If he hadn’t ended up falling into programming, it’s plausible that Jonathan ‘Joffa’ Smith, the brain behind such ZX Spectrum classics as Cobra, Green Beret, and Hyper Sports, would have gone into filmmaking – specifically, animation.
He was one of the first school kids to submit a short animated flick, The Thorn, for his art O-level, and may have been accepted into the National Television & Film School if it wasn’t for a job offer from Ocean Software.
The 1984 documentary Commercial Breaks shows Joffa in the process of being hired, as he demonstrates a game to studio bosses David Ward and Paul Finnegan while studiously trying to avoid the TV cameras.
And yet this shy teenager – a self-proclaimed ‘sociophobe’ – was among the rarest of breeds. It’s often thought that coding and graphics are two entirely separate disciplines, with little crossover between them; in the Spectrum era, Joffa was among the best in both areas.
“He was a great all-rounder, programmer, artist,” recalls programmer Jim Bagley, who worked with Joffa at Liverpool-based studio Special FX. “He could make the Speccy do amazing things. The Speccy was his specialist subject.”
That first game Joffa presented to Ocean would end up on the shelves as Pud Pud In Weird World, and it showed how creative he could be with tiles and sprites. While much of Joffa’s later work involved taking arcade classics and making remarkably faithful conversions of them on the 48K Spectrum, Pud Pud’s entirely original art and premise stood out.
You control a bright yellow pudding-esque figure in a maze filled with other assorted puddings that you must eat, an angered woman roaming around who’ll kill you outright if you touch her, and plenty of strange artefacts – a huge skull here, a broken Speccy there, plus an unforgettable ‘Joffa Says R.I.P.’ gravestone.
There are some surprisingly large, multi-tile graphics in Pud Pud. Indeed, the hefty number of objects in Joffa’s games never compromised their speed and immediacy – he always aimed to make the best arcade-style games he could.
Later original works, such as Firefly for Special FX – his personal favourite – would raise the stakes even higher, especially once the 128K Spectrum came out and gave him even more memory to play with.
For Joffa, that memory provided an even bigger canvas, which was how he preferred to work. He summed up his preferences in a 2009 interview for The Retro Brothers in typically enthusiastic style.
“You can say to someone that they have a completely blank canvas, and they say yeah [fine],” Smith said. “And then they find out what a completely clear sheet of nothing is, and they run. No maths subroutines, no auto screen manipulation, no help… ‘Calling’ a development kit routine to find the square root of a number isn’t programming. Take control. Work out how to do it yourself, and do it fast! That’s programming.”
SMOOTHLY DOES IT
The technical prowess on display in Joffa’s games was, for the time, staggering. With Cobra, he managed to create a Spectrum game with smooth parallax scrolling – a remarkable feat, given that the system that had no dedicated graphics hardware.
Then there was the interrupt-driven ‘plip-plop’ music routine he created for Doug Burns’ Ping Pong, which made the Spectrum sound as though it had a second music channel working alongside its standard single-channel beeper, as well as a drumbeat (this routine was originally going to be in Joffa’s own Green Beret, but he ran out of memory).
One game that Joffa often liked to mention was Mikie, a great conversion of a fairly obscure Konami coin-op which featured what he described as the most complicated graphics routine he ever wrote.
The game itself looks simple, but there’s an awful lot going on under the hood to create a classroom full of kids and flashing hearts, not to mention a kiss-chasing hero and an angered teacher, all moving smoothly around the screen.
When Ocean company director Jon Woods saw that Joffa already had two screens running on the game after just a day or two of development, he was so astonished that he jokingly told Joffa to – and we’re paraphrasing here – go forth and multiply.
In those days of relatively short dev cycles and inflexible deadlines – generally led by a company’s desire to get its latest game advertised in the press – Joffa often wished he had at least a week or two more to work on some of his games. With the exception of Terra Cresta, however (a game he considered unfinished and riddled with bugs), Joffa was, for the most part, generally pleased with what he managed to achieve on the Spectrum.
I’M THE CURE
Of all of these games, Cobra is perhaps the most worthy of a closer look – not just because its parallax scrolling is the most obvious example of Joffa’s coding brilliance on the system, but also because of the game’s general creativity and weirdness. He and musician Martin Galway had the pick of two films to create a game on – either Top Gun or Cobra.
They didn’t care much for either of them, but Joffa thought that Cobra, an action flick starring Sylvester Stallone, was the best vehicle for the game he truly wanted to create: a Mario-esque side-scroller for the Spectrum.
As a game, Cobra is nothing like the movie it comes from, featuring all sorts of strange enemies, a damsel that needs to be rescued in each stage, and a rubber duck that represents how much ammo you have left in your weapon, not to mention music cues and boxing gloves that refer back to another, much more famous set of Stallone movies.
The game takes a generic licensed product, adds a big slice of irreverent, somewhat British humour alongside some fast and furious arcade play, and comes up with something truly special.
MAKING IT WORK
For the more technical-minded, though, it was Cobra’s smooth scrolling that warranted attention. Horizontal scrolling, in particular, was tricky on the Spectrum, because it lacked any dedicated graphics hardware; there was no equivalent to the Commodore 64’s VIC-II chip, meaning scrolling was often choppy, and most games stuck to flick screens instead of dealing with slow, jerky gameplay.
Joffa managed to figure it out, however, and Cobra benefitted hugely from his expertise. In order to create the game’s signature scrolling, he coded a bit to run at half-speed to a blank block in order to create a ‘beam’ – a stack of code that would continuously draw new rows of graphic tiles without any of the flickering you would often get in games that attempted horizontal scrolling.
The construction of the tiles themselves would also produce a parallax effect that, again, was quite rare on Spectrum games of the time. Joffa himself was, as ever, somewhat modest about the effect, preferring to single out games like Mikie for their graphics routines and saying that, as ever, if he’d had more time he could have done more – such as having a bitmap image in the background.
“Another week, and it would have been awesome,” he told The Retro Brothers in 2009. “But you have to let go, or rather it gets taken from you. That’s it! Gone. No game testing. Just gone. But this is other people’s money and if they say stop, you stop. And there’s a back catalogue of stuff to be done before Christmas.”
START TO STAB
Joffa was never too precious about his work – he was always happy to show others how he achieved a certain effect, or coded a routine. Creating games was its own reward – something that allowed his personality to shine through, in ways that he found trickier in normal social interaction.
Even in conversions of arcade games such as Green Beret or Hyper Sports lie little signature touches here and there; iconic commands, such as ‘STAB TO START’; his little intros, or his backwards name that, being by his estimation the most boring name anyone could possibly have, he was always trying to make more interesting.
Many of those who worked with Joffa over the years recall that he had a spark of fun about him, and how good he was to work with.
“He was awesome,” remembers Jim Bagley. “He showed me his push-scroll routine that he’d used in Cobra, which I then used in GUTZ for the main game screen, and I made some modifications so it could do a big block for the corridors between levels. He was really helpful, had plenty of time for everyone, and was always good for a laugh.”
In later years, this humour – along with the technical quality and playability of his games – would continue to be celebrated on the internet, which was another place where Joffa was quite comfortable speaking about what he’d done, or what he was going to do.
He was enigmatic and kooky, yet friendly and approachable on various forums. They, and many others, were shocked to hear of his passing in 2010 after a short illness, aged just 43 – far too young, and still with so much more to give.
A solo homebrew project called Saucer, which he’d worked on for years, would, alas, go unfinished. But through the encouragement and insight he gave in later years, wrapped up in his style and eccentricities though it may have been, he was able to inspire many generations of Spectrum coders, from grizzled veterans to nascent homebrewers.
It’s a shame that he missed out on the renewed interest in retro games we’ve seen in recent years, especially those on the Spectrum – it would have been fascinating to see what he’d have come up with on a machine like the Spectrum Next. But for those who once worked with him, such as Jim Bagley, part of what they’re doing now involves taking a little piece of Joffa along for the ride, and ensuring that his legacy continues to live on.
“I like to put humour in the games I make,” Bagley says, “and that was one of the things he loved doing… that, and just being different, thinking outside the box. He’s missed an awful lot – he was hugely respected and liked by everyone who knew him. He was such a creative genius, and it remains a sad loss to the gaming industry, and to the players.”