Interview with Kurt Johns [EN]

The VIC 20 scene has always remained in the shadow of the Commodore 64 and its lack of exclusivity
in the market lasted until its older brother came on the market, a year and a half later than the youngest of the family. The VIC 20 was an inexpensive, robust and expandable computer and its hallmark and the extensive support it received from Commodore with lots of software and hardware helped it make its mark and continue to last 40 years after its launch. The VIC 20 appeared a year and a half earlier than the C64 and today it keeps its own scene, although smaller than that of his older brother.

The VIC 20 had a wide market in the USA and Canada, and it had to fight above all with computers such as the Texas Instruments, the Tandy CoCo and the Apple II, with much higher prices. Our guest started from the beginning with the VIC 20 and has always been faithful to it, taking advantage of its limitations and possibilities and creating games like the challenge it poses and what motivates him and what he really enjoys. The amount of software written by him is very large and among his titles we can highlight games such as Exploria, Castle Queen, or the Text adventures Betelgeuse & Tau Ceti, or Boogieman. We leave you with a small interview that we have done.

  • Name: Kurt Johns
  • Country: I am from Canada, in the province of Saskatchewan, and the town of Prince Albert. It is mostly a rural community, lots of farm land but also where the northern boreal forest starts. The town has a population of about 40,000
  • First computer played & owned: The VIC 20, around 1982
  • Games created: So many

–A little of history

–I already had some rudimentary knowledge of BASIC, so the first night I had the Vic, I programmed my first game, Bopper. A whack-a-mole idea. It wasn't very good and I updated it in 1987 (and hope to make an all ML version soon). I loved playing and programming games on the Vic. Soon many of my friends had Commodore 64s but we couldn't afford one so I continued to use my Vic. In 1985 I programmed several, what I thought were decent games, and wanted to see if there was any interest in them, but it was too late, everyone had moved on. Armed with my Reference guide I tried learning how to program in Machine Language. I didn't know anyone I could ask when I got stuck, so I just had to figure it out myself. I completed my first all ML game in 1992, and although there was no outlet for it at the time, I was really happy with it and continued to program games. Around 2000 I got an old IBM computer and joined the new revolution, the internet. On Geocities I found another like-minded person running a page called Denial! (Eventually it became the Denial forum and Wiki). It was around that time I decided to take all of the game ideas I had and try to do it a bit more seriously. It was a slow thing, and some personal issues caused some delays, but after another milestone game Exploria, in 2013, I decided it was time to really push forward. I programmed several really good games, and in 2015 decided that I wouldn't program in BASIC anymore. 2020 was the 35th anniversary for what I considered was the start and will be "Lucas-ing" all of the old titles. I hope to continue programming new and interesting things in the future.

–And at school, did you have computers?

–I did get some instruction in BASIC from school before I got my Vic. If I remember correctly it was for a Radio Shack Tandy computer, so there were a few differences. I found it interesting and slowly got into programming.

–What was your first computer? Do you keep anything from that time?

–I actually have what is left of my first Vic. It died and I cannibalised parts from it for others. Later I sold all of the cartridges I had because I just didn't play them very often (except for Lode Runner but that is another story). I now have 2 CR Vics, an old 2 prong Vic with no power supply, and a VFLI Vic (but I think it has a memory fault). A bunch of other commodore stuff like C64s, 1541s,1571s, and Amigas.

–What is your history with the VIC20 and how have you "survived" without switching to the c64 as many of the users did?

–As I said I just couldn't afford to get a C64 so I stayed programming the Vic. Much later some of my friends that knew I was into retro computing donated all sorts of commodore stuff. So I have 4 Vic 20s, at least 2 working C64s (6 in various conditions) 4 Amigas, many peripherals, and boxes of disks.

–What games were the ones that impressed you the most?

–When I was younger the games that I loved playing and I thought looked great were Quadrant and Lode Runner. These days it seems like someone is doing something amazing and fantastic on the Vic every year!

–Something that catches my attention are the covers of your games. Who draws them?

–The game covers have been drawn by myself. I could spend more time on them, to make them look better, but I like the crude almost child-like look. The other thing is some of these ideas and the covers were drawn when I WAS a kid. For example Boogieman was the first idea I came up with, I think around 1982. The cover was drawn probably in the late 80's (when many of the covers were drawn). I touched it up a bit when I transferred them all over to my IBM in around 2000. So new covers like Castle Queen are drawn somewhat similarly, style-wise.

Castle Queen & Realm of Evil

–What are the tools you were working with?

–When I started programming I had no tools. For ML I would write out the mnemonics, translate them to numbers, make a BASIC program to poke them in, then test, and start again. I did this until about 2015. These days I don't like to run the Vic for programming just for playing, so I use VICE and CBM prg starter.

–Apart from the programming, tell us what else have you been involved in at VIC20? Programming, Swapping, Meetings...

–Because of my remote-ness there wasn't anyone I could interact with locally. So it wasn't until the advent of the internet that I found like-minded people. There was a short lived project called Cafe Vic that I was a very small part of. When it became a forum, I joined Denial which has been awesome. I find that as I go along, I am making more contacts, some international, which is amazing! I am sometimes overwhemed that someone in a country that I haven't been to (yet) has a similar narrow geeky interest like me! I am certanily not rich, but intend on buying and supporting as much new software and hardware as I can afford. So hopefully these artists can continue making things.

–What is your greatest handicap in the development of your games and where do you draw inspiration for such a variety of titles and genres?

–Many of the current programers actually work in the field, and have access to all of the new program concepts. I have never worked as a programmer so it is more difficult for me to program and understand obtuse programming ideas.I am lucky in the way that I have a very vivid imagination, and sometimes a certain graphic will start me down a rabbit-hole. I want all my games to work on a real Vic with the common add-ons of the time. So everyone had a datasette, most people did not have a disk drive. So all of my games HAVE to work on cassette (this means no grabbing random chunks of data from the disk drive, which would be helpful for certain things). Also memory expansion was not extremely common, and the more memory there was, the less common it was. Around here I only know of 1 person that had a 16K cartridge (they eventually gave it to me) and no one had anything larger (24K or 32K). So I also try to make sure that I use no expansion more than 16K. I know this is a huge restriction in modern times. I may use other more modern expansion and peripherals for programs in the future but they will be labeled differently.

One of Kurt's Vic20

–Are you a gamer or do you just like to code? What do you play and in what system?

–I love the challenge of coding. I also play games quite a bit, but I'm not quite as good at that. At the moment everything has to be playable on a real Vic. I still play the old games, but I am buying many new ones as well. In the last month or so I have found about 5 differnt places that sell new Vic 20 games! So I am making a list...

–What magazines were the most common and did you buy?

–I bought many Compute's and Compute's Gazzette magazines. Later our local library had them to borrow, and later still they sold them at a sale. I bought most of them from that sale, but even I sold what I had a few years ago. They are all available on the internet now anyway. Another magazine I liked to a lesser extent was called Run.

Kurt's Romik Game Collection

–And the games, what and in what formats did you buy them?

–Cartridges were very expensive, but for some reason there wasn't much for cassettes around here. Maybe it was because most of the sales were from big box stores like Woolco (which was later bought by Walmart). So in the end we had about 6 cartridges. If memory serves me correctly, they were Vic Avenger, Omega Race, Raid on Fort Knox, Rat Hotel, Choplifter, and Loderunner. When stores were getting rid of Vic 20 stocks, I found some tapes. Many Romik titles. The last ones I had to return because my datasette could no longer read them.

The covers of his games. Unmistakable

–Top 3 games?

–That's a tough one. For sure Lode Runner would hold the top spot for me. I actually wrapped the Vic version, and found that unlike the other versions there are only 24 levels. I played a lot of Choplifer and got a perfect score a few times. And although I never finished it (I'm not sure there is an end) I played Quadrant a lot as well.

–What do you think of the return of the classical systems, after so many years, in our lives?

–I think it is fantastic! For some time I thought I was the only one. lol. Thanks to Denial and so many talented programmers not only do we see new games and hardware for these older systems, but also see many pushing the boundaries of what these systems can do. Some things I never would have thought possible.

–And of current video games?

–This will date me for sure, but it seems like every new game is the same first person shooter as the last one.


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