gaming

Obituary: John Wilson, founder of legendary text adventure publisher Zenobi Software


I only had a brief period of correspondence with John Wilson aka “The Rochdale Balrog”, but when I found out about his passing at the age of 74 last week, I felt a sadness I wasn’t quite expecting. John’s contribution to the UK video game scene shouldn’t be underestimated and losing him is akin to the loss of a national treasure. It’s a true end of an era.

Despite whatever images his monstrous nickname might conjure in your mind, the outpouring of love for John on his twitter feed shows that he
was an incredibly kind human being whose constant generosity meant he was nothing like the flaming beast from Tolkien’s story. Whenever I spoke to him, he always happy to share an anecdote about his adventures during the heyday of the UK’s burgeoning gaming scene. In other interviews he seemed incredibly modest and almost unaware or unable to accept exactly how much of an impact his work had made on the industry.

I first got in touch with John a couple of years ago, while I was doing research for my old video series Games You Never Knew Existed and he was more than happy to answer my questions, even going so far as to send me copies of the game I was asking about and sharing scans of the instruction leaflets that accompanied the game. It was through these emails that I got caught up in the magic of John’s world and his treasure trove of text adventure memorabilia.

With the help of his wife Anne, John created his famous publishing house Zenobi Software in 1985, which he ran from his house until the company ceased trading in 2013. “I have lived here since 1970 (when I returned from living in Singapore)” he told me in one email chain about how he started the business, “and will probably be laid to rest here when my time comes.”

“I produced all the stuff that came out of Zenobi Software myself,” he continued. “I used a bank of ‘Twin-Deck’ tape recorders to produce the cassette games, a dedicated Spectrum128 and Plus D interface to produce the +D games, a dedicated Spectrum +3 to produce the +3 disk versions, an Atari STE to produce the Atari versions, an Amiga A1200 to produce the Amiga versions and all the other stuff was produced on an PC.

Once processed all games were sent out in jiffy-bags, along with all the respective leaflets etc and posted in the local post-office. I used to have to take around 2 or 3 carrier-bags full of packages just about every day of the week. The man in the post-office used to rub his hands with glee whenever he saw me coming.”

In another email I received, sent after he’d watched my video, John remarked, “You should haven’t bothered about hiding the house number … I have never hidden my address from anybody and you would not believe the weirdos that have rocked up to my front door. All were welcome though – even the plain-clothes detectives.” I never followed up on the plain-clothes detectives point, but I finally found out what he was referring to in a recent memorial post from John’s long-time friend and collaborator Gareth Pitchford, titled John Wilson – Zenobi Software…In His Own Words.

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John sent me this photo of him with his ‘company-car’, explaining that it ‘belonged to a large building-firm that I was Quantity Surveyor for at the time and went back to them when I walked out. The number plate was a ‘fake’ – given to me as a birthday-present. However I bet I still have the shirt and pants stashed away somewhere ….’

With over 200 titles in Zenobi’s catalogue, ranging from John’s first published game from 1985, The Secret of Little Hodcome, through to his better known adventures like Retarded Creatures and Caverns and his single room adventure game, Behind Closed Doors (which takes place entirely in the bathroom), if you were a fan of interactive fiction games in the early 1990s, chances are, you have played at least one of Zenobi’s games.

“Zenobi Software was a part of my life, is still a part of my life and always will be a part of my life – it has nothing to do with ‘love’ it was (and still is) the ‘driving-force’ behind my existence.” John explained in an interview with Gnome’s Lair in 2008, so it should come as no surprise that, even though the industry has long moved on from text adventures, John was still busy creating his own, even after the closure of Zenobi.

In fact, in 2018 the first new Zenobi adventure game for the ZX Spectrum in nearly 30 years was released, a conversion of an Adventuron game titled ‘Ramsbottom Smith and The Quest For The Yellow Spheroid‘. Following on from this, John then released another 13 titles for various platforms under the moniker Pension Productions, with his last published game being the 9th entry in the long-running Behind Closed Doors series in October of last year.

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Every game in the the Behind Closed Doors series stars John’s alter ego, the Balrog and they all take place in the smallest room of the house.

But with so many games under his belt, which one of those does John feel was the best he has ever written? “To be honest, I don’t know as I haven’t written it yet.”, John pondered in Pitchford’s memorial post. “At my age (73) you never know how long you have left, so everything is done in a rush in order to make sure you complete it before you pass on your way to the next great ‘adventure’… wherever that may be…”

John is survived by his son, who let Zenobi fans know of his father’s passing via John’s Twitter account, and his wife Anne, who was by his side at the very end. I’m pretty sure this would have pleased John greatly because, as he mentions in the Gnomes Lair interview, “Like everything in my life, since I met her, my Anne was with me in this enterprise.”

If you’re interested in exploring John’s huge library of text adventure-games, either self-written or ones that have been released under the Zenobi Software label, there’s a wealth of information on his blogspot site including scans of the original leaflets and hand drawn illustrations that went out with every game produced. It’s a lovely place to go if you’re interested in old school text adventures and it’s an amazing trip down memory lane for anyone who experienced Zenobi games the first time around.

Zenobi games have captivated and inspired generations of gamers and game creators alike and that in itself is a wonderful legacy. So, while John may have left us to go find his next great adventure, his work from this adventure lives on in countless ways. That’s not bad going for a Balrog from Rochdale.





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