Games

A Look Back at the Legendary Bitmap Brothers Video Game Studio

The coolest Amiga developers ever, this studio did things in the early 1990s that made their peers weep with envy.

by Mike Diver
May 21 2015, 6:20pm

Box art detail from 'Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe.'

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

You might have noticed that VICE Gaming just recently ran two very Amiga-centric articles, one on Team17, a studio that made its name with platform classics like Alien Breed and Project-X (long before it released Worms), and another on Ocean Software, whose licensed adaptations of Batman and RoboCop were essentials of the Commodore catalogue.

As someone whose pre-console gaming years were largely spent in the company of an Amiga 500—the hunky gray box finally replaced a hand-me-down Spectrum that my uncle had given us—this got me thinking, hard, about my own favorites for the system. In our house, we weren't shy about piracy, which I can't say I'm proud about (though we all did it), but it was an attitude that saw my brothers and I accumulate an impressive library of Amiga software, which soon took over drawers once used to store arts and crafts materials, Transformers toys, and socks.

We must have had hundreds of games, ranks of once-blank discs now loaded with excitement, and it feels, today, that I spent thousands of hours in front of Sensible World of Soccer. I probably did. But when I wasn't trying to lure Alessandro Del Piero to see out his career in the South African Premier Soccer League, I was consistently drawn to the output of just one East London studio: the Bitmap Brothers.

My original intent with this complementary piece was to run through a handful of old Amiga favorites—but since I couldn't do that without highlighting Gods, Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe, and The Chaos Engine, I've decided to use these words to toast the Bitmaps' incredible work for Commodore's big-selling home computer. (Yes, their games also came out for other platforms, but those machines weren't inside my house, so settle down.)

A screen shot from 'Xenon 2: Megablast'

The Bitmap Brothers' history goes back to 1987, with their first game, the vertical-scrolling sci-fi shooter Xenon, releasing the next year. It got an amazing break when it was featured on the Saturday morning kids show Get Fresh, where callers could play the game remotely over the (landline!) telephone, barking commands for some nimble-wristed ITV intern to follow. They'd crash, or get shot down, or be awful in some other tedious fashion, and presenter Gaz Top would chuckle lightly, offer his condolences, and then turn back to whatever stagehand had his arm up the backside of a hideous green alien puppet called Gilbert.

Oh, we laugh about its liquid shitness now, but Get Fresh was everything the BBC's rival show in the same weekend slot, Going Live!, was not. It had The Centurions, which was awesome (and, weirdly, never got a video game spin-off – which I wrote about on Kotaku last year), it didn't have Peter Simon, and there was the small matter of it being somewhere you could see video games on the TV, several years before the advent of Channel 4's GamesMaster.

But Xenon, which actually began life on the ST before landing on the Amiga (sacrilege!), was pretty quickly trumped by its own sequel, bearing the subtitle Megablast and looking slick enough to style your late-80s spiky hair with, which you were only allowed for the summer, while school was off. It sounded amazing, too—at least to begin with. Xenon 2 featured music by Bomb the Bass, but the single track, a slightly altered version of "Megablast (Hip-Hop on Precinct 13)," got repetitive as hell across the course of the whole game. (About 45 minutes, using invincibility cheats and the like—or if you were good, obviously.)

The Bitmaps—founded by the trio of Mike Montgomery, Eric Matthews, and Steve Kelly—weren't purely focused on relatively straightforward shooters, and between the two Xenon games they laid the foundations for a future title that'd take their reputation higher than ever before. The original Speedball of 1988 wasn't all that much to write home about, a violent sports sim set in a future of blood and steel, featuring gameplay derived from aspects of handball, hockey, and American football. It had potential, but it wasn't much fun.

A longplay video of 'Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe.'

How that changed come its sequel, 1990's Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe. Now every punch was more keenly felt, and matches took on a greater tactical dimension than was possible with the game's predecessor, as the points awarded for each goal could be increased by activating loop-the-loop lights at the side of the... Court? Pitch? Arena? Whatever the nine-per-side teams were competing-cum-brawling in. It was hard, and fast, and games were always frenzied: three minutes of you and a mate kicking the shit out of one another on screen, sometimes followed by scuffles afterwards when the sore loser's wounded pride got the better of them.

Amiga Power called this symphony of sporting carnage the third-best Amiga game of all time. I'm not going to argue with that. Speedball 2 upped its (own) game in so many ways, from its crisp visuals and precision gameplay to its award-winning soundtrack and cries of "ice cream" that any gamer over the age of 30 will surely have burned into their cerebral cortex. It made the Bitmaps a studio to be reckoned with—and one that was surely feeling the pressure to maintain its position as a leader in the Amiga field.

A longplay video of 'Gods' (and you will have that menu music in your head all day).

Not like it showed. 1991's action-platformer Gods looked like it came beamed directly from the heavens, its chunky aesthetics as awesome then as they'd be on a new (albeit retro-rendered) game released today. My clan used to call in at another family's place on the way to school, and I'm fairly certain it was there where I first saw Gods in action. Not that I made it much further than the title screen on that occasion, due to parents shouting at us to leave for our lessons—but I already knew this was a game I needed to have. An order was placed. By which I mean I got busy with the disc-copy software and, in a matter of minutes, had my own Gods to play later that day.

The classiness of Gods is there to see just as soon as it loads. "Renegade presents a Bitmap Brothers Game" pops up, bold white against jet black, before a muscle-bound brute torn straight from the pages of the most awesome comic your mother would never let you read stood, statuesque, as the game's back story scrolled up the screen. Atop this visual feast played more great Bitmap Brothers music, this time written and performed by John Foxx under his Nation XII alias. The game couldn't be rushed–doing so would cost you health, always—and yet it had the look of a speed-run friendly arcade platformer. In practice, caution was always advised, which was tough for an 11-year-old who had a hard enough time sitting still to even start the game.

Truth be told, older, more experienced players than me probably had a better time with Gods, as I could never finish it (the Bitmaps were very proud of their games' difficulty)—review scores consistently above 90 percent implied that journos at CU Amiga, Zero, Amiga Format, and the like couldn't get enough of it. It was hard, and so too was the next Bitmap game that properly blipped its way onto my radar (as I certainly didn't play them all, as the absence so far of any mention of Cadaver probably makes clear), 1993's The Chaos Engine.

Box art for 'The Chaos Engine,' with the brigand bottom left.

This top-down, shoot-everything-in-sight run-and-gunner was, even when played cooperatively with a pal, one tough mother of a game. Unlike Gods, where the player was given just the one avatar to inhabit, The Chaos Engine lined up six very differently skilled mercenaries with which to tackle its challenges. I tended to go for the brigand, mainly because I thought he looked the coolest (whereas the thug looked like The Goonies' Sloth joined the army only to find that every day in service gave him a worsening headache). My choice mattered little, though, as I never beat The Chaos Engine, regularly making it to the third level—a green-and-grey maze of Addams Family–like mutant hands and humanoid monstrosities resembling the (Fantastic Four) Thing with a hunchback, all trying to kill me (and succeeding)—but never to the final, fourth stage.

My pre-teen brain never appreciated the setting of The Chaos Engine, but reading about it now, it sounds amazing—and like the kind of game that could really do with a reboot. Long(ish) story, short: a time-traveller gets stranded in Victorian Britain, has his technology nicked by some cad or other, who then uses it to turn the isles into a right old state. His "greatest" invention, the machine that gives the game its title, becomes sentient, isolating Britain from the rest of the world and slowly turning it into a nightmarish land of vicious beasts and vile automatons. Bring that kind of situation up to date with modern gaming tech and where do I send my money to, exactly? (And I don't mean like this, which exists and is fine and everything, but not exactly pushing the hardware of today.)

love science? Motherboard is full of it.

A screenshot from 'Magic Pockets.'

Prior to The Chaos Engine and its three-years-later, Amiga-only sequel—which turned previously cooperative players against each other, with every level a battle for survival between the original game's characters—The Bitmap Brothers enjoyed another leg-up from ITV, as Saturday morning TV came calling once more. 1991's Magic Pockets was everything the edgy likes of Speedball 2 and Gods wasn't, a cartoon-y platformer just about on the right side of sickeningly cute, with generic dressings for its stages—jungle, mountains and so on—and title screen music ripped right from the pop charts. Even as a kid yet to settle into senior school, I knew Betty Boo's "Doin' the Do" was a step too far into cheesiness for the previously untouchably cool Bitmaps.

By 1991, Get Fresh had faded from the airwaves, mercifully taking Gilbert with it, replaced by Motormouth and its new batch of imported cartoons, like Samurai Pizza Cats and The Real Ghostbusters. Every episode, between the cuts for cartoons and in-studio messiness, Motormouth would invite callers to play Magic Pockets over the phone. I don't know who at the Bitmaps had an "in" with ITV, but they were working it well enough, and Magic Pockets benefitted greatly from its TV exposure—well enough that I can recall playing plenty of it, inspired by the telly, despite it appearing in the same year as Sonic the Hedgehog and a just few months after Super Mario World.

It wasn't long after The Chaos Engine came out that I drifted away from the Amiga and into the overdue embrace of Sega and Nintendo. I never played the Bitmaps' Z titles, real-time strategy affairs for the PC, and I went nowhere near the 3D version of Speedball that came out for the PlayStation in 2000. (With good reason, looking at the reviews.) For me, the studio will always be remembered for its glorious phase between 1988 and 1993, when its games were just the most eye-popping offerings available for Amiga owners.

And if you don't want to let your own memories fade, or be tarnished by substandard rehashes of the Amiga classics for mobile devices, here's something that may interest you: Read-Only Memory, the publisher behind 2014's lavish Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works (pride of place on the bookshelf), just reached its Kickstarter target for a new project celebrating the work of the Bitmaps. The book, The Bitmap Brothers: Universe (pictured above), is due out later in 2015, and if you want to guarantee yourself a copy, click your cursor this way. The Bitmaps might still be around today, albeit not in the form they once were, but their legacy demands preservation, and this sizeable tome seems as fine a way as any of ensuring that.

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