Pudding on a show

I never wanted to be me. Aren’t video games wonderful? Even the best programmers begin with their first game, it’s how chronological time and logic function. Jonathan ‘Joffa’ Smith’s first commercially published game was ‘Pud Pud in Weird World’. Mine is still in the ‘works’… and that site has been derelict since day one. You’ll understand then why he’s a personal hero.

In conversation with The Retro Brothers in September 2009, the Speccy ledge himself divulged how he found himself in the employment of one of the most significant forces in the games industry. As casually as dropping in on a close pal, Joffa nipped into Ocean’s HQ to let them take a peek at Pud Pud, along with a Donkey Kong clone called ‘The Thing!’. Several days later he was in possession of a contract confirming the commencement of his new full-time, permanent games dev role.

Writing on his own home page – long since lost to the ravages of time and 404s – we learn that Pud Pud originated as a home-brew riff on Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. Nonetheless, evolving into “a giant maze map-a-thon – reputed to contain the first computer ‘anti-hero’ as a main character.”

Upon publication, Pud Pud’s specific whereabouts were appended should we somehow have failed to notice that the psychedelic landscape comprises melted Sinclair Spectrums, 7urp soft drink cans, decapitated hands and (scarecrow?) heads, flower-sprouting skulls, and (magic?) mushrooms. Check your local Xmas cracker shop for the punchline.

That’s aside from the oddball assortment of (sometimes mutating) animated enemy sprites. Defying the profusion of onscreen activity, the pace never grinds; normally an axiom of 8-bit platformers, particularly of the airborne variety.

Only 16 years old at the time, working alone in his bedroom, even prior to release Pud Pud attracted a fair bit of attention from the media whilst the games industry was still in its infancy; a mystical entity only insiders could comprehend. As Joffa informed the Retro Brothers, his creation was initially showcased on BBC 2’s ‘Commercial Breaks’, a documentary chronicling the rise and fall of Imagine Software and Ocean’s subsequent absorption of their remnants.

“The BBC crew were there filming me at my first week in work. Not good. And if you search the internets you will see me die!”

And many thousands of retro-curious folk have. Being a confessed sociophobe Joffa was rarely seen on film or even in photographs, bonding more readily with pixels than people. Craving recognition and affection, dumbfounded by how to handle it when the situation inevitably arose. In the aftermath of the infamous Byte Back ‘incident’ he reassured former Ocean artist Mark R. Jones, “I’m fine! And in a strange way, liking all this!”

Naturally then this synoptic Commercial Breaks clip – a snapshot of a phoney documentary staged for bite-sized TV consumption – has been sampled within an inch of its grainy, dog-eared life. Had fans been working from the original VHS copy it certainly would have melted as dramatically as Joffa’s Dali-esque broken Speccy sprites.

More so than any other lodestar in the game development community I identify with Joffa. If only I possessed an ounce of his exceptional talent the parallel would be justified. Still, the drive to script life to ensure every last detail is optimised to the max, accords. To never be satisfied with your achievements, knowing that there’s always one last aspect that could be tweaked to bring about perfection. Of course, there’s no such thing, and therein lies the quandary. Rewind tape. Replay. Analyse and self-flagellate. It turns out life’s not a game. Yokas are in short supply and sometimes collecting lemons only means your fruit bowl is jammed with lemons. Be kind, don’t rewind.

Joffa expressed himself through the medium of his craft, recoiling from the threat of becoming a starring attraction himself. Feeling too insignificant an entity alone to occupy the limelight, you externalise, shift the focus to whatever is deemed more absorbing. That’s why I’m writing about him, and Joffa never wrote his autobiography.

Pud Pud himself is a tad unorthodox in that the eponymous blob comprises a razor-toothed Pacman with ear-mounted wings, a troddling gait and an insatiable appetite for unidentified, generic, pulsating pudding.

That’s perfectly rational – humans are overrated anyway – and yet I have this niggling desire to grasp his abiding motivation. Puddings, now sliding or space-invading, enjoyed cameo appearances in Kong Strikes Back and Firefly (Joffa’s favourite) as an affectionate tribute so were clearly dear to his heart.

 

To get totally on board with the concept I’d really need to fathom if his dessert preference is for apple and rhubarb crumble, bread and butter pudding, spotted dick or whatever.

Let’s find out if the cassette inlay can fill in the blanks, as well as explain what it is we’re supposed to be doing and why. Because inquiring minds need to know.

“Help Pud Pud to escape from weird world. Energy fill-ups necessary to complete games. To increase his energy he must eat certain creatures and avoid others.

To find the secret exit he must consume all ten hidden puddings – but beware Mrs Pud Pud – her kiss is deadly.”

Got it, they’re pudding keys baked by a toxic chef. The hand that feeds you bites! I should have guessed. She makes Gordon Ramsey look like an amateur fresh out of curmudgeon school. Must try harder, Gordo.

What makes survival tricky is that our energy constantly diminishes; establishing which critters replenish and which sap it further is entirely trial and error. All part of the super-test, and well, you know, inlay space was limited. You can ‘stab to start’ all you like and it won’t conjure up a weapon of any sort.

Play it safe by steering clear of them all and Pud Pud soon transforms into a trussed up chicken dinner, losing one of his three precious lives. Pop goes the weasel. A quadrilogy of distressed bluebottles depart this poultry corpse upon its spiralling descent to terra firma. Undeniably Pud Pud is a chicken in disguise; because they’re flightless birds he swallows flies to permit flight. Obviously.

The inlay instructions continue…

“Points are awarded as follows: between 10 and 80 points for each creature consumed. 9000 points for each pudding consumed.

Bonus score is also given for the amount of energy remaining if kissed by Mrs Pud Pud.

An extra life is awarded for collecting all ten hidden puddings.”

Isn’t the game over by the time we’ve achieved this? Why would we need an extra life? Maybe game protagonists live on amidst the circuitry once we power down. Switch them back on again later for another slice of gaming ‘afters’ and they suddenly spring to life, having only been pretending to lie dormant waiting for us to apply our dexterous puppetry skills.

You never could tell with Jonathan. Had he told me he’d invented genuine AI and covertly sneaked it into a Spectrum game when no-one was looking, I’d have believed him in a heartbeat.

​Pud Pud wouldn’t win any design awards, yet is a commendable effort for a first title created at a time in Joffa’s life when most of us would have considered ourselves pretty shrewd just to be able to connect up the system on which it ran. Despite initially being sold at a premium retail price of £6.90, earning Joffa a cool £1000 one-off fee and a lucrative, steady career, it wasn’t even his main focus.

“I wrote it in the evening whilst at sixth form college and took it to Ocean Software during the summer holidays. They wanted it and offered me a job. I remember my first week working in Manchester, Daley Thompson had won the Decathlon and Imagine Software had just gone bust. The BBC were running around the offices filming a documentary on the software industry called Commercial Breaks. I’m on it playing Pud Pud. The phrase ‘collect ten puddings’ has haunted me ever since!”

Interview with ZX Golden Years (January 2001)

Amongst the bizarre furniture populating our ‘weird world’ environment are gravestones etched with the epithet ‘Joffa says RIP’. I’d hope he’s now taking his own sagely advice, any nagging echoes of dim and distant puddings having ceased ringing in his tormented ears. I envy him in a way.

Ocean, in contrast, were content to let the puddings run riot for as long as they continued to be a healthy money-spinner. Without invading the UK charts as far as I can tell, Pud Pud must have sold reasonably well to be considered worthy of a £2.99 budget re-issue by Americana Software two years later when aesthetically the dessert was already beginning to look a bit stale. On the contrary, Joffa informs us “Pud Pud topped the charts in Sweden. That means something, I’m sure.”

Your Sinclair critiqued the regurgitated dish in September 1986, awarding Pud Pud a fairly average 70%.

“The game works well via keyboard or joystick, it’s just the scoring system that’s a bit peculiar. Eat the small creatures that keep bugging you and you get a few measly points – consume a pudding and a whacking 9,000 points are added to your score. Very disorienting!”

At a time when the majority of games developers merely sought to recreate a sport or campaign already humanly possible in reality, it’s amusing to note that the scoring system was the aspect of Pud Pud Your Sinclair found “a bit peculiar”.

Perhaps they failed to reach the finale. Upon collecting the last pudding we pop out of Joffa’s ear, intimating that the entire scenario took place inside the programmer’s head. All a bit ‘Being John Malkovich’ 15 years ahead of its time. As early game conclusions go it’s a titanic improvement over “game over, well done” printed in monochrome text overlayed on a solid, plain backdrop.

Joffa, lost son of The Simpsons!

 

Apparently ‘heretical’ was the objective, Joffa proud to have nailed it. In September 2008 in response to a World of Spectrum forum topic querying the strangest game wrap-ups, Joffa nominated…

“Frankie Goes To Hollywood has the word ‘Welcome’ as an ending, and Pud Pud has Pud Pud dropping out of my yellow head! Do these count?”

Crash magazine too appreciated Pud Pud’s kooky credentials without reaching its denouement, owing to the unforgiving difficulty curve. Concluding that “Jonathan Smith must be a very abnormal person, or even a relative of Matthew Smith (no offence intended)” they decreed that “Pud Pud is one of the weirdest games I’ve played for a long while – it really is strange …Everything is so out of this world, his imagination or inspiration must come from nightmares.”

75% is a fair assessment even by 1985 standards when expectations were far lower. Today Pud Pud is principally an intriguing curio, coded by one of the Spectrum’s most talented and beloved innovators. Play it for five minutes then skip to the conclusion and you’ve pretty much seen all the game has to offer.

Nevertheless, that’s immaterial. Aside from sister Christine Smith’s nerve-janglingly zany music – “played using a sound routine ‘hacked’ from Ocean’s Mr Wimpy” Joffa imparts – and the fantastic artwork courtesy of the sadly late Bob Wakelin, Pud Pud was the sole endeavour of one naive schoolboy. It embodies the first stepping stone of an exemplary – albeit prematurely curtailed – career in the games industry, the foundations upon which Cobra, Green Beret, Hyper Sports, Batman the Caped Crusader and Midnight Resistance were built. And that’s not to be sneezed at.

A dishevelled Batman or Worzel Gummidge?

 

Afforded the slightest opportunity Joffa injected his own special brand of eccentricity into his creations, on occasion flipping licences on their head so as to become unrecognisable. And better for it, as was the case with his very-loosely-based-on-the-Stallone-movie Speccy platformer, Cobra.

It was rare to grant developers carte blanche freedom to express themselves in whatever way they saw fit – Joffa should have considered himself extremely privileged. Concrete acknowledgement of unreserved faith in Joffa’s ingenuity, almost certainly brushed off as misplaced trust, framing reality to match his inner self-doubt. Regardless, he validated their shrewd judgement, making the allegedly impossible, possible.

Deviating from the norm set Joffa apart, it’ll do that. It ensured he stood out from the crowd, seducing the admiration of the Speccy fraternity, provoking covetous green-eyed-monsterism amongst the Commodore 64 opposition.

Ultimately this selfsame trait appears to have spelt his downfall; Joffa’s specific cause of death isn’t common knowledge. Invariably assuming you’re a worthless piece of… Flit between psychotropic benzodiazepines and SSRIs expecting the next trial to transform you into someone you’re comfortable to call you, with no magic bullet in sight the frail human mind is an unarmed barrier to meltdown. Sensible to avoid scrutiny to maintain the illusion.

Joffa was petrified of social interaction, driving him to the brink of agoraphobia. Feeling The Fear and Doing It Anyway – as the infamous self-help book would prescribe – lured Joffa into the malignant territory of drug and alcohol abuse, as evidenced by his ketamine-fueled, incoherent performance at the Byte Back Ocean reunion event in January 2009. I don’t judge, I only know that one of the most traumatic crises in life I hope you’ll never encounter is detachment from reality without drugs.

In March Joffa tried to convince Mark R. Jones he had everything under control.

“Oh, God! You think I’m like that all the time! Don’t be silly! Massive painkillers are for a reason! I just got it all wrong! I knew I would! I really am okay!”

Just over a year later he was gone. ‘Time zup’ he’d say.

Joffa was a lone, inimitable spirit. If you’ve read some of his World of Spectrum forum posts under the alias ‘Frobush’ or watched Smifff’s quirky, disordered YouTube videos, you likely saw the writing on the wall.

For anyone capable of looking beyond his mental health afflictions, embracing Joffa as a uniquely entertaining and gifted retro-gaming celeb, it was a fun diversion to revel in the madness. As much as it was troubling to conceive the inner turmoil he sought to mask with whimsical obfuscation. I should finish with an upbeat platitude.

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