I hope I never have to do two of these in a row again. I’m afraid today’s entry is going to be another obituary. Very sadly the legendary games programmer Jonathan “Joffa” Smith passed-away on the morning of the 26th of June 2010.
Joff (as we all learned to call him) was one of a small group of recognisable names in the early days of the British video games industry in the 1980s alongside the likes of Matthew Smith and Mike Singleton. His first published game was 1984’s Pud Pud, an ingenious mix of maze game, action and surrealism which still holds up well today and isn’t as well-known as it ought to be. Smith was only 16 when the game was bought-up by Ocean Software, then a small Manchester-based software house, and it lead to him getting a permanent coding job with the company. Joff had the distinction of being both a talented coder and artist and his games featured an unmistakable “cartoonish” art style which, along with his name written as a mirror-image on the title screens, became a hallmark of much of his 8-bit software. He went on to produce a string of successful and still-popular titles for the ZX Spectrum home computer including Kong Strikes Back (despite the name, heavily based on the arcade game Mr Do’s Wild Ride), a famous license based on the forgotten Sly Stallone movie Cobra which largely dispensed with the film’s plot and instead was a joyously silly and very playable arcade-platform game, and critically-acclaimed conversions of various coin-op games such as Mikie, Green Beret and Hyper Sports. Despite being conversions, these last titles always had a very distinct Joffa “feel” in graphics, sound and general polish.
Smith went on to form a new company in the late ’80s – Special FX – who developed titles for various software houses under commission. Among the games he helped create under this label were Hysteria, which was something of an unofficial successor to the earlier Cobra, and Firefly, the latter being his declared favourite of his software output. He also wrote the acclaimed Spectrum version of the licensed Batman the Caped Crusader.
In later years he helped write games for the new 16-bit machines including Atari ST (including a conversion of Midnight Resistance), Sega Megadrive and Super Nintendo. These were largely team-efforts and conversions, though, and fewer of the games he worked on were bona fide “Joff” titles.
Joff left the games business in 1995 having, in his own words, “had enough” and spent some time DJing before briefly returning around 2000-2001 and publishing a WAP game for Orange called Airlock. Although barely known of (and probably not played much any more) what we’ve seen of this game indicates it was a return to Joff-as-auteur with the game and graphics both the work of Mr Smith rather than a team.
Smith was a very active and popular poster on the World of Spectrum forums, as well as numerous other parts of the world wide web (he was a regular poster on another forum I visit as well as WoS) where he gained a reputation as an eccentric, often funny personality. In reality, however, he appears to have been rather uncomfortable with social gatherings by his own admission and avoided doing promotional gigs during his programming days. As a result, despite being very active in Spectrum fandom in an online capacity, he rarely made appearances at “real life” events. The one time he did put in such an appearance – at Byte Back in 2009 – things didn’t exactly go well. Despite this, he was much beloved amongst the Spectrum and retrogaming community where he was always happy to talk about the “old days” and give advice to people still writing software for Sinclair’s venerable machine. He also kept us entertained with his distinctly odd (and usually very short) YouTube videos, sometimes made in response to whatever we’d all been discussing on the WoS forums.
In the mid-2000s he revealed he was working on a brand-new Spectrum title, Saucer, which was to be released through the small retrogaming publishing house Cronosoft. After releasing a couple of in-progress versions development on this eventually stalled. Possibly due to his later ill-health. He’d also planned to make a film – an ambition which seems to have gone back to his school days and which he mentioned at his Byte Back appearance – called Testing Natasha which also looks unlikely to ever be finished.
It’s for his 8-bit games for which he’ll be best remembered, though, and it’s probably not an exaggeration to say that the likes of Cobra and Pud Pud will probably still be played another 25 even 50 years hence.
If you follow this link here it will take you to his World of Spectrum programmers page which lists all of his Spectrum games and also includes links to some interviews he did near the bottom of the page.
My thoughts are with his family and friends. We’ve all lost a unique talent.
Jonathan “Joffa” Smith 1967-2010 R.I.P.