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Tony Barber and Valkyrie 17

An almost deserted ski resort. Mysterious phonecalls. Lethal dames. Secret agents aplenty. Oh, and one priceless diamond.

All these ingredients were thrown into the mix with the release of RamJam's Valkyrie 17, which after its 1985 release became an instantly popular title with adventure fans. I played the game shortly after it hit the streets and have revisited it many times since, each time enjoying its sharp wit and atmospheric writing. Now the game's programmer, Tony Barber, has remade the game for a modern audience. I've talked to Tony about the original game and his work on the remake.

Please tell us a bit about your background!

At sixteen I became a telephone service engineer and over the next few years I had three different jobs in telephones. That's when I realised I hated phones and quit to become a Xerox service engineer. After a few years in 1981 a friend said "Anyone want to buy a computer?" It was a white ZX80. I borrowed it and fell in love.

You started programming games for Phipps Associates. How did you get into writing games in the first place?

The ZX81 arrived and I got one of those. I programmed several games and sold them to the Buffer micro shop and started to make a little money with my hobby. In 1982 I got a Spectrum and then while browsing through a shop I found a book that would change my life: "The ZX81 Pocket Book" by Trevor Toms. It had a program for creating your own adventures in it and I was hooked. I got hold of a copy of The Knights Quest by Phipps. I hacked it and worked out how the split screen worked and modified the ZX81 adventure program to run on a Spectrum with graphics. I then wrote Island Adventure and sent it to Phipps to look at. It was only a small 40-room adventure but Trevor Toms liked it and asked me to write a full adventure. That's when I wrote Colditz [Castle]. I followed it with three arcade games for Phipps and then I decided it was time for another adventure. The Star of India was born. Trevor split from John Phipps and started RamJam and asked if I would work full time for him with another guy, George Stone (the guy who invented Max Headroom and Network 7). I jumped at the chance. George liked Colditz and said The Star of India would be good if it had a Nazi theme. So people and place names were changed and Valkyrie 17 was born.

Tony in battle garb, ready to strike down on unsuspecting gamers all over the world

What exactly is The Biro, what are its features and how does it compare to, say, The Quill and GAC?

The first Biro written in the 80's by myself was an attempt to make an in-house tool so adventures could be written by anyone. This was so I did not have to programme them all and we could get a few games out quickly. The Terrors of Trantoss was the only game I saw that was written with The Biro. I think it was a Mike Farley game and I had no part in creating it. I don't know how The Biro compares to the Quill and GAC as I have never used them.

My reason for asking is that Terrors of Trantoss seems fairly technically advanced, at least layout-wise. Does it handle things like NPCs, dialogue etc?

Trantoss was written with The Biro then given a new interface by Trevor Toms. I do not know if it had NPC's or dialogue (I don't think so)

Was there ever any intention of releasing The Biro as a stand-alone tool to the public?

The original Biro was for in-house use only. The new Biro 2 has only just been written and I have no plans to release it. It was written just for fun.

V17 started off as The Star of India, which you wrote for Phipps. How did it compare to V17?

The Star of India and Valkyrie 17 were identical in room locations, pictures and puzzles. The only differences were character names, location names and the title.

V17 stands out from the crowd with its offbeat humour and atmospheric writing. What did you use as inspiration?

The inspiration for V17 (The Star of India) came from my wife. I said, "What shall I base my next adventure on?" and she said "How about a spy thriller in a snowy mountain area with a large diamond to steal or find?" (I think she had just read a book like that). I said cool idea. The diamond was the Star of India.

RamJam released a number of highly original titles (including your own Cauldron). What kind of company was it?

It was started by Trevor Toms and George Stone. I was taken on as lead programmer and George hired an artist Simon Dunston. Trevor (very cleaver man) split his time between RamJam and University. George had his fingers in many pies and could talk people into doing anything. RamJam was started on money George got from selling the Max Headroom idea and Trevor's money from Phipps. It ran out quickly and more money was gained for work we took on like Cauldron, Archon and Think! for other people. RamJam seemed to take on more work that I could do so more staff were taken on. They turned out to be unreliable and deadlines were missed. We scraped by month by month and after 18 months working for RamJam the Inland Revenue contacted me asking what I had been doing since my last job. RamJam had stopped my tax from my wages every month but had not paid it to them. Shortly later I resigned from RamJam and went self-employed.

Whatever happened to the announced sequel to V17, Three Days in Carpathia?

This was an adventure written by George Stone himself. I only saw a part of it. I never saw the completed version if there was one.


Screen caps from The Biro 2
(click to enlarge)

What compelled you to revisit the game and remake it?

I found your solution on your web site for V17 and I had just found Liberty BASIC so I decided to write The Biro 2 and use V17 as a test adventure. In redoing V17 with your encouragement and advice The Biro 2 has turned out to be an interesting tool.

What do you think of the way that the game scene has evolved?

I like the way it has evolved. The games are great now, much more playable than back in the 80's. I have a PS2, a PSP and a fast PC and love all manner of games. The only thing that I do not like is the rip-off prices. You can buy the latest DVD film and music CD for around £12 - £15 but a computer game cost £30 - £50. Why is that when all three take a bunch of people 1 – 2 years to make? They should all be about the same price. The games industry is greedy.

And just for the sake of completeness: Adventureland mentions all adventure games supposedly released by RamJam. Several titles, including The Sock, Tooth Affair and Shadow Warrior, are completely unknown to me. Can you verify if they exist, if they were in the planning stages or if they are pure speculation?

They must be games written with The Biro after I left RamJam (RamJam disappeared around five months after I left). I did not see them and don't know if they actually exist.

Do you still play adventure games these days?

The only ones I play are real time 3D action adventure games like Far Cry.

Now that you've created The Biro 2, do you feel like creating further games?

Yes I think I will.

Thanks to Tony for answering my questions. Since I've spent, er, a number of hours on testing and giving input for the remake, I can't claim any kind of objectivity when I say that Valkyrie was and remains a damn fine game. Oops, there I said it anyway. Go ahead and give it a try!

Jacob Gunness, September 2006