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Mike Balfour InterViewed! - February 23, '99 by JoseQ
Possibly one of the most overlooked MAME developers, Mike Balfour has contributed over 20 MAME drivers and has made many contributions to the scene. He has also been part of projects like GoldenApple and even others you probably haven't even heard of. Recently he even published his own semi-emulator which will put PacMan in a whole new perspective everyone has yet to experience to the fullest. I think it's about time we put the mic on this long time MAME developer, and write up for you, an InterVie with Mike Balfour.

1. Can you state your name and how you became related to emulation?

Sure. I'm the not-so-famous Mike Balfour. My introduction to emulation was TRS-80 and Apple II emulators for the PC several years ago. Since I grew up on these machines I was fascinated. I was also horrified that my beloved Apple II was emulated on a PC, and not a Mac, so I started coding an Apple II emulator for the Mac ("GoldenApple"). The results were less than spectacular. Let's just say that C++ and CPU cores don't mix very well. ;) Fortunately, STM came out about that time, so I could continue to hide in obscurity. A couple of years later, I discovered Marat's GameBoy emulator, and Sparcade, and I was hooked for good.

2. How long have you been involved in the scene, and what have been the major highlights, lowlights you've seen happen?

Well, I've been in the general emulation scene since before it was a scene (1993-1994), but I didn't start actively working on arcade emulation until about mid-1997 (note the Y2K compliant answer ;). Personally, I think there have been a tremendous number of highlights - the sheer depth and breadth of MAME emulation, the continued advances to accuracy and speed made on everything from Atari2600 to N64 emulation, the introduction of Retrocade and Raine, the discovery and preservation of rare/prototype arcade games and cartridges, and the continued proof that it's silly to say "it can't be done" to an emulator author. :) Heck, I'm even glad to see the number of emulation authors that are transitioning into the professional game industry, it's always nice to see that at some level game companies respect the abilities learned from emulation. As for "lowlights", there's unfortunately been plenty there too - the IDSA crackdown, the Sony and Nintendo lawsuits, the resultant merging of ROM preservation with ROMZ sites, and all of the sad sad people that have nothin g better to do than to harrass and criticize emulator authors.

3. What were your major goals once you got started? And what are your major goals now, what keeps you going?

I would have to say my original goal was knowledge. I was astounded to find out how similar arcade game design and computer design were, and I was equally pleased to discover how easy it was to get arcade game schematics. I just wanted to learn how the darn things worked. :) I also wanted to learn about emulation development in general. After having written a semi-functional miserably slow Apple II emulator, I decided it was time to learn how to do it right. I don't think either of those goals have changed with time, but I also wouldn't have stuck with it for this long if it wasn't just so much fun! There's always a thrill every time I get another game working, no matter how good or bad the game is. And I've worked on some pretty bad ones. ;) It's also a *lot* of fun working with the MAME team, Neil Bradley, and everybody else that I've come into contact with. There's a TON of talent out there, and I enjoy getting the chance to work with them!

4. What emulation projects have you been involved with in one way or another?

Well, there was the never-released GoldenApple, a never-released Zelda clone (though I suppose that was "simulation" instead of "emulation", since I was writing it from scratch), MAME, MESS, ummm, guess that's about it. Hopefully over the coming year I'll get the chance to get a little involved with Retrocade too. Oh, and of course my current semi-emulation project, Pac-X.

5. Out of those, which one has been the most challenging and self-rewarding?

They've all been equally challenging and rewarding, but in different ways. GoldenApple was difficult because I was learning Mac coding and emulation at the same time, Zelda was difficult because I would have to spend hours staring at the TV trying to verify monster movement algorithms and pixel colors for graphics accuracy, and MAME because you either have to guess blindly when no schematics are available, or else you have to guess blindly because schematics are available but they just don't make any sense. ;) When I finish Pac-X though, I think that will be the most rewarding project to date, since I will have designed and written it myself, and I'm discovering 3D coding might not be quite as easy as it looks. ;)

6. Tell us about Pac-X, how did that originate?

The idea began to form last Thanksgiving. I've wanted to work on an original project for quite some time now, and I've also wanted to move out of the business software industry into professional game development. These interests sort of intersect at me needing to learn DirectX and Direct3D. So I decided I would write a little game as a learning exercise and a sort of "portfolio". I didn't think anybody else in the world would be interested in it, but I wanted to do something that *I* liked. Well, Pac-Man is cool. He had a song written about him, a cartoon on TV, he even made the cover of Time magazine. So I started thinking about what would happen if you mixed Pac-Man and 3D graphics. I had actually seen this done many many years ago on the Apple II, with ummm, less than spectacular graphics and gameplay. I decided that 3D Pac-Man wasn't quite enough, it needed to use emulation underneath it so that all the original quirks, gameplay, and patterns would still be there. Thus, Pac-X was born.

7. What has been the response so far from the first version of the emulator?

Eerily quiet. There have been over 1000 downloads, but less than 5 responses. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. ;) The one thing that hasn't seemed to happen yet is that nobody is "hacking around" with the game. Howie, my play-tester, kept suggesting new layouts for my screen. I got tired of trying all his suggestions (just teasing Howie), so I moved all the graphics layout settings into the INI file. This way, people could just change the background graphics and on-screen layout themselves if they wanted. I was hoping people would come up with new layouts and graphics that I could post on my page as "alternate layout paks". Apparently, everybody must be happy with what I've got. :)

8. How are the new features coming along? What should we expect to see in the next release?

Well, I had to back-track a little bit. Originally I was planning on keeping Pac-X in 8-bit graphics and playing little palette games. Unfortunately, as soon as I began to add in 3-D graphics, I discovered that the *only* way to use hardware 3-D acceleration is to move to 16-bit graphics. So I had to run back through all my graphics code and convert it. Consequently, I'm only beginning to touch 3-D now. I'll probably have a new release within a week or so containing the 16-bit graphics and a spinning 3D logo in the center, just so that people know I'm still working on it and to make it clear where the 3D graphics will go. :) After that, it will probably be at least a few weeks before I have anything remotely resembling a maze being drawn.

9. Are you working on any projects other than Pac-X?

Nope. I've got tons of ideas, but I'm lucky if I've even got free time to work on Pac-X! I take breaks from Pac-X to work on MAME drivers, but that's about it.

10. What would you like to say to the Emulation fans out there?

Thanks for your support! It's certainly a LOT more rewarding to work on these projects knowing that there are other people out there that enjoy them. Keep gaming!

A huge Thanks go to Mike Balfour for taking the time to answer these questions. He did so in a very prompt manner I might add. I hope you guys liked this InterView and I thank you for reading!

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