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INTERVIEW
Simon Quernhorst

Simon Quernhorst is a long-time study of the Commodore 64, and recently converted his game 'Mental Kombat' for the Atari VCS with spectacular programming finesse and packaging!

 

MT> How would you explain the game play of Mental Kombat? What similarities does it share with other games?
SQ> As the aim of this game for two players is to connect four or more stones of your color in a vertical or horizontal line, the best comparison would be the boardgame "Connect 4" which unfortunately doesn't exist for the Atari 2600 by now. While you always place new stones which are not moveable in "Connect 4", you change the pattern of an already filled board in "Mental Kombat". The board consists of 49 fields, 24 are filled with yellow stones and 24 with red ones. The players can move the tiles now after each other and try to connect rows of their own color, avoiding to build rows for the other player. The player who connects three rows of his color at first wins. If the players regard this task as too easy they may also switch the game to hard-mode which means that you need 5 or more stones for a row.

MT> Mental Kombat owes it roots to the Commodore 64. How did the game, which was started on a classic computer, become a VCS game?
SQ> The original C=64 game was made several years ago just for fun. When I decided to develop a 2600 game in 2001 I searched for a game-idea which would be perfect for my first development. I remembered "Mental Kombat" and judged it
as being a good start for VCS coding, because it is different from all the other VCS games so far and doesn't use too heavy coding-tricks.

In my past I have been active in programming the C=64 and created several demos and games. As I always loved demos I wanted to implement as much graphics in "Mental Kombat" as well. This finally resulted in having two introduction sequences in the 4 kb game.

MT> Concerning packaging, Mental Kombat is solid. Coming complete with full-color labels and instruction manual, signed and numbered cartridge, and a replica VCS box. Please tell us about the inclusion of the two headbands, and who is the lovely lass that deserves credit for her sewing and stitching abilities?
SQ> At the very beginning of this project I decided that the final game should be something "special" concerning the packaging aswell. I got other homebrew-games and recognized that most of them were not available in a printed package for example. When my game was produced on carts and the manuals were printed I took some time and searched for a professional printer who was able to deliver a good box at reasonable prices. Unfortunately even the cheapest solution was quite expensive. Not regarding the price as the most important criteria I decided to insert something very special to the limited box as well.

I recognized that headbands would match pretty well to the fighting-spirit and title of the game. The production was mainly done by Tanja, she is a friend of my girlfriend. The whole process took several weeks, the most annoying step was turning all the headbands inside out to hide the sewing lines.

By the way: "Mental Kombat" is the only videogame containing TWO headbands, while "Kasumi Ninja" for the Jaguar is the only videogame containg ONE headband.

MT> Mental Kombat certainly pays homage to the famous Mortal Kombat videogame. It has similarities such as a similar name and a familiar 'Fight' screen. Why MK?
SQ> Mortal Kombat was the reason for me buying a Super-Nintendo back then. There were a lot of fighting games and some were even better concerning the game-play, but I somehow got addicted to Mortal Kombat. All of the sequels to the game were instantly purchased by me when they hit the shelves. I still like the first version of the game most of all, even though it contains several bugs: have you ever seen a videogame with a highscore-table, but no chance of entering it? ;-)



Mental Kombat "Fight!" Screen

MT> You are based in Germany. Obviously you speak some English, but technical documents are often difficult to understand and translate. Did your location, or factors such as language, effect the development of Mental Kombat and become potential barriers?
SQ> Due to my job as software consultant and my computer history, I think that I manage to communicate quite well with foreigners and especially native english speakers. Since I programmed other machines in machine-language in the past,
I didn't have any problems in understanding the technical documents for the Atari VCS. While programming the game I came to know that there are several other german VCS-developers and they offered their experiences and support as well.

MT> Using the TV-Type switch on the VCS allows users around the world to choose NTSC (choosing color) and PAL (choosing B/W) modes was ingenius. This was a unique solution to a common problem. How did this feature, excuse the pun,
come into play?
SQ> In the past most of the games were released either as PAL or NTSC versions for the Atari VCS, as well as for the C=64. Back in the day, when being active in the C=64 scene, we used to "import" games which means that they were PAL/NTSC-fixed to work properly on every machine worldwide. The C=64 had an internal address which contained the information if a PAL or NTSC machine is used and so you could use "auto-detection" for your fixes and start different program-routines depending on the PAL or NTSC setting.

As the Atari VCS does not contain such internal information, I wanted to release a PAL and NTSC compatible cartridge instead of two different versions. I used the TV-Type switch for that purpose.

The differences on the Atari VCS concerning the PAL and NTSC versions are mainly the color-palette. It is totally different on both machines, there are much fewer PAL-colors and for example there is no real yellow to be found in the PAL-palette. Beneath that you have a different amount of available scanlines on both systems. The PAL- and NTSC-differences on the C=64 are much more connected to timing, because the amount of CPU-cycles per line varies. This may result in mixed-up graphics, loading problems and in worst cases in crashing programs.

MT> Technically, how did you program Mental Kombat?
SQ> I programmed the whole game using a very simple text-editor on PC and compiled the code using DASM V2.0 by Matthew Dillon. At first I wanted to program the game on a C=64 due to the game's origin, but I cancelled that plan after
recognizing that transfering the game to a PC for testing in an emulator is far too much work all the time.

MT> What type of quality testing did Mental Kombat endure?
SQ> At first I always checked the results of the compiler in the z26 emulator by John Saeger on PC. When I was nearly finished with the game I managed to get a Starpath Supercharger for the VCS and transfered the binary-files directly
from PC to the Supercharger using the line out port. I came to know that my game was not Supercharger-compatible and displayed errors on the Atari VCS, but as I had no Eprom-burner and nevertheless wanted to check the perfect gameplay on a real VCS, I improved the game for play using the Supercharger as well.

Beneath this technical testing I made a lot of logical testplays of course. In the final testing-phase of the game I got support from my girlfriend and two other VCS-developers. After finding a last bug in the flashing-routine of the cursor, we considered the game as being bug-free and ready for release.

MT>You had a label design contest for the cover of Mental Kombat. Jason Parlee 's submission was chosen as the winner, and ultimately graced the box and cartridge. How many submissions did you receive, and what other covers should receive special recognition?
SQ> I received 40 label submissions from 16 different persons. I was very surprised by the amount and quality of the labels. Finally I had to choose a winner and as Jason Parlee's entry #3 came closest to my vision of the perfect design, I announced him to be the winner. My second choice would've been Mike Tinnes label #1. View all label entries here.




Just a sample of some of the lable variations submitted for the contest.

MT> Any plans for the future? What's next?
SQ> I already started a new game for the Atari 2600 which is called "A-VCS-tec Challenge" and will be an arcade-version of the first level of the C=64-game "Aztec Challenge". The music will be converted by Paul Slocum. A very early preview of the title-screen and the music can be downloaded here.

I'm currently thinking about another VCS game based on the kernal of Mental Kombat (I mentioned it already in this interview :-). Unfortunately my spare-time is very limited at the moment and so I can't spend as much time on VCS-development as I'd like to.

I would also like to make some new productions on the C=64 as well and present them at scene parties like "The Party" in Denmark which is the biggest scene-event in europe for years. The last time I went there in 2000 I won the second place at the C=64 graphics and #5 in the Wild-Demo competitions. Gaming-wise I would like to visit the CGE in Las Vegas...

MT> Well, we'd certainly like to have you at the Classic Gaming Expo! You would be a very welcome guest!


The hard work and diligence of homebrew programmers like Simon bring new life to our favorite consoles! GDG salutes all present-day developers including Simon Quernhorst with a sincere,
"thank you!" You truly make the world a better place! Long live Atari!

Visit Simon's webpage
E-Mail Simon Quernhorst

 

 

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