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Subnodule

The date says 1985 but the game was completed in 1984

Developed on: Apple II+
Developed for: Apple II+ on DOS 3.3
Language: 6502 assembly
Graphics: 280 x 192, 6-color hires
Size: 147 sectors (37kb)

Children of the Sea

The year was 1984, and I was a senior in high school. In December, I was ready to start writing another game after having finished Alien Attack IV in all 6502 assembly. I asked my girlfriend Jennifer what kind of game I should write, and she said “Something with fishies!” Into my mind, the wonderful memories of John Anderson’s Apple II version of Sea Dragon appeared, and I loved the idea of making an underwater game.

Initial instinct was to have new sea creatures introduced every level, and you would pilot a submarine that fired across the screen at them. I wanted to make sure the player could really fire a ton of shots and not just one at a time (like Cavern Crusader, written earlier that year). I visualized how the game should look in action, the screen outrageously busy with lots of enemies, shots and nodules accompanied by a cornucopia of sound.

How would a player complete a level? Maybe picking up something while you’re shooting at sea creatures is the answer. Shoot stuff, pick up stuff. What would I call these things you picked up? Randomly, the Star Trek episode Devil in the Dark popped into my head. That’s the episode where the Horta is trying to protect its eggs, called silicon nodules. The core of this game is piloting a sub and picking up nodules. Subnodule!

I changed the name of the nodules from silicon to manganese, because manganese nodules are found on the sea floor. They’re usually the size of a potato. Back when I was making Subnodule, interest in the mining of manganese nodules was heating up. I was being topical in same way Jim Nitchals’ Bug Attack was referencing the California medfly invasion of 1982.

These nodules are valuable, so I decided your score would be the dollar amount had from selling the nodules. Unfortunately, I misspelled manganese as magnese on my instruction screen.

After finishing five levels, I thought it would be great to have an intermission screen to add a little extra reward, so I put that in. To add a little spice to the difficulty, a little randomness, I came up with a nefarious little guy called the X-Sub that would speed across the screen to ram you. Finally, I added a ship that would motor across the top of the waves and drop mines you had to avoid.

Subnodule took me a couple weeks of intense effort to make from concept to finished game. I wrote all my notes, code and drawings in my game notebook while working on it, mostly at school. When I got home, I would enter all the code from the notebook and continue from that point. Like most of my games, after I finished writing it, I moved on to another game almost immediately (The Pyramids of Egypt).

Delivering The Goods

In 1985, I graduated high school and moved from my home in Needingworth, England to Salt Lake City, Utah to live with my biological father. I got a job selling software at a retailer named Software Centre on Highland Drive across from Cottonwood Mall. While there, the owner, Howard Paull, allowed me to sell the game on consignment. I created a ziploc baggie-style cardboard cover with printed instructions inside, shrink-wrapped it and put it on the shelves. I didn’t sell many copies, but I’ve received emails from people who bought it from that store and loved it.

It wasn’t until 1987 that I decided to see if I could get Subnodule wider distribution. It was pretty easy. I found a game publisher named Keypunch Software in Brad McGehee’s book Programmer’s Market 1986. Keypunch bought distribution rights for $250, renamed the game to Sub Hunt (on the packaging only; I’m sure players got confused when they typed BRUN SUB HUNT and Subnodule comes up. Nice work, Keypunch), and put it in a small collection of underwater games. Obviously, the editor didn’t understand that cool 80′s games had crazy names. Cyclically recurring the way many things do, that trend has resurfaced for naming domains on the internet.

A man named Paul Rinde created Keypunch Software. When I sold Subnodule to him, it was the first time we crossed paths . In 1990, Paul co-founded WizardWorks and in 1994 created a product called D!Zone – a big scoop of DOOM levels off the internet and thrown onto a CD. He sold WizardWorks to GT Interactive, the house that id built, where he became a Senior Vice President. He joined his latest company, Destineer, in 2003. I still haven’t met Paul, mostly because it’s too cold in Minneapolis, and I will never go there.

At least it's listed first

Click here to see game screens and the packaging I created for Subnodule.

Subnodule was the first big game I wrote. It was followed by an even bigger game, The Pyramids of Egypt. At 147 sectors, it was up there with some of the biggest games on the Apple II (Tony Suzuki’s Star Blazer was 151). The things I liked about Subnodule were the feel of the movement (which I tried to duplicate like Star Blazer) and the fact that you had unlimited shots, but that the game was still a major challenge. Balancing control against waves of approaching enemies and collectible nodules, not to mention the randomness of the ship dropping mines and the X-Sub ramming you, finishing a level felt like an accomplishment. I was happy with the way this game came together and performed.

Over the years, I’ve seen a few pages about Subnodule pop up on the internet. This happens less frequently than Dangerous Dave, but it’s great to see how many people played the game and remember it fondly. A guy named Andrew Denyes even wrote a song about Subnodule.

Subnodule theme song

Download Subnodule for the Apple II and run it in an Apple II emulator.

To play this game, you will need to run it with an Apple II emulator.

Game Instructions

Objective: Kill all the sea creatures and gather all the nodules. Avoid the X-Sub, the ship’s mines, and the marauding sea creatures.

Controls: Arrows to move around. SPACE will fire torpedos.

Extra Info: Every 5 levels you get an intermission screen.

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5 Responses to “Subnodule”

  1. pepes says:

    cool story bro

  2. I’m the Brad McGehee who wrote “Programmer’s Market” (which was a long time ago). Glad to see that you found the book useful.

  3. Shawn says:

    Great article John. I love this format! I especially like all of the screenshots and your attention to detail in the descriptions.

    I’m really digging the site!

  4. Kathy Nitchals says:

    Hi,
    Jim Nitchals was my younger brother. I often google him just to see whats up with anything he did. Thank you for referencing him. He is greatly missed. Keep up the great work on your site! Could you imagine what Jim might have to say about the changes since back then if he were here now?
    Take Care

    Kathy

    • Romero says:

      Wow, great to meet you, Kathy! Jim was an absolute LEGEND in the Apple II world, and his name will live on for many, many years. I am about to do a presentation at SXSW this year (in Austin) and Jim is on one of the slides.

      Jim’s widow (can’t remember her name) sent me a really nice framed advertisement from his company, Cavalier Computers, back in 1998 and I will always have that. In addition, Jim’s friend, Steve Hales, still works in the industry and we’re in contact.

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