The NES Interview

Welcome to the NES interview, a hopefully occasional installment in Special Features. Here we'll interview the people responsible for making the NES - and the video game world - what it is, from programmers to designers to those who found themselves simply swept up in the revolution.

In this installment, |tsr interviews Gregg Tavares, a game programmer and designer who has been in the business for fifteen years. He's worked for Atari, MUSE Software, Microprose, Cinemaware, Virgin Games (where he worked on MC Kids and the unreleased Robocop vs. Terminator for NES), and Crystal Dynamics, where he was the lead programmer for Gex for the 3DO. He now runs Big Grub, his own software design house.

Q: OK, give me some general information on yourself. How did you get started in your video life (heh)? What's your gameography?

A: I started programming in 8th grade.  My friend Greg Marquez had recently started learning to program.  He showed me one of his first programs and for some reason I thought it was really cool.

Of course we started by typing in programs from magazines.  Although it wasn't our purpose, typing in the programs meant that we started learning how they worked.  Especially when you made a typo and needed to find where it was, it was better to kind of understand the code so you could better guess where the problem might be instead of just comparing hundreds of lines of code to the original printed in the magazine.  Next we started modifying those programs and also commercial programs (mostly games), doing things like changing the graphics and the text to sillier things.

After that we started programming our own games.  My friend, John, and I did a game called Emerald Scepter for ourselves which was very much like Adventure for the Atari 2600.  It was my first 100% assembly langauge game.  I also wrote a game called Pit Viper.  It was kind of a cross between the Apple II game Snake Byte and the Atari 2600 game Surround. It was also a four player game and we were actually addicted to it for about a month.

My father found my first commercial job.  He saw an ad at his work saying "programmers wanted".  We called and the guy that answered wanted somebody to convert Centipede from the Atari 800 to the Commodore 64.  I can't believe I accepted since I'd never done something that detailed.  It took us 6 weeks and we got paid $3000.00  I'm sure Atarisoft made millions on it.

Q: How did you originally get into the MC Kids project team? What was it that interested you in the project?

A: I joined Virgin Games because I was completely broke and all my credit cards were maxxed out and so I needed a paycheck immediately or I'd miss a payment and my rent.  My friend, Dan Chang, introduced me to his boss, Graeme Devine and after the interview Graeme gave me a job to do Caesars Palace for the GameBoy.  Two weeks later he moved me to a new project: Terminator for the NES.  My friend Dan was doing M.C. Kids and Darren Bartlett as doing the art for both projects. After about 3 months Virgin decided they wanted both Dan and I to work on M.C.Kids and to stop work on Terminator

Q:Is this the same Terminator that was later released by Mindscape for the NES?

A:No, we never really did any real work on it.

At the time we were all very excited about both projects.  We felt we could make an awesome game.  Even the big boss, Martin Alper, caught our excitement and said he thought M.C.Kids would be the first game he would actually play.  (To this day he still brags that he's never played a video game in his life.  What an idiot.  (see the Random Bits section of for details)

Q: How long did MC Kids take to complete?

A: That depends on how you account it.  Assuming we started in August it took 13 months.  But, in August, Dan was writing a 6502 assembler and linker and I was writing a sprite animation editor.  Dan worked on the assembler/linker until about February and then he was fired for not getting the game done. That made me the only programmer.  I continued to work on the sprite animation editor until about late March.  I was then wisely ordered to stop working on tools and write the damn game.  So, if you time it from there it took about 6 months to write.  Darren, the artist, had been doing some design work before then though so I suppose you'd have to add a little more time.

Q: Why are you listed as "Gregg Iz-Tavares" in the intro and   credits?

A: At the time I finished the game I was recently married.  My wife's maiden name was Izaguirre and when we married we agreed to become Mr. and Mrs. Iz-Tavares.  We were only married about another 11 months.  In the "special thanks" section of the credits you'll see "Izzy and Lizzie".  Darren and Lizzie are still together and have 2 kids.

Q: How much input (or supervision) did McDonald's Corp. give you during the creation of the game? Were you relatively "free" in what you could put in the game, or did McDonald's give you strict guidelines?

A: The only major guidelines McDonald's Corp gave was that there should be absolutely no food in the game.  They didn't want it to be perceived as an advertisement.  The only other thing they changed was that originally the main characters were named "M.C. Kid" (pronouced EmCee Kid) and "Micky D." They told us those names were too "racist" and they changed the names to Mick and Mack.

Q: That's odd; like going around visiting Mcdonaldland characters and picking up golden arches isn't advertisement? ;)

A: Yes, but it isn't as blatant like "if you eat three cheeseburgers you become super powered up." I kind of think that was a personal preference of our McDonald's contact because David Perry says in Global Gladiators they specifically asked for food and the restaurant to be put in.

Q: Why did McDonald's decide not to aggressively advertise MC Kids themselves? Just about the only advertising I saw for it was a 20-page strategy guide insert in Electronic Gaming Monthly.

A: We don't really know.  One of the things that originally excited us about the game was that McDonald's was going to have a Happy Meal promotion.  At that time, McDonald's averaged selling 1 million Happy Meals a day.  We thought we couldn't lose.  A couple of things happened.  First, the game was 4 months late.  It was supposed to be finished in June but was instead finished in September.  Another was that they didn't believe it was a good game. The only thing McDonald's actually did was put a coupon for the game in a Happy Meal.

There were some things that didn't make it in the game.  For example the original world maps looked very much like the map on Super Mario World.  Nintendo saw the maps at the June CES and told us we were ripping them off so we changed them.  Also, originally there were 6 or 8 powerups. When you completed a card you got the power up.  We didn't have time to implement any of them.

Q: What sort of power-ups were planned?

A: I don't really remember.  I remember the design of the screen showing all your cards.  I'm sure they were things like super jump, super speed, flying etc.

Q: Did you make any other NES works?

A: I made Robocop Vs. Terminator for Interplay. It was a very very bad game.  The artists on that game couldn't deal well with the limits of the NES so it looks very bad and the designer was a recently promoted playtester and he didn't really know what he was doing. My attitude was that I would pretty much do what I was told (since I was doing it as a contract) and so I didn't push any design issues.

At the time they told me it probably wouldn't ship in the United States but it might ship in Europe.  I didn't keep a working version of the source; otherwise I thought about leaking it out on the net.

Q: Do you still keep in touch with the other MC Kids staff? What're they doing these days?

A: Yes.  Dan Chang is one of my best friends.  He lives near Seattle, Washington and works at Boss Game Studios.  His last published game was Spider for the PSX.  Darren Bartlett is a partner in a the company Illusions.  They did Scooby Doo for the Genesis, Caesars Palace for SNES and Genesis and Dragon Tails for the Saturn/PSX.  Rene Boutin (another artist from M.C. Kids) recently worked on the game Alien Rampage.  Seth Mendelson (whose only contribution is the name of the game and the original kids names) is currently at Origin.

Q: What's your favorite video game in general/NES game in particular?

A: My favorite video games are

  • NES The Legend of Zelda,  Super Mario Bros 2
  • SNES Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, Super Mario World
  • GameBoy Zelda: Link's Awakening.  Warioland 2
  • Atari 800 Boulderdash
  • PC Doom/Doom2
  • PSX Final Fantasy VII, Gex: Enter the Gecko
  • Saturn Panzer Dragoon Zwei

Q: What's your personal favorite video game memory, and what is it that you like best about what you do?

A: Hmmm.  I'm not sure I could think of a favorite video game memory.  As far as what I like best?  Making video games is an art.  I'm not trying to sound all snobby.  Instead I really mean that it is an art in the same way that writing a book or making a movie is an art.  The goal is to make a fun and enjoyable and possibly moving experience.  Most games fail at that.  It's not easy.  When I know I'm working on something great it's one of the coolest feelings.  Unfortunately that's only happened for me about 3 times in my career.

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