A friend of mine posted up a series of pictures of him playing through Cobra on the ZX Spectrum. My mind immediately went to the architect of this incredible arcade title. Jonathan Smith was a legend among game programmers. Someone who managed to push the systems he worked on further than others. He was a trailblazer and an artistic genius, someone sadly missed in the Spectrum and Retro gaming community today.
It all started when Joffa was hired at Ocean Software after showing bosses David Ward and Paul Finnegan his game Pud-Pud in Weird World. It was a brilliant piece of work and it showed how imaginative and creative Joffa could be. The most astonishing element of this title wasn’t the playability but the fact that Joffa was both programmer and artist. This first foray into the world of game development showed the embers of the dual nature of Joffa’s technical ingenuity as well as dynamic artistic creativity.
In Pud-Pud you control a bright yellow pudding-type figure in a maze filled with other puddings. Their sole objective is to to be eaten. There’s also an angry woman who will kill you if you touch her and strange objects such as skulls and Spectrums. The multitude of objects which filled the screen did not slow the game down at all. One of the trademarks of Joffa’s games was the fact that he never compromised speed or the feel of the title. The games were always big, beautiful and playable as hell.
As mentioned before the technical prowess that Joffa demonstrated was incredible. Titles containing smooth parallax scrolling on the Spectrum astounded. It is important to note that this system contained no dedicated graphics hardware to help enable this. He pushed audio design for the games he designed emulating two music channels from the Spectrum’s Standard single channel beeper.
A favourite game which came from Joffa’s development skills was Mikie, this was a port of a Konami coin-op which featured some incredibly complex graphic routines. The classrooms seem deceptively simple but analyse the game as you play through it, each room is packed with kids, flashing hearts and angry teachers. What emerged from Ocean studios was a faithful conversion with an impressively short development time.
It’s important to return to the first title I mentioned – Cobra. This wasn’t a straight movie licence tie-up but featured Joffa’s wonderful creativity and weirdness. There’s a series of strange enemies that popular each level as well as a distressed lady to be rescued in each stage. Joffa also placed tongue in cheek references to Stallone’s other blockbusting movie series with a pair of boxing gloves and some clever music cues.
It was the smooth scrolling that really set this game apart. Horizontal scrolling was difficult on the Spectrum because, as mentioned previously, it had no dedicated graphics hardware. The Commodore at least had the Vic-II chip in their C64’s but most games on the Spectrum that tried scrolling ended up a slow, jerky mess.
Joffa, however, managed to work out how to create a method of continuously drawing new rows of graphics on the screen. This method reduced any flickering that would occur in games which attempted horizontal scrolling. Cobra also featured a wonderful Parallax effect which was rare in Spectrum games at the time.
Joffa passed away on the 26th June 2010. He left behind a powerful legacy and wonderful pieces of playable art to be rediscovered and enjoyed by new generations. For as we know, like the memory of Jonathan Smith, the Spectrum will never die.