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An interview with outsider game legend Gary Acord. Delight in his design process. Marvel at his mythology. Become a fan all over again.

EJR Tairne, Blogger

May 16, 2013

15 Min Read

Acord Games logo

Acord Games logo

In recent years Gary Acord has built a reputation on retrogaming sites through an extensive series of Wolf3D hacks and surreal experiments with DOS-based game creation systems. His recurring subjects include superheroes, half-naked anime girls, ultra-violence, and Pac-Man. Recently we tracked down Mr. Acord, to delve into the mind behind the mystery.

If you like, you can follow along through the Classic PC Games section at archive.org.

Hi, Gary. Recently I have been introduced to your vast catalog of games. I would like to ask you a few questions, if that's all right.

Sure. It will be fine to ask me a few questions regarding the games I designed. I'll try to answer them to the best of my ability. Thanks for showing interest.

First off, I'm curious about their chronology. Many of your games share resources, and you seem to have gone back and revised several of them. Could you tell me in what order you designed them?

Golly. It's hard to remember now. I redid all the games in about 2010, and when I modified the characters or background blocks for one game I oftentimes improved them in the others. However, I believe that Zapak came before Pakdream, and Pakmon was the last of the trilogy.

Why did you go back and tweak your old games?

The games had all been made with [an old version of] Game-Maker, and I got out the newer Game-Maker and decided to upgrade all the games with the newer engine. I looked at the old games, and there were quite a few problems. The enemies moved too fast, and would kill you before you had a chance to finish the levels. I slowed them down. I gave the hero ammunition. I also increased the heroes' movement capacities. My new philosophy was that the hero should be able to move about freely, fight slower moving enemies, and always have weapon capacity.

It was when I made the game Pakmon in 2010 that I decided to go back and utilize some of the things I learned making Pakmon on all the old games.  Pakmon was first developed in 2010. It was the last game I did.

That recent? Wow. What caused you to dig up your old tools?

Gary Acord's Pakmon (2010)

Gary Acord's Pakmon (2010)

A friend of mine named Russell had come to visit me and he brought a version of YoYo Games' Game Maker, which had a Pac-Man game. I got inspired to create a Pac-Man type game, but I didn't really like the style of the YoYo Game Maker. I thought about my old RSD Game-Maker, and all my earlier games, and the fact that I had done Pac-Man like games with Zapak and Pakdream. So I decided that I could do a much better Pac-Man type game than YoYo had allowed, and thought about how I could link together multiple mazes with the large screen capacity. So I created Pakmon.

I was enthused about the game, and went back and upgraded Pakdream and Zapak with some of the new sprites and character-definitions that I had used with Pakmon. Then, I thought about all my other Game-Maker games. I looked at them, and they were a mess. Many of them never were finished. Levels were only half-done, the characters weren't clearly defined, the background blocks qualities were all messed up. Gravity was inconsistent. They all displayed symptoms of the shortcomings of the early Game-Maker engine. I decided to upgrade them all with my modified version of RSD Game-Maker 3.0.

I did, improving all the definitions and everything. The title screens, menus and text screens were all updated and revised. If you ever run across any of the old versions of these games, you'll see what I mean. Many times the enemies ran so fast they killed you at the very beginning of a level and it was impossible to advance. The character often didn't have his weapon, and it was too difficult to find the hidden weapon. The character's movement wasn't very good. The weapons didn't fire right. The monster's animation often time would flash with images that didn't fit. The gravity was often messed up. The character would get trapped and be unable to get out of an area. I cleaned the characters' definitions, increased their movement ability. I no longer made them confined to the run, jump and shoot type, but allowed them to move up, down, or sideways, or to jump left or right, and to squeeze through small openings.

I've noticed that several of your games -- even ones that aren't overt Pac-Man tributes -- have a Pac-Man inspired element to one or more level. Does this come out of your revisions, or was the Pac-Man thing always a running theme?

Gary Acord's Zapak (1993)

Gary Acord's Zapak (1993)

Exactly. You're very perceptive. Although I had some Pac-man levels in earlier games such as Zapak and Pakdream, after I designed Pakmon, I brought many of the elements and qualities of that game into the earlier games. The movement capacity of the main character to move up, down, left, or right, to always have a weapon, and to make the movements of the enemies slower so that they can chase without immediately catching you, allowing you time to run away from them, and to make them not so powerful as to immediately kill you without a fight.

I redid a lot of the maps. I deleted many levels that relied on elements in the old RSD demos. I attempted to redo the characters. I redefined the weapons and background blocks with the newer properties allowed by the newer Game-Maker engine. I redefined the characters and redrew them.

Thus the pooling of resources. Still, there are some echoes in there. Most of the levels are based on RSD’s demo maps.

Joan Stone's Penguin Pete (1991)

Joan Stone's Penguin Pete (1991)

I would argue with the use of the word "most". It is true that some of the games have leftover elements from some of RSD's demo games, but in 2010 I redid most of the games and tried to eliminate or change most of the levels that had originally been in the demo games. I deleted a lot of them that were in the games, and attempted revising the few that were left over. The first few Game-maker games I developed relied on elements from the demo games, which RSD said we could use in our games, but after my first two games I didn't use any more of the demo levels, although sometimes I used levels from the first two games in subsequent games. I attempted to make them unique, though. Anyway, the statement above may tend to make people doubt my credibility, and it is not entirely accurate.

Also, the RSD demo games were all created and exported with the old Game-Maker engine. Any levels, objects, and elements of the demo game that I used had to be resaved in the newer Game-Maker engine, and the objects, characters and everything had to be redefined, and any resulting level would be a great improvement over the original demo level. In fact, the original demo levels had never been exported  with the new Game-Maker engine. Hence, any elements I put from the original demo games into my games would be equipped with all the improvements that the newer Game-Maker engine had allowed, and thus they would be somewhat unique, something that had never been presented in this quality.

What about Icemare? It seems basically like a character swap of Joan Stone’s Penguin Pete.

Gary Acord's Icemare (1992)

Gary Acord's Icemare (1992)

I don't know if this is the best way to state it. What is a "character swap?" I know you probably mean that Icemare is a version of Penguin Pete with the character swapped to Sergeant Super, but I'm not sure if that's what you said. Also, the enemies and blocks have been redefined and the whole game compiled with the new GM engine. Also, [the documentation states] that, "You are free to enhance Penguin Pete and you may borrow any of its Gameware for use in your GAME-MAKER games" But does this mean that the game you make will forever be called a Penguin Pete game? I don't know if that's entirely fair. Also, Penguin Pete was made with the old Game-Maker engine. Icemare is made with the new GM engine. And a lot of elements of the game are different. The properties of the blocks, the character, and enemies are different. The maps are different. And I’m not sure if the pieces are all still in the game, and I don't think it works like Penguin Pete did. A few of the levels are totally different. It was the first game I designed though, and it did rely more on the demo game than the others.

Could you explain a little of your design process? Once you have a basic idea for a game, where do you go from there?

Gary Acord's Superheroes (1993)

Gary Acord's Superheroes (1993)

Gosh. This is a difficult question. It really depends on the game engine as to what steps I take in developing a game. With RSD Game-Maker, the game begins with deciding on a title and making a title screen, then you have to develop the character for the game, then you can come up with new ideas for background blocks and enemies. Oftentimes, you get some of the enemies and background blocks from other games you've created. Sometimes, you start a level from scratch. Other times, you import a map from another of your games and use it as a base to make a different map with.

Going back, you said you modified your copy of Game-Maker. I’m guessing you mean the altered file extensions and so forth? What was your reason for doing all of that?

I wanted my games to be unique, and to not be identifiable with Game-Maker. This was for several reasons, one of which is that people couldn't easily load my games into Game-Maker and change them up. The other reason was to protect me from any legal claim that Game-Maker might make were my games to become extremely commercially successful.

What sort of response have you gotten? You've mentioned your fans a few times.

I used to get two or three registrations a month, back in the day when shareware catalogs such as Big Byte, JCSM Public Software Library, Mom And Pop's Software, etc., used to carry the games. But I stopped getting registrations about six years ago. I started my website last year, and I get about twenty visits per day.

Gary Acord's Strange Worlds III

Gary Acord's Strange Worlds III

Most of my fans nowadays are ones who like the games I made using the Wolfenstein game engine. Sites such as Wolfenstein Goodies , The Wolf 3D Dome, and Mr. Lowe’s Wolf 3-D Page carry my games made with the Wolfenstein engine. Also, on my websites I have a lot of followers who download my games and the other games on my site regularly. The site also has download links for about 150 other games, along with my 80 or so games.

Also, I sell several games CDs, my Dolfin Comics PC comic book, and a philosophy book I wrote called Heaven On Earth, on the webpages. I've gotten some response to these. In addition, I have numerous fans of my comic book Dolfin Comics who still correspond with me, because I was a comic book artist and publisher and one of the founders of modern-day comic book fandom. And I have a fanbase for my philosophical publications. My book was made required reading at The Minnesota Institute Of Philosophy, and they held a banquet in my honor at which they awarded me a Ph.D. in Philosophy for my book Heaven On Earth.

On that note you seem to have some sort of greater cosmology going on with your games; there are several crossovers and apparent parallels between characters. To what extent have you mapped all of this out? For instance, is there some relationship between Capn Zapn and Major Marvel? It kind of reminds me of the old DC “Earth Two” business.

Gary Acord's superheroes, Capn Zapn and Major Marvel

Gary Acord's superheroes, Capn Zapn and Major Marvel

I first created Capn Zapn, but later I didn't really like the name. After I created a Sergeant Super, I decided I wanted a character called Major Marvel. Major Marvel wound up looking a lot like Capn Zapn. At the time, I didn't know Capn Zapn would last, and for all I knew people looking at Major Marvel would never see Capn Zapn. So I put my work into Major Marvel and set Capn Zapn aside. However, Capn Zapn continued to have a following, and so I never discontinued the game. But I like your view that possibly there are two parallel worlds, a la DC Comics, wherein Capn Zapn and Zapper reside in one and Major Marvel and Zapman in the other. Also, Sergeant Super would be in the first world, Jaxon Zoose in the second.

I'm sort of confused about the relationship between Zapper and Zapman. The Fantastic Zapman is meant as a sort of a prequel to the Zapper games, right?

Yes. You said it best. One thing with Zapper: when Zapper The Wicked Cricket came out, I became concerned that they might complain about me using the name Zapper, even though Zapper came out long before Zapper The Wicked Cricket. (I think they may also have gotten the "Wicked" part from my game Wicked Dream, and they may have taken my Zapper name too. Hence, I made a game called Zapman just in case some legal problem ever happened with Zapper.

I saw that several games have undergone some name changes. I get why you'd want to rename Starcraft (now titled Spacecraft), but the Zapper games had puzzled me.

I tried to give the later Zapper games consistent names, as I had revised them through several name-changes.

I find it hard to tell Zapper and Zapman apart, but between them there seem to be at least nine different sprites of various sizes and styles. Do you consider any of these designs definitive?

The many faces of Zapman (aka Zapper)

The many faces of Zapman (aka Zapper)

The definitive Zapper character is the one in Anyworld. The definitive Zapman character would be the one in level one of Zapman.

What's the explanation behind some of the more radical design variants, like the Superheroes version with the flamboyant outfit?

The flamboyant version was as he designed when I first made the Game-Maker Zapper games. Later, I changed the costume, but I thought I'd keep a level or two with the earlier costume.

The Street Wolf character – is that your own design? He's very distinctive.

Street Wolf character sprite

Street Wolf character sprite

Yes, I designed the character. He seems to move like no other character. He kind of dances a strange dance. He moves with a rhythm. He somehow took on a personality of his own. I think the wild blonde hairstyle resembled something I saw on some Street Fighter game.

That was my thought -- he reminded me a bit of SNK's characters, like from The King of Fighters. He's got that same lanky, hip quality.

I think I got his hairstyle from some illustration in a magazine or somewhere advertising Street Fighter.

Regarding your statement regarding the characters seeming to be similar to the DC 2-world characters, I think this is probably because I developed one-block and two-block characters. Thus, you have the one-block characters – Sergeant Super, Zapman, Major Marvel – on the one hand, and you have the two-block characters – Jaxon Zoose, Zapper, Capn Zapn – on the other. They probably exist in the same universe (except for Zapper and Zapman), but they are different sizes.

Got it.

I hope this clarifies a few things. I'm sorry I'm not better in answering your question regarding the chronology of the games. It was so long ago, and I've designed about 60 games since then with various other game engines, that I can't really remember the order that I created the games. I could probably figure it out by going back and looking through tons and tons of old 3 1/4 inch disks, but I hate going through them. And it would still be quite a puzzle to figure out the order they came out.

Thanks, Gary.

EJR Tairne is a freelance writer and editor, sometime game theorist, and general grump. He has written lots of stuff for the Gamasutra family of publications. Most if it is pretty grumpy. You can read more grumpy things on his grumpy blog, that he updates whenever he feels like it.

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