Q-Bits From my Personal Collection – Jeepers Creepers, a game in FORTH

Welcome to another Quick Bits article. Not much information is available on Jeepers Creepers and its creator, James Albanese, so thought I would put a bit of focus on FORTH, the programming language that was implemented by Albanese for the Atari 800 and used to create the game.

Programmer James Albanese had written his first game, Martian Invaders, a simple Space Invader clone published for the Exidy Sorcerer home computer in 1980 by Bob Christiansen‘s Quality Sofware. Martian Invaders had been written in machine language, the lowest-level programming language and thus the most efficient way of instructing the computer’s processor, required for creating fast-paced action games. Machine language operated with instructions in numeric values and required a detailed understanding of the underlying hardware and the instructions the specific architecture could execute. Higher-level programming languages like BASIC, the easiest gateway to programming, could compile much more human-friendly code to machine code instructions but at a severe cost of speed.

Somewhere between machine language and BASIC existed FORTH, a stack-oriented language programmers would define themselves. The language executed extremely fast and was much easier to write and debug than machine code, drastically cutting development time.
FORTH was invented by Chuck More in 1968 while being employed at the United States National Radio Astronomy Observatory to control radio telescopes on the Kitt Peak Observatory. During the 1970s, More ported FORTH to other computer architectures and thanks to the distribution of public domain source code for the language by the FORTH Interest Group, FIG, FORTH implementations were appearing on almost every thinkable microcomputer.

Following Martian Invaders, Albanese went on to implement FORTH for the Exidy Sorcerer allowing programmers easier and more accessible code interaction with code being defined, tested, redefined, and debugged without the need for recompiling. While the Sorcerer was competitively priced and comparatively advanced when released in 1978, other systems faired better in the fledgling market and Albanese abandoned the Sorcerer for the relatively new and very capable Atari 8-bit home computer.

The Atari and its many unique and dedicated hardware features often required a more specific approach than what a generic language like BASIC could provide and Albanese went on to create the first implementation of FORTH for the system. QS FORTH or Quality Software FORTH consisted of five modules, the FORTH kernel based on FIG-FORTH, extensions to it, an editor, I/O to access the Atari’s OS, and an assembler. QS FORTH was published for the Atari 800 with substantial documentation by Quality Software in 1981.

In 1982, Alabanese’s QS FORTH was put to the test by himself in his next project, a variant of Taito‘s popular and somewhat abstract puzzle video arcade game Qix, from 1981. Qix had quickly earned a presence in arcades around and soon spawned numerous games similar in concept. While Albanese kept the core concept from Qix, involving the player trying to claim territory in the playfield by drawing lines, he wanted it more action-packed and added elements from games like Pac-Man with enemies trying to catch you in the maze you had to traverse.

James Albanse’s Jeepers Creepers was released for the Atari 400/800 in 1982 by Quality Software.
It was developed in Albanese’s own implementation of the FORTH programming language he had created for the Atari 800 in 1981

Jeepers Creepers borrowed elements from popular video arcades games like Qix and Pac-Man.
The objective was to fill the whole maze while avoiding evil wasps. By filling in rectangles with a blue wasp-eating beetle, it would be released and chase down the wasps.
There were four different mazes, when returning to a maze already completed the wasps would swarm more fiercely

Quality Software would continue to sell software, games, and books for another couple of years but the eight-man small operation would eventually become a victim when they contracted with Atarisoft which failed to pay around $150.000 for services and finished products. The video game industry as a whole had a downturn in 1983 and 1984 which resulted in many companies, including Atari, losing a significant amount of money. This was due to a combination of factors such as oversaturation of the market with poor quality games and increased competition. Jack Tramiel, the founder of Commodore International, acquired Atari Corporation in July 1984. He held onto Atari’s home computer division, while the arcade and console divisions were sold off to Namco. As a result, Atari was forced to lay off a significant portion of its workforce which caused quite a turmoil within the company. Quality Software, like many other companies, sued Atari Corporation in August of 1984 for breach of contract. By the Santa Clara County Superior Court in San Jose, Quality Software was granted a writ of attachment to freeze $66.000 in Atari Assets pending the judgment case. In 1985 Quality Software ceased to exist.

FORTH, known for its simplicity, small size, and fast execution is to this day still used, often in embedded systems and other applications where resources are limited.

Sources: Infoworld, Wikipedia, Atari Compendium, The Forth Interest Group…

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