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Harry Lafnear

Harry Lafnear


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Who doesn't know the classic Time Bandit? Every ST fan must have at least heard of this game. We talked with one of the creators of this classic game. You wanna know why Time Bandit was not a Gauntlet clone? Did you know there were plans for a sequel? Read it all here!


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Time Bandit
Programming, Graphics

Harry Lafnear Interview

Written by DBG

September 5, 2003

1) Introduction
2) A programmer is born
3) His collection
4) Time bandit
5) The Gaunlet
6) A lucrative game
7) The 80s live on
8) Other efforts
9) Major Motion ... on the Amiga?
10) The company
11) The sequel that wasn't
12) Favorites
13) The Atari ST
14) Emulation
15) Last words

1) Can you introduce yourself to the people who haven't heard from you before?
My name is Harry Lafnear. In the 1980s I worked on a number of video games for home computers, the most notable being Time Bandit for the Atari ST. I co-designed the game with Bill Dunlevy, and was responsible for all the graphics and most of the maps.

Currently, I live in San Jose, California, where I'm a tech-writer and illustrator for a Silicon Valley technology company. In my spare time I'm a photographer and artist.

2) What were your first steps into the world of computers? What were your first programming experiences? Your first computer? How old were you?
I started working with computers in 1980, as a junior in high-school. Actually, I was eager to escape dissecting a cow eye in biology class. I had a bunch of friends taking BASIC programming during the same period, so I transferred there.

Although I was a couple weeks behind the class, I caught up quickly and even started helping the other students, mostly with simple games. That same year, I started a job as a stock-boy to earn money for my own computer. I saved up quite a bit and at Christmas, my parents put up the rest and bought me a Radio Shack TRS-80.

3) Which computers did you own during all those years?
As I said, my first computer was a TRS-80 back in 1980. It's hard to imagine today, but it had 16K of RAM and a black & white 128 x 48 pixel screen. And it was considered fairly powerful at the time.

Later, when I started working with MichTron, they loaned me computers for game development. They loaned me a Sanyo 550, a Compaq Portable, and an Atari ST at various times.

The next computer I bought was in 1987. It was a state of the art developer's PC. That machine lasted until 1997 when I replaced it with a Gateway PC. Just last year, I moved up to a dual-processor, dual-monitor, PC for use as a digital art platform.

4) Let's talk a bit about Time Bandit now. We've been playing Time Bandit ever since we were kids. Where did you come up with the idea for the game?
Wow, does that mean I'm old? You know, I was just 18 when I started work on the first version of Time Bandit. So in a way, I've been playing it since I was a kid too.

5) Time Bandit is considered a "Gauntlet" clone. This is not correct since it was released before the Atari classic. You created a genre, you know that?
Actually, the game was originally called "Pharaoh" and was heavily based on the arcade game, Tutankham. If you've never seen it, you wind your way through a scrolling maze looking for keys to get past locks. You shoot tomb monsters and collect treasure along the way. Our twist was that you have a lot more freedom choosing which maps you want to visit, thanks to the Timegates.

And of course, there's Gauntlet. Shortly after Bill and I finished Time Bandit, some friends rushed us off to the arcade to see what they called a Time Bandit clone. Over the years, lots of people have suggested we copied them, and a few that they copied us, but both games were released in such close proximity that I believe they were in development simultaneously. Besides, I can't get too indignant. We didn't rip-off Gauntlet, but we did borrow a lot from Tutankham.

As for creating a genre, I'd love to take credit for that, but Time Bandit was really just another in a long line of maze shoot-em-ups. I think Bill and I did a really good job and made the game stand apart. Maybe we raised the bar or gave the genre an early poster child, but that's as far as I'd go.

6) How many copies of Time Bandit were sold?
There is some controversy about the exact numbers. My best guess is 75,000 copies across all platforms, most of which were for the Atari ST.

7) We found some elements of seventies and eighties popular culture in Time Bandit: Hotel California, Indiana Jones, Star Trek. Did you have a particular source of inspiration when you made the graphics? (I mean a movie, a comic, a sci-fi novel.).
For most things I didn't have a specific image in mind, but rather the opposite. When I think of the Old West, for example, I think of brick buildings with dirt roads and cacti. I think of oil lanterns, tombstones, and rattle snakes. I tried to use simple images that everyone could identify with. That way, your own mind helps fill in the illusion and makes the graphics more lively. But there are a lot of special items in the game. We were always adding stuff from our various interests, including movies and other video games. Among the less obvious:

* Angry Elmo (the bouncing red ball creature) is a tribute to the old Berserker arcade game.
* King's Quest mentions the spirits of "Zardoz," referring to a Sean Connery movie. The map also mentions a villain named DiffEq for Bill's aversion to his Calculus class at the time (Differential Equations).
* The Glaive (spinning blades) were based on the weapon in the movie Krull.
* Castle Greymoon is a tribute to Bill's first game Dungeon Escape, which takes place in the land of Greymoon.
* The Major Hazard map, with the fireballs, is loosely based on the Major Havoc arcade game.
* The Seeker creatures in space maps were based on the hunter seeker, an assassin's weapon in Dune.
* The alien creatures, although called Klingons, are actually based on the creature from the Explorers movie.
* In the CoCo version, there are "killer smurph" creatures. Just because we enjoyed destroying them.
* In the Sanyo version, one of the artifacts is Dr. Who's time-traveling vehicle, the Tardis.
* When you shoot a ghost, it momentarily turns into the Ghostbusters' symbol.

8) Did you make other games for the ST? Or in general?
Clash: minor graphics and voice effects for TRS-80
Time Bandit: TRS-80, CoCo, Sanyo 550, Atari ST, Amiga, IBM PC
Cashman: maps for CoCo
Major Motion: enhanced graphics for Amiga
Pinball Factory: sample tables for Atari ST
Eightball: enhanced graphics for Atari ST

9) You've also been responsible for the Amiga version of the classic "Major Motion". How did this project come along? Can you tell us a bit more?
Major Motion was originally created by Phil McKenzie and Jeff Sorenson for the Atari ST, based on the classic Spy Hunter arcade game. Even though the game was a bit graphically challenged, it was easy to play and there was just something physically satisfying about using the mouse to slam cars off the road.

Shortly after Major Motion's release, however, MichTron entered a bleak period and alienated all of their game authors. Eventually, when sales began to drop, MichTron tried converting Atari ST games for the Amiga to generate quick profits. Time Bandit was converted without changes and without input from Bill or me, but MichTron recognized that Major Motion needed an overhaul. People expected pretty graphics on the Amiga. After all, it was touted as a computer for artists. MichTron asked me if I could improve the graphics. Like the other authors, I had misgivings about working on a game again, but I needed the money and worked out a deal for payment in advance. Truth is, I can't really do anything purely for money. I cared about the project and put a lot into it. I completely redesigned the graphics and the road map. To give the graphics a good, solid look, I used a bunch of Matchbox vehicles as models. I still have them.

10) Tell us a bit more about MichTron?
MichTron started as Computer Shack, founded by Gordon Monnier and Bill Dunlevy to market Bill's first game, Dungeon Escape. Gordon was a school photographer and his business was well set up for mail order software sales. Bill continued to write games, and Gordon marketed them.

Gordon collected submissions from other programmers, mostly those he met at local user groups. It was a great place to get your start because Gordon would publish almost anything. His real skill, however, was an uncanny knack for selecting which computer systems would be the next hottest thing. As a result, MichTron grew into a rather powerful software publisher, peaking with the Atari ST.

Unfortunately, MichTron wasn't so much as a business as it was Gordon's personal kingdom. In a very strange move, when MichTron's vice president, Lane Reynolds, went on a vacation, Gordon changed the locks on the building. Lane didn't find out he was fired until he arrived back for work the following week.

Gordon made other changes at that time too. He unilaterally reneged on his software contracts, cutting royalties to all authors by one third. When we found out, he told Bill and I some disturbing things that I won't repeat. None of the US game authors ever submitted another new game to MichTron.

This was particularly bad for me. Most of the other programmers had nice day jobs or college to return to. MichTron was my day job. I worked there as the Publications Manager, creating manuals, packaging, and advertisements. I stuck around for a while.

Shortly after I worked on Major Motion, I took leave to work on the "Timelord's Handbook", a clue-book and companion manual for Time Bandit. When I finished, I received the same boot out that Lane had. They didn't want the book, and they didn't want me back.

I still have the book if anyone's interested.

11) Whatever happened to Time Bandit 2? what was it about? Did it already have a story to it? Are there any unreleased screenshots? A demo version perhaps?
TB2 suffered two deaths. The first was when Bill Dunlevy quit MichTron. The second was when MichTron gave me the boot after I finished the Handbook.

TB2 was called Time Bandit II: The Rings of Faight. The Bandit, now famous for closing down the Timegates, is captured and taken into a limbo dimension, where he meets the great villain of Timelord history, Villard Faight. Faight explains that from his vantage in limbo, he's been able to see changes sweeping throughout the galaxy, caused by someone's interference in the timelines. Where there was once a great, cooperative interstellar civilization of which the Timelords were a part, there was now interstellar war and internal chaos. It's up to the Bandit to figure out what's happening and how to fix it.

Along the way, you visit prehistoric lands and find out what really happened to the dinosaurs, prevent the destruction of the earth's space program, save a medieval village from dragons, and journey into the digital world to cure an ailing artificial intelligence.

Although I designed a number of maps on paper and created a lot of new graphic tiles, nothing ever made it to the programming phase. There was, however, one moment when Bill took interest again and suggested reworking Time Bandit as a first-person shooter game. His family obligations prevented that though.

12) What is your all time favorite computer game?
Well, it depends on the category.
Home Computer: Larn (a Rogue clone), simple and addictive
Stand-up arcade games: Robotron 2084
Game System: Banjo Kazooie for the Nintendo 64

13) What do/did you think of the Atari ST in general, compared to other machines?
The Atari ST was one of my favorites. Before the ST, our main challenge as game designers involved simplifying our ideas to fit the system. The ST on the other hand challenged us to have bigger ideas. That's why the Atari ST version of Time Bandit is the best.

In its prime, the only competition for the Atari ST was the Amiga, and although that was a nice computer too, it was just a bit too expensive for most. Now, however, it seems that even my PDA is more powerful.

14) What is your opinion about emulation?
I don't see emulation as an issue at all. I think it's a fine way to share fun old software with new generations. I'm flattered that Time Bandit lives on that way.

The real issue, as always, is sharing 'warez', or to use the bad word, piracy. If a system ROM or software package is still sold by legitimate sources at fair price, it shouldn't be copied in an unauthorized way. On the other hand, running emulation is fine if you own a copy of the original. And even sharing is fine with me if restricted to old items that are no longer commercially marketed. This gives otherwise dead art a new lease on life and doesn't prevent new art from being created. You just shouldn't make money doing it.

15) Would you like to share something else with us? Some final thoughts? Greetings...
Just thanks. Hearing from folks who enjoyed Time Bandit and the other games is very gratifying.

And a special thanks to Kevin Potts, who doesn't get nearly enough credit for the help he rendered play testing Time Bandit and contributing the map designs for the Sphinxes.

Regards to all!

Thanks a lot Harry. This was a really interesting inteview. Thanks for sharing all this information. The best of luck for the future! And I really hope there will be a Time Bandit 2 one day. Until then, we will all be playing the original one on the ST

Interview Comments

Please log in to add your own comment to this interview

Hello, I would like to contact Harry Lafnear regarding developing Time Bandit 2 in Windows 10 with Direct2D. I used to play the Atari ST version of Time Bandit for hours, although sadly I was never skilled enough to reach "The End".
May 8, 2020

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