The story of Turbo Esprit, the ZX Spectrum game that preceded Grand Theft Auto - article

The story of Turbo Esprit, the ZX Spectrum game that preceded Grand Theft Auto - article
Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto, over the years, has become a giant of such proportions that it is strange to think that the series was born from the unexpected success of the first chapter. Driving through the city streets as an outlaw with the top view in that first episode of the saga was genuinely exhilarating and liberating. The player was not forced to walk the classic corridors of the games of the time and could ignore the main mission to explore or sow panic in that unforgettable urban agglomeration. GTA, at the time, was often referred to as a fresh and original experience but those playing the ZX Spectrum eleven years earlier may have come into contact with a very similar adventure called Turbo Esprit.

The true miracle accomplished by Turbo Esprit was not simply its innovative gameplay but the fact that it managed to present a realistic and gloomy 1980s landscape in which users could move freely. What's even more incredible? All of this was included in just 48k of memory. The traffic lights worked with an annoying frequency, pedestrians wandered the streets seemingly oblivious to the speeding cars that sped by inches from them, and the angular buildings stretched in every direction across the screen. The player, taking control of the sports car of the same name, could face the evil drug dealers or roam freely around the city, obeying or disobeying the highway code as he pleased. Sound familiar?

The freedom to make these kinds of choices was quite rare in 1986. "I wanted to create a game where you could freely drive around the city in real time in James Bond-like cars for beat the bad guys, ”says Robert White, owner and founder of Turbo Esprit publisher, Durell Software. "For this reason I took the cuboid concept from BDS to create the skyscrapers in order to quickly get an entire city out of a surprisingly compact database." Given his experience as a CAD specialist for the Oxford Regional Health Authority who used the computer modeling system (the aforementioned BDS) to design its hospitals, White promoted the concept of the urban environment and gave the player the ability to move freely. within its borders.

When he founded Durell, White was the principal programmer of the company at least until he came into contact with the difficulties of running a business in a booming industry. "I hired Mike Richardson and Ron Jeffs to help me with the work. Mike had already created a game, Jungle Trouble, but we focused on Harrier Attack to get started." Since Richardson and Jeffs had produced brilliant versions of the famous shoot-'em-up on ZX Spectrum and Oric respectively, Durell quickly established itself as a top-notch company. "Computer games were relatively new at the time but I realized that many genres were already evolving," adds White. "I wanted to create something that was very different from the classics like Space Invaders or Manic Miner". After finishing work on Harrier Attack, Jungle Trouble and Scuba Dive, programmer Mike Richardson explored new territory with an ambitious helicopter simulator. "I had just completed Combat Lynx," Richardson recalls. "It was a 3D free-roaming game so the sandbox aspect wasn't a 'first time' for me. Yet when we jumped into the Turbo Esprit project, it all seemed incredibly new to us."

In Turbo Esprit, the player takes control of a special agent in his James Bond-style sports car. An international cartel of drug traffickers is about to sell a huge shipment of heroin and it's up to our protagonist to try to stop them. Drug-laden cars roam the city while an armored van is used for transport outside the borders. After loading the game, you can choose from four different cities: Wellington, Gamesborough, Minster and Romford. "I called one Wellington, because that's where I live in Somerset," Richardson explains. "After that I was a bit stuck in choosing the names: Gamesborough I chose it because it had the word 'game' in the name while Romford because it has the particle ROM. But Minster? I have no idea." However, due to the limitation of the way maps were stored compactly, designing an environment based on real cities was next to impossible: anyone hoping to find their own street on the outskirts of Romford would be disappointed.

Is it time for some road rage? With the basic concepts established, Richardson began his own work. All three men were freelancers but worked exclusively for Durell. "At the beginning of the project, I bought an Epson CP / M machine that cost a fortune," continues Richardson. "It had two 5.25-inch floppy disk drives and 256k of RAM. I used Microsoft's MASM assembler and some code downloaded to the Spectrum via the printer port." Although the man had a lot of experience, Turbo Esprit was not an easy project to bring to light. "At the time we didn't have the internet: technical programming and mathematical information were not easy to find. In addition to this, since I live in the West Country, the local bookstore never helped me too much: most of the books were about tractors. or on cows ".

Borrowing the basic drawing techniques used in Combat Lynx, the programmer tried to adapt them to a driving / fighting game like Turbo Esprit. "Technically 3D is based on a lookup table indexed at a certain distance from the viewing angle. This table contains a series of constants, mainly for the conversion of the coordinates that were to be displayed in 3D on the screen. I changed them manually until the scene did not appear correct ". The background and interior of the car were made through simple line drawings and filling routines: each city map is stored as a grid of intersections, rows and columns that specify how many lanes the road has, if it is one-way and if it has extra elements like traffic lights and garages. Yes, in Turbo Esprit, you even had to remember to refuel and such an ambition resulted in an enormous amount of memory usage, taking the Spectrum to its maximum limit. "Map data for the four cities was stored in the memory used for the internal buffer during loading. Once the player chose the city, the other three were discarded to free up memory and assign it to different activities, "Richardson explains. If the player wanted to change cities he had to reload the game in full.

If you are lucky enough to have seen the interior of a 1985 Lotus Esprit, you may notice that the interior featured in Durell's game is incredibly faithful to the original as, according to the marketing of the time, the game would have made use of the 'technical assistance' of the car manufacturing company. "To be honest I don't remember the details well," says White, "but we definitely didn't have any licenses, let alone technical support from Lotus." The team apparently only visited a factory of the British brand and conducted a test drive of one of the cars during the development of Turbo Esprit. "They told us we could do anything that promoted their company but I'm sure none of us got 'technical assistance' from Lotus - we didn't have any financial arrangements with them." Having done similar studies at Westland Helicopters during the development of Combat Lynx, Richardson remembers leaving the factory with a selection of marketing materials to make the interior of the Lotus Esprit as accurately as possible.

Net of the gameplay, in fact, is the extreme level of detail of Turbo Esprit that had impressed everyone, in those days. Dashboard lights, pedestrians on the street, windshield wipers and traffic all worked realistically and regardless of the player's actions (just like in the popular Rockstar series). "I put all those details into development," Richardson admits. "I just wanted to include a whole host of goodies to increase user immersion in the game world. Our title could give players goals if they needed them." After ten months of development, Turbo Esprit was almost complete and Richardson had found a way to overcome all the technical obstacles that had come his way, starting with the artificial intelligence of vehicles. "The system worked on the basis of an internal model of what was on the screen, a 2D map of what was standing in front of the player. While crossing one intersection, a model of the next was created while the road just crossed was recreated. behind the protagonist ". AI-controlled vehicles, instead of roaming freely around town (too much effort for the Spectrum), existed only in this internal model.

In 1986, the Turbo Esprit was completed in its version for the ZX Spectrum. The launch of the game was accompanied by rave reviews from the specialized press who praised its technical prowess and innovative gameplay. Sales met expectations both as a single title and as part of a four-game compilation, and a conversion for Amstrad CPC was subsequently produced as well. Unfortunately, however, on the Commodore 64 the game did not have the same success. The port was not the best and the sales did not shine either in the above compilation or even after a launch at the budget price of £ 2.99. Despite his success on Spectrum, however, Robert White says he never considered developing a sequel.

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"I never even thought about it," says White. "A more of the same would have been boring, right?" Richardson, for his part, says he always wanted to work on new concepts for each of his games and remembers never discussing a hypothetical Turbo Esprit 2. "If the team had considered the idea of ​​a sequel, probably I would have called myself out. I've always preferred to work on new games rather than simple sequels. " Given that his next game for Durell involved taking control of a giant dragon to destroy a medieval fantasy world, we can say Richardson was speaking.

Looking back today, it's easy to draw an ideal line which starts from Turbo Esprit and continues up to Grand Theft Auto, if only for the idea of ​​moving freely in the city aboard a vehicle and choosing if and when to face the missions provided by the game. "I think it was a forerunner of the times, a bit like Harrier Attack preceded side-scroller games," notes White. Currently, Durell has been sold to her son and has become a company specializing in insurance software development. While it's not possible to say whether GTA would have existed without Turbo Esprit (the original game's designers claim they never played Durell's Spectrum title), it's clear that ideal line exists. "I think it's a natural evolutionary process, just like airplane designs," adds White. "Turbo Esprit, in turn, owes a lot to BDS."

For Turbo Esprit programmer alone, the talented Mike Richardson, that title remains the pinnacle of an absolutely impressive career. "It was the most technically complex game I ever wrote for the Spectrum platform. I had to use techniques and tools that I had never used before such as sprite masking, compact sprite mask storage, area fill and internal map model. I'm really proud of all the Spectrum games I've created. I miss those days so much. "

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