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Jamie Hamshere

Jamie Hamshere


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Ever since he first saw the BBC Micro, Jamie Hamshere was fascinated by technology and computer programming. In the past years he has done some tremendous things in the Atari ST scene. Creating an STe version of the classic puzzler Klax, or what about the 7 channel sound-engine Turbo Chip. He also helped with the sounds in the recent Lotus STe game by Jonathan Thomas. But today, it is all about his other big achievement, reinterpreting the classic Miles Lord game Droid.


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Jamie Hamshere Interview

Written by ST Graveyard

June 4, 2021

1) Introduction
2) Computing history
3) Mastering the art of programming
4) Junosix
5) a sweet song
6) Turbochip
7) Musically inclined
8) Droid
9) Enhancing the original for the STe
10) Droid 2
11) Lotus STe
12) Real life
13) Hardcore gamer?
14) Idols
15) The Atari community
16) Final words

1) Let's start by introducing yourself. Who is Jamie Hamshere?

I'm 40 years old and live in Plymouth, UK. My two main interests are computers and music and I like combining them when I can!

2) What is your history with computers? When did you get into Atari and why the ST?

My first experience was at school. We had BBC Micros with big blue "concept keyboards" that had huge ribbon cables hanging out of the back to connect to the computer, with pictures of different objects on each of the keys that you'd have to press corresponding to what was on the screen. Can't say it exactly grabbed me at the time but as it was related to something technical I was still fascinated.

A pivotal moment was when I was about 8 or 9, I went over to a friends' house to play and their older brother had a Sinclair ZX81 hooked up to a portable TV. They were showing me the BASIC programming language and the logical structure of a program listing was interesting to me. Afterwards, without a computer of my own at home, I jotted down on paper my own BASIC programs that I thought would work (simple "What is your name? What is your age? ... Hello (name), you are (age) years old!" kind of things), imagining that they would work if I had something to run them on. My mum picked up on this and asked a family friend who was great with computers and very patient to head over one evening and talk me through the concept of hexadecimal and similar things, and happened to mention he had an old computer at home we could buy from him for £50. We jumped at the chance and he went and got it that same night and we set it up on the TV in the lounge. The computer was an EACA Colour Genie, a TRS-80 clone with colour video hardware bolted on (not exactly a copy of the later TRS-80 Colour Computer, more an expansion of the original monochrome TRS-80 spec). There was no software available for it at all, but it did come with some very in-depth programming books (well over my head at that point) and a few of the Usborne computer books. One of those books had a "buyer's guide" (circa 1982!) which had information about computers of the time, Atari 400, Commodore VIC-20, etc. so it was cool to acquaint myself with the names and specifications of different systems from that book.

A few months down the line something on TV stopped me in my tracks - the advert for the Atari 520ST. It was the one where different colours of paint came out of the disk drive and splashed against a wall, then an alien eye appeared and blinked. I had never seen a computer animate something like that before, every time that advert came on it had my complete attention. It just so happened that we inherited a small amount of money from my great-grandmother a few months later - exactly the amount of money needed to purchase an ST! So on one weekend in the first half on 1990 we headed into town to buy a 520STFM from Dixons and a cheap JVC TV from Currys ("I use this model myself", claimed the salesman... it turned out to be a pretty basic TV but did the job).
The first game I fired up on the ST was Out Run which I'd played a few times in arcades. I thought the ST version looked and sounded terrible and nothing like the expectations I had from the "alien eye" animation from the advert, I had a strong feeling of "is that it?" after it loaded. That feeling was fortunately soon swept away after I'd found the disks for Starglider, Double Dragon and Gauntlet II! Funnily enough though whenever I hear the ST Out Run music now it does take me back to those early days.

The same family friend who we bought the Colour Genie from had a colleague at work who also had an ST, and one evening shortly after getting the ST came around with a box full of floppy disks chock full mostly of Medway Boys compilations. One of those disks however had "SOWATT DEMO BY THE CAREBEARS. Not a game, but a demo of what your ST can really do!" written on it. That was my first introduction to what I later learned was the demoscene and I sat for hours reading the puerile scroll-texts whilst marvelling at the music and visuals.

3) Where did you learn to code?

Two of the Usborne books I had were "Computer Spacegames" and "Computer Battlegames" which had BASIC listings of simple games that could be typed in and played. Because of the dialect of BASIC on the Colour Genie, a lot of the games wouldn't work properly but the listings were well commented so I was still able to get an understanding of what the code was meant to do.

When I got the ST it came with the legendary yet controversial Power Pack with 20 games. It also had some productivity software, one of which being HiSoft's FirST BASIC. The documentation had no example programs to type in, so I turned to my Colour Genie BASIC manual for something to try. There was a digital clock listing that used a tight timing FOR...NEXT... loop to increment the time roughly once every second. I typed it in verbatim into the ST and ran it, and to my dismay the ST started incrementing the numbers far more rapidly than the Colour Genie! I had a proper tantrum and went on about how the ST's rubbish, why isn't it responding correctly to the commands I've just told it, and pulled the Colour Genie out of the cupboard to use instead, when my stepdad told me that it just proves how much more powerful the ST is, because it was counting much quicker!
I calmed down thereafter and cracked on with programming on the ST. I started making a few games of my own like Roulette '91, then one Christmas my gran bought me Power BASIC - it was essentially the same as FirST BASIC but included a compiler, meaning you could create standalone executable versions of your programs. I pulled up my copy of Roulette '91, made a .PRG file out of it and was amazed at the fact I could just double-click on it and it would run - I had a few goes on it, then thought, "wait a minute - I can SELL this!". I made a disk label and package design (using Degas Elite probably) and printed them an old Epson 9-pin printer I'd acquired by then. I tried to interest ST owners at school in purchasing a copy for £1 each but sold none. Amazingly after all this time I still have a copy and I now feel that enough time has passed to be able, via this interview, to give this luxurious roulette simulation game a public release at no cost.

A while later I played with STOS when it was included on an ST Format coverdisk, but never really made anything of note.

In 1996, I chose not to go onto 6th form at school and instead did Microcomputer Technology at college for a couple of years. That's when my coding skills really hit their stride, I learned PIC and Z80 machine code on a Multitech (now known as Acer!) Micro-Professor MPF-I, typing opcodes directly onto a hex keypad. It was very outdated stuff by then but it was a really good grounding in getting down to the bare metal and demystified the concept of assembly language. The timeframe coincided with the first wave of retro computing nostalgia with nascent versions of MAME and various 8-bit console emulators being released, many of those emulated systems using the same processors that I was learning about. We had internet access in the library at college, so on my lunch break I'd go and download a few .MSA disk images of games to write to floppy (although we used PCs at college I was still very much an active ST user in my own time), and glean as much information as I could from the blossoming Atari fan sites that I'd stumble across.

4) Why the nickname Junosix? What does it mean?

Back in 2000 when I finally got a PC (mainly for MAME and looking up ST stuff) I needed an email address but wanted something that wasn't my real name. I looked randomly around my room for an object that I could name myself after and saw my Roland Juno-6 synthesizer, of which the form "junosix" was available as a user name. Had "lampshade" or "wardrobe" or something similar been available then there's every chance I'd be known as that instead!

5) Ever since I started the YouTube channel, I have been learning about ST music and their creators. I first heard of Junosix with the song ‘Sweet’. This is a C64 conversion. I love this song but why did you pick this song? Does it have any special meaning to you?

I first learned about the Commodore 64's SID soundchip from an issue of Atari Computing, that had a copy of Playsid (a SID-chip emulator) and a handful of SID files on the coverdisk. I never realised up until that point that the C64 had such powerful sound generation hardware.
When I got my PC I spent all night downloading the High Voltage SID Collection (HVSC) (all 60MB of it, took ages on dial-up!). "Sweet" was one of the tracks I'd found in the collection that I really liked it, and listened to it a lot. Fast forward to late 2018 when I created Turbochip and was quickly testing out the editor, the simple square wave melody that is consistent throughout the tune somehow fell out of my fingers onto the computer keyboard. I then added chords to some of the other channels and it proved to me this sound engine that I'd just made could possibly be really good, so I thought I might as well finish the whole thing, and stayed up until 3am programming the entire track!

6) What is Turbo Chip? Why did you create it and can you tell us a bit about its development?

A few years back I bought a Sony Trinitron PVM (old-school CRT monitor) and a Raspberry Pi, and set about making a setup where I could play old console games via emulation. I'd always been interested checking out the NEC PC Engine's library (I'd been given a broken one ages ago but wasn't capable enough at the time to repair it) so I spent a lot of time playing games like Bomberman, Blazing Lazers (Gunhed), Bonk's Adventure and Gomola Speed. What struck me about the PC Engine was its audio generator - similar in a way to the Commodore 64 in that it had a rich but fairly uncomplicated sound. I looked into it further and discovered its soundchip was a 6 channel "wavetable" synth - essentially meaning a very short sample (32 bytes) of a basic waveform with a few harmonic overtones which is looped, and further shaped by a separate envelope, rather than having a large, realistic sample such as a piano note where the fadeout is baked into the sample itself. I then researched other similar chips (like the Konami SCC, to which Turbochip is actually more similar) and figured that combining the ST's YM soundchip with software synthesis that uses the STE's DMA audio hardware to combine several channels of primitive waveforms instead of "proper" sounds (plus one channel dedicated to "PCM" sounds, for percussion samples, etc.), I could get a similar sound.

The thing I was dreading the most about it was writing the editor/tracker but I managed to pull that off within a couple of months, including an editor where the waveforms can be defined by hand. The default waveforms I included comes from the MSX version of Nemesis but it's possible to look at other hardware (PC Engine, Pac-Man arcade) and find compatible waveforms amongst the ROM data.

It's named "Turbochip" after the game cards for the American version of the PC Engine (the TurboGrafx-16), which are referred to as "Turbochips".

I learned a lot about scaling samples to different frequencies in realtime when creating Turbochip, which served me well in my contributions to the STE update of Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge.

7) Are you a musician? What is your fascination with computer chiptunes?

I am musically inclined, having had keyboard lessons for a couple of years from the age of 8, but not by profession or with any experience of performing live.

I wrote two pieces of music used for Llamasoft's TxK/Tempest 4000 and Polybius (plus a track for the trailer to the upcoming Heart of Neon documentary about Llamasoft), and also composed most of the soundtrack and all of the sound effects for Total Monkery's MagNets for PC and Xbox One, which is a spiritual successor to Rat Attack on the Sony PlayStation, and created by the person who wrote the Amiga CD32 version of Microcosm who lives locally. These were all created in a tracker with several VST (synth emulation) instruments added. Speaking of local, I live about 10 miles away from where John M Phillips created Eliminator and Nebulus for the ST/Amiga!
Chiptunes are appealing to me because of the limited parameters that they are constructed from, so attention has to be paid to creating a memorable melody instead of pressing a note and letting the synth create a cool sound all by itself.

8) Let’s talk about Droid. This game came bundled on a coverdisk of ST Format 37. Why did you choose this game to enhance for the STe?

Ever since I was about 14 and had upgraded to the STE, me and an STE-owning school-friend who were both fans of the original Droid imagined making an STE-only game with a similar character (we called it "X-No"Smiley, but it never went any further than just chatting about it in-between lessons.

In late 2012 after I'd started to learn about 68000 code, I had a bit of a cold so sacked work off for a couple of days and looked to find something to do. For some reason, Droid popped into my head and I thought how nice it would be if it had sampled sounds. I disassembled the game using Digger and to my amazement I was able to reassemble it using vasm and it worked (it's not always that straightforward, particularly with games). So with what amounted to having the source code (albeit uncommented) in front of me, I set to work finding the sound routines, which wasn't too difficult. I was then able to create my own sound effects and replace the routines with some very simple lines of code that triggered the samples via the DMA audio hardware.

I posted this update on a couple of Atari forums, then the feature requests started to come in: Why not make it scroll! How about adding music? It would be nice if you could play it using the Jaguar controller!, etc. Things that are much more easily said than done. However, the thought never left me and I reckoned one day that I would tackle a complete renovation of the original.

9) Can you tell us a bit about the development of your version? What were the coolest things you did compared to the original and what was the hardest thing to accomplish?

Around 3 years after my DMA audio modification to the original, I began to reverse engineer the original game data, figuring out how the graphics and maps were stored. Even though I had access to the disassembled code, I felt it would be better to rewrite it from scratch as my envisaged change to the scrolling making it 8-way instead of 2-way would have been difficult to have "just" added to the original code otherwise, certainly more complex than the DMA audio work I'd already done. There were a few liberties I wanted to take with the gameplay as well, and also because I'd never written a platformer for the ST I liked the idea of the challenge of starting from the beginning.

I wrote a small program for the ST that rearranged the map data and display it fullscreen, then a joystick routine and routine for drawing the main sprite over the map. Originally I had the screen scrolling at 50Hz but then discovered it would make a lot of the future code more complicated and require more memory. My target was a stock 520STE so I approached the map and sprite rendering differently, which meant I had to drop the screen update to 25Hz.

I was unable to find the time to properly get into "the zone" and dedicate a lot of time to creating the game, so I had to shelve it for a while. One of the upsides of the events of 2020 meant I suddenly had more free time than previously, so from around the end of Easter to the end of the summer I got most of the game done. I ended up referencing none of the original code, and instead depended on screenshots I took of me playing it and looking at a video of someone doing a longplay of the game, advancing a frame at a time and counting pixels so I could match the distance that that objects moved with each screen update, etc. It reminded me a lot of the way that I'd read many of the arcade ports on the ST were done - most of the time they would have been given none of the original source material to work from, not even the graphics a lot of the time, so would have to record themselves playing the game to VHS and analysing it that way and copying what they saw!

What was cool is opening the game up to use multi-directional scrolling revealed many areas the player could crouch behind to avoid enemy fire. However although you can crouch in the original game, enemy missiles still hit you, so I made the enemy missiles fire slightly higher up so they miss you if you duck. This gave the game a pleasing strategic element that wasn't previously present.

Another problem with the original is that it's possible to use items (i.e. keycards to unlock barriers) in the wrong place then get yourself stuck as consequence. I made it so the game has "events" that mean some barriers are obscured unless certain other barriers are unlocked first, or platforms block off areas so you don’t fall down somewhere that you can’t climb back out of, unless you'd collected keycards that are required later.

I also took issue with the item drops when you destroy an enemy in the original version. They’re far too random and some playthroughs would give you some really decent powerups, and others would be hand out nothing! I scrapped the item drops all together, and changed some of the static powerups that are placed in the game to extra energy and ammo. This makes things more deterministic so you can better plan your path through the game.
Because of these changes I think of Droid Special Edition as a re-interpretation of the original in a lot of ways, rather than an enhancement.

My good friend Matt Sephton (@gingerbeardman) runs a site at http://moai.games, cataloguing as many games as possible that include Moai heads, so I added an Easter (Island) egg that intrepid players can try to unlock and find!

During development I had a look at the readme file from the original game to see if there was any kind of plot I needed to adhere to. There wasn't - turns out it's about mindless violence after all! But it signs off with a injunction from Miles to "see if you can do better!". I like to think I stepped up to that challenge and did a pretty good job!

10) There was a sequel released to Droid, any plans to do this game?

I think the original game is the better of the two, the labyrinthine layout of the levels is more intriguing than the left-to-right standard platform plod of the sequel, so I have no plans to remake it. I do think Miles is a really good game designer though, his other game Hoog has some quite unique concepts going on.

11) You recently worked on the Lotus STe game with Jonathan Thomas. How was working with him? Do you think you will be working again with him in the future?

That was a brilliant experience. After some suggestions from me about how the sound could be improved, I started to collaborate with him and very naturally slotted into my role as audio programmer as well as us both swapping code ideas and information about what we’d found whilst hacking through the original.
There is definitely talk of tackling another Lotus game though the both of us have become more busy recently with real life work, so whatever attempts we make will have to come somewhere further down the line.

12) What do you do in real life?

Writing ST games is less lucrative than it was in the past so to earn a living. I run my own business repairing computers, mainly in the surrounding areas of Plymouth. As the world is somewhat dependent on these things now and many are running software from Microsoft, there are plenty to fix!

13) Are you a gamer and if so, what is your favorite game, old and/or new?

Much less of a gamer now that real life and work are a priority. Paralysis of choice stops me from picking one game as a favourite, but most memorable dating back to the ST days are most of the Power Pack games (particularly the arcade conversions), Llamatron, Turrican 2, Lure of the Temptress, Operation Stealth, Another World, Interphase, all the Bitmaps stuff, Stardust, Obsession, Zero-5 and Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge (of course!).

Later on it's been Tempest 2000, Iron Soldier, Ridge Racer, Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill 1/2/3, Cave Story, Darwinia, Killer7, Fatal Frame, TxK and Polybius. Otherwise I'm playing catchup with older games via emulation on the Raspberry Pi (that I put into an old SNES case) and my MAME cab (except not at the moment because the line output transformer is faulty!). I had a lot of fun with the aforementioned Bonk's Adventure and Gomola Speed via the Pi and I finally got to experience Super Mario Bros. 3 and have played it all the way through a few times.
I'm sure I've forgotten to mention a load more!

14) Who do you look up to?

Coding-wise I don't have one particular person that I mount at the top of the programming podium, but music-wise it's the usual suspects like Chris Huelsbeck, Jochen Hippel and Tim Follin. Anyone who pushes the boundaries of limited hardware gets a thumbs-up from me.

15) What do you think of the Atari community?

For a community that's a tenth of the size of the amount of Amiga fans out there, it's 10 times more crazy and enthusiastic. There seems to be a good balance of people wishing to create things and others wishing to play them, so it feels like there’s an audience for anything that is made.

16) Do you have anything else you like to share to the readers?

I created a game for the Atari 2600 a decade ago after learning about 6502 assembly as a result of reading the excellent Racing the Beam book. The game is called The Wicked Father and is centered around a character that has locked his family in the basement and flooded his mansion, in the hopes of a juicy life/house insurance payout! It’s a multi-level, single-screen platformer where you are against the clock as water is constantly rising from the bottom of the screen to the top and you have to get out before you drown. There’s a review/quickplay of it here with a link to the ROM in comments.
Another STE-enhanced game I did was version of Klax in 2017 which replaces the chip effects with arcade samples. It's a bit of a Marmite game for most but I've always liked it and think the arcade sounds make it even more enjoyable. It's available to download on Atarimania for anyone who wants to try it!

Thank you for this amazing interview Jamie. I'm off playing some more Droid now ;-)

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