Ed Howson of Masabi and Richard Hanson of Superior Software

Interview - we talk to the man behind the new hand-held version of Repton, and the man behind the original BBC Micro classic

Way back in the mists of time (the mid 1980s, to be precise) a young lad called John Bye took his first tentative steps into the gaming industry, courtesy of a platform puzzler called Repton. Not only did he get his first taste of videogame journalism, writing a fictionalized walkthrough of the first level of Repton 3 for his school magazine, but he also made his first mods using the groundbreaking level and sprite editors that shipped with the game.

Life Of Repton

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Repton in all his glory

Apparently I'm not the only one to have been brought up on these BBC Micro classics, as mobile gaming start-up Masabi recently announced that they are bringing the Repton series to the latest generation of PDAs and Java-based mobile phones. Co-founder Ed Howson told us how it all came about...

"The original two founders of Masabi, myself and Tom Godber, first met aged nine in the school playground. I had a near-complete list of passwords for [Repton sequel] Around The World In 40 Screens, and Tom had just worked out a quick level-editor hack which let him get the others. We've been friends ever since."

"Last Christmas we got together again and began kicking around ideas for games that would play well on these new mobile phones. As a new company, we knew that a cult first release would give us credibility to follow our long-term plans. It was clear that Java-enabled phones were going to be ideal technology-wise for replicating the classic 80s 8-bit microcomputer games, due to the simple graphics but compelling gameplay, and after considering a number of titles we came to the conclusion that there was really only one game we could pick - Repton."

"Repton had everything we were looking for. It was a proven game - the most successful series on the BBC Micro and popular with many types of people. It has addictive gameplay, which keeps you coming back for more - perfect for pulling out whilst at the bus stop, on a train or anywhere else you find yourself at a loose end. It's ideally suited to the device form factor, fitting perfectly on a relatively small screen and with simple controls. It comes ready-stocked with 144 levels, it's quick to pick up and hard to put down, and it was one of the first games to introduce customisable components."

Repton 2

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Repton goes diving for pearls

"Once we'd decided that Repton was the game, we approached Richard Hanson, MD of [Repton's publisher] Superior Software. It's amazing to meet the person you gave all your pocket money to all those years ago! He was very responsive to the idea, and over the months we've built up a great relationship as we discussed our plans."

It's not all fun and games though, especially when you're dealing with a series as popular and memorable as Repton. "There's a great responsibility involved in bringing such a well-loved game to a new platform, and I've played enough bad conversions to know that the essence of Repton is very hard to capture", Ed admitted. "Fundamentally, we want the gameplay to be as close to the original as possible."

Masabi have gone to great lengths to achieve this. Programmer Dave Hampson has actually written his own BBC Micro emulator "so he could get inside the workings of the original and see how it ticked". Dave explains the importance of this. "We are getting the gameplay logic and speed spot on by looking at how the original 6502 code works and rewriting it in high-level code. This means all the object interactions will be true to the original - if an original puzzle involved collecting a diamond and three rocks fell and slipped over diamonds falling in certain locations, the rocks will fall in the exact same places in the mobile phone version."

"The key difference will be the use of the 16-colour Archimedes graphics rather than the 4-colour BBC originals, which were carefully created to add depth without losing any of the character", Ed continued. "With a mobile game all instructions must be provided in-game, so there will be a few very simple levels with explanations to familiarise new players with all the game features. On top of this we will be including sixteen new levels being designed by Richard Hanson and some of the other original level designers, and possibly some levels of our own. Between games there will also be some differences in how you navigate round screens, mainly to do with extra features we are adding, but this should only enhance the game itself."

Around The World In 40 Screens

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A Fistful Of Repton?

Part of the charm of Repton was that you could design your own sprite sets and devious puzzles using the simple editing tools that came with later games in the series. The good news is that this is being carried over into the new Mobile Repton.

"We'll be rewriting the editors to take advantage of modern GUIs and the increased display capabilities of the phones, but in principal they will cover the same ground as the originals", Ed revealed. The most obvious advantage of the new platforms is their connectivity though.

"Sharing levels around the playground on floppy disc was feasible, but sharing with someone on the other side of the country was out of the question! In a fully networked environment this ceases to be an issue, and we'll be making it as easy as possible to share levels and sprites - both as gifts and in-jokes between friends, or to the community as a whole. I'm already planning a sprite set for my girlfriend, replacing Repton with her face, as she too has a penchant for diamonds! We also hope to have inter-player league tables, tracking the fastest level completion times as well as the highest single-play scores and ranking players accordingly. Using the web opens up global possibilities for the Repton community."

Superior Software boss Richard Hanson is equally optimistic about the new mobile versions of his company's most famous franchise. "It's the kind of game that appeals to a very broad audience span - quite a number of people who do not usually like computer games have told me that they enjoy playing Repton. I think one reason for the game's wide appeal is the fact that anyone can pick up how to play Repton fairly quickly and be able to complete one of the easier levels, but the most difficult levels are very complex. I haven't managed to complete all of them yet, and there are 16 new game levels being designed now, which will mean that there are 160 levels in total! So it's a game that can be played and enjoyed immediately, but it also keeps its appeal for a long time. I think that's the main reason for its longevity."

Repton Infinity

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Repton goes prehistoric

Richard also feels that the game will hold up well against its more modern competitors on the latest handheld devices. "The most important aspect of any game is the actual gameplay", he pointed out. "That seems obvious, but how many games have we seen over the years that look good (and maybe sound good) but can only capture our attention for literally five minutes because the game itself is lacking?"

"Repton has that very important feature, gameplay, in abundance. We first advertised Repton with the direct headline challenge: 'Can you complete Repton?' Many people have taken up the challenge, and with perseverance all of the Repton levels can be completed. But like all the best challenges, it takes dedication and determination."

Dedication and determination are two words you could apply to Superior Software, who built up an enviable reputation on the BBC Micro back in the 1980s, and are about to re-emerge with several new releases. "There are PC and GameBoy Advance conversions of Repton in the final stages of development", Richard revealed. "Some other game conversions are also under way, and we are aiming at adding something substantial to each conversion, such as extra levels or a level designer. I can't release any more information yet, but there will soon be news of the launch of a new Superior Software website."

For their part, Masabi told us that they are considering bringing other Superior Software games to mobile platforms in future. "We have a great relationship with Superior and we certainly think we might be releasing more of their games for phones", Ed told us. "Obviously we'll only be converting games that we feel will work well on the format, but we welcome all suggestions on this front!"

Conclusion

With a huge back catalogue including classics like Exile, Citadel and Last Ninja, there's certainly plenty of scope for fresh versions of Superior Software classics. But Masabi are "conscious of being pigeon-holed as purely a retro conversion company", and already have some original projects in the pipeline. No pun intended.

As soon as we hear more we'll let you know, but in the meantime Masabi's Ed Howson will be returning next week to give us his thoughts on the latest generation of mobile phones, and why we should be getting excited about the possibilities they open up.

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