Ten forgotten silicon heroes of computer gaming
I don’t get today’s computer games. The graphics are somewhat overloading and the gameplay seems to be tagged on as an afterthought. I mean, what happened to games which were instantly playable? Far Cry or EVE requires manuals the size of an Argos catalogue and a machine which puts NASA’s original supercomputers to shame. Then there’s DRM, updates and the like… take me back to when a 14 minute loading time on audio tape was the only inconvenience!
Before I run the risk of sounding like Zzap! 64 legends Julian Rignall, Gary Penn or the Llamasoft legend that is Jeff Minter, the successors to what are now known as Retro Games, are the likes of Candy Crush or Bejewelled. They are now known as ‘casual games’. And of course, if I really do want to play the retro games, I could always download an emulator, but it doesn’t have the same look and feel as loading Magicland Dizzy on a battered C64 Datasette drive. Playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon isn’t the same using anything other than a Quickshot joystick (soon to be on its last legs after a heavy session).
For many people, retro gaming means the Super Mario Brothers or Sonic the Hedgehog, or Tetris on a Nintendo Gameboy. From the early 1980s onwards, the emergent computer gaming scene brought about several other video gaming characters, none of which seemingly with the staying power of an overweight plumber or blue hedgehog. For our latest Not So Perfect Ten, our forgotten or vaguely forgotten pixellated heroes is today’s subject:
- Cuthbert (Microdeal, 1982 – 1987);
- Monty Mole (Gremlin Graphics, 1984 – 1990);
- Seymour (Codemasters, 1991 – 1993);
- Miner Willy (Bug Byte/Software Projects, 1983 – 1985);
- Clyde Radcliffe (Thalamus/APEX Computer Entertainment, 1990 – 1992);
- Wally Week (Mikrogen, 1984 – 1986);
- Bounder (Gremlin Graphics, 1986 – 1987);
- Podd (Acornsoft, 1984);
- Roland (Amsoft, 1984 – 1987);
- Dizzy (Codemasters, 1987 – 1994).
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1. Cuthbert (Microdeal, 1982 – 1987):
St. Austell is famous for being a pleasant market town with a tin mining heritage. Few people would know about its pioneering role in computer software. Microdeal Software started off in a bedroom before being synonymous among Dragon 32 and Tandy Color Computer users. A bespectacled youth with red hair by the name of Cuthbert put them on the map.
Microdeal decided to feature their mascot in a number of derivative computer games. These included Cuthbert in the Jungle, inspired by Pitfall; another one was Cuthbert in Space, a Jetpac clone. Other titles in the series included Cuthbert Goes Walkabout. All of Microdeal’s Cuthbert games were released for the Dragon 32, Tandy TRS 80, Tandy Color Computer and the Commodore 64.
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2. Monty Mole (Gremlin Graphics, 1984 – 1990):
From an area associated with tin mining to one associated with coal and steel, Sheffield software house Gremlin Graphics made their mark with a mole. The timing of their first Monty Mole game, Wanted: Monty Mole couldn’t have been better. With Britain caught up in the Miners’ Strike, the flick screen platformer struck a chord with ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 users. A second game, following Monty Mole’s arrest (entitled Monty is Innocent) featured its sidekick Sam Stoat. This was only released on the ZX Spectrum.
Its third title, Monty on the Run, sees our mammal trying to flee Her Majesty’s Government. Bigger than the previous game, it too was another hit. The Commodore 64 version was much lauded, with Rob Hubbard’s in-game music a huge selling point. There was a further two follow-ups which lacked the immediacy and playability of the previous two. Auf Wiedersehen Monty saw our hero abscond to West Germany. Monty’s swansong was Impossamole, which was also the first and only Monty Mole title to see a 16 bit release. Core Design, who would later become a software house themselves – and creators of Tomb Raider – coded Monty’s last adventure.
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3. Seymour (Codemasters, 1991 – 1993):
Among 8-bit gamers, a common argument among devotees of Codemasters’ titles was the identity of Seymour. Was he a knock-off Dizzy (more about him later)? A slug? A potato? The first point, possibly true: Seymour came about when Codemasters sub-contracted the coding of its Dizzy games to Big Red Software. Seymour’s first video game appearance was Seymour Goes to Hollywood, which was originally going to be Movieland Dizzy. Its first game saw the potato/egg/slug character attempt to be a film star.
Unlike the puzzles in the Dizzy games, the problem solving element in Seymour’s adventure games was less surreal. Subsequent titles featuring the blob/potato/egg/slug/lump of lard character included Sergeant Seymour: Robot Cop, a maze game. There was also Super Seymour Saves The Planet, a Bombjack clone. Stuntman Seymour was a bog standard 2D platformer in the CJ’s Elephant Antics mould. The blob/potato/egg/slug/lump of lard signed off with Wild West Seymour, an arcade adventure in four bite-size parts.
Seymour’s games were released on the Holy Trinity of 8-Bit Formats (C64/Amstrad CPC/ZX Spectrum), with the lardball’s arcade adventures ported from the ZX Spectrum onto the CPC and the C64.
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4. Miner Willy (Bug Byte/Software Projects, 1983 – 1985)
Without a doubt, our first 8-bit gaming hero was Miner Willy, and the genius behind his adventures was Matthew Smith. Inspired by the Atari game Miner 2049er, Mr Smith brought English wit to the platform gaming genre with Manic Miner. It was an instant hit on the ZX Spectrum, so much so that it was converted to other 8-bit formats such as the Commodore 64 and the Dragon 32. The success of which led to Jet Set Willy, which repeated the success of its precursor. This eschewed the static screens in favour of flick screen arcade adventure. However, JSW would be notorious for a bug which rendered the game incomplete.
Unfazed, 1985 saw the release of Jet Set Willy II which was a retread of JSW, ported from the Amstrad CPC onto the ZX Spectrum. Besides being among our most loved platform games, it was also one of the first software titles to introduce copy protection. Concerns over software piracy saw Software Projects’ introduction of colour-coded combinations for each title, with a code sheet.
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5. Clyde Radcliffe (Thalamus/APEX Computer Entertainment, 1990 – 1992)
In the second half of the Commodore 64’s commercial life, two brothers would make an indelible impact on the C64 scene. After coding Cyberdyne Warrior and Retrograde for Thalamus Software, John and Steve Rowlands would create two much lauded platform games featuring the adventures of a Fuzzy Wuzzy known as Clyde Radcliffe. Known as Creatures (1990) and Creatures II: Torture Trouble (1992), both titles would intersperse arcade style platform action with torture screens. With cutesy graphics.
Creatures in this context is an acronym for Clyde Radcliffe Exterminates All The Unfriendly Repulsive Earth-ridden Slime. Both titles were lauded in Zzap! 64 (Zzap! Gold Medals all round) and Commodore Format. The latter magazine ran a detailed diary entry on the making of Creatures II. It was also ported to the Atari ST and Amiga formats, though without the same success and acclaim as the C64 original by John and Steve Rowlands.
John and Steve Rowlands would follow Creatures II with a Sonic the Hedgehog style platformer. Entitled Mayhem in Monsterland, it became the first video game to get a 100% rating (in Commodore Format).
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6. Wally Week (Mikrogen Software, 1984 – 1986):
The Week family was Mikrogen Software’s most bankable asset, with their antics spread over five games. Wally Week first appeared in Automania, a platform game with two screens per level where the titular hero would try to assemble a car. However, his progress would be inhibited by flying car parts which he would have to avoid. By Christmas 1984, this was followed by Pyjamarama, an arcade adventure where our hero tries to avoid the sack.
This was followed by Everyone’s a Wally which broke new ground, where players could control multiple characters as well as Wally himself. One of which was baby Herbert, who would star in the follow up game Herbert’s Dummy Run. All but the last game, Three Weeks in Paradise, was released on the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC and Commodore 64. Jack Tramiel’s wondrous 8 bit machine, alas, didn’t see the Week family trapped on a tropical island.
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7. Bounder (Gremlin Graphics, 1986 – 1987)
A tennis ball would form one of Gremlin’s most popular characters. January 1986 saw the release of Bounder on the Commodore 64. For most of us around that time, platformers were either static screen, flick screen or scrolling, with a side view. Bounder kyboshed that theory by being… an overhead platform game. Our animated tennis ball would have to avoid walls, jump on power squares, allowing our spherical hero to jump higher and further.
It was released for the main three 8-bit formats (I don’t need to tell which ones!), and the Amstrad PCW. Bounder also spawned a follow up in 1987, entitled ReBounder.
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8. Podd (Acornsoft, 1983):
Whilst we’re on the subject of spherical or spheroid computer gaming heroes, many a Child of the 1980s would have come across this fellow at school. Our eighth hero was created by the same publishers as the original version of Elite.
Many a primary school across the UK would have had a 5.25 floppy disc of Podd somewhere. Within moments of loading, our red faced potato like figure would appear prominently on our monitor (often a Microvitec RGB one by the way) with the phrase ‘Podd Can…’ above the titular tan-tastic ancestor of Dizzy. Schoolchildren would have to think of an action which Podd could do out of 120 available. Typing ‘dance’ would see our character dance to a little tune, the finest our Beeb Model B’s Texas Instruments SN76489 sound chip could muster.
As a first hand user of Acornsoft’s Podd myself, I used to find great joy in getting him to run, or pop. The latter would see him inflate and explode. Thankfully, today’s schoolchildren can get Podd to pop (and before you ask, this has nothing to do with the ConDems’ education cutbacks forcing schools to hold on to their BBC Master Systems or Model Bs). Indigo Learning (Cambridge) Ltd has the rights to our tan-tastic ancestor of Dizzy with the original Podd revamped and upgraded for Windows PCs. There are now a further five games – a far cry from the limitations of a 40/80 track 5.25 inch floppy disc.
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9. Roland (Amsoft, 1984 – 1987):
Whereas the ZX Spectrum’s (albeit unofficial) mascot was either Miner Willy or Horace, Amsoft (Alan Sugar’s equivalent to Sir Clive Sinclair’s Sinclair published games) had one in the form of Roland. The name was supposedly inspired by fellow Amstrad colleague Roland Perry (a far cry from a chubby bespectacled boy with red hair named after the swot in The Bash Street Kids).
Released on cassette and Amstrad’s 3″ floppy disc format, Roland featured in eight titles from 1984 to 1985. As with Microdeal’s Cuthbert series of games, they too were inspired by popular video games of that era. Roland Goes Digging was a Space Panic clone. The delightfully named Roland Goes Square Bashing sees our hero turned into a cube. Crystal Castles style, Roland navigates through isometric 3D worlds. Another title, Roland in the Caves, was a repackaged version of Bugaboo the Flea.
By 1987, Amsoft was no more, having fulfilled its remit of offering Amstrad CPC users a fair catalogue of games in its formative years.
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10. Dizzy (Codemasters, 1987 – 1994):
In 1987, Codemasters was looking for their answer to Super Mario Brothers. The publisher was famed for its simulators with Advanced BMX Simulator selling shedloads across the big three 8-bit formats. By 1987, the Oliver Twins had a brainwave: it would be billed as ‘The Ultimate Cartoon Adventure’, and involve a somersaulting ovoid character.
The end of 1987 saw the launch of their first Dizzy game. Opting for the arcade adventure, Dizzy would set the trend for subsequent games of that ilk. Its follow-up, Treasure Island Dizzy, held the record as Codemasters’ biggest selling Dizzy game. The third Dizzy adventure, Fantasy World Dizzy, would see more surreal puzzles and the introduction of other members of Dizzy’s family. Known as The Yolk Folk there was Denzil (seen with baseball cap and Walkperson), Grand Dizzy, Daisy, Dora (a ovoid character with a Mary Portas wig), Dozy, and Dylan (an ovoid hippy).
Other adventures included Magicland Dizzy, Spellbound Dizzy, Dizzy: Prince of the Yolk Folk, and Crystal Kingdom Dizzy. There was also a few arcade style diversions from The Oliver Twins’ Ultimate Cartoon Adventure. Bubble Dizzy was inspired by Ultimate Software’s Underwurlde: Dizzy Down the Rapids paid homage to Toobin; Pengo inspired Kwik Snax as did Pac Man with Fast Food. There was also Panic Dizzy, a puzzle game much savaged by the reviewers of the day.
As well as the 8 bit formats, Codemasters’ Dizzy games also saw further release on the Amiga and Atari ST. On the Commodore 64, all of the Dizzy adventures were straight ports from the ZX Spectrum original, albeit with the C64’s muted colour palette and the sensational soundtrack of the SID Chip. The final Dizzy adventure for C64 users, Crystal Kingdom Dizzy (also the Codies’ first full price Dizzy game) was coded straight onto the Commodore 64 instead of being a straight port from the ZX Spectrum. Somehow, C64 users wondered who switched the light on as the sky was blue instead of black!
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Before I go…
Feel free to comment on our ten forgotten computer gaming characters. Or, why not add some more to the list.
S.V., 07 May 2013.