Warren Pilkington is nothing more than a legend in C64 circles. Through Commodore Format’s GameBusters section, he wrote hundreds of hacks to help people cheat their way through the toughest of games. Waz is the reason a lot of people finished Creatures, First Samurai and TurboCharge, but he’s very humble. “It was all about helping people”, he tells us.
Waz! Great to finally catch up with you. So..where have you been since the last ever Commodore Format in 1995? I’ve had plenty to do since then. After Commodore Format folded, I’d already been in discussions with Jason Mackenzie (Kenz) about contributing regularly to the fanzine Commodore Zone. I ended up doing the whole of the tips section for all sixteen issues, so was mightily pleased to have given something back in that way, as well as write a couple of other articles for it as well over the time.
In mid-1997 I noticed for the first time the High Voltage SID Collection (HVSC) and once online I realised that there were a fair few things at the time that I could see needed some correction. As time went on I joined their team, and really put a lot of effort into making the collection as accurate and as playable on a real Commodore 64 as possible. I ended up being the administrator from May 1998 to late December 2002, during which time we made several key decisions such as going to a revised file format to make the collection more Commodore 64 friendly. I left it to good hands permanently around mid-2003, but still occasionally to this day contribute with rip packs and other things I spot to help them out from time to time.
And when some diehard Zzap! 64 fans came together and created a special one-off issue 107, I was flattered to be asked to do the tips page for it, and that worked out rather nicely. I was pretty humbled really, they could have asked anyone!
I also am a keen photographer now and my photos are up on Flickr (see https://www.flickr.com/photos/zawtowers) and still write poetry and other forms of writing on my web site as well.
From a more personal perspective, I’ve now been in the same job for the last sixteen years looking after all things IT related and also being a specialist in application packaging and deployment, notably for use with Microsoft SCCM 2007 and SCCM 2012. And I’ve been with the same wonderful woman for the last seven years, so life is pretty good on that front which definitely helps I think.
You have a full life, then! Let’s go back to the early ’90s for a bit. How did you end up contributing to CF? I had contributed to Zzap! 64 for around three years solid, from late 1988 to late 1991, with Robin Hogg’s tenure in the tips section being an era where I really managed to contribute quite a bit, primarily because they were able to send me stuff to hack thus ensuring that I didn’t have to buy all the games myself like many other former listings submitters had to. I had suspected though for a while that all wasn’t well with Zzap! 64, and so submitted them to Andy Dyer, who was at that time the tips person for Commodore Format. What I didn’t know at the time was that Andy Roberts had just taken over the tips section in Commodore Format. He was quite pleased I’d taken the approach and it definitely was the right move to start to do so, not least as issue 79 of Zzap! 64 never appeared for ages before the infamous Newsfield buyout. It was never the same magazine since then to be honest.
For me personally, it was the start of a really good few years, and Andy was a really good person at the other end – he was able to bounce ideas around and always on hand to give me a heads up about what he’d like to see and what was doable. Naturally the cover mounted cassette (the Power Pack – Ed) was always one which needed suitable hacks, so that the next issue had the listing hacks etc for the previous issue’s games, but anything else that was spotted was always useful in the meantime.
I also had a phone call from someone high up in Future Publishing (which Andy had kindly pre-warned me about) asking me if I would only be able to submit my work to them in future rather than to Zzap!, in some sort of exclusivity agreement. I was still 19, so had to listen carefully to make sure everything was right for me. In the end, I’d made the right decision as it proved to be a rather productive few years onwards. I also knew Andy wouldn’t mangle the listings and cock them up when I had submitted them to him, which was another reassuring thing.
Yeah, it wasn’t a given the other mag’s listings would work! So how did you get started with hacking games in the first place? Not a lot of people actually know this, but it was down to a Commodore Plus/4. I had one at Christmas 1985, and the Plus/4 like the Commodore 16 had a built in machine code monitor, so you could in a lot of cases reset games and enter the monitor, and look at the code to see what it was doing. I actually had done around 30-40 different POKEs for games on that machine, and even submitted them to Commodore User at the time, but nothing ever happened with them. A real shame but it was a good learning curve and something useful to know moving forward.
When I did get my Commodore 64, I looked at the code of the listing POKEs submitted, and learned from those how they worked in terms of intercepting the tape loading system, adding code at the relevant points and redirecting it so then your own code was placed there. Obviously it meant that you wanted to ensure any infinite lives POKEs were set before the game then launched properly, but you had to take into account the tape loading mastering system used, what protection was available and how it all came together.
Once I’d learned how the basics worked, it was then progressing onto writing my own listings and seeing point by point how the tape loading system was intercepted. Once I’d got a decent Action Replay cartridge (I still have and use my 5.2 Professional version incidentally) it was a lot easier to look at the in built monitor they had, see how the code worked and make sure piece by piece I could sort all of that out. Quite nice really.
It’s a real skill on your part too, though. Andy Roberts says he was blown away by how you could bust apart game after game, month after month. It must make you proud! That’s very kind of him, but I never saw it as a case of getting fame or anything like that – it was always about helping others who were getting frustrated at a particular game because of the difficulty element – so they would be able to play it with a sense of progression rather than just put it on the shelf and leave it unplayed.
The music hacks (more notable when I contributed for Zzap! 64) were something Robin Hogg was fond of himself and wanted more of.
I suppose for me it was also about learning coding at the same time, having an understanding of how it all worked and if it meant that my learning also meant I could get more listings done, then that made me feel very humbled. In fact, it still does.
Speaking of which, Andy says we must ask you more about your multihack program which allowed people to cheat on many different games…how did you even begin with something like that? The most famous of these was probably the Mastertronic/Codemasters multihack, so best to probably explain that one. Effectively when Mastertronic started releasing games, they would a lot of the time use the same tape loading system, with multi-coloured bars in the borders, and a loading screen about half way through the load. To save time and costs, it made a lot more sense for them as a company to use the same mastering system and therefore the same loader code.
When Codemasters started off, they decided it made perfect sense to use exactly the same tape mastering system for all of their games, and so it was clear that and the Mastertronic games before it, you could effectively use the same piece of code to load up the first part of the loader, put your own code in, and then have it redirect to a routine where you’d be adding the relevant cheats as the game loaded. In fact the real secret here was that it was a case of redirecting the command that changed the border colour rapidly to my own code, so that’d do the border colour change and then go to the routine where the DATA lines would reside.
When I first wrote it, I called it Codemasters’ Multihack Simulator, partly as a tribute to the fact that a lot of Codemasters game had the word “simulator” in it for no apparent reason other than marketing (for example: “This is the best game EVER!” – David Darling) and had a fair few games from both companies to do examples of the extra DATA lines from.
I had also submitted a letter to Zzap! in issue 78 with my address at the time, and I can remember someone sending me a huge package with around 30-40 budget games in. A lot of those as it turned out were suitable for that particular hack so in a good way it helped me with all the DATA lines required.
Looking back, it was something I’d had some detail of doing beforehand (Mastertronic’s later Invad-a-Load/Load’n’Play also used their own same loader system) but the Codemasters one was definitely the biggest one of the lot, and in a way, the most rewarding to do. It saved typing the same lines over and over again if you could just load the main listing, add the DATA lines, and off you went.
It was you that came up with the idea of making all the data three figures on the page, so the listings lined up really nicely. Do you just have a brain for that kind of thing? It’s so simple but nobody else thought of it. I don’t think that was me to be honest. (Andy Roberts is adamant it was! – Ed) However, it did make a lot of sense so you could more easily spot any errors when typing the listing out, particularly if it was a long one. Granted, most of the time you’d put some form of checksum in there to eliminate as many errors as possible, but it was often in the past long DATA lines with varying lengths of numbers in.
It was better too when the listings in CF were actually typed neatly in a fixed font typeface instead of screen grabs of the listing from a C64 like they were in early issues.
Let’s talk about magazines for a minute. What were your faves, and were there any reviewers or bits of the mags you especially liked? Naturally Zzap! 64 featured heavily in a lot of people’s lives who had a C64. For me there were two really good eras of that magazine, one of which being where it was the dream team of Julian Rignall, Gary Penn and Steve Jarratt (of course Steve went on to start off CF, so he knew what it took to be a success). The second successful Zzap! 64 era centred mainly around Robin Hogg and him doing the tips section proud that Julian Rignall had presided over originally. It also helped as Robin and I had a pretty good understanding and he was keen to get me more involved back then doing listing POKEs, music hacks etc a lot more than previous – and he was more than happy to try and get me some disk games sent along to hack as well as tape ones.
CF on the other hand was pretty strong from the outset with good editorial leadership and content. Having a good working relationship with Andy Roberts (he worked from home and then from his time with Apex living with them!) made for a good amount of co-operation. I pretty much communicated with him only – none of the other CF staffers, but that made it a bit less hassle for me and a bit more easier for him too I think. I think in hindsight they may have needed to stop the magazine a year earlier than they did as they effectively ran out of stuff to write and fill pages with, but at the same time they did what they could to stick it out – and the fanzines from then onwards helped to keep things alive nicely.
The magazines generally had their good and bad parts, but I always thought that the behind the scenes making of the games themselves told you a lot more, not just about the games themselves but the programmers as people and what they did. Martin Walker’s diary for Citadel was particularly impressive in this vein as he side tracked to do the music for Armalyte along the way, and that was the start of him getting a few music commissions instead of making games.
We hear you might be making something of a C64 come back. What can you tell us about it? I wouldn’t say it’s a comeback per se. I never went away really but just didn’t want to be so much at the forefront of a few things. I’m naturally quite a shy person and even now when people recognise me at events it’s usually pretty humbling to be honest.
However, I’ve always owned and played on a C64 all this time and so decided at the beginning of this year to relaunch Zaw Productions by doing a couple of tunes myself. I recently did one for Vinny Mainolfi’s “crazy hacks” games trainer series, and there will be a couple more for him as well – thought it’d be a good way to get back into it a little more.
I also realised that there were plenty of my old Zaw Productions music demos missing from CSDB (C64 Scene Data Base – Ed) as well, so spent some time a while back transferring my disks over, sorting out plenty of the original releases and ensuring credit was where they were due. I think in a way it was good to fill the gaps in the right way and have the info that they would treasure and keep properly. Of course, with that came a question about one of my old music demos, which I only properly released in a very limited quantity. Maybe come 2017 when it’s the 25th anniversary of the demo might there be something happening, but nice to know people out there are intrigued nonetheless.
What’s your take on the current C64 world? It has really exploded again the last couple of years with books, fanazines etc…I think with it being thirty years since the first real home computing boom where playground debates were very common, a lot of people have rediscovered their youth to think “I used to play one of those!” and are now itching to have a good go at it. Of course for many of them what they’ve realised is that there’s a whole bunch of people who never gave their original machine away and still use it on a frequent basis and who are still as enthusiastic about the games as they are now.
I suppose too that with potential now to tap into that whole retro thing, there’s been a success where crowd funding has really helped projects along, such as the Bitmap Books series, audio CDs such as Matt Gray’s forthcoming Reformation box set and Marcel Donné’s Sidologie box set and so on. It gives people that sense of reliving their youth in a more modern way. Even new games are being made where there is potential for them being sold over the Internet but in a professional manner, and with all sorts of hardware making playing long deleted games on a real machine more than possible again, it’s a really good time to get rediscovering.
I actually still own four C64s including my first one which was a very early model C64C that had a 6581 R4 SID chip in it before the 8580 R5 SIDs became more commonplace in them. One of those C64s actually used to belong to no less than Ben Daglish, the legendary C64 composer, and I met him several years ago to collect it whilst he was in a rehearsal session with one of the bands he was in. That was a great day, and made even more so when I tried the machine at home and it still worked. I did record some of Ben’s tunes from that actual C64 for the C64 Takeaway podcast too – it had a really heavy filtered SID chip in it.
It’s awesome talking with you, Waz. Any other particular memories stand out for you? Lots of great memories really – I could write a whole number of pages on this! For me though one of the nicest memories I’ve had was to end up meeting some of the people whom I admired for their game soundtracks back in the day, and being able to give something back to them for all of the work that they did in games. One particular moment that stands out was having some good nights out with the musician Fred Gray (not that hard as he didn’t live too far away at the time) and on one occasion working with him via one of his old work disks to locate and put right a hidden tune long thought lost (it’s called Mystery). When we discovered it on the work disk the looping was a mess and sounded awful, and with some careful work I managed to fix it and get it looping spot on, which was a real pleasure to be able to do.
I suppose just as equally but in a different way is meeting several friends through the C64, not least three of them who I meet up with on occasion and we have a great time together, usually with some C64 action during the weekend as well as some tenpin bowling (no, not 10th Frame) as well as football and beer. One of those people I’ve known for over twenty years now and it’s been really good because of a similar taste in music and having great times due to gigs we’ve been to too.
And finally, to go back to the 90s – or the 80s if you prefer – what’s your all time fave C64 game? Wizball – no question. The whole package of really good use of graphics and colour (when you fill the cauldrons and paint the levels with colour), the excellent Martin Galway soundtrack that feels part of the game hugely, and the playability which really does mean it’s a thinking shooter, not just aimless blasting. I think it struck everyone as being hugely different at the time and even today it’s stood the test of time wonderfully well. CF
- You can read an archived interview with Waz from 2001 here. This interview is copyright 2015 Warren Pilkington and The Commodore Format Archive. It may not be reproduced without permission. Contact us here. Warren’s blog is at http://www.zawtowers.org.uk He’s on Twitter @ZawTowers.