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Frank Johnson programmed Inty Donkey Kong (and a load of other games)


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Recently I've been talking to @Dutchman2000 about Roklan, and he kindly pointed me to a video of his talk from VCF Mid-West last year that summarises his research.  It's well worth a watch:

 

In the video @Dutchman2000 identifies two of Roklan's Intellivision developers for the first time.  It seems Paul Crowley wrote Frogger.  In some places Frogger is attributed to Peter Kaminski and Tom Soulanille.  However, I suspect this probably just confusion with Frog Bog.  It is well documented that Peter worked for APh, where he wrote Frog Bog with Tom, and several other unreleased titles.  Peter then moved to Activision where he worked on River Raid, rather than Roklan, Coleco or Parker Bros.

 

Next is Frank Johnson, who wrote Donkey Kong, Carnival, Mouse Trap, Zaxxon, Star Wars, Tutankham, Donkey Kong Jnr, Q*bert, Popeye and Super Cobra.  I suspect this makes Frank one of the most prolific Inty developers, and means we are only missing the author(s) of Ladybug, Turbo and Venture.

 

This information means some of the similarities and differences we can see in the comparison of the Roklan ROMs now make more sense.  Specifically, that the Parker Bros games are similar to the early Coleco titles.  It also looks as though Paul Crowley and Frank might have shared some code when writing their games.  Finally, it seems that Ladybug, Turbo and Venture could be outliers because they were written by other developers.

 

According to @Dutchman2000, Frank has unfortunately passed away, so we won't get the opportunity to find out what it was like to create so many games in such a short period of time, or how he feels about the infamy that his port of Donkey Kong now has.

 

While we're talking about it, let's just put a bit of context around Frank's work.  Firstly, Jennell Jaquays, who was the Director of Game Design at Coleco, is clear that they did not deliberately make poor Atari and Intellivision ports of Coleco titles in her talk at VCF (23:47-26:00):

 

She also explains that Coleco's work on programmable video games didn't start until February 1982 (16:57-17:27).  This is corroborated by Ron Borta of Roklan, who seems to have made the initial verbal deal to produce the Intellivision ports at the Juanuary 1982 CES in Las Vegas (24:00-25:30):

 

Let's consider what this might have meant for Frank.  His ten Intellivision games were released over 12 months between October 1982 and October 1983.  At the very most he would have had 22 months to write 10 games, that's churning out a game every 9 weeks.  However, this ignores the time needed between agreeing the deal and game development starting in earnest.  In this time Roklan needed to reverse engineer the Intellivision and put together a development kit.  It also omits the time required to test, package and distribute the games once they were written.  Unless Frank had access to a significant shortcut, I suspect that this meant his games were written in approximately 18 months, reducing the time spent on each game to about 7.5 weeks.

 

Surely the fact that Donkey Kong was the first third party game for the Intellivision, and the subsequent rate of production, had to be a significant factor in its relatively poor quality.

 

As you will see from his video @Dutchman2000 has also found out some interesting information about the development kit used by Roklan.  Roklan was unusual in that its developers worked from home, and we've been lucky enough to talk to Fred Allen, the roving tech who was the link between the developers and the office, and who maintained the development gear deployed in the programmers' homes.  I've added information about Roklan development and some other bits and pieces to the latest update of the Intelivision development document which can be found here:

 

Thanks once again to @Dutchman2000 for sharing this information, and regardless of your view of Donkey Kong, I hope you will raise a glass of your favourite tipple in memory of Frank Johnson, an influential and unsung hero of the Intellivision community.

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7 hours ago, decle said:

Recently I've been talking to @Dutchman2000 about Roklan, and he kindly pointed me to a video of his talk from VCF Mid-West last year that summarises his research.  It's well worth a watch:

 

In the video @Dutchman2000 identifies two of Roklan's Intellivision developers for the first time.  It seems Paul Crowley wrote Frogger.  In some places Frogger is attributed to Peter Kaminski and Tom Soulanille.  However, I suspect this probably just confusion with Frog Bog.  It is well documented that Peter worked for APh, where he wrote Frog Bog with Tom, and several other unreleased titles.  Peter then moved to Activision where he worked on River Raid, rather than Roklan, Coleco or Parker Bros.

 

Next is Frank Johnson, who wrote Donkey Kong, Carnival, Mouse Trap, Zaxxon, Star Wars, Tutankham, Donkey Kong Jnr, Q*bert, Popeye and Super Cobra.  I suspect this makes Frank one of the most prolific Inty developers, and means we are only missing the author(s) of Ladybug, Turbo and Venture.

 

This information means some of the similarities and differences we can see in the comparison of the Roklan ROMs now make more sense.  Specifically, that the Parker Bros games are similar to the early Coleco titles.  It also looks as though Paul Crowley and Frank might have shared some code when writing their games.  Finally, it seems that Ladybug, Turbo and Venture could be outliers because they were written by other developers.

 

According to @Dutchman2000, Frank has unfortunately passed away, so we won't get the opportunity to find out what it was like to create so many games in such a short period of time, or how he feels about the infamy that his port of Donkey Kong now has.

 

While we're talking about it, let's just put a bit of context around Frank's work.  Firstly, Jennell Jaquays, who was the Director of Game Design at Coleco, is clear that they did not deliberately make poor Atari and Intellivision ports of Coleco titles in her talk at VCF (23:47-26:00):

 

She also explains that Coleco's work on programmable video games didn't start until February 1982 (16:57-17:27).  This is corroborated by Ron Borta of Roklan, who seems to have made the initial verbal deal to produce the Intellivision ports at the Juanuary 1982 CES in Las Vegas (24:00-25:30):

 

Let's consider what this might have meant for Frank.  His ten Intellivision games were released over 12 months between October 1982 and October 1983.  At the very most he would have had 22 months to write 10 games, that's churning out a game every 9 weeks.  However, this ignores the time needed between agreeing the deal and game development starting in earnest.  In this time Roklan needed to reverse engineer the Intellivision and put together a development kit.  It also omits the time required to test, package and distribute the games once they were written.  Unless Frank had access to a significant shortcut, I suspect that this meant his games were written in approximately 18 months, reducing the time spent on each game to about 7.5 weeks.

 

Surely the fact that Donkey Kong was the first third party game for the Intellivision, and the subsequent rate of production, had to be a significant factor in its relatively poor quality.

 

As you will see from his video @Dutchman2000 has also found out some interesting information about the development kit used by Roklan.  Roklan was unusual in that its developers worked from home, and we've been lucky enough to talk to Fred Allen, the roving tech who was the link between the developers and the office, and who maintained the development gear deployed in the programmers' homes.  I've added information about Roklan development and some other bits and pieces to the latest update of the Intelivision development document which can be found here:

 

Thanks once again to @Dutchman2000 for sharing this information, and regardless of your view of Donkey Kong, I hope you will raise a glass of your favourite tipple in memory of Frank Johnson, an influential and unsung hero of the Intellivision community.


Wow!!! That is great insight!

 

It makes a lot of sense that the rushed development time, the learning curve of the platform, and delivery pressures lead to poor quality games.

 

I find it disappointing and unconscionable that marketing and management were more interested in jumping into the video game band-wagon for a quick buck, than in producing a quality product.  Still, a tip-o'-the-hat to Frank for taking up he challenge and pulling it off.  It is understandable that he did the best with what was given.

 

For what it is worth, I was very excited when I got the new Donkey Kong game for my Intellivision on my birthday back when it was released; and although I was downright disappointed at first and couldn't really understand why it did not look or played like the arcade one, I did played it extensively and enjoyed it immensely.  In its own little way, it was still recognizable Donkey Kong -- on my Intellivision, at home -- and that was all that counted.

 

Carnival, Donkey Kong Jr., Popeye, and Q*Bert, we're also well-worn cartridges at the DZ-Jay household in the 1980s.

 

So, thank you Mr. Frank Johnson for your efforts.  I know that a lot of people denigrate your version of Donkey Kong, but I will say that it is far from the list of worst games on the Intellivision.  In fact, on its own merits, it is not too bad and quite enjoyable -- and it is still friggin' Donkey Kong!

 

    dZ.

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Well said @DZ-Jay.

 

As a half century player I have always thought that the main thing in a game is the emotions it can bring to the player.

A game can be weak on graphics or have a clumsy user interface, but ultimately it can be great fun to some players, because there's a good story behind it or because the entire game concept is good.

Donkey kong was to me an originally great (and I mean GREAT) game, poorly ported on the Intellivision. But the game concept was so strong that playing it could be fun even though on the Inty you had to avoid some hurdles and overcome its limits.

I'm with you in expressing my gratitude to Mr Johnson. 

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17 hours ago, decle said:

 

 

 Jennell Jaquays, who was the Director of Game Design at Coleco, is clear that they did not deliberately make poor Atari and Intellivision ports of Coleco titles in her talk at VCF (23:47-26:00):

 

 

 

She told me the same when I met her at PRGE 2018. I showed her DK Arcade back then. ;) 

IMG_8404.jpeg

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Colecovision game development was interesting.  Coleco had artists and designers creating the graphics with dozens of pages of detailed specifications for the programmers to implement.  In February 1982 they started hiring more artists and designers.  But it looks like the Intellivision cartridges got programmer art.

 

Also they gave Intellivision Donkey Kong a 4K cartridge while the Colecovision version got 16K.  That was a deliberate decision by Coleco.  And work on the Intellivision version would have started much later than the Coleco version but had a similar deadline.

Edited by mr_me
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  • 4 months later...
On 9/19/2023 at 6:46 PM, decle said:

Unless Frank had access to a significant shortcut, I suspect that this meant his games were written in approximately 18 months, reducing the time spent on each game to about 7.5 weeks.

Porting a pre-existing game is much, much quicker than developing an original game concept, especially for small 4K games like Donkey Kong, Carnival, Star Wars and Mouse Trap, where a large percentage of storage has to be dedicated to graphics.

By way of comparison, Mattel programmer Ray Kaestner was able to produce an 8K port of the arcade game BurgerTime to the Intellivision in two months. This was faster than Mattel management expected, because its expectations were based on Mattel's history of creating original, more complex games (some with voice no less!) and squeezing them into an itty-bitty living space.

Mattel's other ports, first the M-Network ports to the 2600, then the ports to the Aquarius, were made on comparably short schedules.

WJI

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On 9/19/2023 at 6:46 PM, decle said:

Surely the fact that Donkey Kong was the first third party game for the Intellivision, and the subsequent rate of production, had to be a significant factor in its relatively poor quality.

"Plan to throw one away. You will do that, anyway. Your only choice is whether to try to sell the throwaway to customers." Frederick Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month.

WJI

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On 9/19/2023 at 6:46 PM, decle said:

Unless Frank had access to a significant shortcut, I suspect that this meant his games were written in approximately 18 months, reducing the time spent on each game to about 7.5 weeks.

Recollections are that the first copies of Popey didn't make it onto store shelves until just before Thanksgiving and that Tutankham and Super Cobra didn't make it in time for a 1983 release at all. Those were apparently first released in Italy, Tutankham in the latter half of 1984 and Super Cobra sometime after Tutankham. Do you know any different?

WJI

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On 9/19/2023 at 6:46 PM, decle said:

Next is Frank Johnson, who wrote Donkey Kong, Carnival, Mouse Trap, Zaxxon, Star Wars, Tutankham, Donkey Kong Jnr, Q*bert, Popeye and Super Cobra.  I suspect this makes Frank one of the most prolific Inty developers, and means we are only missing the author(s) of Ladybug, Turbo and Venture.

 

Maybe the most prolific, but not the most appreciated:

 

On 1/5/2022 at 10:35 AM, Zendocon said:

https://forums.atariage.com/topic/329269-worst-intellivision-game-is/

For me, the worst ones are some of the Coleco and Parker Brothers titles: Turbo is the absolute worst, plus Zaxxon, then Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Junior, Super Cobra, and Popeye.

On 1/5/2022 at 10:58 AM, Rickster8 said:

https://forums.atariage.com/topic/329269-worst-intellivision-game-is/

Star Wars is pretty bad, but I can play it. ... Tutankham is pretty bad as well.... QBERT SUCKS!!!!!

On 1/5/2022 at 1:07 PM, Lathe26 said:

https://forums.atariage.com/topic/329269-worst-intellivision-game-is/

Carnival for me is generally the worst.  Lousy graphics, lousy sounds, and lousy game play.

On 1/5/2022 at 6:33 PM, 1980gamer said:

https://forums.atariage.com/topic/329269-worst-intellivision-game-is/
No matter what anyone tells me, DK was intentionally shitty. ...

Coleco DK is most disappointing and horrible game.

 

On 1/5/2022 at 6:59 PM, IMBerzerk said:

https://forums.atariage.com/topic/329269-worst-intellivision-game-is/

Donkey Kong - wow... what the hell were they thinking?!?

Congo Bongo - see above

Zaxxon - more of the same.

 

I remember buying these and being so excited thinking with how good an Intellivision was, and some of the other games I had, my expectations were sky high.  But wow, did I go down in flames... 

 

Our Intellivsions just got a bad rap when it came to the Coleco/Sega/PB ports. 

On 1/8/2022 at 10:09 AM, ClassicGMR said:

https://forums.atariage.com/topic/329269-worst-intellivision-game-is/

I think the absolute worst games I had for INTV were already mentioned. For me they had to be LV Roulette and Carnival. Boring and BORING. Ugh

On 1/8/2022 at 1:49 PM, BassGuitari said:

I think most of the Intellivision's more poorly-regarded titles have some redeeming qualities, or can at least be appreciated through either sheer determination or lack of anything else to play, but a few stand out to me as particularly uninteresting:

...

The Empire Strikes Back - this one was a let-down coming from the Atari version. Not a bad presentation, but the control is imprecise, unresponsive, and clunky-bordering-on-unplayable.

Space Hawk - I like where it was going, but it didn't get there for me

Carnival - I'm not a fan of Carnival generally, and this version does little to sway me

Donkey Kong Jr. - I can forgive its perfunctory interpretation of the source material, this one's just a chore to play IMO.

On 1/17/2012 at 5:10 PM, save2600 said:

https://forums.atariage.com/topic/192922-mouse-trap-holy-mother-of-unplayability/

Mouse Trap - holy mother of unplayability!

Has anyone else played this game recently? Almost completely unplayable using the regular Intellivision controllers.

On 1/11/2022 at 10:19 PM, IMBerzerk said:

https://forums.atariage.com/topic/329269-worst-intellivision-game-is/page/2/

 

On 1/11/2022 at 5:51 PM, mr_me said:

https://forums.atariage.com/topic/329269-worst-intellivision-game-is/

I think the absolute worst games I had for INTV were already mentioned. For me they had to be LV Roulette and Carnival. Boring and BORING. Ugh

Every 3rd party arcade game that I bought for my SSVA back then was crap in my opinion.  Just felt we got screwed.  Pac-Man, Pop-Eye, Turbo, Tutankhamen, on and on.  Had they been licensed and created by Mattel/Intv staff, we would have had better quality versions of these games.

 

I do feel bad for the programmer if that is what happened.  Just imagine being the guy that got stuck with producing one of the worst variations of one of the most popular arcade games in history. 

 

 

 

 

On 9/19/2023 at 6:46 PM, decle said:

Unless Frank had access to a significant shortcut, I suspect that this meant his games were written in approximately 18 months, reducing the time spent on each game to about 7.5 weeks.

Maybe he should have taken just a little more time.
 

 

Edited by Rod
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On 9/19/2023 at 6:46 PM, decle said:

This is corroborated by Ron Borta of Roklan ...

You neglected to point out this gem at 23:20,

 

               We used to joke that we single-handedly collapsed the video game market by putting
               out too many games too quick for everybody under the sun.

 

I think Borta may have left out an adjective between the words "many" and "games".

Edited by Rod
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22 minutes ago, Rod said:

Maybe he should have taken just a little more time.

To be fair, I don't think on can fairly lay responsibility for such a debacle on Johnson. In my view it rests entirely with his management.

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On 9/19/2023 at 9:46 PM, decle said:

...and means we are only missing the author(s) of Ladybug...

Please take this with a grain of salt...

 

For several years at my current job I worked with a developer named Mark Thompson. One day a few of us we were schmoozing in the kitchen talking about classic video games, when I mentioned being an Intellivision collector. Mark's ears perked up, and he said, "Oh? Do you have Ladybug?". I said I did, and he replied, "I worked on that one." Now, to what extent I can't be sure, and unfortunately he passed several years ago, so I can't follow that lead.

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7 minutes ago, Gunoz said:

Please take this with a grain of salt...

 

For several years at my current job I worked with a developer named Mark Thompson. One day a few of us we were schmoozing in the kitchen talking about classic video games, when I mentioned being an Intellivision collector. Mark's ears perked up, and he said, "Oh? Do you have Ladybug?". I said I did, and he replied, "I worked on that one." Now, to what extent I can't be sure, and unfortunately he passed several years ago, so I can't follow that lead.

 

Interesting ... Hmm ...

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2 hours ago, Gunoz said:

Please take this with a grain of salt...

 

For several years at my current job I worked with a developer named Mark Thompson. One day a few of us we were schmoozing in the kitchen talking about classic video games, when I mentioned being an Intellivision collector. Mark's ears perked up, and he said, "Oh? Do you have Ladybug?". I said I did, and he replied, "I worked on that one." Now, to what extent I can't be sure, and unfortunately he passed several years ago, so I can't follow that lead.

http://gdri.smspower.org/wiki/index.php/Computer_Magic

This says he worked on Colecovision games at a company called Computer Magic in Long Island. It wouldn't have been unheard of to program other game systems as well.

 

 

9 hours ago, Rod said:

To be fair, I don't think on can fairly lay responsibility for such a debacle on Johnson. In my view it rests entirely with his management.

Coleco the publisher bears final responsibility. They could have asked for changes but seemed to accept whatever was delivered.

Edited by mr_me
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6 minutes ago, mr_me said:

This says he worked on Colecovision games at a company called Computer Magic in Long Island.

I can confirm from the LinkedIn profile that is indeed the same Mark I worked with at Openlink on Long Island.

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40 minutes ago, Gunoz said:

I can confirm from the LinkedIn profile that is indeed the same Mark I worked with at Openlink on Long Island.

 

Too bad he passed away, as you said.  It would have been good to catch up and interview him.  May he rest in peace.  Did you by chance ever ask him anything about his experience with Ladybug?

 

     -dZ.

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1 hour ago, DZ-Jay said:

Too bad he passed away, as you said.  It would have been good to catch up and interview him.  May he rest in peace.  Did you by chance ever ask him anything about his experience with Ladybug?

Yes, but sadly the only things I remember clearly are that it was the only Intellivision game he worked on, and he joked that it was the reason he was good at debugging assembly code.

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I don't know when Mr. Thompson passed away, but I tried to e-mail him years ago and never got a response.

 

I can no longer see his LinkedIn profile since I'm not logged in, but I recall it said he worked on ColecoVision and Intellivision games at a company called Impact Research. According to New York records, there was a company on Long Island called Impact Research Corp.

Edited by CRV
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Sadly he's been gone several years now. His profile shows - 

 

Programmer

Computer Magic

Jan 1984 - Jan 1985 · 1 yr 1 mo

Developed video games for the Coleco Colecovision.
 
Programmer

Impact Research

Jan 1983 - Jan 1984 · 1 yr 1 mo

Programmed games for the Matell Intelivision and Coleco Colecovision.
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On 9/19/2023 at 6:46 PM, decle said:

Next is Frank Johnson, who wrote Donkey Kong, Carnival, Mouse Trap, Zaxxon, Star Wars, Tutankham, Donkey Kong Jnr, Q*bert, Popeye and Super Cobra.  I suspect this makes Frank one of the most prolific Inty developers, and means we are only missing the author(s) of Ladybug, Turbo and Venture.

So, do we think Ladybug, Turbo and Venture were written at Roklan?  I know that Coleco was interviewing for Intellivision programmers, but don't think that anyone went there from Mattel. I don't remember the timing, either, but I think it was near the time Atari was interviewing.

 

I have updated the credits on BlueSkyRangers.com

Edited by BSRSteve
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