An Interview with Ken Kalish

by L. Curtis Boyle

Ken Kalish then Ken Kalish now

Ken Kalish was one of the most prolific Coco 1/2 game writers during the Coco's glory years of 1981 throughout 1984. Writing for several different publishing companies, he produced some of the most innovative, and just plain fun, original games the Coco had, as well as a few clones. All of his games were written tightly enough (all were in machine language) that they would run in 16K of RAM, a technique that would be unheard of today. After much searching on the web, I finally managed to track him down for a series of questions and answers conducted through email in late 1999 and early 2000. I have slowly been gathering information and screenshots for his games since, and late this year (2000), Ken gave permission to have his entire collection downloadable for other Coco users (either by original machines, or the emulators that now abound) to enjoy. Many thanks to Ken for allowing himself to be interviewed, and for allowing his games to be released, but most of all, for writing some of the best, and most original games for the Coco platform in the early 1980's. His game "Phantom Slayer" holds a special place in my memories, as it was the very first 3rd party (non-Radio Shack) game I ever saw, and also the first one I ever bought, in later summer of 1982.


Ken currently resides in northern Pennsylvania, and you can reach him by email.

NOTE: Any questions/comments from me will be in an italic font, and any from Ken will be in a bold font.

You are somewhat of a hero to many Coco (& Coco emulator retro-computing type people) all over the web. A few of us have been trying to get a hold of old Coco software authors to see if they want to release their old code as either shareware of public domain, so that a lot of people that are getting back into them (or for the first time with the emulators) will see what us "old-timers" are yammering about.

That seems like a good idea. It'd be nice to think that people would download them and use them again. You know, it was extremely enjoyable to create the original games. There were times when I'd be up at 2-3 in the morning, because I didn't want to stop. And writing "Phantom Slayer" was probably the best time of all. Then, the first time I actually met someone who had bought the game, it knocked me out :)

In my opinion, Phantom Slayer was one of the best games ever done for the Coco 1/2, sort of a predecessor to all the current 3D games so prevalent on PC's & Mac's nowadays (like Wolfenstein/Doom/Quake).

I wish I had some of the money from Doom/Quake :)

What all games did you write during the early 1980's? Did you write for other platforms? I know of your MED Systems/Screenplay stuff, and some for Tom Mix & Computerware, but I have no idea if I have a complete list.

Let's see, off the top of my head:

Escape, (late 1981/early 1982) originally titled Thinking Man's Maze published by the company in Texas (Color Software Services of Greenville, Texas).

Starship Chameleon (1982) (Computerware of Encinitas, California)

Then Invader's Revenge and Phantom Slayer (both 1982) (Med Systems, and then Screenplay, from Chapel Hill, North Carolina).

El Diablero (1982), since I had read the Casteneda books. (also by Computerware).

Trapfall (1983) which was called "Cuthbert in the Jungle" in the U.K. (I like that title :) (Tom Mix Software of Grand Rapids, Michigan in the States).

Danger Ranger (1983), which I had originally titled Master Blaster (Med Systems/Screenplay).

Monkey Kong (1983) which I was determined to fit into 16k, but maybe shouldn't have (Med Systems/Screenplay)

Devil's Assault (1983) ... the one with 'sproings' in it (Tom Mix Software)

Dungeon Raid and Athletyx (1983 and 1984) in the U.K. (Dragon32 ONLY for Microdeal)

Ancient Warriors (1984?) for the Commodore 64, but by that time the market was falling apart, and I never pursued getting it published (Unreleased).

The 6510 (Commodore 64 CPU) was terrible to write for, exactly the opposite of the 6809E which was a joy for me.

Markus Blumrich, another Coco fan from my hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, runs the main Coco-oriented site on the web. On it, he has a screenshot of Phantom Slayer, and as you can tell by the blurb under the picture, he is a major fan of Phantom Slayer as well!

Funny you mention that. I happened to come across that site for the first time within the last few weeks. I wrote a note to the owner, but didn't hear back. Maybe he thought I was kidding :)

El Diablero Screenshot Trapfall Screenshot

El Diablero and Trapfall

How did you get started with the Coco, and when did you get interested in computers?

Let's see...After graduating college, I was working as a construction laborer in '78 '79, running a jackhammer and doing other things in building a nuclear power plant, Laborer's local 215. I took some of the money from that and ended up being a small-time stock options speculator for a year or so. Seeing that no one had bothered to invent the web yet, I had to twist and turn an AM radio for good enough reception so I could get market reports from a Philadelphia radio station, about a hundred miles away. After a nice profit early on from a trade on South African gold mining (I still remember that they were ASA Nov 60 calls), I went to the local Radio Shack to see about buying a computer of my very own. I'd done some assembler programming on a minicomputer while in college a few years earlier getting a Psychology degree, and had actually started out on it writing machine language, with paper tape and all. So now, I was walking out of the Radio Shack with a Color Computer, chock full with a whopping 4k of RAM and also with Color Basic from a fairly new company called Microsoft. Before too long, I'd piggybacked two sets of 16k chips with a soldering iron, had bought the Microworks editor/assembler cartridge and was thinking, "hmm, I think I'll write a game or two myself on this thing. The first step will be to figure out how to clear the screen..."

Starship Chameleon Screenshot Invader's Revenge Screenshot

Starship Chameleon and Invader's Revenge

What is the history behind the creation of some of your games?

"Starship Chameleon" was my first foray into designing arcade gameplay. After the basic concept was put in, I discovered that it was too easy, too much like shooting fish in a barrel. So I took the path of adding more objects and making them faster. That helped a little, but it wasn't nearly good enough. The gameplay wasn't totally absorbing, it didn't make you step outside of your conscious mind and put you into that zone, in the way that a good arcade game could.

So I would sit there, playing game after game, waiting for the insight that would make it work. Finally, I thought of using the change of color as a way to add complexity. The on-screen movement was two dimensional, and changing color added another needed dimension. That seemed to make the whole thing work. It now required enough parts of your attention and your co-ordination ability and your decision-making, with narrow focus to avoid collisions while also requiring wide focus to be always setting up for what you would do after the immediate threat or opportunity was over.

It also had, at least for me, acquired something that's essential: when I was done playing a game, I immediately wanted to go and try again because I felt I could do better the next time. A good game always has you right on the edge where you feel that you were just at the limit of your ability the last time out, and you just know you can push that limit the next time. You have that instinctive recognition that if you can just get into that part of yourself where you react immediately and perfectly, while your conscious mind is mostly an observer, that you can go on forever.

Of course, you never achieve perfection, except maybe for some fleeting moments here and there. But that's enough to make you want to go back into that little world again and again. The actual shapes on the screen and the premise of the game are just a cover story.

At that point, the next thing to do is to insert a wild card. You make up an object that's worth a lot of bonus points, in order to strike up the players 'greed' and make him step out of the proven pattern that he's developed after practice. So, the player hopefully takes the risky move to go after the high value item. Then he either pays the price and gets destroyed on screen, or else he narrowly escapes by instinctively using his ability to the utmost, dodging, twisting, turning and blasting until he can get back to his normal pattern.

Or, he might have refused to take the bait of the high-risk high-profit opportunity, and curse himself immediately after for not having tried. In any event, the designer and the player both win because the game engaged the player fully and in a way that's innately very rewarding.

Finally, you add the explosions and the sound to complete the effects of the game. Then the scoring goes in. Scoring is not a trivial thing, since the way you set values on things influences what the player will be going after and that also affects gameplay.

Danger Ranger Screenshot Phantom Slayer Screenshot

Danger Ranger and Phantom Slayer. Escape looks exactly the same as Phantom Slayer, minus the Phantoms.

"Phantom Slayer" was very different from an arcade game, in that I started out by trying to set a mood, a feeling. I wanted to make something where waiting and planning and maybe even nervously worrying were involved. The sound and the shapes were crucial elements, not just a cover story. I wanted to evoke the feeling of standing and wondering if that dangerous thing was just around the corner... should I run up quick and look? While I'm looking there will it then come up behind me?

As the game began to develop through trial and error, I wanted more and more to try and make it into an emotional experience. I made the decision to try and elicit successive series involving heart pounding anticipation, then all-out fighting involving a mix of fear and aggression, followed by unrestrained fleeing and finally a period of catching your breath while you plan the next encounter... waiting, thinking, wondering. While creating the game, I felt somewhat as if I were writing a movie.

But all of that wouldn't have worked if you were just a passive victim, of course. Being armed made all the difference. Still, having excessive firepower would have ruined things in the opposite direction, and made the game into just a shoot 'em up. So, there was a lot of time spent in deciding how many shots you could get before you had to run and recharge, how many hits a phantom could take, how fast you could run and they could run. All trying to make it like being in a movie. Ideally, a player could spend a lot of time in a game and at the end not have a clear idea of how much time had past. "Phantom Slayer" wouldn't have worked in an arcade gallery. It was really meant to be played alone, preferably in the dark.

Speaking of Phantom Slayer, did you ever see a movie named "The Fearless Vampire Killers"?

No, I haven't seen that movie... was that an inspiration for the game itself?

Well, I remember only the one scene where the good guys are being chased by (what else) a vampire through labyrinthine hallways, not knowing if they get too far ahead or take the wrong turn if they might eventually end up facing the thing they are running from - so, yes, that part went into the game.

It was really a comedy-horror movie, with Sharon Tate (as in Manson family) and Roman Polanski.

Monkey Kong Screenshot Devil's Assault Screenshot

Monkey Kong and Devil's Assault

"Escape" is one I never saw, although I have found an ad for it in my oldest Rainbow (August, 1982). Was this written in 1981 or 1982? Was it in BASIC or Assembly?

Assembler. I don't recall the year. But I do remember that I first submitted it to the Wayne Greene magazine organization. They promptly lost it on a shelf. They weren't really very author-friendly in their procedures, so I went with the coco only company. He was a nice guy, as I recall.

In going through the ads for some of your games in Rainbow, I noticed that some games that were originally sold by Med Systems starting in 1982, suddenly switching to Screenplay in 1983. Why the name change?

Screenplay bought out Med Systems. They were geared up to try and be a big-time publisher of game titles, with a regular marketing/advertising company from New York doing the packaging, etc. Then the bottom of the market fell out rather suddenly. I don't think that things in general picked up again until the Nintendo became big, and I don't know if coco games ever did pick up at all.

Also, there is an 'option' in Invaders Revenge to play the game in a really slow mode, if you hit the 'R' key for the speed (instead of 1-5). Was this a bug, or on purpose for testing? It is also interesting in the fact that the sounds slow down as well... you can hear just how you 'built' the sound effects for firing, explosions, etc.

As I recall, the publisher insisted on that, as a training mode. I went along and added the slow option.

As for sound effects, well, you had to reserve time in each cycle through the 'skip-chain' to do the sound, of course. Time was precious with the .895 Mhz 6809E processor, and I still can't avoid trying to be as efficient as possible with time (and memory) even now when doing Java.

I always tried to work with "shapes" of the sound, kind of like visualizing it. I'm partly color-blind, so maybe nature made up for that with this way of seeing sound as shapes. For instance, jagged sound are high energy. Rounded sounds are soothing. The shape can rise or fall in ways that aren't explained by the frequency alone. Imagine a graph of a waveform where the form is animated, and add the concept that a sound can have a personality.

Well, that doesn't explain it, but maybe it's something that doesn't get captured by words. Anyways, I would experiment with different intervals of changing the output to the A-D converter (which was not necessarily every time though the control loop), and simultaneously with the pattern that provided the value to output. If a really time consuming sound effect was taking place, then I'd subtract from the normal wait loop that was done at each cycle, so that things wouldn't drag. (The wait loop was put there precisely for that reason - to provide a pool of extra time which could be used when needed.) Eventually, the shape that I envisioned would be coming out of the TV speaker. Naturally, there was a certain amount of serendipity involved. I suppose that an author had more power over the sound than the graphics in the end, because the graphics were more limited.

Doing the intro for Phantom Slayer was especially nice because I had all the cpu time that I needed, with no heavy duty graphics going on. It was like being used to walking with heavy weights on your feet, and then being freed. So I tried to do something that would directly connect to the lower level 'animal brain' of the player.

El Bandito is a text adventure game, which , considering how graphical your other games are, is a bit of a surprise to me. You mentioned earlier that they are based on the Casteneda books, which I am not familiar with...who is the author, and what is the general storyline?

It would have been nice to be able to do more text-only adventures as a way to do story telling, but graphics adventures supplanted the text ones.

Carlos Castenada purported to be an anthropologist who found himself apprenticed to a Yaqui Indian 'sorcerer' from Northern Mexico, called Don Juan Matus. Although there were unfortunately some things which involved peyote, the basic idea dealt with an underlying reality beneath common perception (which even Aristotle referred to).

Trapfall was, of course, a very good clone of Pitfall, made famous on the Atari 2600 by Activision. I found it very amusing that it got renamed to "Cuthbert in the Jungle" in the UK... I had seen several Cuthbert games, but I never knew that some were renamed from U.S. games, and that several different authors were involved.

Any game could be retitled so that "Cuthbert" was in the title :)

Monkey Kong came out around the same time, and was another clone of an existing game (although, you were the only author of a Donkey Kong clone that managed to fit it into 16K).

This was something which took a lot of pondering, as regards choosing what concept to do next.

After Monkey Kong, you came out with "Danger Ranger", an original game. That was a fun one, with original game playing elements.

Danger Ranger was my return to creating something original, from scratch. I was always personally happiest writing something original.

"Dungeon Raid" and "Athletyx" in the U.K. for the Dragon - these are two I had never saw, or even heard of. What were they?

I can look up the Atari console that was the basis for Dungeon Raid. Athletyx was a kind of Olympic Decathlon.


Dungeon Raid Screenshot Athletyx Screenshot

Dungeon Raid and Athletyx

Were there Coco versions of these?


When were they released, and how did you get involved with the Dragon in England? (I mean writing directly for it, rather than porting Coco 1/2 games)?

Near the end, they were my final efforts. As far as writing for the Dragon only, no comment for now. Suffice it to say that John Simes of Microdeal was my favorite publisher, and I wish there were a few like him in the U.S.

The Dragon versions of ported Coco games (you might recall better than I) differed only in a few ROM calls (and hook addresses) and in the keyboard matrix. I naturally always read the keyboard directly, rather than using the ROM call, because doing so was much faster.

I have seen Devil's Assault, and it looks similar to Imagic's Demon Attack. You had, however, mentioned 'sproings' in it. Is it a clone of Demon Attack?

Right, Devil Assault was from Demon Attack. The 'sproing' was an original gameplay concept that I thought worked really well, requiring that total involvement in order to evade them.

One thing that surprised me talking to you, is that you used the cartridge version of the Micro Works assembler, as opposed to the disk version. How well did that work?

The cartridge was great because it was so convenient to go from editor to assembler to running the code, everything just flowed so naturally. I always used it to start a new title. I ended up using the one from South Carolina (?) to finish with.

Do you still have a Coco?

In its box somewheres :)

Do you still code now (on any platform)?

I do Java for fun, mostly internet clients/server things, which I think is fascinating stuff, on a PC. Right now I am working on a Java e-commerce program.

If it is for fun, I assume you are making a living doing something else? I know you have done some newsletter work for Down Syndrome organizations, since your nephew has is (it is also on that page that I finally found you through your e-mail address), but what else are you doing these days?

Actually, the last issue of the webmagazine was over two years ago, and I haven't done much there at all since. I started it after the birth of my nephew, Nathan, who has Down Syndrome. Here's the most recent issue.

I had been working as a carpenter. Working outdoors is kind of the opposite of programming computers, but I like that, doing both. But now I'm strictly doing Java consulting, including server side Java for e-commerce.

And, oh yeah, I made 340 pounds in the deadlift last fall. I'm getting back into that now and hope to break that personal record in the weeks ahead.

Do you have any of the Coco emulators?

Always meant to...

Well, thanks, Ken, for all the great games, and especially this interview!

And thank you...

And now, since I promised Ken I would tell this rather embarrassing story about playing Phantom Slayer in my youth, I will verbatim repeat the story I told him...

"And speaking of both Phantom Slayer and 'knocked out', I have a rather embarrassing story about playing that game (this would have been in late 1982 or early 1983): I was playing it downstairs at my parents house. My Coco was hooked up to a huge old floor model TV (about 28 or 30 inch screen), and I had the volume cranked (had to hear the proximity detector, of course!). I also had the room pitch black to help set the mood. I was having the best game I had (have) ever done (the score ended up being about 1852, if I remember correctly), and had been playing for several hours. I had a pattern of long hallways, and the phantoms had fallen into a rhythm of always coming out in the same spot, so even though they were taking extremely large numbers of hits to kill (30+?), I could still get them by running a circle pattern, firing three shots at a time. I was completely into the game at this point, and had not noticed that the doorbell had rang. My dad answered the door upstairs, and it was a friend (Dwayne Downing) who was their to see me. So, dad brought him downstairs.

At this exact time, the phantoms suddenly quit coming out at their 'normal' spot. I tried running all over the place in my normal 'circular' hallway pattern trying to coax them out, but nothing worked. So, I entered a corridor that I normally had not gone down, and just as the door to the rumpus room opened (with my dad & Dwayne) a phantom killed me. After being so into the game for so long, and with that terrible death sound you put in the game <grin>, I literally fell off my chair onto the floor from complete fright. This prompted Dwayne to laugh, and my dad (not into videogames at all) to promptly ask, "What the hell's wrong with you?" (Not as nasty as it may sound; inflection wise, it was more of a wisecrack).

For awhile, I thought it was just me, but at work here, before the Coco 3 that ran several line/laser printers was retired in 1998, one of our younger programmers (named Jason), who is very much into the Quake/Doom style games, claimed that there was no way that a game on a machine as 'primitive' as the Coco could ever scare him, after being used to 3d sound, etc. on modern games. Dwayne (who now works with me) & I decided to test him with Phantom Slayer. He played the training mode for a few moments to get used to it, and then started a real game (at which time Dwayne and I turned up the volume). He literally jumped when he died a minute or two later (heh heh). He now jokes that it is the scariest game he has played. <grin>."