Gone But Not Forgotten – Classic Games Developers

You can rely on certain developers these days. CD Projekt are seemingly untouchable with their Witcher series which as of now has not put a foot wrong. Bethesda are fairly reliable. They’ve had a few hiccups over the years and even their most popular series have had their black sheep show up but gamers will still get excited by any new Fallout or Elder Scrolls announcement. I’m more of a Doom guy myself.

Rockstar is another one, seemingly untouchable with everything they release turning into gold. They’re not ones to throw out yearly releases for the sake of a quick buck; GTAV’s +$6,000,000,000 revenue shows that’s not necessary. In fact, we’re nearing the end of the longest wait we as gamers have had to endure in-between two Rockstar Games releases, the next one of course being Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s been at least 10 years since their last truly average game (though L.A. Noire was bloody close), and I don’t think anyone is expecting RDR2 to be any kind of a dud.

Naughty Dog, Valve, Rare, Blizzard, FromSoftware, and of course Nintendo. There’s a lot of developers out there today doing the business that we all love and treasure. There’s also been a lot of less reliable companies out there too who manage to survive regardless of the critical destruction they experience. Phoenix Games and Midas Games are the first to come to mind. Those bastions of shovelware, predominantly found on PS2 but who also had smatterings of crap on DS, Wii, and PS1. While Phoenix’s ashes blew away a long time ago, Midas unbelievably are still around. Please, don’t look them up, just take my word for it.

We sometimes get stung and we don’t forget it as the pain is real. When developers get it right however, it cane become a relationship that sticks with us forever. I can’t let go of a lot of my favourite developers and still long for sequels to titles which will never get true releases. Sure you often get other developers and publishers buying out dying developers or their catalogues, and they make attempts at rekindling old flames, but it’s rare they can ever replicate the quality of a long-gone IP. Some of my favourite developers are long gone. I wanted to remember their poor souls with this little write-up, and I hope it brings some comfort to your heart when you recognise some of your favourites. I’ve also listed a standout game from each developer but not necessarily their top titles. Let’s start with…

 

Bullfrog

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Starting off way way back in 1988 with a little known title called Enlightenment: Druid II, Bullfrog started off small but would hit their peak around the early to mid 90s with such classics as Magic Carpet, Theme Park, Powermonger, Syndicate, and the Dungeon Keeper series. Strategy games for the most part which all featured that inimitable Bullfrog humour. While the Theme series stood out for it’s cartoony cute appeal, games like Syndicate and Dungeon keeper featured a much darker side you wouldn’t imagine coming from the same developer. You just knew when you were playing one of their games though, the qaulity shone through. For me, the standout title was:

Being 11 at the time Theme Park was released, I struggled with the financial side of it. I just wasn’t very savvy with the balancing of the books and would hit the red so very quickly. By the time I did understand the right way to play it, I was a lot older and not so interested in it now that I had Rollercoaster Tycoon available. Theme Hospital however was a whole different kettle of fish. Easy to play right off the bat, the game was a fantastic construction simulator which had a wicked sense of humour which ensured you kept coming back for more. The tutorial was far more user-friendly than what Park had offered and I was able to get a fully functional hospital up and running after a few levels with no prompts to guide me.

Everyone remembers the crazy conditions patients would arrive with and with Elvis impersonators and poor suffers of slack tongue, there was always a new challenge around the corner. Let’s be honest though, we all LOVED bloaty head syndrome, and the pleasure that came with seeing someone’s head inflated and then popped with a needle as the cure. Theme Hospital could never be accused of being overly realistic, but that’s exactly why we love it so much. Keep blasting them bloody mice.

 

Lucasarts

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A hard one to write about this due to the poor treatment of the studio following Disney’s acquisiton of Lucasfilm in 2012, but at least we will always have Guybrush Threepwood, Indy, Sam & Max, Bernard, Manny Calavera, and so on. At least that’s how I’ll always remember them. For a lot of other fans of the developer, it’s all about the Star Wars franchise, with Rogue Squadron, X-Wing vs Tie-Fighter, Dark Forces, Knights of the Old Republic, and the Super Star Wars series being truly standout moments. Then there’s the oddities that a lot of gamers aren’t aware that Lucasarts even had a hand in, such as Big Sky Trooper, Pipe Dream and RTX Red Rock. Not the most diverse of developers, but what they dealt with most, they handled well for the most part. I also always thought the logo was supposed to be a guy wearing some kind of sombrero. How about that?

 

It’s too easy to go with an adventure game here, and I already did a piece on Big Sky Trooper, so I thought I’d bring out Dark Forces, for the PC. This was such a change in direction for FPSs back in the mid 90s. Most were obsessed with violence and mindless blasting. Not a bad thing where the likes of Doom and Duke Nukem are concerned of course, but Dark Forces was a Star Wars game. It had to rely on more than gore so many puzzle elements and more involved items meant this was a bit more for the thinking gamer. It was also a Star Wars game and it was probably the best Star Wars game that had ever been released at this time so that was also going for it too.

Against Doom, it was never going to reach the heady heights of that kind of popularity, especially as it did not feature multiplayer of any kind, but hey, now you could crouch! And jump! And look up and down! And like anyone else will tell you, at the time it was released, that holographic death star was the greatest visual trick we’d ever witnessed in gaming history!! The 10th top selling PC title in the US for the 1990s, Dark Forces holds a warm place in a lot of gamers hearts. It’s about time they released a 2nd sequel considering how hot the franchise is right now.

 

Sensible Software

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If you’ve read any of my other articles, you’ll know how much of a Sensible Soccer fan boy I am. So that’s the only time I’ll mention it in this article. There was so much more to Sensible Software than that football series. A British based developer, Sensible seemed to special in miniscule sprites which represented the characters you’d be in control of. And they were adorable. Whether it be footballers, soldiers, or warriors, they all had immense amounts of charm about them and did the job well. Sensible was not without its controversy, especially when Sex ‘n’ Drugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll was announced. A game which seemingly had you playing a wannabe rockstar who dealt in drugs and had to deal with his own habits, it was slammed by the press before gameplay footage had even been released. It was a small part of the reason why Sensible went under, a larger part being the advent of 3D which crushed the previous attraction of Sensi’s 2D specialisation.

Cannon Fodder was the other major series of Sensible’s catalogue in the early to mid 90s. A barbaric game by early 90s standards, it featured your troops who you control by mouse undertaking various missions from a top-down viewpoint. It was a very unique kind of war game and it got in to major heat with the Royal British Legion who accused the title of utilising the image of a poppy flower for all the wrong reasons, accusing the game of glorifying war and its casualties. They couldn’t have been further from the truth as the game carried such an anti-war message, but we all know how the uninformed media are.

Every single troop you controlled was individually named, and when they died, they’d be replaced by another named recruit. You’d grow attached to some of these earlier names like Jops and CJ but would have a chuckle to yourself when a string of troops by the names of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young suddenly presented themselves to your squadron. Mario and Luigi would pop up, Topcat and his cat crew showed up, as did the almighty Moses and Noah. The last name in the game to step up is probably most representative of what these soldiers are, both in gaming and reality; Fodder.

 

Midway

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It felt like these guys would never leave us and it was a sad day when that moment finally arrived. I mean come on, these chaps were responsible for some of gaming’s most well-known franchises, such as Mortal Kombat, Gauntlet, Defender, the Cruis’n series, amongst countless others. They also manufactured the best-selling pinball machine of all time, The Addam’s Family. They had their hands in a lot of pies. They were also around for just over 50 years, surely one of the longest serving servants to the industry and one that will forever be sadly missed.

This was a fun developer to pick a game from because they had such a huge variety to choose from. I decided to go with a title which has divided opinion massively over the years however, that being Doom 64. I’m a HUGE fan of Playstation 1 Doom because of its phenomenal soundtrack created by Aubrey Hodges, and thankfully, the man stepped in to take over the audio for the N64 game. That’s about where all similarities with the original game end however, as everything else was overhauled drastically.

Suddenly the game had a very soft look where the enemies were concerned. No longer so pixellated, they had this very odd pastel-like feel about them, almost blurry. The level design had declined in quality, with less creativity implemented though the game retained the classic key and switch puzzles. The soundtrack is what stands out in this release and the atmosphere is still scary as hell. It was a brave attempt at re-imagining an absolute classic, and while I wouldn’t say it was a dud, it certainly fell a long way away from it’s big brother.

 

Shiny Entertainment

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I always thought that the man-child Dave Perry of Gamesmaster TV infamy was the same guy who owned Shiny. Silly sod me. Most people will remember Shiny for the immensely popular Earthworm Jim series, though they were also responsible for the immensely popular MDK, and the lesser known Wild 9 and Messiah. These games were accompanied by the usual Shiny oddball humour which ran through all of their catalogue. While around for only 8 years before being sold off to Infogrames in 2002, Shiny made a huge impact on the industry during that mid to late 90s period. They did things their own way, and are remembered for exactly that reason.

We have to go with Earthworm Jim here though. Both 1 and 2 were almost identical in quality, and played almost identically, and that’s not a bad thing. They’re fantastic games and their HD re-releases were brilliant homages to a truly classic duo.The games were full of irreverent humour and played like a dream. They could be very difficult at times though, I remember the aquatic level in the bubble vehicle being a nightmare of sorts for me. But then you get to take on a boss that is a goldfish in a bowl, and defeat it with one whip of Jim’s body. Brilliant.

Standout moment for EJ1 goes to the ‘What the Heck?’ level for its totally madcap presentation. Opening the level with Modeste Mussorgsky’s classic ‘A Night on Bare/Bald Mountain’, you feel like you’ve been truly inserted into the lower bowels of hell. However, a record scratch soon follows and suddenly you’re presented with a very cheerful little ditty that is accompanied by the random yells and groans of off-screen men and women. I’m sure the death scream from Doom is one of them. Evil the Cat watches Jim’s progress from the background, and for some reason the way he’s stood there just bouncing side to side used to creep me out so much. Still images don’t do it justice, hence the one GIF in this piece. Great games.

 

Westwood

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Ah, Command and Conquer. The RTS series to end all RTS series. Until Starcraft came along that is. But for so long, C&C ruled the roost, and whether it was the Allies or the Soviets you were fighting as, GDI or NOD, or maybe even the Empire of the Rising Sun, there was something for every budding battle strategist here. There was more to Westwood than just blowing ten shades of buggery out of your enemies. The Legend of Kyrandia was a great adventure series which has seemingly been left dead and buried since its last release in 1994. They also had quite a hand in early 90s Dungeons & Dragons titles. My mind was blown whilst reading up for this piece that they also developed Young Merlin for the SNES, one of my favourite games on that console, and for some reason I simply chose to ignore in all of my play-throughs that Westwood actually developed it. There’s one game that stands head and shoulders above the rest for me however…

My God was this game good. As a massive Blade Runner movie fan, when news of this being developed was announced, I was so excited I was dreaming of electric sheep. A point ‘n’ click game on the surface, but with detective elements and scenes and devices taken straight from the movie, this was a dream come true for any lover of the original movie. If you wanted to know what it was like to perform a Voight-Kampff on someone else, you could do it in the game. You could also use the wonderful ESPER machine to analyse photographs for clues, just like in the movie. The voice acting was spot-on, the locations looked like they were lifted straight out of Ridley Scott’s magnum opus, and the characters were all very likeable, good guys and bad.

It hasn’t aged well, but simply due to one element within the game; the character sprites. In and of themselves, they look fine. Heavily pixellated by today’s standards, but you know who it is and what you’re looking at. The juxtaposition of them with the incredibly detailed backgrounds however is extremely jarring, and whilst I don’t remember it being an issue as a little 14 year old, I play it now and it’s like someone took sprites from an early 3D FPS and placed them upon a work of Da Vinci. The locations / backgrounds are gorgeous, it’s just a shame the integration of the character sprites themselves was handled so bloody poorly due to technological limitations at the time. Thankfully, the game is still fantastic despite this problem, and I’d kill to see a sequel today in connection with Blade Runner 2049.

Conclusion

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Well, there’s not much to conclude really except that great developers sometimes get dumped on, shoot themselves in the foot, get bought out, and ultimately end up with closed doors. It’s a nice thought when remembering the golden days when these legends of the industry were plying their trade, and sad to think of how those teams became split up and all went their different ways. These games stand the test of time though. Maybe it’s for the best that Sensible Software closed when they did, not having to release what could have potentially been a critical disaster in Sex ‘n’ Drugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll which would sully their names forever more. But what if Lucasarts had finally decided to develop the long rumoured Star Wars point ‘n’ click game that never transpired… It’s swings and roundabouts, and we make do with what history left behind. Oh to find out what the next big game from Rare would have been like… what, they’re still around???

See me thieving the seas @auto2112




  • Pedro Ferreira

    “Naughty Dog, Valve, Rare, Blizzard, FromSoftware, and of course Nintendo.” You lost me at Nintendo…

    • It was and it is the true force of nintendo.. a great software house.
      Like Sega was..

      • Pedro Ferreira

        Not of late and they are really overrated.