Phwoar! Is mostly what sprung to mind when I picked up Bitmap Brothers titles when I was younger. What on earth were they smoking? Was the other thing. Undeniably brilliant and frustrating at the same time, titles by The Bitmap Brothers were truly works of art. Dystopian works of art. Ever imagine a future so dark and corrupted, daylight was a thing of the past? Don’t bother, these guys have already done it, and how!
The company was founded in 1987 by Mike Montgomery, Steve Kelly and Eric Matthews in East London. We may not know how to do a decent steak in this country but we sure as hell have some development houses to be proud of. They started out on the legendary Atari ST with the landmark titles Xenon and Speedball, both of which you would have heard of. Xenon a gorgeous top down shooter and Speedball a futuristic 5 on 5 rugby-style game (for want of a better metaphor, suggestions on a postcard please). If you don’t like difficult games, don’t pick up Xenon! Or Xenon 2 for that matter! Playing Xenon 2 as a child made me tear my hair out and if you can see what I look like now, well, let’s just say that The Bitmap Brothers owe me a wig or two. Speedball was more fun although prepare yourself for a pasting or two.
The company’s focus was pretty much on the Atari, Amiga and MS-DOS platforms but how I’ll remember them is for the successful conversions to 8-bit and 16-bit they managed. Coding is a pain in the arse, I’ve given it a go and you can hear some of Bitmap’s ace coder Olly Dibben’s thoughts here. So, whenever ports are successful they should be rewarded, and this was definitely the case for Speedball 2, Xenon 2 and the company’s other chart-topper The Chaos Engine. Feel that shiver down your spine? Yeah, me too…
“At some point during the interview I admitted I’d hacked my Speedball II save-game file to boost my team and explained how I’d done it. Mike laughed thinking about it, and said that was the sort of thing he would do. After a couple of interviews they offered me a job.” – Olly Dibben interview
Admittedly, The Bitmap Brothers received some help with Xenon 2 which was actually coded by The Assembly Line who then went on to develop Interphase which a lot of people (me included) consider to be the first ever first person shooter. Now that’s some good help! Their assistance could help explain how gorgeous Xenon 2 looks – less timing coding and more time designing can only lead to good things (er…). Xenon 2 was also the first game to include music from an artist (Bomb the Bass) rather than synthesised beats. The 16-bit version was mammoth but the aforementioned game, that has lead to me being a baldy baldy bouncer, was the Master System version. R-Type aside, Xenon 2 is the only shooter worth playing on the MS but it will drive you crazy. You have been warned. Game produced by the company were hard and I often thought that Xenon 2 was perilously short of power-ups. This snippet from Mike Montgomery I’ve lynched from Wikipedia may explain it:
“All of the Bitmap Brothers games… they’re probably a bit too difficult. The reason for that was we designed games that we wanted to play – for us it was actually quite hard to think that somebody would want to play something that’s easy.”
Well thanks for that Mike, maybe I should be invoicing you for all my wigs! An easy mode or something would have been nice…
Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe has a sacred place in many retro gamers libraries, this gamer included. Why? Because it’s bloody brilliant (pardon the pun). Actually that’s a bad pun. In amongst all of SB2’s violence I don’t ever recall blood, although some of your teammates took a bit of a pounding. I could write forever about Speedball 2 (we’ll save that for another day) but the most pleasing thing about it for me, is that it doesn’t lose anything on any platform. From the Amiga original to the 8-bit Master System version, they’re all as playable as hell (slightly better pun). The added players and bonus pinball-esque things you could hit around the arena both being inspired additions. The 8-bit and 16-bit machines, in retrospect, struggled to create enjoyable sport simulations especially when it came to football or rugby. SB2’s dynamics made for a fun, brutal (getting a bit better) experience that satiated our need for a sport simulation somewhat.
And now to the final piece of the 16-bit puzzle for me, The Chaos Engine. Now what to say about The Chaos Engine… Well, it’s chaos really, isn’t it? The Bitmap Brothers had produced Gods and Magic Pockets since Speedball 2 but neither title really did it for me. The Chaos Engine did it for me, and how! A top-down run and gun game in a similar vein to…you gotta help me…Smash TV? (Thanks a lot Acclaim/Flying Edge…) It was so addictive I wasted (or spent) weekends playing it. The plot was ridiculous (Baron Fortesque anyone?) but the whole time-travelling shtick worked! The game also introduced different methods of completion through the character select. I don’t know about you but I always went for the Navvie and Thug combo when possible – obliteration the only way to defeat The Chaos Engine! Regardless, this extended the game’s longevity and that’s seemingly what The Bitmap Brothers were about.
The well respected “Z” was to follow, in and amongst the Command and Conquer hybrids. The company also produced a few more Speedball sequels, although Speedball Arena was sadly cancelled before it could be released. A Steam version of Speedball 2 is available for download.
Looking at their back catalogue I can’t help thinking that they could have produced more titles. I can only conclude that their time was spent ensuring that everyone, regardless of what console or system they owned, could enjoy their work. And for that I am forever grateful.
If you like this…
Olly Dibben Interview
Tribute to Bullfrog Productions