Prior to the dominance of the home console from the mid-to-late 90’s onwards, the 16-bit home computer ruled the lives of nerds up and down the country. These were the glory days of Atari ST versus Amiga! And whilst many games were imported from the vibrant arcades that still managed to woo crowds away from the comfort of their own home, a good many developers made their bread-and-butter developing titles specifically for these legendary, 16-bit beasts.
And so here, VoxelArcade salutes the heroes that developed and published titles for this golden era, taking a look at some of their greatest achievements as we frame their likeness forever more upon the vast halls of Voxel Tower!
Before evolving into the rather unimaginatively titled Studio Liverpool whilst under the wing of Sony, the earlier glory days of Psygnosis saw the production of arguably the greatest games in the studio’s history. With a logo designed by none other than the legendary Roger Dean, Psygnosis generated an inescapable air of cool around everything that they touched.
Their huge, black, monolithic game boxes were always adorned with stunning imagery, usually produced by Dean himself, and made perhaps the most persuasive argument that had been seen thus far for games being considered as an acceptable, escapist form of art.
Key Titles: Baal, Terrorpods, Barbarian, Obliterator, Blood Money, Shadow Of The Beast, Lemmings
This was an era where the graphic-adventure was one of the most widely enjoyed of all genres – and Lucasfilm were one of the key players. Beginning with the sublime Labyrinth: The Computer Game, Lucasfilm went on to produce a string of consistently excellent titles including Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade and the Secret Of Monkey Island series.
Mixing cutting-edge graphics, devious puzzles, a sense of wonder and exploration and a healthy dose of humour is no mean feat; few genres do it better than the graphic adventure and few studios more masterfully than Lucasfilm.
Key Titles: Maniac Mansion, Zak McKraken & The Alien Mindbenders, Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, The Secret Of Monkey Island, Sam & Max Hit The Road
Arguably the most consistent and varied of all developers of the era, Microprose remained entirely independent for the majority of the 16-bit heydays. Willing to experiment with everything from sports to arcade and simulation games, Microprose was perhaps most widely regarded for its arsenal of strategic, military games. Early pioneers in the flight-simulator arena, the Falcon and Gunship series of games provided breathtakingly realistic experiences complete with huge keyboard overlays to operate the full range of controls. Their submarine-sim series Silent Hunter provided truly a tense and claustrophobic experience and Midwinter was as wildly ambitious as it was expansive. Considering the relative lack of processing power that Microprose had at their disposal, their games dared to strive for – and reach – dizzying heights.
Key Titles: Civilization, Darklands, F-15 Strike Eagle, F1 Grand Prix, Midwinter, Silent Service, Gunship, X-COM
Best known for their self-referential series of Sensible Soccer games, this is perhaps the most one-dimensional developer on the list, but one of the most important nonetheless. Whilst I was more of a Kick Off fan myself, there’s absolutely no denying the impact that Sensible Software had on the football genre. Given that this is one of the few to have sustained its popularity throughout the ages and that so many of the fundamentals that we take for granted today were laid-down in their titles, Sensible Software’s place amongst such mighty company is assured.
Although less well-know or prolific than Lucasfilm Games, Delphine Software produced a string of truly stunning graphic-adventures that captured a more mature and cutting-edge feel that Lucasfilm ever managed. Radically changing plot and setting for each title gave their works the air of an accomplished author as opposed to a series of games and the graphics were, for the time, simply stunning. Rumours circulated a few years ago of a revival of their works, but sadly nothing appeared; a compilation of their greatest hits would knock the Orange Box into a cocked hat.
Key Titles: Future Wars, Operation Stealth, Cruise For A Corpse, Flashback, Another World
Long before Peter Molyneux disappeared into an alternate reality of hyperbolic proportions (aka: up his own arse), he established one of the eras most ground-breaking and ambitious studios: Bullfrog. Responsible for the birth of the god-game in the form of Populous, Bullfrog operated in a level beyond that of even the most significant of their peers, producing a near flawless string of games touching upon a wide variety of genres. Title after title demonstrated true vision and was flawlessly executed – so it’s almost possible to forgive the lack of delivery on Molyneux’s lofty promises of recent years. Almost.
Key Titles: Populous, Flood, Powermonger, Theme Park, Syndicate, Magic Carpet
Whilst Lucasfilm, Delphine and Sierra had the graphic-adventure genre sewn-up, the UK-based Magnetic Scrolls were masters of the rare Illustrated-Interactive-Fiction genre. Building upon the foundations of an already strong IF following, Magnetic Scrolls capitalised on the difficulty of importing key titles from America and produced a series of quintisentially British adventures that were further supported by stunning visuals and a complex text-parser. From the debut title, The Pawn, onwards, their genius simply never let-up.
Key Titles: The Pawn, Guild Of Thieves, Jinxter, Corruption, Fish!, Myth, Wonderland
Perhaps it was the logo, but Ocean had a certain sense of Hollywood-swagger about them that was hard to beat. Not bad for a British developer! Famous for buying the rights to film and arcade licenses, Ocean did more than any other to bring the AAA feel and identity to early gaming. From Rambo to Robocop, Ocean plundered almost every major film IP available and made a pretty damned good job of recreating the tone of each one, even with the crude power of the era. Classic arcade experiences such as Rainbow Island and The New Zealand Story also made successful transitions but even their own works such as Ivanhoe and Beach Volleyball carried over this air of quality with ease. Confident and assured, Ocean were always a safe bet.
Every developer and publisher in this list is of significance – and yet every one pales into near insignificance in my mind when compared to the legendary Bitmap Brothers. Although they may not have produced the most ground-breaking games of the era, they always did what they did with a serious amount of style and bluster. Appearing in public as self-styled rock stars complete with shades and gelled hair – not to mention being the first developers to use licensed audio in their games – the Bitmap Brothers helped to elevate the medium beyond the bedroom and hobby-room and place it alongside the gig and nightclub.
Never underestimate the power of cool.
Key Titles: Xenon, Speedball, Cadaver, Gods, The Chaos Engine, Z