A trip down Light Shock Lane. Part 4 – Black Viper

In January 1994, The One magazine published a preview of a game that looked like a cross between Blade Runner and Super Hang-On. It answered to the work-in-progress alias of ‘Dark Blade’ and the credit for its development was attributed to ‘D.E.X.’ rather than Light Shock. It wasn’t an oversight on the magazine’s part as Francesco clarifies:-

“D.E.X. was shorthand for “Digital Exterminators”, which was the name of the original team behind what became “Black Viper”. The same team was previously responsible for the Amiga game “Nathan Never” published by the small Italian publisher “Genias”.

The team sought to make an impression on foreign publishers too and joined forces with us, which led to the eventual completion of the game and the publishing by Neo.”

In Black Viper you adopt the role of a maverick motorbike rider known as Efrim Kadam whose mission it is to traverse the ravished plains of a post-apocalyptic civilisation beset by the radioactive fallout resulting from a nuclear war.

Evoking an air of Mad Max …erm …ism, opportunist mercenaries (or Redemins) have sought to exploit the situation they themselves set in motion to purge the land and begin a new human race, leaving your people destitute and vulnerable, roaming the barren wasteland, doomed to perish.

That is unless you – deploying your cannon-mounted Black Viper 003 armoured bike – can reach and evacuate them first. Nigh on assimilating the metal saviour bequeathed to you by your dear departed father and erstwhile leader, you are tasked with rooting out the degenerate guerillas and blowing them to kingdom come.

Your ultimate aim is to locate the shrouded city of Redemin, only accessible through a cavern found deep within the ancient ruins of the Arkham city (had storyboard maestro, Roby, and writers Emanuele Scichilone and Omar Buono, been nose-deep in a Batman comic at the time this was dreamed up I wonder). There lies earth’s last and only hope of salvation… so let’s pray there’s enough petrol left in those abandoned fuel pumps to see the job through to the bitter end.

In a coconut shell, there’s your plight. An introductory audiovisual pastiche so epic its construction called for the input of a dedicated programmer – Stefano Aquino.

How all this can possibly culminate in safeguarding the survival of the human race is only vaguely elucidated. What we are told in the finale cutscene is that Efrim discovers by way of excavation, lost technology of dubious origins. Technology that may or may not have been “projected by aliens” or invented by his own people to wage war against the planet they have since come to appreciate is worthy of defending. I think that’s the gist. It’s all very muddled to be honest, and largely left to your own imagination to fill in the gaps.

Not quite the Street Hawk game we’d waited ten years for. Still, its intelligent engagement with two button joysticks or the CD32 pad is tremendously appreciated. Firing and switching your weapon (between single and double guns, lightball, missiles, plasma, rockets, laser and fireball), and acceleration, can be mapped in a range of configurations, whilst a double tap of the accelerate button will activate your booster.

Some of Marco Genovesi’s graphical nuances also raise the bar aloft earlier combat-racers such as Fire and Forget and Chase HQ, two potential sources of inspiration for Black Viper. The varied backdrops, for instance, keep the visuals fresh, as do the convincing seasonal weather effects.

There’s only so much an outsider can tell you about a game he made no contribution towards producing whatsoever. Ideally, what we need is for an expert who knows it inside out and backwards to step in and take the reins. Say, someone who harnessed the enigmatic voodoo of the assembly programming language to shock it into existence. How about Emanuele Viola? He’d fit the bill, and I bet he’s still got his trusty de-fibrillation paddles!

“Black Viper is the second game I coded up, after Nathan Never. I vividly remember when I turned down an offer to work on Nathan Never 2. In hindsight, I think it’s been a mistake. True, my experience with Nathan Never had not been very pleasant. The producers did not pay half of what was promised on the contract (something for which I subsequently sued them, in vain). The person who most closely directed the works did not have much experience with games, but understandably was mostly interested in the publicity that would come from the title (Nathan Never is a popular comic book in Italy). I was also threatened extortion if I didn’t finish the game in time.

But on the positive side, after some difficulty they had shipped me an A3000T to complete the game. And most importantly of all, the game got done in six months! Black Viper instead took three ominous years.

But when I made the decision I was 15 and I really had no idea. I had always wanted to work on a beat’em up, and at some point Marco Genovesi and I even had a small demo. My impression is that we ended up working on a bike game because neither of us liked it. We did like the post-apocalyptic atmosphere though.

So we started working on this project again during our high school (the game finally hit the shelves during my first year of college). Our initial name was “Dark Blade” and the game had disproportionate depth, including bets, tournaments, and race against radioactive magma. It was again great to work with Marco, one of the most talented persons I have ever met. We were in the same classroom in high school every day (Italian high school has or at least had a rigid system thanks to which you spent all your time with the same people). Classrooms had desks for two people, and I think the first year Marco and I even shared the desk. If I remember correctly we were both somewhat timid and we naturally ended up together (but here I may be stretching my memory). We would exchange floppy disks in class and generally chat about the game and sketch ideas. Interaction wasn’t always easy, but it was always rewarding.

Our professors took note of what we were doing, and said nothing. I believe in almost any other environment they would have jumped on the students and push them hard to their full potential.

Soon, completing Dark Blade without a however horrible software house proved quite difficult. I don’t remember exactly how we got to Lightshock Software. I think it was through some personal connection. In any case, at some point this software house materialized, they liked the game, and had some connection to sell it in the broader European market through NEO. So we decided to go with them. We had quite a few fun trips from Rome (where we were based) to Prato (where Lightshock Software was) to discuss the game and our subsequent expansion and world domination. It was also fun to connect with more game developers. They worked with us to make the game better, and to add some extras for the AGA and CD32 versions.

One fond memory I have is when I needed help to hunt down a bug. Basically, the game would occasionally hang up. I had never given that much thought, since it was quite rare. But, of course, the last version of the game systematically crashed exactly at the last level. It’s hard to imagine anything worse. First, reproducing the bug wasn’t the easiest thing. Second, the code was three years old, and it consisted of a single, colossal file in assembly, commented as thoroughly as only a 15-year-old can.

So it was arranged for me to go spend some days at their headquarters and work with Marco Biondi, another Amiga coder. He hosted me at his quaint house in Florence, and together we had a few days of intense debugging. He had no idea of the code whatsoever of course, and was horrified to see certain parts of it which reflected my complete lack of training (my only source had been the Amiga Hardware reference manual, brought to me years ago by Marco Genovesi when I had sprained my ankle jumping from the top of a swing). But Marco Biondi was quite helpful. Eventually, we were able to freeze the machine right before the crash, and we went through one assembly instruction at a time. Amazingly, at some point the instructions became complete gibberish. We exulted. Someone entered the room and proposed something, perhaps going out. I remember Marco Biondi saying no, now “lo teniamo per le palle” (we grab it by the balls).

We looked at how long the gibberish code was, and it turned out to be exactly the length of one of the rectangular elements that made the road. This quickly led us to investigate the code that builds the road. And there I found an assembly subroutine where the register d0 was used instead of a0, which would cause problems if I remember correctly with the carry-around when you increment it. We fixed it and the game didn’t crash anymore. Amazingly, that subroutine was one of the very first which I had written. Throughout the day, we had been playing continuously the same clip of about ten seconds of a heavy metal song.

I think my share of the sales amounted to the equivalent of $500 today, much less than what I had made with Nathan Never.”

Black Viper’s supremely futuristic, unrelenting metallic soundtrack is where it really excels, however. Though not the tenebrous, brooding accompaniment to standing on the precipice of humanity’s untimely demise you might imagine, there’s no denying it’s atmospheric and memorable in its own right.

It’s a relief the coder, Viola Emanuele, decided only to adopt the titles of two Cradle of Filth tracks – ‘Summer Dying Fast’ and ‘The Black Goddess Rises’ rather than their extremely crude, death metal sentiments or association with the occult. Ironically, musician, Nicola Tomljanovich, wasn’t a fan to say the least!

‘Towards the Pantheon’ is the title of a bleakly ominous track by Emperor, another death/black metal band. Cited amongst the members’ hobbies are satanism, murder and church-oriented arson. I’m not kidding, two of them were jailed for their crimes!

Of the same ilk is ‘The Beautiful Wound’, sharing its allusory title with a composition by the ‘melodic death metal’ band, At the Gates, who have been described as “virulently aggressive”. Their tenderhearted albums include ‘Terminal Spirit Disease’ and ‘Slaughter of the Soul’, whilst they have been known to hook up with ‘My Dying Bride’ and ‘Napalm Death’ to tour the circuit… and discuss cannibalism and necrophilia no doubt.

I’m all out of Prozac, I’m so lost without you…

“I want you to come back and carry me home

Away from these long lonely nights

I’m reaching for you, are you feeling it too?”

If anyone feels the need to hug a Care Bear and play Trolls, I can provide both …for therapeutic purposes you understand. My hygge certainly needs a top up after that.

Resonating with heavy drum and bass and techno electronica melodies, the impetus of Black Viper’s soundtrack is on a sense of hi-octane, fervent urgency. It’s palpable raw energy, grinding gears and revving engines will have you gritting your teeth, leaning into every bend!

The brief seems to have been to recreate Sega’s arcade classic, Road Rash (or plumbing the depths of gaming history further, Mach Rider on the NES), for the next generation, whilst fleshing out the ambience within the framework of a grittier dystopian plot.

To this effect, Alberto Gelpi’s series of lavish, cinematic narrative sequences complete with digitised speech provided by Marcus Cotterell, plus three layers of in-game parallax scrolling were drafted in to visually bolster the contemporary revamp.

“It was an incredible experience… a little crazy to tell you the truth!!!!

We had many issues because the PC wasn’t very powerful to render so many frames.. so we decided to render some sequences in scanline mode, a sort of simplified render engine to decrease the render time!

24 per day for a month spent calculating frames with a resolution of 300×240 (or something similar!!!).. Now it seems absurd!”

– Alberto Gelpi

Roughly 38 minutes worth of stylishly animated cut-scenes – largely manifesting the game’s 7.8mb graphics cache – accomplish this feat admirably, though the limited and dated gameplay itself and poor collision detection were lambasted by Amiga Active (February 2000), who begrudgingly bestowed it with a measly 3 out of 10 score.

Roman Sadowski, a games critic for the Polish publication, Amiga Magazyn, was much more enthusiastic about his experience with Black Viper, as his June 1996 review demonstrates. He awarded it a solidly respectable 80% – as soon as I learn to speak Polish I’ll break down the finer technicalities of his verdict for you!

Actually, my OCD-addled brain wouldn’t let it go so I typed up the final paragraph into Google Translate. Here’s the result…

“Due to the specifically selected palette of the game seems to be little color. It should, however, to think that it was a purposeful, create a plan whose right atmosphere. The effect is compounded by the very atmospheric music modules. Like in Lotusach, we can ourselves before every ride choose one of them. Black Viper, if someone likes this type of game, the position can be very addictive, although from the execution (especially graphics) does not look good. The program includes versions at the same time for the A1200 and machine-ECS these.”

I want my time back!

Undeterred I repeated the process with the closing statement of Richard L?wenstein’s German April 1996 review for Amiga Joker…

“We can not give the bikers among you a little hope for more exciting races: the promised rendering intro and some additional language output will not be enough to make this blind sneak into a really snappy viper.”

Why do I never learn? Regardless of the visual acuity of your sneak, what doesn’t require translation is the 52% score Richard felt the game warranted. Clearly he wasn’t that enamoured.

There is another one in the Dutch ‘Amiga Magazine’ by Stefan Siemen. No, I’m sorry, I’m drawing the line, and it’s here. I’m not convinced I could muster the enthusiasm to even open an Amiga magazine entitled ‘Amiga Magazine’ in any case. Would the relevant article be headlined, “Amiga Magazine’s review of a bike racing game”? Yawn.

Someone who knows a heck of a lot more about the game than any of them is Marco Genovesi, the man behind its 2D visual components. I’ll let him carry the baton from here:-

“Black Viper is a game designed in 1993, just after our first game (Nathan Never) was out. The original project was named Dark Blade. The idea was to take inspiration from a few films or TV series we loved (Hokuto no Ken, Akira, Blade Runner and Street Hawk) and create a racing game where you drive a super bike and you can blast bad guys’ cars with some big guns.

The game was set in a post apocalyptic world, where cities had to move underground to survive the radiation.

In my original vision there was also an adventure side to the game as once reached the end of the road, you could enter shops, as well as clubs or bars in order to gather new information. Unfortunately this part was dropped and we only kept the shop where you can sell or buy items to mod your bike.

When Emanuele Viola and I designed how to invest the (incredibly limited by today’s standards) video resources available, we decided to use 2 bit-planes (equal to 4 indexed colours) for the backgrounds. Which doesn’t sound like much, but the clever thing about it is that we were changing the value of these colours every 2 lines, so we could have very rich backgrounds, some of which were also animated. I’m quite proud of that as it was a bit of a challenge to create graphics in this way.

Unfortunately, I don’t think playing the game was very enjoyable. By the time we implemented everything it was running at 25FPS rather than 50FPS which for a high pace game makes a big difference and maybe the road perspective could have benefited from a slightly higher camera with more accurate depth movements of the objects on it.

Of course I wish we could have had more colours and frames for the enemies or the props on the road, but in the end this was a game designed for Amiga 500 in an age where 3 colours for a sprite was the norm. Also the nature of the settings called for a very muted palette, which is not a visually impressive choice.

If my memory is not failing me, by summer of 1994 we had a very extensive running demo of the game, but by that time all the main software houses were already moving to the console market as the Playstation was about to be released and the Amiga started its decline.

Until then Dark Blade was a pet project of 4 young guys who were filling their spare time after school. We were day dreaming to be funded by an English software house, as they were the best ones at that time (I was personally obsessed with the Psygnosis games and I would have done anything to work for them), and there were very little opportunities to find the money and distribution in Italy.

Unfortunately we weren’t aware of the revolution in gaming we were about to witness. Moreover our English wasn’t really good and as a result our efforts weren’t rewarded as we hoped for.

So, when a few months later LightShock came along it was such a refreshing experience. Until then we felt a bit isolated in our bubble, and this was the first time we could share ideas and worries with a gathering of talented developers with a real passion for games, all trying to overcome similar problems.

We were very young and ambitious (as well as extremely naive) and we felt we were building something great!

It was the injection of enthusiasm we needed to add the final bits to Dark Blade, which by then was renamed Black Viper and had an extensive amount of full motion videos created for the CD32 version of the game, by my lifelong friend Alberto Gelpi running Imagine 3D on a Pentium 75.

This was the first opportunity for me to be exposed to CGI. At that time we were still all working in our bedrooms as there was no office. We were just teenagers with big ideas but no funding. So after school, I was going to his parents’ flat and I was working beside him on his Amiga 1200 creating bitmap images that he could use to texture the 3D objects, whilst he was modelling, animating, lighting, creating cameras and rendering on his PC.

It was an enlightening experience and I knew that was the future. So we started collaborating more closely and I started studying Imagine 3D myself.

As Commodore shut down, Amiga died and Black Viper sold just a few copies I started looking at different industries. In fact, I always worked on video games with the secret aspiration of creating a cinematic experience, as you can probably figure out by the Black Viper too long intro. Hence I refocused my efforts toward the broadcast field as a stepping stone for the film industry.

My end goal was to either create visual effects or compose music for films and after a few years of freelancing I thought I could get a step closer if I could sell my talent and work through a company.

Although Alberto is 2 years younger than me and he was only 20 at that time, he had similar ambitions and it seemed a good idea to join forces once again and create a post production company.

In 1999 we opened Dreamlike Visions and we ran the company until 2007, creating a number of commercials, promotional videos, documentaries and even the teaser for a TV animated series.

All this made us even more hungry for personal development and at some point we came to the sad realization that we had to change strategy and drop the company if we wanted to exploit our full potential.

So we did what we had to do. Alberto focused on his director career and I moved to London where I worked for 2 of the main VFX industry vendors (Framestore at first and MPC after that) contributing to some of the biggest block buster movies out there.

By the time I moved to the UK I had a few years of experience in many different aspects of CGI and visual effects creation, but I felt I had to step up, focusing only on digital matte painting and CG environment creation.

It seems that this choice paid back, because after working as an artist first and then as a lead, I was promoted to head of department at MPC where I currently manage a team that fluctuates between 30 to 80 artists.

However, bad habits never stop and I still work at night. In fact, once back home I feel the urge to change mindset and I keep myself busy working on indie projects as a musician.

I’m currently creating the soundtrack of an independent self funded game named Allison Road.”

If I believed in astrology at all I could easily buy into the possibility of all this coming to fruition through celestial alignment. Francesco wasn’t the only one reminiscing about the good old days when I contacted him, as Marco goes on to share:-

“You know, the timing of all this is quite a fortunate coincidence. Just a couple of month back I have decided to look for traces of our games on the internet. I didn’t do that in many years, but I was about to become a father for the first time and I got a bit nostalgic thinking about my life up to this pivotal point. So, I managed to find some long plays of the games and a couple of reviews which I didn’t know about.

Some of the comments were fair, others maybe a tad harsh, but overall I thought it was a shame that people couldn’t know a bit more about these endeavors.

The story of BlackViper (and LightShock to some extent) are certainly bittersweet. They aren’t stories of a huge financial success and to some extent the context is quite depressing (Commodore shutting down, Amiga dying, the Italian videogame market not really supporting its developers). However, for these very same reasons these are stories of teenagers fighting against the odds armed only with their dreams and their talent, creating something out of nothing. Maybe I’m becoming an old fart but I see a beauty in that, and I bet that if we were in the 80s this could have become a film (maybe with a happy ending though)! LOL

So, I’m incredibly glad you have decided to invest your time digging these stories and making them public.”

It’s true there’s no escaping the fact that Black Viper wasn’t well received, in its country of origin or beyond. To be fair, however, much of the negativity levied in its direction can likely be attributed to simple bad timing.

Even before its release in 1996, gamers were being lured away from the Amiga in their droves by much more capable systems, while the beloved friend they grew up with was neglected and abused by the new IP holders. They were looking for the next big thing and knew by that stage it wasn’t going to come from the likes of Escom, Gateway and so on.

In terms of game mechanics, Black Viper was already kind of a retro throwback before retro gaming was as warmly embraced as it is today. Released a few years earlier and people might have heralded it as the game the Amiga port of Road Rash was anticipated to be – you may recall that it received very mixed reviews back in 1992, despite being a smash hit on the Sega Mega Drive.

Demonstrating that there was still a viable market for the ageing bike racing/combat genre, the same year Road Rash landed in the Amiga realm, Mega Drive owners were playing the platform-exclusive sequel. In 1995, the series’ publishers, Electronic Arts, followed this up with another Mega Drive-only entry, which again received rave reviews.

Where am I heading with all this you may be wondering? My point is that while hindsight may lead us to believe that Light Shock were investing in a stale genre that forward-thinking gamers had already abandoned, the evidence from the time doesn’t bear this out.

One crucial element Black Viper does lack is stray cows on the road. Could that have been sufficient to tip the balance? A heavy injection of dairy didn’t improve the destiny of MicroProse’s unreleased ‘Boo!’ game so maybe not.

Perhaps the genre was a solid choice, it just wasn’t a suitable match for the Amiga platform, which was already home to swathes of successful, complex strategy and simulation titles.

Alluding to this distinct possibility, in The One’s November 1992 issue, Gary Whitta even had reservations about the longevity of – the arguably classic – Road Rash. This hardly bodes well for a spiritual successor released four years down the track.

“…the Amiga converters haven’t really bothered to do THAT much with the material they’ve been given, and the result is a game that might be fine on the Megadrive but looks and eventually feels a little primitive for the Amiga.

There’s a lot to be said for the fact that Activision’s Super Hang-On, which is getting on for four years old, is faster and more polished than this. Graphically a lot could have been done, but unfortunately there’s nothing that really stands out and impresses, and the same goes for music, which sounds more suited to an ST than an Amiga.

Gameplay-wise, you could probably guess at Road Rash’s console origins if you didn’t already know – it’s about as deep as the toddlers’ pool at the swimming baths, and ultimately its entertainment is limited, if only because there’s not a great deal of variety between the different tracks and opponents.

The police are a nice touch, but prospective buyers shouldn’t expect too much of the game’s violent bits – they’re good fun and a worthwhile addition but not as integral to the action as you might be led to believe – think of them as an entertaining side salad to the main meal.

What Road Rash REALLY needed was a split-screen or link-up option so that two players could kick the Hell out of each other – that might have made all the difference.”

Whatever the explanation for Black Viper’s lukewarm reception, Marco hasn’t let his ill-fated setback sour his appraisal of the time he spent in the industry, second-guessing the whims of a rapidly evolving market. He even has some sagely advice to offer anyone with aspirations to follow in his footsteps:-

“I just hope it will sound constructive and it will resonate positively with some of the new generations. This (useful) experience is way in the past and everything has a different perspective now. So, I’m not upset or frustrated about it and I have learned some of the most important lessons of my professional life:

1 – Do not invest everything on a tool. Technology moves fast and if this is the only thing you know/own, sooner or later you will become obsolete.

2 – On the contrary there are some principles (composition, colours, aerial perspective, light) linked to how humans perceive things. These are valid in Renaissance paintings as well as in VFX as well as in Videogames.

3 – A well driven team is stronger than a single person. So, kill your ego as soon as you can and start collaborating.

4 – Another good reason to kill your ego is that it won’t allow you to see the reality around you clearly.”

Moreover, we learn from our own experiences operating within teams – in whatever capacity or industry – driven by the catalyst of passion and dedication towards achieving shared aspirations, that the results of that toil encompass a far wider significance than a two digit bottom line.

Intro coder, Stefano Aquino, who worked alongside Emanuele on Black Viper echoes these sentiments wholeheartedly.

“Talking about working for Black Viper, I remember with a huge nostalgia when I and the other guys of the team went to Prato for recurring meeting. I was usually the car driver and, each time, the job trip became a kind of tour in the countryside with friends. 🙂

Also we had big troubles with our hardware. I had an Amiga 500 with few Megabytes of RAM and no HD and I was experimenting with Turbo Silver for raytracing. Then I switched to an Amiga 2000 with a wonderful expansion, a fast Motorola 68030 as CPU and a SCSI HD of 120Mb!! I remember that I paid the HD a lot, probably as much as I spent for the 68030 CPU expansion.

We were young but we were also proud and resolute: Marco had stunning skills in painting, Emanuele was a genius in programming and nothing could stop us.

If we were not able to do something, we studied and nothing were impossible. I remember that we had no money to buy a C compiler, so Emanuele said without worrying about “let’s start programming in Assembly!”. Crazy!! But great and one of a kind! In that day I realized that nothing is impossible.

The guys of the team teached me a lot. Still today in my job I can feel that power and when something puts me to the test I say to myself “when I was young I did that, how can I be worried for this now?”

About Black Viper I am not happy about how it turned out. It has not been a real success and we did not become rich at all :-). But it has been a great experience with a great team and heroic people. I’m glad to have been involved in that.”

 

2 thoughts on “A trip down Light Shock Lane. Part 4 – Black Viper

  • December 28, 2016 at 12:51 pm
    Permalink

    Since am at work i had to scroll fast through the history of the game, but i came exactly from where you are, included the at the end failed publisher! (does the name Powder ring any bell?)
    I discovered Black Viper only in 2008 watching longplay movies, but was shocked by the technical mastery and the soundtrack!
    And of course the citations to Hokuto no ken in the main part of the game (it look exactly as the series end titles, for who did not follow the serie) plus the citation to Side Arms in the nuclear explosions and the earth atmosphere becoming sick brown…. all down my lane.

    I like to point people to listen to Nicola tracks when possible on the Facebook Groups since those are a good display of Paula capabilities – all soundtrack and especially the high score track is simply straight out of one of those italian SF B-movies of the eighties, fitting the game perfectly!
    This game need to be rediscovered in the retro era!

  • December 29, 2016 at 2:51 am
    Permalink

    Thanks for stopping by to share your experience.

    I'm aware of Powder though haven't played it personally. I know you helped to produce it and it was one of those 'development hell' games. Is it connected to Light Shock or Neo in some way?

Leave a Reply