|★ AMSTRAD CPC ★ SOFTOGRAPHY ★ DALALI SOFTWARE ★|
Jeremy Spencer goes shopping — and discovers Dalali
I'm standing ankle deep in old lettuce leaves, squashed tomatoes and a few broken cucumbers, my every attempt to move frustrated by anxious stall holders forcing their wares on me. 'He'yar guv, five lemons fer only twenty pee".
"Er no thanks ... oh yes all right - and can you tell me how to get to Dalali?" "Wurs that then guv?" "Well I don't know. It's a software house". "Never 'erd of it mate. 'Ere y'are, five lemons". I learnt one thing - nobody in the Croydon fruit and vegetable market had ever heard of Dalali. And, on reflection I have to admit I am not altogether surprised. Three days ago I hadn't heard of them either, and yet I had enjoyed playing the games they had converted on to the Amstrad more than any others.
Ahh, found it!
It wasn't an imposing building. It didn't even have an imposing doorway. I thought about ringing the bell, but since it had one of those funny speaker things, and I'm a bit shy about talking to walls, I thought it better just to wander in and surprise everyone. It was I who was surprised. Hanan, the director of Dalali, was a veritable princess - not at all the sort of person you would expect to find running a successful software house in a cut-throat industry.
Hanan is a Palestinian. She came to England to study at university and moved to America to take her Master's degree in maths and operational research. Her business card doesn't display any of her many qualifications which speaks volumes about her natural modesty. Hanan is no doubt well qualified to work with computers but I was more than a little curious to discover how she ended up in this neck of the woods, producing games software.
"It was Humpty Dumpty's fault. After a short time with ICS 'Arabising' computers I went to Thorn EMI, and saw this Humpty Dumpty jigsaw game. I was amazed by the sprites moving all over the screen - in front of each other, behind, in every direction. I just had to find out how it was done. From that day I was hooked".
Dalali's early work included the writing of two original games, both of them before the Amstrad became so important. Special Delivery was a Christmas game but the marketing company failed to market the game at Christmas so, not surprisingly, it wasn't a success. After completing Gene Genie on two machines, for MicroMega, Dalali moved into conversion work "for survival". One of the earliest - and most revered - works was Boulderdash. Dynamite Dan was their second task and again the Dalali team surpassed themselves.
"We learnt a great deal from doing all this conversion work, lots of very useful techniques. But on the whole I prefer doing original work".
Too busy running the business
Hanan doesn't spend her time writing games, or even playing them. "I'm far too busy running the business. I might get involved in one project if it interests me, but my main task is making sure that everything is done on time and making sure we don't run into any problems". Finding the right sort of programmers is a time consuming task. "We can't rely on freelance programmers, not unless they are prepared to come and work on sight so we know what they are up to. That way we might be able to instil some sort of discipline into them, worthwhile even though it's pretty hard work".
There's no doubt that behind her elegance Hanan is something of a task mistress. I pity any programmer who tried to fob her off with some lame excuse wrapped up in jargon and mumbo-jumbo. Her expert knowledge of computers would very quickly come to light. Coping with programmers is as nothing when it comes to dealing with publishing companies. "When we take on a conversion we can spend up to four weeks analysing the task to see what can be done and what can't.
"In that time we will produce a detailed timetable showing what part of the conversion will be done and when for the sake of sanity on both sides. They know that in week three they will see a dot on the screen -before that they won't see anything. "Sometimes the clients will ask for some small but far reaching technical changes to be made, and when we point out the implications they don't want to know, until they see the implications after the changes have been made. The time taken to make these changes and perform all manner of fine tuning falls outside our original timetable - we don't get paid for it".
Hanan, second from left, with three members of the Dalali team
The production deépartment
The factory floor is a rather spacious office. Around the walls sit examples of just about every home computer you could imagine. Linked to most of them are large aluminium boxes, some with disc drives, some without. I was assured that these boxes are in fact the mainstay of Dalali, the Gemini development system.
The code for each game can be put together using a Gemini and then downloaded to the target computer. All you have to change is the interface for the computer you are programming. Biggles on the Amstrad and Spectrum started life as the Commodore code. The advantage is that the main body of the game can be up and running, and then all they have to do is rewrite the graphics system and fiddle with the sounds to get the maximum effect.
Bizarre ideas for Biggles
The Biggles project appeared at Dalali more by luck than by judgement. "We were one of four software houses who were asked to do story boards for it. We decided that the task was impossible, there just didn't seem to be enough time. So we came up with some bizarre ideas and to our surprise they liked them.
Out into the market
Picking my way over the remains of the day's fruit and vegetable market I couldn't help hoping that Dalali's corporate modesty wasn't going to keep them hidden away for much longer. Given the chance to produce original games, they have the essential ingredients of talent, imagination, skill and wit to turn out something quite special.
At any rate, from understanding Humpty Dumpty to creating Biggles - in two years - is not bad going.
James Bigglesworth, the hero of many a schoolboy since time immemorial, has had very little to cultivate his fame over the past 15 years. Well now the all-time, very English hero is about to be dusted down and brought out into the harsh light of the 1980s in the form of a film and a game of the film from Mirrorsoft.
Captain W.E. Johns wrote nearly 100 books based on the antics of Biggles. So many, in fact, that his public began to wonder whether he would run out of titles, but Johns always managed to find new directions in which to send his modest superhero.
He thought of them all, except one - time. Biggles -The Untold Story, has our super hero dabbling, unwillingly in time travel.
Despite being disorientated by his journey of more than 6,000 miles and 70 years, Jim doesn't hesitate in pulling Biggles from the wreckage. Before the two men get a chance to get acquainted, Jim finds himself thrown back into his own time slot none the worse for his experience.
Much to Jim's annoyance this sudden hurtling back through time is to become a regular feature of his life. Every time Biggles gets into a scrape he has to go and sort him out. For a man who's only concern is launching fast food services these sudden flights of fancy are a trifle inconvenient. It isn't until Jim can be persuaded to visit Colonel Raymond (Peter Cushing) in London that the strange events are explained to him. From which point Jim and Biggles are destined to save the world from the ravages of the sound weapon.
Side A, a good place to start a game
The game is divided into two parts. Side A is the arcade section being written by Dalali. On side B you will find the now almost obligitory Mirrorsoft flight simulator, written by the same chap who put their Harrier game together. The arcade game is itself divided into three sections depicting three of the action sequences from the film. In the first section you must guide Biggle's'plane over the enemy lines, evading flak and German fighter aircraft.
They throw everything they have at him. Jim is your gunner so he can take care of the enemy aircraft while Biggles has to fly skilfully winding his way past the starbursts from the ground fire. If you survive this little First World War jaunt - and the chances are you won't, not at first at least - you will experience a blinding flash as you move through time to your next task.
Biggle's second dilemma takes place at the weapon test site Blanchfleur. The whole area is heavily guarded and the only chance of escape is by your guiding Biggles in a Commando type arcade sequence.
The grenade throwing action is one of the most realistic you are likely to see in a long time. It's well worth getting into a scrap like this just to see it, although you might not agree when you have to face poison gas traps and rockfalls because the grenades won't help you.
In the unlikely event that you live to see the end of the second game you will be transported into the third and most demanding game. Biggles and Jim find themselves back in modern times, on a rooftop. Although they are actually trying to save humanity the police aren't aware of this because they are trying to shoot them.
Your task is to make your way across the rooftops to a secret location and secure the photographs of the weapon site for use in the final part of the game.
If you manage to recover the photographs then Jim and Biggles can steal the police helicopter that lands on the roof and make their way back to 1917. Don't worry if you have never flown a helicopter before, at least you have seen one, and that's more than poor old Biggles can claim. Using the recovered photographs you will have to navigate your way to the weapon sight and destroy it -but not before surmounting a number of very nasty problems.
The game attempts to follow the film by putting you through the same nasty experiences suffered by Bigglies and Jim, in the same order. But the game differs from the film in one major detail. In the film Biggles is played by Bigglies - so he succeeds. In the game you play Biggles so you will probably make a complete pig's ear of the whole thing. After all, super heroes don't grow on trees you know.
Amstrad User June 86