First Star in the Atari Universe
By Will Richardson
(Appeared in "Electronic Games" Magazine)
Fernando Herrera's story is so close to a Hollywood film script that
it seems fitting that he should join up with two movie producers to
develop a computer software company.
The producers, Richard Spitalny and Bill Blake, are best known for
their flick "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia", but by
joining up with the incredibly gifted Fernando, they may soon eclipse
all their past successes.
Fernando first came to EG's attention via the arrival of a review
copy of Space Chase, a science fiction arcade contest written in
Atari BASIC. Published by the Long Island-based Swifty Software,
Space Chase remains one of the most challenging and innovative SF
contests ever produced.
The object of the game is to "conquer" the plethora of planets that
dot the extraterrstrial playfield by passing over them. The gamer's
craft, in turn, is pursued by a tie-fighter-styled series of scout
ships where their sold purpose is to ram and destroy the player's
ship. The player has several weapons at his command. Bombs can be
jettisoned from the rear of the rocket as it moves along, destroying
any hapless kamikazes on the ship's tail, and the arcader's ship can
"wraparound" or scroll off the screen at one point and reappear on
the other side of the playfield.
If a scout ship's wiped out, a new craft is instantly generated from
the same base. Each scenario the gamer successfully completes brings
another enemy base into action until all three of the alien base-
stars are pumping out death ships like hamburgers at MacDonald's.
The game is notable for the simple, but perfectly suited graphics,
excellent play-action--probably the fastest BASIC program ever
written for the Atari computers--and totally original play concept.
When a program of this astonishing quality issues from an obscure
programmer via a one-man software house (Swifty is run by an affable
schoolteacher named Lee Jackson, a prominent mover in the creation
of New York-based Atari computer user groups), the videogame
journalist's instincts immediately take over. What's the story with
this Herrera, we wondered? Where had he been hiding all these years?
The answer, as previously mentioned, is almost too good a story to be
true. Born in Bogota, Columbia 39 years ago, Herrera's artistic
talents were evidenced from an early age. He could draw, paint and,
by the rip old age of eight, was making his very own 8mm movies!
After copping a degree in architecture from the National University
of Columbia (and finishing in the top 5% of his class) Fernando spent
three years pursuing his ambition before moving to the U.S. in 1970.
While employed as an Industrial Engineer for a steel company, he also
found time to win several chess trophies from the U.S.C.F. (the
United States Chess Federation).
In the late 1970s, however, Fernando discovered an interest that soon
replaced his passion for chess -- personal computers. He read
everything available on the subject, even writing programs himself
for a whole year before he actually got around to buying one. It was
this new hobby that proved not only a door-opener to a new career,
but a personal triumph as well.
Fernando's son, Steve, born with severe cataracts, was pronounced
blind by every medical specialist who examined the boy. Fernando,
however, refused to accept this judgement and set about to ensure
that Steve's education would progress normally. He immediately took
steps to create a program to help his boy learn the alphabet. After
several months of work, Fernando proved the medical profession wrong
by successfully utilizing his teaching program, allowing Steve to
make great strides in overcoming his handicap.
That program ultimately metamorphosized into My First Alphabet, a
design that won Fernando the prestigious first annual Star Award of
Merit from Atari in 1981. He became the first designer to win the
$25,000 Grand Prize and Atari has now added the highly effective
learning aid to its software line. My First Alphabet has proven
invaluable in teaching depth perception, size ratios, and, of course,
the letters of the alphabet themselves.
Today, Fernando is sitting atop the booming market for Atari computer
game software. Lead by a canny perception of the audience with
which they are dealing, First Star Software, as the embryonic venture
is known, will initially deal with a maximum of 32K memory -- so that
the software will run on any Atari computer.
"A videogame is like a puzzle," Fernando explains. "You can't rush
it. When it finally comes together, I sit down for 24 solid hours --
no food, bathroom, nothing -- until it's completed."
One of the Atari computer systems' greatest boosters, Fernando feels
certain that, "We have only begun to scratch the surface of what this
computer can do. You can do things with the Atari that no other
computer can emulate."
His approach to game design sounds deceptively simple -- but it may
only work for someone with Fernando's natural genius with computers.
"The user is paramount. I must look at all my programs through
the user's eyes." He never thinks in terms of the system's supposed
limitations, but rather how to overcome such problems. He speaks in
short, concise sentences, tossing off such insightful remakarks as,
"I don't move data -- I move graphics."
The first game to be released under the First Star banner will be an
arcade quality space shoot-out dubbed Astro Chase. The game revolves
around the defense of planet Earth from invading aliens and features
not only spectacular graphics, scrolling and audio (or should that be
"sound track"?), but a technical innovation that could cause a minor
revolution in videogaming. This proprietary process allows the human
pilot to lock his craft on course and then fire independently in any
direction. Unlike past contests of this type, in which gamers could
only fire in the direction of travel, "single thrust propulsion"
allows players a flexibility never before available. Imagine running
down an alien craft and being able to fire backwards while in the
midst of a retreat.
Astro Chase is a sure-fire software hit. Future games will make more
use of Spitalny and Blake's movie background in picking the program
concepts. The second scheduled release, Dangerous Cargo, is a
trucking game that will also debut in film format later this year.
The increasing kinship between movies and videogames has only begun
to be explored, and the thought of a Fernando Herrera creating a
computer game based on, say, "Road Warrior", is enough to stir the
blood of any true arcader.
Fernando, meanwhile, remains unaffected by his sudden celebrity. His
main concern is still how to get the best possible game on the TV
screen. It's a job he handles with a star's touch.
Typed by Keita Iida