The future is now. Three years in gestation, Novagen’s legendary Mercenary has finally reached the Spectrum in a conversion by David Aubrey-Jones. He’s the unsung hero behind Speedlock and several Spectrum hits, and here RICHARD EDDY asks David how Mercenary changed his life...

‘IT’S UNIQUE — fantastic in the way it’s the only game where you get the feeling of a whole planet in which you have the freedom to fly around. It really captures the atmosphere in a way no other game does or possibly could...’

That’s David Aubrey-Jones talking about Mercenary, which he’s spent a year converting to the Spectrum and Amstrad from the legendary Atari original created by Paul Woakes. ‘It was a formidable task,’ recalls David. ‘Paul had created a world simulator in which to write the game... it’s more of a rewrite than a straight conversion.’

Most of David’s works have been conversions, and despite his low profile he’s been responsible for many hit Spectrum games. The CRASH Smash Deathstar Interceptor from System 3 (Issue 15), the highly-acclaimed Spectrum version of Activision’s H.E.R.O. (Issue 10) and the speech synthesis on Activision’s Ghostbusters (Issue 13) were some of his more significant projects. But where are the original games?

‘I just don’t have that time,’ David explains. ‘I’d begun working on one but then I was offered the chance to write Mercenary. I’d been playing Mercenary on the Commodore and had fallen in love with it — to pass up a chance to convert it would just have been ridiculous.’

David has rewritten Mercenary substantially: the intricate vector graphics routines had to be changed to get round the Spectrum attribute problems, and to take advantage of the computer’s speed.

But most of the mathematics have remained unchanged because Targ, the planet where Mercenary is set, is a mathematical model — and as David says, ‘Paul Woakes is the only person who writes in mathematics to produce his games. That’s what makes them so brilliantly different.

“Very few make it to the top”

‘The computer is continually evaluating your position, what is visible from your position and how objects move in relation to you while still remaining in true 3-D perspective. This sort of calculation is infinitely more complex than a game where a sprite is plopped down on the screen and just moved left and right!’

Woakes’s work is probably even more complex than the 4K PDP8 mainframe computers David began on. Trying to restrain his laughter, he recalls: ‘It was this great hunk of machinery that sat on a table and had a huge fan that used to make the table convulse when it was switched on. Then the ZX81 came along and it seemed like a miracle — you only had to wait a minute to know whether your program would run or not, but on the mainframe you had to let it run overnight.

‘With the advent of the Spectrum came my first game — Cowboy Shoot Out, a kind of quick-on-the-draw game. I took it down to a show in London and it sold out straight away.’

Then, after playing with a Lazer computer (similar to the Spectrum) and writing a Frogger called Savage Toad, David went to work for Atari.

But with DJL software (Froggy, etc) he’d been developing a new Spectrum protection system: ‘Well, I’d been getting more and more frustrated because of the time the standard one took — and I thought I could do a lot better. At the same time David Looker had been developing another system, so we put our two ideas together and came up with Speedlock.’

Mercenary was a formidable task — but you get the feeling of a whole planet”

Speedlock wasn’t used commercially for about a year, despite the many cassettes David sent to software houses. ‘They all thought they could rip it off...’

Eventually Ocean took up the antipiracy technique, and it was first used on Daley Thompson’s Decathlon (reviewed in CRASH Issue 10 — November 1984). And so began the great Speedlock debate in Lloyd’s Forum, which raged hard for months. (Some claimed Speedlock made games less reliable in loading.)

The two Davids have been continually updating Speedlock and the latest version, developed two months ago, is to be featured on many new Ocean games. It includes a timer which gives the precise loading countdown in minutes and seconds. ‘Very important. Well, how else would you know if you’ve got time to brew a cuppa?’

“The ZX81 seemed like a miracle”

The next project hanging over David’s head is Mercenary II — Sword of Damocles. ‘I’m developing it in conjunction with Paul Woakes, the original author, rather than just writing the Spectrum and Amstrad versions,’ explains David. ‘Damocles will retain all the exploration elements of Mercenary but with a great deal more action — everyone’s perfect game! There’s more than one world to explore and I’ve just been working on some of the objects that...

David stops suddenly, remembering that he isn’t supposed to say anything. Instead, he turns to fatherly advice for budding programmers.

‘There is a living (of sorts) to be gained out of it — providing you can stand the late nights and long hours. Yes, it’s good if you enjoy it — but very few make it to the top. Get experience and a good company and be prepared to wait. To get in these days you need connections and a very strong game.’