A Look Back at The Bitmap Brothers
In 1988 a much younger, less jaded me was about to start paying attention to just who was making the video games I spent so much time playing. Today, we’re all intimately familiar with names like Infinity Ward and Bungie, but back then, developers weren’t rock stars. I didn’t pay any attention to past releases from the same studio, and I certainly didn’t know the names of individual developers. But all that was about to change. Slowly, I began to realise that my favourite games were all made by the same people, the studio name on the box became something I paid attention to. For those glorious years during the late eighty’s to the mid-ninety’s, I looked for three words on every box; The Bitmap Brothers.
The Bitmap Brothers story begins in 1987, in East London. Founded by Mike Montgomery, Eric Matthews, and Steve Kelly, the studio composed of a small collection of talented developers who would go on to create some of the most iconic games of the time. Most dominant on the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST, they soon developed a reputation amongst owners of those machines for being one of the pre-eminent developers on either platform. Known for making games that were challenging to play, the studio also developed a reputation for making games that sounded as good as they looked, and many reviewers would refer to the “Bitmap Brothers style”. Nobody then, was surprised when they were posing besides helicopters, and declaring themselves rock stars. This was rock ‘n roll game development, with an East London swagger.
Released in 1988, The Bitmap Brothers first game was Xenon. Fully exploiting the power of 16-bit, Xenon was a challenging, vertically scrolling shoot-em up that not only looked good, but sounded good too. Setting itself from other games in the genre, Xenon allowed players to not only move around the screen in any direction, but also switch their vehicle between tank or plane modes. Using the phrase “cutting edge” to describe a game that looks a little basic now does seem odd, but at the time it really was. At that time, my gaming friends and I still considered coin-ops to be the benchmark for arcade gaming, so when Xenon came along it was mind-blowing. Here was a quality shoot-em up that I could play in the comfort of my own home, and I didn’t need to put a handful of coins in it. Xenon really was a game changer.
Almost impossibly, the studio also released a second game in 1989; Speedball. This time taking on the subject of violent sports in the future, Speedball is an Ice Hockey/Football hybrid, that’s as much about hurting the other team as it is about scoring goals. Two teams of five would fight for possession of the ball upon a steel pitch. The ball could be thrown and bounced off the walls that surrounded the pitch, and power-ups would pop up randomly to help you put the hurt on the opposition. Looking back at the game now, there’s a noticeable graphical difference between this and the sequel – which I’d forgotten about – but the gameplay is all there. It’s just as fast and frantic as I remember, and its easy to see why Speedball won the Game of the Year award at the Golden Joysticks that year, and cement the studio’s reputation for making innovative games.
I must admit, I’d completely forgotten the Bitmap’s next game – Cadaver. I don’t know why, as I was rather partial to Isometric RPGs at the time. Released in 1990, Cadaver tells the tale of Dwarven adventurer Karadoc, who after a convoluted series of events, has wound up in Castle Wulf in the hope that he can slay the necromancer living there, and get rich in the process. The main focus of the game is puzzle-solving as you make your way through the castle’s five floors, although there is some fighting to be done too. In true old-skool game fashion, Cadaver wasn’t a game that did too much hand holding, solving puzzles required a fair bit of logical thinking, something absent in most games today. Style-wise its very much a Bitmap game. Karadoc looks rather like he’s dressed for a game of Speedball, the colour palate and textures are very familiar, and there’s one or two sound effects that suspiciously sound like they’ve been recycled. Despite all that familiarity, the game went down well with gamers, and the studio had yet another hit on their hands.
The Bitmap Brothers began what is perhaps their most successful period in 1989, with the release of Xenon 2: Megablast. Featuring much improved graphics and a kick-ass soundtrack from Bomb the Bass, Xenon 2 was a classic Bitmap Brothers game – it looked good, it sounded good, and it was as hard as nails. Broadly speaking, the gameplay was similar to it’s predecessor. There was no tank-switching mechanic, but collecting power-ups was essential if you intended to make any real progress in the game. In addition, players could also collect credits by shooting certain enemies, and then spend them at the mid way point and end of every level, when an alien shopkeeper popped up, and offered you his wares. If somehow you managed to make it to the end, the very same shopkeeper appears and says well done, and tells you to turn off your computer! Whilst the ageing process may not have been kind to Xenon 2, that doesn’t change the fact that this was a stone-cold classic at the time.
Released in 1990, Speedball 2 is most definitely the game that has inflicted more mental scars upon my fragile brain, than any other. In the hands of my best friend, this game was used to mercilessly pummel me at every opportunity, and as a result I still have trouble hearing the words “Ice cream! Ice cream!” Joking aside, Speedball 2 was a brutally competitive update to the Bitmap’s futuristic sports game, and is perhaps best summed up by the game’s subtitle; Brutal Deluxe. Featuring more players per team, new ways to score bonus points, and slicker animations, Speedball 2 improved upon the first game in almost every way. In addition to Knockout, Cup, and Multiplayer modes, the game had a challenging League mode that added RPG-like elements. Years later, I went back to Speedball 2, when the game was released on Xbox Live Arcade. It was every bit as hard, fun and frantic as I remember, and the ice cream seller is still taunts me.
In 1991, the studio produced their finest work; Gods. My personal favourite of all their games, Gods was a glorious combination of graphics, sound, puzzles and enemy AI, all wrapped up in a platformer outer skin. Set in ancient Greece, your hero is tasked with defeating Four Guardians who have invaded the Citadel of the Gods. Should you succeed, you’ll take your place amongst them, as an equal. The game was typically challenging. Not only did the enemy AI “think” about how to defeat you, the game would monitor your performance, and adjust accordingly. At the end of every level, a trader appears offering a variety of weapons and items to help you along. Of course, this is providing you managed to collect some gems whilst dodging those sneaky enemies, which wasn’t always easy. In my opinion, Gods is the stand-out game in the Bitmap’s catalogue, and I only hope it gets ported to a current format at some point in the future.
Following on from Gods was another platformer; Magic Pockets. Featured on the children’s Saturday morning TV show Motormouth, Magic Pockets starred the baseball cap wearing, bubblegum chewing Bitmap Kid, who stores all his toys in the pockets of his magic trousers. One day, the creatures that also live in his pockets (wait, what?) decide to nick BK’s toys, and keep them for themselves. Thus begins our adventure. Magic Pockets had four areas; Cave, Jungle, River and Mountain, and each one was broken up into stages, with Bonus stages themed around the toy you were retrieving. Despite feeling that Gods was the much superior game, I will admit that Magic Pockets had some neat ideas. I particularly liked being able to jump on the bubblegum bubbles I’d just blown to get to higher areas. Maybe making another platformer right after the excellent Gods wasn’t the best idea, but Magic Pockets doesn’t look out-of-place in a line-up of great games.
The Bitmap’s next two games were the much-loved, top down shooters Chaos Engine 1 & 2. Released in 1993, the first game introduced us to the steampunk world of Victorian England, and the Chaos Engine itself. The Engine is the creation of Victorian inventor Baron Fortesque. Having “acquired” some future technology from a time traveller, Fortesque uses his knowledge to retro-engineer the tech, and therefore change history. Eventually, he creates the Chaos Engine; a device capable of messing with time and space itself, which then goes through its own Skynet moment. The Engine becomes sentient and turns on its creator, before trying its hand at redesigning all natural life in England. Up to two players are thrown into this nightmare, both taking control of one of six mercenaries; each with a set of unique abilities. Solo players had help from the CPU, which assumes control of your companion, and the two of you then fight your way through four areas – each divided up into four levels – and on to the Chaos Engine itself.
Chaos Engine 2 continued the story in 1996. Having destroyed the Chaos Engine, Fortesque and our heroes are trapped in a singularity caused by the Engine’s destruction. The trio must rebuild the Engine, so that one of them may escape. Unlike the first game – which was co-operative – Chaos Engine 2 is a split-screen deathmatch. Players compete against each for the highest score other by solving puzzles, killing enemies, collecting objects, and of course, killing each other. Four of the six characters returned for the sequel, and again, each one had different stats and abilities. To maintain a sense of rivalry, inventories would drop upon death, and killing your opponent to gain a valuable quest item was vital. Reviews of Chaos Engine’s re-release haven’t been kind, but both games are still remembered fondly. Both were highly reviewed at the time, with the first game picking up multiple awards.
In 1996, the studio released their first Real-Time Strategy game; Z. Shot through with the particular brand of Bitmap humour, Z wasn’t the typical, stern-faced RTS the genre was dominated by. Centering around two opposing robotic armies attempts to conquer a variety of different planets, the game introduces us to Allen and Brad – a pair of delivery robots already running late with their delivery to General Zod. Over the course of their journey, they conquer five planets; completing twenty missions on each, and upon completion, they get to party. With an atypical plot, the game needed atypical gameplay, and that’s just what it had. There was no collecting of resources, or building of structures in Z. Instead, player would concentrate on capturing and holding strategic buildings in order to build their army, and like most of the Bitmap’s other games, Z was considered to be more challenging than it’s rivals. With an upcoming Steam re-release getting fans excited, it’s fair to say that clear Z was chock full of the kind of Bitmap magic that made their games fun.
As the Ninety’s came to an end, the studio became less prolific. It wouldn’t release another game until 2000, when the Speedball 2 remake – Speedball 2100 – was released on the PlayStation. Failing to recapture the Speedball spark, 2100 met with a luke-warm reception. A year later, the studio released the RTS sequel Z: Steel Soldiers, which despite receiving a reasonably positive reception, struggled to gain a significant following within a hotly contested genre. In 2003, the Bitmap Brothers released their last original game – World War II: Frontline Command. Released on PC, and set during World War II, this RTS built upon the foundations the Z: Steel Soldiers engine producing a realistic take on commanding Allied forces. The game, which took its original approach to things like unit balancing, was praised for being a faithful representation of the conflict, and review scores were favourable. Since then, the studio has concentrated on re-releasing some of their back catalogue of games on various handheld devices, but that’s about it. World War II: Frontline Command was the last “proper” release from the studio, and there seems to be no sign of another, sadly.
Over the course of this look back, I’ve used plenty of superlatives, and in my humble opinion, its for very a good reason. The Bitmap Brothers were an absolute giant of a developer in their heyday, despite only being a small team, and nearly every single Amiga and ST owner I’ve talked to talks about their games fondly. As I write this, I struggle to think of another studio that dominated a format as thoroughly as The Bitmap Brothers did, and I can’t help but think many of today’s indie developers are making the kind of games they are because they grew up playing the Bitmap’s games. Maybe you could say their dominance was short-lived, or that they never really recaptured the success they once had, but as all good rock stars know, its better to burn out than to fade away.