Clive Townsend
Thirty-five years have passed since Clive Townsend, at a time when video games were still being developed at home in garages, got his world hit with 'Saboteur'. A classic that has now found its way to modern consoles.

First of all, how surprised would the 1985 version of you be about you still talking about ‘Saboteur’ in 2020? Not least still being played. This year it will be thirty-five years since its release...

Crazy isn't it? Fortunately there's a lot of love for the retro scene these days, and there seem to be many Saboteur fans from all countries. I've met loads of people who bought it as a kid, or was jealous of their big brother having it.

And I've met fans whos only access in their country was was a pirate tape on a pirate machine. A famous Greek singer even asked to include footage of her playing Saboteur in a music video! Back in the 80s I didn't even imagine how the game would spread in space and time.

Depending on your choice of console, and where you are in the world, both the original from 1985 and the sequel from 1987 are now out on Playstation 4, Steam, Switch and Xbox One. Now it reaches not only those who grew up with it but also players from three subsequent decades. They have been polished up a bit, but still stay true to the originals. How did you approach improving but making sure it was still the classic 'Saboteur'?

When the remake was first launched, some people complained that they were buying an old game and an emulator. Whilst I'm flattered that they were confused by my reproduction of the original hardware, such as Speccy attribute clash, they really should have played the game a bit more.

People who actually DID, discovered that the story continues long after the original mission. The first remake contains the original 80s game, but reveals much more about the Saboteur world. You have the exact nostalgic game - and more so. It's about seven times bigger. You're part of the Saboteur world now - you might learn about the main antagonist in Saboteur II and IV. It's still Saboteur. It's what I would have written on a 480k Spectrum.

Originally made on the magic of ZX Spectrum, where it’s probably also most famous, the games were also released on C64, Amstrad CPC 464 and MS Dos. Was that something you could make use of now?

That just made more work for me to reproduce all versions in the remakes! (laughs) The CPC version was a port of the Speccy version, and ran too slowly for my liking. Fortunately my colleague Maz helped with Sab2 on the CPC, and that was far better. It was still basically a port though, so the remakes gave me a chance to show how I would have made the games if they were written specifically for each machine.

The DOS version of Sab2 was actually converted by Mike Richardson at Durell, and mostly used my map and graphics. But this was a time when PCs could barely do graphics. We ended up with a red ninja! The remake has the graphics that I would have made for the DOS version, but for nostalgia you can enter your high-score name as AKAININJA to get yourself a red kunoichi.

I gotta say… being more of an late eighties Nintendo and Sega-kid… I played the games for the very first time this year and absolutely loved them without any nostalgia involved. That speaks dozens. Because there are not many thirty-five year old games aging this well. How did it come up to release them again? Was it any easy process to get the games over to newer consoles?

Awesome to hear that it's still fun for a noobie! But... It's been a nightmare! I've worked with several people over the years, mainly with me doing the game code and the graphics. But I realised that I was always waiting for whoever was writing the interface between game and hardware. So I started doing it myself. But doing everything yourself takes time, and things were changing faster than I could keep up. So I wrote the game in Xcode. Then again in Marmalade. Then in Java. Then in Unityscript. I finally decided to create my own language which I call EZCode because I like cheesy names. Now I can press a button to play the Java version for quick tests or another for real Unity builds. Recently Nintendo decided that you could only submit games in Unity C, not Unityscript. Fortunately I only had to teach EZCode about Unity C, and all the games were compattible. But NO, not easy!

As Greg Johnson, the creator of 'Toejam & Earl' said when he was a guest, you did not really know what video games were or would be at that time, you kinda figured it out as you went along. So how did you end up not only making video games but not least also a ninja game?

The 80s were full of ninjas. Even before I knew of them, I was interested in martial arts and what we'd now call parkour. And a big fan of James Bond and Jackie Chan. Given the chance for me to create a game, in the 80s, Saboteur was inevitable.

How did you get the original published? Was that the first game you did?

A friend of mine had a ZX81 and we learned to program it together. When I told him I'd collect birthday money towards one, he suggested the soon-to-be-released ZX82 instead. Eventually I could afford the renamed ZX Spectrum, and started making games. I took them to a local shop to see if they would sell them, and they said yes but... the manager Tim said that there was a local company who made games too! So I went to meet them, and they liked my game graphics and the fast compiled-basic speed. They suggested that I learn machine code so I spent my school holidays learning it. They then offered me the chance to make Death Pit, but this was abandoned when they saw the ninja game I'd been working on at home. So I focussed on that, and it became Saboteur!

‘Shinobi’ and ‘The Last Ninja’ only released in 1987 and ‘Ninja Gaiden’ was in 1988. Which perhaps became more mainstream names among the audience getting a NES or Sega. Also not least, even in terms of stealth, Kojima released ‘Metal Gear’ two years later too. What do you remember thinking of those games when they were released a few years after ‘Saboteur’?

I played Shinobi in the arcades and loved it. It did use 'ninja magic' at times, but was mostly quite real - something I've strived for in the Saboteur series. No floating platforms or silly level designs. Ok, they're fantasy - but hopefully believable in a Bond-villain way. I actually didn't see MGS at the time, but I've been catching up. Last year I bought a PS3 just to get MGS V, and it's incredible. Realism and fantasy combined. Very much how I see Saboteur.

I guess there weren't that many other games you could have been inspired by then. But how much did other media like movies and comic books inspire you instead?

Well I grew up with DC Comics. Apart from a love of Batman (the ultimate ninja) I learned to draw by tracing comics. This was obviously before the comic publishers used computers to design and print the comics. A comic back then was a black outline with some primary colours. Any wonder I ended up loving the Spectrum?

What did it actually mean to have a big financial hit back in the day? Did it change your life?

I bought a 3-bedroom house while I was still a teenager. But it wasn't really a home - just a big toy. I later sold it and bought a van to live in for a while. It gave me an excellent perspective on how people treat you depending on what material things you have.

Did the game's success open a few doors after the 'eighties boom' ended and major publishers such as EA Ga-mes, Activision and Acclaim instead opened their doors and began to shape the gaming industry to what it is today?

Possibly. You'd have to ask the people who employed me, but it probably helped open some doors. Having a proven track record of finishing a product is always useful. Many people make the first 90% of a game, but not many make the second, and hardest, 90%.

The sequel was a continuation but tried new things. Experiencing them for the first time today, I can see how fans of the original might have been thrown off by some of the changes made. But as two stand-alone experiences they both do great things. Did you quite consciously not want to make the same game one more time?

Well my original plan was to send the same ninja out on a second mission. I'd figured out a way to compress the map even more, so I was hoping for a huge adventure... My boss, Robert, had been speaking to his wife about female characters so we wondered if the protagonist in Sab2 could be female. It was a bit risky for Durell, as this was way before the likes of Tomb Raider made a mere 'girl' acceptable as a lead role. But my main character was someone who could kick ass. Making them female was never a problem.

Why wasn’t there a third game around that same time?

Durell stopped making games :-( They were spending tens of thousands of pounds on magazine adverts and publicity. One failed game could cost so much... If they'd carried on I think Sab3 would have been on the Amiga and ST, and my big plan for the Saboteur Saga would have spread to consoles and the PC. But it's not too late...

‘Saboteur’, in all it’s glory, is not the only game you’ve worked on.
What was it like working on games such as ‘Rise of the Robots’, James Pond 2’ and ‘Thunderbirds’?

James Pond 2 on the Game Boy was the the first game I made after leaving the industry to to work as a gymnastics coach. By chance I saw an advert looking for a 6502 coder and contacted them, explaining that I was a Z80 guy. Fortunately they were looking for a coder for JP2 on the original Game Boy, and I ended up working full-time for them. It was the start of many conversion titles, made especially hard by the lack of RAM. I had to decompress rows of map data every frame just to make it fit...

Thunderbirds was awesome. Lots of opportunities to use old-school palette trickery and more on the Game Boy Color. And I met Gerry Anderson in person as part of the sales pitch, so a personal highlight for me.

Nobody talks about Rise (laughs)

Do you have any retro favorites of your own that you would like to see make a comeback like how the 'Saboteur' games have returned…

Nothing specific. In the 80s I liked games that were quick to learn but hard to master. Nowadays I like games which have a decent story. I still value gameplay, but I'm happy to play something on an easier difficulty to see the story, then move on to something else. Back then I played Arcadia on the ZX Spectrum until I could wrap it with ease, but I'm older now and want an easy life and more depth.

A lot of these games, not least the ones starring ninjas, moved on towards being more difficult, often having that as a selling point. What are your kinda thoughts on difficulty settings? Would you ever like to play ‘Ninja Gaiden’ 04 on easy or is it the challenge that makes it worthwhile and fun?

I've spent a long time trying to cater for everyone. My original remake let you play the first part of the game in many different screen modes. The later parts of the game were only in Spectrum and C64 mode, as I used a lot of attribute-changing effects. But someone complained that I was too lazy to add all modes to the whole game... Now I assume that someone will complain regardless. Too linear? Too many options? Not my problem. If it's too hard, too bad. I make a game I like, which isn't always to everyone's taste.

It will always be too hard/easy for someone. That hasn't changed since 1985. There are still people who can't complete their first fight in Sab2. There are people who can fly around the whole map like a whirlwind...

Talking of years, it was a year after ‘Saboteur’ that Nintendo released ‘Metroid’ and people lost their minds over a lead female hero. Was that an inspiration for Ninja's sister Nina taking the part in ‘Saboteur II: Avenging Angel’ in 1987?

I worked in a small town, many years before the internet existed. I shamefully didn't even know of Metroid until decades later. Even though people have assumed that the name Nina was the closest I could get to Ninja, the character was actually named after my girlfiend at the time. I collected DC comics, and she joined in - her favourite being Angel Love. You can still see the heart and halo on the loading screen for Sab2.

I know you’ve been talking about a ‘Saboteur 3’ for a few years now. But I’ve heard both of a more traditional true-to-the-original sequel and a more modern game. There’s also been talks of a prequel? Would you like to stick with the limitations of ZX Spectrum? Or push ‘Saboteur’ into new territory again?

Long story! I've been wanting to make a third game for decades. It's had various incarnations over the years, from Spectrum to early PC to a 3D software engine. But I've never really had the opportunity to do it properly. One day I realised that my design should really be game 4 - not 3 - so I had to make a third game while people are waiting for the next installment. Saboteur III was renamed to IV, and Saboteur SiO stepped in to fill the gap.

I'm now working with SimFabric from Poland with the goal of making Saboteur Elemental, a modern 3D game based on the design I've been building for three decades.

In the meantime, I'm working on Saboteur Zero - another 2D retro game explaining the origins of the characters in games 1 and 2.

A fun part of playing this now is competing by score with others that are playing. How do you feel about your own ‘Saboteur’ skills now when other players' scores are up there?

I've seen some incredible talent when people play Saboteur 2. To this day there are people competing for the best times in later missions. I've added a 'best time' feature to all the remakes to help them keep track, but that's as close as I dare to get. I couldn't compete with the skill they have.

Would a competitive/mutliplayer component be something to explore in a new game?

Saboteur V is a multiplayer game, but limited to a set number of people per mission/game. Every player has to pick a character from the story, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. A bit like picking Chun-Li because she's easy to learn but may seem weak until you learn to focus her skills. The team consists mostly of the group assembled at the end of the Sab1 remake, but also Nina with her powers from the end of Sab2 and Kasasagi with his powers after Sab3. And, of course, the original ninja from Saboteur, as best he can.

So which (of the sequel ideas) do you think are most likely to happen?
And what can fans do to help make that happen?

Saboteur Zero is in progress. Maybe a Saboteur Eleven too, as a spin-off for the Spectrum. Saboteur IV is the big one, but I can't make it alone. With SimFabric I'm hoping that it will be out within a year. And Sab 5, 6, and 7 are all planned and waiting. If enough retro fans (and Sega-kids!) support the retro games, then the big game will arrive sooner.

Will we still be in search for a floppy disc?

Formats always change, but the search for information is eternal...

Interviewed by Daniel John for    View the original article in Swedish HERE