Sheffield’s Most Important Computer Games

Castle of Doom (SpecSoft, 1983)

Text Adventures were a popular genre. Games could be simple to program, hacked together using a rudimentary knowledge of BASIC.

Castle of Doom was one of these from teenagers Mark Aldrich and John Wriggleswork. It may not have sported a sophisticated parser, graphics, or a Booker Prize winning script, but it revealed that Sheffield’s suburbs were coming alive with programming teenagers, hunched in darkened bedrooms illuminated by the faint flow of CRT televisions and the tap-tap of micro-computer keyboards.

Blagger (Alligata Software, 1983)

Commodore 64 owners didn’t often envy their ZX Spectrum counterparts. When Matthew Smith’s sublime Manic Miner appeared without a C64 version, their beige, bread-bin eyes turned to green.

Working in Sheffield’s Superior Systems, prodigal coder Tony Crowther was challenged to create a version of Miner for the C64. He responded, after a development period of 2 weeks, with the sublime Blagger. It wasn’t Tony’s first game, but it was the one that propelled him (and Alligata somewhat) into Commodore 64 superstardom, leaded to the blonde bombshell appearing in the pages of magazine ZZap!64 or ambushed for autographs at the various micro fairs of the time.

Wanted: Monty Mole (Gremlin Graphics, 1984)

Alligata’s trailblazing was gatecrashed by Gremlin Graphics in 1984 with Wanted: Monty Mole and ensured that for the coming years the spotlight would be firmly focused on the Carver Street company.

Though not Gremlin’s first release (that accolade goes to Percy The Potty Pigeon), it was the game that everyone remembers for it’s iconic Mole character, devious gameplay, and a narrative carefully stage managed by Ian Stewart that tapped into the national psyche of the ongoing Miner’s Strike of the same year.

BMX Ninja (Alternative Software, 1987)

As the business of games became more corporate, developers felt the creeping hand of the “grey suits” stifling their creative juices, and worse still, fiddling with their pay packets. Being involved with bosses who just talked about “shifting boxes” led to a constant churn of programmers looking to setup their own companies hoping to have more control over their destiny.

The list is long of mutineers – I could have plumbed for Terramex (Peter Harrap and Shaun Hollingworth left Gremlin to create Teque Developments), Action Fighter (Jeremy Heath-Smith, Kevin Norburn and Greg Holmes saved Gremlin Derby from extinction to form Core Design) or Challenge of the Gobots (the nomadic Tony Crowther’s first game after splitting, again, from Alligata). Instead, we have have the wonderfully titled BMX Ninjas from Alternative Software. It was a Richard Stevenson effort after he’d unceremoniously departed Alligata Software. Richard joined David Palmer at Roger Hulley’s firm, and then went onto help him form PAL Developments, the underlining team that powered Hi-Tec Software – probably the most prolific Sheffield company in the latter 8-bit years.

Actua Soccer (Gremlin Interactive, 1995)

Was it Zool, the Ninja of the Nth dimension that saved Gremlin’s butt and dragged it kicking and screaming into the 90s? Probably, but it was Actua Soccer, Gremlin’s FIFA beater that proved that a British software house could compete in the premier league with the gaming powerhouses across the pond.

Actua featured cutting-edge technology, not just in its innovative and pioneering use of motion-capture (a trend that continues today), but in all areas of development –  positional audio, dynamic commentary, a polished TV-style presentation and sophisticated AI.

Body Harvest (Gremlin Interactive, 1998) and EXO (Particle Systems, Unreleased)

Company killers: Those over ambitious titles that stretch budgets and developer/publisher relationships to breaking point, taking the whole shooting match down with them.

Body Harvest and EXO were the Bandersnatch and Psyclapse of the late 90s. Drawn-out development, a focus on technology-over-gameplay, and a complete misjudgement of the N64 cartridge market (in the case of Body Harvest) that sent cash-flows tumbling into the red. Gremlin never recovered, and was acquired by Infogrames in 1999 – the very same company that pulled the plug on EXO for Particle. It too was acquired, this time by Argonaut in 2002 leading to a death spasm (closing in 2004) of half-hearted licence development.

Hogs of War (Infogrames, 2000)

Who else, in the era of shooters, racers and punch-em-ups would develop a real-time, pun-filled, World War 1 strategy game, featuring Pigs, a plethora of non-politically correct national stereotypes and smatterings of dark humour? Sprinkle a dash of magical fairy dust in the form of a Rik Mayal voiceover and you have the last true Gremlin game and an utter cult classic.

OutRun2 (Sumo Digital, 2004)

Trickster may have kept the lights on for fledging studio Sumo Digital, but OutRun2 laid the cement and the solid foundations of integrity, reputation and unrivalled talent that has powered the Sheffield-based phenomenon ever since.

So much more than a port, OutRun2 built upon the original arcade game, somehow improving on perfection and meant Sega would return time and time again to the virtually unknown studio (at the time) for follow-ups OutRun2 SP, OutRun 2006: Coast to Coast and the Sonic All Stars Racing series.

PieceFall (Steel Minions, 2015)

Taking three different student development teams, 10 months of development time over two years to bring it to market, PieceFall is the product of Sheffield Hallam University’s Steel Minions Game Studio.

It was the first-ever student created Playstation 4 game to be published, and confirmed Sheffield’s reputation as one of the world’s leading academic establishments for those looking to study for a career in games development.

Gang Beasts (Boneloaf, In-Development)

Set in the fictional meatropolis of Beef City, (loosely based upon the steelopolis of Steel City) Gang Beasts is a deliciously silly multi-player mêlée party game co-created by three brawling brothers – James, Jon and Michael Brown.

It came from nowhere, and set the community alight, harking back to a happier time before the internet and online gaming when friends would gather at each others’ houses to virtually beat seven bells out of each other.

If Piecefall demonstrated the formal journey kids could take to publishing games on the big stage, Gang Beasts proved that with a little nous and a great idea for a game, it was still possible for the bedroom coder to fire up Unity, make a few quid and get their creation into the hands of the masses.

Tanglewood (In-Development)

In November 2016 Matt Phillips launched a successful crowd funding campaign to develop a brand new game for a 30 year old console.

It’s not included for its nostalgic value alone, Tanglewood proves that Sheffield (Jamie Woodhouse, aka Mr Qwak included) can still deliver beautiful games in a no-nonsense, old skool, 68000 assembly language, plastic cartridge kind-of way.

 

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