Interview: Andy Swann of Twilight Games (Frog Dude & Alfred Chicken Developer)

Interview-Andy-SwannThe Mega Drive had Sonic and the Super Nintendo had Mario. In an age-old rivalry, the war between the blue blur and podgy plumber epitomised the 1990s video game industry at its competitive best. Sega and Nintendo were untouchable – but maybe, just maybe one British developer had an answer? Regular visitors to RetroCollect will no doubt be aware of the recent unearthing of a rather special Mega Drive prototype by software house Twilight Games. In its platformer, Frog Dude, Twilight had all the makings of a Mario-beater – one that, unfortunately, never saw the light of day. RetroCollect speaks to Developer, Andy Swann, the mind behind Twilight's amphibious action adventure platformer, for the inside story.

November 1991. Twilight Games had just completed work on Mega Twins for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. The year's work was complete and the slow wind-down to the Christmas vacation was about to begin – but programmer Andy Swann and artist Peter Tattersall had other things in mind.

The Mega Drive was approaching the first year since its European release and the likes of Mario, Alex Kidd and Sonic – who was a mere five months old at this point – had left their mark on the rapidly expanding platform genre. However, Andy and Peter felt there was still room for another hero on the scene – Frog Dude.

Spawning a legend...

RetroCollect: Let's take things back to the start. Where did it all begin for you and video games?

Andy Swann: It all began when a couple of Space Invaders and Pacman cabinets appeared at my local launderette. I was instantly hooked and decided there and then that I wanted to make games. As luck would have it, I got a ZX Spectrum for Christmas in 1983 and spent endless evenings after school learning how to write assembler.

Four years later, I had my first game published and soon started work developing games at Enigma Variations in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. Here, I coded games for the Spectrum and Amstrad CPC. By 1990, myself and a number of my co-workers had enough of life at Enigma. It was then that we left to set up Twilight.

Twilight comprised of myself, Mark Mason, Stuart Cook, Peter Tattersall and Jason McGann. We set the company up so that we were all equal partners, which worked well, especially when times were tough in the beginning. From the outset, we had all the home computers and consoles covered, so the eventual move onto 16-bit gaming was a natural progression. Jason eventually moved onto the Gameboy when the Spectrum work dried up.

Frog-Dude-Transformation

RC: How and when did Frog Dude come about? Who was involved and what did you contribute to the project?

AS: In November 1991, after finishing work on Mega Twins for the Atari ST and Amiga, we had four months of downtime at Twilight. It was typical for publishing companies of this period to work around the clock to get releases into stores for Christmas. This meant that us developers wouldn't get contracts for new projects until at least February or March. With so much time on our hands, we decided to try out some new programming and art techniques – Frog Dude was born.

What little exists of Frog Dude was put together between November 1991 and February 1992. I took on the role of coder and Peter Tattersall was the artist. Stuart Cook – another Twilight coder – had already conducted all the groundwork to figure out how the sprites would function and how to get the levels to scroll correctly on the Mega Drive. He worked all of this out using a copy of a Mega Drive development manual that must have been a tenth generation photocopy, at least! I don't know how he got hold of that manual, but one thing's for sure – it's something that we certainly shouldn't have had access to!

We'd never made a Mega Drive game at Twilight before and Frog Dude seemed like the perfect opportunity for us to create a tech demo for the console. Come to think of it, I don't think Twilight ever released a final Mega Drive game!

RC: What were your influences when creating Frog Dude?

AS: Super Mario World. I was really impressed with the way that Mario moved and his sheer momentum. An important fact to note with the Mario games of that period was the physics of their control system – one where Mario's physical movement was far more integral than the animation of the sprite itself. This was a complete revelation to me at the time. Before Frog Dude, my code dictated that if you held the joystick to the left, the character moved in that direction with no momentum whatsoever. Unlike Mario, Frog Dude had no sound effects, no music, and only had one playable – albeit unfinished – level.

The frog-prince...

In the lack of any cohesive storyline, the demo's intro sequence does provide a slight insight into what could have been the tale behind the Frog Dude adventure...

Following the title screen, the player is presented with a scene depicting a castle in peaceful setting. A mace-wielding prince/knight character takes a step outside. Suddenly, the landscape is shrouded in darkness as the castle is struck by lightning. Seemingly cast under a spell, the castle's archway sprouts fangs, forcing our adventurer to flee.

Possibly in the grip of a spell himself, a quick press of the A button during game-play transforms Frog Dude's central protagonist from human form, to amphibian and vice versa. As a human, the hero wields a mace to combat the game's hypothetical enemies. In the absence of a weapon, the frog character makes use of a long, but equally deadly extendable tongue.

RC: Was it the protagonist's aim to free his kingdom of the spell that was cast that fateful night?

AS: No, I'm afraid the game never reached the point of having a storyline.

RC: Oh...

AS: But if I could make a prediction, I'd say it would have been something along the lines of a fairy tale; a Princess needs to kiss the frog to turn him into a prince – that type of thing.

When I recently got the code up and running on an emulator, the biggest shock was seeing that human character with his mace weapon. I had no memory of him at all! I think it was intended that he would have different abilities from the frog, who used his Yoshi-like tongue in place of a weapon.

RC: If you had more time, what else would you have liked to included in the game?

AS: I was going to experiment with the frog and give him the ability to swing with his tongue in order to reach higher platforms. Also, in the one level that exists in the prototype, there's all these sets of arms sticking out of trees. Peter wanted the arms to throw the characters high up into the air.

Unfortunately, the level that we created doesn't contain any enemies. We never got as far as that stage, nor did we create, or have any ideas for levels for the rest of the game.

RC: Such a shame! Was there any particular reason why you didn't get any further with Frog Dude?

AS: In parallel with Frog Dude, Twilight was also prototyping Alfred Chicken. It was around this time that our agent, John Cook, came to us. We showed him what we'd been working on, but he thought that Frog Dude was too 'workman like'.

It wasn't long before Jason McGann came up with a full design for Alfred Chicken – whereas myself and Peter were basically making Frog Dude up as we went along. So, Twilight went ahead with Jason's idea instead, leading with the Gameboy version. Regrettably, I spent the majority of 1992 writing Cool World on the Amiga (excuse me while I duck for cover!) I then ported Alfred Chicken from the Gameboy to the Amiga in 1993.

RC: Would you say that your work on Frog Dude had a later impact on Alfred Chicken?

AS: Only in so far as it taught me a lot about programming hardware, sprites and scrolling techniques. I'd been a Spectrum and Atari ST programmer for years, where sprites and scrolling were typically handled from a software perspective, unlike on the Mega Drive.

Leaping into the present...

Andy-Swann-Prototypes-on-Disk

RC: Let's bring things up to the present day. How did you become re-acquainted with Frog Dude?

AS: I've been in contact with the guys at Codetapper.com – an Amiga retro gaming site – for a few years, where the topic of a missing floppy disk box of mine would often enter the conversation. This in mind, I was in the loft a few weeks ago, on a mission to locate the box. Instead, I discovered an old brief case with three mysterious discs inside it. One was blank, another had a 1993 European Computer Trade Show (ECTS) demo of Alfred Chicken on it and the other was labeled 'Froggy Demo Mega Drive'. This third disk is where the Frog Dude demo originates from. I'm guessing that the brief case hadn't been opened for over 21 years.

If I ever find that illusive disc box I'll definitely have to get everything archived. At the very least, this chat has inspired me to have another hunt for it... It's definitely not in my loft, I know that much. I've been through everything twice. Wish me luck!

Huge thanks go out to Andy Swann for finding the time to speak to us. Good luck with the hunt!


Last Updated ( 08 February 2014 )  

MegaBites

Writer, collector and player of retro, and a master in the art of cartridge blowing. Raised on trashcan chicken, with an unexplainable obsession for gold rings, some might say that he has an unhealthy obsession with the Sega Mega Drive. Writer and owner of the MegaBites blog.

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Comments 

(Link to this comment) zigzagtoes 2014-02-20 17:15
Just reading this has made me choose alfred chicken AGA, for my first game to boot up tonight :)
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