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Clint Thompson

Guido Henkel's LOST Atari Panther RPG: The Crypt (Lost Dragon Interview)

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Fascinating read provided by The Lost Dragon - Enjoy!

 

The following interview was conducted nearly 18 months ago and was
originally planned to be an exclusive for the planned GTW Atari
Panther article i was researching, on behalf of the site, however,
since said article would not be started by GTW until 2017 at the
earliest, I've decided we've sat on the information long enough and it
needs to be put up on Atari I.O forum instead, so the community can
enjoy it.


It is with the greatest of pleasure I was able to put questions to a
previously unknown, by myself, Atari Panther developer, Mr Guido
Henkel :


1)Guido, would you mind starting this interview by talking us
through just how you became involved with Atari, in terms of
developing for the Panther Console (claims go Atari UK had 20 Panther
development kits and invited the UK Press  and development community
to look at the hardware,with the li likes of The One, Games X etc
seeing them.

Development kits were believed to of been in the  in hands of Jeff
Minter, Domark and Psygnosis. They'd approached Mev Dinc, but he'd
declined, due to Atari's poor standing in the industry).


What can you tell us?

 

A1) My business partner, Hans-Jürgen Brändle, and I were huge Atari ST
fans at the time and it was our main development platform. In 1990,
during CES we visited Atari’s exhibitor suite to see what news there
was regarding new ST/TT models. By sheer coincidence, we rode the
elevator with Atari CEO Jack Tramiel. We introduced ourselves and when
we left the elevator, Jack instantly put us in touch with one of his
developer relations people. It turned out there was no news regarding
the ST/TT line of computers, but he told us they were working on a new
console, called Panther.

Atari was in the process of signing up developers for the console at
the time and we had just completed an action adventure, which we had
originally planned for the ill-fated Konix System also, and were
working on “Spirit of Adventure” our first full-blown role-playing
game. Atari wanted variety in its launch titles and was very
interested in getting an RPG on the console, so they added us to their
developer program. We never dealt with Atari UK. All of our contact
was directly with their US division out of Sunnyvale. A couple of
months later we received a shipment from them with a Panther
development kit, consisting of a Panther prototype, an Atari TT
workstation and the developer manual.


2)This is fantastic news, no-one I'm aware of UK Press wise or
seemingly online, seemed aware you were developing an RPG, it's never
been mentioned, just the usual suspects, Pitfighter (which it now
appears was a red herring), possibly Raiden, Plasma Pong, Crescent
Galaxy and Cybermorph.

I'd love to hear more on just what your RPG game was going to be like,
just how far along it got before Atari pulled the plug on the Panther,
what features were you planning to exploit, hardware wise and your
thoughts on the hardware itself .....(there's been views expressed
online over the years people though it  seemed to think it lacked
enough RAM, Atari were  considering dropping the Ensoniq Sound chip
etc, so any insights would be fantastic) and is there a possible
code/concept art, anything.... still exists of the game itself?


A2) The game we were working on was called “The Crypt.” It was a
first-person dungeon crawler in the vein of “Eye of the Beholder,”
with an Egyptian theme throughout. You were essentially exploring the
insides of a pyramid with all its traps and labyrinthian mazes. I was
designing and programming the game at the time and I had one artist
working with me on the game’s prototype. We had one level complete
when we received word from Atari that the Panther was cancelled and
that they had a bleeding-edge 64-bit console called Jaguar in the
making that would replace the project.

I honestly do not recall a whole lot about the system. RAM may have
been an issue, but we had just written one of the most incredible data
compressors in our careers, so that I was confident we would not run
into too many problems there.

I loved that fact that I could work on a TT as the master workstation
because it allowed me to instantly use the same toolchain I was using
for my previous development and did not have to find and learn new
tools. So, from the first day, I was essentially ready to work on the
console, and I remember how cool it felt to see my first sprite on the
Panther screen—it was the game’s logo, and with its hardware sprite
zooming capabilities, it was really cool to see how just a few lines
of code created a powerful entrance for that logo on the screen.

Regarding our development, I do not believe anything has survived. I
may have the actual hardware in the attic somewhere still, but I no
longer have documentation or source code of the game itself. I’ve
never been one to archive much of my work, which is bad, in
retrospect, but I never really thought any of my work was all that
relevant to be saved for posterity.


3)That's a crying shame, but understandable, so much has been lost
over the years.

How did you feel i wonder, when Atari (Uk ?) announced Panther was
being scrapped in favour of the Jaguar-I ask this as 'officially'
Atari's PR were sending out the message they fully supported any
Panther developers to move code/projects onto Jaguar instead (and
indeed we saw Cybermorph and Crescent Galaxy jump ship), but Jeff
Minter for example ditched the Star Raiders-esq game he was working on
to start Tempest 2000 from scratch for the Jaguar, so we'd love to
hear why your RPG never made it across either.


A3) Indeed, Atari offered to enroll us into the Jaguar developer
program, and they were true to their word. By the time the Jaguar
project opened up for developers, they reached out to us and invited
us to continue our work on the new console. However, by that time we
were completely tied up developing the first of our “Realms of
Arkania” games, which left absolutely no resources available for any
other developments, so we passed.

“Realms of Arkania” was not only a dream project for us, but it was
also a huge undertaking for a small developer like ourselves.


Q4)Also could i ask you for your, your own personal thoughts on how
you felt regarding the possibility  the Panther could have made an
impact against the likes of the Mega Drive and SNES and thus as some
withing the Atari Community have felt,  bought Atari enough time to
firm up support and hardware (bug testing chipsets etc) for the
Jaguar.?


A4) From a technical standpoint Panther did put Mega Drive and SNES to
shame, I remember. They were getting a bit long in the tooth already,
especially compared to some of the things you started seeing on the
Amiga. The Panther was like an Atari ST on steroids with a console
design, meaning without the operating system overhead. Even though the
architecture was very different than that of the ST-line of computers,
it was following the same lean and mean approach. The architecture had
quite a bit in common with Atari’s Lynx, if I recall correctly, and
had some powerful incredibly sprite hardware that exceeded Sega’s and
Nintendo’s capabilities.

However, with the Jaguar’s accelerated development schedule, I think
they were smart to cancel Panther and shift focus to Jaguar instead.
There, they had the 64-bit selling point, and for a while they really
had the superior hardware to anyone else. The reason Jaguar failed was
not the hardware, it was the marketing and the lack of developer
support.

If you look at what was going on at that time, Atari was not really a
leading edge game platform in many countries from a developer’s
standpoint. In the UK, where most of the top-tier action games of the
era came from, everyone was Amiga fanatic, and in the US, where the
more heavy-weight games came from, the PC was really beginning to make
an impact with its stunning VGA graphics. So, Atari had a bit of a
problem getting the foot in the door with developers, which I always
found disappointing.

I'd like to thank Guido for taking the time to talk us through what
turned out to be a lost game on 2, ill fated consoles and give us his
personal views and insights.

They are very much appreciated.

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Thank for conducting this interview, @Lost Dragon.  The Panther is a platform that I wish we knew more about.  It would be great if Guido still had the hardware.  I would love to get a photo of that.  I wonder how many Panther developers jumped ship after months of work when Atari switched focus to the Jaguar? 

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Thank for conducting this interview, @Lost Dragon.  The Panther is a platform that I wish we knew more about.  It would be great if Guido still had the hardware.  I would love to get a photo of that.  I wonder how many Panther developers jumped ship after months of work when Atari switched focus to the Jaguar? 

 

Very curious about the same thing though I imagine the prototype having very little use since it appears to be so limited and so early on. I've only ever seen the one or two pics appearing online from someone apparently stumbling across one at an auction in person. Really makes me regret ridding a lot of my prototypes as I would have liked to document them a lot better, making videos available online for a better overview for people to see.

 

Particularly enjoyed the part meeting Jack Tramiel in the elevator!

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