Dungeon Jukebox

Monday, October 7, 2013

Interview with John Rudzinski

A while back I reviewed a little gem called BLORT II and I promised to try and get in touch with the game's creator. As luck would have it, I did manage for find Mr. John Rudzinski on twitter! Mr Rudzinski was gracious enough to take some time and answer some questions! What follows is A Space Dungeon exclusive interview with the man behind BLORT. I hope you enjoy!

Did you go to school for computer programming?

Initially, no. In 1981 I had a father-in-law who was a teacher and a fan of all things digital. He gave me a Sinclair ZX-81 as a marriage present, on which -- after we'd expanded it to a leg-numbing 16K -- I learned BASIC. Thereafter, it was replaced with a Commodore VIC-20. It was on this I learned -- with the help of its programming reference guide and Jim Butterfield's monitor software -- 6502 assembly.

I read everything I could find about machine code and assembly programming. The Toronto PET Users Group -- TPUG --  was very helpful, as were magazines like Compute!, Byte, and the Canadian magazine Computing Now!. I was working as a shipper/receiver and writing assembly code with a pencil in a notebook during transit trips to and from work.

Much later, in the early- to mid-'90s, I took FORTRAN, Pascal and other less-than-current courses in university. In the late '90s I got an IT diploma to make the history degree a little more saleable.

Tell us about the genesis of Blort! and of course Blort! II

In 1983, Steve Rimmer, Computing Now!'s editor, hired me for some reason . . . possibly because I was moderately literate, possibly because he liked my cartoons, or possibly because he knew I was really into computers. After I worked for a bit as an editorial assistant, he made me the magazine's assistant editor, which meant -- among other things -- I could write bylined articles.

I wrote a few binary/hexadecimal mathematics and assembler tutorials for both Computing Now! and sister publication Electronics Today, and somewhere in there (I can't remember for which magazine) I managed to slip in a program I'd written for the Apple ][ computer: Blort!

Blort! was written in 6502 assembly, and took up perhaps 4K of memory because it didn't use graphics. The shuttle was an 'A' that shot exclamation marks at alien 'V's (and likely a few other ASCII characters). Both the shuttle -- on its oiled launchpad -- and the aliens moved back and forth endlessly, so actually hitting an alien took some skill; you'd need to both control the shuttle's left-right movement and release the payload at the correct time to ensure actual contact. It was easier said than done.

All computer- and many electronics enthusiast magazines at the time printed computer program listings from readers and other contributors. These were typically short pieces in BASIC or another high-level language. Despite compiling to such a small size, Blort! was published as a full article, with an illustration, an explanatory article, and a listing that took up a few pages in tiny type by itself.

In terms of reader feedback, I had to mollify one subscriber who was absolutely livid that my program didn't work. After a few probing questions, it became apparent that instead of using an assembler program such as Merlin or LISA to compile the listing, he had been entering each line into AppleSoft BASIC. With every line he typed, the BASIC interpreter would politely beep and print '?SYNTAX ERROR' on his screen. I think Steve recommended I mail a disk to him.

A year or two later, the publishing company had exchanged our Apple compatible computers with IBM XT compatibles. As this was an opportunity to learn the intricacies of a different microprocessor, I asked Steve if I could rewrite Blort! in 8088 assembly. He was less than enthused. I offered to write it using actual 640x480 graphics. He raised an eyebrow . . .

I should point out that Steve was my hero. He'd been writing CP/M utilities in Z80 assembly for the magazine on his Radio Shack TRS-80 (complete with 8" disk drives) when we first met. Before I'd left the magazine, mixed in with his myriad articles, utilities and games, he'd written at least one graphical music composition program, a spreadsheet program and -- if I'm not mistaken -- an entire inventory control system (published over several issues). If you're at all interested in the early days of hobby computing, certainly from a Canadian perspective, I highly recommend looking him up.

Blort! II was written in 1986-'87, weighed in at 10.5K when assembled and was basically a more visually-appealing monochrome VGA graphic version of the original Apple program. There may have been a few more aliens, and I can't remember if the land mine hazard was in the 6502 version. I don't think anyone tried to type its assembly code into their PC/MS-DOS C> prompt, but I can't guarantee that.

Did you ever get to complete the game Protek, which you alluded to in your game intro to Blort?

No. Protek was basically going to be a cross between Sea Dragon -- an Apple ][ game probably best remembered for its digitized spoken title -- and Minefield. It was basically about a submarine protecting freight ships while dealing with WWII sea mines, unfriendly ships and airplanes, and underwater caverns.  I only got as far as getting all the graphics down on graph paper before Real Life demanded my attention elsewhere.

What have you been up to since Blort?

After leaving the magazine I did some consulting . . . I wrote a combination BASIC/assembly Point of Sale terminal for an eyewear retail chain, for instance. But over time, things grew less focused: I sold computers and resistors at a hobby electronics store; took orders for pizzas on ASCII terminals hooked to a mainframe; drew political cartoons for a local paper and spot cartoons and commercial art for other publications; went to university and had both lungs explode -- I'm currently recovering from my 6th pneumothorax . . .

There's a lot more, but it basically ends going through culinary school with my third wife, and later making tiny instrumental compositions with accompanying slideshows and plunking them onto YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/user/z0ot62).

Does Hennsoft still exist?

No. I made the company official in 1984 by registering it and setting up a business account at a local bank. Blort! II brought in a five dollar check (we call 'em cheques up here) from someone in the 'States. I never cashed it. Eventually, with no actual business plan and bleeding under a boatload of bank 'service' charges, HennSoft folded into a nice origami butterfly and fluttered away. I haven't seen it since.

When is the last time you played Blort?

1990 at the latest, I think; there's a reason why it's called 'Abandonware.' I'd completely forgotten about Blort! II until this March when I had a discussion with a geeky neighbour who asked me about my geeky past. Blort! came up, and -- after coffee -- I hit Google and found this: http://www.myabandonware.com/game/blort-ii-23x

Subsequently, I forgot about it again until you contacted me on Twitter.

Have you ever thought of a remake?

Prior to the '90s, I thought I'd take another kick at the can. If I rewrote Blort! yet again, employing colour and physics (more realistic explosions and the aliens actually getting knocked off their courses before exploding, f'rinstance), maybe I'd be happy. I managed to get it mostly finished before I left for university, but it remains unfinished in a box in our garage on a floppy whose oxide has most likely lost its magnetic charge . . .

The trouble with Blort! is that it wasn't engineered to be a game with lasting playability, designed by committee, whiteboarded by a team of crack programmers, proven managers and hungry sales reps and test-demoed to three solid demographics in five markets. It was scratched out and programmed by an insomniac editor with a deadline, initially using an HB pencil and a graph-paper notebook. Its listing and its article had to fit in the editorial space it was allotted. It was written at a time when programs had to be small in order to fit into limited memory. The Apple ][ computer had 48K of RAM . . . expandable to 64K. Its 5-1/4" disks held 140K or so.

That last is no real excuse; Sir-Tech's Wizardry was written in Pascal (I think) and provided hours upon hours of solid play under the same restrictions. It's one of thousands of far superior games that professional game programmers (and not a few gifted high school students) produced in the '80s.

What are/were some of your favorite video games? 

I mentioned Wizardry. For overall playability, I still like Diablo II. I prefer it hands-down to Diablo III. Every now and then I hit the 'Net for NetHack or Rogue; what they lack in graphics they more than make up for in scale and imagination.

Castle Wolfenstein, Duke Nukem and Quake were fun in their time.

In the arcades, I played a lot of Defender and a lot of Joust. And there's something about Frogger . . . I suspect, incidentally, that most of what I've typed here probably hit the shelves (or the arcades) before much of your readership was born.

If you had unlimited funds and access to any IP's, talent, licensing, etc.....what would your dream project be?

I've seen games go from blocky Space Invaders clones on 8-bit computers to the graphical intricacies of the Borderlands, Assassin's Creed and Halo franchises. But I can't imagine writing (or even planning out) games even remotely like today's blockbusters, and -- in truth -- having a media department and a gaggle of programmers at my command isn't my style.

It's been over 25 years since I programmed anything fun in assembly. I'd like to do that again; Blort! is basically my version of 'Hello, World.'

I've just download the 16.5 megabyte, 7 volume PDF of the 'Intel 64 and IA-32 Architectures Software Developer's Manual.'  We shall see. :)


I truly hope that we see more assembly language games from Mr Rudzinski!  Meantime, I'm happy to have been able to pick his brain about this great little game and his thoughts!

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