Today's Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to Jon Ritman, developer of ZX Spectrum titles like Match Day and Batman and the Game Boy adventure Monster Max.
Ritman reveals that his first experiences with computers were at the age of 13, after travelling from the UK to Brussels to visit his elder brother who worked in the computer department at sewing machine manufacturer Singer Corporation. “I can remember him showing a “Winchester disk” [the hard disk for the IBM System/370] that he had written the software for and also him telling me I could type anything into a keyboard,” he recalls. “I typed my name and reams of very wide paper started pouring out of the line printer. My brother freaked and ran to stop it - he had used my name as the name of a program!”
ZX81 Beginnings, Using Paper
A few years later, in 1981, Ritman purchased a Sinclair ZX81 “more or less as soon as it came out”, and began teaching himself to code by writing a simple shooter. “I wrote half the game on paper and then translated it to hex by hand before typing it in,” he explains. “Bear in mind that means having to calculate every jump and call address throughout the program. Then I discovered assemblers, since the book I learnt machine code from hadn't bothered to mention them. I rewrote the entire thing. It took about two months, but I did have a full time job as well.”
Ritman named the finished product Namtir Raiders - after, of course, his own surname spelt backwards – and sent the results to a number of companies who were advertising their publishing services. The next day, Ritman was contacted by Artic Computing Limited, who offered to put the game out. While the game wasn’t exactly a best seller - Ritman notes that he “can't remember seeing it in the shops” - he still feels it was “pretty good for a first attempt”.
“I even played it a while back,” he adds. “Somewhere in my loft is the original ZX81 I wrote it on. I had hard wired an old Atari joystick to it so I could play 3D Defender.”
Next, Ritman turned his attention to the newly released ZX Spectrum. His first attempt at programming on the platform was a shooter named ARG, which never saw release, due to being a “crappy Space Invaders clone”. Nonetheless, working on the game gave Ritman an idea of how the machine worked, and he immediately began developing other games for the system.
Despite working full time, Ritman managed to complete and release another four games for the Spectrum from mid 1982 to the end of 1983, including Cosmic Debris and Bear Bovver. “Good question,” he muses when asked how this was possible. “Abandoned my social life I guess.”
Moving On To Match Day
Just before the release of Bear Bovver, Ritman attended a games show along with his friend Chris Clarke While there, they took the chance to ask distributors what they though the market was looking for, and the unanimous response was “a Spectrum version of International Soccer - as seen in every Dixon's shop window at the time”. After finishing Bear Bovver, Ritman started converting a few of the sprites from bears to human soccer players.
Later, while at promoting Bear Bovver at another games show – “with Teddy Bear’s Picnic burbling out of the stand” – he was approached by Ocean Software’s David Ward while looking at Artic’s “completely crap” World Cup Football. “He asked me what I thought, and I told him I was writing something a thousand times better, which was pretty strong considering I'd hardly started,” Ritman laughs. “He must have got my phone number because about eight months later he phoned me and asked what had happened to the soccer game. Now, at this time I had parted company with Artic because I was disappointed in the way they had sold Bear Bovver - I was also only weeks away from finishing what became Match Day, and David offered me a great deal of money sight unseen.”
Ritman accepted the contract with Ocean, and the title was released in 1984. He suggests that Match Day “worked as a [soccer] game and it was the first Speccy soccer game to have done so” and that the popularity of the sport in the UK meant “it couldn't fail”. While Ritman chuckles that he was “pissed off at a couple of poor reviews”, the vast majority of the press for the title was very positive – something that translated into impressive sales, with Ritman estimating that the game sold well over 50,000 sales at full price, and just as many again with its budget label re-release.
Rare Inspiration For Batman
On the day that Ritman handed the master copy of Match Day to Ward, he was offered a copy of Ultimate Play The Game’s isometric adventure Knight Lore, which was due for release by the publisher a few days later. “He told me I had to take a look,” says Ritman. “I did that night, and my jaw hit the floor. It was what I had always wanted: Disney cartoon quality that you could play.”
Ritman started work straight away on his own isometric title along with Bernie Drummond – a friend who Ritman knew to be quite talented at drawing. “It was very different working with another person who had such an important role,” he says, “but it was great to be able to find such a talented artist and to be able to make my game look so cool.”
After Ritman suggested that the game could possibly work as a Batman licensed title, Drummond drew the main character’s walking animation, which was then “bodged” onto a background. “I wasn't even close to having a graphics engine,” laughs Ritman.
The duo then showed the results to Ward, who worked out the rights agreement with DC Comics, and the game eventually made its way onto shelves in 1985. Ritman comments that the game was a "huge success", with numerous rave reviews, and a number of magazine covers to its credit as well.
Ritman released Head Over Heels - another isometric title, which used the Batman engine but modified it for use with two characters – with Drummond in 1987, after which the duo worked on a complete re-write of Match Day. Upon its release later in the year, Match Day II easily matched the level of success that its predecessor had sold.
However, it turned out to be Ritman’s last effort for the Spectrum. When Ultimate Play The Game - by that time known as Rare - began advertising for new staff, Ritman approached them and found that they had been playing his games as much as he had been playing theirs. He started work with the company on an independent basis, and began working on their GLAM development tool-kit, along with Guy Stevens.
Ritman reveals that there were a number of arcade games that he also worked on with the company, though all remain unreleased. “I think my style of game play is more suited to the long haul rather than the quick fix required in an arcade game,” he muses.
His chance to complete a game finally came sometime in the early ‘90s, when he commenced work on Monster Max. The title was an isometric action adventure for the Game Boy that saw him working once again with Drummond, with SFX and music provided by in-house composer David Wise. Ritman is unsure of exactly how long the development for the title took, but despite receiving a “fantastic reception” that included a score of 98% from one magazine in January of 1994, the game's publisher, Titus, wasn't able to get Monster Max to store shelves until that December.
“It was very disappointing that the distributors didn't get their fingers out quickly enough,” laments Ritman.
As a result of the delay, the game sold badly, though Ritman notes that he feels the game “stands up very well” even today. “I played it a couple of weeks ago for the first time in a decade and it was great discovering how to do the puzzles,” he says. “I'd always wanted to be able to play my games as if I hadn't made them and it seems a decade is long enough to forget them!”
Ritman stopped working with Rare shortly after the game’s release, and moved on to set up Cranberry Source with John Cook, where he functioned as the company’s Creative Director for two years. When the company sold its staff to Argonaut, Ritman went along as well, though he describes the experience simply as “not the best”.
Following that, Cook introduced Ritman to MicroProse Grand Prix designer Geoff Crammond, who asked Ritman to help port 2000’s Grand Prix 3 to PS2 and Dreamcast, though the games were never actually released.
Ritman latest projects have been what he describes as a “XXX” game for mobile phones, and the motion sensing Connect TV Cricket game for Hi-Score Entertainment. This certainly doesn’t signify that the more traditional side of the industry has heard the last of Ritman though. Asked if he intends to return to design and development, he replies simply and decisively: “Oh yes”.