Interview with Nels Anderson - 16 November 2005
I was pleased to be able to interview Nels Anderson, founder of Arcanum Computing and one of the most prolific programmers of classic DOS games.
I like to start every interview with the same basic question: Who are you and how did you get your start?
I'm Nels Anderson and I got started with computers way before it was in style. Around 1970 in fact, when our high school got a PDP-8/L with 4k of memory and a paper tape reader! High tech in those days, but the programming concepts were the same. I learned a lot. In college I majored in electrical engineering with a lot of computer courses on the side and ended up getting a job in software on graduation.
Your first game was Mah Jongg, which is an ancient Chinese game played with groups of matching tiles. What got you interested in Mah Jongg and in making a game based on it?
I saw another computer version for it on another type of computer. People don't remember now, but years ago there were many types of incompatible personal computers. I saw a version of the game that ran on the Apple II and thought a PC version would be nice. EGA graphics (16 color!) had just come out and it the game seemed to be a good way to explore that new capability.
Next there was EGA Trek, which is based on one of the first computer games ever. I first played the Star Trek game as a game called STRTRK on my Kaypro 4. It was written in BASIC and I ran it from MBASIC or OBASIC in CP/M. Where did you first play the game?
The "Star Trek" game goes back even farther than personal computers. I don't remember if I played it in high school, but it was on our computers in college (the big "main frame" type where there's one computer and many terminals). The original version was written for a computer like that and the one I first played was closely descended from that original. Written in Fortran if I recall right, with source code available even.
In what ways did you try to make EGA Trek better than existing Star Trek games?
Only in presentation. I tried to stay pretty much true to the original game play and just updated the look to take advantage of EGA graphics. Still, the status displays shown are pretty close to the original mainframe versions.
Because my Kaypro version of Star Trek is written in BASIC, I've been meaning to print out a copy of the source code. Were you able to study code from other versions of the game, or did you have to write it from scratch?
I did have the Fortran source for one of the versions and did refer to that. As I said, my goal was to replicate the game for PC users, not to invent something new.
Oh! Did you write your games in Fortran? I don't usually think of Fortran as being a gaming language.
No, I did not use Fortran, other than as a reference for EGA Trek since I had the Fortran source code for an early version of the game. The original Mah Jongg was written in Turbo C and my other games in Turbo Pascal.
I can't resist asking. Are you a Trekker? Who is better: Kirk or Picard?
Yes, I'm a Star Trek fan, going right back to the original series. I like both captains; I don't think I could choose one over the other.
Your next game was Shooting Gallery, which incorporates a great variety of traditional shooting games, like the old "duck shoot" games, target practice, and even an arcade-style Western shootout. This is a really ambitious game! What got you started on this project?
This happened right around the time the minicomputer industry I was working in was dying out and I needed a job, so I started writing more games. Shooting Gallery was a chance to explore what was at the time a new video mode, offering 256 colors for the first time. I'd also never done any kind of animation before so it gave me a chance to learn some new tricks.
Is shooting a real-life passion of yours, such as duck hunting, skeet shooting and target practice, or is that something you reserve for video games? Shooting Gallery seems like the type of game that Marty McFly might have played in 7-11, and I wondered if that was your type of game as well.
I've never done any shooting in real life. I picked the idea up from video games and also from the shooting galleries you sometimes see at carnivals and amusement parks.
Your philosophy seems to have been to take a classic core concept and turn it into a modern game. Mah Jongg and Dragons Bane are based on the traditional tile game, Tile Match and Second Guess are based on the memory game, Cipher is a cryptoquotes game, EGA Trek is a Star Trek game, and Shooting Gallery is obvious. And then there's SuperFly. Where did that come from?
You're right, most of the games I did are based on classics. That worked well as they have already proven to interest a lot of people and are also the type of game a solo programmer can produce. SuperFly is similiar; again, it's a game I saw running of a different computer platform and thought a PC version would be nice. The original version was just asterisks for the flies, running on a mainframe terminal and had only one level, but it was just so addictive like any good game is. I just expanded the basic concept to multiple levels and added some different challenges.
Gnat Attack, from Mario Paint (SNES)
Two years later a very similar game called Gnat Attack appeared in Mario Paint for the Super Nintendo. You used a mouse to control a fly swatter, and you had to kill a certain number of flies before a sort of "super fly" would arrive who had to be killed before you could go to the next level (although there were only three levels that kept repeating). Are you familiar with that game? Did Nintendo steal your idea!?
No, I never heard of that!
Dragons Bane and Second Guess are enhanced versions of Mah Jongg and Tile Match, with improved graphics, animation and sound effects. They support VGA and SVGA, whereas their predecessors were EGA. Were they released as separate titles so that people with older computers could continue to use the originals?
Yes, that's pretty much it. They came out when 256 color graphics became widely available (the original games were 16 colors). Going to more colors was just the next logical progression. The old games had a huge fan base though, and many hundreds of user created tile sets (I think I had collected nearly 1000 tile sets at one point) so even today I occasionally sell a copy of the original game.
Arcanum published a Windows game called Shih Dao that was developed by Digital Empires. I believe this is the only third-party game that you published. How did that come about?
That was done just to help out someone I had met who didn't want to do the sales for his own game. I was not involved in creating the game at all.
You noted in some of your games that you contributed to a game called Bass Tour. What was your involvement in that game?
Back when I was still working in the minicomputer industry most of my co-workers became aware of my games and one of them who was a big fishing fan wanted to do a bass fishing game. I helped him get started, offering programming advice when I could and helped test and critique the game as it was developed.
You seem to have a broad variety of interests, including flight simulation. Did you have any other ideas that you wanted to make games out of? Are there any unfinished Arcanum games?
The only unfinished game was an adventure type game, along the lines of the "Ultima" series (the early, DOS ones). I was doing it with another person who was going to design the actual story while I did the programming but that did not really work out and the programming never really got that far.
Do you still enjoy DOS games? Are there any oldies that you still find yourself playing?
I still play my own Mah Jongg games on occasion :-)
Is there anything else you'd like to say or anything that you'd like to promote?
Well, the reason I stopped doing games is that I went on to other things. The next logical progression after going from EGA to VGA graphics would have been to do Windows versions. I dabbled in that, doing a "Cipher for Windows" but decided I really wasn't interested in that. Now I run web sites that support some of my other interests:
Thank you very much for your time, and good luck with your future projects.
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