Q&A with a developer of the long-lost prototype - By Maurice "BuckyB" Simon

Editor's Note

Amazon Systems

In 2004, the long-lost Videopac G7000 Tutankham prototype was finally discovered and distributed to the world. For several years before, the game had been heavily rumored to exist but was never confirmed... at least, not until 2002, when Videopac historian Maurice "BuckyB" Simon discovered the UK-based Amazon Systems, the software development company that worked on the game. Maurice contacted Gil Williamson, one of the principals of the company, and conducted an email conversation which was eventually published as an article on the web site "Odyssey Mania." The original conversation was conducted in English, but since Odyssey Mania was a Brazilian site, the interview was translated into Portuguese before publication.

Eventually, Odyssey Mania went the way of so many other Odyssey and Videopac fan sites and disappeared. Luckily, I saved a copy of the Portuguese interview text before that happened. I asked Maurice for permission to translate it back into English and re-publish it. He agreed, and sent me some original material he still had on file. Unfortunately, he had only the first half of the article; I had to recreate the second half from the old Odyssey Mania content. So, the first half of the following article was taken from the original English, while the second half has been translated from English to Portuguese and back again. Hopefully no significant translation errors have crept in.

Also note that some discoveries have been made since 2002, when this conversation happened. Of course, the Tutankham prototype has been found. Also, Williamson credits Peter Inser as the developer of Frogger, but this is only partially correct. Inser owned Intron AB, which developed Frogger, but the game was also developed by Göran Öhman and others. There's also some speculation that a Lord of the Rings game planned by Amazon Systems may have become Quest for the Rings. This is not likely; as you can read here, QFTR was a joint effort between American designers Steve Lehner and Ron Bradford and developer Ed Averett.

Amazon Systems' was online until late 2021, but you can still find it at the Internet Archive. Mr. Williamson is an adventure game author. He has even written a book about that topic.

Parker Brothers' Tutankham

By Maurice Simon

Parker Brothers released four games for the Videopac computer, with a fifth rumoured to have been developed. That fifth title was Tutankham, and it was released for other platforms, like the Atari 2600 and ColecoVision. Once, I even heard a story of the game supposedly being found in Brazil. However, that was a one-time story, and, as far as I know, only a rumor. [Editor's note: Maurice is correct; this rumor has since been disproven.]

While searching for Videopac information, I stumbled upon a site that belongs to the guy that, along with some other people, worked on Tutankham for the Videopac: Gil Williamson. I mailed him and we got to talk about it. He told me that Tutankham for the Videopac was actually finished, and the boxes and labels were finished and ready to go to press. In fact, everything was ready to go! The team finished the game, and handed it over to Parker Brothers. Yet, somehow, it never made it to the shelves.

Here are some parts of my email correspondence with him.

Gil Williamson
Gil Williamson

Gil Williamson: You are talking about a time nearly 20 years ago! We have nothing left of the papers and materials connected with that project, so all you can have is my memories.

Brief history:

We had been doing some hardware-ish work with Atari, in particular a Swedish character set and numerous printer drivers for the Atari 800, when we were approached by a representative of Parker Videogames who knew our Atari contact. Parker had placed a contract with Philips in Eindhoven to produce some games for the G7000 and Philips were behind schedule or the contract was not finalised (I can't remember which). They had asked Philips for the development manual and system, but Philips were being awkward, so Parker asked Amazon to reverse engineer the machine. Charles Dear – a very talented programmer/engineer and I worked on it for about a six weeks day and night, and, using all the cartridges we could get our hands on and using data sheets for the components we could recognise, figured out what the processor was, how it was wired up, how the video chip worked and so on. We documented it and, using an Atari 800, a text processor and an emulator, we demonstrated we had cracked it by writing a tiny program with a gorilla walking around the screen under joystick control.

At this point, Philips knew nothing of Amazon's work, and they eventually offered Parker a training course on the G7000. The course was given by Peter Inser, a Swede (who wrote Frogger for the G7000) who did not work for Philips, and it appeared that Philips themselves did not know a lot about the machine, which they had bought from an American company. Parker sent Charles and me on the course as their representatives, and Peter Inser was excellent, but it also turned out we had discovered facilities in the machine that even Peter did not know! There were Philips programmers on the course, too. I think Philips' game development manager was called Ko Schutter.

Parker gave us a contract to develop Tutankham for the G7000. Philips thought we would be in trouble with the development route, but we built our own using Atari 800, and started development. We delivered Tutankham to Parker and they liked it and started production of boxes, manual, etc. We did the game design for a Lord of the Rings themed game and a G7000 version of [a Star Wars game] Death Star Battle, which DID come out on Atari 800.

They also gave Star Wars themed G7000 game contracts to a Hungarian company, Novatrade, who used a PDP11 development system. The only thing I remember about Novatrade was a programmer called Czar, who wrote a silly game for the C64 where a monster danced while the player tried to shoot him. Parker also gave us half a dozen Sinclair Spectrum games to develop.

When all of us were in the middle of development – this was mid-1984 – Parker suddenly decided they were no longer in the games cartridge business and closed the development down. We were paid for work done and work-in-progress, and that was that. By this time, we were on to Defense work in cryptography and left all the games behind. If you search for "Gil Williamson" on the web, though, you will see I retained my interest in Adventure games!

Q: Can you tell us a bit more of the members of the team, who were they and what did they do?

I did Game Design and technical stuff.

Then there was Charles Dear, programming and engineering. He was a very talented hardware hacker and coder. Me and him reverse-engineered the Videopac G7000 when we didn't have any information to work with.

The software we used on the different systems we used was written by Les Fairbrother, he also designed and coded the OS we used on Spectrums, and wrote an ADA compiler. He never worked on the Videopac G7000.

Nicholas Williamson, my son who was 14 at the time, designed the graphics for the game and he would do hardware prototyping and assembly. He drew the graphics (sprites and backgrounds) on paper to be later put in the computer. He is still working with computers these days.

Finally, there's my wife Beryl Williamson, who did such a good job for Amazon that Parker later hired her as a consultant to coordinate some of their European operations in production, sub-contracting and quality control. She worked at Parker for quite a while.

Q: You guys worked on an Atari 800, how did that work?

We wrote our own assembler for the 8051 in BASIC, and sent the program down RS232 to the emulator box (which Charles built). The emulator had a board on a flying lead that plugged straight into a G7000, and we could make changes and test quite easily, without blowing a ROM each time.

Q: You had to actually reverse engineer the G7000, what did Philips think of that, and why didn't they just give you the information you needed?

They knew about the reverse engineering. I think they were impressed, but in these days, they were using a Unix network and very expensive tools, and they didn't think we could do the same job better and cheaper. If I remember correctly, they had no ROM emulator. They blew a chip every test, which made development very slow.

Philips would've been happy to provide anything we wanted to know, they just didn't have it in a sensible form. Missing that, we went to a course, led by Peter Inser, a Swede, who had written the documentation.

Q: Let me see if I understand correctly. You and Charles Dear reverse-engineered the G7000, documented and wrote a G7000 emulator for the Atari 800? Impressive! It must have been one of the first emulators! Did the gorilla game work only on the emulator or did you make an actual cartridge?

A: Ah! You're mistaken. It was not a G7000 emulator – it was a ROM emulator. We wrote our own assembler for the 8051 BASIC, and we sent the program to the emulator via a RS232 box (which Charles built). The emulator had a card that plugged directly into the G7000, and we could make changes and test quite easily, without having to burn a ROM all the time.

Q: Ah, what did you and Charles learn?

A: That's a difficult question. I think different video modes.

Q: About what you told me about Tutankham: Hmm, very, very interesting. Nobody ever knew if Tutankham was actually completed, or if the work on it had actually begun! You just made me (and a lot of other people) very happy! There were some advertisements in German magazines, even rumors about the game having been sold in Brazil, but no one has ever been able to confirm this. But this means that really complete games could be floating around the world!

A: Oh yes, prototypes anyway. Parker had a copy, and I think we sent one to Ko Schutter.

Artist's impression of what the Tutankham box COULD have looked like
Artist's impression of what the Tutankham box COULD have looked like

Q: Do you have any idea how the boxes/manuals/cartridges were?

A: No. We never saw them, but remember that there was a Tutankham for the Atari, so I believe that they would have used the same style.

Q: There are some games that were never released and were later found; however, in most cases, they were found without documents or anything. In one case, prototype manuals were also found, but a different version of that game was released in other countries (there were also G7400 versions with improved graphics in Europe). That was a Philips game though.

A: I remember that Philips was working on Popeye and Super Cobra for the G7000 at the same time. And Spider-Man, I think. Some of these were released.

Q: About the game based on The Lord of the Rings: Could this have later become Quest for the Rings? The game uses a board and pieces, like coins with castles on them and an hourglass. You only did the game design but did not actually code it?

A: Perhaps. We designed it as a kind of war game, but there is no way I remember anything else. And we never coded.

Q: Death Star Battle: that REALLY was released for the Atari 800. Again, did you just do the game design without coding? Did you code the Atari version?

A: No.

Q: About the Sinclair Spectrum games: Were any released?

A: No. Each was cancelled. We made Sinclair Spectrum versions of Death Star Battle, Gyruss, Popeye, Star Wars, Montezuma's Revenge, and Q*bert, some of which Parker later sold to Sinclair, who released some of them on tape under its own brand.

Q: Could it be that the G7000 game based on Star Wars is Cosmic Conflict?

A: I think not. The Novatrade game based on Star Wars involved the AT-AT walkers and those walkers similar to chickens on the Ice Planet.

Q: I presume that all that you still had at home went to the trash after a few years?

A: Well, surprisingly, it went to the trash recently – about three years ago.

Q: So you were not working under contract, but on a case-by-case basis? Was this always the case with regard to programming titles? I've heard that this happened very often. It seems strange; when you have a "normal" job, you have a contract, so your employer cannot just "throw it away." Didn't you earn royalties for every game sold?

A: We worked with a fixed price per game without royalties, with phases of payments after the design, coding, prototype and final delivery. Parker was very fair with us, and we could not complain.

Q: Reverse engineering for encryption?

A: Hey, you take work where you find it, and we are a great team. There aren't many small software makers that lasted 20 years!