Shoot Em Up Construction Kit logo

Simon Rockman looks at Shoot-'Em-Up Construction Kit, the game design program which lets you decide which aliens you zap. And not an assembler in sight.

DO you find scrolling shoot-'em-ups are getting samey? Do you suspect that you could do better but know that to produce a game whould mean at least a year learning machine code and then another six months to write the game? Do you want a quick way to unleash your creative talents? You do? Then you want to rush out and buy Shoot-'Em-Up Construction Kit (Seuck to its friends), a program which lets you design your own shoot-'em-up games.

For the non-programmer it is not until you sit down to design a game that you realise how much goes into the simplest program. You have to design sprites for your player, enemies, bullets, missiles and backgrounds.
If you want to animate a sprite - so that your ship can roll for instance - you need to draw every frame. You need to sort out the movement patterns for a swooping flock of aliens, and if you want five minutes' worth of scrolling background you cannot just draw lots of screens and join them together unless you have megabytes of ram to spare. Screens have to built from standard blocks to save memory. Then there is collision detection to worry about, not to mention the scoring.

So writing a game means compiling a number of simple routines. Most programmers write special editors to automate the process. Being tools written by programmers for programmers, they are usually a bit rough. Outlaw - the Palace label used for titles written by programmers who work freelance - has produced a neat suite of programs which allows anyone to design a simple, scrolly, shooty game.

A sprite editor is used to design your ship, and if you are creating a two player game, your allies' ship, in a 24 by 24 pixel grid, using seven colours and one transparent colour so that the landscape can scroll by. The same limitations are imposed on enemy sprites all of which can have up to 18 frames of animation.
Any animated sprite is called an object, supposedly to make things simpler. You can have a total of 100 sprites stored with up to 60 of them on the screen at any one time.

You can tweak the performance of your ship by adjusting the number of bullets in the air at any one time, the bullet direction, speed and rate of fire. Traditionalists will probably want to start with three lives, but can choose a different number or use the option to win a bonus ship at 10,000 points.

The blocks for the background use eight colours - which can be different to the palette chosen for the ships - on a 32 x 32 grid. You can have up to 140 blocks, which means there is plenty of scope for interesting backgrounds.

Up to 22 levels can be designed and they don't have to smooth scroll, you can flick scroll or have a static screen. You can even switch the type of scroll in mid-flight so as to tackle a particularly nasty alien at the end of a level, like Xenon.
The game can be tested with infinite lives and then the finished result saved to a disc to form a stand-alone game.

Starting from scratch is difficult, it is far easier to modify an existing game, so the programmers have put together three sample ones. Since they are the same men who wrote Amiga Wizball for Ocean it is no surprise that the graphics are great.
But you will soon progress to writing your own games. Pete Stone from Palace says the most clever idea he saw for the Commodore 64 version was a game where a boy had to win the affection of girlfriends by throwing hearts at them. There is certainly plenty of scope.

Seuck uses its own windowing routines and will not multi-task - a necessary restraint to make the game run fast enough to be playable. You can load IFF sounds and an IFF title screen, but you cannot use brushes saved from Amiga art programs, and I see this as a major shortcoming. It would be great to be able to use something like a video digitiser to grab screens off a video recorder and pipe them into the game. There might even be a market for an IFF-to-Seuck conversion program.

The Amiga is, in the words of its designers, "a killer games machine", it is also the computer which has proved to be an unprecedented creative tool for the masses. Shoot-'Em-Up Construction Kit is the program which unites those abilities.

Shoot Em Up Construction Kit logo

Construction Kits are nothing new to would be games writers, but SEUCK can claim to be the first for Amiga owners. It's more than a straight port up from its 8-bit counterpart too, having been designed by the boys at Sensible Software, and programmed by Palace resident Richard Leinefellner. Ken McMahon donned his hard hat and made a vist to the construction site...

SEUCK first appeared on the C64 about 18 months ago. As well as taking advantage of the superior hardware, the Amiga version incorporates a few other improvements to make life easier for the aspiring games creator. You don't need any programming knowledge to create brain blasting, professional looking SEUs, it's as easy as using Lego.

If you think about what goes into your above average construction kit the menu is organised logically enough. You have a sprite editor, background editor and sound effects editor. The last two items Player Limitations and Attack Waves allow you to tweak things to make life easy for you and impossibly difficult for anyone else.

Before you boot up SEUCK it's probably a good idea to go to work with a pen and paper and jot down a few ideas about the kind of game you want to create. Will it be a deep space laser battle, a Wild West shoot out, a jaunt through the enchanted caverns, or what? Now's the time to decide. Then you can think about the scenery and the characters, creatures, craft or whatever else is going to inhabit your landscape. Don't forget the most important one - you.

You don't, of course, have to design your game according to the order of the menu. My preference would be to sort out the background first. Making a background is a bit like bricklaying, but first you have to make the bricks, or blocks. Each block is made up of a number of smaller coloured pattern squares, you insert the squares into the block to make part of a landscape feature, like, say, a bit of road, a rampart, a pyramid, a bit of metallic space station and so on.

The blocks are then placed on the background map to build up the scene. You can use the same blocks repeatedly to create, say, a stretch of road or a building. In this way, with a couple of dozen different basic blocks you can create some pretty diverse background material with very little effort. The map can contain up to 32,000 blocks, which should hold enough surprises for even the most ardent SEU fan.

Sprites are the backbone of any game. All the moving parts in any shoot 'em up will be sprites. Games programmers like them because they make programming games easy. A bunch of registers tell you what a sprite will look like, where it is, where it is going, and even when it hits other sprites. SEUCK makes it even easier and you don't have to bother with all that.

The sprite editor is a little like the background editor in that you design your sprites within a grid. You can decide the colour and shade of any individual pixel within the grid and thus create aliens, insects, craft, and so on. The sprite editor offers the exciting prospect of animating your sprites. Your SEU would look pretty boring if the alien invaders were frozen in one position. How is your gunslinger going to draw his six shooter without the aid of animation?

To animate your sprites you must create several versions of the same object at different stages in time. Our gunslinger might be depicted with his pistol holstered, then reaching for it, with it halfway out, then blasting. The more intermediate stages you have, the smoother the action will look.

You need to create these animation sequences for everything that moves. The guy on the other end of the bullet as he collapses to the ground, the screaming woman, the frightened horse. You can run your animation sequences within the sprite editor to make sure it all looks OK and make any adjustments. The other things you have to sort out is where the sprites will go in relation to the background. This is where you can create those stunning formation flying techniques by alien fighter squadrons.

No game would be complete without sound effects. Playing a game without sound is like watching TV with the volume turned down - not a lot of point really. Sound effects have the added bonus of being completely irksome to anyone within earshot, so you really need as many completely weird ones as you can cram in. The SEUCK sound editor comes with a library of 40 effects which cover the more usual SEU events like explosions, laser fire, sirens, aaaarrgghhs and so on.

You can of course create your own, and a good place to start is with one of the existing ones. By tweaking the parameters you'll soon end up with something unrecognisable. Real freeform artists can experiment with sampled sound, but may have to keep an eye on the memory meter.

When and where do the enemies show up, when does the screen scroll? It looks like a lot of work, but it isn't and you can answer all these questions very quickly. The big question is will it work, and if it does, is it any good? If things go badly wrong, it's probably more to do with your preparation and idea - or lack of them - than any failing of SEUCK. It's possible to produce a surprising diversity of first class vertical scrolling SEUs and to prove it, and give the beginner some tips. Palace have included three. Slap & Tickle is a commando-style war in the desert job, and Psychoblast is a non scrolling, flip screen weirdo with lots of pulsating geometric shapes.

If you've ever thought 'I could do better' now's your chance. The software houses aren't likely to come knocking on your door for the fruits of your labour, but you'll be able to turn your own ideas into reality. Even if you don't end up with the next big hit you'll have the satisfaction of knowing it was all your own work.