Jim Gregory interview

By Ross Sillifant

It is with the utmost pleasure that I've been able to put a few questions to Jim Gregory of Hand Made Software - someone who really needs no introduction if you were ever an Atari Lynx owner.  I wanted to know if claims I'd read in an old issue of HMS about them having done development work on the ill-fated Atari Panther console were true.  I cannot thank Jim enough for his time, let alone these wonderful insights.  His kindness in sharing these with us is just amazing.

(LEFT) One of at least 7 Atari Panther development kits.  More photos on this site; (RIGHT) Rendering of what the Panther console would have looked like.

Q: Hello Jim, thanks for confirming/talking us through the claim that Hand Made Software were at one point working on Atari's Panther hardware.  Do you recall what game(s) were being worked on and how far along they got?

Jim Gregory: Yes, we had one of the first dev versions in the world.  It was just in a tin box and was not in any way a finished beast.  To keep it cool, we had to squirt freezer spray through a little hole in the side every 15 minutes.

Q: How did you come to receive the Panther dev kit?

Jim Gregory: We had a good relationship with Atari and were working on the the Lynx for them.  They offered it to us and we agreed to give them some feedback on it.  We actually had a version of the famous Elite game (which we had done for British Telecom) working on it within a week or so.

Unfortunately we found a BIG bug in the core chip.  In those days there were no FPGA-type chips and so the main chip was a committed block of silicon.  That meant that Atari had paid a big chunk of money to make the die and were ready to ramp up production.  If I remember correctly, it would totally freeze without any way to recover except with a full power cycle.  The bug was related to divide-by-zero problems.  It was not possible to 'just avoid dividing by zero' to make it usable.  We sent them a chunk of code that would easily recreate the issue to show the problem.  When we reported the issue we were first met with disbelief and then annoyance as if WE had caused it to fail.  I believe that at least one other developer later reported the bug and then the whole Panther project was doomed.

Q: At what point were you made aware Panther was canned, and did Atari want you to move all your work onto the Jaguar instead?

Jim Gregory: Whilst I was visiting them in the U.S., I learned that they had decided to bring forward the next console project, which was eventually to be called Jaguar.  This cost them a LOT of money and credibility with their owner, Time Warner (who later shut the company down suddenly).  Most importantly, it lost them time to market, which sort of set the course to eventual failure.

Q: What were your thoughts on the Panther hardware and Atari's ability to support/market it?  Was it really a home version of the Lynx?  Having 32K of RAM must of been an issue.

Jim Gregory: No, it was not at all a version of the Lynx.  It was a complex, original design that needed a lot of new programming approaches to achieve results.  We worked with a UK company to offer them a special dev kit and we offered them a several GREAT new game designs.  The dev kit is in my garage somewhere.

Q: Do you have any idea if Atari wanted to swap the sound chip for cheaper version?

Jim Gregory: The sound chip was never an issue and was actually quite powerful.  I still have all the documentation.

Q: What were your thoughts about the Jaguar?

Jim Gregory: The whole thing was actually intended to launch with a CD/DVD (known internally as 'the toilet seat' because of its looks), but that had to be added later... probably too late.

Atari had a very complex, internal decision process and the 'brain' behind the design of the Jag was one of the Tramiel clan.  He was indeed an actual NASA rocket scientist who prevented many ideas from being implemented.  I believe he also designed the Jaguar controller, which as you know was not well-liked by players.

I could go on and on about our dealings with Atari and the huge, internal issues they struggled with, but I will not bore you now.

Q: Sticking with the Jaguar, is there any truth to claims that you were working on Dracula The Undead for the Jaguar CD?  Were any Jaguar games ever started by yourselves that never made it?

Jim Gregory: We were working on several games - Kasumi Ninja 2 and the Jack Nicholson Cyber Golf game for CD - and in fact spent close to 700,000 before they went bust and dragged us down with them.  The golf game contained (expensive) actual aerial footage of the golf course and was to be based upon a Star Trek-type space simulation.  We hired a top TV commentator and filmed many hours of footage.  The game was going to be the best golf game EVER.  It was lost when they went into chapter 11.

Unreleased Jack Nicholson Cyber Golf for the Jaguar (video).

Q: Do you have any information regarding claims 50% of Dracula The Undead was cut from the Lynx game as Atari wanted to release it as a separate title and thus get extra revenue?

Jim Gregory: This is one of life's huge annoyances.  Dracula was originally a full interpretation of the book with ALL the story - right up to the end.  It was designed to be in a larger cart and have a higher price.  A full time team of artists, musicians, and programmers had spent over a year honing a great adventure with many unique aspects.  When Atari started to feel the financial pinch, they insisted on us chopping it down to fit in the smallest cart size.  That meant stripping down the story to end as he escapes from the castle.  The final cart only has about 10% of the game, because it still needed the overhead of the adventure engine that we had written.  There were loads of beautiful Victorian street scenes, animations, and interiors that had to be tossed.  It was so sad.  There were three other adventure games that we had pitched to use the same engine that were abandoned, too.  One was based upon zombies, but Atari told us that people were not going to be interested in zombies!  Remember, this was WAY before all the zombie stuff came out.

We developed many other games that never saw the light of day due to the cutbacks and a new manager that was hired, who was technically and commercially 'stupid'.

Screenshots of Dracula The Undead from ACE magazine showing digitized photos of Christopher Lee's face.  The 1st was used for the title screen (below).

Q: Anything detailing the evolution of Kasumi Ninja on Jaguar, from the initial screens (small sprites fighting with the temple background) to the game we saw, would be fantastic.

Jim Gregory: The original Kasumi was also crippled by Atari.  Because of the boss's kids' input, they removed many elements and characters.  They halved the cart size that we could use, again wiping out many months of work.  Oh dear me... we hired a host of actors and had a new 3-D engine set up for a superb CD version of Kasumi 2.  It was a fantastic storyline and was WAY ahead of anything else.  Many thousands of pounds were to be lost on that project when they were closed down by Time Warner.

Screenshots of Battlezone 2000 showing the original released version and the hidden updated version.

Q: Any information regarding having to hide the real Battlezone 2000 (solid 3-D) on the Lynx cart would be great.

Jim Gregory: I am getting quite emotional thinking back to all the silly issues that came up whilst dealing with some of the inept employees of Atari.  We had pitched doing an updated version of the seminal Battlezone for the upcoming millennium.  It was to be full 3-D with a great story arc.  It was also to make full use of the Lynx multi-user facility that would allow up to 6 players to be in the same universe to fight.  We had built in an Easter egg via a secret code that was to be the original version of Battlezone.  It was all ready for release when a new project manager took over.  He called me on the phone and ranted for ages about how fans did not want all that 3-D s##t and that it should work like the original.  I told him that the design had been approved and we had spent nearly a year implementing a leading-edge game.  He would not accept our position and said that he wanted the original.  I went to the team and said ok, we will give them what they want, and asked them to reverse the Easter egg.  So a few days later we sent him a version that was the original game and he passed it for production.  We later released the access code.  That game has what must be the game world's largest hidden game - over 2000 levels in 3-D!  (Ed.: To access the 3-D version, at the tank select screen, press Option 1 3 times and then reset - Option 1 + restart.  Patrick Forhan put together a manual of sorts for it).

Other games were never completed for cart production, but a release candidate of Loopz did escape into the wild and is still available from Telegames.  We enjoyed all the good times with Atari, but their days were numbered and when they went down, HMS was taken down with them as they owed us a lot of money.

I moved on to work on Internet eCommerce projects and my team were spread across all types of other companies.  Hope the above is of interest.

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