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Monthly Archives: December 2016

A Time of Endings, Part 2: Epyx

On a beautiful May day in 1987, Epyx held a party behind their offices to celebrate the completion of California Games, the fifth and latest in their hugely popular Games line of sports titles. To whatever extent their skills allowed, employees and their families tried to imitate the athletes portrayed in the new game, riding skateboards, throwing Frisbees, or kicking around a Hacky Sack. Meanwhile a professional BMX freestyler and a professional skateboarder did tricks to show them how it was really done. The partiers dressed in the most outrageous beachwear they could muster — typically for this hyper-competitive company, their outfits were judged for prizes — while the sound of the Beach Boys and the smell of grilling hamburgers and hotdogs filled the air. Folks from the other offices around Epyx’s came out to look on a little wistfully, doubtless wishing their company was as fun as this one. A good time was had by all, a memory made of one of those special golden days which come along from time to time to be carried along with us for the rest of our lives.

Although no one realized it at the time, that day marked the high-water point of Epyx. By 1990, their story would for all practical purposes be over, the company having gone from a leading light of its industry to a bankrupt shell at the speed of business.

In the spring of 1987, Epyx was the American games industry’s great survivor, the oldest company still standing this side of Atari and the one which had gone through the most changes over its long — by the standards of a very young industry, that is — lifespan. Epyx had been founded by John Connelly and Jon Freeman, a couple of tabletop role-players and wargaming grognards interested in computerizing their hobbies, way back in 1978 under the considerably less exciting name of Automated Simulations. They hit paydirt the following year with Temple of Apshai, the most popular CRPG of the genre’s primordial period. Automated Simulations did well for a while on the back of that game and a bevy of spinoffs and sequels created using the same engine, but after the arrival of the more advanced Wizardry and Ultima their cruder games found it difficult to compete. In 1983, a major management shakeup came to the moribund company at the behest of a consortium of investors, who put in charge the hard-driving Michael Katz, a veteran of the cutthroat business of toys. Katz acquired a company called Starpath, populated by young and highly skilled assembly-language programmers, to complete the transformation of the stodgy Automated Simulations into the commercially aggressive Epyx. In 1984, with the release of the huge hits Summer Games and Impossible Mission, the company’s new identity as purveyors of slick action-based entertainments for the Commodore 64, the most popular gaming platform of the time, was cemented. One Gilbert Freeman (no relation to Jon Freeman) replaced Katz as Epyx’s president and CEO shortly thereafter, but the successful template his predecessor had established remained unchanged right through 1987.

By 1987, however, Freeman was beginning to view his company’s future with some trepidation despite the commercial success they were still enjoying. The new California Games, destined for yet more commercial success though it was, was ironically emblematic of the long-term problems with Epyx’s current business model. California Games pushed the five-year-old Commodore 64’s audiovisual hardware farther than had any previous Epyx game — which is to say, given Epyx’s reputation as the absolute masters of Commodore 64 graphics and sound, farther than virtually any other game ever released for the platform, period. This was of course wonderful in terms of this particular game’s commercial prospects, but it carried with it the implicit question of what Epyx could do next, for even their most technically creative programmers were increasingly of the opinion that they were reaching an end point where they had used every possible trick and simply couldn’t find any new ways to dazzle. For a company so dependent on audiovisual dazzle as Epyx, this was a potentially deadly endgame.

Very much in tandem with the question of how much longer it would be possible to continue pushing the audiovisual envelope on the Commodore 64 ran concerns about the longevity of the platform in general. Jack Tramiel’s little computer for the masses had sold more and longer than anyone could ever have predicted, but the ride couldn’t go on forever. While Epyx released their games for other platforms as well, they remained as closely identified with the Commodore 64 as, say, Cinemaware was with the Commodore Amiga, with the 64 accounting for well over half of their sales most quarters. When that market finally took the dive many had been predicting for it for years now, where would that leave Epyx?

Dave Morse

It was for these big-picture reasons that Freeman brought a man with a reputation for big-picture vision onto Epyx’s board in January of 1987. All but unknown though he was to the general public, among those working in the field of home computers Dave Morse had the reputation of a veritable miracle worker. Just a few years before, he had found ways to let the brilliant engineering team at Amiga, Incorporated, create a computer as revolutionary in its way as the Apple Macintosh on a budget that would barely have paid Steve Jobs’s annual salary. And then, in a coup worthy of The Sting, he’d proceeded to fleece Atari of the prize and sail the ship of Amiga into the (comparatively) safe harbor of Commodore Business Machines. If, as Freeman was starting to suspect, it was going to become necessary to completely remake and remodel Epyx for a second time in the near future, Morse ought to be a darn good man to have on his team.

And indeed, Morse didn’t fail to impress at his first Epyx board meetings. In fact, he impressed so much that Freeman soon decided to cede much of his own power to him. He brought Morse on full-time as CEO to help run the company as an equal partner in May of 1987, the very month of the California Games cookout. But California Games on the Commodore 64 was the present, likely all too soon to be the past. For Freeman, Morse represented Epyx’s future.

Morse had a vision for that future that was as audacious as Freeman could possibly have wished. In the months before coming to Epyx, he had been talking a lot with RJ Mical and Dave Needle, two of his star engineers from Amiga, Incorporated, in the fields of software and hardware respectively. Specifically, they’d been discussing the prospects for a handheld videogame console. Handheld videogames of a sort had enjoyed a brief bloom of popularity in the very early 1980s, at the height of the first great videogame boom when anything that beeped or squawked was en vogue with the country’s youth. Those gadgets, however, had been single-purpose devices capable of playing only one game — and, because it was difficult to pack much oomph into such a small form factor, said game usually wasn’t all that compelling anyway. But chip design and fabrication had come a long way in the past five years or so. Mical and Needle believed that the time was ripe for a handheld device that would be a gaming platform in its own right, capable of playing many titles published on cartridges, just like the living-room-based consoles that had boomed and then busted so spectacularly in 1983. For that reason alone, Morse faced an uphill climb with the venture capitalists; this was still the pre-Nintendo era when the conventional wisdom held videogame consoles to be dead. Yet when he joined the Epyx board he found a very sympathetic ear for his scheme in none other than Epyx President Gilbert Freeman.

In fact, Freeman was so excited by the idea that he was willing to bet the company on it; thus Morse’s elevation to CEO. The plan was to continue to sell traditional computer games while Mical and Needle, both of whom Morse hired immediately after his own appointment, got down to the business of making what everybody hoped would be their second revolutionary machine of the decade. It would all happen in secret, while Morse dropped only the vaguest public hints that “it is important to be able to think in new directions.” This was by any measure a very new direction for Epyx. Unlike most game publishers, they weren’t totally inexperienced making hardware: a line of high-end joysticks, advertised as the perfect complement to their games, had done well for them. Still, it was a long way from making joysticks to making an entirely new game console in such a radically new form factor. They would have to lean very heavily on Morse’s two star engineers, who couldn’t help but notice a certain ironic convergence about their latest situation: Amiga, Incorporated, had also sold joysticks among other gaming peripherals in an effort to fund the development of the Amiga computer.

R.J. Mical and Dave Needle in a very… disturbing picture. Really, perhaps it’s best if we don’t know any more about what’s going on here.

RJ Mical and Dave Needle were a pair of willfully eccentric peas in a pod; one journalist called them the Laurel and Hardy of Silicon Valley. While they had worked together at Amiga for quite some time by June of 1984, the two dated the real genesis of their bond to that relatively late date. When Amiga was showing their Lorraine prototype that month at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, they found themselves working together really closely for the first time, doing some jerry-rigging to get everything working for the demonstrations. They discovered that they understood each other in a way that “software guys” and “hardware guys” usually do not. “He was the first software guy I ever met,” remembered Needle in a joint 1989 interview, “who had more than an inkling of the real purpose of my work, which is building hardware platforms that you can launch software from.” “I could never get hardware guys to understand what I was doing,” interrupted Mical at this point in the same interview. “Dave couldn’t get software guys to understand what the guts could handle. We found ourselves a great match.” From that point forward, they were inseparable, as noted for their practical jokes and wacky antics as for their engineering brilliance. It was a true meeting of the minds, the funny bones, and, one might even say, the hearts. As illustrated by the exchange I’ve just quoted, they became the kind of friends who freely complete each other’s thoughts without pissing each other off.

The design they sketched for what they liked to call the “Potato” — for that was envisioned as its rough size and shape — bore much the same philosophical stamp as their work with Amiga. To keep the size and power consumption down, the Potato was to be built around the aged old 8-bit 6502, the chip at the heart of the Commodore 64, rather than a newer CPU like the Amiga’s 68000. But, as in the Amiga, the chip at the Potato’s core was surrounded with custom hardware designed to alleviate as much of the processing burden as possible, including a blitter for fast animation and a four-channel sound chip that came complete with digital-to-analog converters for playing back sampled sounds and voices. (In the old Amiga tradition, the two custom chips were given the names “Suzy” and “Mikey.”) The 3.5-inch LCD display, with a palette of 4096 colors (the same as the Amiga) and a resolution of 160 X 102, was the most technologically cutting-edge and thus for many months the most problematic feature of the design; Epyx would wind up buying the technology to make it from the Japanese watchmaker Citizen, who had created it as the basis for a handheld television but had yet to use it in one of their own products. Still, perhaps the Potato’s most innovative and impressive feature of all was the port that let you link it up with your mates’ machines for multiplayer gaming. (Another visionary proposed feature was an accelerometer that would have let you play games by tilting the entire unit rather than manipulating the controls, but it would ultimately prove just too costly to include. Ditto a port to let you connect the Potato to your television.)

While few would question the raw talent of Mical and Needle and the small team they assembled to help them make the Potato, this sort of high-wire engineering is always expensive. Freeman and Morse estimated that they would need about two years and $4 million to bring the Potato from a sketch to a finished product ready to market in consumer-electronics stores. Investing this much in the project, it seemed to Freeman and Morse, should be manageable based on Epyx’s current revenue stream, and should be a very wise investment at that. Licking their chops over the anticipated worldwide mobile-gaming domination to come, they publicly declared that Epyx, whose total sales had amounted to $27 million in 1987, would be a $100 million company by 1990.

At first, everything went according to plan. Upon its release in the early summer of 1987, California Games became the hit everyone had been so confidently anticipating. Indeed, it sold more than 300,000 copies in its first nine months and then just kept on selling, becoming Epyx’s biggest hit ever. But after that nothing else ever went quite right for Epyx’s core business. Few inside or outside of the company could have guessed that California Games, Epyx’s biggest hit, would also mark the end of the company’s golden age.

From the time of their name change and associated remaking up through California Games, Epyx had been almost uniquely in touch with the teenage boys who bought the vast majority of Commodore 64 games. “We don’t simply invent games that we like and hope for the best,” said Morse, parroting Epyx’s official company line shortly after his arrival there. “Instead, we pay attention to current trends that are of interest to teenagers. It’s similar to consumer research carried out by other companies, except we’re aiming for a very specific group.” After California Games, though — in fact, even as Morse was making this statement — Epyx lost the plot of what had made the Games line so successful. Like an aging rock star grown fat and complacent, they decided to join the Establishment.

When they had come up with the idea of making Summer Games to capitalize on the 1984 Summer Olympics, Epyx had been in no position to pay for an official Olympic license, even had Atari not already scooped that up. Instead they winged it, producing what amounted to an Olympics with the serial numbers filed away. Summer Games had all the trappings — opening and closing ceremonies; torches; national anthems; medals of gold, silver, and bronze — alongside the Olympic events themselves. What very few players likely noticed, though, was that it had all these things without ever actually using the word “Olympics” or the famous (and zealously guarded) five-ring Olympic logo.

Far from being a detriment, the lack of an official license had a freeing effect on Epyx. Whilst hewing to the basic templates of the sports in question, they produced more rough-and-ready versions of same — more the way the teenage boys who dominated among their customers would have liked the events to be than the somewhat more staid Olympic realities. Even that original Summer Games, which looked itself a little staid and graphically crude in contrast to what would follow, found room for flashes of wit and whimsy. Players soon learned to delight in an athlete — hopefully not the one they were controlling — landing on her head after a gymnastics vault, or falling backward and cracking up spectacularly instead of clearing the pole vault. Atari, who had the official Olympic license, produced more respectful — read, boring — implementations of the Olympics that didn’t sell particularly well, while Summer Games blew up huge.

Seeing how postively their players responded to this sort of thing, Epyx pushed ever further into the realm of the fanciful in their later Games iterations. World Games and California Games, the fourth and fifth title in the line respectively, abandoned the Olympics conceit entirely in favor of gathering up a bunch of weird and wild sports that the designers just thought would be fun to try on a computer. In a final act of Olympics sacrilege, California Games even dropped the national anthems in favor of having you play for the likes of Ocean Pacific or Kawasaki. As California Games so amply demonstrated, the Games series as a whole had never had as much to do with the Olympics or even sports in general as it did with contemporary teenage culture.

But now Epyx saw another Olympics year fast approaching (during this period, the Winter and Summer Olympics were still held during the same year rather than being staggered two years apart as they are today) and decided to come full circle and then some, to make a pair of Games games shrouded in the legitimacy that the original Summer Games had lacked. Epyx, in other words, would become the 1988 Olympics’s version of Atari. In October of 1987, they signed a final contract of over 40 pages with the United States Olympic Committee (if ever a gold medal were to be awarded in legalese and bureaucratic nitpicking, the Olympic Games themselves would have to be prime contenders). Not only would Epyx have to pay a 10 percent royalty to the Olympic Committee for every copy of The Games: Winter Edition and The Games: Summer Edition that they sold, but the same Committee would have veto rights over every aspect of the finished product. Giving such authority to such a famously non-whimsical body inevitably spelled the death of the series’s heretofore trademark sense of whimsy. While working on the luge event a developer came up with the idea of sending the luger hurling out of the trough and into outer space after a major crash. The old Epyx would have been all over it with gusto. But no, said the stubbornly humorless Committee in their usual literal-minded fashion, lugers don’t ever exit the trough when they crash, they only spill over inside it, and that’s how the computer game has to be as well.

When The Games: Winter Edition appeared right on schedule along with the Winter Olympics themselves in February of 1988, it did very well out of the gate, just like any other Games game. Yet in time the word spread through the adolescent grapevine that this latest Games just wasn’t as much fun as the older ones. In addition to the stifling effect of the Olympic Committee’s bureaucracy, its development had been rushed; because of the need to release the Winter Edition to coincide with the real Winter Olympics, it had had to go from nothing to boxed finished product in just five months. The Summer Edition, which appeared later in the year to coincide with the Summer Olympics, was in some ways a better outing, what with Epyx having had a bit more time to work on it. But something was still missing. California Games, a title Epyx’s core teenage demographic loved for all the reasons they didn’t love the two stodgy new officially licensed Games, easily outsold both of them despite being in its second year on the market. That was, of course, good in its way. But would the same buyers turn out to buy the next big Games title in the wake of the betrayal so many of them had come to see the two most recent efforts to represent? It wasn’t clear that they would.

The disappointing reception of these latest Games, then, was a big cause of concern for Epyx as 1988 wore on. Their other major cause for worry was more generalized, more typical of their industry as a whole. As we’ve seen in an earlier article, 1988 was the year that the Nintendo Entertainment System went from being a gathering storm on the horizon to a full-blown cyclone sweeping across the American gaming landscape. Epyx was hardly alone among publishers in feeling the Nintendo’s effect, but they were all too well positioned to get the absolute worst of it. While they had, generally with mixed results, made occasional forays into other genres, the bulk of their sales since the name change had always come from their action-oriented games for the Commodore 64 — the industry’s low-end platform, one whose demographics skewed even younger than the norm. The sorts of teenage and pre-teen boys who had once played on the Commodore 64 were exactly the ones who now flocked to the Nintendo in droves. The Christmas of 1988 marked the tipping point; it was at this point that the Nintendo essentially destroyed the Commodore 64 as a viable platform. “Games can be done better on the 64 than on a Nintendo,” insisted Morse, but fewer and fewer people were buying his argument. By this point, many American publishers and developers had begun to come to Nintendo, hat in hand, asking for permission to publish on the platform, but this Epyx refused to do, being determined to hold out for their own handheld console.

It’s not as if the Commodore 64’s collapse entirely sneaked up on Epyx. As I noted earlier, Gilbert Freeman had been aware it might be in the offing even before he had hired Dave Morse as CEO. Over the course of 1987 and 1988, Epyx had set up a bulwark of sorts on the higher-end platforms with a so-called “Masters Collection” of more high-toned and cerebral titles, similar to the ones that were continuing to sell quite well for some other publishers despite the Nintendo onslaught. (The line included a submarine simulator, an elaborate CRPG, etc.) They also started a line of personal-creativity software similar to Electronic Arts’s “Deluxe” line, and began importing ever more European action games to sell as budget titles to low-end customers. All told, their total revenues for 1988 actually increased robustly over that of the year before, from $27 million to $36 million. Yet such figures can be deceiving. Because this total was generated from many more products, with all the extra expenses that implied, the ultimate arbiter of net profits on computer software plunged instead of rising commensurately. Other ventures were truly misguided by any standard. Like a number of other publishers, Epyx launched forays into the interactive VCR-based systems that were briefly all the rage as substitutes for Phillips’s long-promised but still undelivered CD-I system. They might as well have just set fire to that money. The Epyx of earlier years had had a recognizable identity, which the Epyx of 1988 had somehow lost. There was no thematic glue binding their latest products together.

R.J. Mical with a work-in-progress version of the Handy.

Meanwhile Epyx was investing hugely in games for the Potato — investing just about as much money in Potato software, in fact, as they were pouring into the hardware. Accounts of just how much the Potato’s development ended up costing Epyx vary, ranging from $4 million to $8 million and up. I suspect that, when viewed in terms of both hardware and software development, the figure quite likely skews into the double digits.

Whatever the exact numbers, as the curtain came up on 1989 Dave Morse, RJ Mical, and Dave Needle found themselves in a position all too familiar from the old days with Amiga, Incorporated. They had another nascent revolution in silicon in the form of the Potato, which had reached the prototype stage and was to be publicly known as the Epyx Handy. Yet their company’s finances were hopelessly askew. If the Handy was to become an actual product, it looked like Morse would need to pull off another miracle.

So, he did what he had done for the Amiga Lorraine. In a tiny private auditorium behind Epyx’s public booth at the January 1989 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, the inventors of the Handy showed it off to a select group of representatives from other companies, all of whom were required to sign a strict non-disclosure agreement before seeing what was still officially a top-secret project, even though rumors of the Handy’s existence had been spreading like wildfire for months now. The objective was to find a partner to help manufacture and market the Handy — or, perhaps better, a buyer for the entire troubled company. Nintendo had a look, but passed; they had a handheld console of their own in the works which would emerge later in the year as the Nintendo Game Boy. Sega also passed. In fact, just about everyone passed, as they had on the Amiga Lorraine, until Morse was left with just one suitor. And, incredibly, it was the very same suitor as last time: Atari. Déjà vu all over again.

On the positive side, this Atari was a very different company from the 800-pound gorilla that had tried to seize the Lorraine and carve it up into its component parts five years before. On the negative, this Atari was run by Jack Tramiel, Mr. “Business is War” himself, the man who had tied up Commodore in court for years after Atari’s would-be acquisition of the Amiga Lorraine had become Commodore’s. From Tramiel’s perspective, getting a stake in a potential winner like the Handy made a lot of sense; his Atari really didn’t have that much going for it at all at that point beyond a fairly robust market for their ST line in Europe and an ongoing trickle of nostalgia-fueled sales of their vintage game consoles in North America. Atari had missed out almost entirely on the great second wave of videogame consoles, losing the market they had once owned to Nintendo and Sega. If mobile gaming was destined to be the next big thing, this was the perfect way to get into that space without having to invest money Atari didn’t have into research and development.

For his part, Morse certainly knew even as he pulled the trigger on the deal that he was getting into bed with the most devious man in consumer electronics, but he didn’t see that he had much choice. He could only shoot from the hip, as he had five years before, and hope it would all work out in the end. The deal he struck from a position of extreme weakness — nobody could smell blood in the water quite like Jack Tramiel — would see the Handy become an Atari product in the eyes of the marketplace. Atari would buy the Handy hardware design from Epyx, put their logo on it, and would take over responsibility for its manufacturing, distribution, and marketing. Epyx would remain the “software partner” only, responsible for delivering an initial suite of launch titles and a steady stream of desirable games thereafter. No one at Epyx was thrilled at the prospect of giving away their baby this way, but, again, the situation was what it was.

At this point in our history, it becomes my sad duty as your historian to acknowledge that I simply don’t know precisely what went down next between Atari and Epyx. The source I’ve been able to find that dates closest to the events in question is the “Roomers” column of the December 1989 issue of the magazine Amazing Computing. According to it, the deal was structured at Tramiel’s demand as a series of ongoing milestone payments from Atari to Epyx as the latter met their obligations to deliver to the former the finished Handy in production-ready form. Epyx, the column claims, was unable to deliver the cable used for linking two Handys together for play in the time frame specified in the contract, whereupon Atari cancelled a desperately needed $2 million payment as well as all the ones that were to follow. The Handy, Atari said, was now theirs thanks to Epyx’s breach of contract; Epyx would just have to wait for the royalties on the Handy games they were still under contract to deliver to get more money out of Atari. In no condition to engage Atari in a protracted legal battle, Epyx felt they had no choice but to concede and continue to play along with the company that had just stolen their proudest achievement from them.

Dave Needle, who admittedly had plenty of axes to grind with Atari, told a slight variation of this tale many years later, saying that the crisis hinged on Epyx’s software rather than hardware efforts. It seems that Epyx had sixty days to fix any bugs that were discovered after the initial delivery of each game to Atari. But, according to Needle, “Atari routinely waited until the end of the time period to comment on the Epyx fixes. There was then inadequate time for Epyx to make the fixes.” Within a few months of inking the deal, Atari used a petty violation like this to withhold payment from Epyx, who, of course, needed that money now. At last, Atari offered them a classic Jack Tramiel ultimatum: accept one more lump-sum payout — Needle didn’t reveal the amount — or die on the vine.

A music programmer who went by the name of “Lx Rudis” is perhaps the closest thing to an unbiased source we can hope to find; he worked for Epyx while the Handy was under development, then accepted a job with Atari, where he says he was “close” with Jack Tramiel’s sons Sam and Leonard, both of whom played important roles within their father’s company. “The terms [of the contract] were quite strict,” he says. “Epyx was unable to meet all points, and Atari was able to withhold a desperately needed milestone payment. In the chaos that ensued, everyone got laid off and I guess Atari’s lawyers and Epyx’s lawyers worked out a ‘compromise’ where Atari got the Handy.”

No smoking gun in the form of any actual paperwork has ever surfaced to my knowledge, leaving us with only anecdotal accounts like these from people who weren’t the ones signing the contracts and making the deals. What we do know is that Epyx by the end of 1989 was bankrupt, while Atari owned the Handy outright — or at least acted as if they did. Although it’s possible that Tramiel was guilty of nothing more than driving a hard bargain, his well-earned reputation as a dirty dealer does make it rather difficult to give him the benefit of too much doubt. Certainly lots of people at Epyx were left feeling very ill-served indeed. Dave Morse had tried to tweak the tiger’s tail a second time, and this time he had gotten mauled. As should have been part of the core curriculum at every business school by this point: don’t sign any deal, ever, with Jack Tramiel.

Dave Morse, RJ Mical and Dave Needle walked away from the whole affair disgusted and disillusioned, having seen their baby kidnapped by the man they had come to regard as Evil incarnated in an ill-fitting pinstriped suit. Their one bitter consolation was that the Handy development system they’d built could run only on an Amiga. Thus Atari would have to buy dozens of specimens of the arch-rival platform for internal use, and suffer the indignity of telling their development licensees that they too would need to buy Amigas to make their games. It wasn’t much, but, hey, at least it was something to hold onto.

The erstwhile Epyx Handy made its public debut at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1989 as the Atari Portable Entertainment System. But when someone pointed out that that name would inevitably get abbreviated to “APES,” Atari moved on from it, finally settling on the name of “Lynx,” a sly reference to the ability to link the machines together via cable for multiplayer action. Thus christened, the handheld console shipped on September 1, 1989. Recent unpleasantness aside, Mical and Needle had good cause to be proud of their work. One far-seeing Atari executive said that the Lynx had the potential to become a revolutionary hit on the level of the Sony Walkman of 1979, the product which largely created the idea of personal portable electronics as we think of them today. Now it was up to Atari to realize that potential.

The Nintendo Game Boy and the Atari Lynx

That part of the equation, alas, didn’t go as well as Atari had hoped. Just one month before the Lynx, Nintendo of America had released the Game Boy, their own handheld console. Purely as a piece of kit, the black-and-white-only Game Boy wasn’t a patch on the Lynx. But then, Nintendo has always thrived by transcending technical specifications, and the Game Boy proved no exception to that rule. Like all of their products, it was laser-targeted to the needs and desires of the burgeoning Generation Nintendo, with a price tag of just $90, battery life long enough to get you through an entire school week of illicit playing under the desk, a size small enough to slip into a coat pocket, and a selection of well-honed launch games designed to maximize its strengths. Best of all, every Game Boy came bundled with a copy of Tetris, an insanely addictive little puzzle game that became a veritable worldwide obsession, the urtext of casual mobile gaming as we’ve come to know it today; many a child’s shiny new Game Boy ended up being monopolized by a Tetris-addled parent.

The Lynx, by contrast, was twice as expensive as the Game Boy, ate its AA batteries at a prodigious rate, was bigger and chunkier than the Game Boy, and offered just three less-than-stellar games to buy beyond the rather brilliant Epyx port of California Games that came included in the box. Weirdly, its overall fit and finish also lagged far behind the cheap but rugged little Game Boy. Atari struggled mightily to find suppliers who could deliver the Lynx’s components on time and on budget with acceptable quality control. According to RJ Mical — again, not the most unbiased of sources — this was largely a case of Jack Tramiel’s chickens coming home to roost. “The new ownership of the Lynx had really bad reputations with hardware manufacturers in Asia and with software developers all over the world,” says Mical. “Suddenly all those sweet deals we’d made for low-cost parts for the Lynx dried up on them. They’d be like, ‘We remember you from five years ago. Guess what — the price just doubled!'” Mical claims that a “magnificent library” of Lynx games, the result of many deals Epyx had made with outside developers, fell by the wayside as soon as the developers in question learned that they’d have to deal from now on with Jack Tramiel instead of Dave Morse.

California Games on the Lynx’s (tiny) screen.

In the face of these disadvantages, the Lynx wasn’t the complete failure one could so easily imagine it becoming. It remained in production for more than five years, over the course of which it sold nearly 3 million units to buyers who wanted a little more from their mobile games than what the Game Boy could offer. By most measures, the Atari Lynx was a fairly successful product. It suffers only by comparison with the Game Boy, which spent an astonishing total of almost fifteen years in production and sold an even more astonishing 118.69 million units, becoming in the process Nintendo’s biggest single success story of all; in the end, Nintendo sold nearly twice as many Game Boys as they did of the original Nintendo Entertainment System that had done such a number on Epyx’s software business. So, a handheld game console did become worthy of mention in the same breath as the Sony Walkman, but it wasn’t the Atari Lynx; it was the Nintendo Game Boy.

Needless to say, Dave Morse’s old plan to make Epyx a $100 million company by 1990 didn’t come to fruition. In addition to all their travails with Atari, the Commodore 64 market, the old heart of their strength, had imploded like a pricked balloon. After peaking at 145 employees in 1988, when work on the Handy as well as games for it was buzzing, frantic layoffs brought Epyx’s total down to less than 20 by the end of 1989, at which point the firm, vowing to soldier on in spite of it all, went through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Just to add insult to the mortal injury Jack Tramiel had done them, they came out of the bankruptcy still under contract to deliver games for the Lynx. Indeed, doing so offered their only realistic hope of survival, slim though it was, and so they told the world they were through developing for computers and turned what meager resources they had left entirely to the Lynx. They wouldn’t even be a publisher in their own right anymore, relying instead on Atari to sell and distribute their games for them. Tramiel had, as the kids say today, thoroughly pwned them.

This zombie version of Epyx shambled on for a disconcertingly long time, plotting always for ways to become relevant to someone again without ever quite managing it. It finally lay down for the last time in 1993, when the remnants of the company were bought up by Bridgestone Media Group, a Christian advocacy organization with ties to one of Epyx’s few remaining employees. By this time, the real “end of the Epyx era,” as Computer Gaming World editor Johnny Wilson put it, had come long ago. In 1993, the name “Epyx” felt as much like an anachronism as the Commodore 64.

What, then, shall we say in closing about Epyx? If Cinemaware, the subject of my last article, was the prototypical Amiga developer, Epyx has a solid claim to the same title in the case of the Commodore 64. As with Cinemaware, manifold and multifarious mistakes were made at Epyx that led directly to the company’s death, mistakes so obvious in hindsight that there seems little point in belaboring them any further here. (Don’t try to design, manufacture, and launch an entirely new gaming platform if you don’t have deep pockets and a rock-solid revenue stream, kids!) They bit off far more than they could chew with the Handy. Combined with their failure to create a coherent identity for themselves in the post-Commodore 64 computer-games industry, it spelled their undoing.

And yet, earnest autopsying aside, when all is said and done it does feel somehow appropriate that Epyx should have for all intents and purposes died along with their favored platform. For a generation of teenage boys, the Epyx years were those between 1984 and 1988, corresponding with the four or five dominant years which the Commodore 64 enjoyed as the most popular gaming platform in North America. It seems safe to say that as long as any of that generation remain on the planet, the name of Epyx will always bring back memories of halcyon summer days of yore spent gathered with mates around the television, joysticks in hand. Summer Games indeed.

(Sources: Questbusters of November 1989; ACE of May 1990; Retro Gamer 18 and 129; Commodore Magazine of July 1988 and August 1989; Small Business Report of February 1988; San Francisco Business Times of July 25 1988; Amazing Computing of June 1988, November 1988, March 1989, April 1989, June 1989, August 1989, November 1989, December 1989, January 1990, and February 1990; Info of November/December 1989; Games Machine of March 1989 and January 1990; Compute!’s Gazette of April 1988; Compute! of November 1987 and September 1988; Computer Gaming World of November 1989, December 1989, and November 1991; Electronic Gaming Monthly of September 1989. Online sources include articles on US Gamer, Now Gamer, Wired, and The Atari Times. My huge thanks to Alex Smith, who shared his take on Epyx’s collapse with me along with some of the sources listed above.)

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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A Time of Endings, Part 1: Cinemaware

The computer-game industry, like most young industries, was marked by ebbs and flows. Periodically, new advances in technology, new economic circumstances, and new consumer expectations led to the mass extinction of companies that had once seemed impregnable, even as new companies swept onto the scene to replace them. We’ve already seen one of these periods of transition: the home-computer bust of the mid-1980s that followed the first home-computer boom. Now, just five years later in historical time, we’re about to see another as the 1980s become the 1990s. Under the pressure of Nintendo, the American computer-game industry in particular was redefining itself yet again in terms of platforms, technologies, and modes of play. Inevitably, the disruption brought with it its share of casualties, including among them a number of companies we’ve come to know well in earlier articles. I’ve recently told the story of how the text-adventure specialists Infocom and (in Britain) Level 9 met their end when people largely stopped buying text adventures. Over the course of the next few articles, I’ll be writing about some other endings. Lest that sound horribly depressing, do know that the stories of these failures are not so much stories of companies that did too little as of companies that tried to do too much. For, as Neil Young told us, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”


 

Amidst the litany of mistakes Commodore made with their brilliantly innovative Amiga computer, it’s hard to choose just one as the most deadly to the platform’s long-term future. Certainly, however, their failure to push early and aggressively into CD-ROM must place near the top of any such list. With its 4096-color graphics and its stereo digital sound, the Amiga upon its release in 1985 already offered two-thirds of the equation that would lead to the so-called “multimedia-computing” boom of more than five years later. The only thing it lacked was a storage device capable of holding sufficient quantities of all those colorful graphics and sampled sound. The Amiga relied on 3.5-inch floppy disks that could hold just under 1 MB apiece, a generous number in terms of conventional programs and data but a pittance in terms of multimedia. Thus when Microsoft hosted the CD-ROM’s coming-out party in the form of the first CD-ROM Conference in March of 1986, few people were more excited by the new storage format’s potential than the nascent Amiga user base. “If you are wondering where [CD-ROM] leaves Amiga users,” wrote the Amiga magazine Amazing Computing in just their fourth issue, “it can be said in just three words: ‘in the pink!'” With its 650 MB of storage space, the CD-ROM seemed poised to unleash the Amiga’s true potential.

But, in what was already becoming a pattern, Commodore seemed blissfully unaware of any of it, playing no part in those early industry conferences and revealing no plans to capitalize on the new storage medium. Instead it was left to Microsoft with CD-ROM and Philips with their competing proprietary CD-I technology to be the chief impetus behind optical storage. The earliest CD-ROM products, designed as they were for the audiovisually hidebound IBM clones, filled their discs with huge amounts of text in the form of dictionaries, (text-only) encyclopedias, spelling checkers, thesauri, etc., all of which were important and innovative in their own ways. Yet, as everyone at the early CD-ROM conferences recognized, the really exciting potential of the medium lay in the emerging, as-yet unlabelled realm of multimedia computing that was the Amiga’s specialty. And yet Commodore did nothing. Even when both Apple and Atari released CD-ROM drives for the Amiga’s two most obvious direct competitors, the Macintosh and ST lines, they still did nothing. While Commodore fiddled, an incredible opportunity, born of Philips’s endless delays in getting a CD-based set-top box to market and the fact that no one other than Commodore had a reasonably priced computer with the audiovisual potential to do justice to CD-ROM-fueled multimedia computing, passed them by. When they finally did wake up in the new decade, it would largely be too late; they were now one of many in a market they could have owned.

Of all the Amiga game developers, the one that had the most cause of all to be frustrated by Commodore’s disinterest in CD-ROM was Bob Jacob’s Cinemaware, who throughout their existence would remain both the developer most closely identified with the platform and, not coincidentally, the one that pushed most aggressively to turn their games into true interactive multimedia experiences. Cinemaware’s “interactive movies” made a name for themselves by surrounding their fairly simplistic core game play with animated cut scenes, sampled sounds, and cinematic scores. Unfortunately, the amount and fidelity of all of this that Cinemaware could include was sharply limited by the floppy disks on which they had to distribute their games. With hard drives far from commonplace peripherals on the Amiga, especially in Europe — another situation that was largely thanks to a complete lack of initiative from Commodore — Jacob felt compelled to design his games with a floppy-drive-only Amiga system in mind. In an effort to minimize the disk swapping that could all too quickly get completely out of control with such a setup, he set an upper limit of two disks for each interactive movie. (He would bend from that standard only once, for It Came from the Desert, the 1989 production which was by many measures Cinemaware’s most ambitious completed game ever, and which was therefore allowed to spill onto a third disk.) Even with Cinemaware’s compression technology, with which they tinkered endlessly to try to get a few more pictures or sounds on each disk, only so much content could be fit onto two floppies. And almost worse for Cinemaware than the disks’ limited capacity was the speed, or rather lack thereof, of the Amiga’s floppy drives. The need to constantly shovel all that data in and out of memory from floppy disk played havoc with the sense of cinematic flow which Cinemaware worked so hard to achieve. One spent almost as much time staring at a blank screen as one spent actually playing or watching a Cinemaware game, waiting always for that next sequence to load from the chunka-chunking disk drives.

For these reasons, already by 1988 Jacob was actively looking beyond an Amiga platform that was left stuck in a veritable technological stasis by Commodore’s inaction, looking toward the platforms of the future that would allow his vision of multimedia gaming to truly come to life. It was during that year that a company called the Ideal Group came to his attention with a gadget called the View-Master Interactive Vision.

Interactive Vision was one of many attempts during this period, all of them highly problematic in hindsight, to turn the VCR, which had exploded into ubiquity over the course of the 1980s in exactly the way that the home computer so conspicuously hadn’t, into a device capable of hosting interactive content. Like most such schemes, Ideal’s plan leveraged the so-called “vertical-blank interval.” Sixty times per second, the electron gun which painted the images unspooling from the videotape onto the television screen had to make its way from the bottom right corner of the screen, where each painting cycle wound up, back to the top left to begin painting a new frame. The section of the tape which passed beneath the read head of the VCR during this interval was normally simply dead space. Ideal, however, realized that they could place computer code into these gaps. The Interactive Vision unit itself, a very basic 8-bit computer, was connected between the VCR and the television to read and process this code, which could tell it to overlay simple graphics onto the conventional video unspooling from the videotape, letting the user play videogames superimposed over this video background. It was, in other words, essentially the same concept that lay behind many of the laser-disc-driven standup-arcade games that followed the huge success of Dragon’s Lair.1

The View-Master Interactive Vision system in a nutshell.

For all its similarity to the spawn of Dragon’s Lair, Interactive Vision was extremely limited in comparison to laser-disc-driven applications of the same concept, being bound to the absolute linearity of the videotape format. Recognizing its limitations, Ideal planned to market it as a children’s product, selling for no more than $120, rather than as a game console or a more generalized home-entertainment product like the Philips CD-I. Still, within that space they’d managed to negotiate a bevy of licenses to die for, including Sesame Street, the Muppets, and the classic Disney characters. Bob Jacob and Cinemaware also jumped aboard with enthusiasm when they were approached about making a showpiece game for the system. It was at this point that Jacob hired David Riordan, the former rock musician and current interactive-video pioneer whom we met in an earlier article, in the context of his later work on It Came from the Desert. He also contracted with another old friend of ours: filmmaker, animator, and puzzle-game auteur Cliff Johnson of Fool’s Errand fame.

Riordan, Johnson, and the rest of Cinemaware’s new “Interactive Entertainment Group” were assigned to work on a Disney game which was to be packaged with every Interactive Vision system. After much experimentation, they settled on a thirty-minute videotape featuring ten very simple mini-games, glued together and overlaid onto old Disney cartoon clips. Although its aesthetic goals and its target market could hardly have been more different, the end result wound up resembling nothing so much as Mel Croucher’s earlier Sinclair Spectrum-based multimedia art project Deus Ex Machina in terms of structure: that of a relentlessly unfolding linear program, the interactive elements formed to the constraints of the linear media that grounded them. Cinemaware called their take on the concept Disney’s Cartoon Arcade.

Disney’s Cartoon Arcade in action on the View-Master Interactive Vision system. The player is trying to solve a simple jigsaw puzzle to the right of the screen while cartoon clips play in the background.

Like all of the other efforts along these lines, Interactive Vision flopped, vanishing into the marketplace without a trace. For his part, Dave Riordan judged that “the trouble with the View-Master system was that it was sold as a toy. It got lost on the shelves among the racing cars and the dolls.” Whether that was indeed the problem or whether the system was, as I rather suspect, simply too obviously jerry-rigged a system to have any consumer appeal, the work Cinemaware did with Interactive Vision set a pattern for the second half of the company’s existence. Widely perceived though his company continued to be as the premier Amiga developer, Jacob continued to look beyond that platform in the service of his larger vision of interactive movies as the future of mainstream entertainment. Simply put, if Commodore wasn’t interested in forwarding that vision, he would find partners that would. Riordan’s Interactive Entertainment Group, not disbanded but rather expanded in the wake of Interactive Vision’s failure, would drive these expensive and uncertain forays into emerging technologies, while the rest of the company paid the bills by continuing to make and market games on floppy disk for the Amiga and other traditional home computers.

Working now without Cliff Johnson, who had signed onto the Interactive Vision project only as an outside contractor, Riordan’s future projects would replace VCRs with optical media. Like so much of the American games industry, Cinemaware had first latched onto Phillips CD-I as the optical-storage format of the future. “When CD-I is a reality,” Riordan said, “I think Cinemaware will have a field day with the technology and bring our dream to life with real people, soundtracks, and dialog.” But, again like the rest of the industry, Cinemaware eventually found Philips’s endless delays, along with their platform’s technical limitations in the all-important realm of video playback, to rather take the bloom off the rose. “I’m no longer as high on CD-I as I once was,” Jacob was saying already well before the end of 1988. “You can design around [the limitations], but it’s not really enough.”

With talk of new optical formats everywhere, Cinemaware had no more of a clue than anyone else as to which one(s) would win out. So, they decided to try to support them all, by developing a process within the Interactive Entertainment Group to release new products on a whole range of formats as they appeared. “Someday, somewhere, people are going to invent a very compelling interactive technology, a mass-market entertainment medium that will bring parents and children into a mass-market application,” Jacob said. “I don’t know which hardware system is going to win, but once we’ve developed an interactive design methodology we can shoot material and use it across all formats.” He envisioned Riordan’s group as “a training ground where the methodology of interactive games can be developed and refined, ready for the arrival of the appropriate technology.”


Going back to Cinemaware’s roots, Riordan’s group made a CD-ROM version of Defender of the Crown, still by far the company’s biggest hit ever, for MS-DOS machines. Almost entirely forgotten today, this first CD-ROM version of Cinemaware’s most iconic title marked just the second game ever released on the medium, trailing Mediagenic’s CD-ROM version of The Manhole for the Macintosh onto store shelves by mere days. In many ways, the CD-ROM Defender of the Crown was a more complete demonstration of the future of computer gaming than that other optical landmark. While the graphics and game play remained largely the same as the Amiga original, Riordan’s team added a soundtrack performed by an actual orchestra recorded in an actual studio  — a first for the games industry — along with voice actors playing the narrator and many of the characters. Riordan:

It’s the audio that’s the key. Take someone talking, for example, the intonation in their voice is what really gives the words meaning. Reading text is nothing — but you can say, “I hate you,” in so many different ways, and even make it sound like “I love you.” Or, to take another example, imagine watching a scary movie without music. The music tells you so much about what’s going on. Without it, it’s just not scary at all — and when it comes to games I want people to really back off from the screen!

For Amiga stalwarts, seeing Jim Sachs’s classic graphics, now made possible in full fidelity on MS-DOS by the emerging VGA graphics standard, up there on the screen alongside all the impressive new audio marked a bitter moment indeed, about as clear a measure as could be imagined of just how far their chosen platform had already fallen behind the cutting edge. Granted, with CD-ROM drives still vanishingly rare on everyday machines, this first-ever CD-ROM-based game for MS-DOS was almost more a demonstration of intent than a serious commercial product for Cinemaware — a situation which doubtless does much to explain its obscurity today. It did, however, become the basis for ports to some of the other CD-based platforms that began to appear over the next couple of years, while the techniques that went into making it became the basis of the BOLT unified development environment that was used to make Cinemaware’s arguable best game for the Amiga, It Came from the Desert.

By far the biggest project Cinemaware was ever able to bring to any sort of fruition, It Came from the Desert was also unusual in being the only one to unify the two halves of the company’s latter-day identity. Riordan’s team first produced the floppy-disk-based Amiga version, doing an unusually good job of working within that setup’s limitations to make a really interesting, playable game of it. After completing that version, they moved on to a CD-ROM version that for the first time would feature video clips with real actors — thus beginning to dig the “full-motion-video” rabbit hole down which much of the industry would scurry for the next half-decade or so. Always the optimist, Riordan claimed that many name actors were interested in starring in interactive productions, if Cinemaware could just prove to them the form’s commercial potential. “They saw what happened with VCRs,” he said, drawing an appealing but perhaps flawed comparison, “and how they made more money from the video releases than they did from the original movies. Now they’re watching out closely to see what happens with computer games. We may get big names very soon for games.” In the meantime, Riordan used his connections in Hollywood to recruit a troupe of unknowns, who played their roles in front of green screens that would later be turned into computer-generated backgrounds. And, turning the process on its head, Riordan’s team also experimented with overlaying their graphics of giant ants onto filmed backgrounds.

Shooting It Came from the Desert on a soundstage. Such scenes would become very familiar ones within the games industry in the several years to come; this was ground zero of the whole full-motion-video craze.

A closeup of the actors in front of the “green screen.” They were filmed using a Betacam — the world was still a long way from going all-digital — with a filter that blocked the green. The result, as long as no one wore green, was a set of disembodied figures ready to be digitized with a frame grabber and superimposed over a computer-generated background. Call it a very, very primitive form of CGI.

The end result. Unfortunately, because of the limitations of the NEC TurboGrafx-16’s display hardware, the only released version didn’t look anywhere near even this good.

It was also possible to go the other way, superimposing computer graphics onto video backgrounds.

By 1990, when the Interactive Entertainment Group was in full flight with the full-motion-video It Came from the Desert, the Amiga market in North America was going soft. Thankfully, though, the platform’s continued vitality in Europe more than made up for it; thus Cinemaware’s bread-and-butter interactive movies continued to do quite well on the whole. Meanwhile the company continued to branch out into other areas within the realm of traditional computer games, roaming increasingly far afield from their alleged specialty. Already in 1988 they had embarked on their hugely influential TV Sports line of games that simulated the broadcast of professional sports like football and basketball rather than the experience of the athletes themselves. Around the same time, Jacob had leveraged his strong relationship with his European publisher Mirrorsoft to begin importing popular European action-oriented Amiga titles into North America. He was soon signing deals to publish original games that had even less to do with his company’s usual focus. For instance, having made Cliff Johnson’s acquaintance through the Interactive Vision project, he published 3 in Three, the follow-up to The Fool’s Errand, under the Cinemaware label after Miles Computing, Johnson’s prior publisher, went bust. (Abandoning the storybook aesthetic of The Fool’s Errand for an approach derived from the avant-garde animated films Johnson loved dearly, 3 in Three just doesn’t work for me like its predecessor does; it has some brilliant moments, but has too many repetitive puzzles of the least interesting types, lacks an equally compelling thoroughgoing meta-puzzle, and generally frustrates more than it delights.) Departing even further from what people had come to expect from Cinemaware were the two Star Saga games partially designed by Andrew Greenberg of Wizardry fame. These were elaborate and demanding multiplayer hybrids of tabletop RPGs and computer-based entertainments built around “paragraph books” with hundreds of pages of text — this from a publisher founded on the philosophy of “no typing, get you right into the game, no manual.” Unsurprisingly, the Star Saga games flopped resoundingly for Cinemaware, as they had for Masterplay, the tiny publishing venture Greenberg had originally set up to market them.

Whether one considers all these side ventures a dilution of Jacob’s vision or simply smart diversification, Cinemaware’s traditional computer games, while certainly not all hits (witness: Star Saga), were profitable in the aggregate. They just weren’t anywhere near profitable enough to pay for Cinemaware’s ambitious cutting-edge experiments. Projects like the full-motion-video It Came from the Desert were horrendously expensive in comparison to virtually anything the games industry had ever tackled before. Scoring a soundtrack and recording a real orchestra performing it, for instance, must cost at least $10,000 per track when all was said and done. Even the unknown actors employed by Cinemaware for It Came from the Desert cost about $500 per day per actor, far more than the salary of the best programmers or graphic artists. And then there were the costs of film crews, soundstage rentals, etc. Cinemaware’s debt began to mount alarmingly as they outspent the profits from their traditional games by huge margins. Bob Jacob and Dave Riordan had their hearts in the right place, but the reality remained that they had pushed the company into a dangerous position, well ahead of even the bleeding edge of the consumer marketplace. They were investing money they didn’t have in games that almost no one had the equipment to actually play.

For understandable reasons, then, Cinemaware looked with more and more wistfulness toward Japan, a nation that seemed by many metrics to be doing a much better job turning the ideal of multimedia computing into practical consumer products than any Western nation. On March 14, 1990, Jacob announced that the Japanese firm NEC, maker of computers and game consoles, had purchased approximately a 20 percent share of Cinemaware and with it a seat on the company’s board of directors. NEC had recently begun importing their very successful domestic game console, the PC Engine, into North America as the TurboGrafx-16. While it wasn’t actually doing all that well there at the moment in the face of stiff competition from Nintendo and Sega, NEC believed they had an ace up their sleeve that would make the partnership with Cinemaware a natural fit: a CD add-on, the first of its kind for a console, that NEC was planning to bring Stateside that summer. The CD-equipped TurboGrafx-16, they confidently expected, would be the realization at last of everyone’s old dreams for Phillips CD-I. And when it dropped and took the market by storm, Cinemaware would be there to reap the rewards alongside NEC. In tandem with the stock purchase, Cinemaware and NEC signed an agreement to make Riordan’s in-progress full-motion-video version of It Came from the Desert, previously envisioned as a platform-agnostic product, a TurboGrafx-16 CD exclusive.

The TurboGrafx-16 with CD add-on.

It all went horribly wrong. The first problem was the console itself, which was built around an 8-bit CPU derived from the venerable old MOS 6502, a chip with the merest fraction of the computing power Cinemaware had expected to have at their disposal for the full-motion-video It Came from the Desert. The puny CPU meant that Cinemaware had to simplify the game play dramatically over the floppy-based Amiga version, while a display capable of only 512 colors meant they had to degrade the graphics into a clashing melange of vague outlines. And then the TurboGrafx-16 CD add-on hit the market and proceeded, like the console before it, to sell hardly at all in a market that already had Nintendo as the dominant force and Sega playing the role of the plucky upstart. Cinemaware had spent at least $700,000 on a game they couldn’t sell, whether on the moribund TurboGrafx-16 or, thanks to the exclusive deal they’d signed, on any other platform. Expensive TurboGrafx-16 ports of TV Sports: Football and TV Sports: Basketball and another fruitless exclusive in the form of TV Sports: Hockey were almost as damaging, leaving Cinemaware drowning under the debt they’d run up in making them. Nor was NEC all that supportive of their partner. Jacob claims that the entire American management team that had handled the disastrous introduction of the TurboGrafx-16 and its CD add-on, as well as negotiated the deal with Cinemaware, was “summarily fired” in the aftermath of the console’s failure. With no prospect of a bailout from NEC, “all of a sudden we were in very bad straits.”

Indeed, Jacob describes his decision to do the deal with NEC as nothing less than Cinemaware’s “downfall.” Distracted and financially pinched by the TurboGrafx-16 projects, Cinemaware released only one of their Amiga interactive movies in 1990. Wings, the ninth and, as it would transpire, the last of the line, did well enough in the Amiga’s stronghold of Europe, but neither it nor the rest of Cinemaware’s catalog could sustain a company so intent on throwing good money after the bad of the TurboGrafx-16.

As 1990 came to a close, Jacob had no choice but to search for a buyer to rescue Cinemaware. He spent some time in talks with Columbia Pictures, trying to convince this storied cinematic giant of the bright future of interactive cinema, but ultimately without success. He then danced for a while with Electronic Arts, already Cinemaware’s North American distributor. That looked more promising; Trip Hawkins and most of his senior staff were supposedly in favor of the deal, but a newly empowered board of directors — Electronic Arts had gone public in October of 1989 — nixed it. Cinemaware entered 1991 with debts in excess of $1 million, a huge burden for a company that employed less than forty people. Although Cinemaware needed more, not less staff to bring his vision of CD-ROM-based interactive movies to fruition, Jacob had no choice but to begin laying people off. The death spiral had begun; Cinemaware now lacked the manpower to complete any of the games that might otherwise have saved them.

Jacob dissolved Cinemaware that summer, auctioning off its technologies and licenses to the highest bidders. Among the late projects that would never come to fruition was the dubious proposition of a TV Sports game called Rollerbabes, tackling the thriving — or rather not — sport of roller derby. There was also a cowboy western, envisioned as another big interactive-movie production. The inevitable TV Sports: Football II fell by the wayside as well, while perhaps the most ambitious of all the axed projects was a spy caper called The Enemy Within that Jacob still insists would have “redefined gaming as we know it.” “The game was so far advanced in concept,” he claims, “that its basic creative core still has not been achieved” — whatever that means.

Mirrorsoft, Cinemaware’s longstanding European partner and publisher, wound up acquiring most of the company’s assets, including the name itself. In this state of affairs, Jacob saw opportunity. He moved to Britain and tried to restart Cinemaware, after a fashion, under the name of Acme Interactive, using many of the old Cinemaware properties and licenses, leased back to him by Mirrorsoft. But within a year or so, Acme was acquired by the comic-book publisher Malibu Graphics, where Jacob’s people were combined with new hires to form Malibu Interactive. After a couple of years of modest success on consoles like the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, Malibu Interactive in turn was shut down after their parent company was acquired by Marvel Comics. None of the games that arose out of Jacob’s post-Cinemaware operations were as ambitious or innovative as the games he had made before, and following the Malibu shutdown he went back to his pre-Cinemaware role as a talent agent for the games industry.

What, then, shall we say in closing about Cinemaware? From a business standpoint, Bob Jacob obviously pushed his small company too far too soon, and paid the price for it. Rather than rake him further over the coals, it should suffice on that score to simply acknowledge that mistakes were made. A more interesting question is that of Cinemaware’s creative legacy. Jacob cites modern games like the Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed franchises as being heirs to the work done at Cinemaware in that they are “movie-like experiences.” “At the time, if people asked if Cinemaware was a genre,” he says, “I would say, ‘No, Cinemaware is the future. Cinemaware is where games are going.’ And ultimately, I was right.”

But was he really? To some extent perhaps, but far from entirely. Cinemaware was the first and for some time the most aggressive proponent of one view of the future of interactive entertainment, a view which by the early 1990s — ironically just as Cinemaware was dying — had become that of the American computer-games industry as a whole. It’s a view that we’ve already seen from various angles, and one that we’ll continue to see again and again as we move through this period of gaming history. The future, it claimed, would see conventional computer graphics take a backseat to a rich multimedia environment, a blending of digitized pictures, digitized video, digitized sound, and digitized music sourced from the real analog world that surrounds us. Although Cinemaware’s best-remembered games, their Amiga interactive movies, used decidedly limited amounts of all three, it was always understood within the company that this was due only to technical limitations. Dave Riordan actually labelled computer graphics as the primary thing limiting the mainstream appeal of games, drawing a comparison to cartoons, which, while popular then as they are now in their sphere, were nowhere near as popular as live-action film and video. Graphics, he said, could only “approximate reality”; “regardless of how interesting, they are not actual life.” Jacob said that “you’ve got to have a video look if there’s going to be a mass market. Computer graphics will not be acceptable to a market that’s been weaned on television. If you make it look like television and make it interactive, it’s going to work.”

Well, it largely didn’t work, although it would take the industry until some years beyond the death of Cinemaware to fully realize that. Full-motion video brings with it heaps of limitations in the types of interactivity games can support. We’ll have plenty of opportunities to delve into what those limitations are and the effects they had on games of this period in future articles, as we continue to explore this fraught but fascinating period in gaming history. For now, though, suffice to say that the limitations existed in spades, and that the optimism of proponents like Jacob and Riordan depended on minimizing or dismissing them to an unsustainable degree. Even during their day, Cinemaware became a poster child in some circles for what happens when presentation is emphasized over game play. And in the years since the company’s passing, the genre of full-motion-video games for which they paved the way have gone on to become perhaps the most critically reviled lineage in all of gaming history.

Jacob’s vision of the future of games as a business proposition, being predicated on his flawed vision of their aesthetic future, proved equally flawed. “There will be a new industry,” he said, that would combine “the music, movie, and software industries.” While intersections have certainly abounded, in the big picture this too just hasn’t happened.

Still, Bob Jacob, Dave Riordan, and Cinemaware weren’t by any means entirely wrong about the future. Their sense of cinematic flair did have a major influence on games that came well after the full-motion-video era, while digitized sound and music, not being subject to the same crippling limitations as digitized video, has long since all but completely superseded synthesized sound in games. Ironically for such a determinedly visionary company, their greatest failure might have been a failure of vision: a failure to realize that the public would willingly accept videogames as their own thing, entirely separate from film or television, if they were presented in an appealing, accessible way as their own thing. When it comes to the question of computer graphics versus full-motion video… well, the best graphics have gotten so good by now that it’s hard to tell the difference, isn’t it? Today Cinemaware’s interactive movies, like so many of the productions from other developers that would immediately follow them, read like dispatches from the past to a future that never arrived, as incongruous as the Jetsons-like automotive stylings of the 1950s. So, Bob Jacob was right even as he was wrong; games would go on to become both less and more than he ever imagined.

(Sources: Commodore Magazine of November 1988; Questbusters of October 1989, June 1990, March 1991, and July 1991; Computer Gaming World of March 1990 and May 1990; The One of October 1988 and November 1988; ACE of November 1989, April 1990, and May 1990; New Scientist of July 1989; PC Magazine of July 1989; CU Amiga of March 1990, August 1991, and May 1992; Raze of January 1991; The Games Machine of March 1990; The One of August 1991; Zero of April 1991 and July 1991; Amazing Computing of May 1986; the 1990 episode of Computer Chronicles entitled “Video Game Consoles.” Online sources include interviews with Bob Jacob by Matt Barton, Tristan Donovan, and Zach Meston. Finally, there’s my own interview with Cliff Johnson. Thanks again, Cliff!)


  1. As a further method of fostering interactivity, the audio channel of an Interactive Vision videotape could contain two separate audio tracks blended together into one using multiplexing techniques. The Interactive Vision unit could then filter out one track or the other at the time of playback, giving designers a way to choose between two soundtracks, depending on the user’s input. Indeed, most of the very few Interactive Vision tapes released apparently relied almost entirely on this simple feature rather than embracing the technology’s full range of possibility, as Cinemaware’s Interactive Vision product did. 

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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A Working-Class Hero, Part 4: A Hero’s Legacy

London Royal Air Force memorial

At the crack of dawn on July 26, 1918, two S.E.5a scout planes of 85 Squadron took off from Saint-Omer aerodrome and flew east over the trenches. The pilots of the two aircraft could hardly have been more dissimilar in terms of experience. Donald Inglis, a stocky Kiwi, was a nervous newcomer with just a few prior sorties under his belt and as yet no victories to his credit. His flight leader and squadron commander, meanwhile, had recently claimed the title of Britain’s ace of aces, with 60 victories to show for many months of combat duty. He, of course, was Major Edward “Mick” Mannock.

Had he not been such a mess of frayed nerve endings, Mannock would have found 85 Squadron, a well-respected veteran unit, almost uniquely congenial to a man of his background and political disposition. It was an unusually egalitarian, even multicultural outfit, including in its ranks Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Afrikaners, and even three American volunteers, all from many different social strata. The squadron’s composition was a sign of one of the too-few positive attributes of war, its tendency to show up fine distinctions of class and culture for the artificialities they really are. Few to none of Mannock’s charges could be bothered to worry overmuch about the circumstances of their new leader’s birth or the implications of his Irish accent. He was now simply their own Major Mannock, one of the most respected fighting airmen at the front.

Yet even as they respected him, they also found plenty of cause to worry about him — and thus, he being after all their leader, plenty of cause to worry about themselves. While Mannock had arrived in their mess hall on July 5 preaching the same gospel he had preached to 74 Squadron — about the importance of teamwork, discipline, and sound tactics as opposed to individual heroism — his conduct in the air had almost immediately begun to violate his own rules. He threw flights he was leading into battle when the odds or the positioning of his planes relative to the enemy’s called for making discretion the better part of valor, and he evinced an alarming new tendency to follow his kills all the way down to ground level in order to watch them crash, thereby giving up the precious advantage of height and leaving himself vulnerable to other enemy planes that might be lurking in the clouds above as well as small-arms fire coming up from below.

Most of his new squadron mates came to attribute his increasing foolhardiness, which was almost starting to look like a death wish, in one way or another to the death of his friend and rival ace James McCudden on July 9. Some said that Mannock’s frenzy to kill as many Germans as possible was an expression of his grief and anger at the loss. Others of a more cynical bent said that the death of McCudden with 57 victories to his credit gave Mannock a concrete, static goal to strive for in running up his own total. His eagerness to follow each kill down to its bloody end, they claimed, reflected his desire to fix an exact position of the crash so that he would stand the best possible chance of seeing the victory confirmed and thus added to his personal tally. But whatever his motivations or the needless dangers to which he exposed himself and others, he continued the torrid pace of his previous tour of duty. He matched and then surpassed McCudden’s total on the banner day of July 20, when he racked up his 57th, 58th, and 59th victories.

By this morning in question of July 26, the attempted German breakout of the previous spring had exhausted itself without achieving its objective, and now the inevitable Allied counteroffensive was beginning, aided by the hundreds of thousands of fresh-faced American soldiers now pouring into France. The activities of the Allied air forces were, as always, closely tied to the efforts of the armies on the ground. In support of the counteroffensive, they prowled the front in the ever larger formations allowed by the buzzing home-front factories and air schools, looking to down the outnumbered and exhausted remnants of Germany’s air force.

Unusually, however, Mannock and Inglis were flying all alone on this particular morning. As was his wont with new pilots, Mannock had promised Inglis that he would help him “break his duck” — i.e., help him score his first kill. The two of them were thus doing a bit of freelancing to the side of their squadron’s normal responsibilities, looking for a stray German plane or observation balloon that would serve their purpose while the rest of 85 Squadron slept in.

Most of the flight was uneventful. They explored as far into German airspace as they dared — their planes carried only enough fuel for about two and a half hours of flight — and then turned for home without having found any victims. But then, coming back toward the line of the front, Mannock shocked Inglis with a sudden turn and a dive to swoop down upon a two-man German observation craft that his companion had yet to even spot when Mannock’s guns began to bark. Mannock took out the German gunner with cold surgical precision, then banked away, signaling his companion to finish off their now-helpless quarry. A nervous Inglis waited too long to open fire and then waited too long to cut away, very nearly ramming the German plane from behind even as its fuel tank exploded. Still, he got the job done in the end; the hapless observation plane turned into a “flamer” for which the two pilots would share credit, marking Mannock’s 61st victory and Inglis’s very first.

Inglis thought that ought to be that, but, as usual these days, Mannock had other ideas. He followed their burning victim down through its death spiral of many thousands of feet, until it smashed into the ground just on the German side of the front. Not knowing what else to do, Inglis followed his leader down to a height of less than 100 feet, whereupon a hail of fire erupted from the ground, arcing up toward the two vulnerable planes. Dodging frantically and trying to regain some altitude, Inglis saw a tiny flicker of orange flame erupt from the fuselage of Mannock’s S.E.5a, turning into a bright contrail trailing out behind it as Mannock, still apparently alive and in control, managed to steady his plane and tear toward the Allied side of the front, evidently hoping to manage a crash landing over friendly territory.

He didn’t make it. His plane’s nose dipped and it veered into a slow right turn, making two lazy circles before it smashed into the ground. A line of flame arced along the ground, digging a new furrow into the scarred landscape. Inglis was so fixated on the sight that he very nearly suffered the same fate; he came to himself to realize that his plane was still being riddled by gunfire from somewhere below him, and that raw fuel was pouring into his lap out of a hole in the tank. He dashed for home, landing safely back at Saint-Omer, where he leaped out of his plane, covered in fuel and with tears streaming down his face, shouting incoherently, “They’ve shot him down!” Only gradually did the others make sense of what he was trying to tell them: Mick Mannock, their squadron commander of all of three weeks, was dead at the grand old age (for a World War I fighter pilot) of 31.

The aftermath of Mannock’s death was marked by none of the ceremony that had accompanied the death of the Red Baron. Unlike Manfred von Richthofen’s plane, Mannock’s scout bore no distinguishing marks, looking for all the world like just another anonymous S.E.5a. It had come to rest behind the German lines, and the soldiers who buried whatever remained of Mannock’s body in an unmarked grave never had an inkling that they were burying one of the greatest aces of the war. Because the location where they buried him was never recorded and his body was thus never recovered, we don’t know whether he made good on his promise to shoot himself at the last instant rather than allow himself to be burned alive, or whether he did indeed end up suffering the fate about which he’d had so many nightmares.

Even the British side paid surprisingly little attention to Mannock’s death. This was partly due to an official policy, noble in its way, that had been instituted after the press had elevated Albert Ball into one of the foremost heroes of the war. The war in the air, went the official line, was a team effort, and it wouldn’t do to unduly celebrate any of the individuals who fought it. While an exception had been allowed for the morale-boosting Canadian ace Billy Bishop, the British command otherwise hewed to this rule quite seriously.

And so the various squadrons posted up and down the Allied side of the front toasted him one last time with more or less feeling, and that was that. The war went on in the form of the great Allied offensive that finally succeeded in breaking through the German lines, sending the German armies into full-blown retreat and ending hostilities well before Christmas. Mannock would have needed to survive just a few more months of combat — and with the odds increasingly in his favor at that — to have become one of the war’s relatively few surviving aces. And yet one senses, given the condition he was in by the time of his death, that it might just as well have been a few more years.

Only after the war was over did Mannock begin to get some of the public acclamation that was his due. Ira Jones, still his greatest fan, lobbied relentlessly that his idol, the top-scoring British ace of the war, ought to be awarded Britain’s highest military honor, the Victoria Cross. It seemed to him the only fair thing to do; after all, the same honor had already been given to Billy Bishop, James McCudden, and Albert Ball. But if further impetus was needed to pressure the bureaucracy into action, Jones wasn’t above doing a little fudging. By being extremely generous in awarding “possible” kills, he was able to elevate Mannock’s victory count to a “probable” 73 — not coincidentally exactly one more than Billy Bishop, whose own total Jones, like so many others, regarded as highly questionable. Jones managed to find an ally for his cause in none other than Winston Churchill, and Mannock was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross on July 18, 1919. Mannock’s entire family, including his loathed father, now living in a bigamous relationship with a new wife and all too eager to claim kinship with the son he had physically abused and then abandoned, came to the ceremony. But thankfully, Mannock’s big brother Patrick was the one to take actual possession of the medal.

In the years that followed, the story of Mick Mannock, fighter ace, was elevated by hagiographers into a tale of duty, honor, and plucky English courage perfect for a generation of schoolboys raised on Biggles. While Mannock’s story may have lacked some of the flash and color that clung to that of the steely Red Baron or the tender boy ace Albert Ball, as the acknowledged British ace of aces he certainly had the numbers to support his claim to a place in the pantheon of British military heroism. In an effort to give his story that little something extra, the hagiographers invented the legend of “the ace with one eye.” Mannock, they decided on the basis of scant evidence, had accomplished all he had in the air while being blind in one eye, thanks to the amoebic infection he had contracted during his boyhood in India. Such was his burning desire to fight for the British crown in the air, the place where he felt he could do the most good, that he had kept the condition hidden from virtually everyone. Inevitably, it was Ira Jones who laid it on thickest of all in his popular 1934 biography King of Airfighters, inventing treacly speeches for his idealized Mannock that would never have passed the lips of the rough-hewn working-class man of reality. (“Don’t forget that when you see that tiny spark come out of my S.E.,” Mannock supposedly told him near the end, “it will kindle a flame which will act as a torch to guide the future air defenders of the Empire along the path of duty.”)

All of which is at one level fair enough. We need our heroes; we even need our myths. At another level, though, the real world is not a Biggles novel, and shrouding Mick Mannock so relentlessly in Union Jacks and Rule Britannias can only serve to diminish the real man behind the myth. At bottom, his story is inspiring because it is so messy, not in spite of it. The darker, more disturbing aspects of it — his oft-expressed hatred of the entire German race, his struggles to reconcile personal glory with the demands of the war effort as a whole — are the shades and nuances that identify him as a real human being rather than a walking, talking Royal Air Force recruitment poster. Like all of us, he had his demons. The fact that he accomplished so much in spite of them only serves to amplify those achievements, not to diminish them.

Through all their cheap patriotic sentiment, the Ira Joneses of the world avoid asking the really hard questions about the social inequalities against which Mannock struggled for much longer than he fought the Germans, the inequalities which to the very end of his life conspired to deny him much of the credit that was his due. And then, of course, there are the hard questions about the war that killed him. In that war’s aftermath, some — most notably his old friend and fellow socialist Jim Eyles — speculated about what Mannock, a man of so much complexity and capability, might have gone on to had he lived. Would he have, as Eyles liked to believe, taken a more active role in politics than ever, possibly entering the fray himself as a candidate for office? What might he have accomplished for the working classes had he done so? Because of the war — because of a senseless, useless war that, unlike its sequel, in no way needed to be fought — we’ll never know. Multiply Mannock’s wasted potential by the millions of others whose lives were similarly ended too soon, and you begin to gain an appreciation for the real tragedy of war.

Mannock’s fame, such as it was, peaked in the 1930s following the publication of Jones’s book. With the onset of the Second World War and Winston Churchill’s “few” of Battle of Britain fame, British schoolboys found themselves new aviator heroes to admire, even though no British ace of that or any subsequent war would ever equal Mannock’s victory tally. By the 1950s Mannock was already fading into obscurity, a name known only to aviation buffs and military-history fans. Today very few people indeed would recognize his name.

Still, in the interregnum between then and now there was one other tribute — a tribute that was never explicitly labeled as such, yet one that got in its own flawed way to some of the nuance of Mannock’s story that Ira Jones and his flag-waving contemporaries had missed…



In 1989, more than seventy years after Mick Mannock’s S.E.5a went down in flames, Bob Jacob, head of the American computer-game developer Cinemaware, called John Cutter, one of his most reliable designers and producers, into his office to assign him his next project. Jacob, who almost always personally chose the topics of his company’s trademark “interactive movies,” had decided that Cinemaware ought to make a sort of cinematic flight simulator set during World War I. As usual, he had drawn his inspiration from an old movie, but this time he had in lieu of his usual beloved B-movie fare fixated on a big-budget blockbuster of bygone years: William Wellman’s 1927 silent classic Wings, the first movie to win the newly minted Academy Award for Best Picture. Many actual veterans of the First World War had been recruited for the film, to perform the flying sequences in the actual aircraft they had flown into battle; the aerial footage that resulted remains some of the most incredible ever filmed. Because Wings, like many movies of its era, had a somewhat doubtful copyright status, it should be safe to crib from it even more than was Cinemaware’s usual wont, to the extent of blatantly appropriating its title alongside its spirit of aerial derring-do. Beyond that, Jacob, who was always more interested in the big picture than the details of Cinemaware’s productions, would leave it up to Cutter.

For his part, Cutter was rather taken aback by this turn of events, wondering just how many times he would be expected to channel Jacob’s personal passions instead of his own. He had just finished bringing another of Jacob’s ideas to fruition, a game starring the old vaudeville comedy troupe The Three Stooges. Now he was being asked to make a game based on yet another subject he knew nothing about and frankly wasn’t all that interested in. But needs must. So, figuring he had to start somewhere, he made his way down to the local library to do some reading on World War I in the air. “What incredible stories I read that afternoon!” he later remembered. “They were personal accounts of unbelievable courage and dedication — reflections of man’s indomitable spirit struggling valiantly against his enemies, the elements, and the dangers of an infant technology.” In the space of those few hours in the reading stacks, he went from a man with a job to do and little more to a man on a mission. The cinematic take on the air war of Wings the movie, sometimes spectacular though it was, faded into the background in favor of the real stories of the men who had flown and fought all those years ago. The end result would be unique in the Cinemaware catalog, otherwise made up of blatantly artificial third-hand pastiches of history filtered through this or that cinematic inspiration. Cutter’s Wings, by contrast, would demonstrate a willingness to engage with the real stuff of history.

Cutter found the real-world document that came to hover over the project, giving it much of its form and tone, when he visited the archives of the San Diego Aerospace Museum to further his research. Said document was a slim volume, published briefly in facsimile form by a small British press in 1966, called The Personal Diary of “Mick” Mannock. It was exactly what the title said it was: a diary kept by Mannock between April 1, 1917, the date he arrived in France as a shaky greenhorn pilot, and September 5, 1917, by which time he had found ways to cope with the terrors of airborne warfare and was beginning to make his name as an up-and-coming ace to be reckoned with.

The diary is, it must be said, a rather underwhelming document at first glance. Those who hope for exciting accounts of aerial jousts must be as disappointed as those who hope for rigorous psychological self-analysis. Mannock was no poet, and certainly not conscious of writing for any posterity other than himself. His diary is just that, a personal diary, filled with terse reminders of what happened on this or that day. And even on those terms, it covers the barest fraction of Mannock’s combat career, ending when he had scored just 11 of his eventual 61 victories and before he had really begun to implement the policies of aerial teamwork and unit discipline that would, over and above his personal victory tally, be his most important contribution to the British war effort. Yet when you spend more time with the diary your interest only grows, despite or perhaps because of its sketchy, underwritten prose. You begin to pick up on the rhythms of this strange life, with its horrors always lurking suppressed just below the surface. In bare sentences here and there, you learn about champagne blowouts, brawls in the mess hall, accidents and mishaps in the air and on the ground, alongside the relentless litany of fallen comrades. (“Poor old Pendor is missing since Wednesday, as also is Cullen. I hope both are alright. Poor old Bond is gone and I see that they have awarded him a posthumous D.S.O. Cold comfort!”)

Wings

Mannock’s diary, at first so underwhelming but then so fascinating, inspired the unique structure of Cutter’s game: a sort of epistolary novel in interactive form. Through hundreds of diary entries of its own, written by a screenwriter named Ken Goldstein, Wings tells the story of the air war on the Western Front, spanning from March 2, 1916, the dawn of the classic era of World War I dogfighting, through November 10, 1918, the very end of the war. In between the diary entries, you fly missions which reflect, as well as possible within the boundaries of the game’s very limited scope of interactive possibility, the events swirling around the squadron to which you belong. You strafe enemy ground emplacements and convoys; you bomb enemy camps and aerodromes; you go after enemy observation balloons. But most of all, you dogfight — you dogfight a lot, hundreds of times as you work your way through those hundreds of diary entries. The pilot whose actions you guide climbs the rungs of the ace leader board as together you shoot down enemy planes. He also collects medals and promotions, and his skills in the disciplines of “flying,” “mechanics,” “shooting,” and “stamina” improve, CRPG-fashion, as he practices them.

I have to acknowledge right now that Wings is by many standards not a very good game at all. Optimistically labelled a flight simulator by Cinemaware, it’s far from worthy of that label by most people’s standards. Instead it’s a collection of fairly simplistic action games whose appeal isn’t helped all that much by the fact that you have to play them so many times; no prior Cinemaware game took anywhere near as long to play through as this one, and few had a bag of tricks quite so limited. The dogfighting game, the one you’ll spend by far the most time with, might just be the least compelling of all; it feels too slow running on a stock 68000-based Commodore Amiga (the only platform for which the game was released), yet seems to run too fast on an upgraded 68020-based machine.

Strafing a German train...

Strafing a German train…

Even the case for the diary’s literary worth can be all too easily overstated. There’s enough empty rah!-rah! sentiment therein to make Ira Jones proud, alongside the occasional factual howler, like the mechanic with your British squadron who dreams of opening an auto-repair shop back home in Vermont after the war (in the meantime, he goes to bed each night dreaming about driving his father’s Model T Ford). Yet redeeming the whole are a succession of interesting characters and touching vignettes, many of them transplanted, with names changed and situations altered to a greater or lesser degree, out of the diary of the game’s patron saint Mick Mannock. For instance, B.W. Keymer, 40 Squadron’s earthy chaplain who did so much to help Mannock overcome his rocky start in the mess hall, takes the form in the game of a chaplain named “Holy Joe” who is likewise more concerned with helping his charges make it through another day of war than he is with standing on conventional religious ceremony.

Very early on, a captured German says that his comrades’ intention is to “bleed France white,” a disturbingly evocative phrase that was actually uttered by German General Erich von Falkenhayn as a justification for the carnage of the Battle of Verdun. Already here the horror of war is beginning to sneak in around all the exhortations to martial glory. Disillusion soon begins to affect our pilot and scribe as well.

July 13, 1916:

Patrolling Verdun this morning. I’m starting to realize how much the trenches are haunting me. I’ve got friends out there rotting in the musty earth, and the war is still no closer to ending than the day I volunteered. With all the military brilliance on our payroll, someone must know how to break the stalemate.

The diary reaches a fever pitch during the most desperate month of the war for the Royal Flying Corps: that Bloody April of 1917, the month of Mick Mannock’s baptism by fire. During this period in particular, Wings is willing to depict a side of war that we too seldom see in videogames.

April 12, 1917:

Farrah’s mole reports that the Germans have indeed changed their fighting strategy. Richthofen’s Jagdstaffel 11 has been expanded into what’s being called a “Jagdgeschwader,” a fighter wing. Three separate Jagdstaffeln of murderous planes are now at his beck and call.

Farrah says we should ignore this and fly today’s patrol as if nothing has changed. That would require a blindfold.

April 14, 1917:

No one here wants to fly. The Richthofen Geschwader is at peak performance. They’re pummeling us even worse than in the days of the Fokker Scourge. While Holy Joe is trying desperately to hold morale together, Farrah is stone cold and has ordered me and three others to patrol Arras at dawn. I think our C.O. is losing perspective. At the very least, he is losing the respect of his men.

April 16, 1917:

In all the mayhem our dog Barkley cowers at night alone. Each day, he loses another friendly hand to pat his head, to scratch behind his ears, to slip him tidbits under the table. Poor Barkley. Poor us.

April 24, 1917:

Some good news. Due to the valiant efforts of the Canadian troops, the British have taken Vimy Ridge! I wish I could report similar victory in the skies. It seems this bloody month will never end, that Richthofen has gained the edge in air superiority. Pilots across the front are weary and losing faith in Wing HQ. We need success on today’s patrol over Douai or our nerve may be forever shattered.

April 27, 1917:

Blood! Blood everywhere! The men are begging not to go up. Each time a sortie is dispatched someone returns grumbling, “That dirty butcher Farrah!” Just as French soldiers have begun to mutiny, we’ve considered rising up against our C.O. When he assigned four of us to patrol Arras after breakfast, I heard someone grumble, “Why doesn’t he just carve us up with a meat cleaver?”

April 29, 1917:

As our troops reclaim territory vacated by the enemy for the Hindenburg Line, we have little to celebrate. Before the Huns left, they leveled buildings, blocked roads, and contaminated water bins. General Ludendorff has served his nation well. He makes me sick.

Those of us at Amiens still willing to fly will patrol Ostend this afternoon. We can only hope the Flying Circus is on a coffee break.

April 30, 1917:

Responding to threats of mutiny, Farrah took heart and told us last night how much he hates to send young pilots like us to our deaths.

May 2, 1917:

Holy Joe has been doing all he can to get more wheelchairs here. With a shortage of hospital beds throughout the Allied camps, Amiens has been turned into an emergency treatment center. All around us there are countless soldiers with hideous stumps in place of their limbs. I’m left feeling queasy, jittery, ever the more wary of today’s patrol to Cambrai.

May 7, 1917:

Strange murmurings around camp. For the first time, pilots are quietly admitting they’re afraid. With Bloody April fresh in our minds, it’s suddenly become very realistic that we could die up there. We see death every day, but now we believe it can really happen to us. With five of us off to patrol Lille this afternoon, we all know it’s unlikely that we’ll all come back.

May 11, 1917:

Tremendous sorrow in writing tonight’s entry. The great British pilot Albert Ball is reported to be dead. Some say he was shot down by the Baron’s brother, Lothar. Others allege that he just disappeared into a cloud after being hit by gunfire from a church tower. I will think of him as I fly tomorrow’s patrol over Douai, praying I won’t die in a similar shroud of mystery.

One of Wings‘s most brilliant rhetorical devices is also its most chilling. When your pilot gets shot down and killed, the game doesn’t end. You rather simply create a new pilot to plunge back into the fray right where you left off — another replacement greenhorn dispatched to the front to plug the hole of another man’s death. Only when it’s all over, when you’ve played through the entire two and a half years of the diary with however many pilots that’s taken, do you see a final scroll of honor, listing each pilot along with his dates of birth and death. It looks, I presume by intention, like one of the many plaintive memorials to the war dead found in towns and villages throughout Britain.

One other way that Wings shows the toll of war is via your squadron's role call of casualties and new arrivals.

One other way that Wings shows the toll of war is via your squadron’s relentless roll call of casualties and new arrivals. Unless you’re ridiculously good, your own pilots will show up here on more than one occasion before you make it through the entire two and a half years of war which the game portrays.

With its interactive parts being so simplistic and repetitive, Wings must rise or fall in you the player’s estimation entirely on the basis of whether and to what extent the diary passages and the other background rhetorical flourishes manage to move you. In a sense, this was an old story for Cinemaware by the time of Wings, one reaching all the way back to the company’s breakthrough interactive movie Defender of the Crown. In Wings, however, the gilding on the lily of game play evinces a degree of humanity — a degree of soul — to which no other alleged “flight simulator” has ever even aspired.

Those other flight simulators define realism as getting all the knobs and switches right, making sure all the engines and airfoils and weaponry are in place and accounted for. Spectrum Holobyte’s Falcon, the king of the hardcore military flight simulators at the time that Cinemaware was working on Wings, came with a manual of more than 150 pages which read like a university engineering text (by the time of Falcon 3.0 in 1991, it would reach a downright Gygaxian 250 pages). Wings was a reaction against that aesthetic. Instead of building a game out of exhaustive technical detail, with no thought whatsoever given to the fragile human being ensconced there in the cockpit in the midst of it all, John Cutter asked what it was like to really be there as a pilot on the Western Front during World War I — asked what, speaking more generally, it really means to be a soldier at war. Michael Bate, a game designer for Accolade during the 1980s, called this approach “aesthetic simulation” — i.e., historical realism achieved not through technical minutiae but through texture and verisimilitude. The aesthetic simulation of Wings is a very different sort of simulation than the technical simulation of Falcon, but is, I would argue, no less worthy of the label for all that. At the end of his manual, Cutter wrote that “I can only pray that Wings will be remembered for its ability to educate and entertain, and not as a glorification of war.” In a medium that so often seems to do little but glorify war and others forms of violence, that stands out as a noble sentiment indeed. War, Wings tells us, has consequences. If the game never achieves more than a fraction of what it aspires to accomplish, that fact at least justifies a certain admiration.

And Wings also is well worth admiring as a loving final memorial to our old friend Major Edward “Eddie/Paddy/Pat/Jerry/Murphy/Mickey/Mick” Carringham Mannock, who is in turn a man worth admiring not because the things he did were easy for him but because they were hard, not because he was an unalloyed good person but because he aspired to be that person. Unlike Albert Ball, Mannock goes unmentioned in Wings‘s diary; this makes a degree of sense if one considers you the player to be to some extent playing the role of Britain’s diary-keeping ace of aces. On the date of his death, however, the game does see fit to give us an unusually lyrical diary passage. I like to believe that this isn’t a coincidence, that it’s intended as a final subtle tribute.

July 26, 1918:

Yesterday I was reminded of what a magical experience it is to fly. As I practiced turning through the soft white clouds, I experienced the sheer joy of defying gravity. The tapering horizon, the mountainous landscape, even patches of the shell-weary fields held fragments of beauty. I dreamed of flying endless hours in peaceful skies.

May all our own skies evermore be peaceful.

(Sources: In addition to those listed in the first article in this series, The One of March 1990, Matt Barton’s interviews with John Cutter and Bob Jacob, and “…and a Prayer: The Making of Wings” on Kaiju Pop!

Wings is available for purchase today in two forms. You can buy the original version shown in the movie and screenshots above in a package with most of Cinemaware’s other games, or you can buy a recent quite impressive remastered version. The remaster is likely to strike modern buyers as far more playable than the original, and is probably the version of choice for all but hardcore historians like yours truly.)

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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A Working-Class Hero, Part 3: Ace and Tactician

A British S.E.5a literally shoots a German Fokker to pieces.

A British S.E.5a shoots a German Fokker to pieces high above the front.

What makes a hero? Is a hero a cool cucumber who feels no fear, who charges into peril without giving a thought to life and limb? Or is a hero someone who quakes with terror but charges in anyway? I know which side I come down on. There are stories from the Second World War’s Battle of Britain of exhausted British pilots — Winston Churchill’s storied “few” — who were so petrified at the prospect of going up to meet the German attackers yet again that they literally had to be carried out to their planes and strapped into the cockpits, shaking, with tears streaming down their faces. Yet somehow, finally, they found the strength to enter the maelstrom again. If you ask me, courage isn’t the opposite of fear. Courage is rather feeling terrified but doing it anyway.

Edward “Mick” Mannock would never truly banish his fear, for fear, like addiction, is something one can never eradicate; one can only overcome it on an ad hoc, day-to-day basis. Yet Mannock would, like Churchill’s few, find a way to do his part despite his fear. This being a real rather than a Hollywood story, there is no single watershed moment we can point to and say that this marks the instant when he was transformed from a quivering greenhorn into a steel-eyed veteran. Instead there is a whole series of gradual steps. Mannock himself would come to regard May 9, 1917, when he returned to his aerodrome in such a state that his commanding officer took him off active duty for a short time, as being of some significance, marking as it did a crossroads where he faced a choice between accepting the shame of a transfer back to the home front or continuing to struggle with his raw terror in the air; he chose, of course, the latter. And it’s certainly tempting to mark June 7 on the calendar as well, the day that Mannock downed a German Albatros — his first official victory over an enemy airplane. (“My man gave me an easy mark,” he wrote in his diary. “I was only ten yards away from him — on top so I couldn’t miss! A beautifully coloured insect he was — red, blue, green, and yellow. I let him have 60 rounds at that range, so there wasn’t much left of him. I saw him going spinning and slipping down from 14,000 [feet]. Rough luck, but it’s war, and they’re Huns.”) Still, the process really was most of all a very gradual one. As Mannock grew less erratic in the air, and as he simply continued to live far beyond the normal life expectancy of a new scout pilot, his comrades in 40 Squadron slowly let go of their early judgments of him and accepted him into the life of the mess hall. And that acceptance in turn helped him to control his fear, a virtuous circle that transformed him in time into one of the squadron’s reliable old hands.

As Mannock was allowed to join in with the life of the squadron’s core, he joined them in the many coping mechanisms that soldiers at war develop. Rather amusingly, he was first encouraged to let his hair down by one B.W. Keymer, the squadron’s unusually earthy and thoroughly beloved chaplain, who understood and accepted that young men have needs of the flesh as well as the spirit. Keymer told Mannock that he should abandon his lingering resentments of class and politics to join the others on their drinking excursions into Saint-Omer. Meanwhile, through the example of his patronage, the good chaplain helped to convince others in the squadron to accept Mannock into their own good graces. In time, Mannock became one of the lives of the party at 40 Squadron, always willing to join in with whatever horseplay was afoot. One of the squadron’s favorite airborne pranks was astoundingly cruel really, but such are the ways of war: Mannock and his mates loved to swoop down out of the sun on unsuspecting friendly observation planes, just like they were Germans on the attack. From his diary:

Amused ourselves by dodging about the low clouds and frightening the engine out of sundry crawling “quirks” doing artillery work. Great sport. You come down vertically at approx. 160 mph on a poor unsuspecting observer and bank away to the right or left when almost cutting off his tail. You can almost hear him gasp.

One does have to wonder why no one ever got a nose full of machine-gun fire for his trouble…

But most of the squadron’s hijinks took place on the ground. Inevitably, alcohol became a key coping mechanism. Frederick Powell, one of Mannock’s squadron mates:

The centre of the squadron seemed to be in the bar. When you think of the tensions they lived through day to day — they would come in in the evening and ask about their best friend, “Where’s old George?” “Oh, he bought it this afternoon!” “Oh, heavens!” The gloom would come, the morale would die, and the reaction was immediate: “Well, come on, chaps, what are you going to have?” That was the sort of spirit that kept you going, and although people are against alcohol I think that it played a magnificent part in keeping up morale.

Coupled with the drink were other coping mechanisms of a more aggressive character. Games of rugby, sometimes played indoors right there in the mess hall, could get very rough indeed, yielding black eyes and broken fingers. Political discussions, in which Mannock was as strident as ever in advocating his socialist worldview, sometimes degenerated into brawls. Mannock and another flyer, a Second Lieutenant de Burgh, took to beating the sod out of one another as a matter of course on nearly a nightly basis. De Burgh:

Mannock was very keen on boxing, and as I had done a good deal [of it], we often used to blow off steam by having a set-to in the mess. It fact, it used to be a stock event, if the evening was livening up, for Mannock and me to have a round or two — and he nearly always said, “Let’s hit it out,” and we used to have a good slog at one another. I think, on the whole, that I used to get more than I gave, as he had the height of me and a slightly longer reach, but I had him at footwork.

The bad feelings engendered by the more violent nightly episodes seldom persisted beyond the alcoholic haze that did so much to create them. Living under almost unbelievable tension, knowing each successive flight had a good chance of being their last, the pilots were simply doing what they needed to to get through each successive day.

Mannock’s greatest fear was the same as that of many other pilots: to go down in what was called with typical forced jocularity a “flamer.” In an airplane made from a wooden frame covered with doped fabric, with a thin unarmored tank filled with many gallons of fuel, an aerial conflagration was never more than a single stray bullet away. Many pilots of stricken aircraft chose to jump to their deaths — parachutes were nonexistent prior to some German experiments very late in the war — rather than be burned alive with their planes. Mannock himself always carried a revolver up with him; “I’ll blow my brains out rather than go down roasting,” he said. To cope with this greatest fear, he indulged in elaborate black humor that made even many of his squadron mates, whose own humor was hardly of the most sensitive stripe, a bit queasy. The German aircraft that he shot down in flames he called “sizzlers” or “flamerinos.” He would describe their endings with a pyromaniac’s glee, finishing on a note of near-hysteria, whereupon he might turn to one of his comrades and suddenly burst out, in a jarringly high and strangled voice, “That’s what will happen to you on the next patrol, my lad.” The squadron would, remembered one pilot, dutifully “roar with laughter,” but it was uncomfortable laughter, its tone all wrong. “He is getting obsessed with this form of death,” thought one of them. “It is getting on his nerves.”

For all that Mannock loved to loudly and proudly proclaim his hatred of Germans, the killing he did in the air quite clearly affected him as much as did his constant fear for his own life. This was the other side of the supposedly glorious, chivalrous war in the air. The folks on the home front who tallied up the latest victory counts and ranked the aces failed to understand that war is not sport but rather a brutal exercise in kill or be killed. On July 13, after scoring his fourth victory, over a German two-man observation plane — he killed the pilot, but the observer somehow survived the crash — Mannock ventured into the trenches on foot for the first time to inspect his handiwork. While his diary describes the event with typical terseness, it can’t entirely disguise the effect the experience had on him.

I hurried out at the first opportunity and found the observer being tended by the local M.O., and I gathered a few souvenirs, although the infantry had the first pick. The machine was completely smashed, and rather interesting also was the little black-and-tan terrier — dead — in the observer’s seat. I felt exactly like a murderer. The journey to the trenches was rather nauseating — dead men’s legs sticking through the sides with putties and boots still on — bits of bones and skulls with the hair peeling off, and tons of equipment and clothing lying about. This sort of thing, together with the strong graveyard stench and the dead and mangled body of the pilot (an N.C.O.), combined to upset me for a few days.

This earliest incarnation of aerial warfare was an unnervingly intimate affair; it was often possible to hear the screams of pilots and crew as they were burned alive. Mannock’s attitude toward the killing he engaged in was, like so many things about this complex man, contradictory, swinging between manic glee at the death of another of the hated Huns and the guilt of, as he himself expresses it in the diary passage above, committing murder. On September 4, he shot down another flamer, killing both the pilot and the observer; it marked his eleventh victory. “He went down in flames, pieces of wing and tail, etc., dropping away from the wreck,” he wrote in his diary. “It was a horrible sight and made me feel sick.” He ventured out to the trenches to try to locate this kill as well, an act that now seemed to be becoming a compulsion for him. This time, however, he failed in his quest to examine his gruesome handiwork — probably, one has to think, for the best. While other aces were somehow able to fool themselves into believing they were destroying only machines, not men, Mannock was unable to delude himself in this way. At some level he seemed to revel in the knowledge that he was a mass killer, even as the same knowledge rent his psyche daily.

Months after his eleventh kill, a plaintive message that had been dropped over the front reached him while on leave in London.

I lost my friend Fritz Frech. He fell between Vimy and Lieven. His respectable and unlucky parents beg you to give any news of his fate. Is he dead? At what place found he his last rest? Please to throw several letters that we may found one. Thank before.

His friend, K. L.

P.S. If it is possible, please a letter to the parents:
Mr. Frech
Königsberg
Pr. Vord Vorstadt 48/52

The Fritz Frech in question had been the observer in the plane Mannock had shot down and watched burn up on September 4. Mannock did indeed write to the parents, explaining that their son was dead but sparing them the full details of how he had met his end at their correspondent’s own hands. If only such small human mercies could outweigh the horrors of war.

Despite those ongoing horrors of war, things were, relatively speaking, looking up for Mannock as 1917 entered its second half. On July 19, in an event that surprised him as much as anyone, he was awarded the Military Cross for his “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty,” despite having yet to score his coveted fifth kill and thus win the designation of ace (he would not accomplish that feat until August 5). In truth, such awards were being handed out with rather shocking liberality as a morale-boosting hedge against the enormous casualties among the airmen, but Mannock was nevertheless duly proud of the honor. Shortly after, he was promoted to a patrol leader with 40 Squadron. In less than three months, he had gone from faceless cannon fodder to mistrusted shirker to respected veteran in the eyes of his squadron mates. Such was the war in the air, where lifetimes were often measured in days.

But even that ugliest of statistics was starting to look better. By the fall, the average lifespan of a new British scout pilot on the Western Front had extended from the mere days of Bloody April to a downright generous ten weeks. This welcome development could be credited to a number of causes. The Arras offensive had, like all of the offensives before it, long since petered out into stalemate, and the fighting in the air had grown slightly less intense as well as a result. British standards of flight training were also improving, with more attention paid to the crucial skill of aerial gunnery and with trainees finally being given a reasonable amount of time in the sorts of aircraft they would actually be flying into battle at the front.

The Sopwith Camel

The Sopwith Camel

Yet the biggest cause of the improving British fortunes of war was the arrival of two new aircraft that at last proved a match for the dreaded German Albatros scouts. The Sopwith Camel, destined to become the most iconic airplane of the entire war thanks largely to a certain cartoon dog, was indeed a dogfighter’s dream. Extraordinarily maneuverable, it could do things in the air that literally no other plane could do. But it was also notoriously tricky to fly; the torque from its rotary engine, combined with its deceptively heavy tail, killed dozens if not hundreds of green pilots, who inadvertently slammed a wing or the tail into the ground on takeoff or landing or threw the plane into a hopeless spin when practicing aerobatics. “It was always teetering on being out of control,” writes the military historian Peter Hart of the Camel — and that was a good thing, for “if the pilot barely knew what was happening how could his opponent?”

The Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a

The Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a

The other new British plane is less famous than the Sopwith Camel, but in reality played an even more important role in swaying the balance of power in the air. Certainly it was much better suited to a no-nonsense aerial tactician of the sort that Mannock was rapidly becoming. The Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a wasn’t the purist pilot’s plane that the Sopwith Camel was. It was heavier on the controls and a bit lumbering really; if the Camel could turn on a dime, the S.E.5a needed at least a quarter. On the other hand, it could fly faster than the Camel, could climb faster and higher, and could take more punishment. It was also as forgiving of new pilots as the Camel was dangerous, and offered a wonderfully stable platform for its potent armaments, which consisted of the traditional British Lewis machine gun mounted on the upper wing along with, at long last, a Vickers mounted on the cowl of the fuselage, synchronized to fire between the propeller blades. The two guns were operated by one trigger, and were angled to intersect on a sweet spot about 100 yards ahead — or the pilot could aim and fire the Lewis manually for, for instance, raking the underside of an enemy aircraft that had on him the crucial advantage of height. Mannock would wind up scoring 46 of his eventual 61 victories in an S.E.5a. It was ideally suited for his favored tactic of swooping down on a German formation at high speed, raking it with gunfire from medium range, then using the kinetic energy of the dive to zoom back up into the sun for another go if necessary.

Still, Mannock’s relationship with the S.E.5a started out decidedly rocky. When 40 Squadron received the new aircraft as replacements for their trusty old Nieuport 17s some weeks before Christmas, they found them still beset with teething problems. Their water-cooled piston engines — much more complex than the air-cooled rotaries found on the Nieuports — were chronically unreliable, and, more than two years after the Germans had perfected their machine-gun synchronizer technology, the British were still struggling with theirs; the cowl-mounted gun could shoot off the propeller if something went wrong, leading many pilots to refuse to use it at all when over enemy lines. Mannock ranted bitterly about the S.E.5a to any superior who would listen, demanding fruitlessly that 40 Squadron be given back their Nieuports. He would manage to score just one victory in an S.E.5a in this the final stretch of his first tour at the front.

Nevertheless, when Mannock left 40 Squadron in January of 1918 he left as, in the words of fellow flier Gwilym Lewis, “the hero of the squadron,” with 16 official victories to his credit.

He came on to form having been older than most of us and a more mature man. He had given great, deep thought to the fighting and had re-orientated his mental attitudes, which was necessary for a top fighter pilot. He had got his confidence and he had thought out the way he was going to tackle things. He became a very good friend of mine, and I owed a lot to him that he was so friendly. I was unnecessarily reserved, and he liked to give people nicknames — he called me “Noisy”! He was a lot of fun.

As a pilot and a fighter, Mannock was the polar opposite of the impulsive Albert Ball, who despite having been killed in May of 1917 still remained Britain’s most famous ace by far. Loath though he doubtless would have been to acknowledge the similarity, the ace Mannock most resembled was none other than Manfred von Richthofen — the legendary Red Baron, the greatest of all the German aces and, indeed, the greatest of the entire war. Like Mannock, Richthofen devoted much effort to codifying a system of rules for aerial combat as a disciplined team effort, leaving to the romantics who celebrated his achievements all the stirring poetics about jousting “knights of the air.” It would be no great exaggeration to say that the serious study of aerial combat as a tactical discipline unto itself really begins with these two men. The axioms they developed were often amazingly similar. Mannock, for instance, had learned after one or two early misfortunes the importance of checking his weaponry over thoroughly before flying into battle, and pounded this theme home relentlessly with his charges after being given command of his own flight. Here is Richthofen on the same subject:

It is the pilot and not the ordnance officer or the mechanic who is responsible for the faultless performance of his guns. Machine-gun jams do not exist! If they do occur, it is the pilot whom I blame. The pilot should personally examine his ammunition and its loading into the belt to ensure that the length of each round is consistent with that of the others. He has to find time to do this during bad weather or in good weather at night. A machine gun that fires well is better than an engine that runs well.

Both men regarded “stunt pilots,” those who placed their faith in reflexes and fancy maneuvers rather than sound tactics, with near contempt. Richthofen said that he “paid considerably less attention to flying ability” than he did to tactics and gunnery: “I shot down my first twenty whilst flying itself caused me the greatest trouble.” Both men were thoroughgoing pragmatists, willing to engage in battle only when the odds in terms of numbers and position were in their favor, and willing to break off any engagement rather than bring undue risks upon themselves. Most of all, both men were great leaders and teachers. Already during his first tour, Mannock was noted for his patience with the new fliers who came under his charge; his own rocky first weeks with 40 Squadron gave him much empathy for these greenhorns’ plight. He would place them in relatively sheltered positions during their first flights and work to indoctrinate them into his teamwork-oriented, “no individual heroes” approach. Similarly, Richthofen could at times sound more like a fussy schoolmarm than a dashing fighter ace:

It is important and instructive that a discussion be held immediately after each Jagdgeschwader flight. During this everything should be discussed from takeoff to landing and whatever had happened during the flight should be talked through. Questions from individuals can be most useful in explaining things.

If it’s difficult to reconcile Mannock the patient teacher and cerebral tactician with the hooligan who liked to beat people bloody in a bar every night, count it up as yet one more contradictory aspect of this hopelessly contradictory man.

By this time, seasoning a new squadron with two or three combat veterans had become standard practice in the Royal Flying Corp. Thus, after some weeks of much-deserved leave, Mannock was sent to join the brand new 74 Squadron in England. The commander of the squadron, a tough Kiwi named Keith Caldwell, deferred greatly to him, treating him almost as his equal in the chain of command. It was a golden opportunity for Mannock to indoctrinate a mass of unformed clay into his theories of air combat. This he proceeded to do over the several weeks prior to his return to the front with his new squadron, driving home easily remembered rules of thumb like “always above; seldom on the same level; never underneath.” He wasn’t unwilling to use occasional tough love on his skittish charges; a pilot who broke formation might be terrified by a burst of live machine-gun fire, deployed by Mannock to get his attention and force him back into position.

Among the fliers he instructed was one Ira Jones, who would go on to write the most famous biography of Mannock, albeit one so drowning in Jones’s unabashed hero worship that it’s sometimes more interesting as a psychological study of its author than it is for its ostensible subject. Here, for instance, is Jones’s breathless description of his first impression of his squadron’s new flight leader:

His tall, lean figure; his weather-beaten face with its deep-set Celtic blue eyes; his modesty in dress and manner appealed to me, and immediately, like all the other pupils, I came under his spell. He had a dominating personality, which radiated itself on all those around. Whatever he said or did compelled attention. It was obvious that he was a born leader of men.

Aided by Caldwell’s strict discipline and Mannock’s tactical mastery, along with the latest iteration of the S.E.5a, from which the Royal Aircraft Factory had finally shaken out the bugs, 74 Squadron would be a remarkably successful combat unit, losing very few pilots in proportion to the kills they scored against the Germans.

A squadron of S.E.5a scouts on the flight line.

A squadron of S.E.5a scouts on the flight line.

They would need to be. The front to which Mannock returned with his new squadron on March 30, 1918, was a very different place from the one he had left, thanks to two titanic political events of the previous year. One had been the declaration of war by the United States upon Germany and its allies; the other had been the Russian Revolution, following which the government of the new Soviet Union had signed peace terms with Germany. The army of the United States, still a sleeping giant on the world stage just waking up to its own potential, had been very nearly nonexistent prior to the declaration of war. It would take the Americans more than a year to train, equip, and ship enough soldiers across the Atlantic to make a significant difference in Western Europe. Once that happened, however, the jig would be up; Germany couldn’t hope to continue to hold the front against the combined armies of France, Britain, and the United States. The German commanders believed, logically enough, that they stood just one chance: to shift all of their forces from the old Eastern Front to the Western and throw absolutely everything they had against the Allies during that spring of 1918, in the hope of breaking through and sweeping to the coast in these last few precious weeks before American forces began to arrive en masse. This, then, was the desperate battleground that 74 Squadron flew into.

When the squadron flew into action for the first time on April 12, the young Ira Jones, much like the Mannock of almost exactly one year earlier, performed poorly and returned to the aerodrome in a very bad way.

The feeling of safety produced an amazing reaction of fear, the intensity of which was terrific. Suddenly I experienced a physical and moral depression which produced cowardice. I suddenly felt I was totally unsuited to air fighting and that I would never be persuaded to fly over the lines again. For quite five minutes I shivered and shook.

Departing markedly from the treatment his old squadron mates had meted out to him in the same situation, Mannock quietly pulled Jones aside and told him about his own early struggles, sharing some tips on how he had learned to manage his fear and thus how Jones might as well. Jones’s ardent lifelong hero-worship of Mannock seems to date from this exchange — and understandably so. Motivated perhaps as much by his horror of disappointing his hero as by anything else, Jones soon rounded into one of the squadron’s steady hands.

Jones’s story was hardly unique. Mannock was brilliant at motivating and instilling confidence in new fliers in general. A favorite technique was to “break the duck” of a hesitant newcomer by taking out the gunner of a German observation craft himself, then signaling the greenhorn to finish the job and thus come away with his first victory. Doing so wasn’t quite the sacrifice that it might first appear; the rules for scoring the war in the air stipulated that every pilot who helped to bring down an enemy airplane received credit for that victory, meaning Mannock could feel free to spread the wealth around without sacrificing his own tally. Nevertheless, it was a generous act, even as it was also a rather macabre act — but, again, such are the ways of war.

Caldwell and Mannock molded their squadron into a disciplined fighting unit the equal of the Red Baron’s dreaded “Flying Circus.” Jones:

He [Mannock] not only mystified and surprised the enemy, but also the formations he led. Once over the lines, he would commence flying in a never-ending series of zigzags, never straight for more than a few seconds. Was it not by flying straight for long periods that formation leaders were caught napping?

Suddenly his machine would rock violently, a signal that he was about to attack. But where was the enemy? His companions could not see them, although he was pointing in their direction. Another signal and his SE would dive to the attack. A quick half-roll, and there beneath him would be the enemy formation flying serenely along, the enemy leader with his eyes no doubt glued to the west. The result [was] a complete surprise attack.

Mannock would take the leader if possible in order to give his pilots coming down behind him a better chance of an easy shot at someone before the formation split up and the dogfight began. Having commenced the fight with the tactical advantage of height in his favour, Mannock would adopt dive-and-zoom tactics in order to retain the initiative.

Thanks not least to Mannock, 74 Squadron was one of the happiest on the front, even if that happiness was always tinged with the usual unnatural mania, always shadowed by the stress and terror it worked so diligently to cover up. Jones again:

Mannock was always full of pranks. His favourite one was to enter a comrade’s hut in the early hours of the morning after returning from a “night out”. He would enter, usually accompanied by Caldwell, who would be carrying a jug of water. Once inside, Mannock would pretend that he had wined and dined too well, and would make gurgling noises as if he was going to be sick. As each retching noise was made, Caldwell would splash an appropriate amount of water on the wooden floor. The poor lad asleep would suddenly wake up and jump out of bed to the accompaniment of roars of laughter as his legs would be splashed with the remaining water.

Despite the emphasis on teamwork in the air, Mannock’s personal victory count soared during this his second tour of duty — as incontrovertible a proof as any of just how effective his tactics really were. In barely two months, he increased his tally from 16 to 52, an astonishing run that often saw him shooting down multiple German aircraft on a single day or even a single patrol. His pace during this period was unequaled during any similar stretch of time by any other ace of the war. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order on May 24, then the same medal again just two weeks later after destroying eight German aircraft in five days.

British soldiers carry souvenirs away from the wreckage of Manfred von Richthofen's airplane.

British soldiers carry souvenirs away from the wreckage of Manfred von Richthofen’s airplane.

Given the doctrine he preached to his pilots, one might think that Mannock would have been uninterested in his personal tally and the personal glory that went with it. But, once again, to do so would be to underestimate the complexity of this endlessly complex and contradictory man. On April 21, 1918, shortly after Mannock’s return to the front, a gunner on the ground shot down Manfred von Richthofen largely by luck, firing a bullet toward his Fokker Triplane that pierced his heart and lungs, killing him almost instantly. When the pilots in 74 Squadron’s mess hall that night proposed a toast to their fallen nemesis, Mannock merely scowled and said, “I hope he roasted the whole way down!” He now had a static target to strive for: Richthofen had tallied 80 victories. First, however, he would need to oust his old friend and rival James McCudden, currently back in England with 57 victories to his name. Ominously, he wrote home that he intended to beat all the other aces’ tallies or to “die in the attempt.” Did he, a working-class man, want so desperately to unseat the Red Baron — who, as evidenced by his nickname, was a member of the Prussian aristocracy — as a comeuppance to the class system that had so often used him so badly? We can only speculate.

The British buried Richthofen with full military honors, and even dropped pictures of his grave behind German lines. Mannock, needless to say, wasn't susceptible to such sentimentality.

The British buried Richthofen with full military honors, and even dropped pictures of his grave behind German lines. Mannock, needless to say, wasn’t susceptible to such sentimentality.

By June, the final frenzied German attack on the ground had largely exhausted itself. It had been a near thing on multiple occasions, with the Allied lines buckling at times far more than than they had in all the previous years of war. Still, the Germans had never quite managed to achieve the full-on breach for which they had died in so many thousands. Now, with fresh American troops at last beginning to pour into France to take up the fray against the battered German armies, the war could only end one way; it was merely a question of when. For the first time, the soldiers and aviators on the front could realistically look forward to the prospect of peace in the near future.

And yet Mannock, still the picture of leadership and camaraderie on one level, was falling apart on another. Increasingly obsessed with his victory count even as the terror and guilt he constantly felt threatened always to master him, he was caught in a downward spiral from which he didn’t know how to extricate himself. His obsession with going down in a “sizzler” became more pronounced than ever; even the starry-eyed Ira Jones had to admit that his hero was “getting very peculiar about the whole business.” He took to asking the other pilots, “Are you ready to die for your country today? Will you have it in flames or in pieces?” Even more disturbingly, he began to abandon some of his own tactical dicta. On June 16, for example, he initiated an attack on a German formation that outnumbered his flight by three to one, a clear violation of everything he had always taught his charges; he shot down two planes that day, but the rest of his pilots felt lucky just to escape with their lives. Premonitions of death began to creep more and more into his correspondence. He wrote to his old friend and mentor Jim Eyles:

Things are getting a bit intense just lately and I don’t quite know how long my nerves will last out. I am rather old now, as airmen go, for air fighting. Still, one hopes for the best. These times are so horrible that occasionally I feel that life is not worth hanging on to myself, but “hope springs eternal in the human breast”.

On June 21, Mannock was informed that he was to assume command of 85 Squadron, another unit at the front. He would now be given the rank of Major, a remarkable ascent for a working-class man less than three years removed from the Territorial Forces. His new squadron was another very effective unit; it had lately been commanded by Billy Bishop, a Canadian who with 72 victories to his credit would go down into history as the ace of aces of all the British Commonwealth airmen. That said, Bishop’s actual tally may well have been much lower. There is reason to believe that, eager to inspire the fighting men of the Commonwealth, British commanders may have deliberately inflated his victory count; some historians are willing to credit him with as few as 27 real, confirmable victories. Regardless, Bishop was considered to be of huge symbolic importance. For this reason, he had been withdrawn from active duty; witnessing what a blow to German public morale the death of the Red Baron had been, there was concern about the potential fallout if Bishop should be killed in action. But about Mannock, who despite his achievements remained peculiarly obscure among all but the airmen actually at the front, there was no similar concern. Thus the expendable Mannock was to inherit Commonwealth hero Bishop’s command.

Canadian Billy Bishop, the British Commonwealth's alleged ace of aces, who probably wasn't the conscious fraud some have claimed he was but who may very well have benefited from a less than rigorous kill-verification process in light of his immense propaganda value.

Canadian Billy Bishop, the British Commonwealth’s alleged ace of aces, who probably wasn’t the conscious fraud some have claimed he was but who may very well have benefited from a less than rigorous kill-verification process in light of his immense propaganda value.

Before he took over 85 Squadron, Mannock was granted the small mercy of two weeks’ leave back in England. He repaired to the town of Wellingborough, where he had enjoyed the most peaceful three years of his life living under the roof of Jim Eyles — a stretch that must truly have felt like another lifetime to him by this point. Eyles was as shocked by the version of “Pat” Mannock who knocked on his door on this summer day in 1918 as he had been by the one who had returned sick and malnourished from a Turkish prison three years before. To judge by Eyles’s description, Mannock may have been in the throes of a full-blown nervous breakdown by this point; his hands and body trembled constantly. One day Eyles came upon him unaware, standing in the house’s cozy little kitchen:

He cried uncontrollably, muttering something that I could not make out. His face, when he lifted it, was a terrible sight. Saliva and tears were running down his face; he couldn’t stop it. His collar and shirt front were soaked through. He smiled weakly at me when he saw me watching and tried to make light of it. He would not talk about it at all.

Eyles would later say that, although they didn’t express it in words, the two old friends shared a mutual understanding that this would be the last time they would be together. There was “something very final about it” when the two shook hands on the last morning of Mannock’s leave and Eyles’s old companion in socialism and cricket set off down the garden path, just as he had done hundreds of times before while working as a rigger for the National Telephone Company right there in Wellingborough. But, alas, the job to which he was returning today was a far more deadly business. Hadn’t he done enough for his country? Apparently not. He was in a state of complete psychic collapse, yet the powers that were in England still didn’t respect him enough that anybody had bothered to notice. Again — for the last time this time — Major Edward “Eddie/Paddy/Pat/Jerry/Murphy/Mickey/Mick” Carringham Mannock was going to war.

(Sources: The same as the first article in this series.)

 
 

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