The Butler did it! Well maybe not. But he did do some great C64 conversions and a couple of classic original titles as well. Shall we look at the evidence, and use our little grey cells to decide?
Chris had been inspired to become a programmer from a TV Eye investigation into Imagine Software (a different one to that mentioned in Retrogamer #23) that stated that Eugene Evans was earning in the region of £35,000 per year. However when he went for an interview with the self same company and asked what starting salary he could expect, he was told a mere £5,000! Still perseverance paid off and he ended up joining Alligata. Programmers he admired at the time included Eugene Jarvis, Archer Maclean, Steve Evans and Andrew Braybrook. It would a tough task to emulate them. However as things turned out, his talents would be utilised more in arcade conversions than original software. But that still requires a competent programmer now!
Chris had actually started programming on the BBC Micro first of all, and only moved over to the C64 once he had joined Alligata Software. As both machines used the 6502 processor, it was more or less a natural transition. The first C64 game he coded was called "Hypercircuit", which was a copy of an early BBC game he had written called "Transistor's Revenge". In some ways this game is a little like "Defender". Except there's no two way scrolling, and your path is fixed. You control a funny little ship which must patrol the network circuits of a motherboard eliminating any nasties within and protecting the base units present. Enemies come in a number of different forms including Destructors who look for your base units, and then mutate into Chargers, who come looking for your ship; Pulsers who lays mines along the circuit paths; Fighters who fly over the motherboard strafing the surface; and Spikes, who are just plain deadly. The graphics and sound are nothing to write about, just plain 1984 standard stuff for a 1985 released program. The gameplay itself is fun, rushing around the grid, blasting everything that you come across and then dying as you fail to notice a mine laid by a glowing liquorice allsort! Keep you occupied for a little while at least.
Something better however was just around the corner. "Z" was the first release on Alligata's new label called Rino. The game itself was a cross between "Time Pilot" and "Starforce" in that you flew in a 360 degree bas relief environment shooting at everything in your way. The premise of the game was fairly simple: the high tech defence system protecting your planet has suddenly gone haywire after many years of success, and it up to you to shut it down as the system can no longer determine enemy from friend. To do this you must reach the fourth level and destroy the Control ship located within. The enemies (or really friends as they were before) flying over each landscape get progressively harder, ranging from simple drones to Flying Saucers and Big Mothers. These require 10 energy bomb hits to destroy and it is recommended this is done as they frequently release homing missiles in your general direction! Energy bombs are collected every time a certain number of ships are destroyed and are primarily used to reak down the energy shield protecting the warp point to the next level. They must also be used to destroy ships, including the aforementioned Big Mothers, and the Control ship at the end of the game. The graphics for the game were quite impressive for 1985, bas relief backgrounds supported by colourful, fluid sprites and reasonable animation. Go look at the screen shot for yourself. Sound was pretty standard though some of the effects were a little weird. As with the previous "Hypercircuit", this is a great little blaster you can just pick up and play, fly around and shoot everything you come across, making sure not to crash into things and lose all your energy reserves. Zzap!64 gave it rating of 88% and Gary Liddon said that "Chris Butler looks like someone who's going to go far". Well how right he was there!
After finishing "Z", Chris left Alligata for pastures new. He said he was essentially made redundant as Alligata couldn't afford to pay his wages any more. He made some inquiries to several top houses including Ocean and Activision, but as Elite appeared to make the strongest offer, he ended up settling into their in-house team.
However almost as soon as he started, Chris was given the conversion of "Commando" to do. Slight problem being that he joined in October and they wanted it finished for release in Xmas 85! Talk about a real rush job and you can easily see that in the final product. The game itself, most people hopefully should know about. Take your Commando up the screen as far as you can and shoot/grenade the living daylights out of everything you come across. Hmmm, does this sound familiar or what?! Well I suppose the premise of Chris' two previous games made this slightly easier to write.
It was the first big job he had to program, and he had 8 weeks to do it and learn some new techniques (including splitting sprites) to even get it to work properly. Plus there's the missing level. Originally the C64 conversion had the first four levels of the arcade to play (the arcade original itself had 8). However when Rob Hubbard came back and said that his music required 6K of memory, there wasn't enough room left to fit it in. So Steve Wilcox, head honcho at the time, told Chris to rip out level 3 as a fix. So it ended up with only three of the original levels to play and a mass of bugs to spot, including the enjoyable 'disappearing' acts of certain sprites. Still, I'm glad that Rob's music wasn't compromised upon as it is one of the best pieces on the C64, a sort of 12" remix of the arcade music. Then there is the German release of the game. Now it is reasonably known fact the Germans are a fickle lot when it comes to computer violence, and have asked for certain games to be toned down or even banned from the country. In our case here the packaging took a change for the worse, with the enemy soldiers being replacing by robots and the game taking on the title "Super Invasion". Still, after all that, the game sold well on the name and made Chris a tidy sum for what was essentially 2 months work. Soon after Chris went freelance but continued to be held under Elite's umbrella, just he was expected to work at home instead.
The next project he was given had a longer time limit on it. In fact it didn't really have a limit of sorts at all. So Chris took his time and spent five months writing up the conversion to another Capcom favourite, namely "Ghosts 'n Goblins". This is another game which is almost as well known for its music as for the quality of the game itself. Mark Cooksley excelled himself here with a spooky title track complete with a weird set of drums noises. Brilliant sums it up. Possibly grating after a while but who cares? One notable feature with the conversion, and that of "Commando" was the fact Chris disliked multiloading. As much as possible was crammed into a single load with his games. Hence "Commando" only had three of the original levels, and "Ghosts 'n Goblins" had the first four levels from the original six. However despite the limitations, the game itself is great, graphically colourful and varied, with sound effects to match the music mentioned before. Although the sprites themselves are small, they were well defined and animated reasonably. And by and large, the levels that were included were pretty accurate to the coin-op original. Except that level 4 in the conversion is level 3 in the arcade, and vice versa. Perhaps he thought the dragon boss would make a better end of game foe than the usual Cyclopes. Where the game really came through was in the quality of the action and the desire to progress further, to find out what was around the next corner and to beat the bosses. Of course part of the addictiveness comes from the arcade game to begin with, but a translation also requires the same care and attention to bring players back to try again. And with this game, Chris succeeded.
After the success of these two arcade conversions, Chris was increasing inundated with offers of work. Most of which he turned down because although they may have been successful, he felt he wouldn't have enjoyed writing them. Such was the case with "Buggy Boy" (later programmed for Elite and released Xmas 87) and a few others, though "Ikari Warriors" was never offered to him at all. It was eventually put together by John Twiddy (of "Last Ninja" fame) and released by Elite early 1988. In a way, being too successful can be a hindrance. Which possibly led to Chris taking on a mission impossible, the conversion of "Space Harrier" to the C64.
Well what can you say about this game? It rescued Sega financially, with the terrific graphics, sound and hydraulic action of the big arcade machine. However take away all of that and you are not left with much gameplay to fall back on. Plus the fact some of the gameplay features were not implemented (such as riding the dragon) and I think not all the levels were present once more. And that is where the difference between this game and say "Ghosts 'n Goblins" lies. The latter could survive being downgraded because it involved the player a lot more and had a reason for you to come back each go for another chance at getting further. With "Space Harrier" this feeling doesn't exist, which is a shame because technically the game is very good on the C64. Utilising a similar system to "Encounter", Chris managed to work out a way of using a mixture of character blocks and sprites to the best effect, and to shift them around as quickly as possible. This technique would be later used to better effect in other conversions, but this looked impressive for 1987. The less said about the music the better though. And I've mentioned the gameplay. Still, the game sold well on the name once more. It pays the bills and gets you by. Though Chris did say that success was more important to him than money in the games industry.
After finishing "Space Harrier", there is a little gap in the Butler story. Or so you might think. Chris was actually involved in writing the official C64 version of "Battleships", but not only was its release delayed for over a year, it eventually appeared on Elite's budget label Encore. However it gets put in this part of the article because of when it was written. The game overall is rather decent, offering both single and multi player action along with the ability to take single or multiple shots in one go based on how many ships you had left. Board graphics were functional but clear, and there was a nice little animation going on whilst the shots were being fired. The computer AI was rather decent too, but as usual, winning the game was more often down to luck than judgement. Well worth the £1.99 it cost to buy at the time.
After finishing that, Chris left Elite and continued to freelance, this time being signed up by US Gold for the conversion of the Atari hit "720". After the disappointment of "Space Harrier", Chris needed a project to re-establish himself and this filled the gap. Going back to the "Ghosts 'n Goblins" route of graphics, and once again sticking to a single load, he was able to capture a lot more of the arcade machine this time than he had previously. For those who don't know what the arcade machine was all about, pay attention. You are a hot new boarder in town, and must perform tricks in the main park to earn money. By earning money, you can pay for either equipment or tickets to enter one of the four theme areas around. Take too long to enter one of these arenas and a swarm of bees will appear to chase you around until you do so. The arenas comprise of tricks, downhill, slalom and half pipe, and completing them successfully will earn more money. The better you perform, the more expensive the tickets become and so on until you fail and run out of money. Overall the game is a lot of fun, much like "Ghosts 'n Goblins". The graphics are reasonable given the memory space, a few garish colours and expanded sprites abound but nothing too bad. The music is a okay rendition of the arcade themes. It was a better idea to put on the tape recording of the real arcade music included in the package instead. Of course the game lives or dies by the gameplay and it probably had the same longevity as the arcade machine. In other words, more than "Space Harrier" but less than "Ghosts 'n Goblins" which is a fair assessment. With his next assignment though, Chris was back on the third person perspective trail.
Which was "Thunderblade", once more another Sega coin-op. However this time the machine had more playability to offer than "Space Harrier" did. It also used two different types of structure, overhead and third person. With the complexity of the game taken into consideration, this was the first time Chris had to give in and make it a multiload. There was no other way to fit in the entire game. The overhead sections were all new code, though I suspect he ripped out the routines for "Space Harrier" to use for the 3D parts. And improved on them. They looked quite a bit better and moved slightly more smoothly than in said game. They also wobbled about a fair bit when changing altitude as well. And all the buildings looked like they were built to be used by the children of Lowry. Part of the payoff I suppose for using character blocks all the way. However with the multiload, the entire four levels of action were able to be included. Music, as seems par for the course most of the time with Chris' work, was average. Play wise it wasn't too bad actually. It was fun flying around in both planes of action, shooting at everything on the screen and blowing it up. For a while at least. The game was also rather tough, but that's part of the point of an arcade game now, making people cough money into it. The other part is quite often (as before) when you remove the fancy bits, there isn't much left to get your teeth into. Such is the case here. A reasonable attempt, better than "Space Harrier" at least if not on the "Ghosts 'n Goblins" level.
You could call Chris a sort of software mercenary, as he often went where the work was being offered and it didn't matter which company is was for. After finishing "Thunderblade" he was in the process of being given the "Ghouls 'n Ghosts" project when the software manager for US Gold, Charles Cicil, defected over to Activision, taking Chris with him. The aforementioned title eventually landed in the laps of the Software Creations Commodore uber-team and what a game they turned out. As it turned out though, Chris wanted a big game and the only thing available was "Powerdrift". And so it took from February to September 1989 to get it all done, just about fitting it all into memory. Yep, another game without a multiload. But this one worked, and had just about everything in it. Of course the slanting road effect couldn't be duplicated, but the 3D routines used before were updated even more. In fact it took him 6 weeks to get it all right, and overall the graphics and associated routines took up half the C64's available memory! To make life easier, the car actually stays still in the middle of the screen and the background is moving around it all the time. This time the objects look real as they pass by and don't wobble at all. The same can be said about the other drivers as they zoom past. Actually everything zooms past at a fair rate of knots. Sound got better as well, a great tune plays throughout the game, urging you on towards a higher score. Gameplay wise it was up to standard, you could choose which of the five courses to race round and one of twelve drivers to be. The difficulty came not only from the trickiness of each track increasing, but the fact that your turning arc got wider each time. You would have to learn the courses and start steering into the bends as they approached. Overall not a classic but a great improvement on before.
Apparently Chris took on the "Powerdrift" project to get his hands on the next piece of hardware to be converted, "Ninja Spirit". An Irem coin-op, this took the usual ninja type game and threw it around a little. For a start it was actually set in Japan instead of somewhere more modern. It also incorporated a power-up system similar to "Nemesis" where you could get additional weapons such as shuriken, dynamite and kusari-gama to help besides your initial katana. You could also get 'multiples', ghost images of yourself to help out. However the plot was vaguely to the norm, run through the many levels, slicing seven shades of crap out of whomever opposes you. But this was done in a varied sort of way, levels scrolling both right to left and up as well. Enemies come at you from all angles and in many guises. There are standard grunts, shoguns, bo masters and flying kitemen. All appear on screen as reasonably well-defined, colourful and highly animated sprites. In fact, this is the most notable aspect of the game given that the backgrounds, although well-drawn, are sometimes a little sparse. Coming a close second is the difficulty level; this thing ain't easy at all! Plenty of practice required to make it to the further levels now, but it is well worth it. Just like "Ghosts 'n Goblins", not only is the program a great conversion, but also a terrific game in its own right. Playability just oozes out, as long as you wish to persevere onwards. Perhaps Chris was getting the hang of the multiload lark after all. Certainly his next project was the most ambitious to date.
Which brings us to "Turbocharge". System 3 received much positive feedback about the driving sections in "Vendetta" that they decided to make a separate game based on this aspect. I can only presume that Chris' reputation and the success of "Powerdrift" lead them to hiring him for the task. Certainly the graphics routines are similar, but actually improved upon if that's possible to believe. The game was originally titled "Borderline", but perhaps the speed of the graphics heralded a change in direction. The game itself has a fairly simple premise. You are a special agent working for the Government and it is your task to track down and arrest key members of an arms gang that have recently raided a stockpile in the Middle East. Starting off in Sauda Arabia and progressing into Iraq for the first level, you are equipped with a high powered car and side arm. If need be, you also have access to 5 rockets should some opposition be difficult to shift. Each of the 5 stages is split into two levels. Whilst the level of resistance is lower in the first half of the stage, when you cross the border (hence the original title of the game), everything and the kitchen sink is launched in your direction to stop you getting to the boss. This includes people shooting from vans, cars, helicopters, A-10s strafing the ground, police vehicles, mines, barbed wire and much more. You also have to make some accurate choices about which fork to take at several points; failure results in crashing and damage added to your car. You also have a turbocharge at your disposal to zoom past the enemy, but at the expense of your fuel reserves. Fortunately it can be replenished along the way. When you do engage the turbo, hold onto your hats, the graphics really do shift at an amazing rate then. The vehicles are also quite superb, colourful, animated and detailed. The bullet holes across the screen as the damage to your car increases is also a great touch. Sound is also well presented, each level has its own theme and mood, whilst the title track was hyped as having 5 channel sound (it does, just about). Presentation wise, it is up to the usual System 3 standard, with interlevel screens and end of game pictures showing your success or failure. They even made the tape multiload reasonably bearable too. To make up for that even more, they gave tape users 5 continues, making the game a bit too easy to finish. Disc users got no continues, so finishing it in that format was all the more spectacular! Despite the game being the first original program Chris had done since "Battleships", it was also probably the best C64 game he wrote. Despite the continues, the difficulty gradient was set about right, with each level steadily getting harder to survive and complete. The second stage of the final level is almost impossible to do without using a continue. But what does practice make now?! As a disc user myself, I kept coming back for more because one day I knew I'd crack it, which I did eventually. Then you are treated to an amusing end sequence worthy of the challenge before it. System 3 also had plans to release this (and other games) on cartridge, but I've been unable to track one down if it exists. If anyone out there can help me, then get in touch because money is waiting!
And then the story goes dead. Almost. With no hype whatsoever, a budget game appeared on the Zeppelin label called "Arnie" in the summer of 1992 which was credited to a Chris Butler. Pretty sure it is the man in question but its one of those little mysteries. The best way to describe the game would be a 3D version of "Commando". Except this was a much better game than the conversion Chris put together some seven years previous. You control a soldier (presumably with the name Arnie) entering hostile territory and must make your way to the end of the level and defeat the boss at the end. Yes, you did read right there, one level. Except it seems to stretch on and on and on... you get the picture. You often double back on yourself such is the layout and route you must take. Initially you are armed with a standard Armalyte rifle. Various enemies come your way including standard brown shirted grunts, tanks, helicopters, mines, barbed wire, missiles, mortars, pillar boxes and more. Shooting one of the rare pink shirted guys (on a battlefield?!) leaves behind a weapon upgrade. This will power up your weapon to the next available level. In order this is a machine gun, flame-thrower and finally rocket launcher. Running out of ammo for any upgraded weapon takes you back to the Armalyte. The object really is to survive and get as far as possible. Some challenge actually, it starts off reasonably difficult and increases from there on it. Graphics are small but perfectly detailed and animated, the enemy do a 'dying fly' impression on being shot whilst Arnie turns into a pile of bones. The actual backgrounds scroll smoothly enough and have plenty of superficial detail to make it look convincing. You manage to pass through a canyon, dockyard and airstrip all in the space of a few minutes! Sound is limited to bullet fire and the sounds of pain, realistic I suppose in that sense! But just like many of his other games, "Arnie" makes you come back to play it, to progress just that little bit further, to see what's around the next corner awaiting your arrival. The whole point of a challenge is to let you think you can do better next time and possibly offering that chance. Too hard and you will think you can never do it, too easy and you don't think it is worth achieving. But this gets it just about right. Sure you'd crack it eventually, but for £3, what more could you ask for?
And there we end this story. Chris did turn up coding the game "Super Putty" for the SNES in the next couple of years, but after that, not much is known. Has he retired? Is he still in the business? Take a good look at the pictures we've shown you. Information leading to the whereabouts of this known programmer will be treated in the strictest confidence. You do not have to leave your name but you may be liable for a cash reward. If anyone knows, call....