Saturday, 31 March 2012

British gaming heroes: 1983-1987

I've been thinking of giving a nod to our video game industry on this blog for a while now - after all, an awful lot of our animation talent is employed there.

As video games are meant to be played, however, I wasn't sure what was the best way to approach the subject from an aesthetic standpoint. Then I had the idea of focusing on characters: a large number of the best-known animated characters to come out of the UK originate not in films or TV series, but in games - just think of Lara Croft, Banjo and Kazooie, or the Worms, to start with.

In this series of posts I'll take a look at the gaming heroes created in Britain over the decades, focusing on one a year from the bygone days of ZX Spectrums and Commodore 64s to this brave new world of Wiis and Androids. I should mention that I make no claims to be an expert on video games, and in many cases won't have even played the titles I'm covering - again, the emphasis here is on characters.

1983: Jetman

Let's start in 1983. '82 wasn't a bad year for the gaming world in the UK, with the release of the ZX Spectrum, the founding of legendary company Ultimate (now Rare) and the publication of novelist Martin Amis's hilariously embarrassing book on arcade games. But be that as it may, I simply haven't found any British video game being released prior to 1983 with a noteworthy main character.

Jetpac was the first release from Ultimate and introduced us to Jetman, Chief Test Pilot of the Acme Interstellar Transport Company. Granted, this generic astronaut wasn't a particularly inspired creation, but these were simpler times and a little went a long way. Just look at the contemporary reviews: "the presentation of the game is excellent", said Crash magazine. "The graphics are colourful and the test-pilot jetman with a rocket pack on his back is accurately drawn with remarkable attention to detail. The animation of the jetman is superb".

Hot on their first success, Ultimate's Tim and Chris Stamper put together a sequel later in the same year entitled Lunar Jetman. Jetman even got his own comic strip in Crash magazine, drawn by John Richardson and depicting the character as a proto-Buzz Lightyear spoof space opera hero.

John Richardson's Jetman strip. See the whole page here.

But despite this exposure, Jetman clearly didn't have the same kind of sticking power possessed by Super Mario or Donkey Kong (both of whom were created a couple of years previously) and Ultimate moved on. The third game in the series, Solar Jetman: Hunt for the Golden Warpship, was not released until 1990 - seven years after the first two. Jetman vanished from view after that, although he did pop up in the 1999 game Donkey Kong 64, which included the original Jetpac as a side-game.

New-look Jetman, drawn by Wil Overton.

Then, in 2007, Jetpac was remade for Xbox Live Arcade as Jetpac Refuelled. This game introduced us to a new-look Jetman who owes more to anime-derived game heroes such as Mega Man than to John Richardson's Dan Dare-riffing interpretation.

1984: Monty Mole

I considered giving the previous slot to another 1983 creation, Manic Miner. But there's only room for one mining hero in this list, and that's Monty Mole.

Wanted: Monty Mole was designed by 19-year-old Peter Harrap and inspired by a contemporary political issue: the miners' strikes of the eighties. The aim of the game was to control Monty as he sneaks into a mine to steal coal, while avoiding clutches of none other than Arthur Scargill himself. It's hard to recognise Mr. Scargill in the game's graphics but his presence was enough to get the game featured on national news.

Monty Mole was another hit with Crash magazine. "Monty himself is an endearing character likely to reappear in more games", said the review; "there will be posters of him adorning every wall in Britain." Well, the second prediction was a bit off, by the Monty series carried on and a story began to unfold. In 1985's Monty is Innocent poor Monty had been incarcerated for his deeds and it was down to a new hero, Sam Stoat, to rescue Monty from prison; Monty on the Run, released the same year, saw Monty fleeing across the channel to escape the law; and the 1987 release Auf Wiedersehen Monty picked up with Monty safely on the continent and aiming to buy a Greek island for his retirement.

The same year Your Sinclair magazine gave away an exclusive seasonal sequel entitled Moley Christmas, and Monty was later reimagined as a muscle-bound superhero for the 1990 game Impossamole. A bit of a drastic makeover, then, but not as thorough as the one he underwent in the Japanese release of Monty on the Run, the developers of which decided to depict him as a bearded man.

Like Jetman before him, Monty is set to return. At the time of writing a competition giving 5-to-18 year olds the chance to remake the original Wanted: Monty Mole is underway.

1985: Wally Week

I'm cheating a bit here, as Wally Week originally appeared in 1984, when his first two games Automania and Pyjamarama were released. But not only was the 1985 threequel Everyone's a Wally the first game to put Wally in the title, it also gave him his own theme song on side B of the cassette, provided by Mike Berry of Are You Being Served? fame. Yes, 1985 was truly the year of Wally.

In Everyone's a Wally you take control of the handyman Wally Week along with a few other characters: Wally's wife Wilma, a mechanic named Tom, a plumber named Dick and an electrician named Harry (in a probable nod to contemporary sitcom The Young Ones, Tom and Harry are characterised as a punk and a hippy). The object of the game is to travel around town collecting various objects that have been scattered about and taking them to their proper locations - find a book, take it to the library; find a Bunsen burner, drop it off in a laboratory, and so forth. The twist is that each character can only carry two objects at a time, and an object can only be dropped when another has been picked up, resulting in much traipsing back and forth around town figuring out the best order in which to do things.

The Wally Week games (which included two more titles: Herbert's Dummy Run and Three Weeks in Paradise) were popular in their time but fell out of favour with designers Mikro-Gen. "He was getting old hat and Mikro-Gen didn't want to be labelled as 'The Wally Company'", said creator Chris Hinsley in an interview conducted for the June 1999 issue of Arcade magazine. Mikro-Gen moved on to pastures new, creating a Spectrum hardware add-on called the Mikro-Plus and a game to run on it, Shadow of the Unicorn. But Shadow of the Unicorn turned out to be a flop, and ended the company. Should've stuck to Wally.

Looking at Everyone's a Wally now, the overwhelming feeling is just how old-fashioned it is. All games from this period are dated, of course, but the whole ethos of Wally's world is from a different era. Can anybody, in this time of macho space marines and spiky-haired manga swordsmen, seriously imagine a hit new game starring a character whose chief inspirations appear to have been Andy Capp and Del Boy? Taking place entirely in a small British town, where a typical mission involves carrying a bottle of beer into a pub? A game packaged with a novelty single in which a Cockney bloke belts out lines like "A hippy known as Harry (Harry Krishna to his mates)/Turned up to do the wiring, what a two-and-eight"? In short, a video game which appears to have been developed by the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club?

As Nick Park once said when defending Wallace and Gromit in the face of studio meddling from DreamWorks: it's cool because it's uncool.

1986: Dizzy

When Philip and Andrew Oliver set about designing a new character for Codemasters, they initially planned to create a human protagonist. After drawing the face, however, they decided that drawing his body would be too much effort and so simply slapped on hands and feet. Commentators assumed that the resulting character was an egg, and so Dizzy was born. The final touches were red boots and boxing gloves.

Dizzy: The Ultimate Cartoon Adventure on the ZX Spectrum was clearly influenced by the Wally games, but it improved on their model considerably. The basic formula of wandering around the playing field collecting and using various objects remained, but Wally's rather aimless process of leaving the objects lying around in vaguely appropriate places was replaced with puzzles that were more direct and satisfying (use a key to open a door, use a pickaxe to clear a blocked tunnel) and more imaginative (give a broken heart to a statue of a grieving woman to open the tomb of Mad Carew). In short, Dizzy combined platform gaming with the sort of object-based puzzle solving now associated with point and click titles such as Monkey Island.

Gone, too, was Wally's smalltown milieu. Dizzy inhabited a fantasy world of forests, haunted mines, graveyards, mountains made of crystal and, finally, the castle of the evil wizard Zaks. The ultimate aim of the game was to collect various ingredients (including, in a reference to an episode of Danger Mouse, a vampire duck's feather) and use them to make a potion which would kill the dastardly magician.

Dizzy starred in a string of sequels starting with Treasure Island Dizzy and - a sure sign that a game character is becoming popular - turned up in spin-offs that had completely different gameplay to the main series, such as the Pac-Man clone Fast Food. Later games gave Dizzy an entire family, owing something to the Smurfs clan: Denzil, a cool dude in sunglasses; Dylan, a hippy; Grand Dizzy, an elderly patriarch; Daisy, the inevitable kidnapped girlfriend; Dora, Dizzy's sister; and Dozy, a layabout.

Probably the best of the lot was the fourth game, Magicland Dizzy, in which Zaks returned from the dead and sent Dizzy and his friends to a world of legends and fairy tales. The designers clearly had fun creating the various puzzles for this one: Dizzy had to charm a rat with pipes, à la the Pied Piper; pull Excalibur from the stone and become king so that he could travel through the looking glass and defeat the Red Queen on her chessboard (king takes queen, geddit?); summon a genie to wake Dozy, who'd fallen asleep after eating Snow White's apple; and, eventually, kill Zaks again. Even Tolkien was plundered for source material when Dizzy made sure that Zaks stayed dead this time:

The Dizzy series carried on for several years, inspiring imitators such as Slightly Magic, Murray Mouse: Supercop and Seymour Goes to Hollywood. But the franchise faltered with 1991's The Fantastic Dizzy, an ill-fated attempt to introduce owners of Sega and Nintendo systems to the character; cobbled together from elements of various past Dizzy games it was unimaginative and, crucially, a bit empty. One of the main factors in the success of the series was that the games' worlds were, despite the crude graphics, fun to explore; not so here. In 1992 came Crystal Kingdom Dizzy, which, despite superior releases on other systems, was crippled by the poor reception of its ZX Spectrum version, ending the series for the next twenty-odd years.

As with Jetman and Monty, Dizzy was eventually revived for the 21st century. In 2011 a remake of the 1991 title Dizzy Prince of the Yolkfolk was released for iOS and Android, but more significant are the reams of Dizzy games made by fans using a program called DizzyAGE. These unofficial games - which include Middle Earth Dizzy, Knightmare Dizzy and Dizzy Who: Into the Tardis - now outnumber the official games in the series; it's a testament to the essential charm of the original games that this is the case. Clearly, the Oliver Twins were on to something.

1987: Mutant Camels

Again, I cheat. Return of the Mutant Camels was released in 1987 but, as its name suggests, it was a sequel; the first in the series was 1983's Attack of the Mutant Camels. This time my only excuse for picking a sequel over the original was that the 1983 slot was taken, and the Mutant Camels were simply too good to leave out.

As I said earlier I am not an expert on gaming, but it seems to me that early video games generally lack a certain visual playfulness. There were games with a sense of humour, such as Donkey Kong, but these relied on standard cartoon imagery translated to low-res pixel graphics. Attack of the Mutant Camels is unusual in that it is a parody of contemporary video games, and a decidedly quirky one at that.

When you first load up Mutant Camels, it looks pretty unremarkable. You control a standard-issue spaceship shooting standard-issue lasers as you fly across a generic mountain background - all very reminiscent of the 1980 arcade game Defender. And then the villains show up: giant camels, which march slowly onwards spitting deadly white balls at you. They change colour as you shoot them and, when finally defeated, quickly flash through the entire palette available to the system before vanishing.

The striking thing is just how quiet the game is about its oddness - it doesn't draw attention to its offbeat subject matter, it just sits back and presents a straightforward early eighties shoot-'em-up which just so happens to have giant camels plonked into it. This extends even to the box art: neither the Commodore 64 nor Atari packaging are cartoonish or wacky, with the former faithfully following the in-game graphics and the latter going for an airbrushed interpretation typical of contemporary science fiction art.

The sequels Revenge of the Mutant Camels and Return of the Mutant Camels re-cast the hulking quadrupeds as heroes rather than villains and take a more obviously silly approach, with the camels fighting killer teacups and skiing kangaroos, and level titles like "It's Me and Ewe, Babe". Creator Jeff Minter went on to produce a string of similarly-themed games such as Llamatron, Space Giraffe and GoatUp.

That wraps it up for this post. In the next instalment in the series I'll take a look at another five years of gaming iconography, taking in sword and sorcery heroes, suicidal green-haired beasties and a ninja from the Nth dimension.

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6

Monday, 26 March 2012

Darren Doherty and Nick Smith's The Furry Lady

Some stills from The Furry Lady, a film made by fat Monkey for Channel 4 in 2000. It was directed and written by Darren Doherty and storyboarded and designed by Nick Smith.