Mihaly Kenczler / Novotrade
Added on January 18th, 2018 (3775 views)

Hello and welcome Mihaly! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
Hi, folks! I'm Mihaly Kenczler, 65, a retired journalist and mechanical engineer (or vice versa...) from Hungary, the land of goulash, brave riders and easy girls (that last one is just a common prejudice, which is not 100% true).

How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
I got the computer infection back in 1983 from early Hungarian-made home computers. As an amateur musician (guitarist), I began tinkering with the music capabilities of these machines. In 1984, I had saved up enough money to buy a C64, having worked for three months in Nigeria as a hospital engineer (salaried in USD), and bought a whole set-up (a C64 and a floppy drive) while travelling back home via Vienna in Austria. I then began learning 6510 assembly and played a LOT of games acquired through... grey channels.

Tell us how your career in games started. Did you submit sample work to various games companies in order to procure jobs, or did jobs come to you?
To tell the awful truth, I do not remember, though I definitely didn't submit work. My best guess is that a friend of a friend of a friend of mine put together a team to develop games for a brain-drain firm called Novotrade. I met him, showed him a screen scroll solution (rotating bits of character definitions) and got accepted.

What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? In your opinion, was it as special as we like to think it was?
There were no privately owned PCs in Hungary at that time, only home computers (C64s and ZX Spectrums). Even firms did their ledgers and payroll on C64s. Crazy, huh? The user-friendliness and simplicity were the great appeal of the C64 in every respect.

What C64 games did you work on?
I first worked on Express Raider as a programmer. I implemented the scroll solution for the background (landscape) scroll behind the locomotive and waggons (the game is a shooter and platform hybrid about a railway heist in the Wild West). After that, the programming proved a bit too complex for me (particularly the programming of the more complex events in the game), so I was given the task of implementing the music, sounds, scoring and credit screens. Fun sidenote: I realised back then (1985!) that a menu on a 4:3 screen occupies less area at the left/right edge of the screen. This is even truer of the 16:10 and 16:9 screens. So where are my menus now? I always place the Windows 10 start menu on the right edge. Such a damn nerd...

We worked in a flat we rented. We had been tasked to port a Konami coin-op game to the C64 (and ZX Spectrum), but all we were given was the game machine itself: no software, no source code, no documentation, nothing. So we all played it as much as we wanted or needed to. The requirements of the original game wildly exceeded the capabilities of the C64, so we had to program the game from scratch with simpler graphics, gameplay and sound.

My music experience then came to bear: I had to learn the music scores from tape. I programmed the game music and sound by listening to the coin-op version, and I knew the C64 music and sound circuitry pretty well. My teammates were really creative in replicating most of the Konami game on the C64. In my own humblele opinion, we made a rather good job of it.

Later on, the same team was hired to make Impossible Mission II on the C64, ZX Spectrum and Amiga (and later, the Nintendo, too). I was tasked with designing the rooms. This was in 1986, so we now had some PCs and Amigas to work on. They wrote a very simple room editor for the Amiga, and I used that for my work.

What companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
Our team worked for the aforementioned Novotrade, which had the right to contract with Western firms. Our team leader and the guys at Novotrade partnered with Epyx in negotiations. We, the team members, were private subcontractors for Novotrade: under Hungarian law, we were allowed to do that even then, as Hungary was a not-so-loyal member of the Eastern Bloc in 1986.

Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer at that time.
I had a "normal" day job as a mechanical engineer; the games projects only took up my evenings (and, sometimes, nights). Impossible Mission II was a Summer holiday project. Another fun sidebar: the ten or so rooms in Impossible Mission II were designed by my children, then aged ten and six, in 1986; they would stand next to me in front of the screen, suggesting difficult or easy arrangements and features.

When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
These projects never took longer than three to five months.

What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
In Express Raider, I used C64 Assembly environments for the music and the scoring and credits tasks as well. In Impossible Mission II, I was given an Amiga with a very basic, character-based room designer software. I made some suggestions on how to improve this, and my colleagues did implement some of them.

Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
No. Sad to say, I was already 34 by then and had to work for money rather than just fun. That was the logistics appeal of Hungary for Western firms: they could hire university-educated people for the sort of money that in their own country would only buy a wet-behind-the-ears high schooler. This advantage still exists, by the way.

Which game are you most proud of, which was the most fun to do, which became a real challenge, and which ended up giving you the biggest headache?
My experience only stretches to two titles, though I can say I'm proud of both of them, each was a great challenge, especially Express Raider because it was my first, although Impossible Mission was a much larger project.

Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
It was an integral part of the job itself to play the games we were working on. There were no external testers, that simply wasn't part of the developing process back in 1986. This may be unfair of me to say, but playing a level (or room) in Impossible Mission one hundred times or more was not fun, it was a hard job, and I didn't play either game again for a year or so after the project had ended. Later on, though, I did play Impossible Mission II a lot on C64 emulators, and I even bought a C64 joystick with 30 games inside (the direct-to-TV, FPGA one by Jeri Ellsworth, you know the one) when that came out about 15 years ago, and I was really very proud that Impossible Mission II was included on it. I played it to the end, on my full-HD 87cm LCD TV, when my family was not at home.

Were there any games you found so awful that you wish you'd had the chance to do a better job?
My two titles were far too few to enable me to gain any such perspective.

Was there a particular programmer, artist and/or musician who influenced you and possibly inspired some of your own work, or did inspiration come from somewhere else?
It has been my experience in life that a single pixel in a limited-resolution graphic can influence the whole, so I admire the graphics designer on Impossible Mission II, he had a special gift for finding these pixels of strategic significance. I'm ashamed to have to say that I can't remember his name off hand, particularly as I later realised that the same perception effect is used in Impressionist artwork (pointillism) and even in some advanced pieces by Cubist artists.

Please share some memories from the old days!
Once, in 1985, a teammate of mine discovered that people were disseminating copies of Express Raider at a C64 fan event in Budapest, so we went there, revealed ourselves as the developers, and asked them to stop, which they did that very evening, even though the gathering was for the whole weekend. By the time of Impossible Mission II, we had discovered that piracy was just factored into the business model of the games industry. It still is. But the gaming world has moved to a revenue-stream model, and I fear that in-game sales will spoil the whole thing soon. I must just share this: the knife is sharp, the hammer is hard, wine inebriates, and the Internet lies and steals. It comes with the freedom. It's up to you to be smart.

We can't ignore the fact that there were other machines apart from the C64. What software and/or hardware did you create on other systems?
Our development set-up for Impossible Mission II consisted of Amigas, because the graphics were better than VGA in 1985, and it was ported to several other platforms. I had to redesign some rooms for those systems.

What are you up to these days?
I stopped programming after those two games. I used my C64 experience to write a C64 payroll software (!) for a firm. After 1989, I began working in the IT press, where I spent more than a quarter of a century. Now I am the second oldest (living) IT journalist in Hungary. I retired due to a heart condition, but I've pretty much recovered, and I do some web programming now (HTML, CSS, JavaScript, etc.). I still have my family; my son is at university.

I keep that C64 joystick in my cellar storage cage and take it out once a year to play for ten minutes or so. To be honest, my mind has changed over the decades: while the gameplay and ideas are still fresh, the 320×200 pixels is way too little these days. Instead, I play first-person shooters (which are over ten years old) on the PC, and SimCity BuildIt on Android...

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