Steel Machine video review and some extra info!

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Seb
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Steel Machine video review and some extra info!

Post by Seb » Tue Feb 24, 2015 9:24 pm

Hey there everyone!

Wow, it’s been a while since I dropped by here and in fact did anything CD-i related. Too long actually! I feel totally bad too, as I’ve been sitting on some info to share for about half a year now! So sorry for that, been out of the loop for a bit. Over the summer I started working on a new video review, with Steel Machine being the topic. I’ve finally gone and finished it and the end result can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7R-1YRN3Hs

What I found when tackling the game, was that it still kicked my ass as much as ever! I’ve tried and tried, but I couldn’t finish it. I ran into real trouble as early as the 3rd level! Granted, that’s halfway through the game with only 6 levels… I still wanted to show more in my video. There were no cheats to be found anywhere.

Being an SPC game I was kind of hoping that they would have put in some codes in this game as well. Since I couldn’t find any anywhere, I figured the next best thing was to just ask the guy who made the game in the first place. So I got in contact with Stefan Posthuma. Unfortunately, he didn’t remember any cheats or easter eggs. However, curious as ever, I had also asked him if he wanted to share some background info on his work at SPC, on Steel Machine and CD-i in general. He was kind enough to tell me quite a bit of what it was like back then from his point of view. I’ll just shut up now and let his words do the talking. I hope you guys will find some interesting tidbits in here!
Stefan Posthuma wrote:SPC/Vision...CD-i and Steel Machine. There is a bit of a story here, one I haven't really shared before so why not? Back in the late 80s and early 90s I was part of a thriving demo scene in Europe. These were the glory days of the Atari ST as well as the Commodore Amiga. I started coding games and other stuff as early as 1982 (I was 15 at the time) on the Commodore VIC-20. One game of those days is still out there, 'Hades' on the Commodore 64. On the Atari ST I was part of a demo crew called 'The Lost Boys' together with Tim Moss and his brother David Moss. Another very popular crew was The Carebears from Sweden, Niklas Malmqvist was the graphics artist for that one. For all the gory details about the demo scene see this article. The Atari ST has a 68000 processor and demo coding was all about squeezing every single bit of performance out of it. You'll find out why this is important in a bit.

During the demo days I worked for a company in Holland called SPC/Company. I worked on business software for banks and insurance companies. The demo and game coding was all done in my spare time. Then in the early nineties, the so-called 'multimedia' revolution started and Phillips released the CD-i platform. SPC/Company was also in the training business and saw the CD-i as a good training platform. When we got the first development machine in the office and I spent some time with it, I quickly realized it had a 68000 processor and a fairly unique graphics setup that allowed for some interesting experiments. I still remember asking Phillips for an assembler and debugger so I could write low-level code. They had little clue what I meant so I was on my own. Those 68000 demo coding skills came in handy and a couple of weeks of late night hacking sessions later I had a sprite and scrolling engine going. I then wrote a very simple game around this, a shoot-them-up based on one of my old Commodore games called 'Alien Gate'. When I showed this to my boss he more or less fell off his chair and a week later we were sitting in an office at Phillips. The same reaction happened there and we walked out with a contract to do five games.

I knew how to proceed and hired some of my demo coding buddies like Tim Moss, Niklas Malmqvist and Dave Moss who was a talented musician. Alien Gate was our first project. Once we shipped our first title, things got a bit more involved, we set up a new company called SPC/Vision, hired a few more demo guys (Arjen Wagenaar, Luc Verhulst) and started a new set of projects. Arjen did Dimo's Quest, Tim and Luc Verhulst embarked on the highly ambitious Apprentice and Niklas and I did Steel Machine. The interesting thing is that these games were done very old-school. One coder, writing pure 68000 assembly and one artist. David Moss did all the music and that was it. I remember many long nights in the SPC office hacking away, playing Doom and having much fun.

So Steel Machine...it was my homage to the great shoot-them-ups on the Commodore 64. Uridium was the inspiration for the core mechanics and look and feel of the game. I was a huge fan of Jeff Minter games so a lot of the other mechanics (and I guess punishing difficulty) came from there. It was a fairly ambitious game in terms of technical coding with lots of sprites and scrolling. The CD-i platform was challenging, it wasn't designed for this kind of software, had little to no developer support and Phillips had no experience with game development. I still remember the producer they assigned to us had a degree in biology or something like that and no technical or games experience. Their test center was in Belgium and they also struggled with our titles. Debugging 100% assembly code is tough at the best of times and on the CD-i there were some nightmare bugs that took many, many hours to find and fix. Still, we were proud of the end result and played the game quite a bit around the office. Now when it comes to codes, help with playing the game or anything like that, I can't help you I'm afraid. It has been more than 20 years and I remember little to nothing about it.

After Steel Machine shipped I started realizing that writing games professionally was far more interesting than the other software I worked on (and still was involved with on top of writing Steel Machine) so I started getting restless. We certainly had pushed the limits of the CD-i and I wanted more. I got about 75% done with a Defender homage (the name escapes me) that sparked the Golden Oldies (dubious copyright issues led to the alternative names and stuff), we did Accelerator and work was started on Lucky Luke. I found a job with a company in Toronto, Canada and early 1995 was on a plane to Canada. I met a nice girl, moved to Vancouver and started work for Electronic Arts. I am married to that nice girl now and still work at EA so it has been a good run.

So there you have it. Working on CD-i was great, we treated it like any other demo coding we did. Many hours (day and night, we didn't care) doing hardcore assembly coding, listening to speed metal and goofing off. The Apprentice is probably the one we had the most fun with, given all the easter eggs and other little things that were in it. We all moved on after that. Tim has a very good career at Sony, he is part of the team that did God of War so he is doing just fine :-). Niklas is still in Sweden, he is the Director of Art for King of Candy Crush fame (he did the original artwork for it). Needless to say he is doing well too. David Moss works on mobile games and I run quality engineering (software testing) at EA.
In a follow-up message I asked if Philips ever got interested to learn how these guys made such amazing things happen on their multimedia box. I also named Guardian as being the Defender game he had worked on.
Stefan Posthuma wrote:Phillips never really understood what we were doing, I remember having one of their CD-i techs in our office, when I told him what I was planning to do he looked at me like I was crazy and said that he didn't think that was ever going to work. My memory is a bit vague, I had to find detailed info about the OS-9 operating system, find an assembler and debugger and go deep into the graphics hardware. It was very interesting where every scan line had its own little set of instructions that the graphics chip would execute before drawing the line. This included things like memory address and color set so it was very well suited for scrolling and other demo-like tricks. It also had a byte per pixel memory layout so I wrote a sprite engine that literally generated code to draw the sprites which was of course the fastest way of doing it. We tweaked that thing until it generated the most optimized 68000 code you could imagine. Years of demo coding certainly qualified us to do that.

We did get mired in a lot of issues with the different versions of the CD-i hardware and firmware. We'd find bugs on one version only so had to test and debug across a range of them which really became a nightmare scenario. Add Phillip's lack of real developer support and shipping these titles was just too much of an exercise in frustration.

Guardian, yes, that is what it was. Defender is still my all time favorite game (I met Eugene Jarvis once, he is a funny guy) so when I had some free time I started my version of it. Someone else (I think it was Luc Rooijakkers) finished it after I left and they added a few other games to the Golden Oldies collection.
I’m sure you guys will have enjoyed reading through his experiences as much as I did. I really appreciate that Stefan took the time to reply in such detail and I’m sorry I haven’t posted this before.

Oh, and did I ever finish the game? Well… you’ll have to watch the review to find out.
Check out my YouTube channel for some CD-i reviews!

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Re: Steel Machine video review and some extra info!

Post by cdifan » Wed Feb 25, 2015 9:28 pm

Seb wrote: Unfortunately, he didn’t remember any cheats or easter eggs.
Stefan Posthuma wrote:Now when it comes to codes, help with playing the game or anything like that, I can't help you I'm afraid. It has been more than 20 years and I remember little to nothing about it.
The assembly sources (as far as I have them) contain a single compile-time constant CHEAT that when defined makes the player invincible and allows unlimited missile firing (it seems; my 68000 assembly skills aren't what they used to be).
But this was never defined in any released version.
Seb wrote:
Stefan Posthuma wrote:Guardian, yes, that is what it was. Defender is still my all time favorite game (I met Eugene Jarvis once, he is a funny guy) so when I had some free time I started my version of it. Someone else (I think it was Luc Rooijakkers) finished it after I left and they added a few other games to the Golden Oldies collection.
No, the Golden Oldies (including Defender) were finished up by Micael Hildenborg.

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Re: Steel Machine video review and some extra info!

Post by Arethius_RGC » Thu Mar 05, 2015 2:00 pm

Nice thank you for sharing it is very nice to read this.

goldenband
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Re: Steel Machine video review and some extra info!

Post by goldenband » Sun Sep 17, 2017 2:13 am

I beat Steel Machine today, so it's neat to read these recollections (though actually I've read them before). Whatever its flaws, I can certainly appreciate the technical achievement that went into making it.

I actually think it's quite a bit easier than Seb makes it sound; Level 3 was by far the hardest for me, and the entire rest of the game (Levels 4-6) only took me half as long to beat as Level 3! Once you learn to be patient, and get the hang of a few things -- stalking the large ships to clear them out and get the cluster shot & rapid fire; anticipating which enemies are coming based on the radar, and knowing what items they're likely to drop -- it's really pretty playable and even, dare I say, easy...

...except for all the times you die because you run into a wall that's hard to distinguish from the background scenery (why didn't they make it a different color?), or because you turn around without meaning to and smash into a wall, or just get blindsided by an enemy from behind...phew.

Anyway, Steel Machine took me around 8 hours total to beat, with the last three levels taking only 90 minutes to clear (!). For the record I'm using a SNES controller with an Arduino-based adapter, so maybe that helped (no rapid fire, though).

Also, when my wife walked into the room, she commented that it was "the most '90s game ever". Pretty accurate, I think, especially the soundtrack. :mrgreen:

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Re: Steel Machine video review and some extra info!

Post by Alan_Eng » Sun Sep 17, 2017 7:55 pm

Great to read everything in this string.

Congrats on beating the game! It actually took me 11 years to do it. I also have a test disc version which is much harder than the released version, so I'm gonna try and complete that one. It also has a level select option!

I LOVE the music in this game - just what a shoot em up needs: pumping techno!

Alan

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