Robert Whitaker / Reptilia Design
Added on June 24th, 2009 (6035 views)
Tell us something about yourself.
What handle(s) did you use and how did you come up with it/them?
I chose the name Mantronix after the hip-hop group of the same name as I was a huge fan of their records and of the whole rap scene, which was a new thing at the time. It seemed a cool name but turned out to be a pain to use as a signature on pictures. There are pictures with the full name on them and it looks big and ugly. Later, I reduced the signature to just MX which worked OK. The name never really stuck though; I was rarely called just Mantronix. Usually I'd be refered to as Rob 'Mantronix' Whitaker. Later, there were other people that used the name Mantronix.
What group(s) were you in?
I was never part of any swapping group. The people I hung out with, Ian and Mic and the other local scene guys active in swapping, were members of groups like Triad, Relax, Ikari, Hotline, and others. I often provided graphics for them so there are logos for some of those groups drawn by me. For many of their games and demos, Ian and Mic used the Reptilia Designs name - actually Steve Snake's group originally. He lent the use of the name when we started trying to sell games in order to make us all look a bit more professional and organized, and so I was part of that group.
What roles have you fulfilled?
Just doing graphics. Lots of logos and fonts for demos and intros. Full screen pictures which I am probably best known for in the demo scene. All kinds of game graphics.
How long were you active for?
I worked on demos and games with Ian and Mic between 1987 and 1989. By the end of that time, we'd largely moved on from the demo/swapping scene, focusing more on just developing games. We went our separate ways when I got a full-time job at The Sales Curve (which would later become SCI). There I continued working on C64 games until the machine's commercial demise.
The following is a list of Commodore 64 games published that I worked on. My graphics in many of these games are not of the highest quality; I got a bit better over time! Top half of the list were programmed by Ian and Mic, the rest were developed at The Sales Curve.
Radius (Players, Nov 1987)
Scout (Mastertronic, Mar 1988)
Star Ball (Softek, early 1988)
Soldier of Light (Softek, Feb 1989)
Street Cred Boxing (Players, early 1989)
Subway Vigilante (Players, May 1989)
Street Cred Football (Players, Jun 1989)
Assault Course (Players, Mar 1990)
Narc (Ocean, Dec 1990)
Saint Dragon (Storm, Dec 1990)
Judge Dredd (Virgin, Jan 1991)
Star Control (Accolade, Apr 1991)
SWIV (Storm, early 1991)
Rodland (Storm, Sep 1991)
Double Dragon 3 (Storm, Dec 1991)
Indy Heat (Storm, Mar 1992)
Tell us about those years and how you got into the scene in the first place.
I got to know Ian and Mic when we all started attending the same art class at school. We bonded over our common interest in computers. At the time I had a Spectrum (before that I'd had a VIC-20) and spent a lot of my time playing games and typing in programs from magazines and books. They were already writing their own programs for the C64. I showed them pictures I'd drawn on the Spectrum and they proposed I do some art for them.
I started regularly going over to their house after school and was introduced to the whole C64 scene: the games, the music, Zzap!64, Compunet, demos, swapping, people everywhere communicating. I met the local guys who were also in the swapping scene: Bod, The Gronk, Just Ice, Thargoid, and others. The C64 soon became a big part of my life.
It was a whirlwind of activity at Ian and Mic's place. They spent every waking hour outside of school in their computer room, constantly working on their own demos and games. Talking on the phone with people in the scene from around the country and in Europe. Logging on to Compunet late at night to upload their work. Packages of disks with games and demos were arriving in the post all the time, then they'd be sending out discs in return. People from all over would come visit and sleep on the floor. Their parents tolerated a lot until the phone bills got too high! I'd spend several nights a week over there, looking at games and demos and watching while they worked on their own stuff and doing graphics for them.
I can't claim to have been active in the scene the way Ian and Mic were. I just hung out with them and got to be a part of it by association. They were really good at networking; sociable and friendly and wanting to talk with anyone and everyone in the scene. They were incredibly determined and self-assured about what they were doing, driven to learn everything they could about coding and pushing the C64's capabilities.
Eventually, they put together a finished game that I contributed graphics to. After sending it to a few companies, it was finally bought by Players Software. We were just 15 and still had a year of school to go. When it was published, it got a half page review in Zzap!64, which also around that time printed some of my pictures on the Compunet page in a couple of issues. It was amazing to suddenly have this (relative) success and exposure.
We continued along this path, working on more games and trying to sell them. We'd take the train into London and visit companies like Mastertronic or Firebird. On more than one occasion we skipped school to do this. All this time we were still making demos too.
After selling a budget game to Softek, they asked us to work on a full-price arcade conversion, Soldier of Light, which we were naturally excited about. Unfortunately, it had to be finished in a short amount of time (using only a video tape of the game to work from) which resulted in a less-than-great game. And then, though they released it, the company didn't pay us. Ian and Mic went to court over this to no avail. After the excitement of selling our first few games this experience was a big disappointment.
When we left school, Ian and Mic got a bit more professional by renting an office from which to work. I did graphics for a few more games with them before going to work at The Sales Curve. That marked the end of my time with the demo/swapping scene and I largely lost contact with all those guys. Software development became my day-job and not something I really wanted to spend time on outside of work.
At The Sales Curve, it fell to me to do the majority of the C64 work, mostly arcade conversions. I got to work with some great people there including Simon Pick who wrote some excellent C64 games. When I joined, there were about a dozen of us including the owner (and her dog!) all sharing a single room in an office building. Little did we know how big the company would eventually become. There's a video on YouTube featuring some of us being interviewed during the development of Indy Heat (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qob2zDrQjjQ).
Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer.
Basically, lots of hanging out in Ian and Mic's computer room, checking out the latest demos and games, working on new ideas for demos or games, reading Zzap!64, listening to music (Jean-Michel Jarre, Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode) plus Derek and Clive tapes. Sometimes we'd walk over to Bod's to see what new wares he had and get some copies.
Did you personally invent any special techniques or tools to make things easier for you?
When you look at what you did back then, what are you most proud of?
I'm amazed at the amount of work we did in what now seems seems a short amount of time. Ian and Mic were so prolific; I worked with them on eight published games and many demos in just a couple of years or so. And it wasn't like the C64 is all I spent my time on, I had school and other friends and interests.
The game I'm most proud of is Rodland, probably the most famous C64 game I worked on. All the graphics in that look great and came out exactly how I wanted, though I'm puzzled as to why we went with a black background throughout the game. On the Nintendo version done a year later, we had a blue sky color there which I wish I'd thought to do on the C64.
I'm least proud of being given the opportunity to make a Judge Dredd game and having it end up being not very good at all. The game needed a designer but instead was cobbled together poorly. It was a personal disappointment as I'd loved Dredd comics since being a kid.
Who were your heroes on the scene and why?
Paul Docherty and Bob Stevenson - the obvious choices of any artist who worked on the C64 back then. Those guys were ahead of everyone else, setting the benchmark for what good art should look like, and I can't say I ever managed to match the quality of their work. I admired programmers like Jeff Minter, Andrew Braybrook and Tony Crowther who made unique and distinctive games with a personal touch.
What, for you, was the coolest thing ever invented on the C64?
Invade-A-Load! was very clever and fun. Some cool tools I used: Paint Magic and Steve Beats's Sprite Editor. I have no idea who Steve Beats is and we used to think it was funny how his name was on this but it was a great tool I used for many games.
Did you go to any copy-parties, meetings or tradeshows?
I went to the Commodore Shows held at the Novotel in Hammersmith, and to the PCW shows at Earls Court. It was always fun with a gang of us taking the train into London to hang out at the shows and meet up with other sceners. It was great getting to meet people from all over the country and especially from Europe, getting a different perspective on things from them.
In your opinion, what was the scene all about?
What were the particular highlights for you?
Any cool stories to share with us?
Are you still in contact with any old C64 people today?
The only person I've kept semi-regular contact with is Steve Snake, though it's been a while since we last communicated. We worked together at a couple of places and collaborated on Rodland, one of my favorite game development experiences which thanks to him resulted in a great game.
When did you get your C64 and do you still have it lying around somewhere?
I bought my C64 after we sold our first game. Until then I'd done all my graphics at Ian and Mic's place. Getting my own C64 meant I was now able to spend more time developing my skills. I only had the cassette recorder for saving though; I didn't get a disk drive until we sold the next game. When delivering artwork to Ian and Mic, I had to take the cassette recorder over to their house as they didn't have one. Also, all the graphics I produced had to be finished by adding color using their set-up; at home I only had a black-and-white tv in my room to work on so I did everything in monochrome. All the equipment is long gone, given to the young son of one of my mum's friends.
Was the C64 really as special as we like to think it was?
Absolutely! No other computer had such a scene surrounding it. If I had to choose a single really special thing about the C64 itself I would have to say the SID chip. The music in many of the games put the C64 in another class compared to other machines and is usually the first thing people remember about them. Some of the first games I played on the C64, like Ghostbusters and Commando, had a huge impact on me because of their music.
When can we expect to see some new C64 output from you? :)
Do you have a message for your old contacts and/or anyone reading this?
Just to say hi to anyone who knew me back then and to thank everyone else for their interest. Over the years it's been great (and a surprise!) to run into people online who know who I am and remember the work I did on the C64.
back to the list of available interviews