Flight of the Amazon Queen is a point-and-click graphic adventure game published in 1995 for the Amiga and MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System) personal computers. With its humorous writing and appealing graphics, it is an excellent example of the popular genre. It was made by John Passfield and Steve Stamatiadis, two young Australian comic and personal computer fans who were inspired by LucasArts’ The Secret of Monkey Island.1 Because they were based in Brisbane, isolated from any local or international game development community, much of their design process involved looking at LucasArts games and guessing how their developers had gone about creating their games.
Flight of the Amazon Queen is one of more than fifty Australian video games that form the Play It Again 1990s collection at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). Play It Again is a project researching the history and preservation needs of 1990s digital games in Australia. In February 2022 Flight of the Amazon Queen debuted (briefly) on the open web as the inaugural test on the Australian Emulation as Service Infrastructure (EaaSi).2
Developed by computer scientists at Freiburg University, the Emulation-as-a-Service (EaaS) platform provides access to obsolete computer environments (hardware, operating systems) enabling legacy software and other complex digital artifacts to be emulated and accessed by users in a web browser. The most developed emulation solution, EaaS, is being used or evaluated at a number of institutions, including Rhizome, the Tate, the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), and the Dutch Digital Heritage Network. Funding from the Sloan and Mellon Foundations to Yale University has enabled a group of US university libraries to develop a networked version, called EaaSi (EaaS Infrastructure). EaaSi delivers a scalable emulation service, linking US libraries with born-digital collections into a decentralized network where they can not only emulate content in-house, but also share images of utility software and preconfigured legacy environments with other nodes. While access to the US EaaSi is possible via a hosted pilot through the Software Preservation Network (SPN), the lag to Google US for Australia made this unsatisfactory. In 2022, the Play It Again project worked with partners ACMI and AAARnet to install EaaSi on an Australian Google cloud host. For the 2022 EaaSi test, Flight of the Amazon Queen was launched into the cloud and into Australian games preservation history. It and the other collected games can now be played on EaaSi through the ACMI website (for legal reasons only on-site at ACMI).3
But the game has its own unique historical preservation journey where its creator John Passfield has strived to keep the game accessible. A skilled and resourceful community of adventure fans and retro gamers has aided this mission. Passfield, being in the unusual situation of having maintained rights to their own work, made the original game files available as freeware. In 2004 the technically savvy adventure fan community over at ScummVM created a custom interpreter of the Amazon Queen engine for the ScummVM system. Using the ScummVM re-creation of Amazon Queen’s engine, iPhSoft released a licensed version for iPhone in 2009. In addition, Good Old Games, which believes that video games deserve a playable history, made a PC version available in 2013. A twentieth-anniversary edition with bonus materials, created by Mojo Touch in collaboration with John Passfield, was released for iOS and Android in 2016. All of this was made possible through ScummVM’s custom “Queen” engine.
As part of the Play It Again project, researcher Helen Stuckey hosted a public “In Conversation” with John Passfield at ACMI in February 2022 to learn more about the making of Flight of the Amazon Queen, its enduring popularity, and its impending sequel.
This interview has been edited for length and readability. The full recording of the conversation can be viewed at the Play it Again 2 site.4
Helen Stuckey [HS]: You cofounded Interactive Binary Illusions in 1993 to make video games, but you already had experience designing and selling games. Can you tell us about the games you designed and sold as a schoolboy in the 1980s?
John Passfield [JP]: The first game I made was called Chilly Willy [fig. 1]. It was for the Microbee, which was an Australian-designed computer. Microbees were popular here, and also, I think, Sweden. It was an educational computer.
John Passfield, Chilly Willy (Honeysoft, 1983), Microbee. (Image courtesy of John Passfield)
Coming from the small country town of Kyogle in New South Wales, I had my first experience of video games playing on arcade machines. We had some arcade machines in our local corner shop. One of them was a game called Pengo by Sega, and I was so enamored with playing it, but it was twenty cents a go. So I thought I would have a crack at making my own version that I could play for free at home. I had a Microbee, so over the Christmas school holiday break, I sat down to program my version of Pengo that I called Chilly Willy.
Then I thought, well, there’s a company called Honeysoft based not far away in Gosford, so I made a cassette-tape version of my game, and I sent it off to them. And weeks, or possibly months later, I got a letter back saying, we liked your game, we’d love publish it, and I wrote back saying that’d be great. There were no contracts, nothing, and then next thing it comes out on cassette tape. It was sold for $12.95AU at the local hobby stores across Australia where you could buy Microbees. In 1984, I was in year nine at school and a published game designer. Eventually, I even got my first royalty checks. I think I was in university by that time. But Honeysoft did send me two copies of the game on cassette tape [fig. 2]. I recently donated one of them to the Australian National Film and Sound Archive collection. I’ve got one left in case my children ever want to inherit it.
John Passfield, Chilly Willy cassette instructions (Honeysoft, 1984). (Image courtesy of John Passfield)
That was my first attempt. The following year over the summer break, I thought I’d make another game. As a teenager in rural Australia, my opportunities to experience video games were not expansive. My interactions with video games were either [going to] the local arcades, playing games on the Microbee, or reading game reviews in magazines—looking at the screenshots and imagining the gameplay. The film Ghostbusters had come out, and I had seen a review of a Ghostbusters game in a magazine in the newsagent. Although I never played the Ghostbusters game, I thought I would make my own version of an original ghost hunter–themed game. I came up with Halloween Harry [fig. 3]. Halloween Harry was my attempt to make a platform-style game. When it was completed, I sent it to Honeysoft and they published that one as well, so I had two games published. But I didn’t tell anyone at high school what I was doing. It just felt like an odd thing to do. A bit geeky. I really didn’t let on to other people that I made video games.
John Passfield, Halloween Harry (Honeysoft, 1985), Microbee. (Image courtesy of John Passfield)
After making those games I graduated high school. I went to university and studied computer science. Then, because that was kind of the logical progression, I got a job at Telecom, a telecommunications company, doing programming. I quickly found that wasn’t really the thing I wanted to do with my life. At this point I was into comic books, drawing cartoons, and writing comics. Working for Telecom had sucked the love of computers out of me. I actually hated computers. I didn’t have one at home. But through friends of the local comic-shop, I met Steve Stamatiadis, an artist who drew comics. Steve had an arts degree and was animating on the Amiga computer. Steve told me he had always wanted to make a video game. I said I had made video games. And we started talking about what the Amiga could do as a platform and I got excited again.
HS: How influential was LucasArts’ The Secret of Monkey Island on your work?
JP: At that time, we thought about making a remake of Halloween Harry, so we started working on that, which was an arcade-style game. Then a friend of ours started playing LucasArts’ The Secret of Monkey Island. He showed us the game, and that was like a lightbulb moment for me, because I was really into comic books and it was like a comic. And then we thought let’s do a point-and-click adventure game, as well as doing Halloween Harry. Fortunately, at this time we had met two other people in Brisbane who were really into computer games and we thought we could do a game together. So, I did the design and Steve did the art for Halloween Harry and then we offloaded the coding to Tony Ball and Robert Crane. I could then focus on the design and programming for Amazon Queen whilst still doing some design work for Halloween Harry. We bit off a lot, but we were young and silly and just kept making stuff. Steve continued to make all the art for both games.
For Amazon Queen that lightbulb moment was seeing Monkey Island. That game was inspirational. I have actually got one of the posters from the original release of Monkey Island framed, at home. It was a big influence. We were also big Indiana Jones fans, and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (another point-and-click game from LucasArts) had just come out.5 We wanted to do an Indiana Jones homage ourselves. We picked the idea of doing Joe King Adventurer. We thought, however, we’d take a different direction. Fate of Atlantis is very much a semiserious game and it was about the supernatural. So, we thought we [would] make ours comedic with Monkey Island–style humorous overtones. And lean more to science fiction. Steve and I were both fans of magazines like Fortean Times that did these deep dives into Bigfoot or “are aliens real?” And growing up, we had loved the TV show In Search Of. So, we used these kinds of sources for our plotlines. There was an issue of Fortean Times which featured a crystal skull, posing questions of where did it come from? There was conjecture that it was aliens! And that became a sort of MacGuffin in the game. So, in Amazon Queen there is a crystal skull and there are aliens. Little known to us that years later an Indiana Jones movie would actually have the same plotline, but we did it first in 1995.
HS: Can you tell us about making the game on Amiga computers?
JP: We started the game in 1993 but it took well over two years to complete which we thought was a long time, as we were self-funded. In the early days funding was the money I saved from working at Telecom. I was also doing these little comic strips with Pete Mullins (who did the art for the game box and players’ guide) which we would sell. I have not shared any examples of those as they are probably not fit for public consumption. They were for the Australian magazines People and Picture. Back in the day, they were owned by Australian Consolidated Press and they paid really well. We did one regular strip called Dingo Boy. It was a parody of an Australian superhero who was a dingo. It was rather political, but we threw in lots of jokes with references to Star Trek and Star Wars themes, so [it] was very nerdy. I think the editor of the magazine Picture liked Pete and I because he kept us on, even though we always came last in the readers’ polls for comic strips. The raunchier comics got way better ratings, but he kept us around which was nice. It helped pay my rent and helped us fund the early development. We also did some other comic work; Pete and I did a story for Dark Horse Downunder. A local edition [was] created by the American publisher Dark Horse Comics [fig. 4].
John Passfield and Pete Mullins, Jace Riegel (Dark Horse Down Under Comics, 1995). (Image courtesy of John Passfield)
We were developing on the Amiga (I had an Amiga 600). There was a system called AMOS that was like a basic programming language on the Amiga. You could program and create final games. I was using that to build the prototype of the game and start laying out the screens. We had no idea how to make this kind of game. It was really reverse engineering, looking back at what LucasArts were doing, and guessing how they did things. So, it was sitting down and experimenting and just making stuff. It was all made in AMOS. We built all the editors, and all the tooling was done in AMOS.
We had heard about SCUMM [Script Creation Utility for Manic Mansion] at LucasArts. And they had other tools like SPUTEM and stuff. Having read about that, I made JASPAR (John and Steve’s Programmable Adventure Resource), DOGS (Dialogue Object Generation System), and CUTS (Cut Scenes). I think we gave up on the acronyms by the time we got to CUTS.
The game was completely built in the JASPAR editor. A lot of this stuff is me printing out lists of texts with game states and writing them down by hand, then going into the editor and I’d write in those numbers [fig. 5]. Interestingly, if we jump forward to the future, when we had a publisher, they were a bit worried about it being written in AMOS and that people’s perceptions might be that it was built in a toy language. So, we ended up rewriting it in C which is a good thing because then we could port it to Windows. But that’s down the track and all the early work was done in AMOS.
John Passfield’s notes on game states for JASPAR editor. (Image courtesy of John Passfield)
I would make little pencil sketches of how a location would be and how it would work [see figs. 6 and 7]. Steve would sketch out locations as art; we would talk about what was going to be the game. If he had not had time to do a little sketch, I’d get DPaint [Deluxe Paint] and block out a cube and put some little squares to show it’s a door and we’d load that into the editor. Steve would then do up the final art [fig. 8]. This is the final location of Trader Bobs. The top part of the image is the space as you see it in the game, and on the bottom of the image are all the little foreground sprites we would grab and place in the foreground.
John Passfield’s notes on Puzzle hotel sequence. (Image courtesy of John Passfield)
John Passfield’s sketches for locations. (Image courtesy of John Passfield)
Art for Trader Bobs—room and foreground sprites. (Image courtesy of John Passfield)
Interesting thing is, with current modern adventure games there is a tool called Adventure Game Studio (that I have not actually used) but I believe the way they do their walk paths was to paint in locations and I think Sierra did the same thing. What we did, as we did not know how to make the character walk around the screen, was use little polygon shapes. I would just draw little boxes in, and then I stretch them around and wrap them around to make little scenes where the characters walk. What is interesting is just literally last week, Jonathan Ackley, who was one of the guys who worked on the Monkey Island games, tweeted out about the way they did their system. They did the same thing as us. They did polygon shapes. He stated that the Sierra guys would paint their walk paths, but at LucasArts they used polygons. I thought that was really nice that we kind of came to the same solution.
Using the JASPAR editor, we would paint up all the locations, drawing in the walk zones, adding little squares around the objects you could interact with, add in doors and connect all the rooms together. How our pipeline worked was we would catch up every week and swap discs. Steve was living at home with his parents at this stage. I don’t recall if it was pre-internet, but it was too early to simply share things. I would get Steve’s discs with the art and then we’d start laying things out. Then I would have my little mock-ups and give them to Steve to do the final artwork. Then I would add that into the game, and we would progress that way.
HS: Did your editor work in the [same] manner as LucasArts SCUMM editor?
JP: It did not work in the same way as SCUMM. Not at all. It was completely different because obviously we had no idea how theirs worked. Although the answer is in the name that theirs was a script-creation utility. But that did not even occur to us. In ours you put an object down, and then a bit like Unity we had a little dialog box inside with the other assets and the functions that could happen with that script box. We had a label for the title and a little label for description. Then we’d have a little box saying if it was on or off, making it visible or invisible. When we clicked on it, we could choose a user action like “pull or push” that would trigger an action, like turning another object or inventory item on or off. It was pretty simple, but it seemed to work.
HS: Figure 9 is a sprite sheet for a particularly amusing-looking special animation. Was memory an issue when planning how many special animations you could have in the game?
Special animation sequence sprites—Joe King in his boxers making a rope of sheets. (Image courtesy of John Passfield)
JP: I think we probably started thinking about issues like that once we got a publisher and were thinking about how to ship the game. Memory was never an issue as far as I remember. We could load stuff up and if required get rid of things.
We tried to use the animations to have a bit of rewards for players at different points. This image was early in the game when you escape from the hotel [fig. 9]. And we decided at some point to make it that they could steal Joe’s clothes. At which point we realized that we needed to redo all the animations we had done for the first part again with the option of him wearing boxer shorts. And then we had a puzzle, where you had to dress up as a woman to escape, so we had to do all the animations again with Joe King dressed up as a woman. We ended up doing the animations three times for the first part of the game.
Any budding developers out there don’t do that [costume changes] because that added a lot extra work that we didn’t need to do. Could have been that he solved the problem a lot easier without changing clothes. But we did not have to ration the special animations, they were just there as little rewards.
HS: Can you tell us about the character sheets for forty-eight and sixty-four colors? [See figs. 10 and 11.]
Amiga character sheet with forty-eight colors. (Image courtesy of John Passfield)
DOS character sheet with sixty-four colors. (Image courtesy of John Passfield)
JP: The Amiga had a limited forty-eight-color palette, so Steve had to redo the art again and enhance it for the PC version’s sixty-four-color palette. The little guys in the middle of the bottom row, they’re called FLODA but in the original design we had them as Nazis [see detail in fig. 12]. Amazon Queen was set in South America. It was a Boys from Brazil–type concept that the Nazis had fled to South America. This was also the basis for Dr. Ironstein with his unnatural experimentation. However, when we signed with a publisher, they explained that this concept was not going to work in Germany, because you can’t have any Nazi insignia and those characters originally had little Nazi outfits on. We were in our early twenties! We had no clue about how these things work. Once we had that feedback, we thought we better change it. So, we called the organization FLODA, which is Adolf backward. Then poor Steve had to go through and repaint all the characters again, change out the colors, and redo the work. I think he ended up working on Joe and all the characters three or four times over the course of the project. A lot of work!
Detail—FLODA. (Image courtesy of John Passfield)
HS: I want to ask you about one of the characters in particular, the bellboy, and the origins of that character.
JP: That leads to a story about the publishing of the game. We were making Amazon Queen and Halloween Harry ourselves, self-funded. And one day the American publishers Electronic Arts set up an office nearby on the Gold Coast. Being young and naive and not really having any sort of example of how things work, we had previously rung up an Australian company called Pactronics and said we are making a game we’d love to sell it. I remember the Pactronics guy saying to me “You will probably sell about a thousand copies and make a few thousand dollars.” I had made more than that from the original Microbee Halloween Harry, so I knew there was more possibility than that. I had also been reading American computer game magazines; I knew that there’s people like Richard Garriott and others making money from video games, so that didn’t seem right. When Electronic Arts set up on the Gold Coast we thought let’s call them up and see if we can have a chat. So, we went down and met with them. We showed them our games Halloween Harry and Amazon Queen and they liked them both. They even gave us a PC to get the games onto PC, although that was mostly for developing Halloween Harry. We didn’t have an agreement or anything. We were sort of naive back then. We had no clue how these things work. We started working on the PC version of Halloween Harry and we thought this is great we have got a deal with Electronic Arts.
Then, one day, they got in touch and said, “Look, the head guy’s coming over who looks after our region. He is going to be in Australia and we’d love you to come down and show him the games’ progress.” At this point we had a lot of Amazon Queen up and running and Halloween Harry was playable. So, we went down to the Gold Coast to the EA office. We drove there, all four of us, to show off Halloween Harry and Amazon Queen. We set up the computers in a meeting room, it was very exciting. We thought, this is it, because whenever we’d brought up the idea of an agreement, it was always sort of fobbed off. We thought, well, now we will get it settled and have an agreement sorted. We will know what we’re doing, and the games will be getting released.
We had the games set up. We were really excited and in walked the guy, he was a little pudgy and he had a beard. I said “Hi, I am John” and he said, “Don’t tell me your names as I won’t remember.” “OK,” I thought! He was really abrupt. He looked at Halloween Harry and said, “This shouldn’t be on a PC, that should be on the Amiga computer. Arcade games don’t work on the PC.” He looked at Amazon Queen stating, “This is again wrong computer; it should be on a PC not an Amiga. And for anything to succeed, it has to be a hundred times better than LucasArts and there’s no way you could do that.” Then he said, “That’s it, thanks,” and walked out. We were dumbfounded. We looked at the Australian guy from EA and said, “Is that it?” and he said, “I guess so.” We were just dumbfounded; we had no clue what had just gone on. We were not prepared for that at all. So, we packed up all our computers. I was fuming and did not know what to say. As we were leaving, I said to the Aussie EA guy, “Thanks a lot, thanks for nothing,” and we just left. When I got home, I was so incensed that I pulled out all my Amiga Power magazines and all my other computer-game magazines from the UK and made a list of every single publisher who was behind good games including Ocean, US Gold, and Renegade. Renegade was the one which was really cool because they had Bitmap Brothers. They did really cool games like Sensible Soccer and other great stuff, but I thought they were probably out of our league. I duplicated heaps of disks, got little bags and put the discs in, and wrote a cover letter saying who we were, and we’ve got this adventure game and sent them off to everybody. Within a month and a half to two months I got some phone calls, and faxes came through, and we had interest from Ocean, and from Renegade as well, who called up and said look we’d love to publish the game. We had a choice about who would publish Amazon Queen.
We ended up choosing Renegade as they were the cool people and had a great publishing deal. They had a 50 percent royalty split with the developer. It wasn’t like just get 10 percent which was common. You got 50 percent, and they also offered creative control. They respected creators’ rights. Once we signed with them, they flew us to Chicago for the Summer CES trade show to meet with Eric Matthews and some more of the team. It was really great. Then they flew us to the UK and we went to European Computer Trade Show and got to hang out with the rest of Renegade. Part of their feedback on Amazon Queen was the game needs to be a bit longer and that they would love to see more content. We said we can do a new opening sequence and that’s where we built the hotel sequence of the game. Originally you started the game in the Amazon jungle.
When we were creating new content for our new publishers, and we thought, right, [recalling] that EA guy! Who totally dismissed it! We thought let’s put him in the game. We were young. So, he’s a character you can interact with. He’s the bellboy [fig. 13]. If you talk to him, he comes across as not a very nice person. The character talks about his uncle EA who owns the hotel and moans about his failings in life. It’s a bit petty and vindictive but made us feel a lot better at that time. So that’s how he came about.
EA Bellboy sprite sheet. (Image courtesy of John Passfield)
HS: Is the deal with Renegade how you ended up owning your IP for Amazon Queen?
JP: Renegade was founded by Bitmap Brothers who were awesome (they did Magic Pockets, Gods, and Speedball). They were founded in conjunction with UK record publisher Rhythm King Records. Those were the two forces running it and they had a very creator-driven agenda. They didn’t want to own the intellectual property, thus we owned the IP to the game. Originally, we were called Interactive Binary Illusions. That was our company name. Then later we changed it to Gee Whiz Entertainment (1996), which is much better. Amazon Queen was published under the name Interactive Binary Illusions in its final credits.
With Renegade we got to own the rights to the game so when they stopped publishing it we still owned the rights. [Years later] when I separated from Krome Studios in 2005 (which I cofounded in 1999), I said, I want to keep Halloween Harry because I created that as a kid and Amazon Queen.6 I don’t want any ownership over Ty the Tasmanian Tiger series. And they were fine with that, so that’s how I got my rights back and kept them.
What is interesting is that these other great games that have their rights owned by the likes of EA or Activision. These companies may have no interest in republishing the game or developing another version of it. Yet at the same time they’re not going to ever sell the rights, because once they have them, they hold them as they add to the company’s value. In contrast for me, it was a case I have got this game. I own it. I can keep it available to be played.
So, one of the great things with working with Renegade was creative control. Another was we got to have a say in the marketing. They threw ideas at us such as, “Let’s make little airplanes, we think [that] would be really great.” They were, “What do you think of that idea?” And we go, “That’s awesome.” So, we had a little die-cast plane made up. Back in the nineties, every single game journalist in the UK smoked cigarettes. So, they said, “Can we do a little Zippo lighter?” We thought, okay, we don’t smoke, but that would be great. I have a Zippo lighter at home now with Amazon Queen on [it]. It’s pretty cool. With Renegade we got to veto things. If we didn’t like it, we just said no. It was just a great experience.
One of the things we had control over was the cover. We said we’d like to do an Indiana Jones sort of style box art. Pete Mullins painted the original cover for the box art. (He is doing the art on the new game Return of the Amazon Queen). He also did all the interior art for the original user manual. On the cover of the original game that’s me posing as Joe King and that’s Pete’s wife Lizzie posing as Faye Russell [fig. 14]. Pete did this beautiful cover artwork. We thought it was pretty cool and Renegade loved it. But then what happened was Renegade was acquired by Warner Interactive Entertainment. Warner Brothers bought them in a deal. Warner Brothers didn’t really respect our contract which said we had credit control and next thing is, they said, “Look we’re launching in the US and here’s the cover. It’s coming out next week!” Oh my God, they redid the cover. I don’t know why they decided they needed to redraw it [fig. 15]. You can see Joe’s wearing what looks like golf shoes! He is in a baseball pose. And they put cobras in? Which, as we all know, don’t belong in the Amazon. It was awful. But they said, “This is what we’re shipping with,” so they did. We hated it.
Box art front—original with Renegade, 1995. (Image courtesy of John Passfield)
Box art front—USA release with Warner Brothers, 1995. (Image courtesy of John Passfield)
HS: Can I ask you to speak to the official player guide for Flight of the Amazon Queen? It seems such a treasure of this era of video games. It’s a beautiful, perfect, bound, large booklet designed to support players with hints and advice to keep the game always pleasurable.
JP: Another advantage of working with Renegade was a chance to get the official guide made. That was so amazing because we’re fans of Monkey Island which had these extras in the box like a little spinning wheel. We were excited to have extras for players. We wrote the foreword to the official guide which was very over the top. Cam Winstanley wrote the guide. Back in the 1990s many of the games had some obtuse puzzles and we probably had some of those ourselves. So, having the guide was probably good because back then you couldn’t really google it and get answers if you were stuck.
HS: I want to ask you about another very 1990s phenomena and that was the CD-ROM demo and the role these played in the game culture of the time.
JP: I think we did two demos. We did one which was the original hotel level as a playable demo. We also did an interactive interview demo. And that’s also available on the ScummVM site, so you can download that and play through that. We wanted to do something which introduced the players to the game. So, we put ourselves into the game. You can go into the game demo and interview us and talk to us [fig. 16]. There was myself, Steve, and Tony Ball, who did the programming for the PC version and converted the AMOS engine over to C.
Flight of the Amazon Queen Game demo (playable interview) , CD-ROM coverdisk no.99, CU Amiga , January 1995. John Passfield and Steve Stamatiadis as characters in the interactive interview.
For the interview demo it was a little level where you play through and you’ll see us and talk to us. At the time we had another game we were planning to do with Renegade after Amazon Queen called Stereo Jack and we put a little sneak peek of Stereo Jack in there as well [fig. 17]. But it never got made because the Warner purchase of Renegade reset everything. The interview demo was a really fun experience and a lot of people have played that and remember that as something that was a bit different.
Stereo Jack image from the Flight of the Amazon Queen Interview .
I think that demo was originally done for CU Amiga disk number 99, and we actually tailored it for different interviewers depending on the magazine it featured in.7 It would say interviewed by so-and-so journalist playing Joe King. We had a little interactive sequence where the airship would fly in and land and you would wander off and find our secret base where we were making the game and then talk to us about things.
HS: Can you tell us about the involvement of ScummVM in making the game accessible today?
JP: I was approached from the ScummVM people and they were interested in making a version of Amazon Queen available through their online library of playable adventure games. I was aware at this point that new generation PCs that were coming out were making it harder to play Amazon Queen. And I thought, well, I own the intellectual property, so I made it freeware with the right that you download for free, but you couldn’t sell it. And I retained copyright ownership of the game and that’s when the ScummVM people come in. They reached out and said we’d love to convert Amazon Queen to the ScummVM engine. And I was that’d be great because then it lives on forever. So, they reached out and said can we do it? I said that would be great and a month later it’s available on ScummVM.
HS: ScummVM does not rely on the emulation of hardware. The ScummVM team uses a different process to make games playable on contemporary computing environments. Can you explain how they do this?
JP: I actually reached out to ScummVM on their Discord asking them how they went about it. What they explained is ScummVM is basically a framework for graphical programs which work with 2-D, and now 3-D, particularly with OpenGL. So, they provide middleware code which is called the OSystem. Then every game engine is ported to this middleware replacing or hardware dependent things like sound, graphical output, file reading, keyboard mouse input, times, et cetera, with a call to the OSystem. First off, they did this for the LucasArts Scumm engine. For my game they created the “Queen” engine. The Queen engine uses their middleware to interpret the game files for Amazon Queen. It’s completely different pieces of code having nothing in common with Scumm or any of the other four engines they had adapted at the time. Amazon Queen was the fifth engine they made compatible. They said because Amazon Queen had very little assembly, it was mostly C code, they said it was very easy to port over. And I think they’re obviously very smart people. So that’s how it came about and that is how it works. As mentioned, I believe they’ve got support now for the LucasArts games which have 3-D graphics.
I just love what they’re doing because it just gives that capacity to keep the game playable. It outputs at C++ so it works for everything. When Liron, who did the re-release of Amazon Queen for iOS in 2009, approached me to ask if he could port it into iOS he used the ScummVM Queen engine version and built on top of that engine extra stuff for the iOS version. The way that arrangement worked is that I granted him a licence to sell for iOS and he gave me a royalty. He has also put it on to the PC now. ScummVM just keeps these games accessible, which is great.
HS: Looking at the PC version downloadable from Good Old Games [GOG], there are twelve pages of comments from players and most of them are people who are discovering the game for the first time and really enjoying it.
JP: I recently accessed the partner dashboard for Good Old Games. I had never really looked at it. I had just thought it’s up there, but I had not thought much about it. Then I looked at the statistics, and at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, it was like nearly 300,000 downloads that year. It was a real big bump and all up it’s close to a million players on GOG alone. Not counting those who are accessing it from ScummVM. So, a lot of people have downloaded and played it which they wouldn’t have seen if it hadn’t been for ScummVM. It would have just been a memory for some people from when they were kids. But now there’s all these new people playing it. Now I check every week and people are downloading every week, which is just great. I know being free helps but I have released games that also are free on other platforms and just because it’s free doesn’t mean people download it. So, I’m very, very happy that I’ve got the exposure through Good Old Games.
HS: What is exciting about Good Old Games is you actually get the game. You download it and have a copy on your drive DRM free. It’s also on Steam, but then you’re sort of leasing the game.
JP: That’s right. We did a twentieth-anniversary edition, and I wrote a little making-of document explaining how the game was made, and I put that up as part of the Good Old Games release. And they put up the soundtrack. So, for the grand price of zero dollars, it’s great value.
HS: Back in the 1990s when you wrote all the original editors, you also wrote manuals even though you are the only user. Did you share them with ScummVM?
JP: It was just me and Steve, and I did all the editing, so I’m not quite sure why I wrote manuals. I think it was just to make it feel real. I had these little dot-matrix printouts of pages, so I can refer back to things. I don’t think it was ever the thought that anyone else would use them, it was just for me to use, so it was rather odd. I’m glad I kept them because they look kind of nice.
Having those to share, and of course having all the source code as well, that was really useful for ScummVM; obviously they needed that to edit. Also, because we did different languages, when we launched Amazon Queen it was released in EFIGS: English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish. And since then we’ve had Hebrew and other languages added. But that is the community going in and adding them in. And for some reason, I guess, once we signed with Renegade the idea that we’d be doing EFIGS we did set up the editor so we can output the script files and make it easily translatable. Even though it was written a long time ago, we were fairly forward thinking. We made sure it was easy to add in translation files.
And the other thing too was it was also released as a talkie. It was one of the earlier audio adventure video games. That was really exciting because we got flown to England for the final few months of mastering of the game, and while we were over there, we got to do the voice recording. It was in London and we worked with some really great UK actors. We had Penelope Keith come in to record which is very exciting. Will, the voice director, was a big fan of hers, as were we. In Australia we had grown up watching her in the The Good Life and To the Manor Born. We were kind of intimidated, but he said she loved it. That she has children who play video games. When she came in, she was lovely but the lines we had for her were as a zombie princess. If we had known the role was going to be voiced by Penelope Keith, we would have written a bigger part for her. But I think she was just excited to be in there and doing it, and she was really lovely because her kids were fans of games and I guess it got street cred with them. That was really exciting.
Also exciting was the Star Wars connection. Steve and I are a huge Star Wars fans and throughout the game we had woven in lots of pop culture references from Star Wars.8 [And now] Bill Hootkins [who played] the X-Wing pilot Red Six (Porkins) in the attack on the Death Star was in our game voicing Dr. Ironstein and the EA bellboy. We were so excited to meet him. He has passed away now, sadly. We also had Jonathan Coleman, who again has sadly passed away; he played Trader Bob. We got to meet all these very cool people over there in the UK for the voice acting, which was just great.
HS: What’s inspired you to return to the Amazon Queen?
JP: We had the idea for the Return to the Amazon Queen back when we made the original and had a rough sort of plotline. But back then we had planned to make Stereo Jack next. That was derailed by the acquisition of Renegade by Warner who didn’t want to go in that direction anymore. Then what happened was adventure games seemed to a fade out of favor. So, the idea was always around, and then Steve and I tried to resurrect the idea of an Amazon Queen sort of thing with a game called Gruesome Castle, which was a 3-D adventure game. We actually prototyped that and got to a good playable level. We had a publisher signed with an agreement to publish it. But then they announced that they were changing direction, and it sort of fell by the wayside.
So, it has always been there, the idea of making another one, but I thought adventure games were dead. Then in 2015 I started making little Apple Watch games, which I had fun building. I thought maybe I could adapt Return of the Amazon Queen to the Apple Watch. So, I started playing around with that on the Apple Watch thinking is there a way to do it here? I realized that there’s no market on the watch for this kind of game. So that put it on notice again. Then a number of things happened. One was the adventure-game community was still there and making games. There are great games by people like Dave Gilbert and Francisco Gonzalez and a whole bunch of other people who are making these wonderful games like Unavowed and Lamplight City.9 There’s a whole community there for these great games that have been made. A lot of them using Adventure Game Studio to make these games and also now using Unity with its Adventure Studio Creator.
A year ago, a friend of mine, George Broussard (who founded Apogee and published Halloween Harry for PC), drew my attention to a Game Jam game called Loco Motive.10 It was made in Unity, using a thing called Power Quest. I thought that’s kind of cool, so I started thinking about what you could do with that. Then for a little brief period I returned to making Amazon Queen Returns in Unity as a Zelda-style 3-D game. And I was talking to Matt Hall (who did Crossy Road11), and he said, “Why are you doing it in 3-D? Why not just make it like the original Amazon Queen?” So, I thought about all the factors—how the adventure-game community was still around, all the great new games by Dave, Francisco and others, and then what George had said about Power Quest. I went back to look at Power Quest, which is a wonderful plugin for Unity by a team here in Melbourne called PowerHoof. It’s made by a guy called Dave Lloyd.
I loaded it up and started looking at it. It’s a thousand times better than the editors I made for Amazon Queen. It just works! So, I talked with Pete and we decide instead of doing a 3-D game let’s use this to do a 2-D game. From the GOG and other downloads, we know there is an audience out there who are aware of the original game. So, all those things came together so we thought let’s do it.
Pete and I came with an idea of what it could be about. I told him about the original Return to the Amazon Queen concept, and we threw ideas around. We did some mock-ups of how it could look. Then we started building it. Pete and I both come from that background of comic books and loved telling stories. We had been working together making these little Apple Watch games which was fun, and we made money out of them, but there’s no story involved. They are just little arcade games. We thought we would love to tell a story and go back to the world of graphic storytelling we were in twenty-eight years ago. We thought now’s the time to do it. There’s a confluence of technology. We can distribute our game through Steam.
HS: What is your design process for Return of the Amazon Queen?
JP: We did talk briefly about if we stick with 320 by 240 like the original Amazon Queen or do we go high rez and go HD? In the end we thought let’s just go HD because back in the day, we would have gone HD if we could. We worked to the limitations of machines. So, in the spirit of how we approached design back then, we thought let’s do it, to the best we can now.
Figure 18 is a pencil sketch of the cantina by Pete showing where the props and characters should be. Pete’s using 3-D rendering to block out the locations. The characters are 2-D, of course. Pete blocks everything out in Blender as 3-D models, then he can export the 3-D room as a 2-D background with the foreground stuff like tables and chairs as a separate layer for Joe to walk behind. I put the art into the game and we see how it plays. If we need to change stuff it’s easy for Pete to move things in 3-D, change their size, whatever, then export another 2-D image to replace the old one. Figure 19 shows the 3-D version built to match the 2-D pencil sketch with some 2-D pencil-sketch characters still as placeholders. The great thing with Power Quest and Unity is we can then put this out into whatever format we want, but we’re focusing primarily on getting it onto Steam.
Return of the Amazon Queen —Cantina pencil sketch by Pete Mullins, 2022. (Image courtesy of John Passfield)
Return of the Amazon Queen —Cantina in Unity. Some characters as placeholder 2-D pencil sketches, 2022. (Image courtesy of John Passfield)
The opening scene is set in Mexico. This game is more globetrotting than the original. We want to get the Mexican scene to a level of polish. Then we can let the people who subscribe to the newsletter play it to see if they like what we are doing. Take on any feedback and comments. We are having fun with its design, joking about scenarios and situations. It’s great fun. We both have other priorities in our lives now; we’ve got families and other work taking our time. So it’s a slower process than before, but at the same time we’re moving through things pretty fast. Pete’s incredibly fast at sketching stuff up.
HS: What role does your blog and social media play in your process?
JP: We thought let’s open the kimono and expose what we’re doing to everybody. Say “This is it, come along [for] the ride and see what’s happening!” Because, when it comes out there’s going to be probably two thousand other games released on Steam that day. How do we stand out? We will need to find our audience, and hopefully people who love these classic games will want to join us on a journey and hopefully play it.
1. ^ Lucasfilm Games, The Secret of Monkey Island (Lucasfilm Games, 1990), Amiga. Lucasfilm Games, the credited creator of The Secret of Monkey Island, is also known by the title LucasArts. As the name LucasArts is commonly associated with its SCUMM engine adventure series, LucasArts has been used throughout the write-up of this interview for consistency.
2. ^ Play It Again is an Australian Research Council–funded Linkage project researching the history and preservation needs of 1990s digital games in Australia. It is a collaboration between researchers at Swinburne and RMIT universities, ACMI, AARNet, UNESCO PERSIST, and OpenSLX. Chief investigators are Melanie Swalwell (Swinburne), Helen Stuckey (RMIT), Denise de Vries (Swinburne), and Angela Ndalianis (Swinburne), with Seb Chan (ACMI) as a partner investigator.
3. ^ Candice Cranmer, “Making Legacy Videogames and Interactive Artworks Playable with EaaSI via ACMI’s Website,” ACMI Labs, Medium, May 2, 2020, https://medium.com/acmi-labs/making-legacy-videogames-and-artworks-playable-with-eaasi-via-acmis-website-43c686dfe947.
4. ^ Helen Stuckey and John Passfield, “In Conversation with John Passfield on The Flight of the Amazon Queen: The Emulation and the Remake” (Zoom webinar, Play It Again 2, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, February 17, 2022), https://playitagainproject.com/conference/conference_program/.
5. ^ Lucasfilm Games, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (Lucasfilm Games, 1992), Amiga.
6. ^ In 1999 John and Steve founded Krome Studios with Rob Walsh. Krome created the popular Ty the Tasmanian Tiger series.
7. ^ CU Amiga was a monthly UK computer magazine. From 1990 to 1999 it shipped with a coverdisk featuring utilities, games, demos, and previews.
8. ^ Other pop cultural references in Amazon Queen included the old TV shows John and Steve watched growing up like Bring ʼEm Back Alive.
9. ^ Wadjet Games, Unavowed (Wadjet Eye Games, 2018), Windows, MacOS, Switch; and Grundislav Games, Lamplight City (Application Systems Heidelberg, 2018), Windows, MacOS, Linux.
10. ^ Robust Games, Loco Motive (Game Jam Edition) (Chucklefish, 2020), Windows, MacOS, Linux.
11. ^ Hipster Whale, Crossy Road (Hipster Whale, 2014), Android, iOS, Windows Phone, tvOS.