[Acorn Gaming]


the Early Days

Sean Creech used to work for Minerva, publishers of the first ever 32-bit Acorn games. In this article he takes a personal look back at those days with Minerva and the software library he used to run, Arch Angel PD.

I recently got an email from an old friend who I used to write to by snail mail long before we even thought of communication via the internet! This put me in the mood for nostalgia, back to the days when I had an Acorn Electron with a 320k disk drive! It was the first Acorn computer I ever had, bought due to a love of the BBC while in my final year of high school in 1988. When I left school, I started one of those Youth Training Schemes, which was a bit of a new thing itself back then. Yes - at 16 I was earning an amazing £27 a week and had to pay half back in rent to my parents! Still, I could go for a night out on what was left over, and that even included the taxi fare home.

My first YTS placement was at Minerva Software, and I thought, "wow! what a cool place to work!" My interview was scary - Nova Fisher was a really scary person! I remember her telling me that I could have the job but I would need to 'get rid of my local accent'. Quite funny really, but over time I built up this false accent but would break into broad Devonshire at times. Anyway, my responsibility involved making the coffee for the whole building, stuffing envelopes for mailshots, knocking up some jazzy leaflets for the products, duplicating the disks, EPROMs for the BBC and making up the software packs, plus dispatching the goods. All pretty trivial stuff really.

the first machines
I was on the 'middle' floor at Minerva and upstairs was the place where the programmers lived - The Wizard Merlyn (Kline), BJ Stearn (Barry) and others who came and went. They did strange things up there - you know, I mean I just did not understand all the meaningless gibberish that they pumped into the machines! These machines were heavy grey metal boxes, with 4MB of RAM and a 20MB (yes MB!) hard drive. They were prototypes of the Archimedes, called A500s - the OS had to be loaded from the hard disk because Acorn were still finalizing it! There was no sign of any windows-based environment yet. I still know of the whereabouts of one of these machines, since it was given to me by BJ a long time after I left the company. Rumour has it that Acorn valued these machines at £4000 a piece, and there were only 12 ever made. Whether this is true, I don't know, but there were only a handful of developers at the time - BBC companies like Clares and Computer Concepts, and Minerva of course.

[Bug Hunter in Space]
Minerva's Bug Hunter in Space

Well, I longed to be able to play with one of these machines! The graphics I had seen whilst taking the coffee around were amazing. Anyway, time moved on and I found myself becoming an established member of the company, but still on YTS money. At least I was until I decided to ask for a pay rise in a drunken state at my 18th birthday party, which also doubled as a Minerva staff party. We were at a restaurant called Ginos in Exeter. I was so completely paralytic that I don't really remember much about it actually - just what I was told over and over for the next few months! But it worked - I was called in the following morning (I was really in no fit state for work) and was given a 'proper' job with 'proper' wages. Not that they were, really, but it seemed like it at the time!

owning one
I still had to work in the Computer shop a few doors down (Minerva Computers) on a Saturday for a few extra quid. Here I was able to play with all the latest technology - Amstrad 1512, Amiga and Atari ST amongst others. Acorn had finally released its new Archimedes models but they were more than double the price of an Amiga and so only for the select few. At this point I was still struggling with my Acorn Electron whilst dabbling in others including the Commodore 64, the Oric 1 and Amstrad CPC.... how I longed for an Archimedes, but I could never afford one on my wages! I was buying and selling computer parts and software, running a user club for the Electron and doing spreadsheets for a hotelier to try and make enough to buy one - all still to no avail. Luckily, I eventually inherited one from a friend who had come into some money and bought a higher spec model. At last I had my own 310, and how proud of it I was. I used to take pictures of it, and show it off!

Whilst all this was going on, back at Minerva I was taking on new responsibilities, writing manuals and technical help sheets, giving technical support, and evaluating new software, the last of these being the most interesting. I had the job of seeing all the fruits of wannabe programmers from around the world - all these people looking to make a mint from a big selling game or new art package. Believe me, this was fun! Firstly, trying to get the software to run would often re-configuring the memory settings. Once you had done this, you could sit there for a while playing a game, getting paid for it - I thought it was wonderful!

[Sean representing Arch Angel PD]
Sean at an Acorn show

You wouldn't believe some of the stuff we were sent that I looked at. I mean, I was no great programmer, but really did some of those people honestly expect us to take them seriously?! Then again, there was some really good stuff too. I mean, I saw art package Atelier develop from nothing right through to this really amazing tool which seemed to do everything. Of course it's nothing compared to your latest PC stuff, but it seemed stunning at the time. Every few days this programmer, Simon Clay (Slimy Mudpack to his friends), would pop in with the 'latest version' and I would sit there and test it. We would all crowd round and look at the latest feature, but then we'd also see the latest bug... The programmers had this real inability to test their own software, but that's where I came in. We would have these bug lists and the programmers would try and document what they had done to fix them, or try and tell me that something wasn't a bug, but "what it's supposed to do" But I was also one of these people who would always be saying "well it would be great if it could do this". So I'd see all these products with little features that were there just for me. Lots of hidden features, but don't ask me what they are now!

I think there may have been a few dubious releases (I'm trying to be polite here), but at that that stage it seemed easy to sell games since there weren't many around. There were some gems, though. Thundermonk was a classy game with very polished graphics, and sound samples too. We had this list of all the events in the game which would need a sample and we were invited to submit suggestions. I remember one of my suggestions was an Adam Ant track, "ah-ho-eh" when Thundermonk lost a life (a vague memory, so this could be wrong - I might be thinking of Ibix the Viking!). Still, I thought this was great, that a game had one of my choices in it. Steve Minifie was a "good looking young programmer with iron hoops in each ear" and he made a few quid out of the sales for that game. I remember him being a real spend spend spend guy, but don't ask me if the tax man got his fair share since I wouldn't know!

[Bug Hunter in Space]

bug hunter
I don't think I ever met the programmer who wrote Bug Hunter, but this had to be one of the cutest games around at the time. The first, Bug Hunter and Moon Dash, involved walking around various rooms picking up objects and squashing bugs by dropping things onto them. The sounds were really great, and the tune was so catchy, along with the little dance, that it regulary made us get up and dance in the office along with it. I remember also that at least one of the programmers (naming no names) used to pretend to be bughunter by buck-boinging around the office, complete with sound effects... "Buck boing"!!! Such a great game. This was one of the first Archimedes games to be released as a duo - ie. with Moondash, but that really was a poor game. Later on, the sequel, Bug Hunter in Space (similar to the first, but located in space!) credited Moondash as a 'free practical joke', which wasn't far from the truth really.

moving on
Minerva was doing well and so left its cramped Sidwell Street offices and moved to a plush house in Baring Crescent, a lovely Georgian terrace overlooking a park. Still, it was a cold building, really icy in the winter, with a spooky cellar. Shortly after moving in, Nova (Minerva boss) said there was a £10 note down there, so we all scurried around in the cellar looking for it. Then the lights went out... and there was no tenner!

Acorn Gaming's collection of Arch Angel PD discs!

Anyway, time moved on and I started up Arch Angel PD in April '91. I said goodbye to Minerva in June as the Public Domain business thrived, but then that's another story!

Sean Creech, April 2001

...this page last updated: 13/4/01...
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