If you were the owner of an 8-bit computer, odds are you had this wonderful little game. Essentially a comic book come to life, the aim was to take control of precocious nipper Jack and cause as much mayhem as possible. Developer, Greg Holmes, explains how the game came to be.
During the early Eighties, Britain’s popular press sold the idea that brainy school kids all over the country were being paid a small fortune to create computer games. The most successful ones even drove flash sports cars – or so the stories went. And while there was a certain amount of truth to the phenomenon that the tabloids were reporting on, some developers of the time simply didn’t fit their narrative.
“I was 26 when it was published, and all the other people around me were these whizz kids just out of school,” says Greg Holmes of his breakthrough title Jack The Nipper. But the story of Greg’s naughty toddler starts some five years earlier and in a venue far from any classroom. “I was working nights in a large shipyard,” Greg begins, “I bought a Spectrum in 1981 and studied computing during my breaks and during any free time. You have to remember that I was far away from civilisation in Barrow in Furness, there were three or four books on Spectrum assembler and Programming the Z80 by Rodney Zaks – which cost £40 then – and that was it. I left the shipyard in 1984 and sold my car and everything that was surplus to requirements – cameras, etc. I then sat in my bedroom and coded and coded ten hours a day for 18 months. I learned 6502 assembler on the BBC as the books were better, then I went back to a Spectrum.”
Greg’s hard labour resulted in two Spectrum titles: a platformer called A Trick Of The Tale and a maze game with tanks called Podder, both of which he planned to sell on an upcoming road trip – but not before starting preliminary work on a third title. “It was just myself, in my bedroom, and some crazy ideas drawn on the back of old dot matrix computer rolls,” explains Greg when asked how this third project began. “I have always read comics – and still do – and was a big fan of Sweeny Toddler from Whoopee! and Whizzer And Chips. I was sick of all the main characters of games being heroes and doing good and I wanted kids to be naughty because it’s more fun. So that’s how Jack The Nipper was born. A Trick Of A Tale was a poor Manic Miner clone developed to learn Z80 assembler, that was followed by Podder. I then started storyboarding Jack The Nipper and developed some sprites and mock up screens. I borrowed my dad’s car and spent a few days travelling around north-west games companies – Ocean and some others I can’t remember, it was nearly 30 years ago. After receiving many ‘We’ll let you knows’ I ended up – rather despondently at this point – at Gremlin, my last port of call before heading home. As they thought I showed promise, they asked me if I had any other ideas – something the other companies hadn’t bothered asking – so I pitched Jack The Nipper. Gremlin asked me to continue, albeit unpaid, but with the hope of publishing.”
The Amstrad conversion has a nice and distinctive look.
On the basis of this gentlemen’s agreement, Greg assigned his sister’s boyfriend and his brother minor creative roles before briefly picking the brains of Gremlin’s salaried staff. “I spent a couple of days at Gremlin early on in the development,” Greg recalls, ”Shaun Hollingworth, Pete Harrap and Chris Kerry gave me some pointers. They wouldn’t tell me all their secrets but hinted at what to do and I worked the rest of it out myself. But all the sprite routines were based on the help I was given by the lads. My younger brother John – who was in secondary school at the time – helped me along with some graphics and we bounced ideas off each other. Nick Corran, who was my sister’s boyfriend at the time, and a musician, came up with the tune. The game was written from scratch in Z80 Assembler. I designed the whole thing, wrote the code, all the graphics, screens, maps and sound effects myself. It took bloody ages to do that whistle!”
Jack’s memorable whistle wasn’t the only time-consuming aspect of the game’s development, though, as Greg reveals. “I started with a single Spectrum and tape recorder and used Zeus Assembler. I developed the game code in three parts which all linked to one another as Zeus resided in memory below 32,768 and each of the three blocks of source code were above – and built 4K of finished code – so there was a lot of faffing about. As development progressed and Gremlin became more comfortable with what I was demoing every few months they gave me an Opus disk drive and that really speeded things up. The screens were drawn using a book I bought somewhere which had blank Spectrum screens laid out like a checkerboard – 32 across by 24 down. So I drew all the screens and built the drawing routines from that. Initially I used pencil and paper to draw the sprites then typed in all the numbers – like an idiot. However, I thought there must be an easier way and I used Melbourne Draw for all the on-screen graphics, sprites and masks and wrote a series of routines to pull them from the screen into the memory areas formatted the way I wanted them. Because of the big sprites I had to use illegal Z80 instructions because I ran out of registers. I had read an article in Personal Computer Weekly on this and then applied it to the sprite routine and that took some getting your head around. I also had to design the screens a certain way to allow objects to smash when they were dropped.”
This particular scene was inspired by a comic Greg used to read.
As he made progress on the game’s coding and graphics, Greg fine-tuned the title’s mechanics and gameplay and worked out the devilish pranks that Jack would perform. “I liked the way Grumpy Gumphrey had turned out, I felt that its semi-3D effect really captured the idea of a comic on the screen,” reasons Greg, “so I used that idea in Jack The Nipper. Part of the gameplay was to be naughty and avoid being chased so the game needed the in-and-out-of-the-screen movement to be able to avoid everyone. I came up with many of the pranks but some were lifted from Sweeny Toddler stories – like the prisoners being released. However the cat and horn was stolen from a favourite Looney Tunes cartoon called ‘No Barking’ where a dog barks and scares a cat up to the ceiling.”
With work nearing completion on Jack The Nipper and it owing so much to the comic strip Sweeny Toddler, Gremlin unsurprisingly looked into the idea of adapting Greg’s work into a licensed version of the then-popular comic character. “We did look into it, but it was thought that extra time and cost would be incurred, not only from the licensing but also from IPC wanting to change things,” Greg remembers. “As the game was fully formed we really didn’t see the need. By the time it came to publish I was given a job at Gremlin and worked with Pete Harrap who created the loading screen.”
By way of in-jokes, Pete Harrap’s loading screen credited “Nick Laa” as musician rather than Nick Corran and the finished game included a location familiar to everyone at Gremlin. “Nick was from Ellesmere Port and was a ‘scouser’ and used to call everyone ‘La’, so that’s the reason,” says Greg, with a grin. “Just Micro was the computer shop set up by Ian Stewart and Kevin Norburn – who set up Gremlin – so I put the shop into the game.”