... Rick Levine

By Al Backiel




Digital Press was able to hook up with former Imagic programmer Rick Levine on the Internet. He thanked us for our rather complimentary review of Microsurgeon for Intellivision. Hey, no problem! We tell it like it is! Rick was also kind enough to grant us an exclusive interview. We think our readers will enjoy hearing about what he has to say about the early days right up to the present. Today, Rick is a Systems Design Engineer at Microsoft working on the Windows 98 project.



DP: First off, how did you get started in data processing?


Rick Levine: I majored in Mathematics at UCLA and used a slide rule in college Physics and Chemistry. I used keypunch cards to program in Fortran, and didn’t really get hooked on computers until personal computing took off. While I was teaching mathematics at a high school in 1977, I decided to try incorporating computers into my lessons. I had a Sol-20 (8080 processor) computer at home and programmed it to help me run a simulation game in class. A fellow Psychology teacher let me use the computer simulation to teach students about the dangers and effects of different kinds of stress. It was very successful and I had a great time. I also wrote my first assembly language program: a chess playing computer in 4k of ram. Eventually, I decided to go back to college and get another degree in Computer Science. I’m very glad I did!


DP: How did you wind up working for Imagic?


Rick Levine: While back in college, I needed to support myself. I heard Mattel Electronics was making games, and I sent them a letter. I was very excited to get a job and began work on Mattel Electronics’ Bowling handheld game. The game knew how to score bowling, control the inputs and outputs, play sounds; all in 1k of ram! Mike Minkoff, who later programmed Astrosmash, and I soon began work on PBA Bowling for Intellivision. The next year I took a job programming medical electronics, so I could be closer to school (UC Irvine) while I completed my Computer Science degree. Brian Dougherty, an acquaintance from Mattel, had moved to Northern California to start Imagic with some ex-Atari and ex-Mattel employees. He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse!


DP: Were you there the same time as Rob Fulop and Dennis Koble?

Rick Levine: Yes. When I talked to Brian about working for Imagic, they were just beginning Intellivision development. However, I got to see Demon Attack and Atlantis for the Atari system and was very impressed. The entire staff of Imagic programmers was very sharp and fun to work with. Bob Smith’s Dragonfire was another really fun Atari game I remember.


DP: Where did you get the idea for Microsurgeon? How long did it take to complete? Did you get any help? Were there any major hurdles? Are there any “Easter eggs” or “back doors” hidden in the game?


Rick Levine: When I worked on medical electronics, I was very fortunate to spend a day in an operating room watching Ophthalmologists (eye doctors) perform cataract surgeries. Before I went to work for Imagic, Brian and I discussed my idea of how fun it would be to play doctor in a game. It took me about 6 to 9 months to design and program Microsurgeon. I remember going to the library and collecting a dozen books on Anatomy. My first few attempts at capturing the feeling of steering through the body were not successful. I was trying too hard to get the detail right and missed the big picture, which I think is a problem for many of today’s games. Once I realized I needed to store lots of data in order to present an interesting scrollable body on the screen, I had to spend time figuring out how to store all the graphics and code in a 4k cartridge. I came up with a scheme for repeating blocks of graphics (a form of compression), and the artist came up with a great drawing for me to work with. There is a special graphics block in one of the arteries or veins that has my name. (Ed. Note: look for “rick” in dark area below jaw).


DP: I could just see you performing your own microsurgery. Did it reach the point where you realized that “ we have no more room, we’ll have to cut out the pancreas and the pituitary gland“ (although I see you even have the spleen)?


Rick Levine: We did have to leave out some organs to make the graphics more understandable and make the game play well.


DP: Did you get any fan mail along the lines of : “Thanks to you my son became interested in medicine and is now a doctor“ or “thanks to you, I gave up smoking“?


Rick Levine: Shortly after Microsurgeon was released, I learned that a University’s medical school students were using the game to teach public school students about anatomy and the dangers of heart disease. That was certainly one of the most enjoyable letters I received. Over the years I have met a few engineers who said they enjoyed playing Microsurgeon and still have it at home.


DP: What about Truckin’ ? The same questions. Idea? Time? Help? Problems? Easter Eggs?


Rick Levine: Once I moved to Los Gatos, California, to work at Imagic, I still liked to visit friends and family in Los Angeles. Anyone who has driven often from Northern to Southern California, knows that highway I-5 has lots and lots of trucks. I never forgot the trucks and especially the friendly truck drivers who toot their horn. Again, it took me about 6 to 9 months to design and program Truckin’. Although an artist did some touch up work on my graphics at the end, I actually did all the artwork for Truckin’ as well as the game design and programming. Figuring out what highways to use and areas of the country was difficult, since I had limited space for graphics and storing the information for the map and game play. The game testers were VERY good at helping me to make the game play challenging. In the game, if you are driving in Northern California in the San Jose area, there’s a hidden highway that goes to Imagic.

Basically you have to find the path to the old Imagic HQ in Los Gatos, Cal. If you have a Rand McNally road atlas it would help. I’m serious!. The route does not show up on the map in the instruction booklet. If you have a good road map, you will be able to trace the route. But if not, no problem. The following directions will suffice:

* From the title screen, Press 1 - 1 - 8 - 1. This takes the defaults and gives you a full tank of gas heading northbound out of San Diego. A no load, timed contest.
* Accelerate, but stay below 24 MPH. (I know, this would be suicide on a real freeway! Not to mention the fingers you will get!). But, at this speed will be able to make the needed turns.
* Make 1st left onto I-10 heading eastbound to LA.
* Keep going east straight towards the coast. I-10 will end and you will automatically be turned north to Hollywood (HO) on US #01 (actually 101).
* Stay due north thru Santa Cruz (SZ).
* As soon as you approach San Jose (SJ), look for the 1st left. Turn here.
* You are now on Route 9 eastbound. A little ways on this road and you’ve found it! The road will show the Imagic sign off into the horizon. The SJ city code will change into the programmer’s initials RL (Rick Levine). Stop and take pictures if you like. It will stay there until you pass it. You can also see this coming from the opposite direction.

That’s a big 10-4, Good Buddy! In Game 1 above you only have to remember: Upper Fire= accelerate, Lower Fire = brake, Up=stay course, Down= U-turn, L/R= drift left/right, 1=road, 8=gas up, 9=rest, 0=horn. Other tips: stay in right lane. Oncoming trucks will try to hit you head on. Swerve to your left at the last possible second to avoid collisions. If you have a truck blocking you, use your horn. He’ll get out of your way. If you can’t go faster than 14 MPH, you need a rest. If you run out of gas, wait past midnight for a partial refill.

DP: I’d like to get technical for a minute. What programming language did you use for games for Intellivision? Were they 8K or 16K? What hardware and what software was used in development?

Rick Levine: All Intellivision programming was done in Assembly Language for the GI1600, a 16-bit processor. Since the processor was not very fast by today’s standards, and code space was limited, Assembly Language made the most sense. We used our own custom-built debug hardware for downloading code and testing it on the Intellivision system. While designing Microsurgeon, I built an editing program for the artists to use specifically for Intellivision graphics. It was used by the artists for many of the Imagic Intellivision games.


DP: Did you write any other games for the dedicated game systems? What was your contribution to the Sega CD? Were you working for Sega at the time?

Rick Levine: While working for Digital Pictures a few years ago, I programmed an interactive “video” game “Kids on Site” for the Sega CD. Young children had lots of fun operating on-screen construction equipment while interacting with funny human characters. I also ported “Double Switch”, a successful Digital Pictures Sega CD game, to Windows ’95 using the first release of Microsoft’s Games SDK.


DP: I understand you also wrote programmed or designed games for the TI-99/4a, Apple IIgs, Amiga, and Atari ST. I don’t happen to own any of those systems, but I’m sure some of our readers do. What games were done for those systems and what were they like?

Rick Levine: The TI-99/4a was fun to work on. I was able to add speech synthesis to Microsurgeon (I think it was something like “Paging Dr. Levine, Paging Dr. Levine”) and the graphics run in a higher resolution. I programmed Mac tools for authoring the content for “It Came From the Desert” on the Amiga. I worked on several contract jobs for the Apple IIgs and Atari ST, but did not program games for them.


DP: What’s it like at Microsoft?


Rick Levine: Microsoft is a great place to work. There are lots of very smart people and an unbelievable variety of interesting products in development.

DP: It sounds like you have had a lot of interesting experiences and really enjoy your work. . Thanks for chatting with us and good luck to you!



Click HERE to see a picture of Rick's unreleased handheld game, Look Alive! Baseball.

Click HERE to see the patent for Look Alive! Baseball.



Bowling handheld Mattel released
Look Alive! Baseball handheld Mattel unreleased
PBA Bowling Intellivision Mattel released
Motocross (started) Intellivision Mattel released
Microsurgeon Intellivision, TI-99/4a Imagic released
Truckin' Intellivision Imagic released
Wing War TI-99/4a Imagic not completed?
Palenque RCA DVI RCA released
Defender of the Crown PC Cinemaware released
It Came from the Desert Amiga Cinemaware released
Kids on Site Sega CD, PC, MAC Digital Pictures released
Double Switch PC Digital Pictures released

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