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© Echelon

BRITISH RAIL STRIKES BAK by Richard Karsmakers

16:25

Back at Didcot Station, after visiting Hewson.
We have succeeded in getting some pretty interesting
impressions, and some unexpected additions to ST NEWS!
We had a couple of spongy cheeseburgers which were very hot.
The train for Oxford will leave at 17:11.

Richard

17:11

The train arrives. We immediately hop onto it, eager for it to
take us to Steve Bak as quickly as possible.
Bye, Didcot!

Richard

17:25

We have arrived at Oxford Station.
Oxford Station is really a lot smaller than I had expected it to
be: Only two platforms, as far as I can see. The thing is being
redesigned, probably, as large parts of it are hidden behind
scaffolding.
Our train to Derby, which Steve told us we have to take, will
leave at 17:51. There has been a platform change here: We were
already sighing and sitting down with our rucksacks stacked
beside us when it became apparent that we had to move to the
other platform - again lifting those massive weights on our
backs.
Poor us.

Richard

18:09

Whilst Stefan is reading part I of "Mordant's Need" (a new
Stephen Donaldson series he bought in London some days ago), I
carefully observe the landscape with the hedges, little churches
and picturesque little things that scrolls smoothly by.
As a matter of fact: The train is momentarily slowing down to a
halt at Banbury station.
Ah...the English countryside....I think I will enjoy the rest of
this working holiday more than the London bit. Finally, there is
some fresh air and there is no longer this tremendous pressure of
having to get at certain places within a certain (much too tight)
schedule.
A couple of minutes ago, I took a snapshot out of a a window of
the moving train (moving at approximately 120 MPH - which is
about 190 KM/h). I am looking forward to the result.
Dark clouds are gathering above the countryside now, as the
train leaves Banbury. I bet it's gonna rain this evening. But
this is of no concern to us anymore - our backpacks will be safe
(and dry) at Steve Bak's house for a couple of days, and we will
be driven around quite comfortably (and dry, again).
That's it for now. Maybe Stefan will have a go.
Oh no. He won't.
He is now hanging numbly with his head against the side of the
chair, his mouth quite comfortably (and stupidly) open to allow
his breathing to go in and out without even as much as the
faintest hindrance.
There is a woman sitting opposite me and she is looking at what
I am doing with large, wondering eyes.
A bit further away, on the other side of the train, a rather
pretty girl is seated.
But that is not important.

Richard

18:30

The train just stopped at Lemington Spa. What a strange name
indeed.
Everybody in the train seems to be reading. A chap opposite us
seems to be reading enthralled in a J.D. Salinger novel.

Richard

19:02

We have arrived at the first of the two Birmingham railway
station we will visit: Birmingham International. It's just like
Oxford as far as I'm concerned: Not as big as I had expected it
to be.

Richard

19:14

The main Birmingham Railway Station, Birmingham New Street,
ground to a halt around us. This Station is surely a lot bigger
and it must have about 20 odd platforms.
I am thinking of using this occasion to fetch us some
cheeseburgers and soda pop, but I am not sure when the train will
actually leave - it might leave me behind in the middle of
nowhere, all on my own.
What a dilemma.

Richard

19:25

I am awake now and the train is stationary at Birmingham
New Street. I always tend to look a bit stupid when I sleep in
various means of transportation, but since I then cannot notice
it, WHO CARES!
The visit to Hewson has been quite stunning - I am sure you
could already read something about it earlier, but still. John
Phillips has shown us some of his latest work and it was pretty
neat stuff. Brilliant programming and impressive graphics. He
also has developed an 8-channel synthesiser that creates digital
waveforms on the spot and which is terribly unique. Yeah, he gave
us a demo version of the synthesiser (4-channel) and a demo that
he just created to try out some new game idea. They are of course
ultra-exclusive and featured in this issue of ST NEWS.
The more I see of the software world, the more I want to be a
part of it. As a programmer that is. At every software house I
just mention the fact that I desperately want to write video
games on the ST.
In fact, I think that I will stop doing demos as soon as I have
finished that screen for the Lost Boys "Mind Bomb" demo. Of
course, I am set to make that the best demo I have ever written,
since I never had one of my humble products featured in a large
demo.
But anyway, game ideas are shaping in some distant corner of my
mind while I type this and I can't wait to get home and start
programming.
But first, we are going to see Steve Bak and I am a bit anxious
to see him.

Stefan

19:30

The train is still stationary. How long will this take? I don't
think it will take long, and I think it will not take long before
we arrive at Derby - where Steve told us someone would be waiting
for us, and where we should arrive 20:15 if I remember right.

Richard

19:45

Our impression of British Rail used to be fairly positive.
But they are surely working hard to tear these last tattered
hopes and impression to threads: It was just now reported that
the engine has broken down and that people are momentarily trying
to fix it.
I inquired among some of the other passengers about the original
departure time of the train. Half past seven, it was to leave
normally.
So something was definitely wrong.
Many people are growing rather restless and look upon their
watches with a certain irritating air.

Richard

19:51

The train is delayed because there is some problem with the
engine. God knows what time we will arrive. Poor Steve Bak - who
will be waiting in vain at Derby station.

Stefan

20:04

The train has, we have just heard, been cancelled.
We need to switch to another train that is waiting at platform
7a - which will be a lot slower.
"F@*k, f@*k, f@*k, the train has been cancelled! S@*t, f@*k,
c@*t, mutant slicing d@*k, c@*ksucking motherf@*king alien-
drooling zipzapfok!" (Stefan quote; don't blame him, for he was
just being slightly hysterical)

Richard

20:10

In spite of the violent attempts the rucksacks once more gave us
of letting us quite the whole quest and just sit down without
moving as much as an inch, we are now seated in the alternative
train.
It's much less comfortable and looks ghastly slow.
I am very much wondering when it'll leave/IF it'll leave.

Richard

20:25

Fiftyfive minutes behind our schedule, the alternative train
leaves Birmingham New Street Railway Station. Several minutes
ago, the train already started moving forward about 10 yards, and
now it is going backwards.
Strange folk, those traindrivers.
There is one positive thing, however: The clouds have been
penetrated by the rays of this large thermonuclear fusion
reaction in the sky, and it is now slowly becoming comfortable
warm again.

20:38

A rather tiny Railway Station just experienced us stopping
there. Bilnecote, it's called.
Yet another strange name?

Richard

20:41

Tamworth Railway Station. Seems to make me remind of a
Country'n'Western singer.
Strange name, again.

Richard

21:02

Burton on Trent. A sign at the local "Skol" factory tells us it
is 17 degrees Centigrade ("Skol" is a very well known Dutch beer,
ED.).

Richard

21:15

The conductor just told the people that "Derby is nearing". So
we are standing erect again at the doors, our rucksacks in our
hands.
Shall we then finally make it - one hour late?
Or will the train spontaneously explode before we finally enter
the correct platform?
I have reason to believe anything negative now.

Richard

21:18

As we walk out of the main entrance of Derby Railway Station,
prepared for anything that a long quest in search for He Who Was
Destined To Pick Us Up would throw at us, we almost immediately
stumble upon a red Ford Escort with a bloke in it that smiled at
us as if he knows who we are and we don't know it the other way
around.
Which is, by the way, exactly the case.
It turns out to be Tim Coupe, one of the latest discoveries by
Steve Bak. Tim is a very youthful guy of our approximate age with
a constant smile on his face. He is now working together with
Chris Sorrell (graphic artists with coding aspirations, who also
did the graphics for Steve's "Spitting Image") at Vectordean, the
new company of Steve Bak's.

Richard

We have arrived at the Vectordean office and met Steve Bak at
21:32.
Steve Bak was surely a lot older than the youths we had met most
of the time in recent days before, but nonetheless a truly
remarkable person and, as would later turn out, a good friend
even. The mere fact of him offering to drive us around Central
England for three days displays eloquently how nice a man he is.
He talks with a very remarkable accent, which assures that he
refers to a duck as a 'dock', a bug as a 'bog' and guns are
'gons'. Really funny, this accent, and we would spent hours
discussing whether or not docks kwack and whether or not a
program can be indeed filled with bogs.
Further, he smokes at least fifty "Silk Cut" cigarettes a day,
and drinks about 15 cans of Diet Coke in the same time as well.
He is also the living embodiment of multi-tasking: He can hum,
listen, talk, inject insulin, drive his car through cross-town
traffic, drink Diet Coke and smoke at the same time (as he would
amply demonstrate the coming days). He is growing thin on top,
and compensates this by wearing a moustache. He is totally
dependent on his Psion Organiser.
He is now working together with Chris and Tim at Vectordean,
which has its offices on the second floor of a used car sales
shop, where they had just moved in two weeks earlier. There were
two large rooms, of which one was still empty.
Due to the darkness spreading outside and the abundance of light
in the office, it was soon crawling with moths inside, but we
wouldn't let those interfere with what was happening.
After we had regained our total awareness of actually having
shaken hands with the man who can be compared with what Michael
Jackson was to pop music, what Rolls Royce was for cars, what
Douglas Adams was for absurd humour, what Metallica was for heavy
metal and what ST NEWS was for the world of ST disk magazines
(ahem), we had a look at Vectordean's latest product: "Dogs of
War" (original version by Tim Coupe, Amiga conversion by Steve
Bak). A preview of this product, to be released at approximately
August by Elite, can be found in another article in this issue of
ST NEWS.
After playing "Dogs of War" a bit, we continued with a game that
has a temporary working title of "Hell", written by Tim as well.
Again, this was the first ever demo of the game to the press -
just like "Dogs of War". It has the same idea as "Stormlord" we
saw earlier at Hewson, and the graphics are also very good indeed
(again, Chris did them).
"Hell" is a shoot-'em-up that doesn't scroll, with humour
(witches turn into a frog when you hit 'em) and the whole thing.
There will be six levels with fully different graphics - and each
level is fifteen screens in width.
The game will come supplied on two disks, and the release date
is not yet known - nor is the company that will publish it, or
the final name of the game.
A rather nice hint for potential players: Do not shoot the
sleeping Orc!!

After Tim finished off showing his forthcoming games, and Steve
talked a bit to Stefan about various things concerning
programming, we swapped places: Stefan went to chat with Tim and
I had a go at Steve.
The interview.

What is your date and place of birth?
Steve: April 4th 1952, Nottingham.
How did you end up in the computer industry?
Steve: Since I came out of school, I went down the pit to be a
miner. For sixteen years I did that. And then I started playing
arcade games - I became an arcade fanatic. And when computers
first came out I bought my first one, which was actually paid by
money I got when I had an accident down in the pit which cost me
the tip of one of my fingers: An Acorn Atom. And since there
weren't any games to play I wrote my own. Since the Acorn Atom I
did stuff on the Dragon 32, Tandy Colour Computer, Commodore 64,
Commodore 16, then the Enterprise, the Sinclair QL, the Atari ST
and the Amiga. I've done 70 games on various computers so far, of
which 21 on 16-bit, ST and Amiga.
Can you sum up the ST bit of those 21?
Steve: Sure. "Lands of Havoc" (which was available before you
could buy the Atari ST, hence its lack of things), "Disk Help"
(which "ST-Amiga Format" recently published as a PD thing!), a
pool game, a trivia challenge game, "Karate Kid II",
"Goldrunner", "Jupiter Probe"...I'll probably lose the order here
somehow..."Spitting Image", "Return to Genesis", "Star Ray",
"Leatherneck", and I can't think of anyone more.
What do you dislike most about the software industry?
Steve: I am not very keen on dealing with people, having to sell
games and trying to get in the funds. Especially that piece: It
is not easy getting paid. There are some companies who pay very
well indeed, quote Microdeal and Logotron, and some other
companies who are OK but take their time (laughs with some
relief), like Elite and maybe Firebird, and there are a few
companies who just do not pay you at all or just rip you off -
quote maybe Firebird (maybe not), ANF Software (long time ago)
and possibly Softteck (or Softtek, Softtech?), the Power House
for sure, and that's enough. Fortunately, nowadays a lot of the
shady ones have just disappeared. Actually, I can't remember any
of the companies who have ever ripped me off who are still
actually trading.
What do you consider to be the best game ever launched on the
ST?

Steve: Technically the best, the best playable, the one I would
buy?
I think the one you'd buy.
Steve: OK. "The Sentinel", possibly "Time Bandit", especially
considering its age. I must say that "Time Bandit" was terrific.
I also liked "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", but that's
not really an ST game. That's one I used to play for a long time.
I liked "The Sentinel" that much that I agreed to do the Amiga
conversion for it.
Now we know about the best game; what about the lousiest game?
Steve: The poorest game...there are actually one or two
candidates for that. I think probably "Street Fighter". "Out Run"
wasn't that good, and "Gauntlet" wasn't that high either (the
original - "Gauntlet II" was very good). I don't think a great
deal to "Afterburner" either.
What do you think is your best achievement on the ST?
Steve: My best achievement is probably getting to grips with the
computer at all, because when I wrote the first games there
wasn't any proper documentation. When I first started 68000 code
there weren't any books either, so I had to guess what the
opcodes were and what they did. If you mean what's my best game,
well, that's going to be the next one I do: "3D Marine" (a
provisional title of a 3D to-the-player scrolling shoot-'em-up
for Logotron that is a LONG way of being finished, ED.).
What do you think of ST NEWS?
Steve: Oh, that's great; it's very good. I like its
presentation.
Do you know a nice joke?
Steve: An interesting joke? One that you can publish? OK. Why
did Hitler commit suicide? Because he got his gasbill. That was
always one of the best jokes I've heard.
What car do you drive?
Steve: A Ford Escort, very unpretentious. It gets me from A to
B reliably, it's cheap, it's new, it's small, and people don't
point a finger at me "look at that jerk in the red Ferrari!".
What tools do you use?
Steve: For programming, "C-Breeze" is the editor for me. It's
better than "Tempus", and for assembling I use "Devpac II". I
think the "Devpac" monitor is also quite good but I don't use
monitors. For drawing, I like "Paintworks" (also known as "N-
Vision", ED.). It's not the best, but it's the one I know and
that I can handle efficiently. The best is probably maybe
"Cyberpaint", maybe "Degas Elite". Maybe "Flairpaint", but it's
not one I use.
What's your favourite book?
Steve: (Long while thinking) I don't have one. I don't read. I
don't have time for everything.
Favourite film?
Steve: I like all the kid's films; "Star Wars", "Ghostbusters",
"Predator". If I've got to pick one, it would be "Star Wars".
Favourite food?
Steve: Prawn cocktail.
Favourite drink?
Steve: Either lager or Coke.
Favourite band?
Steve: Bruce Springsteen.
Who do you consider to be the most interesting person in the
software industry?

Steve: Interesting?....I don't know anybody in the software
industry who's interesting.
What are your main sources of inspiration?
Steve: Arcade games.
What's your opinion about software piracy?
Steve: I don't like it, but I'm not gonna lose sleep on
something you can't do anything about. So I don't worry about it.
What's your worst habit?
Steve: Smoking.
Have you insured your fingers?
Steve: (Shows us the fingertip he lost in the pits and smiles)
No. If I can't use my fingers I will use my feet. I only use one
finger on each hand anyway.
Where you, some time ago, actually serious about buying an
icecream van?

Steve: (Laughs heartily) "To buy an icecream van" means to
change your direction. It's a joke between me and John Symes (the
boss of Microdeal, ED.). Whenever something doesn't go very well,
we say to each other "well, go and buy an icecream van!"
How do you look back upon a game like "Lands of Havoc"?
Steve: The same way I look back at most things - it was good for
its time. In its time, no ST's were available. No documentation
was available. Nothing was available. You would not believe the
way "Lands of Havoc" was put together.
Try me.
Steve: For example, it was programmed on a Tandy Colour
Computer, which was an 8-bit machine. It was then basically
ported over using an RS232 link at 300 baud, and the way it
actually got on a disk was for someone to actually take another
program - I think it was the SID program - and load the "Lands of
Havoc" on top of that. There was no information about file types
available, disk formats, or anything like that. It was accepted
that the ST was gonna be big, so we sat down and went to do
something about it.

After the interview, just before eleven, we went to a pub with
Tim and Steve. The pub was just about a hundred yards away from
the Vectordean office - just a short walk across a grassy plain.
It was called "Royal Oak", and as a matter of fact we were just
in time to get in - in England, all pubs close at eleven.
Lucky enough the landlady, an old but extremely nice and equally
hospitable woman, still allowed us in.
She was quite enthusiastic to find out that we were Dutch, by
the way, though "she had seen 'em before".
We were just about the only guests as we sat down for an extreme
photo session (Steve plus Stefan, Steve plus me, Tim plus Stefan,
Tim plus me, Steve and Tim with Stefan, Steve and Tim with me,
Stefan and me with Tim, Stefan and me with Steve...you know what
I mean) and some pints of lager and bitter.
It was very cosy indeed, and time had its way of gently flowing
by as we chatted along and drained our beers.

Tuesday, July 11th 1989

At half past one, we arrived at Steve Bak's home, in South
Normanton - a ten minutes' drive from his office.
It is just an ordinary house in an ordinary village, in an
ordinary neighbourhood. Our voices trembled as we set foot on the
doorstep of the house of He Who Has Done What's Impossible.
In order to get in through the back entrance we had to go
through a mindthreateningly dark little alley. You could really
see nothing.
We sat down in the living room and had some more beer and tea
while we talked with Steve about demos, hackers, his old games,
ST NEWS and the number '42' (and our little program we were
thinking of in the Academy Hotel, a couple of nights ago).
About one hour after that, we finally went upstairs.
We were put to sleep in the room that officially belonged to
Steve's two little girls - therefore, the beds were a bit too
short. But they were deliciously soft and we welcomed the warm
caress of the mattress with relish.
Climbing the stairs with our rucksacks was a bit of the problem,
since the stairs are a bit tilted and thus dangerous for people
that are not used to that - like us.
Soon after half past two, we extinguished the light and drifted
off into deep, dreamless sleep.

Disclaimer
The text of the articles is identical to the originals like they appeared in old ST NEWS issues. Please take into consideration that the author(s) was (were) a lot younger and less responsible back then. So bad jokes, bad English, youthful arrogance, insults, bravura, over-crediting and tastelessness should be taken with at least a grain of salt. Any contact and/or payment information, as well as deadlines/release dates of any kind should be regarded as outdated. Due to the fact that these pages are not actually contained in an Atari executable here, references to scroll texts, featured demo screens and hidden articles may also be irrelevant.