A Tribute to Codemasters

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A lot of game development companies kept me going through the 1990s, we’ve covered some of them (Bitmap Brothers, Bullfrog) and I’ve wanted to pay homage to another for a while – Codemasters.

 

Still going strong thirty-one (yup, I said thirty-one!) years after its inception, Codemasters brought innovation, fun, great characters (Dizzy anyone?) and some of the best multiplayer games the industry has ever seen. The Darling brothers (David and Richard) had been developing games for Mastertronic but with the help of their dad Jim were able to break away and form the company in 1986. I was four years old.

 

 

With a mere £100,000 in the coffers, BMX Simulator was the first title they ever launched. Now, I know what some of you are thinking – Super Robin Hood was published by Codemasters the previous year (1985) but is an Oliver Twins game which Philip discussed in great detail here. BMX Simulator received moderate praise, with Spectrum owners seemingly the most pleased. Who would have thought that especially given the number of British game houses that have fallen by the wayside, they’d still be here, nearly 140 games later.

 

Looking through the late 80s catalogue, there was much to admire. Critics may say that the company, especially in the early days, stuck fast to a formula once something was successful. They and the Oliver Twins had a penchant for “simulators”. After BMX Simulator followed Grand Prix, Professional Ski, Fruit Machine and (my favourite) Advanced Pinball Simulator. The inevitable sequels followed, hence the aforementioned “criticism”. But isn’t this what the likes of EA, Bungie etc. do today?  I grew up in the Master System era but going through the Speccy versions has been a joy. Although the sequels published (in general) don’t bring a great deal more to their predecessors, I’d have quite happily bought them at the time they were released.

 

So why did I fall in love with Codemasters in the 90s? Micro Machines, Pete Sampras and a very inedible egg by the name of Dizzy.

 

 

Following our interview with Philip Oliver and reading the amazing Story of the Oliver Twins, I was a bit shocked to hear how they were treated. In retrogaming terms, the Oliver Twins are a national treasure, but they were (at times) subject to the cutthroat business acumen of the Darling brothers. It is one point of view so we shall leave it there, but would Codemasters have been so popular if it wasn’t for the Olivers? Dizzy was a revelation, a character born of necessity (the egg shape being easier to manipulate on screen) grew such character of his own throughout the years, he is as important as Mario and Sonic. The Oliver Twins published eleven (by my count, correct me if I’m wrong) Dizzy titles through Codemasters, in the space of six years (1987-1993). I think that speaks for itself. My first exposure to Dizzy was my friend’s Atari ST copy of Fantasy World Dizzy. Yes he’d had it for a couple of years but the colours and multi-faceted gameplay blew me away. So much so that I nagged my parents for an ST, but to no avail. Although I did get an Amiga about three years later, that’s a different story.

 

 

Then came the big one. A party game that still gets a regular airing in the Arcade Attack “offices” – Micro Machines. I’ll let David Darling himself explain:

“It was great fun to be involved in making Micro Machines.  It’s still my favourite game in terms of sheer multiplayer playability.  The first version we did was for the NES.  The prototype was called California Beach Buggies.  Once we did our publishing deal with Lewis Galoob Toys to sell Game Genie, we got the Micro machines licence from them, and California Beach Buggies became Micro Machines, and we re-worked the graphics to be micro environments.”

So a game called California Beach Buggies was re-branded with the iconic toy series, had its environments shrunk and was completed in September 1990. One of the first times I saw the NES version was on an episode of Bad Influence presented by Andy Crane. As Codemasters didn’t have a licence with Nintendo at the time, it was released on a Game Genie type cart (also distributed by Camerica) with the user having to put an official NES cart in with it to override the security feature on the console. Up to that point I’d never heard anything so amazing in my whole life. It also later transpired that there was a massive bug (game crashed when reversing on the first track) on the initial set of ROM chips, meaning the Game Genie “cover up” also corrected that. It all sounds incredibly amateurish, yet here Codemasters still is.

 

 

Micro Machines grew from strength to strength, every port on every console received with a similar amount of joy. Mean Machines Sega gave the Master System and Mega Drive versions 93%, the Game Gear version stretching to 94% given the innovative way two players could play on one console (auto accelerate, one player taking the D-Pad, the other taking the buttons to steer). The penny must have dropped because before we knew it we were staring at Micro Machines 2, complete with J-Cart.

 

 

I may bang on about it but, we didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up. One of the reasons I started this blog was that I can now play all the games I couldn’t do when I was younger. Blockbuster Video (all hail Blockbuster!) was a godsend and I kept going there even in my MD/Amiga days. The Micro Machines 2 J-Cart came with two extra ports built in, meaning that one simple rental could turn into a weekend of four-player fun. The Sega Tap was out there, no one had it, but it was out there. Other developers could have done the same thing (Acclaim, ahem, we’re looking at you) but Codemasters wanted their customers to be able to access that content straight away. Another cart that successfully made use of this was the aforementioned Pete Sampras Tennis. My spell checker has red-underlined Sampras, should I kick it in or should you? Anyway, what a game. Tennis games tend to be pretty underwhelming and I’d been playing Wimbledon on the MS for half a decade. It was really about time someone stepped up. PST (unfortunate acronym aside) was a great Tennis sim. Big graphics, excellent collision detection (you know I’m a sucker for that) plus the J-Cart capabilities meant it was so good it spawned two sequels (true to the company’s previous record). One thing the company has rarely earned unanimous praise for, its sports simulations…

 

 

Codemasters have never really strayed far from their “simulator” days. I’ve not read it but I think their mission statement should be “bringing into your home what you could do outside, but it’s raining”. There’s plentiful rain in the excellent Jonah Lomu Rugby (PS1) which I will now state is by far the best rugby game on any console ever. Unlike Adrian and Keith, I actually like rugby and it saddens me that larger companies (ahem, EA) haven’t been able to do a better job. Jonah Lomu (rest in peace big man) Rugby was released in 1997. It’s clear that the company can do top-down racing, how about in the cockpit racing? I give you two examples, Colin McRae (may he also rest in peace) which is now DiRT and TOCA. Amazing games! Available on multi-platforms at ridiculously low prices because of how popular they were at the time. Ever tried playing a cricket game? Really don’t bother, unless it’s Codemasters’ Brian Lara 96 on the Mega Drive or the PlayStation version released 1999. Another incredibly popular worldwide sport that no one has successfully simulated since.

 

 

I’ll stop at 2000 as we’ll be here all night. It’s clear that the company gave us experiences we’d never (until much later) have experienced. Simulator after simulator, the company has gone from strength to strength. As with all companies they were reliant on their talent and did they treat them as well as they should have? Maybe not. But they are rightfully regarded in these parts as a British institution who’ve made games for the entire world for thirty one years. That’s not to be scoffed at.

 

Dylan

 

 

 

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