing is working.

GSW: Me too. We don’t draw much at all anymore, do we?

AW: Not really. Birthday cards, the odd MS Paint thread on GAF; that kind of thing.

GSW: The actual attempts to make the game: how did they go?

AW: Well, there were a few. The first was to actually make it in Hypercard. This suggests I really had no idea what Hypercard was capable of, and it turned out expectantly badly. I mean, there’s just no way to make a sidescroller in Hypercard. I made some bad adventure games later on, but that’s a whole other column.

From there, I think I considered briefly making it in Klik and Play – or whatever the name of that program was – but after using it for about two minutes I realised that it just wasn’t going to work. The program was…pretty lacking in all regards.

There was a brief idea that I could do it in Macromedia Director. Again, after using the program for a little while it became obvious that this just wasn’t going to work. On one hand, it’s not such a misguided idea when you realise that it’s more or less the precursor to Flash, but on the other hand, well, it was the precursor to Flash and couldn’t do half the things that Flash can.

GSW: There’s definitely a feeling of regret that we never produced it, then?

AW: In a sense. I mean, I wish I’d done it when I was drawing this up. I think the influences I had at that time were fitting. A few years later and it probably would have been a Secret of Mana style action RPG. I mean, that makes about as much sense as…a Sonic RPG or something.

Oh wait.

GSW: Ever think about actually producing the game for real? Even just as a nostalgic thing, maybe?

AW: I’ve thought about it, sure, but it’s not going to happen. My programming skills are not what could be described as wonderful. I spent two months learning C++ for a project that was later shelved, and none of it really sunk in.

Actually, to be fair, ‘learning’ might be the wrong word. The guy teaching me spent 90% of his time sitting on a mattress on the floor of his home office, smoking bongs and eating chocolate cheesecake right from the packet while watching Star Trek Voyager. ‘Teaching myself’ would be infinitely more accurate. To say the least, that didn’t go so well. I did get paid for the time, though.

Anyway, it’s unlikely to ever happen, barring a purchase of Multimedia Fusion 2, or learning how to use Torque Game Builder or something. I really wish that I’d learn to program at an early age, but I just had no idea how to make games, or even where to start. I’ve done interviews with people who were making games for Spectrum and things like that at the age of 12, but I really didn’t even understand the way it all fit together.

It’s like how I used to play guitar at that age by just strumming open chords: I didn’t understand what the frets did. Maybe if I knew that, then I might be able to play guitar to a reasonable degree these days, instead of being singularly one of the worst guitarists of all time. Same thing applies to my programming.

GSW: But we secretly hope that someone else will make it now, don’t we?

AW: Secretly.