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Craig Aker

Craig Aker

Born 1977
Profession Research and design engineer
Known for Revector and Nebula Commander

Craig Aker was responsible for the Vectrex homebrew titles Revector and Nebula Commander. He first saw a Vectrex in the flesh at the Oklahoma Gaming Expo 2004, and while he had played the DVE emulator years previously, he stated in 2005 that you just don’t get the full effect of the system that way, and "the emulation just doesn't do it justice" (as he stated in a 2015 e-mail).

Programmer John Dondzila was a noted inspiration for wanting to code on the Vectrex, as "He was one of the big contributers [sic] in Vectrex homebrew [development] when I first encountered the Vectrex; his games are great. It showed me that you can do something more with the Vectrex than the original game designers had done."

Programming, education and professional lifeEdit

Aker started programming on an "Apple IIC in the early 80's". This path stayed with him and eventually led to his earning a BS in Electrical/Computer Engineering at the Oklahoma State University in 1999. He begin his professional life as a freelance programmer, but is currently working as a research and design engineer "designing embedded systems (circuit design, firmware development, systems integration)".

Gaming/Vectrex programmingEdit

Aker "was definitely into playing home consoles as a kid. We had the [Atari] 2600, ColecoVision, NES, Gameboy, SNES. I spent a lot of time on our Apple IIC when I was a kid.”

Aker had always been aware of the homebrew work that went on for the Atari 2600 and some other consoles, but did not know about the homebrew effort on the Vectrex until mid 2004. He downloaded a few of the current games at the time and was blown away, concluding the newer games were actually far more entertaining and better designed than the original GCE games. Interested in the system, Aker began looking into programming, discovered that the development tools were readily available, and that there were several reference documents available for download. He was well-versed in assembly language, and "a quick read through Chris Salomon’s awesome tutorial allowed me to get started pretty quickly" according to a 2005 interview.

Editing was done via Ultraedit and the assembler was AS09. General emulation of the games was performed with MESS and proper testing done via a custom EPROM-based multicart.

Revector and Nebula CommanderEdit

Revec

Revector

For both games, Aker wanted to try to come up with an original concept, since a lot of the homebrews (and many other platform games lately at the time) in his opinion were remakes of arcade classics. The most interesting games he enjoyed were the ones that added some never before seen aspect or control or perspective. Also, with both games having a two player simultaneous option, Aker surmised how that came around "...was what was fun for me at the time: gaming against your friends. A lot of my favorite NES games where [sic] ones that you could play against another human. If it's a one player game, you need some...fantastic hook to make it really good; for a two player game you can get a lot of that good gameplay feel from the human competition".

Revector was really a work in progress throughout its development and Aker wanted a two player simultaneous game. The final game is actually pretty different from the original concept. As penned, the vehicles in Revector were going to be outfitted with laser cannons that could fire continuous beams. "You would try to hit various rotating targets and objects that would all have different effects on your laser beam to try and damage your opponent. Obviously there was no laser beam in the game or moving objects, but one artefact of the original code design remained: the vehicles can bounce off the walls and each other" he said in the interview.

For Nebula Commander, Aker wanted to make a real-time strategy game, since it had not been done before on the Vectrex. He also wanted to improve upon some of his routines to do a better job of exploiting the benefits of the vector display. Aker was proud of the smooth scrolling of the sprites in this game, although he was fairly certain nobody really noticed too much or thought it was that big of a deal.

Both games were developed as two player first, and the AI was added afterwards. This had two benefits according to Aker: you could play the game earlier (with a friend) to begin tweaking the fun parts and changing certain other parts, and you could ensure that the computer player obeys all rules of physics that a human must obey by making the AI interface to the same code that the human uses for control input. The AI for both games was based upon how Aker played the games. After the basic game rules were in place, some good strategies become apparent. He then added behaviour patterns one at a time into the computer personality and tested them using the emulator.

Revector took about a month to code and was released on 11th November 2004. Nebula Commander took about two months and was released on 11th January 2005.

Future projectsEdit

At the time of speaking to Aker in early 2005, he was about to sit down and begin testing some sprites out for a new game idea he had been scribbling on graph paper. "I am hoping to create a fast moving game with a bit of panic that forces your brain to develop new neurons to play well", Aker stated. However, nothing came of this due to Aker getting "a rough version of that game going (no scoring, no AI, no polish). I had learned a lot of good techniques to get the game to do what I wanted it to do. It was smooth and beautiful, it just turned out to not be any fun, so I abandoned it." Aker then disappeared from the scene as quickly as he appeared, as he "just kind of drifted away from the Vectrex".

He was initially worried about the future of the Vectrex homebrew scene though, thinking it could probably be a dying art due to the fact that most people were not interested in mastering assembly language. This vision did not come to pass due to dozens of games being released since, which Aker later stated "I think it's great if it is still rolling, it's a wonderful platform, just not very widespread. I think that's part of why I lost interest [in continuing game development]".

As far as any future projects go, he also said "I still have my hardware, should the whim hit me to pick it back up again". Meanwhile in his spare time, he still enjoys gaming, "although if I do play a game it is typically a retro classic of some sort". He has also "...been more into pinball than video gaming" as of late.


The majority of the content of this article was the result of e-mails between the two main original authors and Aker.

This article was featured from March - April, 2015.

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