If you have played Builder, you may wonder about the developer name tacked onto the front. My wife certainly did; why on Earth, she asked me, was I using this throwback name instead of our long agreed-upon branding? The answer is that Builder puts official close to an era that previously I had left dangling for about fifteen years.
When I was young, I expected to be a cartoonist. From 1988 to 1992 I wrote and drew a spectacularly unfunny comic strip called Andrew-Jonathan. Although there was no particular story or humor, there were plenty of characters – all with complex relationships, backgrounds, and personality quirks. The strip was also an outlet for themes absorbed from adventure movies, Tintin and Uncle Scrooge comics, and personal experiences.
1988 was also the year that I began to design my first game, in the margins of homework assignments and in the back pages of notebooks. The game started as a clone of Konami’s The Goonies II — attic setting, inventory, and all. As the ideas developed and took on their own life, they absorbed elements of Hudson’s Adventure Island, Contra, and Super Mario Bros. 2. The cast of Andrew-Jonathan (in particular the title character) was also absorbed into the concept, almost from the start.
This imaginary game began to trickle back into both the text and the metatext of the strip. The Crabby monsters (likely a subconscious influence from Super Mario 2) started to appear.
The strip absorbed some of the game’s scenario, and the sort of violent 8-bit sense of cause and effect. Most curiously, whenever A-J’s friend Freeport was shown playing a videogame, it was a variant of that game –based on the strip and featuring those characters.
In a way, the strip’s four-year run was a build-up to and replacement for the game that I dreamed of playing. When in 1992 RSD’s Game-Maker presented itself, my attention shifted entirely from the comic. My first task on installing the software was to implement the game as directly as possible from my extensive plans. The result, I called A-J’s Quest. Barring the engine’s limitations and some improvisation along the way, the result was fairly close to my intentions – if a bit rough.
The biggest diversions came from the limits on idle states, the odd key-mapping restrictions, the engine’s strange treatment of counters, and the lack of an on-screen display for hit points, items, and whatnot. I also envisioned the ability to equip and unequip weapons, as in many NES adventure games. None of these were big problems; I just adapted, and found more pragmatic implementations.
Soon after completing the game, I responded to a note in the Game-Maker box and mailed a copy off to Recreational Software Designs. They quickly responded with an unexpected call, then a long correspondence that would eventually lead me to produce gameware for Game-Maker 3.0. More immediately, they sent me the beta to an upcoming release of Game-Maker – one with provisional Sound Blaster support. In turn I went out and bought a sound card.
The adjusted version of A-J’s Quest, now labeled 2.0, found its way into a demo for the 2.0 release of Game-Maker. It was also a feature of the short-lived Game-Maker Exchange program, where RSD compiled peer games onto floppies and sent them out to contributing users. But before I let loose my opus into the wider world, I decided to think up an official studio name. I didn’t think very hard.
Now that I was a real game designer, I started to pour my energy into developing a more-of-the-same sequel. Its main gimmick would be multiple characters, each of whom followed an original path to the same goal. To prepare for this focus, I redrew the character sprite almost from scratch. In a short time I had learned much of pixel animation, and the previous sprite had started to bother me. The new sprite, I used as the basis for all four characters.
Aside from appearance the characters were only really distinguished by their vocal tics, which the new Sound Blaster support made possible. The levels were mostly recycled themes, using recycled tiles from the first game.
A couple of years later, with a beta of Game-Maker 3.0 in hand, I set about making the biggest, most convoluted game possible with the tools. I meant to incorporate every possible character from the Andrew-Jonathan strip, each of whom would have distinct abilities and a different path through the game. The game would be a huge, branching adventure full of big decisions. For this event, I again tweaked the Andrew-Jonathan sprite with more detailed shading and more sympathy to Game-Maker’s quirks. In turn I added more variation to the other characters’ animations.
With my masterpiece in hand, I went back to revise the first two games and raise them to the level of A-J 3. I incorporated the second game’s much cleaner sprite into the first game. I adjusted most of the background tiles and some of the layout, added another level to A-J’s Quest, and smoothed over some awkward concepts. After all the tweaks, the first game wound up at version 4.0 and the second game wound up in pieces all over the hard drive. It was too much work to bring The Return of A-J up to snuff, and I had long overwritten its original format, so I was stuck with a dissected husk of a game. I figured if anyone actually registered the first game, then that would motivate me to put all the pieces back together. Neither happened.
Both the 4.0 and the 2.0 releases of A-J’s Quest achieved fairly wide distribution. The others, not so much. Whatever its form, for all its quirks and compromises, A-J’s Quest is probably one of the most familiar and influential games to come out of RSD’s tool set — and it became the cornerstone for about a decade of my creative life.
The story continues in Part Two…