August 20, 2012 6:00 AM | Konstantinos Dimopoulos / Gnome
Leo Christopherson must have been a great math teacher, we'll probably never really know, but we will always be certain of the fact that he was an excellent TRS-80 programmer and game designer that wowed computer gamers back in the late 70s and early-to-mid 80s. He was also very close to the archetype of what we'd today describe as an indie developer, what with him being a one man team with unique and quirky ideas, who still fondly remembers "the successes I had with graphics and sound on the old TRS-80 as being some of the best moments of my life. I would hope programmers today can experience that too, but I'm not sure how things go in the large teams of experts these days where each person is involved with one small aspect of the final result".
Leo came up with such classic games as Dancing Demon, Android NIM and Voyage of Valkyrie that are still remembered, loved and played to this day. "You know, it's really humbling that I still get emails from folks that were just kids back when I was programming on the TRS-80's" he told Jim McGinley who interviewed him and provided the quotes for this article. "They all say how much they enjoyed the programs, and I'm really pleased at how many mention that their careers in the computer field were inspired by my little programs".
Dancing Demon in particular was a game that reached beyond the geeks of the era, as it was actually featured on a US news broadcast about games and education, mainly due to its amazing animation, procedural humor, impressive speed and inherent weirdness. Valkyrie, on the other hand, one of Leo's personal favorites, was rather more traditional yet also a concept that built on his Norwegian background.
As for the insanely addictive Android NIM, here is what the developer has to say: "Since I was a math teacher familiar with the game NIM, I decided to create Android NIM for the fun of it... Just to see if the TRS-80 could run something like that, and maybe have a tool to help students with binary math. I was delighted with the results. The blocky graphics and lack of color were OK with me. The real excitement came in getting that little computer to run what my imagination was coming up with. The BASIC statements were too slow, but when I worked out the way to pack Z-80 code into strings and call them from BASIC things really took off. Most of my games began with some sort of graphics idea which then developed into some sort of game. When I discovered how to get music to play along with the animation, I was really thrilled! I loved experimenting with all that."
But then, after more than a few successes and almost suddenly, Leo stopped making games. This was apparently brought about mainly due to the capabilities of the early 8-bit micros not being up to what he wanted to do. He did, you see, finish a most ambitious CoCo game based on the Robert Heinlein SF story "And He Built a Crooked House", but found it was too much for the humble 8-bit to handle. When though asked whether, despite the limitations, he ever considered making games programming and design a full time career, the answer is a resounding "yes".
He even received a few interesting offers back in the early 1980s, including one from the soon-to-be-dissolved Tandy and one from another legend: Chris Crawford, who suggested Leo should take his position over at the already troubled Atari. Both offers were declined. After finishing Valkyrie, Leo also got a call from Microsoft. It was a promising offer and an intriguing story, but it too didn't come to anything. Still, definitely something worth sharing:
"They [Microsoft] were thinking of adding a line of software to sell. I guess I was one of the major programmers for the TRS-80 by then. They wanted to see the program and had me drive up to Seattle to Redmond. Microsoft was at that time in just a couple floors of a large business building. It was summer and only a few people were around. I met Bill Gates and we talked for about half an hour. He was interested in the "string packing" I was using. He also was interested in the "Valkyrie" program. He gave me a bunch of free TRS-80 software. I left with the assurance that they wanted to sell the program. The interesting thing was that at that point Microsoft had very little in the way of a software distribution system. I think the only game they were selling was a flight simulator TRS-80 program at that time. So they told me that they were in negotiations with Tandy (with its 2400+ Radio Shack stores around the world) to have Tandy distribute the software. When I got back to Tacoma, I started getting offers from folks I hardly knew to become my agent, or financial manager. This really could have been the BIG one for me as careers go.
A few weeks later, Microsoft called and said that Gates and John Roach (Tandy) were in Roach's private plane flying over the Great Lakes talking over the deal. They called the next day and said that Roach had turned down the deal. That ended my potential work with MS."
Then again, nothing is over till it's over and Leo Christopherson has returned to gaming and has already began rebuilding and sharing his classics. "Since I'm now mostly retired", he says, "I can get back to having some fun with programming again. As you would likely agree, it's a pastime that can entirely take over one's mind." Jim McGinley, who (as noted) interviewed him, suggested Leo should give Unity a try. Happily he did, and really liked what he saw enough to recreate the famous Android NIM in it. The new graphics and animation are amazing, and the game is exactly the same as Leo likes the original gameplay and has left it untouched.
You can download Android NIM 2012 for free over at his personal website.
The Snake Eggs 2012 remake has also been completed and you can grab it from here.
Oh, and as Leo plans to update more TRS-80 games to Unity you should most probably expect Dancing Demon and more retro-lovelies to make an updated appearance for free. He does after all reassure us that "I'm not going to worry about selling any of these games, and I just want to satisfy myself with the programs, and simply enjoy the programming experience again."