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Clay Cowgill

Clay Cowgill is the programmer of Vectrex Moonlander,
creator of many arcade coin-op kits, as well as a 'Mad Scientist'

MT> What inspired you to create a new Vectrex game, and why Moonlander?
CC> I'd actually taken an interest in the Vectrex during college (around 1990) and was programming on it a bit back then. The "real world" intervened and I kind-of forgot about it. Then back in 1996 I decided to poke around on the web and look up Vectrex stuff. I came across John D's games (I think Vector Vaders and Patriots) and tried them out. I was impressed by what he'd pulled off (Patriots in particular), but I wanted to do something that would push the system a bit more-- digitized sound, utilize the full 32K ROM area, intermission screens, fancy animation, analog control, semi-real physics, etc... Moonlander was the result.

MT> Moonlander was originally created for the Hewlett Packard handheld calculators in the early 70's, and has since been reprogrammed for numerous platforms, even encompassing palm pilots. Was there a particular version of Moonlander which guided or assisted your venture?
CC> I'd written 'lunar-lander' clones back in the 80's on my Atari 800, so I had some experience coding that type of game already. I relied heavily on people on the net making suggestions-- and a lot of the ideas came from Atari's coin-op version of Lunar Lander. I always liked the feel of Atari's Gravitar (more so than the more "simulation speed" Lunar Lander) so I wanted to capture some of Gravitar's more action/reflex oriented aspects in Moonlander as well. "Oids" on the Atari ST was another game I had fond memories of, so I borrowed some ideas from there as well. "Steal from the best" as the saying goes. ;-)

MT> How did you approach creating a new Vectrex title?
CC> Back in 1990 my development system for the Vectrex was some custom hardware I'd built that originally was used for developing Atari 2600 carts-- the 2600 was pretty much dead by then so I converted it to run on the Vectrex. (It was hosted by an Atari ST.) By 1996 though I stumbled onto Keith Wilkins' excellent DVE (DOS Vectrex Emulator). As soon as I saw DVE I knew I'd be doing my work entirely on the PC...

I started with the commented Vectrex BIOS listing (was it Fred Taft's?) and a disassembly of Star Castle. Coding on the Vectrex was remarkably simple thanks to the very capable built-in BIOS. I think I had the Moonlander ship up and flying around in a couple hours.

MT> How many production hours do you estimate you spent creating Moonlander?
CC> *hmmmmm* That's a tough one. I'd say the bulk of the game engine was written in about 40 hours of work over about 10 days. After that there was countless hours spent writing vector graphics editors, Excel spreadsheets to pre-calculate the math for the mountains, tweaking and "prettying up" the graphics, etc. I probably re-did the sound system four times before getting frustrated and giving it to Christopher Salomon to finish. :-)

At the end of day-one the code was 400 lines. When I handed it off to Chris is was 4400 line, but also probably about two years later! It really spent about 95% of the time dormant on my hard drive...

MT> What is your most memorable video game experience - your childhood trip to Atari?
CC> That's right up there. ( I also have vivid memories of a trip to "Circus Circus" in Reno, Nevada around 1984(?). The arcade there had a promotion where if you could beat the high-score on a game, you won it. To make a long story short, I was playing Atari's "I,Robot" and apparently found a bug/glitch in the game. I was hitting a transporter that would take me *back* three levels and let me replay them over and over and over-- needless to say I was able to do that for a LONG time and rack up a huge score (easily beating the highscore). As soon as the arcade manager saw I'd beaten a highscore though, the rules suddenly changed -- "we have to *watch* you play the entire game". They wouldn't give me the game. I was mad for about four weeks.

MT> How did you become involved with coin-op kits?
CC> I've always loved arcade games. I'm definately one of the "Atari Generation" I guess. In 1990 during school I bought an Atari Tempest-- of course it promptly died, so out of necessity I started fixing and tweaking it. When I finally bought a house and had (relatively) lots of space the collecting really took off. Making the kits and programming on the old game hardware just seems more interesting and challenging to me than bashing out some code for a Playstation or PC.

MT> Do you create these kits? Hardware? Software? write the Installation procedures?
CC> Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes. ;-)

I design the hardware, write software tools (where needed) to implement the menu systems and special functions, write the actual software/firmware that runs on the kit (on screen menus, firmware drivers, new games, whatever), and document it all in the form of user installation manuals. Some kits are based off of other's designs or suggestions (Cliff Koch's Empire Strikes Back "SLAPSTIC" chip eliminator is a good example of the former), and some are all my own (Tempest Multigame, Wells Gardner Display Corrector, Sega Multigame, etc).

(You can check out the installation manuals in's "manuals" section...)

Once all that's done, I also handle the manufacturing, testing, and shipping of the products out to the customers. Keeps me out of trouble after school-- 'er... after work. :-)

MT> Has the recent release of Phantom Menace improved your demand for your Star Wars / Empire Strikes Back kit?
CC> There was definately a "pop" in demand recently, but I don't think Menace had much to do with. Collecting the "classics" has been getting a lot of press lately (NY Times, Fortune, etc.) so I think that's driving a strong buying season. Lots of people turning 30 now that have disposable income and are looking to pick up some relics from their childhood. In the Portland, Oregon area there's at least one "classic" arcade and another full-time store dedicated to classic games and pinball sales. There's just no way either of those were possible business ventures up here five years ago.

MT> The MultiPac allows for 24 different games, some of which are not Pac-Man related. Did the hardware dictate what types of games you created for it, or did you have particular ideas in mind, and forced them upon the hardware.
CC> I didn't write any new games for the MultiPac specifically (well, nothing released yet). The non-pacman games on the MultiPac are a result of the Pacman hardware being so heavily copied during the early 80's. Crush Roller, Lizard Wizard, and Eyes, are all really just clones of Pacman's mainboard running different code. Adding them to the MultiPac makes for a nice break from "eat the dots" all the time.

MT> What is your most popular kit, and why?
CC> Probably the MultiPac. There was just a tremendous number of Pacman and Ms. Pacman machines built back in the boom days of the arcades. I think it's really just the larger target audience and instant name recognition of "Pac-Man" that makes the MultiPac popular.

MT> Vector games seem to withstand the test of time, which of the games within your Sega G-80 Vector Multigame pack do you believe plays the best today. Why.
CC> I have two answers. For a single player I'm very fond of Tac/Scan. The sound in Tac/Scan is amazing to me-- the "Universal Sound Board" in the Sega vector system had a tremendous range of noises it can produce. The "crrr-pop!" sound when one of your ships is hit is outstanding! I like Tac/Scan from a conceptual standpoint too-- you start with everything you have fire-power wise and are forced to make decisions that often result in sacrificing one of your ships. Sort of the opposite of something like the power-up driven shooters like Raiden now-a-days.

For two players (or more) the answer has to be Eliminator. The game just provides the arena, the players provide the action. It's interesting that Sega recognized the value of multi-player gaming waaaaay back then-- and the popular press is still hyping new "multiplayer" games as being The Next Big Thing twenty years later!

MT> Tell us about the upcoming Multi-Jamma?
CC> The MultiJAMMA is an expansion system for JAMMA-compatible arcade game boards. Basically it's a big "switcher". You can connect up to eight JAMMA boards to the MultiJAMMA and then with the push of a button cycle through all of the games without having to turn the game off, remove the game board, plug in a new one, etc...

I thought a fast way to pick from multiple games would be popular for people that only want one machine in the corner of the family room and would otherwise quickly tire of the one game it has to offer. It also lets arcade operators get a little more life out of older titles without giving up revenues from newer games and allows locations to switch games without a service call once players tire of (or master) a particular game.

MT> Has anything particularly amusing happened as a result of your Moonlander or Coin-op kits?
CC> By and large there's probably not any real side-splitting anecdotes to tell, but my girlfriend (now wife) has nicknamed me "The Mad Scientist" from being hunched over a pile of circuit boards and wires sitting in the green glow of logic analyzers and monitors most every night... :-)

Good Deal Games would like to thank Clay (Thanks Clay!) for his kit support,
new creations, and taking time to share his wisdom.

Visit Clay's



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