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[How do two teens briefly become some of the best known independent developers in their country? This is the story of ANMA, a fruitful collaboration between two Dutch students, creating memorable games for the MSX computer in the '90s.]
From time to time the idea of a universal video game platform is still discussed in bars, college dorms, and playgrounds. What innovation might be birthed if Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft decided it would be more lucrative to work in unison than in rivalry? A standardized development format would benefit developers by eliminating cross-platform development costs, while the confusion of what game works with what hardware would be eliminated for the consumer.
It's by no means a new thought. In 1982 a 26-year-old Kazuhiko Nishi, then vice president of Microsoft Japan and director of ASCII Corporation, originated the idea to introduce a standardized computing format. Nishi wanted to replicate the standard that videocassette recorders established with VHS in the computer market, hoping that the platform would become as ubiquitous as television or telephones.
The MSX ("Machines with Software eXchangeability") was the result of his thinking, a universal development platform for which any piece of hardware or software with the MSX logo on it would be compatible with MSX-branded products from other companies.
Despite finding considerable success with five million sales worldwide and launching series as long running as Metal Gear and Bomberman, the MSX failed in its intended mission. By the time the MSX was introduced to America, the Commodore 64 was too firmly established in the public's imagination and households to allow room for a computing hardware standard to take root.
But not before the vision had inspired a young generation of game makers with dreams of making a game that could run on any computer anywhere in the world.
Andre Ligthart and Martijn Maatjens were two such boys. Both aged 15, they were the only youngsters in the small village of Hoogkarspel in North Holland to own an MSX, a fact that brought about their friendship. After two years of hanging out, playing games at each others' houses, Maatjens, a budding composer, suggested that the pair try to make a game demo of their own for the system.
Within four years the pair would have seen their games spread across the Netherlands and into Japan, propelling the young boys to fame within one of the most vibrant and creative indie communities in gaming's short history.
"Between 1984 and 1989 the MSX was a relative mainstream home computer in the Netherlands," explains Ligthart. "It was something of an anomaly as, in the rest of Europe, the MSX wasn't that popular, and in America it was almost unheard of. We started making demos for the system at the end of its lifecycle. At that time, the most professional Dutch software makers already quit the business due to lack of the MSX's popularity."
Inspired by the semi-professional game developers working on the MSX rival Amiga, the pair set-up their own studio, contracting their names together, Andre lending the "AN" and Martijin the "MA" to form the company name: ANMA. In 1989, working out of their parents' homes, work began on what, two years later, would become ANMA's first release, Squeek.
Ligthart handled programming, writing a bespoke program, ANMA's RED (standing for "Recorder and Editor") and custom build interface for Maatjens to connect with a music keyboard for real time music recording. Both boys worked on the graphics, the one aspect of the studio's output in which Ligthart believes they "underperformed."
"The in game graphics were created by Andre and me," explains Maatjens. "We tried to split the work evenly between us. At that time we were looking for someone who could do graphics (in-game, as well as box covers). But we never really found any talented people we wanted to work with."
ANMA's games are famous within the MSX scene for their lo-fi indie-esque box art. Hand drawn with pencil and crayon, the artwork is equally revered and ridiculed today.
"We both pitched in on artwork duties," explains Maatjens. "We alternated the box art work from game to game between each other. For one game Andre would draw the front cover, while the next time I did. We also created the instruction booklets for our games by hand.
"It was really a subsidized effort because we took material from our school (where my father was a teacher) to create the booklets. That was lots of fun and at the same time something that just had to be done. We were not much of graphical artists so we were not particularly proud of those box covers."