JOHN LOWE’S ULTIMATE DARTS
Ultimate Darts was released by Gremlin in 1989. It was the World’s first Darts Arcade game that doubled as a professional practice utility. It was endorsed by three times Darts World Champion John Lowe & also advertised Unicorn Darts products. The game/utility imitated the throwing capabilities of the top 16 world darts players.
I designed & wrote the original C64 version which was later converted by Wise Owl software to the Amiga and Atari St. The game had quite a long history in development and its origins went back as long ago as 1986.
Between 1985 and 1987 I was studying Electronic Engineering at College. As a hobby I’d dabble in writing programs for the C64. I also played darts in the local pub with my mates. At the time you only had digital electronic LED scoreboard facilities. These were simple machines that helped you count down from the usual 501 Dart games. My original intention was to build a Visual Darts Machine for pubs and clubs to help someone practice playing darts and give them computer simulated opponents to play against.
I began writing a test program on the C64 in mid 1986 in my spare time. I had a working version by the end of 1986 and called it "Darts Practice". The program had two Dartboard bitmaps just like Ultimate Darts and you could play against computer simulated opponents playing the usual counting down from 501 games and also use it as a scoreboard facility. I wrote the program entirely in 6502 machine code using the ZEUS assembler from crystal software.
Eventually this program started to take shape and play a good game of darts. I abandoned the idea of building my own digital computer for pubs and clubs as I didn’t have the electronics skills or resources to pull it off. I then considered the possibility of getting it sold as a software program on a computer platform. So in 1987 I sent one or two copies off to Software Developers for them to have a look at. This program wasn’t a computer game but a darts utility and most of the replies I got was that I needed to make this into a computer game to get anywhere. One reasonably well known company did offer me a contract. They were going to release a computer darts game and wanted my Darts Practice program on the B side of the tape. They sent me a copy of their game to have a look at but I wasn’t impressed with either their game or the contract so I turned it down.
I took notice of what replies I got and started to develop the program as an arcade game and throw in some new features like Competitions & Exhibitions. I started using the Laser Genius Assembler from Ocean software to help me develop this game and speed up the process. I was still working on this project in my spare time but managed to put in an Arcade mode and renamed the game to "GAME ON". I sent copies off late in 1987 to a few game developers for another look. This time I got a better response and was offered one or two contracts including CDS Software but I turned both offers down.
I continued working on the project and added the Round the Board games to go along side the Competitions, Exhibitions and Two Player Scoreboard. Early in 1988 I sent the improved game to yet more developers and Gremlin were impressed with it and offered me a contract in April 1988. Gremlin had a cult status in the games industry in the UK at the time. Everybody had heard of Gremlin so I jumped at the chance and signed the contract. It took quite a few months to get the ball rolling but eventually Gremlin got Wise Owl Software to start work on the Amiga and Atari St versions.
Gremlin were going to start work on a Golf Game called "Ultimate Golf" and wanted my game renamed to "Ultimate Darts" as part of the Ultimate series of games they were producing. I added Darts Cricket and Darts Soccer to the game and the game was split into the two parts that you see today. I sent Wise Owl the complete source code for the game along with some high level design details detailing how my "Darts Engine" worked to simulate all World’s top players and reproduce an accurate game of darts. Wise Owl needed quite a bit of time to convert the game and the release date for Ultimate Darts was set for early 1989.
John Lowe was asked to endorse the game – He was World Champion in 1979 and 1987 (and later won it again in 1993 ) He had promoted Unicorn Darts products for quite some time. This was a professional utility as well as a darts game so getting John Lowe and Unicorn Darts was a fantastic achievement and set the theme for what this program was all bout. Unfortunately, I became quite ill and was unable to work on the project for nearly six months. I couldn’t help Wise Owl do the conversions or finish work on my own game & therefore the release of the game was delayed until November 1989.
The game released was at least 6 months late and was missing the finishing touches I wanted. Gremlin had done a good job producing the box and packaging. The game came with a special limited edition of Unicorn Darts Flights. The game itself looked quite good. In my opinion, it was one the best darts game ever released but I’ll let you decide. The dartboard graphics were better than that of anything gone before and the action was realistic. There was plenty of different dart games that could be played in either Real or Arcade mode.
However, the C64 version was missing the music that the Amiga and Atari St versions had that Ben Dalglish composed. It was also missing some digitised speech I had hoped to see in the game such as the Computer shouting "180!" when a maximum had been hit. I would also have added a couple of extra speech samples such as having the computer say "Game On" at the start of a game and maybe have the computer say "Game Set and the (Leg!) (Set!) ( Match!)" at the end of a game.
The game originally had a text scroller introducing the game on the main options screen. After the text scroller finished the game played a demo game of darts randomly selecting two of the top pro’s to play each other over 3 legs. The text scroller was taken out but the demo game is still there. The main options screen also needed improving. It would have been nice to see a picture of John Lowe and the "John Lowe" signature above the Ultimate Darts title sprites instead of the plain text you see now. I could also have included a Unicorn & Gremlin logo picture on the main options screen to flash it up a little. The graphics could have been improved on many of the game screens.
I’m happy with The Dartboard bitmaps but it would have been better to write "UNICORN" on both the bitmap images instead of the "UK" you see on the Dartboard on the final release. I wasn’t fond of multipart loaders and wanted a game that loaded in one go, so graphics and special effects had to be kept to a minimum but there was probably room for the above improvements if we would have had time to do it. If I could go back 18 years or so I would put these features into the game. If time ever permits – I’ll finish off this game for the C64 and do it justice.
The Atari and St versions had the music, the graphics and digitised speech but lacked in the darts simulation area of the game. They didn’t quite play darts with the same accuracy of the C64 version and didn’t pull off the imitation of the Worlds best dart players that well. This, again, was due to me not being involved in the design of those games as I was out of action for six months. The ‘darts engine’ I created for the C64 wasn’t used in these programs and it was way too late to do anything about it when I found out. Overall, they were pretty good games but not as good as the C64 version.
The Atari and Amiga versions were eventually re-released on the Kixx label. The Commodore 64 version was put on the cover tape of the Commodore Format magazine in 1992. (Issue 25).
I hope you enjoy John Lowe’s Ultimate Darts. This was written on a humble C64 with only 64K RAM and a CPU running at 1MHZ. Those two dartboard bitmaps chew up quite a bit of that 64K memory. Not quite the elephant sized memory Commodore advertised when promoting the CBM64! The game now looks dated by today’s standard but I hope you agree that this plays a realistic game of darts. You can still download Ultimate darts and replay the game using a C64 emulator such as CCS64 from Computerbrains.
If 20 years from now some young bloke downloads this game and says who’s John Lowe and decides to get out his darts and plays against him or any of the other players using this simulator over a 6 Set game. The result will probably be a 6-0 win to John Lowe. I’ve no doubt he’ll throw his darts down in disgust and say this game is crap. That will put a smile on my face ;-)
I never did make the Visual Darts Machine for use in pubs and clubs as the technology at the time wasn’t good enough or cheap enough. Now the technology is there – 3D graphics, Great sound cards, Flat screen technology and cheap PC technology. Is there anybody ambitious enough to try it?
GAME DESIGN DETAILS
I’ve included a Design Document to go with these notes. The game design details shows how the program works and how the computer simulates all the top Professional players. I’ve provided some program hacks so you can set up a challenge match and force the computer to play the top pro’s against each other while you sit back and watch. You can re-live those old Eric Bristow v John Lowe epics. If you’re still not convinced this is a true darts simulator – set the computer to replay an old darts final over the same number of sets and legs. Will the outcome be the same score-line as the real final? Will the 3 dart averages be the same? Try it and find out.
"..Lets Play Darts…Game On ! "
Mike Partington Jan 2007