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Games on the Mersey, Part 1: Taking Scousers Off the Dole

Once upon a time, the BBC played host to a half-hour current-affairs program called Commercial Breaks, which endeavored to document innovative businesses and emerging markets in Margaret Thatcher’s new, capitalist-friendly Britain. In April of 1984, Paul Anderson, one of the program’s stable of directors, began to shoot an episode about the computer-game industry, as seen through the eyes of Liverpool’s Imagine Software and Manchester’s Ocean Software. These two Northern software houses, each situated in a city that had been struggling mightily in recent years, had been specifically chosen to drive home the point that the craze for microcomputers and computer games was a national one rather than just a hobby of posh Londoners. Computers were transforming the way British youth from the Shetland Islands to Cornwall spent their free time, and computer games could earn those entrepreneurs who were successful at selling them millions of pounds. This, went the message from Thatcher on down, was an area where the new Britain stood poised to excel.

Whether by chance or design, the two publishers chosen for the program could hardly have been more different. Ocean was a quietly shipshape little operation, run by a balding fellow named David Ward who looked and talked more like an accountant than a brash entrepreneur. No matter: Imagine had brashness enough for both. The company’s absurdly young management and staff had been all over the tabloid media for months with their exotic sports cars, their extravagant claims about the money they were raking in, and an anti-establishment take on capitalistic excess worthy of rock stars.

Paul Anderson thought he was making a light documentary about an emerging business sector. But what he would end up with, at least for the part of the program devoted to Imagine, was something else entirely. Some fifteen years before Anderson started shooting his program, Michael Lindsay-Hogg had begun making a documentary about Liverpool’s four most famous sons as they went into the studio to record their latest album. Meant to show the Beatles’ triumphant return to playing together as a live band, the prelude to a major tour, Let It Be had instead wound up chronicling their demise for all the world to see. Now, sent to Liverpool to document the life of a vibrant young company, Paul Anderson would similarly wind up shooting its death, capturing for posterity on videotape the first notable instance of a game studio with a line of credit longer than their common sense imploding in spectacular fashion.

Yet what would follow said implosion would be in its way even more remarkable than all the excess and foolishness that had led Imagine to such an unhappy ending. For out of the ashes of Imagine Software would be born one of the most iconic British game makers of the latter 1980s and 1990s. Psygnosis, the direct heir to Imagine, would take an owl as their logo, but a better choice might have been a phoenix.


 

Back in 1961, one Brian Epstein had run a record store on Great Charlotte Street in downtown Liverpool, just blocks from where Imagine’s sprawling offices would be located 22 years later. Hearing his teenage customers talking more and more about a local beat group called the Beatles, Epstein finally made the ten-minute walk to the Cavern Club to hear them play a lunchtime concert one gray November day. Smitten immediately, he took on the role of the Beatles’ manager, bringing order to their chaos and transforming his four leather-clad proto-punks into the cheeky but lovable Fab Four that would go on to conquer the world.

For a few brief years thereafter, Liverpool had taken an unlikely place at the center of international pop culture, with Londoners suddenly trying to perfect Liverpool accents instead of the other way around, with teenagers from all over the world descending on the city en masse to see the place that had spawned their four youthful gods who still walked the earth. But the good times, alas, didn’t last for very long.

Liverpool had always been a rough-edged working-class city, but life there after the breakup of the Beatles in 1970 got harder for many of its inhabitants than anyone could remember. Britain as a whole had a very rough go of things during the 1970s, a decade marked by constant strikes, runaway inflation, and breakdowns of basic services like shipping, garbage collection, and power production. And as the country went, so went Liverpool, only with all the negative numbers multiplied by five or so. A moribund national economy meant a dramatic slowdown in the import and export of goods, any port city’s lifeblood. The advent of containerized shipping meant that thousands of dock-working jobs — relatively good-paying, unionized jobs — disappeared. Unemployment soared, and whole districts of the city filled up with dead-enders resigned to life on the dole, while huge swathes of the dockside area turned into a no man’s land of empty warehouses and rusting equipment, inhabited only by the homeless and the rising criminal class. Parts of Liverpool came to resemble a war zone.

In this environment, heaps of Liverpool youth still dreamed of using rock and roll as a means of escape, resulting in a local music scene that was as vibrant in the 1970s as it had been back in the 1960s — even if it no longer dominated the international charts like it once had. Yet music alone could hardly cure what ailed the city — not anymore, not this time. Liverpool’s next Brian Epstein would have to take a different tack.

Bruce Everiss

In 1978, another young businessman opened a shop of his own very close to where Epstein’s NEMS record store had once stood. Trailing Silicon Valley’s famous Byte Shop by less than three years, Bruce Everiss’s Microdigital, located on Dale Street in the heart of Liverpool, was by some accounts the first specialized computer retailer anywhere in Britain. In the beginning, Everiss mostly sold the handful of build-it-yourself kit computers that were the only models available from British manufacturers; for the well-heeled, he imported a trickle of pre-assembled but expensive Commodore PETs from the United States. Much of his business was conducted via mail order, feeding the needs of hobbyist hackers all over the country.

Everiss was very aware of the problems plaguing his hometown, and had founded Microdigital with the intention of doing something about them. A committed backer of Margaret Thatcher from well before her ascent to prime minister in 1979 — in temperament and rhetoric he was a veritable prototype for Thatcher’s school of New British Entrepreneurs — his personality reflected a somewhat odd mixture of businessman and social crusader. For all of Liverpool’s well-documented problems, the city was also home to major electronics manufacturers like Plessey and Marconi, while the computer-science departments at institutes like Liverpool University and Liverpool Polytechnic were among the most respected in the country. Microdigital could be a bridge between the worlds of big business and academia and that of the street — the working-class heart of Liverpool.

Like so many of his fellow Liverpudlians, Everiss too took the legend of the Beatles to heart. Yet he did so in a more tangential fashion, seeing what had happened during the 1960s more as metaphor than blueprint. He believed the emerging computer industry could be to the Liverpool of the 1980s what music had been to the town of the 1960s. Seeing computers as a way off the dole for Liverpool youths with few other prospects, he made community outreach one of his shop’s most important missions, donating equipment to worthy causes like the computer courses that were run out of the Victoria Settlement, a local youth charity. Those same youth were always welcome in his shop, allowed to hang out there, learn a bit about programming, and play with computers they couldn’t possibly afford. An inveterate scenester, Everiss was fostering a real computer scene in Liverpool to go along with the city’s long-established musical tradition. And Ground Zero of this burgeoning computer scene, its version of the Cavern Club, was his little shop on Dale Street. The hangers-on there who showed the most potential could hope to become his employees.

Mark Butler was one of these lucky ones, an unusually personable “cheeky-chappy salesman type,” after Everiss’s description. He eventually became the shop’s day-to-day manager, freeing up his boss to focus on strategy.

Dave Lawson

One day in the summer of 1979, a curious 19-year-old named Dave Lawson wandered into the shop. Like non-musical Liverpool youths from time immemorial, he had gone to sea two years before, joining the merchant navy as the only other obvious escape from the workaday drudgery that was the lot of so many of his peers. But life at sea hadn’t agreed with him either, and he’d found himself back in his hometown and rather at loose ends: living with his parents, working odd jobs, and hitchhiking around Western Europe whenever his finances allowed. When he saw an advertisement for a Nascom kit computer in Electronics Today, it spoke to him for some reason he couldn’t entirely explain even to himself. Instead of hitting the road again with his meager savings, he carried it in to Microdigital and walked out with his first computer. He took to it like a natural. He claimed it took him a week to learn machine language: “I didn’t bother with BASIC. I couldn’t see the point.” He became a regular at Microdigital, meeting Mark Butler there for the first time while playing a game of Star Raiders on one of the shop’s computers. “Good game,” said Butler. “I’m going to write one much better,” said Lawson. Everiss too was soon very aware of this new kid, who struck him as “very intense and very bright.”

Microdigital seemed successful enough on the surface, but, in what would be a common theme throughout Everiss’s business history, the shop never managed to make much if any money, doubtless thanks not least to all the extracurricular scene-building activities. Everiss sold it in July of 1980 to Laskys, an electronics chain with shops across Britain and Western Europe that had heretofore specialized in high-end stereo equipment; now, seeing a similar demographic of young men with money on their hands uniting the audiophile and computer-hobbyist markets, they were interested in branching out into computers as well. As part of the terms of sale, Everiss was required to stay on as a general manager for two and a half years. Over the course of that period, Laskys spread the Microdigital name across the country, first in the form of kiosks in existing Laskys shops, then as free-standing shopfronts of their own. A proud Scouser, Everiss was thrilled to be able to say that this expanding nationwide enterprise had its roots in humble Liverpool.

But Microdigital wasn’t the only enterprise that was growing as a direct result of Everiss’s efforts. Exactly one year after Laskys purchased Microdigital, a couple of Oxford University scions named Tony Baden and Tony Milner moved to Liverpool with their company Bug-Byte, the first British software publisher truly worthy of the name. They set up their new offices just around the corner from Everiss’s shop. Drawn to that location as much by Liverpool’s growing national reputation for being a well of self-taught programming talent as they were by the cheap rents, Bug-Byte grew to twelve employees within a year of their arrival. These had an average age of 19, and virtually all of them, along with many of the free-lance programmers whose games Bug-Byte churned out by the handful, were recruited from the floor of Everiss’s shop. Indeed, the two Tonys themselves fell under the sway of Everiss, who had big ideas about the future of consumer software, as he did about so many things. Just as the record collection of most music fans was worth far more than the stereo used to play it, he expected the software industry soon to dwarf the market for computer hardware.

Sometimes Everiss’s translations from the world of music to that of computer games could be almost literal. Taking the role of Bug-Byte’s marketing consultant, he convinced them to upgrade their packaging, fashioning full-color inlays for their cassette-based games that made them at a glance indistinguishable from a new pop album. The two Tonys came to sound like echoes of their marketing advisor, talking endlessly about “presentation” and “advertising” — and, one can’t help but notice, very little about the contents of the cassettes being presented and advertised.

Thankfully, Bug-Byte had recruited some very talented programmers from the Microdigital scenesters. The standout among them was none other than Dave Lawson, who established a reputation for being able to ingest whole the design of a new computer — of which there were many coming down the pipe in those days — and expel a playable game for it in a staggeringly short period of time. When the Commodore VIC-20 reached British shores in late 1981, he was there with a Pac-Man clone called VIC Men, the first third-party game to be published for the machine in Britain. (That game, alas, had to be pulled off the market when Bug-Byte received threatening legal notices from Atari, the holder of the rights to Pac-Man on home computers.) When the BBC Micro started shipping in early 1982, Lawson was there with a simplification of the old mainframe classic Star Trek which he called Space Warp, the first third-party game for that platform. And when the Sinclair Spectrum, the machine destined to become the heart of the British mass market for computer games, appeared shortly thereafter, Lawson made plans to welcome its arrival with a Space Invaders clone called Spectral Invaders. After the first thirteen Spectrums which Sinclair shipped to Bug-Byte all proved dead on arrival — quality control was not one of Sinclair’s strengths — a frustrated Lawson sat down with the machine’s technical manual and wrote his game’s code out by hand. He then typed it in when he finally got a functioning Spectrum, finding that it worked with only minimal alterations. Of such feats are coding legends made. Shortly thereafter, he produced one of the Speccy’s biggest early hits: Spectres, a witty twist on Pac-Man in which an electrician has to lay down light bulbs in the maze instead of eating dots therefrom in order to banish those pesky ghosts.

But Lawson wasn’t happy with the royalties he was getting from Bug-Byte, and so he and his friend Mark Butler decided to strike out on their own as Imagine Software in the fall of 1982. His first time out as an Imagine programmer, Lawson came through once again. Indeed, many will tell you that Arcadia, the first game Imagine released, was the best game they ever released. Another space-shoot-em-up for the Spectrum, this one was more frenetic, more intense, and had better graphics than anything Lawson had done before. “I’d buy it just to watch the graphics,” wrote one reviewer.

Meanwhile Everiss too was getting frustrated with Bug-Byte. The two Oxford boys who had the final say there were far more conservative at bottom than he was. They insisted on going everywhere in the tailored suit and tie of traditional British businessmen, a stance that immediately signaled their difference from the scruffy kids of the Microdigital scene who worked for them. And they balked at Everiss’s more outlandish ideas about populist marketing, like his scheme to hire a slate of sexy models — never mind the cost! — to star in a newspaper-and-television publicity blitz.

By the time the contract binding him to Laskys ran out, Everiss was itching to find a full-time gig with a software publisher who would give him carte blanche to implement all of his ideas about consumer software as the music industry of the future. The nascent Imagine Software, founded by two talented kids whom he knew well and who were accustomed to taking their instructions from him rather than the other way around, seemed just the ticket. Imagine seemed a blank slate waiting for his signature. In January of 1983, he joined the infant company, which at that point still sold Arcadia only via mail-order.

That Imagine shared a name with the most famous song by one of Liverpool’s four most famous sons was no accident. Interestingly, it was Lawson, ostensibly the introverted coder of the trio, who had come up with the name, and, indeed, who was most fond of explicit comparisons with the Beatles in general. But Everiss, for this part, had little trouble embracing Lawson’s vision of turning the company into pop culture’s next Beatles, all the while “taking Scousers off the dole.” No one would ever accuse these two young men — or their third partner Mark Butler — of dreaming small dreams.

They unquestionably had a hot game on their hands in Arcadia, but a hot game alone wouldn’t be anywhere near enough to fulfill the trio’s ambitions for Imagine; that would depend on marketing, distribution, and image-making at least as much as it would the games themselves. Everiss recognized that the key to making a mass-market phenomenon of computer games was getting them from specialty shops like Microdigital into the mainstream High Street shops. In the Britain of the 1980s, this latter could mean booksellers like WH Smith, consumer-electronics chains like Dixons, even chemists like Boots, all of whom had set up computer kiosks in some of their locations to commemorate 1982, the government’s official and much-hyped Information Technology Year. Continuing the obsession with presentation and packaging that had marked his association with Bug-Byte, Everiss made sure that Imagine’s games wouldn’t look out of place in such environs. Then, using all the insights he had acquired as a retailer, he worked the phones relentlessly to get them onto the shelves in all three of the aforementioned chains. He also called up toy shops, newsagents, and corner shops, offering them freestanding spinners of games they could simply take out of the box and stand up by the door. “Most said get lost, but some would say yes,” he remembers. When those who did say yes started to turn a tidy profit, even the naysayers began to ring him up to change their tune. In small towns and villages all over Britain, Imagine games, sold from such humble locations as these, were the only ones immediately available to school-age punters during much of 1983. It would take some months for the rest of the industry to catch on to Everiss’s tricks. And by the time the competition did start duplicating his inroads into rural Britain, Everiss had hired people who spoke French, German, Italian, and Spanish, and set them to work getting Imagine’s games into stores on the Continent.

In their advertising, Imagine was unquestionably the class of the British games industry.

In advertising as well, Imagine set new standards. Stephen Blower, an artist and friend of the core trio, set up an ostensibly independent advertising agency called Studio Sing to manage the company’s public relations, in return for a 10-percent stake in Imagine proper. They would buy six-page spreads at the center of magazines like Computer and Video Games which popped off the page like nothing else between the covers. Almost from the moment that Everiss came on board, the name of Imagine was inescapable in the trade press. “They can only be described as having exploded onto the market,” wrote the magazine ZX Computing.

But that was just the trade press. In keeping with his mass-market ambitions, Everiss wanted to make the name of Imagine Software just as popular in the tabloid press. And the fuel that the tabloids ran on was personality. Newspapers were increasingly full of generic stories of teenage computer geniuses who were making good money out of their bedrooms writing games. If he could give the tabloids a single specific, memorable personality fitting that mold, someone they could really latch onto as the symbol of his generation, Everiss knew that Imagine would be rewarded with a deluge of exactly the sort of press they craved. Yet Dave Lawson, the one person at the company who most obviously fit the role, didn’t relish the prospect, said he was still too busy coding games to take on the full-time job of being the face of Imagine. Meanwhile the more extroverted Mark Butler was, like Everiss himself, a businessman rather than a coder, and that stubborn fact rather took the shine off the prospect of using him for the part. So, Bruce Everiss the would-be Svengali still lacked his star; he was a Brian Epstein without any Beatles of his own. Fine, said Everiss. If he didn’t have a coder star to hand, he would simply have to invent one. Enter one Eugene Evans.

Evans was yet another of those kids who hung around Microdigital, working the occasional Saturday when the shop needed an extra pair of hands, playing with the computers and goofing off when it didn’t. Only 16 years old, he’d learned a bit of coding, but was far from brilliant at it; mostly he just liked to play the latest games and chat about them with the other blokes. Still, Everiss thought he had a certain something that made him perfect for the central-casting role of Teenage Hacker. He was articulate, he was funny and easy to talk to, and he was, at least as Everiss remembers it, “far better looking than David and Mark.” Everiss thought he saw similarities to the young John Lennon — the perfect mascot for a Liverpool company trading under the name of Imagine.

As an artificial persona of Everiss’s creation, the Eugene Evans the media came to know was in reality more Monkee than Beatle. Nevertheless, he played his part to perfection. With Everiss’s tireless publicity machine and his own considerable charm behind him, Evans was suddenly everywhere in 1983, a human-interest story everyone scrambled to cover. Everiss coached him carefully to convey the desired message of the working-class Scouser made good. After growing up in a council house, went the narrative, talent and hard work had made him an unexpectedly wealthy and increasingly famous young man, of the sort who gets stopped on the street. “I’ve been recognized from my picture,” he said. “People have said, ‘I saw you in the paper. It’s nice to see someone getting somewhere.’ I started as a tea boy in a computer shop and you can’t start from much lower.” Stories abounded in the press about how, despite his earning thousands of pounds every month, Evans’s bank wouldn’t let him have a credit card or even a proper checking account because of his age. So, said the articles, when he went out to buy hundreds of pounds worth of hi-fi equipment he had to pay for it all in cash — and in £5 notes at that, for reasons that were never clearly explained but somehow served to make the story sound even better.

Eugene Evans in the Lotus he couldn’t drive.

But the Eugene Evans stories the press loved most all had to do with his car. It seemed that he’d bought himself a brand new Lotus, but, being too young to drive, couldn’t do much with it other than enjoy looking at it in his driveway. Asked years later about the topic, Everiss claimed that the car really did exist — but admitted that it “belonged” to Evans only on lease. This anecdote, as we’ll soon see, would come to serve as a metaphor for much of what went on at Imagine.

For his part, Evans seemed less concerned about the car than he was with being accepted by Imagine’s crew of real hackers. When not out giving interviews, he tried earnestly to live up to his press by writing games. The results ranged, in Everiss’s words, from “tolerable” to “a travesty.” A natural with the media he perhaps was; a natural programmer he most definitely was not.

When the computer magazines would visit Imagine, the articles and especially the photographs would wind up taking on the aspirational character of a gentleman’s lifestyle magazine. Here, Mark Butler takes his racing bike for a spin. The caption for this photo in Crash magazine describes him as Imagine’s “millionaire founder.”

If Butler and Lawson resented this poseur, they never made it obvious. It did make a certain perverse sense to have Imagine’s coder star be someone who didn’t actually do a lot of coding, thus freeing up the real coders to do what they did best. And besides, Butler, Lawson, and Everiss all had more than enough to keep them entertained as they threw themselves with enthusiasm into a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption. “The money means nothing to me,” Lawson dutifully claimed, as artistic types are expected to do in these situations. “It’s the satisfaction of being the best.” Maybe that was true — but the things he bought with the money, like the £34,000 Ferrari Mondial that he started driving to work, certainly seemed to have their appeal. Butler opted for a BMW 735i and a customized racing motorcyle, while Everiss went with a Ferrari 308 GTS. “We are a dynamic industry,” said the latter, “so we all drive dynamic cars.” Imagine took to handing out new cars as rewards for finishing tricky projects on time, the way other companies might give a gift card for a fancy restaurant. Their parking garage was soon filled with Ferraris, Porsches, and Lotuses, prompting many in Liverpool to joke that Imagine alone had managed to double their town’s population of exotic sports cars in a matter of months. To this day, when people who were around the British games industry back in the day think of Imagine, the cars tend to be the first image that comes to mind.

Yet Imagine’s taste for excess went far beyond the cars they drove. They leased an entire floor of a newly renovated building on Sir Thomas Street, colloquially known around Liverpool as “the Glass Tower,” for what they proudly referred to as their “world headquarters.” Programmers, seeing the tales of Eugene Evans in the tabloid press and even from time to time on the telly, flocked to the place in search of their share of all that filthy lucre. Imagine’s legend was already becoming such that the reality could be disappointing. A typical job seeker was one Chris Butler:

There was a TV Eye program on them where they claimed that Eugene Evans was earning 35 grand a year. And I thought, “Oh, yeah, that’ll suit me,” so I wrote off to them, and they said, “Yeah, yeah.”  So I went up there and said, “What kind of salary are you going to offer me?” And they said, “Five grand.” I could get more by working in a bank in Southend.

Butler didn’t take the job, although he would go on to a career programming games for other companies.

But a lot of programmers did accept jobs, along with a support staff of secretaries, artists, salespeople, and PR reps, ballooning Imagine’s employee roll from two at the beginning of 1983 to more than 100 by the beginning of the following year. Most of the support staff knew nothing about computers or computer games. Indeed, the old dream of using computers to take Scousers off the dole seemed rather in danger of getting drowned under a deluge of degreed professionals. Yet the core trio claimed they had no choice but to start bringing in such folks. They considered themselves to be building a new form of popular media, not a technology company, and thus to need their growing collection of degree-holders in fields as diverse as business management and psychology; the latter group were there to study players in the hope of “producing more playable, more addictive games.” Some of the schemes that were hatched were kind of hilarious. “Imagine was looking at alternative input devices,” Everiss would later claim, “including electrodes to monitor brain waves and thus allow thought control of games.”

Imagine continued constantly to drive home their preferred parallels with the field of pop music during the 1960s, claiming as stridently as ever that they would foster the British Invasion of the 1980s. In a sentence that reads like it was dictated to him by Everiss, a wide-eyed young journalist from the popular Spectrum magazine Crash wrote that “Bruce Everiss and Imagine have created an awareness first in Liverpool and now throughout the world about British games software.” While the part about Liverpool was certainly true enough, that business about “throughout the world” was an eyebrow-raising assertion indeed, given that nothing Imagine made had yet been exported any further than Western Europe. But then, to hear Imagine tell the story Britain alone seemed to have more than potential enough for now. Everiss predicted that a Speccy game — presumably one from Imagine — would sell 1 million copies in Britain alone before the end of 1984, in keeping with an overall market he expected to double in size each year for the foreseeable future. “It’s the new mass market,” he said, summing up in those five words Imagine’s entire business strategy. He believed the most dangerous competition for Imagine would come not in the form of the other existing software publishers but, predictably enough given Imagine’s fixation on the music industry, in that of the record companies who must inevitably decide sooner or later to jump on this new bandwagon. “The record companies are experiencing a big drop in sales because more and more young people are becoming bored with pop and turning to games on home computers,” he said, in a comment which had to strike even the most fervent computer boosters as smacking more than a little of wishful thinking.

Proud Liverpudlians Mark Butler and Dave Lawson

And yet, if Imagine was telling the truth about their business perhaps Everiss’s claim wasn’t so outlandish. The numbers that came attached to Imagine’s claims of success were astronomical, dwarfing those of any other British software house. They claimed to have earned £6 million in their first six months. The core trio of Butler, Lawson, and Everiss, said trio themselves claimed, were each worth £10 million by the end of 1983. And many of Imagine’s employees, to hear the same three gentlemen tell the tale, weren’t far behind.

In addition to the inescapable Eugene Evans, a second carefully groomed media favorite was John Gibson. Another working-class bloke made good of the sort Everiss so loved to highlight, Gibson in earlier years had played in a rock band, driven a chemist’s van, worked as a social-security officer, and tried to make a go of it as a self-employed carpenter specializing in suspended ceilings. Mud, the band he had played with back in his school days, had later gone on to release the best-selling British single of 1974 among other hits. He’d been saved from a lifetime of stewing over that missed opportunity when he’d discovered computers, learned to program them, and come to Imagine to make games. Now, he drove to work every day in a Porsche. The press loved one anecdote in particular about Gibson: that he, being the only person at Imagine over thirty years old, was called “Granddad” by all his colleagues. “I can’t believe my luck,” he said, “especially at my age,” evidently feeling every one of his 36 years every time he climbed out of his Porsche in the Imagine parking garage.

John “Granddad” Gibson, posing for some reason as a World War II fighter pilot.

Gibson was unquestionably a better coder than Evans — Evans “can play the games I’ve written better than I can,” he once said noncommittally when an unsuspecting journalist served up a chance to compliment the latter’s skills — yet it was hard to fathom how he could be making so very much money from the games he churned out. The harsh fact was that Gibson’s games, as most of the teenage critics who bought them agreed, never really rose above the level of competent. His first, Molar Maul, was more notable for its bizarre theme — it stuck you inside someone’s nasty morning mouth, expecting you to ward off plaque attacks with toothbrush and toothpaste — than for its gameplay. The next, Zzoom, was just another shooter, while the third was the poorly received Stonkers, an attempt at delivering a strategic war game that was virtually unplayable in concept and horrendously buggy in execution, rather leaving one with the impression of a programmer and game designer completely out of his depth.

And as Gibson’s games went, so went those of Imagine as a whole. Butler, Lawson, and Everiss wanted the company to publish two new games every month, and their programmers worked hard to meet this goal. To help them, Lawson put together a state-of-the-art development system, in which programmers could do all of their coding on SAGE IV workstation computers, boasting 1 MB of memory and hard disks, instead of the tiny cassette-based machines the games must eventually run on. But if the workstations helped them to make games faster, they didn’t really seem to help them make games that were better than the competition in terms of anything other than their packaging and advertising. Even Lawson seemed to have grown a bit lazy after Arcadia, preferring to play the gentleman-about-town in his Ferrari and generally enjoy the good life rather than taking the time to make more games of similar quality. One Bruce Everiss quote was perhaps inadvertently telling: “Like pop records and tapes, games must have imaginative and colorful covers to attract sales. Almost as much time is spent designing the covers, packaging, and publicity materials as devising and testing the games themselves.”

In the summer of 1983, a new company with the linguistically tortured name of Ultimate Play the Game — possibly a play on Imagine’s favored advertising tagline, “The Name of the Game” — arrived on the scene with an initial spurt of four very impressive games in two months. These titles, whether taken separately or in unison, gave the lie to any lingering claim by Imagine to be the best maker of Spectrum games, full stop. Ultimate took exactly the opposite tack to that of Imagine in terms of public relations, replacing the latter’s ostentation with reclusiveness, and managing in the process to replace their rival almost overnight as the coolest name in Spectrum gaming. While Imagine continued to make a spectacle of themselves, Ultimate quietly delivered groundbreaking game after groundbreaking game from a secret location with a “Private: Keep Out!” sign posted on the door. Meanwhile Imagine’s games seemed to be getting worse over time rather than better, with embarrassing turkeys like Stonkers becoming more and more common.

One didn’t have to be an expert in financial forensics to sense that the numbers didn’t quite add up for Imagine. Their mediocre games had undoubtedly benefited greatly from the distribution inroads engineered by Everiss, but by late 1983 the competition had already done much to erase that advantage, at least in terms of the domestic British market. How could Imagine’s games possibly be selling in such quantities that they could afford to zip about in Ferraris while everyone else puttered around in Fords? When journalists did question them on specifics, the answers they received were never very satisfying. For instance, after Mark Butler made the incredible claim that 70 percent of all Spectrum owners had purchased a copy of Arcadia, Your Computer magazine asked how it could be that such an unprecedentedly popular game hadn’t been all that high in the industry’s official retail-sales charts for some time. Butler answered that this was because most of Arcadia‘s sales were made via mail order — a claim that stood in stark contradiction to Imagine’s other assertion that their Britain- and Western Europe-spanning retail network was one of the biggest keys to their allegedly ongoing success.

Such questions were getting put to them more and more as Imagine powered into the 1983 Christmas season, still only their first as a publisher to retail. Yet even now the trade press’s skepticism wasn’t too pronounced. These “journalists” were mostly just young men who loved games and the computers that played them; they were far from trained investigative reporters. And there remained the tangible proof of Imagine’s success all around them, in the form of fast cars, faster motorcycles, plush offices, and a bevy of well-coifed secretaries who seemed to have been hired on the basis of looks rather than skills. Something had to be paying for all this ostentation, right? To a large extent, the brash young lads of Imagine were living the dream they all shared. No one really wanted to burst the bubble — even if Ultimate’s actual games were a lot better.

But burst the bubble must. And when it happened, the result would be a spectacular crackup that still remains one of the most storied in the long history of games-industry excess, a veritable blueprint for the similar crackups to come. Enormous though the sums connected with Imagine’s failure seemed at the time, the money involved in those later scandals would of course dwarf that of this one. Still, Imagine’s story would have one delicious aspect even they wouldn’t be able to match: it would be captured on videotape.

(Sources: the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Videogames Conquered the World by Rebecca Levene and Magnus Anderson; Your Computer of October 1981, August 1982, January 1983, April 1983, and December 1983; Computer and Video Games of December 1981, May 1983, and February 1984, and the 1984 Yearbook; The Games Machine of August 1990; ZX Computing of April/May 1983; Popular Computing Weekly of January 6 1983, March 3 1983, and April 7 1983; Home Computing Weekly of April 12 1983, May 17 1983, July 12 1983, and December 20 1983; CU Amiga of August 1992; Sinclair User of March 1984 and May 1984; ZZap! of September 1986; Your Computer of April 1983 and November 1984; Crash of March 1984; Times of London of August 16 1983. See also Bruce Everiss’s “A History of the UK Video Game Industry Through My Eyes,” parts 1 and 2. The Commercial Breaks episode on Ocean and Imagine is available on YouTube.)

 
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Posted by on September 1, 2017 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Living Worlds of Action and Adventure, Part 3: Head Over Heels, Exile, and Dizzy

Head Over Heels (1987)


Because cuteness is its own reward: Jon Ritman with Head and Heels.

Some eighteen months ago now, I took my reluctant wife with me to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As we left the theater afterward, she seemed unimpressed by all the action and drama she’d just witnessed. Instead she focused in on the comic relief, which largely takes the form of lots of charming little cartoon-ready robots. She passed along one of those insights that remind me why I married her. “You know,” she said, “nerds are always trying to be cool with their science fiction and their big guns and their explosions and all that other dark stuff, but what they really love most of all is cute stuff.”

In nerdom’s eternal tug-of-war between the cool and the cute, the former tended to get the best of it for many years in the realm of videogames. Yet there were exceptions, and one of the more notable of them from the British gaming scene of the 1980s was a lovable action-adventure called Head Over Heels— because sometimes you’ve just got to let your cute flag fly.

Head Over Heels was the creation of an easygoing 30-year-old named Jon Ritman, who had been working for a consumer-electronics rental outfit as a television repairman when he started hearing about these strange new gadgets from companies like Sinclair which his customers were beginning to connect to their idiot boxes. He bought his first Sinclair ZX81 in 1982, took to it immediately, and saw his first game published within six months. But he really hit the big time when the management of Ocean Software convinced him in 1984 to write a soccer game for the Spectrum. Despite having no personal interest in the sport, Ritman managed to make a game that felt more like real soccer than anything that had appeared on a computer to date. Indeed, many will tell you even today that Match Day was never bettered on the Speccy — unless it was by Ritman’s own 1987 sequel. The two games sold well into the six figures in footy-mad Britain, making Ritman one of the coder stars of the Speccy scene.

We’re much more interested today, however, in what Ritman did between Match Day and Match Day II. Inspired like so many others by Ultimate Play the Game’s Knight Lore — this really is becoming a broken record, isn’t it? — he decided he wanted to make an isometric action-adventure. Looking for a hook that would make his game stand out from the pack of Knight Lore clones, he convinced Ocean to acquire the license for Batman — not so difficult or expensive a proposition as you might expect in those days before the first big Batman movie. Working with an artist named Bernie Drummond, in 1986 he finished designing and programming a game around the character, which Ocean released to very strong reviews. And then, with the follow-up, Ritman and Drummond truly struck gold.

Head Over Heels is yet another Knight Lore-inspired isometric action-adventure, but it has one big twist that makes all the difference: you control not one avatar but two, switching between them as you will. Both are vaguely dog-like creatures, and both are very, very cute. In the beginning they were known as “Foot” and “Mouth,” thus lending the game the unappetizing title of Foot and Mouth, but Ritman or his publisher thankfully came to the realization that naming his game after a rather grotesque bovine plague might not be a great marketing idea. So, the two doggies became “Head” and “Heels.” Head has hands and wing-like appendages that let him leap long distances, but no legs, making movement on the ground a slow and laborious process. Heels has legs that let him move quickly and easily over the ground, but he’s not very good at jumping and doesn’t have any hands at all. Head is dexterous, good at manipulating his surroundings, but isn’t very strong and can’t carry very much. Heels is strong and tough, and can carry a lot of weight, but, lacking hands, can’t do much in the way of delicate object manipulation.

Head and Heels can see one another as the game begins, but are separated by the bars of their cells. The game will continue to torment you like this throughout its early stages, as the two keep coming so close yet remaining so far. When you finally do manage to bring them together, it’s a big moment — but the game proper has barely begun. (This screenshot and those that follow is from the later Amiga version of the game, in which it’s a little easier to make out details.)

Head and Heels normally go about together, but at the beginning of the game they’ve been imprisoned in separate cells by minions of the evil Blacktooth Empire. Your first big goal is to effect their reunion, a challenging and fairly lengthy process in itself. Once you do finally manage to get them together in the same space, they reunite in an even more literal sense: Head can ride around on top of Heels. From here on, solving the game’s puzzles will be a matter of applying the talents of one or the other doggie correctly, or of setting them to work as a team to solve the really gnarly problems, as you explore five worlds totaling some 300 rooms. Your goal is to collect the five lost crowns which can bring freedom to the doggies’ homeworld — which is called, appropriately enough, Freedom.

As I’ve had occasion to say over and over in the course of this series, just the fact of these worlds’ existence inside the memory of a 48 K Sinclair Spectrum is amazing in itself. Ritman himself estimated that each room uses an average of just 17 bytes, with the entire slate of 300 rooms filling all of 5 K. Otherwise, the game uses 2 K for its sound effects, about 17 K for its graphics data, and about 20 K for its actual code. Yes, I’ve said it before about other games in the course of this series, but that doesn’t make it any less important to acknowledge what a wonder of compression Head Over Heels is.

Still, that’s not what makes it stand out from a field that’s so full of such wonders. In terms of pure design, Head Over Heels may be the best single game I describe in this series. Perhaps because he was a little older than most of the other programmers in question, perhaps because he was a little more sociable, Ritman showed a willingness to play-test and iterate over his concepts that most of his peers — meaning by no means only the peers mentioned in these articles — tended to lack. “You have to envisage how the game is going to play,” he said. “I do think you have to get the game play right in order to make sure you’ve got something worth playing. Some programmers spend so much time trying to produce a work of technical genius that they lose sight of the game play.” In Head Over Heels, this focus on the player resulted in a game that’s challenging, but never overwhelmingly so in the way of some other suspects from this series.

Heels stands next to a resurrection fish.

One great example of Head Over Heels‘s relatively forgiving nature is its use of save points. As you explore its worlds, you’ll sometimes come upon “resurrection fish.” Eating one of these acts as a save. From then on, if Head or Heels runs out of lives you’ll be returned to the point where you last ate a resurrection fish rather than punted all the way back to the beginning of the game. A worthy compromise between the tension-draining mechanic of allowing universal saving at any point and the heartless one of kicking you all the way back to the beginning of the game every time you lose your last life, save points are found everywhere in the games of today. But Ritman, beginning actually with Head Over Heels‘s predecessor Batman, was among the very first to employ them. Their existence in his games at this early date only serves to hammer home what a progressive designer he was in contrast to his peers.

If Head can get over to that thing that looks like an air horn, it would be a good thing: it’s actually a doughnut gun. Doing so will, however, require some precision jumping.

One could say much the same about Head Over Heels‘s unabashed cuteness as well. Both Head and Heels are adorable to watch bounce and frolic about the rooms. Humor and whimsy are everywhere in this game. If the doggies alone aren’t cute enough for you, there are fluffy little “bonus bunnies” running around, along with a robot version of Prince Charles among various other hilarious non sequiturs. Early on, Head will be able to acquire a gun that fires… doughnuts. Why doughnuts? Why not? Throughout its considerable length, Head Over Heels never fails to surprise, to charm, and to delight.

Greeted with superlative reviews in its day, Jon Ritman’s second and last isometric action-adventure for the Sinclair Spectrum nevertheless failed to sell as well as the licensed Batman had. Still, its reputation only grew in the years thereafter. By 1991, when Ocean released new versions for the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST, it had become an acknowledged classic. “It’s cute, puzzling, frustrating, and absorbing in equal measure,” wrote reviewer Ciarán Brennan in the magazine The One. “The beauty is that the game play is completely timeless. If you’ve never played the game before, you’ll find a fresh teaser around just about every corner, while those of you who played the original for years will probably have forgotten the solution.” He went on to call it “one of the few genuine masterpieces of computer gaming.” Heady praise indeed, but on the whole it’s warranted. The status of Head Over Heels has only continued to rise since Brennan wrote those words. Today it’s usually one of the first games cited whenever the subject turns to the greatest, most timeless of all Speccy classics.

After publishing Match Day II later in 1987, Ritman left the Spectrum scene in favor of programming console and handheld games, working for a time with his old idols, the people who had once been known as Ultimate Play the Game but now went by the name of Rare. He’s continued to bounce around the industry to this day, although, with his days as one of British gaming’s greatest open-world auteurs now well behind him, he keeps a much lower profile than he used to.

Jorge Rodríguez Santos’s remake of Head Over Heels for modern computers.

Thankfully, those who wish to play what is arguably his most singular achievement from those glory days have great options for doing so today. There are in fact two worthy remakes for modern computers on offer, one from a group of Speccy old-timers who call themselves Retrospec and the other from a Spanish fan named Jorge Rodríguez Santos. Both look and play superbly, capturing everything that made the original a classic — but doing so in blessedly higher resolution. While it’s a shame that the others games I write about in this series couldn’t enjoy such dedicated patrons as Retrospec and Santos, it’s hard to shake the belief that, if only one of them was to be given such loving treatment, it ought to have been this one.

Exile (1988)


Coming nine years after Warren Robinett created his Adventure on the Atari VCS, Exile, which embraced much the same design philosophy but blew it all up to well-nigh absurdist proportions, feels like the logical end point of what he began. It’s hard to imagine a bigger, more fascinating, more daunting action-adventure than this one. And really, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would even want such a thing. Exile is packed full of so many creatures and puzzles and hidden nooks and crannies that its secrets have yet to be exhaustively cataloged, in spite of the best efforts of a small but devoted cult of fandom who have been at the job for a few decades now. Its warren of underground caverns just go on and on and on, with something new to discover behind its every twist and turn. How remarkable that the game’s programmers, Peter Irvin and Jeremy Smith, created this monster inside the most constrained platform of any of the games we’ve looked at since Robinett’s Adventure: a 32 K BBC Micro.

Much more expensive than the populist favorite Sinclair Spectrum, the BBC Micro had a reputation as the platform of choice of the eggheads and the posh. Irvin and Smith fit that reputation to a tee, coming out of two of their country’s most prestigious universities: Cambridge in the case of the former, Imperial College in that of the latter. Each had published a game on his own before they came together to work on Exile. Smith’s game, a space shooter called Thrust that was notable for its painstaking physics model, had the most obvious influence on the new project. Smith had, as Thrust‘s advertising didn’t hesitate to trumpet, a “First-Class Honours degree in Physics!” That education, along with the experience gained in making Thrust, fed directly into Exile.

Exile on the BBC Micro

Already by the late 1980s, videogames had a surprisingly long history of doing justice to the vagaries of spaceborne physics. A quarter-century before, Spacewar!, widely acknowledged as the first true videogame ever, had been fought out by two spaceships inside the gravity well of a star, with all the danger and potential for fancy maneuvering that implied. Many of the earliest standup-arcade hits took Spacewar!‘s example to heart, from the oddly cerebral, non-violent exercise in thrust and fuel management that was Lunar Lander to the more straightforward blow-the-aliens-out-of-the-sky action of Asteroids. In Britain, one of Ultimate Play the Game’s reputation-establishing hits had been 1983’s Jetpac, another game of, among other things, thrust and inertia.

Exile doesn’t use the isometric view Ultimate pioneered the year after Jetpac, nor the immersive three-dimensional visuals of Mercenary. You view its flat two-dimensional landscapes from the side. Indeed, despite coming five years after Jetpac, Exile at first glance doesn’t look all that dissimilar to it: its hero as well is a little jet-pack-wearing fellow squirting about the screen. But looks can be deceiving: not only is Exile‘s physics model superior even to the one from Thrust — much less the simple arcade physics of Jetpac — but, even more importantly, Irvin and Smith made a huge living world for their little hero to fly about in.

Just how big is Exile, you ask? In early 1991, more than two years after the game’s initial release, Acorn User magazine published the first complete walkthrough, accompanied by the map you see above. The walkthrough proper came in three parts published in three successive issues, despite being printed for the most part in a coded shorthand. On the map above, each of those little numbers you can just barely make out corresponds to the location of some task you need to do in the walkthrough. So, yes… Exile is very, very big.

The plot is some generic sci-fi business that sends you to the planet of Phoebus to rescue a group of hostages from some evil overlord or other; it’s hardly necessary to dwell on it here. What really mattered to Irvin and Smith were the emergent qualities of the living world they were building. Like Elite, Exile generates its world procedurally rather than attempting to store a hard-coded geography in memory; the latter would be a hopeless approach to making a world this big on a machine with a memory this small. Its creators tweaked the numbers inside the equations that brought their world into existence again and again until they found a layout they liked.

Then, they filled their world with creatures and things. Echoing Warren Robinett’s approach in his Adventure, all of the creatures in the game have “fears and desires” guiding their actions. Irvin and Smith avoided single-solution puzzles like the plague. Everything that happens in Exile is emergent behavior; it’s a more pure simulation than most simulation games. “You weren’t meant to feel railroaded through a route,” says Irvin. “It was ‘there you are, there’s your planet to explore.'” Thanks to the procedural generation, even the world’s creators had nothing like a full mental picture of what all it contained, what all possibilities it presented.

Incredibly, all of the graphics that are mixed and matched to portray the world of Phoebus on the BBC Micro fit onto a single screen.

Of course, all of this inevitably turned into a double-edged sword. The problem with a world that even its creators don’t fully understand, a world where anything can happen, is that too often things happen that aren’t much fun, or that wind up breaking the game for its player. In the massive, chaotic virtual space that is the world of Phoebus, it’s all too easy to lose your bearings and with them all sense of what you’re trying to accomplish. Taking the form of an action-adventure, a genre that was billed as a more immediate, visceral alternative to the cerebral text adventure, Exile paradoxically demands oceans of patience of its player; most players won’t find their first weapon until a couple of hours into the game. And it must be one of the most overwhelming games ever made. A surprising number of even its most hardcore fans have never come close to finishing it. Playing through Exile in its entirety straight from a walkthrough is far more time-consuming and difficult than playing the vast majority of games honestly. But then, perhaps focusing too much on beating Exile is rather missing the point. For the vast majority of its fans, the real source of the game’s appeal isn’t in the challenge of completing it but rather the fun to be had just poking around in its world, seeing what you can make happen, seeing what hidden delights you can discover.1

Exile on the Amiga

Exile‘s launch in the fall of 1988 turned into a somewhat more muted affair than Irvin and Smith might have hoped for. Superior Software, the small publisher behind the game, did their best to evoke the heritage of that earlier BBC Micro landmark Elite, and with it that of David Braben and Ian Bell, the legendary earlier pair of BBC Micro programmers who had also used procedural generation to make the machine’s 32 K seem more like 32 M. Superior packaged Exile with a 20,000-word novella similar to the one that had shipped with Elite, and even convinced Braben to offer up a blurb of praise. Yet, whatever else you could say about it, Exile wasn’t a game with quite the same immediate appeal as Elite. Reviewers for the most part praised its accomplishments — how could they do anything else with a game of this ambition and technical achievement? — but sometimes seemed to do so more out of a sense of duty than passion.

After Exile was revamped by Irvin and Smith for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga in 1991, it was greeted still more skeptically by some reviewers. Trenton Webb, reviewing the Amiga version for the magazine Amiga Format, provided an unusually cogent summary of the game’s mixture of strengths and weaknesses:

Exile is no classic, despite its glorious control system. The game doesn’t develop quickly enough to grab players by their interest and drag them in. The first layer of traps are deadly enough to frustrate, but vary little from the “fetch Object A to use on Object B thus freeing Object C” variety. It is also too easy to find yourself stranded after a single slip-up. RAM-save and disk-save facilities are provided to help alleviate this problem, but this cures the symptom and not the ailment.

The lack of dynamism makes this a game for the connoisseur who fancies something different. Exile is different, brilliant in parts, poor in others. It defies categorisation. If this system could be married to a more riveting concept, we would be talking major title. Without this pulling power, it’s relegated to the role of delightful curiosity.

The status of delightful curiosity, though, isn’t such a terrible one to wind up with in the annals of gaming history. To this day, Exile stands out for its absolutely uncompromising commitment to its emergent living world. Sure, most players — among them your humble writer here — will eventually shrug their shoulders and go off in search of a tighter, more designed world to play in. As its persistent cult of hardcore fans attests, however, for some the world of Phoebus gives rise to an unquenchable compulsion to sound its depths. Despite existing inside orders of magnitude upon orders of magnitude more memory, few modern living worlds feel quite so alive as this one. While Head Over Heels is in my opinion the strongest of the game designs I’ve written about in this series, Exile is the most awe-inspiring technical achievement of the entire awe-inspiring bunch. It ought to be recognized, perhaps even more so than the storied Elite, as the ultimate example of British programmers’ genius for doing more with less.

Jeremy Smith died in an accident in 1992. Peter Irvin stayed in the industry for some years, spending most of that time working with David Braben’s company Frontier Developments, where he helped to make the long-awaited sequel to Elite, Frontier: Elite II. He moved on to other pursuits in the latter 1990s.

There have been various projects that proposed to revive Exile for modern platforms, but none have reached a playable fruition. Your best bet for experiencing it today is therefore an Amiga version which has been authorized by Peter Irvin and verified to be completable.

Dizzy (1987-1992)


Coming at the end of such a string of enormous and enormously ambitious games, the Dizzy games might at first glance seem to make a piddling way to conclude this series of articles. Certainly no one would accuse these games of innovating overmuch, and their worlds don’t challenge anything I’ve written about earlier in terms of size, detail, or technical excellence. In a way, though, that’s what makes them such a perfect concluding statement on this topic. Apart from the outliers we’ve already witnessed, the games that pushed all the boundaries of what was reasonable to attempt on an 8-bit computer, British computing of the 1980s was filled with more modestly conceived worlds of action and adventure. Before we move on, then, let’s take a moment and pay our respects to their more everyday sort of amazingness through the story of a good egg named Dizzy.

The Oliver twins

The Dizzy games were the brainchild of a pair of identical twins named Andrew and Philip Oliver who were more noted for their prolificacy than their design ambition. After finishing their studies at Wiltshire Comprehensive School in 1986, the 18-year-olds decided to become independent game programmers, relying on a grant of £40 per week from the government’s Enterprise Allowance Scheme to get them started. They were fortunate in that another pair of brothers, Richard and David Darling, were starting a company of their own at the very same instant: Code Masters, a new budget publisher. The Oliver twins signed on with them, and soon turned into a veritable game-making machine. Over the course of the late 1980s, they alone would account for more than 50 percent of Code Master’s constant stream of new games. Initially, most of the Olivers’ games took the form of a series of “simulators” like Grand Prix Simulator, Professional Ski Simulator, or the boring but bizarrely popular Fruit Machine Simulator.

The twins made it their policy never to spend more than a few weeks on a game. Selling at the rock-bottom price point of £1.99, their games were essentially disposable products, intended to provide a weekend’s entertainment, after which the buyer would presumably head back down to the shop to buy another one for the next weekend. Asked whether he might ever prefer to make something bigger and more carefully crafted, Philip Oliver made it clear where his priorities lay: “The more games we release, the more we sell. If people buy one and like it, they’ll want to buy more games we write.” While none of their quick-and-cheap games were masterpieces, the Oliver twins did have a knack for making something that was playable and reasonably entertaining, at least in the short term, on an absurdly tight schedule. Their games mostly managed to be just good enough that their customers could indeed feel they had gotten their money’s worth, and would thus be willing to buy another.

The character of Dizzy was born when the Oliver twins decided it was time to aim their game-making machinery at the action-adventure market. They made their new hero a big egg with a face painted on because that seemed the best way to give him a distinctive look, given the low-resolution graphics of the machines they worked with and their own less-than-stunning artistic skills. He made his debut, selling at Code Master’s standard budget price, on the Amstrad CPC, the twins’ programming platform of choice, in Dizzy: The Ultimate Cartoon Adventure in September of 1987. When the game proved a strong seller over an unusually long period of time, the twins just kept going back to the well in typical Oliver fashion, cranking out another six Dizzy action-adventures, plus five more straight-up action games starring the character, over the next five years.2

Dizzy versus a dragon. This may not go well, unless we have a clever trick up our sleeve…

From their easy-to-program two-dimensional graphics to their mixture of light platforming action with simple puzzles, the Dizzy series didn’t change very much from game to game — or, for that matter, from the very first game in the series to the very last. Each stuck the cute little fellow in some new setting and set him to it, jumping and puzzling his way through its screens from left to right. What some players decried as a pathetic lack of ambition others actually came to appreciate; the Dizzy games turned into a sort of comfort food for many. In a milieu that was normally so obsessed with novelty, a new Dizzy game was an old reliable that would never let you down. If it would be no better than it ought to be, neither would it be any worse. Although the Dizzy games were ported to many platforms, it was Amstrad owners who really took the little fellow to heart. He became their unofficial mascot, the nearest thing any of the British gaming platforms of the period had to a Mario or a Sonic.

In contrast to most of the action-adventures I’ve written about, which have tended to be purer graphical creations, the Dizzy games aren’t reluctant to use text to describe their often text-adventure-like puzzles.

But Dizzy wasn’t as successful as those peers at making the transition from 8 to 16 bits. While most of the Dizzy games were duly ported to the likes of the Amiga, they weren’t greeted with a great deal of enthusiam there. Writing about Crystal Kingdom Dizzy, the seventh and last action-adventure in the series, Tony Dillon questioned in the magazine CU Amiga why the Oliver twins kept “churning them out, even though this style of game went out with the Spectrum.” It was a harsh assessment, but an accurate one: the era of Dizzy’s popularity died alongside that of the Amstrad CPC, Sinclair Spectrum, and Commodore 64. Today he survives only as a memory of a certain time and place in gaming history.

Dizzy can carry a few objects around in his inventory — which is again implemented in text.

The Oliver twins, for their part, have long outlived Dizzy in the games industry. Having begun the transition from being lone-wolf programmers to being executives even while the little fellow was still going strong, they ran Blitz Game Studios for many years after he passed into history, until financial problems forced them to shut its doors in 2013. They remain active in the industry today — as does their erstwhile publisher Codemasters, albeit now with a one-word instead of a two-word name, and now as a publisher of full-price games instead of budget titles.

The Dizzy games don’t represent the absolute best of British action-adventures under any terms you care to name. Yet I did want to write about them here as a stand-in for all of the other also-rans in the field. Just as the great text-adventure houses — Infocom foremost among them — pulled along a whole fleet of more modest practitioners in their wake, the trailblazers and envelope pushers we’ve seen over the course of this trio of articles spawned countless games like the Dizzy titles. By no means are all of them bad games; what they lack in innovation, they often make up for in craftsmanship. Indeed, in terms of accessibility and playability the Dizzy games do much better than many of the action-adventures we’ve looked at previously. For instance, the fact that you mostly start on the left side of their worlds and work your way to the right might give the feeling of a much more constrained, linear experience, but it also all but eliminates the ever-present problem of internalizing the vast geographies of the more free-form games of this ilk.

If you’re looking for a place to start with the Dizzy series — and possibly to end with it as well — you could do worse than the third game, 1989’s Fantasy World Dizzy. One of the popular favorites of the series, it was the last Dizzy of the 1980s and the last one which the Oliver twins programmed themselves, thus making it an era ender in more ways than one. In that same spirit, it seems to me a very appropriate way to wrap up this little journey through this remarkable corner of gaming’s past. You can download Fantasy World Dizzy and all of the other Dizzy games for use in your emulator of choice — or even play them all online — at The Dizzy Fansite.

(Sources: the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Videogames Conquered the World by Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene; Computer and Video Games of June 1986 and October 1987; Crash of May 1986, October 1986, February 1987, April 1987, January 1988, April 1988, and the “supplement” of October 1988; Home Computing Weekly of December 13 1983; Sinclair User of May 1987 and June 1987; The One of September 1991; ZX Computing of June 1987; Acorn User of March 1988, May 1988, September 1988, November 1988, January 1991, February 1991, and March 1991; ACE of April 1991; New Computer Express of June 8 1991; Zero of April 1991; Retro Gamer 30; Amiga Format of June 1991; Zzap! of July 1991; Amstrad Action of September 1988, March 1989, December 1989, and December 1992; Computer Gamer of April 1987; CU Amiga of March 1993; ZX Format of Christmas 2003. Online sources include Jorge Rodríguez Santos’s brief biography of Jon Ritman, elpixelblogdepedja.com‘s interview with Jon Ritman, Gamasutra‘s interview with Jon Ritman, “Returning from Exile from The Escapist, and Andrew Weston’s Exile page.)


  1. It’s likely that the majority of people who have played Exile have done so on versions that were literally impossible to complete. One other aspect of the game’s legend is its copy protection, which stands as the most devious of its era. Instead of simply booting you out of the game, the layers upon layers of protection, personally devised by Irvin and Smith, subtly alter the game to make it impossible to complete. Exile‘s copy protection stands as one of the vanishingly few examples of same that fully, comprehensively did its job, defeating absolutely everyone who ever tried to crack it until long after the game was no longer being sold. On some platforms, cracking Exile took decades; on others, that feat has apparently never been fully accomplished. The copy protection thus stands as one more part of the game’s legacy of shattering every technical precedent — a pursuit that Irvin and Smith engaged in with monomaniacal intensity. 

  2. An eighth action-adventure, 1991’s The Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy, didn’t make it to the likes of the Amstrad and the Speccy. Coming chronologically after the sixth action-adventure in the series, it was released on the Amiga and MS-DOS as well as the Sega Genesis and Nintendo Entertainment System. This last version was was an unauthorized game, released without Nintendo’s consent, employing a system Code Masters had developed for defeating the NES’s lockout mechanism. The legal war between Code Masters and Nintendo that erupted as a result of the former’s unauthorized games as well as their Game Genie, an unauthorized hardware add-on that made it possible to “cheat” at many NES games, was just as bitter as the one that raged concurrently between the two Ataris and Nintendo. As usual, Nintendo got the better of it, very nearly succeeding in destroying Code Masters entirely.

    Frozen out at retail by the same tactics Nintendo wielded against Atari’s Tengen games, Dizzy didn’t have a very successful go of it on the NES even before court rulings forced him to leave the platform. His one attempt at branching out having proved disappointing, he returned to his traditional platforms for his last outing, 1992’s Crystal Kingdom Dizzy

 
 

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Living Worlds of Action and Adventure, Part 2: Mercenary, Fairlight, and Spindizzy

Before we begin in earnest today, I’d like to note that if I was writing this series of articles in isolation I would wind up covering a somewhat longer list of games. As it is, though, I’ve already written about what I would consider to be the next two logical suspects in the tradition I’m trying to chronicle here. Like all of the games I’ll be writing about from here on in this series, both are British creations.

First, we have Mike Singleton’s stately 1984 epic The Lords of Midnight. It stands out from the other games in this tradition in that it doesn’t run in real time — technically speaking, it’s actually a strategy-adventure rather than an action-adventure — but it has much in common with them in a thematic sense. Singleton too sought to explode the restricted possibility space of text adventures, refusing to let his expectations be tempered by the limited hardware at his disposal. Working on a 48 K Sinclair Spectrum equipped only with a cassette drive, he built his world as a 64 X 64 square “game board,” filled with multifarious terrain over which you can freely roam. You can look in any direction from any location in the world, seeing a dynamically generated picture of what lies there. Said picture can include friends, enemies, and neutral parties; the world contains dozens of other, computer-controlled actors moving about in pursuit of their own agendas. Despite its turn-based play and its stepped movement, The Lords of Midnight manages to achieve much the same sense of boundless freedom and emergent possibility that mark the best of the purer breed of British action-adventures. It was enormously popular, a perennial on the Spectrum for years, and its influence can be felt on most of the later games you’ll soon be reading about.

Then we have the action-adventures of the legendary development house Ultimate Play the Game. It was through Ultimate, who had connections to the wider international culture of videogames that almost all of their British peers lacked, that the innovations of Warren Robinett’s Adventure first reached Britain. Beginning with Atic Atac in 1984, their first game of the type, Ultimate’s action-adventures thus became the prerequisites for all of the British action-adventures that would follow. Later in 1984, they debuted Knight Lore, the first action-adventure to present its world from an isometric perspective, thus adding the third dimension of depth which Adventure had lacked. It would go on to become arguably the most influential Spectrum game of all time; in its wake, isometric games went from unheard of to absolutely everywhere in Britain in bare months. And then, barely a year on from those landmark games, Ultimate was gone, clearing the way for those who would build on their legacy.

So, have a look at my earlier articles on the aforementioned two topics if you feel the need to, and then let’s continue on to some other living worlds of action and adventure.

 

Mercenary: Escape from Targ (1985)


British game programmers of the 1980s had an insatiable appetite for vastness, driving them to find ways of making kilobytes of memory seem like megabytes. The canonical example of their peculiar form of programming genius is Ian Bell and David Braben’s 1984 game Elite, which packed a universe of eight galaxies and thousands of star systems into a BBC Micro’s 32 K of memory. Yet, extraordinary as Elite is, Paul Woakes’s 1985 game Mercenary: Escape from Targ deserves mention in the same breath whenever the conversation turns to making a big game using very little. Working within the only slightly more generous confines of a 48 K Atari 8-bit computer, Woakes mapped an entire planet’s surface into memory, creating a virtual space which one can spend hours and hours of real time traversing without ever treading over one’s previous footsteps. Eight years before Doom, on a computer with the merest fraction of the horsepower of the ones used to run that seminal title, Mercenary presented this living world in smooth-scrolling first-person three-dimensional graphics, running in real time. Its presentation was so revolutionary, going far beyond even the 3D graphics of Elite, that people struggled to come up with words to describe it. David Aubrey-Jones, who ported Woakes’s work from the Atari to the Sinclair Spectrum, took a stab at it by saying that Woakes alone among his contemporaries “writes in mathematics”:

The computer is continually evaluating your position, what is visible from your position, and how objects move in relation to you while still remaining in true 3D perspective. This sort of calculation is infinitely more complex than a game where a sprite is plopped down on the screen and just moved left and right.

The process Aubrey-Jones describes would of course come to be known as “3D rendering,” but at the time the necessary vocabulary literally didn’t exist in everyday diction.

Mercenary may not look like much today, but in 1985 its 3D world was nothing short of revolutionary. Here we’re standing near a flying machine which we can board and fly off in if we like.

Mercenary begins when your spaceship crashes on the planet of Targ. Your overriding goal is, as the game’s subtitle implies, that of simple escape from the planet. Several models of flying machine happen to be spread about the landscape; these you can climb into and use to joyride through the skies. But finding a flying machine capable of carrying you into orbit, where a space station beckons with spaceships bound for other worlds, is easier said than done. Before you can make your escape, you’ll need to explore a huge network of underground corridors that spreads out below the surface of the planet — just in case Woakes’s world wasn’t vast enough for you already. When you go underground, Mercenary takes on more of the characteristics of a conventional adventure game, with locked doors and keys, items to buy and sell, errands to run and corridors to map as best you can. While you’re at it all, you’ll have to reckon with a war that’s raging between the Palyars, the peaceful original inhabitants of Targ, and the Mechanoids, an invading army of robots. You can elect to ally yourself with one side or the other, try to insinuate yourself with both, or charge at all and sundry with guns blazing (although this last is not recommended as a viable long-term strategy).

One of the most extraordinary things about Mercenary is that there are no other embodied characters in its world — the closest it comes are the other flying craft on the surface who can pursue you — yet this world never feels empty. You can communicate with the Palyars and the Mechanoids only from a distance, through your trusty portable computer Benson and the trail of messages and clues left behind by others whom you never see. But somehow it works; the political choices you have to make feel thoroughly real.

Inside one of the underground complexes.

The game gives you absolute and thoroughgoing freedom right from the start. You gain control while standing on the surface of Targ next to the ruin of your just-crashed spaceship. In terms of next steps, you have only a hint from Benson to seek out a certain location underground — a long, long way off and underground. At least a flying machine is conveniently close by; you can buy it using most of your meager initial store of cash to get started in your travels. Still, while it seems pretty clear what the game wants you to do at this point, nothing forces you to do it. Instead of taking the flying machine, you can save your money and set off on foot to see what lies beyond the proverbial next hill. Or you can save your money by stealing the flying machine, which will send the police after you in hot pursuit. At that point, you could of course try to escape them through clever flying… or use a well-placed missile to eliminate the threat more quickly. Either way, you’ve just made your first enemies.

Nothing is out of bounds. Most of the appeal of the game, truth be told, has little to do with escaping from Targ: it’s seeing what you can find out there in its world, testing its boundaries, and seeing what you can get away with. More so than Doom, a better point of comparison to Mercenary is actually Grand Theft Auto, and not only because you’ll spend much of your time jumping in and out of different vehicles. Some players might choose to follow the plot, but others couldn’t care less about it — and if you don’t, neither does the game. Another point of comparison — one anchored much closer in time to Mercenary than Grand Theft Auto and, one might even say, closer to it in spirit as well — are the works of that famed virtual-world-builder Richard Garriott. Like his Ultima games, Mercenary was a world before it was a game; the puzzles and plot were the last ingredients to go into the mix. If this can make the mechanics of solving it feel beside the point at times, that seems to be by design. Almost uniquely among games of its era, Mercenary fully supports — even encourages — free-form play, whether you want to go all ultraviolent on it or you want to just stroll around quietly seeing what you can discover. It only emphasizes this spirit of laissez faire to note that it’s impossible to get yourself killed in Mercenary. Even if you power-dive into the ground at mach 5, you’ll always be thrown safely clear of the wreck. Coming in a time when games were infamously cruel, such a forgiving spirit defied every contemporary norm.

Approaching a building on the surface of the planet.

The world of Paul Woakes is also like those of Richard Garriott in that it’s a collision of the epic with the personal, its spaces littered with the flotsam and jetsam of its creator’s mind. People and places drawn from his real life abound, along with in-jokes galore. If you blow up a sign advertising Woakes’s previous game, a shoot-em-up called Encounter, you’ll be scolded and trapped on the planet until it’s repaired: “The author won’t let you leave until you fix his advert,” says the game. There’s a flyable block of cheese — a different kind of flying Kraft (groan…). There’s a hapless “Palyar commander’s brother-in-law,” a classic sitcom archetype who keeps getting in your way and getting screwed over in one way or another. (It’s been admitted that he stood in for someone known very well to Woakes in the real world, but in the interest of protecting the innocent and the guilty no more details have ever been allowed to slip out.) There’s a kitchen sink for when you’ve tried everything to solve a certain problem — all but the kitchen sink, that is (bigger groan…).

There are just so many secrets to discover on Targ that have nothing to do with the plot. When you come upon a box of something with the number 12939 printed nonsensically on the side, you might want to look at the letters from the other side, whereupon you’ll find that they spell out Woakes’s caffeine-delivery system of choice: “Pepsi.” (Now it makes sense that they say they need a supply of “12939” to get their work done over in the conference room.) Bruce Jordan, the man who ran Novagen, the little company Woakes founded to sell his games, noted that “this really is the fun part. All of the wacky ideas are Paul’s. He has this weird sense of humor that comes through in the game.”

An Atari logo craving protection (if you’re playing the Atari version) or destruction (if you’re playing the Commodore version). Shooting it in the former version results in being called a traitor; in the latter version, you’re told, “Good show!” And yes, a Commodore logo is found elsewhere in both versions, with the opposite message attached.

Mercenary is littered with secrets and Easter eggs like those I’ve just described, crying out to be cataloged and shared by the game’s many devoted fans. Not least because exploring this world could feel so much like exploring the mind of its creator, a cult of personality sprang up around Woakes which was unusual even by the standards of the British games industry, where the programmers of hit games were often not only known but treated like royalty by their fans. (In the Britain of the 1980s, in other words, Trip Hawkins’s dream of turning “electronic artists” into rock stars actually was to some extent realized.) Woakes, an introverted chap who loathed the spotlight, only magnified his status by refusing every interview and, indeed, rarely appearing to leave his Birmingham home. He thus gained the reputation of a reclusive genius. While Woakes remained in hiding, other programmers gradually ported his game beyond the minority Atari 8-bit platform to machines like the Commodore 64, Sinclair Spectrum, Atari ST, and Commodore Amiga, on all of which it did very well.

In light of all this British success, it’s more than a little amusing to consider the reaction Mercenary engendered when it was imported to the United States. The same game which British reviewers had gushed over as “one of the most exciting releases ever” or, even more extremely, “about the best computer game ever to be written” was roundly panned by American critics, who didn’t seem quite to know what to do with all the freedom they were being offered. “Avoid the unpleasantness of having to Escape from Targ by never getting stuck there in the first place,” wrote one. Another summed the situation up in two words emblazoned on the page in capital letters: “NOT RECOMMENDED.” Seldom have we seen a starker example of the differing expectation of two different gaming cultures. Indeed, many of the other games I’ll be writing about in this series never even got an American release. American publishers knew their customers, and knew that, for whatever reason, there simply wasn’t much of a domestic appetite for games like these.

Woakes followed up the original Mercenary with an expansion pack called The Second City, which added a new complex to explore on the other side of the planet. Then, over the course of the late 1980s and early 1990s, he made a couple of full-fledged standalone sequels, each with expansion packs of its own. Running on more advanced machines than the first game, the sequels replaced the wire-frame graphics of the original with filled solids — and all still well before Doom. Woakes worked for years on each new game at a time when the norm was a handful of months. He thus became the ultimate independent videogame auteur of his era, selling none of his fine wines before their time. Meanwhile his cult of personality analyzed every scant morsel of a clue about him which they could find in his games and awaited his next masterwork with bated breath.

Ever the recluse, Woakes dropped off the radar later in the 1990s, when a changing industry made his way of making games untenable. To my knowledge, he has never in his life sat down for an interview. He thus remains even today the subject of considerable speculation and fascination from his aging cult, a sort of ultra-nichey version of J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon.

The best way to get a taste of his eccentric genius today is to visit The Mercenary Site. There you’ll find the inauspiciously named MDDClone, a loving, pixel-perfect re-creation of Mercenary and all of its sequels and expansions for modern Windows and Linux computers.

Fairlight (1985)


Although Fairlight was created by a Swede named Bo Jangeborg, it nevertheless feels like a vital part of the great British action-adventure tradition in that it was hugely influenced by the earlier British hit Knight Lore, was published by a British software house, ran on the British Sinclair Spectrum, and enjoyed by far its greatest success in, you guessed it, Great Britain. But most importantly of all for our purposes, its living world is as amazing for managing to live in just 48 K as anything put together by the greatest British masters of compression. In a telling testament to where his priorities lay, Jangeborg named his game engine the Worldmaker.

His game was released in late 1985, almost simultaneously with Mercenary, and the two titles form a useful study in contrasts. Where Woakes emphasized breadth in his virtual world-building, Jangeborg emphasized depth. The castle in which Fairlight is played consists of just 80 rooms, a far cry from the planet-sized sprawl of Mercenary. In place of the contiguous space of Mercenary, each room in Fairlight is its own discrete place, as in Warren Robinett’s Adventure. And Fairlight replaces the first-person 3D perspective of Mercenary with the third-person isometric view that first took the world of British gaming by storm in Ultimate Play the Game’s Knight Lore.

These points may at first seem to paint a picture of a less ambitious game, but the depth which Fairlight gains in place of Mercenary‘s breadth is in its way every bit as stunning. Jangeborg built for his world an extraordinarily versimiltudious physics model, then populated its rooms with objects and creatures to take advantage of it. Well before Richard Garriott would begin pushing in a similar direction in the United States with Ultima V, Jangeborg, with a fraction of the resources at his disposal in terms of both computing potential and human helpers, made a world built of realistic things. Every object in the game has a size, a shape, and a weight which the program accounts for at every step, and the world model allows objects to be beneath, behind, or inside other objects. Throw a dagger against a wall and watch it bounce off and come sliding back toward you on the floor. Push a table over to the wall, set a chair on top, and climb onto a precarious perch to squeeze through that high window. Surround yourself with a barricade of barrels to fend off those soldiers who are attacking from several directions, or leap onto a table and do your best Errol Flynn routine on them. Unlike the turn-based Ultima games, Fairlight does all of this in real time. It’s a heavy task for the little Speccy, so much so that there’s a healthy wait every time you move to a new room, so much so that the whole simulation slows down noticeably for every additional creature other than yourself on the screen. But the incredible thing, of course, is that it works at all.

Due to the limitations of the Spectrum, Fairlight presents itself in monochrome graphics. Far from being a disadvantage, they give the game a certain classy look today in contrast to the garish, clashing colors of so many of its peers.

Almost as impressive as the game’s physics model are the other inhabitants of the castle. As in Robinett’s Adventure, each creature has its own “fears and desires,” and its own way of moving around the world and fighting. Trolls, as you would expect, are big, dumb, and slow, but hit with deadly force if you spend too long in their path. Other enemies are quicker and smarter, capable of lying in wait to ambush you or retreating to join up with comrades elsewhere when the odds start looking unfavorable. And their “desires” really do come into play; if you toss gold on the ground as you’re running away, there’s a good chance the greedy soldiers will stop to pick it up.

Fairlight presents a universe of emergent possibility to replace the static puzzles of standard adventure games. One contemporary reviewer, struggling to articulate differences he could feel but couldn’t quite put a finger on, noted that in other games “each room poses a problem that you’ve got to overcome. Fairlight is one big problem — but you’ll have one helluva time trying to solve it!” There are no single-solution puzzles in Fairlight. Instead there are merely situations — or, if you like, problems — admitting themselves of a multitude of approaches, depending on predilection and circumstance. When you come upon a door guarded by a soldier, you could try to kill him with your sword. Or, you could get him to chase you into the courtyard, then dash back through the door and lock it behind you. You can play the game as a stolid warrior or a slinking thief as it suits you, without ever having to choose a class in some dry character-creation system.

To an only slightly lesser extent than Mercenary, Fairlight encourages open-ended playful play alongside more focused attempts to solve it. (You accomplish the latter, by the way, by rescuing a certain wizard who’s been imprisoned in one of the castle’s towers). Among the castle’s fiendish inhabitants are soldiers who collapse down into their helmets when they die, then re-spawn from them after a certain amount of time has passed. In the spirit of “I wonder what will happen if,” players started piling the helmets together in a single room, making an informal contest out of seeing how many resurrected soldiers they could pack in thereby. The Worldmaker engine, for what it’s worth, seems to have no hard upper limit on the number of inhabitants allowed in a room, although the game gets extremely slow as the numbers grow. But the biggest problem by the time you have, say, eight soldiers packed into such a small space is just surviving long enough inside the resulting Cuisinart of whirling blades to make it to the door.

Fairlight is the rare game where even the title screen is important. Looking closely at the castle here can give vital clues about the location of potential secret doors leading to unexplored areas.

Played today, Fairlight has some clear-cut issues beyond the slowdowns. The interface can be awkward. It takes time to get a feel for how to line up your movements with the diagonal lines of the isometric display, while picking up and manipulating objects can be annoyingly fiddly, requiring you to be standing just so in relation to them. And for all that Fairlight‘s world is much smaller than that of Mercenary in absolute terms, its castle is still a big place, virtually requiring you to make a map if you’re not to get hopelessly lost inside, not to mention if you hope to find the likely location of secret areas. Yet making an accurate map is no mean feat in itself, what with the isometric view once again confusing the matter and things constantly happening all around you in real time. All of these factors can combine to make Fairlight extremely off-putting when you first pick it up. Still, it is worth exploring, if only for a little while, to gain an appreciation for the major feat of programming talent and sheer imagination that it is. Quite apart from all its other strengths, its physics model alone is a decade ahead of its time.

Like Paul Woakes of Mercenary fame, the auteur behind Fairlight was something of an enigma. Spending most of his time in his native Sweden, Bo Jangeborg seldom gave interviews to the British press even when his game was at the height of its success. In the end, his time as a game programmer proved even shorter than that of Woakes. He had a major falling-out with his publisher, a sketchy outfit known as The Edge,1 over two issues. The first was their release of a Commodore 64 port of Fairlight with a bug in it that made the game impossible to complete; this they refused to ever address or even acknowledge, an unconscionable breach of faith with their customers. But The Edge’s relationship with Jangeborg fell apart for good only when they pulled Fairlight II out of his hands before it was complete and released it, full of mysteriously disappearing objects, spontaneously appearing monsters, and rooms that seemed to wander about the castle of their own accord, in order to capitalize on the 1986 Christmas sales season. Jangeborg claims that The Edge forced him to sign a contract authorizing the sequel’s release by withholding payment on royalties due from the first game. After that bitter experience, he never made another game.

Fairlight is unfortunately not so convenient to play today as Mercenary; it must be played using a Spectrum emulator such as Fuse. But the hardy among you who are willing to go through the trouble can find everything you’ll need to play it on an emulator at The World of Spectrum.

Spindizzy (1986)


One of the biggest international arcade hits of 1984 was a game from Atari called Marble Madness. In it, you control a marble rolling along an obstacle course full of jumps, hairpin turns, and other, evil marbles trying to knock you off the edge of the course. Two years after its arcade debut, Marble Madness came to computers for the first time in the form of an exemplary conversion for the Commodore Amiga from Electronic Arts. It became one of the Amiga’s biggest early showpiece games.

Yet even as the Amiga, with the comparatively huge amount of computing power it had on tap, was being turned to the task of duplicating the straightforward level-based arcade game by American programmers, a British programmer named Paul Shirley was applying some of the mechanics of Marble Madness to something far more innovative and ambitious — and doing it all within the tight constraints of an 8-bit Amstrad CPC home computer at that. Inspired, like all those countless other young British programmers, by the example of Knight Lore, Shirley had already worked up the routines to display a network of rooms from an isometric viewpoint when he first saw Marble Madness in a local arcade. This, he says, gave him the “rollaround idea,” leading him to design an unlikely mashup of Marble Madness and Knight Lore, taking the core mechanics of the former and applying them to an open world awaiting free-form exploration — a huge difference from the constrained level progression of the arcade game. “Whereas Marble Madness is a race,” Shirley said, “Spindizzy is more of an adventure.”

For all that adventure games are often seen as the very first narrative-focused computer games, most early adventures are actually more about exploring their architectures of space than they are about plot. When you solve puzzles, your reward is more rooms to explore, and when you reach the last room, you’ve usually either won already or are very close to it. With Spindizzy, Shirley took this notion to its logical extreme by making entering as many “rooms” as possible your one and only goal. You play a “Trainee Assistant Cartographer for Unknown Worlds” assigned to explore the recently discovered Hangworld: a labyrinth hanging suspended in “inter-dimensional space.” If you manage to visit every one of the 386 screens which make up Hangworld, you’ve won. But doing so is a very tall order.

Spindizzy in action. The numbers at the left show seconds of fuel remaining, rooms remaining to explore, and how many fuel jewels have been collected so far. Gerald, your avatar — or rather your avatar’s vehicle — is the inverted pyramid toward the right. Atop the ledge is a fuel jewel. The problem, of course, is figuring out how to get Gerald up there to collect it…

Like so many classic puzzle games, Spindizzy builds seemingly endless variation out of a very limited supply of parts. This puzzle game, however, adds all the pressure of an action game to the mix. Getting from one screen to another in your little marble of a spacecraft, who in the game’s quirky fashion is unaccountably known as Gerald, requires reflexes and coordination as well as puzzle-solving skills. Tight squeezes and jumps abound, as do pressure plates which cause effects elsewhere that you’ll need to discover for yourself. The physics model is almost as impressive as that of Fairlight; momentum and conservation of energy are critical. Gerald can actually be transformed at will into any of three separate shapes — a ball, a tetrahedron, and a gyroscope — each with its own handling characteristics. He also comes equipped with a turbo unit, but it must be used sparingly, as it consumes fuel at a prodigious rate. Ditto falling off one of the sides of the maze due to a misjudged corner or an overshot jump. A timer counts down the seconds of fuel remaining in Gerald before he goes dead and you lose the game; you begin with only enough to last 107 seconds of normally aspirated play. You can pick up more fuel by passing over energy jewels, but there never seem to be as many of them as you need. And no, there is no save function.

It all makes of Spindizzy a brutally difficult game, one requiring anyone who hopes to see its victory screen to play it over and over again, hopefully getting just a little further each time. The number of players who have managed to complete it — who have even come anywhere close to finishing it — must be vanishingly rare. Yet the game has a way of drawing players who swear it off in frustration back again the very next day, determined despite themselves to pick up where they left off and try to see a few more rooms. Universally judged by reviewers to be as praise-worthy as it was confounding, it was a big hit in 1986.

Cruel though it otherwise is, Spindizzy does do you the favor of providing a map which you can reference at any time by pressing the “M” key. As you can see, Hangworld is a big, big place.

Thankfully for the less hardcore among us, Paul Shirley did return to the concept once more. After a couple of less notable games, he made a pseudo-sequel called Spindizzy Worlds for the Atari ST and Amiga in 1990. It’s much larger but in many ways more forgiving than its predecessor: more hints are on offer as to where you should be going next and what you should be doing there, and the game is saved when you finish off one of its many component “worlds.” The first round of reviews were superlative; the sequel seemed to be shaping up to be at least as big a hit as the original. But Spindizzy Worlds was released on the Activision label in Britain just as Mediagenic, the label’s American parent company, was collapsing. It appeared in British shops in only tiny quantities, then promptly vanished forever, thus becoming one of the great should-have-been-a-contenders of gaming history.

Spindizzy Worlds on the Amiga looks snazzier than its predecessor, and is an even better game to boot.

Shirley too then vanished from the games industry. He claims he was never consulted about nor paid for a Super Nintendo version of Spindizzy Worlds which the resurrected Activision released in 1993. Asked years later in a rare interview what he would do to improve the industry, his reply made it clear that his bitterness persisted: “Shoot the crooks and incompetents running most of it.”

As Spindizzy Worlds proved to the few who got a chance to play it in its day, there’s still a lot of life in the Spindizzy concept. Add save points and some other measures to make it more reasonable, and I can imagine it doing well today. Various projects have been launched to remake it, but to my knowledge none have yet come to fruition as a complete, playable game. As it stands today, then, your only option is to play it through an emulator. You can download Spindizzy for the Spectrum at World of Spectrum or, even better, Spindizzy Worlds for the Amiga from right here — to play the latter, you may want to invest in the Amiga Forever emulator package — and have at it.

(Sources: Amstrad Action of May 1987 and October 1993; A.N.A.L.O.G. of January 1987; Atari ST User of February 1987; Commodore User of May 1988; Crash of September 1985, May 1986, June 1986, and September 1987; Midnite Software Gazette 40; New Computer Express of July 29 1989; Page 6 of March 1986 and January 1987; Popular Computing Weekly of March 3 1983, March 17 1983, May 26 1983, December 26 1985, January 9 1986, and May 22 1986; The Games Machine of October 1987; The One of August 1989, May 1990, November 1990, June 1991 and February 1992; Zzap! of March 1986, June 1986, September 1986, and July 1991; Questbusters of January 1987; Sinclair User of September 1985, October 1986, November 1986, December 1986, and April 1987; Your Spectrum of November 1985; Amiga Computing of November 1989, December 1989, and January 1991; CU Amiga of November 1991; Game Developer of April 2010 and November 2010; Home Computing Weekly of June 21 1983; Amtix of March 1986; Retro Gamer 52. Online sources include Eurogamer’s Mercenary Retrospective,” Electron Dance‘s “The First Open World,” Sockmonsters‘s “The Making of Mercenary, Paul White’s interview of Bo Jangeborg, and Rock Paper Shotgun‘s “Tim Langdell Loses in Future ‘Edge’ Trial,” and Halycon Days‘s interview of Paul Shirley.)


  1. The Edge was run by one Dr. Tim Langdell — he has always insisted his name be prefixed with his title — who has been a vortex of conflict and controversy since at least 1983, when he caused a brouhaha in the young British microcomputer industry by threatening to sue several developers who had used a BASIC compiler made by his company Softek to write commercial software without his permission. Anecdotes about Langdell’s jerky behavior soon became common barroom fodder within the industry, only occasionally surfacing in public. Insider legend has it that one of The Edge’s programmers, who Dr. Langdell demanded create a slapdash X-Men game in a ridiculously short time before his license on the property expired, finally had a meltdown in response to the constant needling. He punched Dr. Langell in the face before walking out, thus fulfilling the fondest wish of many; the game, needless to say, was never released.

    One hilarious bit of snark that did make it out for public consumption was the magazine Amiga Computing‘s review of The Edge’s game Garfield: Winter’s Tail in 1989. It’s told from the perspective of the titular cartoon cat:

    Garfield has signed up with The Edge, but notices that Tim Langdell, the boss of the company, doesn’t quite smell right. A first inkling of the horror to come.

    Then Garfield notices that there are holes in Tim’s jumper, and that he’s wearing a tatty old hat. Odd, but it gets odder when Tim shows Garfield how the game is progressing some months later.

    There’s a scrolling section, a scene in a chocolate factory, and a skating part. But where’s the Garfield, the plump one asks. “Right where we want him,” snarls Tim, six-inch blades flashing across the office, glinting in the moonlight streaming through the window.

    Garfield meows in surprise and finds himself catapulted into the game… [cue an extended pan of the game]

    That’s it for poor Garfield. His alter ego returns to his captive computerised torso and shivers under the blanket. Garfield can only sit and wait, and hope that some talented individual with the patience of Job can finish the game and rescue him from this nightmare that The Edge created.

    The next issue contains a contrite apology, obviously dictated to the magazine’s staff by Dr. Langdell’s lawyers:

    In last month’s issue in the review of The Edge’s new game Winter’s Tail some personal remarks were directed at Dr. Tim Langdell. We accept that these remarks were totally uncalled for, and insofar as they might have been read to be a slight on Dr. Langdell’s character or on The Edge’s reasons for licensing the Garfield character, we unreservedly apologize to Dr. Langdell and all at The Edge for these remarks.

    Having thus so thoroughly worn out his welcome in Britain that he was being slagged off in everyday reviews of his company’s games, Dr. Langell moved his operation to the United States in the 1990s, where he occupied himself for many years with threatening anyone in the games industry who tried to use the word “edge” in pretty much any context. He won a hefty settlement from the videogame magazine Edge, but overreached himself by going after the giant Electronic Arts for releasing a game called Mirror’s Edge in 2008. In response to a petition from EA which noted that he wasn’t actually doing anything with them other than threatening lawsuits, a judge invalidated Langdell’s trademarks on “Edge,” “Cutting Edge,” “Gamers Edge,” and “The Edge.” Undaunted, he has apparently moved on to mount fresh legal attacks using other specious trademarks. His membership in the International Game Developers Association was terminated in 2010 due to “lack of integrity” and “unethical behavior.” 

 
 

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Living Worlds of Action and Adventure, Part 1: The Atari Adventure

As regular readers of this blog are doubtless well aware, we stand now at the cusp not only of a new decade but also of a new era in terms of this history’s internal chronology. The fractious 1980s, marked by a bewildering number of viable computing platforms and an accompanying anything-goes creative spirit in the games that were made for them, are becoming the Microsoft-dominated 1990s, with budgets climbing and genres hardening (these last two things are not unrelated to one another). CD-ROM, the most disruptive technology in gaming since the invention of the microprocessor, hasn’t arrived as quickly as many expected it would, but it nevertheless looms there on the horizon as developers and publishers scramble to prepare themselves for the impact it must have. For us virtual time travelers, then, there’s a lot to look forward to. It should be as exciting a time to write about — and hopefully to read about — as it was to live through.

Yet a period of transition like this also tempts a writer to look backward, to think about the era that is passing in terms of what was missed and who was shortchanged. It’s at a time like this that all my vague promises to myself to get to this story or that at some point come home to roost. For if not now, when? In that light, I hope you’ll forgive me for forcing you to take one or two more wistful glances back with me before we stride boldly forward into our future of the past. There’s at least one more aspect of 1980s gaming, you see, that I really do feel I’d be remiss not to cover in much better detail than I have to this point: the astonishing, and largely British, legacy of the open-world action-adventure.

First, a little taxonomy to make sure we’re all on the same page. The games I want to write about take the themes and mechanics of adventure games — meaning text adventures during most of the era in question — and combine them with the graphics and input methods of action games; thus the name of “action-adventure.” Still, neither the name nor the definition conveys what audacious achievements the best of these games could be. On computers which often still had to rely on cassettes rather than disks for storage, which struggled to run even Infocom-level text adventures, almost universally young programmers, generally working alone or in pairs, proposed to create huge virtual worlds to explore — worlds which were to be depicted not in text but visually, running in organic, fluid real time. It was, needless to say, a staggeringly tall order. The programmers who tackled it did so because, being so young, they simply didn’t know any better. What’s remarkable is the extent to which they succeeded in their goals.

Which is not to say that games in this category have aged as well as, say, the majority of the Infocom catalog. Indeed, herein lies much of the reason that I’ve rather neglected these games to date. As all you regulars know by now, I place a premium on fairness and solubility in adventure-game design. I find it hard to recommend or overly praise games which lack this fundamental good faith toward their players, even if they’re wildly innovative or interesting in other ways.

That said, though, we shouldn’t entirely forget the less-playable games of history which pushed the envelope in important ways. And among the very most interesting of such interesting failures are many games of the early action-adventure tradition.

It’s not hard to pinpoint the reasons that these games ended up as they are. Their smoothly-scrolling and/or perspective-bending worlds make them hard to map, and thus hard for the player to methodically explore, in contrast to the grid-based movement of text adventures or early CRPGs. The dynamism of their worlds in contrast to those of those other genres leave them subject to all sorts of potentially game-wrecking emergent situations. Their young creators had no grounding in game design, were in fact usually far more interested in the world they were creating inside their primitive instruments than they were in the game they were asking their players to solve there. And in this era neither developers nor publishers had much of an inkling about the concept of testing. We should perhaps be more surprised that as many games of this stripe ended up as playable as they are than the reverse.

As I’ve admitted before, it’s inevitably anachronistic to return to these ancient artifacts today. In their own day, players were so awe-struck by these worlds’ very existence that they weren’t usually overly fixated on ending all the fun of exploring them with a victory screen. So, I’m going to relax my usual persnicketiness on the subject of fairness just a bit in favor of honoring what these games did manage to achieve. On this trip back through time, at least, let’s try to see what players saw back in the day and not quibble too much over the rest.

In this first article, we’ll go the United States to look at the development of the very first action-adventure. It feels appropriate for such a beast to have started life as a literal translation of the original adventure game — Will Crowther and Don Woods’s Adventure — into a form manageable on the Atari VCS game console. The consoles aren’t my primary focus for this history, but this particular console game was just so important for future games on computers that my neglect of it has been bothering me for years.

After this article, we’ll turn the focus to Britain, the land where the challenge laid down by the Atari VCS Adventure was picked up in earnest, to look at some of the more remarkable feats of virtual world-building of the 1980s. And after that, and after looking back at one more subject that’s been sticking in his craw — more on that when the time comes — your humble writer here can start to look forward again from his current perch in the historical timeline with a clearer conscience.

A final note: I am aware that games of this type have a grand tradition of their own in Japan, which arrived on American shores through Nintendo Entertainment System titles like 1986’s The Legend of Zelda. I hope fans of such games will forgive me for neglecting them. My arguments for doing so are the usual suspects: that writing about them really would be starting to roam dangerously far afield from this blog’s core focus on computer gaming, that my own knowledge of them is limited to say the least, and that it’s not hard to find in-depth coverage of them elsewhere.

 

Adventure (1980)


 

Like so many others, Warren Robinett had his life changed by Will Crowther and Don Woods’s game of Adventure. In June of 1978, he was 26 years old and was working for Atari as a programmer of games for their VCS console, which was modestly successful at the time but still over a year removed from the massive popularity that would follow. More due to the novelty of the medium and upper management’s disinterest in the process of making games than any spirit of creative idealism, Atari at the time operated on the auteur model of videogame development. Programmers like Robinett were not only expected also to fill the role of designers — a role that had yet to be clearly defined anywhere as distinct from programming — but to function as their own artists and writers. To go along with this complete responsibility, they were given complete control of every aspect of their games, including the opportunity to decide what sorts of games to make in the first place. On Robinett’s first day of work, according to his own account, his new boss Larry Kaplan had told him, “Your job is to design games. Now go design one.” The first fruit of his labor had been a game called Slot Racers, a simple two-player exercise in maze-running and shooting that was very derivative of Combat, the cartridge that was bundled with every Atari VCS sold.

With Slot Racers under his belt, Robinett was expected, naturally, to come up with a new idea for his next game. Luckily, he already knew what he wanted to do. His roommate happened to work at the storied Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, and one day had invited him to drop by after hours to play a neat game called Adventure on the big time-shared computers that lived there. Robinett declared it to be “the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” He decided that very night that he wanted to make his next project an adaptation of Adventure for the Atari VCS.

On the face of it, the proposition made little sense. My description of Robinett’s Slot Racers as derivative of Combat begins to sound like less of a condemnation if one considers that no one had ever anticipated the Atari VCS being used to run games that weren’t built, as Combat and Slot Racers had been, from the simple-minded raw material of the earliest days of the video arcades. The machine’s designers had never, in other words, intended it to go much beyond Pong and Breakout. Certainly the likes of Adventure had never crossed their minds.

Adventure consisted only of text, which the VCS wasn’t terribly adept at displaying, and its parser accepted typed commands from a keyboard, which the VCS didn’t possess; the latter’s input mechanism was limited to a joystick with a single fire button. The program code and data for Adventure took more than 100 K of storage space on the big DEC PDP-10 computer on which it ran. The Atari VCS, on the other hand, used cartridge-housed ROM chips capable of storing a program of a maximum of 4 K of code and data, and boasted just 128 bytes — yes, bytes — of memory for the volatile storage of in-game state. In contrast to a machine like the PDP-10 — or for that matter to just about any other extant machine — the VCS was shockingly primitive to program. There not being space enough to store the state of the screen in those 128 bytes, the programmer had to manually control the electron beam which swept left to right and top to bottom sixty times per second behind the television screen, telling it where it should spray its blotches of primary colors. Every other function of a game’s code had to be subsidiary to this one, to be carried out during those instants when the beam was making its way back to the left side of the screen to start a new line, or — the most precious period of all — as it moved from the end of one round of painting at the bottom right of the screen back to the top left to start another.

The creative freedom that normally held sway at Atari notwithstanding, Robinett’s bosses were understandably resistant to what they viewed as his quixotic quest. Undeterred, he worked on it for the first month in secret, hoping to prove to himself as much as anyone that it could be done.

It was appropriate in a way that it should have been Warren Robinett among all the young programmers at Atari who decided to bring to the humble VCS such an icon of 1970s institutional computing —  a rarefied environment far removed from the populist videogames, played in bars and living rooms, that were Atari’s bread and butter. Almost all of the programmers around him were self-taught hackers, masters of improvisation whose code would have made any computer-science professor gasp in horror but whose instincts were well-suited to get the most out of the primitive hardware at their disposal. Robinett’s background, however, was very different. He brought with him to Atari a Bachelor’s Degree in computer science from Rice University and a Master’s from the University of California, Berkeley, and along with them a grounding in the structure and theory of programming which his peers lacked. He was, in short, the perfect person at Atari to be having a go at this project. While he would never be one of the leading lights of the programming staff in terms of maximizing the VCS’s audiovisual capabilities, he knew how to design the data structures that would be necessary to make a virtual world come to life in 4 K of ROM and 128 bytes of RAM.

Robinett’s challenge, then, was to translate the conventions of the text adventure into a form that the VCS could manage. This naturally entailed turning Crowther and Woods’s text into graphics — and therein lies an amusing irony. In later years, after they were superseded by various forms of graphic adventures, text adventures would come to be seen by many not so much as a legitimate medium in themselves as a stopgap, an interim way to represent a virtual world on a machine that didn’t have the capability to display proper graphics. Yet Robinett came to this, the very first graphic adventure, from the opposite point of view. What he really wanted to do was to port Crowther and Woods’s Adventure in all its textual glory to the Atari VCS. But, since the VCS couldn’t display all that text, he’d have to find a way to make do with crude old graphics.

The original Adventure, like all of the text adventures that would follow, built its geography as a topology of discrete “rooms” that the player navigated by typing in compass directions. In his VCS game, Robinett represented each room as a single screen. Instead of typing compass directions, you move from room to room simply by guiding your avatar off the side of a screen using the joystick: north becomes the upper boundary of the screen, east the right-hand boundary, etc. Robinett thus created the first VCS game to have any concept of a geography that spanned beyond what was visible on the screen at any one time. The illustration below shows the text-adventure-like map he crafted for his world.

It’s important to note, though, that even such a seemingly literal translation of a text adventure’s geography to a graphical game brought with it implications that may not be immediately obvious. Most notably, your avatar can move about within the rooms of Robinett’s game, a level of granularity that its inspiration lacks; in Crowther and Woods’s Adventure, you can be “in” a “room” like “End of Road” or “Inside Building,” but the simulation of space extends no further. The effect these differences have on the respective experiences can be seen most obviously in the two games’ approaches to mazes. Crowther and Woods’s (in)famous “maze of twisty little passages” is built out of many individual rooms; the challenge comes in charting the one-way interconnections between them all. In Robinett’s game, however, the mazes — there are no less than four of them for the same reason that mazes were so common in early text adventures: they’re cheap and easy to implement — are housed within the rooms, even as they span multiple rooms when taken in their entirety.

Crowther and Woods’s maze of twisty little passages, a network of confusing room interconnections where going north and then going south usually won’t take you back to where you started.

Warren Robinett’s graphical take on the adventure-game maze; it must be navigated within the rooms as well as among them. The dot at left is the player’s avatar, which at the moment is carrying the Enchanted Chalice whose recovery is the goal of the game.

Beyond the challenges of mapping its geography, much of Crowther and Woods’s game revolves around solving a series of set-piece puzzles, usually by using a variety of objects found scattered about within the various rooms; you can pick up such things as keys and lanterns and carry them about in your character’s “inventory” to use elsewhere. Robinett, of course, had to depict such objects graphically. To pick up an object in his game, you need simply bump into it with your avatar; to drop it you push the fire button. Robinett considered trying to implement a graphical inventory screen for his game, but in the end chose to wave any such tricky-to-implement beast away by only allowing your avatar to carry one item at a time. Similarly, the “puzzles” he placed in the game, such as they are, are all simple enough that they can be solved merely by bringing an appropriate object into the vicinity of the problem. Opening a locked gate, for instance, requires only that the player walk up to it toting the appropriate key; ditto attacking a dragon with a sword.  By these means, Robinett pared down the “verbs” in his game to the equivalent of the text parser’s movement commands, its “take” and “drop” commands, and a sort of generic, automatically-triggered “use” action that took the place of all the rest of them. (Interestingly, the point-and-click, non-action-oriented graphical adventures that would eventually replace text adventures on the market would go through a similar process of simplification, albeit over a much longer stretch of time, so that by the end of the 1990s most of them too would offer no more verbs than these.)

The text-to-graphics adaptations we’ve seen so far would, with the exception only of the mazes, seem to make of Robinett’s Adventure a compromised shadow of its inspiration, lacking not only its complexity of play but also, thanks to the conversion of Crowther and Woods’s comparatively refined prose to the crudest of graphics, its flavor as well. Yet different mediums do different sorts of interactivity well. Robinett managed, despite the extreme limitations of his hardware, to improve on his inspiration in certain ways, to make some aspects of his game more complicated and engaging in compensation for its simplifications. Other than the mazes, the most notable case is that of the other creatures in the world.

The world of the original Adventure isn’t an entirely uninhabited place — it includes a dwarf and a pirate who move about the map semi-randomly — but these other actors play more the role of transitory annoyances than that of core elements of the game. With the change in medium, Robinett could make his other creatures play a much more central role. Using an approach he remains very proud of to this day, he gave his four creatures — three dragons and a pesky, object-stealing bat, an analogue to Crowther and Woods’s kleptomaniacal pirate — “fears” and “desires” to guide their movements about the world. With the addition of this basic artificial intelligence, his became a truly living world sporting much emergent possibility: the other creatures continue moving autonomously through it, pursuing their own agendas, whether you’re aware of them or not. When you do find yourself in the same room/screen as one of the dragons, you had best run away if you don’t have the sword. If you do, the hunted can become the hunter: you can attempt to kill your stalker. These combat sequences, like all of the game, run in real time, another marked contrast with the more static world of the Crowther and Woods Adventure. Almost in spite of Robinett’s best intentions, the Atari VCS’s ethos of action-based play thus crept into his staid adventure game.

Robinett’s Adventure was becoming a game with a personality of its own rather than a crude re-implementation of a text game in graphics. It was becoming, in other words, a game that maximized the strengths of its medium and minimized its weaknesses. Along the way, it only continued to move further from its source material. Robinett had originally planned so literal a translation of Crowther and Woods’s Adventure that he had sought ways to implement its individual puzzles; he remembers struggling for some time to recreate his inspiration’s “black rod with a rusty star on the end,” which when waved in the right place creates a bridge over an otherwise impassable chasm. In the end, he opted instead to create a movable bridge object which you can pick up and carry around, dropping it on walls to create passages. Robinett:

Direct transliterations from text to video format didn’t work out very well. While the general idea of a videogame with rooms and objects seemed to be a good one, the graphic language of the videogame and the verbal language of the text dialogue turned out to have significantly different strengths. Just as differences between filmed and live performance caused the art form of cinema to slowly diverge from its parent, drama, differences between the medium of animated graphics and the medium of text have caused the animated adventure game to diverge from the text-adventure game.

So, Robinett increasingly turned away from direct translation in favor of thematic analogues to the experience of playing Adventure in text form. To express the text-based game’s obsession with lighted and dark rooms and the lantern that turns the latter into the former, for instance, he included a “catacombs” maze where only the few inches immediately surrounding your avatar can be seen.

But even more radical departures from his inspiration were very nearly forced upon him. When Robinett showed his work-in-progress, heretofore a secret, to his management at Atari, they liked his innovations, but thought they could best be applied to a game based on the upcoming Superman movie, for which Atari had acquired a license. Yet Robinett remained wedded to his plans for a game of fantasy adventure, creating no small tension. Finally another programmer, John Dunn, agreed to adapt the code Robinett had already written to the purpose of the Superman game while Robinett himself continued to work on Adventure. Dunn’s game, nowhere near as complex or ambitious as Robinett’s but nevertheless clearly sporting a shared lineage with it, hit the market well before Adventure, thereby becoming the first released Atari VCS game with a multi-screen geography. Undaunted, Robinett soldiered on to finish creating the new genre of the action-adventure.

The Atari Adventure‘s modest collection of creatures and objects. The “cursor” represents the player’s avatar. Its shape was actually hard-coded into the Atari VCS, where it was intended to represent the ball in a Pong-like game — a telling sign of the only sorts of games the machine’s creators had envisioned being run on it. And if you think the dragons look like ducks, you’re not alone. Robinett never claimed to be an artist…

Ambitious though it was in contrast to Superman, his graphic-based adventure game of 4 K must be inevitably constrained in contrast to a text-based game of more than 100 K. He wound up with a world of about 30 rooms — as opposed to the 130 rooms of his inspiration — housing a slate of seven totable objects: three keys, each opening a different gate; a sword for fighting the dragons; the bridge; a magnet that attracts to it other objects that may be inaccessible directly; and the Enchanted Chalice that you must find and return to the castle where you begin the game in order to complete it. (Rather than the fifteen treasures of Crowther and Woods’s Adventure, Robinett’s game has just this one.)

The constraints of the Atari VCS ironically allowed Robinett to avoid the pitfall that dogs so many later games of this ilk: a tendency to sprawl out into incoherence. Adventure, despite or perhaps because of its primitiveness, is playable and soluble, and can be surprisingly entertaining even today. To compensate for both his constrained world and the youngsters who formed the core of Atari’s customers, Robinett designed the game with three selectable modes of play: a simplified version for beginners and/or the very young, a full version, and a version that scattered all of the objects and creatures randomly about the world to create a new challenge every time. This last mode was obviously best-suited for players who had beaten the game’s other modes, for whom it lent the $25 cartridge a welcome modicum of replayability.

Thanks to the efforts of Jason Scott and archive.org, Adventure can be played today in a browser. Failing that, the video below, prepared by Warren Robinett for his postmortem of the Atari Adventure at the 2015 Game Developers Conference, shows a speed run through the simplified version of the game — enough to demonstrate most of its major elements.


Robinett finished his Adventure in early 1979, about two years after Crowther and Woods’s game had first taken institutional computing by storm and about eight months after he’d begun working on his videogame take on their concept. (True to his role of institutional computing’s ambassador to the arcade, he’d spent most of that time working concurrently on what seemed an even more impossible task: a BASIC programming system for the Atari VCS, combining a cartridge with a pair of hardware controllers that together formed an awkward keyboard.) From the beginning right up to the date of its release, his game’s name remained simply Adventure, nobody apparently ever having given any thought to the confusion this could create among those familiar with Crowther and Woods’s game. Frustrated by Atari’s policy of giving no public credit to the programmers who created their games, one of Robinett’s last additions was a hidden Easter egg, one of videogaming’s first. It took the form of a secret room housing the only text in this game inspired by a text adventure, spelling out the message “Created by Warren Robinett.” Unhappy with his fixed salary of about $22,000 per year, Robinett left Atari shortly thereafter, going on to co-found The Learning Company, a pioneer in educational software. The first title he created there, Rocky’s Boots, built on many of the techniques he’d developed for Adventure, although it ran on an Apple II computer rather than the Atari VCS.

In the wake of Robinett’s departure, Atari’s marketing department remained nonplussed by this unusually complex and cerebral videogame he had foisted on them. Preoccupied by Atari’s big new game for the Christmas of 1979, a port of the arcade sensation Asteroids, they didn’t even release it until June of 1980, more than a year after Robinett had finished it. Yet the late release date proved to be propitious, coming as it did just after the Atari VCS’s first huge Christmas season, when demand for games was exploding and the catalog of available games was still fairly small. Adventure became something of a sleeper hit, selling first by random chance, plucked by nervous parents off of patchily-stocked store shelves, and then by word of mouth as its first players recognized what a unique experience it really was. Robinett claims it wound up selling 1 million copies, giving the vast majority of that million their very first taste of a computer-based adventure game.

For that reason, the game’s importance for our purposes extends far beyond that of being just an interesting case study in converting from one medium to another. A long time ago, when this blog was a much more casual affair than it’s since become, I wrote these words about Crowther and Woods’s Adventure:

It has long and rightfully been canonized as the urtext not just of textual interactive fiction but of a whole swathe of modern mainstream videogames. (For example, trace World of Warcraft‘s lineage back through Ultima Online and Richard Bartle’s original MUD and you arrive at Adventure.)

I’m afraid I rather let something fall by the wayside there. Robinett’s Adventure, the first of countless attempts to apply the revolutionary ideas behind Crowther and Woods’s game to the more mass-market-friendly medium of graphics, is in fact every bit as important to the progression outlined above as is MUD.1

That said, my next couple of articles will be devoted to charting the game’s more immediate legacy: the action-adventures of the 1980s, which would borrow heavily from its conventions and approaches. While the British programmers we’ll be turning to next had at their disposal machines exponentially more powerful than Robinett’s Atari VCS, they expanded their ambitions exponentially to match. Whether considered as technical or imaginative feats, or both, the action-adventures to come would be among the most awe-inspiring virtual worlds of their era. If you grew up with these games, you may be nodding along in agreement right now. If you didn’t, you may be astonished at how far their young programmers reached, and how far some of them managed to grasp despite all the issues that should have stopped them in their tracks. But then, in this respect too they were only building on the tradition of Warren Robinett’s Adventure.

(Sources: the book Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost; Warren Robinett’s chapter “Adventure as a Video Game: Adventure for the Atari 2600″ from The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology; Next Generation of January 1998; Warren Robinett’s Adventure postmortem from the 2015 Game Developers Conference; Robinett’s interview from Halcyon Days. You can play Robinett’s Adventure in your browser at 2600 Online.)


  1. As for MUD: don’t worry, I have plans to round it up soon as well. 

 
 

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Looking for a Web Designer/Developer

For a project that’s still in the phase of contemplation and feasibility study right now, I’d be interested in talking to any readers who happen to be experienced web developers. If I go forward with it — and whether I do or not may come to hinge on any feedback I get as a result of this little message — it will encompass both an aesthetic design and a significant technical — read, custom programming — component. I understand that those two roles will quite likely need to be played by two or more people, and that’s fine, although they would ideally be people who already have experience working together as a team.

On the technical end, I’d like to use WordPress if at all possible, as I already have a lot of experience with it and it works well for me. Thus a developer experienced with building on the WordPress platform would be the best candidate. That said, if after hearing my nascent plans you feel some other content-management system would work better I’m willing to listen and possibly even be convinced.

Note that I’m not asking for any freebies here. I’m happy to pay fair value for good, professional-level work — although if you do enjoy the my writing and want to give me a little discount on that basis, I certainly wouldn’t be too proud to accept it.

So, if you’d be interested in talking further, please drop me a line at maher@filfre.net and introduce yourself (if we don’t know each other already, that is). Links to samples of your work would be appreciated. If you happen to be a Patreon patron, please let me know that as well.

Sorry to have to be so cagey in public about what this is all about. I hope you know how it is with these things. I don’t want to make any public pronouncements about things that quite possibly won’t happen. But don’t worry: this blog isn’t going anywhere.

Huge thanks as always for your readership and your support, and see you again on Friday!