If you’re of a certain age, multiplayer competition with a friend or sibling in the same room, on the same machine has created moments that are indelibly inked into your memories. Whoops of triumph, howls of anguish, subsequent brawls and it all ending in tears; it’s a combination that is being resurrected these days with Nidhoggs, Sportsfriends, and Towerfalls, by developers that were kids then, and are trying to relive the glory days of twenty and thirty years past.

Jan and Jens started toying with games by making levels for Boulderdash like Emerald Mine.

Jan and Jens started toying with games by making levels for the Boulderdash-like Emerald Mine.

While many of the console owning youngsters of the day would look to Mario Kart and Street Fighter, or perhaps Micro Machines and Tecmo Bowl for their competitive fixes, there was only one correct choice of multiplayer game on the Amiga; Gravity Force 2. It, and its pseudo sequel Gravity Power were and are still finely balanced and beautifully realized orgies of destruction; one on one dogfights over destructible terrain with instantly understandable mechanics that took days of gameplay to master. As the name suggested, you weren’t just competing with your opponent, but against Newtonian physics. You thrusted against the gravitational pull of maps to deftly pick through obstacles and automated defenses and aimed to blow away your enemy with bullets and bombs; a joy highlighted by a rare speech sample appearing in an otherwise empty soundscape: ‘BINGO’.

GF2 was almost perfect in its design. There was no single player to be found here, but successful play was the result of mastering delicately balanced systems, not just your foe. Fuel efficiency was vital as well, and speedily shooting through maps meant having to land on touchdown pads (no easy task in itself) and fill up. It feels like the master craftsmanship of development veterans at their peak, or young geniuses with decades still to offer the medium.

The original Gravity Force, like Emerald Mine was by German company Kingsoft.

The original Gravity Force, like Emerald Mine was by German company Kingsoft.

‘This was pretty much our only project,’ Jens Andersson, co-developer with long time friend Jan Kronquist, explains. Huh? ‘Before GF2, we’d only done minor, minor things. Text adventures, and levels for a game called Emerald Mine, just to challenge one another, but this was the only thing we did seriously,’ Kronquist elaborates. Still, with such an auspicious debut, there must be two decades of obscure Swedish indie hits to pick through, or that at the least their names would be hidden away in the credits of a modern favourite, an unsung gaming magician?

‘When I graduated from university, I realized I didn’t want to work the long hours for low wages in the game industry at the time. I got a “proper” job and became a consultant,’ Kronquist states, as I find my heart break just a bit. Jens? ‘Jan stayed closer to the games industry than I did, actually. Really working to make a game takes so much time. About the only thing I play now is Starcraft 2 now and then, and I just get my ass kicked by the kids.’

It’s all at once a crushing blow and oddly heart warming to hear. A pair of teenage friends, united in their absolute love for obscure Kingsoft title Gravity Force all but teaching themselves to build a game from scratch that would expand upon their favourite; and once the job was done, they got on with their lives again. Just what about the original GF inspired such fandom? Kronquist picks up the story.

‘We played Gravity Force a lot, and it was mainly a single player game, with just a two player race mode or something. We really wanted to have something we could play against each other, so much so, we’d have challenges: “ok, this time you can only play with the joystick upside down” “the joystick upside down and only with your left hand”, things like that. We were also really annoyed you couldn’t destroy the environment and it felt very static. We wanted to change that, and since we couldn’t change it without starting from scratch, we started from scratch!’.

GF2 came in both freeware and shareware flavours and quickly became a hit in the Amiga Public Domain (PD) scene, with full support from the original GF developers Kingsoft (‘we just called them up,’ Andersson says ‘and asked if we could use the name. They said “no problem”‘). The distribution of indie titles was much less instant and less communicative than today’s connections of online storefronts and social networks, but I could hear the fondness in Andersson’s voice as he reminisced on PD games.

The game has begun.

The game has begun.

‘Now you just google anything and download it five seconds later. Of course then, you’d get computer magazines or send for lists in the mail. They’d have these big long lists of discs with programs, and you’d say, “oh disk 402 sounds interesting”, put in an order and you’d get the game two weeks later’.

First time developers today have a hard enough time within the supposedly more user-friendly territory of Game Maker and Unity, along with a huge community and network of support forums. Kronquist and Andersson had no such help; ‘we didn’t have the Internet at all at first, and later we each got 2400 baud modems which opened us up to bulletin boards, but they took maybe an hour to download a megabyte or something like that’.

For the first real game the pair had made, GF2 is a complex beast, dealing with the physics involved, scrolling split screens and serial linkups between computers. With no information to Google, it had to have been a daunting task. ‘There were a couple of things that were really massive pains. The serial linkup option in particular,’ Andersson admits. ‘The timing was so difficult to get right, and it kept getting out of sync between computers. That alone took an entire summer. Splitting the screen was easy enough, but not many games at the time would scroll in the direction you were flying. In Gravity Power, the split screens merged when you got close, which might have been a bit disorienting but let you get a bigger view of this close encounters dogfight.’

A good tactic when playing with a newcomer was to tell them to use up to thrust. Up on the stick fired, which saw a rain of bullets head up- then down on their heads.

A good tactic when playing with a newcomer was to tell them to use up to thrust. Up on the stick fired, which saw a rain of bullets head up- then down on their heads.

The game was hugely customizable, with options dictating whether those split screens merged or not, or whether you wanted to tinker with its novel but innovative ‘fire to boost, up to shoot’ controls. What’s surprising though is just how beautifully balanced the game is, how easily maps would burn in the memory and how the skilled would shine but upsets would always happen on any given day. Was this all built in out of instinct, or was there some analytical thinking beyond Jan and Jens’ teenage years put into proceedings?

‘I think it was just that we played the game so much ourselves, so we had to tune the levels and settings in the game for our needs,’ muses Kronquist. ‘The air resistance, gravity, the speed of the ship; there was a lot of fine tuning with that. We didn’t spend as much time in level design though, outside of a base few. A lot were added in to make the game seem bigger I think.’

‘It was fun to make the levels, but you needed to spend so much time playing them to make them right, really,’ Andersson continues, ‘so the default starting level, “Bombers Delight” was the one we played a lot, and that shows. I think it’s probably the best level’.

GF2’s reasonably small size meant that it could be handily uploaded to BBS systems even in its full shareware form, but if anything, Andersson was pleased to see the pair’s work get pirated. ‘Once the shareware version was done and we said “that’s it, this is the game”, we uploaded it to one or two BBSes, but then we saw somebody else upload it to another one, and we were like “woah! Somebody uploaded our game!”. We were just happy that somebody else enjoyed it’.

The pair was happy enough with their minor BBS celebrity, but the attentions of British press through 1994 and into 1995 made GF2 a cult hit, a Threes or Flappy Bird of its day, except on a platform owned by only a few thousand and evangelized by a print magazine that would soon begin a monthly feature titled ‘a hundred uses for a dead Amiga’ (they only got a handful of installments in before folding).

‘We were playing GF2 in the office more than any other game, and put it on our cover disk,’ remembers former Amiga Power editor Cam Winstanley. ‘It was an incredible two screen, two player game in a time before online play. The physics heavy mechanic of it, the fact the scenery was made out of soft, shield-destroying cheese… It was awesome, but the more we played it, the more we spotted things that could be improved. We decided to commission (Jan and Jens) to create a new version for us’.

Gravity Power's position in number 2 of Amiga Power's all time top 100. 'The best combat game has got better, thanks to us'. Humble to a fault.

Gravity Power’s position in number 2 of Amiga Power’s all time top 100. ‘The best combat game has got better, thanks to us’. Humble to a fault.

Gravity Power made its debut on the front of AP’s 50th issue and was the full shareware version of GF2 with enhancements that included the aforementioned merging splitscreens and further balance tweaks. ‘One of our first demands was to double the shield strength so that when you were thrown into the side, you could still deftly move your way out of the cave you’d created,’ Winstanley recalls. ‘I think we also added the remotely detonated bomb because we noticed that most people looked over at the other screen while playing so this was a perfect way to utilise that’. It was an alteration that suited Jen and Jan’s mentality of breaking the fourth wall of games to challenge one another, another example being the game’s sole cheat: typing ‘glapkontakt’ on the menu screen would cause both player’s engines to intermittently cut out; an in-game version of Jan’s ‘turn the joystick upside down’ challenges.

GP wasn’t a full sequel, but the ultimate refinement of GF2, and without starting from scratch, there seemed nowhere to go. So it was that GF2K was conceived, a full on new addition for the connected millennium, on mighty 56K dial-up connections easily surpassing the devices GF2 was uploaded to BBSes on. ‘We started again, from scratch,’ Andersson explains, ‘this time it was C++, Direct X and Windows and all this stuff. There were new ideas like grappling hooks in there, and we started off really well I think. Then we both went to university, and moved away, so it didn’t get far.’

‘It is a huge amount of effort to complete something,’ Kronquist elaborates. ‘You can get something you can play quite fast, but something that has some polish to it is quite difficult to make. We really wanted it to be playable online, but when we read up on how to do that we realized it would change everything we had made up to that point. We would have had to rewrite everything we had done so far, so we just lost interest at that point.’ A demo of GF2K can be found on the official GF2 website (recently relaunched at gravityforce2.com, and set to receive more updates soon), but that’s as far as GF2’s story goes.

Officially at least. Still proud of their achievement (‘it’s fun to think that people still enjoy something you did as a teenager,’ as Andersson puts it) the pair have been very receptive to anybody that wanted to build on their work twenty years earlier, providing assets and level editors on request. The result has been a fair few GF clones on PC and the now defunct XBox Live Indie Games service, including an accomplished 2001 PC port of GF2 by Richard Franks, available for free here.

Gravity Fighters is one of a few GF clones that were available on XBLIG.

Gravity Fighters is one of a few GF clones that were available on XBLIG.

Still, surely as we live in an environment more friendly toward amateur development in terms of user-friendly languages and plenty of support, and the recent boom in local multiplayer focused indie games that even remove the need for net code, GF must be ripe for a comeback? GF: 20th Anniversary edition maybe?

‘I think the indie scene is much larger now,’ Kronquist ponders, ‘there’s a whole new scene where you can develop retro games and make them fun. We’ve talked about it several times, but never found the opportunity, I guess’. 

‘It would be really nice to take two weeks to go off with Jan and make a new version.’ Andersson laughs. ‘But we have our own jobs, and I have a kid, which takes a lot of energy. We could maybe make the 25th or 30th anniversary editions!’

So don’t hold your breath. But if you are the making kind, feel free to get cracking. ‘We’re going to be updating the site for the first time in about five years,’ Andersson announces, ‘and we’re going to try to export all the level designs in a png format and release them under a Creative Commons license or something like that. Maybe if we don’t make a remake, someone else can.’ Sounds like a challenge. Touchdown!

Many thanks to Jan and Jens for finding the time to chat, and Cam for his insight. You can listen to the full audio from this interview below, or subscribe to our iTunes feed.
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About The Author

Gamer, Educator, Writer of Stuff, wrestler of professionals (sometimes)