Growing up in and through the 80s and being an avid gamer, ‘bits’ was the buzzword to use. You’d just throw it into random gaming conversations, even if you really didn’t know what you were talking about, in an attempt to sound like you knew what you were talking about. Bits, they were everywhere for a couple of decades.
This site’s name even comes from the whole bits thing too. Little Bits of Gaming (as was the site name before I added moves to the mix) came about for a couple of reasons. First was due to the fact that I originally wrote smaller articles that you could read in a couple of minutes about gaming. So the main aim of this blog was to provide ‘little bits of gaming’. The second reason was the whole bits connection to gaming.
I’m sure younger readers will have no idea what I’m talking about right now as bits are just not used anymore, unless you are talking retro gaming. Truth be told, I’m not even sure how or why the whole bits thing began, it seems to stem from the third generation of gaming. From that early to the mid-80s era when Nintendo launched their Famicom/NES and Sega had their Master System 8-bit consoles. But then again, I think the whole 8-bit thing was perhaps retroactively created once the more powerful 16-bit machines hit the market, as a way to differentiate between the two generations. Sega even had ’16-bit’ proudly displayed on their Mega Drive console. See, we didn’t really use ‘gaming generations’ as a phrase back then, or at least I certainly didn’t. We had 8-bit and 16-bit machines instead.
Now, I actually grew up with computers and not consoles. We had a Commodore 64 in the mid-80s when Nintendo and Sega were doing their thing. I had friends who owned gaming consoles, so I did get to play on them. But it was computers and not consoles that I grew up with, in our house as a kid. Even then, we never once referred to our C64 as an 8-bit computer ever. But now? Now the C64 is very much considered an 8-bit machine… even if it wasn’t at the time. In fact, our first ever gaming machine was an Atari 2600, which very much was a console. But it never had bits attached to it. The 2600 is considered to be part of the second generation of gaming. So would that have made it 4-bit as it was the previous generation before the NES and Master System 8-bit machines? Which would then make the first generation of gaming the 2-bit era… Right? But we never called them that, they were just things we could play games on, bits never came into it.
Anyway, after that 8-bit age of gaming, along came the likes of the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16, Super Famicom/Super NES and the Mega Drive/Genesis 16-bit era. With a few early contenders for a 16 and 32-bit mix thrown in too (Neo Geo). The numbered bits thing really was just a way to highlight that a machine was more powerful. About twice as powerful in fact, hence the doubling of the numbers from 8 to 16-bit. But here’s a question, what the hell was a ‘bit’? As far as I can tell, a ‘bit’ is the limit on how many colours the could be displayed, the resolution of the graphics and the basic processing power. I may be wrong, but that is about the best and simplest explanation I can find. So basically, the more bits, the better the game looked.
Really, it was just a way to measure the difference in processing power of the machines. I’m not the most technically minded person around, so someone else could perhaps explain bits better than I. But the point is that we didn’t really know or even care what bits were, it just meant the game looked better. But we certainly held our heads high if we had a 16-bit machine while someone else had an 8-bit one, even if we really had no idea what it all meant.
The bits thing carried onto the fifth generation of gaming too, it was now the 32-bit age. The Atari Jaguar, 3DO, Sega Saturn and of course, the PlayStation. Some machines even liked to boast their bits in their names, Amiga CD32 and Sega’s Sega 32X add-on both have 32 right there in their names. While Nintendo decided to one-up everyone else and release the Nintendo 64. 64-bits in the 32-bit era? I suppose that technically, the N64 was 64-bit… using some clever 32-bit architecture. Again, I’m not massively tech-savvy, so someone else can explain how and why the N64 was both a 64 and 32-bit machine at the same time.
Then we moved on to the next and sixth generation of gaming. This is where the bits thing began to disappear. The whole idea of calling each successive age of gaming a ‘generation’ really came alive around now. Even though we were now in a 64-bit age, it just never really got used that much. Even the machines themselves dropped the idea of using the bits in their names too. The Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, GameCube and Xbox did away with 64-bits and were just named or named as sequel machines. We were still in the 64-bit era of gaming, but no one really called it that, it was just the new generation of gaming. Bits were dying out.
Of course, this all brings us up to date in terms of bits, the bits thing is just not really used anymore. We are now in the ninth generation of gaming. The seventh generation, the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii era would’ve been the 128-bit age. The eighth, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Wii U/Switch consoles would be the 256-bit era. Then, of course, the now current and ninth PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S generation would be the 512-bit age of gaming. Yet, we never use bits anymore, do we? I’ve never heard anyone refer to their PlayStation 5 as a 512-bit machine as we used to a while back.
It’s just strange to me that at the time, we never really used bits to describe our consoles. Nobody back in the 80s said the NES was an 8-bit machine, it was just the NES. We never called the Mega Drive a 16-bit console… even though it had 16-bit right on its front. We may have used bits to sound like we knew what we were talking about on a technical level, when we really didn’t. But nobody ever said “I’m going home to play my 16-bit console”, it was just the Mega Drive or the SNES. Basically, bits were and still are a load of old bollocks. A buzz phrase used now, retroactively to separate the early generations of gaming… but not the earliest or the latter ones. There just seems to be the 8-bit and 16-bit eras and then it becomes the PlayStation and beyond eras… sometimes very occasionally called the 32-bit era. A lot of youngsters don’t even know there was gaming before the 8-bit era because of the focus that the 8 and 16-bit years, while those earlier consoles are forgotten. Or they get bundled in with the 8-bit consoles when they were not 8-bit at all.
Bring back bits I say and let’s use it from the 2-bit consoles right through to the modern-day just for consistency’s sake. Instead of just the 8, 16 and sometimes, the 32-bit years. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to review some indie 8 and 16-bit style games on my 512-bit console.
Well, this is going to be a big one. I’ve been given a review code for Capcom Arcade Stadium, a collection of classic Capcom games from the arcades… A total of thirty-two Capcom arcade titles in one amazing package. And I’m going to go through all thirty-two games to review this pretty impressive collection, as well as take a look at the overall bundle and see just how well put together it all is. There’s a lot to cover here and I’ll be going through all the games in chronological order (which I’ve not previously looked at, so doing this blind) and as there are so many, I’ll just gloss over each one. With thirty-two games to cover, I had better crack on.
Vulgus (1984). A top-down, vertical shooter. This one is really rather simple compared to other similar shoot ’em ups. There’s no ending and you just keep going for a high score until your lives run out. No actual weapon upgrades or anything like that. For an early shooter, it’s pretty average.
Pirate Ship Higemaru (1984). A top-down maze game. Imagine if Pac-Man and Bomberman had a baby, you’d get Pirate Ship Higemaru. Playing as a deckhand, you pick up and throw barrels at attacking pirates. Clear the screen of all the pirates, move onto the next stage. Simple stuff, but pretty good, simple fun.
1942 (1984). One of the all-time classic shooters. The first in the long-running `194X games, and there are more to come in this collection too. It doesn’t have most of the features and refinements of later games in the franchise, but 1942 is still a very playable shoot ’em up regardless.
Commando (1985). I think this may have been the first-ever Capcom game I ever played in the arcade. It’s another classic shooter and one that was always a very tough challenge. Great shooter even if it is bloody hard.
Ghosts ‘n Goblins (1985). Speaking of hard, this is often described as being our generation’s Dark Souls. A fairly apt descriptive I guess… Even if Dark Souls was much easier than Ghosts ‘n Goblins. This really is some tip-top platforming-shooter action. And yes, it really is ‘effing difficult, even on the easiest setting. Utterly brilliant though.
Section Z (1985). A really interesting multi-directional shooter where enemies come from all sides. With a nice gimmick where, at the touch of a button, you can change the direction that you are facing. Really handy when the screen starts to fill with enemies. I don’t recall playing this back in the day, but it’s a pretty decent shooter.
Tatakai no Banka (1986). This one was Japanese only, no English version. I assumed it was only ever released in Japan, but a quick check says it was released as Trojan in the west. Not sure where there is no English version here then? A side-scrolling beat ’em up kind of thing that was just a bit too dull. I played as if Double Dragon had raped Ghosts ‘n Goblins and neither was happy with the end result, very okay-ish.
Legendary Wings (1986). Another game I think I missed originally. This is a vertical-shooter with a twist, as at certain points, the game changes to a side-scrolling platform-shooter. Basic power-up stuff here, but it plays pretty well and does get extra points for mixing up the gameplay styles.
Bionic Commando (1987). This was one of my favourites growing up, I spent so much coinage on this bad boy as a kid. A multi-directional scrolling platform-shooter with a brilliant gameplay mechanic… A grappling hook. Well, a grappling arm to be more accurate. Shoot bad guys, get power-ups and swing from platform to platform using your grappling arm. I don’t think I ever played this ‘properly’ back then, I just used to love swinging about the levels.
1943: The Battle of Midway (1987). The next entry in the 194X franchise and this one is so much better than the original 1942. One of my all-time favourite shooters as it took what was great about the previous 1942 and sprinkled it with just the right amount of spice to heat things up.
Forgotten Worlds (1988). Another side-scrolling shooter, but with some great bells and whistles. It plays a bit like the previously covered, Section Z with its multi-directional shooting, only if it had swallowed the kind of steroids WWE wrestlers use (allegedly). Wonderful bold late-eighties graphics, top shooting action and a nice weapons upgrade shop too. Oh and some awesome, huge boss battles.
Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (1988). Okay, this collection is seriously spoiling me now. One of my favourite sequels, only bettered by the sublime SNES version. This is what happens when a dev team gets together and says ‘that Ghosts ‘n Goblins really need to be harder’. More rock-solid platforming-shooter action with some of the toughest stages in any arcade game ever… And I love it.
Strider (1989). When it comes to iconic Capcom games, I think that Strider is high on the list. Hack ‘n slash, platforming action with a ninja-type bloke who has a plasma sword. Strider really is one of Capcom’s finest arcade titles. Fast and frantic gameplay with some really creative level design.
Dynasty Wars (1989). Get ready for some side-scrolling horseback riding. This is a scrolling beat ’em up, kind of thing with some light RPG elements. Smack people in the face with a large weapon as you scroll through each stage, pick up orb for experience and level up. I was never really a fan of this one back then, not a real Capcom classic for me. An okay game I guess.
Final Fight (1989). Now we’re talking! One of the finest scrolling beat ’em ups ever made. Big chunky graphics, a lot of punching people in the face, an all-time classic and a real coin muncher. This is what arcade gaming was all about. Best to play the Japanese version of this due to ‘reasons’.
1941: Counter Attack (1990). More 194X action and what I love about these shooters is how they evolved over the years. Yes, it is more scrolling shooty action, but these game get better with every instalment to the franchise. Loads of enemies, loads of bullets to dodge and some pretty epic boss fights.
Senjo no Okami II (1990). No English version of this one, which is strange as it was released in the west as Mercs. Plays pretty much like the classic Commando (it was a direct sequel) but now with multi-directional scrolling and weapon power-ups. A rather tough shooter but great fun to play.
Mega Twins (1990). Another game I’ve not been familiar with before. A platforming, hack ‘n slash thing with some very cute graphics. Not a great title, not my cup of tea at all.
Carrier Air Wing (1990). This is the follow up to U.N. Squadron (missing from this collection). A classic bit of side-scrolling shooter, using fighter jets. Pick one of three jets, and go shoot some bad guys out of the sky. There’s a weapon upgrade shop between levels. This is a damn good shooter.
Street Fighter II (1991). Does this game even need an introduction? One of the greatest beat ’em up and greatest games ever made. This is the standard, vanilla version of the game, great for purists. No frills, just great Street Fighter and iconic action.
Captain Commando (1991). Capcom made some great scrolling beat ’em ups and this was one of their best. Crazy characters and bold graphics. Plays very much like Final Fight, but for me, I always thought this was the better game.
Varth: Operation Thunderstorm (1992). A vertical shooter that really wouldn’t be out of place in the 194X franchise. Nothing remarkable about this one and it plays a good shooter regardless. Scroll up the screen, shoot enemies, grab power-ups, kill end of level bosses. Standard stuff, but still very playable.
Warriors of Fate (1992). The follow up to Dynasty Wars, and for me, the better of the two games. Still yer standard scrolling beat ’em up stuff. But this one feels much more robust and playable all round. A decent and a very satisfying brawler, with that familiar Capcom feel.
Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting (1992). More Street Fighter II and this one offers some tweaks over the original. Different colour costumes, slightly altered special moves and the ability to play as any of the four bosses. It’s Street Fighter II with some minor bells and whistles.
Super Street Fighter II Turbo (1994). Of all the different versions of this game, this is probably the best. The original eight characters, the four bosses and four new characters too, with new stages. More costume choices, variable speeds, the addition of the super meter to pull off awesome super combos. Plus, this was the game that introduced Akuma to the franchise. If you’re going to play some SF II, then this really is the best version.
Powered Gear (1994). Another Japanese only rom here, which once more is strange as it did have a western release where it was called Armored Warriors. Anyway, this is another scrolling beat ’em up… Only in mech-suits. A really good game that feels very ‘chunky’ as you stomp around in your mech. Some nice little touches, like being able to walk over little peeps before they can get in their own mechs. A lot of crunching metal as mech fights mech and everything plays and feels great. Proper arcade action.
Cyberbots: Full Metal Madness (1995). This is actually a spin-off from the previous Powered Gear (Armored Warriors) game. Whereas that was a scrolling beat ’em up, this is a one on one fighter. This really wasn’t too bad. Chose a pilot and then select a mech, the combo of which actually affects how the story and even gameplay pans out. Some great destructible scenery and the fighting feels really ‘meaty’. Perhaps not as great as Street Fighter II as a beat ’em up, but still very much worth playing.
19XX: The War Against Destiny (1995). Yup, another in the long-running 194X franchise… Only this is 19XX. You already know the score by now. Vertical scrolling shooty-shoot action. This one really is a marvel and is rock solid hard, goes from pretty tricky to serious bullet hell within a couple of levels. Seriously great shoot ’em up and one not for the faint of heart.
Battle Circuit (1997). More scrolling beat ’em up action, and this one is beautifully crazy. With a very cartoony-like art style and featuring some pretty insane characters and enemies. Really OTT action with a penchant for the WTF… You fight an Elvis impersonator. Cracking good fun
Giga Wing (1999). If there was one thing that Capcom were fantastic at, that wasn’t the beat ’em up, then the shoot ’em up was that thing. This is another vertically scrolling shooter, kind of like the 1944 series… Only not actually part of it. Rather unusual for a vertical scroller, this uses a horizontal screen. Different planes to fly, each with different weapons sets and power ups. Plenty of action and some really great level designs.
1944: The Loop Master (2000). How many of these 194X games are there? Like the previous Giga Wing, this is another vertical shooter that uses a horizontal screen. Lots of shooting, power ups and big bosses to take out. Pretty standard stuff, but a good shooter nonetheless.
Progear (2001). The last game in this collection… And it’s another shoot ’em up featuring planes. Capcom really liked that motif eh? At least this is a side-scroller just to be a bit different. This is a serious bullet hell of a game, really great to play too. A steampunk-esque slant to the graphics and the best shooter in this whole collection.
As a gamer in his mid-forties now, I grew up in and around the arcades of the eighties and nineties, so this collection is right up my street. Presentation-wise, Capcom Arcade Stadium is a sheer delight. Each of the games in this collection are represented via their own 3D rendered cabinets and all of the games are loaded with plenty of options. Multiple display settings with scanlines and more, screen sizes (full screen, arcade cabinet view and more), screen orientation (great for those with a rotatable monitor to play vertical shooters in the correct aspect ratio). Then there’s the game settings, where you can change the difficulty, time limits, speed (if your reactions are not as great as they once were), extra lives frequency and more. Plus, you can fully customise the controls and even use a rapid-fire mode for all those shooters. With different games having multiple different settings. So you can really tailor each game to suit your very own playstyle.
There are things like score and special challenges, with scores being uploaded to the interwebs and the global leaderboards. You can read each of the game’s manuals for a quick lesson on how to play. There’s even a save/load games states feature too… Pretty handy for some of the harder titles, or if you just want to take a break for a while. Plus, a rewind feature, so if you mess up, just rewind and try again. You can even choose to play the original Japanese or English ports, seeing as some of the western releases were censored over the original Japanese ones, this is a nice feature to have. And there’s local multiplayer options, depending on the game. Honestly, in terms of options and variables, you really are spoiled here. You can tweak and refine each game to suit just how you want to play. Perhaps you can finally get to the end of some of those arcade classics that have eluded you for many years now? I mean, I actually finally finished Ghosts ‘n Goblins after thirty-six years.
Now, Capcom Arcade Stadium is actually free to download, but you only get two games with it (as of writing anyway). 1943: The Battle of Midway and Ghosts ‘n Goblins (I believe that G ‘n G is a promotional offer and is normally paid for). Two classics for sure and both worth it for nothing. But you do have to pay for the other games in this collection, and they come in pre-set packs. The three packs that you can download for all thirty-two games, Dawn of the Arcade (1984–1988), Arcade Revolution (1989–1992), and Arcade Evolution (1992–2001), come in at £11.99 each. So, for the whole game with all thirty-two titles, you’re looking at spending £35.97 (though that is just over £1.20 a game). Still, that is a pretty big chunk of cash for a lot of decades-old games… Some better than others. Then there’s the fact that Capcom have said they may add even more games in the future, so more money to spend? And as far as I can tell, you have to buy the packs for the games, you can’t pay for games individually, which I think is a mistake. I mean, there are three versions of Street Fighter II in this. Do you really need three versions of the same game? I feel it would be better if there was an option to just buy the individual games that you want, then you could tailor create your very own arcade. On the surface, forking out £36 on two and over three decades old games does seem a bit steep.
Emulation wise (cos that is how these games run), everything played fine and dandy. I didn’t come across any graphical or audio glitches in any of the thirty-two games. The controls felt responsive using a standard Xbox pad, but Capcom Arcade Stadium does support arcade joysticks too, in fact, there’s a specific option for arcade sticks. So if you have one, I’m sure these games will feel far more authentic using a ‘proper’ controller. Oh and the more you play, the more you earn Capcom Arcade Stadium POints (CASPO), this is basically experience points. The more you play, the more CASPO you earn, you level (class) up and unlock some cosmetics such as background wallpapers, etc.
So I guess the big question is, is it worth paying for? This is a bit tricky to answer, given the fact that there have already been several Capcom arcade bundles in the past. The likes of Capcom Arcade Cabinet or Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle does mean that several of these games have previously been released over the years and you probably own a few of the titles already (I know I do). So it may not seem worth paying again for games that you already own. The fact you have to buy the packs and can’t buy games individually is a definite downside too, as separate games would make perfect sense for those that have previously bought similar collections and already have some of the games. Still, for everything, all the games, all three packs, £35.97 isn’t a bad price. Or you can buy a bundle of all three packs in one, which is slightly cheaper at £31.99 (around £1.07 per game). Then you have to add all the extra features, options and variables for all the titles too. You do get a lot for your money, even if £35 (or £32) seems a big price tag for 30-year-old games, I think it is worth it in all honesty. I’ve spent more than that on recent AAA games and not got as much gameplay out of them as I have here. Seriously just buy the triple bundle collection for £32 and enjoy some awesome Capcom arcade greatness.
I do have a few niggles. Personally, I’d like to have seen some history on the games. Some background info on who made them, original release dates. Maybe a gallery, concept art, a jukebox to listen to some of the amazing Capcom music. I’m a big fan of gaming history and to see a lack of actual history about the games here is a tad disappointing. They could have even put it all behind unlockables, complete certain challenges in the game to unlock artwork, music, etc. Would’ve added some extra gameplay value. As great as the games in this collection are, there is a real lack of celebrating their history in gaming. There are some glaring omissions from this collection of games (Black Tiger, Gun.Smoke, Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors), but as I already mentioned, Capcom will be adding new titles in the future. I doubt we’ll see any of Capcom’s licensed games, The Punisher, Alien vs. Predator, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, etc. There is local multiplayer, but no online multiplayer, which is also a bit of a disappointment.
For me, I think as far as these arcade collections go, that Capcom Arcade Stadium is one of the very best (if not the best) on offer right now. The sheer amount of options for each game is amazing, and you really can find the perfect difficulty for each and every game to suit your own style. It’s clear this collection has been put together with a lot of love and not just a quick cash-grab (shame about the lack of histories though). Of the thirty-two games here, there really isn’t a bad one in the lot. Sure there are few average ones, but there are many more brilliant titles. Plus there are a few only released in Japan ones or titles I didn’t know about and were fun to discover for the first time. I’m not sold on three versions of Street Fighter II though, I’d rather they just had one of the later versions (Super Street Fighter II Turbo) and then two other games instead, perhaps even one of the Street Fighter Alpha titles? Still, if you have the cash and really want some classic Capcom arcade hits, then you really can’t go wrong with Capcom Arcade Stadium. It’s a wonderful collection with plenty to keep you coming back for more. Highly recommended, buy it now with all three game packs. Just need Konami to put a collection together and as well made as this now…
Okay so before I get into this one, I need to explain my big plan here. I want to write an insightful book covering some of the best of British game developers and publishers of the 8, 16 and 32 bit bit era of gaming and some of their games. How they started, the games they released and where they are today. This article right here is a small prototype of what I want to book to be, the final book will be a much bigger idea. This is just a quick-ish look at one of many British game developers and publishers I aim to cover. I already have three of these written up, this is only one of them (an abridged version at that too) and there is a lot more to cover.
This article will be a look at Imagine Software just to whet the appetite. I also have write-ups of Psygnosis and Ocean already done too. But those are just the tip of the iceberg as I’m planning on covering Elite, U.S. Gold (despite the name they were British), Gremlin Graphics, The Bitmap Brothers, Ultimate Play The Game (who later became Rare), DMA Design (who became Rockstar) and also cover the great Peter Molynuex’s companies including Bullfrog and Lionhead. Quite possibly more will be added to the list as I continue to write more and more…Codemasters?
I have been researching this for the last 12 months or so, watching documentaries, reading articles, digging up old gaming magazines and of course mining my own memories of growing up playing the games of these companies myself. I have a tonne of information all ready to go, thousands upon thousands of notes and facts that just need re-typing and formatting into readable content. Seeing as retro gaming is pretty big right now, I think a book like this could do very well. Plus I feel it will be an insightful education for non-British gamers who didn’t realise just how strong the British game industry was in the 80s and 90s. You see, while North America was feeling the fallout from the infamous ‘video game crash of 1983’, back in Blighty – we were just not affected at all. Nintendo didn’t save us or the game’s industry the same way its been perceived as doing in America simply because the U.K already had an established gaming industry that was growing stronger and stronger each year. More on my overall plan at the end of this article.
Allow me to introduce you to one of the most popular British game companies of the early 80s – Imagine Software.
Back the the early 80s the ‘bedroom coders’ were on the rise. These were often very small teams of two or three people – sometimes only one, who would sit there in their bedrooms inputting hundreds and hundreds of lines of code into their ZX Spectrums or Commodore Vic-20s creating their own games. The Indie game industry we have today owes a lot to the originators of this modern trend.
It was in 1982 when Imagine Software was founded in Liverpool, England. But we need to go back a couple more years to another software company also based in Liverpool, Bug-Byte Software Ltd in 1980 who became famous for publishing the massively popular game Manic Miner developed by Matthew Smith. Manic Miner is one of British gaming’s all time classics and often cited as one of the games that made the platforming genre what it is today.
It was sometime in 1982 when several Bug-Byte employees left the company and decided to go it alone including; Mark Butler, David Lawson and Eugene Evans. Staying in Liverpool, they set up Imagine Software which has been suggested was named after the most famous song from Liverpool’s most famous son – John Lennon. Imagine quickly made a name for themselves by employing some of the very best coders of the early 80s. Butler and Lawson were very close friends and had previously worked together at one of the countries first ever (if not THE first) microcomputer shops, Microdigital. Which was in the heart of Liverpool city centre.
When they formed Imagine Software, Butler and Lawson invited their old boss and owner of Microdigital – Bruce Everiss to join them and after selling Microdigital, he agreed. Everiss took on the role of Public Relations and everyday operations within Imagine. Mark Butler became the company director while David Lawson and Eugene Evans were lead programmers. But there was one more member of the team that was hired at the request of Lawson – Ian Hetherington who came on-board as the company’s financial adviser.
Unusual for a game company at the time Imagine loved being in-front of the cameras, they would hold interviews and try to get their name in print as much as they could. There is one major example of this with the utterly engrossing BBC documentary Commercial Breaks originally broadcast in 1984 which followed both Imagine and Ocean that was also a huge help in compiling research for this whole project. One thing the guys at Imagine loved to do was show off their success. You would often find articles written about the company founders where they would gloat about once being lonely bedroom coders to showing off their millions of pounds they were making at the time. Imagine were PR experts lead by Everiss and never turned down the chance to get their names in the press. Yes, Imagine became huge in the early 80s but I feel I’m jumping ahead slightly here and need to go back to how they became successful to begin with as no matter how great your PR is, a game company is nothing if you don’t have the games to sell.
David Lawson had an idea for a title back when he was still working for Bug-Byte Software before Imagine existed. However, he felt that Bug-Byte were too small to sell his game so he sat on it for a while and when he co-formed Imagine, he realised he was now in the right position to get his game sold. That game was Arcadia.
Released in 1982 for the ZX Spectrum, Arcadia was the first game from Imagine Software. It was a pretty good arcade style shoot em’ up that received very favourable reviews in the gaming magazines back in the day. Arcadia was one of the very early games that helped to forge a path for microcomputer gaming as a whole and laid the foundations of what was to come over the next few years. For its time of release, it sold very well indeed and could be credited with setting up Imagine financially and giving them the leg up they needed which allowed them to become one of the most popular developer/publishers of the day.
The money Arcadia brought in allowed Imagine to grow as they hired more programmers who would go on to produce some of the best games of the early 80s and push the ZX Spectrum to its limits. 1982 was their introduction year, but it was 1983 where Imagine would go from strength to strength as they released game after game after game. Titles such as Alchemist, Ah Diddums, Zzoom and Stonkers – just to name a few, all from 1983. It was as if the stars had aligned as everything just fell into place. Bedroom coders were booming meaning Imagine could pick and choose from the best young talent. The ZX Spectrum, which was Imagine’s main computer of choice for their games was fast becoming the gaming computer of choice and was selling well in England and Imagine were right at the forefront with front row seats to what many consider the birth of the microcomputer gaming industry.
Bedroom coders where becoming a hot property, you could pick up a well known newspaper in 1983 and find interviews featuring these (often) teenagers who had knocked up a game at home and managed to sell it to a publisher making plenty of money in royalties along the way. 1983 was most definitely the best year Imagine could wish for…but 1984 would be the year where Imagine would fall.
Once the money started coming in throughout 1983, Imagine would spend it just as quickly as they earned it. They upgraded to state of the art offices and computers, hired more and more staff to a point where they had around 100 employees – which for a game company in the early 80s was stupidly big. Still, improving your work-space and employees is pretty standard stuff but Imagine tried to grow too big, too quickly. Money was not just being spent on improving the office as huge chucks of their profits were going towards lavish parties and sports cars. The founders drove around in Ferraris, Porches and BMWs, even the mid and lower-level employees drove expensive cars including the cleaners. Imagine’s company director Mark Butler owned a custom built Harris motorbike and at some point in 1983, they even planned to get a helipad built on top of their office – just because they could afford to. Oh and let’s not forget the bike racing team…yes Imagine had their own racing team. Most probably set up just so Butler could enjoy riding his bike(s) at high speed.
Imagine loved flaunting all they had, telling their success story to the press as they were becoming the face of the home computer gaming boom. David Lawson gave their programmes complete freedom to create whatever they wanted with no disruption. Which sounds like an amazing job – but with little direction or discipline, it meant many of the employed coders would just sit around doing nothing and getting paid very well for it too. Though all of this with all the money they made in 1983 and all they were spending, Imagine never bothered to hire a professional accountant. By the end of 1983, the cracks had already began to appear at Imagine as the four heads of the company split down the middle with David Lawson and Ian Hetherington one one side while Mark Butler and Bruce Everiss were on the other side. They couldn’t agree on the direction the company should be heading in and while the disagreements continued – so did the spending of money. The slowly forming cracks became more widened and more fractured. Their games stared to suffer too and what were once well developed and polished titles at the start of 1983 became lazy and messy games be the time Christmas rolled around.
But there was one major factor that would be the end of Imagine…well technically two factors. Psyclapse and Bandersnatch – two games that Imagine had planned that would be truly groundbreaking. Two games that Imagine heavily advertised and two games that they were calling ‘megagames’.
If things at Imagine were starting to look bad before, then they were only going to get much, much worse with these titles. These two megagames that were only two of an intended six – were envisioned to push the ZX Spectrum way beyond its limits. Imagine did all they could to hype up these games to boiling point. Publishers Marshal Cavendish supposedly made a deal for the games that was worth around £11 million…in 1983s money. Which was, back then an obscene amount of cash, especially for just two pieces of software. When the deal was signed, Imagine celebrated by spending even more money. More parties, more sports cars, more racing bikes and the like.
In order for these games to work on the ZX Spectrum, they would have to be sold with some kind of expansion cartridge which drove the cost price of the games up through the roof. These megagames were estimated to have been sold for around £40, which by today’s standards is about normal. But back in late 1983/early 84, Imagine’s games typically sold for around £5-£7, just to put things into perspective.
David Lawson threw himself into developing these games and did something he previously refused to do – oversee and manage the programmers. The ads for the games were already running in the numerous gaming magazines at the time, deals had been made for not only the publishing rights but also the cover art, which was commissioned to be done by the legendary Roger Dean who created the artwork for many rock albums, book covers and even other video games. It was Bandersnatch in particular that took up most of Lawson’s time. There were problems…big problems as the game was no where near complete despite all the hype and advertising Imagine had carried out. The programmers just could not get it to work at all and while all of this was going on, Imagine’s company director, Mark Butler was more interested and invested most of his time in the bike racing team than the development of the software. Butler’s apparent lack of interest in the company meant that Bruce Everiss stepped up as unofficial boss – even if he never wanted to be. Everiss fought hard to keep Imagine from going under.
It was Christmas of 1983 and Imagine wanted to take as much advantage of the silly season as they could. Using an aggressive tactic to try and gain a monopoly of Christmas sales, they hired out the entirety of one of the biggest duplicating factories to produce their games. This meant that their competitors would find it more difficult to get games into shops while Imagine would have an abundance of software all ready to go on sale for Christmas. But the plan backfired for one major reason and one very similar to what bought about the game crash of North America, they over produced. Yes Imagine had plenty of games on the shelves for Christmas, hundreds of thousands of them in fact, but after Christmas the sales dropped as they normally do after the festive season and yet there were still thousands and thousands of Imagine software sitting on the shelves that no one was buying. While we here in Blighty didn’t have anything anywhere near as severe as the 1983 video game crash, sales did slow down. With the tonnes of games still on the shelves in early 1984 and sales figures dropping everywhere, Imagine had no other option but to sell of their games dirt cheap to try and reclaim some of that cash that went into producing them in the first place. Once more, Imagine were spending more money than they were making.
This all tied into the previously mentioned megagames, if they struggled to sell their current games at discounted prices after Christmas then how were they going to sell the these megagames at £40? Seeing development for these games had ground to a halt, publisher Marshal Cavendish began to get very cold feet over the £11 million deal and eventually pulled out. They also demanded any revenue back…money that Imagine had already been spending. To save hemorrhaging money, Imagine could have cut back on staff, downsized if you will – but no as the company began to crumble in early 1984 they held onto their 100 strong employees refusing to let anyone go. There was a plan put in place where Imagine would sell their non-working megagame Bandersnatch to Sinclair Research who in turn could then sell the game for the Sinclair QL computer. For those not in the know, the Sinclair QL computer is one of the biggest microcomputer failures. So obviously that didn’t pan out either.
It was around Christmas of 83 time when director Paul Anderson was making his previously mentioned BBC documentary Commercial Breaks. Filming both Imagine and Ocean with the idea that he would capture an amazing part of history where young entrepreneurs were riding the wave of the video game revolution selling thousands of games over the Christmas period of 1983. Yet what he actually captured on film was the fall of Imagine. It was now the summer of 1984 and after several months of mismanagement, deals falling through and excessive spending of money the roof finally caved in on Imagine and it was all caught on camera thanks to Anderson’s documentary. There is one part in particular from Commercial Breaks where the bailiffs turn up at Imagine’s office to reclaim anything of value. The bailiffs were reclaiming so much equipment from the Imagine office they there even tired to take the cameras from the crew filming Paul Anderson’s documentary thinking it all belonged to Imagine.
On the 9th of July 1984, Imagine were no more, forced to close and declare bankruptcy. They only lasted around 18 months or so – but what a year and a half it was. Imagine were very young and very stupid. They made their fortune, changed the British gaming industry forever and paved the way for many other companies after them. They were trailblazers in many ways but they also managed to destroy everything they worked to build. Many of the head honchos and staff of Imagine went onto other careers within the games industry, some massively successfully so too…
Now I know what some of you older gamers may be thinking right now – that you remember playing Imagine games long after 1984 and yes, you’d be right. So if they closed in 84 then how were you playing their games right up to 1989? Well this is where Ocean Software stepped in as they brought the Imagine name and released some of their games through the the name even if the company itself was dead…but that is a story for the next chapter of this book.
Oh and about those megagames too? Well information on Psyclapse is nonexistent. As far as I can tell, the game never even begun development at all. Imagine just had a name, a few ideas and a several ads running in gaming magazines to hype it up. But Bandersnatch is a very different story. That one was most definitely being worked on and you can even see as much in the Commercial Breaks documentary where footage is shown of the game being developed. Oh yeah, and it was even eventually released too. Given a name change but it was the first game developed and published by Psygnosis – the company set up by Ian Hetherington after the collapse of Imagine and a game developer/publisher that became one of the best, most loved of the 80s and 90s and again, this is something I’ll cover in another chapter…
So there you have it, just an example of what I want this book to be about. The final write ups will be more in-depth and take a closer look at some of the games. This is just meant as a taster. I also found it really interesting how many of the companies I’m going to cover intertwine with each other over the years, there’s a really fascinating tapestry of British game development/publishing that emerges once everything comes together. Then there are the starts of some of the biggest names working in games today that got their breaks with companies like DICE (not British themselves, but started via a British publisher), Rare and even the mighty Rockstar Games all cutting their teeth in the 80s and 90s British game revolution. Really interesting stories I aim to cover.
As I said before, I have around ten developers and publishers to cover (possibly more added later) so this will be quite a big book when finished and I really want to make it a hardcover, glossy thing of beauty all professionally finished. And here is where I need help. Putting something like this together takes money. I’ve done all the research for the companies I will cover, already have three of the chapters written up in the first draft (this is one of them) and the book with be finished within the next 6 moths or less. But I know nothing about actually designing a book like this – I can write them no problem but putting the whole thing together in one package with a real professional look and feel is something I know nothing about. Plus it being in hardback, then there is the printing and distribution, etc all of this costs coin that I just do not have. So I’ve set up a Go Fund Me where I hope people will chip in to help me make this book a reality.
Even if you don’t feel like donating (I won’t hold it against you), if you could just share this article and/or the Go Fund Me to help me drum up some interest, I’ll be eternally grateful. If I raise the money, I will make the book as professionally as I can – I’ll hire a design artist to help me with the look of the book. I’ll go to the best printers I can find to deliver the best possible finished product in glorious hardback and glossy pages and so on. I’ll even put any and all people who donate into the book as personal thanks.
Even if I don’t manage to raise the cash, I’m still going to write the book but it just won’t be as grandiose as I want it to be and most probably just be an all text (no picture) simple paperback instead. So the more money I can rise the bigger and better the book will be.
I think with the popularity of retro gaming right now that this could be a great book. A really interesting look at the British side of game development and publishing, a window into an important piece of gaming history that many people overlook or just do not know about.
Update: I’m currently letting people read the first three chapters. More info right here.
Welcome back to my retrospective look at Sega. As we approach the end of the 90’s, Sega release their final gaming console.
The Dreamcast was released in 1998 in Japan and came to America and Europe in 1999.
This console was the first released in the 6th generation of gaming consoles, beating the PlayStation 2, Xbox and Gamecube for a release date.
Despite this console being a fan favorite and despite the impressive opening sales and even some groundbreaking/impressive games like; Shenmue, Power Stone 2, Metropolis Street Racer, Rez and even some arcade perfect ports. Dreamcast sales just did not meet Sega’s expectations and continuing financial losses, The Dreamcast was discontinued in 2001, just 3 years after originally being launched.
Even after the demise of the Dreamcast, it’s still considered an important machine as it was the first to include a built in modem for internet support and online play.
In 2001 Sega of America officially announced they were becoming a third-party software publisher and would no longer produce hardware/gaming consoles.
By 2002, Sega had five consecutive fiscal years of net losses and were in serious debt.
Sega were in some serious financial trouble.
CSK founder; Isao Okawa gave Sega a $692 million private donation and even talked to Microsoft in early 2000 about a possible sale of Sega or even a merger. But the talks failed and Isao Okawa passed away shortly after in 2001.
In 2003, Sammy, one of Japan’s biggest pachinko and pachislot companies, bought 22% of the shares of Sega that CSK owned, and Sammy’s chairman; Hajime Satomi became CEO of Sega.
Later in 2004, Sammy bought a controlling share the Sega Corporation at a cost of $1.1 billion, creating the new company; Sega Sammy Holdings, an entertainment conglomerate. From then on, Sega and Sammy became subsidiaries of the aforementioned holding company, with both companies operating independently.
From 2003 onwards, Sega starting making a profit once again and even started to buy and form other companies/studios to join and help grow Sega worldwide once more.
2005 saw the forming of; Sega Racing Studio. In 2006, Sega Europe purchased Sports Interactive. While Sega of America purchased Secret Level in the same year and rebranded it to Sega Studio San Francisco. 2013 saw Sega buy Relic Entertainment.
From then on Sega have managed to maintain a good steady financial flow from it’s various studios as well as by developing and publishing games on various other machines…even allowing Sonic and Mario to team up in the Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games series. Sonic & Mario together in the same game was just not heard of in the 90’s.
Sega even still continued to develop arcade games despite the arcade market being all but dead seeing as consoles had by this time become even more powerful than arcade machines.
Sega Republic, an indoor theme park in Dubai opened in 2009. Where you can enjoy over 150 amusement games/rides/attractions based on Sega IPs.
Then in 2013, in joint co-operation with BBC Earth, Sega opened the first interactive nature simulation museum in Orbi Yokohama, Japan.
From 2012 – present, Sega have mainly been concentrating on the digital market. By bringing many classic Sega games as well as reboots and remakes to Xbox Live, PSN, Android and iOS. With games like After Burner Climax, OutRun 2, Crazy Taxi and many others…but still no Shenmue 1 or 2 remake or even Shenmue 3?
Sega have certainly had a rollercoaster of a 75 years going from simple coin-operated machines, to help create and popularise arcades. To poor initial home market attempts to helping restore faith in the gaming industry after the 1983 game crash. Even shaping how we would game in the future with the Dreamcast.
I don’t think there is much Sega has not done in the industry.
75 years of Sega. Love them or hate them, you can not deny they have been an important part of the gaming world.
We left off with Sega struggling after the game crash of 1983 with declining profits, despite a decent arcade presence, and an underwhelming first attempt at a home console with the SG-1000.
In 1985, Sega released its second home console in Japan, the Sega Mark III.
Does not look very familiar does it?
Well for the North American & European launch, the console was redesigned and retitled.
The Sega Master System hit the American market in 1986 and Europe in 1987. Released to compete with Nintendo’s Famicom/NES. The Sega Master System launched with Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Alex Kidd was Sega’s first attempt at a gaming mascot to try and match Nintendo with Mario. Despite Alex Kidd appearing in several games and spin-offs, he never really took off as a mascot.
The Sega Master System itself was technically superior to Nintendo’s NES, it could not match sales of the NES in Japan or North America. However, it did fair better in Europe.
With a moderate success in the home market with The Sega Master System, SEGA carried on to strengthen their arcade library in the mid 80’s with games like OutRun (1986), After Burner (1987) and Power Drift (1989).
1989 would also see Sega release it’s successor to The Sega Master System.
The Mega Drive (Genesis in North America) did not fare well in Japan against its main competitor, Nintendo’s Super Famicom. But, it did achieve greater success in North America and in Europe. Helping this success were several ports of some of Sega’s best arcade games as well as the introduction of a certain blue hedgehog.
In 1991, Sega first introduced the world to Sonic The Hedgehog. A superfast platformer styled game that took the world by storm and finally SEGA had a bankable gaming mascot.
Sonic went on to star in several sequels and spinoffs on the Mega Drive and is even still a relevant gaming mascot today.
Sonic helped to sell even more consoles and give Sega it’s first real home market success with the Mega Drive/Genesis. The Mega Drive/Genesis also had several addons released for the console like the Mega CD and 32X to help extend the life of the machine.
Sega decided to follow up on the success of the Mega Drive/Genesis and try to muscle in on Nintendo’s handheld console market share held by the Gameboy. Sega released the portable Sega Game Gear in 1990.
The Sega Game Gear was essentially as Master System in handheld form using much if the same hardware.
Due to problems with a very short battery life, titles mainly being lazy ports, and poor first party support, the Game Gear was unable to come close to the success of Nintendo’s Game Boy despite the Game Gear being technically superior. The Game Gear was succeeded by the Sega Nomad (a portable Mega Drive/Genesis) in 1995.
But while they started to gain ground in terms of home market sales, Sega still maintained a strong arcade library through the 90’s especially with it’s “Virtua” series with titles; Virtua Racing (1992), Virtua Fighter (1993) and Virtua Cop (1994).
The mid 90’s saw the release of Sega’s next home console.
The Sega Saturn first hit the home market in 1994 in Japan and then in America and Europe in 1995.
The console was a moderate hit initially, but sales started to drop off fast due to the release of Nintendo’s N64 in 1996 and the rising popularity of Sony’s first home console, The PlayStation.
Sega also never released a Sonic game for the machine, which many feel is part of the reason the sales for the Saturn soon dropped off. There was one in development called; Sonic X-treme, but it was ultimately cancelled.
The Saturn did benefit from some great arcade ports like; Sega Rally Championship, The House of the Dead as well as ports of Sega’s Virtua arcade series of games and their sequels, but the console was only a moderate hit worldwide.
Not content with just arcade and home console gaming, Sega even opened their own amusement style theme parks in 1994 called; Joypolis.
Joypolis opened in Yokohama, Japan. Several Joypolis were opened in various cities in Japan with the parks featuring arcade games and rides based on existing SEGA IPs. A total of 8 Joypolis theme parks were opened. However, as of writing only 3 of the parks are still open today.
Other similar Sega based arcades and parks opened around the world. SegaWorld opened in the United Kingdom, China, Australia and Japan, but only a handful still remain in Japan. Plus; GameWorks was a joint venture between Sega, Universal Studios, and DreamWorks.
I’ll end here, but part III will cover Sega’s (probably) most popular and loved home console…and their last, as SEGA end their hardware reign and become a software only devloper.
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