In the summer of 1987 Sega Enterprises unleashed the first game to use the upgraded version of the famous Super Scaler hardware, After Burner. It set the arcades alight, enabling audiences everywhere to take control of a F-14 Tomcat fighter jet and pretend they were Maverick in Top Gun. Home versions started to appear throughout 1988, although none of them were quite able to capture the magic of the arcade game, mainly because of deficiencies in the hardware. Over in California, software developers Epyx and the team behind the Commodore Amiga were trying to put the finishing touches to the Handy, a 16-bit colour handheld that would become the Atari Lynx. As we all know, every system needs games so the team decided to make a few visits to the local arcades for inspiration.
One of the key people in this team was graphics artist Arthur ‘Art’ Koch. He had been commissioned with programmer Stephen Landrum to design and produce a 3D flying/combat game and remembers those little jaunts fondly. “RJ (Mical) would take us all to the mini kart track to play arcade games, After Burner being one of them,” he recalls. “That’s probably where I got the notion, when I was asked to make art for a flying game, that it would be the plane in third-person, rather than a cockpit view. I think Stephen was influenced by a first-person cockpit view game like the computer game Falcon. Playing arcade games was much like studying art history in art school. Falcon was a hardcore flight simulator that was hard to play so I wanted to go more in the arcade action style of gameplay and graphics.”
The inspiration of Sega’s After Burner is clear for all to see when you take one look at Blue Lightning, but we wanted to find out a little bit more about just how the development of the game came about. “I had been paired up with Stephen to make a flying/shooting game,” recalls Art. “His idea was a first-person shooter from the cockpit of an airplane, but nobody told me this until after I created all the views to animate a third-person F-16. Steve scaled it all down so it would fit in memory and ran with it as third-person shooter. I modelled the plane in 3D and rendered all the frames of animation to draw over, so I was kind of attached to using that art. Thankfully Steve was one of the few engineers I worked with that would meet an artist halfway. He really strained his brain to figure out how everything should rotate, scroll and scale in the third-person rather than first-person, as he originally had in mind. I like to paint landscapes and sit in the window seat of an airplane when I travel so it was exciting to try and recreate that in a game.” With the design of the game finalised Epyx needed to come up with a name and Chuck Sommerville was one of key people involved the Handy project. “I still remember the meetings we had when we were developing the game at Epyx, in fact it was me who came up with the name! I remember handing a piece of paper to RJ Mical with Blue Lightning written on it, he loved it and said, ‘That’s it! We have a name!’” No doubt Chuck was inspired by the film and TV series Blue Thunder, which saw a high-tech helicopter flying into various combat zones, much like the game.
Working on new hardware is sure to be exciting so we had to ask Art what it was like working with the Lynx in those early times, Art remembers the day he was first introduced to the system. “I started working at Epyx in 1988, mainly doing PC and Amiga games, while RJ Mical and Dave Needle were developing the Handy and they needed games [produced] for it,” he says. “They wanted new games as well as versions of popular existing games I had already worked on, so I got the nod. Not only that, I was also lucky enough to be chosen to work on the game they wanted to bundle with the hardware to show off its capabilities!” That game was actually California Games, but Blue Lightning would be the title that would really show what the Lynx was capable of. After Burner was well known for its jaw-dropping scaling techniques and this would become one of the key features of the new machine. Scaling had never been seen on a home system before so for the designers to cram this technology into a handheld was simply unheard of at the time. Art remembers the thrill of working with this technology. “For an artist it was exciting to have hardware scaling and four times as many colours as a PC at that time,” he says. “We wanted to beat the slime-green palette of the Game Boy so bad! Just one artist and an engineer with not much input from the producers made for a lot of freedom to make a game we wanted using the technology available.” Chuck also recalls the custom hardware coming in useful, “One of my favourite memories was doing the intro sequence for the game. I had written an animation engine that had high-speed scaling and rotation built into it that made stuff like that so easy. We also used it for the intro on Electrocop, Slime World, Gauntlet 3 and several other titles too.”
Even with this revolutionary new hardware the project was still not plain sailing because the Lynx, like any other system, still had its limitations and these were causing a few headaches for Art. “Creating a natural environment, a realistic plane and using text in such low resolution with a limited palette was a challenge,” he remembers. “Imagining how the background tiles with sprites for trees, mountains, and objects could be combined in different ways and transition from one environment to another was difficult to visualise until the programmer got the art in the game and displayed it on the hardware. It was challenging to think in 2.5D and make it work.” Programmer Chuck was never one to dwell on limitations too long and set about working with Stephen to overcome them. “The most amazing thing about Blue Lightning, for me, especially with it being in the opening line-up of games for the Lynx, was that when we coded it we really violated a rule the system designers insisted on, but we did it in a really beautiful way. Dave Needle and RJ Mical had always said that once the game was up and running we shouldn’t be accessing the ROM again in any sort of way, and Blue Lightning violated that. We created a demo where the LED on the Lynx would flash every time we were accessing the game card, I started playing it and as I flew the plane around the light would flash as it streamed data for the landscapes and sprites directly from ROM. I later used this technique again on Zarlor Mercenary but in an even more intensive way, to prove it could be taken even further. I said to Art, ‘We don’t need these graphics and images until later, so just store them away and we can load them when we need them.’ He was really impressed. We actually wanted to take the 3D effects of Blue Lightning further and make a polygon-style tank game in the vein of Battlezone. I started to code it and had a demo version of the game to show Atari, but I couldn’t get it running the way I wanted so I decided to can it. This is actually how I came up with Chip’s Challenge, as I had just a couple of weeks left to present something to Atari and quickly came up with that.”
The finished product was released to critical and commercial acclaim, the press of the time loved it, with ST Format awarding the game 94%, The Games Machine and ST Action gave it 87% and Italian magazine Player One opted for 95%. As well as the stunning graphics, Blue Lightning also received special praise for adding new elements to the tried-and-tested ‘shoot-everything-out-of-the-sky’ formula of After Burner. Epyx’s take on the genre added new mission types that involved taking out specified ground targets, negotiating mountain ranges and even acting as a courier to deliver important documents. The designers also kept in all the things that arcade audiences loved in Sega’s game, such as the barrel rolls, lock-on targeting system and the ability to turn on the afterburners for high-speed thrills. But was there anything they wanted to include that they couldn’t? Art had some much grander ambitions for the game, as he elaborates: “There were loads of extra ground tiles, mountain, object and tree sprites that didn’t repeat well so because of limited memory. So each level had to be cut down to just what would tile well without looking repetitive. I created an image with the extra art and created a world much larger than could be displayed on the Lynx. Ten years later when I created the environment for Soviet Strike, I no longer had to repeat tiles and I was free to create a big terrain texture based on some aerial photos that I took which looked much more naturalistic.” To conclude the story of Blue Lightning we asked Art if he’s pleased that the game is still so highly regarded. “Of course,” he exclaims. “I wasn’t really aware many people still knew about it until recently. It was a game where I had a lot of artistic licence and got to work on every aspect of the game as I was the sole artist. I worked on many games where I wasn’t so limited technically but didn’t have as much creative input into the design.