Zodiac Software

Regular readers of Mike Gerrard's adventure column in Your Sinclair magazine will no doubt be familiar with the name of Zodiac Software, whose homegrown games burst onto the ZX Spectrum scene in 1987. Run by teenagers Andy Lowe and Dave Dutton, their vibrant, colourful, high-energy outings spoofed genres such as soap operas, the Wild West, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond.

Each game was full of verbose, humourous text and vivid graphics that were somehow crammed into the limited memory of Sir Clive Sinclair's 8-bit computer. Zodiac's titles were often uniquely structured and presented; playfully experimenting with the conventions and limitations of the medium.

Now a successful author, Andrew Lowe graciously took the time, in October 2018, to answer some of my questions about his Zodiac days.

Judging from Zodiac's postal address, you spent your teenage years in the group of warring towns that are loosely amalgamated into the city of Stoke-on-Trent. When did you acquire your first computer?

Heh. I did! First computer was a ZX Spectrum. 16K. I remember having to go to my mate's house to play the 48k games. Nowadays, of course, this reply probably takes up 48k. :)

How did you get into adventure games?

Pretty sure it was The Hobbit. Beam Software. Waiting patiently for the graphics to looooad. I think I also played a game or two on the BBC Micro at school, which seemed impossibly exotic at the time. I'd always been a big reader of fiction and I loved the idea of creating something which could conjure up locations and characters but also be interactive. (I never really liked the Choose Your Own Adventure Books because it was always too easy to just turn back and try again if you didn't like the outcome of a decision.)

All of Zodiac Software's games were collaborations with Dave Dutton. How did you two meet?

The boring but true answer is that we were schoolmates. In the same class. We were inseparable from mid to late teens. Experimenting with music, girls, hair. We had a big phase of being way too into The Smiths, and I remember getting the train to Manchester and taking pictures of each other outside various Smiths landmarks. (Salford Lads' Club, Strangeways, etc.) Jesus.

Was there a particular way that you split the workload?

Yeah. It was pretty clear-cut. I wrote the stories, he did the graphics. I would pretty much write the whole thing out in a notebook and give him a list of locations. My memory is fuzzy at this bit, but I think he used to do the graphics in the room while I made tweaks to the story in the notepad. (I don't think it was possible back then for him to work on the graphics and then merge them with my latest version of the game code.) Again - Jesus. I'm amazed we ever got anything complete.

The presentation of your games was always top notch. It must have been quite a challenge to squeeze all the illustrations and humorous text into the confines of the 48K ZX Spectrum? No wonder your games were always multi-parters...

Yeah. They were probably a bit too ambitious for the tech at the time. I would just write the story to whatever length it needed to be, and then the computer/memory/software would just have to accommodate it in some way. (I didn't discover the necessities of editing until much later, as a journalist/author.)

Zodiac started out using The Quill to make adventures. Was that your first port of call? Had you tried other methods or packages before you settled on Gilsoft's utility?

Yeah. It definitely started messing around with The Quill. It was just so accessible; it almost felt rude NOT to try and make something. Soapland was the first time the Zodiac name was seen out in public.

In Zodiac's Soap Land you played Sergeant Roy Slow, going about his business patrolling Soap Land and solving crimes. Throughout the adventure you'd meet parodies of characters from the various popular soap operas of the day such as Filthy Len and Mangie, Methyl the cleaner and Dr Legless.

Soap Land for ZX Spectrum (1987)

Was Soap Land your first attempt at making your own adventure game?

I think I did the usual adolescent thing and wrote some sort of X-rated thing first. Then, once the novelty of that wore off, I started to work on games that could actually be sent out into the world.

According to magazines from the time, you first sent the three-part Soapland to Fergus McNeill at Delta 4 in the hope that they might publish it?

I don't remember that. Maybe we did and he ignored it and I've repressed the memory due to sulking. It seems plausible, though. I think I always wanted to just do it ourselves, anyway, for the creative freedom.

Scary Mansion, a two-part Sherlock Holmes spoof, joined Soapland as part of Zodiac Software's initial home-published offerings. You seemed to enjoy parodying famous genres and other adventure games?

I think that came from being a bit too in awe of Delta 4. But parodies are always a good way to get inside things like story structure and character development, without the risk of someone complaining that your own story and character isn't very good. Kind of like trainer wheels.

Scary Mansion for ZX Spectrum (1987)

You followed up your first two games with the James Bond spoof, For Your Thighs Only. Perhaps the most overlooked one of the Zodiac adventures, despite the great title. Was it frustrating that this one didn't get as much coverage as your initial releases?

We were splitting our attention a bit, between girlfriends and schoolwork. That one might have come out a bit garbled, which is why it wasn't enjoyed so much.

It had some really interesting elements, though, such as the character "interaction menu" where you're given the option to talk, attack, search, offer an object, ask them to follow you, or... in true James Bond-style... 'make a pass' at them!

For Your Thighs Only for ZX Spectrum (1987)

You moved on to Gilsoft's PAW for your next game. What made you take the step up and what advantages or challenges did the new system present?

I'm pretty sure that PAW was like The Quill with more options for graphics and code. It seemed like a logical step. I probably also liked the idea that it had the word 'professional' in it.

A Fistful of Blood Capsules, presented in glorious AnachronismVision saw Quiet Slurp taking on the evil Gringo Scumbagski. What can you remember about that particular game and the writing process?

I wanted to do some kind of Wild West thing, using all the new sophistication of PAW. As you can tell, I was also a bit too obsessed with puns and wordplay. (I remember writing the college play and the drama teacher saying he loved it but - and this is a quote - 'Funny names aren't funny'). :)

A Fistful of Blood Capsules for ZX Spectrum (1987)

Well there were certainly plenty of funny names in the introduction to Blood Capsules which was presented as a whole separate program on the tape, with oodles of Dave's great illustrations. Another interesting experiment in presentation by Zodiac.

In your final published game, Fairly Difficult Mission, you introduced the female protagonist Charlotte Webster. Was the diversity a conscious decision?

Yeah! Now it seems pretty standard, but at the time I don't think there were any female protagonists. I suppose I was trying to get a twist on the standard spy tropes, play around with the Bond cliches that first came up in 'For Your Thighs Only' and take the piss out of fantasy stories a bit.

Fairly Difficult Mission is interestingly structured, with two of its five parts requiring no player input at all. There are also several special effects, such as the Spectrum loading effect when you examine your television, and an interesting section where you have to play an awful mini-game, complete with spelling mistakes. You were both starting to explore what the PAW was capable of, both from a technical standpoint and also a narrative one.

Haha. Yes! My experimental phase. Non-interactive interactive fiction. :) I was trying to push things a bit, see what I could get away with. I also wanted to really dig into PAW's options and show off with some of the meta stuff. I always liked the idea of messing around with the player's expectations and using their familiarity with the genre/system to provide odd little surprises.

Fairly Difficult Mission for ZX Spectrum (1988)

Your games generally got great reviews, particularly from Mike Gerrard in Your Sinclair who was a big fan. Mike, or an elf that was suspiciously like him, even made a cameo in Fairly Difficult Mission. It must've been heartening and encouraging to have Mike act as a mentor?

Yeah. He was definitely a bit of a proxy father figure at the time. I remember how much of a thrill it was, to be able to write a game, self-produce it, and then send it directly to a magazine I loved. It was always an amazing buzz to see it there in the reviews section. I really enjoyed that DIY ethic. Mike became so much of a mentor, I think I started to write the games with him in mind. The cameo was my attempt at a tribute for all of his help.

Both A Fistful of Blood Capsules and a Fairly Difficult Mission received 8 / 10 in Your Sinclair

Your games are heavy on the humour (but rarely heavy handed) and perhaps a little lighter on the puzzles. Not that that was an issue, Mike Gerrard, writing in Special Reserve's Confidential magazine, said that he kept playing your games simply because he wanted to discover more jokes. What influenced your sense of humour at the time?

I grew up on Monty Python, Not The Nine O'Clock News, The Young Ones. All the standard 'alternative comedy'. I also loved the off-shoots like Blackadder - for the way the anachronistic, meta nature was 90% of the joke. Also, Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein). I also remember Dave and I listening to Jasper Carrott albums a lot. Which isn't at all cool, but it's true.

Had you started writing just a little earlier there's no doubt that your games would've been snapped up for publication by one of the big software houses. As it was, you perhaps just missed the boat slightly in terms of timing. Were you ever close to landing a professional deal?

I'm not sure I was ever that bothered about it, really. I liked the independence of being able to pretty much do and say what we wanted. Even then I knew that bouncing things off a publisher would compromise things and suck out a lot of the joy. These days, of course, independent publishing (books, music, games) is basically standard, and has been enabled by access to technology via the internet.

Presumably your homegrown sales were still quite good. What was bedroom publishing like when you were faced with the challenge of duplicating tapes, stuffing jiffy bags and dealing with postal orders?

A bit hectic. We did it all ourselves. Worked through the orders, banked the cheques, packaged everything up. It did get a bit unsustainable - in the run-up to our 'A' levels. I think that's where we started to realise we had to wind it up.

You didn't choose to write any more serious games? I believe at one point there was a title called Dragnet in the works?

I vaguely remember that. I was starting to write short stories and work up ideas for long-form fiction (which is what I do now - andrewlowewriter.com). Probably a bit of age. I'd outgrown the silly names and parodies.

Every adventure author has a folder of games that never made it past the drawing board (and often got no further than a title). There are mentions of many unpublished Zodiac games, so what happened to these ones...

...the Treasure Island spoof…?

I remember making a few notes for that, but then realising that The Secret Of Monkey Island already did it perfectly well.

...Jack and the Relatively Large Tree… a trilogy of four two-part games…?

That was an idea based on a sort of catch-all world featuring nursery rhyme characters. I think it was some character who slipped into the world and then had to find a way back to reality. Not bad. I don't think we ever wrote anything in anger, though.

...A Yuletide Tale starring Doctor Strangetrousers and his assistant Oddsod…? :)

Again. Jesus. More silly names! I'm beginning to think a lot of this was a petulant reaction to the words of my drama teacher. I seem to remember we did actually write and code that, but didn't release it. I remember we did do a thing called A Shameless Christmas Cash-In. Maybe that was related?

Yes, that was how it was billed when it was mentioned in Mike Gerrard's adventure column.

Has any of this popped up on the text adventure sites? It's hard to Google (I've just tried) because of the name: Zodiac Software. You just get bombarded with astrology nonsense. I remember my first idea was Xerxes Software - just for the perversity of it. Were there any more abandoned titles? Not that I remember. I'm *sure* we wrote A Shameless Christmas Cash-In. Someone must remember it...

No sign of it online yet but perhaps a copy will turn up one day!

(A selection of screens from the 'Storyboard' introduction program to A Fistful of Blood Capsules)

You seem to have spent a very intense year or two of game writing and then things stopped quite abruptly. Presumably real-life things got in the way. What caused you to stop writing games and move on?

Girls, basically. We both had serious girlfriends around the time of Fairly Difficult Mission. Then all the A Level pressure, and university. I also started to get into playing guitar and formed a band in my first year at university. When I wasn't doing that, I was writing short stories, novel ideas. So the adventure stuff got left behind.

After Zodiac Software, which way did the winds of life blow you?

I'm not sure what Dave is up to. Haven't seen him for years. (He came to my stag weekend in Amsterdam in 1997, and that's the last time I spoke to him.) I became a magazine journalist, writing for videogame mags and then film, pop culture. I wrote for The Guardian, Sunday Times. I worked at Conde Nast for a while, and then left to be a freelance book editor and to write my own novels. Currently working on the third in a crime thriller series. (andrewlowewriter.com)

What's made you come back to revisit your adventure game writing days?

Curiosity, I guess. It's like looking back through an old diary. That bittersweet feeling of looking in on a younger version of yourself, seeing where you came from, how you developed. It also might be something to do with the fact that I have two teenage sons (14 and 18) who remind me a lot of how I used to be at the time I wrote the games.

Any interest in writing something new?

Definitely! That would be fun. Are there any text adventure designers out there?


(Thanks again to Andrew for taking the time to answer my questions. All the Zodiac Software games are available on ZX Spectrum download sites such as WOS and Spectrum Computing.

You can find out more about Andrew's novels and short story collections on his website at andrewlowewriter.com)


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