Martin Sikes 1968-2007

A friend of mine died over the holidays, a fact I just discovered today, just in time to attend his memorial. It was the kind of memorial all of us would be lucky to deserve – I have no official count, but given the size of the lecture hall we were in, the gathering of family and friends easily numbered hundreds and hundreds. I will not claim we were close friends – I will proudly claim that we were friends – but I learned a lot about about the man today.

I knew he was a fantastic engineer, I just never knew how brilliant he really was. And I knew he had a zeal for learning, I just never know how varied his interests were.

To me, he was the first Vancouverite – not counting the one or two friends that had moved to Vancouver before me – to invite me out anywhere. In this case a rave in a warehouse in Richmond, the first proper dance party I ever attended. And while that was cool enough (when I went to work at Radical Entertainment, I was joining a big building of cool kids, and with their turntables, odd hours, and incessant hardware hacking, Martin and the Physical Plant team were easily the coolest of the lot, at lest to me), the memory I will carry forever is getting a ride back with Martin the next morning and as the vehicle crested Oak street, I got my first look at the view that epitomizes Vancouver – a sea of trees and buildings, the glass towers of the downtown core, and behind that, the mountains, freshly dusted with snow that ends in a perfect line, halfway down, all of it lit in bright morning light. Martin didn’t make the city or the snow or the sun, but it was his inclusiveness, something I heard a lot about today, that made it possible.

But there’s nothing very Ghostbusters about that story, or Martin, and normally I keep this sort of thing elsewhere – but there is a Martin story, that does involve Ghostbusters, and like the post-rave trip home, it’s an anecdote I’ve shared often and will continue to share, starting at this moment with all of you. And in some small way, I hope it helps commemorate a unique individual who shouldn’t have died at the age of 39.

Most of my interaction with Martin over the last ten years took place in the year I worked at Radical, my first year in Vancouver. I would later attend parties he was spinning at, or run into him at various industry get-togethers around town, but for obvious reasons I wouldn’t see him as much as I did when we worked in the same building.

Those of you who play video games have likely played something he was involved with – that’s really only a partial list, as his role at Radical was critical to a lot of other games getting off the ground, and I know for a fact he helped behind the scenes on a lot of other projects. Martin’s main role at Radical was developing the tools the company used to build the games and later, almost more importantly, he built hardware, or rather converted hardware to be more useful – the grey market pirates that crack consoles for hundreds of dollars have nothing on Martin, who could do it in a weekend for nothing, just because. As an aside, the UBC Engineering department, to this day, has a pre-paid beer dispenser that he built – it has a whopping 2k of ROM and works like a charm. That should give you some idea of this talents.

I was just as much a Ghostbusters fan then as I am now, and an Ebay purchase landed me a Japanese copy of Ghostbusters for the SEGA Genesis. I was elated, but needed a machine – “Go ask Martin.” was the advice I got around the office. Screwing up the gall to interrupt him in the middle of something, I asked if there was a Genesis to be found anywhere. He found me a dusty, unused Genesis. I skipped home only to discover that the Japanese cartridge didn’t fit in the North American machine.

Crushed, I did a little research and discovered that the machine would play the cart, only SEGA’s idea of regional trade protection was nicked from a baby’s toy – square plastic block won’t fit in the round hole. Obviously, the solution was to get the cart into the slot somehow. The nicely squared cornered Japanese cart wouldn’t fit the slick, curved hole intended for North American bought games. I hacked away at case for hours with little success and not having power tools, I returned to Martin.

To me, the magic box was impenetrable – it had a seam around the middle, but no amount of poking and prodding would get it to budge and I couldn’t find screws to remove anywhere. But unlike a standard Genesis, with its proprietary AV cable, this one had standard RCA plugs in the back with wire running to the standard plug – it was non standard. It was fantastic. Obviously someone had gotten in to alter it, and that someone was likely Martin, so I was off to see the wizard.

I explained my problem – Like a good boy, I had a healthy respect for manufactured electronics. The box is enchanted, and I didn’t want to tamper with it for fear of breaking it, because that’s what you get when you tamper with machines! Pain and sadness! Do! Not! Touch! But Martin, obviously knew the secret word. There was a trick to the case. Maybe one of those proprietary screwdrivers electronics companies sometimes use, or he knew the secret latches.

Martin took the console peered at it, grabbed a massive screwdriver, and without hesitation, jammed it into the seam. As I started to faint, and with a brutal crack that echoed through the building, he levered down, separating the two halves. Calmly he handed it back to me. And sure enough, it worked like a charm. I still have that console and it may possibly be one of the earliest examples of his Radical era hardware hacks. I intend to keep it forever.

I can’t claim I knew Martin well, but I’ve never feared tinkering with machines since then.

You guys don’t know Martin, but anyone wishing to donate to Engineers Without Borders and willing to do it in Martin’s name, I know his family would appreciate it.

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