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Exclusive: How Cobra Command went from laserdisc to iPhone in just 25 years

''There are close to 300 ways to die''

Product: Cobra Command | Developer: Revolutionary Concepts | Publisher: G-Mode | Genre: Retro, Shooter
For: iPhone
Cobra Command iPhone, thumbnail 1
If there was one area of arcade retro gaming that we never expected to make the transition to iPhone, it's those short-lived laserdisc titles from the early '80s.

In retrospect, and after seeing a couple of them performing well on the App Store, they actually makes good sense, given that the iPhone is every bit as much a multimedia player as a games system, and that's exactly what laserdisc coin-ops were.

And it seems enthusiasm from you, the punters, for games like Cobra Command has been overwhelming, so we decided to get in touch with founder and creative director of Revolutionary Concepts, Wayne Whatford, to find out more about how an LP CD is hammered into an iPhone.

Pocket Gamer: How did you come to be working on the Cobra Command project? What was it that particularly attracted you to this great, but slightly obscure, game?

Wayne Whatford: We started working on the iPhone mid-2008 and were really fortunate to have some early successes out of the gate, with several utilities that we published under our commercial label Collect3 going on to sit in the Top 10 to Top 50 worldwide for the last 12 months.

Being huge gamers since the days of the Atari 2600, the plan was always to then take whatever we might have learnt and anything we made and establish a studio that specialises in developing entertainment related apps - as well as helping independent game developers get some traction in the app-store.

When we started to think about what we could work on as the first major release as Revolutionary Concepts, with all the buzz around casual gaming talk naturally turned to retro gaming and great gaming experiences from our pasts.

Cobra Command stood out head and shoulders above anything else as something that was both a defining moment in the early days of the industry and something that would be a really different and a new kind of experience for iPhone gamers.

For gamers who are too young to remember or who weren't fortunate enough to have a machine in their town, Cobra Command can best be described as an arcade action helicopter shooter played in a first person perspective, where the action unfolds across ten insane missions that would see you weaving between buildings on the streets of New York city one minute, shooting tanks amid the statues on Easter Island the next, or taking on warships in the Pacific.

This was a pretty cool concept in itself, but the thing that made it really stand out was the fact that the game used a laserdisc to provide background visuals that were as good as the the best quality saturday morning cartoon - and this was at a time when the graphics in Karate Champ or Donkey Kong were considered state of the art.

Seeing the arcade machine for the first time was a jaw dropping moment, like seeing something from the future. The closest equivalent today I guess would be on seeing the original iPhone for the first time. An almost religious experience!

One I wasn't worthy of obviously, as back then at 12 years old I couldn't afford to play the bloody thing. I'd just hang out waiting for the rich kids to play it for the two minutes it took him/her to crash and burn, and look on in awe.

Of course, your memory plays tricks on you so we weren't sure if looking at it today gamers would see the same things, but we were astounded to see how well the game held up and so became excited about using today's technology to make an update with improved gameplay and control mechanics rather than a straight port.

At the same time there is something wild about the possibility that 25 years on you could take a $50,000 arcade machine and put it in your pocket.

But with our sister company Collect3 we created Picture Safe and Video Safe, which have been in the US Top ranked Utilities for nine months; Animal Snap! - a card game for kids picked up by Apple for display in their retail stores worldwide; and Boxee Remote licensed to Boxee as their official app. All of which combined have been downloaded 2.5 million times.

Was this a license that was brought to you by G-Mode, or did you approach them to enquire about the possibility of adapting Cobra Command to iPhone?

Once we knew we wanted to recreate Cobra Command, it was a bit of a treasure hunt to find who if anyone held the rights.

When we eventually found the current owners of the license - G-mode of Japan - we were incredibly relieved to find they were down with the idea, then there was a moment of sheer panic when we realised they thought we wanted the 2D side-scrolling Chopperlifter-style game of the same name which Data East released in 1988 for the NES.

I think they were a bit surprised that we were even thinking about bring the laserdisc title to the iPhone. Thankfully, once we got past this the negotiations for the rights went very smoothly.

A laser disc game must be an immense challenge for a contemporary conversion. Where do you begin with a bringing a project like this to iPhone, and what sort of material did you require from G-Mode to get started?

Coming off some success with our first apps - which we built with a much smaller team - we kind of felt like we were bulletproof.

Then the reality hit us like a brick wall that this was going to be a real challenge, especially once we discovered there were literally no original materials to be had. No code, no graphics files, no design specs - just the video footage that features in the game.

Thankfully, despite a real shortage of original content we were delighted to find there was a small but passionate group of laserdisc fans dedicated to the preservation of these kinds of games.

Largely through their efforts we were able to find a working arcade unit and this was instrumental in our piecing together how the game should function. Without their efforts as the 'keepers of the flame', our job would have been that much harder.

What sort of processing did the video go through, and did you need any special equipment (such as an old laserdisc player, for one thing) or expertise to port it to iPhone?

Once we had access to the video footage and were at least able to play the original arcade game, the process for recreating the game started with us recording our best and worst performances to try and understand what was meant to happen on-screen at any particular moment.

It probably sounds like a dream job and relatively straightforward but merely beating the game wasn't enough, as we had to explore every nook and cranny. Suffice to say there are close to 300 ways to die, and we had to experience every single one of them numerous times.

Playing the hell out of the original confirmed for us how well the game held up over time, but also served to provide a clear guide to some of its limitations and how we might improve not only the graphics and controls but the overall gameplay experience for a whole new generation of gamers.

What was the hardest part about converting Cobra Command to iPhone?

No question, the hardest part was the wizardry required of our programmers to get video and computer-generated graphics to play nice together, and the painstaking process of recreating the gameplay from scratch.

We would literally have three separate videos running at once (original animation, arcade gameplay, and iPhone prototype), and be moving through these frame by frame, coding and adjusting the position of on-screen graphics and the timing of every event to match.

Then there was the effort put into ensuring everything ran seamlessly regardless of which generation device you have, so that the finished game detects which you are using and optimises the performance for first gen, 3G, or 3GS.

Controls were always a sticking point for laserdisc games. What sort of challenges did you face in swapping from a joystick and buttons to accelerometer and touchscreen?

Firstly I think it's testament to their quality that a quarter century later most people have either heard of or have fond memories of laserdisc games such as Dragon's Lair, Mad Dog McCree, or RoadBlaster/RoadAvenger.

I think we see evidence of this in the fact that over the years there have been untold numbers of versions of these games for every computer and games console imaginable, from the ZX81 and C64, to the SegaCD and 3DO, through to the PS1,2,3, the 360 and even DVD and Blu-Ray.

But to our eyes there are two big problems that the developers of these titles and others weren't able to overcome in porting these games.

Firstly, there's always been some technical limitations that have meant the developers had to compromise. Early on it was limited storage space, or the consoles had fairly basic graphics capability, or you couldn't display the video in all it's glory.

More recently with CD-ROMs and DVD most of these problems have been overcome, but instead you find they are taking games that were designed to be played in an environment where you are literally glued to the screen in an up-front and personal kind of way and asking players to experience them from half a room away with a wireless controller or dvd remote.

You lose that one to one 'in your face' kind of immersion that made the games so great, so that the end result is feeling that you were only ever left with a hollow shell of a game.

A lot of people might think a mobile phone a strange choice but in the iPhone or iPod touch you actually have the ideal device for this kind of game.

It has this great high resolution touchscreen, it offers precise 360 degree control (if used right), it plays video flawlessly - and in a wide format, the solid state storage means instantaneous searching of the next part of video, and you hold it only about 20cm from your face so the feeling of being 'in the game' is enhanced.

Add in tilt controls thanks to the accelerometer, and you have a platform that provides everything needed to not only mimic but actually surpass the experience of the original.

Thanks very much to Wayne for taking the time to chat to us. Tune in for part two of this interview on Monday.

Reviewer photo
Spanner Spencer 20 November 2009
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