Well, this is a downer way to start 2023. I was just about to tuck into my Christmas dinner this year… last year. When my newsfeed popped up that Archer Maclean had died. If you’re a gamer of a certain age, that name should hit you with a wave of nostalgia. For me, as soon as I read the news, I was taken back to a childhood memory. My older brother and I were big fans of the arcade game, Karate Champ. It was eventually ported to the Commodore 64 in 1985 but it (obviously) lacked the arcade’s unique double joystick controls. So, the C64 port didn’t play as well as the arcade version did.
Anyway, that childhood memory recalled the time that my older brother came home from a shopping trip in town with a copy of International Karate for our Commodore 64 in early 1987. This was my introduction to the work of Archer Maclean. International Karate was no Karate Champ… it was better. Both good beat ’em ups of the day and two games that would go on to be an example of an early video game court case. When released in the US, International Karate was given a title change to World Karate Championship and was published by Epyx, Inc. See, Data East, who published Karate Champ felt that International Karate/World Karate Championship was a blatant rip-off of their arcade hit.
On the surface, you can kind of see their point too. Both games feature karate and both had characters in red and white karate gis. Both had similar move sets, both had a judge in the background, both had a similar scoring system and more. There was no denying it, the two games were strikingly similar. Still, as Archer Maclean said at the time when he was quizzed over the similarities that of course they are similar, they are both games about a karate tournament. The court case saw it that way too, even though they found a total of fifteen similarities (most of them being the moves).
Initially, Date East won and World Karate Championship had to be pulled from the shelves. However, Epyx, Inc. appealed the decision. The result of the appeal was that Data East (publishers of Karate Champ) could not claim that they owned the concept of a karate tournament, they didn’t own the rights to karate moves and they didn’t own the rights to point scoring of a karate tournament, etc. These are the fundamentals of karate that are open for anyone to use. ‘Scènes à faire doctrine’ was used, a principle in copyright law in which certain elements of a creative work are held to be not protected when they are mandated by or customary to the genre. In this case, karate. So then, a very long story short and Data East lost the appeal, leaving Epyx, Inc. free to publish World Karate Championship in the US. I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent here, this is an article of me sharing my memories playing Archer Maclean games, not looking at this court case. So then…
I was only 10 years old when I first played International Karate on our C64 and I’m 46 now as I write this. Even after more than three decades, I still remember waiting for the game to load and Rob Hubbard’s music, one of the most iconic tunes on the C64. My brother played first as he did buy the game and we only had one joystick at the time. I just sat there in awe. We did have a copy of Karate Champ on the C64 (the game both my brother and I loved in the arcade), but the home port was lacking. But now, now we had International Karate on our C64 and it was better. The animations were smooth, the graphics were great, the very synth-like oriental music and those crunching sound effects. I hadn’t even played the game yet, I just sat there watching my brother play and yet, I already knew I was in for something special.
My memory is a little hazy from 36 years ago and I don’t recall if you could play International Karate in two-player with one joystick and the other player on the keyboard. It probably was possible, but I know that we didn’t try it because nobody wanted to use the keyboard. So, we just took it in turns. My brother would play until he lost and then he would hand the joystick to me and it was my turn. I do remember reading the cassette inlay/instructions and yelling out how to do the moves as my brother played. No idea if it helped or hindered him though, I’m sure having your 10-year-old little brother scream ‘pull down for the sweep’ or ‘press fire and up for a flying kick’ every few seconds was pretty off-putting.
We had a copy of Gauntlet for Christmas 1986, nothing to do with Archer Maclean, I know. But, having Gauntlet and International Karate is what spurred my brother to buy a second joystick for our Commodore 64 so we could play together… and play we did. Hours, we’d spend hours punching and kicking each other in the face with me receiving most of the punching and kicking, in the game not real life. I was only 10 and I wasn’t as good at the game as my brother was. But, I got better. My older brother left school in 1987 and got his first job, which gave me more time to practice on International Karate. When he was at work and after I had finished school, I’d come home and load the game up and play.
Over the collective hours of practising, I became pretty damn good. At the weekends, I didn’t have school and my brother didn’t have work. The C64 would be switched on, International Karate loaded up and we’d go at it. I didn’t need the instructions to know the moves now, I knew them off by heart. Playing all weekend over several weekends, I began to not lose as many games as I used to. Each week, I got better and I started to win. Judging the perfect time to pull off a flying kick to the face for a full point, somersaulting over my brother and doing that low-kneeling punch to the gut was always a favourite trick of mine. International Karate was more than a game, it was one of the things that helped build our brotherly relationship. My older brother and I were close growing up and still are.
With my brother having a job and earning his own money, in 1988 he bought himself an Amiga 500. The Commodore 64 took up permanent residence in my bedroom as it made way for its 16-bit counterpart. So, I got to play International Karate (and others) a lot more. Also in 1988, International Karate + happened. Well technically, it was released on the 8-bit computers in 87, but it saw a 16-bit port in 88. Oh yeah, that sibling rivalry came flooding back. Sliding the 3.5″ IK+ disk into the Amiga disk drive, waiting for the game to load and hearing that awesome Rob Hubbard music once more (remixed by Dave Lowe), the soundtrack to my childhood. The IK+ logo appeared on the screen, to be dissolved via pixels. That’s a memory that is forever etched into my subconscious. We hadn’t even played the game yet and my bother and I just sat there with big, Cheshire Cat-styled grins on our faces.
Thankfully, my brother had the foresight to buy two joysticks for his Amiga 500, so the IK+ two-player fights were a go from the off. But before the scrapping commenced, we just sat there and watched the intro. The credits with game design, programming, graphics, animation and sound effects, all done by Archer Maclean. He did everything except the music. The ‘rainbow’ fighters showing off their moves around the edges of the screen. Then the screen with the keyboard commands popped up. So much crammed into it, you could change the speed of the game, the colour of the ripples/sunset on the water, ‘T trousers’, what did that mean? Then there was the ‘???? lots of codes’ thing, we had no idea what all of that was. But the most important instruction was ‘F2 2 player game’. That’s all we cared about.
With both joysticks plugged in and a swift tap of the F2 key, we were playing some International Karate +. The first thing that hit us was the three characters. I mean, my brother did press F2, so why three characters? See, there was no Internet back then with trailers, lets plays, reviews and such. Potential spoilers were pretty much non-existent. Yeah, there were gaming magazines, but they were easy to miss/avoid and so, we knew nothing about IK+ until that moment when we loaded it up and played it for the first time. The three characters thing really was a surprise and after a bit of confusion and frantic joystick waggling, we quickly worked out that my brother was playing as the fella in the white and I was the one in red. As we were working out who was who, the blue fella walked over and kicked me in the face.
Thanks to our previous knowledge of the first game, it didn’t take us long to get to grips with International Karate + and before too long, we were kicking bum-cheeks. Most of the old moves were there but some had been replaced with new moves. That backflip was handy for getting out of tight spots, the headbutt was brutally blunt and then there was that jumping split-kick. One of the greatest feelings when playing IK+ was taking out both opponents with that one.
We played for hours and hours. Quite quickly we worked out that if we teamed up and both went for the blue guy, that gave us a better chance of both staying in the fight. Unfortunately, as you could hit each other, both going for the same guy often ended up with one of us getting a hit on the other. We would mix it up between two-player games and just seeing how far each of us could get playing single-player. I recall a time when my brother was playing and I just watched and as I did, I remembered that intro with the keyboard commands. That ‘T trousers’ thing suddenly came to mind. So, I leaned forwards and tapped the T key on the Amiga 500 and what happened was one of the most memorable and iconic moments in gaming history.
My brother burst out laughing as the tough karate dudes stood there with their trousers around their ankles, doing a double take and then staring at the screen, at us watching them. ‘How did you do that!’ my brother exclaimed after he finally finished laughing. So, I pressed T again to show him. He pressed it and after a while, the pressing of T became a bit of a game in itself. We would have to try and sneak in a cheeky key-tap without the other one of us noticing, as we played. My favourite was having the Amiga on the floor (we didn’t have a computer desk) and I’d fake a yawn-stretch, reaching out with my leg and tapping the T with my big toe. I became a bit of a ninja at stealth International Karate + trouser dropping and it never got old. Friends and neighbours would come round for a play now and then and yes, we would stealth International Karate + trouser drop on them too. There really was something magical whenever someone witnessed it for the first time. The cocktail of disbelief and unstoppable laughing was infectious.
My brother was and still is, a massive snooker fan. So, when Archer Maclean released Jimmy White’s ‘Whirlwind’ Snooker on the Amiga, you bet he was there on launch day to buy a copy. I was never much of a fan of snooker, so I didn’t really get much from this one. But, I always enjoyed watching my brother play it. I was a teenager by then too, I was 15 in 1991. I began to take an interest and be impressed by how games were made then. There had been 3D games before Jimmy White’s ‘Whirlwind’ Snooker of course, and yet, this title really was unlike anything before it. Yeah, it was ‘only snooker’ but it was snooker done brilliantly.
I honestly got a real kick out of watching my brother play. It looked about as real as snooker could on a computer back then. It ran really fast and smooth too. 15-year-old me was impressed by it, even if I never really played it much. In fact, Jimmy White’s ‘Whirlwind’ Snooker was probably the game that did broaden my interest in gaming. Before then, all I cared about was that the game was good. With this game though, I began to want to know how games were made. In a roundabout way, this blog and my writing of gaming books came about because I wanted to learn more about games, how they were made and the workings of the industry in general. And I didn’t even realise that until I wrote this article.
My brother used to set up snooker tournaments with friends and neighbours on Jimmy White’s ‘Whirlwind’ Snooker. I remember him drawing up knockout tables and arranging the matches and so on. There was never any prize at the end of it, just a bit of fun among friends. It was like a mini Embassy World Snooker Championship and our living room was The Crucible.
Even though it was just a game of snooker, Archer Maclean still worked in his trademark humour. If you took too long to take a shot, the balls on the table would spawn animated faces and limbs and taunt the player, they would blow raspberries at you and more or hold up signs telling you to ‘get on with it’. This humour was something I touched on with the ‘T’ thing in IK+, that game was loaded with all sorts of stuff. Secret codes you could type in would make Pac-Man appear in the background. Fish would dive out and back into the water, a spider would drop down on a web and much more. IK+ had a ton of things going on that would put a smile on your face and Archer Maclean clearly had a lot of fun putting stuff like that into his games.
1992 saw the release of Archer Maclean’s Pool. All it really was, was a reskin of Jimmy White’s ‘Whirlwind’ Snooker but with pool instead of snooker. The exact same graphics (with pool balls instead of snooker balls), the same sounds and even the UI was the same. Now, this one I did play quite a bit of. I have always just preferred pool to snooker. It came with three different types of pool to play. UK 8-ball, US 8-ball and 9-ball. I actually learned how to play 9-ball from this game.
By the time that Jimmy White’s 2: Cueball came out in 1999, the Amiga was dead and a PC was the gaming machine of choice. My brother had moved out of the family home several years previously. I was 23 by then and I too was flying the nest. Still, as my brother and I were close, I was often around his house and would play Jimmy White’s 2: Cueball on his PC. What you got with this game was both snooker and pool in one package, along with a massive graphics overhaul. It looked great and a far cry from the first game.
The game was set in ‘Jimmy White’s house’, though I’m pretty sure it was nothing like his actual house. Anyway, you could move between two rooms, the snooker room and the pool room. This was quite a step up from the first game where you were stuck in a pitch-black room with a snooker table. Outside of the obvious snooker and pool, the two rooms had quite a bit of interactivity. A darts board that you could play on. There was a board so you could indulge in some draughts/checkers. A jukebox with selectable music and even a fruit machine. Then there was the best plaything, an arcade cabinet with Dropzone on it. Dropzone was Archer Maclean’s first-ever game, released back in 1984. It was basically a rip-off of Defender but a really bloody good rip-off.
My brother and I spend a fair bit of time playing Jimmy White’s 2: Cueball into the wee small hours and often while drinking plenty of beer. It was a marvel with everything that you could do in the game. We’d play snooker and my brother would completely destroy me. We’d play pool and I always faired better. If we fancied a break, we’d throw some ‘arras at the dartboard or try to best each other with a high score on Dropzone. This game was full of things to play around with, most of which I’ve not even mentioned here.
By the time the next game was released, Jimmy White’s Cueball World in 2001, I had my own gaming PC. With this one, it was a bit more ‘comical’ as you took part in playing pool using themed tables. A standard pool table, one in a graveyard where you would play against a zombie. A table set up on a beach, one in a James Bond-type villain’s lair and more. You could play snooker, pool and even billiards. Once more, this was crammed with extras and mini-games including thumb wars. Sometimes my brother would pop round my place and we would play a few frames, or I would be at his and the beer and snooker/pool sessions began once more. Jimmy White’s Cueball World was also the last Archer Maclean game that I played. Oh, he made more, there was Pool Paradise from 2004, Archer Maclean’s Mercury from 2005 and 2009’s Wheelspin (AKA Speed Zone).
As I said, I never played those last few games. It’s not like I felt that Archer Maclean didn’t have it anymore. More a case of the fact that life began to take over, work, relationships, etc. Gaming began to take a bit of a backseat for me in the mid-2000s as my focus began to shift elsewhere and more of my free time was being eaten up. Still, from the first time I played International Karate in 1987 to Jimmy White’s Cueball World in 2001, Archer Maclean provided my brother and me with hours upon hours of entertainment and long-lasting memories.
Archer Maclean died aged 60 on the 17th of December, 2022 after battling cancer (some reports seem to claim that he died Christmas Eve). One of the true greats of the British gaming industry, now gone. Through his games, I wanted to learn how and why games were made and understand the gaming industry more. They were also something that helped to form a bond between my brother and me growing up.
R.I.P Archer Maclean. Press ‘T’ to pay respects.