In November 2013, Mayhem In Monsterland was 20 years old. To celebrate, Commodore Format journalist Andy Roberts – who was part of the game’s development from the beginning – told us the real story behind its creation for the very first time.
With Creatures 2 done and dusted, John and Steve Rowlands wanted to self publish their next game. There were problems with [publisher] Thalamus after the company went into liquidation and changed hands. Bluntly – there was a discrepancy between the number of units of Creatures that were duplicated and the number that they actually received royalties for.
At the time, there were a lot of concepts floating around for other games. John and Steve are extremely prolific when it comes to ideas, and many of the brainstorming sessions for the Creatures games would yield dozens. One of the things which interested them specifically was the new cartridge technology developed by John Twiddy and Mev Dinc from Vivid Image. The C64GS had been released, and though there had been a distinct lack of developers signing up to release their game on silicon, the instant loading times and increased capacity was extremely appealing. We had an initial meeting with John and Mev to discuss the pros and cons but we decided that the technology was too costly.
It was actually the advent of other cartridge-based systems, the SNES and Megadrive, which would provided the inspiration for Mayhem. Stuff like Mario World and Sonic. Most of John and Steve’s ideas, once the rough concept is established, follow a similar pattern: Steve would knock up some rough sprite and background designs, while John would mock up some test code and work through any technical issues. Mayhem began life with the design of the main character. When the dinosaur theme emerged, Steve decided to use the Theo Saurus sprites from a game they’d abandoned which was sort of like a medieval Rampage.
Once the basic shell had been created – using a souped-up version of the Creatures scroller code – the rest of the game was really painting-by-numbers. There were so many console platform games around at the time, and a multitude of games we could play to glean ideas and so forth. The actual premise for the game came very early on, and one of the reasons for its simplicity stemmed from the fact that the design had previously spiraled into something unwieldy and complex: we spent a number of days working on the idea that Monsterland was actually a dream, where Mayhem would have to conquer all of his fears and phobias. But it was too abstract and complicated. We couldn’t see how it could be realised as a game. And so, the concept was stripped bare and work started over.
During one brainstorming session Steve said he liked the idea of the land changing as you drained away the “evil”. This simple idea led to the Sad/Happy concept for the levels, and wasn’t – as many people suspect – poached from Wizball. Once this was established, the premise for the game (collect the magic dust, then Theo spreads it across the land to make it happy) was born. Around that time, we also came up with the name Mayhem in Monsterland, which is ever-so-loosely inspired by the 1987 movie Hell comes to Frogtown.
One of the first pieces of code to get written was the Get Ready screen – this would be the transition point between the two states. It was highly unusual for John to write any kind of presentation code this early in the project, and it took a lot of convincing on my part; I was adamant that if we could visualize the idea we had in our minds, it would really help to kickstart the project in terms of style and enthusiasm. And it worked.
With the concept in place and the major routines finalised, the process for the remaining months was pretty simple; John would tweak and refine the code and work on the alien editor, while Steve would bash out background designs, enemy sprites, SFX, music, and ultimately produce the enemy maps. In the early days, it was amazing to sit behind the lads and watch them create, shouting out the occasional comment (sometimes feedback was asked for, other times it wasn’t, but any comments were always taken on board and discussed to their ultimate fruition). Observing the creation process also came in useful when it came to writing the diary for Commodore Format.
Midway through the project, it became apparent that we’d need an intro sequence and end sequence; to this day I’ve no idea why I ended up writing these – even though I understood the C64 and had dabbled in 6502, I was by no means proficient. But John was a brilliant teacher, and always willing to explain how things worked in a very clear manner. Armed with an Amiga-based cross development system, John set me up with a shell in which to put my code, Steve gave me some test graphics, and I set about coding the intro sequence.
Working for John and Steve was both amazing fun and extremely challenging; they were complete perfectionists and would not settle for second best. Every glitch or flicker had to be ironed out at all costs. Initially it was hard to work under such a regime – particularly as I was learning as I went along – but after a while it became second nature, and forced me to constantly refine my code to get the best possible results. Being thorough and obsessed with detail is ultimately the seed of perfection: John and Steve always had the punter in mind, and this shone through in everything they did.
So strong was my urge to improve, the end sequence for Mayhem was coded, for the most part, in secret. I’d put an idea forward that would use the mini maps that Steve had used to put the levels together. Having never tackled scrolling before, I coded a sequence which is almost identical to the one in the finished game in secret and unleashed it on an unsuspecting John and Steve. Amid cries of enthusiasm and questions about how it all worked, came suggestions like “Slow down the scroller!” and “Those sprites use too much memory!”. Such was the relentless quest for excellence!
Two thirds of the way through the project, Apex – as John and Steve had now named their publishing company – relocated from their native Chelmsford to South Ockenden. Their parents had decided to move to Cyprus, so HQ moved to John’s new house which he shared with his fiancée. This was also the point at which thoughts turned to the game artwork and packaging; Steve had already created the famous Loony Tunes picture of Mayhem picture in Dpaint, but we needed a professional to take this picture and our ideas, and ultimately craft them into the packaging and create the game adverts.
We decided to approach Commodore Format’s Art Editor, Ollie Alderton. I’d known Ollie for years and he was very familiar with the game. And so, we took a trip down to Bath one weekend to tackle the art production. Such was the tight budget, we actually spent the first night sleeping in John’s battered red Fiesta in a chilly Bath car-park. Nobody had told the security guard at Future Publishing we were turning up but he did eventually agree to let us in for just a morning. So in those few hours the advert, box design and piracy protection sheet were all put together. We crashed at Ollie’s that night and the stress of the day did result in a rather unfortunate incident involving John, Steve, two bottles of tequila, and a lot of vomiting!
The final few weeks of production were busy, but not overly hectic. That was because John and Steve were self-funding and able to bend the deadlines to ensure that the game came out when it was ready and not horrendously rushed in the way Creatures was. John had set a date for the game’s completion, but that was put back so that he and his fiancée could have a short holiday. However, the advertising had been scheduled and booked in advance – the day after they returned from their holiday, I remember picking up the first order from the doormat, much to John’s complete amazement. And after that, orders began to arrive steadily. It was time to finish the game!
After a couple of trips to [duplication company] Ablex, the game was mastered and the next couple of month were spent processing the multitude of daily orders, processing cheques, stuffing tapes in envelopes, and making trips to the post office. Hardly glamorous, but every penny saved was a penny earned, and the decision to self-publish had been a very astute move.
We soon realised that a couple of bugs had slipped into Mayhem. The famous “lives” bug is only there because we were so good at the game. When we played it through, we’d never lost a life to notice! So yes, there were returns and queries to deal with daily, but thanks to a generic Help leaflet the whole admin process was slimmed down to just a couple of hours a day.
So what of the final game, and that infamous 100% rating? We had mixed feelings about that. We could empathise with CF’s feeling that Mayhem was probably the best game the C64 would have before its inevitable demise. But it wasn’t the best game ever created, and it caused considerable debate between us, Andy Hutchinson (the editor of CF who made the decision), and the readers. Of course, Commodore Force offered a more modest rating for the game, but honestly? There was always the feeling that the 100% score might have done more harm than good.
In early 1994 thoughts turned to a possible sequel. Steve’s disks were brimming with graphical experiments which would have allowed us to produce a data disk with all-new levels in just a handful of weeks. But Steve decided to take early retirement, and moved over to Cyprus for a few months to recuperate while John and I looked for another project. We produced a few articles for Commodore Format, based on game design and sound creation, and there was also the MC Mayhem Music Demo which ended up on the magazine’s covertape. We did take a couple of trips to see Codemasters. We wanted to convert Mayhem to the Megadrive. But the idea was pretty short-lived, and so Mayhem disappeared into the ether.
I’m really proud to have been involved in the creation of Commodore Format‘s “perfect game”. It was never intended to be the C64’s magnificent swansong – the timing just happened to work out that way. But it’s great that people still get so much enjoyment out of the game and that it causes a lot of debate to this very day! CF
- Andy Roberts was Commodore Format’s longest serving writer. He worked with John and Steve Rowlands on a variety of projects, including Mayhem In Monsterland.
- Go to our MAYHEM homepage and read all the articles!
- Pictures thanks to Kenz at Psytronik. Buy Mayhem In Monsterland at http://psytronik.net/.