Bits from my personal collection – Space Taxi

During high school, in 1980, 13-year-old John Kutcher found his calling when he was introduced to the school’s TRS-80 computers. Logic and programming seemed natural and the technically minded Kutcher vigorously dived into Assembly Language. The low-level programming language intended to communicate directly with the computer’s hardware was required for the fast-paced and complex concepts of well-known games he tried replicating. While the TRS-80 was an excellent machine, the initial model had been released back in 1977, and gaming-wise it never gained the traction of the Apple II. In 1979 competition would stiffen when Atari introduced its own line of 8-bit home computers with the Atari 400 and 800, machines primarily targeting the games market. A new era in computing, where dedicated components allowed for high-quality graphics and sound, was born.

In 1982, at the Consumer Electronic Show, Commodore unveiled the Commodore 64. With its low price tag, powerful performance, gaming support, and programming potential the machine was hailed as the next big thing in personal computing and soon caught the attention of Kutcher. With money borrowed from his granddad, he was able to acquire a Commodore 64, a computer he soon became deeply invested in. On his own, he learned the machine’s ins and outs, an endeavor that soon turned into a three-part game, loosely simulating the job of an ambulance driver rescuing people from fires. As the development evolved it became apparent that it was as good and professionally done as many of the products on the shelves at local computer stores.
With the likelihood of earning a few royalties, Kutcher would be able to pay back his granddad and maybe even put a few dollars in his own pockets. When the game neared completion he started looking around for a possible publisher.

In a time before the World Wide Web, and Google searches, the phone book played a vital part in getting access to information. Phone books not only listed phone numbers but also acted as a marketing place where local business could advertise their services. In the Baltimore local phone book, Kutcher found an entry from Ed Zaron‘s MUSE Software, a company that had seen much success publishing Silas Warner‘s groundbreaking Castle Wolfenstein a few years earlier. Kutcher contacted MUSE and presented his ambulance rescue driver game, Rescue Squad. Zaron saw potential and a publishing contract was agreed upon. Warner, who had incorporated some of the earliest digitized sound effects into home computer games, added sound and music to make the game a more complete experience.

17-year-old Kutcher was about to graduate from high school when his Rescue Squad was published for the Commodore 64 in the summer of 1983. While being Kutcher’s first commercially released game and only selling moderately, it received the Best Game of the Year award from one of the established computer game magazines and prompted interest from MUSE for Kutcher to create a second game.

After graduating from high school, Kutcher began his studies at John Hopkins University. During the fall of 1983, between classes, Kutcher programmed a small game engine in Assembly Language that could simulate a flying vehicle, a space taxi, controlled by thrusters. By using different parameters the engine could depict different scenarios and physics. The inspiration came from the numerous Lunar Lander concepts that had evolved over the years and had managed to stay continuously relevant in the market.

Majoring in Electrical Engineering, Kutcher created the electronics for an analog to digital converter for digitizing his own voice. By using a microphone and the Commodore 64’s expansion port he was able to sample spoken words, more or less the same as Warner had done years earlier on the Apple II with his and audio engineer Alan Boyd‘s The Voice software. By playing his recorded voice back at different speeds it could be used for creating the feel of different taxi customers.

The Commodore 64 was designed to deliver a number of official graphics modes to provide for combinations of character-based graphics, bitmap graphics, and sprites. Kutcher created the taxi and customers as sprites but used the low-resolution Standard Character Mode for the backgrounds, resulting in very fluent gameplay.

By January of 1984, Kutcher’s game, Space Taxi was complete and published for the Commodore 64 by MUSE Software. MUSE had a great public relations guy who managed to get the game featured in nearly all the major magazines where it received excellent reviews. It received a Consumer Electronics Software Showcase Award, as the only game that year.
Space Taxi managed to sell around 10.000 copies, impressive and enough to pay for Kutcher’s remaining time as an undergraduate at the University.

John Kutcher’s excellent Space Taxi was published for the Commodore 64 in January of 1984 by MUSE Software. While not climbing to the top of sales charts it did manage to sell around 10.000 copies and helped pay for the remaining of Kutcher’s time at John Hopkins University

Kutcher’s Space Taxi featured an excellent use of physics, inspired by the vast amount of Lunar Lander games of the time. The backgrounds were all done using the Commodore 64’s low-resolution Standard Character Mode and the speech was done by Kutcher himself using a homemade analog to digital converter

In the time following the release of Space Taxi, MUSE Software started to experience financial issues. While the company had seen quite a lot of success with its software and games, especially its Castle Wolfenstein titles, it never managed to get a firm grip in the rapidly evolving personal computer market. By 1985 the major financial troubles resulted in the company filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. During the following liquidation sale, the company was acquired by Jerry Herskowitz’s Variety Discounters Company and the publishing rights to many of its titles, including Kutcher’s Space Taxi, stayed with the new owner, who continued to sell any surplus titles from the inventory.

In the summer of 1985 Kutcher briefly joined MicroProse where he worked on what would become his last game project, porting the company’s Solo Flight to the Commodore 64 all while adding new features. Switching to the PC, he started work on medical database software and founded DICORP, Inc., providing industry-leading software solutions to a variety of market segments. In 1992 Kutcher received his Ph.D. in Computer Science from Johns Hopkins University.
DICORP, Inc. would in December of 2019 merge with ESO, the leading data and software company for emergency services, fire departments, and hospitals. 

Kutcher continues to this day to hold the copyrights to his two games Rescue Squad and Space Taxi.

Sources: Wikipedia, Scene World Interview with John Kutcher, GAMES Magazine Dec. 1984

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